Every morning in Massachusetts, I make a pot of tea. Black and white china decorated with the names of English foods (“Fresh Milk & Jersey Cream” says my milk jug), tea cosy covered in a flowery print, tray I bought at John Lewis. And strong Assam to drink. Some days, I make myself a slice of crisp toast spread with Marmite.
I left London over 25 years ago, with two preschool children, to find a better life in a small town, in the country where I was born. But on my trips back in England, that foreign land, I often feel more at home than I do here at “home.”
This first hit me in 2006, when I spent a week walking down familiar streets, seeing old friends (some from nearly 30 years ago – I was a teenager when I first went to England), meeting new ones, and talking, talking, talking.
Talking about music and literature and technology, politics, and gossip about friends and neighbors and family. Talking over morning coffee. Talking over a beer at Terry’s favorite pub, the Wood House on Sydenham Hill. Talking long after dinner was over, sipping wine.
I had a week breathing the cool, slightly sooty air of London, watching a sky that is much brighter than when I lived there because of global warming.
When I first came to Great Barrington, I got to know a woman who was one of the many escapees from New York who land here, who seemed to me, like so many of them, rather well medicated. She said to me one day that she thought I should move to a university town, somewhere I would find like-minded people. I was grateful for the thought. She was the first person in this part of the world, apart from the lover who’d landed me here and then departed, who seemed actually to see me, instead of just assigning me to a category – poor do-gooder single mother or rich hippy single mother, or whatever it might be.
But in the years since, I’ve found that there is no category here that fits me. Or, rather, I just don’t fit in.
I had good reasons for leaving London. My partner had moved out, leaving me with two children, a small flat, and huge monthly payments. British Rail plans had blighted our neighborhood so I couldn’t sell the flat, either. I was tired of the dog poop on the pavement, tired of the small frights about mugging and burglary, and I wanted to raise my kids where they could run in the grass and climb trees. I wanted them to have a place they could call home.
Eventually, we landed in Great Barrington, a small, beautiful New England town surrounded by low wooded hills and set in a river valley that winds gently from Vermont down to Connecticut. Great Barrington seems to most people a perfect escape from the city, an ideal place to raise children. And by 2006, I had what seemed a perfect life, with a nice steady sort of husband, a Victorian house on the Hill, and a publishing business in a building on Main Street.
But my search for community had failed. Much as I loved this place, I hadn’t put down roots. I hadn’t found the kindred spirits who would make this place come alive as a home. I looked back at the decision to leave London and wondered how, after all these years, life could take me full circle: to wondering if perhaps I should now – with or without an American husband – move back to the place I fled.
That was in 2006. Now it’s 2019, and I’m still in Great Barrington. But in quite a different way, for better or worse. I have many of the same feelings, but I also have a sense of commitment to this place and see the Train Campaign as working towards a future that would make rural areas and small towns more congenial to people like me.
The Train Campaign began in 2011, after I returned from China. My work in China expanded rapidly after 2006, and projects since then have taken me to England often. I’ve made new friends there, and stayed in town with my friends in Camberwell, too. I’ve spent nearly 12 years living part-time in New York’s West Village and then Battery Park. And because I have finally figured out how to grow roses in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts (zone 4/5), I no longer think I’ll have to return to England so I can live in a cottage covered in climbing roses.
But the sense of homesickness remains, and many of us expats, and former expats, feel this. We have lived in different worlds, and much as we try to bring them together, there will always be things we long for in our other homes.
NOTE: This post was first written in 2006 and updated on 12 December 2019, the day of the UK general election. I left Britain in part because I couldn’t vote there, and as an environmental activist I felt I should live in the country where I voted.