Imagine, somehow, that you’ve avoided looking in the mirror for 4 years. Then one day you look.
Beforehand you would probably have a good idea of what you’d see. Everybody knows their own face, how they look. But after 4 years there would be some differences. A few more lines, a receding hairline, more facial hair, a bit more grey here and there. You may have even forgot a few things. Like the small scar on your chin or the freckle under your nose.
While travelling I’ve had an image of Newcastle in my mind that has been timeless. Whenever I’ve thought of my hometown, I’ve thought of it as it was. Whenever I felt homesick, I would tell myself that back home nothing had changed. Everything was the same as I’d left it, so I wasn’t missing out too much by not being there.
In many ways, I was right. Newcastle hasn’t changed much, what has changed has been subtle and slow. The change has been enough that over the past two weeks I’ve been constantly rechecking my surroundings. Every time I go somewhere new – not new at all, places I’ve visited thousands of times – it’s as though I’m seeing them for the first time again.
What it’s shown me is that time makes you forget – memories get hazier. You forget things without realising they’re forgotten. You build an image in your head that ignores everything you’ve forgotten.
After a long flight from Bangkok, I arrived in Newcastle at 10pm and went straight home. Going through the front door, the house smelt as it always had. Every house, every place has its smell which we never really notice. A clock in the hallway was still on the wall where it had been 4 years earlier. Still ticking away.
In the living room there was a new sofa, new dining table, toys scattered the ground from my nephew (who didn’t even exist 4 years ago.) I went up to use the toilet and as I was relieving myself I looked at a painting on the wall. It was some silly illustration of penguins.
This illustration had been there 4 years earlier, but now it caught me by surprise. I didn’t remember it at all. I was looking at it for the first time, but I also remembered seeing it boefre. A strange feeling came over me, not unlike deja vu. Remembering something while also experiencing it for the first time.
If you had asked me to draw that room the day before. That illustration of the penguins wouldn’t have been in it. If you had asked me if there was anything on the walls, I would have laughed. I would have been adamant that nothing was on the wall. Our memory is unreliable.
The house was smaller than I remembered. The staircase narrower. It took some getting used to but within a few days I was jumping down the stairs as I always had. Three steps at a time. Muscle memory. I’ve jumped down those stairs so many times that I no longer need to think about going down them. My body just knows. Like riding a bike, you only need to learn once.
A few days ago I went into town for a job interview. On the way there, I decided to get off the train a few stops early so I could walk through the streets of the city centre. Halfway to my destination, I realised I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t recognise the street, or my surrounding.
Yet somehow I knew where I was going. Muscle memory kicked in again. I’ve walked these paths so many times that I don’t need to even consider where I’m going. I just close my mind, think of a destination and I somehow get there. I just know.
Partly this scares the shit out of me. All those memories and details aren’t forgotten really. They’re just hidden from me. But day by day, as I reexplore my hometown, memories come back and reassert themselves. I rebuild a map of the city in my head. Fill in the blanks in my knowledge. Relearn my hometown.
The day after coming back, I woke up early. Jetlag probably. I decided to head to the supermarket because I needed a new SIM card. Put on my clothes. Stepped out of the house. A smell hit my nostrils. A woody smell of damp leaves. The air felt fresh.
As I walked along, I realised that it’s not just our houses that have unique scents. But our streets, our towns, our cities. My house sits beside a large field, opposite a huge tree, my next door neighbour has a garden filled with flowers and shrubs. All this mixes together to create a place unique on Earth.
Isn’t it funny how people travel thousands of miles around the world to visit somewhere unique, when literally every place on Earth is unique in some way? That our homes are the most comfortably unique places because we’re the ones who’ve built them?
On the way to the supermarket, I realised an area that was once nothing but wasteland had been turned into a new housing estate. I entered the supermarket and it looked exactly as it had done. Electronics still in the back. Bakery in the corner. I couldn’t find the SIM card so I asked a young man, stacking a shelf, where they were.
He replied saying they were at the front of the shop. Went back to work. Nothing strange there.
What was strange was his voice. He sounded like a Geordie.
(Side note: people from Newcastle are called Geordies. Geordies have a certain way of speaking, their voices sound a specific way.)
Now the thing is. All my life, growing up in Newcastle, I never really heard the Geordie accent. I grew up among Geordies, their voices to me were just the everyday voices around me. They were the only voices I heard, so to me they never really sounded like anything. They just sounded like voices.
With 4 years away from Newcastle though, suddenly they didn’t sound like typical voices. They sounded so peculiar. I walked around the supermarket listening in on conversations. I was amazed.
If a person grows up in a place, let’s say Scotland, they never know what they really sound like to others. A Scottish person can’t really know how Scottish people sound. They don’t hear the accent as a foreigner would, with new ears.
At that moment, I was hearing my own accent as a foreigner. My mind was blown. “Holy crap. That’s what I sound like!?” (Well, no, because many Geordies say I don’t sound like a Geordie! Dammit!)
I could hear this accent and I thought it sounded musical, quaint.
But more than anything, it felt strange. How something I know so well can sound so strange to me. It’s as though I both understand and don’t.
And what I suppose this is, is reverse culture shock. When you spend long enough time away from your home, you’ve stopped identifying it. When you come back it can be overwhelming. Scary.
When you grow up in a place, it feels like comfort to imagine it. You imagine it to be easy. But when you go back, you realise that it’s no longer comfortable. You need to relearn things again. Fight to understand how it all works.
It takes some getting used to.