Wednesday, July 9, 2014

return journey

“...the wind cut up the street with a soft sea-noise hanging on its arm... and around here it was that the journey had begun
of the one I was pursuing...”

~ Dylan Thomas, Return Journey.

journeys and returns

Above: First Great Western train, from England;
Below: Arriva train in Wales.

On a weekday, still with books and papers in my arms, I walked to the Oxford railway station to buy my ticket for North Wales. One sojourn leading to another. Not realizing an explanation was needed, I blithely requested a one-way ticket for Penmaenmawr. Then, after helping the ticket agent spell and pronounce “pen-mine-maOW-rr,” I helped him locate the town on his computer monitor. For the record, he was very nice about everything, and perhaps in an apologetic spirit he reserved “table seats” for me aboard each of the 3 trains I needed to get across the English Midlands, to northwestern Wales. Well this Oxford scholar with a New England accent, heading for the “Fortress Gwynedd,” was certainly grateful to look forward to a day’s train travel with reserved perches that included writing surfaces.

Above: Looking to the mountains.
Below: Looking to the sea, minutes later.

Packing to leave Oxford and the goodbyes (with plenty of see-you-laters) were offset by the anticipation of a return to Wales. No longer the first-ever visit, which I experienced in the previous year, but this time a return journey. The distinction is significant, as the mystery of travelling to a place charted solely by maternal recollections and childhood dreams is augmented by the prospect of returning to places remembered in personal experience. This time, I could visualize the destinations. Places, sounds, and countenances joined the stream of expectation. There were tastes I wanted to be sure not to miss, such as bakery-warm Welsh cakes, and S.A. Brains Ale with seafood. There were photo angles to retry on this visit, and opportunities to see more places for which there hadn’t been sufficient time on the first sojourn.

Bangor, Wales.

returns and impressions

All journeys are to be savoured, as no two impressions are alike. Return journeys are as unique as initial discoveries. The differences are in the imageries that inform the going forth. In all our journeys, we blend together the known and the unknowing. As well, we are uniquely able to synthesize the composite experience of multiple memories, landmarks, and projected hopes when we return to places of our choosing.

The aspect of returning to a place already visited- or in the case of my monthly travels to Boston, something almost errand-like, the visits are colored by the weather, the tasks-at-hand (if any aside from strolling), and indeed the kind of mood I’m in. But it is a return nonetheless, and one I elect to make. The great distinction is that a choice was made; this is not perfunctory. The dynamic, being one of choice, means that I am just where I want to be, notwithstanding how I feel, where I just came from, and any other baggage that may have come with me. Returning to a place, and wanting to be there, is actually in response to the place calling you to come back. Thoughts become enlivened by the prospects of the object of your wanderlust, of your longing for a very specific place with lanes, skies, handshakes, houses, and aromas.

The train travel took an entire day, with transfers in Birmingham, Shrewsbury, and Chester. The transition into something very different from urban and suburban Midlands to rural mountain country became clearly pronounced as my last train reached the sea. Shoreline was immediately at the starboard side, with the mountains of North Wales above the port side. Skies alternated between stark brightness and overcast spatter. The weather of the Welsh coast, which is so similar to that of the Maine coast, one place now reminds me of the other.

The return to North Wales came a year after my emotional first visit, having had a year to convey stories from the month of Welsh travels to my parents at Thanksgiving, and keeping in touch with new friends, anticipating the return. The arrival this time was directly from a long sojourn at Oxford. Thus, I instantly noticed the Oxford House in the small village of Penmaenmawr- even how the storefront is painted navy blue.

In Bangor, I could notice the progress of construction projects I had seen in the prior year, and how these things (the University arts centre, and some housing complexes) had changed. Before making the trip, during the planning, I realized there wouldn’t be enough time to visit places and friends in South Wales; I could only choose one direction, and chose north. I was gratefully able to welcome the restorer of the Dylan Thomas home, in Swansea, to The Kilns (C. S. Lewis’ home- which had been my home in Oxford), as a sweet reunion. While explaining my choice to Annie Haden, she very matter-of-factly said, “well that’s your Mam’s place,” giving me the impression that if I had chosen to go south, she would’ve said. “Why didn’t you go back to Bangor, child?” I could just picture it. Indeed, I did gratefully go back to the north, following my wishes and remembrances from the past year.

Same gates, but 54 years apart: My mother and me, in Bangor.

the call of place

Consider the phenomenon of a place returning to you. Not as with unpleasant histories, but the opposite, life-giving kind of haunting. These are dreams we welcome, reminders of the flowering amidst our struggling thorns, gratitude as fruit of survival. When a place calls and colors our dreams, the impression is more than of the place itself. Surely, streets and squares, with addresses, can be physically visited. When a place joins the geographic arrangement of our dreams, we are included as inhabitants of such reveries. These places include our selves as resident travellers. When I revisit Paris and New York, I am there as an infant, an adolescent, a teenager, and as I am today. All the lenses are kept polished. My images of Wales evolved from retold stories and postcards to enquiries and, finally, my own footsteps. Places we hold dear to our hearts and thoughts are in our eyes. They go with us, they return with us, and cultivate our life experiences.

Below: The Welsh house blessing from my mother's time in Bangor, which she has recently given to me. I remember this from childhood in New York.

The places and vistas I enjoyed most in Bangor are still favorites of mine. My urban penchant for strolling and browsing draws my attention to High Street, Deiniol Road, and Holyhead Road. The latter is near Bangor University, where my mother studied. At frequent intervals, among shopwindows, are cafés and bakeries. My very favorite is the Blue Sky Café, which is in a high-raftered skylit loft at the center of Bangor.

Bangor Pier.

A meditative stroll along the Garth Road continues onto the Victorian scenic Bangor Pier. On one evening’s visit, the winds whipped through the Menai Strait with such force that pedestrians on the pier were holding on to the boardwalk’s railings. With this return, I was better able to appreciate Bangor Cathedral- both in its general ambience and its architectural details. One of my recent visits was on a pouring rainy day, and somehow the exterior conditions caused the interior to feel much more intimate. The return journey reminded me of the sanctuary, whose foundation dates back to the 7th century, as a place of prayer. Having developed warm friendships through- and with- the Bangor Public Library, that is undoubtedly one of my favorite places in town.

Bangor Cathedral.

Bangor Library.

Indeed, I did see places I had not seen before, and made new acquaintances, but that’s to be expected. Return visits are new experiences, as today is distinct from yesterday. Now it occurs to me how often I peruse the same favorite districts in Boston, noting changes, discovering new things, and visiting old favorite points of reference. When it comes to hospitable and beloved settings, familiarity breeds endearment. As for Bangor, its environs, and Wales, I am thankful for places of grateful returns. There is no honor quite as sublime as being warmly anticipated. A living sign of mutual recognition, the gift of welcome is a gesture of both extension and inclusion. As our times appear fragile and temporal, embraces represent treasured belonging and the sense of home. Thoughts that console, soothe, and endure. Sights, voices, and days return to me with the effortless prompt of atmosphere. Wafting weather and aromatic air bring words to mind and paper, collated to the volumes of a life.