Monday, November 8, 2010

When Home is... an Australian in England

What happens when you move overseas only to feel more ‘at home’ than you do in the country of your birth?

Louise Craig moved to England at the age of 26 and from the moment she stepped off the plane, felt she was home. Here she writes about the experience of falling in love with another country...

‘It’s nearly 12 years since I left the place where I was born; six years since I left the country where I grew up. I’ve lived in four cities and 12 houses. Every move’s been for a good reason, another step along in life. But now I’m ready to stop for a while – not because I’m tired, but because I finally feel content.

The odd thing, or so my friends tell me, is that I feel content in a place that isn’t home. I’m an Australian living in London. I’m supposed to be here for a ‘working holiday’, experiencing life abroad before I go back home to settle down.

But what if I never get around to going home?

I grew up not so much feeling that I didn’t want to be in Australia, but rather that there was a wonderland out there, far, far away, called England, and that I was destined to be there. It was a place of good manners, proper tea and sturdy cakes, E-types and plummy accents, tweed and pinstripes and Liberty prints. It was green of hill and cool of weather, and as far from humid, big-country-town-like Brisbane, where I was born, as I could get.

The trouble was, I’d never actually been to England. But I couldn’t rest until I discovered whether my fantasy world was real. At 26, when I finally organised myself to travel there, it wasn’t for a holiday – it was to live. I left my job, sold what little I owned and banked heavily on the fact that I’d like what I found.

Friends and family wished me well, but also that I should find what I was looking for. What was that? Proof? A place to satisfy my Anglophilia? My spiritual home?

The proof came the moment I arrived. It was real – what a relief! And the satisfaction arrived very soon after. Every building, every street, every garden square transported me to other times in history and connected me with thousands of characters who once occupied the same space. Even now, with childlike wonder, I’ll break into a spontaneous smile as I walk along the street – I’m really here, really part of this other world.

I’ve fallen in love. In central London, where I live, I don’t get mad on the Tube or upset at the grime; I relish the cold and the grey; I’m at peace with the gaudy neon advertising signs that tower over Piccadilly Circus. Rather, as the Gallagher brothers would say, it’s the little things that make me so happy: the old-fashioned curve of a street lamp, the red of a pillar box, the whirr of an electric milk float early in the morning.

I make a game of picking out Margo Leadbetter types doing their weekly shop in Waitrose, and I’m the only person I know who, when it rains or snows, opens the window and pokes her head out to enjoy it.

Eventually I took my first holiday back to Australia – in the July two and half years after I left. Friends and colleagues in London gasped that I’d left it so long (not to mention remind me, in astonishment, that it was winter ‘down there’).

Naturally, friends and family in Australia asked when I would be home – for good, they meant. My instinctive reaction was to reply that I’d be going home at the end of this holiday. A perceptive aunt tut-tutted and reminded me that I meant I’d be going ‘back’ not ‘home’. Suddenly, I didn’t know what I meant.

She asked, too, whether I felt as if I’d been to England before. Gosh – yes. There is a chilling, yet reassuring, sense of familiarity about the place. But why? Is it because I spent the 26 years before arriving subconsciously swotting up, watching thousands of hours of BBC television and reading mountains of Tatler and British Vogue magazines?

Is it that my head has lived in England all my life, but the rest of me in Australia? It would certainly explain why I could explain what Quaglinos, an OAP and a double-yellow line were before I’d even stepped foot on English soil.

But during that holiday ‘home’, I watched an Australian travel program on television in which they provided advice on visiting London. Tellingly, a lump rose in my throat as I watched the images of where I now live and work and play. I missed it and felt homesick.

I couldn’t understand why because, in London, I had the same, more understandable, reaction when the ‘So where the bloody hell are you?’ advertisements for Australia appeared on television. It occurred to me, painfully, that I wasn’t at all sure where the bloody hell home was.

Arriving back in London at the end of that holiday, the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac at Heathrow and two things happened: a huge grin cracked across my face and a light bulb went on in my head. I was home again. I’d just given myself permission to have more than one.

Some might say I’m naïve to the realities of living on this expensive, overcrowded island. Whatever it seems, this England affords me an overwhelming feeling of contentment and a place to rest my spirit. I’m learning that home is wherever you choose it to be: where you are happy, where you feel an affinity, where you have people you love, where you’ve been for so long you can’t remember being anywhere else.

So, have I found what I’m looking for? It’s a question I hardly dare ask myself; except to say I don’t feel as if I’m living away from anywhere. I just feel at home.’

All images © Louise Craig


Sachaa said...

Great article Lou!! Big lump in my throat as your sentiments echo my state of mind....half of the time!All these things I worrying about missing if we do end up back 'home' in Oz. After nearly a decade in London I definitley have my rose-tinted glasses on about Australia!

Anonymous said...

Oh how interesting - I too felt the urge to discover London at a very early age - met and married an Englishman who promptly took me to live in Malaysia, Portugal, back to London, then Hong Kong before coming back to Sydney 32 years ago and I still feel like an expatriate and would be very happy living in the UK even now! I truly understand how you feel Lou - enjoy your life wherever you are.

Raine and Sage said...

Hello! What a lovely blog you have. I found you via Wilona and Me, and I'm so glad. I've just been reading through your posts and it's excellent reading too! I used to live in Leichhardt so understand why it would be hard to leave. Agreed with your sentiments that as long as you have your family, books and photos you've got a 'home'. I'm a reader too. I'm going to sit down with a good tea and read more of your blog later. :)


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