Last weekend marked the ten year anniversary of my first week at Durham University and thus it is also ten years since I left home for the first time. In the intervening decade I’ve lived in five different cities, six houses, seven flats, and packed my entire life into boxes at least 15 times. I still live more than 100 miles from my entire family, most of my friends and the town I grew up in.
Much in the same way as I love the feeling of travelling I love the possibilities of living somewhere new but I don’t think I’ve ever felt I “belonged” somewhere as much as I did when I first moved to Durham. I was terrified when we first arrived of course, for some reason I spent most of the journey panicking that I would be ostracised for bringing too much stuff with me (I needn’t have worried) and that I wouldn’t make any friends (ditto). But within two weeks, once I’d survived fresher’s flu and navigated a nightmarish train journey back to Wales, I felt more at home in Durham than I’d ever felt anywhere in my life. This wasn’t an indictment on my much-loved family and friends, just a reflection on how much of a fish out of water I’d been. Leaving Durham three years later was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done – and remains so, seven years of difficult decisions later.
By now, almost everyone I know is pretty settled – most people seem to pick a place and stay put, whether by birth or by choice. That happened pretty quickly with a lot of my friends – people dispersed to various locations once we left university and then seem to have remained there. People often look at me strangely when I talk about moving around the country or when I happily travel 100 miles for a night out with friends. It’s odd because I don’t consider myself particularly well travelled. The wanderlust is unintentional, I like to arrive at new places but I also like to leave – if you’ve ever met my dog Roscoe you’ll know he is also very much of this persuasion!
So, true to form the latest move – to Nottingham, a mere four months ago – was decided pretty much on the spur of the moment, I’d been offered a job and the boy had been made redundant so we thought we’d try a change of scenery. Unexpectedly it was a bigger adjustment than I’d been expecting, somehow I’d become settled whilst I wasn’t looking. The job I left behind was one I loved and only left because it was made very clear to me that, however hard I worked and whatever additional responsibilities I took on, I’d never be able to earn a promotion. Actually leaving was heartbreaking but after months of frustration it was the only choice. Similarly, I cried the day we left our little house in Leamington – it may have been too small and possessed of an extremely irritating landlord but it was the boy and my first home together. For someone who claims to thrive on change all of this upheaval was harder to deal with than I remembered…
I feel like I belong everywhere and nowhere all at once – home is where my boyfriend and my dog are, where my family are, where my friends are. I could be happy anywhere – a big city, a small town, the side of a mountain – which is a blessing in many ways. At the same time part of me wants to find a place where I can put down roots, knowing that I’m not going to have to pack my life into boxes and deconstruct all my bookcases yet again. Is that part of getting older or will I still get the urge to gallivant around the country when I’m 60?
I’ve always enjoyed travelling, no matter whether I’m going somewhere for the first time or the hundredth, somehow the feeling of being somewhere different never fails to thrill me. I wouldn’t describe myself as well travelled but it’s always an epithet I’ve wanted to earn. My ultimate aspiration is to be an old woman with a house full of souvenirs from around the world and a head full of interesting stories.
This week I went to a conference in Geneva and consequently have mostly been on aeroplanes, in queues and trying to recall enough A-level French to order dinner without making a complete fool of myself. I also got to see the Alps gleaming white in the sunshine, a view I’ve wanted to see in person since I was a little girl looking at the photograph on my Aunty Ann’s wall. It was that snatched ten minutes of beautiful scenery as my plane was leaving Geneva that made four very long and tiring days completely worthwhile.
It’s these snapshots of perfection that stand out in my memory when I think of my favourite travel experiences – a breathtaking Swiss mountain range, a sun dappled Grecian sea, a real life Viking long boat, a medieval cathedral soaring to the heavens. These are the times when I want to pack up my belongings and just start wandering, the way I do when I’m in a strange city with time to kill and no aim other than exploration. There’s few things that compare to the wonder I feel when I’m somewhere new and every corner turned is an adventure, a completely new window on the world.
You gain new perspective when you travel, about how much people are different and how much we are all exactly the same. It always amazes me how some stereotypes hold true – I have never seen so many watchmakers, chocolatiers and adverts for investment banks in all my life as I did during four days in Switzerland! The other thing that never fails to surprise me is how global a language English is, everywhere I’ve ever been people speak at least some English. It seems unspeakably arrogant to travel to another country and expect them to speak your language rather than theirs and I always feel ashamed for my lack of facility with almost every language other than my own, particularly as the dominance of English is perhaps little more than an accident of history.
More than anything else going somewhere different reinforces my desire to travel more and to see as many new and exciting places as I can. Procrastination has always been a major talent of mine but as I get older I start to wonder what my excuse really is? Sitting at home looking at pictures on the internet or making imaginary travel plans seems trivial when I could be actually going and seeing the world. After all, to become well-travelled you actually have to go places…
I wasn’t quite sure where to start with this project however I’ve had one particular piece in my head for a while. As anyone who follows me on Twitter might be aware since we moved to Nottingham in May I’ve taken up cycling to work. This is primarily because the traffic in Nottingham is abysmal – it can take up to an hour and a half to drive the nine miles from my house to where I work! But it’s also been a good way of keeping fit and not spending too much of my already overcommitted salary on bus fares…
I’m a reasonably fit person so cycling 18 or so miles in a day wasn’t too much of a shock to the system. The first time I made the journey however I stubbornly insisted on taking my ancient, very heavy mountain bike which meant I arrived home half dead. My boyfriend then insisted I take his much lighter and very swanky road bike which has significantly improved both the experience and my time – I can do the journey in about 50 minutes now. I’m not particularly an expert cyclist but I can see a distinct improvement in my stamina as well as in my leg muscles!
I haven’t cycled very much since I was a teenager and I’ve got a lot more cautious since I was last on a bike, probably because I’ve spent so much time as a driver over the past five years. I understand how fast traffic moves and how little drivers seem to pay attention, even to other cars, let alone to breakable things like cyclists and pedestrians. I was, therefore, unenthusiastic about the prospect of entangling myself with rush hour traffic with nothing but a helmet, spiky pedals and some borrowed Lycra to protect myself. Luckily Nottingham is a really cycle-friendly place and there’s a National Cycle Network route which runs virtually from my house to where I work which keeps me off the main roads.
One of the things about this whole cycling experience that has really surprised me is the rudeness of other cyclists. Whilst I’m not a particularly committed cyclist I have a lot of friends who are – both in real life and through twitter – and they are some of the nicest people I know. I was therefore expecting more in the way of camaraderie from the many other cyclists I’ve encountered on my travels but honestly apart from a slightly pervy man saying hello and a couple of awkward conversations whilst locking my bike up at work the solidarity has been non-existent. In fact I’ve come closer to being knocked off my bike by other cyclists than I ever have by a car, particularly of note was the man who cycled through a red light at a pedestrian crossing last week and nearly sent me flying.
The other unexpected aspect of cycling, particularly on the route I take which is at least 50% on the pavement, has been the ignorance of pedestrians. I like to think I’m a pretty considerate and patient person but cycling has tested this quite severely! I just do not understand why, when a cycle route is clearly marked, a person would choose to walk down the middle of it and then glare angrily at any cyclist who dares to try and use the cycle path. Also, now the schools have started back, I spend most of my morning commute facing down the mouthy teenagers who wander aimlessly about the pavement. Irksome…
I’ve been almost pleasantly surprised that no-one in a car has yet made a serious attempt to run me over – I was really expecting to have to spend a lot more time avoiding bad drivers. There are still plenty of people who drive a bit too close but I’ve not really had any close calls. I think being a driver makes me a more aware cyclist, I’m used to having to anticipate potentially dangerous situations well in advance – something which is much more important as a vulnerable cyclist. I’d also like to think being a cyclist has improved my driving, at least in terms of being aware of other road users.
I’d be interested to hear other people’s experiences of “urban” cycling – is the lack of sympathy for your fellow cyclist a problem particular to Nottingham?!