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Home is where I want to be

Wednesday 4th January 2017

Saying goodbye to home in Wellington and making another in Melbourne.


Standing in my empty bedroom in Wellington, all my belongings rationed into one very large suitcase, one bulging backpack - selected for this purpose, and a satchel my brother had bought for me, laden with the books I couldn’t bear to part with.

My sister helped me fit in the final few things – “I can pack good, like Dad,” she said rolling up clothes, slotting things in open spaces.

We had walked up Mt Victoria that afternoon and I had tried to take in the city afresh – everything feels more urgent when you’re about to leave; everything feels a little more precious. Looking over the city, we took turns pointing out places brimming with memories. When I hugged her goodbye it felt so un-final.

I had moved to Wellington from Dunedin to study, and over four years I’d come to know the place and all its eccentricities well. I had slipped into the city so easily that if anyone asked where home was, Wellington summed it up.

I handed in my notice and drunk goodbye with my workmates. I hugged each of my friends and said I was going to miss them.

Arriving at the airport clutching a one-way ticket, ticking that little yellow square officiating my planned stay, blurry-eyed and carrying a backpack, everything still felt, (excuse the pun) up in the air.

In the terminal lounge, a small, sleepy child was telling his parents rather forcefully that he wanted a “coffee - not hot chocolate”. I could relate.

My plane touched down close to four hours later and I made my way into the heart of the city. During my first few weeks I felt like a tourist. Wearing a cap and backpack, I struggled in the late 30s temperatures. I went exploring and, predictably, got lost again and again and again despite the fact my town-planner flatmate from Wellington had assured me, Melbourne is a grid and even I wouldn’t find it too hard to navigate.

I was lucky that my move to Melbourne all happened rather smoothly; through sheer luck I found a cute, affordable flat in the green suburb of Fitzroy and a couple of weeks into my move, I stepped into a job as a journalist just around the corner.

“Liz from New Zealand,” was how I was introduced, as I was met with a variety of questions:
“Is it really green?”
“Have you seen Lord of the Rings?”
“Where should I visit?”
“Is it warmer in New Zealand?”
“What’s New Zealand politics/sports/music/economy like?”

Working on my Master’s across the weekends and evenings and working for a print publication during the day, I soon fell into a rhythm of coffee-fuelled typing, proofing and subbing pages and nerding out in the beautiful State Library of Victoria.

But routine isn’t the only thing which eases adjustment, and settling into my life here, I found that the strangest things made me homesick.

Near my flat someone had written the word “home” in thin chalk lines – something that made me instantly think of the Talking Heads track Naive Melody. Although this marker helped me not to get too lost, it also made me feel little waves of displacement whenever I looked at it.

In my neighborhood people would regularly leave things outside for local scavengers, and one day I happened across a pile of books sitting on the pavement. I picked through the titles – self-help novels, business guides, and, to my sentimental heart’s joy, a Janet Frame book. The serendipitous novel, Towards Another Summer, is sitting in my shelf now. It’s about feeling displaced and homesick, but not knowing quite what for.

There is also a “New Zealand” section in some supermarkets - full of Cookie Time cookies, L&P and Pinkie bars. When I first moved, I found myself gravitating to it. I wouldn’t buy anything, but seeing these little familiar markers, tragically, made me feel a tiny bit better.

It’s interesting too, being thrust into the role of unofficial ambassador for your country by default. Within most conversations here, I’m promoted to unofficial expert on all things New Zealand; education, population growth, politics, geography, news media - whether I am equipped to answer questions or not. I’ve also lost count of how many times I’ve been asked “why did your Prime Minister pull a waitress’ hair?”

Being an outsider at times has also spurred many warm moments. I was talking to an Uber driver who moved from India to Melbourne when he was 20 about that overwhelming feeling of missing people. “I used to cry myself asleep,” he admitted laughing. “But now I’m proud of myself, and I’m married, so I don’t get homesick … You should get married – then you’ll be fine,” he told me with a cheerful smile. While I currently have no marriage proposals in sight, I am settling in.                               

There are so many things I love about this city – the eccentric laneways, the Italian supermarkets which stink of delicious cheeses, the bustling energy of the city, the many greyhounds wearing booties, the parmas, the variety of music and art, the bats, the flowers, the museums and the trams.

Although there are people and places I miss, I’m finally feeling at home here.

Seven months into my move, I think back to my cab driver who took me to look at the flat I’m now living in. “Once you live in a big city, you can never go back to small place,” he told me firmly, speaking from his own experience.

With a population of 4.4 million, Melbourne is definitely a big city, but I wonder if this is the case - I wonder if being somewhere big makes you crave bigger places in general.

I think back to the feeling of moving out of home into your very first flat; it’s up to you set your own routines and habits, you have to pay your own bills and plan for the unexpected.

The place where your family lives becomes redefined as no longer “home” but more that familiar, warm place filled with memories of growing up, while your flat transitions into the place with a predictable, safe routine. It’s a bit like moving countries too.

Thinking back to the Talking Heads song, perhaps home is just the feeling of trying to make your own little place in this big busy world, an out of reach abstract notion, but something we’ll always long for.

At the moment I’m not craving a higher population or a bigger city, but at the same time, Melbourne doesn’t feel like my final destination.

To use a New Zealandism, my “real” feeling, is that regardless of location or size or strange words or trends or sense of familiarity, anywhere and everywhere can be home, for now.

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Elizabeth is a journalist from Wellington currently living in Melbourne. She would appreciate it if you tweet her puns @Eliz_Beattie
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