The hardest decision of our lives

It will change everything. I don’t know how it got to this. But now we are at a point where we have to make what feels like an impossible choice. It feels so hard because it will change the course of our lives entirely. It’s terrifying. 

A week ago our Canadian visas were approved. Our flights are booked for a month from now. One month to move our entire lives to Canada. We don’t have the money this time. There’s no going back. But if we can’t find decent income, a house, an au pair, all the stuff that goes along with settling, we fail. Who knows where we’ll end up. The kids get dragged around the world. It’s not good, not what we’d hoped for. Even if we do find enough income, we won’t save money. Which means we can’t buy a house. Which means continued instability. And even if we did eventually save the down payment, we’re getting to that age where a 25 year mortgage really isn’t viable. We’d be working far beyond normal retirement age. We’ve left everything so late. 

I actually have regrets. I really can’t believe I do but it’s true. It’s so counterproductive to have regrets too. I need a fresh start, drop all that past and just begin afresh now. 

So then we stay. We build up more savings until we have a decent ten percent deposit in 12 months. We find a place in Melbourne. We buy it. We move. We settle. We make it our own, as close to anything we could get in Canada. We stay forever and have a happy, comfortable life, casting aside our discomfort at hot summers and mediocre seasonal traditions because we’re comfortable. We don’t have to worry much about money. We cruise along and forget all about how much better it might have been as Canadians. 

Is this it? If we stay will we never achieve anything else? A Melbourne future used to be my dream for many years. And then I lost it, for the sake of a new and illogical yet idealistic dream. Can we return to the happiness we felt at the prospect of moving to Melbourne five years ago? We need to decide now, tomorrow is the final deadline. I have no answers and neither does Mr Chewbacca. This is so very hard. 

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A yearning

After all that worrying and wondering and desperation, looking forward to being home and making a life, I don’t want to be here. I want to be in Canada. I really do. Some bit of me wonders if I’ll ever be satisfied with where I am, but most of me thinks I am finally going to be where I can settle. I know for Mr Chewbacca it’s the latter, and he’s very hard to please and very impulsive. But, like me, he doesn’t want to settle for second best. So we want back in.

Looking back through photos of our lives in Canada, I realise it suited me a lot more being there. Of course there are things about Australia that I prefer and I’m glad to have those things back but I still don’t feel like this is home. Even though technically I’m as “at home” as I could ever be, being in Canberra, my home town. It’s good to be back but I’m reminded all the time why I left.

The feeling of wanting to be back in Canada is, on the surface, a nice one, exciting. But delve a little deeper and it becomes complex and misleading. Do I really want to be there or am I overly romanticising it? Did I really enjoy being there? It starts to become nonsensical if you think about it too much, like repeating a common word in your head until it sounds completely foreign. It’s as though having too many options isn’t such a good thing.

One thing’s for sure, though: we should have given it another year, there’s no doubt about that. I wish there was some way of getting back to that time when I couldn’t handle the thought of dealing with yet more visa applications. In hindsight I really don’t think anyone could have done anything, I’d decided we were going and that was it. Silly really.

But what’s done is done. So now what? Do we definitely want to go back? How can we pull it off?

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.

Oh, but Australia…

Not a day goes past now when Mr Chewbacca doesn’t ask me, “so, we’ve pretty much decided we’re going home, right?” And I inevitably reply with some shaky response along the lines of, “yeah, I don’t know, maybe, we need to talk about it…” It’s hard to find time to talk when we’re busy with study, work, kids and all we want to do of an evening is collapse on the couch and escape into tv. That’s also partly just an excuse for not discussing what is a really difficult issue. Do we leave Canada and go back home to Australia?

Ideally we’d make a list of pros and cons and that would help us decide. Regardless of the strategy, this is a super hard decision to make. There are a few reasons for that. Firstly, although we both miss home, we haven’t had a great deal of time to get used to Canada so it’s hard to differentiate between missing home and actually being sure we want to move back to Australia for good. Secondly, we are financially in dire straits, having spent everything to get here and do what we’re doing, so it feels like we stuffed up if we return with so much less than when we left. Thirdly, we haven’t ended up in the best place, in an area or environment that suits us, so even though it’s nice enough in our little neighbourhood, the awareness that we’re in the wrong area adds more weight to our wanting to go. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that it’s been Murphy’s Law from the get-go, from the moment we decided to leave. Not only that but Melbourne bent over backwards to get us to stay.

I actually started looking at places to rent in Melbourne the other day. Oh Australia, why are your houses so ugly?! I much prefer North American architecture. And so many rentals in Australia haven’t been renovated since the 70s, it’s awful. A bit depressing actually and made me hesitate about looking into going home any further.

But if we stayed? Oh, what a big undertaking! Visas, jobs, money, moving, schools, daycare… I don’t know if I have it in me. I would need to find full time work which I think would be a big challenge. And the kids, will they be overlooked while Mr C and I work like demons to satisfy visa requirements? Again, I just can’t see how it will work. I don’t think I want it enough.

Don’t get me wrong, the seasons and the trees are gorgeous and far nicer than anything you’d get back home. The northern hemisphere seasons are great also because it’s winter at Christmas etc… But I’m not sure that’s enough to make me put in the hard yards to stay. I wanna go home.

I actually have a home! It’s a revelation really, for me. I’ve always struggled with knowing where I belong so it seems logical to embrace what I know now that I have identified it. The irony is, now I know where I belong, I’m not there and it’s going to be an effort to get there! I also have to think about what’s best for the family as a whole and try to calm Mr C’s worries about it all, about whether we’d do the right thing in going back. It’s going to be big, whatever we decide.

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.

A new way of being Australian

So it’s looking like we might be returning to Australia once my course is done. I finish at the end of April but I will likely need to stick around for graduation which will be May or June I think. We can legally stay until October so at least there’s a bit of leeway.

As I’ve alluded to previously, this whole journey, from the moment we decided to try Canada to now, has been fraught with obstacles, problems, challenges and frustrations. It’s been Murphy’s law the whole way through, and that’s putting it mildly. The Universe has been doing its best to show us the easy path to this point but we chose the hard one. No regrets. Worries, problems, stresses in the immediate, yes, but no regrets. I know with 100 per cent certainty that my Masters is going to lead to something special. And we will be alright.

 

this is how i remember Eric Bana. the quintessential bogan

What I wanted to write about is how I’m coming to terms with my Australian identity. It’s a major theme of this blog actually, and it may even warrant a rebranding as it’s emerging as the central theme. It also relates closely to my academic research interests and is part of what my (eventual) PhD thesis will discuss: finding where I belong and my culture.

I’m a mixture of European blood and I’ve struggled my whole life with an inability to identify with being Austalian. I’d actually go so far as to say I’ve had this underlying irrational disdain for Austalia and all things Aussie. I always looked down on it, was bothered by the lack of rich history or refinement that I perceived Europe to be about. This is all just my narrative though, a fairy story. After all, “the past is just a story we tell ourselves”. Australia has heaps of history and some exceptionally brilliant people. Everywhere has its pluses and minuses.

 

that quote is from the film “Her”. if you haven’t seen it, go look on Netflix now, it’s brilliant

Since beginning to come to terms with going back, I’m acutely aware of my new journey. I’m on a quest to find peace with my Aussie identity. This isn’t something I’ve been able to try seriously before. I was too busy rejecting Australia. I don’t really know for sure why I was always so vehemently anti-Australia, there’s more to be said about that, but suffice it to say now I’m officially beginning my mission to become an Australophile (I just invented that rather clunky word – I bet there’s a proper one I don’t know).

Maybe it’s slowly been creeping up since becoming a parent but there’s been this process of mellowing out, an increase in self-confidence perhaps, and not just an urge to settle down but an actual process of settling, wherever I am. I think it’s more accurate to say that the transition to family life has created a harmony or contentedness in me and it’s not just a new phase, it’s me now so no matter where I am, I’m living it. It’s showing in my marriage too. We’ve never been happier, despite how insane our lives have been since embarking on this move. And all I want to do is live that, the happy family life, full of routines and parenting highs and lows, searching out simpler ways to just be together and embrace our true selves. Gosh, it sounds so airy fairy! I don’t mean for it to be like that!

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a revelation for me to find myself like this and I have this move to thank for it, partly anyway. I am finally able to see Australia as home and that is something pretty special.

Melbourne contrasts

Over the last six months or so I’ve felt completely unemotional about Melbourne and then really sentimental about it. It’s been years since I’ve considered myself anywhere close to settling down in a place that’s really home. Melbourne was meant to be that, home.

I’d wanted to live here since my best friend and I came on the bus from Canberra at 16. It was about nine hours of stuffy cramped lurching and trying to resist using the on-board facilities for fear of passing out from the stench. We stayed at the YMCA in the city. Lord knows what the hell our parents were thinking letting us stay overnight alone in a strange city at that age. We shopped in Bourke Street mall and then spent much of the afternoon traipsing around Toorak (or was it Brighton?) trying to decipher which house might be Tommy Emmanuel’s based on a few glimpses of the driveway my friend got during an episode of Burke’s Backyard. (Gimme a home among the gum trees…) We speculated that we may well be walking past Darryl Sommers’ or Bert Newton’s place. And then we went home. Even then, 20 years ago, I knew Melbourne had something special to offer. I loved it. I wanted to move here as soon as I moved out of home when I was 18. Which didn’t happen of course. I was nearly 25 by the time I left home and by then my main focus was on my boyfriend.

Fast forward to 2009 and I was on a boat in London with a different boyfriend, a more serious one. The Tattershall Castle I think it was, one of those boats permanently moored along the Embankment with the whole thing decked out as a bar and nightclub. My boyfriend had just reluctantly agreed to move to Melbourne. I celebrated by doing shots with a new friend who happened to be from Melbourne.
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Why didn’t I just go with it? Why did I relent and say, “okay fine, no, let’s go to Sydney. You’re moving across the other side of the world for me. We’ll go where you want.” Why?!

Because of that decision, we aren’t totally happy where we live. That boyfriend and I are now married with two kids. But we can’t settle down because we don’t feel totally at home here. Why not?
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It’s strange but it comes down to climate for the most part. The older I get, the less tolerant of the heat I am. Seriously, if it never got hotter than about 27 I’d be totally happy. These summers of months of 30-something days are just not my bag. Same with Mr Chewbacca. And I want snow! Every winter! And green, proper green, not this washed out, tired, gumtree grey-brown excuse for green.
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So what has changed? I’m not totally sure but I think I have. I never felt particularly comfortable being an Australian but I’m realising more now that I don’t belong here, despite the familiarity. I completely hate this feeling of not belonging, of not having a home, but try as I might there are just so many things about this country that just don’t fit me. I think if I’d moved to Melbourne when I was 18 or in my early 20s things would have turned out very differently. I would have done my stint here and known sooner where I belong.

I also hate not being settled. I want a home for our family now. But I have to be true to myself and aim for the best. How can I build a home when I don’t feel I belong here? And when I say “here” I mean Australia.

Melbourne, I’d like to scoop you up and plonk you down somewhere in the northern hemisphere where there’s snow in winter, mild summers and deciduous trees. I want your village hubs, your great cafés and shops, your eclectic mix of people, your many forms of transport, your grid system, your amenities and opportunities and your friendly drivers. I’ll even take your beaches.