It was 7.45am in the sweltering southern Mexican border town of Tapachula when the text message came through. I was being evacuated out of the country, and I needed to tell the travel agency where I needed to fly.
Suddenly I was faced with a choice: do I return to my home in Paris or to my hometown of Melbourne? I had an hour to decide.
For the past four and half years, I have been living in Paris with my partner, Dan. We live in a tiny house on a tiny street in the city’s east with our small and scrappy rescue dog. That’s one home.
The other home is Brunswick East, Melbourne. The large house with the big front yard, where I spent my teenage years after my family emigrated from the UK. My mum, my dad—both getting older, both in the ‘vulnerable’ category for contracting the disease—their large and goofy labrador.
This was the second week of March, which already feels like some time shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
A colleague and I had been reporting from the Mexico-Guatemala border on how increasingly harsh policies in the US and Europe were affecting the lives of people from Cuba, Haiti, Ghana, Cameroon, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and more—people who crossed Mexico’s southern border and then got stuck there in a bureaucratic limbo, awaiting official permission to move on. People who will never be evacuated because of a pandemic, whose homes are not safe to return to anyway.
I am a different kind of migrant—white, middle-class, a dual citizen—so I move across borders with much greater ease. The injustice of this accident of birth is one of the reasons why I report on migration—trying to give light to the hypocrisy that travelling between countries is seen as professional development when I do it, but a national security threat when others attempt the same. Now, for the first time, I was being presented with obstacles to that free movement, albeit minor ones.
I had to make a choice: Paris and Dan, or Melbourne and my family?
In France, confirmed cases had passed 2000. The crisis seemed to be spiraling out of control—now we know it was. Today, more than 23,000 people in France have died from the virus. In Australia, the first signs of panic were beginning to take hold, but the outbreak was unfolding a few weeks behind the rest of the world. It seemed like a safer place to be. It remains so.
With an hour to decide, I chose Melbourne, reasoning that as international borders slammed shut, it may be my only chance to do so for a long while. In Australia, I could get tested for COVID-19 and I could see my mum, my dad and my brother—a privilege that was rapidly being denied to millions of people worldwide. (If counting on being able to spend time with family seems like a pipe dream today, remember that this was the weekend when the Prime Minister was planning to go to the footy with several thousand other people.)
Still, my choice felt impossible because having half your life on one side of the world and half your life on the other has become, just in these past weeks, impossible.
Perhaps it always was, but it never seemed that way for me and one million other Australians who live outside the country. I’m sure every one of those million people has had some version of the same debate with themselves about where they should be during this discombobulating time. Some of them will have flown home, as DFAT told them to, shortly after the World Health Organization announced that the coronavirus outbreak had become a pandemic. Some will have decided to stay where they were and hope for the best. Some were too late, and got stuck.
It took three days for me to travel from Tapachula to Mexico City, through Los Angeles and finally back to Melbourne.
On the way, I thought of On The Beach, that Australian classic in which Melburnians await the coming of a nuclear apocalypse that has already wiped out the northern hemisphere. A pandemic moves faster than a mushroom cloud, but still those apocryphal lines of Ava Gardner’s scrolled idly through my head: ‘The perfect place to make a film about the end of the world.’
Or the perfect place to make a dash to when it feels like that’s happening.
During the flight, my throat began to hurt. I felt dizzy. Were these symptoms? When I landed, I went straight to the local doctor’s surgery. Within minutes, a kind doctor in a HAZMAT suit had tested me for the disease that brought the entire world to a halt. Five days later, the test came back negative. I was released from total isolation just in time for the shutdown of Melbourne to begin.
My liberation from quarantine came with a fresh choice: as airlines around the world grounded their fleets, should I try to get back to Paris and police-enforced lockdown? Or should I wait out the flattening of the curve in Australia? The consequences of the decision I made in Tapachula swam into a new kind of focus: in choosing to be within 600 meters of my parents, I had also chosen to be 16,000km from my partner.
In the end, I spent another two weeks in Melbourne, doing some of the things that I used to do, although in a slightly different way—I sang in a choir (on Facebook Live), danced at my favourite club night (alone, in my living room, on Zoom), did an exercise class (YouTube), drank Coopers Pale Ale, did the Saturday crossword. Some days I went running, taking a circuitous route past the houses where I used to live. In the evenings, I spoke to Dan, our faces wobbling at each other through our phone screens, both trying to work out what I should do, and where I should be.
I couldn’t stay in limbo forever. Melbourne may always be some kind of home, but it is not the one that I live in. Forced to decide again, I chose Paris while I still could.
Paris, where a hall of the world’s largest food market has been turned into a morgue to hold the bodies of the dead. Where you need an official certificate to leave your home. Where the President keeps telling us that we are at war. But, for better or worse, the place where I decided to make a life.
It is not easy to be pulled in two directions like this. But the kind of world where you can be considering evacuating from Mexico and deciding which country you want to land in, has only become possible in this still very young age of mass migration, cheap international travel and plentiful ways to connect online. Even then, it was only ever possible for a tiny minority of people like me. Maybe coronavirus will spell the end of all that. Who knows?
Literary critic James Woods has described moving to the United States from northern England, not too far from where I spent my own early childhood, as something that happened to him almost accidentally—’the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time’.
My life has followed a similar pattern. I left Australia for a job in 2013 and never got around to coming back, in the same way my family left the UK in 2000 to come to Melbourne because my mother had a professional opportunity here. And I had never felt the need to make the decision about where ‘home’ officially was until my phone buzzed on my bedside table that morning in Tapachula.
It was 2014 when Woods dubbed this phenomenon ‘secular homelessness’, which sounds comforting in its suggestion of nonchalance. In 2020 it feels more like a personal emergency—wrenching, painful, raw. As they say here in France, ‘insupportable’.
Of course it’s a lie that you can live everywhere at once, that you don’t have to make hard choices about where to build a life, that you don’t have to think about where your loved ones are. This was already the reality for millions of people on this planet, including those who are fleeing violence or persecution in their home countries. It was already the reality for a large number of Australians who don’t have my history, my background or my resources.
I took a long, surreal, virtually empty flight out of Melbourne—a journey I’ve taken back and forth more times than I can count—and landed in a deserted airport in Paris. In the end, I had flown all the way around the world to get to this home, this tiny house, this tiny street, this scruffy dog, this man.
If anything happens back in Melbourne, I’ll have to hope that international flights have not stopped entirely by then. If they haven’t, I’ll spend 14 days in hotel quarantine before I can get to my loved ones. I cannot think too much about that.
I am not complaining about any of this. Sometimes I feel like the luckiest person on earth—I managed to circumnavigate the entire planet during a global pandemic so I could see the people I love. I got to see my family on the other side of the world when it seemed like that world was about to stop turning. Then I got to come home to a place that I had chosen to live in freely, a place that accepted me four and a half years ago and let me through its borders last month. How many people would give everything to be able to do the same thing?
Mine has been a life of remarkable privilege based on a remarkable premise: whatever happens, you can always come home, and you can frequently change your definition of what home is. Few others can say the same.
‘It is possible,’ Woods wrote in 2014, ‘to miss home terribly, not know what home really is anymore, and refuse to go home, all at once.’å
In the age of coronavirus it seems more than possible to feel this way. It has become inevitable.