I Finally Understand What Thomas Wolfe Was Saying When He Wrote You Can Never Go Home Again

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Like George Webber, I left my provincial hometown in search of more than the confines Londonderry could give me. Driven by literature, I dreamed of studying in America, in hopes it would lead me to a life in New York. So, I packed my bags, said my goodbyes, and left for a foreign country. That was five years ago. 

In those five years, I graduated with a Journalism degree from the University of Pittsburgh, moved to New York, penned many travel stories, that took me from summers in the Hamptons, learning to play Polo from none other than Nacho Figueras, to witnessing the intoxicating atmosphere of Barbados during the Food and Rum Festival. I learned to sail on my 22nd birthday, which was spent solo in Antigua hiking the rainforests, swam with turtles in Hawaii and discovered my love for the Spanish modus vivendi, also known as a way of life. 

While I visited many amazing places and met the most interesting characters, I also consumed an immeasurable amount of culinary experiences, from dining in the coveted rooms of Michelin-starred restaurants, and learning to make agnolotti from Daniel Boulud to eating fresh conch at a shack in the Bahamas, and sampling tapas at Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, like a modern-day Marie Antoinette. 

No matter where I was going, or for how long I would be away, I always ended up back in New York, which came with its own set of wild, wonderful, and at times opulent adventures. I became an expert in the Michelin dining scene there, but as a 20-something year old, I enjoyed the laneways, underground bars, and hot dog carts just as much—if not more. I was swept up in the romance of it all, from making friends from all walks of life, and at different stages of life to the seductive 2am street scenes seized by drunk stumbles, couples hand in hand and burnished street lights. 

I got to experience what many people will go a lifetime without. The big city delivered big dreams, but also big disappointments, and big setbacks. Like Webber, I sighted the corruption, the uncertainty, and a place on the brink of transformation, yet I met it with optimism and fell hopelessly in love, despite its flaws. Although it was a different love to the safe, quiet home I came from. Living in a city like New York helped me appreciate the guarded community I grew up in but made me realise that certainty was no longer safe to me. 

Although I didn’t encounter the Great Depression or turmoil of World War II, as Webber did, this pandemic is nothing like I’ve ever seen before, and in the end, it brought me home, or rather kept me home. Unable to return to my life in New York, I drove along the same roads, passed by the same houses, and while the residents had changed, it was the same. It was home, but it felt foreign to me. 

I’ve been home for over a year now, and although I moved to the city, to a new suburb, and come to terms with the new reality, every time I go home or talk to someone from my past, I’m still trying to figure out how to fit there. My experiences have shaped me, moulding me into this confident, adventurous, and at times wild person, who will jump on a plane at a moments notice for a remote destination or can taste the faults in wine. I’ve seen the world and soaked up all this knowledge and character, that doesn’t apply to the conversations at home. So I sit at the dining table, head full of anecdotes, silent as ever, while everyone around me engages in their habitual dialogue. 

I finally understand what Thomas Wolfe was saying this whole time, “you can never go home again.” Although I’m sitting at a familiar dining table, with familiar people, and breathing familiar air, I can’t shake this inevitable sense of being out of place.

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