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.

History is a bitch

I say that in the most spiteful, selfish way I know. I say it that way because I know now that I should have paid proper attention to the lessons history was offering to teach. If only my judgment hadn’t been so clouded. If only I’d felt strong enough to confront the next steps.

Exactly where I’d like to be now

As we reached the end of 2015 and tumbled abruptly into January and a sudden return to work, study and hectic family life, Mr Chewbacca and I knew we had to make a decision and get the ball rolling based on that decision. It wasn’t an easy choice, whether to stay in Canada or return to Australia. It wasn’t a good time to be making such a decision. It was finally really cold, which was lovely but also beginning to present difficulties. I was facing a whole new set of courses at uni and I found myself feeling relieved that this was my final semester as it was hard work. The schedule of work, school, daycare and uni, then family time fitting in around that, was a challenge. And Canada hadn’t been kind to us, with Murphy’s Law dominating through much of our early months. We were still in shock, trying to adjust. I was tired. Weary, as my dad would say. I wasn’t up for yet more paperwork. I certainly wasn’t in love with Canada, and think that was because Toronto, for me, isn’t the most inspiring city, and then Oakville, while nice, is sort of devoid of character. “No love”, as I wrote at the time.

I met half-heartedly with an immigration advisor at the uni to find out the next steps for staying longer in Canada. Two separate applications were needed, one to work immediately following graduation, and one to set the wheels in motion for PR, which wouldn’t be a quick process and required proof of our good financial standing (ie money in the bank). With, let’s face it, a low salary, plus all the expenses and having shelled out so much money for uni fees, the thought of a hard slog to get these applications going was just too much for me to bare. I think I just gave up at that point. Staying was in the too hard basket. And I wanted the stability and familiarity of home. Canada was pissing me off, it was just too different and not in a good way. I know Mr C tried to get me to see why we should stay another year but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be receptive to him, plus he was feeling a little disillusioned and raw as well I think. So we decided. Home in July, as soon as Dude finished school.

I knew what had happened previously when my grandparents came to Australia from the UK. That move, and subsequent ping-ponging between the two countries affected the family to a depth that still impacts today, over 45 years after the last move. The ties to Britain are so strong, even stronger than my ties to Australia. I’m sure more than one member of the family would argue that they should never have come, they should have stayed at home. But it was my grandad who was perhaps idealistic and had itchy feet, yearning for a more relaxed lifestyle after having travelled quite a bit during his time in the army.

And now the same is happening to us. I have this desperate need to find a place we feel at home. I thought it could be Australia but I’m not so sure any more. I can’t believe it took coming home again to realise this. I feel like a fool.

I’m writing this post two weeks exactly after getting back to Australia and we aren’t even in Melbourne yet, where we plan to live. Maybe it’s too soon but we’re feeling entirely regretful about leaving Canada. I have no interest in going back to Toronto or Oakville but I think the positives over there may just outweigh the positives here. I’m not sure I want to stay in Australia.

I won’t publish this yet, it’s too shameful. But when you read this, know that I had only been home two weeks when I wrote it so maybe, just maybe, I was wrong.

Ping pong

Back and forth, one side of the world to another, this is what we do now. Now that the reality of starting again in Australia is setting in, I’m finding myself feeling somewhat panicked and unsure. Was this the right thing to do, coming back? Nothing about Australia has changed over the past year, and I didn’t expect it to, but there is a lot that just doesn’t seem right, seems like such a hard slog for such little outcome.

One of the last photos I took in Canada. I think this was the view from our hotel room in downtown Toronto where we stayed in the days leading up to our departure.

Mr Chewbacca wasn’t keen to come back. I wasn’t really sure, I think I was still adjusting to Canada. I remember someone telling me long ago that she always gives new places two years before considering moving on. I thought about that when it came time to make the decision to stay or leave Canada and I dismissed it quickly, but I know she was right to do that. I should have given it longer.

We started talking about whether to stay or go before Christmas, as we figured that if we were staying, we’d have to be working on our applications in January. I’d seen info at uni about the work permit I’d be eligible to apply for as soon as I had official word that I’d fulfilled the course requirements and would be graduating. I set up an appointment with this immigration advisor in the international student centre at uni and he told me I could apply but he made it sound awfully difficult. Or maybe I wanted it to be too hard, I don’t know, but I remember coming home and telling Mr C a fairly negative story about the steps I’d need to take to stay another year. I think I’d already somehow got it into my head that I wanted to leave. And really, it made a lot of sense. For one thing, financially we’d be much better off.

The reality of our return to Australia settled in with the five year old…

In January, we went to Oakville mall and booked our tickets at Flight Centre. I remember taking a bus in the falling snow to pay for them. I organised quotes for shipping back our stuff. We knew we’d need to stay until after Dude had finished school for the year. I finished my last course at the end of April and soon after that I got an email from uni saying I’d be graduating in June. We booked for exactly a year after we’d left, literally to the day. We were flying back to Brisbane so we could stay with my mum and acclimatise.

I don’t know why I thought it was too hard to apply to stay. I remember feeling overwhelmed at the time, like I just couldn’t deal with the unpredictability of it all. I felt like I just wasn’t strong enough, like I wanted the safety of home. I was okay with settling for that somehow. Or at least I convinced myself at the time that I’d be able to rationalise the decision once we were home.

The final trip to school on the big yellow bus

People at uni, professors included, had been telling me from the beginning that I should apply for a PhD. I was quite excited about that, although I didn’t like the idea of doing it in Italian. But the deadline for applications came and went in January and I reluctantly told the small group of friends from my course that we were going home. They were all pretty surprised. Only a year, that’s not long, they all said. I knew in my heart of hearts that it wasn’t long enough but I thought I could embrace a new “Australianness”. I thought somehow that the hot summers interrupting any attempt at Christmas tradition could be ignored. I thought I’d be so glad to be home and I was so ready to choose Australia as home.

We were missing these kinds of winter sunsets

We actually emailed the shipping company and told them to hold our stuff as it still hadn’t left Canada. We frantically emailed the international student office and the immigration department and tried to get the uni to confirm that I’d been officially notified of graduation at the end of May, as the work permit needed to be applied for within three months of that date, not graduation itself. We toyed with ideas of stopping in Sydney to go to the Canadian Consulate and apply in person. I pictured Mr C negotiating a massive campervan down a partially deconstructed George Street and me having to get out and walk because of all the roadworks and the insanity of Sydney roads and traffic. It was pointless. There was no way we could just turn around and go straight back, as desperately as we wanted. We both moped about off and on, even more depressed by staying in a house that was just not designed with actual humans in mind. We were uncomfortable and miserable and unsettled. The kids took it all in and behaved like nutcases.

We decided that, somehow, we’d get back to Canada. How, we didn’t know, but we’d find a way.

Shock

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to update now so this is going to be a bit of a mish mash. Right now, I’m sitting on the beach at Byron Bay, but I’m sure that’ll have changed by the time I post this.

I can’t believe I actually miss this! Tim Horton’s is the best.

We left Toronto after a few nights downtown on 30th July and flew through to Brisbane. It was a fairly smooth journey, aside from Qantas deciding to make things difficult for us, yet again (I am definitely never flying with them again now, definitely, I mean it this time!) Dazed and confused, we hired a huge SUV to drive to my mum’s place a couple of hours away. It was nice to be home again, Australia, I mean. Nice, but also a bit of a shock. In typical fashion, I immediately began to question whether we’ve done the right thing, coming back again. Somehow I wish my course had been a two-year programme, so we’d have needed to stay longer and make a well-informed, rational decision about leaving Canada. But that wasn’t the case and we’re back.

I miss cheap, crappy coffee. The coffee here is delicious but it’s just so expensive. Not worth it. I think when crappy winter rocks round (it’s technically winter now but here in the Northern Rivers it doesn’t count as it’s always warm) I’ll miss snow. I don’t miss old-fashioned systems like faxing and cheques. Either way, this is a difficult transition and we’re only at the beginning.

The next steps from here are to get down to Melbourne, which we’ll be doing by driving a campervan all the way down via the coastal route. Once we arrive, we’ll at least have a place to stay with friends for a short time while we figure out finding a house to rent and getting jobs. At this stage we’re really not sure where we want to live but we know we want to be near wherever the dude goes to school. That’s up in the air too as the school I like is too close to the city so the area is unaffordable to live in.

Either way, while it’s nice to be back, I really can’t say I feel like this is where I belong. I did try to convince myself that I’m finally ready to embrace my Aussie identity but that was a lie.

On the beach at Brunswick Heads a day or two after landing back in Australia

Within a couple of days of arriving back in Australia, we were discussing how to get back to Canada. We had these agonising sessions online while the kids went nuts because there’s nothing to do at my mum’s place and the TV doesn’t work properly. We logged onto the immigration website, asked for clarification from the university, all sorts of things. I discovered I could have applied to stay another year and work and after that we’d have been eligible to apply for PR. But it was too late. I’d have had to apply for the work permit as soon as I knew I was graduating; the window for applying officially closed three months after I was notified that I’d be graduating, and that expired the day we arrived. I began to go through the online processes to apply for other channels, eventually realising that it was futile. It was quite depressing really.

So I started writing this post. I don’t know what will happen now. Unless Melbourne really pulls us back in, I think I might be applying to do my PhD. Only time will tell…

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.