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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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…

What is home? (Part 2)

The second part of my “how we decided to go to Canada” story. Following on from part 1.
So I broached the subject of applying to do something in Italian and I can’t remember what Mr Chewbacca said but it was probably along the lines of: “Didn’t I already tell you that? You should be doing some kind of language shit! Get it done, woman!” I am, as most who know me will agree, not spontaneous, and I need time to adjust. So I sat on it for a bit, withstood regular hassling by Mr C to email my ex professors to seek references, and we moved to Melbourne in January 2014.

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The exhibition building opposite the Melbourne Museum

Soon after that I finally began to look up what my options might be for an MA somehow incorporating Italian but also with something to do with creative writing or literature. I knew already that I couldn’t apply to somewhere like the University of Toronto as their creative writing program was insanely competitive but I noticed their Italian Studies program was actually pretty awesome and I could apply. So that was the first application, MA Italian Studies. My ex professors both immediately agreed to be my referees despite my not having been in touch with them since 2001 and I wrote up some convoluted statement of intent about wanting to research the formation of cultural identity and the part of language in that or something like that. I thought I’d be very unlikely to get into a program at Canada’s most prestigious university.

Secretly I still hoped I’d somehow get into creative writing. I started reading about studying creative writing and being a writer and I had so many ideas for what to write about. Typically, I didn’t get to write much down. But nevertheless I became motivated to apply to some other unis. Of course in my typically diplomatic way I didn’t confront Mr C about my desire to write, especially as I knew he was probably sick of hearing me talk about it and not do it. Instead, I suggested I apply to some other unis in case I don’t get into Toronto. He had no idea I was applying to creative writing rather than language programs. Guelph had a creative writing program and it relied on student portfolios to get in. Both Western Ontario and Calgary also had some appealing programs – English and Comparative Lit I think – and I found myself doing four separate applications. I casually asked my Italian professors to be my referees for these three other programs with nothing to do with Italian and they agreed.

There was a period of time where I just didn’t go out for one day on weekends. Mr C would take Dude swimming or something and I’d “do applications”. To be honest, this sometimes meant putting together the perfect YouTube play list, showering and making coffee for two hours and then quickly doing something for the last half hour before the boys came home. Ah, spare time, I’ve now forgotten what that’s like. I was halfway through my pregnancy with little Thumper by then and I was relishing the last months with no child distractions.

I did gather some writing and submit it but I shudder to think what the universities I sent it to thought. They must have thought I was mad, submitting all these unpolished ramblings! It’s an odd thing, about writing. I feel compelled to write, or at least spit out the thoughts and ideas that come to me, as though they have some value, yet I can never manage to actually write every day and create a whole, complete work. Mr C told me a few home truths of this sort when I hinted at applying to do creative writing and that just confurmed what I already knew: I would have to work in a completely different way to do it at this level, and I wasn’t sure I had it in me.

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It was a complete surprise to me when the first response, from the University of Toronto, was an acceptance to do the MA Italian Studies! I was shocked! Why did they think I was good enough? Did I really want this? Had my ex professors bigged me up too much? I immediately sent them each a thank you package of chocolate and coffee. This was not what I expected and I was terrified but also excited. The start date was down as mid September sometime and I still needed to get my visa approval letter. To be totally honest, I was glad I didn’t have to choose although slightly disillusioned when the next two letters – from Guelph and Western – were rejections. “After careful consideration, we regret to inform you…” Surely I had some literary talent? But English marks barely over 70 and crappy, stream-of-consciousness writing don’t get you into a good course. The fact is, I looked better on paper in my Italian Studies with the majority of my marks High Distinctions, a previous scholarship to study in Italy and great references.

Now came the hard part: coming to terms with actually going to Canada. Moving across the other side of the world to a country I’ve never visited. I’ve never even been to North America! I know next to nothing about Canada, unless you count what I learnt from watching Degrassi Junior High repeats. (“Everybody wants something, they’ll never give up!”)
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We knew we’d need to be there in plenty of time to get settled before school began, so we thought we’d aim for July. By the time we scraped together all the silly paperwork it was March when we submitted our visa applications via the least user-friendly system ever. No number or even email enquiry line to contact about getting our applications right, and no way of knowing when the letters would be sent. We held off booking our flights on advice from some online forums we joined, as obviously anything could go wrong. But when no visa was granted by May, we just booked.
It was a risk, yes, but the flight cost would be big if we waited.

It was the absolute worst, waiting for the go ahead from Canadian immigration. They asked for some further info which we provided within a few days but it turned out that the time frame they’d given within which to provide the info was also the time frame they adhered to in giving preapproval. In other words, they asked us to provide further info by 15th June and didn’t touch our application again until that date even though we provided the info in late May. Given we’d booked to fly out on 15th July, we realised we were cutting it too fine to be ready to leave then so we made the very costly decision to move our flights forward to 31st July. And within days the preapproval letters came through and thus began the wind down to departure. What a process, and that was just the beginning!

We were quite nervous about telling friends and family that we were going. Not only was it quite a big deal to be moving when we loved Melbourne so much but there didn’t seem to be much logic attached to our decision. I still don’t really know why we’re doing it, and we have questioned it all along and almost backed out throughout. Every evening after the kids were in bed or distracted Mr C and I would look at each other and one of us would say, “Are we really doing this?” Usually the other would be reassuring. We’d always come to the same conclusion: if we don’t do it and we stay in Melbourne and buy a house, we’d always wonder if we’d missed out, if we’d just settled for the easy option. There’s no way we’d subject our kids to a move like this when they’re older and we’ll established so it’s now or never. And frankly I can’t handle another big move. This has to work out.

I wonder if this is how my grandparents felt when they came to Australia. My dad’s parents in 1959 from London to Melbourne, and my mum’s parents in 1950 from Augsburg, Germany to Sydney. I think the urge to find our place is just strong with us. I know Mr C has always had a connection with North America and he could have ended up being American had his great great grandfather kept the family in Chicago where they migrated at the turn of the 20th century. The irony about all this is that we’re moving away from everything and everyone we know to find something that matches us. We expect to find our place somewhere completely foreign. So familiarity doesn’t equal comfort. It’s a contradiction really. Only time will tell but I hope for all our sakes that this is the last overseas move we make.

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.

Sydney is a bum

“Sydney is  hard to love. If it were a person he or she would have no stomach and heart and would eat and drink too much.  I see Sydney the way I always saw it from the very first day I arrived in 1968. Sydney is a derelict man, addicted to booze and clutching a bottle of cheap grog wrapped up in a  brown paper bag, camped out in Hyde Park; blighted and victimised, having lived a long time without a moral compass.”  This is what my dad wrote to me in an email recently, in response to my latest whinge about Sydney.  I like the analogy.

Image courtesy of http://abhishekdebsikdar.wordpress.com/2010/12/18/self-destructive-ways/

My dad’s family first came as ten pound poms in 1959 and then again in 1970 (he arrived about 18 months before them, long story for another post). It’s interesting to me that he says he saw Sydney the same way all those years ago, as I have a perhaps somewhat idealised view of this city and what it was like in the 70s, which I believe was its heyday.  So perhaps I should just realise that Sydney has always been the way it is.  I guess it comes down to how it began, as a colony, a penal colony at that, and mixing pot of criminals and unfortunates and misfits.  No one built Sydney because it was a fantastic place to start a fantastic city; no one planned it and dreamed it and made it beautiful.  It was never anyone’s utopia.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, Sydney just doesn’t do it for me. But I’ve ranted and raved enough; am I ever going to shut the hell up and focus on where I want to be? It occurs to me that I waste a lot of energy thinking about the bad rather than looking for the good. In my life, that is.  As part of the email conversation that the quote above came from, my dad said that I should think about what really makes me happy and go for that.  But what does really make me happy?  I don’t think I know.

What I do know is that Sydney is not where I need to be, ever.  It’s not where my son needs to grow up, and it’s not where my husband belongs either, I know this to be true one hundred per cent.  He argues that, yes, we don’t like Sydney that much, but can we be certain we’d love somewhere else?  What if we moved to Melbourne and within a year I realised I hated it and wanted to move on again.  It’s true, there is no guarantee that won’t happen, that’s a risk.  But isn’t that what life is about, taking a chance, a risk, to get something better than what you’ve got?  What’s the alternative?  Continue to exist superficially in this mud hole of mediocrity?  Sell ourselves short for the rest of our lives?  We only have one (even though I do believe in reincarnation).

We’ve gotta get out of this place.  And please, universe, don’t let it be the last thing we ever do.

As it stands, it looks like we might be moving south west, but it’s not set in stone yet.  They have virtually offered us the place but there’s something about it that’s not sitting right with me or with husband.  We are considering our options over the weekend, as we’ve got to leave where we are because it’s too small.  We realise living near the beach is actually pretty fantastic, and maybe we want to keep doing that rather than moving to suburbia.  We’re going to pay through the nose anyway, so why not?

I’ll leave you with one of my favourites from the awesome Jethro Tull.  Makes me think of my dad’s Sydney analogy.