When a Place Becomes a Home: Exeter

on May 31, 2017

Soon, I will be bidding farewell to my home of Exeter, England. I read once that we can never return “home” because places will never be the same as when we left them. We change, they change, the people in them change.

I haven’t lived in Exeter for a while, but I still consider it a home. It’s a bit ironic, really. When I studied abroad at Exeter, I did a poetry dissertation which focused on the complexities of defining “home” – it was my first time living in the same country that my maternal grandmother came from, my first time living abroad, and I spent a lot of time pondering what home means. It was one point in my seemingly lifelong mission to understand what home is. Four years later, Exeter is a place I consider home.

I know now that our stories of home are often winding, complex, twirling in on themselves. All homes begin as just a place: an orange train ticket, a sheet-less bed, a broken bag of groceries. I haven’t shared it on the blog before, so here’s my story of Exeter…

throwback to a 2013 instagram when I was in my instagram yoga challenge phase!

[2013] I lived in Exeter for an idyllic year of study abroad – that year was straight from a TV show and exactly how you envision a study abroad experience to be. Complete with disco lights and Shakespeare and wine tastings and falling in love.

[2014] I soon moved back to the USA to finish my degree. However, that following year I returned to Exeter a couple times to visit. I remember feeling out of place – I loved Exeter but so many of the people who made up my year there were gone. I would never again be in Exeter with the whole group, and although I’d known this when I left, it only really sunk in once I experienced Exeter without them. Still, I was on vacation. I ate scones and went bowling and walked along the river and drank cider and wandered through my old favorite pubs and gardens. Exeter nestled a bit deeper into its spot in my heart.

[2015] Soon enough, I moved back to England. Not to Exeter, but close enough to visit. Which I did, a few times, to see my old housemate. We went out to a few concerts and had lunch dates, but even though I still loved Exeter, it wasn’t quite the same city that I’d known before. And I was trying to make a home in Plymouth. Still, in Plymouth, there’s always a niggling voice in the back of my head comparing it to Exeter.

[2016] But another year later, my boyfriend moved back to Exeter, which means I’ve visited more often. He’s back in the city we met in, so in some ways it’s taken on more of its old character for me. In other ways, my relationship with the city just became more complex.

I am noticeably older now. The beautiful old hotel I once lounged in, coloring with my college roommate in the room her parents rented, burned down in November. Tea on the Green, where we once met for scones every Wednesday, has taken my favorite item from the menu, the waiters’ faces have changed. The guild hall is refurbished, glossy, gorgeous. But still, I miss the empty store fronts, the thin milkshakes from Shakeaway.

 

[2017] In a few weeks, my boyfriend will move away from Exeter. His time in the city is over. In some ways, I have been keeping my connection to Exeter through him, and now the final string of connection will be cut. I will have no reason apart from my own love of the city to return to Exeter. Nobody who will meet me at the train station or leave their back door open for me or text me saying “Firehouse?” or “meet at Cathedral Green?”.

Even after four years of loving Exeter, I feel this desperate wave of all the things I haven’t done yet. Or done enough. I haven’t been to the underground tunnels. I could never go to Tea on the Green enough. I only went kayaking on the river exe once. I need to get a final toffee cider at the Old Firehouse.

I want to walk through every alley, one last time, and then another time to make sure. Sure of what? Well, I won’t know until I do it.

I want a final drizzly, grey, full-on Exeter day. And I want a sun-breaking-through-the-clouds, blue skied, everyone-take-your-sofas-outside-and-drink day.

I want one last perfect midnight, walking home on wet cobblestones, slightly tipsy, to the soundtrack of Wonderwall by the busker outside Tesco.

I could have 100 years in Exeter, and I don’t think that list would get any shorter. I guess…that’s just the way homes are.

Sarah xx

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This post is part of the monthly travel link-up on the theme of Home. I’m linking up with Polly from Follow Your Sunshine, Angie from SilverSpoon London, Emma from Adventures of a London Kiwi and Ngaire from Kiwi FootprintsI’m also linking up with Lauren of Lauren on Location, Van of Snow in Tromso, Isabel of The Sunny Side of This, and Marcella of What a Wonderful World for Wanderlust Wednesday. 

 

  • great post! I guess you could still visit as often as you want while you’re in England.. but it probably won’t be the same..

    • Yes, exactly! I’ll probably be going back for the rest of my life, but places change and so do we 🙂

  • Now I really want to visit Exeter! It’s so lovely to have studied in such a special place – I always think of Oxford in the same way since I studied abroad there (and it’s also where I met my husband when we were both students!). Where did you go to college in the States?

    • It’s my favorite city 🙂 I studied English and Creative Writing at Kenyon in Ohio! They have a special program at Exeter so I actually went there with other Kenyon English students and two of our Kenyon professors, and took one class a semester with them (and the other classes alongside British students). We traveled all around the UK seeing plays for the Kenyon class which was amazing as it was all included in the program and I never would have seen that much of the UK without it! I had some friends who did their study abroad at Oxford too… they all LOVED it but they said it was very different from other places as they basically just spent all their time on their own reading for individual classes! Where did you go in the States?

      • OMG – travelling around the UK seeing plays?! That’s so amazing! Yes, I was NOT used to the tutorial format at Oxford! I got there and was like, “WHAT IS THIS.” John always jokes that we didn’t have “real” grades! I actually studied with William Wordsworth’s great-great-great grand-nephew, Jonathan Wordsworth while I was there, ha! I went to Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts. Kenyon is a great college!

        • Yup, it was pretty incredible! At the time I was grumpy about it because I wanted to socialize more and make more of a life in Exeter, but in retrospect I was living the dream… we went to the Globe every weekend in the Autumn and in winter/spring we saw shows at the National Theatre (including seeing Jude Law, David Tenant, Vanessa Redgrave, James Earl Jones, and so many more on stage). Yes Kenyon was amazing, such a little bubble but I learned so much!! Mount Holyoke is great too, I briefly considered going to Smith which is also an all-women’s school… that must have been really interesting!!

  • Lorna ✶ The Painted Globe

    Such a beautiful and nostalgic post. Great to see a city through the lens of someone else’s love for it/history with it. (Never been to Exeter, but it sounds lovely!) Several parts remind me of my relationship with the city where I went to university, only I’ve kind of gone in the other direction – I actively dislike returning there now. I love the memory of it dearly but the reality seems to grow farther and farther removed as time passes. Similar to you – places change or disappear, people are gone. And that seems more bitter than sweet!

    • I feel the same way about the University I graduated from! I still haven’t been back and I think if i did it would all be quite sad. I was only at Exeter for a year so I think that’s why it’s not quite as sad when I return!

  • gosh, this reminds me of all my feelings on New York when I left the east coast. I had been living in Princeton for 4 years but had this drive to go into the city and do/see/eat everything one last time. I still miss it, but I hope you get to have one last blow-out Exeter day <3

  • So perfectly put! 🙂 I can relate to lots of these feelings and link that to my uni city of Birmingham. I actually did move back there after graduating but it was never the same. The amazing thing about Brum was all my time as a uni student, it just wasn’t the same when I was working!

    • Yes I have given it some thought and I think I would feel very similarly if I ever moved back to Exeter! It is really a student city and if I lived there as a non-student I think it would just be a bit sad, dragging out the glory days and all that!

  • This is such a beautiful post. What a lovely journey through what Exeter became for you as time passed. I loved every word. Best of luck on the next leg of the journey. #WanderfulWednesday

    • Thank you Kat 🙂 It is really a lovely city and will always be in my heart, no matter where I move!

  • Wow, I love this post. It’s interesting because I only just came back home for the summer holidays and I’m feeling the same way. I’ve lived here my entire life (except for during the school year the last two years), but for some reason everything feels different now. It’s still home, but I’ve also found a home in Scotland, and I’ve found I miss it here less and less as time goes on. I supposed that’s part of the process of growing up and into my own life.

    • Thank you, Addie!! homes are so odd like that, aren’t they. I always have really different reactions each time I return to my childhood home. It does feel different, but also, more than any other place, like it hasn’t changed AT ALL!

  • The feelings you describe are very similar to those I have for Birmingham, where I studied. Maybe it’s a student thing? Student days are so particularly amazing and even though I wouldn’t want to go back now, I do have a certain nostalgia for the places I was and the experiences I had at the time. Maybe that’s reading too much into it I don’t know!

    • That’s just what Marcella said! (And a few other people in general about Uni towns). I definitely agree it’s a student thing, and for me especially because I only studied there for one year so really idealized the experience! I’m a little bit less nostalgic about my USA uni!

  • You’re so right – this is exactly how I feel about Wellington in New Zealand. Those rose tinted glasses…!

  • Rebecca

    I first misread your title as ‘when a palace becomes a home’ and thought you might have one the lottery…However this was a lovely, and sad, post and reminds me so much of how I feel about my university years. So many things become familiar and when you go back all those little changes are really unsettling! Where is that river that you’ve jumped in by the way?! Cold….??

    • Hahaha well, I wish! Alas, no palaces, although there is a castle in Exeter which I once snuck into! Does that count?
      The river is Spitchwick Common in Dartmoor, we drove there one day after exams when I studied at Exeter for some wild swimming 🙂

  • Oh what a lovely post! It’s funny how our childhood homes don’t feel like home… then do… then don’t. I particularly love this line… “All homes begin as just a place: an orange train ticket, a sheet-less bed, a broken bag of groceries.” This is so right! Exactly how my uni town Sheffield became a home for many years 🙂

  • This is a beautiful post Sarah and I love how you’ve written it year by year demonstrating changes in yourself, your life and Exeter. It’s hard when the people, places and menu favourites change around you over time but you can still be so attached to a place.

    • Thank you Sarah! I wasn’t really sure how to structure the post, but I realized how significant each year has been for me as it’s a uni town, everything seems to drastically change each year. And yes… it is particularly hard when menus change 😉

  • As always, your writing is incredible! I don’t know anything about Exeter to be honest but your love for the town makes me curious! Plus, it’s pretty nice for a change to hear someone raving about a place like Exeter and not London, New York etc. 😉 I’m sure you’ll return many times!!

    • Thank you Van <3 <3 <3 <3 It is definitely a lesser known city in the UK… I hadn't heard of it before I moved there, but clearly I fell in love with it!! I definitely recommend a visit, especially if you are heading this way to explore Cornwall or the like.

  • Your writing is amazing. It always makes me feel so much. I can relate to some many of these feelings, for more than one place now. Living abroad and moving around a lot makes you have a connection to a lot of different places in a lot of different ways. I have so many ‘homes’ now and feel such a strong connection to so many places. I can also really relate to the feeling of going back to a place that used to be home, only with something missing (like the people you met there). So strange to be back somewhere and see it in a different light. Such a beautiful post!

    • Thank you Lauren!!! Truly the highest compliment and exactly what I hope to do with my writing 🙂 Totally agree, home gets SO complicated, and it’s not even just places you’ve lived but also places you visit and feel that connection to, like you *could* live there…

  • Oh I love this SO much Sarah! I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes a place feels like home because of the people and memories there. But once they’re gone, it’s different. Im struggling myself with identifying where’s “home”. I’m back in KL for just a little bit and it feels so much like home. But I’m leaving soon again and I have an urge to do all the stuff I didn’t get to do!

    • Thank you!!! It is definitely a struggle to pick just one place, as a traveler and an expat. And also to let go of each place, hence the urge to do EVERYTHING before leaving!!

  • Laura Powell-Corbett

    It’s funny how quickly a place becomes home – our place is Clapham in London and although it would be so different now for us to live there we remember fondly and always re-trace our old steps when visiting #travellinkup

    • Yes, everybody has their own special places! I have many cities other than Exeter, too, that I retrace old steps in 🙂

  • What a wonderful post! I totally know what you feel – but with St Andrews up in Scotland. Honestly best year of my life when I did my Masters there and every time I go back it’s a bit bittersweet but still feels like home!

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