Homesickness is nothing. Fifty percent of the people in the world are homesick all the time. – John Cheever
As I sit down to write this, it’s been 284 days since I stepped foot in England. It’s been 496 days since I stepped foot in Yorkshire. There’s a lot of reasons for these things. I decided to spend last Christmas with my festive friend and families, which is the peakest of peak times to travel and cost such a vast amount of dollars to pull off, that I only just paid it all back to the bank. I wanted to spend a solid chunk of time in Los Angeles this year to try and better settle-in and invest in work, relationships and actually living here; rather than having half a foot in a life 5437 miles away. I wanted to use my holiday/vacation/holiday days exploring the Golden Coast. Oh and somewhere along the line I got stuck in a Green Card application black hole where if I leave the country, the immigration folks view that as me cancelling my application. Due to the political situation everything is big-time backlogged and no one in-the-know can even predict when I might get ‘advanced parole’ and be able to leave the US again. Yes it is genuinely called parole. Just like leaving prison.
As the hours tick down from my last time connecting with the country that was (is? is it still?) my home, I can feel my sense of identity blurring around the edges. Identity isn’t something I’d ever given any thought, before wrenching myself from everything familiar and known. I have always thought my identity was made up of a few key parts:
i] Being from Yorkshire – cut me and I bleed white roses, I know basically all the words to on Ilkla Moor Bah’Tat, my default greeting to strangers are the equally baffling y’alreet or iyer love, I wistfully stare at the Yorkshire Tea box on an almost daily basis as I make a stereotypically huge quantity of cuppas and yearn for rolling hills as the kettle boils.
ii] Being from Bradford – and that experience is a whole blog post in itself, but watch Happy Valley and you might get some hints at the pros and cons of that whole situation (yes I know it’s based in Hebden-ish, but same-same)
iii] Being an adopted Londoner. I lived South, West, East then North. I had my northern naivety quickly rubbed off. I loved, I lost, I lived so frantically and full-y that I basically burnt out before I was 30 but I never regretted a second of my big smoke education that shaped the me I became.
But what does it mean if you move somewhere that barely any part of that identity means anything to the people around you. And that’s not a criticism. It’s a fact; just like I have no knowledge of what is automatically baked in to being from ‘the mid west’, or having attended Stanford (or is it Stamford?), or why I should or shouldn’t support The Patriots, or the context behind the movement in generations and countries for certain cultures being more represented here than in the UK, or what age a 7th grader is, or what a snow cone is. I feel like one track of my brain is desperately trying to pick up on social cues or looks or hints as I fail again, and again, to understand even the most basic of small-talk, in a country that feels like it’s constantly tripping me up even after two years. I also feel like the combination of my accent, colloquialisms and attempts to portray my personality give me the same sensation as when I was speaking fluent Spanish during my six months in Latin America. Despite that fact that here I am able to speak English, I do the same scanning for corrections and pesky-enunciation, and articulate myself with the perma-fear that I’m going to accidentally offend someone or embarrass myself.
When I moved to London there was the similar bewildering sense of setting up a life somewhere new, and being a northerner was somewhat novel, but at least given the right amount of information people could quickly fill in some gaps themselves. Here, I am more likely to be asked if I am Australian than anything else. This might be because for the first time in my life my skin tone is something other than so-ghostly-white-it’s-almost-blue. Again I’m not even saying this is a bad thing, because it means everyone is taking me at face value and I’m doing the same in reverse, but it’s still a weird thing. It’s a new thing. And it’s the thing that’s making me also feel like I am losing a grip on myself. I am stuck between wanting to immerse myself in my new home and learn everything there is to know about it; yet still stubbornly saying loo even though no one understands what it means and still pronouncing latte ‘lah-ay” even if it means I have to use additional sign language and pointing for that to be understood. Maybe I need to stop fighting to clutch on to things that don’t even make sense or mesh here. But then what will I become, and who will I be without those cornerstones of myself?
I’m reading an incredible book right now called The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. I have found myself rationing it into chunks, partly because I am enjoying it so much but partly because it hits so many nerves and truths that I have to steel myself before diving in. Olivia’s book was inspired by her experience of moving from England to New York and she explores, far more gracefully, the exact themes I’ve touched on above. She too recounts being unable to order a daily coffee without being misunderstood and states, “I might have found it funny in England, or irritating, or I might not have noticed it at all, but that autumn it worked under my skin, depositing little grains of anxiety and shame…. I was exposing myself as a non-native, an outsider, someone who doesn’t know the code word is regular or drip.”
She also said this, which I highlighted and almost kissed my kindle as it summed up what I had been berating myself as me just being ‘over sensitive’, “It was as if, having been so cataclysmically dismissed on a daily basis by the barista, my ears had become attuned to the note of rejection, and when it came, as it inevitably does, in small doses throughout the day, some vital part of me clamped and closed, poised to flee. There was something agonising about speaking and being misunderstood or found unintelligible, something that got right to the heart of all my fears about loneliness- no one will ever understand you. No one wants to hear what you say. Why can’t you fit in, why do you have to stick out so much?”
Even in my own flat I am surrounded by subliminal messages that I am neither here, nor there. I still face a daily juggle of “stuff that needs a UK adaptor to work” and things that I can plug straight into the wall. Even as I type this, there is a a line beneath this says draft saved at 6.09am because my WordPress account is still set to UK time. People talk about muscle-memory, and here I experience brain muscle-memory all the time. For example I want to go and watch The Florida Project this weekend. So tonight I logged onto the Curzon Cinemas website, and got as far as looking at times before I realised that I was looking at my go-to London chain and obviously that’s not going to help me with any movie-going pursuits whatsoever. Every time something like this happens, it’s like being scalded. How can I be physically sat in Los Angeles, but still automatically reach for London?
The fact that I even LIVE in Los Angeles still creeps up on me sometimes. Now I’ve adapted to the another day of sun climate, and my week is mostly spend at a desk where I cannot see that sunshine anyway, I’ve had times where I will leave work and something happens where I ‘remember’ that I am on the other side of the world and it’s almost like everything around me judders and the realisation leaves me breathless. This happened all the time when I first moved here, but it still sneaks up on a quite regularly basis. This week I felt it as I watched The National play at the Hollywood Bowl. My fan-girling knows no bounds, so I am sure if you’ve read me prattle on here before then you know they are my all-time favourite band who I’ve been fortunate to have soundtrack my entire adult life from a failed attempt to living in Sheffield in 2003 through to well, this year. They are the only band that feel like every song sings especially for every stage of where I’ve been when they’ve been releasing new material. It was an amazing experience to see them at such an iconic LA venue; and underneath the starry sky, especially as so many of their songs reference Hollywood or LA. I was lost in the performance and then they played their song England. And I felt that jarring shock of staggered thoughts and realisations “I love this song because it’s about England where I live”, “No wait, I don’t live there and I can’t even identify with living somewhere rainy anymore” “Oh my goodness I don’t live in London and I miss everyone there” “Oh wait this song talks about LA too” “I live in LA, that’s exciting”.
I feel like this might all sound a bit moaning-minnie, but the other part is that I’ve never felt more at home anywhere (including Bradford, Yorkshire and London) than I have in Los Angeles and it’s been that way pretty much since I unpacked my suitcase of belongings into an unfurnished flat in September 2015. And maybe that’s why it’s causing the identity crisis; because I know I’m not just going to be retreating back to my hometown anytime soon. I think I just need a top-up. It’s nothing a fat rascal, a potter and a natter and some sheet-ice-rain won’t cure.
I also just really need to see a sheep. I haven’t seen a sheep for nearly 500 days and I’m not sure why that, more than anything else, feels disorientating… but it does. I want to be on a train and see the little fluffy clouds dotting the green fields, in that reassuringly bland way that I took for granted for three decades.