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28 October 2017updated 06 Aug 2021 5:19pm

Abroad is a place where commonplace birds and plants become things of wonder

I constantly fall by the wayside on walks, drawn to an insignificant rock plant growing in the cracks of a garden wall.

By John Burnside

Though it seems to be practised less frequently these days, I still find etymology one of the more useful skills I learned in school. For example, over this past week, while travelling in Germany, I have been moved to wonder, not for the first time, why so many places I know fairly well seem so much more foreign now, so much more abroad.

This eventually drove me to the dictionary, where I learned that, in the 13th century, the word “abroad” meant “widely apart” (from Old English on brede, literally “at wide”), only later coming to signify “at a distance from each other” or “out of doors, away from home” and even later still, around 1450, “out of one’s country, overseas”.

For a long time, the word appears to have remained more or less neutral, an entirely descriptive term; it took a curmudgeon of Philip Larkin’s stature to damn it forever: “I hate being abroad”, he once declared. “Generally speaking, the further one gets from home the greater the misery.” Abroad was where you couldn’t get the Telegraph, and the waiter brought warm milk or, worse, lemon with one’s tea.

I love being abroad. What I like most about it is that everyday things – birds, plants, animals, weather events – that seem unremarkable to the locals are often wildly exotic to me. Common flora, ordinary lizards, everyday birds like the great kiskadees and monk parakeets that my friends in Buenos Aires take for granted – all are sources of wonder. I constantly fall by the wayside on walks, drawn to an insignificant rock plant growing in the cracks of a garden wall, or the catbird flicking away through the branches of a dogwood.

This gives pause for thought. Just as I am the most appreciative observer of common phenomena while abroad, a guest may very well put me to shame at home by noticing what I dismiss as commonplace in my own backyard.

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I remember meeting an Australian woman once on a Cambridge street: she was staring in rapt awe at one particular tree, in full summer greenery, that I had passed every day for the last week with barely a second glance. Finally, as I came closer, she turned and asked me what kind of beautiful tree this was, to which I replied that it was a horse chestnut and no big deal. If she wanted to look at trees, I added, she should go to the Botanic Garden; they had some real beauties there. The woman smiled at that, and shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you don’t understand this, but where I come from, you never see green like this.”

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Now, in Germany, it is the season when great flocks of cranes cross the country for their winter migration, a sight that people gather at the ponds around Berlin to witness, together with their friends and neighbours. It is also kürbis time, when everyone seems to have his or her own recipe for pumpkin soup, or the kind of delicate courgette risotto that I now associate, Pavlov-fashion, with summer’s end.

Few things are as satisfying as a plate of seasonal produce, and few sights more reassuring than the return of migrating flocks (where I live, the pink-footed geese that overwinter in my corner of Fife) or the first leaves of summer in the greenwood. I don’t know why I think “abroad” does this better, but I do; and the further I get from home, it seems, the greater the variety and naturalness of such simple – and apparently communal – pleasures.

This article appears in the 25 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia