Home is the City that Surrounds Me — Jonathan Deves
NAME Jonathan Deves
FOCUS Strategy Director, Johannes Leonardo
BIRTH CITY Sydney, Australia
CITIES LIVED IN Sydney, Alphen, Paris, Berlin, Shanghai, New York
Could you tell us a bit about your life before New York and why you decided to come here?
I’ve moved around a lot in my life. After living in Australia until I was 18, I relocated to Holland as an exchange student. I went from being a small-town boy in my tracksuit pants and gumboots to living in the middle of Europe. This opened my eyes to how enormous the world was and I wanted to do it again. I then spent some time living in Paris, Berlin and Shanghai. I guess you could call me a restless person.
When it comes to travel, I never really want to go on holidays. I want to live in those places. I think it’s interesting to get a sense of what it’s like to be a citizen in a foreign country.
In 2006, I decided I wanted to live in China so I bought a plane ticket and turned up in Shanghai with just a suitcase. Shanghai was the furthest from home I had ever felt, so far from my normal understanding of things. It was like living on the moon. Many of the expats I met there had come alone, too. Some were exploring, some were hiding. I met a disgraced ex-policeman and an Amish woman who I think had run away from her community. It was a strange mix of people and felt like everyone was an orphan.
Then in 2008, I went back to Australia and fell in love. It was a very happy time but after almost nine years the relationship ended, leading to a lot of heartbreak and confusion about what I wanted to do next. The apartment we lived in meant a lot to me and was very much my home — a safe space full of memories that made me who I am. The moment I really broke was when I realized I had to find somewhere new to live. I remember calling my sister and asking “Where do I go?” I started crying and that was the first time I had cried in front of anyone after the break-up.
After some recovery time, I felt like making a drastic move, doing something that was only possible because I was solo again. I thought to myself that I would love to live in America, so I moved to New York.
I had a few objectives coming here: to recover emotionally, to toughen up and to rediscover who I was as an independent person. It’s been two years now and I think I have achieved all those things.
What does home mean to you?
I think home for me is a city, rather than a room or a house or a building. Whenever I returned to Shanghai from a trip away, I felt like I was home when I approached the edge of the city and started to recognize the road signs. Or when I fly back into New York, it’s when I see the skyline from the plane.
Sometimes I have these moments in New York where I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. It could be during the applause at the end of a Broadway play or in a circle of friends on an East Village dance floor. Or maybe at the top of the subway steps as I visit a new neighborhood. There is this moment where I feel like I am totally present, and it’s almost as if time slows down a bit. That’s when I’m the happiest. Maybe that feeling is home for me too.
What do you do when you’re homesick?
I don’t think I ever feel homesick. I miss people, I miss my family and friends but I’ve never had that feeling that I wish I were “back home”. I’ve been through some tough experiences living in New York, but the solution has never been to go back to a familiar place. If I am feeling uncomfortable in one place, I immediately think, “Where next?” as opposed to “Let’s go home”.
Do you remember your first childhood home?
I do, very much. Until I was 18, we lived on a property on the outskirts of a small town called Ourimbah in New South Wales. It had a rainforest, dams, farm animals and my parents built a house there that my father designed.
That is still home whenever I go back to Australia. It’s strange to spend time in my bedroom there because everything around me — the blue walls, the green patterned blinds, the grey carpet, the books on the shelves, the CDs in the drawers — remind me of a person I was a very long time ago. As much as I love being older and wiser, I do miss that younger me who was so curious, passionate and clueless, trying to find his footing.
My parents are selling the house soon. That’s going to be difficult for me. My childhood was very connected to the outdoors and to animals, and I am going to miss the place that made it all possible. But I understand my parents need to move on.
I feel there will be a point in my life where I will retreat from the city and live somewhere quiet. I don’t want that now but I can see how in time I will. I would love to return to the landscape I grew up in, full of trees, open skies, close to the beach. It’s funny how you can spend your whole life moving around and then you end up back where you started, like some kind of homing pigeon.