Three months away from a house we’ve only lived in for seven months is disorienting. Where do we keep the measuring cup? How does the shower (newly installed only six weeks before we left) work? We’ve actually spent more time, in total, in the English cottage than we have in this house.
But the patterns of life return, although I still haven’t sorted the light switches out. We reclaim this life, just as we reclaim the English life in the first few days there: the familiar walks, the regular grocery store, the local butcher. Some things are easy, some are harder: bird song falls in the latter category. I’m not musically intelligent: I relearn most bird song every year, in both countries. Walking at the Arboretum yesterday, I had to drag goldfinch and a variant chickadee call out of the depths of memory, and confirm them with sightings of the birds. (Red-winged blackbird was ok, though.) Same at the other end: which tit was that? Was that explosive chatter from the reeds a Cetti’s warbler or just a wren?
I walked downtown this morning, for the exercise and the familiarity, to my writer’s group. Reclaiming pathways, re-connecting with friends. Readjusting, to Canadian architecture, to cars on the other side of the road, to the relative newness of permanent human influence on the land. The Basilica is lovely, perched on its hill, but it was built in 1875: the church in the village in England dates from the 1300’s, and there was an earlier church on the same site. It changes the feel of the land, that embedded history, and the access that footpaths and bridleways, droves and byways, give to the countryside: big loops through farmland and heath, marsh and woodland, almost all off-road.
I miss various things about my Canadian life when I’m in England: friends, my cats, the cultural life of the downtown here; my own study, the university library. Odd things: bulk food stores, for spices and bean and flour. My favourite cafes, the art-house movie theatre, the bookstore. But the reverse is true too: I miss the English countryside, I miss Mastermind and University Challenge, I miss the books I can buy there but not (easily) here: books of nature writing for which I’ve found no equivalent in North America (Trevor Heriot comes close); books of obscure, localized history. I miss the easier acceptance of special interests and eccentricities: almost everyone connects with birds in some way, even if they’re the model airplane enthusiasts flying their machines in the field beside the nature reserve, or the metal detectorists out searching for Roman coins and Anglo-Saxon treasure.
Each trip changes me, in ways I often don’t realize at first. Simple things: I took one suitcase, holding both my clothes and my writing and research materials, and I still had too many clothes…so why are my closets so full in Canada? No films worth seeing at the market town’s cinema? Use the library’s video collection. But it goes beyond that: at least in the villages and the countryside, life is slower, more patient: cars let others by, on tight village streets or single-track country lanes, there’s a turn-about policy, and always a wave of acknowledgment; transactions in shops and cafes are politer, friendlier, even when the queue is long. I bring some of that home, too.
And there are fewer distractions: we walk, we watch birds, we cook. I write, and read, and do research for my next book and for my university course. It focuses me on what is truly important to me, and validates, too, that I need the occasional visit to Cambridge or Norwich, to go to museums and art galleries, browse in eclectic used bookstores, drink coffee and watch the world. To find balance, between physical and mental demands, between stimulation and contemplation, between doing and being.