26 January, 2004, Ealing. At a formal ceremony in the Town Hall, I shake hands with the mayor as he presents me with a Certificate of Naturalisation – I’m now technically British, though I understand I’ll always be foreign.
26 January, 2012, Canberra. In a hire car I tackle the city’s countless roundabouts and visit its political and patriotic landmarks – I’m now a tourist in a place I once knew intimately.
Through sheer coincidence, the day I officially became a British Citizen was the 26th January … Australia Day. Precisely eight years later I’m in Canberra. Nicknamed Legoland, the much maligned national capital has a reputation for being boring and sterile. It’s populated almost entirely by civil service employees and university students. Here, in the nineties – before wifi, google or even email – I completed my undergrad degree.
My week has been spent visiting friends and Canberra’s hotspots. Yesterday, in a contemplative mood, I went to the Australian War Memorial. A group of Japanese tourists noisily took photographs and were sternly shooshed by the tour guide. The War Memorial is recognised as a place to be quiet, in acknowledgment and appreciation of the history of the nation, and to reflect on those whose lives were sacrificed to protect it. The building itself impressively balances grandeur and reverence.
My friend Simon went to the toilet, enabling me to look quietly at the remembrance plaques. A man next to me struck up a conversation and we briefly chatted about World War II. After letting me know he was from Queensland, he asked where I was from and a perplexing conversation took place.
Him (loudly): Oh Jeez, I thought you were a bloody Pom!
Me (smiling): I’ve lived in England for 13 years, but I’m definitely Australian.
Him: Being Victorian’s bad enough, but ya sound like a bloody Pom! Ya’ve got one of those fuckin’ annoying accents.
Me (smiling light-heartedly, despite the blatant insult and offensive language): Well I can guarantee you my friends in England definitely think I sound entirely Australian. Very much so.
Him: Ya sound like ya’ve got a pole up ya arse.
Hmm. I know he doesn’t want my opinion of what he sounds like … I say I have to go to the toilet and walk away.
The State of Queensland is in the north of Australia, while the State of Victoria is in the south. There’s a supposed rivalry between the two; Queenslanders view Victorians as intellectual and pretentious, Victorians view Queenslanders as boorish and parochial. After all these years, I’ve forgotten these inane perceptions and I’m shocked by the sudden assault. Poor Simon had to hear my astonished account of the conversation all the way home (presumably in my “fuckin’ annoying accent” ….).
The attack leaves me feeling negative about Australia, but then I remember an incident in London last year. As I walked along the street in Chiswick, a man stopped his car to ask me for directions. When I failed to help him, he drove off snarling, “Fucking foreigner”! Inexplicable hostility happens everywhere.
I wish I wasn’t now also foreign in my native country but, as I sit here in the beautifully imposing National Library of Australia, I’m grateful that during my absence many things have positively changed. Sixteen years ago I was in this quiet reading room, receiving pitying looks from onlookers as my tempestuous boyfriend screamed at me. Frantically photocopying books and articles, he had (again) exploded with the stress of an assignment deadline – his mood wasn’t improved when he was physically escorted from the building for disruptive behaviour. Today, after a lunch I could not have afforded during my university years, I’m here contentedly sipping coffee and using the wifi on my laptop to email friends. I may not belong in either my adopted or birth country, but my little life is unquestionably better.