There is a real tension for me between the desire to be rooted and the wish to travel. As I get older this tension intensifies. After a lifetime enjoying wandering about, loving moving house, feeling that home is where my people are and that place does not really matter, I find myself living in a place which I love. I would be happy to move house again but I don’t want to go very far. I like the sense of becoming part of a community. I love my choir, my yoga class, my Welsh lessons. I like the fact that I know people. I feel at home here. There is a Welsh expression “a man of his own square mile” and it is one I have always loved. But my own square mile, love it though I do, has never been enough for me.
I have always loved travel, change, new experiences. And getting older makes me intensely aware that if there are places I want to go to, things I want to see and do, parts of the world which really interest me, I need to get on and go, see, do, learn. Time and energy are both finite. I don’t want to do the same things week in and week out. I don’t want one month to blur into the next until I find that my world has narrowed to a cup of tea at the same time of day, the same television programmes, a small world with all its colour and detail worn smooth by endless repetition. I love the way travelling makes me think about the world and how it works, question things I take for granted, see how differently people live and yet how much the same we are, and, when I come home, how it makes me appreciate the place I live in with new eyes. But how to balance staying and going is quite a hard one.
After five years or more of staying home because of the needs of my father in law and father, this year is to be a year for travel. The big trip of the year was a return to New Zealand, to which we added a visit to Tasmania to see family and a week in Sydney. I spent nearly seven years in New Zealand when I was child and a teenager. That is more than forty years ago now and for around thirty years I have been wishing to go back, to see it again, to close the circle and to see the country through adult eyes. I remember as if it were seared behind my eyelids the vivid blue of the sky when we got off the plane in Christchurch. I was eleven, born and raised in the industrial north of England. I could not believe how strong the colours were, how the breeze moved the warm air against my skin, how white that skin was compared to the glowing brown of the people on the streets and in the shops. The furthest I had ever been was a holiday that summer in the Channel Islands and that in itself had been a revelation but this was a new world.
New Zealand became home. With the speed of youth I became accustomed to walking in bare feet, to wearing flipflops (and calling them jandals) to eating outside and to being that same glowing brown myself. When we finally came back to the UK in response to the illness of my grandfather when I was nearly eighteen, I was shocked at how ill everyone looked and at how grey the world of the North of England was.
So I had wanted to go back for most of my adult life, not to live there, but to look at it again. Family life, jobs, shortage of money and time all got in the way. We nearly made it in 2000. I can’t quite remember now why it wouldn’t work: Ian could not have time off work at the right time of year, I couldn’t have enough time to make it worthwhile, Ian’s father was on his own and fairly recently widowed. There were all sorts of things that stood in the way.
When we finally got on a plane to fly to New Zealand in Feburary 2017 I was, under all my delight and excitement, a little apprehensive. What if the whole thing was an anti-climax? I told myself it would be fine. I didn’t really know what I was looking for in going back so if I had some time in a beautiful country and it was a holiday, not some sort of strange epiphany, that would be fine.
It was not an anticlimax although I am still working out exactly what it was, other than a delight. We arrived in Auckland, where I had never been before. I thought we should see it and I thought that if we had any jet lag it would not be a bad thing to go through that in a place which had no emotional resonance for me. In the end we were not really bothered by jet lag. We stayed in a lovely place. Auckland is an interesting city. We took a free walking tour. We took a ferry to Devonport and wandered around. We ate good food and drank good coffee and then we flew to Christchurch.
|Fab place to stay in Auckland|
I had read quite a bit about the earthquake in Christchurch in 2011 which killed 185 people and caused widespread damage but nothing prepares you for the scale of the destruction to buildings. Christchurch is a gracious city, with many stone buildings and green squares, the gently winding River Avon and a huge park at its heart. All of that remains true but there is a sizeable area just off Cathedral Square which is one huge construction site and the Cathedral itself is a ruin. I had remembered New Zealanders as practical, resourceful, cheerful people with a laconic sense of humour and no time for self pity or introspection. That seemed still to be true. We loved the fact that the main shopping area had been rebuilt in containers and the whole place had a surpirsing energy and creativity.
|Christchurch has a temporay cathedral. The tubes are made of cardboard!|
|Brilliant flags fly in Cathedral Square|
|The memorial to those who died in the earthquake, one chair for each life|
Ian and I went to try to find the house my family had lived in and there it was, now with a fence in front and a large gate. I preferred it open to the street myself!
We found the park where my brother and I walked the dog and the beach where my best friend and I spent hours on summer weekends. We tried to find my school but the school has had a new site for many years and the old building has been demolished and was now a car park. It wasn’t particularly moving or exciting (apart from the site of the memorial to those who lost their lives in the earthquake which is simple and very moving indeed) but there was a very satisfying sense of things falling into place. Here was where I had my first kiss. This is the tree we used to climb where you could get so high it became vital not to look down or I would freeze. Here is the route I cycled to school.
I am still not sure why it mattered to me to see it again. The person that I am has surely been shaped by the family I grew up in, by my marriages, both the one that failed and even more by the one that continues, by my children and my jobs and all that I have achieved and experienced twelve thousand miles from Christchurch over the last forty years or so. And yet I felt profoundly at home in New Zealand. I could have slipped back into that way of life like a shot, if someone had moved my children and grandchildren too. I loved the colour of the sky and warmth of the people. I felt in touch with my younger self and I felt I understood my older self better by virtue of being there. Every time I carry a cup of tea outside to sit in the sun, every time a bright day energises me and a dull day saps me I feel I am tapping into something quite basic about how the way I work which was somehow formed in New Zealand.
|Looking down at Akaroa|
But I was right about home being where my people are. I could no more live there than I could live in China. Without access to the four children, their husbands and wives and their children I would be like an uprooted plant and I would soon wither and die like a dandelion pulled up and left on a path to shrivel in the sun.
|The colour of New Zealand|
I will write some more about the rest of the trip and about the entire holiday, which was wonderful, but this is to try to pin something down for myself. I am not sure I have succeeded but I am so very glad I went!