When a plane lands and you switch off your phone’s flight mode, it is rarely a good sign to receive notification of a dozen missed calls. I knew that something was wrong before the seatbelt sign even blinked off. It was the evening of March 14, 2020, in Los Angeles and the city glittered outside the airplane window. My connecting flight to Sydney would depart in a little over two hours. But here was the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, copied and pasted into a text message: “This is very important,” he’d said at a press conference while I was incommunicado in the air. The Australian government was ordering a 14-day self-isolation period for anyone arriving into the country. The order would come into effect — I glanced at my watch — shortly before I was scheduled to arrive.
As passengers around me gathered their things, I realised several horrible things at once. I would not be able to reach a writing fellowship award ceremony that I was due to attend in Melbourne, which was the reason I was flying in the first place. I would not be able to isolate with my family in Queensland because I did not have a pre-arranged domestic connection. Nor would I be able to catch my scheduled flight back to the United States, where I live as an expat, because that flight fell within the 14-day window.
I had nowhere to quarantine in Sydney and no guarantee of a return trip. I was heading into a nightmare. I ran from counter to counter at the airport, pleading for assistance. I convinced an airline representative to retrieve my luggage before it was loaded onto the second plane. I cancelled my ticket on the spot. I checked into a sordid, Lynchian motel and, bleary-eyed from stress, booked a flight home to Austin, Texas, for the following morning.
Thinking back to that evening, I remember how relieved I’d felt that I was not about to land in Sydney only to find myself ordered into unexpected quarantine. “Crisis averted,” my partner said when I walked through the door and collapsed on the couch. But the crisis was only just beginning, of course. Australia’s borders were closed to non-citizens and non-residents on March 20 and self-isolation was replaced with mandatory hotel quarantine nine days later. These precautionary measures led to a dramatic drop in the number of international flights to Australia, which in turn caused an eye-watering spike in the price of tickets: economy suddenly cost the equivalent of a business-class fare.
Before long, tens of thousands of Australians were registered as “stranded” with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, unable to afford a flight or even find one. The hashtag #strandedAussies began to appear in my Twitter feed. In yanking myself off that plane in Los Angeles, I’d unwittingly condemned myself to indefinite exile. In the following weeks, as the death toll climbed and the world seemed to come apart at the seams, I found myself thinking about “On the Beach” (1957), the novel by Nevil Shute about people in Melbourne who are awaiting the arrival of a deadly radioactive cloud that has already engulfed the Northern Hemisphere.
Before, when I thought about the novel, I would usually identify with the Melburnians, imagining the scenario from the perspective of those who were “safe” on our remote island continent. How strange it is to actually be on the other side, caught in the fallout and very, very far from the beach.
As I write this, the international border has been closed for some 15 months and the vague advice from government officials suggests it will remain shuttered until at least the middle of 2022. I’ve had two shots of the Pfizer vaccine but I’m no closer to going home. Flights for me, a citizen, remain so scarce and expensive — not to mention the $3,000 quarantine fee — as to be basically unobtainable. For all intents and purposes, Australia is currently as remote and inaccessible as North Korea or Narnia.
The aphorism “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” feels particularly true when you’re a long-term expat. I left Australia nearly a decade ago to earn a master’s degree at New York University. I stayed away for professional opportunities, then for personal reasons when I met my partner. During all those years, I missed my old life with regular moments of aching nostalgia. When I battled the obscene American healthcare system, I would complain that “Things are so much easier at home.” When I was bamboozled by the demeanour of Americans, who have a tendency to disguise their feelings behind a veneer of exaggerated friendliness, I would yearn for the unvarnished straight talk that Australians have become infamous for.
“Home” was a reassuring collection of ideas and experiences and values that I carried around like a good-luck charm. Knowing there was a place I could return to where things were “better”, whatever that meant, made it easier to swallow the indignities one endures in modern America.
Over the past year, I’ve spent a great deal of time locked up in my apartment. For more of that time than I care to admit, I’ve been pondering what it is, specifically, that I miss about Australia. I’ve found myself poring over photos, watching old videos and thumbing through notebooks from various reporting trips. More than once, I’ve looked up kookaburras on YouTube just to hear their unearthly laugh. A few months ago, I ordered copies of “The Fatal Shore” (1986) by Robert Hughes and “Sydney” (2010) by Delia Falconer, so I could re-read them and then foist them on American friends so they might understand. I even found a local Vegemite supplier.
It’s common for people to talk about “mateship” when they attempt to articulate what makes Australia unique; another oft-cited trait is “egalitarianism”. I’ve always been wary of these kinds of self-regarding terms, which don’t entirely align with the messy reality, and which politicians have abused to the point of rendering them meaningless. What I’ve missed about Australia is its gentle weirdness, a casual surrealism that makes people in other countries shake their head in bemusement, like when you tell them about box jellyfish or fairy bread.
I’m thinking, for example, of a couple in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, who decided to start a black-truffle farm in 2007 using two border collies instead of traditional truffle pigs. One day when I was reporting a story a few years ago, they opened their fridge and picked up a jar that contained a fragrant, coal-like lump of black Périgord: a piece of fungus more valuable than my wedding ring, just sitting next to the eggs and milk, no big deal. I miss that kind of strange juxtaposition, like the old-fashioned bathtub my friend has installed outside, near a remote creek in Tasmania, with a fire pit beneath that she rekindles before climbing in to soak like a woman cooking herself in a cauldron.
I miss the giant slice of fibreglass watermelon in Chinchilla, in southern Queensland, where my parents used to own a house. I miss the curious obsession Australians have with all manner of giant things: the Big Prawn, Big Pineapple, Big Merino. I miss, too, the almost blithe way the culture has grown alongside, around and between the cracks of an awesome natural world, so that it is not particularly unusual to see kangaroos in a suburban street or a huntsman stalking across a bedroom wall. The barrier between civilisation and wilderness is porous, and the wild likes to creep inside when nobody is watching. I grew up in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales, where my brother was bitten by spiders at least twice and I was bitten by a snake (the doctor drew a circle around the swelling on my leg and told my mother, with nonchalance, to take me to the emergency room if it expanded past the line). I don’t miss that snake or having to shake my shoes every morning in case of spiders, but I appreciate that these creatures had a place in my childhood, that our backyard was still untamed around the edges.
At some point during the pandemic, I began keeping a list of the various things I miss about Australia now that I can no longer visit. The list — a coping mechanism, I think — includes: the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, which gathers work from artists around Queensland; the tables outside Bourke Street Bakery in Sydney’s Surry Hills, with their ever-present dusting of buttery crumbs; and the two men who gave up their careers to run a vineyard in South Australia’s Clare Valley — a vision of an idyllic life, I remember thinking, when they poured me a perfect glass of wine.
As the debate rages over the international border situation, one line of argument has stood out as a conspicuous reminder of the things I do not miss about Australia. You see it in comment threads beneath articles about stranded Australians, often in the form of a challenge: “Why didn’t you people just come back when the pandemic started and the government told everyone to return?” Inherent in this question is a bitterness I struggle to understand. It’s almost as if people like me are being called ungrateful or traitors for daring to leave at all. The isolationism, small-mindedness and lack of empathy exhibited by some of my fellow countrymen and women only makes a painful situation worse.
I am not the first to notice this reaction. Amelia Lester, an expat in Washington, DC who is the executive editor of Foreign Policy, has written eloquently about the “sense of betrayal” she feels: “Some suggest throwing ‘spoiled expats,’ their fellow citizens, in the same offshore refugee detention centres that have so horrified the world — and violated human rights conventions — for years.” Latika Bourke, a London-based Australian journalist, has been so distressed by the response that she has started the time-consuming process of obtaining British citizenship. “I have shed many tears over the past 12 months asking myself why, in its pursuit of stopping Covid-19 deaths, did Australia allow itself to lose its humanity,’ ” Bourke wrote in The Sun-Herald. Nobody wants Australia to fling open the floodgates to coronavirus, but a little understanding would go a long way.
Why didn’t I just board that plane in Los Angeles? For the same reason 7.6 million-plus immigrants in Australia didn’t immediately pack up and return to their point of origin: my husband, house and job. For better or worse, my life is currently in America, and the roots are deep enough now that pulling them out would take substantial time. Yet my life is also in Australia. This is the enduring predicament of every expat: you are forever divided between two places, fully settled in neither.
A few weeks after my aborted trip last year, my mother began to experience back pain so excruciating that she could no longer sleep lying down. She’s had back surgery before but this was a new development. The doctors say her spine is crumbling, her vertebrae collapsing on top of one another like weak bricks. At first my parents tried to hide this from me so I wouldn’t worry, but it’s hard to hide agony on a FaceTime call. The knowledge that, in the event of an emergency, I am at least two weeks and many thousands of dollars away is a heavy burden.
Many evenings I get a text from my mother, who now lives in a seaside town south of Bundaberg, Queensland. “Morning coffee,” she writes, or some variation thereof, sending pictures of her latte art and the beach just down the road from her new house. We plan to spend a lot of time on that beach one of these days, walking and catching up after too many years apart.