I am an expert at leaving. Airports are my thing. I grew up close enough to one to feel like I could actually see those smug passengers through the windows of the jumbo jet, sneering down at me as the wings of their plane cut across the sky.
I was ten before I took my first international flight but I was at the airport every other week thanks to the endless inward-outward flow of holidaying relatives. I loved and hated the 30 minute journey in equal measure. As I sat squashed in the backseat between Aunty This One and Uncle That One, a 12 kilo carry-on bag deadening my thighs, I would pretend that it was me who had the tickets to Outtahere, not them. I’d devise my destination and be halfway across the Atlantic in my minds-eye by the time the terminal came into view.
My daydreams could never be maintained long enough to provide any lasting satisfaction, though. There were photos of miserable people embracing by the departure gate to take. Cigarettes to be chain smoked. And then of course a female traveler would lose the boarding passes and blame it on the male traveler and bickering would ensue. Finally, a brave (or bored) person would give the cue. Damp hankies would be scrunched and arms untangled. Promises made to write. Then, as whoever it was strode away, swept along on a tide that seemed only to go in one direction, I would be overcome by the uncanny sense that I was shrinking.
If my parents would indulge me, we’d make our way to the observation deck where I would press my face to the glass as they plane took off and marvel at just how much it sucks to be the one left behind.
And so that’s how it is. I have been leaving my patria, often for years at a time, ever since I managed to get my face on a passport. And I will probably continue to catch that outbound tide so long as I can keep shaving my possessions down to the required 23 kilos. But if leaving is inevitable, why also is homecoming? The tide always comes back in, after all. And why is that?
In trying to answer this question, I got snagged on the cliches. The contradictory labels just don’t stick, however much I may like the sentiments. If home is where the heart is, for example, then my heart is out there in the world. It lures me with promises of adventure and new words for familiar things.
Some say, on the other hand, that there’s no place like home, a statement which hints at the importance of genealogy and culture. True again; what is home if not the place where your heritage and very identity is reflected in who you call family, how you speak and dress, what you eat, to whom you relate. But to embrace this idea fully you must forgive the hint of arrogance that is implied (“your place is nice, but my place is better”).
Perhaps the saying to which I most identify is home is not a place, but people. Or as the Whakatauki states: He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata! He tangata!
I don’t go running through those arrival gates to hug a packet of pineapple lumps, after all. But what then, of all the the friends I’ve made around the world? People who I count as family? By that logic, home could be anywhere; anywhere my people are. It belies the significance of landscape and culture and how intricately those things shape us.
Because there is something about New Zealand which is uniquely me, and something about me that is uniquely New Zealand. I am not a staunch patriot, but I am proud to call myself a Kiwi. I don’t want to get caught up trying to define what that means, I just know that whatever it is, it is a quality is deeply rooted in people, place, geography, language, history, family, politics, education, and yes, even sport.
I realise that I am not constructing my own definition of “Home” here so much as deconstructing everyone else’s. So why then, if I love, appreciate and miss this place I call home so much, why do I keep on leaving?
Louis de Bernieres knows the answer:
“Additionally, the doctor believed that the pleasure of homecoming was more than recompense for the pains of setting out, and that therefore it was always worth departing.” Louis De Bernieres.
In other words, the best thing about leaving, is coming home. On a recent trip back to New Zealand I attempted to capture this sentiment on film. The way it feels to make that long, long journey home. So long it feels like a pilgrimage. You never really appreciate how remote our country is, till you try to get back there from the opposite side of the world.
By the time you arrive, you’re awash with anticipation and exhaustion. The immigration guy says “Welcome home, where’ya been?” and the brutal kiwi accent causes your throat to swell with emotion. The “Kia ora” sign does too. When you finally clear customs and round that last corner, the glass doors suck open and you’re like a rock star in a sea of fans. Thank god you have a trolley to hang on to, the attention’s too much.
You search but it’s just a sea of colour out there. The crowd of expectant faces all ask the same question “is it you?”. But you don’t recognise anyone. They’re all anonymous. Did anyone even come? Did you tell them the right time?
But then you hear it. A whoop from somewhere in the back. Or a wave. Or a smile or a wink. People win the lottery in airport arrival halls every single day. There are hugs. Tears that spring from nowhere as you hold on, and hold on. You leave your trolley right where it is, and make everyone walk around you. Bugger it.
Yep. Homecoming is sweet alright.
(And then you go to the supermarket and buy a packet of pineapple lumps.)
So here it is folks. My audio-visual meditation on home that attempts to overcome the contradictions of sweeping generalisations and depict the place and the people exactly as I experience it.