Life of a perpetual migrant

white clouds and blue sky from the plane - France - July 2006, flickr image by Gaetan LeeIn a famous scene in English Literature, conventional Lockwood, the outsider unable to find his way home, is doubly displaced when he is forced to stay the night at Wuthering Heights, a house so strange as to be a foreign land. During the night he experiences a dream-haunting: Catherine, dead 20 years, comes to his broken window and begs and pleads to be let in. Lockwood, terrified, rubs her wrist to and fro upon the shards of glass.

Migrants are like Heathcliff's Cathy, tapping persistently at the window of the past. They realise they can never truly go home again, yet their hearts and spirits continue to yearn.

I ought to know, for I am a migrant, a foreigner wherever I go, having left Australia unexpectedly but permanently for the Peloponnese in 1980. Are you Greek now? people of all origins ask, a question that still causes me to stare in consternation before saying firmly, No, definitely not.

Yet my sons say I am not Australian any more, either. But if identity depends on maintaining continuity in the face of dislocation, then my Akubra hat, with its Anzac badge and sprouting of emu feathers, will soon be worn out. I feel Australian, but perhaps not solely Australian, for I suppose it is fair to say that layers have been added to whatever my composition consists of, and other layers have been worn away.

Nor am I sure what I see when I look at Australia. I don't know what my sons see when they look at me: probably just their mother.

These home-thoughts are prompted by the fact that I have returned to Australia, two and a half years after my last visit. How I long for these visits to be more regular, but for various practical reasons that cannot happen. Ah, the tyranny of distance. An Australian I once met in Paris, where he had been resident for many years, said simply: Once exchanged, forever estranged.

And he was right, at least to a certain extent. I know, for example, that I can never be restored to my original family in the same old way, for apart from the inevitable alterations that the passage of time and the incidence of death cause, experience is a great divider of persons. There is a huge gap in understanding between the nomads and the settlers of this world.

I suppose it is fair to say that I have become part of my small corner of Greece, and it has become part of me. Certainly, the experience of living there and raising cross-cultural children has made me use a part of myself I would not have used otherwise.

And despite the fact that the experience has often been tough, I am grateful for it. I have to hope that my children, who swing easily between their two worlds, are grateful for it, too.

And yet, the very familiarity of my part of Down Under never fails to move me. The sights: the spires of the churches, and the solidity of Flinders Street Railway Station. The sounds: the click and chime of trams, the screech of rainbow lorikeets, the roar of a football crowd. Those distinctive smells: the scent of the bush, the whiff of dust that always heralds a storm.

Then there's the comfort of the shorthand of conversation, which enables me to slip effortlessly back into the worn teddy-bear old-coat warmth of Australian English. I am more audible to myself, and somehow I feel more visible as well.

There was a time when, speaking of visibility, I viewed Australia through misted and rose-coloured spectacles. But I've grown up a little since then; I certainly needed to. Now I know that multi-focal lenses are the thing. Now I know that time makes migrants of everybody, and that we all die foreigners.

As David Malouf wrote, we are all exiles, even those of us who have never left home. St Peter and Lucifer are passport control officers sitting behind their own barred windows.

I know everything has changed. Australia has changed, the scenes of my youth have changed. And so have I, but how I remember the way we were.

Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 28 years. She has had eight books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances.


Topic tags: gillian bouras, australian writer, greece, migrant experience, david malouf, wuthering heights



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Existing comments

This dislocation was brought home to me while living in the UK through the late 1980s. For all our British friends and ancestors my wife and I were unprepared to find England such a foriegn country.

Our return to Australia was equally difficult, especially for our nine year old son.

I was a student there for some years and we had to renew our visas annually. As aliens it meant a trip to London to the visa office - located in a building named Luna House.

Is that place still there? Some part of me is still standing in the queue.
Kim Miller | 28 October 2008

I remember how you feel. I left home 40 years ago. But in 1995, bewildered in the crucible of my three continents, not knowing which one was home, I suddenly found myself to be a world citizen. I wish you such a homecoming.
Maggie Helass | 29 October 2008

Thanks, Gillian, for so elegantly giving words to an experience that so many others share. Living in India, I thought I would always be a stranger there, but as time goes on, I miss it more. We become part of a larger world and it is hard to share it with those who haven't lived there.
Anne Benjamin | 30 October 2008

Grew up in Perth, left with hb and 2 little children in 1959, had 6 more living in NT.Did not get home for 17 yrs. My sisters & cousins never moved away. Now 74, widow have visited 4 times over the years and my nomadic life & variety of work experience I feel very different - in a different time and space to my close relatives and there is a lot I know I miss - the close familiarity of family. Being a nomadic family my own children have been adventurous and moved around. Thank you Gillian, I have read all the books = one da married into Greek which widened my experience, I went to Uni and learned Greek, a wonderful experience and benefit in my work in health

margaret o'reilly | 30 October 2008

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