As I began to explore the 2015 exhibition, Expat Impression of The Hague1, immediately I was drawn to the board titled, The Beach. Being from Cornwall in the UK, I like to think that I have quite the intimate relationship with the sea. I can confidently say that it is where I feel most at home. Reading through diary entries I am confronted with expat experiences of leaving one home and arriving in another. It is this experience of relocation that prompts a flooding of emotions that come with the uncertainties of geographical upheaval, and in these diary entries and recounts, what I sought to find was how we manage these emotions through finding familiarity in the unfamiliar. For me, being in the elemental presence of the ocean’s gaze returns me to a state of belonging, leaving me with the question of whether it is my own history and familiarity with the expansive shorelines of Cornwall that brings me this sense of comfort. Or, whether it is some kind of universal and extraordinary aptitude of the salt-stained air that brings us to a state of belonging within the liminality of spaces between the lands we call home.
Writer Raynor Winn comments on the sea’s effects on her own resilience that she didn’t know she had. Her own journey in The Salt Path was very different to my own. But I was able to draw a parallel line; her journey and mine. It became a companion to me as I read it in the first few weeks after arriving in the Netherlands, tracing the familiar place names of my county right down to the town I called home. To move abroad, the upheaval of an entire existence and sense of identity which is so often tied to a physical space, of course requires resilience. It requires an understanding and conversation between places, or in her words: one world and the next…[between] lost and found2. I believe that there is some truth in this poetic statement. To return ourselves to a state of nature, and finding the familiar in different landscapes can provide us with a sense of grounding that is so often needed. There seems to be something quite poignant about standing at the shoreline; the place where land meets the sea, as if we are at the edge of something far greater. Stood in front of its vast expansiveness, I think that we are reminded of the possibilities that open up before us. Geographical movement seems at first daunting, but wherever we find ourselves we can still find ways to somehow still feel connected to home. What I noticed in these diary entries was the beach as a place that created a feeling of at-homeness, as a place of refuge from the homesickness and isolation that comes with feeling landlocked to the physical spaces where we reside.
Still, in so many ways we are connected to home no matter where we are physically placed. For example, in one expat entry the writer‘s son makes the remark “it smells like England”. Here, we witness familiarity through the senses. In some ways, this boy exists in multiple places at the same time. He is transcending or dissolving the boundaries that our rational minds place between one place and another, and the connection to senses instead transforms his experience of this new place. It becomes contextualised in relation to the feeling of home. It smells like England is a recognition of sameness in an unknown landscape, it forms a connection between here and there, thus bridging the gap between familiar and unfamiliar. And perhaps it is this childlike ability to experience the world in such a tactile and immersive way that we must tap into in order to feel a sense of at home.
Reading through the rest of the quotes in the The Expat Impressions of the Hague: The Beach, the beach seems to recur as a place where this connection to the child within us is encouraged, and is perhaps why the beach itself feels so healing. A repeated theme across the exhibition board is the playful nature that is brought out in us when we visit the beach. Whether we are putting on our walking boots and wrapping up in scarves and coats and hats and gloves, treading across damp sand. Or, looking for the exciting relief of cooling ourselves in the water in hot summers, the beach provokes an encouragement to “run, skip, scream and play at the water’s edge”.3 A trip to the beach is a walk into a new realm in which existence is seemingly separate from where our everyday responsibilities lay. In allowing us to connect to our inner child and encouraging a sense of play, the dunes that border the beach of Scheveningen are a barrier between one existence and another, between conscious existence and unconscious routine. Perhaps if we are to take anything from these experiences, it is to form some kind of permeability between realms. Just like the wind and sand filter through tall grass, we can allow expansive freedom into our everyday encounters.
We see moments of this within the diary entries. In one ‘Dutch Diary’ an insight into how the writer felt when they first arrived, in the “salty sea breeze”, we see that they were in the mood to “love anyone and anything”.4 There is something about being immersed in our senses, perhaps it allows us to step out of the existence of our everyday lives, the ones in which we exist so much within our heads. It seems that whenever the beach is talked about, there is always something about that “fresh sea air” that allows us to enter into the rest of our bodies.5 One family, during a long road trip, just “HAD” to stop for a swim when they passed a beach.6 There is a draw, a calling that the sea has, one that can’t be ignored, one that just HAS to be answered. When they stop to play at the beach, a return to this childlike being is made. We make a subconscious pact with ourselves that in the presence of the blue echoes of sea and sky, we are open to all possibilities. We answer our own calls to experience through our senses, to feel the air, the sand, to run and give space to our very human need of play and connection and movement. We answer calls from the boundless edges of the ocean to exist purely in the now as the sea bears witness to human existence and for that short while, takes away what worries and responsibilities we might have. And this is something that we can tap into wherever we are, at home or in a new place.
In an account on the exhibition board of a windy walk at Scheveningen, the writer exclaimed how he already couldn’t wait to return, and so I delved into his diary entries on his experiences of becoming an expat in the Hague. I wanted to explore further his accounts how these beach visits played a part in this move from Malta. Throughout the diary entries, what I noticed was a constant fluctuation between the struggles and the beauty of expatriation. He describes the glints of hope and awe in new surroundings, the “magical” moments that can be found precisely in feeling ‘lost” in between moments of the “loss of identity, missing your loved ones…” amongst the many other challenges.7 It seems that this very struggle between two different everyday experiences characterises his diary entries, one moment finding familiarity in his work with the Expatriate Archive Centre, the next feeling “out of place” at the university.8 Nevertheless, there is a state of calm reassurance and connection throughout, in the returning beach visit. On one day he notes that he awaits his partner’s return from work in order to walk across Scheveningen, the day, he remarks, “looks promising”.9 And it is precisely this promise of a beach visit, where the tide continually rolls in and can be relied upon to provide a space of letting go through this return to senses. He remarks that the beautiful sensation of walking on sand keeps him in touch with nature, and thus nature is seen to provide refuge from difficulty.10
But, for the writer of this diary, the beach is a place of unfamiliarity at first, as he notes that he would not find anything similar in Malta. A similar experience is shared with an expat from Austria who exclaims how much of a “privilege” it is to be there, at the beach.11 This suggests that it is something extraordinary to them and not part of their usual surroundings. I find it fascinating how the backdrop of the beach evokes such excitement but also curiosity and how these experiences can be such an aid in settling into a new place. For me, it is through the familiarity of the beach, but for this expat it was the newness of the landscape that nonetheless provides refuge from the everyday. For some, the beach visit is the “standard Sunday afternoon exercise”, but for the writer of the expat diary that I have been looking at, he notes the changes in routine as well as the “magical” changes in the patterns of nature.12 Finding again this tension between stability and the unexpected; the continuous push and pull of the tide in its varying degrees of conditions. One day, the writer is missing the customs, his family and friends from his home country, and then the next he visits Noordwijk, describing it as the “perfect place to retire”, demonstrating that he can see a future here. It is as though the beach is a place of refuge from missing another place. Similarly in another expat account, the “unpredictability of office life” is missed, the memory of home infers a sense of stability and routine that is blown apart by moving away. But no matter what, the waves are relentless; they do not halt. Without fail they can be relied upon to roll in one after another, after another.
Standing at the shoreline, we are reminded that life carries on no matter where we are. Even when you travel away from the place you call home, the world does not stop turning and perhaps this brings comfort to some. There is a juxtaposing sense of repetition and stability with unpredictability, referred to also as the “now you see it now you don’t” Dutch winter landscape, something that brings an “immense sense of purpose”.13 The implied ephemerality washes over the realities that are faced in the process of relocation, even if just for a while. It provides refuge in returning us to a state of nature. Just like our bodies are mostly made up of water, in many ways we become part of this larger body of water that expands out in front of us, rendering us a small part of a bigger whole. It is realised that we are in some sense nature itself, and within this perhaps we can for a moment witness the difficulties, our work, our studying, our family and friends as something separate from ourselves.
Looking through the exhibition and through the archives has led me to see the comfort that people seek from the everyday by going to the beach as a kind of universal experience. It seems as though it is not uncommon for the elements of nature to provide us with something that we need. The expat whose diaries on which I took a focus initially moved to the Netherlands and then subsequently repatriated to Malta, the time that he had spent here being one, at points, of difficulty. And threaded in between these difficult moments are the mentions of beach visits as if it had become a place of refuge from those moments that were less bearable. I find myself relating to this need to be within reach of the ocean, which is what initially drew me to this exhibition board. Maybe it is easy to romanticise the notions of being by the sea, but whether or not there is a certain healing quality to being at the water’s edge, what I have discovered is the commonality of the expat experience of being at the beach as a positive one. One that brings out a very human part of us that seemingly is more removed from everyday concerns, and one that is instead encouraged to enter into a realm of possibilities, and of play but also reflection.