For four years while living in Israel, I visited Sydney annually. Anyone who has lived overseas and then come home to visit will understand the strange and unique experience of ‘coming home for a holiday’. You’d think that time and distance would change things, that after living in a new country so that your senses are swollen and your cultural assumptions challenged and sense of self turned upside down…you’d think that things would seem different when you went back home. But the strangest thing is how familiar everything is. Your tree-lined street, the smell of your family home, the instant reconnection with close friends. Little pockets of random familiarity fill you with delight. Ha! That’s where we used to sit in the park after school…the lady from the chemist still works there! There’s comfort and nostalgia and a blissful feeling of contentment that is unlike the thrill of exploring unknown territories. There is not the breathless excitement of meeting new friends in hostels, forging connections with fellow travellers. No, this sort of trip is reunion after reunion after reunion. Your nearest and dearest gather together, arrange barbeques and dinners and brunches and you’re all booked up from start to finish. Every minute with family and friends is precious. Every return takes days to recover.
I left Israel two years ago. Even that length of time seems illusory and surreal. Seriously, two years ago? It feels like less. Now, I ‘return’ to my (second? other?) home. And how strange that those same feelings of nostalgia and bittersweet reminiscence occur again here, in the place where I did not grow up. Though Israel is more than the place I spent four years of my life. It’s the country of my birth, it’s the homeland of my father, it’s the place of childhood holidays where I got off the plane at seven years old and stared in amazement at all the people speaking my father’s language, eating the food I grew up with, knowing the customs that were quietly confined to my family home. It’s the place I experienced how it felt to be in the majority after a lifetime in the minority.
I didn’t know that coming to Israel would make me feel as I did when I returned to Australia. It’s joyful. Somehow, old friends become dearer and closer after time apart. I’m a little older and wiser, so my underlying fear of the language barrier, of my confusing in-between state of Hebrew where I know enough for people to assume I am fluent but not enough to always keep up, doesn’t seem to matter anymore. I didn’t forget my Hebrew. It lay dormant for two years only to gladly rise again when needed. All the things I loved about Israel become brighter and more beautiful after time and distance: the generous Israeli breakfasts of salads, cheeses and freshly baked bread, colel shtiyah! (the best café breakfasts in Australia will always disappoint in comparison). The instant warmth and genuine love of friends who will make time for you without needing to book in advance. The way people look you in the eye and strangers speak like they’ve known you for years. The blessed freedom from subtext, where true meaning is second-guessed and there’s always the risk of unintentional offence. I love how every time we have visited friends, smart phones are in bags, not on tables. I love watching my husband become most himself, and how my own identity changes through language and I become a different Israeli me. Tel Aviv is as alive and noisy as always; every corner contains a memory: our old apartment on Brener St; buying fresh fruit and veg at the shuk, the sweaty humidity, the run-down tumbling apartment buildings with linoleum floor and peeling walls. When I lived In Tel Aviv I got used to the dirtiness of the city, but after the pristineness of Sydney, I can’t miss it. At the end of the day, I’m grimy and scrub my blackened feet before bed.
Everyone asks: Are you ever coming back? Are you staying there? Where do you want to live? We look at each other and smile knowing and unknowing smiles.
This is what we know: our life will always move and shift between two far-away countries. We will always have two homes. We share in the experience of having two worlds, of grappling with a second language, of missing our family, of searching for new friends and reconnecting with old ones, of marvelling and scowling at cultural differences, of nostalgia whenever we leave one home for the other.
This is what we don’t know: the whens and hows and whys and ifs- the details. We don’t know the future. But there’s plenty of future to be had.
Nostalgia comes from the Greek compound of nostos, ‘homecoming’ and algos, meaning ‘ache’. We are deeply awash in the ache of homecoming right now… swimming in a sea of it. It will take a little time to settle back ‘home’, especially for Ori. I used to cry for a week when I returned to Israel after a visit to Australia. Now I’ll cry for a week when I’m back. There’s a mourning period before we wiggle back into the life we’ve built for ourselves in our new old home, back to work, routine and life. We’re an adaptable species, us humans.
So just as we tell friends and family: “In the meantime, we’re there”, all I can say now is: “In the meantime, we’re here.” And having the time of our lives.