Earlier this year I made a brief visit to my mother’s family homeland in Germany on the edge of the North Sea. Since I was a child I had dreamed of this country but as an adult had resisted making the journey, until a curious yearning swept me back to find places and people left behind – 140 years ago. This was a strange quest. I was travelling back to a place I had never been, to a past that did not exist outside my tangled imaginings, conjured from scraps of family stories and cursory reading. I imagined my arrival, stepping from a train caught hurriedly at the airport into a world that merged family memories of departure with hopes of homecoming. The reality proved quite different.
My more fanciful imaginings of homecoming were abandoned even before I left Australia, casualties of contact with ‘reality’ as I spent long hours travelling the web, trawling through maps, lists of towns, surnames and dates, consulting travel websites to plan my trip. Ironically, while I found few ancestors I was drawn into a network of hundreds of thousands of Australians, Canadians, Americans and South Africans all planning trips to ancestral homelands, all gripped by a yearning for “home” in a world of transience and “non-places”. This drive to return says anthropologist Paul Basu, who runs a web site project on “homecomings” to the Scottish Highlands[i] grows out of cherished memories of imagined homelands, myths of exile and shared pasts filtered through the ever-changing lens of the present.
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