It was always going to be a strange experience, returning to the country I’m from after having spent more than half my life living outside of it. Moving back to Melbourne, Australia, every day brings an odd mix of startling familiarity, discomfort and discovery. As I move through the city, I pass places that trigger memories that haven’t surfaced in many years – where I finished high school, the college I lived at during university, my old athletics track, my grandparent’s home. But the city has also evolved in my absence, with new buildings everywhere, a revamped metropolitan train system, and a general sensation of the city becoming more full. I am discovering what it is like to live in the city as an adult with a salary working in the CBD rather than a student on a budget in the inner north, from the multitude of laneway bars and restaurants to battling the public transport system at peak hour.
Although I’m in the country I’m supposed to call home – where I was born, where my family is – I haven’t yet shaken the sensation of being a foreigner. When introduced to friends of friends, I go in to do “la bise” (a kiss on each cheek, the French way of greeting) then catch myself and stand there awkwardly not knowing what the greeting protocol is. I am not yet used to being surrounded by Australian accents. I’ll be reading Le Monde on my phone in the metro then excuse myself in French instead of English as I push past people to get off at my stop. I’ve had a few blustering moments at the supermarket not really understanding the “Paywave” system where you can tap your bank card on the machine instead of entering a pin code.
My colleagues and people working in retail and hospitality are so enthusiastic and bouncy that I feel myself questioning how genuine it is (I think I’ve decided it is) and having to put in some serious effort to match their energy levels. At work, I participate in the afternoon newspaper quiz sessions and the fortnightly sausage roll morning teas feeling more like an anthropologist observing Australian customs than one of the tribe. The other night, we went to the house of some new French friends, had prosecco and olives as an apéro before moving on to a cheese fondu with charcuterie and salad, discussed the French elections and where to buy good quality cheese, speaking in French all the while, and I felt more at ease than I have in weeks, wrapped in the cozy familiarity of knowing how that social situation worked.
It is impossible not to compare Melbourne to Paris, the city I called home for so long. I miss the trains running every three minutes, chatting with the fresh fruit and vegetable sellers at the Saturday morning market, being able to cross the entire city in 40 minutes, the cobblestone streets, the elegance. Melbourne is delighting me, however, with quick and efficient administration, unfailingly friendly and helpful people, widespread greenery, the beach, far cleaner air and excellent cafes and coffee. The jury is still out on other differences. In Melbourne, you’ll pay around $11 for a glass of wine, compared to about $5 in Paris, but the quality is much higher. Melbournians also start their days much earlier – it is not uncommon for them to arrive at work at 8:30am having already done a gym workout – but they also leave at around 5pm, whereas peak hour in Paris was between 6 and 7pm. In both cities, property is depressingly unaffordable, only this has long been taken as a given in Paris, whereas it is still making daily headlines in Melbourne.
Australia’s wildlife has been a particular point of both joy and angst. My husband, having heard so much about the abundance of deadly creatures, from redback spiders to bluebottle jellyfish, has downloaded a phone application to identify the various critters and know what to do if he or anyone around him is unlucky enough to be bitten or stung. He worries about wombats breaking into our tent to steal food, and flipped out the first time he heard the guttural grunts of a koala. I can understand his concern – each friend we raise the issue with starts by assuring us that one doesn’t actually cross dangerous animals, then proceeds to tell us about a near-death experience they or someone they know has had, from being charged by stingrays to wading through rivers swarming with red-bellied black snakes.
Then there are the magical moments of seeing colourful parrots, cockatoos and galahs on a daily basis, an echidna wandering across out path in the bush, a fox in the inner city while cycling home one evening, watching a lyrebird prancing and showing off its repertoire of bird calls in the forest, and having kangaroos bounding next to us as we cycled in the countryside. Biodiversity is certainly much more present - for better and for worse.
I realise with bemusement that despite being “home”, I am having pangs of homesickness for the city – Paris – and the country – France – that adopted me for so long. I am not yet intimate with Melbourne - I do not yet own its streets, its rhythm, its history, its habits. But as we start to knit a social network here, reconnecting with old friends and making new ones, I am confident that, with time, we will make a home out of this city.