Comforts of home
It begins in November. Friends fly in over the red roofs and swimming pools of Sydney, returning to where we all started out. From London, Geneva, New York, Tokyo they return to the city where I still live, part of the annual migration home for a few weeks of family and sunshine. Together we share the joys of this city: swimming and drinking, salt water and coffee. Alone we reflect on how our lives have turned out.
The geography of my life is very small. Most days it stretches across only two hills. In the mornings I set out from my house, walking past the terraces and wheelie bins and jacarandas that mark this landscape as the inner suburbs of Sydney. I pass the building where my dad worked when I was little, take a shortcut past the first home I owned.
After 20 minutes of steep ups and downs, I arrive at the hospital where I am studying to be a doctor. It also happens to be the hospital where I was born, in a room of metal furniture and green linoleum. It is the hospital where both my children were born. My whole life flashes before me on this daily journey because my whole life has been spent in this one city.
I’d assumed by my age – 36 – I would have lived overseas. The early signs pointed that way. As a child I travelled to Cairo, Mexico City, Salzburg. Barely out of high school I backpacked through India. But it never translated to a life in another place – not even for three months, not even for six weeks. So here I am, fully grown, living where I have always lived.
By the end of November scarlet bougainvillea begins to flower, an annual event that for me signals the week of my birthday. I walk down the hill from my home to meet friends for birthday drinks at a local bar. One friend is only hours off a plane from Abu Dhabi, another not long returned from Bologna. My brother and his wife are here, too, still learning to live in this city again after several years in Montreal. As we fill the empty space I consider the places these people were born: Adelaide, Ireland, Brisbane, Malaysia, the United States.
Serendipitously, one friend happens to be in town during a brief trip from New York. I learn he will soon take an important job for a big company there. I am so happy for him, and so jealous. I reflect on my own unrequited aspirations for New York. So many visits, so many miles walked through Brooklyn Heights, Tribeca, the Bronx. I keep a map of its neighbourhoods in my head, like a glory box of faded linens for a wedding that never went ahead.
As I walk home at the end of the night I think about what has kept me living here when so many others have moved on. I could point to the husband who is walking alongside me, or our two small children tucked up in bed at home, or the mortgage on that home. But it would be possible to move and keep all those things.
Really the reason I am still here is so simple it is embarrassing: it is my home and I love it. I love the clash of city mess and natural beauty. I love not being able to walk down the street without bumping into friends and parents of friends and children of mates from school. I love how the very familiarity of the place has pushed me to explore in other ways, through reading and study and strange career changes, from law to journalism to medicine.
I know the things I am supposed to think about Sydney – it is superficial, irrelevant, too far from the rest of the world – but I don’t feel them.
We are told that good weather makes for mindlessness, that serious thinking requires cold and dark and suffering. But this is not my experience. For me thinking and sunshine go together.
Christmas comes. It smells like pine needles and pool chlorine. More friends return from overseas. They say things that make me doubt my choice to stay:
“I love coming back but, my god, after a few weeks…”
“Don’t worry, I get it. Staying here makes sense if you have kids.”
“Nothing ever seems to change.”
“We will move one day. Maybe to Paris, definitely not back here.”
New Year’s Eve arrives. I dance with friends, relatives of friends, former colleagues, friends of my brother, people I know from the neighbourhood, the sister of a school friend, all of whom happen to be at the same party because that is how small my world is.
Midnight comes, the sky bursts into flower. For the first time I see the fireworks as a metaphor for the city, for those things the visiting expats are saying.
“Wow! It’s amazing!” we exclaim. “Check out the bridge!” Minutes pass. It is still amazing. But it’s the same amazing it was 10 minutes ago. And the same amazing it was last year, last decade, back when I watched it as a child.
But even in this beautiful boredom there is something I like. When you live in the same place your whole life, moments get repeated so many times boredom becomes rhythm and ritual.
The rituals that marked my own childhood now mark my children’s: New Year’s Eve fireworks, show bags at the Royal Easter Show, the first swim of summer, standing starkers in the garden eating dripping mangoes. I hear people talk about the loss of tradition, meaning and community and can’t relate. The world spins and changes, but I am the centre, holding, a keeper of the history of the city. I walk through the landscape seeing the place as it is, and also how it was.
I share this with my children. “You know that park with the brick chimney you can see from grandma and grandpa’s balcony?” I ask my daughter. “That was a furniture factory; it burned down before I was born. If you look in the photo album you can see the photos grandpa took when it happened.” The album shows black-and-white pictures of a pale brick unit block surrounded by marine junk, in the days before Balmain became home to waterfront parks and marketing executives and shops selling expensive yoga pants.
Already my daughter is growing sick of these stories, but I am not. I tell her about the house where I spent most of my childhood, on the other side of the harbour. I tell her about the giant trampoline and the plum fights. We drive past the house, park and look. A hulking branch of the liquidambar tree out the front has crashed down in a storm the night before. I recall all the hours my family spent sweeping up the spiky bobbles dropped by that tree. We discuss whether it will get chopped down now.
I accept that I am provincial. I also accept that one day my children may want to escape the cloying embrace of the city of their birth. I hope they do, at least for a time. I am glad that when they do they will know where they are from, and where they can return. I am glad they have known a childhood where grandparents, cousins, aunties and uncles are an almost daily presence in their lives.
I know I am not the only one reconciling feelings about the way life has turned out. For me it is the lack of movement I reflect on. For others it may be the absence of children or a career that has not turned out as expected. It is the realisation that as human beings we get to live a life, not every life. And that this one life is shaped by chance and circumstance as much as the type of person we are, or once felt destined to become.
I also try to remember that my life is not even half over, hopefully. There is still time. I may still live elsewhere, one day. For the moment, though, I remain. Summer draws to a close. The crowds at the bars near the Opera House and Bondi Beach start to thin. Friends disappear on planes and I stay, pacing the same few blocks of the city where I was born.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2015 as "Comforts of home". Subscribe here.