a place is a story, and stories are geography – Rebecca Solnit
I find the word ‘uprooted’ in my mouth surprisingly often, but it’s an imperfect simile if there were never roots in the first place. ‘Rootless’ is closer to the truth. I’m perhaps more like algae, or mistletoe, slipping into pools and spaces that do not seem to be instinctively mine, but are the only places I belong.
I have always valued and mythologised place, perhaps more so than people who take their settings for granted. I’m beginning to question this act of storytelling, blame, romanticisation, or instant nostalgia, and trying to understand how it intersects with my restlessness, itinerancy – and loneliness.
It’s easy to blame landmasses for a feeling of not belonging, but I’m increasingly convinced loneliness has a more complicated relationship with places, and the other people in them. You can be cripplingly lonely in a bright and blaring bar, or in a plywood-walled apartment so small you can hear three friends breathe, just as easily as on a lost and snowcapped hill. I know this. I know it often.
I’ve never been afraid of movement. I was born an expat: no clear sense of geographical belonging determines my déménagements – a ménage being a home or a household. I don’t understand what it would be like to long for a country in the clear, specific way I long for people. Which country should I long for? The one my parents happen to hail from, the one I was coincidentally born in, the one I grew up in and fled? The one I have the most scattered friends?
‘Trust in landmasses, not people,’ my friend Helen and I used to say, a little glibly. Strangely, I meant London, for which I longed from the shores of Lake Léman, in the rippling shadow of the Alps. What a landscape to romanticise the city from! Our catchphrase seems flawed: surely the London I longed for was a metonymy for its people? After all, I had hardly spent any time in the physical city. But there is an important separation between landscape and place – and the difference is self, and the difference is storytelling.
Rebecca Solnit writes about this in The Faraway Nearby. ‘Stories are compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.’ I navigate by them, yes, these stories of place, but are they the right stories? How do those stories change? I’m twenty-five. I’ve moved places where I knew no-one four times now: Cambridge, Edinburgh, the Cotswolds, Geneva. I moved to London in January.
And London is the crux and the zenith of this line of questioning. For here I am in this gorgeous, mad city I wanted for years, and something is still terribly out of sync. It feels somehow uncanny, in the Freudian sense: familiar, and yet utterly alien. (I always thought the root of the word Unheimlich, and the absence its strangeness pinpointed, was ‘home.’) Something is wrong. This one was supposed to be easy. This one was supposed to last. Yet still I am haunted by this painfully familiar sense of being in the wrong place. Yes, I’ll admit it’s partly heartache – longing clearly for a lover who isn’t here – but it’s more complicated than that. The revelations about people and place (the myths we build about them, what we expect from them) are quite painful – and fascinating.
So: loneliness feeds anxiety, and anxiety feeds sleeplessness, which feeds exhaustion, which feeds the first two. The walls in my attic room in Limehouse are thin, and the ceiling is glass. It is not a far shot from camping, despite the flowered fabric I’ve stretched above me, and the bookshelf, and the teacups. In the light from the warehouse windows, I can see barbed wire, the rush of the DLR, a single fig tree. I watch my neighbours hanging up their laundry. House of Limes, Isle of Dogs. I try to calm my heartbeat. I try to sleep.
Downstairs, the studio is pleasant. We have a cat, two latte frothers, Le Creuset skillets, firsthand hardback Murakami and Heidegger. In the courtyard, there are punks with mandolins and a swing jazz collective. We are nice, creative people, who have prioritised the ability to buy gin and parma ham over actually having a ceiling. But it is not as easy a transition as I had envisioned. In the day, I crave sugar and write. In the night, I wake in the cold yowl of traffic and burst into tears.
So it’s partly the heartache, and partly that my own storytelling is failing – some of those metonymical people have disappeared and, besides, my myth of London had involved settling here for a few years (this one was supposed to last). I’m increasingly unsure. But still. Here I am at last in the city I longed for for years, where there are bookstores and grimy bars and musical folk and many, many dear friends. How can I possibly be lonely?
What I mean is: I’ve come to believe that my loneliness has very little to do with people. Instead, it stems from not being in phase with a place, from a sort of terrible and recurring liminality in which the self does not intersect as one had anticipated with: – one’s myth or previous construction of the place, – the reality of a place.
Hence the uncanniness. This time in London, it must be that somehow, my vision is skewed; doesn’t fit into the myth I carried here with me. It must be that I have changed, or cannot change in the direction I would need for it all to fit coherently, creating happiness or at least a sense of belonging.
This goes a long way towards untangling something I have wrestled with for a long time, which is: how can I be so often lonely when I have so many wonderful people in my life, sometimes even in the same geographical location? No, the panic that spurs me onwards has much more to do with some strange, confused idea of places, and with my own permanently liminal status within them.
I think of my move to the Cotswolds two years before, and the visions I nurtured – the glorious, hilly countryside. Greenery! Old stone! Little pubs! Landmasses are not to blame for the warping of one’s vision of them. Are landmasses to blame for loneliness?
I spend my first week alone in the farmhouse belonging to my new employers, an unknown, ancient house in a strange place. On the first night, there is a thunderstorm, and a selective power cut renders me unable to switch on any of the lamps – I keep switching the bulbs from room to room, to no effect. It is nightmarish. I pour myself hot milk, honey, a violent dose of rum.
In the fields outside, a man swings a flashlight beam. I meet him one day, in the lanes, and calling me ‘love’ he explains he is scaring away foxes. A few months later I’ll meet a man who explains that the flashlight beam can also serve to freeze the animals, all the better to blow their brains out with a shotgun. But there are no shots in the dark that first night.
I have no money, to the extent that I miss a friend’s wedding because I can’t afford the train. I try to make this amusing, as I wait for a transfer from my wonderful father to save me – forage wild mint and crush it into pesto; steal eggs and peas from the fridge. On a long, desperately hot walk to the next village, I cram my mouth with elderberries out of thirst. Later, my stomach cramps, and I learn that the stems are mildly poisonous when raw. Still, they’re lovely on ice cream. I watch Merchant-Ivory films in hopes of feeling pastoral.
The house is miles from anyone. I try to take advantage of this by blasting La Bohème on tinny laptop speakers and singing along at the top of my lungs. It feels artificial, somehow. I get self-conscious. What if the fox man prowls by? Besides, there’s not a great deal of fun in doing this alone. I pour myself cider and tweet about it. No-one replies.
The pattern is this: I move, I am afraid I am not in the right place, I plan the next move. I’m like an imperfect graft, one that doesn’t quite take – wild rose vines springing free, taking over, failing the domestic. It’s flawed, and it’s hardly restful.
The myths of the Cotswolds quite quickly crumble in the face of the people I truly meet there – alcoholics, adulterers, aristocrats, Europhobes. Being as how it preexists the move there, a place’s myth will necessarily be incorrect. An inability to shift the myth to fit to the real place as it is experienced: that creates loneliness.
When I move to Geneva, it is to escape. I fling myself across Europe with the zeal of a nineteenth-century novel heroine going to take the sea air. Yet the city isn’t quite the immediate antidote I’d expected. Old women wear furs. A single gin costs fifteen francs. The streets are silent on Sunday. Again, something is wrong. My heart sinks.
The myths here are different. I skew the city, easily fitting it into this mould: Rolex, caviar, cocaine. I stumble into the images and people that mirror my misery, the way a newly-learned word appears everywhere. There is a reason I do not instinctively turn to Merchant-Ivory here: the myth that is jarred is not the Cotswolds-myth. I suppose I should turn to Heidi.
Yet it is not all miserable liminality – in any place, some parts of me fit. The blessed obverse of this state is that people and places can bring me immense comfort, when it all does line up right. I sleep in the cobbled old town, listening to a fountain. I swim in the lake, in the morning before work, blissfully alone in the shade of the Alps. I’m speaking the language of my childhood for the first time in six years. We drink rosé on the old places. Somehow, I am only conscious of what is missing; what I haven’t found yet. If Geneva does not provide it immediately, it must not be here.
It doesn’t occur to me that the missing elements could be in me, or are not being constructed and could be – in my reading of the city, in my failing to seek out what I need – blinded and blinkered as I am by my idea of the place. But the myth of a place failing me is still a myth that gives strength: it is far easier to uproot than to try and ease or change a failing transplantation.
People are unpredictable: they move and must be found. Sometimes our established stories about a place have us seeking out the wrong people, or failing to look beyond what we already see. The problem is, when you don’t have a clear reason to be somewhere, it’s hard to understand why you should stay. Yes, I’ll grow to love the lake. I’ll grow to miss the lake. I swim, drink tea, write letters to my friends who will, I am starting to understand, always be scattered. I make new ones, brilliant ones – it takes time. I find the grimy bars. Eventually, I no longer feel alone. It occurs to me that I could do this anywhere.
But I still leave, because I’d planned to; because I still believe I must be happier elsewhere. Sometimes it almost feels like a form of cognitive dissonance: I want to be less stressed, I want to be more settled; I move. Worse than that: I leave because I think some other place will hold the solution. I wonder, in these moments of worry, what it is I’m looking for, in this life of forward movement, loneliness and instant, perpetual nostalgia. What great and terrible stories am I telling myself? Are they helpful?
For this storytelling textures and colours the nature of loneliness in a particular time and place, which may go some way towards explaining the instinct to blame, and to flee.
Somehow, that is changing. I no longer believe flight is the key to being at home in a place; that I will one day find the myth that fits me and the place perfectly, arrive in its heart and be absorbed into it without adaptation. I will have to give up, at some point, seeking a myth of ready-made home and anchoring. I will have to learn to construct it myself. I must be a better grafter, fitting the wild rose scion of myself into the rootstock of place, that cannot be merely mythical. That must be real.
Writing this piece I sometimes wonder if it is simply an elaborate attempt to convince myself that place is not to blame – specifically, that Geneva was not to blame for my loneliness there, since I am moving back this weekend. ‘Back’ is not quite right, though: I am moving forward, and I am moving for a reason, which is love. He cannot be my myth, though: I must be sure I can build a new sense of Geneva for myself, on my own. I will learn. I will not be afraid.
The change cannot always be of place: what must change is the story. I must change the way I root and uproot. This isn’t an argument against movement: on the contrary. It is an argument against loneliness. I must construct my own home, find my own people, storytell my own comfortable metonymies. My experience of a landmass is in my hands. I know how to transplant; I must learn how to create new compasses and architectures. Wherever it takes place, it is my story to tell.