Last weekend, twenty years after I left, I returned to my old university, or rather to what was left of it. As I walked around the campus, there was little to recognise: a building here, a fountain there. Even the old fire station has been converted into swanky accommodation for the students. Thankfully the main building was as solid as ever, and one of the pubs remained untouched, so at least I knew I was in the right place.
I was in the company of four friends from uni days, and our discussions fell quickly to the nature of progress. Our slightly Luddite stance (What on earth have they done?) was appropriate for a bunch of forty-somethings reliving the glory of their youth, but the problem was (or is) that none of us feel like we are in our forties. The heady days of lectures and pub crawls, of political activism and across-the-board experimentation are alive in our minds as if they happened yesterday.
Standing on a different campus, (for that’s what it is now), I realised that the university I went to, my home for a few years, no longer exists. I feel the same when I drive past my family home in Ireland, which I left last century. The house looks unchanged, but saplings I planted are now trees. Time has moved on, as have I.
When I raise this issue, nine times out of ten, people share the same sense of dislocation. In that case, where is home?
All the places I have called home have changed, and they exist only in my memory. Home is where the heart is, they say, and I think they’re on the right track, because I have my home(s) inside me. A childhood in Ireland, a roving university and post-university hedonistic period in a dozen countries, a career decade in Russia, and now a family life in the Czech Republic – these are all my homes, but, barring my current situation, they don’t exist anymore. I can’t go back.
I know I live in a different country to that in which I grew up, but even for those people in my hometown, things are different than they were. People come and go, priorities change, and hey presto – life is completely different. They can no more go back than can I.
If you’re lucky, the one thing that can remain constant is why your friends are your friends. I don’t know my friends’ current situations as well as I should, what joys they celebrate, what challenges they face, and yet, as the drink flowed on Saturday evening, I found myself falling in love with them all over again.
They’re different people than they were twenty years ago. I am too. But we seem to have moved in the same direction; what brought us together in the first place is still there.
As I looked around at their faces, worn by the passage of two decades, I knew I was home.