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Writing

Whenever traveling or living abroad I have chronicled my experiences. This has resulted in a collection of travel essays spanning nine years and five different countries. My most recent blog, ‘The Road to Peace is Paved with Teacups’, narrates my assimilation process into Northern Irish culture and contemporary context. Through monthly essays I reflected on various chapters of (Northern) Irish history and mythology, and how I see those intersecting with my own country’s legacy.

FAQ: Why am I staying?

FAQ: Why are you staying?

Over the past months I’ve been asked that question frequently. By friends and family, here and at home, locals and strangers. “What have you found here?” “Was it love or work?” Those were my two options. It was neither to begin with.

It was never so clear-cut at all, and I suppose I still don’t know why I’m here. But this place knows something about me that I don’t, and I want to be around when it’s ready to tell me.

Becoming a wanderer

I always envied those globetrotting cosmopolitans before I became one. I studied in Utrecht with adventurers and expat kids carrying dual citizenship and finding homes in faraway places. I dreamed of taking wing myself. Five years ago I did, and landed on the other side of the globe, where I learnt the scent of fig trees, let the furry arms of redwoods support my clambering bare feet, lost my heart to scores of scruffy people and for the first time, to a different land.  

California turned me into the wanderer I have become, with a restless lust for new horizons, building new community every cycle round the sun, with the sun setting on a different timezone every cycle. At the end of that year in California, I faced a different frequently asked question: “Why are you leaving?” But I knew that had I sought and found a way to stay, it would have rent my soul in half, finding such belonging so far away from home. I couldn’t stay, and when I did come home, I couldn’t land.

Now I envy those embedded belongers. Those with all their friends nearby. Those with homely nests and evolving career paths, while I butterfly around, leaving parties at their peak, getting bored in the midst of heated conversation, moving country every year for five years now.

Yet I look at my home country still with one eye askance. I have become farsighted from my island perch, and I feel there’s more still to learn abroad. But having tired of uprooting myself each year, I decided that if the next place I would land was to my liking and would let me stay longer, I was going to let it.

Belonging

I landed in Northern Ireland. To my liking it was. With stories of Celt and Viking. With myths and history still alive in folksong. With its tradition of poets lauding the slieves and knocks, loughs and bogs of their ensouled island. 

A perfect place for a wanderer like me, both looking for and questioning her roots; a place where its people seemed so very rooted. I stayed for the stories. I dug deep into Ireland’s sodden soil. I asked the stacked and time-stained stones, asked the mottes and drumlins. But they don’t tell stories. People do.

I found that the stories of this island, for which so much blood has been shed just to claim the first stake of belonging, are but patchworks of historical extractions, opportunistically stitched together to reassure a thwarted acceptance. As haphazard and demeaning as the Penal Law patchwork fields outside. Narratives spun around selected facts, to serve politics of in and out. And meanwhile, contrary to popular belief, even your average Iron Age bog body was genetically no more Irish than he was English, Scottish, Spanish or French, that none of those nationalities existed at the time anyway, and that all those places were as much Celtic as Celtic Ireland.

I also traveled alongside what poet John O’Donohue called the “oblique nearnesses” of the Twelve Pins mountains, cloud-shrouded from the shoulders up. I feasted for two summer seasons on an abundance of blackberries picked from the sides of country roads and waymarked trails. I greeted pied wagtail and hooded crow (whom I had befriended back in Sweden, for they, too, don’t observe national borders). And on the rare occasion, I peered through the mirage of time and space, and strayed into that in-between place. On the shore of Lough Coirib, I saw the water mint of my grandmother’s garden pond, the Manzanita shrubs of California, and the lake ripples of Sweden, all in the heart of Gaeltacht Ireland. If belonging was such a difficult thing to own or assign to people here, the land at least welcomed me in, and sustained me for a year.

Romantic though I am, I grew weary of political interest and historical forgery in national identities, in this time of resurgent nationalism everywhere. Yet paradoxically, my own sense of national identity was growing stronger. I find I have a better perspective on my home country from a distance. A step away to size it up.  See what it did to other places. Protestant wars and Orange Free States. Colonial plantations and slave trade. Inventors of insurance and publicly owned companies, pioneers of secular democracy, and the world’s best water engineers. I find I’m developing a critical fondness of my well-drained, orange country, the only place to which I’ll ever uncontestedly belong. From my vantage point I see it nestled amongst the European nations, piping its voice on the world stage, occasionally making the global front page with its stubborn racist tradition, or innovations to feed the world by 2050. I’m not yet ready to go back home, afraid of losing this wide angle. But one day perhaps I will boomerang back, as I can feel the homesickness grow now, and I’m going to let it.  

Staying power

But for all our love of stories and identities and confusion, there’s a simpler truth to us. Contrary to popular belief, people are simple creatures, with simple needs. We need shelter, means to feed ourselves, purpose and worth in work, friends and family to satiate us socially, and someone to love us.

I have found shelter, and food. And now I have found someone to love me, loving me as I’ve yearned to be loved in years of restless wandering. I have not yet found worth in work, nor scores of friends to lose my heart to. But I have picked up a thread leading into the mists, and I wish to follow it through. With time as my ally, reasons for staying will manifest in due course. Now is the time for staying power, for taking root. Time for investing, and sticking around to reap the fruit.

So the sun now sets for me on the nighttime twinkle lights of Belfast, as shitty and as fine a place as any, but the place where I’m watching my life enmesh itself with others – others that will stay after one sun cycle – a little deeper every day. And I’m going to let it.

“Oblique nearnesses“, cloud-shrouded from the shoulders up

“Oblique nearnesses“, cloud-shrouded from the shoulders up

Stéphanie Heckman