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The return of the native

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I’m back. Back in Melbourne, the place of my birth. I lived here for twenty years all told but have now lived in Greece far longer: a six-month holiday got somewhat out of hand, to put things mildly, and stretched into decades totaling more than half my life.

Tolstoy once wrote that exile is a long dream of home, but the dreaming does not persist forever, so that you eventually wake to the knowledge that home exists only in your head and in your memory. Get over it, says my eldest son, who himself has now lived in Melbourne for 20 years, and face the fact that the Australia you grew up in has gone. I know this is true, but have a fellow feeling with a friend of a similar age, who told me I know it’s gone, but I want it back again.

With every return there is a time of haunting, and it is upon me now. I scan crowds for faces that might perhaps be familiar but can hardly believe it when a figure, part of childhood but not seen for years, steps into a tram I am on. Excited chatter naturally ensues. I see ghosts everywhere: my sister, in her first job and wearing the regulation black dress, is in the long-gone Georges, on the handbags counter. May I show you the appointments, Madam? My farmer uncle walks me down Collins Street and says Will y’ look at the length of that girl’s flamin’ skirt? When I yelp in protest, he grins and makes his excuses: I’m only thinking of the wool industry!

There are many ghosts, but the most compelling one, of course, is that of my old self. There she goes, crossing College Crescent on her way to lectures, that conservative 17-year-old dressed in skirt, twinset, Hush Puppies and the granny-present of artificial pearls. She is probably more like today’s 13-year-olds and is even less sophisticated in the days before computers, social media and mobile phones. Eventually she seals her fate by going to see the film Zorba the Greek in a venue known as the Carlton Bughouse, where the screen is always viewed through layers of cigarette smoke.

With every return the memories compel enactments of various rituals. I’ve eaten fish and chips and sampled the remembered delights of Cherry Ripes and Violet Crumbles. I’ve visited the Victoria Market and Lygon Street and walked past the Parkville house I shared with three others so long ago: I’m tapping, in a way, at the windows of the past. I’ve walked for miles, navigating faultlessly through Royal Park and to the City, checking on everything. The old green rattlers have gone, but sleek modern trams still click and chime through tunnels of green, while crows caw and magpies gurgle as they always have. There is even one defending his imagined territory by hurling himself at the glass doors of the flat I am (gratefully) living in.

The changes. The face of Melbourne and Australia has altered and so have the sounds one hears in the street: very interesting and welcome developments in my view. As for food: when I was young, eating for the middling sort consisted of Italian and Greek cafes and English-style restaurants like Elizabeth and Russell Collins. Coles Caf was a grandmotherly treat for my sister and me: we ate pasties drenched in White Crow or Rosella sauce, followed by violently-coloured ice-cream sundaes. But now Melbourne is one of the foodie capitals of the world. Towering glass columns have altered the skyline irrevocably, but many of the old buildings are still there, if harder to find.

 

'A divided heart is a hard organ to accommodate: it resounds with the echoes of hello and goodbye.'

 

A counsellor once told me that a large part of life consists in balancing tensions, and I suppose most people, as they age, have to balance past and present, and acknowledge that age makes exiles of us all, for we are not the people we were. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. L.P.Hartley was right.

Welcome home, various people have been saying, but my silent question is Where is it? An old idea is that home is where the heart is, but what happens when your heart is split in two, as mine was all those years ago? A divided heart is a hard organ to accommodate: it resounds with the echoes of hello and goodbye.

The only answer, I have decided, is to forget the divided heart and instead to concentrate on the matter of being twice blessed.

.

 

 

 


Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: (Getty images)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Home, Melbourne, Greece

 

 

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Existing comments

A great reminder of my own youth in Melbourne. Thank you. One of the places I remember lunching in was the basement cafe outside the cinema under the Hotel Australia opposite the Austral Bookshop in Collins Street. And how could anyone forget the Myer restaurant? Walking around Town, which is what we called the CBD, now feels a little like walking through a ghost town. Welcome home, anyway!


Juliet | 15 February 2024  

It is a conundrum, isn't it! Where is home? I've spent not quite a half the period you have, Gillian, abroad. But even in that time I found echoes of your own wondering. I was born and spent the first two+ years in Sydney (including my first conscious memories) and then growing up in and around Tamworth. Later studying in "the big smoke" (and there's a term from long ago) then to various corners of the state teaching (Hay, Deniliquin, Inverell, Mudgee - and later, Sydney) - and then travelling across the world - initial opportunities to live in London, in Madrid and in München...and at times when retracing steps in later years - all these places and others take on aspects of "home" - measuring how they have changed over the years and remembering all the associations from years earlier. "The past is another country" - I have long pondered that one - and it's true - no matter how we would like back that more "innocent" time as our rose-coloured glasses of memory would have it. But it wasn't, really - far harsher in different ways for many - though new ways of harshness bubble up and have to be confronted - and this is where a long life lived here and abroad comes in handy - the ability to detect directions and to offer other perspectives. Thanks, Gillian.


Jim KABLE | 16 February 2024  

The picture you present of a Melbourne long gone reminds me of that wonderful Irish ballad: 'I remember Dublin in my tears', because so much of what it was in the 1960s, when I was growing up, has irrevocably changed. My fondest memories are of the rich cultural life and the theatres. It is interesting that so many cultural icons, like Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer, went to London, similar to the Irish cultural diaspora. I have not lived there for any length of time since 1976, although I have been back to revisit my spiritual and cultural landscape. Memories are a bit like pressed flowers. They were once alive. You sound very much alive, Gillian, which is good. Your pieces are good blasts from the past. I too feel very much alive.


Edward Fido | 16 February 2024  

Thank you so much for this reminder of Melbourne. I have only visited once but Victoria Market and Lygon Street will not be forgotten (I was also lucky enough to sample the ‘foodie restaurants’.
I think you chose your second home very wisely as there are a lot worse places than Kalamata and the Mani !
I have just received an invitation to an exhibition by a leading contemporary artist which I thought was serendipitous. Do Ho Suh says of his work: “Home is so much more than the place you live. Your own version of home is a fundamental part of who you are, influenced by your day to day life and your deepest memories.”
As you said..


Maggie | 18 February 2024  

'Footfalls echo in the memory...' Melbourne is and is yet not the same as it was 50 years ago. Is it still 'home' after those 50 years?


Edward Fido | 20 February 2024  

I've never lived anywhere except in Victoria, Australia and I can drive down the street where I grew up anytime I like. It's no longer a gravel road and the green rolling hills to the west are now full of houses. I can't help feeling sad about this 'progress'. The houses in my old street are still very nice and the street is tidy and well kept. As for the houses covering the green hills - my very wise mother told more than 30 years ago that people have to live somewhere. The town where I live is vastly different to the town where I grew up and I miss it but I still love most of what it has become. So, I too should count my blessings, even though I don't have two homes.


Stephen | 22 February 2024  

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