One of the things that had a big impact on me when my family moved to New Zealand was the existence of suburbia. Before moving here, my brother and I had spent our childhoods in our 1 bedroom apartment with our parents. We had a balcony with what I remember as a really amazing view of the city and grassy areas beside, and in front of, the building block where we lived. I remember playing outside in these places a lot with the other kids who lived in our building and the other neighbouring buildings. We knew a lot of our neighbours by name. While I was trying to find photos of our building, I came across this great photo of a street in Belgrade, by martincgs. It looks pretty much exactly like the building we lived in, and I think it’s actually the block of buildings right across the street from ours! However, below is a photo I took in 2007 of our actual apartment block. The railing that is somewhat visible in the background leads to the entrance.
Coming to New Zealand, we first had to live in a motel until my parents managed to find a house to rent. It was the strangest experience trying to make such a transitory place comfortable until we could move on. I had my one and only ~psychic~ experience in this motel ahaha when I correctly guessed one day that my Dad was about to return from his errands. My entire memory of this motel, and this week or two in our lives, is one of cold, being uncomfortable and feeling like something was about to happen. On one of our first days in this country, my Mum, brother and I went on a walk around the neighbourhood near the motel and took like a million photos of the houses there, because we had literally never seen anything like them. It was a really alien time in my life.
This is one of the photos taken by us during the above walk in August 1996.
This is another, taken on the same day.
Then finally we found a house to rent and moved in (and shortly after that moved into a different one). Everything was so new to us. To live in a house and have a backyard etc etc. I was really excited by the idea! I had spent a lot of time watching American movies and TV shows and had this golden fizzy vision of suburbs as places for innocent summer-time entertainment and adventure. I longed for my own room. I was enamoured by second floors in houses and staircases inside! Enamoured with trees to climb in the backyard and all the ‘secret’ places a house has, that an apartment never could.
One of the things which was the most amazing to me was wall-to-wall carpeting, which is pretty standard here, but not where we are from. It just seemed so tidy and quiet, yet was also suggestive of the history-less nature of suburbs. It was not only a cover-up to hide whatever lay beneath, it was somehow also an erasure of any kind of history. When we moved out of two houses, I remember looking around at the end of all the packing and seeing the empty shell of the house. And the carpeting, with it’s tidy, enveloping nature, seemed to somehow complete this picture and put a full-stop on our lives up to that point. This post, by Social Surrealism, is a really nice little ode to suburbia and the secrets and decay a perfect exterior can hide underneath.
This is a photo taken by my brother when he was little in the second house we lived in here in NZ. That was the exact carpet (and stair case) that had such an impact on me.
Some movies I loved as a child are The Sandlot, Stand by Me, Now and Then, and Hocus Pocus, as well as the TV shows Full House, Clarissa Explains it All, and Blossom. All of these cemented the following idea in my mind: that suburbs are safe, gold-tinted places, with all sorts of amenities, that, however, still retain some mystery and allow your group of oddball friends and you to go on happy-ending adventures. For a long time, I was (and am still in some ways) in love with the USA because of these ideas. It was like a child’s version of The American Dream. Quickly though, after living in the New Zealand suburbs for a little while, I realised that all this safety and well-to-do-ness and adventure WAS just a dream brought on by the genius of Hollywood and that actual, real-life suburbs would never deliver to us what had been promised. There was no mystery there anymore, just beige carpeting and a disappointing realisation that all the secret places in a house hid nothing at all.
I did go through a teenage “this-is-unbearably-lame-eyeroll” stage, but that has since been supplanted by an opinion more coloured by reality – that the suburbs here in Auckland are a good place to raise a child, but that is only because they are the default mode of living. Because Auckland is such a different type of city to the one we left long ago (much more spread out), living in the CBD here, in apartment buildings, will never be something that would make sense for a family. Now I have to catch myself when I start to romanticise my past and all those afternoons spent playing with the neighbourhood kids outside our buildings. Although I’ve since realised that the things we did were our own version of The Sandlot and Now and Then and Clarissa, I have to keep reminding myself that even this childhood memory is only burnished by the sunset-coloured glow of the bricks of the past, and that, as an adult, I have to keep in mind that I am just romanticising childhood adventure I never really felt this way about at the actual time it was happening.
In 2007 I returned alone for 3 weeks to Belgrade, to see the rest of our family and my school-friends. I visited our old apartment building and was shocked to discover how much smaller everything was than my child’s memories had it. The entry doors, once so tall and heavy, were now boring, standard-size metal and glass things. The massive hill in-between my building and the next, once so large and perfect for sledding down in the snow, was now nothing more than a slightly-inclined, scraggy urban patch of grass, with a newly-built dinky little playground in it. Somehow the most jarring of all was walking up to the covered entrance area of the building, and realising that our meeting place was now really dirty and disheveled, and that the red brick colour of the walls I still have in my mind, was now mottled with at least a decade’s worth of city dust. I guess it couldn’t have been as clean as it is in my memories of it, but a lot can happen in 11 years. This is a photo of it: