When I visited my Dad in Ireland two weeks ago it was the first time I had been there since January 2020. Although only two and a half years ago, it feels like a lifetime ago.
I vividly remember wandering around Dublin’s many city centre streets for the first time. I remember being fascinated by the new sights and sounds of a city I didn’t know and which didn’t know me.
As always, I likely felt a certain anxiety at the time, but sense this was maybe somewhat side lined by the positive experiences I was having at the time. In January 2020 my personal relationships were going well and I was making significant strides in developing my social skills.
My studies were also going relatively well and I felt fairly settled. Life was good and I hope I felt a degree of gratitude at the time. I can’t say for sure if I did. I probably didn’t.
When in Dublin
Skip ahead to the present day and it was two weeks ago that I boarded a plane for Dublin again, leaving a rainy Aberdeen day behind. I watched as my home town disappeared into the clouds as the plane rapidly ascended.
In that moment I fantasised about leaving all my mistakes, regrets and self-imposed negativity locked inside Aberdeen’s city limits. I also fantasised about being able to reboot myself into something with the same parts but a different brain as I left the less pleasant thoughts behind in a city I had started to grow averse to.
After arriving in Ireland, I stayed there for longer this time, stretching my visit to six days of enjoying County Wicklow’s rolling countryside and Dublin’s metropolitan buzz.
Early one sunny morning I was dropped near Dublin’s city centre. I had been granted the freedom to aimlessly walk around its streets for eight hours and leapt at the opportunity. I love walking around places which are new to me.
On my last trip here I described some of the best attractions, but I don’t want to do that this time. Actually, I’ll recommend a visit to Mount Leinster for it’s spectacular views, but it’s actually quite far from Dublin.
That’s it’s for the tour guide section sorry. If you’re disappointed then you obviously didn’t know how self-indulgent this blog is and you’re in for a shock.
Returning to the city though, and on that day I think I covered around 10 miles on foot. In the morning I had bought myself a light blue Dublin GAA shirt in a weak attempt at cultural appropriation.
I wore it as a did laps of the city centre in 20 degrees heat, observing business people, bus drivers and tourists closely as they went about their days with a lot more purpose than me.
I was even mistaken for a local by a lady asking me for directions while I was wilfully lost in a housing estate near the Aviva Stadium. Once again, the streets were unknown to me and I was unknown to the streets.
It felt quite liberating and I started considering whether there was any chance that my earlier fantasies on the plane were coming true. There was definitely a certain comfort in knowing that this city hadn’t played any part in my more significant mistakes, misfortunes or painful regrets.
And as I walked aimlessly with little in the way of technological distractions, I felt quite content and verged on feeling calm – a rare occurrence for me.
Indeed, this feeling reappeared several times over the next few days spent in Ireland, even following me back across the Irish Sea and onto the Aberdeen Airport bus.
Back in my flat though, the negativity and worry creeped back in. I started to rue living in Aberdeen, connecting it to everything which had gone a bit wrong in my life recently. I was relating it to everything I was trying to painfully take responsibility for and to come to terms with.
I wanted to get away again, planning to run away to somewhere which didn’t remind me of my toughest moments. Aberdeen could maybe become Dundee 2.0, a city I grew to dislike as a lonely 18-year old Criminology student.
It didn’t take me long to realise however, that I couldn’t do that again – or at least I shouldn’t want to move away solely for that reason. That even before taking all the practical implications into consideration, this obsession with how I feel with different dots on a map was becoming detrimental.
Let’s say I moved to Dublin right now – for example – reasoning with myself that I need a fresh start. I get a job and a flatmate called Gerald who I treat badly because I’m stressed and he’s short and useless.
I lose the job in unpleasant circumstances and Gerald leaves me to go and find another flatmate. Despite all the opportunities existing in Dublin do I then pack my bags? Do I then decide to again run away from the memory of my bad experiences?
My point is that if my sense of place is so linked with memory in my mind, then nowhere will ever be good enough. It’s almost sounds too obvious, but we have wonderful, hideous and numbingly average experiences no matter where we are. That’s life.
The ‘Camping’ Trip
I have a recent example of this negative sense of place which relates to the North-East of Scotland. The week before travelling to Ireland I had camped with my flatmate in the sand dunes of a much loved beach of mine.
Despite our familiarity with the area, it turned into a bit of an adventure because we accidentally left the tent poles behind. This meant sleeping under the stars which remained hidden as it rained intermittently throughout the night.
I still enjoyed the experience, but realised halfway through the evening that we had set up ‘camp’ near the to where I had camped almost three years ago in very different circumstances.
The memory of that previous camping experience hit me like a train and with a visceral force that I could feel in the pit of my stomach. The rest of the night beside our fire was great, but I wasn’t quite able to shift that sinking feeling.
The next morning I was woken up at 4.30am by the first slithers of daylight and a numbness in my extremities after a damp sleep. I took a stroll down the length of the beach which had been limited to shingle by the high tide, watching the flat calm sea peacefully lapping quietly at the shoreline as I walked. There was no one else in sight.
Eventually, I came across the camping spot from a time before which had been putting my stomach in knots. I sat down in the same spot where I had watched the sunrise almost three years before and did the same again. I accepted the beauty of that newer moment and accepted the painful feelings which I had tried to bury the night before.
Gradually, these feelings subsidised and I suddenly felt a great gratitude for that previous experience and everything it had represented and involved as well.
I realised that it was illogical to necessarily let a beautiful memory become so painful because of certain circumstances and events. I realised it was also illogical to then discard a place I’d treasured coming to for most of my life because of that emotional response to one memorable experience.
A few days later I left this clarity behind – like I so often frustratingly do – when I left for Ireland, but it came back strongly a week or so after returning to Aberdeen.
And as I sit writing this beside my Granny in the familiar surroundings of her home, I’ve come to realise that I want to fight against letting my experiences and memories corrode a place in such a wilfully negative way again.
I can’t wait to get the opportunity to travel again and potentially forge new paths in new places, but the motivator behind travelling shouldn’t always be because I’m running from painful experiences.
Despite, the long periods of feeling sorry for myself and disliking what Aberdeen stands for, it is my birthplace and – for now – my home town.
It is also home to many beautiful memories, which in many instances should stand alone and not be forcefully interwoven into a long timeline of significant events. I no longer want to let my bad experiences alone dominate how I feel about where I am right now or indeed, about who those negative experiences involved. Life is complex and so is how we feel about different places.