It’s funny, because after years of feeling pulled between England and France, the former my place of birth and the latter where I grew up, I ended up thousands of miles away in NYC, a place I had never visited before I moved there. This is a memory of how my summers usually happened between the ages of 16 and 22. I’m sure the trains are not the same anymore and I know for a fact that the Eurostar now goes to Kings Cross (if that had been the fact when I used it it would have made my life so much better). This is not one specific summer, just a recollect of many summers in one. It's been quite a few years since I spent a summer in England.
There was a train that went from Grenoble straight up to Brussels, stopping at Paris and Lille on its way, every morning around 4am. It’s was TGV that arrived in Lille four and a half hours later, where you could catch a two hour train to London. So, basically, within half a day or so you could comfortably travel from the south east of France to London, while watching the beautiful countryside pass you by. The rails ran through mountains and valleys, some flat lands and then skirted around the big cities so that you only saw the smoke from afar. In London you would need to change stations, Waterloo to Kings Cross, and then jump on the GNER up to Peterborough. From Peterborough there was just one more train to Stamford, and once you got there you would be home. Home for the summer anyway. All in less than a day; the most stressful part being the Tube journey between the two train stations in London, especially when you were carrying suitcases and would have to lug them up and down the spiral stairs without any help.
Where was home? France where I grew up? England where I was born and where I spent every summer? Both? I never really knew… As soon as the school year began to end and the fete de la musique was over I started to yearn for England, for the little villages in Rutland, for my job at the pub, for my family in England, for my little room in the corner of the old cottage, for the little Jack Russell who cuddled up next to me every evening and for my friends who I hadn’t seen for a year. Whenever the end of August drew near I started to miss my home in Grenoble, my friends in the city, our wild parties and long, long conversations over coffee followed by wine. I was pulled in both directions, one way towards the countryside and the other way towards the city; the countryside in England and the city in France. I knew that one day I would make up my mind for good, but until then the back and forth between the two countries worked out pretty well.
Rutland is the smallest county in England, nestled between Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Cambridgeshire. For a while it lost its right to be a county and was divided up into Lincolnshire and Leicestershire, but it rightfully became a county again in the early 90’s. The main (only) town of the county is Oakham, and the main attraction of the area is Rutland Water, the largest man-made reservoir in England. Not the place you go to swim, but a lovely place to go for picnics, walks, bike rides, late night hang-outs with your friends and to go to get drunk or high. There is an old church still standing in the water, Normanton Church, which I would love to sit near every time I was there. The county is spotted with many small villages, and everyone knows everyone, even if you don’t happen to come from the same village. Everyone goes (or went) to the same schools and to the same pubs and clubs. I was born in Rutland and spent the first few years of my life in a tiny village called Manton. That’s where my grandfather and my father are buried, but probably not where I will be buried once I am gone. I left Manton early enough to not consider it my home anymore.
Empingham became the place I could consider home, where some of my family in England lives. Where there is one main road, one village shop, one tiny Post Office and one pub. A bus comes through the village a few times a day passing through to pick up passengers travelling to Oakham or Stamford, but other than that you need a car, or a bike, or just your own two feet. The amount of times I remember walking or riding a bike the 6 miles between Manton and Empingham, or just picking up my bike and riding around the reservoir, taking in the peace and quiet that were always available, wherever you went. The graveyard was the meeting point for a lot of us; we would sit on the old tombs, smoke cigarettes and joints and talk about everything and nothing. Before making our way over to the pub for a pint or six. The same pub that I worked at every summer for years, saving up money for the rest of the year.
Days were longer. The sun sets later and rises earlier in England in the summer than it does in Grenoble, where the city is surrounded by mountains. It always used to surprise me to look outside at 10pm and to see that it wasn’t dark yet. But once the sun had gone down, the village would be cloaked in darkness, a slight light from the street lamps along Main Street, and sometimes light from the moon, but other than that darkness. And silence. I only hear that silence in Rutland. I used to love walking home from the pub after an evening shift and sit on the bench by the clinic, smoke a couple of cigarettes and listen to the silence. Once you have worked in a pub or bar you really appreciate pure silence, no one asking you for anything, no loud music, no banging of glasses and bad singing, just the sound of your thoughts bashing against each other in your head until they finally settle enough for you to sleep.
My friend Danny would often meet me on the bench before I went home for a chat about the world and how we could make it right again. A chat about old times and new times, about our lives between the summers and about what we would be up to once the summer ended. I loved to write letters at the time and we would write to each other during the year and then catch up again in the summer, and sometimes at Christmas if we happened to be celebrating Christmas in England that year. I have kept all of my correspondence over the years, since we left England when I was a child, and cherish all of those letters that I have. So many different people, some that I am still in contact with via social media, and others who I have no idea where they are. I don’t know why I keep that huge box of letters, but I just can’t bear to part with it.
When you wake up in the morning in a tiny village all you can hear are the birds singing (so many of them) and then maybe an odd car here and there and people chatting on the street corner. I think back towards the gloomy, rainy days and the beautiful sunny days. The walks along Rutland Water, alone with my walkman or with others. The butterfly farm by Sykes Lane (sadly no more), that smell of Rutland Water, indescribable, but just the smell of the water; walks along the back lanes where every mile or so there is a farm or just an old farm house, little streams and miles of green and yellow and blue, hills wherever you look, puffy clouds in the sky and blackberries ready to be picked for blackberry crumble.
What about those nights spent dancing at Central (nightclub) in Stamford with Louise (going right back to 95, dancing to Underworld while drinking too many WKD). I got my first tattoo in Stamford, just walked in and got It done, and then hid it for ages. It actually still looks good today surprisingly enough. Or the time that Zoe and I went to Stamford on the bus, paying half fare (I got away with it as I looked young, and Zoe wasn’t 16 anyway), and we spent all our money except for the bus fare… And the bus driver refused to let us on if we couldn’t pay full fare, because if we could smoke cigarettes then we couldn’t be under 16, could we? Staying up late to watch Alternative Nation and Headbangers Ball on MTV, cooking dinners with my Nana and eating enough Linda McCartney veggie sausages and Walkers salt n vinegar crisps to last a lifetime. Jacket potatoes and real cheddar cheese; watching the Olympics with Grandma and pondering my next steps in life; lambs in all the fields and Sunday lunches at the pub… Trips to Kent, to the seaside (Norfolk) and to London. So many photos stuck in albums and in boxes in our closets. So many stories to write, much much more than I can fit on here.
Who knows, maybe I will end up choosing England in the end, with my family. Or are my memories just nostalgia, tinted with pink and light purple, just memories and not reality? Or would it be just like every summer, I would end up missing my rest-of-the-year life, in another country, in a busier place? Even after 12 years away I still miss France, so much that it actually hurts sometimes, but even then I know that it is not the same place that I grew up in. I feel truly blessed that I was able to have place in a two different countries that I can consider home, still. One day I hope that my daughter will be able to say the same about the countries her parents grew up in. We are going to have to do a lot of traveling…