Reclaiming a city

“If you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.”

― Beryl Markham, West with the Night

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After four months, I’m home. I stand outside the airport and wait. I’m thin and pale, I’ve been bed ridden the past two weeks and have all but stopped eating. My hips poke out of my jeans as I lean against my heavy and taut suitcase. My partner arrives and we see each other for the first time in a month, we had said goodbye at LAX on the day his temporary visa expired. He looks well, in his new olive green shirt, and I can’t help but feel that I’ve missed out on something by not being there when he bought it. That his life has continued in my absence feels obvious, but is also a surprise. He takes me to the car, and then my new house. I had signed the lease two weeks before while still living in Oregon.

The house doesn’t look distinctly Australian to me but I’m not sure what that intangible label consists of even now. It’s not American, the place I’ve spent the last four months living and studying. American homes, or at least the homes in Oregon, are colourful. The wooden panels are painted electric blues, soft yellows and occasionally, a deep gothic purple. They are large and sprawling; filled with long open rooms and basements. They have monstrous trucks in the driveway and the kitchens are stocked; Hershey’s chocolate syrup, sickly sweet with a dash of bitterness; vanilla pudding packs and meat, packed and frozen, from local game.

This house, my house, is empty. I find my bed, white sheets bright against the 70s brown, yellow and orange mottled carpet. The living room has a couch, a TV and boxes of to-be-assembled IKEA bookshelves. We don’t have any other furniture. The backyard is overgrown, grape vines towering and thick on the pergola. Agaves bursting out of pots, their roots cracking the black plastic. But the garden is large and fenced, perfect for my curious staghound. The house is close to the city. The rent is good, especially split four ways and without an exchange rate to screw me over.

After the twenty-two hour travel time it seems like, suddenly, I’m home.

While I was in America, I didn’t ache for Australia itself. I was there and tried not to think about home. But it snuck up on me. I would listen to Courtney Barnett as I walked to class and miss a place where my accent didn’t announce itself. I began to use the Vegemite my aunt had sent me in a care package. It didn’t taste as salty as it used to. My tastes had changed after months of cheddar-laden fries and 22-ounce vanilla lattes with whip. Most of all, I missed Australian books, reading familiar landscapes that are written without cliché.

‘Places change; they go on without you…  So you can’t go back,’ Doreen Massey says in Travelling Thoughts. When I came home, something strange happened. Adelaide had gone on without me, slowly and begrudgingly; new bars had quietly sprung up in Melbournesque alleyways and there were rumbles of excitement at a new ALDI in the Southern suburbs. But for the first time, I felt a belonging and attachment for South Australia. I had always planned to move away. My determination since childhood was cold and unemotional. I would move to Victoria, where the jobs were, or to Queensland, where the heat was humid and, at night, fruit bats filled the sky. I even thought about going as far as London or New York.

Adelaide had never felt like a complete place to me. It suffered from small town syndrome. Being compared to Melbourne was a tough gig, and mostly we came out losing. As a child, I remember staying up late and watching Rove Live as he berated Adelaide; The City of Churches. The audience laughed wholeheartedly at how boring we were, how well known our serial killers became. And I agreed with them.

In Adelaide, it always felt as if there was one degree of separation. There was the potential of bumping into someone I knew wherever I went. Even as a kid, this lack of anonymity stifled me. Trying to live with some semblance of privacy, I’ve run away from exes in the aisles of supermarkets. When I was seventeen, my family doctor saw me on the street and stopped me to take my pulse. He said I was looking ‘too pale’. I was on my way home from filling myself with coffee cake.

When I came home from America, I could clearly see what I loved about home. The flat plains, the gum trees sprinkled down my street, the sun shining on my face as I hung out the washing in the cool morning air, the convenience of driving to and parking in the city. For the first time in my life, I felt a sense of belonging. An identity tied to place.

Rob Garbutt in his book, The Locals: Identity, Place and Belonging in Australia and Beyond, says that being and feeling local is an act that is ‘unmarked and natural’. Living in Adelaide, for me, has become natural.

I know the streets; they are so familiar that they embody times in my life for me. The scratched, shining malls balls are where I used to congregate with my friends after school on Friday afternoons. The stainless steel sculpture: two spheres, each 2.15 metres in diameter and stacked on top of each other. It has been there since 1977 and has become so commonplace for me, I walk by and barely catch my reflection in its surface. The stained, gritty concrete outside an office building near Light Square, a square that honours Colonel Light, the SA icon who designed the Adelaide city centre, is where I vomited on my own shoes moments before my partner told me he loved me for the first time. The white sand on Henley Beach and the little yiros shop with the perfectly salted chips evokes memories of being sixteen with sunburnt shoulders.

I never thought I would feel a sense of belonging. That has never been me; I felt freakish in high school and even now, so many years later I have few friends and limited social interactions. I’ve found belonging in voices: books and television, conversations with friends and hugs with my dog. Feeling at home came as a surprise even though a sense of place, at least according to the World Values Survey, is something most Australians enjoy. Ninety-five percent of Australians reported feeling pride in their nationality, the somewhat nebulous ‘Australian way of life’.

Perhaps my love of Adelaide has only come through laziness. Belonging stems from a feeling of effortlessness; I can navigate the streets, I own a car here and my parents are less than half an hour away. While this effortlessness has always been here, I had never appreciated it until I was living in America.

Aside from this physical effortlessness, there is also an emotional one. I no longer have to navigate a culture shift. I don’t have to explain what a ‘goon sack’ is to bemused college students or try to figure out the difference between half and half and one percent milk (I’m still not solid on that one).

Only now do I feel comfortable calling Adelaide home. But my love of place has come when the choice to stay will impact my life, and career, the most. Being a writer is tricky anywhere, but arts jobs aren’t flourishing in SA. There are few and select places to work. Choosing to stay, a passive act, will make such a change to my work and my future. While I will benefit from living in a place I love, in the long term, my career and work won’t.

Recently on a trip to Melbourne, I was talking with friends about place and what this means. A woman told me that people living in Melbourne, working in the creative industries, are from everywhere. All over Australia. This was so much the case that it took months for her to find a colleague or a friend who had grown up in central Melbourne. Melbourne, it seems, is not the creative utopia where people feel they belong but rather, a place where people from all over Australia gather and dedicate themselves to the arts.

As I write this, I sit outside enjoying the sun on an Adelaide winter’s day. My dog ambles around me and it is quiet, except for the stray bark from the neighbours’ yard and the chatter of passersby. The weeds are more than overgrown and every half an hour a plane roars over me. For now, this is where I belong. I’m lucky enough to have enough opportunities to work and live here. But I know this won’t last forever: I will move, or not, and live with the consequences. My life and opportunities will eventually expand and perhaps Adelaide won’t be able to keep up.

But if this is the case, I now know that in Melbourne or London or wherever I go, I will be surrounded by new friends who also miss home.

Image: Dan Stark

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kb_pictureKaterina Bryant is a writer and editor based in Adelaide. Her work has appeared in journals such as Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging and the Meanjin Blog. She edits nonfiction for Voiceworks and Antic. Her essay, ‘A Pig in Mud’ was shortlisted for the 2016 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. She tweets at @katerina_bry.

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