Harbour Bridge.

Nice view: one of the advantages of being back in Sydney.

“It’s good to have you back.”

They’re nice words and I’ve been blessed to hear them a lot lately, as I’ve caught up with friends and family members at all sorts of social gatherings, parties and catch-ups.

“Yeah, it’s great to be back,” I always respond.

And I mean it. Every time. After a 12-month absence, there are few things better than seeing friendly smiles on familiar faces and hearing equally friendly and familiar voices, without the distortion of Skype or the delay of an international call. It’s also nice to see leafy neighbourhoods, filled with grassy parks and tall gum trees, and to hear cockatoos screeching and kookaburras cackling. And jogging along the Parramatta River is great way to end the dat. Yes, it’s great to be back.

But at the same time, coming back to Sydney after a year in Santiago has, at times, been surprisingly difficult. More difficult, in fact, than going to Chile in February 2011. The difference is that back then I was expecting that it would be difficult: I wasn’t completely fluent in the language, I didn’t understand the culture and I didn’t know many people. Unsurprisingly, there were a few tricky periods when I felt lonely, homesick or just plain confused. However, I was ready for them and thankfully, most of the people I met expected me to be a little slow as well. I was simply another gringo loco.

And during those difficult moments, I always consoled myself with a simple but reassuring thought: “At least when I go back home, things will be easier. Life will be normal again”. But it wasn’t like that at all. My sense of normal had changed and it was confronting.

Stepping out of the airport, I found myself in a beautiful country filled with big cars, an impossible amount of insects and expensive everything. On top of that, I soon discovered that despite some fairly careful planning, I had come home to a $262 debt, a five-year bad credit rating and no mobile phone (all three have now been fixed).

Even worse, I kept doing stupid things. Despite my best efforts to hit the ground running, I kept tripping up with silly mistakes.

Like forgetting how to speak English. On my first day back in Australia, I went to the local Woolies to stock up on essentials like shaving cream, deoderant and sugar-filled lollies. Simple enough? No. It all started well but soon enough I found myself stuck behind a couple who had parked themselves and their trolley across aisle number 10, trapping me in front of the socks and undies. “Permiso,” I went to say but, realising that wasn’t right, I stopped mid-word and stammered: “Per…”. Unfortunately, I didn’t stop walking and before I could remember what to say, I pushed past the trolley before turning around with a sheepish look on my face and said: “…excuse me”. The couple wasn’t impressed. Nor was I.

Like misplacing things. In the two days that I was staying at my parents’ place when I first came back, I managed to ‘lose’ both my laptop and a suit. After a couple of panicky searches, and some help from patient family members, I managed to find both: the lap top was on a chair, tucked under the dining room table and the suit was hanging on an old towel rack behind a bedroom door. I had no recollection of leaving either in such odd places.

Like forgetting how to cross the road. When I arrived in Chile, I was prepared. Every time I came to the kerb, I would repeat under my breath, “Left, right, left, right”, before looking up. And most of the time it worked a treat. In Australia, I wasn’t prepared. I thought that right, left, right, left would just come naturally. But it didn’t. And that led to some embarrassing mishaps. One time at a zebra crossing near my home, I looked carefully to the left before stepping out confidently, onto the road. Midway through my second stride however, I looked to the right and saw a huge 4WD right next to me. It was a massive shock and I leaped skyward in fright. The poor woman behind the wheel didn’t know what was going on either.

Like getting irritable for no real reason. About a week after I got back, I had to print out a document for a job interview but there was one small issue: we don’t have a printer in my apartment. In Santiago, that wouldn’t be a problem. I’d simply walk down to the road to one of the many internet cafes, where I’d pay less than 10 cents for each sheet of black-and-white paper. Here it was a different story. I had to walk 15 minutes to the public library in West Ryde, where I found out that I no longer had a valid card so I needed to get a new one. After paying $3 and filling in the paperwork, I waited as the librarian tapped away at her keyboard. Five minutes later, she was still going. As I stood waiting on the other side of the counter, I let out a loud, impatient sigh. “Humph.” The librarian, looked up, startled. “Yes, it is a long process isn’t it? I’m sorry”. I said thank you repeatedly when she handed over the card but I was still angry with myself.

Like feeling homesick all the time. Perhaps this one’s not so stupid but it’s frustrating nonetheless. Almost every day, I think about the friends and colleagues I had in Santiago. I constantly gaze down at my watch and subtract 14 hours, trying to figure out what they’re doing in that exact moment. I miss speaking Spanish. I miss the Andes. I miss the street dogs. And I even miss being the gringo loco.

But despite all the whingeing, I’m really happy to be in Sydney again. There’s something special about being home and I’m sure that very soon, it will feel as normal as ever.

Like I keep on saying: “It’s great to be back”.

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