There’s something to be said about going home again. Actually, there is a lot said about it. Some say, ‘You can’t go home again.’ Others: ‘There’s no place like home.’ ‘Home is where the heart is?’
I’ve been away from ‘home’ for a little over a month now. A vacation/adventure of sorts. A trip to see my best friend get married in northern England. But more than that, the last month has been about self discovery. Sometimes you have to leave – just get away from everyone and everything, from responsibilities and routines, from expectations and exceptions – in order to figure out whether you belong there at all.
So exactly 39 days after I first collapsed into this seat, I find myself again sitting at the train station in South Hampton, England, waiting on my train to London and dreading my 9 hour flight back across the Atlantic. To anyone who observed me in early July, I looked about the same as I do now: camped out on one of a handful of benches around the station, feet propped up on my luggage and lap top perched on my lap. But I am different some how. Less anxious? Yes. More confident that I know where I’m going? Naturally. But something more, too. Something I’m not entirely sure I know how to explain just yet.
The train barrels into the station bringing with it a chilling gust of wind and I hug my jacket tighter to me – it’s easy to forget it’s the middle of August in this region – and I stand up, tugging my luggage toward the train.
Once aboard, I tuck into my seat and stare out the window as the southern English countryside blurs by. All around me passengers are absorbed in books or lost in the music that is plugged into their ears or folded into quiet conversations. A strange feeling is tugging in my chest and I’m not sure what it is, but I find myself absentmindedly rubbing the spot just under my collarbone.
“Are you alright miss?” My thoughts are interrupted by the thick southern British accent of one of the train attendants. I smile and nod my head at her. “Well then, anything from the trolley?”
I politely decline a snack and can’t help but smile at the English expression. (I will not think of Harry Potter … I will not think of Harry Potter …)
We arrive in London to find Kings Cross Station in casual disarray as people – some with briefcases others with suitcases – rush to their platforms. At a fruit stand set up next to the ticket window, an old man sells me a peach and a trashy British tabloid for 95 pence and a wink. I have several hours to kill before my plane leaves, so I wander through the train station and out onto Euston Road and begin to make my way toward Regents Park.
In every major city I’ve visited, some things are always the same. The same men are always set up along the sidewalks selling knock off designer purses, sunglasses and watches. The same scruffy but handsome musicians play acoustic covers of classic rock songs behind open guitar cases. But some things are uniquely London. Business men who have lived in the city their entire lives toss a 2 pence coin into the fountain at the Queen Victoria Memorial as they pass every morning on their way to work, silently making their wishes … just like the tourists. Big Ben’s chimes echo through the streets more than a mile north of the huge time piece.
I dodge a tide of people being washed underground like autumn leaves down a gutter and into the stale metro tunnel that hasn’t breathed fresh air in ages. As I skip through the traffic and cross the street into the park, I begin to peel back the fuzzy edges of my fruit. Settling on a bench next to the park’s lake, I pull out my magazine and flip through its glossy pages.
A handful of children are sailing boats across the water; the man next to me is singing a Van Morrison song slightly off key. Admittedly, I have accidentally fallen in love with this city.
I’ve realized this trip that traveling by yourself is an intimidating but rewarding experience. The places you visit reveal a different side of themselves when you are alone with them. It’s as if they have a special part reserved for those people brave enough to seek out their wisdom, their unique gifts.
Of course a certain amount of guilt also seems to follow you when you travel alone. It’s as if every exciting experience you have seems bitter that you aren’t sharing it with others. Sitting in Regents Park watching the tiny sailboats slice across the murky water, I have to beat back the guilt that asks me why I didn’t take more pictures, buy more souvenirs to share with people.
“You took off for five weeks and came back with nothing?” I hear it asking me. Guilt always has a shrill, high-pitched voice in my head. “You aren’t on a double-decker bus tour? You haven’t mailed those postcards in your bag?” the guilt wants to know. “You came all this way to eat a peach and read a British tabloid?”
Huh. Yeah, I guess I did.
The man beside me – the one who thinks he’s Van Morrison – is reading a paper and eating a sandwich. I grin at him when he looks over at me and raise my peach to him in a sort-of mock salute. He returns the gesture and goes back to his news story. There’s something comforting about blending in here. It’s like this man on the next bench with his sandwich and his paper understand me somehow. And all alone in a country an ocean away from home, I can’t find it in myself to be lonely.
I can’t bear to tell London goodbye, so I close my eyes on the tube ride to the airport. It’s raining outside, but it doesn’t bother me like it would at home. Rain manages to suit London.
The man sitting next to me peers across my body and out the plane window as land comes into view after our long trip across the Atlantic.
“Good to see land?” I ask him and he smiles as he rolls his head, which is casually resting against his seat, to face me.
“Good to see America,” he sighs. “Good to be home.”
“Been a while?” I ask cautiously, not wanting to pry too much.
He doesn’t say anything for several seconds, instead closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. “Too long. I’ve stayed away too long. What about you?”
Now it is my turn to smile and my eyes seek out the view of home that is quickly approaching out the window. Am I glad to be home? Am I ready to be back? I remember the tugging feeling I experienced in London and briefly wonder if I would have stayed longer if given the opportunity. I think about all the things I experienced, all the things I learned … and then I think about the things I missed about home.
“I think I stayed away just long enough,” I finally tell him and he nods his head as if he understands exactly where I’m coming from. “This time,” I finish my thought. “But I think I’ll go back again.”