I‘ve done it a lot. Stuffing the things I love into cardboard boxes, sitting on suitcases to close zips over my most treasured books, (my cabin bag, a rollable library I refuse to risk stowing in the hold for fear my dearest friends, who live within the pages, won’t make it safely otherwise). Moving. Relocating. Starting afresh. I’m a dab hand.
I could pack up the entire contents of your kitchen cupboards with my eyes closed in less than thirty minutes. Yes, including bubble wrapping the knife block and disposing of the out of date baked beans.
Twelve new homes by age thirteen, a further five by the brink of adulthood, eleven more after that. The goodbye pat on an internal wall as you shut the front door, the relieved heap of elbows and feet you become when the last box has been hauled up the apartment block stairs. Takeaway meal the first night; realising you can’t locate the towels whilst you’re stood dripping wet and stark naked the first morning.
Moving never gets any less exciting. It also never requires less upheaval or effort than it did all the times before.
My beloved and I are in the process of relocating right now. We are selling up our end terrace in the North West of England and heading for Edinburgh at the turn of this coming spring. A new beginning. Another chapter we feel ready for.
But this move, thankfully, feels a little different than many of the ones that came before. Ben and I have learnt a crucial lesson by now… or well, I have at least. Perhaps my husband never had to learn the hard way, perhaps some people don’t?
You see, when I moved to London for university at age eighteen—my first ‘big move’ alone—I went with a secret nugget of certainty tucked into my backpack. That certainty told me that London was the place where all my dreams would come true.
I would meet the love of my life there—the two of us catching one another’s eye as we stood, two perfect strangers, wistfully gazing out over the Thames. I would become a famous author. Publishers would hammer on my front door, begging me to take the ‘your-comfortable-for-life-now’ contract from their hands. The head of Bloomsbury would clap and whoop in the street, so enamoured with the pages that had magically made their way to his reading pile, despite the fact I was many, many, chapters away from finishing writing a book.
“Genius!” The people of London would all proclaim as I walked out of my Notting Hill home, stiletto heels clipping underfoot as I laughed and threw back my head of wondrously blow dried hair.
As it turned out, London did not hand me all my dreams on a royal wedding commemorative plate. Nor did it fix any of the frustrations with my life that I had thought I was leaving behind. I carried them with me—internal issues—as it turns out so many of our problems seem to be.
Once I had graduated I left the smoky city in love with it, but bitterly disillusioned with how my expectations had panned out.
My next move was to the Caribbean, Antigua, the island I was born on and where I had spent my formative years. Having not lived there since I was young, the place was unfamiliar to me, its customs and landscape (and heat!) new for me to adapt to.
I arrived without expectation. I knew my time in London had to come to an end (a bad boyfriend made sure of that), and I didn’t know what I was looking for next. I wanted to write yes, but beyond a writing table and a chair I had not a single definitive dream or fantasy about how I wanted the next chapter of my life to look.
It was wondrous. Spending my days walking the island’s hills with their blue and pink and vivid green sights. Mongooses* running across the dirt track roads (*not ‘mongeese’, I’ve checked). Community. Sea air. A willingness I developed to let my hair frizz as much as it liked in the heat of the Caribbean sun.
I said ‘yes’ to every boat trip, took a job I had no interest in, and stopped worrying about where my life was heading next.
After a year, I met my husband there. Not stood beside the Thames as I had once visualised, but in an otherwise empty swimming pool, just he and I bobbing about in the brilliant blue.
Ten months later we were saying ‘I do’ barefoot on our local beach. A wedding a world away from any teenage imaginings I had once daydreamed about. A simple ceremony. Six guests, beach limbo. Dancing on a wooden pier stretched out to sea.
“I tell every bride I work with, if you prepare for the fact that only 80% of what you have envisioned will actually happen, then you might just have the best day of your life.” Our wedding videographer said to me the day before, as we stood beside crab nets nursing a pre-wedding celebratory hangover.
He was right. Cliché as it sounds, my wedding day was the best day of my life. Because it was the day I married the person I want to love throughout the years, but also because I had not a single, definitive vision in mind for how any part of the day should go. It was unexpected. It was glorious. It wasn’t trying to live up to another single thing.
After a post-ceremony picnic on the beach, my new husband and I drove cross-country. We stopped and bought mangoes in the rainforest, ran fully clothed into the sea.
This would never have happened in London. Logistics aside, (you’re more likely to stop for a kebab on Brick Lane than a mango from a shack nestled in fig trees), London was a place that I had demanded too much of. Come to be prescriptive about—my experience there was constricted by the idealised version of London life that I had brought with me and found impossible to let go.
Unfortunately, the lesson was not yet learned. Ben and I made the same mistake again once we were married. We each had dreams of living in other places we had visited before. We both thought that being together meant it was time to ‘get serious’ about forging a life path.
We ended up back in England, shocked to discover that even the expectations we had placed on life in a city we had both lived before, Liverpool, didn’t come to pass.
Places change when you leave them, even the stillest of places can move on. You change too with every relocation you make. ‘You can’t step in the same river twice’ Disney’s Pocahontas once taught me, and you certainly can’t live in the same location twice either. The buildings are the same, the time in your life is not.
As we pack-up our CDs and box up the cookbooks (so many cookbooks now I’m approaching thirty?), Ben and I will every now and then whisper something exciting about how our life might be when we get up to Edinburgh. But then we remind ourselves that really, it probably won’t look like that at all.
Neither of us have visited the Scottish capital since we were kids, we thought it best not to. A weekend spent somewhere you’re considering moving to does nothing but either put the fear of God into you, or create those false expectations of how life might be.
“Oh, I’d love to live in Antigua, we visited on a cruise once and life there seemed so easy and blissful!”
I’ve heard many a time, from people whose cruises did not enlighten them to the fact that the only place that sells plug fuses is the pet shop, the local mechanic will also be your hairdresser, and the stamp shop only opens for an hour on Tuesdays, because, and I quote, “it is too hot to open more often”.
No, the only way to know what it is like to live somewhere is to live it. And the way to get the most from that experience is to arrive empty handed with your palms open and ready to receive the truly exasperating with the unique enchantments of a place.
Whether the destination is old or new to you, big or small, come to it with genuine openness and curiosity. Expect nothing, enjoy or laugh at it all.
Because no matter how well you think you know what is in store when you move somewhere, the universe will always have other magic and mayhem waiting for you.
Wish me luck in Edinburgh!