Olde Trip Home
by Joshua Kepreotis
Five minutes to go, four, three, two…class dismissed. I just wanted a pint to be fair. ‘To be fair’? I am certainly picking up on the Midlands lingo; funny that this happens subconsciously. I mean, the mind is obviously absorbing that which it is surrounded by and yet the transformation generally happens unknowingly – strange. Anyway, back to that pint. 586 millilitres of liquid gold, solves any problem. Luckily for me, JC’s was conveniently situated on campus, sat in the shadows of the Borough. ‘Sat in’? Ok wait let’s try that again. Luckily for me JC’s was conveniently situated on campus, lurking in the shadows of the Borough. Better. It may not be The Oldest Inn in England or on an Olde Trip to Jerusalem, however what Loughborough lacked in historical character, Nottingham lacked in…sport? No need to be competitive I suppose; JC’s it is for a quiet drink alone to collect my thoughts.
Carling. Too early in the day for a ‘Nasty’; unfortunately.
‘I’ll have a Carling cheers mate.’
When in Rome I suppose. No need to bellow out my order, it was surprisingly quiet. 1.40 – not a bad price – definitely worth it. Better take two. In a state of lamentation it appears this has the power to heal; the power to numb.
First sip…tastes good! Although it was relatively quiet, I preferred to sit on the drink in the far right corner of the pub; tucked away in a semi-secret space of privacy behind a curiously placed wall. People there. That’s shite. But committed myself haven’t I…bollocks. They fail to acknowledge my presence, not even with a nod or a smile. That’s rude. Never mind, I will just immerse myself in the reading for this week.
Second sip. Better than the first. Longer than the first. Always is, is it not? Book open, blank words stare back at me. This is pointless.
What lies before the path we tread, is determined by the past we have fled.
The very apt statement suddenly came to me from nowhere. Spontaneous combustion I suppose. Perhaps it was the beer talking or just the nature of my course; either way I thought again of home. That undefinable entity that has not one singular meaning, and yet equally, means absolutely everything.
‘Home is not where you live, but where they understand you.’ I told myself that as I boarded the plane to England and left all that I have known and loved behind. I had never been good at saying goodbye. Then again who is? It is a thankless task that knows no limit for producing unwanted emotion. I farewelled my family as they stood to attention in an assembly-line styled formation. One after the other. It felt never ending. Dad, mum, brother and sister, my two grandmothers, close friends, cousins, aunties and uncles, all bid me adieu with relative ease, however it was not until I turned to face the final person that the process became truly difficult. My 91-year-old grandfather was not only my namesake, but my mentor. The only person who understood me in all my complexities and accepted my stubborn ways unconditionally. In my opinion he was a saint, the purest of human form that I had come across to date.
He had battled through cancer, kidney failure and septicaemia only to stare death in the face and not heed its call, and yet standing there it seemed saying goodbye to his grandson was one task too many. They say the eyes are the window into the soul. I could read into his eyes better than most, the emerald blue pearls spoke volumes to me alone. This was a man crippled with the fear that he would never see his beloved grandson again should he board that plane.
And he was not wrong…
‘Home is not where you live, but where they understand you,’ I had to remind myself.
We were both at the opposite ends of life’s spectrum. And although a language barrier restricted us slightly in speech, it only functioned to enhance a deeper understanding. There was certainly a common appreciation of life that bound the generation gap.
So it was with both sadness and an overwhelming sense of pride that I was farewelled, to sojourn away from home and hopefully reach a point of understanding about myself and my place in this complex world.
With a final wave and an onset of irrepressible tears, I turned on my heels and headed towards the departure doors only to be stopped by a gentle tug on the arm. My grandfather gave me an ever-lasting hug and posed a question to me both insightful and searching in its nature.
“Have you ever heard the call to come home?”
“Yes Pappou…mum calls telling me that all the time.” I responded with a light-hearted joke, as I fought the overflow of emotion.
“No,” he said with a level of severity. “You haven’t heard it yet but you will my boy…do not ignore it. You must remember where you are from.”
“Pappou, you don’t have to worry I will come home.”
He paused in speech and began to dig purposely into his inner jacket pocket.
“I want you to take this with you.” He handed me a small black Bible that I recognised from his nightstand. It’s presence in my grandfather’s house was guaranteed and so at first I refused to take it. He was privy to the denial.
“I want you to take this and read it in hard times. Promise me that Yianni. When you are down, there will always be someone to turn to. That is the beauty of faith.”
We both exchanged smiles littered with emotion.
“Take care of yourself my boy.” A hint of a tear now formed at the base of his eyes.
“I will. But know that I am more proud of you,” the sentiment produced a full tear that caressed his noble face. “The sacrifices you made in your life are never far from my mind. I want to emulate your bravery.”
He looked up with a proud smile blazoned across his cheeks.
“You know back in the village there was a saying, that the child of my child is two times my child…I would argue it is even more.”
And with that he leant on his trusty walking stick and returned to the farewell party with a definite hint of sadness that plagued his withered self. In fear of being overcome by a flurry of tears, I refused the temptation to look back, unlike the wife of Lot, and instead chose to continue on. The thought of ‘never again’ began to fester with an uneasy fortitude. And as I walked away, a sense of nostalgia crept up inside. Perhaps I have offered up much more than I could handle to lose. They were to be the last words spoken to each other.
My grandfather’s physical self was tired, his mind had aged and his will was weak. This was reflected in the fact that he had been restricted to fleeting memories that returned to him like a trusty boomerang thrust into an early morning breeze. Home was in my grandfather’s mind, it acted only as a gateway to return to what he knew. Unfortunately, his mind took him to a place where his physical self could not follow.
Block B, Flat 01, Room 03. It would appear prison-like in regimentation, although I hasten to advise that it is quite the antithesis. This campus has become a sanctuary. As quickly as I have settled, and hopefully acclimatised, I continue to ask myself what the true essence of the term ‘home’ really is. I must confess to the reader that in Freudian terms I often find myself referring to Loughborough as my ‘home’. And yet I have thus far failed to fashion an adequate response to the pervading question of; what really constitutes one’s home? Is it where you were born? Where you have grown up? Where your parents are from? Where you sleep at night? Where your family reside? Where you currently reside? Perhaps it is truly where the heart is; although I have to disagree with the latter as I often find it hard to pinpoint a single location for that. Is it instead an emotional thing, let’s say…where you feel most comfortable? Or is it one place at all? Or maybe – just maybe – it is the very place we
spend the majority of our lives looking for, but never really settle in finding it. Because, perhaps, ‘home’ is within. Whether this is false or not makes no difference, as the theory enables me to make a ‘home’ for myself wherever need be. It is a philosophical relationship spawned from convenience and yet I harbour a deep-seeded respect for that outlook. Home, to me, is interchangeable.
For now this explanation will have to do. I am an Australian born of Greek heritage living in England. Some call me lost. Others…a journeyman. I’d rather say that I endeavour to become a person of the world. That is all. It is not an outlandish goal, nor unattainable. Put simply – I wish to be culturally aware. I know that to achieve this I would have to completely immerse myself in my current surroundings and engage in all that I could to make the transition both smooth and fruitful.
Sitting idle in my university dorm room, chained to the pressure of deadlines, I adhere to previous distractions and stare fixatedly out of my window. England. A land of four seasons, where the sun’s fleeting appearance is complimented nicely by an overly-aggressive, albeit consistent, wind front, framing a rainfall that is never shy. And I love it. It may be at the complete opposite end of the geographical spectrum to Sydney but that is why I am here; is it not? I travelled the entire breadth of the globe to experience precisely what it is I had not yet experienced. Although I do admit, I would have no objection to squeezing in a few more hours of sunlight during winter; the perpetual polar nights are not exactly favourable.
My room consists of few comforts. Pictures of friends and family line the bedside wall, whilst a poster of Rio de Janeiro, from a vantage point high above the Cristo Redentor statue, occupies the entire door. I guess this represents a figure of freedom. You ask why it is not a poster of the Harbour Bridge or the Opera House. Well those a memories stored in thought and need no ocular reminder. That, and the fact that the travelling poster shop was out of Australiana, meant my room is as patriotic as a Catalonian living in Madrid. I look to my bookshelf for answers, often judging others by what they read. Perhaps now it was time to flip this procedure. To accompany my transition into the UK culture I brought along with me; The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Dickens’ Great Expectations, John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, for religious inspiration I suppose, and The Romance of Tristan and Isolde by Beroul. But my Herodotus’ Histories is Hemmingway’s Fiesta, for reasons unknown to me. It is my constant. There is something about the perfectly juxtaposed cultures of Parisian Cafes and Spanish Bullfighting that allows me to compose myself.
I too had great expectations for what lay ahead. I imagined a welcoming people of students that functioned as a harmonious community. I had anticipated that I would have a scheduled daily dinner with flatmates and watch movies together. That I would play sport for my hall (IMS) and chant patriotic songs against the opposition. That I would be receptive in class and feel the acceptance of my fellow students. That I would be able to travel around Europe and catch a football match at a world renowned venue. England is a country of great historical appreciation and I had expected to experience this cultural aspect.
And I have.
Unlike Ryszard in china, my initial expectations have been fulfilled. But it is that which happens unexpectedly that differentiates this period of time from the rest. Did I expect to travel to Berlin or have Christmas in Manchester? Was a road trip to Belgium ever on the agenda as I sat contemplating my future from my house in Australia and attempting to overcome the fear of the unknown? However, it is precisely the satisfaction of experiencing the unknown that humans generally thrive on.
Conversely, on my return from Berlin in the midst of the first semester, I was confronted with the first true difficult moment. My grandfather had passed. My mentor. The man who resembled everything I wanted to be in life and was the perfect embodiment of a ‘true gentleman’ (perhaps a rarity in our age), was now lost forever. There is now no limit of time. Eternity needs not rush. His light will not vanish. He will belong to a memory of mine – he will belong to my reality.
There would be no reunion. No warm embrace or comforting advice. The song was sung and the sun had set. His world was no longer of mine and the inconceivable became unforgiving. I made him promise that he would be there when I returned; otherwise I would not come home. He would joke in jest that the sun was setting on his life, however it seems he knew more. A return was now not certain. For a promise is a promise and one I held dear.
My grandmother and parents wanted me to stay here and continue with my studies. They said it is what Pappou would have wanted. I was torn and a difficult decision lay ahead. The easier option would have been to indeed stay. And yet it only took a simple text message from my brother to tip the scales.
It read: “Hey Josh, I know mum spoke to you earlier but knowing you like I do, I think you should come home where we are all together and well supported. I think it would be important to get real closure. Totally up to you…but it would be good for us to carry Pappou out together and give him a proper send off.”
My mind was made up. Perspective was gained and my vision was cleared. How could I not be there to carry the coffin? I was alone here, and although my friends did their best to console me, it was family that I needed most. That is where home is. I had said goodbye to him long ago but this was about seeing the process for myself and respecting him in the best way I knew how. The only thing was that I missed him. His company; his presence; his stoic smile and refined demeanour; his life lessons and heartfelt advice. Those memories belong to me and will not be forgotten.
I will never forget the weight of the coffin or my grandmother’s face as I returned home. The smell of the incense in the church or the kind words of the priest. I will never forget the deathly cold touch of skin as I kissed his cheek for the final time. Priceless are these images for me, they allow me to continue on. My memory is my life. It his him.
I was indeed very cautious of how long I lingered in Sydney. If I delayed my departure much more I could feel myself slip back into the comforts of home; heightening the need for detachment…again. I knew a sense of normality would be restored once I left and was hopeful that the homely atmosphere I had worked hard to create in Loughborough would still be there.
And so I left home, or left to go home. Interchangeable you see? Class was finishing and Christmas was around the corner. I decided against feeling sorry for myself, locked up in my room with no one left on campus to keep company with, and instead take up an offer from a friend to ‘experience an authentic English (northern) Christmas’. I now understand that the metaphorical line that divides England between the north and the south is fundamentally real, as I then spent a night in Essex before we embarked on our New Year’s road trip to Belgium.
The trip up north was grand. We enjoyed a few too many Christmas Eve beverages and woke casually to a full spread of Turkey, Yorkshire pudding (which by the way has sparked much debate from the international students in our flat-‘Where is the pudding’?), turnips, stuffing and lashings of hot gravy. I had been previously warned on the drive from the station about how ‘Northern’ the household was.
“My grandfather is probably the absolute stereotype when it comes to Northern men. He will literally say nothing and sit in his designated seat yelling ‘bloody mares’ when asked to describe his state of health. And my Nan on the other side is as hard as nails. She lives in the hardest part of Liverpool and is 93 years old; last year she literally chased a robber out of her house. God love her,” Nat said as we pulled up to the cosy two storey house, one that was perfectly synchronised with all the other houses in the street. “That is quite normal around here.” She added, noticing I was bewildered by the symmetry.
I was made to feel as comfortable as I could in another’s home. Christmas was spent opening presents, to which I was kindly and thoughtfully included, and sitting around the fireplace watching T.V and playing board games. I didn’t want to leave that room. Dialogue flowed naturally and the general banter of the family made the transition into their group dynamic quite easy. By the third and final night I had equal control over the programs watched and managed to expulse a life history from the ‘most Northern man in Britain’. Unfortunately the famous Nan was too ill to travel but that has given me reason to venture back to Greater Manchester. The Boxing Day supplementary feast was well received and an afternoon of Coronation Street and Peter Kay meant I had well and truly become a Mancunian candidate.
Diametrically opposed to this lifestyle was that of Essex, where the London-based Eastenders dominated the viewer’s choice and a segmental road show hosted by Michael McIntyre was well supported by the latest Lee Evans sketch on DVD. I must admit it was a slight struggle to switch between the dialects and would have benefitted from consistent use of travelling subtitles. I was forced to make the transition quick. No talk of Peter Kay or Coronation Street would be accepted. The United-City derby was lost in the excitement of a burgeoning Tottenham and a floundering West Ham. Nonetheless, I had been treated to a full complimentary of English sub-culture; from both sides of the quasi geographical/metaphorical land divide. I now kept a keen gaze on how the troubled newlyweds Steve and Tracy would get on, or what other cunning scheme would the mischievous Shirley concoct.
Off we were to experience the wonders of Belgium, but not before crossing the channel into the dreaded France. Custom officials would treat us with suspicion, as an eclectic mix of internationals made their way into Les Bleus. We were about as threatening as a bad joke. ‘An American, an Australian and an Englishman were in a car headed towards France when…’ Either way, this was the coalition of the willing – willing to bask in the glory of cheap travel. Adhering to our culturally aware principles, we decided to take a short detour to the WWII War Graves in Ypres and Passchendaele, guided by an imperfect map in a tourist brochure and a battery-deprived GPS.
The experience was humbling. There lay a sea of fallen heroes, against a backdrop of war. The graves were adorned with flags from the very nations we now represent and the boys were of an age not dissimilar to our own. What separated us was time. And that alone. They too jumped at the chance to see the world; to travel to a far distant land and live a life that felt lived. And yet they never aged. What they saw ended here on the battlefields of Europe for a cause they were not allowed to enjoy. We were separated by a century of time, although theirs was a journey that ended in death. We honoured them.
The turn of the year was celebrated in a custom synonymous with society today, and yet in our minds remained the images of the Unknown Soldier. It gave meaning to a life that we look to fulfil. It gave meaning to this year spent abroad. They had a purpose. So should we.
‘Home is not where you live, but where they understand you’. I endeavour to be understood.
This story was shortlisted for the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts International Student Short Story Competition 2012.