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. 

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.

wpid-20151016_090009.jpg
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!

wpid-20150907_104715.jpg
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.

Soundtracks

Do you ever step out your front door and a soundtrack begins playing in your head, as though you’re in a film? I do it all the time. It happens sometimes when I slam the car door shut, the music starts, something’s beginning. Often I am actually hearing music through my earphones. I see a lot of my life as a film, like I’m an outside observer. It’s full of cliches; both my life perceived this way and the actual act of doing this. But whatever. Before I did that unit on scriptwriting I thought I’d be really good at it, but it was such a disaster. It was part of my Grad Dip in writing. I had this teacher whose experience seemed to revolve around having written Neighbours episodes and she was one of those people that I just clashed with. Not in an angry way, we just didn’t really get each other. I felt like everyone else in the course was cruising along and writing up all these great ideas and mine was just poo, awful story about nothing written like a kid, terrible. It was such a rude shock, that scriptwriting could be a total disaster. But that’s actually what writing was for me for a long time, a total disaster. I always had talent, and I’m good with languages and spelling and grammar, but I’ve always been very immature, a late developer.

Anyway, I digress. I actually wanted to write about the future, or the next steps. I am about to complete this MA and I really don’t know where it’s going to lead. Potentially nowhere, which is a bit freaky really. I think the reason that’s possible is because I’ve never done study with a view to getting work. I was explaining this to a Walmart lady the other day, when she badgered me about applying for a credit card and I explained that I’m not eligible for a credit card because not only am I not a permanent resident of Canada, I also don’t have an income. She asked what I was studying and I explained and she asked where that leads career-wise. When I told her I wasn’t sure and that I’d never done any of my study with a view to getting a job, she was shocked. It was like it had never occurred to her that people did this. When she realised it was about happiness, she calmed down a bit and seemed to understand where I was coming from. But when I walked away, I realised I truly didn’t know what the hell was going to come of this degree, and that was because it was never what I really wanted to do. And what I really wanted to do, writing, was not what I got into. Because I haven’t shown myself to be good enough at it to warrant doing an MA. Italian, yes, I’m good at it, and this degree has been incredibly enjoyable and rewarding from a personal perspective, but I don’t want to do further study in Italian. I never wanted to do any study in Italian! Gosh that’s a hard thing to admit openly. But it’s true.

Regrets are a waste of time and I refuse to entertain them for even a moment. All I can do is look to the future, to where I want to be, and work towards that. It’s not Italian, and it’s not writing. I’d like to continue my editorial career in a freelance capacity, which will take discipline, and I think my study this past year has helped with building that. So that’s something. But as for my long term career, I’m not sure. Will it be teaching? I’m told I am good at that. I did a presentation a few weeks ago on King Lear and my fellow students all commented on the way I read the Shakespeare, how I engaged my audience. And I really enjoyed it. But teaching, that means I’m more like my mum than I’d like. That freaks me out. And teaching requires energy, giving of oneself. I don’t know if I have what it takes.

For now, I have less than a month left of classes before I finish this MA. So I’ll keep walking to my soundtrack, writing my snippets of stories, my to-do lists, my goals. One thing is certain: I will write a book one day soon.

That time we found our place in the world

So, it’s official: we’re going home! Yes, that’s right, after… what is it, seven months? I don’t know, something like that… seven months in Canada, we have decided we actually belong in Melbourne. So we’re going home. It’s not been an easy decision, not at all, and although it’s completely thrilling to think we are going home, it’s also somewhat scary. And there’s that feeling of… I don’t know, disappointment? No, that’s not the right word. Not regret either. I don’t do regret, it’s a waste of time. But… there’s this feeling that we should have known. But you know, the longer I stumble along through life, the more I become aware that some lessons can only be learnt the “hard” way. That is, there was only one way we were going to come to the realisation that we belong where we were, and that was by going away.

Freshly fallen snow while I wait for the bus
Freshly fallen snow while I wait for the bus

It’s been a pretty amazing journey in a lot of ways. Well, I can really only speak for myself here, but I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to do this MA here at U of T. It’s taught me so much, and that’s not even including the stuff I’m actually meant to learn for the program itself! The more I do, the more I put myself out there, challenge myself, the more chances I take, the more I realise I have a right to do this too. Just because these people here are doing PhDs or studying at this amazing, prestigious university doesn’t make them any more special or talented than me. And no, it’s not a competition. But I think when you’re sitting at home in some backwater like Canberra you develop a little bit of an inferiority complex. Or rather, you think that all those people studying at Harvard or famous people in Hollywood or people who work for The Economist in London or some top PR guru at some swanky firm in Sydney have something you’ll never have. And that’s just not true. You can absolutely be up at the level of anyone else. There is no one “better” than you. Just because you’re studying photography at TAFE doesn’t mean you haven’t got the same potential as someone doing a PhD in English Lit at Oxford. It’s all perception and self-belief.

Anyway, It’s time to go home to Melbourne. I still have about six weeks of study left (what?! Is that it?!!) and then graduation in May plus the Dude will see out the school year up until the end of June. We’ve booked to fly out at the end of July and now I’m gathering quotes from moving companies. We will have some rest time at my mum’s before heading back down to lovely Melbourne and reconstructing a life there. Hopefully we can both get work fairly soon and a mortgage will be on the horizon. I balk slightly at the amount of work this is going to take, but my heart is warmed at the thought of finally setting up home somewhere. To think I was complaining about not being settled some eight years ago when Mr Chewbacca and I met!

I'm not sure if squirrels are supposed to hibernate but they seem to be hanging around throughout winter this year. These ones are in Queen's Park.
I’m not sure if squirrels are supposed to hibernate but they seem to be hanging around throughout winter this year. These ones are in Queen’s Park.

Some people might say this is history repeating itself. My British grandparents came to Melbourne as Ten Pound Poms in 1959. The decision to leave London was, I think, partly motivated by my grandfather who had travelled a lot during his time in the army and knew there was more out there than doing what ten generations of his family had done before him working at the docks in London. My grandmother was very much attached to familiarity and found it hard to leave her home. She didn’t feel safe a lot in her life and London gave her a feeling of safety which she left when she agreed to go to Australia. So they went. And it was hard, I think. But granddad got work and things were going well enough. Then he had an accident at work where two fingers were severed. It was serious enough to land him in hospital for a time and the family without an income. I’m pretty sure my grandmother was either heavily pregnant or had just given birth to my uncle at the time. My dad, who was about 12 or 13 when his brother was born, was the eldest. The story goes that he ended up on some kind of game show that donates money to families in need and apparently this helped the family get by while granddad was recovering. In the end, the accident was the best thing that could have happened as granddad received an insurance payout and for the first time ever the family had the opportunity to put a deposit on a property. While waiting for the payout to be awarded, another spanner brought the whole thing to a grinding halt: they had word from London that my granddad’s mother was ill and may not last long. With the insurance money through, the family actually had the means to return home for her funeral. But that would preclude any home-buying in Melbourne. Granddad, typically, left the family’s next move in the hands of fate. He decreed that if the property purchase was approved by the following Monday, they’d stay. If not, they’d return. And as fate would have it, they ended up returning. It was a mistake, of course. Well, nothing is a mistake. But returning to the UK was like a step backward and wasn’t really good for anyone. There’s a lot more to the story, lots I don’t know and probably some bits I got wrong, but I wanted to share this to illustrate why what’s happening for me and my family now is something of a repetition. This time, however, this time we’ve done it right. We are making the right decision. I know, because I have no doubts whatsoever about it.

As I write this, the snow is falling outside – probably the last snowfall of the season before spring descends and humidity returns with a vengeance. It is probably as close to a perfect winter’s day as you can get, exactly what we came for. It’s been generally a disappointing winter for the most part, quite mild and so erratic, although I suspect the latter is normal. I will definitely miss the snow when it goes. But we will go to the snow back home and take the Dude and Thumper skating at the only rink in Melbourne.

So it’s all happening, the wheels are in motion. There’s a lot more to write about this, in the context of why we decided to come to Canada in the first place. There are a few unanswered questions. I’ll get back to you later on those. While there is a slight feeling of disappointment that our little experiment didn’t quite work out, there’s a much stronger feeling of happiness that this is exactly where we need to be, right now. We are going home and we are satisfied that it’s our home. No more searching and wondering and restlessness. We’re for Melbourne.