I love being at home. It's not very often that any of my friends get invited to my house, it's not because I don't like them it's just that home for me is the ultimate inner sanctum.
It's the one place that I go to escape from the outside world. Home is where I feel the safest, home is where I recharge away from the pressures of being out in public. At home the many demons that haunt me sometimes can't get past the threshold and the insecurities I carry with me every day can't take hold.
I once told someone that I live my life much like the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz. On the face of it, the Wizard is all powerful, all knowing, omnipotent and invincible but when you pull the curtain it's just a scared old guy that wants to go home. I feel like the Wizard when I'm outside my front door and like the frail, old man when I'm at home.
If you have come inside my house and have seen where and how I live then I trust you with everything that I can. I don't choose to share our living room willingly, which disappoints my husband as he would love to have more visitors, on the flip side, he understands me more than anyone ever has so he puts up with my quirks.
The reason why I guard my home and my house so jealously is because most of my life home was not a safe place. It was a place where you had to be on the defensive and on guard because sometimes your very life was on the line. Home was dangerous, hostile and cruel. I don't know when I realised that this was my reality but I am certain I learned this early and I learnt it well. The effects of always being alarmed and on guard have not left me. I feel the anxiety that comes with needing to fight or flee in my body to this day.
I was kicked out of my house when I was 17. It's probably too simplistic to say that I was thrown out for being gay, although I do think that was a factor; but the main reason was that my parents couldn't handle me acting out against them. The last straw was when I ran away to Sydney to meet my first boyfriend, Mark. My parents found out somewhere between me being on a bus between Goulburn and Sydney and by the time I returned home I didn't have a fixed address.
A feeling of needing a home is something that all human beings crave, of this I'm sure. It doesn't have to be the actual bricks and mortar of a building where you live, but rather somewhere where you feel accepted, you feel good enough and you feel that even at your worst moment you will feel comfortable. My first home in Australia was the Enterprise Migrant Hostel in Springvale, out in the South Eastern Suburbs of Melbourne.
I felt at home at 'El Hostel' as we all called it. Maybe because I was young and everything you do as a young boy on an extended adventure on the other side of the world feels promising but I really, genuinely felt comfortable there. As a family we were assigned rooms that while being incredibly basic, had everything we needed. Beds, linens, warm clothes, desk lamps. In fact, if you think this sounded like the modern type student accommodation you can find in many Australian cities today you're not wrong. It was just like living in a great big dorm.
All accommodation was arranged in wings, much like a jail I guess. I joke with people to this day that the Hostel was a lot like Hotel California, you can check out any time you like but you could never leave.
There were central common rooms for recreation and mess halls where all residents would eat in shifts. If I remember correctly there were also classrooms for learning English and every other room in a wing would be a shared laundry and a whole room designed to dry clothes. This room fascinated me, I had never seen anything like it. I don't know if it was deliberately built to dry clothes or whether the many boilers and radiators for the hostel all routed through this room and it was repurposed for drying clothes due to the heat inside it but regardless it was used to drying clothes by us.
How incredibly modern! In El Salvador we dried clothes out on clothes lines, but here, these fancy rich, white people dry their clothes inside, with heaters! I remember playing hide and seek all across the hostel and hiding inside one of these rooms was never a good idea, despite no one actually being able to find you in there. Not only were they obviously incredibly hot, they were always empty so they felt haunted and they had a funny smell about them.
Not that pleasant laundry smell that is endemic to every laundromat in the world but rather that smell clothes make when they're burning beside a radiator heater. People would always forget items of clothing in there and they would stay in there until they were so dry you could break them in half.
El Hostel was as close as Australia would ever get to recreate the Tower of Babel. There were so many languages and cultures under the one roof. I only remember having to mix with them all when we were dining. I'm sure we passed each other all the time but there is no more human activity that is so fundamental as eating.
There we were, from all corners of the globe eating our meals under the one roof. Plastic tray after plastic tray of generic western food that for some of us was more palatable than for others. Picture it being like a high school American cafeteria, and like a cliched American cafeteria all the cliques sat with each other. Vietnamese with Vietnamese, Chilean with Chilean, Sudanese with Sudanese and Salvadoran with Salvadoran.
Meal times were all pre set as if we were on some stationary cruise ship and removing food from the dining room wasn't allowed and cooking in your own rooms was strictly off limits. Not only did the rooms not have cooking facilities, which in fact stopped no one from cooking or trying to, but the fire alarms would go off. People managed to repurpose toasters, heaters and kettles into all manner of cooking implements.
Since the food we were given in the dining room was alien to all of us, Vietnamese, Sudanese, Chilean, Salvadoran alike I remember there was an indiscreet black market of more familiar foodstuffs exchanged between everyone. Maize flour, cheese, corn, sweets some newcomers from El Salvador had managed to sneak in, all manner of things.
One of the most useful things my mother managed to find, or get or, buy was a frypan, the type where you plug the frypan into the wall and the whole thing heats up bypassing a need for a stove.
We would either steal our ration of milk or get UHT treated tetra packed milk from somewhere nearby and she would make cottage cheese on or as close to the windowsill so as not to trip the fire alarms in the room and in the hallways. Since our dorm rooms didn't even have fridges, or if they did they were of the minibar variety we used to store the cottage cheese on the windowsill covered in plastic wrap. As a Melbourne winter at night was bitterly cold, probably as cold as any fridge could ever be we thought this was the next best thing.
My mother did a roaring trade of this illicit cottage cheese. I remember she would buy junket or whatever was necessary to curdle the milk and she would boil up the milk we were given for our cereal in the morning on the windowsill of our pantry. It all felt so illicit watching her make rogue cheese on a second hand op shop frypan near the window in complete silence. It was equal parts dangerous and exciting. I suppose El Hostel was a bit like prison, where a luxury was something as simple as cottage cheese.
There was a time at El Hostel when I remember a rumour spread through the Salvadoran community that some Salvadoran chef would be cooking a meal in the cafeteria. Huzzah! Food we recognised and wanted instead of food we didn't understand and ate out of necessity.
The day that the Salvadoran chef cooked for everyone arrived and not a moment too soon. I remember going to the dining room with my parents in a frenzy of excitement. When you're in such a high pressure environment, it's the small things, like food, that get you excited. When we arrived we found out that the large contingent of our fellow Vietnamese residents had somehow managed to get to the Salvadoran food first and eaten most of it and that Salvadoran refried beans were not to their liking.
They found them so unpalatable that they had not eaten the refried beans bar a feed forkfuls and the beans largely remained on the plates being loaded into the laundry cart, ultimately destined to the bin. My mother later told me that the Salvadorans, herself included, would scoop the leftover refrained beans that were rejected by the Vietnamese contingent on to their own plates just to have a taste of home.
It's the little things that'll get you.
Since we had no cooking facilities in our rooms or anywhere where we could store perishables all our food was provided as long as we were El Hostel residents, including school lunches. We would get little paper bags where we could mark out what kind of lunch we wanted. My favourite was chicken loaf sandwiches. I had never, ever had chicken loaf. I couldn't get my head around it.
If it was chicken why was it a little bit sweet, and why was it in slices? Chicken didn't come in slices! My mother was always good to us growing up in terms of what we ate. She fed us chicken breasts and drumsticks which are instantly recognisable as chicken. I had never ever had processed chicken before, so I gorged on it, part novelty and partly because I was six years old so I didn't really have a discerning palette. I'm sure vegemite may have been an option too, but, really? Yuck. (I love it now, as an aside I think it's great!)
We would fill out our little brown paper bags, put our name on them and we would get our lunches to take to school. It must have been a big operation, because there were a lot of us that left El Hostel in the morning to go to the many local schools. A big bus used to pick us up and then do all of the drop offs. I remember a lot of us used to sit in the back seats of the bus because every time the bus drove over the speed bumps of the driveway leading into and out of the hostel the back seats would bounce violently and we would all take turns to see if we could hit the ceiling of the bus with our heads. The bus driver did not appreciate it as much as we did.
It's the little things you remember, the sound of the bus thumping over the speed bumps, the awful taste of unsweetened reconstituted orange juice, (in El Salvador we had orange trees, so we would have fresh sweetened orange juice, this other stuff was clearly black magic) the taste of chicken loaf and the brown paper bags with lunches. Everything was so new.
I don't know how long we lived at El Hostel but it plays a big part in the story of all our lives. It was where we found welcome, where we found refuge, where we found our first home. We did leave however, but we didn't go very far. Quite literally up the road, maybe a 20 minute walk, which makes sense because better the devil you know.
My mother has always been quite hospitable and maybe in an effort to repay back the kindness of the dozens of people that were kind to us she used to keep her ear out for any new Salvadoran arrivals to El Hostel and she would invite them over to our house for a meal, in fact, several meals. She would make red bean soup and tortillas and pupusas and all manner of Salvadoran food for our compatriots from come across the seas.
She would invite people that she wouldn't normally mix with or befriend, but like expats anywhere we all had one thing in common, we were far from home and needed something to ground us, something that felt familiar. She made so many friends and connections this way. In fact many years later the children of the people that my mother invited over to dinner would seek her out to thank her for welcoming them and their families to Australia so warmly. I think in many ways I have inherited my mother's gracious, benevolent personality. My mother is definitely not a saint but she recognises that her life has been a long succession of many different kindnesses from a whole variety of people and she is forever thankful. I feel the same.
Food is so common to all of our experiences really. It's something that we all have to do, whether it's a little or a lot, we all have to eat. I think that's why I remember the stories of El Hostel that revolve around food and companionship the most. This however is my most vivid memory of that place:
I remember that I was really unwell one day, I had a high fever so I probably had some sort of infection. My family had all gone to eat at the designated meal time and I couldn't or wouldn't because I was sick. When I felt well enough my parents took me to the dining room looking for food. They didn't find a lot because the dining room was closed and in the process of being cleaned up and readied for breakfast the following morning. My parents managed to beg, borrow or steal something for me to eat I sat on my father's lap while I ate. I remember feeling awful but happy to be eating something, my father held me so I felt better.
A staff member, he may have been a security guard or some sort of team leader who I think had a reputation for inflexibility came to tell us that the dining room was closed and we had to leave. My father explained in almost non existent English that I was sick and couldn't eat during the time allocated to us and I wouldn't be too long.
The cleaners had cleaned the dining room and stacked the chairs on top of all the tables except for the one we were seated at, the staff member berated us telling us that they needed to lock up. My father continued to make our case but the staff member would not hear a word of it.
My father grabbed a plate on the table and threw it on the floor. The plate smashed into tiny parts flicking food scraps in all directions. My father said something to the effect of: "Well now you have to clean that up so you're not closing the dining room yet."
I continued eating until I was done. It's one of the very, very, few moments that I remember feeling protected, cared for and loved by my father.