The ache of homesickness

Fri, Sep 14, 2012, 01:00

When you’re gone, life is still just life, only in a different place. It is not the differences that make surviving easy. It’s the sameness of it, writes SARAH GRIFFIN

IN WALGREENS I got stopped by a shop-assistant because I’d been snivelling around the cosmetics section for 10 minutes, face soaked and red and puffy.

“Ma’am, ma’am, you alright? Can I get you anything?” To his unknowing eyes, I was a damsel in distress, bawling my eyes out by the nail-polish-remover.

Maybe he thought I’d just been broken up with or that someone had stolen my purse, that my heart was breaking and my eyes were leaking and the only place I could find solace in the wilds of San Francisco was aisle two of a chain drug-store, my only friends the smiling ladies on the hair-dye boxes.

The truth was, I was hay-fevery and sunburnt. I took refuge in the pharmacy to buy a packet of tissues because my eyes were watering so badly I couldn’t see at all. Whichever pollen this air is dense with wants me out, wants my Irishness sent back to my tiny island 5,000 miles from here.

I almost told him no, I am not alright actually. I’ve just moved here and America is terrifying. Sometimes Ireland is this way too, but in a way that I understand. I’ve seen the man behind the curtain who runs the smoke and mirror show of Ireland but here, here is a whole different level of pyrotechnics and nonsense. The Coca-Cola tastes different here: tastes uglier. A punnet of mushrooms costs six dollars, that’s outrageous.

Cigarettes are cheap but people look at you funny if you smoke – only bad guys smoke in America.

America looks at you with friendly eyes during small talk but hears only your accent, defines you by your nationality. I have been asked about my “cute” accent at every minor verbal interaction I have had since I arrived here: four or five times a day, but I have not told one person my father’s name. Or my mother’s. Or that I love to crochet, that I am really good at video games. That I’m worried about the day that I try to return to the place that gave me this accent – because once you leave, you’ve left.

You jumped ship, you gave up.

If you show up at Terminal Two of Dublin Airport after America kicked the head off you with hay fever and unemployment and culture-shock, Ireland will be thrilled to see you. She’ll drive you home. She’ll bring you a cup of tea as you lie in foetal position on your old bed, because she heard the tea wasn’t as good over there at all.

As you lie on the coolness of your Little Mermaid bedspread, she’ll still say to you, “What a terrible shame, oh of course you’re welcome back here, any time at all at all, go on sit down there, get that cup of tea into you and tell us about how awful America was.” Ireland is a great listener, you know, and essentially wants you to do well. But misery loves company, and Ireland loves a welcome home party.

I hurriedly bought four packets of tissues for a dollar and flounced back into the abrasive sunshine. I stuffed several balls of it between my leaking eye-socket and the lens of my sunglasses and didn’t care about how ridiculous I looked: it was a slight relief from being blinded by my own tears.

As I toddled up the hill to my new flat, I realised it was the first time I’d cried since I arrived. I was homesick.

Homesickness when you’re a kid is weeping silently into your sleeping bag at the sleepover, weighing up the consequences of ringing your parents to pick you up. The upside is that their cuddles are the best, and your Little Mermaid duvet cover is softer than your sleeping-bag. The downside is you’ll be remembered as the kid who couldn’t handle it. Who wasn’t able for the fight. Who missed all the banter at breakfast. Who chickened out. Who went home.

When you’re a twentysomething emigrant, homesickness is when Jeremy on aisle two asks you if you’re crying, and not knowing exactly when the stinging in your eyes turned into a genuine ache in your body for the people you know and love. Homesickness is realising that the toothy smiley women on the hair-dye boxes are probably the closest thing you have to a gang of girlfriends on this side of the world. Homesickness is knowing, absolutely, that there is no chickening out this time.

Back in the flat I slumped into the ridiculous 1970s chair that takes precedence in our new sitting room and my partner sympathetically brought me some ice for my eye. He then went back to capturing villains in some decrepit 3D landscape on the Xbox, and I sat down with Microsoft Word to hammer out what was going on in my head.

It occurred to me then that I have acted out this scene a million times back home. All these tiny components that make up a hard day are basically the same, no matter where in the world you are. The emigration myth is that once you leave home to start your adventure, adventure is constant. You’ll be too busy discovering things and eating food from Mexico and working in Silicon Valley and getting freckly in the warmth to be homesick. What the emigration myth fails to mention is that when you’re gone, life is still just life, only in a different place. It is not the differences that make surviving easy. It’s the sameness of it.

You still get up in the morning and look on the internet for a job. You still cook food and get laid. You still get pissed off and you still laugh so hard you have to sit down somewhere to catch your breath. There are people you miss but there are new people everywhere to tell stories with, and live new stories with.

This knowledge, for me, is what keeps the flight instinct at bay: stories are still everywhere, tiny scraps of adventure, shining out among the peace of normality. This is what keeps me going, what makes me brave enough for this party.

I don’t care how hot it is, and no matter how much I have to weep into my sleeping bag, I will see you at breakfast.

My father’s name is Sean, my mother’s name is Patricia. There. That feels better.

Share your views and experiences with Generation Emigration, the Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens abroad, curated by Ciara Kenny

Blog: irishtimes.com/generationemigration

Twitter: @GenEmigration

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Email: emigration@irishtimes.com

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