“The most beautiful day in Chicago this year.”

I overheard a guy say this on the phone as he sat down on a bench in Millenium Park in July 2016. I guess this park wasn’t in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off because it didn’t exist yet.

It really was perfect weather
It really was perfect weather

Chicago is an amazing city. Maybe it made a greater impression on me because I had no expectations, unlike New York where you expect what you’ve seen in movies or something. Chicago just exuded this vibe of confidence. It is charming, crazy, interesting, just the kind of place you want to spend time. I completely understand now why John Hughes set so many movies there.

The view from beneath the giant silver bean in Millenium Park. It was sitting opposite this that I overheard the guy on the phone.
The view from beneath the giant silver bean in Millenium Park. It was sitting opposite this that I overheard the guy on the phone.

I have nothing else to say at the moment but just needed to capture this moment, sitting on a park bench in a park in the city of Chicago.

The silver bauble in its element. It reflects the city around it perfectly.
The silver bauble in its element. It reflects the city around it perfectly.

One of those catch-up posts

I am kind of obsessive about record-keeping, but in a quite eccentric way. I like to write dates on everything. Even little post-it notes I write with story ideas, I’ll put a date on there. I’ve always done it. The problem is that I don’t always keep up with my documenting everything, so while I keep records, I don’t always get to complete them. And that’s what’s happened with this blog recently.

The last time I posted was in April and now it’s September. I have at least half a dozen part-complete posts sitting in my drafts. And although the things I was documenting in those have passed, I absolutely must finish and publish them. So I’m going to do what I did when we first went to Canada. I’m going to publish them in order, dating them when they occurred, and try and catch up to now.

One of the reasons I’ve been hesitant in posting stuff, aside from having no time or reliable internet connection, is that the stuff that’s happened since deciding to come back to Australia has been a bit hush-hush. Not to say it’s a secret as such, more just that we’ve been a bit wild and crazy with our decision-making and we didn’t really want to broadcast stuff to the world. It’s just what we do.

So, stay tuned, if you like, for updates since that time we saw the Mennonites playing volleyball somewhere outside of St Josephs, Ontario, and we’ll go from there. The updates will contain many child-related anecdotes, stories about rush decisions (what’s new?!), and document the pain of adjustment as a result of yet another move when, in actual fact, I’d decided I was completely over moving and wanted a house like six years ago. Funny how some decisions impact immediately on your life and others just seem to fall by the wayside.

Home is wherever I’m with you

We are coming to the end of our Canadian  adventure and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I kind of wish we’d have had the opportunity (or been coerced) to stay longer, another year. I wonder what may have happened had I been accepted at somewhere like Calgary instead, where the course was two years. I feel as if we’d stay in Canada for good if we were here another year. Like we’d be too ensconced.

A little collage I made to show the way the seasons passed along the ravine near our place in Canada
A little collage I made to show the way the seasons passed along the ravine near our place in Canada

One thing’s for sure: I’m not in love with Canada. I don’t have the connection to North America that Mr Chewbacca does. He wishes we were staying. I kind of understand why but I still can’t quite get over not being ‘in love’ with Canada. It’s a beautiful country, the seasons happen at the right time of year and there are proper seasons that you really look forward to. The landscape is beautiful, as are the plants and animals and all of that appeals to me far more than the Australian equivalents. Canadians are good people, nice people. Similar to the Americans, they often don’t get sarcasm, they can be conservative and overly restrained but they love their country with humility and they welcome everyone as equals. You can’t fault that aspect. Australia could really take a leaf out of Canada’s book in that respect actually. I wish we’d had the chance to visit the west coast but it just wasn’t to be. I think we will return if only to see the rest of the country.

We did do some road trips to New York and Chicago which were awesome and I’m so glad I let Mr C talk me into it. I have to be honest and say I never really wanted to come to North America. It just never had that pull for me, I wanted to go to Europe instead, a place I imagined I’d fit into. And I did, when I went. I felt that connection to the place when I lived in London. Culturally it’s quite a homely place for me. Canada isn’t. But I suppose, given more time, it could be.

Anyway, it’s too late for that now, we’re off, in two weeks’ time. Almost on a daily basis someone asks me, ‘but why are you leaving?’ as if there’s no good reason. And to be honest, when I hear myself explaining the reasoning, it really doesn’t sound convincing.

“Oh, well, I came to do a masters and it was a one-year course and so I’ve just graduated and, yeah, that’s it, I’m done…”

“So what will you do with it, when you get back? What sort of work will you be looking for?”

“Oh. Well, nothing to do with my degree. I didn’t really do the degree for that. I did it so we could come to Canada really, for the experience, and because I knew I could do it. Yes, I like what I studied, I enjoyed doing it and I want to do more, but at the same time we really wanted to see whether Canada might be our forever home.”

“And it wasn’t.”

“No. I guess not.”

“Why is that?”

“Um… I… I don’t really know. I’m not even sure… Yeah. I don’t know.” <cue the awkward silence and rapid change of topic>

“So I hear this year we’re in for a big snow fall. Typical, just when we decide to go back, we’ll miss it!”

That’s pretty much how all the conversations go. Daily conversations. I find myself questioning our decision to leave all the time in my own head, but any time someone else questions it I try to justify our decision to go home. I guess I’ve just come to the conclusion that it needs to happen, that we’ll all be happier at home, and that staying here is like staying in limbo. I’m not sure if that’s right or not really, but I do feel really excited about the prospect of going home to Melbourne and starting something new, finally settling.

The roar of city life

Sitting on the balcony of a 30th floor Chicago apartment building, the sirens lull and the city noises blend to a continuous flow like ocean waves breaking. Atop another building I can see a figure, an oversized female-like statue leaning out to survey what is below as though about to jump, a long dress billowing out behind her as it would on the prow of a ship. This is the quintessential city, more life and death crammed in than could ever be imagined.

From the 30-somethingth floor, the view of the city of Chicago
From the 30th floor, the city breathing at night
Twenty years ago I would have felt overwhelmed by this, suffocated by the sheer volume of happenings, too much to take in. I am not a city person. I am happy to leave this city and let it remain a memory of what a real city is. I had no expectations coming here, and would never have imagined this feeling of harmony in amongst such chaos but here it is. This is what people mean when they refer to a city as beautiful. There is such much density of life in this place – the sounds, the smells, the lights, the faces – all that energy surging through the streets, so full and vibrant that it creates an entity, the very soul of the city, a force, with personality and loves and heartbreak and a whole lot of humour. Somehow, this intense mixture is not overwhelming; it’s comforting. Somehow it is both daunting and reassuring at once.

Okay so I put a filter on, but it really captures the hazy heat of the city.
Okay so I put a filter on, but it really captures the hazy heat of the city.
If it weren’t for a choice Mr Chewbacca’s great, great grandfather made, he may have been a Chicagoan. Is that the right word? Anyway, there was once an immigrant of Irish extraction who brought his wife from a northern English town to Chicago. We don’t know for sure whether they were first married or whether they may have met on the boat. But they settled in an area called South Deering and had two children in the 1890s. This man, who worked in the blast furnace, brought his family home again just after the turn of the 20th century. We can guess perhaps that the employment prospects were not as good as they’d expected, or perhaps his wife was homesick. For some unknown reason, this man returned to Chicago. Perhaps he felt the pull of the place, who knows, but he went back to the US alone, leaving his wife and two children back in Carlisle. He wrote to her, he missed her. But did he go just for work? Or was there something drawing him to this big, bad, beautiful city? We will never know.

He died there, in Chicago, in some kind of accident. It’s likely it was something related to his work in the ironworks, manufacturing ‘Pig’ iron, the type used for railways, although he is often given the profession of ‘Master Hairdresser’ in later records which seems extremely odd. Who knows what this guy – one hand in hair, the other in the furnace, one foot in Britain, the other in the US – was seeking when he chose to come to Chicago. It is a common theme in the male line of Mr C’s family, this desire to explore and find a ‘better’ place. City dwellers from way back, they are.

  • It was perhaps fitting that I couldn’t find any of the information I had about this ancestor, where exactly he’d lived in Chicago, in order to go and have a look when we visited. We got back home, I went through my records to discover that the area he lived is now pretty much a no-go zone. Despite its pull, Chicago apparently has the highest murder rate of any US city. It’s hard to believe really, although I wouldn’t want to test those statistics!

Coming into Chicago I think, or maybe leaving...
Coming into Chicago I think, or maybe leaving…
We left Chicago but we will be back to visit. It terrifies me but I must go back, it’s a special place.

Sunday night

I am finally in bed. Everyone is asleep, for the moment. I notice the flash of distant lightning flicker around the shutter frames and wait to see if the thunder following is loud enough to wake anyone. It’s not. I think I can hear rain beginning to fall but it may just be wind through the trees in the ravine. I can hear the washing machine going. I wonder if Mr Chewbacca has remembered to turn off the ice-maker as it scares the shit out of you if you hear that ice tumble into the box downstairs late at night. You think someone’s down there. 

We are close to the dream here, I know. There’s goodness to be had here, a good life. Years before we could buy a house and who knows where we’d live… (Guelph? Rockwood? Somewhere outside of Ontario? Because the government reminds me of the NSW government in terms of their planning, consideration for the inhabitants and corruption… At least there’s snow.)

But that dream, that’s going to be cut short now we’ve made the decision to go home. I want it to be the right decision and I’m looking forward to being back but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not quite right. I wish this stuff was easy like it used to be when I was in my 20s. 

Come over for a salmon board sometime

We are a bit meh about the area we live in and the town isn’t quite what we wanted but we have some cool neighbours. The kind of people who lend you doonas and lawn mowers and bouncy balls to amuse kids whose toys from home are still being shipped over. They invite you for beers and salmon boards and they couldn’t be more kind.

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Autumn in our street

There’s a lot about living in Canada that I won’t miss, but there are some key things I will.

Firstly, the neighbours, and friendliness of the neighbourhoods. I suspect our town is particularly rife with Canadian niceties but it’s great not just knowing your neighbours but genuinely enjoying being around them. I’ve never experienced this before. I’d always avoided seeing neighbours and if I did have to confront them it would be somewhat awkward and minimal conversation. Awful. Okay, so we don’t know everyone. But we know the inhabitants of the three houses on each side of us which I think is amazing. I’ll miss them.

The second element I adore is the school bus. It was a difficult transition for the dude, catching the bus every day to and from school at the tender age of four and a half. After a couple of weeks of him melting down every morning at the bus stop, it dissipated. I only ever had to physically place him on the bus once (after Mr C had done many a difficult school bus drop off – either driving him to school after he refused to get on the bus, or just putting him on and hoping he’d be fine, which he always was).

What is amazing about the school bus is that, aside from being super convenient as you just walk across the road or around the corner or sometimes right outside your front door for drop off and pick up, it really creates more of a sense of community than the standard Australian way. We often drive our kids to school and back and we may only see a neighbour briefly while getting in and out of the car. Usually older kids catch buses they have to walk a couple of blocks to get to so while they do see their friends at the bus stop, there won’t usually be adults or little kids there and the bus can be quite a daunting, socially scary experience. I refused to catch the bus as mine was dominated by the bad kids who sat up the back and caused trouble. It was a nerve-racking experience.

Because of the school bus, we met at least half a dozen different neighbours from our street and the next street. We met the parents of kids our son goes to school with and our daughter played with the little siblings. We met kids we knew from the local park. And we got to know people active both in our local community and the local school community. The drivers were kind and consistent, they knew all the kids they drove and they were part of the positive experience. I will miss the convenience, the community spirit and the sight of that big yellow school bus roaring around the corner and putting out its safety barrier.

The snow is another thing. Okay so it’s annoying to walk through, it looks dirty as it melts and if it gets in anywhere it shouldn’t, you’re in for some uncomfortable damp. But it’s beautiful and it makes everything sound perfect. It is so cosy to be inside seeing the snow falling, the sound of the crunch underfoot, seeing those perfect hexagonal stars up close. Even shovelling it is great. I always found it so satisfying and like I’d burnt some calories for a good reason. The kids didn’t always enjoy being rugged up in their gear – it can be hot and difficult to move in – but I loved finding the perfect number of layers, a good pair of socks and comfortable boots and just the right combination of scarf, gloves and hat to be perfectly warm while walking in minus 25, a tiny bit of skin on my face feeling the sting.

The autumn was stunning. In fact the four seasons in general were pretty fantastic. I’ve always struggled to see how the beauty of a gum tree can compare to, say, a birch. Like some gums are beautiful – the ghost gum is one that immediately springs to mind. But look at those huge deciduous trees with their multicoloured leaves, bright greens and extreme transition from stark to vibrant over the course of a few months. It’s extraordinary to watch. I don’t hate eucalypts but give me an oak any day.

Skating. I’ll miss skating. I bought my own skates for the first time ever. And it didn’t cost much to go to the local rink. It was just an everyday activity, one of the few sports I’ve ever liked, and you could even skate outside which, as someone who sometimes went to the rink in 30 degree heat as a kid, was so exciting!

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Timmy’s!

Okay I’m gonna say this, don’t get mad, Australia, but I miss the crappy coffee. We took a while to get used to it, this watered-down abomination, but you really can’t beat the price, the consistency, the availability and the quality of service. In fact let’s just go ahead and lump in the good service here. They really know how to treat customers over in North America. “But it’s because they work for tips,” say all the Aussies. Sure, I’m aware of that. It’s just awesome to not have to ask more than once for something, to have water brought to your table without asking, to have free drink refills. And you know what? Even in the US, perhaps not as often but still fairly consistently, we always had a server with the capacity to exude genuine care and consideration, a real personality who actually took pride in doing a great job. How refreshing. Our first experience eating out back in Australia (at a pizza place in Byron Bay) was a harsh reminder of just how far removed we are from the North Americans when it comes to service. After waiting quite a few minutes for menus, the waitress actually threw one onto the table as she bustled past, not even a word to say she’d be back to take the order or even “here’s the menu”. Nope, just hurl it in the general direction of the table and hope for the best. Appalling! But not uncommon. Compare that with an experience we had in Toronto. The server was pleasant and quick and helpful and a genuinely nice person. Unfortunately a few things went wrong with the food, things arriving stone cold and not as ordered. It wasn’t her fault but the waitress apologised profusely, sent us replacement meals and when we got the bill, all meals had been comped! We just paid $20 for our drinks. I actually felt terrible! But that’s good service.

There are plenty more things I’ll miss about being over there. I’m surprised really as I didn’t expect to like it after having found it so hard to like at the beginning. I clearly don’t cope well with change. Or maybe I am just like anyone else would be, slowly adjusted to a new life in a new place. Because that’s normal. There are good and bad elements but overall I’m glad we experienced what we did, it gave me new ideas and made me question my habits and beliefs, which is always a good thing.

We never did get to find out what a salmon board is exactly. There’s always next time!

That thing where you see your first real Mennonite and he’s playing volleyball with like 20 other Mennonites

And then you momentarily question whether you’re dreaming or actually awake, driving along a highway somewhere in Canada and this is just your life now. Yeah, you know, that thing. It happened to me the other day. And it turns out I wasn’t asleep and Mennonites have Volleyball equipment.

Yet again it’s been a while since I last posted. I’ve just been enjoying not doing uni work. It’s only been a couple of weeks since I handed in my last piece of assessment but already it feels like a long time ago. Or possibly even just a dream, moving to Canada to study an MA with two small children and no money.

On a walk through the ravine
On a walk through the ravine

***

And that draft post was all I wrote back in April. It’s actually July now, although I’ve set this post to publish with the April date so that all the stuff that happened is documented in order.

I saw these Mennonites playing volleyball on a drive out to a lovely little town called St Jacobs. We vowed to go back as we didn’t feel like we saw everything. We went on a Sunday which was apparently a mistake as the big market happens on a Saturday and then we found a cool toy shop where we stayed for way too long until the Dude had a meltdown and Thumper pooed and we had to leave. It looks like we won’t get to go back after all, time is not on our side. This was just one of quite a number of little drives we’ve done while we’ve been living over here, although there haven’t been enough if you ask Mr Chewbacca. I think he’d like to stay and explore more. But we can’t, we just can’t.

I recently posted on a mum chat group I’m in (an Aussie one) asking for people’s views on whether we should stay, even though it was about a month before we were due to fly home. There had been a little spanner in the works in terms of the employment situation for Mr C and the possibility of staying here in Canada suddenly seemed like something more than a momentary consideration very quickly thrown in the ‘too hard’ basket. In desperation, I asked a bunch of friendly strangers online. The majority of the 20 or so responses I received were for staying in Canada. And when I read through my post about our situation, asking ‘what would you do?’, I realised if I read that I’d have said, “yes, stay, have an adventure – how many times will you get this chance again?” It was then that I realised I was tired. Really tired. I thought back and realised it’s been nine years since I left my comfortable situation living in my own house in Canberra with a well-paid public service job, car and on-again-off-again relationship that was relatively unsatisfying. I really wasn’t happy, despite having ‘all the things’, and I’m so glad I took the chance and went to London in that July of 2007. I was adamant I was only going for six months and there was no way I’d go to any parties or do stupid and immature things like all the other Aussies over there. Of course I was wrong. But the day I left, I actually left my home behind. And I miss being settled in one place. I’m so sick of being in limbo. I remember having this conversation with Mr C six years ago when we first moved to Australia, and then again after a year or so in Sydney. And we definitely had it again when we decided to come to Canada. I really need to settle and get my family settled.

So, although it’s been a hard decision, we’re doing it, we’re actually going back. Home. There’s a lot more work to be done to get to the point of feeling settled, and time is one of the essential components of that feeling and I can’t control it. All I can do is plan and hope and keep that picture in my head of a settled, happy family.