You can’t go home again III: Nostalgia is a hell of a drug

Looks the same as it did in 2012, and yet…

It dawned on me a couple of weeks ago that, for whatever reason, I never ended up writing anything at all about my quick trip home to Australia last northern summer.

In fact, I probably didn’t even mention it on this here blog, given my frankly piss-poor effort towards things like “writing” and “doing anything other than scramble to pay the bills” for the duration of 2016. It was one of those years.

(In hindsight, this turned out a little longer than I had anticipated. Strap yourselves in!)

Anyway, I went home for just over two weeks on a trip built around the idea of surprising my dad for his birthday. Anyone who knows me even a little bit could see it coming that I would end up spoiling the surprise months in advance, but I managed to hold on until a few weeks prior.

Overall it was a great trip, and I got to do some sightseeing with my mother in Tasmania, spent a very boozy weekend walking around Sydney with my favorite aunt, and a week in Brisbane to see friends, check out the old neighborhood and of course celebrate my old man’s 60th birthday of indeterminate age.

As I’ve mentioned at points in my writing over the past three years, there’s been no doubt in my mind that the phrase “you can’t go home again” does in fact ring true. Even in just the first 12 months, I’m positive that Brisbane’s landscape (at least in terms of watering holes, which is a good enough measure for me) had changed enough for me to not be able to recognize some things. To me, “you can’t go home again” is less about not being able to go back, whether for financial reasons or logistical ones and more about how “home” is a construct of the emotions attached to memories of how things were when you were there.

Case in point: I wanted to organize a low-key get-together in a new (to me) beer bar downtown on the Friday afternoon, something that people didn’t have to feel pressured to show up to just because I was in town. We had a good little turnout, but eventually the crowd thinned to the usual suspects: my high school buddies. We wandered to a second venue that hadn’t been there before I left home for good, but it wasn’t long before nostalgia took hold and we went to three pubs in a row that we had spent our teens and early 20s carrying on in.

When we arrived at the second of the aforementioned trio of bars, we found ourselves waiting in line (pro tip: never wait in a line for a bar) for a place that should never earn that type of dubious distinction. When we finally made it through the queue, had our ID scanned at the door (!) and stepped into the lobby, we found ourselves in another line, this one to pay a $5 cover charge.

A cover charge. At the shitty pub we used to scream karaoke in during college, with the same old stinky carpets and slot machines and bad cover band. Needless to say, we turned heel and walked straight out. And sure enough, later in the night, we found ourselves sitting on the ground outside Brisbane’s iconic Hungry Jack’s location, bags of food between us, just as we had on a million occasions a decade before.

But things have indeed changed. One friend is about to have his first kid. Another bought his own place, while others are in various stages of settling in to adult life in various corners of the spread-out city. There were still other friends that I didn’t get to see, nor did I really expect to, because that’s the other thing about moving overseas: while your life goes on, so does everybody else’s. I wouldn’t for a second have assumed that people should or would drop everything (or even put everything down carefully) to see me for a couple hours and gaze on the scruffier, heavier version of the man that left three years ago with money in the bank and a twinkle in his eye.

So as much as I was excited to see how Brisbane had grown and changed since I’d been gone, it was strange to feel like it wasn’t quite the place I’d left and never would be again. While nostalgia drew me back to those old haunts, it’s not really “my city” anymore.

It’s not just Brisbane, either. For a city I’ve never lived in, New York sure holds one hell of a lot of little memories. I took a weekend off work in early March and headed up to the city under the guise of renewing my passport, but since I cocked up the paperwork, it turned into a tourist getaway and basically nothing else. When a friend asked me how I was going to spend my time in New York, I was kind of at a loss. It’s been three and a half years since I last visited — before I was even offered my job in Maine — but I’ve done the basic tourist stuff many a time, and it’s not like I’m flush with cash to do a ton else.

But even just hours before I arrived, when (due to flight delays) I booked a hotel based on price rather than name or location, only to discover it was a hotel I’d stayed in before, the pattern of “doing things I’ve done a million times before” began.

My first instinct after a handful of hours of sleep was to find breakfast, and a little nagging voice in my head told me I should head to Smith’s, a bar in the theater district dangerously close to Times Square where I’d partaken in breakfast (as well as Bud Light, and karaoke) in several previous visits. My better judgment, as well as my perennially precarious financial situation, told me I’d be better off getting a breakfast sandwich to go than I would sitting down somewhere I’d have to tip, so I decided I’d just wander Hell’s Kitchen to find a deli. I didn’t look at Google Maps, but I tried to guesstimate which cross-street Smith’s was on.

My gamble was 44th St. at 8th Avenue, but I quickly put Smith’s to the back of my mind when I found a deli with empty seats and a chalkboard advertising bacon, egg and cheeses for $3.99. After breakfast, though, as I wandered down 8th Avenue, I hit the crosswalk at 44th St. and sure enough, there was Smith’s, just where I’d guessed. Immediately, all of the visits I’ve paid to this forgettable and yet unforgettable venue came rushing back to me, and I promised myself I’d stop there for breakfast the next day.

I’ve spoken about it a lot before, but the Australians in America group on Facebook is teeming with this type of perspective — or, actually, the lack thereof. I don’t know who supplies rose-colored glasses, but they must have got a group discount when it comes to some expats. I see multiple posts per day from people waxing lyrical about how great food/living conditions/TV programming/sports/politics/whatever are back home, even if they’ve been living in the U.S. for a decade. But — anecdotally, at least — there doesn’t appear to be a lot of perspective about how much things have changed in the time they’ve been away. Nostalgia is a powerful thing.

But in saying that, I’m an enormous hypocrite. I wrote this in a bar in New York I’ve been to on at least two other trips. And not because there’s a lack of bars in this neighborhood.

The (completely unintentional) You Can’t Go Home Again series

Part I

Part II


4 thoughts on “You can’t go home again III: Nostalgia is a hell of a drug

  1. Hi Adrian – thanks for the musings.

    I did the working holiday thing to the UK in 1998 and came back to Australia 6 years later, with wife and child in tow and can relate to so much of your story.

    The coming back to see that things had changed/but somehow hadn’t. Going for a few beers on a quick trip back to Tassie (I’m from Hobart originally, now Brisbane since 2004) and discovering that the old pubs were still there and had tried to move with the times, yet I could still recognize some of the people at the bar, even 3 or 4 years later. Somehow the rest of the patrons had become much younger, though.

    I now have the same nostalgia for England, particularly Manchester. When we go back to visit family, we end up at the same chippy, the same pub for a pint and a slap up grill, and the same cafes for a Bakewell Tart and a proper cup of tea. And it feels right to do so. No mention of the memory of the guy deciding to shoot up on the train opposite late one night, of paying small fortunes to sleep on mates floors between rentals, or gaining 20kg in 2 years (all prior to getting married of course).

    Should we ever leave Brisbane, I’m sure I’ll have the same memories of taking (the now 4) kids to South Bank for a swim, or running along the esplanade in Wynnum, or having a parmy at the Carina football club.

    Memories are a wonderful thing.



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