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:

StMikesFeb16

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.

The oldest student

I’m not really that old. I just turned 37 the other week. But in my MA program, I’m the oldest. There are three others doing the same program as me and they’re all much younger. Like 10 to 15 years younger! At first I found it a little confronting. I’ve done a lot since I finished my undergraduate degree 14 years ago. I’ve worked and lived in other countries, I’ve even done another degree. But still, I’m the oldest, I have kids, I live 40km out of the city… It’s not easy.

But it wasn’t long, however, before I realised I was so much better equipped than these kids are to be doing a masters. That’s not to say I think anyone’s going to drop out, that they’re too young or whatever. I just want to acknowledge my gratitude to be the age I am. I have so much more knowledge, I’ve been places and done things and although I have a lot more going on with two little kids, I manage to do the required reading when others just haven’t the stamina. Not just that, I can apply myself and come up with intelligent remarks.

When I began my undergraduate degree in 1997, it was in a BA (Visual) specialising in textiles. I got in on a whim, having spoilt any chance of getting into any uni program based on grades, as I barely achieved a pass in my year 12 results. This was because I lacked focus, discipline and confidence, and I cut my nose off to spite my face in a way when I deliberately didn’t apply myself to my studies because I didn’t believe studying maths or science should be part of getting a suitable grade to get into arts at uni. I think I ended up with a 52. But I put together some half-assed portfolio of artwork I had done through high school and, by some miracle, was offered a place at art school. I had no idea at the time but this wasn’t just any art school; it was one of the foremost art schools in the country with an extremely high reputation at the time (I don’t think this is still the case). I still don’t really know how I got in, given I got one of seven places in a field of 135 applicants. Ultimately I never questioned it but who knows, perhaps I wasn’t a total fraud; perhaps I actually showed some talent!

After six months of, admittedly, mostly enjoyable foundation studies courses, I began to realise I didn’t want to be a “starving artist”. I didn’t have quite the passion of some (and genuine eccentricity of others!) I needed to do something a little more academic. Having said that, the most academic subject I studied at art school was Art Theory and it was the one I found most difficult. I didn’t do particularly well in that, having to write some essay on post-colonialism, if memory serves, in which I demonstrated practices I would employ throughout my undergraduate studies that guaranteed shit marks. Things like waffling on about something in a giant paragraph when I could have said it in one sentence and then not referencing because it was “just what I think”. Read: I did zero reading whatsoever and I’m winging it using flowery language and correct spelling.

Anyway, I received a distinction at the end of that first year of visual arts, which my mum still goes on about. But it wasn’t for me. Luckily, due to the prestige of the school, I suppose, it was actually part of the university, arguably the most well-respected university in Australia (it ranks about number 19 in the world now I think), and because I’d completed my first year I just transferred to do a straight BA, with some status credits tacked on from that Visual Arts year. I enrolled in the expected three courses: English, Italian and History. Introduction to the Study of Literature, Introductory Italian (I was placed in the intermediate class but quickly dropped back when I couldn’t understand anything in my first class), and Culture and Society in Britain and France: 1750-1850. Oh history! I think I’d heard of the French Revolution at the tender age of 19 after visiting Madame Tussauds in London and seeing the Madame Guillotine waxwork in the Chamber of Horrors. I’d never heard of the Industrial Revolution. Ha. I was so naive!

I barely passed that year-long unit of history (I think the tutor was very generous), and I quickly transferred out and into linguistics which suited me better. I still wrote essays containing no referencing that were basically just stories about what I thought on a certain topic but I somehow got through and got top marks in Italian so that ended up being what I went on to do in this program. To be honest, I’m not hugely passionate about Italian per se, I don’t really know much of the literature or history, although I’m learning a huge amount through this course, but one thing I’ve discovered is that I know what interests me and what I’d like to continue doing, so I have my Italian studies to thank for that. As an all-rounder, it’s not easy to find your passion.

And why did I enrol to do Italian back in 1998? Because I’d studied it in high school and I knew languages came easily to me. When I was choosing electives in my first year of high school it was a toss up between Spanish or Italian and I chose the latter simply because that’s what my best friend had chosen. “It’s a bludge,” she said. That’s all I needed to hear. Laziness was what I was all about, getting the best results for the least about of work. I look back and I can’t believe this was my attitude! That stubborn, lazy aspect of me did me no favours. I only hope I can instil something different in my own kids. Not that you must slog your guts out, but that it’s good to strive for something and feel passionate. It’s self-discipline that I learnt the hard way, and am still learning in fact. The difference is, learning is pure pleasure and it’s ironic that now, when I have the least amount of time available to devote to it, I’m finding so much enjoyment in it! And speaking of which, it’s time to stop this procrastinating and get back to it.

Hard

I’ve never heard this music before but my dad has recommended it and the artist is Italian so it’s fitting. I plug my free Apple earphones into my broken Samsung and hit shuffle. Within moments of hearing the opening bars there are tears in my eyes and for once I’m grateful for my vision being obscured by my child-scratched sunglasses. It’s piano, reminds me a bit of Michael Nyman and I remember the story my friend K told me about him propositioning her one late night in London.

This MA study, it’s hard, in all respects. It may even be one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced to date. The work is hard, the commute is long and complicated, and I feel totally conflicted about leaving my kids, neither of whom like being without me.

This music is my soundtrack now. Ludovico Enaudi. If I have another child, I think I’ll call him Ludo. Or maybe that’ll be a good name for a family dog. I won’t forget what this music has done for me. Although damn it, stop with the tears already!

I wrote this on the third day of my first week at uni. I was sitting on the bus at 8:15am having just forced my protesting 13-month-old into the arms of a lovely stranger while I put myself through the torture of a complex class conducted all in Italian. I think in those early days I understood about a quarter of what was said, if that, and what made it worse was that the other three members of the class understood everything.
At this point I’d been to five of my six classes and I was feeling overwhelmed. And to top it off, other than Thumper’s separation anxiety, the Dude was having huge meltdowns about catching the school bus and Mr Chewbacca had just messaged me saying he was almost in tears too at having to take Dude to school against his will because he’d point blank refused to get on the bus.
Looking back, yes, it was hard. But we’ve moved on now. That first week, wow, I’ll never forget it. And I’m glad I wrote this as it reminds me just how easy I have it now in comparison.