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.

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.

Come over for a salmon board sometime

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

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Autumn in our street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Timmy’s!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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.