Caitlin (Melbourne) on Belonging

Caitlin Cassidy (Melbourne) reflects on finding home in people, not places.

In winter Amsterdam’s canals froze over and the streets became laden with snow. Children in puffer jackets made drooping snowmen in the parks, standing side by side, proud and tall by the benches. I would sit by my window and watch families walk past carting sleds and freezing pets, with the feeling of passing softly lit houses on dark evenings and observing the shadows of people existing outside of me.

Five months into living in Amsterdam, it still managed to hold a fascinating otherness over me I doubted would ever cease. How long does it take to belong somewhere? A year? A lifetime?

One day, early on, I rode my bicycle through a market and chanced over a dilapidated second-hand bookstore. Strange photography books all in Dutch were strewn across every surface, old photos of Amsterdam in the 70’s, vintage pornography books, racing cars. I found a green exercise book with a blank cover and bought it on a whim. Inside, dated ‘Feb 1986’, someone unknown to me had written;

I have five days left in New York before I leave for Amsterdam. It seems insufficient for a decision as to my future. Firstly, I imagine the non-existence of my plane to Amsterdam and become rather confused by the paradox, of erasing an existence by imagining some void with the lineaments of the thing itself. It seems to excite my blood, for my breath turns out to be agitated and irregular’.

And then nothing.

I wondered how this person, 31 years ago, had fared in their new city, how their book had ended up in a second-hand bookstore by Javastraat, why they had not written a single other entry. I filled their book as best I could, 31 years later, with my own anxieties, though this time, about returning home, about the very idea of home itself.

The only truth,’ I wrote as my first entry on February 14th, ‘is love beyond reason.

For me, the strange paradox of travel had found itself to be a simultaneous feeling of belonging and non-belonging. Of bittersweetness. Of the urge to explore foreign places and lives and people, of establishing a self, a life, in its totality in a new place and the unparalleled feeling of loving and being loved by family, by partners, by your roots.

I had found something close to home in Amsterdam. I had put up posters in a bedroom, fitted it out with cutlery and literature and gone through blocks of soap. I had found likeminded people who I grew to care about deeply, people, I dare say, more like-minded than I had ever found in my home city of Melbourne. We were all expats, scattered across the globe, all navigating the ignorance of not knowing Dutch, of not totally understanding the value of bitterballen, of not understanding how to cycle in the rain.

Home, to me, was felt most strongly here flying down the streets at night in my old creaky bicycle, a local, in this instant, to any passerby, the exhilarating feeling of floating past canals and old taverns filled to the brim with red-faced locals gripping beers and couples watching boats pass by in embrace and having my heart, my whole heart, swell with love.

But constantly, there exists a certain otherness or sense of displacement crucial to the very idea of travel itself. We travel, by necessity, to abandon what we know, to open ourselves to a foreign place, to foreign ideas, to foreign people.

And so, despite living in Amsterdam for several months, there was always a certain part of it inaccessible to me. This was, in part, the beauty of living here, but it also carried with it a certain loneliness.

4 months before I was due to head home, over Christmas time, my best friend was hit by a tree at a music festival and passed away unexpectedly. I flew home early for the funeral, shell-shocked and empty, and spoke at a service of thousands. I had known her since I was born and our lives and families had been interlaced since.

From that point forth, I found it was not my own mortality that I feared, but how much I had opened my heart to those around me, to the fragility of people I love.

There is never enough time and never enough life. And so I was clinging to moments, when my father walked down to the rocks at the beach over Summer I wanted to follow, if only to sit beside him, if only to reassure myself of his existence.

You’re still here, you’re still here. I knew that in my heart, from the moment of my friend’s death, belonging for me was my family and loved ones, at least for now. At least until I found my feet. I booked flights home.

On my last week in Amsterdam, there was a rare sunny day when I cycled home slowly, thinking maybe later I would sit at a bar on the side of the street like all the old friends did in their big coats and fur hats and drink and just look around or read something, but I didn’t know if I would feel weird doing so alone. Prolonging the journey home, I meandered along the shelves of a bookshop and felt safe. It sold lamps too for some reason and all of them were glowing and hanging from the ceiling.

On a wall behind the owner, a man of about 70, were photographs of him beaming in the room we were standing in, surrounded by books. They were in black and white and looked like they’d been featured in a newspaper or something somewhere a long time ago. He looked so happy and I thought of the lives we spend so long making for ourselves. This man had been here for decades, spinning a life, day after day on this little street.

It was time to return to Melbourne, fully aware now of life’s fragmentation and the contingency of things. I hoped one day I would come back to this beautiful city, but for now, I could not get a line I had read once out of my head:

you can’t go home again.

Caitlin Cassidy (Melbourne)

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