Six months in Canada

It’s been six months since we arrived in Canada and I’m pretty sure we’ve already decided to go back home to Australia. We will be here about another six months or so, depending on what happens with jobs and money and accommodation. I wanted to do a bit of a reflective post to be able to look at in years to come and remember exactly what this process was like.

Was it what we expected? I guess the answer to that is, “no”, but by the same token I don’t think any expectation could possibly have matched this experience because we really had nothing to base it on. I’d never even been to North America before and it had been over ten years since I’d last studied. Would we do it again knowing what we know now? Hmm, that’s a toughie. I think I probably would. There are two big things coming out of this experience for me:

  1. My degree. Yes, of course I could have got an MA in Australia, and it would have been much cheaper and saved us a whole lot of money and headaches. But I would never have had this experience being part of one of the best language departments in the world and being taught by all these incredibly knowledgeable and highly respected Italian professors. I think having studied here in North America is a bonus too because it’s not something most Australians get the opportunity to do.
  2. My Australian identity. After 37 years of rejecting my place of birth, grappling with where I belong, where I fit, I can now say that I am proud and content to be an Australian. Why has it taken me so long to come to terms with what many of my cousins, for example, don’t seem to have even thought about? I can’t answer that except to say that what I’ve inherited from my parents, my sensibilities, and what I was exposed to from birth, my cultural influences, created a multi-layered and disjointed identity with which I have had to work hard to be at peace. Sure, there are many things about Australia that I don’t identify with, many aspects that infuriate and frustrate me, but I know one thing for sure now: I am Australian and happy about it. And I am relieved to be at peace with it now as I know others, my grandmother for example, who struggled with this their whole lives and never came to a place of peace.

How did this all begin, going halfway across the world to try and find a new home? Did we really do this? I am still amazed at what we’ve managed to achieve. I pinch myself all the time, still, even after six months here. Aside from childbirth, I think this has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and I’m so proud of myself and my family for the way we’ve handled it.

This is my current view:

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Why it’s rotated, I don’t know, just a quirk of WordPress, as it’s showing fine on my desktop. Ah well. I’m sitting, supposed to be studying, in the library. Across the road that creamy brown-coloured building is Carr Hall where the Department of Italian Studies lives. It looks quite nice from the outside but inside it’s not the greatest. It’s old and the rooms are either way too hot or way too cold. I spend most of my time either in class in that building, here in the Kelly library (which is the dedicated library for St Michael’s College so there are lots of interesting religious people around) or in the building next door to the library and across the road from Carr Hall, Alumni Hall. It sounds awfully grand and looks it from the outside but inside it’s old and tired and, like Carr, either hot and stuffy or freezing cold. Now that I’m not doing book history, I rarely go elsewhere on campus. Every couple of weeks I might go over to Robarts, which is the big library, about 10 minutes walk from here. It’s a cool concrete 70s monstrosity shaped to look like a peacock (although this is hard to see from most angles) and the collection of books is impressive, to say the least. There is also a Starbucks, Subway and some other food places in there, plus street vendors in vans out the front so it’s a good place to get food. I tend not to go there to study as it’s very busy, full of undergrads slacking off and just too big and distracting to really focus. I like the Kelly library for study as I can sit in the cafe area (yes, another Starbucks) in a comfy chair and it’s quiet but not deathly silent, plus there’s coffee if I want it. I can get free coffee from the Italian department any time I like actually, I must take advantage of that more.

This campus is really lovely, nice to walk around some of the older buildings, watch the squirrels jumping about, climbing the old trees and sculptures dotted around. I like being at uni, it’s very conducive to focus and study which is so enjoyable for me these days. Back in my undergrad days I almost never studied at uni – in fact I almost never studied at all – and I spent much of my time trying to avoid being anywhere conducive to focus and study. I never read the books or did any research, I just did the bare minimum to pass, wrote essays without citing any references and ate enough sausage rolls to sink a ship. I remember sitting in the computer labs checking my email, years before I ever had internet access at home. I had so much time, so many opportunities, and I blew most of it off, wasted it. I got by on sheer natural talent and arrogance, refusing to accept the very valid comments of lecturers and tutors who dared to ask me to cite a reference or read something. Someone must have been looking after me because I sure didn’t deserve to do as well as I did. I occasionally wonder what would have happened if I actually applied myself to finding a career, aspiring to something great, instead of just doing random things and ending up working for the government. I don’t know whether my parents could have done something differently and helped me to be more focused, but I will be doing what I can to ensure this doesn’t happen with my kids.

Anyway, I digress. What I’ve managed to achieve in the last six months is phenomenal. I’m pretty sure I’m in line for an A average grade thus far in my course and frankly I think I could do better but I’m very grateful for the marks I’ve been awarded and I will do my best to keep up this standard. Ultimately, this is a year out of our lives to do this Canada thing, just a year, and then we will be entering the next phase, gathering together more funds, building our life back up again, getting established and settling down for good. I want to do my PhD, perhaps to be able to teach, certainly to write and work in a field a little closer to my interests and the work I’ve been doing here in this course. I’ve come so far, managed to narrow down my research interests which is a huge achievement for me, an all-rounder and generalist from way back, and I’m super excited about the next six months here, finishing this degree. Financially, we need a miracle, but I know this has been the right thing and I therefore know we will manage this second part of the journey and find our way back home.

What is home? (Part 1)

I’ve had part of this post sitting in drafts for quite a while now, since January this year. When I hit ‘publish’, I’m making things real. I’m announcing to the world (or the one and a half people who read this blog) that yes, we are moving our family across the other side of the world. Here goes…

When I used to visit my friends in Melbourne about four or five years ago, I’d wake up in a state of pure bliss and relaxation just knowing I was here and not in smelly old Sydney. Here in Melbourne, the city I’d loved since my first visit at age 16.
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I vowed that once I was old enough I’d move there. But life happened. I finished school, went to uni, found a boyfriend, moved into a share house, got a job, a car, bought a house, broke up with my boyfriend, went overseas, came back, got married, had a baby, sold a house… and finally, the time was right. And I moved to Melbourne. And finally, finally I could make myself at home, feel settled, stop the search for home. Couldn’t I? No. It appears not.

As I mentioned previously, I don’t feel very Aussie and there’s a lot about this country that doesn’t work for me. So over the last year or two we’ve been toying with the idea of leaving Australia. The prospect scares the crap out of me, I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t. But the prospect of staying in Australia is somehow more daunting.
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Let’s backtrack: about two years ago while living through yet another revolting, endless summer in the South Western suburbs of Sydney, Mr Chewbacca and I decided it was time to leave. Finally he’d come around to my way of thinking: Sydney was not for us. Not long after that, the tenants renting my house in Canberra for the past six years announced they were moving out. I had an agent go through the place and it became clear that the house was not really fit for renting out or sale without some freshening up. We decided selling was a good option as we’d never settle in Canberra and wanted to offload the house given how much work it needed. So in July 2013 we moved to Canberra for six months while we renovated and sold the house. Once that was done, we moved here to Melbourne, on Australia Day 2014.

The odd thing about all this though is that despite my desperation to move to Melbourne for so long, as soon as we made the decision to move and the wheels were in motion, we began discussions around moving away from Australia all together! When I realised just how little Australia fits us, I was so disappointed. I wished we’d come to this conclusion back in London, saved ourselves a bunch of money at least! But for some reason it didn’t work that way.
So, where to? We discussed our options at length. Staying in Australia was out: too hot, no winter, no defined seasons, southern hemisphere, cultural desert. New Zealand? No. The only thing it has going for it (for us) is breathtaking scenery and snow; we don’t identify culturally. And we still have the problem of it being in the wrong hemisphere. So back to the UK? No. That would be a step backwards. And we are used to the space now. Plus you’re not guaranteed proper winter and summer there either… Somewhere in Europe? But we don’t speak the language. Italy? Nah. I might speak the language and have a degree in it but culturally I don’t really identify. The US? I don’t think I could handle the political extremes. Plus it’s near impossible to get in as migrants. Somehow we narrowed it down to Canada. I still don’t really know how.

First we looked at what sort of migrant programs are available and discovered we don’t qualify on a skills basis. I know some people get jobs and sponsorship but that’s hard if you’re not in the know and making connections within your field. So the options were narrowed down to one really: study. I’ve been talking for years now about doing a Masters and there’s no reason why I can’t do it overseas. Why not Canada? At least if we don’t love it or it doesn’t work for some reason I’d have a Masters so would be more employable. But a Masters in what exactly? Oh dear, I think I finally need to specialise!

It has to be a creative writing MA, surely, I thought to myself in the few moments I had as we packed for our Melbourne move. But can I really do this? Do I have what it takes? Am I really cut out to be “a writer”? What if I’m total shit? Will I be laughed out of the program, told a few home truths about just how big a mountain I need to climb before my writing is good enough for a postgraduate level award? For publication? Fear of failure has caused me not to make an attempt in the past so I decided that this time I’d go for it and ignore all those little critical voices in my head. As I looked further into my options for writing masters’, I began to get excited. Some of the programs looked fantastic and I began to imagine myself as a published author, writing away in a warm study with snow outside. But then I noticed something which made my heart sink. A successful application required solid grades and great academic references, neither of which I had. My English marks were pathetic, and that’s being kind. And there’s no chance any of the tutors or lecturers would remember me after 14 years, and even if they did they wouldn’t give me a good reference as I frankly don’t deserve one. My postgrad marks weren’t much better, and that was pure creative writing. I even emailed a few faculties and asked if there was a way to get around the references, given its been so long. But they all said the same thing: apply to a program that doesn’t rely on references and grades if you haven’t got those, because ours does, deal with it. So I was at a dead end.

When I was cleaning out the shed at my old place in Canberra I came across all my notes from my uni days. I didn’t have the heart to throw out assignment after assignment with great marks and detailed comments from one of the best teachers I’ve had, my Italian teacher. I googled him, and was amazed to discover he was lecturing at a university in Melbourne! Then I looked at my academic transcript and suddenly it was a Gru moment: “Lightbulb!” My marks in Italian were good, excellent even, and given I’d received a scholarship from the Italian government I suddenly realised how good I looked on paper when it came to studying Italian. And I knew without a doubt that my Italian teacher and the departmental head would remember me and I was pretty sure they’d happily give me references.

To be continued in Part 2…

The fear and necessity of specialisation

I’ve always been an all-rounder. Generally pretty good at everything. In fact, fairly early on in my life it became apparent that if something warranted a bit of effort, application or concentration from me, I wouldn’t bother. It wasn’t often that things fell into that category during primary school, but as I progressed through high school and on to university and then into the workforce, I came to a frightening conclusion: it’s not good enough to be okay at everything, even if you’re clever and capable enough to be okay at things without any effort. I discovered I had a distinct problem with self-motivation, drive, ambition, and ultimately in my 20s this lead to something akin to depression. I was terrified to discover that I wasn’t passionate about anything! Not really. Because being passionate meant really immersing myself in something. It meant choosing and being disciplined enough to stick to something. And risking failure.

Now at 35 years old I am experiencing some pretty harsh realities and finding it harder and harder not to specialise. As this very insightful article I just stumbled upon explains, if you don’t specialise you become unemployable. I would go further to say that if you don’t delve into your passions, you are living small. I’m not going to be so arrogant as to assume that everyone knows what he or she is passionate about, or that everyone has the means to explore passions to the greatest extent. But I think that most excuses for not really grasping your passion fully are cop outs; it might frustrate some, but the old cliché is true: where there’s a will, there’s a way.

This question of will comes up for me now. As I mentioned earlier, I was shocked to realise I wasn’t really passionate about anything, or at least passionate enough to really get up close and personal with any one topic. In the past, I’ve put this down to being ‘pretty good at everything’. But what I realised recently is that I’m not good at everything, I’m good at what I’m interested in. It seems pretty simple, but the moment I realised that, I also realised I was pretty arrogant to dismiss specialisation in any given field purely because I was just so fantastic at everything. That was the ultimate cop-out.

I’ve talked for years about doing my Masters. In fact I realised recently that it’s been ten years since I last studied! What?! That not only makes me feel old, it makes me feel like I’ve slacked off. So what has held me back? I could say that I was just having too much fun, doing too many other things, that it wasn’t really that important. But that’s not true. What’s held me back is the awareness that I’d finally have to specialise. That’s scary, as the article I linked above so eloquently explains. It’s scary because it means having faith in yourself, in all the sweeping statements you’ve made in the past about ‘being good’ at things. It’s also scary because it can feel like a limitation, like you are having to relinquish some pretty interesting ideas in order to make space for the big idea, the big passion, the speciality.

Anyway, I am finally looking into really doing my Masters, but doing it in a way that doesn’t allow me to slack off, cop-out, give up, make excuses or fail. And let’s face it, my chances of failing are pretty slim, given I never studied throughout my undergraduate degree and it never occurred to me I could fail until my very last semester at uni when I discovered friends had to take a unit again due to having failed the first time. I actually did come close to failing once or twice. I remember the struggle I had studying history in first year uni (Culture and Society in Britain and France 1750-1850 – I was 18 and had never really even heard of the Industrial Revolution and my knowledge of the French Revolution revolved around vague notions of people getting their heads cut off a lot). It was a year-long unit, which made it extra painful as I had no option but to see it through right to the end of the year. I had no study skills whatsoever, couldn’t absorb the texts as I didn’t understand any of the context, and there were all these crazy philosophy dudes in my tute group sitting round and pontificating about things I couldn’t comprehend. All I knew is, I didn’t get it, and I hated it. My tutor was a really lovely English woman who could see exactly what I was going through and kindly gave me a pass mark (52, I think it was) at the end of the year, probably because I managed to read most of Voltaire’s Candide and write a vaguely coherent, grammatically correct essay about it. But did I feel ashamed or upset that I’d let myself down by getting such a low mark?  Oh no, I just decided that the kind of history they were teaching at uni was garbage and not worth learning about. Yes, I was arrogant. I put my nose in the air and enrolled in linguistics where I proceeded to write entire essays the night before they were due with absolutely no referencing or citation, claiming I’d just come up with the ideas myself and that was enough of a reference. Hmm. I must have been a bugger to teach!

The one last thing to say about this latest educational venture is about the way I’m going to tackle it. It’s a bit of a secret at the moment so I won’t go into details until it’s clearly set in stone, but suffice it to say, I’m excited. It’s going to be an adventure, especially as my family – Mr C, the Dude and the little girl joining us sometime towards the end of August – will be along for the ride, directly affected by everything I do. Specialisation, here I come!