Long ago, I wrote a blog post I called A Problem of Place on my old blog, which I re-published here. I wrote that post soon after my move from the US to Australia. As I near my big move from Australia to the UK, this post is re-visiting the idea of place, but from a much different perspective. It’s a bit self-indulgent, so forgive me in advance; but this is what happens when you are sequestered in your house, contemplating another global move and finishing your doctoral thesis.
I’ve said so many times in my life that ‘home’, for me, is linked to those I love, not particular places. I have no sentimental attachment to any one place on this planet as my ‘hometown’. In fact, I generally refuse to answer that question and love to list my hometown as “Anytown, USA” because I grew up in a few small towns in the Upper Midwest of the United States. These towns are interchangeable with many other small American towns (to me), and I feel no particular connection to any one of them.
When I hear others talk about their hometowns – or when I have the privilege of seeing them revisit them – I am part envious, part fascinated, and part baffled. The rose-coloured hue of their reflections make sense, even though I don’t look upon places in my own past in the same way. Of course we’re going to remember the good things. Of course we’re going to think things ‘were better when’. It’s just human nature. I wear rose-coloured glasses sometimes too; I just don’t remember the good things about places as much as I do about people. Maybe that’s just because I’m an introvert, and there are few people I have become really close to over the years, so I hold those people close to my chest.
My envy comes from hearing them describe the little things: the smells, the colours, the small adventures, the view that a particular landscape is ‘right’ or ‘home’. A part of me wants that feeling. I am promiscuous when it comes to my love of landscapes, and can see beauty in many. I can’t imagine why someone would say Michigan is where the trees are the right height.* This is where bafflement comes into play. What does it feel like to attach so much value to a particular place? I watch and listen like an anthropologist studying a little-known culture, and I’ve been mentally taking notes for a lifetime.
The other day, when walking through John Forrest National Park, I had what felt like a revelation: this is the first time that I have felt an overwhelming sadness in leaving a place. I have been spending as much time as I can outside over the past few months, trying to soak up every last Australian landscape. A lot of that hiking has been alone, which has been exactly what I’ve needed. Because being alone has meant I can stop as much as I like to admire a tree, a rock, a lizard, a grasshopper, or a flower. Or just soak up the smells and, yes, even the sounds of loud Australian birds. There have been big things, too, like the echidnas, Tasmanian devil, platypus and (most importantly) wombats that I saw on my recent Tasmanian Bucket List Tour. These have all been moments that I have relished. Moments that I have wished I could prolong and am already wishing I could return to again.
Yet it has been the cumulative experience of the small moments that have had the greatest
impact, and that have led to the realisation that I am going to miss this place. Normally when I move, which I have done many times before, I think mainly about the people I will miss, and how I will keep in touch. I think about that here, too, but the keeping in touch doesn’t seem so unattainable now. In my eighth year as an expat, I realise that it’s not so difficult. But perhaps there is no surrogate for a place that you have grown to love.
When I talk about missing Perth, there’s a part of my brain that shouts at me:
“Perth is just a bunch of suburbs!”. Of course that’s not what I am talking about when I say I will miss this place. I am talking about big, beautiful eucalypts. Whimsical grass trees. Morton Bay fig trees, with roots that seem set on conquering entire post codes. The smell of lemon-scented gums. Stubborn, strong-willed wombats just a short plane ride away. The bluest, sunniest skies I have ever seen. Where I am going, there is no replacement for these things. And I don’t know how to mourn for that loss because I’ve never experienced it before. I’ve never felt so much attachment to a place, and it feels like such an unlikely turn of events for the woman who never understood how a place and not a person could feel like home.
So herein lies the challenge: my person who is home….he is already in Liverpool, which will soon be my new residence. At the same time, there is still the pull of a new place that has become home, on the other side of the planet from my new home. I don’t have a way to reconcile those two opposing feelings, and I don’t have an eloquent way of discussing them, either. Whenever I discuss my hesitance to move to Liverpool, I feel like a petulant child. It’s a wonderful opportunity, and I am grateful. I love the UK, and I will be able to look out my window and see Wales, one of my favourite places on the planet. I can visit Europe for the weekend. When I talk about my reluctance to move, I am often dismissed. My fears of not getting a job in my field are unfounded, I am told. I will build new professional networks, I am advised. My dissatisfaction with the weather will pass, I hear.
But those things are not the crux of the issue. Those are the superficial things that make me feel anxious. The things that I can find words to discuss. This other feeling, about leaving this place, that’s a more difficult feeling to express, and one that doesn’t have an easy answer. I will visit Australia, of course. My in-laws live here. I may (I hope) move back here one day. I am an Australian citizen. Yet none of these things can remedy this new, unfamiliar ‘problem of place‘, where it’s not a matter of thinking a new place can solve all of my problems, but of wondering why I’ve become so attached to this one.
I don’t have a conclusion or an answer to this. Maybe being an expat and living in many different places across the globe – or even, perhaps, within a single country for some – will inevitably lead to a mixed bag of feelings ranging from statelessness to intense connection to places. This, despite the fact that you are neither stateless, nor do you belong to any particular place. When you are an expat, people will always remind you of that fact. My voice and my place of birth means I am painted with broad brush strokes, forming the outlines of what it apparently means to be “American”. I never really was, or will I ever be, accepted as Australian or or as any other nationality. So why the feeling in the pit of my stomach in leaving? It isn’t patriotism. No, I wouldn’t know what that feels like.
It’s more like mourning the loss of a loved one. So I suppose, just as people can be home, places can be loved like people. I get it now. Sort of. At least I am starting to get the gist, just as I am saying goodbye.
—– *Okay, that was a political ploy by Mitt Romney. But the sentiments are not far off from those expressed by people when talking about the landscapes they call home.