Quotations from “Home Thoughts from Abroad” by Jan Morris
“There go the swallows for
Seeing those birds fly makes one wish for wings!”
So wrote old Browning, sitting in his English garden one spring morning, and Oh! I know too well that delicious pull of distant parts, foreign places and different ways of living. I have watched birds fly off too, as the drizzle falls out of a gray Welsh sky, the sheep in the field next door stand there hangdog and reproachful and whenever the telephone signs it seems to be somebody getting the wrong number – oh yes, I’ve wished for the wings of a 747 often enough, when the opposite of homesickness sets in!
And I know well, too, the delectable thrill of moving into a new house somewhere altogether else, in somebody else’s country, where the climate is different, the food is different, the light is different, where the mundane preoccupations of life at home don’t seem to apply and it is even fun to go shopping. Travel itself, after all, is largely a matter of enjoying differences – why else would those swallows migrate? Transferring one’s whole being – family, possessions, bank accounts, blankets, mixers and all – gives us the same pleasure in less restless form.
Homesickness is the most delicious form of nostalgia, if only because generally speaking it really can be gratified. We cannot return to the past, but we can go home again. In my own case, homesickness is related to something in the Welsh language calls hiraeth. This over-worked word means literally longing, nostalgia or sometimes plain grief. It has come to signify, however, something even less exact: longing, yes, but for nothing definite; nostalgia, but for an indeterminate past; grief without cause or explanation. Hiraeth! An
Insidious summation of all that is most poetical, most musical, most regretful, most opaque, most evasive, most inextinguishable in the character of
This powerful homing instinct is inexplicable. The old Welsh emigrants had left Wales because their lives there were poor and miserable, yet nothing could suppress the hiraeth within them, and nothing can suppress it in me, either. Nobody, I swear, has had more pleasure from traveling than I have, and nobody has pushed more eagerly through the door of a rented house somewhere far away. Yet the old sensation nags at me always, part sweet, part sad, part consolation, part reproach. Most expatriates, if you press them, will admit to something they miss, during their idyllic residences abroad: decent eggs and bacon for the English, a proper beer cellar for the Germans, the New York Times, perhaps, or cornflakes for Americans. For me it’s nothing so specific. A perceptive American once observed that a Welshman’s truth was in the nature of a circle, and similarly what I crave when I am living abroad is rather in the form of a blur.
It is the sense of belonging that I miss, together with infusions of historical awareness and sensuality…
So I stand with Browning, either way. When the swallows fly south I want to go with them, but when I hear that chaffinch calling, I need to go the other way: up our dusty, potholed lane, through the shabby old oak gates, into the familiar, the irreplaceable embrace of home, where there is no need for hiraeth, where love awaits me and the kettle’s always on the boil.”