A recent month back in the land where I grew up and where I am glad to have done so had me reflecting. I’ve now spent more years outside Australia than within. But I grew up there in the 50s and 60s and still hold dear simple things like running barefoot in the bush down the back which today is still there. I hold dear the “hallos” on the street, which seem to have disappeared. TV had just come in and American shows were The Three Stooges – perhaps a foreshadowing for all the stooges that were to follow. It was an innocent time. Then came Viet Nam and soon after, I left. I left, not because of politics although I had started hugging trees, but because I wanted to see where I’d been born. Vienna, Austria. I stayed in Vienna for four years, finally needing to escape what I felt was grey felt that would suck me down. Vienna was very grey in the late 60s and early 70s.
Half a lifetime in the no man’s land of UN Geneva then followed. It was a time of believing in something larger, which many years later proved to be little more than a betrayal of faith, or as some might say, a need to grow up. I took it as the former, and I think I was right. I had already become too old to grow up.
When I was growing up on Sydney’s North Shore I did not know any “others”. I was the “other”, at least in the early years, but it didn’t last long. I can’t remember when “new Australian” became just Australian for me, and for my family. It wasn’t really an issue, but I do remember when the moniker first stung. They say that what you remember from your youth stays with you a lifetime. Luckily, I had many good things that formed me: friends, speaking out, being listened to, sport, like-minded peers, good teachers, and lots of fun.
I came back to Australia regularly in the years just before my mother passed away in 2009. One night she shocked me by saying that she saw the country beginning to resemble the one of her youth – Hitler’s Germany. Hitler, she said did a lot: he built autobahns, created jobs, but he also created a society of fear and complacency served in alternating dollops to dumb down a nation.
I’ve been following events in Australia via newspapers online and social media, with a leaning to have more confidence in the latter these days. I watch from afar what is going on in Australia – children in detention, the brakes on freedom of speech with warning signs of an Australian secret police, moguls running the media, corporate values ruling, research and universities cobbled to an agenda, climate change denial, yes, overt racism, – and yet I saw nothing of this in the news when in the country last month, saw nothing of this in the streets.
But when an 80 year-old B&B owner tells me she can’t cook breakfasts anymore since she’d have to do a course and pass a test to boil eggs, or when a staunch liberal worries about the land being poisoned due to coal seam gas, or when a woman in Watson’s Bay expresses mild disgust at the shenanigans of the current PM, when it rains and burns, I wonder why they don’t do something. I’m told that one votes the way one has always voted (I’ve been away too long to be able to vote), that shenanigans will pass, that there’s really nobody else. I’m told that it will take another couple of generations for Australians – white middle class? – to accept the changes to the country. Maybe it’s my age and a sense of the Australia I knew having lost its way. But I have faith.
I have faith in the young making their way. I have faith in independent journalists and activists. I have faith in the writers and public intellectuals I admire. I have faith in the migrants working to make a life despite all the rules and regulations twisting their minds and guts, I have faith in Indigenous Australians showing more sense than many who originally came to this land.
I now live in Austria. Vienna is different although not everything is rosy. I live in a crucible in a Europe, where the right is getting stronger. Do we have to go through a new fascism both here and in the country in which I grew up? Yet, I do have faith. I have faith in those who never wanted to grow up even though some of them had to.
Home? All I know is that it’s not a place.