February 7, 2022

Coming Home: Living Abroad in a Global Pandemic

A Tale of Two Apartments

A little over a year ago, I moved into an apartment on this very same Milanese street. I hauled a single suitcase and two backpacks up a flight of stairs, and asked my ex one last time to do the right thing…

I knew I had to leave him – his outbursts of anger were getting more & more frequent and sending me into waves of panic – but I didn’t want to move into that apartment. I wanted to go to my home, where I could hug my Mum and listen to my Dad’s advice and laugh at my brother’s brotherly rage.

Instead, I was stuck in that ratty, moldy apartment, feeling lost, confused, angry & alone.

Today, as I carted two suitcases and multiple bags up the stairs of a nearby apartment, to an Airbnb where I’ll live for just a few days, I no longer feel confused or alone.

A Tale of Two Homes

When I think of home, I think of an apartment where I no longer live, filled with the sounds of an annoying but lovely little lovebird, of a door handle covered by my collection of face masks, and of all the friends who have made life so wonderfully full in these past 12 months.

I think of raucous wine nights squeezed around an ugly square table, of friends passed out on my couch – a safe haven between European travels or after nights out, of a boy who rung my doorbell holding champagne and popcorn, of neighbours who yelled at me across the courtyard to ask where I’m from and then immediately became fast friends.

I don’t live there anymore, but these memories will always fill me with joy.

When I think of home, I also think of a sun-soaked brick house in the suburbs of Western Australia, with a loquat tree out the front that I planted from a seed, where my three brothers & I had water fights and real fights, where we learned to drive, played countless board games, hid in our rooms, and burst through each other’s closed doors as if they shouldn’t even exist to wrestle or cry or hug or talk & talk & talk (okay, that last one was mostly me).

Even though my brothers are married and have sweet houses of their own, I’m ready to go back to them now.

My heart will forever be torn in two – the city I was born in and the city I adopted – but it’s been too long since I was able to roam those absurd suburban streets. The ones where everyone has a garden & a car & walking from one side of the house to the other takes more than 10 steps.

It’s been too long since I’ve driven to the beach or walked barefoot on the prickle-filled grass, where space abounds, and the air is fresh.

I no longer feel confused or alone, but I do feel angry and lost.

An Australian Stuck Abroad

Because the home I was born in won’t have me. Not without spending money I literally don’t have, filling out forms requiring intimate details of my life, and losing days to quarantine.

My passport can get me into almost any country in the world, but in the city that issued it, it doesn’t mean a thing.

I have waited two years to hug my Mum. I have waited months to meet my niece and watched painfully as her big sister remembers me less & less. I’ve cried every time I hung up the phone to my Grandma knowing it may well be our last call.

And all the while I’ve waited, because other people needed the quarantine places more than me, and because I was happy to “do the right thing”. I was happy to wait until I was vaccinated and so was my family; until the risk was less. Heck, I was even proud of the way WA pulled together to protect their own.

But now? I’ve given up one home – the one filled with friends & love & my lovely little lovebird – to return to the other, the one who said they were finally ready to welcome us back. I packed my bags and booked flights and said no to work in my adopted home because I was finally going back to the home that I was born in…

Sun-Soaked Homes

Perth friends who’d found themselves stranded around the world for two years too many shared in the joy of finally preparing to be back in their own sun-soaked homes. The places where we could walk out the door barefoot, where fluffy huntsman spiders are just part of everyday regular life, where we wake up to the sound of magpies warbling and fall asleep to the whistling, rushing wind.

They sold houses and quit jobs, withdrew kids from school, prepared to be reunited with their mothers, their fathers, their sisters, their brothers, their grandparents, their children, their friends…

Because at long last, it was time to go home to that fabled land where we are one and free, where there are boundless plains to share…

Except, as so many have discovered before us, there aren’t. And there weren’t.

Because 16 days before we were promised we’d be allowed home, the Western Australian government pulled the rug out from all of us.

They left us homeless and jobless, many of us visa-less.

Australians Stuck Around the World

Megan* sold her house, gave her boss her notice, and shipped her belongings home. Sam quit his job and told his Dad he’d be back soon. Mary began preparing her house, beyond ready to welcome her son & his partner and meet her 10-month-old granddaughter for the very first time. Alison booked a flight, a glimmer of hope that she might save her marriage, which was barely surviving the endless distance…

These stories are not uncommon. There are 20,000 of us, all beyond ready to return home, all grieving in our own way.

At the same time though, our stories are unique because Australia and New Zealand are the only countries to shut their citizens & permanent residents out. This decision has caused immense distress to families separated across the world. We’ve missed birthdays and Christmases, weddings and births. Parents have missed watching their children grow up in formative parts of their lives. Children lost their chance to say goodbye to their Mums and Dads. Women gave birth without all-important family support systems by their side.

I cannot speak for everyone else, but there are no words to express the grief and heartbreak of receiving a birthday email from my Grandma, reminding me to tell them that she’s dying of liver cancer when I request permission to return home…

“I thought Australia was cool…”

The great irony is that while Western Australians tell us we’re selfish or that it’s our own fault for moving abroad, around the world, others recognise this stress. Our foreign friends are shocked.

“You’re joking, right?”

“I thought Australia was cool.”

“I was overseas in 2020 and I always knew I could come back home to Italy!”

“The American consulate made sure I’d have a spot on a plane back home.”

“Honestly, I always wanted to visit Australia, but how can I feel safe in a country that treats its citizens like this?”

But Can I Still Call Australia Home?

That last one is particularly hard to hear, especially because for many Aussies stuck abroad, we identify with it. Asides from the unending separation from loved ones, we are struggling with a loss of identity. Can we really call Australia home when it’s left us out in the cold for so long? When we’ve been told by our compatriots safe at home that we’re selfish and wrong for asking we be considered?

I miss my family and the friends I’ve known since I was an awkward teenager. I miss driving along familiar streets and diving into the freezing shallows of the Indian Ocean. I even miss the friendly little jumping spiders that used to park themselves on my windowsill for months at a time. Most of all, I desperately miss my Grandma and would give anything to see her before she passes.

But when all is said and done, I’m not sure I’ll ever feel at ease again in the city where I was born – because as much as I want to call Perth home, it was made abundantly clear to all of us stuck abroad that, as soon as we left the safe confines of the WA borders, we were no longer considered ‘one of us’. Instead, we became ‘one of them’.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.