To my extended family

I adore my immediate family, my husband and kids, and although they’re far away it’s nice to have a strong connection with my children’s grandparents too. But I don’t mention much about my extended family. I’m an only child, so I’m talking about aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. This is because I haven’t made much effort to be in touch with them. Actually, I’m going to be honest here, I’ve actively avoided them. And now, at the age of 37, for the first time, I’m beginning to feel terrible about that. So this post is an apology to my family for cutting them out, even if they didn’t notice.

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my family. none of the people in this photo are alive any more and i never met any of them. this is my great-grandparents’ wedding, taken at St Bartholemew’s somewhere in London’s East End, Boxing Day 1923

I didn’t really grow up with my cousins. They mainly lived in Sydney and my parents and I moved to Canberra when I was two or three. We’d visit of course, but it’s not the same. And frankly, I don’t know why, but I always felt different, like I didn’t really identify with my family. On one side, I think the lack of language contributed – they all spoke or understood a bit of Serbian and I knew none at all. On the other side, I felt a little closer to them, but culturally, again, they were more ‘Aussie’ or something. When I was a teenager and even into my 20s I was a real snob. Yeah, this is an honest post. I was so stuck up, constantly comparing myself with others, insecure, immature, unable to accept that everyone is different, with different influences and ideas and desires and strengths and weaknesses.

Having said that, I was very anti-Australia for the longest time, despite having been born and growing up in Australia. I considered myself ‘European’, whatever that means. I think it meant that I didn’t identify with Australian culture and I felt like being European was classier, like people from Europe have more of a world view, are more educated, more intelligent, more refined. I was revolted by bogans. It really was snobbery on my part.

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countdown to departure, July 2007

I think there were a couple of pivotal moments that changed my perception about my cultural identity and where I belonged, but it’s only recently that my familial identity has begun to matter. Just after turning 18, my dad took me to the UK for five weeks. I was so excited as it was my first overseas trip and I was finally going to visit this mythical land of ‘England’ where I felt my cultural heart truly belonged. It was a shock, to say the least. I will never forget the feeling of weight I experienced; all those people, all that history, all mixed up, rushing, spilling, washing over me. I felt claustrophobic, weighed down by the sheer volume of ‘stuff’ that had happened in that place over the centuries of city living. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t wait to get out. I was amazed at how dirty all the London transit vans were, just smog and road dirt accumulating. Some of the roads, remnants of Roman walls, puddles filling in uneven pavement, crowds trying to enter and exit stations and trains, it was all so full and overwhelming to me, a very naive, immature teenager with very little experience of the real world. I’d come from Canberra, the cleanest, quietest city in the world, a population of around 350,000 neatly arranged in suburbs around a handful of peaceful ‘town centres’. This is a city that was planned. The closest thing to a traffic jam occurs when you have to slow down a little bit because the NRMA are jump starting someone’s Datsun in the Parliamentary Triangle and it’s 8am. Everyone in Canberra drives. It’s about as far from London as you can get in every respect.

So at 18, I realised I wasn’t European. I was so glad to be Aussie. We landed at Sydney airport on a warm January evening and I have never been so glad to get into a creaky Falcon with a Lebanese driver and try not to get car sick because the suspension on those things is like a roller coaster ride gone wrong! I was home. But the gratitude for being home didn’t last long. Four years later I embarked on an adventure to take advantage of a scholarship and I studied in Siena, Italy for three months. That was a great experience and my world view expanded quite a bit.

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at Telstra Tower, Canberra, in 2013

When push finally came to shove and I realised how toxic my life in Canberra had become, I went back to London in 2007. I was 28. I planned to stay for six months and I wasn’t there to party it up or take drugs or have fun. I didn’t do fun. So much for that. As I’m sure anyone who knows me knows, my London years changed my life. I met the love of my life, I grew up about 20 years in the space of two and a half, and my sense of cultural identity got a whole lot more complex.

Moving back to Australia in 2010 and having my son in 2011, the pull to find where I belonged, to find a home, was even stronger. But I didn’t yet equate home with family. I was starting a family, sure, but I still had this firm belief that ‘my’ family would be my husband and child(ren), and the extended family, some of whom I’d fallen out with by this point over various misunderstandings and overreactions, were not going to be part of my life. I am a fair person by nature, but I’m also a classic overreactor. If I feel stressed or under pressure, I will back out. I’ll just drop everything, push everyone away; it’s all or nothing. I am insecure, I hate intervening or getting in people’s way. I don’t want to disturb. But often this is interpreted as snooty-ness or rudeness when really it’s the extreme opposite! My worst nightmare is having to ask for something, even if it’s something I’m entitled to, something I own, I just don’t want to confront, I don’t want to state my case, I don’t want to attract attention to myself.

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London. Nuff said

So continuing on from my escape to London, I slowly began to extricate myself from any hint of connection to my extended family. They are all clever, sensitive, aware people, and I’m sure many of them wondered what my problem was, why I was trying to disappear from their lives. I worried that one falling out meant I’d automatically burnt my bridges with others connected to that one person, so I just unfriended everyone on facebook and set my profile to private and got on with life.

As my son grew up and my husband and I got to know each other better, questions arose. My husband was a bit miffed at not getting to meet my family, but I remember saying, oh, don’t worry, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Secretly, though, I knew that wasn’t the case. I just didn’t know how to make things right. I felt stressed out by all the emotional stuff I was going through and I couldn’t deal with the communication challenge. So I keep everyone at arm’s length.

Pacific Ocean
I just don’t like Sydney but I must admit it was nice living across the road from this

I think since coming to Canada and experiencing such homesickness I have also begun to feel sad about my lack of connection with my extended family. I unblocked everyone ages ago and my profile is no longer totally locked down. I occasionally have a little look around, see some comments and conversations on the pages of some family who I am still privileged enough to be friends with, and I see them loving each other, my family. I see how grateful they are to have each other, how much of an effort they make to stay in touch, and I envy that connection. I wish I hadn’t been so stubborn and stupid. I don’t know if I’ve burnt my bridges, I hope not, but I don’t know what I could say that could make it right. All I hope is that my family can forgive my silliness and we can move on in peace. I hope we can reconnect, but if not, I hope they all know that I bear no one ill will and I am grateful for each person’s impact on my life.

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The pull: why migration caused my cultural dilemma

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, Mr Chewbacca and I have had a tough time fitting into life in Australia. He is British, so it makes sense that he’d struggle to identify with the change in culture. I grew up here, but I don’t feel very Aussie. In fact I never have.

Until I went to the UK at age 18, I always considered myself ‘European’. Both my parents were born in Europe and I wasn’t brought up in a very typically Australian household. My parents never owned a Barnsy or Farnsy album, or for that matter listened to the Skyhooks or Midnight Oil. We never watched Prisoner or The Sullivans or A Country Practice. We didn’t eat lamb chops; in fact we didn’t even own a barbeque. We never had a Holden or a Ford. And because we lived in Canberra, which is a couple of hours drive from the coast, I didn’t go to the beach much.

Nelly Times - Welcome to Australia Booklet 21 March 1950
The booklet my non-English-speaking grandparents would have received upon arrival in Australia from war-torn Germany with their four children in 1950, only suitcases and a bundle of now-worthless over-sized German banknotes to their name.

That’s not to say that all those things are requirements for being a real Aussie. Most of us are immigrants, after all. I’m sure that many of the immigrants escaping war-torn countries with political unrest and harsh social restrictions are just grateful to be somewhere like this, where anyone can be free to express whatever makes them tick, whatever makes sense to them. Every country has its discrimination, it’s human to judge, after all. But we’re pretty lucky here in Australia.

For me, though, being Australian is a confusing thing. While I agree that loving Barnsy and owning a ute does not an Aussie make, I still don’t feel Aussie. Being here feels just a tiny bit wrong. There’s so much about Aussie culture and life that makes no sense to me, doesn’t resonate. I really don’t like the Aussie accent; yes, I know, I have one, and it became dangerously occa* while living in London with two far north Queenslanders. I flick between a semi-dinky di twang and a neutral style of speaking that people whose first language isn’t English find much easier to understand. But overall, I find the Aussie accent a little harsh on the ears, and although our constant shortening of words is pretty funny (service station becomes servo, fire fighter becomes firey, electrician becomes sparky, and it goes on), there’s something inherently lazy about Australian expression which I find off-putting and I often feel uncomfortable and conflicted when I find myself speaking that way. Does that sound snobbish? It’s not meant to, it’s just an example of my inner cultural conflict and confusion.

Even the Australian landscape, the bush, the mountains, the trees, I find beautiful, but not in comparison to the northern hemisphere. The desert is amazing, that red dirt incredible, and I love the thought of driving across the Nullabor listening to Midnight Oil. But it doesn’t really grab me deep inside. There is no pull. And that’s what this post is getting at, that deep, gut-wrenching, persistent yearning for home and what makes sense. There is just something in me that forces me to feel I belong in a northern hemisphere setting. I belong somewhere where it snows in winter, somewhere with ancient stone walls and grass so green it rubs off on your shoes.

The house my grandparents finally managed to afford to build sometime in the '50s.
The house my grandparents finally managed to afford to build sometime in the ’50s.

I have a massive amount of respect for the indigenous people of this land. I feel such sadness at the thought that their ancient and unique culture was so violently interrupted, and as someone who is desperately trying to find a sense of belonging and knowledge of and participation in my own culture, I feel such regret at the thought that indigenous Australians can never go back to their true culture and will always have to struggle forward with a hybrid mix, a watered-down substitute. But despite the decimation, there is a sense of envy in me. I wish I could feel such a link to this land, such an inherent love for it. I just don’t. There’s an appreciation, and a temporary sense of wonder, but there is no pull.

I am pulled to Europe. I don’t regret that my parents migrated here; after all, if they hadn’t, I would never have been born as they’d never have met. And I’m so grateful for the opportunities that growing up in this ‘lucky’ country has given me. I believe my life would have been a lot more difficult had I grown up in the context that my dad did in London, or my mum would have had her parents stayed in post-war Germany. The decisions each family made to migrate were right, I don’t dispute that. But I struggle to embrace this country as my own, despite having been born and grown up here.

Just a tree, right?  Yeah, but it's a deciduous tree in Autumn, it's pure beauty to me.
Just a tree, right? Yeah, but it’s a deciduous tree in Autumn, it’s pure beauty to me.

So what to do? Do we go back? Mr C would go back to live in the UK in a heartbeat. But there’s something about it that doesn’t sit right with me. Perhaps I’d miss the space here; I’d probably miss my mum. Before leaving Canberra, I’d have said I miss the ease of driving everywhere, but in Sydney there’s nothing easy about it, this place is so badly planned and traffic and transport are abysmal. I think I might miss the summer. Not the whole summer, it’s too long and hot here for my liking, but I’d definitely miss a few weeks of hot, high 20s summer. I wouldn’t miss the pathetic excuse for winter here in Sydney. I’d really miss my friends, although I don’t see them that much as it is. In truth, there’s not much here for me. But there’s something more ‘easy’ about living in Australia that I can’t quite nail down. Or perhaps it’s that there’s a sense of ‘hardship’ about living in the UK. In addition, because things have been so difficult for us since we arrived, and life has felt stressed, unstable and like we’re not on the right path, there’s a curiosity in me: would life settle down if we moved back? Would the Universe show me that’s where I should have been all along? I wonder. I wonder if all the hardships and ups and downs and frustrations and arguments and stresses we’ve had since coming to Australia have all been signs that we don’t belong here.

Is Scandinavia still in Europe? I don't know. But this is a sunset and sunrise happening concurrently in Tromso, Norway. What an amazing town!
Is Scandinavia still in Europe? I don’t know. But this is a sunset and sunrise happening concurrently in Tromso, Norway. What an amazing town!

Given our British passports, we could live anywhere in the EU, although Italy seems a smarter choice because I speak the language. I would dearly love to live somewhere else, but it’s such a huge risk, to move to a foreign country. We’re at a stage now where we still have that adventurous spark, we want to explore and see the world, but having a family and providing a stable environment for bringing up children is really the most important thing. We both have romantic notions of the Dude being able to walk to school, of a smooth and happy childhood for him where he can expect consistency in schooling and at home. So moving around the world, the upheaval it would create for us as a family, is a very daunting prospect. We both want a beautiful family home that we build up and establish more firmly over the years, somewhere our children know they can always come back to, somewhere we can relax and enjoy life together, somewhere we can really make our own. Moving around, especially across the other side of the world, and potentially back if it doesn’t work out, seems like too much.

I wonder, did my grandparents have this kind of dilemma? I can imagine my mother’s parents, living in an apartment in Augsburg, trying time and again to get a mortgage, buy a house, only to be rejected because of my grandfather’s Serbian nationality. It would have been the only real option, especially given the state of Germany at the time. America was ruled out because one of my grandfather’s relatives had gone and been unhappy or something. I’m not really sure why Australia was the choice, probably some good incentives and cheap passage for a family with four children. I can picture my dad’s parents, my grandmother reluctant to leave the familiarity of London, my grandfather itching for change, an adventure, a taste of the newness he’d glimpsed while in the military. They were ten pound poms and ended up in Melbourne. But life had other plans. There was a crucial event that changed the course of the family’s history and meant they went back to the UK. Now that was the wrong choice. But again, I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t made it.

I once stayed in a hotel in Brussels. I was so tired and hung over and hungry when I got there, I ordered a huge amount of food, then forgot about the tiramisu in the fridge. I still regret not tasting that tiramisu.
I once stayed in a hotel in Brussels. I was so tired and hung over and hungry when I got there, I ordered a huge amount of food, then forgot about the tiramisu in the fridge. I still regret not tasting that tiramisu.

These kinds of dilemmas, the urge to find myself conflicting with the urge to establish a simple, family home, are a constant source of conflict, both within myself and within our family. For now, we’re staying put, planning our future and ever so slightly excited the possibility of finally feeling settled in Australia.

*One of those ‘Aussie-isms’ – means very exaggerated Aussie I guess. Hard to explain. Perhaps the Urban Dictionary can do it better.