Back in London: You can’t go home again (phew!!)


After just over 7 months in Mae Sot I’m back living in London.

It’s a funny feeling – not the affluenza-induced despair I was expecting (Westfield-Bondi Junction popped that cherry) but a dreamy inversion, like I’m traveling through my adopted hometown.

On this reverse travel high, familiar things take on an unfamiliar quality – bricks, pavements, Airwaves gum, Pret-A-Manger, brown leather jackets, shuddering traintracks. The glowing aisles of Sainsbury’s. The pulsing bells of Southwark Cathedral. The tired, ironic voice-overs of beleaguered British tube drivers telling their passengers over and over to “mind the closing doors”.

It’s still the same old London but everything’s all buffed up and dewy, like a freshly washed car. I’m being mindful without even trying. Maybe this is the silver lining to that melancholic phrase, “You can’t go home again”.

Bricks… bricks!!

What does it mean to travel? Why does everyone like it so much? I think it’s to do with this filter-bending effect it induces, a sensory trick akin to popping a pair of glasses back on after wiping off the dirt streaks. It reminds me of the way I felt bike-riding around Mae Sot. It’s what makes travel so drug-like, the flipside being that coming home carries the risk of a comedown. Even after a brief weekend away, the returned traveler can feel deflated, morose, hungover; after a relatively long time they may fall prey to ‘reverse culture shock’, where the dip is more pronounced, and the sudden transition back to R.L. causes them to plummet to a miserable, alienated “re-entry” funk at the bottom of a U-shape curve.

I’ve often been left frustrated and dissatisfied by short trips over international borders, many of which I’d throw in the Tourism (not Travel) basket. I never felt like they had a much of an effect, and if they did it was almost imperceptible or wore off immediately. Living somewhere else rather than just passing through means the effects of travel are more likely to stick, for better or worse. In the end this is what makes the whole expensive, tiring, disaster-prone enterprise worthwhile.

Maybe the way you feel coming home is a sort of litmus test for how meaningful/life-changing a trip really was, if that was the intention?

For the moment the effects of this one seem to be lasting, like they did, mostly, while I was away. This is helped by my current situation. A series of bureaucratic obstacles have meant I haven’t been able to start back at hospital yet so instead of going to work I’ve been spending mornings, afternoons and early evenings wandering around Zone 1 like a badly dressed dandy thinking through abstract philosophical questions while listening to songs on my iPhone. The other day I went for a walk along Southbank beside the stale, lapping olive-grey Thames water. Watching heavy clouds lit up an eerie periwinkle blue trip over the surface, moment by moment, I thought of how neurons are like filter paper and how it’s like the ISO has gone up on mine so that now I can absorb a lot more in conditions of low lighting – literally. A handy ability to have in the UK!

Low-lying London clouds

Low-lying clouds

I want this grainy ISO-400 clean-clothes-out-of-the-dryer feeling to last, and I hope the change in perspective it brings proves more durable than a disposable contact lens from Specsavers. I really hope it doesn’t evaporate as soon as I step through the automated doors into A+E next week (gulp). I don’t want to revert back to my pre-departure baseline. Somehow, I want to stave off hedonic adaptation[1], however inevitable it might be.

Watch this space.

[1] From Wikipedia: the supposed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.