At 30,000 feet, my boyfriend pulled up the window shade and pointed down at the frozen middle of America.
“Do you know what that is?” he asked.
I looked down on blankets of February snow and a winding river and shook my head.
“It’s Iowa,” Zach smiled. He pulled up the flight tracker on the screen in front of him and pointed at his home state.
I looked out over the frostbitten region that produced the man who loved me enough to spend 20 hours in a coach seat so that he could visit my home. And I let out a quick sigh of relief that we weren’t headed to Iowa, but to somewhere much warmer.
For all we have in common, Zach and I come from very different places. He’s from the landlocked heartland of America, a Midwestern city of 70,000 people, where it gets down to negative double digits on some short February days. I am from a city built on a harbor on the globe’s only island continent, a de facto national capital of four million, where February is hot and steamy and it’s light until after eight. Now, with him living in Washington D.C., and me living in New York City, we both live far—literally and culturally—from home.
Flying over Iowa, we were still a long way from my home, and the longest leg of the journey, the 14-hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, lay ahead of us. The trip is grueling, especially when the inflight entertainment system is down, as was the case this time. Still, I’d all but danced down the jet-bridge at JFK. I was going home. And for the first time in almost a decade—for the first time since I moved to the United States—I wasn’t going alone. Since I became old enough to travel solo, I had become accustomed to doing this trip by myself, to conveying to my American friends the misery of the flight and the majesty of Sydney Harbor in words and pictures alone. Now, Zach would see it for himself.
Shortly after we passed over Iowa, Zach opened his copy of In A Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson’s account of his travels in Australia. Bryson is a master of the stranger-in-a-strange-land style, the kind of author who can write a book about Australia overwhelmingly filled with information that can surprise a born-and-bred Australian. He’s also an Iowan, who found, upon visiting my strange land, that parts of it reminded him in many ways of his home state. As the Iowan next to me leaned against the window and dozed off, I wondered if he’d see similarities, too.
The first morning we woke up in my parents’ house, in a quiet and leafy suburb in north Sydney, it was before dawn. It was 1 p.m. in our bodies, but most of Sydney was asleep, save for the early morning joggers and cyclists who we could hear padding and whizzing past the wide open windows. We talked quietly, trying not to wake my parents. In the middle of a somewhat serious conversation about our relationship, I stopped, mid-sentence.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “this is really important, and also I cannot concentrate when there’s a kookaburra cackling like a maniac right outside.”
I haven’t lived in Australia for almost a third of my life. My accent is a weird amalgam, and I write mostly about American politics and popular culture, and I’ve voted in more American elections lately than Australian ones—which means I owe the Australian Electoral Commission some money (Compulsory voting: It’s a good idea.). I live in New York, close to my grandmother, who is Brooklyn born and bred, and for the most part I fit in there.
And yet, Sydney is still, undeniably, home (For the sake of my fellow Australians reading this, I’ll eschew the obvious Peter Allen reference here.). I’ve come back every year, sometimes for a month at a time, since I left for college. My mother and my father live here, as does my best friend in the world. And it feels like, just as the few Australian friends who visited me on my college campus or in New York know me far better than those who only imagine my life on the other side of the world, the Americans who have seen Sydney—and seen me in Sydney—know me in different ways.
There are good reasons why none of my closest American friends have visited my hometown and why only two of my boyfriends have. Both in terms of distance and expense, it’s a lot to ask of people. So while I’ve never resented the fact so few of my American loved ones have made the journey, there’s a distance that’s undeniable: For my significant others, my faraway homeland is all but imaginary, a sense exacerbated by its “weird” flora and fauna, and by its sheer improbability. Still, when the place you live and the place you call home are so different, and so different to anything your friends and loved ones know, it’s hard to feel like they truly get you until they’ve seen it. So, sometime during my first ever trip to Iowa, we decided that he should see Sydney.
So he saw it. He saw the beach where I did junior surf lifesaving—or Nippers, as we call it—on Sunday mornings. He saw the ferries I took to school in the morning. He saw the inside of our state capitol building and learned about our absurdly complex voting system. We went into the bush, four hours northwest of Sydney, where we saw kangaroos and echidnas in the wild. We rattled down unsealed country roads, and he watched in awe—just like I used to when I was a kid—as the roos bounded along beside the car, clearing fences effortlessly.
And he heard it, too. We went to the beach where I learned to body surf, and my dad and I taught him the rules of the surf: Don’t turn your back on the waves; go under, not over or through; if a rip catches you, don’t fight it. Afterward, exhausted and crusty with dried salt, we laid on towels and listened as a lifesaver, yelling instructions into a megaphone, tried to corral recalcitrant swimmers back between the red and yellow flags so they wouldn’t be hit by surfboards or dragged out by rips.
“Everyone here sounds like you,” he said. “I’m used to you being the only weird one.”
After so long away, though, I don’t sound totally Australian any more, something that fellow Australians point out to me, perhaps not realizing how wounding it is. Here at home, with my discernibly American vowels, and my emphasis on the second syllable in words like “adult,” and “garage,” I’m still the odd one. He started trying to imitate the Australian accent, which is famously difficult to get right. He now knows from personal experience that merely repeating everything the Australian GPS says is not a good way to learn—though it is a good way to almost get oneself left on the side of a highway in the middle of the New South Wales bush.
It’s hardly a novel observation that you see your hometown anew when you show it someone who is seeing it for the first time. The familiar becomes strange, viewed through the stranger’s eyes. You notice new things, appreciate the old things more. I loved Sydney, my strange land, more with him in it—and I loved him more than ever in Sydney. And I saw him learning things about me, too. He was seeing Sydney, and me—and I saw my home, and myself, differently through his eyes.
And then it was time to go. Time to leave home, yet again.
The pain of separation, of leaving the place I love—even though it’s for another place I love—hasn’t faded after ten years. I always cry when I leave Sydney. This time, as the plane took off from Kingsford Smith, I wept. We soared into the sky and I couldn’t stop the tears, or stop looking out the window to see the last of my hometown, the green of the parks and the red of the terracotta roofs and the blinding flashes of gold as the sun hit the harbor. We flew east over the beach where Zach and I had sat at a café working the previous day, the beach where I wrote long stretches of my doctoral dissertation and had my first real kiss.
“We’ll be back,” he said, squeezing my hand.
We doubtlessly will be, though in what capacity, I can’t say. Sydney is where I’m from. New York City is where I live. Home, the cliché goes, is where the heart is, but cross-stitched throw pillows don’t offer advice on where to go when the things dearest to your heart—your given family, your chosen family, your work—are all in different places. For now, my answer to those who ask if I’ll come back is: “I don’t know.”
I don’t know where work, love, and chance will take me in the near or distant future. But there’s one thing I do know: There’s only one airport where wheels up can make me cry like I did at the end of this trip. For now, at least, home is wherever it hurts the most to leave.
This piece has been updated. A line that stated that solar panels in Australia face south has been removed; they face north.