Home is a foreign country.
I realised this the first time I returned to Australia from Europe, having spent a year away at the age of twenty-two. Watching the parched landscape rise to meet my flight as we touched down at Perth’s international airport, I knew I had made a mistake. I wasn’t ready to be back. It felt so far away, isolated, disconnected from the world I had discovered. In the weeks that followed my homecoming, I realised another thing: while I had been away, backpacking through historic capitals, getting lost in train stations and having my heart broken, my world, the place I called home, had changed. My friends had moved on. The city I had been missing no longer existed. Or rather my little niche in it had closed over.
Home changes constantly when you’re there, of course, but amid it all, living life, you hardly notice the shifting of sands beneath the feet.
This Christmas, I went back to Australia for the first time in three years. Before the trip, the thing I was most curious about was the differences I’d notice. However, as soon as I got off the plane in Sydney, what struck me was the familiar. I recognized the fading light of evening, the sweet smell of summer air. And there was my friend C, a dedicated traveller herself, grinning at the arrivals gate. These sensations settled around me like balm. I stepped back into my Australian skin.
Sydney was my home for two decades. For the twenty-something who moved there post-Europe, it was, and remains for me now, an idyllic mix of the exotic and the mundane, glamour and suburbia. My professional life has its roots there; there’s a deep network of friends and family. For three days, I revelled in Bondi, sipped local pinot grigio, inhaled the Thai food I had been craving.
Then, another plane to Perth, and the long car trip to Albany, on the southern coast of Western Australia, the place that holds most legitimate claim on the title of “home” for me. And yet I’ve spent only a small fraction of my life here. It just happens that those years were formative ones – high school, first proper job. And of course I’ve returned for holidays, retreat, respite and recuperation.
The thing about going home, to the place where you began, is that it reminds you of what you are. In my youth, I always felt that I was something else. I dreamed of escape. I wanted to live elsewhere, to do something different, to be someone else, really. Now, I begin to understand a little more of what I was then, but also to accept myself, and that means accepting and treasuring my beginnings. That girl who flicked through the movie pages and buried herself in novels in order to be transported is the same one who decided to board a plane for London, Edinburgh, Sydney, Paris. Without her, I’m not me. I certainly wouldn’t be the woman who lives in France.
One morning, we did a family trek to a favourite beach. In a paradox easily understood by locals, this isolated spot, about sixty kilometres from Albany itself, becomes as crowded as Bondi in the perfect vortex of holiday period and warm, calm weather. In the sunlight, paddling in the unbelievable blue of the Southern Ocean, something curious happened. I felt home begin to seep out of my bones and into my flesh and my consciousness. The water in those parts is freezing. No matter how hot the day, it takes courage to wade in. Each creeping centimeter up your body is raw, until the moment of surrender, blissful, shocking, exhilarating, when you abandon the agony of control and dive, headlong, into the salt, wet, sublime, swallowed momentarily by the overwhelming ocean. Emerging triumphant, you have arrived, somehow at ease.
I reconnected with my element.
Curiously, though, throughout the trip, in my conversation, “home” was Paris. And yet Paris will never feel truly like home, even if I spend the rest of my days here. In France, I will forever be a foreigner. When I stepped off the plane at Charles de Gaulle, though, back into my present life, I knew I was in the right place. Not forever, for now. I claimed my luggage, put my brain into French gear and went in search of my bus.
Of course, in a sense, in many senses, you can never go home. The person who embarks on a journey is forever condemned to continue. The notion of home is packed up with your belongings and travels with you. Your origin drifts away as familiarity with the current milieu grows. It’s a strange thing.