Wednesday, 13 January 2010


Having just returned to campus after three weeks in the states, where I know people, places and have memories, I'm reflecting on the significance of the familiar.

When I moved to campus, October 7th, 2009, it was the first time I'd set foot here. I've been to England several times, spent nine months living in Norwich on the UEA campus, and have traveled around a the island a decent amount (I say a decent amount because I think I've seen more of Britain than most natives). I'd traveled on the tracks that run through Colchester more times than I can count on my English journeys, but I'd never been here before. It was a completely new place, full of unfamiliar roads, buildings, shops and people. It was exciting.

I'm a huge fan of new. I love seeing new places, doing and learning new things, meeting new people. I once had a friend who was also a fan of new and we'd celebrate New Experience Days. Each New Experience Day, we'd do something new. Something that one or both of us had never done before. This usually involved going somewhere but might also include cooking or baking, playing darts left-handed, or trying an usual icecream flavor.

I love exploring new places: one of the major thrills and motivations for traveling. During my three weeks in the states, I had a nice mix of the old and the new. Cushioned between visits to two places that are home to me, I drove cross country. Starting out in Los Angeles, after 10 days with my family, I drove east. The trip involved plenty of new: new people (Hi to Dave and Alison in Arizona!), new states (my first time in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Carolinas), new restaurants, new towns, my first time driving a Nissan, new highways and skies (the stars at night, very big and bright in Texas, by the way), a new year, driving while it was snowing, eating rainbow trout, beignets (yum!), and learning things about the places we were headed and passing through.

Being on the road was exciting, but arriving at a friend's family home in Frederick and staying with a good friend in Washington, DC, where I daily saw multiple people that I knew and recognized people I saw in a restaurant (or even the Virgin America employee at Dulles Airport) was a different type of exciting. It was comforting, it was warming, it was familiar. I think for most of my life I have discounted the importance of the familiar. I am learning, in my old age, that loved ones, family and friends, home are some of the most important things in life.

So now, having transversed the width of a country the size of a continent, and an ocean (overnight and by plane), I find myself again in Colchester, in this new place that is becoming familiar. I remember my first day here. My first trip to town, which was a mix of the familiar and new: the same high street shops (some new ones) but in a new layout. I remember my first walk onto campus: over the bridge and into the meadow. And there it was: an oak tree. One type of tree that I am familiar with enough that, even never having met this one before, I could identify it. I can't tell you what type of oak tree, but I'd know those leaves and the acorns anywhere. Oak trees populate the Santa Monica Mountains that stand in the greater backyard of my mother's house. Oak trees are home. Oak trees are California wilderness. They are of canyons and mountain tops. They are shade on a scorching summer day. The are for cowboys' naps. They are the markers of hiking trails. They make up the scenery of the familiar, of my childhood, of my family home. We name towns after them! Seeing that first oak tree, identifying it, and looking out for all of the others, made me feel at home, in an instant. That tree might be new, but I know it's relatives.


With gratitude to the OED

Familiar, adjective:

1. a. Of or pertaining to one's family or household. (Now rare, and with mixture of other senses.) {dag}Of an enemy: That is ‘of one's own household’: lit. and fig. {dag}Of habits: Pertaining to one's family life, private, domestic.

2. Of persons and their relations: On a family footing; extremely friendly, intimately associated, intimate.

And possibly my favorite definition, if only for the sentence that follows it.
e. transf. Of a plant: Adapted to relations with. Obs. rare.
1721 R. BRADLEY Wks. Nat. 38 Mistletoe..can never be made familiar enough with the Earth to take Root, or grow in it.

5. Of persons: Well or habitually acquainted, having a close acquaintance or intimate knowledge. Of a person's manner: Resulting from close association. Const. with.

6. Of things: Known from constant association; pertaining to every-day knowledge, well-known. Const. to, {dag}with.
1818 SCOTT Rob Roy i, I will..endeavour to tell you nothing that is familiar to you already.

b. Of every-day use, common, current, habitual, ordinary, usual. Const. to.
1599 SHAKES. Hen. V, IV. iii. 52 Familiar in his mouth as household words. . . . 1711 ADDISON Spect. No. 135 {page}10 All ridiculous Words make their first Entry into a Language by familiar Phrases.

c. Homely, plain; hence, easily understood.

8. Free, as among persons intimately acquainted, unceremonious; occas. Too free, taking liberties with; also in to make familiar with.

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