By Sonia Stone
When I was younger, I loved collecting the family mail. Around Christmas time was my favourite; here came zooming in cards from all sorts of mystical places, from New Zealand to England to Ireland. There was even some mail that never made the journey. I remember my grandmother calling on 10th birthday to ask if her card had come. It hadn’t— and it contained a cheque!
It wasn’t long after this that our mail began to take a different form. Slowly but surely, cards and letters were on their way out, replaced with emails and various instant-messaging services. My parents became generally indifferent towards their mail as I handed it to them. ‘Bills, bills, bills,’ my father would say dismissively. ‘When I grow up, I’m going to get exciting mail, not just bills,’ I told him, and my parents exchanged a glance of ‘oh-look-how-naïve-and-endearing-Sonia-is.’
Fast forward 11 years, and my predictions have proved true. One week around Christmas last year I was very happy to receive multiple envelopes with my name poised on the front, and the welcome sight of a global stamp on the top right. ‘Christmas cards!’ I told my parents. ‘From my friends from Europe.’ I was genuinely very touched; while I swapped addresses with some of my close friends, I hadn’t expected Christmas cards. It was all too easy to converse via Messenger, Instagram, Whatsapp. I’m not quite sure why the physical paper copy of well-wishes seemed so much more personal, but it gave me a feeling akin to that warm and fuzzy one people talk about.
I’d met these letter-senders last year during my University exchange to Denmark. It’s a strange thing, but after I’d been there for a few months someone asked me a question about Australia and I couldn’t think of the answer. I can’t even recall the question now, except to say it was so non-descript that anyone, by virtue of merely visiting Australia, could answer it correctly and truthfully. But my mind had gone blank; why is she asking me that? I thought. I live here, in Århus. I’d nestled into this other world so comfortably that when my exchange ended and I headed to the UK, I believed it was a little excursion that would end with me returning to Denmark. Only it didn’t, of course; it ended with me flying back to Brisbane.
For a long time, I viewed the exchange process as quite cruel. Give students an exciting, alternate life, in an entirely new country with new people, then take every last bit of it away from them after six months? I hadn’t even left Denmark by choice—rather, my lease was up, my exams were over, and I had no formal reason to stay, only a desire to. This, I thought, was the definition of cruel. The friends that I’d met were now scattered across the globe—and of course I had to live in Australia, the country that takes 24 hours to get to, is surrounded by sea instead of other cultures, and is super expensive to travel to.
‘Post-exchange blues’ (as we informally dubbed them) are a real thing. A friend had warned me about them before I left, but I hadn’t paid much attention. ‘Everyone warns you about the culture shock you’ll have when you get there,’ he told me. ‘But no-one warns you about it coming back.’
In Brisbane, I slumped headfirst into the post-exchange blues. Nothing was as good as it had been in Denmark; I ached for my friends and the easy lifestyle that emphasised socialization and little else; and I’d even picked up some Danish traits that left me frustrated with ‘culturally inept’ Brisbanites.
Most prominent was the way in which Australians approach conversation. ‘Everyone keeps asking me how I am,’ I complained to my mother. ‘Shop assistants, people I don’t know. But they don’t care how I am, it’s just a formality.’
‘You used to complain that no-one ever made small talk in Denmark,’ my mother reminded me.
She was right, though I didn’t want to admit it. Somewhere deep down I was perfectly aware that I was romanticising my time in Denmark, which, while incredible, was not a perfect experience. What I seemed to be finding so unbearable about life in Brisbane was how quickly everything had gone back to normal. As though I’d never left. As though nothing had changed, even though I’d just been through a deeply transformative experience.
It took me a long time to stop viewing my exchange through my love goggles and finally recognise that a huge part of its charm was its short duration. When you’ve only got six months somewhere, you don’t turn down events easily. You don’t stress about the future or long-term plan. You just do. You’re guiding by whim and intuition and friendship and also Danish beer. Before you know it, you’re back home and this other world you had access to seems so distant you start wondering if it actually really exists.
Back home in the weeks preceding Christmas, I flicked eagerly through my mail. ‘Prettige Kerstdagen en een Gelukkig Nienwjaar!’ one of the cards read. This, my friend had annotated for me, was Dutch for Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Another one contained the phrase ‘Glædelig jul’ (Danish for Happy Holidays!).
And the very last one to arrive had perched on the top left-hand corner an address that read ‘8000 Aarhus C, Danmark.’
I still love collecting our mail.