Towards the end of last year I went on a wonderful three-week holiday to Australia. It is one of my favourite places, if it is fair to think of it as one place – in three weeks I saw just a tiny fraction of it on this visit. My parents lived in Melbourne for a few years and I loved spending my university holidays there, even doing my undergraduate dissertation research on British expats in the city. As a result, I think of myself as knowing Melbourne, or at least feel like I should know it.
On the way to Australia I had an extended stopover in Singapore to break up the journey and revisit another place I have come to love. I lived in Singapore as a teenager and until recently visited friends or family there most years. I’ve written a bit about my first impressions of the city-state as a new resident, but since then have liked to think of myself as something of a native when it comes to getting around.
Suddenly, though, I was forced to confront myself as a tourist again. I had to ask for help getting a card to use on public transport, then I got stressed at the payment machine and ended up waving around my passport as if inviting someone to take it from me, in my effort to extricate the small amount of local currency I had in my travel wallet.
Once on the train, my pale winter skin reflected back at me in the MRT carriage windows as unfamiliar parts of the city flashed by below the raised rail track. Singaporeans and other residents were going about their Sunday mornings: swimming in outdoor pools, joining the train to go shopping, chatting with friends. I breathed in the homely, humid smells but was easily disorientated in the crowds. The coffee shop I sought in order to tend to my hazy jet lag was no longer there, I saw a Venetian canal complete with gondolas inside a shopping centre and towering, futuristic gardens rising from land lately dragged from the sea.
It felt surreal again, just as it did nearly twenty years ago when I was a child on my first trip outside of Europe. As the rain fell, I let it all wash over me and embraced my old home as a new place to be enjoyed.
Then, I went to the Raffles Hotel, as every dutiful tourist should.
Later, in a once-familiar Melbourne, I struggled only briefly against my expectation of familiarity, before setting off to find new places, see new things and experience the place differently.
In some ways, these mini-returns to former haunts are the best kind of reminders that places are what you make of them; that homes are unique and always changing, whether with or without you. Seeing a homely place with fresh, distant eyes encourages you to experience it anew, as an inevitably changed person, by getting lost and finding new favourite places and ways of living along the way.