I read something recently that described how our brains heavily rely on memory to pad out our daily experiences in real time.
Like when you’re driving home by a very familiar route and you can do it on autopilot; things become so familiar that we don’t notice them even as we experience them. So if you live in the same place for a while, most things fade into the background, no matter how beautiful or interesting or mundane they are.
But for me, coming home to Australia after nearly six years away – four and a half in London and 18 months on the road – meant that all of my familiar memories of the city I grew up in had been almost scrubbed away. So I felt the strangest sensations as I laid eyes on the place I thought I knew like the back of my hand…
The forgotten familiar
The drive away from Perth airport was astonishing. My mum and dad were busy pointing out all of the new roads and airport terminals and saying how busy our city has become, but to me it was all new.
I didn’t recognise anything.
I’d forgotten how bright the light is in Western Australia. It’s a harsh, chrome glare of white and yellow sun that leaves hard shadows and drains the colour from everything it touches. Nothing looked how I remembered it looking.
I’d forgotten that there are more than just gum trees down under. The banksias and the bottlebrushes and spinifex and flame trees and bloodwoods and acacias and jacarandas popped out at me as we drove past, deeper and deeper into the sun baked suburbs that stretch forever along the west coast. The land was flatter, drier, harsher, busier and faster than the image of Australia I had held in my mind for so long.
The roads and the freeways I had driven countless times were brand new to me all of a sudden. Every overpass and turn off and train station that flashed past was a reminder, a thing that was absorbed anew. “Oh yeah!” I seemed to be saying every second or so as a new piece of Perth fell into place like a badly loading video game.
A strange trip home
By the time we reached my parent’s house my head was swimming. It felt like I was re-reading a much loved book – everything was the same, but I was noticing new things.
Our place was always a den of oddity and colour but in the years I have been away my mum and dad have transformed the place into an artistic wonder.
They have established their mosaic teaching business in a long shed at the front of the property. And their former ramshackle garden is now part of the “Open Gardens” scheme in Perth where people come once a year to view the place, which they call Gandhara – extra points if you know why.
I spent the next week catching up with family and friends and just trying to settle in. But no matter what I did, it just felt weird.
Everything within its place
Then Richard, the skipper of a yacht I used to crew on sent me an email and asked if I could come on a Wednesday afternoon sailing race. I jumped at the chance and reported for duty, only to find that all of the guys I used to sail with were no longer there – all the faces were new and the boat itself was in a different pen that I struggled to find.
The time for the race came and Richard fired up the donk and reversed the boat, Elusive, out of the pen and took us onto the open water of the Swan River. Like I had always done before, I held onto the stays and looked to the city of Perth standing tall across the shimmering bay, a view which was now totally different – new buildings, new signs, new everything.
Then it was time to hoist the sails and I bent my back to the task. The familiar rhythm of the work took over and I hauled up the main and hauled up the headsail with my new ship mates and the reliable westerly wind of the Fremantle Doctor pushed us along with silent speed.
I looked out over the waves and felt the wind on my face -some things never change, and I knew that I was home.
At least for a while…