Home, they say, is where the heart is. But what if your heart can’t decide? Places are very important to me and I have a tendency to become dramatically attached to them. There are many that have grabbed my heart but only three where I have left it.
At forty I went on a journey to find my past and it certainly was another country. I grew up hearing stories of Australia; of people and places my parents had known and loved in the years before my birth. In a story too strange to be fiction my parents met and married there just a few months after they, individually, left these shores. But I never had any desire to go and see for myself until after their deaths.
When I think now of what I might have missed, I tremble at my stupidity. For I loved it. I basked in the warmth of the sun and my unknown family who didn’t just make me welcome but made me feel that I belonged. I revelled in the more relaxed, less rule-bound atmosphere that is so indefinably Australian as I visited the tourist attractions of Victoria and Canberra. I wallowed in second-hand nostalgia as I encountered people and places familiar through my parents’ stories. And it seemed like I got to know my parents better as I did so. Hearing about them from those who had been an important part of their early life together and seeing the places that life was lived forced me to think about them differently, to see them as individuals and not just my parents.
For as long as I had understood the facts of life I had known that mine began in the warmth and splendour of Melbourne even if I first drew breath in the slightly cooler (but no less splendid) Edinburgh. Now I carry within me a strong feeling that I belong to both cities and an even stronger sadness that they are a world apart.
Is it possible to be homesick for somewhere that’s not your home? I’ve pondered that question over the last few years and I think it is. By that definition the second act of my story of home is set in Norway. I have no actual connection to the country or its people and I’ve spent a total of two months there but whenever it is brought before me I am overcome with a powerful desire to be there.
I should clarify. My longing is for the coastline between Bergen and Kirkenes and a ship that sails along it. MS Midnatsol is part of the fleet belonging to Hurtigruten, purveyor of ‘the world’s most beautiful voyage’. That may be a marketing strapline but, for me, it is the truth. By the time I was a day out from Bergen on my maiden voyage I had fallen irrevocably in love – with the scenery, the sea and (whether you choose to believe it or not) the sunshine. I delighted in the sensation of being at sea, the relative smallness of the ship and the close connection she had to the ports of call where cargo came off and on. And I was captivated by the light. I’ve seen that stretch of Norway in midsummer and midwinter and in between and it has never failed to grip me. Each time I have spent the last day of the voyage sunk in a gloom of despair mourning what I was about to lose.
And in the years since that initial thunderclap I have learnt Norwegian, looked at Norwegian art, read and listened to Norwegian authors and played Norwegian music. But most of all I have day-dreamed about going back and counted the days until dreams became reality. Not a permanent home, perhaps, but certainly the home of my heart.
Act three plays out in two scenes. Rewind to 1976 and a small girl sitting hunched on a garden wall watching life as she knows it be packed into a removal van. She knows that she will never be happy again. Move the action on a few months and that same small girl is to be found in the company of new friends enjoying the seaside sunshine of Lossiemouth.
For twelve years that town was mine. It was a bustling little place with its fishing boats and fish processing factory sitting quite comfortably alongside the RAF station; a town that welcomed many visitors to its golf course and two beautiful beaches. A place where everyone knew everyone else and their business; a place where secrets were hard to keep. And I loved it all without ever realising how much. Though I chose to go to Glasgow University, the town and the sea were always waiting to welcome me home until the day my parents broke the news that they were moving, leaving this tight-knit community.
There is a long interval before scene two, full of crowds and cities and industrialisation. A mood of resignation pervades and no tang of salt is carried on the breeze. Thoughts of emigration to the north and the south swirl in my brain when I am surprised by an opportunity. Could I go back? Was it possible? Was it sensible? Twenty two years after leaving, I returned to Lossiemouth. It had changed in that time – of course – but in its essentials it was the same. I was nervous but my heart lifted with every mile I drove north. When I crested the hill there were tears in my eyes. There in front of me was not only the West Beach but also a sea full of memories.
Lossiemouth is not my history or the view with most emotional impact but, when choices had to be made, it is where I chose to be. It is where I belong, where memories good and bad are to be found. It is where my heart is. Ultimately, Lossiemouth is home.