Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘nostalgia’: from the Greek ‘nostos’ return home + ‘algia’ pain
I once stayed in an Airbnb apartment in Sydney, windows overlooking the M5 expressway. Why are there so many cars in Sydney? Where are people going in the middle of the night? Does the city not sleep? Will they not let me sleep?
I thought back to the still quietness of the home I left, my window having a view of Adelaide as it slopes to the sea. The only sounds at night would be the occasional possum snoring, or scampering across the roof, but that is rare.
Until you travel, you think: this is how life is for everyone. This is how the world is. But when you travel you see that, for example, there are many ways to cook rice. Apart from cooking it in water in a rice cooker, rice can also be shaped into balls, a piece of cheese inserted in the middle, crumbed and deep fried, or moulded into place holders for raw fish, or spiced with saffron and dusted with almonds.
Travellers travel to experience new sights and sounds and tastes. If travellers are lucky, they carry with them the idea of home, anchoring them, assuring them, that when the senses have been satiated, there is a home to return to, where there is comfort in the familiar.
Migrants travel for a better life, for themselves, for their children. If the home left behind is subsequently destroyed, or if the struggles of trying to establish a new life is so demanding that they cannot return for a long time, the migrant experiences an acute pain and longing to return to a home that is beyond reach.
Life can be better for the children who grow up with no such attachments to the country of origin. They learn the language quickly, prefer new foods, make new friends. They are home. There is no pain of longing.
Even so, my children surprised me earlier this year, when we returned as a family to Hamilton, New Zealand. We had lived there for several years when the children were very young. These recent summer holidays, we drove past our old New Zealand house near the lake, near the hospital.
‘Is that the house?’ exclaimed one. ‘They’ve painted it white! They’ve ruined everything!.’
‘Well, places exist in your memories,’ counselled our wise host, who was driving the car. ‘In reality, the places move on, and you move on too.’
Indeed, the huge magnolia tree in the garden has been cut down, a cacti plant that grew taller than the roof also gone. These changes probably improved the house, but it jarred with the memory we had, the memory my children had of their childhood days before they even went to school.
We had a lovely holiday in New Zealand, catching up with old family friends. The conversation around the meal table continued as if we had never left. But the children, who were toddlers when we left, are now teenagers, in high school and university.
I felt a deep sense of gratitude, that each family has weathered times of professional and personal challenge, but here we were, sharing a meal, celebrating the simple life: vegetable gardens, fruit trees, great walks.
The nostalgia I have for NZ is that life seemed simpler when the children were younger. I find the pain of nostalgia increases if I dwell for too long on the past and the way things were. So as I journey through life on earth and try to make my home wherever I happen to be at a given time, I try not to look back to places that exist only in my mind, and in so doing find my antidote to nostalgia.