It was my second flight of the day. I was mildly hungover and running off very little sleep from the night before – as is seemingly traditional when I take international flights, I’d decided that it was a great plan to drink a lot and stay up late. I boarded the aircraft looking and feeling not dissimilar to a zombie – a zombie with bad skin and half-heartedly removed make up – and found my seat with relief.
I couldn’t be bothered with a 12 hour flight; not now.
But then I settled in and looked around me, and what I saw and heard improved my mood vastly, first in a trickle and then a flood.
It was a plane full of England.
Accents and voices and words I recognised; activities that felt painfully, glaringly familiar. People faffing around with their stuff, awkward politeness, lots of people saying ‘sorry’ as a precursor to every sentence, even where their action was a perfectly reasonable one. Every so often words would drift over to where I was sitting in the corner at the back, phrases that jolted me straight back to my wonderful home country: “lovely” and “right then” and “ooh, actually” and “fair enough”.
I had gone through every possible emotion in the last few days and even weeks before my flight home.
Excitement at the thought of seeing my friends and family after so long. Apprehension at the uncertainty going home might bring. Sadness at leaving behind a fantastic year of new experiences and endless learning and growing confidence. Happiness every time a Christmas song came on, followed by mild panic about my total lack of winter clothes for the journey home from the airport.
I wanted to go home, but at the same time I didn’t want to leave. Not least because this was the life I knew, now: a life in which airports became as regular as train stations, genuine friendships are formed within the mere exchange of sentences, and visa stamps accumulate faster than Tesco receipts.
But on this, the second plane of the day, I realised something else. Just as much as I love home, I also love England.
I love our quirks and oddities, the turns of phrase that are unique to us, our obsession with the weather (and totally inability to deal with it). I love our traditions and bizarrely fierce opinions on matters like the proper pronunciation of the word “scone” – and importantly, whether you spread the jam or the cream on first. Having spent the past few days hanging out with an American who found Britishness completely fascinating, I began to look upon it with a certain fondness, too.
How could I not be excited to come home to a country where a programme based entirely around the creation of desserts, consisting largely of people intently watching their ovens, regularly makes the news?
I’m excited for temporary ice rinks and an overcrowded Oxford Street and our team inevitably losing shamefully in the village pub quiz on Christmas Eve. I’m looking forward to wearing jeans again (I never pack jeans when I travel and always always regret it), and being able to watch iPlayer and cosying up by the fire in the living room. I cannot wait for shit Christmas telly and carols at church (though I’m not in the slightest bit religious) and mulled wine and cheese and crackers (and OK, also vegetables that aren’t fried and salads that aren’t a potential health hazard).
I’m incredibly grateful for the past fifteen months, from Australia to New Zealand, through Indonesia and beyond, and I would be lying if I said that I’m not going to miss this trip every day – especially if I have to now figure out a new plan for the foreseeable future.
But when I stepped off that plane, I walked through Heathrow airport with this huge, soppy grin on my face: I was home. A south London accent announced safety concerns over the tannoy, and a biting breeze blew through the tunnel as I walked out of the Tube – what a novelty it was to feel cold for the first time.
The streets of Whitechapel put their greyest front forward as I descended the steps from the station and marvelled that I had completely forgotten about chewing gum-strewn pavements, but even the faint layer of freezing drizzle that began to descend couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
It’s not perfect, England. I don’t tend to romanticise it as much as I do other places, and the novelty of being cold wore off within about four minutes.
But I’m home for Christmas. And actually, I couldn’t be happier.