The first time I ran away from home I was eight years old. The circumstances are unclear now, but it was almost certainly unjustified. Perhaps an argument about having to continue the piano lessons I dreaded so much, during which I was made to play scales over and over when all I wanted was to learn anything by Michael Jackson. Or, it could have been simply that I wasn’t allowed to watch something on TV that night, or any other night for that matter (my parents being firm believers that the TV was for watching the news only).
What is clear to me now, as it was clear to me back then, is that I thought the only thing to do was leave. So I packed a small suitcase with the essentials—my diary and my teddy bear, Stanley—opened the front door, walked down the long driveway through the front gate, turned left down the street and into the church grounds next door.
St Martin’s Anglican Church is surrounded by immense green parklands and, apart from on Sundays, when everything but whispering was forbidden, this was the domain of us neighbourhood kids. There was a crematorium that we used to play hide and seek in after school, which, bizarrely, we didn’t find creepy. And there was a big grassy hill just behind the church, at the top of which we would lie down on our stomachs, arms and legs stretched out like clothes pegs, and roll down until the earth and sky tumbled together in our vision.
I knew all the best hiding spots—places where grownups would never find me—and so I found a nook and plonked myself atop of my suitcase, as the earth was damp from the morning rain. ‘They don’t care about me, they just don’t understand’, my thoughts cycled. I noticed a spider winding about its web just to the right of my knee.
‘I wonder when they will start to miss me?’ I thought, certain that they were out looking for me now, calling my name desperately. My brother would be feeling bad for whatever mean thing he’d said to me the day before and the furrow in my dad’s brow would have reached new depths.
I shifted back and forth on my haunches a little while longer and, after what seemed like the appropriate amount of time, I started walking home, my step quickening as I came closer. I walked up the driveway, opened the front door that was always unlocked, and stepped inside. Through the back windows I could see Dad mowing the lawn in the outfit he wore only when he did chores and I could hear Mum in the kitchen. I sauntered past casually, hoping someone might notice. In case you’re wondering, they didn’t.
The next time I ran away I decided to leave a note. I didn’t pack a bag but I did make it all the way to the end of the street and I waited for as long as I possibly could before I ventured back. I found my note unread and exactly where I’d left it and the matter was never discussed. An email from Mum while writing this piece confirms my fears at the time: when asked if she recalled me ever running away, she writes, ‘Oh, you probably thought about it a lot but if you ever did actually do it, I didn’t notice’. (Author note: I had a wonderful childhood and my parents were loving and attentive. I was not, as this suggests, neglected; we were free to roam a little as we lived in a very safe neighbourhood.) I ran away again at the age of 21, this time all the way to New York, on what was ostensibly a well-planned relocation. I felt trapped by routine, by the limitations of being young, and by a bubbling need to feel more and do more, but I ended up going home. Once again before anyone had had the chance to miss me, and life resumed as it was before.
The last time I left home, however, I left for good. I moved to Paris, where I currently live and where I am happily married and gainfully employed. From the moment I landed I haven’t given a thought to returning, but then this time I didn’t run away from anything. Still, if I wanted to, I know I could go home at any point. Life goes on without me in Sydney, but there’ll always be a place with friends and family.
As I’m typing just now, and probably as you’re reading this some weeks later, there are tens of thousands of people seeing their homes in Africa and the Middle East by whatever means necessary. Just this past weekend alone, almost 1,000 people decided to walk from Budapest’s Keleti station along the motorway towards Austria. The distance clocks up to 180km. It would take the average well-slept, well-hydrated person roughly 27 hours to walk that distance, without stopping to rest.
These people had already journeyed for weeks under impossible conditions either from Eritrea to Italy, via the Mediterranean, or from Syria through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia to Hungary, where they are, for the most part, not very welcome. It doesn’t matter: a frosty reception beats being murdered, hands down.
Some of them are on their own because their families only had enough money to send one person. Many of them are young men, hoping to build a new life and eventually bring their families over. They will almost certainly never return to where they came from because there’s nothing to return to. I’m not sure they even bothered packing a bag.
To compare my childish escapades with current events seems frivolous, but that’s not what I’m suggesting. Rather, these recent events have made me ponder on why any of us leave home—be it rational or otherwise—and how many of us don’t have a choice. I’m one of the lucky ones—and right at this moment more than ever. Over the past four years, I’ve often felt stuck between two cultures, and the pull in two directions can be confounding. But at least I have a choice. I can always go back, even as I start a new life and my own family on the other side of the world. If I really wanted to, I could just walk back through the front door as though nothing had happened.