This time last year, I had just returned to Melbourne, where I was living, from a Christmas trip across Australia to Perth, where I’m from. I thought I’d be excited to be back in my own little space: to ride my bicycle up Wellington Street and chatter with red wines at book club and work the coffee machine on a Sunday morning and drink afternoon beers in the park with friends. But I was wrong. Instead I felt uncomfortable, flat and… adrift.
“Melbourne doesn’t feel like home,” I wrote on the blog I kept that year. Unlike other friends in Melbourne who had grown up in other cities, I wasn’t relieved to return. I didn’t want those 18-degree January days or avocado-free grocery budgets; I wanted sunsets over the sea and to be with my family. I remember drifting around the sticky, empty city in those first couple of days back – reading solo in the park, writing meandering blog posts, sleeping long past my alarm, wondering what it was all for.
What had I returned for? What was I doing there?
I worried that I’d feel the same way returning to Dili after my Christmas trip to Perth.
I’m clumsy here, not fluent
I’ve just returned to Dili after two beautiful weeks away. I’ve left and returned to Dili before – all those trips I write about; a September Melbourne visit for Dad’s birthday; a Bali trip in July – but this one was my first visit back to the place I’ll always consider some kind of home, and I was apprehensive about coming back to Dili from there.
I lack the intuition and comfort and commitment that lets me roll my eyes at something while pulling it closer, like hugging your frustrated father after making jokes at his expense.
In Melbourne, I’m a visitor – wide-eyed and describing as “exploring” short, safe trips between different coffee shops; not having to avoid anyone’s eyes on the street because I lack the intimate connection to this city and its people that’d push me into the path of an awkward encounter with a used-to-be-friend.
In Darwin airport I ate a terrible, $10 egg sandwich and sat tall at the window to the tarmac, typing an email to a dear friend. She’s a Mexican who lives in the United States and had asked me how I felt returning to Perth over the Christmas break, reflecting on her own experience of returning to Mexico.
“I sometimes had a strange feeling of having two (or more?) lives and not really knowing if they belonged to the same person,” she wrote.
“Yet, I felt completely normal finishing off a year full of adventures back in the place that will always be most familiar to me. It seemed like, no matter where we go in the world and how much growth and change these things bring us, at the core we are the same person. With everything we love and hate about ourselves.”
I’ve read this paragraph four or five times now and just returned to it after a week away. I immediately sought her permission to share this extract here because of how hard it hit me.
It’s more than just Norfolk Island pines and the Indian Ocean, I realised – home, to me, is perhaps about how light, fluid and agile I feel in a particular place.
The place where I feel most secure, most like myself – but also most challenged; most motivated. Most rooted.
I spent so much time and energy last year examining and untangling what the concept of home meant for me, and I can relate to my friend’s feeling of having two lives and wondering if they belong to the same person.
But perhaps it’s not the place where I feel most like myself, as I concluded at the end of last year. Perhaps it’s a place most familiar, regardless of how convoluted and vague and confounding the future feels; I feel within myself.
I had an incredible time in Perth – seeing friends, hanging out with family, visiting all my old favourite places, finding new ones, celebrating life changing – and I chatted to an old favourite barista over the coffee machine as he made me a takeaway soy flattie.
“How’s your Bahasa?” he asked with a grin – explaining that his was terrible, because where he used to live in Malaysia everyone spoke English to him.
I sympathised and replied that mine was non-existent and my Tetun still terrible.
We talked more about living away from home and coming back to Perth, and I told him my concerns about returning to cracked, dusty Dili after these luxurious two weeks.
“Of course it’s like that,” he said. “You’re on holidays here.”
He’s right, of course – and that’s where my apprehension came from. Conflating a trip back home with the fact I had a two-week break and not realising that the luxury came from the free time, decadent spending and daily celebrations that comprise a vacation, rather than from something innate within Perth.
What I do there, not who I am there.
Mere moments after disembarking my AirNorth flight back to Dili I was in the terminal, laughing with a friend from the plane at how the surprising pace of the luggage belt was flinging suitcases all over the room. I passed through the creaky X-ray machine and hefted my case up onto the checking bench, where three idle staff members watched me try to explain to a guy why I had a blender and a copy of the Castle on DVD in my luggage, and reply to him that no, I wasn’t yet married, and that yes, I did have a boyfriend. Inevitably, “Is he Timorese?”
No one says hi on the street when you pass in Australia. Perhaps a polite smile.
I crushed out into the glaring Dili afternoon sun and loaded my bags into the waiting car. We navigated out of the empty airport carpark and joined the swarming Comoro Road traffic. Horns and pulsar pulsar and a chicken strapped to a motorbike and there’s a new sign at Lita supermarket and there’s Maria standing on the corner!
Oof, it’s good to be back here.
I replied to my friend’s email in Darwin airport wondering whether home was more a state than a physical place, self-consciously asking whether that statement was a little woo-woo, but unprepared to have to define it. If Perth’s home, does it follow that Dili’s not?
I love Melbourne. Fiercely. I’ve loved beyond words my year living here. I love my suburb, my friends, long blacks, the bars and coffee shops and restaurants, swimming laps at the pool, $6 beers, riding my bike, my cake shop, the North Fitzroy library, my book club, my Oaktree, writing letters, terrace houses, baristas who know my name, beers in the Edinburgh Gardens, the strength of female friendship and the bravery and beauty of vulnerability and openness – the kind of life this city contrives for me; the kind of person it lets me be.
In Dili I lean into the fact that I’m foreign, clumsy and uncomfortable. I have few expectations about fitting in and I love the life this city lets me live.
My Mexican friend is right: it felt completely normal returning to Perth at the end of this blistering, hot, crazy, hard, uncomfortable, vibrant year. And right now, at the very beginning of a new year in which I have no idea what will happen – everything, from my job to my friends to the country I’m living in may change – all I know for certain is that come December 25, I’ll be joining my sisters in the pool on Christmas morning and taking a white wine from Dad as an aunt leans over the prawn basket to ask, “So Soph, what have you been UP to?” and Mum puts her carols CD on one more time.
Which lets me live as many lives in between as I choose.