“Home is Wherever I’m with You”, I painted on a 12x12x2 inch square of wood. That was four or five years ago, and I did mean it then. My husband and I were contemplating the idea of moving abroad, far away from Utah, something we’d often talked about in a “what it” kind of way. Now though, it had become a possible reality; we were actively taking steps to manifest this dream. The plaque was to demonstrate my commitment to taking this leap with him.
The plaque now rests on a bookshelf in the living room, or ‘lounge’ in the Australian vernacular. Like I said, I was sincere about the sentiment when I gave it to my husband. I wanted to learn what living was like outside of the US. My friend Joanne, another American expat here in Australia, says, “it’s real life, someplace different.” I didn’t know that when I was still back in Utah, but I was ready to find out, to make a new home in a new country and culture. I believed that no matter where we were, we could make it home.
We spent a year in limbo, waiting for confirmation that the relocation was actually going to take place. We didn’t know whether or not we should start packing or put our house on the market. We didn’t know how much we should tell our friends and family about our plans. Why stir things up if it wasn’t going to materialize? I remember I felt frozen, in a state of inertia, unable to move forward in my life because I didn’t know what my future held for even the next few months.
As we come up on the end of our four-year visa, I find myself once more in that limbo state, and pondering the meaning of home. Over the past three and a half years, I’ve come to realize that the concept of home is much more complicated and multifaceted than I understood when I made the plaque. I decided to poll my friends to get their take on the concept of home. Their answers reinforced the notion that home isn’t just one thing or in one place.
I’ve just spent two and a half months in the US, first in Texas, then Iowa, Colorado, and finally Utah, all places I’ve called home at some point in my life. When people here ask us where in the US we’re from – as soon as they hear our accent, that is the first thing they ask – we tell them we moved here from Utah, but rush to assure them (us really) that we are not from there, but consider Colorado home. Even when I say that, I have a question mark in my head.
Back in May, the plane I was on came to a bouncing landing in Dallas, Texas. I quickly pulled out my phone, seeking reassurance that my new granddaughter hadn’t arrived first. She landed in the wee hours, a day later. Over the next few weeks, I navigated the once familiar roads of the Dallas Metroplex, running errands and picking my elder granddaughter up from the same school my own children had attended. I had the oddest feeling of déjà vu, like I’d been picked up out of my world in the present and plopped back down at a point in my past that I had worked hard to escape from; this is actually a reoccurring nightmare I have.
Ellen, who responded to my polling question, talked about her parents’ experience immigrating to Australia from Slovenia in their 30s. “As an immigrant, you become homeless in a way. You have a past you cannot share with your new home and you no longer belong in your old home, because time has moved on.” She said that home for her parents is a point in time that no longer exists. My Texas home was certainly that. Driving around, the streets became more and more familiar; I remembered routes I’d taken regularly during my life there, and even a few times when I was lost in thought, I’d find myself on auto-pilot, taking one of those routes. Where was I going? Not home. Home doesn’t exist there anymore.
People and relationships were a common theme in my friends’ responses to my question. Maureen told me, “I consider both Australia (been here 16 years) and the US home. The hardest part for me and it doesn’t get any easier, is missing my family in the US. However, the love of my life is here along with my step daughters and 7 grandchildren plus lots of friends so that means home to me.” Sarah added, “Home is about feeling adapted to a place, rather than ‘out of place,’ about the connections I make with the people there, friendships I make, and the memories I build. But I think for me, my family is really what I think of as Home.”
After six weeks in Texas, I joined my husband in Iowa. I moved to Iowa as a young girl; my mother and brothers live there still. All these many years I have traversed the corn-field lined country roads, every summer taking my own children there when they were young, and now my daughter brings her daughters. I feel a comfort there in the nest of my family; they are ‘home’, but Iowa has never been home, even when I lived there. I never had that feeling of having adapted to a place as Sarah mentioned. Back then, I longed for the other home we’d left behind.
When my daughter and I arrived in Colorado many years ago, I immediately felt at home. The mountains gave me a feeling of being grounded, safety and comfort. This idea of feeling at home in a place you’ve never lived or perhaps never even been before, was something else I heard from my friends. Carmen told me that she feels a strong bond to Italy, the place, people, their behaviors. Her family is Italian, her parents having immigrated to Australia. She was born and raised here, yet when she goes to Italy, she feels like she’s arrived home. She tells me that she can be her authentic self there, and isn’t self-conscious about speaking loudly and animatedly. Everyone else is doing it, too! Sally says, “the first hour I was in Germany, the bus came up over a hill, and it hit me, ‘I am home.’ So what is that? I didn’t know people, culture or scenery, but felt a connection.”
Like Carmen, Merrolee spoke of the “shared values and experiences…ways of being and doing” that she finds when she returns to her New Zealand home. I, too, experience this when I return to the US, particularly Colorado. When I am there I can be myself in a different way than here in Australia. I’m not constantly aware of my otherness. And yet, while in the US this last time, there were several occasions when I bumped into a reverse otherness. I would find myself stumbling trying to perform some task, because I was doing things the Aussie way. I had to stop and say to myself, “oh yeah, it’s done like so here.”
When I’m here in Australia, I refer to the US as home, and when I’m there the reverse is true. I do feel like an outsider here in Australia. As much as I have adapted, I never really have a feeling of true belonging. And back in the US, I no longer feel I completely belong there either. I feel homeless in the way Ellen spoke of. And while I have shared experiences and memories while in Colorado, the place I keep referring to as home, I do wonder how much of that is just a point in time. Yes, my son is there, and friends who are family. They are home. But is Colorado home? When I look at those mountains now, it’s almost like looking at a postcard of a place I once was.
In Boulder, we held the gathering of “Americans who had met in Australia and just happen to all be in Colorado the same week”. As I sat there, sipping wine and discussing with these friends what home meant, I suddenly had the light bulb flash that I felt at home right there, in a way I hadn’t since flying away from Australia eight weeks prior. These people were my new normal, and they could be my “home” whether in Sydney or Boulder.
When we lived in Utah, each time we drove back there after visiting Colorado, as we came through the canyon and the Salt Lake Valley opened up before us, that song from the 1980 Popeye movie would play in my head, “oh sweet haven, god must love us.” That rust and sage colored landscape with the city nestled in the valley felt safe to me. During our renewed contemplation of moving across the waters, Utah has been part of that conversation. I did still consider it a possible sweet haven. Returning there after being away from that particular state for almost four years, I was much more aware of the ingrained passive-aggressive culture than I was when I lived there. There was nothing safe about it anymore.
At the end of ten weeks spent in the US, I longed for the quiet and solitude of this home, this room where I sit typing now, at this desk, this window with a view of the eucalyptus trees and the sounds of the currawongs and magpies. I was weary of sleeping in strange beds, sharing bathrooms with too many people, and cooking in other people’s kitchens. When the Delta ticketing agent told me there was a problem with my passport and that there was no proof that I had permission to be in Australia, I teared up and just about vomited on the counter. I was terrified that my return home would be delayed.
So here I am. Home. In limbo again, wondering what will happen with the visa; where will home be six months from now? When we left here to visit the US, there was no indication that the visa would be renewed, so we told people we were probably returning in the near future. Now I’m wishing I’d listened to my own advise from five years ago. It looks like the visa may be extended, after all. I do feel somewhat of a reprieve. The truth is, if my family were not in the US, I wouldn’t be rushing to move back there, even though I miss the seasons and the landscape.
My conversations with friends has helped to solidify the understanding that home is not a single concept, even for one person. Home is the people we love, it’s memories shared, a safe haven where we can be who we are, a feeling of familiarity and belonging. And home doesn’t have to be in one physical location. Perhaps understanding this can help me to move past the limbo and just be where I am. Perhaps I can do as my friend Joy, who I met when she lived in Australia and now lives in London, said, “we simply make our ‘home’ wherever we move to in the world.”