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An airport is the strangest of liminal spaces: you enter an impersonal, sterile, blanched-white box; you wheel your suitcase along corridors that look identical everywhere from Iceland to Peru; you slump down somewhere amid the configuration of grey plastic seats that is always the same; you enter the same metal tube and listen to the same safety announcement delivered in an artificially chirpy video.
Everything is anonymous and bland, yet—for me at least—it is infused with multiple superimposed memories of strong emotion. I’ve walked through so many airports with the racing pulse of happy anticipation; I’ve cried ugly tears at so many drop-off zones, spent so many flights in anguish and misery, accumulating balled-up snotty tissues in my seat pocket.
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I sometimes feel as though my whole life has been a series of arrivals and departures. Flying makes me feel like one of the denizens of The Matrix in their pods—as if my reality were this grey limbo: airport concourses of fast-food joints and overpriced stale sandwich bars, then people origami-d into cramped rows of seats, each of us creating a bubble of privacy around ourselves through sheer determination, with tiny plastic bottles of wine balanced precariously on tray tables and the roar of the airplane engine in my ears. As if it were the life on solid ground that was the dream.
I’ve lived in seven countries, on four continents, with five different native languages and I’ve visited at least twenty more—a half dozen of them for several months at a time. It’s provided me with a rich kaleidoscope of experiences, with an extensive roster of visual and sensory memories, with a constant sense of the depth and variety of the world. But the trouble with having travelled so much is that it leaves you with a feeling of belonging nowhere, a vertiginous sense of freefall, like an astronaut orbiting and orbiting, weightless, observing the world from afar.
And above all, it makes it hard to establish the deep human connections that take decades to foster. My friends are scattered across the globe: in Pune, Buenos Aires, Edinburgh, Bologna, New York, Tucson and a dozen other places I haven’t visited in years. I’ve had a messy life. It’s been episodic and sometimes I feel that I haven’t had a proper character arc. The scene has shifted too many times. People and places are strewn carelessly about across the years and time and time again, there’s been a long flight on a cramped plane, followed by a search for a new beginning.
As I return to a bright but freezing London, it feels as though the colour has been sucked out of the world. The birds are drab and their chirping decorous. I miss the raucous throaty screeches of the cockatoos and the tolling of the bell miners, the rainbow plumage of the lorikeets and the evergreen eucalyptus—all the exuberance of Australian nature.
As so often, the Germans have a word for what I’m feeling: Fernweh, the opposite of Heimweh (homesickness)—or rather, my emotion is an odd combination of the two. I am farsick for a place on the other side of the world, which I had never visited before, but which felt like home more quickly and deeply than anywhere else I’ve been. I am farsick for the friends I made there—whom I don’t want to leave scattered in my wake, lost to distance and time—and for the ferries and the parrots and the ocean pools and, above all, for the outdoor couches on the deck at the house in Five Dock, where my friend Maia and I would sit in damp bathing suits, drinking Chardonnay and talking until the mosquitoes drove us indoors. I am farsick for the evenings with Maia, with her endless, tanned legs stretched out across the cushions and a tiny, fluffy-eared dog in her lap, talking and talking, as the Sydney skyscrapers on the horizon flashed golden in the setting sun and the sky above the palm trees filled with flying foxes. That was my home for three months and I want it to be my home forever.
Re-entry burns. I feel as though I have just been plummeted to Earth, at Mach 25, turning the air to plasma. And I’ve stumbled out of my capsule into a strange winterland where night has turned to chilly day.
There’s a famous experiment in which people are asked to ride a backwards bicycle, i.e. a bicycle that has been re-engineered so that the handlebars turn the front wheel the opposite way from normal (turning the handlebars to the right turns the front wheel to the left and vice versa). On their first attempts, everyone falls straight off. If you persevere for long enough, you can learn to ride it—but once you’ve mastered that skill, you won’t be able to ride a normal bicycle anymore. I feel like a backwards bicyclist right now: I have to relearn the skills I thought I knew, reacclimate to the familiar. It may take a while.
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