Illustration by Loveday Pride
Gerard Durrell’s renowned book, My Family and Other Animals, manages to highlight two of the most important things you can have and appreciate in this life: family and animals. With such great subject matter, the exotic setting of Corfu, and the humorous portraits of the Durrells and a host of other characters, it is no wonder that this novel is a favourite of readers worldwide, whether in the UK, or even here in Russia. So given that I am alone and voluntarily trapped in urban life abroad, here are some musings of mine having read this snippet of Mediterranean bliss.
The prevailing feeling My Family and Other Animals engendered in me was nostalgia. Nostalgia for a life I’ve never had in the late 1930s, perhaps, or perhaps for the open outdoors and nature. There are countless scenes of traipsing through Corfu’s wilderness, youthful gallivanting in the sea, and animal-related shenanigans that filled me with a huge sense of longing. When I look back on times when I’ve had the luxury of family, friends, and nature at my fingertips, I realise how much of it I took for granted. Even in my recent resolution to try and live more in the moment, one can’t help but notice what a good thing one once had once it’s gone.
For context, besides my grandma’s village in rural Slovakia where I went every year, and the countryside which I got to experience during the four in-person terms of my degree at Oxford, I spend all of my time in London. Despite being a city, it has a surprising number of green, open spaces, in no small part thanks to the Royal Parks, various Commons etc. Therefore, if I was feeling lustful for a quick nature fix, I had only to stroll through Kensington Gardens or Hyde Park for that itch to be scratched. Besides London Zoo, my experience of the capital is one that is filled with fauna: foxes, squirrels, robins, crows, pigeons (although I try to forget them)… and that’s before you factor in spotting dog-owners walking their precious furry companions. Oxford too has no shortage of green spaces and nature starting right from college quads and progressing to meadows and parks.
Moscow doesn’t have any of this. Maybe because I’m used to the large expanses of green parks and fields in the UK, the parks here in the centre feel a lot smaller. Their main features are playgrounds for children and despite the amazingly impressive fountain display in Gorky Park that I managed to catch last week, I am severely missing just how accessible nature and open spaces were to me back home. It’s not as common to see people walking their dogs and besides the fearless pigeons that lurk around corners, I’ve not seen any other animals. Moreover, despite all the great friends I’ve made, the support network of all my extremely sweet colleagues, and the lovely new people I meet every day, reading a book centred around family was enough to make me really miss mine.
One of the best things about My Family and Other Animals is that there is no pretence in Durrell’s writing. Yes, some scenes are hyperbolically recounted, but that doesn’t make them any less relatable. Reading about the chaos of preparing the house for guests, or the fights that would spring up between family members, seemingly out of nowhere, as the result of a single inconsequential event made me feel as though I was looking back on my own experience of these things. Only now enough time had passed for me to look on it with humour and mirth instead of the frustration and irritation that usually accompanies it. Reading about how Gerry would bring various insects home to store and observe in his room reminded me of how in Slovakia my cousin and I would collect snails after rainfall, make them little houses in boxes we covered with leaves, grass, and moss, and watch them for days before setting them free again. Reading about the Durrells’ dog reminded me of the dogs my grandma used to have and how they would be my sidekicks for when I’d venture into the wild unknown of our garden to collect some tomatoes or peppers.
Family and animals are two of the best examples of lifetime companions. And since living by myself for 2 months and 28 days (no, I’m not counting), I’ve realised just how important companions are. My Family and Other Animals is written from Durrell’s point of view when he was a child, and so as I was reading, I was coming to the somewhat disheartening understanding that my own childhood is truly over. I’m living by myself, in a foreign country, with no former connections waiting for me here. Whether I like it or not, I am an adult with no one else to look after me. I’m not an adult because the law says so, but because when something goes wrong every day as a part of life, there’s no one else to pick up the slack besides me.
Need to pay an invoice at the bank? Get keys copied? Fix a faulty toilet that won’t flush? Those are some of the less glamorous parts of adulting. But the child in me was given a new lease of life thanks to Durrell’s recollections. I actively sought out animals, found a horse, petted it for half an hour while staring into its eyes. Little Sophie would have been proud. So Chester, as I named this Russian stallion, is my ‘other animal’. And as for family? Those are the people I’ve been fortunate enough to surround myself with. Even though we’re all technically adults, and life will often do its best to disillusion us, never lose sight of the child within you, because their determination and vitality combined with the relative wisdom of your years will get you far.