I’ve been struggling to get this post right since I left Melbourne. As I left Australian airspace, I was working on this post old-school style, with pen and paper. It’s been over two months and I still haven’t posted it because I just couldn’t seem to get it right. To be truthful, I still can’t. Words are failing to express what my time in Melbourne meant to me, so I’m just going to settle for almost capturing it.
When I think about living overseas really honestly, there are two distinct images that stick out in my mind. One is dark and gloomy and the other is bright and warm. I’m sure now that the first was a necessary part of the experience, that it made me stronger, and that it made the second feel that much better.
In the first image, I’m sitting in Two, the cafe that was my office and study space, and staring at the strangers around me, surrounded by their friends and families. They came for brunch or lunch, and they always seemed so comfortable and familiar with each other, so happy to see one another. I would sometimes half-listen to their conversations as I worked, because there were days that I barely spoke to anyone. One afternoon, after working at Two for much of the day, I walked home in the rain and realised that I was truly lonely. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that before, or at least not for a sustained enough period that it actually made me ache.
I didn’t know then what I know now: that 22 months later, I would have a tough time finding a big enough table to fit everyone I wanted around it. That I would walk around the city and cry behind my sunglasses not out of loneliness but at the thought of leaving behind what I had found and what I had built.
The film L’Auberge Espagnole captures this change–from the person you are at the beginning of the experience to the person you are at the end–perfectly. Upon his arrival in Barcelona, the protagonist and narrator, Xavier, says:
“When you first arrive in a new city, nothing makes sense. Everything’s unknown, virgin… After you’ve lived here, walked these streets, you’ll know them inside out. You’ll know these people. Once you’ve lived here, crossed this street 10, 20, 1000 times… it’ll belong to you because you’ve lived there. That was about to happen to me, but I didn’t know it yet.”
At the end of the film, Xavier leaves his friends and flatmates behind in a bar. They all exchange les bises and encourage each other to visit their respective home countries, and then Xavier says good-bye. He leaves the bar smiling, but within a few steps, his smile dissolves into tears. And that right there pretty much sums up the bittersweet, difficult awesomeness that is the ex-pat experience.
So while the first image of my life overseas is a dark, gloomy one, the other is bright and happy and overall represents how I will remember my time in Melbourne. The image is of a party my flatmates and I threw in my last weeks Down Under. It was a (boozy) afternoon tea, and it took a pretty massive amount of preparation, overseen by Alice. It all came together beautifully, and at one point, as I watched my international grab bag of friends (Brits, Canadians, Kiwis, a German, a Mexican, an Estonian, and yes, even some Australians) interacting with one another, I was near tears (again!) about all of it. In many cases, I had known these people only a few months, but the bond I felt with them was strong. And that, I think, is a function of living so far from your family, and socialising with others who are in the same boat. You lean on them more than you typically would new friends, and they mean more to you than they normally might. You have this big thing in common, no matter what your countries of origin are: they, like you, chose this magical, complicated ex-pat life, for a little or a long while, and they get it.
I’ve been back in Canada for over two months now. While I know that coming home was the right choice, I miss Melbourne and my people there daily. Moving to Vancouver has meant starting over yet again, but without the magic of being in a new, exciting place thousands of kilometres from home. It’ll be okay though. If moving overseas taught me anything, it’s that these things take time, that dark moments will eventually make way for brighter ones, and that I can handle it.
If you want to read the thoughts of someone who wrote about this experience differently, and far more competently, than I did, check out Chelsea Fagan’s article What Happens When You Live Abroad on Thought Catalog.
Top photo found here.