We moved from north Oxford to southern California in 1964 - when I was seven - and suddenly I noticed that living in the future tense could be as treacherous as living in the past; it was ideal so long as you were young and on the move, but it could be exasperating if ever you wanted to lay foundations underneath your feet. Small places were more conducive to enmities and smugness, I came to see, as soon as I was in the devouring open spaces of the Far West, but they were also home to idiosyncrasy, a sense of fun and to privacy.
Six years ago, give or take a few days, I arrived in the UK after a red eye flight from Boston. In the departures lounge I'd watched people line up to board; towards the end of the line was a couple, youngish, holding hands, tall and tanned and athletic-looking, the sort of people you imagined went running along the river together every morning, and I surprised myself by feeling envious of them. I was six months single after two years of a college-intense relationship and, I'd thought, enjoying every minute of it, even the slightly abashed mornings-after, the avoiding of phone calls, the hoping for phone calls, the stumbling end-of-night kisses. But here was this couple, and I wanted to hold someone's hand. Maybe it was a reaction to leaving the city I thought I loved behind just as it was at its most glorious and carefree - the start of summer, the warmth not yet blossomed into unbearable heat, the bars full and spilling out onto the sidewalks at night. It occurred to me, too, that I would miss the friend I'd been casually sleeping with; in the next instant it occurred to me that maybe I didn't feel as casually as I was acting. So probably it was a good thing, flying off into the unknown: before I let the friendship dissolve or devolve or evolve, before my experience of being single turned messy, or messier, off I went.
When I arrived in London it was morning and raining. I hadn't been in England since I was twelve, visiting with my parents, and I was ill-prepared. I had no map. My shoes, brand new, purchased for a planned summer of unplanned backpacking around Europe, didn't fit properly, and rubbed blisters on my toes as I dragged my suitcase out of Paddington. Although I knew my hotel was nearby, I had no sense of how to get there. When I did get there - after about an hour of walking in grey, puddle-filled circles - the woman at the front desk told me there was a problem with the plumbing in my room and I could not check in. So I changed my shoes and sloshed down Oxford street and found my way, by memory or luck, to the British Museum.
And anyhow it all worked out in the end: the hotel gave me an enormous suite to compensate for any earlier inconvenience, and I slept heavily, and I threw the new shoes out, and the sun was shining the next day when my train pulled into Oxford.
The thing is, six years starts to feel like a significant amount of time. It's approaching a decade. To commit to anything for six years is to show a significant degree of passion, or doggedness, or, ideally, both. In six years your face changes; so does your body. You look demonstrably older. No one asks you for ID anymore, and you can no longer stay up all night drinking cheap cider and then wake up and go for a run and do it all over again the next night - or maybe it's just that you don't want to, which means that your demeanor, too, has changed. In six years people have come and gone, and you're someone who stayed, and this fact starts to define you.
The face of the city has changed, too. By dint of having known them for a long time now, you start to feel ownership of particular street corners and buildings. You like to say, well, I remember it before this place was here, I remember the way things were, I remember the unsavoury old carpet and the pool table and the jukebox - I'm not saying I feel nostalgic, I'm just saying I remember it. In six years two cohorts of undergraduates have done their degrees, been doused with eggs and champagne and shaving foam, gone away, got jobs. Countless barmen and women have become comfortingly familiar and then vanished. The things that haven't changed start to seem like the only things out of place: the café with the red sign, the summer-evening sound of church bells and ice cream trucks, the arrangement of furniture in your bedroom. The cherry trees and the ground elder have taken over the garden; the ivy has wrapped itself around the old Dutch bicycle that you used to ride everywhere; the landscape, the view from the study window, is simultaneously unrecognizable and unchanged.
Which isn't a problem: it's just time, doing its thing.