I had not thought that I should ever suffer from homesickness. Not once seven years had passed since I left home – and certainly not after I returned. But I have.
The onset was as I walked through a courtyard in a sleepy market town to find myself in a beautiful walled garden, bound by weathered red bricks of that evocative shade of ox blood that is unique to this area of East Anglia. Some bricks from an earlier structure had been laid in meandering paths.
It was December; the paths were overgrown with the orange variety of scrambling plant known as everlasting wallflower taking the opportunity to flex their petals in the unaccustomed balmy weather. Chinese Lanterns thrust their way through the display, mixing pillar box red into a kaleidoscope that could only be English, interspersed with the occasional seedling of lavender that had no idea it shouldn’t be flowering now.
It made me catch my breath for reasons I couldn’t be sure of. I pushed open a solid wooden door that swung on hand forged hinges and had been repainted religiously every year since a Victorian carpenter had first stood back to admire his handiwork. Fierce sunlight had never caused it to blister or fade in the manner that anything painted in France does within months.
I found myself in a room panelled with strips of wood that were ‘different’ somehow; not the thin metric sized strips of baltic pine sold in a thousand identical Bricomarches – but a full four inches wide planks edged with lambs tongue, with the slightly uneven profile that denotes the work of a man standing for hours with a hand held rebater. They were painted – layers and layers of paint, carefully applied – but you knew instinctively that underneath lay good Scottish pitch pine.
The paint itself was not the brash colours of the mediterranean countries, the brilliant greens and blues – but gentle greys and off whites tempered with lamp black that so exactly matches the colour of English skies. Set into the strips of wood were air vents – not modern plastic air vents of those thousand Bricomarches – but solid ornate cast iron objects of beauty that someone had carefully picked out in a contrasting hue – not dramatically so, just sufficient to draw your eye to another fine example of craftsmanship.
Wooden chairs were set round the room – neither based on the design of a Bauhaus architect, nor mass produced in a Eastern European factory – but slightly wobbly, rounded by several generations of bottoms; each chair the nearest its maker could get to the original Mendlesham design within the limitations of a hand lathe laboriously pumped in a forest clearing.
Is this really the stuff of homesickness? It became so.
On the chairs sat men and women. Plain ordinary folk. Not the bloated motorised versions I had previously written of from our nearby coastal town – nor even the miniature versions of Aquitaine that left me feeling like Gulliver on his famous travels amongst the Lilliputians. These folk were the same sort of shape and size as I am – it wasn’t that we looked alike, and yet we were alike. You could almost feel the genetic heritage.
They wore clothes in wintery shades; carefully chosen to shield them from the wind and the rain. Worsted trousers in English wool, hand knitted jumpers, sensible shoes that had been polished on the insole as well as the uppers in the manner we used to be taught. Cherry Blossom naturally.
The French follow fashion each season, even the country folk; thus if the fashion is, as it is this year, for footless white leggings overthrown with a sheer baby doll lacy top, and a woollen shawl laid just so upon your shoulders – not forgetting the essential gold chain around your ankle – then that is what your 90 year old matriarch may well be wearing too, giving her the appearance of ‘a lady of the night’ who retired some 50 years ago, but still sports the uniform….most disconcerting.
As I surreptitiously looked them up and down, I noticed something else too. There was not one dollop of Max Factor between any of those of a female persuasion, nor even the men– and everyone over the age of 40ish had grey hair. I haven’t seen grey hair in 7 years – except my own. Entire families in France are dipped head first into the Henna pot and come out an identical shade of red from the five year old to the ninety-five year old. If not red it is ink black. Anything but grey. Grey is utterly forbidden – by decree or something or other. People would stare after me as I stalked through our local market with my waist length grey hair – and it wasn’t admiring glances but sheer horror, they were less disturbed when I was as bald as a coot!
These folk were sitting quietly on the wooden chairs – nay in silence; reflecting on their week, on how they could do more for other people, be a better person themselves. There was no priest offering them absolution for repented sins, nor book of words telling them the words to recite to achieve approved perfection before they met their maker, they were just silently figuring it out for themselves.
When an hour had passed, they greeted each other, and a wealth of home made cakes and offerings from the garden were passed around to be shared out. No fancy multi-coloured ever-so-trendy cup cakes, nor elaborate supermarket plastic clad ‘cakes for your party’ – just homely slightly battered slices of old fashioned parkin and cheese and pickle sandwiches.
It was then that the wave of homesickness truly hit me. I was surrounded by my own people, enveloped by the sounds of an English market town, wrapped in the muted hues of English country life – and for all my years of thinking that I was enjoying the exotic sights and sounds of foreign travel, I had never realised just how much I missed home. Or the atmosphere in a Quaker Meeting Room.
It took every inch of determination that I possess not to burst into tears.