“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.

A bed

In the UK, or at least in my experience sharing flats in London, as a tenant you don’t usually need to have your own furniture. Many places come furnished, even with beds. I remember when I moved into Castle Aspenlea at the beginning of my crazy London years, Blacksnake mentioned he’d considered swapping the beds over between what would be my room and his because his had a dip in the middle. I got the comfy bed in that house. Similarly, the bed in the flat where Mr Chewbacca and I first lived together was part of the package.

A crappy shot of a profound exhibition in the National Museum of Australia about home and belonging. Very apt.
In Australia it’s different. You’d rarely get a furnished place. It’s great to have your own things when you first move out of home, but beds are expensive so futons are big amongst the young flatties. I had one I bought for $100 and used for years, it was great, and my mum still has it, some 15 years later. I bought it because I got my first serious boyfriend and I only had a king single at home. Funny, seems childish to think of that now!

When we moved to Sydney we ended up with a furnished place. The landlady, who lived above us in the mansion, was Chinese and apparently they are very big on hard beds. Ours was hard as a rock, and squeaky. But we liked not having to buy one and luckily we enjoy a firm sleeping surface. It was in this bed that I went into labour with my son. And that was when I started to think about the significance of a bed. We spend more time there consistently than anywhere else, a third of our lives prostrate on this surface perfected according to designs developed and redeveloped over hundreds of years. Yet we don’t think much about who’s been there before and why. Because that’s kind of gross to think about I guess!

We bought a fantastic bed when we moved from that first Sydney place, the best mattress in the world, it would seem. We loved our bed. It was an incredibly painful process to go through to sell it, realising with horror that the new owners were only willing to spend a quarter of what we’d paid, an eighth even, because it was used. By two people. For three years. Yet, inexplicably, somehow those same people would pay double that to stay one night in a hotel, sleeping in a bed they’d never seen, in which a plethora of strangers had done who knows what for years, a bed whose sheets may or may not have been cleaned to the standard required… The lack of logic is unbearable! But such is the way of things.

When we got to Canada, we bought another lovely mattress, brand new. I think we did it mainly because we thought there was a good chance we’d stay. And because we were sick of lying on some ancient, stained single mattress and there weren’t second-hand options around. We didn’t spend quite as much, about half what we’d spent on our Aussie bed, but it was still a great mattress. There’s nothing more comforting than a nice, comfy bed.

And of course, when we left Canada, yet again we had to sell our lovely bed. I couldn’t believe it when people began enquiring and were just interested in the frame, or didn’t particularly care what kind of mattress it came with. We eventually sold it to a Brazilian couple who’d just moved to Toronto for about a third of what we’d paid less than a year before. Yet again it struck me how extraordinary it is, the way we think about and treat our sleeping surface. Particularly because that point marked the beginning of a long period of sleeping on uncomfortable surfaces. Hotel beds, which are usually great, then the plane, horribly uncomfortable but temporary, the beds at my mum’s which involved a choice between an ancient, soft mattress that gave Mr Chewbacca a back ache or a fold out couch with a chunky futon whose contents constantly redistributed themselves so you could feel the wooden frame beneath. That had been my couch when I lived alone, years before. We were grateful though, to have somewhere, and to attempt to readjust to Aussie life, transitioning gently in this place that most consider paradise in Australia, the Byron Shire.

The sleeping arrangements became yet more complex when we eventually hired a campervan and embarked on our journey down the east coast of Australia from Brisbane, stopping along the way at caravan parks and with friends. We invited ourselves to sleep in the spare room at some good friends’ house on the NSW central coast and in Canberra my dad put us up in a nice serviced apartment but other than that we slept in the campervan. It was actually really comfortable sleeping up the top above the driver’s seat but it sucked getting up and down to deal with Thumper who of course never sleeps through the night. The kids shared the other double bed at the back of the camper which would also have been okay if it weren’t for the night wakings. While it was really fun driving and staying in campsites along the way, we were clearly all pretty over not having any fixed abode. We stayed with some other good friends when we got to Melbourne and were so grateful to have an ensuite room all to ourselves with little beds either side of ours for the kids.

Once we’d decided to go back to Canberra to live, we knew that beds were the beginning of piecing our lives back together. Staying with my dad was really difficult in a one bedroom place which isn’t really set up for us. The day after we arrived we had an amazing stroke of luck whereby we went to look at a place we didn’t think we would get because we had no income, yet because the landlord was desperate for tenants and the agent could see we were genuine, we found ourselves signing a lease that afternoon! So suddenly we had a house, after two months of being without. We bought some airbeds (which, incidentally, are freezing cold to sleep on if the air surrounding is in the slightest bit cold!) and once again realised just how important beds are.

Reading a bedtime story on the makeshift floor bed, towels on top in case of accidents
This time we didn’t buy new. We didn’t have the money. We cut it so fine actually, down to our last few dollars before receiving a first pay packet and suddenly everything was okay again. So we got a couple of second hand mattresses for the kids – one was free, I think, brought by an incredibly kind and generous mum of a good friend. Our mattress we bought for $30 off a lady selling her house to move in with her ageing father. She told me she paid $2,000 originally and I’d believe her, it’s super comfy. She also sold us a Dyson for cheap (although it turned out to be clogged up with urine-infested cat hair and gunk). We’ve not bought a bed frame, and frankly, that feels like an extravagance and somewhat unnecessary. We’ll see how we feel come winter.

Anyway once we had beds, then we could finally relax. A couch, tv, kitchen table, other bits and pieces, all great, but the beds, those are the fundamental building blocks of a home. Without beds, you have nowhere to rest. The bed is home.

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.

Graduation

I graduated with an MA today. In Italian Studies. The day was stressful and emotional and lovely. I still have no idea how or why I did this degree but I have faith that I will be presented with an answer in due course.

I got great marks and encouragement from professors and colleagues alike to do my PhD. Not quite ready for that yet! And not in Italian Studies.

I still can’t believe I did this and I feel simultaneously like a fraud and like superwoman all at once. I just wish my study path were different, or that I were passionate about what I’m good at. A work in progress perhaps.

University College, U of T

Anyway today we left the house in record time at silly o’clock to get downtown. I rushed through into University College to pick up my hired gown, then missed the beautiful experience that is walking down those old corridors sounded by amazing architecture as I basically catapulted myself down the hall into a room full of my fellow graduates, all in their academic regalia. I quickly signed in and awkwardly slipped my gown over my shoulders. It seemed so strange getting dressed in this big echoey old room full of strangers. I briefly saw a couple of the grads from my program, waving to one in the W queue and another amongst the Ms as I stood with the Ls. I didn’t really know what to expect but I’d had no time to read any of the background material so I just went with what I was told in the moment.

We slowly filed out, down the well worn steps, over the ring road and across the grass to Convocation Hall. I looked at the PhD students ahead of me and realised just how lucky I was to be there. Although there had been some stressful and challenging moments during the degree, the year had gone by so quickly and I hadn’t even used 100 per cent of my capacity to complete the requirements of the course. Full time study for a year, excelling without full effort, and voila, a Masters. Of course, it’s what one of my professors called a ‘glamour’ degree: it’s not going to get you a job, or rather, you’re not doing it to get a job. You’re doing it because you love it. What’s odd for me is that, frankly, I did this degree because it was easy and we got to live in Canada, not because I have any great passion or love for Italy or the Italian language. It’s great to have that second language and I enjoy speaking it, although it’s quite challenging at times because still, after all these years of study and having reached this level, I am not as fluent as I’d like. I watch the news and I often find it hard to follow. I just don’t love it that much.

But as I sat in that beautiful hall with its cosy acoustics, the dense energy of passion and learning flooding my senses, I felt proud. And, just for a moment, I was really content with what I’d achieved. Just for a moment.

Where will this lead me? I say that I’ll see my path laid out before me in time, and this may happen, but deep down I feel like I veered way off my truth path years ago. More to be written on that, I’m sure. For now, I can say that I’ve achieved something pretty great and I’m excited to find out where it will lead me.

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.