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Back to the UK

Personal considerations about what visiting the UK meant to me, three years after my wife and I left the country.

Simone Silvestroni's avatar
The skyline of Canary Wharf at night, as seen from the Thames Clipper pier in Greenwich, landscape photo, June 2023
The skyline of Canary Wharf, seen from the Thames Clipper pier in Greenwich

Ten days ago, I took a plane bound to the UK with Silvia, and stayed there for a week. Our first trip after September 2020, almost three years ago. I’ve long been mulling over our escape from the UK, though without seeing the country in person it seemed like indulging on disconnected thoughts, with no attachment to reality.

Walking through airports hasn’t changed, however, Milan Malpensa surprised me with a modern take on security checks: dividing liquids and tech gadgets from luggage is not required. Upon touchdown in Stansted, I put my greeting open hand on the tarmac: neither hot nor cold, just lukewarm. I took it as a good sign.

Splurging almost £50 to get to Liverpool Street by train, forced us to confront with the highly-debated inflation in Britain. Reading about it on a newspaper from abroad is one thing, touching a wireless payment sensor and seeing your money disappear, feels concrete.

From that point onwards, the week had been a streak of trips down memory lane. Our hotel was in Greenwich, a neighbourhood we loved very much while living in nearby Rotherhithe. In fact, we even held a family membership of the Royal Museum for years. We took several Thames Clippers, now operated by the hideous Uber, to roam around the city; went to many places that triggered deeply ingrained memories, including the area by the river where we used to live; listened to (and recorded) sounds; ate at our favourite restaurants. All around, whiffs of familiar smells excited our senses. It was all good, to a certain degree. Then, after a couple of days, something crept up, which is when I started experiencing a certain unease in the air.

Initially dismissed as my usual resistance to change, I’d decided not to dignify the vague negative sentiment. Unfortunately, since it wasn’t all that hard to read, the trick didn’t last long. I was regurgitating the reactions that were behind the reasons why we left the country. At that point, fighting against an impromptu crave to run away, I put in place a conscious process: channel the unease towards a definitive reckoning with our past choices. Leaving was right, no matter how exhausting we may find staying in Italy. We had reasons, and they were valid.

Afterwards, it all worked out. I made peace with the past, recognising how the UK is indeed a mess, one I can understand nonetheless. Familiar, in a roundabout way. A mess where I can see myself living in, surely more acceptable than the frustrating situation I’ve been experiencing in my home country since late 2020.

Besides the fact that, had it not been for the COVID pandemic, we would have been living in Sweden by now, I rejoiced at the idea of moving back to the UK. It still has so many of the things that I enjoyed during the ten years we spent there, not to mention a few friends that I love dearly.

A personal highlight, while staying in Brentwood with Phil and Rosa, was a book club night at the lovely Chicken and Frog Bookshop, where a group of local people, led by Rosa, were bound to discuss the graphic novel Black Hole, by Charles Burns. We’d been invited, so I read the book and ruminated over a personal interpretation of the story. That night though, my issue wasn’t debating a book, but being in a room with more than ten strangers, speaking a language that I’ve not been speaking for a few years. Fortunately, as they all were ultra-nerds (their words) smart men and women, I experienced way less friction then anticipated, and enjoyed myself. It made me realise once again how, ultimately, the best course of action is always hanging out with brilliant people and focus my attention on what’s meaningful.

This trip was a first step — we’ll be back soon, visiting Cambridge. While it was exciting to see and stay in London and Brentwood (thank you, TFL, for the Elizabeth Line), we want to understand if the place we called home for 5 years can still be a candidate for resettling.

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