Daniel Beratis on making a home


10 August 2018

At a younger age, surrounded by those of more means, tales of the snow enraptured me.

I had never seen snow. I knew, roughly, what it was supposed to look like—white, fluffy perhaps, falling from the sky—but I had never seen it, nor touched it, nor even been in the general vicinity of it. People would talk—people do talk—about their trips to the various fields: Bulla, Hotham—I believe Falls Creek is one—and I would be fascinated by that: the ability to up and leave.

It wasn’t the concept of having a holiday. I took my holidays well; I spent weeks in the house; I didn’t do work when I didn’t need to. But I was enchanted—enraptured, as above—by these different worlds so close to home. How, by driving just a couple hours east or west or north, you could forget that this is where you lived, that this was your home. You’d be somewhere else. Somewhere with a plenitude of snow, and not a care in the world—a place entirely new and altogether unfamiliar. A place to be learned.

I desperately did not want to go to an Australian university. I saw the future stretching out before me—and I had a new contact lens prescription, so I could see it quite well—and there was still so much to learn. If I stayed here, I’d try for Melbourne—sure—but even that felt like settling. It was acknowledging that this would always be my home—that my freedom to build a home elsewhere would be shot. I recoiled at that loss.

I fought with my parents, as a 17-year-old with not much sense of the wider world would. I yelled at them, pleaded with them, and set my own path regardless. I drafted essays into the night, sat the SATs, paid hundreds. The far-off heart of America beckoned—it was a light that drew my desperation, and I demanded to follow it.

We only really see America on the television. You can travel there—of course you can travel there—but the pretext of the television will inform everything you think. And on the television is the flag, and college parties, and snow. In the winter, ploughs driving through the streets. In the summer, tank tops and fireworks. The county fair. The downtown bar. First kisses in the moonlight.

It was nothing I knew. And you have to learn things you do not know.

Most universities shrugged and said no. I needed financial aid, and no college with the ability chose me. Some considered, told me to wait, put me on a list—but they, too, moved on. It wounded me. I resigned myself. I made a home here.

It was luck, and a last-minute memory, which reopened the wound.

My dreams lay dormant, until I remembered—the day before applications closed—that I could simply just go to America. On exchange. I could just do that.

I was lucky, in that I could now summon the means to go through loans and scholarships. It was an adventure, ostensibly—but in the back of my mind, as I submitted the application, as I prepared my visa and boarded my flight, I was resolving a question from years before. Universities had said no, but now I could say yes. I dreamed, night after night, of leafy campuses, and red Solo cups, and footprints in the snow.

In central Pennsylvania, when the DHC-8 touched down on the single runway, and the 48 of us on board alighted, I had a two-person room all to myself, on the very top floor of Beaver Hall. All around me, the campus stretched. My roommate never showed up, and the space became mine. I pushed two single beds together to make a double. I kept the window open, letting the air blow in as I overlooked Redifer Commons across McKean Road. I bought speakers and played Spotify’s Creativity Boost playlist every day.

I never called my parents much. Once every fortnight, I’d ring and say hello. This was no revenge—they saw an ill- directed passion in me years earlier, and I did not begrudge them that—but I did not need to hear their voice. This place was comfort enough. I knew the best places for food: Big Bowl, on East College; Gumby’s, for late-night pizza. I knew where in town my friends lived, whether Americana or the Meridian. I started telling people that I had class in the morning, and that I had to head home.

I did not ignore Melbourne, or Australia. I did perform them. I broadened my accent, on impulse, in social settings. I dressed as Australia for Halloweekend. I used Australian experiences in American assessments. I was an item on a club’s end-of-year scavenger hunt-cum-case race: “someone with an Australian accent”. On my wall hung two flags—one, Australian; one, Victorian.

I was invited to parties, and I ventured far from campus into the small college town and into the tinier suburbs thereof. The winter was unseasonably warm, but the temperatures still dropped. I experienced my first sub-zero day. I bought gloves, boots and a parka in preparation. I saw my first snow.

It was fluffy to the eye, but powdery to the touch and very wet. It fell, but you barely noticed it until it became heavy. It collected on the ground and became a dream. It was certainly white. In February, I threw a snowball at a friend, and I lay outside Old Main under the fluttering flag of Pennsylvania and of these United States, and created an angel with my arms and legs. I always hoped I would do that.

A snowstorm came early in the new year, and the temperature hit negative 18. I dressed up for war against the elements, and I trudged for 20 minutes, feeling warm in the blizzarding cold. I left boot-shaped prints in the piles of snow and kicked over what I could. I left a trail of destruction down South Allen Street; all that natural snow-laid beauty, touched by me. I laughed, audibly, and learned what resolution felt like. I didn’t stop thinking about it all night.

In my final month, I travelled the east coast. I saw new sights. But it was different. I was fleeting, as I moved through city after city. It felt like a dream. It felt like a fantasy. It didn’t feel real. And it was only a means to an end—to travel back home.

The general thing about going on exchange is that you never shut up about it afterwards. Everyone’s got at least one friend who “absolutely loved Barca” and shoehorns it into every third or fourth conversation once they’re back. They’ve done the Ryanair flights around Europe, they hit up the east and west coasts—they’ve truly had the time of their lives. And they will not shut up about it.

It has been two years since I boarded a flight out of Los Angeles, with a Qantas livery, and started back to Melbourne. I landed, and everything had slightly shifted on its axis. Faces I knew were no longer there. New people assumed their place in my life. A year changes a lot—and it had been a long year.

And I never shut up. Every sixth or seventh sentence—“This one time, when I was in America—” and the mocking would resume. I would do the same. It made sense. But there is an unease, because I would do the same, but I should not do it now.

When I landed in America, for the first time, in the sweltering heat of the Pennsylvania summer, Melbourne was still my home. But as I began to learn the intricacies of the future I had finally reached, part of me began to stick. Part of me began to shift. I would wake each day on the eighth floor of Beaver and leave my home. I would go about my business, and return in the evening, and seek comfort in my home. And all around me would be where I made my home. Melbourne is still my home. But I am lucky to have means now—in a very particular way—to create a home.

I should not do the same now. Maybe to people who call it “Barca”, but even then, I would struggle. You don’t leave things behind when you live in one place for that long. But you change, and those changes stick.

And you begin to recognise a home.

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