It’s 10PM on a Friday night, and I’m sitting at my desk drinking tea and eating massive quantities of Tesco tea-biscuits. I’m wrapped in two blankets because the university administrators seem to be trying to cut energy costs by not heating my flat. My adventures in Oxford have come to an end, and I’m finally home. On the seven-hour-long train ride back to Edinburgh, with no one to talk to and nothing to look at but sheep, I had a lot of time to think about what home is exactly, where home is, and why everybody seems to like it so much.
I come from a teeny-tiny town in Pennsylvania called Bryn Athyn, and for the past twenty years of my life, that has been my home. That’s where I was born. That’s where I climbed trees and got poison ivy and lost my baby teeth and learned to read. At home there are Wawas and Dunkin Donuts, cicadas and stinkbugs and fireworks on the Fourth of July. It’s unbearably humid in the summer, and if we’re lucky, it snows in the winter. Sometimes deer wander through our backyard. Philadelphia is only twenty minutes away by train, New York a few hours.
Now I’m seven hours away from Bryn Athyn by plane, and I live on the outskirts of Edinburgh’s Old Town, in the shadow of the Salisbury Crags. In my new home, I shop at Tesco and Lidl. There are no chirping cicadas, but seagulls cry all year round. It’s almost always raining. The nearby distilleries send the scent of roasting malt wafting through the city. I’m constantly stumbling on the cobblestones. The crosswalks beep when it’s time to cross, and someone forces a flyer into my hand every twelve seconds.
When my train pulled into Waverley Station tonight, I felt for the first time like I was really coming home to Edinburgh, and not just extending a trip. The familiar malty smell was in the air, and Waverley Station was bright and bustling. I saw one of my favorite stray cats on the walk to my flat, and unsuccessfully tried to cuddle it, as usual. My flatmate was in the kitchen when I got home, and I was pleasantly reminded that there are people in this city who notice when I leave. I made my customary cup of Tetley tea (I’m on my third now), and the sense of coziness was complete.
I spent four days in Oxford with my brother David and his wife, Robin. I had only planned a three-day trip, but on the day I was scheduled to depart a massive storm came along and knocked trees onto the rail-lines and smashed glass in several rail stations. (The wind woke me in the middle of the night and I was genuinely terrified that the roof was going to blow off!) My journey was cancelled, which was fine by me—an extra day in Oxford meant an extra day I didn’t have to study for exams!
But the moment I arrived in Oxford, after two connections and seven hours of not-having-a-window-seat, Robin was there to greet me with a hug, and I thought, Maybe home is where there are people to meet you at the train station. Being met at the train station is a little luxury that I didn’t appreciate before I spent a considerable amount of time alone, and in a foreign country.
The three of us spent most of our time together watching Netflix, making delicious food, and turning up the space heater. Being with family, and simply being known was such a wonderful relief. I never realized how powerful ‘being known’ is until I moved to a place where nobody knew me at all. No one else from my college came to Edinburgh University this year, and I didn’t know anyone in the city before I moved here. I’m so glad that I don’t have that kind of social safety net to fall back on, but it has meant that in these early months, most of my time has been spent in the company of either acquaintances or complete strangers. It gets lonely. The simple fact that David and Robin know me, and know what I like to eat and what I like to read, and understand my sense of humor and my obscure references to The Office, relaxed me enormously. I didn’t have to introduce myself, explain myself, or defend myself. Here is a list of questions that I thankfully didn’t have to answer:
1. What’s your name again?
2. Can I call you Becca?
3. What’s up with your accent?
4. Wait, is Philadelphia like, above or below New York?
5. So, is it like, near L.A.?
6. Why are you studying English Lit? Do you want to be unemployed?
7. Why are you studying Gaelic? Gaelic is DEAD!
8. Your last name is so weird! Where are you from?
9. OHMYGOD ARE YOU RELATED TO JAKE GYLLENHAAL?
10. OHMYGOD CAN YOU GET ME HIS AUTOGRAPH?
(I would like to confirm that yes, I have been asked all of these questions at least once! Although, to the credit of my wonderful host country, I will add that most of these questions, aside from the ones related to American geography, have been asked by my fellow Americans.)
Aside from enjoying time with family, I got to enjoy the beautiful ‘large town’ of Oxford. I just can’t call Oxford a city—I know it is technically, but there are very few building over five storeys high, and it’s perfectly safe! Skyscrapers and a sense of imminent danger are what define cities to me, and therefore, London is the only proper city in the UK that I have encountered so far. However, this is not a criticism of Oxford—the university buildings are architectural masterpieces, and because of the enormous student population, bookshops and libraries are plentiful.
My brother, who is entering the ‘popular’ and ‘well-known’ field of Byzantine Studies, actually belongs to a house and has a common room—which you need a password to enter. I visited his common room once, and it was filled with English people wearing long black robes (friar’s robes, but still). Unsurprisingly, several scenes in the Harry Potter movies were actually filmed in Oxford University buildings. In addition, my brother has black hair, green eyes, and glasses. The only thing he needs to complete his transformation into a boy wizard is a wand and a couple of sidekicks. Aside from the stirring up of nostalgia for the Harry Potter books, I felt at home in Oxford simply because I have family there—I don’t think it takes much more than that.
John Steinbeck once said: “I have many homes, some that I have not seen yet. Maybe that is why I am restless; I have not yet known all of my homes.” I understand what he means—I am realizing that I have homes all over the world; some that are new, some that are familiar, and perhaps some that I have yet to discover. Bryn Athyn is my first home; my cat is waiting for me there, my favorite quilt is on my bed, and I will decorate the tree and make Christmas cookies with my family when I return for the holidays. But Edinburgh is possibly the most beautiful (and haunted) city in the world, and I will never tire of exploring it. The coffee shops are better, as are the libraries and the buses and the street performers.
I am feeling homesick for Bryn Athyn now, especially as it gets closer to Christmas, but I know I’ll be homesick for Edinburgh when I move back to the States permanently in June. I get a little pang of panic in my chest when I realize that in a few short months I’ll be leaving Edinburgh, possibly forever. A part of me will always remain in this city. A water-logged, chip-stuffed, sometimes drunken part of me, but a part nonetheless. But now, after my long journey, I can finally lay down in my own bed and sleep. And maybe I will dream of my other ‘own bed,’ and the home in Pennsylvania where I will arrive in two short weeks, with a tree in the living room and lights on the house and, hopefully, snow on the ground.