It’s that time of year again when it’s bitterly cold and dark on the side of the world I happen to be on and warm, sunny and beachy on the other side – the side I think of as ‘home’. It’s summer holidays down under and everyone has Christmas fever – the shopping, the decorations, the parties, the boozing, the shirking of work. It intensifies my feelings of homesickness which usually simmer beneath the surface, but for these few weeks in December boil hot and almost force me to charge several thousand dollars to my credit card so I can be part of it, too. Almost.
This year seems to be a particularly poignant one for thinking about loved ones – friends, family, belonging. I feel the need to be part of a community stronger than I have in a long time. One that is so familiar to me, I feel it in my bones. A rough year abroad will do that to you.
Musing on this, I’m reminded of a situation I experienced some years ago back at the end of the world. It was cold, dark, in the midst of winter. My friend was graduating from university and we were celebrating with his family and their friends. It was a bohemian port town, full of hippies and working class wharf workers. The house we stayed in was an old wooden villa, cold and damp as only a house in New Zealand can be. The owners were artisans and we sat around their dimly lit living room swilling local beer and wine.
There was a man there, an older gentleman with beautiful toffee colored skin, the color that signifies he was of mixed Maori-Pakeha stock. He introduced himself and told our little group some of his story. It turns out he had only recently returned home after many years of living in Europe. Based in Milan, he was a clothes designer and dresser – he had, in fact, dressed Princess Diana. He relayed tales of his adventures in the high fashion world, all the while I struggled not to choke on my merlot.
Why, I wondered, would he leave such an interesting and glamorous life in the fashion capital of the world to return to the end of the world, a place that was so isolated, where there were more sheep than people, where you have to drive for five hours to get to the nearest international airport and where you have to fly for at least five hours to get to the nearest neighboring country? Ca-raay-zee, I concluded.
It transpired that as he aged, he felt a very instinctual and visceral pull back to his homeland to ‘discover his roots.’ It seemed bizarre to me – I, at that time, was extremely interested in doing exactly the opposite – running as far away as possible to leave behind my working class roots and the parochial, provincial, incestuous town I had grown up in. And indeed, months later I was on a plane headed for Japan.
Now I understand what he meant. To know where you come from, to feel that primal sense of belonging to a community. To be immersed in the banal and the familiar. To bump into old school friends while running errands on the main street. To walk for twenty minutes to reach a pristine, empty beach. To go to sleep at night in complete darkness and silence and to wake up to a chorus of birds singing outside of your window. To pull open the curtains and look out onto a large, green front yard with piles of flowers spilling over. To greet the neighbor as you walk to the mailbox to collect the newspaper. To have a petty argument with your sibling. To take the dog for a walk past kids on bikes and people toiling away in their vegetable garden. To have fresh seafood for dinner. To see your friend’s band play. To go to the public library and know how to borrow a book. To go rifling through second-hand bookstores and thrift stores. To walk through the art gallery and have a decaf latte at your favorite cafe next door, the one you got fired from because you were more interested in flirting with the customers than being a good waitress. To go to the independent cinema and watch old films. To drive out to your family’s cottage on the weekend and have a barbeque with the neighbors. To go to your cousin’s house for dinner and play with her kids. To go to a public lecture with a well-known local or international author. These are the things I associate with home. They linger in my memory and whisper to me that I should return.
Of course, it’s a common dilemma for any expatriate – the longing for ‘home’, for comfort and familiarity. It grabs my hand and tugs me towards it. As the years go by, the tugging becomes stronger and my resolve weaker. One day my feet will touch the sand of home again.