meanders

unheimlich

I used to think it was a terrible thing to feel out of place; you know, perhaps, that sense that one is subtly (or totally) out-of-step with the world? That was how I spent much of my childhood; teenage years at school didn’t bring huge respite, despite some lovely class-mates. I still just seemed to be differently attuned to most of what constitutes community and daily life.

Some of this, I kid you not, crystallised when another Diana Spencer married into the British royal family. I became a source of endless amusement/valuable teasing opportunities. Not only did I have a name that was already outré (Dublin, 1970s), I suddenly had a high-profile namesake in whom I resolutely, aggressively took no interest. That soap-opera churned on. I still feel a tinge of melancholy at how the other Diana’s life punctuated crises in mine.

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Looking back at you, beneath Via Giulia, Rome

Not only did her centre-stage monopoly focus some of my late 1970s feelings of alienation on the matrimonial altar of 1981, her death was a curlicue on my 1997: the year I graduated with a PhD in Classics from Cambridge, got married for the first time, and my father abruptly died. All within four months. There remains a bitterness to that year’s cannibalisation by the other Diana’s memory, but time passes and the raw alienation this new concatenation of circumstances created has shaded into gratitude for things that resist any passive appreciation of happiness.

Moving from Ireland to England in 1991 marked me out as part of a diaspora fleeing a drowned economy. The economy changed terribly quickly, but having left to study, I stayed in England for love, for employment, and for the happiness of genuinely at last being an authentic alien in an often barely comprehensible land. England still, after all these years, represents the Other, a world less homely than continental Europe, less intelligible than the US; a strange world in which I have come to a temporary halt, and all the better for it. In the process of leaving and remaining away, however, Ireland has also grown estranged.

Cancer. That’s the colour of the late 2000s for me. A whole new world of alienation, this time from the body that right up until the moment when it stops, one imagines will support life forever. Punctured, hooked up, drip-fed drugs, swollen, incised, stitched up, pored over and out, knocked out, zapped with radiation, chemically manipulated. The body I have now is as much a cautious triumph of science as anything in my favourite credit sequence of the 1970s (which was, of course, The Bionic Woman).

Taking the cancer trip, and the corporeal rapprochement me and my body now cautiously enjoy, was a real eye-opener. Being trapped even temporarily in a hospital ward really really pares away the inessentials, reacquainting me (at least) with what I appreciate most in life. Beloved apart, that means a belated realisation that happiness to me means embracing a sense of what’s unheimlich (sometimes, German says it best). For that reason, my nomadic lifestyle’s Roman focus is now the most stability I want.

Linguistic alterity and cultural dissonance (things at once achingly familiar from another age in life, and mind-blowingly foreign) combine in our Roman life, lived in the interstices between teaching terms and academic administration. There’s no place, quite literally, (so) like home.

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