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.

I’m no longer curious

The new name has been chosen and changed. I don’t know if it makes any sense but I’m sticking with it! I’ve changed the name of this blog so many times, it’s ridiculous! So this was the last time.

I felt like Kat is curious was just too boring or something, I don’t know, and I decided it would be better to use my whole first name, as it’s fairly distinctive.

This blog is my time. My time to think, plan, idealise; my time for me. It’s a special way if travelling through time, something I’ve always been fascinated with, as I can go back and read about where I was at in any moment. My time to be who I am. My time to write.

I am trying to be a little more specific or deliberate about my theme or identity through this blog but, as luck would have it, I seem to be experiencing a serious case of writer’s block. I sat and stared at my WordPress dashboard for a whole minute today, then clicked over to Pinterest but even that wasn’t inspiring. I changed a few things, tried and failed to sort out my Facebook page, then just gother frustrated.

So instead I sent a long email to my friend KK. What a chick! A goddess really, that’s how I’d describe KK. And I’m not just saying that because she might read this; I know it to be true. The woman is the perfect combination of class and guts. Thin as a bloody rake without losing femininity, bronzed, angular, sparkly-eyed, KK is like some sort of Audrey Hepburn – Mae West amalgam with a 21st century attitude. She seriously knows how to put an outfit together from high street fashion mixed with vintage and she’s the only person I know who can make a velvet jumpsuit from 1977 look smoking hot. She once ordered a life-size Elvis cardboard cutout online but then had a massive freak out when she realised she’d ordered it to be delivered to our place of work (at the time we worked together for a UK government agency in a secure office building in Westminster). “How the hell are they going to deliver Elvis to me at work?” she lamented. She was even more concerned at the prospect of getting him home on the Tube. Luckily Elvis arrived folded in half, although I’m still not sure how she got him home.

At the moment I’m missing London big time. I miss the weather, the culture, the accents, the buildings, the pubs, even the public transport! I know I’ll never live as I once did there but I can’t help but think I belong in Europe and that one day I will end up living there again. Mr Chewbacca feels the same way. The difference is that I don’t complain about how backward Australia is all the time. Anyway that’s for another post. If you want to read some of his rants, check him out at Whodyanickabollockov. He might be a whinging pom but he’s a funny mofo.

Pregnancy and nesting

So I’m now 27 weeks along and feeling just fine. It’s certainly been an interesting ride so far.  Baby’s head is sitting firmly in my pelvis (not a pleasant feeling on the bladder) and feet and hands are moving almost constantly. Which is good, it’s what’s meant to be happening apparently. Despite being overweight, I’m healthy, blood pressure is normal, baby’s heart rate is normal and I feel good.  Being pregnant hasn’t been hard yet, but I suspect as I venture into this third trimester I’ll start to feel a bit heavy.

I’m having the baby at home, not in a hospital, which has been my wish from before I even wanted to be pregnant (or had someone to get me pregnant!) and I’m really excited about it all. At first I was a bit apprehensive about giving birth in our loungeroom, as we live in a tiny one bedroom flat under a big mansion, so it’s not like I can dedicate a room as the birthing room, and baby won’t have his or her own room (not that it’s needed anyway early on). We’d talked about moving out to somewhere with two bedrooms before baby arrived, and I thought this was the plan until a couple of months ago my husband mentioned casually how he’d been telling people I was having the baby in our lounge in our current flat.  I was surprised to hear this!  Turns out he’d worked it all out in his own head but had forgotten to mention it to me.  He said he thought it made sense – we live in one of the best suburbs in Sydney, right up on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  It’s so beautiful that tourists come here from everywhere just to walk around across the road from our house, and it’s the perfect place – calm, natural, quiet, awe-inspiring – to bring a baby into the world and for him or her to spend the first few months of life.  He commented yesterday that the lounge is such a peaceful room, not too bright but not too dark, large enough to fit a big pool in, wooden floors to help deal with any, erm, spills, and just a generally serene place, perfect for the arrival of our first baby.  I soon realised that he was right and that we didn’t need to move.

And that brings me to the nesting part of this post.  I still can’t get used to Sydney as my home.  I don’t want to, the truth be told.  I don’t want to be a part of this place.  It’s like it bores into my soul, or strips something out of me every time I drive through the city.  Just being in Sydney often makes me feel like my life is at an end!  I feel hopeless here.  We’ve made some lovely friends, good people, whose company I enjoy; but at some level it feels a bit like we’re trying too hard.  It’s like Jerry Seinfeld says, you get to a point in your life where you have your friends, and you don’t need or want any more; you’ve only got a certain number of ‘slots’ to fill and those are all filled.  I guess I’m also unique in this sense because I don’t ‘need’ friends as such, or at least I don’t have to socialise to feel complete.  Socialising for me is an effort.  Don’t get me wrong, I usually enjoy it once I’m doing it, but sometimes I just want me time, alone time.  My husband is the opposite, and although he loves doing his own thing or just spending time with me, he really needs lots of people around him and lots of stuff happening constantly.  He’s an extrovert and I’m an introvert, in the simplest sense.

I’m really over complaining about Sydney; I don’t like it, end of story, and I will never feel at home here.  I want to move to Melbourne.  At least the city has no negative affiliations for me, I can start fresh there, and I do have some good friends there who I’d like to see more often.  More than anything, it’s about starting fresh and settling down properly, instead of this forced ‘plonking’ I’ve done in Sydney.  I’m only here because husband wanted to come here, and I figured it wasn’t fair of me to make him move to a city that he, at the time, hated; he’s coming to live on the other side of the world with me, so I should at least give him the choice of city.  Oh how I wish I hadn’t relented!

I’ll never forget that moment I chose my Sydney fate.  We’d had a few drinks, more than a few really, having come from an annual rugby club dinner at the Houses of Parliament (London), and we were partying the night away at the after party which was on one of those permanently moored boats along the Embankment – Tattersall Castle?  Or was it Queen Mary or whatever that other one is called…? I can’t remember.  It was somewhere close to midnight, and we happened to coordinate our air (read: cigarette) breaks up on the deck outside.  I wore a cheap, black cocktail dress I’d bought off eBay for 30 pounds and I was hot and sweaty from dancing downstairs in the nightclub.

“Okay. Let’s go to Melbourne then.”  He looked at me with the most forlorn look on his face.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and asked him to repeat it, which he did.  My reaction wasn’t what he or I expected; it was delayed, and not because I was utterly overjoyed at the prospect of moving to a city I’d wanted to live in for a good ten years.  I couldn’t handle allowing him to make that sacrifice for me, to move to a city that, four years prior, he’d experienced as cold, unfriendly, and generally boring, when he knew Sydney a little, and had found it so friendly, warm, sunny, full of fun and beaches and pubs and his favourite rugby.  I finally hugged him and said “thank you”.  But I couldn’t feel happy; I felt deflated, like it was a bit of an anti-climax.  And he was clearly miserable.

We went back downstairs and I told a friend from Melbourne that the decision had been made; needless to say she was very happy, as was her Kiwi boyfriend who was going to be moving down around the same time as us and knew no one in the city.

I really wish I’d ignored my man’s misery and ploughed ahead with the plan of Melbourne; but how would we have booked a wedding venue when neither of us really knew the city?  How could we have moved there any way?  We’d have had to organise every aspect of our wedding in the four months between arriving in January and getting married in April, and that’s ignoring the fact we’d need to find a place to live and get jobs.  Could it have been done?  I can’t answer that, because we never attempted it.  Maybe there’s a parallel universe somewhere with a version of me living in Melbourne, buying a house there, decorating a room for this baby, planting vegies in the garden, working as a freelance editor for some awesome publishing house… Or maybe that other version of me is just as miserable as this one, knowing that Australia is the wrong place to be.  Coming home has made me question why we ever did it, why we left London.  I know it was because I wanted to bring my children up and settle down somewhere more family-friendly, slower-paced, with better weather and more social freedom.  But that idealistic picture I had of Australia is slowly becoming eroded, as I realise more and more just how behind we are here, and how maybe being here doesn’t suit me as I thought.  Maybe that realisation I had at 18 that I was actually Australian and not European is being turned on its head, and once again I struggle with my cultural and social identity.  Time will tell…

True or false: the ethics of writing reality as fiction

Just reading an article from the NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/17/books/review/Gates-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss about Janet Frame (NZ author, subject of Jane Campion’s film An Angel At My Table) and her book Towards Another Summer, which has been published posthumasly.  It’s not arbitrary that the book came out after Frame’s death in 2004; she deliberately witheld it, saying it was ‘too personal’ to release during her life.  I think this must have been done to protect the other subjects of the book, who are based closely on real people, as if you’re ever read Frame’s autobiography, you’ll know that she isn’t concerned in the least about being open and honest about her life.

So reading this article (which is brilliant, by the way, check it out), got me thinking about something I very often worry about.  My English teacher in year 11 (second last year of highschool before university, if any non-Aussies are reading this) was instrumental in giving me confidence with my writing and showing me the correct path to follow to improve it.  For some reason, I wrote a short piece about my grandparents and handed it in to Mr P (should I use his real name?  Read on…)  It was about visiting my grandparents, various conversations we had, just giving a snapshot of their life and surroundings, and I remember describing their ‘nicotine-stained hallway’ which I thought was nothing special (they were chain smokers) but which Mr P thought was fantastic.  I said to him that I’d always wanted to write fantasy for young adults, but was always criticised for being to ‘cliche’.  He said I should follow this lead, write from life, as exemplified in the story about my grandparents.  Suddenly I realised, that’s it!  Write about what you know!  Why didn’t I take in that piece of wisdom when I watched that episode of Degrassi Junior High when Michelle has to make a presentation and she’s afraid, so Mr Raditch says, ‘just talk about what you know’.  Genius advice!

I thought I was free and clear and would be a published novelist in no time… but sadly, another more fundamental problem arose.  How do I write about what I know and the people I find fascinating without offending them?  At first I thought the solution might be simply to change people’s names.  But I realised very quickly that the detail with which I wanted to write about people was such that they would be identifiable without their names.  I constantly struggle with this idea of how to make these characters known to others, how to show them for how interesting and entertaining they are, without defaming or exposing the living individuals.  Even dead people are a struggle – I couldn’t write everything about, say, my grandmother, without a member of my family reading it and getting upset; the truth is painful, even if it’s not your own truth.  Most people are more private than me, I’ve discovered, and everyone has their own truth which usually differs from mine – truth, after all, is often heavily influenced by perception.  I toyed with this idea of just using bits and pieces from different characters to create new people, new lives, fictional ones.  But the fact remains, at least in my head, that truth, reality is deeper, more interesting, more relevant and rather more entertaining than fiction.  Why write about a fluffy, cliched fictional creature when the real one is right there in front of you for you to describe in complete detail, whose story you can tell in full, not having to make sloppy assumptions and guesses.

‘Interesting?  Yes, of course, people LOVE interesting writing!’ exclaims Elaine Benes (Seinfeld), upon her sudden realisation that she can write product descriptions without help from her boss.  As funny as it is, it’s so true: so many basic things are realised too late.  So it’s the realisation that makes the impact, provides the impetus to act.  Things are always there, have been there all along, it’s just up to us creators to realise them.  I realised something just as obvious in deciding to write from my own life.  Yet, as I say, I’m still at something of a standstill.

It’s odd though, now I think about it – I’ve been writing from life my entire life.  From the age of 10, I’ve kept a diary.  Not an everyday, ‘Dear Diary, Today I did something incredibly mundane which is of no interest even to me let alone others…’  No, it began as ‘Dear Diary…’ of course, because, at 10, you think this is how it’s supposed to be written, and I had this sort of obsessive idea in my head that made me want to organise my life, record every moment, no matter how seemingly mundane.  I always knew at some level that I’d want to know when I got older, like a sociological experiment.  That’s why I’d make so many different time capsules, write letters to myself in the future, include tiny fragments of my life at that point – a plastic Kinder Surprise toy, an old Yugoslav postage stamp, a silk scarf that used to sit around the neck of one of my small teddies, random keys for long lost locks… In my first year of uni, at art school, we were asked to complete a ‘cultural nexus’ project – something that represented our own personal culture, whatever that was.  I made a life size bust with a long hooped skirt, all thin strands of metal wire welded together, and then the ‘dress’ itself consisted of layers of clear sticky tape running down the contours of the frame with various small objects embedded.  Our old front door key made an appearance there, dwarfing everything else with it’s thick, four inch long body.

So the point is, I want to capture lives, people, how life unfolds through time and circumstance.  I think it’s some sort of desire to prove that nothing is arbitrary, everything is connected and relevant.  But without exposing people’s bare bones, I cannot really do this.  Maybe I’ll write everything and, like Janet Frame, prevent its publication until after my death.