Last night, on beach road outside Esplanada, as two carfuls of middle-aged Australian men hauled their suitcases out from the tray of the Hilux and shook strong handshakes, the bespectacled professor turned to me. We’d spent two days bumping through the hills and holes of Manatuto together on a project review field trip, and I’d told him in scraps and snatches about my plans to leave Timor-Leste and return home to Perth–the city he lives in, the city I grew up in, the city in which I spent twenty-four of my twenty-seven-and-a-half years.
“All the best, Sophie,” he told me, with a smile. “And remember. You’re not going home. You’re going to a different country.”
I was cheerful and giddy; I’d had a 5pm coffee and was silly with the Friday-afternoon feeling of knowing the trip was done and we were heading home; I’d been joking and teasing and listening to pop songs as we scraped our way through the rocky Comoro river road and back into Dili. But, unexpectedly, that sentence choked me up. My lips pressed tight and my eyes clouded; I nodded earnestly; I think he read my expression as laughter.
“I’m serious,” he said, gently. “Don’t think of it as going home, because it’s not. You’ve changed. Think of it as going to a different place.”
The Wednesday of this week just passed marked four weeks til I leave; that evening as we stood outside the pub marked an exact calendar month until I touch down in Perth. Home. A place that will always be home; no matter where I live, no matter how far I roam. The year I lived in Melbourne I brooded and fretted over my idea of home, whether I was allowed to think of Melbourne as home; what mattered most to me in considering what my home was. And the following year, the first I was in Timor, I stubbornly and deliberately referred to “going back to Australia”, not going back home, as if that semantic trick was enough to convince me of my dedication to building a life for myself in Dili.
Building a life for myself.
In the blog post I wrote at the end of my first year here, I reflected on what it meant to me to live a life I had decided on; to find things tough but ultimately far more rewarding for the fact that I had elected them myself. And a year on, on my second anniversary, I reflected on wanting to be here, more than anything; to be present and clear-eyed facing my final few weeks.
The professor’s advice was uncomfortable and timely. In the moments when I’ve slipped with that intention to be present–feeling emotional and pre-nostalgic walking home from work in the dusky sunlight, understanding and snapping back to the comments shrieked at me from kids roadside, eating the tempeh and tropical fruit and sweet pre-pumped iced tea I won’t find back home–I reassure myself with thinking of the fun I’ll have when I’m home. The last few golden days of Western Australia’s six-month-long summer, drinking pints of good beer in the sunshine with my oldest friends in the world. Lazing days with pastries and coffees and books in the Hyde Park grass. At my parents’ granite kitchen bench, chatting late-morning to Dad with the West Australian newspaper and the dog at our ankles and brown bread he’s bought especially for me.
I know it’ll be good to go back, but it won’t be the same. The place will be, but I’ll be different.
A friend of mine from Melbourne has recently moved to Dili, and we were roasting tomatoes for pasta sauce at his house the other day. I asked for pepper, he replied he had none, and I asked why. I love pepper and put it on everything; he replied that he liked it, too, but that it just hadn’t seemed as important an acquisition in those first couple of weeks as oil, snacks, little red onions, paprika, salt. We laughed over the fact that relocating ourselves from our default lives has forced us to question and assign deliberate value to everything: for me, pepper is imperative; for him, optional, and I never would have thought of this had I not moved into a new environment, into a house without a spice rack.
It’s a tiny example but it’s indicative of a bigger truth: being outside of the environment that’s always been normal makes you reflect and self-examine in an utterly forensic way.
Moving to Timor-Leste has taught me things about myself that I can’t imagine learning otherwise. And not necessarily profound things, either–a newfound appreciation for pepper, an understanding that I find it impolite to comment on people’s weight in a way Timorese people don’t, the realisation that I prefer feeling hot to feeling cold.
It’s perhaps more the fact I’ve been away from my default, neutral place that’s caused me to see these things, but in addition to that, I believe it’s Timor-Leste in particular that’s gotten under my skin and burnt golden and permanent on my body; in the way that I feel relieved to be around people who are Timorese or who have spent time here because they’ll instinctively know the tacit, indescribable social cues and nuances and subtle hidden meanings I now value but find myself mute to articulate; in the way that this place has become what’s normal for me, and even as Perth stays the same it’ll be different for me to come home.
I’ll have changed, said the professor. Why did that make me feel like crying?
Perhaps it was the acknowledgement, the tacit compassion within his understanding that things will be different. There’s something to grieve in finding home different.
And while that’s not at all to say that it’ll be bad–in fact, just quietly, I think this winter in Perth will be one of the most refreshing, exciting, easy periods of my life–but it is daunting to think of. I want it to have all remained frozen still for me; I want to be the same person going back to same old normal.
But of course, I don’t; I want to have changed.
I remember vividly I flippantly told a friend when I was leaving Australia for Timor that I’d go away and become a good person and then come home, easy easy. I don’t think I’m good now but I hope I’m getting better. I hope I’m learning new things and unlearning old ones and shedding what doesn’t serve and becoming a kinder, more compassionate, more thoughtful, more respectful person; brave and small and big and tall. If that’s the change I’m hoping for, why am I fearing things being different?
It was a leap to come here and I’m only beginning to understand it’ll be as much of a leap going home; perhaps even more so–I had no expectations of what here would be like.
But here’s within me, I think, and there is too. And different is good and I’m going home. All of me.