Well, the Hay Festival was just about perfect, minus nearly freezing to death while camping. (Attending an interview with Ran Fiennes did not, actually, make me man up, thank you. It gets bloody cold out there at night!) Hay-on-Wye was a bit odd; it’s one of those overly pretty little towns that doesn’t feel lived-in in any way, but the festival itself was fantastic. Not least because I got to spend four days by myself surrounded with books, brilliant speakers, and a very lovely strand of middle-class intellectualism. (Fair do’s — everyone there was pretty aware of how bougie we were being.) I honestly cannot wait until next year.
Gushing, though, does not a column make. And nor does bitching about how the next time I decide to write a long story entirely in present tense, one of you is to stop me. Physical force is authorised. Especially since I realised that 10,000 words in present tense is about 8,000 words too many, and I decided to go through and change the tense and oh my God, you guys, it’s so boring I am about to chew my hand off. Never. again.
Right, something sensible. One of the loveliest talks I went to at Hay featured George Rousseau, who may possibly be one of the loveliest people I’ve ever been in the presence of. He dresses exactly like Christopher Foyle (the character, not the bookseller), and is kind and warm and fascinating to listen to. He spoke about nostalgia, and what it means to long for home even when, like Odysseus, you cannot return home and recognise it for what you lost. But what struck me more, was how he talked about being a voluntary immigrant, and how that effects a different nostalgia than involuntarily displaced persons.
For all that I’ve been on this adventure for two years, it had never occurred to me that I, like Rousseau, am a voluntary immigrant. I very much chose to come here, and that has probably changed the nostalgia (from the Greek, of course, for longing for home) that I’ve felt. It has changed, but I’m not sure lessened, because I have had some strong homesickness. And, somewhat accidentally, genuinely mourned leaving my home. I shaved my head the summer before I moved here; literally, stuck the 3/4″ comb on the clippers and stood in my apartment in front of a mirror, watching hair fall down around me. A dear friend had already shaved my head once that summer, so there wasn’t much to lose, but it was powerful, and I’m so glad I did so; it was giving away things that had happened to me there, but also making myself look very unusual, marking me out.
I was very self-assured that summer; declaring that home would be wherever I was at that moment, that I was a nomad now. That, of course, almost immediately fell apart as I realised that I had moved to the damn moon, falling into an uncanny valley of a country so much like home, but not, in just the oddest ways.
I am happy now, to call myself an immigrant, for however long I can stay. And the I’ll emigrate somewhere else; likely in search of a job, of which there are none in the UK or the US. I wonder if further emigrations will be as painful; I hope not. But it’s been amazing to be able to study nostalgia, to learn so much about people, and how they relate to home.
One last thing — Rousseau made a point I had actually been able to come to independently. (Hush — this is a rare and wondrous thing with me.) One of the best and most interesting things about nostalgia is how it is completely innocent, and completely free of sexuality. It is a longing for a place in time which cannot be revisited, and thus is almost automatically an expression of pure agape. With so much of my life — especially now that I have time to write — taken up in thinking on the human heart, and other bits, it is something very special to have a refuge, however painful, that is completely devoid of the sexual.
I am not sure how to end this; I am not home yet. And I am, in a way, having made Cardiff a kind of home. I was at a barbecue on Sunday night with a lot of past Conservation students and at one point, everyone drew the flags of their home countries on a low brick wall that bordered the garden. It was genuinely awe-some to see all the places everyone is drawn from, and for us all to come together and, clearly, make a community and a home, even if it was only for a few years.