Not much ever pierces your soul like visiting the place where you were born; where you awoke to the first tender years of life.
I’ve been away for three short yet eternal years, and my eyes moisten as the jet engined monster slowly hovers to land across the flat, summer-brown Adelaide plains. This is totally unexpected. I’ve been living the south-of-France dream now for almost a decade, racing off to Barcelona each month, gorging on European culture, history and prehistory. The flatness of my childhood landscape is the last thing I ever thought I would miss. It cuts into my core without warning. I am home.
It almost immediately feels like I have never left. The old life is embedded in muscle memory, scent memory, eye and ear memory; primal sensations entombed in the deepest recesses of my being. And yet I am a slight outsider. I have lost the full Aussie twang. I am deeply embarrassed when I get the one and two dollar coins mixed up and the lady at the Hahndorf strawberry stall kindly counts the excess back into my hand.
Things are not exactly as I remember them.
Someone has moved the central iconic Victoria Square fountain, previously a bulls-eye marking the middle of the city, to an asymetrical mis-location somewhere off to the side. It isn’t right. I never liked the drab, modernist fountain in the first place, but moving it is another thing. It messes with my head.
The cafes on Norwood Parade have changed, or at least the names have. There are new car parks that have sprung up and new gaping holes in the ground where who knows what is about to give birth. At least there is a sign outside the Frank Gehry style new mega-hospital. The old familiar electronic discount warehouses in town are gone – what happened to Strathfield? At least you can still rely on Officeworks, and you can sort of rely on Dick Smith but I hear he is no longer a safe bet either. The Alphütte Restaurant is now painted bright white instead of chalet brown and my mother tells me it is closing.The Southern Expressway now actually goes in two directions at the same time. I don’t recognise the blonde TV newsreader with the helmet bob which splays out from her neck like an anime hero. The hair never moves and I am fascinated.
I go to the bank to recover my forgotten PIN and the teller asks me to ‘Pay Wave’. What? I figure out what is being said after she has repeated herself twice but the meaning is beyond me. My teller then realises that she is dealing with an imbecile and in a clear, slow voice asks me to tap my card on the machine.
Each day brings new little reality checks, reminding me that I am no longer quite from here any more.
On top of this, I now pronounce any French or Spanish labels on food, wines, or menus in a way that startles the locals.
‘Cab Sav’ has left my vocab, it is now Cabernet Sauvignon. I even pronounce café differently, with the practised abrupt ending of the French accent aigu. No one has a clue what I’m on about. There are communication blips. It is me who has changed.
When I first arrived in France, tentatively proud of my workable language skills, there were a few totally bizarre words that had me stumped. I had no alternative but to ask people to please repeat very slowly, syllable by syllable. Suddenly the light flashed – what sounded like ‘brerSHING’ was written as ‘brushing’ (a blow dry) and ‘shomPWAN’ was spelled ‘shampooing’, meaning shampoo, and the same for other pseudo-English words adopted into the local vocabulary. ‘Bargh-MUN’ was spelled as and meant ‘barman’. ‘Coo-stom-ease-air’ (written as ‘customizer’) meant to add your own original touches to a bought item (ie to customize it). The French are just as capable as the Aussies of mangling other languages and messing with the meanings.
In Australia I feel like Rip Van Winkle, having woken from a mini time warp.
At least I can do a pretty good job of acting like a local and it is such a joy to have people assume that I belong. My accent doesn’t hang over my head like a red flag. In France I am forever ‘English’ the minute I open my mouth, even though the rough edges of my accent have almost been worn into shape. Tiny subtleties are enough to give away one’s origins.
Where is home? I am eternally homeless; a member of a growing breed of restless expats who are lucky enough to be born in one country yet can choose to experience life in another. Not a refugee like my parents were, having to make a go of a new place with no option of returning to a familiar life. I arrive in Europe (their old country) on totally different terms, with a prestigious art study scholarship. I am a wayward homing pigeon looking for a solid place to land.
France and Spain now do feel like home. There is still excitement and amazement in the wonders of daily life there, and I have forged some new and beautiful friendships. However, as we all eventually learn, nothing replaces dear old friends. It is almost impossible to mimic the depth, breadth and length of shared struggles and celebrations running the course of many years.
Which brings me to the topic of family. Blood is indeed thicker than water. I never really understood where that saying came from, and the symbolism is still a little beyond my mental capabilities, but nonetheless I have finally learned the true value of family. I miss my Aussie family. I dread to use the words ‘age’ and ‘wisdom’ but struggle to find any other excuse for my recent behaviour. There is now also my Barcelona family (on my husband’s side) which I cherish. It gets complicated.
I am only too aware of the luxury of having options of where to live, but you can’t be in two places at once.
Flitting about also has its price. People never know where you are, so don’t bother to get in touch the way they would if you were always at home. I am happy to have experienced living in three different cultures, speaking three different languages. It makes you more grateful and appreciative of the good in each place, but also more aware of the negatives. You can’t help comparing in some way. In the end I focus on the best of what each has to offer. I now realise that it’s about relationships more than place. Home is where the relationships are.
So the 24 hours of mega-flights, followed by a criss-crossing from Adelaide to Brisbane and then down to Sydney, turns out to have been more of an inner than an outer journey. A mental and emotional working things out. Ideas of place and home. And most of all heart.