Four thousand metres above sea level and four hundred thousand metres from the closest shore of the Pacific Ocean, playing beach volleyball every Sunday afternoon in the park somehow became one of the defining elements of my life in La Paz. We were a mixed bunch: about half the group was Bolivian, then there was a German, a Mexican, an (US) American, occasionally a Bosnian-born Canadian, an Argentine, and me.
Now, at sea level and right on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, playing beach volleyball every Monday evening in Manly is becoming an anchor, a touchpoint, to each week here in Sydney. We’re a mixed bunch: last week around the table at the pub there was a Scot, another Asian Australian, a Dane, a Welshman, a Canadian, a Texan, and me.
It’s funny, the unlikely things that make me feel at home.
Growing up in Canberra, the nearest beach is two hours away – if you drive fast. Yet the sand and the sea saturate my childhood memories; the mythical Australian surf enchants me. It is somehow a part of my story.
After Canberra, I lived in Madrid, in Loja, in La Paz: all inland cities even further away from the beach. I felt like I “missed” the sea, although in truth back in Canberra we never made any more than one or two coast trips a year. I felt like being Australian gave me ownership of all beaches everywhere and that I was far from my birthright.
In a similar vein, for someone who’s scarcely 1.60m tall, volleyball seems a poor choice of sport. Yet this too has a place in my identity now. It’s no coincidence I jumped from Canberra’s indoor courts to the giant sandpit in La Paz to the surf strip in Manly: I sought this out. When I went hunting for a volleyball group, I was looking for something to do, for some exercise, for an excuse to go to the beach, for a way to meet some people in a new city.
But I was also looking for continuity.
As much as I enjoy and value the movement in my life over the last several years, I have grasped at things like volleyball, like Facebook, like good coffee, like writing, to give me some stability in the whirlwind. Now that I’m back in Australia, it seems I’m still doing that – because home is no longer, well, home enough.
The thing is, when I come back “home” to Australia I don’t revert to being a “local”. I’m just this ex-local ex-expat thing. “Returned expat” is the closest term we have, but it doesn’t capture how un-local and un-expat I am.
Other people have English-language books and DVDs, imported grocery items, hanging out with their fellow countrymen, and familiar interior decor to recreate home abroad. I have random conversations in Spanish (which occasionally involve me participating and not just eavesdropping!), corn tortillas, expats and diving in the sand to recreate abroad at home.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that when I became an expat, gradually home ceased to be simply “everything I left behind” in my country and I am learning its true meaning as I reconstruct it in my intangible suitcase – even as I unpack my bags and construct my new living arrangements.
Home is everything I can’t leave behind when I move – whether I’m leaving or returning to my country.
Home includes the stuff I acquire to replace the things I physically leave behind; it encompasses the material and the emotional. It’s spiritual, really.
Home is what goes with me wherever I go.