Home is Always Elsewhere

What is it like to live in one place for your whole life? I mean not staying in the place of one’s birth, but coming and going as you please. I mean living and staying in the same town, suburb, valley or small region – for your whole life.

I have been one of the few outsiders in a country town (a village really). The telephone system required one to turn a handle, speak with an operator and give a name or simply a single-digit number: ‘2 please’. I was regarded as a ‘blow-in’: the wind had blown me in and would soon blow me away. It would have taken a few generations of intermarriage to be regarded as an insider.

I have spoken with an older woman with whom I was – for some long forgotten reason – talking about travel.

‘I haven’t travelled much’ she said. ‘I once went to Melbourne for the Melbourne Cup’.

That was it, the journey to a foreign place. When I mentioned I was heading to China, she was mesmerised.

As a nomad, I too remain fascinated. What would it be like?

Some years ago on a long ride, I pedalled out of a small country town at the beginning of the next day’s ride (I had been on the road for over a week). A child, who was playing the front garden of a house, stopped and watched me cycle past. Everything else was forgotten as he stared. What was he thinking, I wondered? I imagined he was feeling a longing to be on the road, like me, with the freedom to decide where and when to go. That can be a longing only if you have never left a place, or do not have the freedom to choose so.

I was that child once, living in a remote country town and subject to my parents’ wishes and plans. A moment in the run of everyday life remains etched in my memory. I was standing on a corner, looking out. Two motorcyclists laden with gear pulled up. They removed their helmets and gloves and pulled out a map. Would they take this road or that road? Within a few minutes, they had decided and were off.

I keenly desired to be in their place, to be old enough to have such freedom, to leave the place that was supposed to be home.

Perhaps it is simply a nomad spirit. Being in a place is predicated on the ability to get away regularly. And even if I have lived somewhere for a while, eventually I get itchy feet and look to move on.

Home is always elsewhere, it seems. As I search, I continue to wonder what it would be like to live somewhere for your whole life, with little movement beyond its borders. But perhaps home is a place we have never been, but we will know it is home when we arrive.

Misfit Seeking a Home

Home is a place we have never been, but we will know when we arrive. Perhaps this a saying for someone like me, who has always felt a misfit, in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

Why a misfit? It may be due to an idea that does not fit, or a hope that has little hope of being realised, or a sense of life that others find odd, or indeed a politics that many dismiss as wayward. Above all, I have never quite felt at home.

I have wondered whether this sense is due to being a child of immigrants. I was born in the adopted country of my parents. On the one hand, this country was far better than the place of their birth, for otherwise they would not have immigrated. On the other hand, the new country failed time and again to match the standards of the old. The result is that I grew up familiar with two places, but at home in neither. I know intimately the country of my parents’ birth, but could not live there. And I know intimately the country to which they immigrated, but feel restless there too.

I have tried to find a home. Some decades ago I found myself in Montreal, the second largest French-speaking city in the world. I threw myself into life there, relishing the sharp demarcation of the seasons with 70 degree (Celsius) variations between summer and winter, the political and cultural tensions between a francophone and anglophone, the militancy of the local Indigenous peoples, the rediscovery of cycling everywhere, and the busy life of an increasing family (two of my children were born there). Above all, I felt I had found myself and gained clarity about what I loved to do and that I wanted to so it for the rest of my life – to write and think and set my own agenda. I was ready to adopt the place and live there forever.

But there was a catch: the possibility of imagining I could do so was predicated on the knowledge that my time there was limited. We had gone to Montreal for a fixed period, so I always knew it would come to an end. So I lived as though I was leaving, sinking into the place and relishing each moment and each experience, knowing that I might not have the opportunity of doing so again. In this case, home could only be imagined on the premise of departure.

More recently, I have come to spend some time each year in China. At times I speak of China as my second home, for it can feel that way. Why? For some it may be the language, with its unique system of writing characters rather than a phonetic script. Language, it is felt, is the door to a people and its ‘culture’ (whatever that word means). For some the appeal lies in a long history, going back millennia. Indeed, many Chinese are proud of that history, feeling that it is the oldest continuous history in the world (it is not). For some it is the philosophical heritage, embodied in the traditional ‘four classics and five books’ which come from the time before the first unification under the Qin dynasty (221 BCE). Here Confucius looms large, so much so that his legacy is always reinterpreted in each generation, especially when rapid change is under way.

Nevertheless, none of these provide the core reason why China has the potential to be a home. For me, it is the utterly intriguing history of Marxism and its practice in socialism. Understanding Chairman Mao and then the second crucial phase of ‘opening up’ since Deng Xiaoping is of extreme importance. Above all, I seek to understand and experience socialism in power, especially how the many challenges are met. So I read, study, travel to revolutionary places (‘red tourism’), ask many questions and try to listen.

Yet I know that my sense of China being a potential second home is predicated on a particular lack: it can only be a home because I am a foreigner who will never live there permanently.

It seems that this misfit will never find a home, that I am bound forever to seek one. How should one understand this reality, beyond a process of marginalisation from the majority? Let me return to Ernst Bloch’s insight: home is a place we have never been, yet we will know it is home when we arrive. Bloch speaks of utopia, by which he means the desire called socialism as a constitutive feature of human existence. Yet he draws this insight from a biblical if not theological awareness of our necessary homelessness in this world. In this respect, our perpetual wandering, searching for a home, is an implicit recognition that the home we seek is not to be found where we might expect.

My Balcony

2011 March 044a

In that first, tender light of the morning I sit all too rarely on my balcony. Barely three metres across and a metre deep, it dangles out the front of the first floor of my home – former servant’s quarters for the run-down mansion next door where the hippies now live. And yes, it looks out over the street with its terraces and close living, and I can even check on the condition of the ocean before a swim – at least if I lean out far enough.

2010 January 07a

Long, long ago was it painted, a cream paint that is more cracks and peels and bare patches than paint itself. The cast-iron railing holds out better against the rust, although rusty patches – from the salt air – shows up in the woodwork where nails once held it all together. The double-glass doors lead into one of the original four rooms of the place, doors we leave open for the sea-breeze on sweltering summer days.

In the eastern corner the wood has rotted away, so I don’t stand there since I like to avoid the sensation of crashing down onto the street. To discourage anyone else from standing there, I have gathered a motley collection of pots – with parsley, chives, mint, some basil grown from a shoot I rescued the other day, and some shiny round chilies that leave so much fire on your fingers it can transfer to keyboard, lips or eyes for hours afterwards. When I water them, the overflow is thankfully sucked up by the wood in its process of decay.

2010 January 06a

At the western end is a rusted clothes rack for drying during wet weather, a phone jack that might have worked in the nineteenth century and a coil of rope, a former tent rope for an emergency escape over the railing. Here too is a window set into the peeling timber of the side panel. Salt-streaked, it still allows me to look out over the street as it falls away down ‘the hill’, with lillipilli trees lining its decent. I also espy a former navigation tower that looks like small castle (its light would warn ships they had strayed off the narrow channel of the harbour), telegraph wires, other balconies, and of course the people.

2010 January 10a

The balcony may be minuscule, but it feels expansive. Why? It opens out onto the street, indeed is part of the street – mijn kleine straat, as they would say in the Netherlands. Every word said can be heard by anyone, like me, on a balcony, at a door or window or on the street itself. In the early morning, solo walkers are out early; children are on their way to school or, if it is the holidays, the beach; workers set off for their grind; the neighbour fires up his power tool in the never-ending task of reconstructing his place; a mother calls to a child; lovers engage in a sharp argument; one of the hippies next door enjoys the parenthesis of a lazy cigarette on their balcony.

Instead of smoking, I turn the balcony itself into a parenthesis of life. Chair resting back on the wall, feet up on the cast-iron railing, I can sit there all day. Sometimes I do.

2011 March 043a

Balconies and Stairs

What gives a place that almost indescribable feeling of invitation, that ‘yes, this is a good place to be’? The Chinese call it Fengshui, the way of ensuring that the spirits of wind and water are favourably aligned. The Dutch call it geselleg, the Danes huggeligt, but even here the words are merely an effort to speak of what perhaps cannot be spoken. While it may be possible to come up with some architectural or spatial elements of what makes lived space feel welcoming and inviting, ultimately it is a question of feeling.

For me, stairs and balconies make a place, draw me in and entice me to stay a while. Inside, the best is an almost endless staircase that has a surprise at each level. In one home, wide wooden stairs marked the passage from room to room, for each one was at a different level. Up and up I would go: up from garage to lounge room (or perhaps a study or even a bedroom – it functions variously as each one of these), up to the kitchen and dining area where people met and ate and talked and argued, up to a bedroom, and up once more to the final level, with its bedroom and bathroom. Each time I needed anything, stairs were needed, often many. No choice here, even if one was weary, sick, or using a walking stick. Clothes to be washed: down to the garage. A meal to be cooked: yet more stairs. The toilet: up or down stairs. A book to be retrieved: whatever level it was shelved, for bookshelves populated every level. Stairs were the pivot, the core of the place, defining what it meant to be at home.

That place also boasted not one, but two balconies. The first, coming off the kitchen and communal space, was a simple cement affair. A narrow ledge, really, baked by the western sun in summer, smitten with rain in the winter. But in the evenings, it provided a quiet space when I was on my own. Here I could surreptitiously open a wine bottle and broach a packet of cigarettes and sit for hours. Why surreptitiously? If my teenage daughters, the youngest of whom was with me more often than not, knew what I did from time to time while I pondered the universe, they would kill me.

The other balcony actually came off that youngest daughter’s bedroom. A teenager at high school, she would invite her friends over, for a party perhaps, or after a long day at the beach in summer, or to talk endlessly about those things that interest teenage girls so much. This balcony looked out over a patch of trees, with their branches hanging low. Often a tawny frogmouth owl would sit close by, sleeping off and digesting the delectable catch from the previous night’s hunting – mice, cockroaches, what have you. Below it would leave its massive white droppings. But every now and then, a noise from the balcony would wake it momentarily. It would cast an angry glance at whatever had disturbed its slumber, only to close its eyes and drop off once again.

The place that followed was also blessed with stairs and balconies. Now it was a long, steep and winding staircase, taking one upward and outward. Once, the place had been quarters for servants who worked in the mansion next door. Originally, it had four simple rooms, two above the other two. A fireplace burned in each room down below and chimneys passed through the rooms above – providing warmth and dryness in winter. Later it had been extended outwards and upwards, and more stairs added. I would clamber up the first flight and find myself on a small landing, one door leading left to an oddly angled room that could be just about anything (it did service in more ways one can imagine); the other door on the right would take me into a grand bedroom and out onto the balcony. Yet the stairs led upward again, through a narrow space like a tunnel and bursting out it in a sudden impression of space and openness. Here was an attic, one that had been roughly carved out of the roof space, with views over the harbour and towards the mountains. Much wider and higher than the two floors beneath it, it felt like a platform on a narrower pedestal or column below. Of course, the openness of the attic and the windows generated that feeling of space, but that feeling struck every time I climbed the stairs.

Descent was another matter, risking twisted ankles, ruptures vertebrae or even a neck. One may as well have been descending a cliff face given their precipitousness. I had to place my foot gingerly sideways on each step, careful not the slip and bump on my arse all the way down. Why so narrow? Space and height had something to do with it, for the servants quarters were barely a room’s width across and the ceilings were high indeed. But I wondered whether the builder hadn’t been a Dutchman. Yes, a Dutchman, for in the Netherlands nearly all the stairs are as narrow. The reason – or so I have been told – is that the Dutch had to pay tax on the total floor space, including the width of the stairs. So in order to save a few cents, they made their stairs as narrow as possible, thereby cutting down the total space of a dwelling. And it was certainly a Dutchman who was a self-taught builder, for the stairs were never quite straight, the windows ill-fitting, the doors at wonky angles, the materials scrounged and not always appropriate.

A balcony there was too, one that opened out from the second floor through double doors. With ‘well-weathered’ timber – that is, rotten – as its floor and paint peeling from the railings, it was more like a crumbling ledge on a mountain side. Yet here you could sit for long hours and look over the street. Two old women would meet and talk with all the time in the world. Children would scurry past on the way to and from school. People would rush at 5pm to find a car park, since then the restrictions came to an end. Given the layout of the street, with its three-storey terraces and balconies overhanging the footpaths, the acoustics were brilliant. I could hear every word spoken, every argument, every screech at a child, every creak, groan and footfall. But I could also espy the ocean, past the top of the hill, and judge the conditions of the surf. For my daughters, this was the real benefit of the balcony. From this crow’s nest, they would determine whether the sea was worth a swim. A call to friends, a quick change and they were off.

My new place too has stairs and a balcony. In fact, since I live on the top of a rocky hill, the stairs are impossible to avoid. Worn sandstone stairs appear where a footpath towers above the street, or where a street suddenly comes to an end at a cliff-face, or through an overgrown park and beneath ancient fig trees. Much needed they are, since otherwise one would need ropes and mountain climbing gear to deal with the ledges and slopes. Or long runs of cracked cement stairs to the vantage point such as the Obelisk, a shipping beacon and vantage point for 180 degree views of the ocean, harbour and city. Whatever way I turn, whichever direction I go, I must descend and ascend stairs, to the railway station, to the pub, to the cathedral, to the beach, to my daughter’s place (she now lives at the home with the handmade Dutch stairs).

And my home now also has a balcony, or rather a sunroom, for the balcony was at some point filled in with windows. Here I can use my small binoculars to provide the shipping news, for it looks over the harbour. Every coal tanker, container ship, tug, or harbour dredging vessel passes by, in or out of the harbour. Each one I study, checking its name, country of origin, registration, size, and nature of the bridge. Soon enough I will be on one again, sailing to yet another port in the world. Of course, I can get to the port only by long flights of stairs.

Easter Island Graffiti on Wolfe Street, Newcastle

Looks like this is an ongoing story. A while back, John asked for some pictures of the Easter Island mural on the corner of Wolfe and Tyrrell Streets, Newcastle. During the glorious days when the old mansion on the corner was the abode of artists, musos and general party animals, the graffiti was lovingly tended. Now, the owner has booted them out and is slowly redoing the place for some up-market tenants. Of course, the mural and its associated artwork is gone. In response to John’s initial request, I posted some digital pictures earlier. But I knew I had some other pictures. Eventually, they turned up – from some film shots.

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Pleasure of Departure

I love departures. Not because I can’t wait to leave or because I can’t wait to get to the next place, but because departure is always caught between the hold of a place and the pull of road.

As the train rolls out of the station or as the ship leaves the harbour, I look longingly at the familiar lie of the land, at the streets and people and spaces that have become so familiar. I want to stay a little longer, savour the pleasures I am farewelling. But I am also filled with excitement about the journey begun, new places to see, chance encounters to experience, unexpected turns to negotiate.

The deep enjoyment of leaving is found precisely in this tension. Even more, the ability to appreciate a place, fully and deeply, depends on the fact that I know I will leave. It may be today or it may be weeks, months or even years down the track. But I will leave. And so I look at the placei which I am differently, feel the undertow of my emotions. Experiences – people met, vistas pondered, quiet corners – gain an intensity that is missing from the ordinary run of life.

But I also wonder what it is like to live in the same place for the whole of one’s life. I recall a conversation with an older woman, a grandmother of many. Hearing that I was leaving, yet again, she was absolutely fascinated at distant and exotic places.

‘I’ve never been much of traveller’, she said. ‘I have travelled on a couple of occasions – went down south for the Melbourne Cup, but that was enough’.

I have also tried to imagine what it was like for my parents and grandparents to make that crucial decision to emigrate half-way around the world. Not so long ago (some 60 years) but it seems like an eternity, for then you made the journey never to return. What would it be like to leave a place, an ancestral home? Some never make the transition fully, longing for what was lost. Some still feel, deep in their bodies, that home is still back there. But others do make the shift, thrilled by the new place, knowing that in but a short time they will have changed too much to return.

What would I have done? I would have emigrated as well.

But where is home? On the road, I feel another tension. It is a type of homesickness, a longing for home, but not in the conventional sense. In each place travelled, I wonder, ‘Could I live here?’ ‘Would this become home?’ In some places, the answer is ‘no way’. But in others, the ‘maybe’ may well shift to a ‘why not?’ To these places I have a tendency to return. Yet, before I get too carried away with such desires, I remind myself that there are too many places in the world like this.

After all, is not home always elsewhere?

Ocean Baths

Mafia deals, man boobs, old fogeys charging about in the morning, kids churning up the water on steaming high summer days, fish on quiet autumn swims, football teams training, backpackers in disbelief, weddings, and graceful women in sleek swimming suits … such is the variation within my daily routine of the ocean baths. For nine months of the year, from September to May, I long to slip away on an old bicycle, swing by the headland and under the cliff face, cruise by the beach and dive in the ocean baths.

For me those long months constitute the real summer. It may be a little fresh at either end, I may be the only one in the water at those times – apart from the fish – but as long as the water is swimmable, it is summer. I know, since one year I tried swimming through winter: by June the numbness on my skin would pass only after a few laps, precisely at the moment my blood had decided to abandon the extremities and keep my body core warm. At a certain moment – sometime in September and then April – the water shifts out and then back into hypothermic temperatures as the Southern Ocean pushes north for a few months. Those shifts are the real boundaries between summer and winter.

The daily swim is not merely exercise; I could do that at a gym or in a corner at home. It is an experience of life, especially for one who is by temperament a hermit. The bicycle for the ride down (which takes 5 minutes at most) is scrounged from old parts, dumped hulks and rejects from the garages of others – a true ‘hybrid’. The baths themselves were built during in the early years of the twentieth century. The fashion then, when chlorinated public pools were not yet the rage: headlands in some cities were quarried out, change rooms erected, water pumped from the ocean (since the salt was naturally cleansing) and – in a moment of pure democracy – they were opened to everyone.

Sometimes the water is clear and clean, providing a view across the sweep of the baths, one of which is 75x50m and the other a pool with Olympic dimensions. Or it may be churned and murky with the myriads of summer kids leaping about, pissing, leaving bandaids and other curious objects in the water (thankfully the baths are cleaned each week). The algal growth is stronger in these times, eagerly latching onto dead human cells and whatever else is left floating in the water. It may be seriously choppy when the cloud-bearing southerly hits, the waves slapping one in the face on a breath. It may be full of seaweed, washed in by the massive waves breaking in the south-east corner, riding on top of the king tides. In the quieter times, towards the end of the long season, schools of fish make their home in the baths, although only until the next cleaning. Usually small enough to slip through the pump, they dart away from my thrashing arms. But occasionally I start when a larger fish, having ridden in a wave the day before, darts away, scrubbing flat along the sandy floor or slipping quickly away with a flick of a tail.

Even this hermit cannot avoid the social hub of the baths. People, people, people, of all sorts, from all walks. At first light, the determined old fogeys turn up for their water marching. Not giving an inch (for they still think in imperial measurements), staring you down if you happen to bump into one of them (for you always are at fault), their mottled legs, heavy jowls and sagging body parts fill the pool. Hopefully the exercise keeps the incontinence at bay. In the midst of a scorching summer day, with UV readings beyond extreme, the place is full of children, families out for the day, teenagers flirting and skylarking, a place to ‘escape’, especially for those with little cash to pay for pleasure. For some reason these crowds are far more accommodating to a swimmer like me, making room in a way the fossils do not.

But I prefer to go down late, in the last half hour of light on a long summer day, for then the press of human flesh is a little less. At these times, especially in early spring and late autumn when the breath-taking water repels most, I like to swim long laps, the 75 m lengths, or even diagonals at almost 90 m, or perhaps criss-cross patterns in which I cover the whole territory of the large pool as though it were my own.

At this time the more interesting fauna comes out of hiding. I do not mean the wedding parties, globes of flesh teetering and wobbling, cigarette in one hand and champagne in the other, out for photographs by the ocean and around the art deco baths in the soft light of dusk. Or even the occasional football teams, usually at the start of the season, young men realising that they had a few too many meat pies and beers over the summer, red-faced and gasping, strutting and posing. Or the sun-burnt backpackers who stumble across the baths from the hostels nearby, full of expressions of wonder in the tongues of the world at how close the town is to the beaches.

I mean the firm-bodied milfs who like to slip in for a solitary swim, away from the madding crowd and in the relative cool of a sea-breezy summer evening. Knowing what they do and don’t want, they are a studied example of inner focus or a direct and unambiguous look. And I mean the man-boobs, charging up and down the long pool (75 m), seeming like a mountain in the water – from the waist up. Once he was a tough, proclaimed the tattoos snaking down back and arms. But now, on doctor’s orders, he was out to reduce his cup size.

The catch is that all the exercise seems to have little effect, if the other man with boobs is any guide. Every day at the same time before sunset he is out there – blue T-shirt, cap and antennae. In this case, should one be fortunate enough to meet him in the change rooms, the man boobs pale before the significance of the gut. I can only admire such dedication, such devotion in a lifetime of work to produce that specimen.

My favourite would have to be the mafia trio. As I arrive they are finishing their session, which involves light and slow jogging up in a rough circle at one end of the pool. Short-cropped, tightly curled white hair above swarthy faces, they smile and nod and mutter to one another. Of course, they may be talking about the tomato and basil plants, or the grandchildren, or former mistresses. Or they may be talking about other, shadier deals.