Today, we are proud to present you with a passage of ‘Thoughts on Homesickness’ by Carly Brown, who was queened in Scotland’s National Poetry Slam in 2013. In today’s piece, Carly imparts her feelings of displacement as an American living in Scotland and her longing for Scotland when, back in America, she experiences a newly-found distance from her homeland and native culture.
I’m now an interesting novelty in Scotland and in America. In Europe, people will always point out when I say ‘y’all’. In America, people will always notice how my sense of style is more ‘European’. I’m not rooted in either place anymore, but treading the strange waters between two continents.
‘Thoughts on Homesickness’ by Carly Brown
An earlier draft of this piece was previously published on Carly’s personal blog: https://carlyjbrown.com/news/
Recently, I was on a month-long research fellowship at Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia: Monticello. A few days into my fellowship, I got to chatting with another fellow there, an American poet, about her time spent studying abroad in Italy. She told me about how, on day five of her Italian trip, exhausted and frustrated by the language barrier, she broke down crying in front of her host mother. She was homesick. Incredibly homesick.
Her host mother just nodded patiently and, weeks later, informed her that this always happened. All the American students who had previously come to stay with her had experienced a similar bout of homesickness between days five and ten. It was totally normal.
As I listened to her relaying this story, we were driving through the lush Virginia countryside, dotted with red barns, vineyards and adorable picket fences. This was postcard perfect America. It was green and the people were friendly. There were fried green tomatoes on the menu and red brick buildings, horses and historic farmhouses. It was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite place on earth. And yet I felt, in the pit of my stomach, a small sadness. I was homesick in a foreign country. Between days five and ten. Like clockwork.
Only the problem was, I’m American. Born and raised in Austin, Texas. I wanted to feel right at home, back in America. Yet I was homesick for rain against the bay windows in my flat in Glasgow. I was homesick for Scotland.
During that first week in Virginia, I met a lot of people. The first question that almost everyone asked me was, ‘Where are you from?’
I told them Austin, Texas, but then added that I live in Scotland. That I’ve been in Scotland for six years, my entire adult life. ‘That makes sense. You have a tiny bit of a Scottish accent,’ they often said.
Now that I was back in America, I could taste the edges of a Scottish accent in my mouth. The way my voice went up at the end of questions. Or when I used words like ‘quite’, ‘lovely’ and ‘brilliant’.
People were, naturally, very curious about my life in Scotland. The weather, the whisky. One afternoon at lunch, I almost started crying when someone mentioned a beautiful trip they had taken to the Scottish Highlands. Jet-lagged and slightly disoriented, I instinctively put my hand on my heart and felt my eyes welling with tears. Just in case that wasn’t melodramatic enough, I said in a voice steeped in adoration, ‘Scotland is where my heart is.’
That night in my little apartment in rural Virginia, I listened to the summer sounds of insects outside and the low hum of the air conditioner. I Skyped with my mom in Texas and I kept saying to her, ‘I’m homesick.’
‘For Scotland?’ she asked.
I nodded. It was a big realization. ‘Home’, for me, wasn’t Texas anymore.
I wondered when that changed. I wondered if it had changed.
A few weeks prior to my fellowship, I was on holiday (or ‘vacation’, if you prefer) with my partner in Italy. One afternoon, I decided I was fed up with tiny coffees. I didn’t want an espresso in a little white cup. I wanted a big mug of watery coffee. The kind of coffee that you find at a Starbucks or a Dunkin’ Doughnuts or in a glass pot on the counter of any office in America.
We were at a little pastry shop in Milan at the time, which looked straight out of a Wes Anderson film: waiters in smart black and white outfits, colorful little pastries in neat rows. I ordered an Americano even though it was five pm and I knew that the only acceptable thing to drink at that point was espresso.
The waiter raised an eyebrow at my request and brought me (this is real) a shot of espresso with a cup of hot water. A Do-It-Yourself coffee. Americano for the Americana.
My partner told me the story about how americanos are named after the American soldiers who came to Italy during WWII and craved, just like me, the watery, filter coffees of their homeland. So the Italians added hot water to strong black coffee.
I poured the hot water over the espresso. When I sipped it, it tasted perfect. It tasted like air conditioned afternoons in malls with my friends or driving my old Volvo listening to crappy pop music on the radio after school. I was sick with love for the tastes of my childhood. For Texas. I wanted breakfast tacos with avocado and sunlight in my eyes. I was filled with nothing but excitement that, in just a few weeks, I would be in America for my fellowship.
I was going back to America. Home.
But from the moment I arrived back in the US, things felt strange. Unfamiliar.
I got brunch in Charlottesville with some of the other fellows. We had breakfast tacos and I got a big mug of coffee with cream. The weather was bright and muggy. We swatted away flies.
I bit into the taco with black beans, avocado, pico di gallo, eggs and cheese in a corn tortilla. It should have been perfect. The perfect taco and that simple cup of coffee that I had been fantasizing about back in Italy. It tasted good – great – but I wished that it wasn’t so hot outside. I wasn’t used to heat anymore. Heat had become hostile to me. I wished the sun was softer.
And I thought about how nice and unusual it was that everywhere took credit cards.
How pleasant that people dressed more casually.
How interesting to see how huge the stores were and how much sugar everything had in it.
How everybody drove. Everywhere.
I was looking at things like an outsider.
‘Is the taco everything you hoped for?’ another fellow asked and I nodded.
But that was a lie.
What I wanted from that meal was the feeling that I belonged, that I was returning to somewhere I easily fit.
But the cream from the coffee sat heavy in my stomach. America wasn’t somewhere I felt totally at home. The realization was physically painful. Like trying on a favorite sweater (or ‘jumper’, if you prefer) only to notice that it has shrunk in the wash. Or that you’ve grown out of it.
Either way, it isn’t the same.
I googled ‘Homesickness’ and found an article which called it the ‘distress or impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home. Its cognitive hallmark is preoccupying thoughts of home and attachment objects.’
Was coffee an attachment object? When I was in Italy, I couldn’t stop craving American coffee and breakfast tacos. Sunlight and avocado. And, if so, does that mean America is still my home? Or, at least, one of my homes?
Yet, now that I was in America, I couldn’t stop thinking about Scotland. The sound of the kettle boiling. The bubbles rising in a pint of cider. The rain on bay windows.
Is homesickness always a transitory state? What happens if you feel it more frequently? Is it possible to live in a permanent state of homesickness? To be a little bit homesick all the time?
Since I moved away to live in Scotland, I’ve gained so much. A broadened perspective of the world. A slightly more informed, slightly more objective, look at the culture that I left behind. Friends whose backgrounds are wholly different than mine. That excitement when I hear a funny word or slang phrase I’ve never encountered before. Numpty. Dreich.
But what I’ve lost is a foothold in one specific culture. I’m now an interesting novelty in Scotland and in America. In Europe, people will always point out when I say ‘y’all’. In America, people will always notice how my sense of style is more ‘European’. I’m not rooted in either place anymore, but treading the strange waters between two continents.
And I’m fortunate, I know. Fortunate to have moved oversees for university. To be able to fly back and forth, every now and then. This fact I know. I think of it often and I’m grateful.
But that first week of my fellowship in America was a difficult one.
Not only homesick for Scotland, missing the rhythms of my life, my flat, my partner, my university, my friends. But also mourning the fact that America was no longer a place of ritual comfort, no longer a place I totally and effortlessly fit.
I was treading water between two cultures. I had books spread out across my desk about Jefferson and the old south. I was trying to root myself in the history of a place that was at once is so familiar and so unfamiliar to me. At the same time, I was receiving texts from my friends in Scotland. A place at once home and yet always brimming with words, jokes, dynamics I will never know.
Sometimes I miss rain and bay windows.
Sometimes sunlight, tall coffee, avocados.
Originally from Austin, Texas, Carly Brown is a writer, performer and PhD student based in Scotland. She is the author of a children’s picture book, I Love St Andrews, and a poetry chapbook, Grown Up Poetry Needs to Leave Me Alone. In 2013, she was Scotland’s National Champion of Slam Poetry and 4th at the World Series of Slam Poetry in Paris. Her website is: carlyjbrown.com