I Don't Know Where to be Homesick for

I don’t know where to be homesick for.

Years of living in France have left their mark. I’ve got a new name that I’m still trying to figure out how to wear, and a bunch of extra family members who have welcomed me with love and kindness. I will never not be Australian, but these days most of my habits are aligned around Paris. So I miss cheap and good red wine, hours-long dinners with friends, the crunch of a freshly baked baguette, the chill humidity of Paris in Autumn.

I miss the jarring ruckus of Saturday morning garbage collection on our old street, pigeons cooing on our window sill, the splatter of water drops hitting that same zinc windowsill as a neighbor a floor or two above us waters their plants. I miss the clanging rock of the line 12 metro, the burnt-metal smell of the rails, and the greasy little latch that releases the carriage doors with a bang. I miss having my shoes coated in Jardin de Tuileries dust and squinting my eyes against chips of light that glance off tiny ripples on the Seine. I even miss (but will never admit) the sharp smell of cigarette smoke, the sight of ash tumbling from the end of my friend’s Gitane, as she angles her head and blows the smoke from the corner of her pursed lips from the window of her 7th-floor apartment.

But is Paris home? Are all those ‘misses’ homesickness?

Australia feels much closer now. After years, I’ve finally realigned with the time zone of my family. Perth and Beijing wake up, eat lunch, and go to sleep together so although I’m still thousands and thousands of kilometers away, and not even in the same hemisphere, I feel suddenly close. I can send my brother a text, and get a response within minutes.

When I moved to Paris, I was crap at staying in contact with friends and family back home. Partially, this was logistical: I had limited access to the internet, almost zero control over my schedule. It was also a little bit deliberate too. I needed to cut myself off, to be alone and feel un-tethered from my familial and social obligations. Now, it's different. My life is much more stable, and the cutting-loose that I exercised in my early 20's has allowed me to appreciate rich and nurturing relationships now. So I call back to Paris on the regular, committed.

When I did that cutting-off seven years ago, some people in my life back in Australia took it in their stride, others didn't and I'm still paying down the debt I incurred on certain relationships in this period. If I’d known how long I would stay away, would I have done it differently? Yet all of a sudden, it’s much easier to reconnect. Years away have sorted the chaff from the hay and my core group of friends is smaller, more manageable. I miss them. I plan to keep them close.

Then there is that wide, brown sunburned country itself. I’ll be visiting soon, for the first time in about two years, and I know exactly what I want.

To sit at the gigantic wooden counter of a country pub and order a pint of Swan Draught. To burn my fingertips on battered fish and chips. To burn my thighs on a roasting pleather seat of an overheated car. To hear Triple J on the radio, the strange whistle-warble of a magpie in my Dad’s garden, and the rush of waves breaking on coarse sand and pushing dried-out racks of seaweed back and forth in the whitewash. I’ve got my shopping list all planned out too, knowing that piecing together little bits of one place go a long way to making another feel more familiar.

Yet, is this homesickness? Perth is my home, but it also hasn't been my home for a long time. According to the late British novelist and my namesake L.P Hartley "The past is a foreign country". Perth is both my past, and another country. So is what I feel just nostalgia?

greatwallofchinagubeikou.jpg

I never imagined I'd live in China. I barely even imagined China at all. As I daydreamed myself around the world, China was a non-serviced stop that my train of thought rushed past, while I sat behind the window secretly glad not to have to alight. That looks hard. Yet here I am.

Increasingly, I associate the smells wafting out of the restaurants that I walk by not with Chinese food, but just with… food. The air is so dry, my epidermis shrinks in horror, and can only be saved with liberal and frequent applications of lotion. It’s sparrows, not pigeons that we shoo away. I walk through Tuanjiehu Park every morning, either weaving through the regimented ranks of middle-aged women square dancing, or by the toddler-dandling grandparents that gather around the cacophony and pomp of a gigantic, aged choir who sing (for all I know) revolutionary songs from their youth. On polluted days, the air is acrid and clingy and I try to breathe shallow breaths, as if that would make any difference, waiting for the howling northern winds that usher in bright blue skies and make the windows of the apartment hoo and woo. Fruit that I thought I knew transform and become gigantic (pomelo) and tiny (crabapples). The streets smell of chuan-r meat skewers and jiānbǐng fried pancakes and sound like the rhotic 儿 er of Beijing taxi-drivers which seems to originate somewhere between the back of the tongue and the lymph nodes. Their gruff, deep dialect reminds me of the moles from the Brian Jacques novels I adored as a kid, which was in turn based upon the thick Somerset accent of the last century. I eavesdrop on them, my tongue silently reaching for that same rhotic 儿 er, or going deeper still, my diaphragm dropping to try out the 国 guó which is necessary if I ever want to say the name of the country I currently live in. Which is now… home?

At least I’m in good company while I try to figure this out. Through a twist of fate, my parents-in-law live in this very same Chinese city. They’ve been on the move since the ‘70s and indeed my father-in-law is one link in a long familial chain of expatriates that goes all the way back to the 1730s. Their family name is Pellegrin, from the Latin pelegrinus, or pilgrim. Pilgrims, ever wandering. A pilgrim by definition is somebody who is still voyaging, who has not yet arrived, who is named not after what they do, but the transient state in which they find themselves, or have chosen to inhabit.

Now it’s my name too, and one I’m proud of. So although I may not have quite worked out how to wear it yet (Hartley Pellegrin? Pellegrin Hartley?) given my current position, it feels right.

Thanks for reading!

Want more? You may enjoy my essay about leaving Paris, and all of the objects we'd accumulated in that time, behind.

Something lighter? Here I talk about pissing on my shoes in Chinese squat toilets, among other things.