A Solo Traveller – Back Home

So the trip went well. As usual, it was bittersweet. Seeing my kids and my grandkids was as ever a joy: the little ones hardly know me as Covid and cash (or the lack thereof) has severely limited our time together – one of them was not more than a year old when I last saw him in October 2021 and he of course had no recollection. His elder brother is 6 and autistic, and to experience the progress he has made in the 12 month separation brought tears to my eyes. He has gone from struggling to communicate to being a real chatterbox – and with a fabulous California accent. In common with many autistic children, he gains a lot of his language skills from watching tv, which these days is dominated by Disney, Netflix and the rest – hence the accent. Being woken by him at 7 one morning, by a whack over the head with a cushion and his excited voice: “Hey, guy! It’s morning time! You have to get up, it’s school time!” was a highlight of the entire trip.

Visiting my elderly sister, after a difficult few months, was tough. We put the issue (no need to go into detail) to bed, kissed and made up. But it is increasingly evident her health, especially mentally, is fading. I’ve alerted her doctor to my fears of Alzheimer’s or dementia, and it’s up to him to do an assessment and go from there, but I don’t see anything happening until after the Christmas season. I will go back early next year and with one of my sons try to move things along to get her the best care we can – she deserves it at her age (81).

What of the travel itself? Well, using public transport instead of car hire had its moments, but I was by and large happy with it. The flights, once they got airborne, were fine and the airlines can’t be blamed for the snowy weather when I came home that caused their delays. But lack of efficiency in the Departure areas in both Heathrow and Zurich Airports was less acceptable. I was due home at about 6:30 in the evening but it was actually closer to 11:30 – and most of that extra 5 hours had been spent either wandering though an airport looking for Check In or Transfer Desks, or standing in huge queues waiting for service by the pair of harassed desk clerks struggling to cope. I honestly can’t remember anything quite like it in all may globetrotting years, and I went through some awful airports in terrible conditions regularly.

And the trains? Well by and large, comfortable enough, and a stress free way to travel. But being British Rail rather Swiss, German or Dutch – or for that matter pretty well anywhere else, at least in Europe – there were problems. Not the least was the two days’ of strike action that coincided with planned journeys, but in the event an unexpected heavy snowfall stopped me making those rides in any case, after re-booking tickets. I’m in agreement with the union’s actions anyway: years of under-investment have left the railways in a terrible state, with staff shortages and safety concerns that are not being addressed by rail management, and a government that refuses to accept its responsibilities and at least try to negotiate a settlement and provide proper funding.

The union concerns were laid bare on a ride into London from Norfolk, when engineering works meant I had to change trains a third of the way down, onto a 5 car train that had to serve ticket holders sold for a 12 car train. The overcrowding was dangerous, caused delays to the service and anger amongst the passengers – which, as tends to happen, is turned on station staff who were essentially blameless in this case.

On the other hand, it was nice to be able sit in a relatively comfortable seat, watching the countryside slip past on lovely sunny winters’ days, sipping a cup of coffee. No traffic jams, no dangerous drivers cutting you up at 80mph on an icy motorway in twilight – no stress. I will certainly do it next time I travel over, strikes or no strikes. Financially too it was a big win. I pre-booked half a dozen train tickets on various routes, using a Senior Railcard, off-peak fares and advance booking. Adding in the cost of the railcard itself and three nights in a hotel in Norfolk, plus spending money, and I still spent quite a bit less than the last time I booked a small car (including insurance, breakdown cover and fuel costs). I can also claim back the fares of the trains cancelled due to strike action – meaning my overall rail costs will be less than a tank of petrol. What’s not to like about that?

Each time I go to England and visit my family there, there is pressure on me to move back, and take my Beloved and my Second Family with me. “This is your home,” I’m told. “This is where you belong….” And each time I have to gently explain to them why it’s not possible to do that, and to explain it in such a way that I don’t upset anyone’s feelings. Don’t get me wrong: I miss them all terribly, and wish I could see more of them, much more, especially the grandkids. But England is no longer my home – it’s my homeland– which is something entirely different.

The country where I was born has changed so much over the time I have been away. I usually re-visit places from my youth and workdays, and they look by and large the same – until you look closely. The shops have changed, mostly, or closed down. Once bustling High Streets are now full of boarded up shop windows and To Let signs. Instead of grocery stores and butchers and bakeries there are supermarkets in various sizes, or thrift stores where nothing costs more than a pound, or charity stores. All of this points to the decline in the country as a whole.

There is also an anger there. There has always been division, a class system that has been in existence for centuries and still stubbornly refuses to go away, and the last 12 years or so under a Conservative government riven with its own internal divisions, especially over the demon Brexit, but still considering itself the natural party of government, have led to increased poverty, anger and frustration in an electorate that feels increasingly ignored. Society is polarised in a way I have never seen in all my years – even back in the last pre-Thatcher Labour days, and post-Thatcher New Labour resurgence under Blair. Simply put, the place no longer feels like home and I know, beyond a doubt, I can never be happy living there again.

But what, actually, makes a place home? For me, it’s simply somewhere I feel most comfortable, surrounded by my stuff – books, music, clothes, comfortable furniture. It doesn’t have to include other people as I have learned to feel comfortable in my own skin and with my own company in my globe-trotting professional life – but, thankfully, I am surrounded by love and warmth from my Beloved and kids, and my dog and my cat. I am surrounded by laughter, and conversation, and sometimes angry shouting and disagreements (typically around school homework and household chores not being done properly – or at all). To quote the Madness classic “Our House” – “there’s always something happening and it’s usually quite loud”. This to me is what home should be, because despite all the noise and hubbub, there is love and mutual respect. Lots of both. And happiness. Good food. A warmth that has nothing to do with settings on the radiators but comes from within.

I’m glad I’m here.


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