Emotionally exhausted by all the goodbyes, I boarded the plane. Was I making a huge mistake? Was I swapping my comfortable life in Bilbao for feeling just as frustrated career-wise in the country where I grew up, without being able to protect my ego from rejection by saying “Oh, it’s because I’m foreign. Poor me! :(“.
Getting off the plane at Birmingham Airport, one I’d never been to before, I found the shuttle (eventually), and was waiting at the train station for a train into the centre to change to Northampton, when I realised to my horror that I had forgotten to pick up my check in bag from the carousel. I almost never check in a bag as I hate paying/waiting for it, and with all the emotional turmoil it had completely slipped my mind to pick it up off the carousel.
I told myself to calm down, that the actual backpack was worth more than the stuff in it, and that I’d just have to look embarrassingly clumsy in front of my extended family, who I was going to house sit for on the other end.
I walked in through the “Arrivals” corridor, and was stopped eventually by the guy who worked on the perfume counter. “You can’t go through there” he said. I felt mildly irritated. Who was this jobsworth to tell me where I could or couldn’t go? Just make an exception just for *me* and let me through for 5 minutes?
I explained to him the silly error I’d made and he was really nice and helpful. He called security for me, and I sat chatting to him, waiting for them to bring my bag. It was weird speaking to someone who was British Asian with the tiniest of hints of a non-native accent; I have one friend in Bilbao who is first generation, but only one, and I’d become used to living in a place where people were either from there, or more recent migrants.
Backpack in hand, I went to the train station again, and when I got the Birmingham Central, it had all changed and I felt really disorientated. I kicked myself about not writing down train times and their final destinations etc. so as to be able to decipher what was on the black and orange screens, but I reasoned that, seeing as my arms had stopped working that morning trying to lift my bag (which wasn’t heavy at all), there was a large part of me that didn’t want to leave and I had done the best I could under the stress that I was under.
I saw two older blokes chatting at the barrier, and I started my question with: “Sorry to bother you but can you tell me where I can get info about the trains?”. I remember this being the way I used to start questions when I was a young woman in my early twenties, but it felt weird (and not entirely feminist) to start a question off like that in a train station. He smiled in a friendly way, and had an indexical knowledge of the system and told me to take the London train from such and such a platform.
I got on the train, checking about 8 or 9 times (thanks anxiety) that it was the one that was stopping at Northampton, and started chatting to a young guy across the aisle from me, much to the probable annoyance of the professional woman working on her laptop across from us. I was briefly annoyed when the train went past the airport station again. I could have just got on there if I’d known! I’d just assumed I would need to get a train to the centre. When we don’t know something for sure we make assumptions from past experience. With the emotional exhaustion of leaving, and the weirdness of being in the UK, I hadn’t wanted to ask, hadn’t wanted to wait in a queue or speak to anyone.
The young guy asked me if I was Irish. I smiled and said that I had lived abroad so long that my accent had gone wonky, that people usually guess that I’m Aussie because of my inflection (going up at the end of sentences), but that I was originally Welsh. “That’s mad that” he said, with a brummy lilt.
I got a taxi from the station as England was playing in the world cup semi-final and everyone in England seemed to be watching it, mispronouncing completely the village I was going to (it’s pronounced “fay-vel”, rhyming with “navel”, not “favel” like “favela”). I noticed the way that all the taxi drivers were South Asian and I felt a prickle of shame; I hoped they earned decent wages to support their families.
The taxi went along a main street, with gaudy store fronts for local fast food chains, hair dressers, and charity shops. It reminded me of Smithdown Road in Liverpool. I questioned my decision to move back to the UK.
I got out of the taxi and plonked myself down to watch the match. My family is Northern Irish, but all the cousins grew up scattered. I grew up in Wales, close enough to spit at the border with England, but my cousin grew up in England. It was bizarre to be in England watching the match, bizarre to be cheering England on. I wondered if it was the first time in my life I had cheered for England.
I mentioned this to a friend from school who lives in London now, and she told me that things like that happen to her all the time still, like when people were singing the English national anthem in the pub after one of the match wins, she found herself not knowing the words.
My cousin showed me around the house, pointing out all the essentials for my house sitting role, like cat food, watering cans, bins, and a bike she had borrowed from a friend in the neighbourhood. When we were in the kitchen, she was explaining to me how to turn on the appliances, and she said “oven”, but she didn’t pronounce it in her English accent, she pronounced it like our parents do, with the flat vowel of the Northern Irish way to say it. It reminded me that, even though we had grown up in different regions of the UK, and had only probably seen each other about 15 times, we are different branches of the same tree, with an Irish core.