Monday, September 28, 2009

Home/Not Home

Following my announcement that I'd be going home for a couple of weeks, a friend asked me a few days ago whether I thought I'd ever refer to Wellington as home. I'm pretty sure that I already do - a person can have many homes of course - but the question made me ponder the relative weight I give to that word when I attach it to one place or the other, and the extent in which I feel that I still belong in my native city, or in the house where I grew up. More or less implicitly, I ask myself that every year, every visit. It's the nature of the transition.

I wrote briefly some time ago of the effects of intercontinental travel on (my) memory and sense of place. After twelve years of regular comings and goings, even as so many aspects of the trip have become routine, the experience as a whole has not ceased to be distinctly surreal, and it invariably colours those first couple of days on the other side, when everything moves at unnatural speed and is bathed in a strange light. Under those conditions, familiarity itself can be perplexing, the embrace of loved ones dulled by the sense that surely you cannot actually be there, with them - how could you, when just yesterday it was so far? But then that yesterday recedes too, and as that circadian upheaval rights itself, you tentatively begin to settle into the old grooves. There is Mum and this is, after all, the apartment in which I was born. Everything - if not quite everyone - is more or less exactly where I left it.

Compare, if you will, these two pictures, one taken in 1975, the other in the last half hour

and observe how little has changed. Except for the young lad, that is. I have no doubt he thought he would spend his whole life in Milan, if he had even begun to contemplate his long-term future. Those imaginings of self in time, famously parroted by the language of pop psychology and human resourcing ('where do you see yourself in five years'?), are a manner of constructing your past to be, of remembering forward, that matter profoundly to whom and what we become. I think little-me would be shocked to discover that one day I would lose that fierce attachment to that place and those things, and be able to imagine first, then make possible, a life lived elsewhere.

But that's not the biggest change, nor the deepest cut. If you could pan a little to the right of that first image you'd see this,

a dear memory yet also a painful reminder of how much easier it is to preserve the look of an apartment than to hold on to the people who matter to us the most. Remember that house in Leipzig? Nobody seemed to care about what happened to its vanished dweller, yet that place was defined by an absence, and so is ours. Mum no doubt feels this much more keenly, but it is palpable and we both resent it. It makes this our home and yet not our home, a familiar space filled with a precisely shaped emptiness.

There is, besides, the peculiar experience of the expatriate, provisional returnings defined by the fact that you no longer live there, and the noticing of things forgotten and of often minute but nonetheless persistently incremental changes, as if your old home town was being replaced one person and one brick at a time, with the effect of becoming stranger, simply in that it's harder to make new friends, establish new connections, in a place you no longer live. The strangeness in and of itself is not something to fear - I am quite desperate in fact for certain changes to occur in this city, this country - but it does contribute to the overall effect on the psyche, that simultaneous sense of belonging and not belonging.

This yearly routine, too, shall pass, and some day I'll have no reason to return quite so often and attend to the particular duties that visiting an elderly parent entail. I ask myself sometimes how often I am going visit when the time comes, staying with whom, and with what motivation other than the obvious ones of seeing old friends and introducing the kids to their other birthplace. I wish then for renewals, something to give fuller meaning to the word home, and for this place to change in ways that urge me to return.