[…]

nomad
In school, they told us that the definition of the word ‘nomad’ was someone who moved from place to place. Not once in a while, not on an occasional holiday or gap year, but all the time, moving. ‘Why?’ I remember asking, but my teacher was not impressed, probably because ‘why’ was not a question that made a frequent appearance on exams. I wondered briefly about these people, who I imagined wearing brightly-coloured robes and heavy ornaments, walking tirelessly barefoot across broad expanses of nothing.

Of course I knew somewhere in my seven year old brain that they couldn’t possibly move all the time, nor walk all the time. But that is the image that has remained in my head to this day. And always, when I see them, they are walking away from me, never towards. It is their backs, fading to bright spots in the too-bright landscape, that I see.

It was never a particularly attractive picture. So it came as a shock to me when a friend turned to me the other day, a few months ago, during a heated debate on commitment, and called me a nomad. I thought of those people, walking unceasingly away from me across the desert in my head. And I looked at my­self, perched sedately on an armchair in my own very comfortable flat, mandatory glass of wine in hand, looking pleasantly rooted and stationary, and realised, with a jolt of horror, that she was right.

We are a tribe, the nomads of our time. We are the ones never talked about. We are not the ones who moved to another country for reasons of career, prosperity, love, and built a community, a nest. We are the ones who are only mentioned with a despairing ‘she’s moving again?’ We are rarely the achievers, the model citizens, except by chance or accident. We are the ones who go through life searching always for something that is always just out of reach, perhaps in the next city, over the next hill, hidden in the next experience, in the next person we meet.

We are the ones for whom the questions, rather than the answers, are the goal most longed for. If I have asked all the questions I have ever wanted to ask, I tell myself, then it will not matter what the answers are. We are the ones for whom achievement without experience means nothing.

We leave pieces of ourselves wherever we go. Half a heart in Vienna, half a soul in Berlin. We rebuild with pieces of New York, fragments of Cairo to heal the wounds, anecdotes of Moscow to hide the emptiness in our eyes.

We always know each other, of course. A tribe always identifies itself. Not by the ornaments, or the clothing, in this, our century, but by the scars. We wear them almost like prizes, the deep burns across our hearts, the slashes in our armour. But the stranger knows us too. We have our roles picked out for us always. We are the entertainers, the jesters. We are the ones who always have a story, an anecdote, an ‘oh, when I was in Ulan Bator’ story, but we are also the ones who hover near the edges of the crowd at the end of the evening, holding a drink, but never quite part of the proceedings.

We are the ones for whom home is not a place, but rather an idea. A beautiful idea, cobbled together from moments half-remembered. And like all ideas, easily fallible. Home for us is something lost, something longed-for. We try, always, to return, but we have seen, sooner than everyone else, that home does not exist. It is a knowledge that must come to everyone, sooner or later, but we carry it with us, and it haunts us. We try and try to return, and find at every turn, that the road is our home, and that the journey is our destination, and this scares us as much as it scares you.

In our century, too, we find that everyone is one of us. We yearn foolishly for the existence of our parents, where a city was where you built a future, where a house was an anchor, where a person was the partner who would stand beside you for the whole of your life. And we ache for a world where the answers were written in stone, where the world and all its inhabitants did not hold a key a key to your heart, where the quest, if there was one, pointed inwards, not into infinite distance.

We nomads know, in our heart of hearts, that the world we have created for ourselves is more beautiful, and more fragile, than anything that has gone before. We know that the ties that bind us are more easily broken, and therefore more precious, than the roots of our ancestors. We cling more fiercely to the people we find, and nurture them more with more care, nurture them more carefully, and watch with more despair as they dissolve, as all things must. We know that with the breaking of barriers, comes too the breaking of walls which stop things from escaping.

We find, sooner or later, that everyone is lost, but not everyone has seen this, or recognised it. And we watch, with growing concern, the people who have not seen the truth. Like atheists, or fundamentalists, we have seen the truth, and we wait, sometimes, impatiently, for everyone to catch up.

We know that the answers that we seek are not in the next town, or the next person, but we seek nonetheless. We know that every piece of ourselves that we leave behind is a piece less that we have to give. We know this, and still we move. Like the nomads of my childhood imagination, we move, our backs to the world. And two decades later, I still wonder why.

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