What I know about home by Steph Stepan

This is what has become of me in Amsterdam: I scrape at the hard-to-reach crevices in the Vegemite jar. I watch episodes of The Wrong Girl to get a glimpse of Melbourne. And I tell myself I should have bought that toy koala at the airport. This is not what I was expecting.

steph-stepan-home

Let’s back up a little.

It’s December in Melbourne. I’m in a park next to Collingwood station, squatting just like Kayla Itsines told me to. I can’t take myself seriously because surely it must look like I’m about to let one drop. 

While this circles around my head a Hurstbridge line train trundles by. I try to picture myself standing in the carriage, swaying in unison with everyone else before the train spits us out at Flinders St Station. My stomach lurches and then I keep squatting, because when you live in The Netherlands — a country that thrives on beer and fried food — there’s nothing quite like the prospect of seeing your mates again to inspire a new sporting regime.

Later, I wander out for a coffee. I love this time of year in Melbourne: trams don reindeer ears, laptops are already half-closed and the gum trees glitter like disco balls. Still, it feels different this time. Everything grates me — from the price of avo toast to the width of the supermarket aisles. Yes, I kid you not. The width of supermarket aisles. It’s the little things.

When I catch up with a friend I try to explain — without sounding like a snob — that I just can’t see myself here.

I must look sheepish. ‘It’s okay.’ she laughs. ‘You don’t have a life here. When you left for Amsterdam you began again. It’s a bit like Melbourne you died.’

‘Oh. Yeah.’ I’m sad. ‘I guess I did.’

My boyfriend and I regroup later that evening and we feel instant relief. Finally, someone to confide in: This place don’t feel like home no more.

I had always believed that the first place you call home was a permanent anchor: It’s impossible to untether. Now, I’m adrift.

Our first apartment in The Netherlands is for sale before we’ve even moved in. A friend of a friend, Hilde, can’t sell it and offers us cheap rent while she tries to find a buyer. It has the scraps of furniture Hilde doesn’t want and I treat it like someone I’ve just met who’s passing through town: It’s nice and all, but there’s no point getting close.

We make the predictable pilgrimage to IKEA and then I circle around the house like a dog about to drop down for the evening. Except I can’t find the right spot. A year and a half passes and this feeling never really disappears.

When Hilde’s place does eventually sell, we find a new apartment less than a kilometre away and this time I begin to nest. It’s furnished and freshly renovated. I am pleased. I waltz around with the quiet smugness of someone who has packed up all their belongings in one country and is yet to accumulate much in another. The furniture is a bit fancier than what we would have bought for ourselves. I feel grown up, at last.

European apartments are a grand experiment. The hypothesis is this: How close can you get to one another without actually living with one another?

Downstairs, I can hear 4-year-old Lois running laps of the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her parents, brother Seb and Hungarian Viszla, Moos.

Upstairs, I listen to our neighbour Jorn’s mobile vibrating. It charges on the floor right above our bedroom and, from what I can hear, he is hugely popular.

Across the road, I watch a couple who seem to be at a remarkably similar life stage to D. and I. It’s all dinner, overlapping limbs on the couch and Netflix in the evenings.

I feel like the couch is mine when I can recognise my own spills. I’m lying on it slightly drunk. Okay, very drunk. My body doesn’t quite fit on the two-seater and I spot what I suspect is a shaving of dark chocolate smeared into the cushion. I’m into small details at the moment because my brain can’t process anything bigger. D. and I have just broken up.

This was not what I was expecting.

D. decides to go to Australia for a few weeks to be with friends and I feel relief. I will have the place to myself. I can just be. Except. Except. I don’t want to be here anymore.

Everything in Amsterdam grates me: the pushiness of Dutch women; the way I have to jump up and down to get served at a café and how I must hunch in the near constant rain.

I know where I need to be and it catches me entirely by surprise. I crave Australia. I crave the couch I grew up on; the left-hand corner to be specific. I see its 90s patchwork pattern plain as day.

I look up flights on Monday. I book on Wednesday. I am in the burbs of Melbourne by Sunday.

Dad picks me up in the Volvo (oh yes, a Volvo driver) and gently edges toward the question everyone wants an answer to: What happened? And then I am there: the left-hand side of the couch. My feet are off the floor. I am okay.

I give myself two weeks. We go to see the John Olsen exhibition at the NGV. I take my parents to Journal Café on Flinders Lane and they tell me they like this ‘new’ coffee spot in Melbourne. I visit my sister in Alice Springs. I wander through the North East of Melbourne, and I love suburbia for its ridiculous plight against change. Everything stays the same.

Home, I decide, is where I fall down. I have all sorts of anchors–places, people, books–but these are my roots. Even the Hurstbridge line looks appealing again.

 

When I return to Amsterdam a friend announces she is going on sabbatical and posts her room for rent on Facebook. I write to her and say I think her room was meant for me. She kindly agrees.

This is how I find myself devouring Vegemite in some strange patriotic morning ritual and cringing at my sudden need for Melbourne. I thought I was stronger than this.

Now, a few months later, I’m homeless. Keyless, in fact, although this is by choice. At 30, I don’t own any property (sorry, Mum and Dad), I have never owned a car (Thanks for lending me the Magna, D.) and the keys to my beloved Dutch bike have been handed over to friend.

I’m unsure of where I’ll tether down next. Still, I’m curious. 

What anchors you when there’s nowhere to put your books, all the faces in the café look unfamiliar and you’re on a permanent first date meeting new friends?

It’s time for a good float. I’ll let you know when I feel a tug to come down.