A Sad Song a Long Way from Home
Alone in a Paris apartment, thinking of you and listening to Jim Reeves crooning a sad song, I drift back to a place I used to know so well: a place that exiles, refugees, immigrants, soldiers in wartime, prisoners and people cast out for whatever reason. I stand in front of the window looking down at the busy Paris street. At the end of the long day, weary workers carrying plastic shopping bags and baguettes make their way back home. I imagine the warm lamp-lit interiors that await them; excited laughing children run down the passage to the door; little dogs wag their tails; the homecoming kiss; the gentle touch on the cheek; the glass of red on the small table next to the tapestry chair; the seductive smell of onions, tarragon and garlic; and the deep soft sleep in a familiar bed. And I think of the time I took my first journey a long way from home.
The modern philosophy is that in all things there is choice. But the inability to return home, no matter how deep the longing, no matter how bad the homesickness, is not always simply a matter of choice. Sometimes a person’s psyche can’t allow it, won’t allow it. Sometimes there is only once choice, one path. Some may argue that our fate is determined by the choices we make. Others believe that the choices we make are determined by our fate. Some scoff at the very idea of fate. Life just happens, a random series of events, nothing more. But a choice I made many years ago now set the path of my entire life: I didn’t go home. Hunger, real hunger when you haven’t eaten for anything for three days or so, isn’t the greatest of feelings. But I discovered that it is even worse when combined with a craving for cigarettes and a deep yearning for that place we call home.
Eighteen years of age, miles away from my parents, no money and just a few clothes, I did eventually manage to find a job at an outback motel. We sang Eagle Rock loudly (and badly) as we loaded the egg-stained breakfast plates into a monstrosity of a dish-washer. At morning tea time, we all sat around a big old wooden table and ate thick toast and marmalade and smoked as many cigarettes as we could before it was time to go back to work. The dinner shift was much quieter, though. Usually it was just me and the cook, and he was usually drunk. I would think about my brothers and sisters at home sitting around the old huon pine table laughing and fighting, my little brother spitting out his pumpkin and spinach and my mother yelling at them all to be quiet. It was dark as pitch when I walked back to the hostel along the railway track.
That was all many years ago and much water has passed under the bridge since. I survived and I have built a life of a kind, but not the one I thought I wanted; not the one that I dreamed of as a schoolgirl sitting behind a wooden desk struggling to conjugate French verbs. I thought that in coming to Paris I would become clearer about my discontents, and that maybe I would construct the possibility of a new type of life, a more glamorous, more interesting and fulfilling life. I thought that drinking a glass of wine in a café on the Boulevard St Germaine would be amazingly surreal and it is, but it just doesn’t compare to sitting on Joan’s back porch on a late summer’s afternoon with the girls drinking rough red from what Joan calls her ‘bag in a box’. I thought that living in a French apartment would be so sophisticated and it is, but it is empty at six o’clock when no one is walking through the door asking what’s for tea.
Once when I was visiting Hobart, my old home town, I bumped into some old school friends. ‘Remember the day we cooked the sausages?’ one of us said. Yes, we all remembered that day. It was such a simple thing. We pooled our meagre funds and bought three sausages and a loaf of bread from the corner shop and lit a fire on the rocks on the beach. No sausage has ever tasted that good before or since. We laughed so hard that afternoon I know for sure that one of us wet themselves. And I now realise from this European vantage point that no amount of glamour or sophistication can bring such pure joy.
But this time it is different. I will return home. Home, the subject of so many clichés, so many sentimental musings: ‘Home is where the heart is’, ‘Home sweet home’, ‘Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home’. I think about the faded little drawing that hangs on my bedroom wall a long way from here; a simple, one- dimensional drawing of a house with one door, two windows and chimney with a smoke spiral – you know the type that five- year- olds do. A little boy (presumably, my own dear son, in self-portrait) is standing alongside the house. Across the top of his drawing he has written in his very best printing, ‘Mum your home.’
How do we define that place we call home? Intellectuals may say that home is simply a construct; some may say that it is only an illusion. But standing at the open window looking out on to the busy street on this late, golden Paris afternoon I know what home is. It the place where people love you with all your failings; the place which at times is boring, and predictable in all its mundaneness; the place which enfolds you, protects you and welcomes you.
And I just can’t wait to be in that place again.