Backtracking

I’m writing this months after the events actually transpired in an attempt to fill the gaps in the story and keep a record of what happened. I’ve published roughly around the time I’d have published if I’d actually written this then.

On Thumper’s second birthday we hired a campervan from Brisbane in the pouring rain. We planned to drive all the way down the east coast to Melbourne, where we’d attempt to build a new life back in Australia. The caveat to this is that almost a month earlier, at the beginning of August when we arrived back in Australia from Canada, we realised we’d made a big mistake coming back. I rarely accept the blame for things as I don’t think it’s constructive and usually I make sane decisions but on this occasion, I think it’s safe to say it’s my fault that we took this wrong turn.

Just a side note about straying off the path, if you’ll indulge me for a few minutes: I feel a bit like I’ve been veering off into the unknown since my mid 20s. When I first left Canberra nine years ago (and I know, I go on about this a lot, bear with me), I stepped firmly onto the path of my life, which was a new path but I was still on track, still going the right way. I did a few things and had a few experiences in London that were very out of character for me and I was still on the path, the new and improved one. Something big shifted when I met Mr Chewbacca and was essentially swept off my feet in the true meaning of the phrase: I had very little control over what happened to me. Suddenly I was in love, I was in a relationship, I was talking about commitment and living together and getting engaged and having kids and it was all unfolding before my eyes before I could even take a breath and check whether this was exactly how it should go. As it turns out, it was all the right thing. But from that point, decision-making took on another level of complexity. Not only was there another person whose opinion and decisions affected me and had to be taken into consideration, I had to find a new way of making important choices with objectivity. It’s fundamentally part of who I am to adapt and try to please everyone in my decisions. I like to keep the peace, keep things balanced. And sometimes I’ll compromise on what I choose a little too much. I find my judgment is clouded by all the factors needing to be considered. The first time this happened was in London when I agreed to go to Sydney and not Melbourne. It’s not black and white, you can’t say ‘that was the wrong decision’; there’s no room for regret anyway. But it was at that point in 2009 that I didn’t stick to my guns when I should have. Similarly, perhaps Mr C should have argued for us to stay in the UK and not even head home to Australia. Who knows, I’ll leave that up to him to think about.

Anyway, back to the story. So we took off from Brisbane, me driving the kids in my mum’s little old car and Mr C negotiating the traffic in heavy rain in the massive camper. It was a bit of a pain in the butt actually getting the camper as the one we ended up with was a little old and seemed way too big, but the next size down didn’t have anchor points for two car seats so we had to stick with the big old one. Somehow we made it back to my mum’s place, which is just south of the Gold Coast and then had to install the car seats in the camper and pack all our nine suitcases plus worth of stuff in, finding ways to secure the massive suitcases in a vehicle that really wasn’t designed to carry massive suitcases. All of this in the rain (you know, that tropical rain that starts to drown everything at the beginning of spring and it feels like it’ll never end). It was a total mud bath and not a great start to our big road trip.

So we set off, later than planned, aiming to stop near Coffs Harbour for the first night. We made it, but it was hard going. We ended up getting some dodgy Chinese food for dinner and finding a caravan park which we only just managed to get into before the reception closed for the evening. We planned to have a few wines and chill out after the kids went to sleep but in reality is was so cold and wet and we were so exhausted that we just skulled a couple of glasses while shivering under the canopy next to the camper in the dark and fell into bed.

The next morning we set off for the central coast of NSW where we’d arranged to meet up with our friends and stay with them for the night (or rather, we rocked up and treated their place essentially like an AirBnB that we didn’t need to book and that contained some of our favourite people in the entire world). It was a better drive when it wasn’t raining and we set the kids up with movies on the ipad and cruised on through, arriving late afternoon. Thank goodness for good friends! They laid on the food and drink and we relaxed a bit and caught up. Next stop was just Sydney, only an hour and a half or so away, so we could take it fairly easy. We had great difficulty finding a caravan park anywhere near Sydney and ended up lobbing into one at Lane Cove which was nice enough, although it was a pain in the butt getting all the way to Coogee to meet up with some other close friends but we just took a taxi and sucked up the ridiculous cost. We had a fabulous catch up with those guys and got back to the camper for another late night for the kids around 9pm.

No sleeping in though, as we planned to head straight through to Canberra the next day. My dad had kindly booked us into a lovely serviced apartment in the inner south and as we emerged over the summit above Lake George and had that first glimpse of the tower I felt myself begin to relax. Canberra does that to me. Technically it’s home, or at least it represents a place of safety and refuge. It was so nice to sleep in a decent bed. By that point, we’d established that the van we’d hired was faulty. It kept doing some really odd things, losing power during acceleration and the like, so Mr C organised for a replacement which was due to arrive that evening. We were told the driver would assist with moving all our things to the new van and it was all going well until a call saying he’d arrived unexpectedly interrupted us at dinner. Mr C quickly went back to the camper to do the swap over and my dad came back to pick me and kids up and take us back to the apartment. We arrived to a scene of chaos and an air of extreme frustration surrounding! The driver was rude and unhelpful, so Mr C and my dad had quickly grabbed everything and moved it across, a huge amount of stuff which wasn’t packed as we hadn’t expected the swap over to happen then. It was a real disaster, stuff everywhere, a huge mess, incredibly stressful. The good thing was that the new van was at least new and a vast improvement over the old one.

After a fleeting discussion, we decided another night in Canberra was a good idea. Now I’m not sure whether it was that first night or the next day, but something shifted. It’s hard to explain how this stuff happens but it’s a familiar scenario for us. Mr C and I don’t always agree on everything but more often than not, we’re on the same page without really having to discuss anything. This is what happened with Canberra. We gave each other a few knowing looks and we both knew before we even discussed it that we were compelled to stay in Canberra. We love Melbourne, it’ll always be a favourite, but we realised that Canberra would be the easiest solution, given that we were adamant we wanted to get back to Canada anyway. We never wanted to settle in Canberra but we just knew it was the most sensible plan to get decent jobs and live a simpler life while we built our savings back up and found a way back to the north. So within the space of 24 hours, by the time we left after that second night in Canberra, we knew we’d come back to live. It was such a quick decision that we’d told no one really, just my dad who happened to be with us when we were discussing it.

Anyway, we finished our road trip going further south to Eden for the following night, then around the coast to Lakes Entrance for another night and finally through to our friends who we’d arranged to stay with at Mt Eliza. All in all, the road trip was great but also absolutely exhausting and, being without a home this whole time since arriving back in the country on 2 August, we were a bit weary.

We told our Melbourne friends of our plans to head back to Canberra (and they of course just giggled at us and rolled their eyes knowingly – typical of us!) and we began applying for public service jobs. I never thought I’d have to do another set of selection criteria in my life but I ended up writing half a dozen for Mr C and a number for myself too. The prospect of being back in Canberra was somewhat relaxing, although I may not have said that had I known what was in store. After a couple of weeks we bought a little car, hired an SUV and drove both containing all our stuff to Canberra. We had no idea where we’d stay or how we’d begin again with no jobs and seriously dwindling finances. Here we go again…

To my extended family

I adore my immediate family, my husband and kids, and although they’re far away it’s nice to have a strong connection with my children’s grandparents too. But I don’t mention much about my extended family. I’m an only child, so I’m talking about aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. This is because I haven’t made much effort to be in touch with them. Actually, I’m going to be honest here, I’ve actively avoided them. And now, at the age of 37, for the first time, I’m beginning to feel terrible about that. So this post is an apology to my family for cutting them out, even if they didn’t notice.

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my family. none of the people in this photo are alive any more and i never met any of them. this is my great-grandparents’ wedding, taken at St Bartholemew’s somewhere in London’s East End, Boxing Day 1923

I didn’t really grow up with my cousins. They mainly lived in Sydney and my parents and I moved to Canberra when I was two or three. We’d visit of course, but it’s not the same. And frankly, I don’t know why, but I always felt different, like I didn’t really identify with my family. On one side, I think the lack of language contributed – they all spoke or understood a bit of Serbian and I knew none at all. On the other side, I felt a little closer to them, but culturally, again, they were more ‘Aussie’ or something. When I was a teenager and even into my 20s I was a real snob. Yeah, this is an honest post. I was so stuck up, constantly comparing myself with others, insecure, immature, unable to accept that everyone is different, with different influences and ideas and desires and strengths and weaknesses.

Having said that, I was very anti-Australia for the longest time, despite having been born and growing up in Australia. I considered myself ‘European’, whatever that means. I think it meant that I didn’t identify with Australian culture and I felt like being European was classier, like people from Europe have more of a world view, are more educated, more intelligent, more refined. I was revolted by bogans. It really was snobbery on my part.

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countdown to departure, July 2007

I think there were a couple of pivotal moments that changed my perception about my cultural identity and where I belonged, but it’s only recently that my familial identity has begun to matter. Just after turning 18, my dad took me to the UK for five weeks. I was so excited as it was my first overseas trip and I was finally going to visit this mythical land of ‘England’ where I felt my cultural heart truly belonged. It was a shock, to say the least. I will never forget the feeling of weight I experienced; all those people, all that history, all mixed up, rushing, spilling, washing over me. I felt claustrophobic, weighed down by the sheer volume of ‘stuff’ that had happened in that place over the centuries of city living. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t wait to get out. I was amazed at how dirty all the London transit vans were, just smog and road dirt accumulating. Some of the roads, remnants of Roman walls, puddles filling in uneven pavement, crowds trying to enter and exit stations and trains, it was all so full and overwhelming to me, a very naive, immature teenager with very little experience of the real world. I’d come from Canberra, the cleanest, quietest city in the world, a population of around 350,000 neatly arranged in suburbs around a handful of peaceful ‘town centres’. This is a city that was planned. The closest thing to a traffic jam occurs when you have to slow down a little bit because the NRMA are jump starting someone’s Datsun in the Parliamentary Triangle and it’s 8am. Everyone in Canberra drives. It’s about as far from London as you can get in every respect.

So at 18, I realised I wasn’t European. I was so glad to be Aussie. We landed at Sydney airport on a warm January evening and I have never been so glad to get into a creaky Falcon with a Lebanese driver and try not to get car sick because the suspension on those things is like a roller coaster ride gone wrong! I was home. But the gratitude for being home didn’t last long. Four years later I embarked on an adventure to take advantage of a scholarship and I studied in Siena, Italy for three months. That was a great experience and my world view expanded quite a bit.

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at Telstra Tower, Canberra, in 2013

When push finally came to shove and I realised how toxic my life in Canberra had become, I went back to London in 2007. I was 28. I planned to stay for six months and I wasn’t there to party it up or take drugs or have fun. I didn’t do fun. So much for that. As I’m sure anyone who knows me knows, my London years changed my life. I met the love of my life, I grew up about 20 years in the space of two and a half, and my sense of cultural identity got a whole lot more complex.

Moving back to Australia in 2010 and having my son in 2011, the pull to find where I belonged, to find a home, was even stronger. But I didn’t yet equate home with family. I was starting a family, sure, but I still had this firm belief that ‘my’ family would be my husband and child(ren), and the extended family, some of whom I’d fallen out with by this point over various misunderstandings and overreactions, were not going to be part of my life. I am a fair person by nature, but I’m also a classic overreactor. If I feel stressed or under pressure, I will back out. I’ll just drop everything, push everyone away; it’s all or nothing. I am insecure, I hate intervening or getting in people’s way. I don’t want to disturb. But often this is interpreted as snooty-ness or rudeness when really it’s the extreme opposite! My worst nightmare is having to ask for something, even if it’s something I’m entitled to, something I own, I just don’t want to confront, I don’t want to state my case, I don’t want to attract attention to myself.

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London. Nuff said

So continuing on from my escape to London, I slowly began to extricate myself from any hint of connection to my extended family. They are all clever, sensitive, aware people, and I’m sure many of them wondered what my problem was, why I was trying to disappear from their lives. I worried that one falling out meant I’d automatically burnt my bridges with others connected to that one person, so I just unfriended everyone on facebook and set my profile to private and got on with life.

As my son grew up and my husband and I got to know each other better, questions arose. My husband was a bit miffed at not getting to meet my family, but I remember saying, oh, don’t worry, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Secretly, though, I knew that wasn’t the case. I just didn’t know how to make things right. I felt stressed out by all the emotional stuff I was going through and I couldn’t deal with the communication challenge. So I keep everyone at arm’s length.

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I just don’t like Sydney but I must admit it was nice living across the road from this

I think since coming to Canada and experiencing such homesickness I have also begun to feel sad about my lack of connection with my extended family. I unblocked everyone ages ago and my profile is no longer totally locked down. I occasionally have a little look around, see some comments and conversations on the pages of some family who I am still privileged enough to be friends with, and I see them loving each other, my family. I see how grateful they are to have each other, how much of an effort they make to stay in touch, and I envy that connection. I wish I hadn’t been so stubborn and stupid. I don’t know if I’ve burnt my bridges, I hope not, but I don’t know what I could say that could make it right. All I hope is that my family can forgive my silliness and we can move on in peace. I hope we can reconnect, but if not, I hope they all know that I bear no one ill will and I am grateful for each person’s impact on my life.

The right path

How do you know when you’re on the ‘right’ path? I feel like I used to know, before I got distracted by life. It’s like, in my teenage years and 20s I used to have huge amounts of time to ponder and think over things. Too much time really. An ex-boyfriend (who, when he was my boyfriend, wouldn’t commit enough to my liking and I desperately wanted him to buy me some jewellery to symbolise our commitment) once bought me a birthday present, I think when I was about 22. It was a silver ID bracelet and he’d had it engraved. On the front it had my name and on the back was “No Thinking Zone”. I think we’d been dating a year or so and he wasn’t really intellectually the right person for me but he easily saw my issue back then. I was thinking too much, going over every little thing, obsessing.

Oh if only I had the time to obsess now! Something happened, I think, around the time that first serious relationship started to break down, and life started to become full. I resisted, of course, and it was only because that boyfriend announced he was leaving for a stint in London that I pig-headedly pushed my way forward and ended up leaving for my own London adventure a few months before him. I resisted it all the way, was convinced I would be there for about six months, and I wasn’t going there to party it up like all the other antipodeans. Oh no, I was just going for, um, the experience, whatever that was… And I’d be back in six months anyway. I didn’t need to let my hair down and be stupid on the other side of the world to find out who I was. I was going to fix my relationship, get married, and settle down in Canberra. Or Melbourne. That was me eight years ago. I would sit and think things over, imagine myself in various scenarios, get a feeling, and know the right path. I don’t think that’s what I did with my decision to go to London, although I know for certain it was the right choice. I became a completely different person, a much better person, after living in London. And I met Mr Chewbacca, which is one of the best things that could have happened to me.

With my decision to step into a new life in London, I forfeited this process of assessing my future plans. I began to be spontaneous, and ended up doing a lot of things I would never have considered previously as a result. Some things I can’t say I’m particularly proud of, and I don’t know how positively they contributed to who I am now, but I’m here to tell the tale (not in a public forum though!) and I don’t regret anything. I do miss that clarity, however, those moments of contemplation which allowed me to see the right path. I haven’t got the time now, to sit and think and plan, and so much has happened, life and circumstances have descended upon me in layer upon layer of possible deviations from the right path so that there is now no going back. I can’t sort back through each layer, meticulously choosing my path at every turn. Too much has happened.

So now I am on the path I’m on. I’m here, in Canada, a country I never even envisaged visiting let alone living in, and I’m doing an MA at one of the top universities in North America. As a family, we’ve taken a huge risk coming here. A risk for what? Because we didn’t know for sure if Australia was the right place for us. We couldn’t handle any more 40 degree endless summers. We wanted snow and beautiful trees and piles of leaves and traditions at the ‘right’ time of year, to be in a place that feels like it’s a little more in touch with the world. The course I’m doing is certainly leading me in the right direction and it’s fantastic to be studying again, especially with a level of maturity that allows me to apply myself fully to the material and achieve good results. But it will be ending all too soon.

Many MA programs are two years but this one is unfortunately just one year. I love this university, I am so privileged to be taught by some exceptional academics. I seriously want to do a PhD. But there’s one problem: this university is in Toronto, in the city. I don’t want to live in the city. In fact although I live 40km out of the city, that’s still too close. I can’t wait to move. But if I wanted to do further study I’d have to stay close enough to commute.

I got some clarity around what we might do next yesterday and I know what our options are in terms of staying on in Canada once I’ve graduated next year in June. Unfortunately, none of those options is clearly the right one. We haven’t been here long enough to decide whether to go back home or stay on permanently, another year testing things out at least seems the right thing, but that’s not an easy thing to do. These decisions are depressing me! I wish it wasn’t so complicated, and so much about money!

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I listen to my Aussie music, stuff I never listened to when I was at home, and I actually miss home, I miss it for the first time since London. I don’t believe in regrets, they are a waste of time, everything happens exactly as it should. But there are so many things that, if I’d just thought at the time with some clarity, taken a few moments to sit and really make the decisions without rushing, I’d have gone a different way and things would be better. At least that’s what I tell myself. I’ll never know, there’s no such thing as Sliding Doors. Right now, we’ve got some serious thinking to do and big decisions loom yet again. Wasn’t it meant to be easier than this? Didn’t I plan to settle down and enjoy simple family life when I left London?

Seven years

On 13 Aug we celebrated seven years since we first met. Seven years! This is officially my longest relationship and I think Mr Chewbacca’s too.

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Our dessert at the end of a very expensive meal at an Italian restaurant in St John's Wood on our first anniversary, 13 August 2009

This won’t be a long post because, although I tend to blab to whoever will listen about anything and everything, privacy is important, and some things are just, well, private. Especially things that relate directly to others upon whose behalf I wouldn’t like to speak without prior clearance. I just wanted to mark this moment because seven years is an important milestone.

When we first met I was a couple of months off turning 30 and I felt old. Mr C was 34 and I think he felt old too! We met at Liverpool St Station outside a small Starbucks next to the Bishopsgate entrance. We went to a pub in Wapping, The Captain Kidd I think, although I could be mixing it up with the other one nearby. Which one is the oldest pub in London again? I forget. Shame on me!

We discussed the work of the famous Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the possible names of our children, but ironically not at the same time. He told me about the tunnel under the Thames at Rotherhithe and we went outside to look at where it begins. I expected food but none was forthcoming, just beer, which I attempted to drink but didn’t get far as it doesn’t agree with me. We swapped music players to go through each other’s music and draw conclusions. That was important. I can’t be with someone who has no ear for music. It didn’t seem to matter that, despite being Aussie, I hated rugby. Or maybe it did, who knows.

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One of the best photos I've ever taken. Hyde Park, London, at the Christmas Market, December 2009

I went home and told my flatmate I’d met my future husband. We both fell hard in love. I was surprised, he wasn’t who I’d pictured myself with, yet somehow I knew there could be no one else. He was like a male version of me. Reminded me of that Seinfeld episode where Jerry meets Jeannie (Janine Garofolo) and, upon falling in love with her, remarks to George: “Now I know who I’ve been looking for all these years. Myself!”

I don’t know why we were in such a rush to complete our courtship – perhaps it was the age thing – but we were virtually inseparable from that day on. Gee it’s been some kind of crazy ride. But I wouldn’t change it, I really wouldn’t.

Happy seven years to us. The beginning of a new cycle in a new country. How apt.

My life in a shed and other junk

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My favourite view of the hills around Canberra, facing south west going down the Cotter Road. Or possibly the Parkway, you can see that sharp peak from there too.

As I think I mentioned before, we’ve just sold our house in Canberra. I bought this house in 2005 and lived here just under two years before leaving in 2007 to go to the UK. I never wanted to go to the UK, but I knew it had to be done, like a right of passage. More on that another time. I went, thinking I’d have a few epiphanies, conclude that London wasn’t for me, and come home within six months. With a British passport safely tucked away (well, on its way in the mail a couple of months after I arrived as I applied for it too close to when I was due to fly out!), I knew I could stay longer if I wanted. And I did. Two years longer. I guess a year of that can be attributed to meeting Mr Chewbacca in mid 2008, but because we ended up moving to Sydney in 2010 (and I said I’d rather chop off a limb than live in Sydney, hmm), I didn’t live in my Canberra house again until July this year – almost exactly six years to the day that I left, in fact.

A whiteboard I had up on the cupboard counting down to my departure for London. It never got below four days to go, as I left Canberra four days before flying out to go to my best friend's wedding on the Central Coast before flying out of Sydney.
A whiteboard I had up on the cupboard counting down to my departure for London. It never got below four days to go, as I left Canberra four days before flying out to go to my best friend’s wedding on the Central Coast before flying out of Sydney.

In the front courtyard is a small, metal garden shed. Because I’m a hoarder (or so says Mr C), I put a whole bunch of my stuff in this shed before I left. The actual reason I did this is not just about being a hoarder; it’s more just pure laziness and lack of forethought. So because I only planned to be away six months, I didn’t worry too much about filling the shed with a dented roof that let in rain almost floor to ceiling with stuff. And because I wasn’t really organised or motivated when it came to planning my London escapade, I ended up just shoving a whole lot of stuff in the shed and padlocking the door shut and pretending it was what I wanted to do in the first place. I actually gave away a bit of stuff, random stuff, now I look back, but there is so much in there that’s just not needed and could have been better used by someone else. In fact about 90 per cent of the stuff in the shed is either useless to me or surplus to my needs. And now it’s been six years since I ventured into the shed, both of those categories apply even more so.  To give you an idea, here’s a quick overview of the contents, or at least what I can see is in there:

  • Crockery and glassware – I gave away only part of dinner sets and some mugs and kept others… why?!
  • My parents’ Edwardian sideboard with the broken door which my mum painted 1970s brown some time in the 1970s. Okay granted, there’s sentimental value, but yeah, not needed.
  • Random shoes and clothes that I’d wrapped to sell on ebay but ran out of time. Needless to say they’re not selling that well now.
  • Many plastic bags full of bits and pieces from my top bedside drawer that hadn’t been cleaned out since I acquired the drawers. Seriously, my idea of ‘packing’ was either leaving shit in the drawers and just taking them out and putting them in my car to move to a new place, or else tipping the contents of each drawer into a plastic back and then tipping the contents of said bag back into the drawer at the other end. So technically the stuff in these bags has been with me since before I moved out of home. Needless to say, chewing gum and eucalyptus lollies tend to get a bit sticky and melted after a six years in a plastic bag in an unventilated metal shed.
  • CD racks, two of them, and one of those barely distinguishable as a CD rack, even if people still used CD racks these days, which they apparently don’t.
  • Clothes that didn’t fit me in 2007 and fit me even less in 2013.
  • Shit from Aldi. For some reason anything from Aldi is like, oh wow, it’s from Aldi, it only cost [insert small amount of money here]! Yeah, but it’s shit that you’re not using, get rid of it!
  • Incomplete and only semi-educational worksheets from highschool Italian. Why did I keep these past the point of being handed them by my teacher in year 7 who used to grab you by the ear if you were a smartarse?
  • Board games. Okay, yeah, board games are cool, but these were ones I used to play when I was like seven or eight. So no longer applicable to me, and probably no longer in usable form by the time the Dude is old enough to play them. Goodbye 500 piece Cats of Lesley Ann Ivory puzzle that I probably did once when I was nine.
  • A few little nuggets combining sentimentality and usefulness. Only a few.
The shed. You can see my dad's framed 'Kings and Queens of Great Britain' poster I'd just pulled out. it's a bit puckered but still good.
The shed. You can see my dad’s framed ‘Kings and Queens of England’ poster I’d just pulled out. It’s a bit puckered but still good.

There is a lot more. There are mystery suitcases from second hand shops hiding right at the back and I have no idea what’s in them. There is stuff still under the tarp that I’m too afraid to lift away just yet. Mr C, being a nervy and obsessive Capricorn to begin with, is highly offended by the sight of the shed even with the door locked, never mind the myriad of horrors lying within. He is also scared of the spiders that are no doubt living it up in there, unless they’ve been fried over six summers of 35 degree days in a metal shed. I can say one thing for sure: there were (or might still be?) rats or mice in there. Now that worries me. So far I’ve not seen or heard any, but I’m only about a quarter of the way into sorting the stuff in there so I’ve not moved most of it. There is a bit of poo and some evidence of chewing anyway.

One of numerous dolls my mum made me growing up which I saved from the shed unharmed. Her name is Lucinda.
One of numerous dolls my mum made me growing up which I saved from the shed unharmed. Her name is Lucinda. She’s probably about 27 or 28 years old.
Star Wars Kinder Surprise toys I rescued for the Dude. I'll chuck them out when he's had a good go at them.
Star Wars Kinder Surprise toys I rescued for the Dude. I’ll chuck them out when he’s had a good go at them. As you can see, he’s already pulled apart the empire’s fighters. The Millenium Falcon is also missing.
My old crayons! I got these when I was first learning to write, probably about age seven. I know that because on the back on a piece of masking tape I've written my name and the lower case 'a's are back to front, which is something I did only when I was first learning.
My old crayons! I got these when I was first learning to write, probably about age seven. I know that because on the back on a piece of masking tape I’ve written my name and the lower case ‘a’s are back to front, which is something I did only when I was first learning.
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My uncle’s old guitar that he gave me. I had it restrung and was told that it was very cheap and would never stay in tune, which is true, but I had held onto it. That’s the Dude’s little hand having a strum using a marble for a plectrum, as you do. He loves it and has even been ‘singing’ while ‘playing’.

Things I think and/or hope are in there:

  • My mum’s blue 1980s fur coat. She bought this with her inheritance sometime in the 80s and I don’t think she ever wore it. It’s seriously the most hideous fur coat you’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something, considering how hideous fur coats can be. From memory, it has massive shoulder pads, it’s about 3/4 length, with dark blue arms and the body is striped blue, brown, cream and black fur. I think ebay may show me some love, if it’s still in mint condition. I was meant to sell it on ebay six years ago but yeah…
  • My artwork from the Canberra School of Art. I remember doing some really cool drawings and paintings that I’d like to see again. Either I’ll realise I was never that talented or I’ll finally have something to frame.
  • Old diaries. Now the chances that my diaries from the age of ten onwards are in the shed are pretty remote, as I could have sworn I put them in a small wooden chest and gave them to my mum before I went to the UK. But if they are in there, oh joy! Some more blog posts will be forthcoming then! In fact a whole series entitled something like, “The embarrassing musings of an insecure yet arrogant adolescent”…
  • Cool stuff in the old trunk my mum had before she met my dad. Now the trunk is there, I can see it, huge and green and metal with my mum’s first married name neatly written across the top in red paint. What’s in the trunk is the mystery. I’m hoping for some awesome old photos or writing, but it may just be a bunch of useless crap I wanted to put on ebay. Either way, I’ve got to move the Edwardian sideboard out and get rid of it before I can get to the trunk. Now that little baby is going on gumtree as soon as I can drag it out, brush off the spider webs and take the crappy crockery in it to the Salvos.

I don’t really know why I’m writing this post or how it could possibly be interesting to anyone but myself (maybe my mum, although I don’t think she likes my blog very much because of that post about migrants and some stuff that didn’t seem accurate. Plus she is worried about people out to ‘get’ me via the internet. Cos yeah, they don’t have anything better to do I guess). Anyway, it’s about 40 minutes until Mr C gets back from chasing the Dude around an indoor playground wanting dinner and I haven’t even started making the ‘south east asiany type thing with chicken or something’ that I promised earlier, so I’d better end here. I should have done more ‘proper’ writing but got distracted by Florence Welch’s hair and then started looking at pictures of Christina Hendricks and decided I like Florence’s hair better and will try and get that even though I haven’t got the right shape face and don’t have money for hairdressers at the moment anyway. Yeah, you can see how I get distracted from proper writing. So much for freelancing from home. Back to the drawing board. Stay tuned for an update on the shed investigation and while you’re waiting, check out this amazing performance, one of my favourites!

The Canberra commute

So I’ve been working again now for a could of weeks, as I mentioned, and I drove in the first couple of times but taking the car is both impractical, as Mr Chewbacca needs it, and expensive, as the Forester eats fuel like mad. I’ve been taking the bus, which isn’t too bad, although relatively restrictive and takes longer than it needs to.

Since moving back to Canberra, I’ve had the thought that a bike might be a good idea. I have wanted to get into cycling for a while now, as I think it’s a good way to get around and get fit at the same time, and it’s really common to commute to work by bike in Canberra as the bike paths are so great.  The trouble is, the last bike I rode was in London, one that Blacksnake (one of my flatmates) stole on his way back from a drunken rampage, and I actually fell off it in the middle of Richmond high street, which was extra embarrassing as I was going about two kilometres an hour at the time and was just generally not coordinated. I can’t say I’ve ever been the biggest fan of mountain bikes, and this was one, a men’s one but that experience haunts me, although generally speaking it was a fun ride as we went from Hammersmith to Richmond Park and back and it was the best hangover cure ever!

My old bike looked something like this, only pink and sparkly. The seat was white with gold sparkly piping. Gorgeous! I actually hated that it was pink, but that’s another story…

I got my first bike for my 7th birthday. It was a pink, sparkly Repco with white handlebars and 22 inch wheels. I wanted a small blue bike that was almost already too small but my parents got me this one with its adjustable handlebars and saddle. I had a very rare tantrum in the shop, crying and carrying on. The main issue with it was that I wasn’t a very confident rider and I couldn’t touch the ground with both feet at once while sittig on the saddle. I’d never fallen off a bike and I was absolutely terrified at the prospect, not just of hurting myself but of being less than perfect at riding it straight away. The story of my life, it seems…

That pink Repco was still hanging around in my mum’s shed when I was in my early 20s. I’m not sure what happened to it now, probably got donated when she moved house, but needless to say it was a good investment as it was still rideable after I finished highschool. Although I was less than enthusiastic about being seen riding it in public by then. And of course riding a bike involved exerting effort which was something I tried to avoid at all costs, particuarly once I hit puberty. I had zero motivation, zero determination and zero confidence, even though I masked all this by claiming that I ‘couldn’t be bothered’ or that I ‘had better things to do’.

Since the birth of the Dude, something has really shifted in me in relation to my capacity for motivation. I had previously overcome my negative attitude after dating a very positive, driven guy for about six years, but going through the massive physical endurance of childbirth, particularly the birth that I experienced which involved 38 hours of contractions and a baby flipping from breech to vertex during labour, really changed me for the better. I realised, as I’m sure I mentioned at some point (maybe here) that I had really only been using about 10 per cent of my physical capacity through my life to that point. I wanted to run a marathon, climb a mountain, do any kind of physical endurance type activity. I could actually do all that stuff!

Earlier this year, I had a kinesiology session with a lovely friend who has just begun running her own practice. I had no idea what it was about or how it could benefit me, and to be honest I didn’t quite buy into it, sounded a bit airy fairy hippy and not based in reality. Yes, of course, I am quite airy fairy hippy myself, but often I like to see evidence of something before I will go along with it. But my friend is awesome and lovely and intelligent, so I came to it with an open mind. It was easy to do that as I googled a bit about kinesology beforehand and was none the wiser!

At first I couldn’t really tell if anything was happening. I didn’t know what was meant to happen or how the session was meant to progress. She gently asked me questions and did muscle testing, which seemed completely bizarre at first but I read about it afterwards and got some clarity. Anyway, regardless, it worked! I couldn’t believe it. One minute I was lying there trying to think of a traumatic event that had happened when I was four, as was suggested, something to do with my mum, my family. Something that shocked me and upset me. It’s hard to remember that far back, but I tend to be quite good at it. Suddenly, as my friend continued on with the session, I got an insight and I remembered something really horrible that had happened around that age. “Wait, I know what it is,” I said. And I related the event to her. As soon as I said it, I began to feel like I was falling. I lost my tummy, just like I do when I go on a roller coaster, or even just over a steep hill in the car. I have serious vertigo to the point where I can’t really function at heights and I feel dizzy and like I’m falling. This was exactly the feeling I was getting as I lay on the massage table relating my story. In that moment, I realised the vertigo wasn’t part of me, it wasn’t permanent, even though it’s something I have struggled with virtually all my life. I suddenly realised it was directly associated with this particular frightening incident that had happened when I was four. It was such a relief! I left the session feeling lighter and when I thought about doing something involving heights, I didn’t get that same sick feeling in the pit of my stomach any more. I still felt like it would be a challenge, but something I could actually do. I was changed. I’d always just assumed being afraid of heights was genetic as my mum has a similar issue, but I realised after this session that I could let all of that go and actually enjoy things like others do. I felt sad for the five-year-old who gritted her teeth and pretended not to be afraid when being pushed on the swing. I didn’t have to be that way.

As a result of this kinesiology session, and coupled with my new found motivation for moving more, I actually felt realistic about being a fit person. As soon as we talked about moving to Canberra, the thought of getting a bike poked its head up, and I haven’t been able to shake it since. Now that we’re here, I feel like I could really do it. I really want to do it! The trouble is, the commute is not short at between 16 and 18 kilometres, and I know next to nothing about cycling and bikes. I have done a fair bit of googling and reading online and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m after a hybrid bike of medium size but other than that I have no idea. About a week ago we went to a bike shop and I actually got to try one out, a Giant Cypress, and it was freaking fantastic! I rode around slightly dodgily and the Dude, sporting a random helmet he’d picked up somewhere in the shop, ran around chasing me. I really enjoyed it, and even though it was slight over my budget at about $550, I think I can get something awesome for what I can afford. Only time will tell. Now I have to come up with a way of actually building up to being able to commute so far! Can I bring myself to use those weird bike racks on the front of buses? Will I fall off and look like a douche? Will I actually be able to stick at it long enough to enjoy it and be able to commute each way every week? I don’t know but I’m going to find out…

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.

Long haul: coping with big cities and non-child-friendly places

This is the third and final installment in my series on travelling across the world with a young toddler.

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Driving the safari truck. So what if I can’t reach the steering wheel?

Oddly enough, when we booked this holiday nearly a year beforehand, I was most apprehensive about going to South Africa with the Dude. I didn’t really think about being in London with him, and in Manchester and Carlisle we’d be with family anyway. I feared that the other people with us in South Africa were not there to hang out with a little kid and would be wanting to drink and party it up. I envisaged I’d be alone with the Dude a lot, while the others had fun. Which is fine, although it seemed a bit pointless to go if this was going to be the case. In the end, the South Africa leg was probably one of the best aspects of our trip. Not only did it break up the flight perfectly, but the game farm we were staying on for most of the five days was such a great place for the Dude. It was just in the middle of the bush, lots of trees and flowers and dirt and creepy crawlies, but nothing harmful, not like in Australia. It rained really heavily one morning but it was still quite warm, so Dude just went out and splashed around in all the puddles and had a great time.  He sat up in the safari truck and pretended to change gears and steer, it was awesome. And there were a few other kids there, Afrikaaner kids of family and friends, so he played a bit with them which was lovely. Most of our friends loved having him around and were happy to play with him or keep an eye out for him. There were difficult elements, like when we wanted to stay and have dinner and a few drinks and the Dude was ready for bed at his usual time of 7pm. But we managed by putting him in the ergo on my or Mr C’s back, and whoever had him just stood a little apart from the noise of the people for a bit while he fell asleep, then just kept moving so he more or less stayed asleep until it was time to head back to our cabin which was just up the road. It was a challenge with no lights at night, having to light paraffin and gas lamps to change him when he was totally past it and just wanted to be asleep. But overall, a positive experience.

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Misty Manchester. Can’t say foggy, I’ll be in trouble with Mr C who believes in some undefinable but critical scale defining airborne moisture particles. It’s a mortal sin to call a mist a fog apparently!

Manchester was interesting. It was challenging keeping him confined not only to the small space of the inside of the house but also inside for most of the day, as it was just too cold for him to run around outside unless we rugged him up and got rugged up ourselves. And in Carlisle even that wasn’t possible as it was really icy and he couldn’t walk a few paces without slipping over on the ice. He really missed his outside time. It wasn’t fun trying to get him to have his nap at the Trafford Centre (a huge shopping centre in Manchester) as, until then, he’d never fallen asleep in his pram in a shopping centre. If he was in the ergo, he probably would have, but I didn’t have it with me that day and he’s getting quite heavy for it. When he did finally pass out it was really only for about 40 minutes and he was really angry about that.

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On the drive up to Carlisle from Manchester. The British countryside, particularly the more northern parts, is so incredibly inspiring to me.

The lack of light was a hard one too, although it meant we got a sleep-in most mornings as he didn’t wake up until it was getting light. In the afternoon it seemed like it got dark so early, so the days felt very short, and it made his outside time even more precious. When we took him out to Manchester city centre, he stayed in the pram virtually the whole time, and this was like torture for him as he couldn’t really run off his energy. One day we attempted to get some shopping done by taking him to one of those supervised kids’ play areas and leaving nanna to keep an eye on him. Disasterous! He apparently cried the whole time and only stopped when he saw a man that looked like daddy whose leg he clung to and then briefly played with the man’s children before noticing we weren’t there and getting upset all over again. Poor nanna. She did try, but obviously he’s so strongly attached to his mum and dad, there was nothing she could do.

It's like Blue Poles, industrial stylie. Awesome!
It’s like Blue Poles, industrial stylie. Awesome!

In London, we took public transport. Now the tube etc there is just brilliant, an amazing achievement and I think all cities should aspire to something like that. But it’s not perfect, at least not for those on wheels! I loved the idea, in theory, of putting him in the ergo and leaving the pram at home, but it actually doesn’t work if you’re going on a long day trip to the city. At some point, he’s got to have running around time, which means you have to chase him, and when he’s not running around, he’s strapped to your back, all 12kg of him. The ergo is amazing, don’t get me wrong, and it wouldn’t ever cause a back problem, but there is a limit to how many hours I can walk around with him on my back without feeling stiff and tired. And I can’t really sit down for any length of time as the Dude will get restless in about a minute.  I imagine the feeling of being carried completely changes for him when I sit down. So we took the pram. The shitty, horrible, flimsy Peg Perego Pliko Switch. Just to digress for a moment to whinge, my dad bought this pram for the Dude on his first birthday. We hadn’t bothered to buy one before as we were gifted one and I tried the Dude in it a few times when he was really little and it was hell, he hated it, so I just wore him in the hugabub or, later, the ergo. Miraculously, when we tried him in the new pram, he actually fell asleep and didn’t seem to hate it. The pram was on sale as that model had just been superseded  so it would have been $750 but was reduced to $450.  I thought this was a brilliant saving.  I liked the fact that it was fairly compact and not a jogging stroller, and it seemed to do what we needed.  It even had a drink holder! But shortly after buying it, things started to go wrong. Parts just didn’t stay together, the top shade would randomly pop off and end up lop-sided, the wire connecting the brakes would just flick off at random and get caught on things, and the extending handles didn’t really extend very much.  In fact Mr C hates using it because he can’t walk with his usual stride as the handles don’t extend up enough, so he always kicks his foot as he walks. It is quite heavy at 12kg and we soon discovered that the folding action was pretty dodgy.  Not broken, but not easy to do one-handed, as is indicated in the instructions. Plus it never stayed folded and would just start unfolding every time we picked it up! There are few good things to say about the pram actually and we hate it so much. But we don’t have money for a new one, so we took it with us overseas. I didn’t notice when I got it out at Sydney airport, but the front wheel had been totally crushed in transit. The plastic is really brittle and just flimsy, I don’t think it would take much to crack it. So that wheel is all wobbly and the rubber is slowly coming off the crumbling plastic wheel. At least this is a good reason to get a new one, but I must say I’m less than impressed at the idea of having to buy a new pram only nine months after we bought it.

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A brief snapshot on a bridge on a bitterly cold afternoon in London. Think it was somewhere near London Bridge, or possibly on it!

So, when we caught the train in London, we faced some difficulties with the pram. A lot of newer stations, such as all those on the DLR and Jubilee Line are accessible, which is brilliant, but many are not. In addition, you can’t be certain that the lifts or escalators will be working when you get there. We had such a hard time getting from the airport to the Isle of Dogs where we were staying, especially as there were works happening on the Bank end of the DLR which meant going via the Overground and District Line, neither of which had lifts or escalators. After next to no sleep on the ten-hour flight from Johannesburg, carrying the pram, which would have been nigh on 25kg with the Dude in it, up and down stairs was absolutely hideous. The rest of the time it was fine, as we splurged and took the Thames Clipper down to Embankment a few days, and the rest of the time the DLR to Shadwell which has a lift, albeit the smallest lift in the world that only fits one pram at a time so there is always a line up.

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Qantas’ contribution towards the fate of our shitty stroller.

Heading into central London for a day out wasn’t the most difficult thing in the world, but making sure the Dude was warm, comfortable, fed and not bored was really challenging. We did bring lots of warm stuff but I think we could have done better there. I noticed all the UK ‘buggies’, as they call them, had really cool zip-up insulated bag things fitted onto the pram and covering the baby’s whole body.  Our pram does have one of those cover things but it’s not really designed for cold and just sort of clips on loosely. We also didn’t have a full snow suit or down jacket for him, and I would have felt better if he was wearing something like that, although he was warm enough with a few layers and he learnt how to keep his hat on which was awesome as previously he’d just rip it off. He didn’t manage to keep his gloves on for long though, which was annoying as his little hands were icicles in minutes. I think if he’d grown up in the cold he’d be used to the gloves. I put cotton tights on him under his cords or jeans and then socks on top before his little furry leather boots which were really awesome. Ultimately, though, the extreme temperature changes took their toll and he did get sick, throwing up all over me and the floor in an Indian restaurant! They were really nice about it, although everyone at the table was a bit revolted I think, understandable!! There was one day we took him into central London and let him run round Hamley’s for a while, which was an absolute mad house but he loved having all the toys to play with. It got really hard later in the afternoon when we tried to have a late lunch in a pie shop and he was just pissed off.  He screamed and squirmed and generally made life hell for us. Not even breastfeeding did the trick. I always thought I’d get dirty looks and rude comments from the general public when he did this sort of thing, but, although people are clearly unimpressed sometimes, I’m yet to receive a negative comment, even when he’s really showing off and making a scene. People really are tolerant, generally speaking, and for that I’m very grateful.

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The great man himself!

Overall, what would I do differently next time? If possible, I’d avoid taking a child of this age that far away into such a different environment! But if I had to do it again, I’d get a better stroller, I’d have some better winter outfits, and I’d probably try and do the ergo thing more. Generally speaking, though, I wouldn’t take a toddler to central London. The amount of enjoyment he got out of it versus the amount of time he was pissed off was just not worth it. The memories, for us, are a great thing though. The photo with the statue of the Dude’s namesake on the Embankment, getting to see London again, his grandparents, cousins, aunt, and other family and friends getting to meet him, all these things and more made it worth it. It was never going to be a walk in the park, but we did it, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Long Haul: flying across the world with an energetic toddler

This is the first in a series of posts I’m doing on our recent trip to South Africa and the UK. This first post covers flying long haul with a young toddler.

I knew it was going to be hard. Not only is the Dude at that stage where he just wants to explore everything, he’s also mobile enough to do so, and as tall as a kid a year older, so he can get into things that an older kid would have a bit more awareness of. Breastfeeding is such a godsend in these kinds of situations, but I knew eventually he’d be sick of even that. The flight from Sydney to Johannesburg was 13 hours, then after the five days in South Africa we’d be flying on to London which was a 10-hour flight.  On the way home, we were going right the way through: 13 hours from London to Singapore, a 90-minute refuel, then back on the plane for the 7 hours to Sydney. People had always said how much easier it made it to have a few days in between the legs, and I’d always agreed, but until I did it, I had no idea how true that was!

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The windows in the cabin on the farm – no screens, but we didn’t end up with any Parktown Prawns in our beds. In fact all creepy crawlies are not poisonous in SA, who knew?

We set out for our 10am flight from Sydney and already we were behind the eight ball.  Having tried and failed to utilise Sydney’s train system to get to the airport before (which is literally half an hour’s drive away, maximum), we decided to just bite the bullet and get a cab. Even this proved a huge stress. The motorway was, as usual, congested for no reason, and we sat tight hoping we’d arrive with enough time to spare. Rocking up to the Qantas check-in, we got rid of the pram straight away and the Dude, who was already running around the airport like a crazed ape, was strapped to my back in the ergo. Most people take their strollers right to the gate, but we have never done this.  Little did we know, when leaving South Africa, we’d get a good lesson in why baby-carriers freaking rock and prams are sent by the devil to torture us! Given our 10am take-off, it coincided pretty much straight away with the Dude’s nap time, which is usually around 11am so he didn’t take too long to fall asleep. We had elected not to have the bassinet, given the Dude is so long and probably a little heavy for it, plus getting him to sleep on his own, even if it’s a metre away from me, is pretty hard. I’d resigned myself to having him draped across my lap, and hopefully getting a break for a short while to eat or stretch or go to the bathroom. I had visions in my head of the Dude sort of lying right across my and Mr C’s laps, and then us being able to put our chairs back and get sleep. I had no idea how we’d fold down tray tables and I didn’t expect to get to watch any movies. I ended up propping pillows under his head so I could pull my arm out from underneath and have both hands free for a while. Once he’d had a nap, during which time we managed to eat lunch by positioning both trays of food on Mr C’s tray table, he was rearing to go. He was full of beans and desperate to run, so we took it in turns to let him run up and down the plane aisles, following behind. He met a little girl, about three or so, who was doing the same, so they chased each other up and down, probably annoying a few passengers at the same time, but it was better than trying to restrain him in the seat. I must admit, I got a little slack with following him after a while and sort of let him go up the aisle, expecting him to turn around when he got to the end where the hostesses arrange the food. And then he didn’t come back. I realised he’d probably continued on through up the plane, so I quickly made my way up. No, not in the next aisle either.  I realised I shouldn’t have let him out of my sight! By the time I got to him, he’d made his way all the way up to Business Class (and on an A380, starting near the back, that’s a long way!) I quickly grabbed him and turned him back around, only to be politely informed by a hostess that he really shouldn’t be here.  Oops!  It wasn’t too long after that when things started to really get out of hand.  Both Dude and the little girl were really hyped up and were getting more crazy, bashing into things, stealing random stuff as they ran along, squealing, getting in the way.  As I was grabbing him to bring him back to the seat to calm down, another steward said perhaps we shouldn’t let them run like that as they’re bound to get hurt.  And he was right, it was only a matter of time. So we hauled him back to the seat, and I got to change him in the smallest changing facility ever! For those who haven’t taken a baby on a plane, the change tables are in most of the bathrooms, and they fold down above the toilet.  So you have to sort of lean over and change baby on the side, which is awkward but not impossible. I can’t imagine how anyone over about 5’10” would manage it without doing themselves a bit of a mischief though. I didn’t ask Mr C to do a change for that very reason, as he has enough of a problem folding his 6’3″ frame, complete with herniated discs in his back, into those tiny toilets.

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The view from our bedroom window in Manchester. Could you get any more typically British? I’ll never be able to live somewhere with such a tiny yard…

So we arrived in South Africa without any huge upsets. When we went to board in Johannesburg for the flight to London, we decided to try keeping the pram up until the gate this time. Big mistake! When we got to the gate, they told us to fold down the pram but the bloody thing wouldn’t fold down properly and wouldn’t stay folded (never buy a Peg Perego, worst pram ever!) and the flight attendants just stood next to us chatting while we tried to hold the Dude and deal with the pram, all in stuffy 30 degree heat because they don’t seem to understand what air conditioning is. Never again! The flight itself was pretty hellish too. It was the only leg we were flying with British Airways, and although my experience of them had previously been good, I was absolutely appalled at the service on this flight. The attendants were uncommunicative at best and downright rude at worst. The plane was prehistoric, like they’d spent all their money upgrading Business Class and had left Economy to wallow back in the 80s. We’d made the mistake of electing to get the bulk head seat which sounds fabulous but really it meant that neither of us could get up when the Dude was finally in the bassinet asleep. It also meant very little room, and although the leg room was slightly better for Mr C, the bassinet took up any spare room we had elsewhere, including that required for folding out the screens from our arm rests. At one point, for about two hours total, we did manage to get him to stay asleep in the bassinet  and it was luckily while we ate dinner, so that was awesome, although the food was pretty disgusting and they didn’t provide a meal for the Dude at all which I was pretty surprised about. Qantas provided excellent meals with fresh, often organic, healthy ingredients that I had no problem feeding the Dude.  Anyway, we both got to eat and watch something in peace, bliss! But other than that, the rest of the flight was awful. Dude was pissed off because it was an evening flight so he wanted to be asleep the whole time but couldn’t because it was so uncomfortable and the bassinet was so small that three-quarters of his legs hung over the side. They couldn’t get the temperature control right, and it was even worse than on a normal flight where you expect some temperature issues. For the major part of the flight, the bassinet was used as a shelf/holder for all our shit and we just sat there waiting to land, drifting in and out of consciousness. Getting into Heathrow was such a relief, even though it was 6am and bloody freezing. The Dude was absolutely shattered and finally did fall asleep on the drive up to Manchester.

Coming home from the UK, I realised, was going to be a bigger challenge, given we weren’t going to have a proper break and it would be one long flight the whole way there.  I think it was only about 20 hours actual flying time, with a 90 minute refuel at Singapore after 13 hours. This time, we didn’t choose the bulk head seat, but we got this weird position near where they serve the drinks but just one half row back from the emergency exit. So there were just two seats in front of us, but kind of out in the open. From my seat next to the window, I could get up and walk forwards and around the two seats in front without disturbing anyone, so that was great, although there weren’t many times when I was free to do this! The only downside of the seats was the lack of leg room for Mr C (which is his usual complaint anyway) and the screen folding out of the arm rest for me, which was quite tricky to do with 90cm of squirming toddler trying to get comfy on my lap. Thirteen hours straight is always going to be pretty hideous, but we tried to just go with the flow. The couple sitting in the odd seats in front of us clearly knew how good they had it in those seats and as they sat facing the air hostess on take off they got chatting and she agreed to serve them drinks first before anyone! They must have each had two or three drinks before we even got a first! So when it came time for ours, we didn’t muck about. We each ordered a bloody Mary and I got a sparkling water too. The food options were lamb or fish pasta, and as I hate lamb I went with the latter. I wolfed it down as Mr C held the tray for me and tried to stop the Dude kicking his meal which was balanced precariously on a ridiculously small tray table next to too many drinks. The woman next to him just sat there surly, trying to ignore us. I guessed she wasn’t having a good time. As I sipped my bloody Mary, after failing to eat the whole meal and guzzling my mineral water, I began to feel odd. I decided the alcohol was probably not a great idea and swapped for water. A few minutes went by and I felt no better, worse in fact. Over the next ten minutes or so, I began to realise I might be sick. I am not a vomity person, having really only thrown up from too much alcohol and morning sickness. So throwing up is a bit of a foreign concept for me and I denied I was feeling so queasy. That was a huge mistake! Eventually I said to Mr C that I think I’m going to be sick and I need to get up, but the Dude was fast asleep in my lap and it’d taken so long for him to settle down I didn’t want to move and wake him. I kept trying to breathe through it and convince myself I didn’t need to throw up. I realised quickly that I’d have to get up. Mr C offered me the sick bag and I waved it away in horror: surely only kids use them, I can’t throw up in a bag in front of the whole plane! I frantically looked around me, trying to formulate a plan, a way of getting the Dude off my lap without waking him. It was too late. I felt myself begin to spasm and motioned to Mr C, who had gotten up and was standing opposite me, to get a bag. I was holding the sick in my hand as he finally thrust a bag under my mouth. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do! It felt like I filled up the entire bag but Mr C, so typically non-squeamish, just held the bag up and pushed my hair out of the way. I saw him hand it to the air hostess and I just closed my eyes and tried to become invisible. I needed to wipe my hands and mouth and just as I started looking about for someone, as Mr C had been commandeered by the air hostess for some reason, the girl in front came with a glass of water and a big pile of napkins. She was so lovely. I asked if she was a nurse and she said no, she wouldn’t have the patience. I thanked her over and over as she so kindly got me wet wipes from her bag. Mr C came back and helped get rid of all the soiled napkins. Dude had slept through the whole ordeal! The woman next to Mr C glared sullenly in our direction, but I didn’t hate her for it; that would have been me a few years ago.

I felt so much better after my little episode, and we flew on to Singapore, arriving into slightly uncomfortable humidity late at night to the wonder of modern civilisation that is Changi Airport. We were shattered. We took it in turns to chase the Dude around and stop him getting stuck on the travelators while the other freshened up and before we knew it, it was time to board the plane again for the last leg of seven hours to Sydney. It was at that point I vowed to myself I wouldn’t do this again with a toddler. He was totally out of himself, going from laughing hysterically to screaming like his arm had just been cut off! Even breastfeeding wasn’t really cutting it any more. He was exhausted but feeding to sleep just didn’t seem to be working, probably because there wasn’t a lot of quality milk after I’d thrown up all the fuel for that. I’d been trying to remember to take the Travel Flower Essence and Rescue Remedy Sleep drops I’d bought, and the small pump spray of deionised water I brought was an awesome way of freshening up, plus the Dude thought it was hilarious when we sprayed it in his face. That all helped, I’m convinced, but nothing can substitute for quality sleep and decent food. We staggered off the plane, lining up at border control in our different lines, as Mr C is still on a British passport (although we later discovered we all should have gone to the Aussie line). Like zombies, we collected bags, dragged ourselves out to a taxi and paid an exorbitant amount of money to get home, with a shameful stop at Maccas drive through on the way to get coffee and bacon and egg muffins. The jet lag was hideous, mainly due to sleep deprivation, but we were home. I said to Mr C that we won’t be doing that again for another few years at least, and happily gave him the green light to go home on his own whenever he wants. It’s great to go as a family, but the stress of long haul flying with the Dude is just too much. Needless to say, we all got sick towards the end and weren’t right for at least a week afterwards.

Next post in the series: co-sleeping on the move

The quest for belonging

As I’ve mentioned here before, we’re not sure whether moving to Australia was the right choice. When we were in the UK, we had this idealistic view of Australia. I thought I wanted to go home to settle down. I couldn’t imagine how people have children in London with no space and high rent. I imagined us finding a nice big family home with plenty of space outside and bringing up kids. Mr Chewbacca, who’d been to Australia about five times previously, had this rosy picture of Aussie life: days lying on the beach, nights drinking in the pub and watching rugby. Between us, it was a foregone conclusion that we’d move back. And we were in a rush, for some strange reason. Not once did I really contemplate the idea that I might not feel very Aussie any more after having lived in the UK for a few years. Let’s face it, Aussie culture never made a lot of sense to me and I always considered myself ‘European’ before going to Europe and realising I actually did like my own country. I don’t think Mr C ever thought it would be what it has turned out to be either. Without going into details, neither of us are particularly happy here, for a variety of reasons.  We’ll be giving Australia one last chance in September next year when we move 1000km south to Melbourne.

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Tomorrow we’ll be taking the Dude across the world to meet his British family in Manchester, via South Africa. This is the first time he’ll meet his nanny and granddad Chewbacca and the rest of the family, and it’s the first time we’ve been back since we first came back to Australia in 2010. I can’t express just how mixed my emotions are about the trip. I agreed to a stopover in South Africa on the way, to stay at a friend’s parents’ game farm just outside Johannesburg.  I’m not apprehensive about being in South Africa as such, as I’ve been before and it’s not a scary place. I am a bit concerned about being the only one with a small child in a group of 30-somethings, most of whom don’t seem to have worked out they’re not in their 20s any more, but it’s only five days so I’ll be right. I’m not keen on the flight at all as the Dude isn’t two yet so he won’t have his own seat, which means I’m going to have 12 plus kilos of wriggling toddler sprawled across me for most of the 24 odd hours each way. How we’re going to entertain him when he’s hyped on the plane is completely beyond me, but I’m sure we’ll manage.

The major part of the rest of the trip will be a couple of weeks in Manchester and London. I’m so looking forward to the cooler weather and soaking up a bit of real northern hemisphere Christmas spirit, which feels somewhat diluted here in Australia. There’s something so special about those Oxford Street Christmas lights, despite the crowds of chavs in their soggy ugg boots fighting for a bargain in Primark. And the Christmas markets, the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, ice skating, ferris wheel, mulled wine, the possibility of snow, shopping for warm boots and being relieved at the stagnant heat trapped deep underground in Victoria station.

Our street in West Hampstead, London – February 2009

After five days braving the rough heat of the game farm, we’ll fly straight north to London, where Mr C’s good friend, let’s call him the Northern Intellectual, is going to pick us up at Heathrow and drive us straight up north a couple of hours to Manchester, where the Chewbacca grandparents reside. Hopefully by then the Dude will at least have recovered from jet lag, as, although South Africa is a good ten hour flight from London, it’s only an hour or two time difference. Anyway, needless to say nan and granddad C are very excited at meeting their grandson. And Mr C and I are looking forward to catching up after so long.  We’re also secretly looking forward to a little bit of time off from the Dude, whose nan will I’m sure be happy to hang out with him while we go to a movie or two.  We’ve also got tickets for Ben Folds Five on the night after we arrive, which is particularly exciting as we had tickets to see Ben Folds on 13 May 2011, which was one day before I was due to have the Dude.  Needless to say, he came a week early, and I missed the concert.

We’ll spend most of our time up in Manchester with a couple of nights at Mr C’s nan’s place in Carlisle.  There we’ll see her of course, along with most of the rest of Mr C’s extended family, as that’s where they’re all from and where most still live. We’ll catch up with two of his sisters back in Manchester and a few friends there, then we’ll end our time with five days in London. It’ll be mainly catching up with friends there, checking out our old haunts, and doing a few touristy things before the big flight home.

The most nerve-racking element to all of this is that I’m not sure it will be as we remember. Yeah, okay, it’s only been three years, but I have this feeling I’ll remember pretty quickly why I left. It’s been pretty hard for me not to get sucked into all Mr C’s ‘everything Aussie is inferior to its European equivalent, if it has one’ mentality, and I kind of secretly hope he gets a bit of a rude shock and realises it’s not quite the utopia he remembers. It’s hard because he is actually English, and he feels at home in London. Me, on the other hand, I don’t feel truly at home anywhere. I wanted to leave London, even though I did develop a love for it, and I wanted to leave Canberra, even though it was where I grew up.  I’ve never wanted to be in Sydney and wish I could leave every day. I’ve not had enough time in Melbourne yet to say anything, so we’ll see.

Furio Giunta: The Sopranos (image courtesy of Wikipedia

Watching The Sopranos the other week (we’re finally watching this brilliant drama after everyone else did a decade ago), we saw the episode, season four I think, where Italian mobster with a heart of gold, Furio, returns to Naples after an extended absence setting up his life in New York State. He tells someone, Carmela, I think, about how he can never go back for good because he has changed too much. He just doesn’t feel like he can belong in Italy any more. Yet when he returns to America, we see him staring wistfully out of the window of the taxi as it passes typical suburban middle-America, star-spangled banners displayed almost defensively in front yards, and we know he feels no affinity with that America either. Culturally, he’s suddenly in no-man’s land. I wonder, will we have a similar experience in the UK? We’ll see.