After decades of quietly watching on as countryman after countryman embarked on their personal journey into the bigger world, I finally took the step myself. For the delay, I blame the “Don’t leave town ‘til you’ve seen the country” television advertisements that had been ubiquitous throughout my childhood. I blame my insecure New Zealand and our brittle determination to be the most beautiful, most friendly, most ‘special’ country in the world. Even travellers to here are quick to reinforce (perhaps, on reflection, as a way of validating the expense and inhuman physicality of 32 hours in the air, or simply for fear of offending our fragile kiwi egos) how ‘lucky’ we are in this country.
Over the years have berated myself, there is even ample evidence of it in historical entries in this journal, for not being as ‘happy’ and feeling as ‘lucky’ as I’m meant to as a New Zealander living in “Godzone”. God? Who? Luck? What?
While I may always hold myself lucky to be born a New Zealander and have a sense of belonging in this distant island surrounded by inconceivable distances of sea. During this trip, I discovered another sense of belonging for which I have yearned all my life, and never really believed possible. But before that, what of the trip itself?
On a long haul jet at 30,000 ft, you literally can sense the planet spinning beneath you. Travelling South to North and East to West, time slows down. The dusk lasts eternally and the silent planet spins away beneath you.
The dusk over Australia, tinted deep red by the fine earth of that great continent, lasted for hours and stained the interior of the aircraft with its ochre light. The skies over Thailand were a riot of electrical activity. We flew blithely above it all. Dubai’s hot tan sandy ambition was striking. That airport, which was busy but silent and clearly brand new, seemed a herald of something coming.
Markus, who I was to meet on my arrival in Frankfurt at the end of my epic flight, is a man I had only previously known via the internet. Over the years we had shared a lot and grown to know and like each other deeply. We had never met in person. Until then. Standing at the passenger exit, there he was, this man with whom I felt so familiar, yet with whom I was totally unfamiliar. As these things go, and as I knew this would, when animated and in person, he was 1000 times more of everything I always knew him to be. We hugged and laughed and kept grabbing each other to make sure.
For the next 8 days, we were inseparable. Any ideas I may have had that I’d perhaps have to fend for myself were quickly erased. We had a car, a home base at Markus’ and we had the whole of Europe at our feet – or at least down the road. The “road”, of course, was the unbelievable Autobahn. We drove at incomprehensible speeds and passed across national borders as if we were passing suburbs. One afternoon’s trip took us through Luxembourg (the cheapest fuel), Belgium, France and the Netherlands. I knew this was possible academically, but to experience it was something else. All these international lines in the sand. All this richness and depth of culture. All this diversity.
We travelled to Amsterdam for a night and then to Berlin for an extended period. Around every corner was evidence of events and people that had changed the world we live in. So much of what I know is ‘theory’. So much of being in Europe was real. An idea of something is wonderful, but the experience of being part of it, or standing inside it, amongst people who live with it… well, that is something else altogether.
When it came to spending time in places like Schoneburg in Berlin where most of the people you encounter on the streets and in the bars and restaurants and shops are gay, everything changed. Suddenly I felt like it was possible to exist in a state where I was not an alien to all those around me, at risk of exposure and harm. This feeling is one I can’t describe, I can only say I felt I ‘belonged’. It felt more like home to me than any place I’ve ever spent time in New Zealand. Everyone was a stranger, I did not speak the language, yet the experience of seeing recognition in the eyes of the people I encountered on the street. The sense of being seen clearly and for who I am. It was indescribable and unforgettable.
I left Germany filled up with myself. I felt well and whole and loved and seen and appreciated and I carried a sense of possibility that I had never known could be so easily gained. The flight, on an hilarious Irish cut price airline, was to London, where again I was to be met by a friend, Roger, who also had taken time off to spend with me. Roger, his partner Ben and I traversed vast sections of inner city London (their beautiful flat is in Islington), on foot, on the tube, in Roger’s car, during which time we were able to eat and drink and laugh and see so much. Contemporary exhibitions in the basement garage of the Barbican, The Atrium of the National Museum, Parthenon Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, Fever Ray at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, The South Bank, Apple Store, Meeting friends for Bastille Day at club Gascon – too too much to list here.
I also caught up with other Kiwi ex-patriots and it suddenly dawned on me (my lack of insight is at times breathtaking) that I literally know and am closer to more people who live in the UK and Europe than New Zealand. I started to ask “do you think you’ll go back sometime soon” (bear in mind that these people are not heterosexual couples on the cusp of having children) and the answer was a bemused “no” – and why would they?
Whatever I write here, I feel it is going to fail me when it comes to trying to express the feeling of even simply walking on the street on Charing Cross Road. I just simply felt okay. This can only mean something to someone who understands what it is to walk down the streets of their own home and feel utterly alien.
So, I decided to allow myself an end to my battle in New Zealand. I’m leaving/going home.