Nothing like travel to make you think of home.
Especially when you’re sitting in the Piazza della Signoria, drinking a beer as early evening turns to late evening and some kind of cover band starts belting out Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.” (Incidentally, a great song when you have been drinking in the sun for hours.)
On the flight back this morning from my trip to Florence the song and the fact that I once again bid adieu to my parents without knowing when we’d meet up next turned my mind to one of the many useful Maori concepts I picked up from my six years in New Zealand (and eight years so far in a relationship with a New Zealander).
When I had recently arrived, it would amuse me just how many Maori words and concepts were used in every day NZ life. I’m not so sure non-Maori (pakeha) kiwis are aware of how much of it pervades their daily lives (in the same way fish are unaware of water).
It was visible to me because, as is often the case, there is an observational advantage to being an outsider. We would be chatting away in a group somewhere and suddenly there would be a string of Te Reo words, often in whole sentences, and I would get completely lost. I loved it. I still love it.
Here is one such word/concept:
Turangawaewae. It translates as “The Place Where We Stand Tall”. (It also translates as “footstool” but that is less helpful for this post.)
The name also relates to the home of the Maori monarch. In the nineteenth century, some Maori tribes began the Kingitanga movement as a way of unifying the indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand and dealing with Queen Victoria on a more equal footing. (Ha.)
What’s important about Turangawaewae is that it is self-selected. You may have ancestral reasons for choosing it (they did) but you still choose it. You declare a space where you will be heard, where you will stand tall. It is a willed act, a magic act.
And this is an idea I have been giving a lot of thought.
I’m a double-migrant so notions of “place” and “home” tend to periodically roll around the inside of my skull. Actually, it’s an area where being more pagan-oriented than your typical homo on the street can provide a bit of an advantage because you have access to more fluid, almost tribal, conceptual tools… Like cosmograms.
For instance, I can gladly break down sites of personal attachment into three handy categories and see very little cross over.
My birthplace. Important for astrological reasons. My relationship with Australia cannot be taken away and cannot diminish. It is the site of my sacred landing coordinates. My flesh is built (sloppily) from the sunburnt earth of the world’s oldest continent. It simply doesn’t matter at all if I live there or not. It is fixed.
2. New Zealand
My home. The place I am most likely to die (from an actuarial standpoint). Had been my Turangawaewae for almost a decade. The source of many of the personal heroic tales that we all play back in our heads after we’ve had a particularly shitty day. I definitely stood tall here. New Zealand is almost my physical afterlife… It’s my Hobbiton. The place I will return to after my adventures.
Where I live and presumably something more than that, eventually. An endlessly fascinating land of magic and ghosts. The land of my ancestors.
At least, I used to be able to divide up my important locations so neatly.
You know how when you’re on vacation you idly fantasize about how great it would be to live wherever you are staying?
Italy cooks that fantasy down into its purest, most concentrated form and freebases it straight into your lungs, leaving you with the single-mindedness of a crack head on the make…
You don’t idly fantasize, you wonder how many people you would have to rob, bag, weight and dump in a river so you can stay.
The food, the wine, the weather, the art, the shopping, the locals who are so bone-achingly attractive they make you want to hide in the bowels of an opera house composing moody organ music and spying on them through paintings with the eye-holes cut out. It’s all so, so good.
And from a visa point of view, living there is an option I am lucky enough to be able to genuinely consider.
The place is perfect… Except…
Except the locals walk too slow, they walk too slow in large groups that stop for no reason and block entire roads, they speak permanently and constantly with their outside voice, they ‘queue’ for everything (the flight check-in!) like they’re scrambling for the last lifeboat on the Titanic. The shops open at random times, closing for the busiest hours of the day, almost none of them are open on Sundays, practically none of the cultural institutions are open on Mondays, fruit and vegetables appear to be used only as subjects for artworks and ingredients in pasta sauces.
I adore the place with the breathless heart flutterings of a lovestruck school girl. But it’s not for me. I can plug into Italy very easily, but I can’t plug deep.
It would be very difficult to stand tall there.
Your Turangawaewae is
- A place of personal significance.
- A place of wider, almost political, significance. It should stand for something that you stand for. You borrow definition from it.
- A place you have access to. Regular access. Other locations may be important for you but your footstool needs to be in easy reach.
- A place you have a relationship with.
- In the majority of cases, it ties with your whakapapa.
Another extremely helpful Maori concept.
In Tuscany, every time I checked the weather in London it was cold, rainy, gloomy and foggy. Gah. Fucking London. Seven million cramped, grey, unhappy rat people. Perhaps it is time to consider adjusting my life trajectory again.
As we were flying back, I couldn’t see England at all. Below the plane was a thick blanket of cloud stretching to the horizon in every direction. It was beautifully sunny above the clouds (funny that). But I knew it was greyscale and bleak below them.
And yet, as the plane descended through the clouds into the gloom, something odd happened… My heart warmed. Familiarity and affection overtook disappointment.
I plugged back in, disembarking and racing past fellow travellers in the airport. “Stand to the right please“. (This is London, signora. We queue, we consider others when we walk and we don’t let our children crawl over complete strangers on the train. Do mind the gap.) I could walk fast, people were queuing. The trains were still delayed but at least the loudspeaker was apologising repeatedly to me and telling me why.
So… Whakapapa. Sometimes translated as genealogy. But it’s more than genealogy, it is the foundation of who you are: not just the people but the stories that made you, as well as where they occurred. Whakapapa is the story of the people and places that connect you from where you are now all the way back to the Gods.
I’m embarking on a genealogical project for both sides of the family at the moment. It’s only two generations up before it’s Southern England for a thousand years. There is even apparently a Beefeater among my ancestors. (Good to know if I get made redundant again.) My whakapapa ribbons through the whole region.
Is this a requirement? Is tracing your whakapapa back as far as it can go in one land some kind of competition? Do you need to be located where your whakapapa story is set? Perish the thought. For two million years the human story has been one of migration, not stasis. Even the Maori (oversimplification alert) only trace their lineage back to the particular waka (canoe) on which their ancestors arrived. After that it gets very mythic because sunken homelands and demigods are involved. The idea of connection to a place you are and a place you were is built into the concept of whakapapa.
You don’t have to tie your whakapapa to a particular place but I would suggest that it is something that you should endeavour to learn more about. You could live on the moon but you should probably know as much of your Greek (or whatever) whakapapa as you can. It’s all part of squaring with your ancestors. It’s all about knowing the notes in your songlines.
So after a gloomy, slow (delayed) train journey from the airport into town, I found myself striding through London Victoria Station (waddling is more accurate after all the pasta, pizza, wine and cheese). The place was a chaotic mass of multi-coloured, multi-smelling life and I breathed it all in.
I lost everything when I moved to London just in time for the greatest financial adjustment in the history of money. (Two weeks before Lehmann Bros. Well timed.) Even including wars and bombings, it was the worst time to build a life in the city in centuries. But I did. And I am still building it. I am carving out, marking out the life I want.
I know the shape of things here. I could feel my feet chakras connecting like tree roots through the muck of the roads, past the tubes rumbling underneath, through the filth of the medieval and Roman layers of the city and into the suffocating clay of the Thames river basin. And everything they touched was food.
For the first time I realised that I am living where my whakapapa aligns with a place where I can stand tall.
I was back in London. My Turangawaewae.