Stranger in a Strange Land: Guest Post by Robyn Walker
Last of my guest bloggers for the week from the Under the Southern Cross anthology is Robyn Walker. The floor is all yours Robyn!
Thank you to Jacqui for the opportunity to write on her blog, and thank you to all of Jacqui’s readers too – I hope you find this piece as interesting to read as it was for me to write.
Given that both Jacqui and myself are Australians living in Britain, it made sense to make that the theme of my guest post. Before I start though, here’s an excerpt from my novella, ‘Coming Home’. The purpose in sharing this particular extract will become clear afterwards. Honest!
Nick cast around in his memory, trying to remember the buildings that should be on this road into town. He was pretty sure there had been a car wash on the corner, but now it looked as if there was an office block. Hadn’t there been a church there? What about the swimming pool? The median strip alternated between being covered in fake plastic grass and dead-looking native groundcover and stunted shrubs. Nice to see the council was being as classy as always. But where was the Pink House?
“The Pink House. I thought that was on this road.”
“Pink house? Sorry, mate—don’t know a pink house.”
“It was a big old 1930s bungalow. Painted pink. I remember driving with friends….”
Just don’t think about the friends, don’t think on who was in the car with you, Nick. He took a breath. “And one of them said it had been pink even when his dad was young.”
The driver shook his head. “Can’t help you. If the house had been built between 1985 and 2018, then I could have told you that it most likely had been demolished, but this road’s pretty much intact. Apart from a few ‘heritage properties’, councils did away with anything that didn’t meet the new energy consumption standards. But if the place was as old as you say, it should have been right.” He giggled, his laugh at odds with his meaty, taxi-driver body and voice. “Aw man, you should have seen how pissed some of the residents in Norwood were! Spent all that time bulldozing lovely old houses to build their funky little shit boxes that in the end weren’t worth diddly-squat.
“Some places they should get rid of, they won’t. Do you remember that creepy ‘bodies in the freezer’ house on Greenhill Road?” The driver shuddered. “That’s still there. Fricken eyesore. ‘Architectural treasure’ my arse.”
Nick did remember. The building was definitely creepy, all crazy angles and raked roofline. Yet the image of it was something to hang on to, a tangible place that hadn’t changed, one he could still remember vividly.
To put this scene in context, Nick is an ex-pat Australian and has been away from his home-city of Adelaide for ten years. Things have changed drastically in his absence, and he’s reaching for the familiar, anything that makes his memories solid, real, fixed.
Like Nick, I no longer call Australia home, though I’ve not been absent as long. I have lived in London, since mid 2006, and have been ‘home’ twice. My last visit was 2009 – and like Nick, I was like a tourist in my own town, peering at everything, questioning what was new, and what had had always been there, but I had never noticed. Like Nick’s taxi driver, asking locals for confirmation was often an infuriating experience, as they had paid no attention to the details, to the inexorable, slow change that occurs to every cityscape. Why should they? Memory is just as fuzzy for the people who always live in a city as for those who have left it behind – ‘when did that disappear? What was there before? Didn’t there used to be a…?’
For a local, this pattern of internal questioning is usually ended with a shrug, a curse at the vagaries of the human brain, and then they move on. Not so much for the ex-pat, where every change feels like a marker of time and distance, and makes one a stranger.
A pertinent example of this for me is in the excerpt above – the ‘bodies in the freezer’ house that is referenced at the end. So much does this house feature in ‘my’ Adelaide, that I never thought that it could be torn down – and yet, when on the phone to my dad the day after the novella was released, he informed me that, yes, it had been demolished, and actually some time ago. (See the linked article: Body-in-freezer murder house demolished). I was gutted. Clearly not like the house’s freezer corpsicles, but I was made acutely aware of the problems of relying on concrete structures remaining, well, concrete.
Similarly, if I get to hear of them, I find myself railing against developments back home that will alter iconic monuments and structures (and angst about whether or not I still have the right to complain, given I’m ‘here’ and not ‘there’). Markers and hooks on which to hang remembrances are suddenly fragile. This will mean nothing to someone who isn’t familiar with Adelaide, but say ‘Malls Balls’ to an ex-pat who has not been home recently and watch their faces come alive. Then watch when you tell them that they’ve been moved. Even if you’re unfamiliar with these particular objects, just think of something specific that reminds you of your home, your roots in the world, and then think about what you’d feel if you were told it had changed. The response is visceral, isn’t it?
It is unsurprising to me now, why immigrant communities often hold on to ways of being, culture, foodstuffs, long after their birth countries have moved on – I had Australian-Italian friends who had to be chaperoned on dates in the 1990s, and they understandably railed against this, given their other friends did not have to endure such scrutiny. Studies on the Italian diaspora show that it was no longer common practice in Italy by then either, so these girls were stuck in a time-warp of their parents’ making, caused by their need to do things the Italian way, to retain their Italian identity.
Similarly, I find that I need to don an Aussie flag apron and have ‘barbies’ on Australia Day, preferably with a foam stubbie holder and an imported Coopers’ beer (and I don’t like beer) in hand to make other ex-pats nod knowingly. There’s a jar of Vegemite in my kitchen cupboard when there never, ever was one in Australia. Visitors bringing a box of Pizza Shapes or Tim Tams get treated like royalty. Removed from a tangible home, it’s only through grasping past experiences, these frozen memories and moments of time, these specific ways of doing things, that ex-pats ground their identity. Yet it is a fruitless pursuit, as identity still slips, moves and changes – just as much as concrete buildings do.
London, despite its size, did not appear to change my life very much. I never had the disorienting experience that many have when going abroad. The changes here are small, yet sometimes more confronting because of their tiny nature, as I make the mistake of thinking everything is identical until I rub against something that very much isn’t.
Drinking culture in the UK is a little different to Australia’s, with the emphasis on buying rounds, and people don’t tend to entertain at home as much, and there’s far greater use of public spaces – oh and of course there’s the weather, which invariably makes Britons think I’m an idiot for trading sunshine for grey drizzle, but I haven’t had to change much about myself to be comfortable here. Yet there’s still been identity slippage. While definitely not British, despite what my passport says, I’m not completely Australian any more either.
I find myself cringing on the bus when I hear visiting Australians speak – they’re far louder than the locals, and they swear a lot more. Not just strangers either – visiting close friends have made me flinch with their blue language, and I’ve realised that time and environment have made me tone mine down unwittingly. Phone calls to Australia are equally jarring when I hear unadulterated accents (does Mum really talk like that? My God, it’s all in her nose, and it’s so slow! Do I talk like that? D: ). Conversely, friends and family probably find that mine has mutated (although they’re all too polite to say anything), that my language is spattered with words like ‘well’, ‘fit’, ‘right’, and ‘innit’ in places that they would never use such words.
London is very much my home now – a two year visit, that got magically extended and now involves a mortgage. I still say I will go back to Australia to live, and I’m pretty sure I know where the tipping point will be, although I have no idea on the when. Unlike my protagonist Nick, I have the freedom to move where I wish, so there will be no pining for the Fjords. Or the Holdens. (And if that joke made no sense to you, blame it on me now being a product of two homes – it’s horrible mess of UK Monty Python references and Australian car culture, and yet I can’t bring myself to edit it out.)
The tipping point will be when I no longer feel like a tourist.
I called myself a tourist earlier, when talking about visiting Adelaide after time away, but it applies even more to my every day life here. I have seen more of London than many of my friends who have lived here their entire lives have, and I want that excitement, that awareness of where I live to continue. I opt for the red bus, not the faster travel by tube, and sit at the front up on the top deck like an excited primary school child. I raise an eyebrow at locals who grumble that the tube is three minutes late. I still get excited by snow, and am smug when friends at home wail about it being too hot to sleep at night. I can’t get enough British pork. Or black pudding. Or Eton Mess and strawberries. Or elderflower cordial. Or decently priced single malt whisky. And travelling on day trips around the country, and jumping over the water to New Places I’ve Never Been, because it is easy and affordable (compared to doing the same from Australia). I feel blessed that I can see theatre, dance, music, fabulous exhibitions and festivals seemingly whenever I wish.
It’s the day when I realise that I’ve fallen into the zombie routine of work, commute, and sleep – when I no longer pursue the big things available to me here, nor find the small details fascinating – that will be day when I know it is time to move, because my reasons for staying in London will have evaporated. At the moment I’m actively working against it, but time and familiarity are forces of entropy. Like the slipping of my accent, these are slowly undoing the novelty of being in London. One day it will no longer feel right.
But until then, I am very glad I am a stranger in this strange land.
“Coming Home” by Robyn Walker
In 2045, Russian-born Nick comes “home” to Australia for the funeral of an old friend. After a ten-year absence, he finds a country scarred by drought and a people scarred by technology. He grieves for Ben, whose death has left his friends bewildered. He grieves for Australia, the country that forced him to leave. But his greatest grief is for Daniel. Although Daniel is alive, it seems their friendship is dead. And Nick has no idea why.
Purchase “Coming Home” here at Dreamspinner Press.
Also available in the Under the Southern Cross anthology