“Whenever I come home, the first thing that always hits me is the light and the sunshine,” David Mack says. “New York has brilliant blue skies, but there’s something about Australian light. It sounds ridiculous, but you get hit with that sunshine and it’s just restorative.”

Mack has been living in the United States for seven years, but now, in the midst of the pandemic, he misses Australia more than ever.

“When Qantas stops flying … you realise very quickly Australia is an island and you have only one way easily to get in,” he says. “When everything stopped, I definitely felt cut off.”

Home can be an amorphous concept. Often we associate it with our friends and loved ones, or perhaps the more abstract notion of national identity. But equally home is in the landscapes we have grown to know and love.

“Landscape has exerted a kind of force on me that is every bit as geological as family,” Tim Winton wrote in his nonfiction book Island Home in 2017. “Like many Australians, I feel this tectonic grind – call it familial ache – most keenly when abroad.”

But what happens when our connection to the place we consider home is suddenly severed? When it becomes a location we can’t reach? Or when we feel that the government of our home country has abandoned us?

Australia’s international border shut on 20 March 2020. A week later, 14 days of hotel quarantine was mandated for returned travellers. While citizens and permanent residents have been allowed to return, the prohibitive cost (and risk) of flights and hotel quarantine combined with two weeks of isolation makes the prospect unappealing, if not unachievable, for many.

A year on, “home” has become virtually unreachable for thousands of Australians.

“That Australia’s very physically far away is not comfortable for me,” Rachel Maher says. Maher works for the United Nations on its European migration response and has been based between Athens, Afghanistan and Geneva since 2016.

“I miss the sunsets and the desert [areas] I grew up in [around the] wheatbelt, the silhouettes of eucalyptus trees – and the birds. The birds … The minute you call somebody in Australia, there’s some kind of bird in the background of the call, and that makes me very nostalgic.”

Sary Zananiri, an Australian academic living in the Dutch city of Leiden, says he really longs for the sense of physical space in Australia, “which you just don’t get in Europe”.

“The Netherlands is a beautiful and green country, but it’s small and it really is impossible to get away from human beings,” he says. “And there’s no wilderness, it’s all reclaimed land. It’s really a very different sort of a space.

Sary Zananiri says Australia has a sense of physical space ‘which you just don’t get in Europe’.
Sary Zananiri says Australia has a sense of physical space ‘which you just don’t get in Europe’. Photograph: Sary Zananiri

“I think the Australian psyche is very much linked to its landscape, you know … There’s something about that smell of gum trees and pine trees, and that damp of the [family] farm in the morning that I really do miss.”

‘Completely cut off’

For many expats, the ability to dip in back home to reconnect at regular intervals made them feel at ease living so far away. Now the pandemic has put that on hold, anxiety has begun to creep in.

“I guess I’d already made peace that I was probably going to be in the States for a while and the thing that allowed me to mentally accept that was the ability to get home relatively easily,” Mack says. “Having that ease of travel [taken away] really does force you to confront the tyranny of distance.”

Elizabeth, who asked that only her first name be used, still calls Australia home despite working as teacher in Hong Kong for 23 years. Pre-pandemic, she would return at least once a year, usually for two weeks at lunar new year. Now the combined quarantine requirements – two weeks on arrival in Sydney and three weeks on return to Hong Kong – have made such a trip impossible.

“That’s a total of five weeks’ quarantine and I get 16 days [of leave]. So I couldn’t even meet the demands of one quarantine, let alone to quarantine and then still have time to see family,” she says. “So pragmatically, any travel is out of the question.

“It’s very hard because I miss Australia.”

For Zananiri, who is fifth generation Australian on his mother’s side and Palestinian on his father’s side, the pandemic has strained his relationship with his home country.

“My dad, being Palestinian, was made stateless so I think I always grew up with this idea that my Australian passport was my protection in the world, you know, and seeing how Australians abroad are being treated – the lack of consular assistance, the border measures that are in place – I do feel like [we’ve] been completely cut off.”

Currently in Athens, where he is not a citizen and has no right to healthcare, Zananiri wonders how he will get vaccinated and, if he can’t, whether that will affect his chances of returning.

Australia’s deputy chief medical officer, Prof Michael Kidd, says the federal government has no plan to vaccinate its citizens abroad. Rather it will vaccinate everyone in Australia regardless of citizenship, and “we hope that other countries will be doing the same”.

For a country where almost a third of the population was born overseas, that policy feels like rejection to some.

“Many of us have very multi-centred lives … a lot of us have multiple homes and multiple identifications with different places by virtue of the multiculturalism of Australia,” Zananiri says. “And I don’t think that’s really been recognised very much in government policy. There’s a projection of a very particular type of Australian in this that’s going on.”

‘A state of suspension’

As Australian universities struggled with the absence of international students, the pandemic accelerated the shift in Zananiri’s mindset towards cultivating roots elsewhere.

“Watching what happened in Australia in the context of Covid, particularly around higher education and this complete destruction of university systems, there’s something depressing about watching that from afar – especially given that I left Australia precisely because I was struggling to find funding in Australia, struggling to get a permanent job.

“For me to move back to Australia now, I think it would basically mean giving up my career.

“I recently bought an apartment in Athens and I think part of that is realising that I don’t have a lot of security in being Australian any more.”

Maher says she makes new homes wherever she goes, but she tries to maintain small connections to Australia within them.

“I grew up on a farm … watching the sun go down every night,” she says. “I literally only rent apartments that have a sunset-facing view … The very least I can do is observe the passage of time in the sunset.”

Elizabeth keeps a nature table at home for the same reason.

“The family laugh because every time I go back I’m picking up white cockatoo feathers, I’m picking up gumnuts, I’m picking up a lot off the trails,” she says. “They say ‘you can’t take that’. And I say ‘no, it’s fallen on the track, that’s going on my nature table back in the apartment’.”

Familiar wildlife helps too.

“There’s this feral flock of cockatoos in my neighbourhood and, when I hear them, I run to the back window of this flat in the hope of catching a glimpse of them,” she says. “But there is also a flock in Admiralty Park and I’m always looking for them in the branches because you can hear them. They make me feel comforted because they remind me of home.”

Maher says it’s a “privilege” and “heart-bursting experience” to be connected to different communities, in different geographies and cities and cultures, but she worries about the long-term impacts of the “state of suspension” the pandemic has created.

“I think I was fine when it was periods of short-term departure for work and I always knew I was coming back. Suspending that semi-permanently is a whole different state of mind.”





This content first appear on the guardian

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