As a child, I spent quite a lot of time away from my parents. I don’t mean this in a neglectful way. What I mean is, I was into everything. I was in the school choir, I loved drama, I was a total geek at school… This meant lots of opportunities to go away, on choir tours and summer camps, school trips and foreign exchanges.
I loved them all. And with the exception of about 10 minutes on a summer camp when I was 12, I’d never really felt homesick. What’s more, I didn’t really understand people who did.
Now let’s skip forward a few years, to July 14th 2010:
I’m 20. I’ve split up from my partner a week before. I’ve just hugged my parents good bye, knowing it will be months before I see them again. I’m moving to a city where the only person I know by sight is a girl I met for coffee once, and I am only connected with because we just happen to go to the same university.
I’m standing in Heathrow Airport, clutching my carry-on suitcase, coat, handbag and air ticket to Melbourne. Ahead of me is the queue to go through security. A couple of metres away, a very stern official is grumpily handing out little plastic bags for liquids, and snapping at passengers with oversized bottles.
I promptly start to cry.
Surprisingly, Mr Grumpy-airport-official suddenly turns into Mr Kind-sympathetic-man and offers me a tissue, which I gratefully accept.
Once I calm down and my tears subside, I’m fine. I sit in the departure lounge reading my book, get some food and generally just relax until my flight arrives. I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine. That’s what I keep telling myself – and for a while it seems like it’s true. I think, maybe now that I’ve had my cathartic cry, that will be it and I’ll be fine from now on.
But no. As soon as the plane reaches the Heathrow runway, the tears start to flow once more, coursing down my cheeks and dripping off the end of my nose. I’m wedged in between a businesswoman and a middle-aged man. They both subtly angle themselves away from me.
In an effort to cheer myself up, I rummage in my handbag for a packet of boiled sweets. Out of politeness I offer one to each of my neighbours. They both shake their heads and turn themselves further away from me, still pretending not to notice my tears.
For the rest of the flight, I’m fine. There’s a slightly emotional moment in Singapore airport when I use their computers to send quick emails to my parents and my ex, but other than that I’m mostly too tired to cry.
When I arrive in Melbourne, I’m collected from the airport by someone from the university, who takes me to my accommodation. I’m given a temporary room key, and shown to the room, half of which will be mine for the rest of the year. It’s bare, it’s dreary, and it’s totally empty, except for two big cardboard boxes containing bedding and kitchenware. I make up the bed and take a quick shower to wash off the stickiness from the flight.
Then, because it’s early morning and my body clock is all out of sync and I’m a strange city where I know nothing and nobody, I crawl into bed and sob myself to sleep. Pathetic, right? Tell me about it…
Eventually, I wake up, and decide I need to go and investigate the possibility of food. My hair is sticking out at all angles as though I’m on a Van der Graaf generator (I haven’t bought a hair dryer yet, and wet short hair and bedtime don’t mix). Once I’ve tamed it and dug some clean clothes out of my suitcase, I head downstairs.
There was a little cafe in my building, with a sort of sandwich deli. I went in.
The lovely woman working there asked me what I wanted, smiling at me with such kindness that I immediatly burst into tears as I tried to utter the words, ‘A… a cheese… cheese sandwich… please.’
In fairness, she was lovely about it. She gave me a tissue and waited for me to calm down, reassuring me that I would make friends in no time, and everything would be fine by the end of the week. Just what I needed (although every time I went to the cafe for the rest of the year after that, she did insist on asking in a very concerned manner whether I was ‘ok now’).
And of course, she was right. Sort of. I still got homesick, even after the end of the first week. I made good friends. I had dinner with a family whose address my godmother had given me. I met a few Australian writers and found a good bookshop. I explored the city and began to learn my way around. I started my university courses and joined a choir.
But the thing that really clinched it was Melbourne Writers’ Festival. On the advice of a friend, I volunteered at MWF. It gave me a structure. I met people. I learned things. It gave me a position where I was able to help and direct other people, rather than always being the one to have to ask for directions myself. It made me feel like I’d earned a place in the city, and it started to feel like home.
Ok, so my homesickness surprised me. I hadn’t expected it, and maybe that’s why it hit me so badly, because I hadn’t built up any defences against it. But what surprised me even more was my ability to overcome it.
Yes, it’s ok to be homesick. But now I see it as a challenge, not an insurmountable obstacle. Now, I get homesick for Melbourne.