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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One of those catch-up posts

I am kind of obsessive about record-keeping, but in a quite eccentric way. I like to write dates on everything. Even little post-it notes I write with story ideas, I’ll put a date on there. I’ve always done it. The problem is that I don’t always keep up with my documenting everything, so while I keep records, I don’t always get to complete them. And that’s what’s happened with this blog recently.

The last time I posted was in April and now it’s September. I have at least half a dozen part-complete posts sitting in my drafts. And although the things I was documenting in those have passed, I absolutely must finish and publish them. So I’m going to do what I did when we first went to Canada. I’m going to publish them in order, dating them when they occurred, and try and catch up to now.

One of the reasons I’ve been hesitant in posting stuff, aside from having no time or reliable internet connection, is that the stuff that’s happened since deciding to come back to Australia has been a bit hush-hush. Not to say it’s a secret as such, more just that we’ve been a bit wild and crazy with our decision-making and we didn’t really want to broadcast stuff to the world. It’s just what we do.

So, stay tuned, if you like, for updates since that time we saw the Mennonites playing volleyball somewhere outside of St Josephs, Ontario, and we’ll go from there. The updates will contain many child-related anecdotes, stories about rush decisions (what’s new?!), and document the pain of adjustment as a result of yet another move when, in actual fact, I’d decided I was completely over moving and wanted a house like six years ago. Funny how some decisions impact immediately on your life and others just seem to fall by the wayside.

History is a bitch

I say that in the most spiteful, selfish way I know. I say it that way because I know now that I should have paid proper attention to the lessons history was offering to teach. If only my judgment hadn’t been so clouded. If only I’d felt strong enough to confront the next steps.

Exactly where I’d like to be now

As we reached the end of 2015 and tumbled abruptly into January and a sudden return to work, study and hectic family life, Mr Chewbacca and I knew we had to make a decision and get the ball rolling based on that decision. It wasn’t an easy choice, whether to stay in Canada or return to Australia. It wasn’t a good time to be making such a decision. It was finally really cold, which was lovely but also beginning to present difficulties. I was facing a whole new set of courses at uni and I found myself feeling relieved that this was my final semester as it was hard work. The schedule of work, school, daycare and uni, then family time fitting in around that, was a challenge. And Canada hadn’t been kind to us, with Murphy’s Law dominating through much of our early months. We were still in shock, trying to adjust. I was tired. Weary, as my dad would say. I wasn’t up for yet more paperwork. I certainly wasn’t in love with Canada, and think that was because Toronto, for me, isn’t the most inspiring city, and then Oakville, while nice, is sort of devoid of character. “No love”, as I wrote at the time.

I met half-heartedly with an immigration advisor at the uni to find out the next steps for staying longer in Canada. Two separate applications were needed, one to work immediately following graduation, and one to set the wheels in motion for PR, which wouldn’t be a quick process and required proof of our good financial standing (ie money in the bank). With, let’s face it, a low salary, plus all the expenses and having shelled out so much money for uni fees, the thought of a hard slog to get these applications going was just too much for me to bare. I think I just gave up at that point. Staying was in the too hard basket. And I wanted the stability and familiarity of home. Canada was pissing me off, it was just too different and not in a good way. I know Mr C tried to get me to see why we should stay another year but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be receptive to him, plus he was feeling a little disillusioned and raw as well I think. So we decided. Home in July, as soon as Dude finished school.

I knew what had happened previously when my grandparents came to Australia from the UK. That move, and subsequent ping-ponging between the two countries affected the family to a depth that still impacts today, over 45 years after the last move. The ties to Britain are so strong, even stronger than my ties to Australia. I’m sure more than one member of the family would argue that they should never have come, they should have stayed at home. But it was my grandad who was perhaps idealistic and had itchy feet, yearning for a more relaxed lifestyle after having travelled quite a bit during his time in the army.

And now the same is happening to us. I have this desperate need to find a place we feel at home. I thought it could be Australia but I’m not so sure any more. I can’t believe it took coming home again to realise this. I feel like a fool.

I’m writing this post two weeks exactly after getting back to Australia and we aren’t even in Melbourne yet, where we plan to live. Maybe it’s too soon but we’re feeling entirely regretful about leaving Canada. I have no interest in going back to Toronto or Oakville but I think the positives over there may just outweigh the positives here. I’m not sure I want to stay in Australia.

I won’t publish this yet, it’s too shameful. But when you read this, know that I had only been home two weeks when I wrote it so maybe, just maybe, I was wrong.

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.

Home is wherever I’m with you

We are coming to the end of our Canadian  adventure and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I kind of wish we’d have had the opportunity (or been coerced) to stay longer, another year. I wonder what may have happened had I been accepted at somewhere like Calgary instead, where the course was two years. I feel as if we’d stay in Canada for good if we were here another year. Like we’d be too ensconced.

A little collage I made to show the way the seasons passed along the ravine near our place in Canada
A little collage I made to show the way the seasons passed along the ravine near our place in Canada

One thing’s for sure: I’m not in love with Canada. I don’t have the connection to North America that Mr Chewbacca does. He wishes we were staying. I kind of understand why but I still can’t quite get over not being ‘in love’ with Canada. It’s a beautiful country, the seasons happen at the right time of year and there are proper seasons that you really look forward to. The landscape is beautiful, as are the plants and animals and all of that appeals to me far more than the Australian equivalents. Canadians are good people, nice people. Similar to the Americans, they often don’t get sarcasm, they can be conservative and overly restrained but they love their country with humility and they welcome everyone as equals. You can’t fault that aspect. Australia could really take a leaf out of Canada’s book in that respect actually. I wish we’d had the chance to visit the west coast but it just wasn’t to be. I think we will return if only to see the rest of the country.

We did do some road trips to New York and Chicago which were awesome and I’m so glad I let Mr C talk me into it. I have to be honest and say I never really wanted to come to North America. It just never had that pull for me, I wanted to go to Europe instead, a place I imagined I’d fit into. And I did, when I went. I felt that connection to the place when I lived in London. Culturally it’s quite a homely place for me. Canada isn’t. But I suppose, given more time, it could be.

Anyway, it’s too late for that now, we’re off, in two weeks’ time. Almost on a daily basis someone asks me, ‘but why are you leaving?’ as if there’s no good reason. And to be honest, when I hear myself explaining the reasoning, it really doesn’t sound convincing.

“Oh, well, I came to do a masters and it was a one-year course and so I’ve just graduated and, yeah, that’s it, I’m done…”

“So what will you do with it, when you get back? What sort of work will you be looking for?”

“Oh. Well, nothing to do with my degree. I didn’t really do the degree for that. I did it so we could come to Canada really, for the experience, and because I knew I could do it. Yes, I like what I studied, I enjoyed doing it and I want to do more, but at the same time we really wanted to see whether Canada might be our forever home.”

“And it wasn’t.”

“No. I guess not.”

“Why is that?”

“Um… I… I don’t really know. I’m not even sure… Yeah. I don’t know.” <cue the awkward silence and rapid change of topic>

“So I hear this year we’re in for a big snow fall. Typical, just when we decide to go back, we’ll miss it!”

That’s pretty much how all the conversations go. Daily conversations. I find myself questioning our decision to leave all the time in my own head, but any time someone else questions it I try to justify our decision to go home. I guess I’ve just come to the conclusion that it needs to happen, that we’ll all be happier at home, and that staying here is like staying in limbo. I’m not sure if that’s right or not really, but I do feel really excited about the prospect of going home to Melbourne and starting something new, finally settling.

Come over for a salmon board sometime

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

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Autumn in our street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Timmy’s!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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