Landscape/Displacement, by Isidore Tillers
As I sit here and write, tiny snowflakes flurry past my window, a last ditch attempt by Jack Frost to prove the hold his icy clutches have over the northern hemisphere. For a few weeks now, the shop windows have been full of bright (often floral) clothes heralding spring’s arrival. It is, however, mid-March and minus two degrees.
When I moved to Germany, nearly three years ago to study classical music, I had heard tales about the way the change of climate and landscape affected Australians like me. A particular close friend who made the move a good eight months before me, settled in picturesque Freiburg in the country’s Southwest. Ostensibly there for a specific violin teacher, she had no qualms in divulging to us that it was in fact “the sunniest place in Germany”.
135 kilometres away, the snowflakes are wet and heavy. Unpleasant to trudge through, they swarm rather than fall, almost grazing one’s face. It is as if they only became convinced not to fall as sleet at the very last second. It is not the sort of snow that enchants. No fine icing-sugar dusting. The sky is a grey blur; people scuttle hurriedly avoiding muddy puddles.
At home I wasn’t your typical Aussie beach gal. The daughter of an artist, dragged along on every exhibition trip and to every gallery opening, my fondest childhood memories inevitably involve more polished concrete floors than sand. As a teenager I felt more comfortable in autumn once the temperatures fell enough to justify patterned tights, rather than lying around in a bikini. What I wouldn’t give right now to be able to have a little bit of sunshine on my bare skin. My, how a bit a dislocation can change one’s natural disposition.
As a foreigner in Germany one is always asked where you come from. As an Australian of mixed heritage (my father was born in Sydney shortly after his parents arrived as part of the Latvian Diaspora, whilst my mother comes from a long line of Anglo-Celtic Australian stock), they never know quite where to place me. My face suggests I could easily pass as someone newly arrived from one of the new Eastern EU states, yet my pronunciation (especially when attempting German) gives me away as a native English speaker. I am then expected to explain since when, and from where, and why I am here. Why exactly am I here?
One of the protagonists in Michelle de Kretser’s fantastic ‘Questions of Travel’, 20-something Laura, also contemplates this whilst overseas. “‘What are you doing here?’ Now she knew that the whisper had nothing to do [with him]. It merely pursued everyone who left home.”
And what exactly is ‘home’? Look up the term and one finds various definitions along the lines of one’s place of residence, dwelling, abode and so on. But continue on to look up ‘homesickness’ in the dictionary and it immediately relates to “experiencing a longing for one’s home during a period of absence from it.”
I can’t say that ‘home’ in this instance only means the house. It is not just the building, but the memories associated with it; the feel of a particular armchair; the grain of the kitchen bench: the smell of jasmine mingled with burnt toast in the hallway that never quite evaporated. To we weary travellers home is a complex web of memory, culture and location.
The German landscape, in a sense, feels quite familiar. Brought up on a steady diet of European art (including all those Great Romantic Landscape painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and more recently Ferdinand Hodler), haunting, bleak and sometimes beautiful European landscapes were already etched in my consciousness. It probably didn’t help that when I left Sydney the first time (as an eleven year old) it was for a country town in the mountains with a population of 8000. Being uprooted from sub-tropical cosmopolitan Sydney to spend a somewhat lonely adolescence on the treeless plains of the Monaro only heightened my awareness of location.
My mother, a keen admirer of Australia’s native flowers (she founded the innovative native-flowers-as-cut-flowers Modern Wildflowers florist in Little William Street in Paddington in the 1980s) reluctantly wrestled the decrepit garden for years in order to return its formal European styling to its former glory. Fifteen years later we have an entire grove of silver birches to complement the poplars and elms, annuals spilling onto the lawn from the flowerbeds and the odd wallaby that still manages to jump the fence to eat the tulips off the doorstep. But beyond the “home paddock”, the landscape is irrefutably native; hundreds of shades of grey and green, untamed under a sky-blue sky.
And so it is this juxtaposition of different landscapes that continues to follow me. Swathes of familiar Germanic countryside are intruded upon by cities that are inherently unfamiliar. Hundreds of years older than Sydney, the cities are a mix of beautiful hundreds of years old buildings and churches and of hideous post-war concrete. The ratio depending on just how strategic that particular city was when we allies bombed them in WWll, and how much, or rather how little, money was around to rebuild.
The small size of the country and its population density clearly assert themselves. Whilst I appreciate their benefits such as better infrastructure and the reduced cost of living, at the same time I can’t help but miss the huge open expanses of land and the possibility of being somewhere truly remote and untouched. The second time I visited Sydney after I moved away for the second time (this time at almost twenty-five) I was aware that I was slowly making the mental shift, one-step further away from home and one step closer to being a tourist. I was literally awestruck by the ragged beauty of the bush, the clash of the flashy city scattered around the big beautiful harbour.
It is the little things that bring us pleasure when we are homesick. I listen online to Sydney’s FBi Radio, I watch Love My Way for the umpteenth time, I still don’t read a German newspaper, and that parcel of tim-tams, pawpaw cream and twinings tea my sister sends helps. So does reading Australian writers. A close family friend from a literary background regularly sends me novels set in Sydney and, in one memorable parcel, Delia Falconer’s Sydney. In a strange twist I read almost all of it late at night on regional trains through my first German winter. Weary, frozen and waiting on platforms for a train that was almost inevitably running late.
When I wake the next day and return to my desk it is a remarkably different city that I see out my window. The sun is almost shining; there is hardly a trace of yesterday ‘s snowstorm and if I look closely enough I see miniature crocuses rear their tiny violet heads. Maybe spring is on its way after all.
Words and photographs by Isidore Tillers.