A Sense of Place

As someone who loves to travel and experience different countries and cultures, it has been easy for me to be envious of those people whose childhoods had been spent overseas, travelling from country to country, exposed to more than one language, and being educated in international schools along with the children of diplomats, military officers and corporate executives. Unlike mine, theirs was an exotic childhood, making friends in foreign streets and schools with local kids and other expat children. These are now the adults who speak two or more languages with ease and are familiar with the cultural etiquettes of Asia, Africa or the Middle East. It sounds like a splendid upbringing, full of opportunities, fostering an internationalist world view and the breadth of mind that travelling is known to endow on those privileged enough to experience it.

In contrast, my childhood was spent in an industrial town in the north of England. As a child, the extent of my travelling was for summer holidays for a week at the seaside in Blackpool or Llandudno in North Wales with my family, or camping with the Scouts. It wasn’t until I was 17 I first left my own country and was exposed to a different language and culture, in France, just a ferry ride across that narrow sleeve of water known here as the English Channel.

This envy only occurred to me in adulthood; as a child I knew nothing of those other worlds inhabited by servicemen’s sons and diplomats’ daughters, the elite international schools in capital cities, or the celebrations of other nations’ national days. Perhaps I’m being unfair and not comparing like with like. Maybe it’s easier to appreciate these things from the distance of time, with an adult’s mindset, just as we never felt when we were children quite as lucky as we now in adulthood tell children they are.

In recent years I’ve heard a number of personal stories, from articles and documentaries, about how many of these ‘international children’ never get a sense of belonging to any place in particular, unsure about their true identities and then sometimes unable to put down roots in later life. It began to dawn on me that there might a downside to such a childhood of exotic travel, with associated upsets on the never-ending journeys from county to country, and a gentle confusion arising from a disjointed education despite expensive schools.  Many of those who have lived such lives have no strong links to any one location and don’t have what might be called ‘a sense of place’. Now, I realise that there was something positive about my upbringing in one place. Even being bored and restless as a teenager in my dirty old town had its upside: at least it was my town, for all its faults.

Nowadays, that same town of mine is home to communities from several countries, from different continents. You can hear different languages in its streets and buy exotic foods in its delicatessens, in its spice-scented stores in converted churches, and on the stalls of its town centre market. With my taste for world foods, this is a good thing, just as the multiculturalism involved in these mixed communities is a positive thing to my world view.

I say nowadays because that’s how I see things as an adult, but in fact the town has been like that for a long time, indeed since my childhood, but I never realised it, or I should say, never appreciated it in the same way as I do now. Bury has been a multicultural town for many years, since the days before the mixing of immigrant communities in a town was called being “multicultural”. Now I know how cool it is for us to have a wonderful delicatessen in the town’s indoor market, but I didn’t always think so. Katsouris has been selling salami, olives and sauerkraut since I was a schoolboy in short trousers. It was the place only immigrants went to buy their strange garlic-smelling food: mainly Poles, Italians and Ukrainians, with perhaps a few Greek and Maltese families too. Most of the children of the immigrants who shopped at Katsouris came to St Marie’s Roman Catholic junior school because their cultures shared a common faith. The Irish came to our school too, though they weren’t garlic-eaters. So I went to junior school with Italian, Irish, Polish and Ukrainian children, many of them arriving as youngsters unable to speak English. I remember an Italian boy joining our class who couldn’t speak English. My friend John asked him his name and from his response we called him ‘Gogo’. It was years later that I realised he was probably saying ‘Giorgio’ but Gogo he was, in school anyway. The Muslims who came in the next wave of immigration from Pakistan went to different schools and bought their foods from new stores that sprung up, even though they lived in the same streets of terraced houses in the ‘inner city’ districts of the town as many of the earlier immigrants. All of them came to Lancashire to work in the cotton mills, to drive the buses and to do the dirty and low paid jobs that the economy needed in the 1960’s and ’70’s. Some came with the intention of saving up and going back to their homeland but most stayed into their old age, watching their children marry and integrate into the local way of life and seeing their grandchildren born in the town where they had arrived as strangers. Our next door neighbours did return to Italy after many years and I remember being woken early one morning by my mum so that we could say our goodbyes to them. The parents were returning home with some savings to buy a small farm in the country they could still remember, taking with them two daughters who had been brought up in Bury and went to the same school as me and my sister Judith. Maria stayed in Italy and got married but Antoinetta couldn’t settle and returned to Bury to live with her aunty, and has stayed in her town ever since.

Soon after, a Pakistani bus driver and his family moved in next door to our house in East Street and many other Pakistani families came to live in the small terraced houses in ours and the neighbouring streets. They would bring us food to celebrate their festivals, which my parents accepted, but my mum rarely ate any; it was only my dad who would try some of the spicy curries and my sister and I would sometimes have a mouthful too. My dad was a driving instructor and many Pakistanis were taught to drive by ‘Mr John’. Sometimes he would receive a gift of South Asian food when one of his pupils passed their driving test. I remember playing football in the back streets as a youngster with my new Pakistani friends and then as a teenager my mum volunteered me to help a neighbour’s son who was struggling at school with maths, so I’d go to their house to give him some tutorials. His mum was ever so grateful, and kind, and served me sweet tea with hot milk which formed a thick skin on top, which I didn’t like but was too polite to decline.

So, despite my envy of those globetrotting children and their international schools, the fact is that even I had an international and exotic upbringing, amongst people of different cultures, who spoke unfathomable languages, in a place scented by exotic foods, even though I never left the town where I was born. Way back then I thought nothing of it, or certainly didn’t think what a wonderful phenomenon it was; it’s only now that I look back on it as a significant period in the social history of my town and an important influence on my own childhood and upbringing.

Despite all the travelling I have done, my love of other countries and my fascination with other cultures, I do know where I belong. I do have a ’sense of place’. For me, the centre of the world map is still Bury. If I were a homing pigeon, I would find my way back to the market in the centre of that town in the north west of England. I was raised in a house so close to the market that my mum might go shopping there twice or even three times in a day. My dad would eat the black pudding and tripe sold on its stalls and I would copy him, even though I didn’t really like the black pudding at the time, which was mainly because he put so much mustard on it, I later realised. He would also eat tripe, ungarnished, tasteless and jelly-like, which I never liked either, though many years later, when working in Bilbao and having dinner with Basque colleagues, I discovered that tripe could be cooked into a tasty broth, which was a revelation. As a teenager I would work on Bury market during the summer holidays selling household goods to housewives, and during term time, after school, help Leslie to pack up his sweet stall into his trailer, for which the pay was low but there was always a bonus of a handful of boiled sweets or chocolates. Nowadays something primitive deep inside me draws me to that market from time to time, not only to ‘touch base’ after a long trip overseas but on those occasions when I feel somehow lost and need to go back to square one, to take a deep breath, and to start again.

At home in East Street we always drank tea and I can’t ever remember drinking coffee as a child, though there was a shop in Bury’s indoor market, Redman’s, that ground its own coffee with a distinctive aroma, which seemed so exotic at the time. Times have changed, in Bury and for me too, and nowadays I drink more coffee than tea. Once in a while you might find me in Bury’s indoor market, sitting in Katsouris delicatessen with a cup of espresso-based coffee, staring out the window and people-watching as local folk come and go on a Saturday.

I watch and feel connected yet at the same time I’m disconnected. These are my people, this is my town, there’s no doubt about it, but half of me feels like an outsider, an observer from another place. Just as I see other countries through a stranger’s eyes, fascinated by the ordinary that is still new to me, so I find myself noticing things in my home town in a way that I would overlook if I were there all the time. To some extent I see things differently because I’m no longer a true local but an outsider. Yes, my roots are in Bury, but nowadays I spend half my time outside the country. Those roots are no longer constantly watered by Bury’s rain; they have weakened and have started to wither.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m losing it, but no, it’s still there and always will be: my Sense of Place.

Copyright © David Parrish 2018.
Updated 15 July 2018.

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Malin Head

“It’s a funny thing about comin’ home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”
Miriam Adeney

“A great way to learn about your country is to leave it.”
Henry Rollins

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