Returning to a place you once called home can be strange. You return to find everything so familiar and yet so distinctly foreign all at once, to find changes that have taken place in your absence and make this place no longer ‘yours’. It has evolved and become somewhere new, these small differences every bit as striking as the memories that are evoked as you walk the same streets you once knew, and you come to realise that what has changed the most, is you.
I recently returned to Tver, the city in which I spent 8 months studying Russian three years ago. Even as I sat on the train to Moscow, seeing familiar sights pass beyond the window, I felt nervous with the anticipation of being there again, this time without my friends with whom I had shared my previous experience. My first exploration of the town centre revealed that Tver had changed a lot more than I had expected. Gone was the water pump in the street outside my old halls, from which I needed to collect water since the water in our kitchens was undrinkable (even boiling had never managed to get rid of the unpleasant, copper-tasting foam and grit that saturated our pipes), and gone too were some of my old haunts, a great club where I danced and drank many a night away and an anti-café that, I was told, had gone out of fashion and been replaced with a “vape-bar”, as is the latest hipster fashion in Russian.
But asides from the physical differences, from these places that had moved on and been replaced with something new and fashionable, there was a greater change that was immediately noticeable. The whole town was newer. That’s to say that everything was cleaner, a little bit shinier, a little bit more inviting. The roads looked wider since they had been cleaned and resurfaced, the main street felt more spacious too, a fully pedestrianized zone with Christmas decorations and a small market in quaint wooden huts with fresh food, tea and gifts, as opposed to the row of tables that had stood there before. A hotel now stood on this main street, opposite my beloved fast-food joint, Chicken House (regrettably there was no time to actually eat there, but it remains close to my heart). A hotel? Who is visiting Tver these days?! More signs of tourism lay along the river, a huge sculptural “TVER” sign now stands in front of the beautiful old river station, and placards giving information about the sights and history of the town were dotted along the banks. It seemed that this town, which had been rather dull, its old buildings a testament to a faded grandeur that had been lost but not quite replaced, had been revived.
I literally only spent 24 hours back in Tver, but in that time I felt like I had returned to a place I could still call home. I have had many homes, moving from Scotland to Russia to France, and each of these places has invaluably impacted my life, my worldview and my sense of self. Being in Tver, I remembered how it had felt to be 19 and move to Russia on my own, how it had felt to step into the unknown and navigate a new culture, with new friends and a language that I still have not quite got to grips with. When I returned home after my stay in Tver and people would ask me how my year had gone, I found it difficult to reply. How to say that, whilst life wasn’t always pleasant, whilst people weren’t always pleasant, whilst I had suffered from the ennui that invariably came from being used to having everything and anything at any given time in the UK, whilst I was more than ready to come home by the end, and whilst my struggles with Russian had left me feeling deflated, that despite all this, it had truly been the best time of my life. I had never left more free.
The return to a place you once called home can engender feelings of melancholic nostalgia, knowing that you can never experience those times again, but most of all it reminds you why you called that place home.