In terms of great life moments, homecomings after long periods of travel are way up there. Second best to leaving, in my mind. With a mixture of pride, relief and uncertainty I returned to New Zealand in 2008. I discovered soon that strangely, homecomings can be hard, too.
I was living in Melbourne with Amelia, my girlfriend of one year when a job opportunity came up in my home town of Christchurch. Surprising myself, I said yes without hesitation. I am known as a master of indecision, but this choice came easily. It wasn’t that I was sick of Melbourne, I still had a long and varied list of things to do there. My mindset had been, “I can't go back ‘til I've done something really worthwhile, however long that takes.” The problem was, what these things were seemed to change from day to day. Sometimes I wanted to be a photographer. Other days I was determined to follow my dream of being a musician, like so many others who came to Melbourne. This was the perfect city for it. I had put out band ads and met like-minded musicians who had also travelled to the city to make something of it, but somehow things never connected. One guy I met had just moved and his gear was still being freighted. We sat in the sun sharing a beer, talking of the bands we loved and admired for a couple of hours, but we never saw each other again. The was the usual way things went.
I was biking to work early one morning with the traffic buzzing around me when I heard my phone ring. I pulled over in a cloud of exhaust, pushing the phone to my ear as I braked. I strained to hear the voice over the traffic. Expecting it to be work or my girlfriend, I was surprised when a strangely familiar voice asked, "Hey Danny, It's Lee. How are ya sunshine?"
Lee was calling from New Zealand. My former boss was in a bind, with a worker leaving he was short a person. He needed someone to head up the printshop in his screen-printing factory. He wanted me to head back and needed an answer really soon, so I agreed to think about if for a few days and call him back with a decision. I finished biking at great speed to the hotel I worked at. It was a five star affair, the whole marbled floors with elegantly placed napkin vibe. Formal service and ass-kissing was a requirement. I had started to wonder about my commitment to the place. As I looked around me that day, the idea of being able to work without all the daily pomp and ceremony sounded like heaven. My co-workers were their typically fun selves that day, but my usual breezy demeanour started to slide. My Turkish supervisor even noticed my distraction, saying, "You look like a zombie, mate. What’s the matter, You're somewhere else!" I knew that Amelia would be excited to move back to Christchuch too, but before committing we’d need to talk it over.
We I had been living in a communal flat. A huge converted warehouse full of backpackers and out-of-towners. It was good for getting to know people, but always in the back of our minds we knew it was a temporary thing, really just a place to sleep and not a home. People came and went with alarming frequency, and soon you started to forget the names of people who had left. We lived on the top floor, one of only two rooms with a proper window. Separating our room from the next was a thin sheet of plywood. When someone coughed or turned in bed we could hear it. I kept my headphones handy if I needed to block out any other sounds at night. In the end, we craved privacy and a solid home and Melbourne made us more restless than settled.
Amelia and I talked about moving back and the job offer, and we both knew if we returned to Christchurch we would find a nice place and be surrounded by friends and likeminded people again. Amelia mused about how great it would be to start a vege garden. We talked about the offer and decided we wanted to move back. In the end, it was an easy decision.
The night of our farewell party all the friends from the warehouse turned up. We drank together and chatted well into the night, walking back home through our old neighbourhood. It was one of our best nights together out with everyone we’d had, and I realized then how little I knew of their lives. I wished I had spent more time getting to know everyone, and wondered why I hadn’t. Soon, we would be back with old friends and family in our respective countries, but for now they were our small piece of community.
The slower pace of life in Christchurch was jarring and disorienting at first. The contrast of a big city of millions to home felt like coming back to a tiny village. It was overwhelming trying to get around and see all the old friends and try and reconnect. Some had new lives going on, and others were near impossible to contact. We tried explaining our lives overseas and why we decided to return, but it didn't seem to make sense to most people. They just smiled and nodded.
We found a new place to stay pretty quickly. Amelia and her sister had purchased a house in Stanmore Road in Linwood before we left for Australia, and we moved in with the people who flatted there. At first, I didn't know what to make of the area. I was dismayed at the local boy-racer population. Their numbers seemed to have grown exponentially since we last lived here. Still, the area was mostly quiet, bordering on docile, despite a reputation in the media as being violent and anti-social. In many ways it reminded us of the place we had lived in Melbourne, brash and even charming at times . Especially at two AM in the morning when being woken up to the screech of car tyres and the clatter of drunken teens echoing in the streets. It was going to take some effort to get use to the area.
I was inspired one day when I discovered the Indian spice shop a block from our house. It had bulk bins full of spices and sold coriander by the kilo. It was great being able to walk five minutes down the road, without the inconvenience and stress of going further out to a mall. The owner was friendly and helpful, and on that first visit I thought that maybe this area was one we could settle into after all. I became a regular customer, the owner recognizing me and always greeting me with a smile. I asked about how to make dahl in the traditional way, and he gave me some proper recipes.
We met our neighbour one afternoon as summer approached. Amelia was trying to trim some branches on a tree over our fence. He offered to help and before we knew it he appeared in full protective clothing with eye goggles and chainsaw. He made short work of the branches, chatting enthusiastically and offering to have us around for a bbq. Things were quickly starting to feel comfortable.
When we decided we needed to get rid of a bit of old clutter, we arranged to have a garage sale. We wanted to go all out and really make a thing of it. We got up early to lay the items on the tables. It was a foggy morning, the condensation clung to everything and we fended off the early hagglers and set up our coffee machine so we could make coffee for people as they browsed the items. It turned out to be a community hit. For most of the morning it was quiet, but there was a moment when the fog lifted and the sun started to come and the buyers and curious appeared in droves. Amelia was good with pricing and making casual conversation, while I just seemed to attract all the weirdos. A man played guitar for me on my amp, trying to decide if he could afford it. I watched a small drip appear on the end of his nose from the cold. It slowly grew larger, poised like an icicle. Finally I could take it no
more and offered him a tissue. People who we often passed in the street started to appear and we stopped and chatted. After a certain point, we decided to make the remaining items free to good homes. People descended en masse, feeding like seagulls on the knick-knacks. We laughed at the chaos as a woman swerved across the road, pulling sharply into our driveway. She jumped out of her car, grabbed a box at random then flung it into her car before taking off again.
It turned out to be a really great day. We had made new friends and gotten to know our neighbours. Most importantly, we had caught a glimpse of a place we really wanted to call home.