There is an expression in Scotland that might be unique to just here; at least I’ve not heard it anywhere else. It is the question, “where do you stay?” When I first moved across, it was never far from my ears as people welcomed me, then tried to place me. I interpreted it as an assumption that I was passing through, just visiting, here on a short stay, for that’s what it would mean where I come from. And so I answered, as though to correct a misunderstanding. “No, I’ve moved here to live. I’m not visiting.” My interpretation was wrong though, for in Scottish parlance ‘where do you stay?’ means, ‘where do you live?’. It has taken me a while to get used to the terminology but now that my ear is attuned to it I’ve grown to like it. I appreciate that there is something more truthful about using the verb ‘to stay’, rather than that verb ‘to live’. Don’t we ‘live’ everywhere, in every moment, and not just in the house or flat where we lay our head? ‘To stay’ somewhere feels unrestricted, it gives a sense of movement, the semi-permanence of being ‘here for now’. If a dog is well trained it can be commanded to ‘stay!’, but not forever – even the most obedient dog will be itching to run. We stay, we move, we return, we change location – some of us are more detachable than others. I used to be a stayer, less so now. I remind myself that plants need to be re-potted sometimes otherwise their roots get too big for their container and their growth is stunted. Others are better in small pots – orchids, I seem to recall.
Having moved to Edinburgh and found a place to stay (see, I’m speaking like a local) one of the things that immediately stuck me was how proud Edinburgh people are of this city. They speak of it with a mix of awe, pride and wonder, gazing at whatever natural or architectural phenomenon has appeared in their path: stopping to admire the grandeur of the Balmoral Hotel; gazing up at the drama of a Castle teetering on a rock edge; respectful of the magnitude of the Scott Monument; or made breathless by thousands of crocuses on Bruntsfield Links. Most everywhere in this city is beautiful and its residents know it. It is not a boastful admiration, it’s more like the young man who can’t quite believe the gorgeous girl has agreed to go out with him, so he sits at the bar, staring across at her over his drink, open mouthed like a guppy.
Tomorrow I’m going home for the weekend; for where one grows up, the place that formed you, will – for me – always be ‘home’. I was shaped from sand, strong winds, high Atlantic seas, and torrents of rain. It is a far cry from the Athens of the North, from the uneven skyline of Edinburgh’s Old Town whose brick edifices glow orange at sunset. My home couldn’t be more different, with its barren, windswept, spare majesty, its spaciousness of ocean. Is mine the romantic view of the one who returns, not to stay, but to pass through? I don’t think so, for I think many Irish people, in particular, hold a complicated, contradictory relationship with their home place; a deep rooted love for a place from which they feel compelled to escape, at least for a while, whilst knowing it is that place to which they must return occasionally, in order to stay sane. There is a compelling line from John McGahern’s novel, That They May Face The Rising Sun, where one of the characters, Joe Ruttledge, has returned home to Leitrim after a long spell living in London. Joe is asked why he has come home, what was wrong with his life in London, to which he replies, “Nothing, but it’s not my country and I never feel it’s quite real or that my life there is real. That has its pleasant side as well. You never feel responsible or fully involved in anything that happens.” Others don’t return for good, they just go back and forth, refilling the well, exploring what pushes and what pulls. This is what I read into Seamus Deane’s poem, ‘Return’, in which he describes travelling back to visit his home place, Derry, by train on a wet, dark night: “In this Irish past I dwell / Like sound implicit in a bell. / Two hours from Belfast / I am snared in my past.”
It’s good to be going home to stay for a few days, as it will be good, afterwards, to return back to that other place where I now stay.