When I was playing at being an international businessman, as well as inflating my ego and improving my bank balance, I had to spend time abroad, at conferences, on marketing trips, sometimes being a lawyer. And as everyone says the sheen of another smart hotel soon dulls when the bed is brilliant but it isn’t yours, the bathroom is spotless but it smells different to yours and the food is sumptuous and fresh but its not cooked how you like it.
But it is a necessary part of the role you are acting out, so on goes your false smile and brave face and off you trot.
One time, in Italy, having spent a day at conference near the Italian Lakes I went back to my room, stared out over the flat calm towards the mountains, registered its all round breathtakingness and died a little inside. I sat and wrote this poem, trying to lighten my mood with a little dry humour and a trite little rhyming scheme.
Away from home
It’s not that I’m homesick, I like to go
It’s fun, an experience, I’m spoiled, I know.
But when I’m alone, I take up the phone
To send you a text, so that I can show
I’m not vexed, I don’t feel hollow
At our separation.
The hotel’s five star, the food just the best,
The people are caring, they spoil their guests.
But here in my room, I’m enveloped in gloom
You haven’t called back, I know I’m a pest,
Just say “I’m ok” and put my fears to rest
For the duration.
We take in the sights, ancient and rare;
We float on the lake, boundless, azure.
But I crave a short break, to relieve my dull ache
That comes from the void that says you’re not there
And I sit and I wait, to hear that you care
We shake and we smile, we’ll see you again,
In France, in the spring, or autumn in Spain.
But behind the façade, I lowered my guard
And the truth is so plain, as I dash for my plane
I’ll see you again, to put an end to my pain
And I knew then I had to stop, had to get back to a regular commute and consistent appearances at home. Because, in analysing my feelings it occurred to me that the worst bit of being away wasn’t actually being away.
Nope it was returning home.
As the poem I hope well shows, when away you cling to those little lifelines, the phone calls the text messages and what have yous these days, trying to get a small sense of the days gone, the time spent. And as exemplified by your children when you ask them ‘what did you do at school today?’ and they say, much to your irritation ‘nothing’ these calls at best give you some edited highlights, some snippet from the hours passed.
(Let me note here, in deference to my children, had they asked me ‘what have you done at the office today?’ I would have been equally incapable of conjuring up something interesting – a stunning meeting, another exciting talk on the intricacies of land registration, a cracking group discussion on team strategy… yes I understand it was as difficult for them to dig out a gem from a diet of algebra and alluvial valley formations).
Returning home after a week away, this sense of displacement multiplied. Some many little things had happened, incrementally building a picture of the lives they were leading and I wasn’t seeing. Of course a day in the office contained a similar loss of small moments but there was always a catch up at the day’s end, a chance for the little nuggets to come out – over reading a story, or be reported on by the Textiliste. But by lengthening the absence, by missing out on each of those daily catch ups I exponentially increased the loss of knowledge, the grounding in the daily intimacies. I felt even more awkward, a stranger.
And it was made worse because my experience had been the interesting one. ‘Tell us what it’s like. The hotel, the people, the place, the travel. None of it part of a grooved routine, all of it unique and endlessly fascinating. I could regale them with stories but when I paused and asked, ‘So what have you done?’ I received a blank stare. ‘Nothing’ those faces said.
But I knew. They’d done everything, only without me. They’d done things about which I’d never know and which, once debriefed over tea or the journey to school weren’t worthy of individual note. Yet in the aggregation of those minute shared experiences are rich lives created and families bonded.
I know, I was lucky. I saw some fascinating places, did some interesting work, spent time making friends across continents and with people of character and charm. But the cost felt too high.
So I’m grateful for my current situation, home based, steeped in routine and the keeper of the families minutiae. Yes, I think I’ll keep that.