A Not so Mysterious Traveller: My life spent between the UK and New Zealand
At some point during my fourth or fifth time moving between England and New Zealand, my accent gave up. ‘Sod this,’ it decided, ‘This is exhausting. From now on you’re going to be stuck sounding like a pom with the occasional burst of sheep shagger, twanging with all the grace and subtlety of a snapping guitar string.’
“I have found that it is within the most typical, demystifying personal facets of travel you can find wondrous value.”
When people first meet me, it is only a matter of time before the curiosity over my bastardized mix of a voice forms two questions: ‘Where are you from?’ is the first. ‘England by way of New Zealand,’ I typically reply. I’ve gotten so good at recounting the ‘where’re you from’ story to curious acquaintances that it’s ceased being a story, it’s more a series of ages; milestones at which point I would load my belongings and goodbyes into a van. The second question is always: ‘Which one do you consider home?’ ‘Neither, I don’t really feel at home in either’ I reply matter of fact. ‘Though that’s not meant in a bad way.’
This article is an attempt to explain this by telling that story. Though my dual nationality has obviously altered the course of my life, I assert there is nothing intrinsically special in me as a result of how life unfolds over long distances. In fact I find it worryingly easy to change what I think of as special depending on what is most practical a given time. Instead, I have found that it is within the most typical, demystifying personal facets of travel you can find value.
I will keep the facts brief as I always do, because the practicalities of location and space are far less consequential than you might imagine. Obviously I am far from extraordinary in my situation; my best friend here has been to six different schools in six different countries, and nearly all students have experienced a departure of some magnitude, many across a far deeper cultural valley than myself. Yet, a mutual understanding has formed part of the link to that friend, and this same understanding is what lets students from such different backgrounds assimilate so easily, be it from ten or ten thousand kilometres away. It is a shared bond of travel on which quantity has no bearing. This bond is a universal but unique feeling in anyone who has existed in a transition between space.
“Moving hemispheres became synonymous with professional or economic necessity, and it is from this that I gained most of my objectivity towards uprooting myself.”
I was born in Hammersmith and spent the first year of my life in a Maidavale apartment that my family couldn’t afford now if we sold my brother on the illegal organ market. Then dad was offered a post as the artistic director for NZ’s national ballet company, so we moved down to the sandy, windswept suburb of Island Bay in Wellington, where my brother was born and where I first went to school. It is worth noting how aware I became of my parent’s career paths. Work is an ever present but unseen facet of a child’s life that grows more visible the older you get, and it is particularly hard not to be aware of when the changes it makes are as dramatic as shifting country. To me, moving hemispheres became synonymous with professional or economic necessity, and it is from this that I gained most of my objectivity towards uprooting myself. Not having a choice is the easiest way to learn that when you put what you know beyond the horizon, it doesn’t matter how far back it’s hidden itself. That’s the thing about distance; after a certain point it is just that: distant. And one person’s distant is much the same as everyone else’s.
At seven dad was offered the same position for the Royal English Ballet, and we trooped back, staying just outside London in the hilariously white (washed) idyll of Buckinghamshire. The hamlet we stayed in was called Swan Bottom, and I’m pretty sure my family were the only people living there who realised how hilarious that was.
Perhaps the truly unique aspect of my travelling experience was the extent to which my parents were able to provide me and my brother with a regular childhood. For us, being an international family was always a normalized thing, and we were always surprised by how excited everyone was by our dad’s Swedish surname. It is ironic that my most memorable ‘foreign’ aspect comes from the one part of my national identity I have always been the most estranged from. Dad made an attempt to teach me Swedish, but he was not the most dedicated of teachers, and for six-year-old me the fact that saucer translated to something vaguely resembling the word fart rendered the rest of the language comparatively unexciting.
My dad has most directly influenced my experience of travel by doing a lot of it. To support our income and in order to keep doing what he loved, he would spend months at a time away on freelance contracts with various European dance companies. Whether it Stockholm, London, Warsaw or Amsterdam, it was always the same bad skype connection, tenuously maintained in some small flat kitchen or backstage corridor that divided us. My experience has undoubtedly been shaped by virtue of living in the age of the Internet, the invention that finally shrunk the world into those three small bars of reception. I just used Facebook to start and finish a conversation with an old school friend I haven’t talked to in months to procrastinate writing this article, and the other day I was able to send a song request to my brother’s late night radio show whilst I did the midday dishes.
“Distance does make the heart grow fonder, but the truly fond feelings are the ones that exist in the silence when you know you indefinitely won’t be seeing someone in the flesh.”
By twelve, professional differences had caused my father to leave his permanent job. However, in a bizarre twist, the same NZ company offered my mum a managerial role and we returned again to Wellington. It was here the afore mentioned freelance excursions of my father started. Now living in Kelburn, a district built into the once forested hillsides above Wellington’s central bay, I attended secondary school, avoiding the trauma of GCSEs and A levels (I maintain that the only reason that I was accepted in to the University of Glasgow is that no one here understands the New Zealand assessment system) and making my first lasting friendships.
I have grown very used to the cycle of arriving somewhere new, being there just long enough to form firm relationships and just short enough to watch the assured regular contact slowly grow more and more infrequent until they fizzle down from weekly, to monthly, to Facebook birthday wishes and beyond. This is not enjoyable, but nor is it avoidable, and I find great comfort in that. I will always remember one of my most honest and trustworthy NZ mate’s words: ‘the thing is Sam; we say we’ll talk a lot. We won’t, but you know that whenever you come back, it will be like you never left.’ Distance does make the heart grow fonder, but the truly fond feelings are the ones that exist in the silence when you know you indefinitely won’t be seeing someone in the flesh.
“…I was reminded of the significance of distance, regardless of its remoteness.”
It was this rationalisation of uprooting myself that drove me to the UK again. It was never a question as to what I would do when I finished high school. It seemed the only possible logical step for me, a fact of life that caused a lot of strain for my then girlfriend, understandably infuriated with my blatantly objective approach to our overshadowed relationship. With another phase of my life completed, it was time to once again to pack up and head back to pursue my tertiary education.
I essentially took two gap years: one spent in London surviving on various family friends’ couches before settling in Streatham, supporting myself with twelve hour dishwashing shifts in a Brixton Cinema with six months on either side spent saying my goodbyes in NZ. Able to properly experience my birth city for the first time, I was reminded of the significance of distance, regardless of its remoteness. London is a city where a couple of tenement blocks can divide worlds and to visit someone on a different edge of town is to travel between, not within, places. I can only imagine what effect Brixton would have had on me if I had arrived even a few years earlier, its multicultural edge un-blunted by the inoperable social affliction of gentrification. Regardless, for someone whose previous knowledge of London had been strictly north of the river, it was an exercise in humility towards both my cultural and geographical background. When you live on your own in a city where more sub communities can be found than countries on the globe, the miles you’ve travelled to be there pale in consequence. It was here that I first coined the idea that I was without a true home, and was all the more normal for it.
Now here in Glasgow, I maintain that being ‘homeless’ is a good thing. This isn’t to do with making an identity out of not missing or getting attached to a singular somewhere. For me with NZ and the UK, if I am in one I will yearn for the other, a paradox I will hold close all my life. Because the differences between people can be found in the most universal, even banal aspects of life; I am frequently displaced when walking down to the local corner store, or people watching on some last run bus.
“You will make the same life affecting choices, the same firm friendships, and it will always be unique”
Take as an example the White New Zealand culture I count myself a proud part of. With one of my homes having colonially inherited the European hegemonies of the other, it is fascinating to watch how different branches off the same root can be. For white New Zealanders, the official cultural word is Pākehā, a friendly term from the native language of Te Reo Māori that counts ‘stranger’ among its meanings. The welcome stranger is an idea that to me seems to inform much of New Zealand’s national cultural myth making. It is a small but significant difference which shows how one country struggling with a post colonial identity can, on some level, be nationally defined by their relationship to another culture, as well as autonomously.
The desire to travel, which manifests itself among many a young ‘kiwi’, is characteristic of New Zealand; a nation of strangers making themselves warmly welcome not only to others, but to each other. And this passion to experience new places is not unique to New Zealand. Our ever globalising world is more frequently and conveniently allowing us to travel further and further afield to find a practical place for ourselves. In losing a large part of what makes up the traditional ‘self’, we learn to let ourselves be more easily defined by others. I find it hard to accept the popular opinion of this being a bad thing when the fluidity afforded to me by losing my sense of ‘true’ place has given me a deeper respect for others, and the places they have come from.
“I now adore long plane journeys. There is a part of me permanently living in those limbo hours tucked inside a cylinder humming through the air, simultaneously distant and connected to everywhere.”
I have realised that for me, it would make no difference if I was at a university in Scotland, England or Japan; the same formulae, the same me would be there. We are always telling ourselves: ‘I can’t imagine being anywhere else other than here, I would never have met these people, had these experiences, and changed like this.’ I think the thing is that whether it is here or there, once you get there it’s always going to be the same. You will make the same life affecting choices, the same firm friendships, and it will always be unique; simultaneously infinitely precious and expendable. There’s no place like home, unless you’re somewhere else.
Perhaps the only thing that has truly changed about me as a result of my continental shifts is that I now adore long plane journeys. There is a part of me permanently living in those limbo hours tucked inside a cylinder humming through the air, simultaneously distant and connected to everywhere. You sit there unaffected as the world changes, occasionally glimpsed as some unknown desert or city between the cloud topped landscapes. I have discovered that from below clouds are only the keels of a fleet of galleons, seen from the bottom of an ocean. And whilst the land, sea and sky turn below you, above you, the sunrises turn to sunsets, constellations shift, and the seasonal faces of moon and season invert themselves. There is nothing inextricably special about someone who has travelled a lot. But the wonderful, isolated separation of difference shared between two places is something that is felt uniquely in everyone.
For those of us who are privileged enough to travel freely it is entirely plausible to be an island. But if so, then we are part of an archipelago, linked by the sea.