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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The heart, it aches

I’ll be honest. The way that Mr Chewbacca and I ended up together was a bit of a whirlwind; pretty quick, too quick for some probably. At the time, I was about to turn 30 and he’d turned 34 at the beginning of that year. At some level, I think we considered ourselves old and we were both pretty clear on what we wanted from a relationship. It was as simple as realising we were both keen for marriage and children really. But there was also a meeting of the minds when it came to our mutual interests. And values, our values were always fairly similar, which I knew to be extremely important.

But it’s only fair to say that we jumped into the deep end and didn’t really give ourselves a chance to hesitate. Met in August, moved in together in December, got engaged the following August, moved to another country the next January and married the following April. Then got pregnant in July. It was fast, yes, but I think that’s just how it was meant to be. I might not have been so certain of this early on in the relationship but looking back I can see just how right it all was. Not necessarily the moving overseas part, but that’s another story!

I don’t really know when I actually fell in love with him. I don’t think it was even ‘falling’; it was just love. Almost like I was in it the whole time but I needed time to realise it. Anyway, like all couples, we have our emotional mountains to climb; it is quite intense, our rapport, I think because we are both very passionate people.

Since the birth of the Dude in 2011, I don’t think we’ve been apart more than the odd night here or there. Maybe two nights once? And that was torture. The older the Dude gets, the more entwined we become as a family. The connection between our threesome (and soon to be foursome) is really intense. I think it’s probably on par with plenty of other families but what is particularly confronting for me is that I’ve never had this feeling about family before. Most of my family I don’t have much to do with, mainly because I have nothing in common with them and no real pull to them. There’s a detachment there, the opposite of attachment. In fact most family connections are pretty weird, squirm-worthy really. I never enjoyed cuddling any of my family members; I’d just endure it. I never knew what it was to enjoy a hug until I met my first long term boyfriend at age 21. I’d look forward to being with family, but within moments of being around them I’d be disillusioned, realising that these people, while they had some agreeable traits, did not feel ‘right’ to me. I didn’t want to be a part of whatever it was they had. I never enjoyed spending time with family to any great extent. Until I had my own, of course.

I’m thinking about all this stuff now because Mr C is away for two weeks. He’s due back in a few days and I am so glad of that. Two weeks has felt like an eternity. And it’s not because I’ve had to be the sole parent and that’s been really hard. It’s hard, but not unmanageable. It’s a fantastic feeling to love my husband as a man, a partner and a father to my children. It is the most fully-rounded, complete feeling I’ve ever known.

Starting a family, especially so soon after we met and married, has been stressful to say the least. Having children is stressful in general, let’s face it. And it’s been a massive learning curve for us, particularly because we were simultaneously learning about each other and how we relate. We’ve had some huge changes as well, with not only moving to Australia but feeling completely unsettled the whole time and moving interstate twice. We’ve renovated and sold a house, persevered through numerous bouts of stressful unemployment and problems with work, and now we’re having our second child. We have managed. And not just managed but actually come through it all much stronger than we ever were before.

I am missing Mr C like I’d miss a limb. The Dude is too, desperate to drive to the airport, suggesting daddy is about to walk through the door, that he’s ‘back now’. While the missing is painful, it’s also joyful; I am so grateful for it. I am grateful to feel so deeply, so genuinely about another person in the world. This is new for me and oh so profound.

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.

The big move

So now our big overseas trip is over, we’re planning our even bigger move to Melbourne. This kind of thing is so hard to plan, given neither of us have lived there before and we’re really on one income so Mr Chewbacca finding a job is imperative. It’s all a bit chicken and egg really. To complicate matters further, Mr C’s job might be changing a fair bit, which is a fantastic opportunity for him but might mean he needs to put in the hard yards for a while here in Sydney and build up some experience before he can apply for something in the same vein in Melbourne and expect to get a look in. We’ll find out at the end of the week what the verdict is there. In the mean time, we’ve also got a friend’s wedding in Thailand in October, and although I wasn’t totally sure about going – spending all that money, dragging the Dude to Thailand – Mr C made a very good point: this might be our last holiday for a few years, given we’re planning the big move and making a new baby later this year. Okay, so that might not all pan out, but still he has a point. Plus the wedding is going to be freaking awesome, because our friends don’t do anything by halves.

Perfection
Perfection

And then there are the bigger elements of a decision like moving to another city. It’s not just whether we’ll be happy there or not, it’s more that Melbourne is a last ditch attempt to settle in Australia. Just this morning, before work, I was watching an episode of Who Do You Think You Are (the American one, not the best) and Brooke Shields went to France to discover her royal ancestry. I watched the amazing shots of Paris, the city, the life, the history, and then the even more incredible footage where they drove out to the countryside to find the 300-year-old farm house of some ancestor, a huge stone building sitting in the middle of an exquisite forest, thick snow on the ground, grey birch trees’ delicate branches like the fingers of a ballet dancer reaching elegantly into the soft white sky. As usual, when I see footage like this, or read Soulemama‘s blog or look at some photos I took while living overseas, I felt the tears begin to well up hot behind my eyes. Nothing brings that surge of emotion into my heart like the Northern Hemisphere. I love Australia in a way, some of the landscape is stunning, and the space is just fantastic; but it doesn’t make my heart soar like a European winter. I definitely feel more at home in places where proper winter happens (ie. south east, and not Sydney). Here, the winter is, to use a typical Aussie expression, piss weak. It gets down to about 12 or so, maybe a little cooler overnight, and sometimes there’s a bit of a half-arsed frost. You need a heater and a jumper and jacket. But you don’t really need gloves and you don’t need central heating. It’s only cold for a couple of months. Canberra, at least, gets much colder, into the minuses, and frosts are common, as are frozen pipes, woolly hats and gloves, and wood fires. But it only snows regularly in the snow fields, which are a good couple of hours from Canberra in NSW and Melbourne in Victoria.

Just last night we finished watching The Sopranos, all six seasons. Both Mr C and I would sigh in almost every episode at the sight of the natural landscape shown. The trees, autumn leaves, snowy fields, black forests, bright grey skies, huge Georgian houses with rambling verandahs, attics, French windows, peaked roofs, wooden panelling, wood stoves… We both have a connection to that kind of world. A world where it snows in winter, you can get lost in a pile of leaves in autumn, and summers are spent on a big wraparound deck. This world of the northern hemisphere is nearly impossible to find here in Australia. In fact, yes, it’s not possible. You can build the house, of course, but you won’t get the weather, and even if you did get snow, it’s not ingrained in the culture here like it is over there. So our move to Melbourne will be done with a little hesitation and hope. We both wonder whether we’ll be able to settle there, and we both hope we can get some sort of resolution and feel at home. But I think both of us are a little apprehensive. The pull to the northern hemisphere is pretty strong. It’s certainly been with me my whole life, even though I was born and grew up in Australia. And for Mr C, it’s his home.

An amazing image I captured on my phone after a wintery afternoon at the Christmas Markets in Hyde Park (London) sometime near the end of 2008
An amazing image I captured on my phone after a wintery afternoon at the Christmas Markets in Hyde Park (London) sometime near the end of 2008

So that’s the consensus: if Melbourne doesn’t work, and we’ll give it a few years, as we did Sydney, it’s back to the UK for us. Something about that possibility doesn’t seem quite right either. There are some drawbacks about living over there and I always begin to think about living elsewhere in Europe, which we could do given we’ve all got British passports. And that’s when I think that home really is where the heart is so we could be happy anywhere, providing we are all together and have opportunities to make life good. I don’t want to end up regretting not following my heart in later years, but by the same token I don’t want to uproot my family and never feel settled because I didn’t really make an effort. Which is why I will be putting every bit of my heart and soul into settling in Melbourne. Now it’s just a waiting game, waiting for our mortgage to be refinanced, waiting for Mr C’s job to be sorted out, waiting  until we have the money to move. It’s been done before a million times, but I can’t help feeling like it’s the hardest thing in the world.