This morning, what sounded like traditional German folk music wafted from our upstairs Afrikaans neighbour’s window. It was so faint, it put me in a daze. My memory transported me to southern Germany, where I was cruising along swaying green fields, floating over a winding two-lane road that stretched endlessly into a blue sky.
I’ve just come back to Cape Town, where I grew up, after living abroad for five years. Returning to where you once lived can be an isolating, strange and scary place. Having a foot on two different continents and trying to stay in touch with friends and family in both feels at times like an overly-confident beginner acrobat doing a painful split.
Returning to your home country after years away is like opening your apartment’s front door, and at first glance everything looks the same. But then you notice all the furniture, identical to when you last saw it, has been moved around: the bed is in the kitchen, the sofa is on the balcony, and all the dishcloths, which usually hang right there next to the sink, are pegged and sighing softly on the tree outside. Everything feels real and unreal at the same time.
And now a new phenomenon has reared its head: whenever things go badly here, back in my home town, my instinct urges me to pack up and leave. Head to the nearest airport. And go. Wave goodbye to the intricate problems of the life I have created in Cape Town. And by intricate problems, I am referring to life’s little hardships – the kind of things that make us all want to pull our hair out. Like a bad night out, a friendship that isn’t turning out as expected, a hefty electricity bill or a power-hungry boss. These mundane moments of life that threaten to mute us all: a bad hair day, grey weather, a flat tyre, standing in a queue at Home Affairs for hours, a bad date, or no date at all.
A number of these all at once, or, just one on a bad day, veers me off course. These little hardships didn’t bother me so much before. But now every problem is magnified as the woven rug of established friends and parents, there in person or on the other side of my phone, has been pulled away from underneath me. Friends have moved into a different sphere and are married, in a serious relationship or have kids. I stand on a cold, hard cement floor. It’s not like returning back home after a brief holiday. It feels like in those five years I was gone, saplings have turned into trees, and I am constantly trying to find my space under their shade.
I’ve only been back a few weeks and nothing feels familiar. It’s hard. Everything is new. And although I grew up here, things are different, people are different. Or maybe I’ve just changed. It’s both an exciting and exhausting experience, a mixture of adrenaline and pulling the covers over my eyes.
Because I can’t hop on the next plane to somewhere, anywhere, I catch my mind wandering to familiar spaces. Even when I’m sitting in a restaurant with a group of people I can be so, so far away in my head.
“Where have you been?” someone asks me, breaking into my thoughts.
“Away.” I answer.
On those days I am away. I imagine spending time with my friends overseas. I travel straight for the horizon, longing for moments of idealised photographs, and oh-so-fun times of that other country. I put on my rose-tinted glasses, not remembering that I left it for a reason. I left because I needed to be home. My compass steered me back to the place where I first learnt to drive, where I first fell in love, where I first breathed this heady mixture of charcoal and fynbos air.
But my forever state cannot be running away, or wishing away, or whiling my thoughts away from here. And the “away” is slowly turning into a “here.”
Photo courtesy of Mareike Pietzsch.