10 Dec 2015

Flying towards freedom

8:42 am on 10 December 2015

What could be better than being miles away, asks Natalie Maria Clark.  


Listen to the story as it was told at The Watercooler or read on. 

I love being away. I dislike returning.

My last trip ‘away’ was to Melbourne six weeks ago. I flew home overnight and arrived at 5.30am, a time at which, unsurprisingly, no-one was keen to pick me up from the airport. Besides which, I’m pretty certain I’ve exhausted my quota of asking for airport rides (a friend of mine actually commented on my Facebook plea, somewhat didactically, that I “go to the airport too much”).

So I caught a shuttle back to my flat. There were two tourists in the seat in front of me pointing at every building, every tree, every thing. I envied their new eyes, looking at places I’ve known for years.

As the shuttle approached the New North Road and Bond Street intersection, a police car came whirring through the lights and raced ahead of us. We let it pass and continued on. About 300m down the road, on Bond Street Bridge, the police car had stopped and was parked alongside three others. A man - perhaps about my age - was on the other side of the rail overlooking the drop down to the motorway. He didn’t look distraught, or panicked. He looked quietly content.

I felt overwhelmed with the heaviness of home. I wanted to be somewhere else.

I don’t know exactly why, but I have always - since I can remember - felt more at home when I am away from home. It doesn’t matter where ‘home’ is, or how good things are at ‘home’; nor does it matter where ‘away’ is or what calls me to that place. There’s just something about being in a different space that always trumps the familiarity of the known.

I don’t stay in flats for long. I mostly work fixed term and contract jobs. Within a single day, I often go between several places. I don’t even stay with people for long.

When I think back on my life, my mind segments my memories according to being in certain places. The in-between times linger murkily as void spaces. I don’t like to be in the same place for long; it makes me feel constricted. I don’t stay in flats for long. I mostly work fixed term and contract jobs. Within a single day, I often go between several places. I don’t even stay with people for long - mostly they seem to come and go (or perhaps it’s me doing that?). Either way, I’m OK with this.

I am not at all one of those people who has an attachment to my own bed. I love sleeping on couches and mattresses, in guest bedrooms, in other people’s beds, on floors, in tents, in hostels, in shared spaces. There’s something about waking up on a couch amongst the aftermath of a party; or in a tent in the middle of a forest; or in a foreign city with all its idiosyncratic sounds rapping on the window. Your sleepy eyes are immediately hurtled into the present moment. Everything feels full of possibility because it is new.

When I wake up in a familiar place, in a place imbued with the label of ‘mine’, the feeling of it is inherent, routine, expected. There is no aliveness because everything is automatic, even predetermined. But when I sleep somewhere new, I feel more conscious of my own existence.

Thinking of mornings like this gives me an almost physical ache of nostalgia.

I love long-distance flights, walks and drives. I love the sense of going somewhere. I don’t mind sleeping upright in an economy class seat or with my face smushed into my bag as a pillow. I love the ritual of plane food and safety briefings, and most of all I love the opportunity to just sit and be for several hours.

I wonder if part of the reason I don’t have a strong attachment to the idea of ‘home’ is because we moved around a lot when I was growing up. I grew up in the Waikato, mostly but not entirely in Cambridge, and in the last few years of high school on a lifestyle block just outside of town.

We didn’t live in the same house for more than a couple of years, often less. My parents were constantly upgrading and then selling houses with the aim of expanding their $10,000 cash into a one million dollar property asset. (All for little gain in the end, as they divorced when I left home and – as they argued over how to split their combined worth - the recession hit and their property devalued by almost half.)

Additionally, I was fortunate that my family often went on holidays. Nothing major, just the token middle class to Australia and certain Pacific Islands, but we did also travel a lot within New Zealand. We had family down south in a tiny town called Edendale (population 3-400, somewhere in the vicinity of Invercargill and Gore) and, as such, we often spent summers driving up and down the country.

We frequently took weekend or Christmas trips to Tauranga, Taupo, Waihi, Tarawera. I was even lucky enough to accompany my parents on their trip around Northland for their ‘honeymoon’ (the poor things - luckily my teacher Miss Thurlow loaded me up with books to keep me well occupied).

When I was freshly 14, my family went on a holiday to Fiji. I bought new denim shorts (some cheap number from an Ezibuy catalogue) and when they arrived in the post, I tried them on. Looking at my gangly teenage legs, Mum remarked, “I’ll be surprised if you don’t have your first kiss during this holiday.”

At the time it seemed a very strange remark - actually, it still does. I don’t know why she said it. It was incongruous to the picture I had of filling my days with snorkelling and gorging on pineapple and mango; as though she’d set some very normal expectation of me, which I was totally oblivious to and hadn’t yet fulfilled. It actually instilled panic in me. I’d had a similar feeling the year prior when, on my thirteenth birthday, my grandad wrote in my card, “Now you can begin dating!”

Were 13 and 14 the ages at which one was expected to begin dating and kissing people, respectively? Why hadn’t society informed me of these benchmarks?

It was confusing. Were 13 and 14 the ages at which one was expected to begin dating and kissing people, respectively? Why hadn’t society informed me of these benchmarks?

On holiday in Fiji, in 2005, I didn’t have my first kiss, but I did make good friends with a group of three kiwi boys, one of which I definitely had a crush on (not reciprocated) and one of which definitely had a crush on me (not reciprocated). At the end of the holiday, I was left with terrible tan lines from my Ezibuy short shorts and an overhanging sense of disappointing failure.

Three months later I went away again, this time to Ohope beach with a family friend I’d known since my own existence. Jessica’s parents gave us no curfew because they, and I quote, “trusted us to be responsible”. They allowed us to roam around the Holiday Camp and beach and do as we pleased.

We met two boys holidaying from Wellington and together the four of us spent the week epitomizing all the clichés of our adolescence. We built illegal campfires on the beach, became tamely drunk, and went skinny-dipping in the brilliant metallic cyan moonlight.

And so, of course, one night on Ohope beach, January 2006, somewhere around 1am, wearing the same denim shorts that had become the symbol of my failure as a holidaying teen in Fiji, I had my first kiss. I revelled in the immense energy and power of my own youth; to create possibility, to connect with strangers in a beautiful place. Everything seemed far away from the reality I knew of home back in boring little townhouse-gridded Cambridge riddled with British aesthetics and attitudes. The independence was intoxicating. 

Being ‘away’, the subsequent flourish of freedom and being intimately connected to other humans, became intertwined in my psyche. A perfect trifecta that, ten years later, still seems quintessential to my happiness.

Holidays have continued to represent and bring about an insatiable pursuit for both connection and the promise of freedom. Maybe it’s because I do feel most like myself when I am away that holidays always seem to result in amorous trysts. Both my romantic and platonic connections with people seem to be brief, uprooted - just like my sense of home.

People have become as much a place for escape as the physical spaces in which I meet them. New people, fleeting moments and foreign places – they feel more like home than any place I’ve ever lived. And I’m pretty sure this comes back to the beautiful immediacy of that which is not routine. 

Last year, someone I was working with on a touring show said how much she disliked the transience that came with her job. Being transient doesn’t bother me. In fact, I need it to stop me from becoming complacent. Things that I might ordinarily deem too risky feel as though they have no consequences. Or greater consequence; more impact, more influence. When you’re away, you find the most honest version of yourself because you’ve no predetermined attachment to the spaces or people surrounding you. You are writing on a new page with very decision and interaction.

And therefore, when I am away, everything feels good, everything feels a success, and everything is worth celebrating. Even when I feel darker in mind, if I am away this becomes a complex and beautiful state of mind that I revel in the depth and humanness of.

When I’m at ‘home’, I become obsessed with planning and am easily upset when things don’t unfold how I expect. I fail to notice details because I think I already know them, they are too familiar to deserve my attention. Which is a shame, because beauty and intrigue are always in the small details. Sometimes I catch myself in this mind space and then I’ll see a house I’ve never registered seeing, despite it being directly across the road from where I’ve lived for months. I’m in awe when I go down streets adjacent to streets I have travelled countless times - that tiny horizontal shift never fails to amaze me, how it allows me to feel like a tourist in my own city. 

And I think this is it: To explore home as if you’re on holiday. To think of returning not as ‘going back’, but instead, as moving into the next segment of time. To revel in the newness you feel when you hone in on the details of moments, people and places; to look at the familiar with new eyes. That’s where happiness is.

This story was originally told at The Watercooler, a monthly storytelling night held at The Basement Theatre. If you have a story to tell email thewatercoolernz@gmail.com or hit them up on Twitter or Facebook.

Illustration: Rhianna McCormick-Burns 

This content is brought to you with funding support from NZ On Air.