A journey around my birthplace

“…the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps more dependent on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to…” Alain de Botton

I am currently reading a book by Xavier de Maistre called ‘A Journey around My Room.’ First published in 1825,  Botton refers to it as the ‘proverbial shaggy dog.’ Under house arrest for duelling in 18th century Paris, de Maistre writes about this one room as if he were on some great world adventure. In examining every aspect of his personal space with new eyes, memory and creative imagination, he makes us look more closely at our own environs, the surroundings we take for granted and perhaps no longer appreciate. It is a fascinating study of perception.

Returning to Adelaide, a city I have visited frequently, but in which I have not lived for almost thirty years, I am tempted to apply the same rules: to look at my birthplace anew, as if from a traveller’s view point; to appreciate all those things with which I am long familiar but which I no longer see; or to look at them from a different angle and to see as I have never seen before.

In many ways, I do this automatically, whenever I am here. I immediately acknowledge the space, the wide tree-lined streets, the open skies, the attractive suburban architecture, the birds, the scent of eucalyptus – those things that are absent from the different cities and countries in which we have lived. Yet it is, perhaps, only a superficial reaction to all the things I miss while I am away, and in which I love to revel when I come home. How much do I really notice the details?

So, I shall wander forth with my mental notebook, into streets I don’t know so well, or upon which I have only glanced, to see what I can find. I will go travelling in my home town, as I have done in Rome, Bangkok, Norwich, Istanbul, Manila, to see what I can see. Differently. Afresh.

Kerryn Goldsworthy in her little memoir-cum history book paraphrases David Malouf by saying that ‘to be a citizen of Adelaide is to know some of its streets and parks and houses from your body outwards,’ and goes on to say that ‘life is not measured in time but in accretions of lived experience.’

While I may not have lived in Adelaide since I was twenty-three, I have visited many times over the intervening years. And there is a wealth of family history and experience beneath my feet. My parents are still living in the house they bought when I was nine months old, and that area of Adelaide is firmly imprinted on my memory and my heart, despite so long away. Usually, we stay in the family home when we come to South Australia, but occasionally we rent a house or apartment in a different suburb, and it is always interesting to view Adelaide from a different perspective. It’s like discovering new rooms in a house you thought you knew perfectly well. Suddenly the whole place takes on a different shape, a different atmosphere.

I had that feeling when I first met the One & Only, who grew up by the beach, on the rim of the western suburbs. Although only a fifteen-minute journey from my neighbourhood, it was an area I barely knew, and it felt like a different city. The sea provided a natural border to the suburban homes that, in our area, was provided by wide, river-like main roads, flowing fast into the city.  The houses near the beach were more modern, the blocks smaller: 1950s developments versus 19th century ones. Fences were lower, trees were fewer, fashions were informal. The sunlight dazzled, whereas it dappled through the trees in the eastern suburbs. I knew only one strip of beach from a handful of hot days spent perched on narrow towels, daring ourselves to make the dash across burning sands to dip briefly into freezing sea. The One & Only grew up, like a seahorse, in the waves, and always carries an innate longing for the smell and the sound of the sea. So many early mornings have been spent strolling along a beach, to revive that feeling of sand between the toes and waves lapping against our ankles.

This year, we spent New Year’s Eve at Brighton, with a pop-up party on my sister-in-law’s front lawn, before we straggled down to the beach to perch on the dunes just south of the jetty. As kids raced around the beach in shorts and t-shirts bejewelled in luminescent bracelets, we waited for the 9.30 fireworks – our midnight – to mark the beginning of 2018. Alcohol was outlawed, but still the air vibrated with light-hearted laughter, as we squeezed into ever-decreasing spaces and filled the beach with bodies and bonhomie.

It was a far cry from last year, perched on a balcony high above the Thames, cuddled in duvets and woollen scarves, watching a wintry London mark the end of our years in Manila with breath-taking fireworks that flared pompously along the river, self-consciously aware of their place in the history of a great city, while the Shard’s kaleidoscopic peak corkscrewed through the clouds. Brighton’s pyrotechnics may not have been as histrionic, nor as historic, but they were perfect for a gentle summer evening on a beach bubbling with children and picnic baskets. The immediacy of the experience created an intimate encounter with the sparkling sky. And the grand finale made us gasp, as everyone burst into spontaneous applause.

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