Bicultural Urbanite Luke
The Hometown Stranger
Feeling like a stranger in your hometown is a hoary old expat trope—duly noted, cease fire. But why exactly is the cliché so resonant among long-term expats in reality?
By Luke Troynar
After eight years of living abroad in Berlin, my present tour of Melbourne seems like a good time to plumb the depths of this proverbial character. Who is the Hometown Stranger?
The Hometown Stranger is sentimentally fraught. He—‘he’ because it’s ‘me’, cease fire once more!— anticipates going home with a mixture of excitement, nostalgia, apprehension, guilt and something else—an ambivalent emotion that gets the butterflies in the tummy fluttering narcotically. The well-seasoned Hometown Stranger—the kind who has travelled from Berlin to Melbourne and back again a handful of times—looks towards the pilgrimage with a jolt of dread: the flights.
The onerous flightsOh, the onerous flights. At first, I revelled in the novelty of it all. That uncanny airport feeling of imminent promise; the visceral rush of launching into the sky over the glowing embers of the dusk horizon; the artificial magic of soaring miles above the earth, cocooned among a tube of hushed but contemplative strangers; the tasty drinks served up to in-flight movies and the tasty sedative washed down to the soothing drone of the Boeing 787.
After the third or fourth trek, however, the novelty waned. In its place is the pure exhaustion of flying twenty-five or so hours wedged between two strangers with multiple stopovers and the inevitable crushing jet lag waiting at the other end. After a particularly botched transit, one that turns a twenty-three hour itinerary into forty hours of back-to-back flights—thanks Air Serbia—the novelty is a distant memory.
That first hugWhen I finally reach my destination, however, I initially feel elated. The jet lag is temporarily negated by the relief of the long haul finally being over and by the look on my family’s faces waiting at the gates. It’s the first time I’ve seen them in two years; all the frenetic strain of adulting as a foreigner in Germany dissolves with that first hug. For a brief moment, life’s pressure valve is released.
The first thing I do after getting home from the airport is jump on my bike. By now this is tradition; yet each time I’m amazed by how quickly I can make it from my parents’ central-city property in Melbourne to nature. After just minutes of pedalling, I’m up along the Merri Creek trail in pristine serenity with nothing but the tranquil sounds of Australian wildlife around me. After riding this far in Berlin, I’d be right in the thick of the notorious grime and chaos of Hermannplatz.
Because I typically fly to Melbourne around March, the weather is typically delightful. The Australian air feels notably fresh—cleaner than the diesel-tainted Luft clouding central Berlin. The temperature is in the comfortable mid-twenties with clear blue skies and a crisp, pleasant breeze. After escaping the tail end of Berlin winter, this feels like a dream.
A shrine-like collectionLater that evening, alone in my old bedroom, the strangeness starts to creep in. The room is a peculiar mix of old and new. Some things look as if time stood still, while more recent additions connote the classic empty nesters’ den. Old posters from music festivals of yore and forgotten teenage idols clash with childhood pictures of my sister and I, newly arranged in a shrine-like collection by my parents. It’s the past—in its present form.
The next day, out and about in North Fitzroy, the strangeness picks up a notch. Everything feels incredibly slow and quiet—were the streets in Melbourne always so empty? The Aussie accent in its sudden ubiquity sounds thicker and coarser than ever, and the casual friendliness and ease with which strangers interact catches me off guard. Were people here always so nice?
I force myself to relax into this attitude; to soften a little. In shops, the bright cheery helpfulness of the service is almost overwhelming. When I pick up a loaf of sourdough from the local bakery, the staff give me a pile of bread and pastries for free, just because it’s closing time. Their smiling cheer is infectious and they won’t take no for an answer. I’m stunned—such unprompted kindness from hospitality staff in Berlin is inconceivable.
Stepping into a time warpIt’s at some point during the weekend, however, when I reunite with old friends at a party, that the strangeness starts to peak. The party mood is high; the vintage banter flows with remarkable ease; even the oldest of in-jokes have been immaculately preserved in collective memory and the steadfast warmth with which these people consistently greet me, no matter how long I’ve been away, is genuinely heartening.
In fact, the strange part about the night is that somewhere around the early hours of the morning, amidst the Melbourne pop classics and the dancing and the long inebriated chats and the endless reminiscing, it all starts to feel very normal. It’s as if I’ve stepped into a time warp and returned to my old life in 2010; nothing has changed.
But here’s the rub. Outside this ephemeral party moment, everything has changed. The people I remember from almost a decade ago are only in some ways those same people. They live in different places, have different friends and lovers, different interests and an entirely different rhythm of life—one that transformed gradually but steadily over the many years of my absence.
This is the Hometown Stranger’s cross to bear. The nostalgic past he’s yearning for and trying so desperately to rediscover is only that: a memory from the past. The new beauty he sees in his hometown is in large part only a holiday mirage. In a few week’s time, he’ll prepare to fly off again, back to the future and the reality of working life. But for now, he’ll indulge this maudlin realisation and stumble home to get some much needed sleep. The Hometown Stranger is home; but he’s only visiting.