History is a bitch

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

Exactly where I’d like to be now

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shock

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to update now so this is going to be a bit of a mish mash. Right now, I’m sitting on the beach at Byron Bay, but I’m sure that’ll have changed by the time I post this.

I can’t believe I actually miss this! Tim Horton’s is the best.

We left Toronto after a few nights downtown on 30th July and flew through to Brisbane. It was a fairly smooth journey, aside from Qantas deciding to make things difficult for us, yet again (I am definitely never flying with them again now, definitely, I mean it this time!) Dazed and confused, we hired a huge SUV to drive to my mum’s place a couple of hours away. It was nice to be home again, Australia, I mean. Nice, but also a bit of a shock. In typical fashion, I immediately began to question whether we’ve done the right thing, coming back again. Somehow I wish my course had been a two-year programme, so we’d have needed to stay longer and make a well-informed, rational decision about leaving Canada. But that wasn’t the case and we’re back.

I miss cheap, crappy coffee. The coffee here is delicious but it’s just so expensive. Not worth it. I think when crappy winter rocks round (it’s technically winter now but here in the Northern Rivers it doesn’t count as it’s always warm) I’ll miss snow. I don’t miss old-fashioned systems like faxing and cheques. Either way, this is a difficult transition and we’re only at the beginning.

The next steps from here are to get down to Melbourne, which we’ll be doing by driving a campervan all the way down via the coastal route. Once we arrive, we’ll at least have a place to stay with friends for a short time while we figure out finding a house to rent and getting jobs. At this stage we’re really not sure where we want to live but we know we want to be near wherever the dude goes to school. That’s up in the air too as the school I like is too close to the city so the area is unaffordable to live in.

Either way, while it’s nice to be back, I really can’t say I feel like this is where I belong. I did try to convince myself that I’m finally ready to embrace my Aussie identity but that was a lie.

On the beach at Brunswick Heads a day or two after landing back in Australia

Within a couple of days of arriving back in Australia, we were discussing how to get back to Canada. We had these agonising sessions online while the kids went nuts because there’s nothing to do at my mum’s place and the TV doesn’t work properly. We logged onto the immigration website, asked for clarification from the university, all sorts of things. I discovered I could have applied to stay another year and work and after that we’d have been eligible to apply for PR. But it was too late. I’d have had to apply for the work permit as soon as I knew I was graduating; the window for applying officially closed three months after I was notified that I’d be graduating, and that expired the day we arrived. I began to go through the online processes to apply for other channels, eventually realising that it was futile. It was quite depressing really.

So I started writing this post. I don’t know what will happen now. Unless Melbourne really pulls us back in, I think I might be applying to do my PhD. Only time will tell…

My research interests

I’m going to write a little bit about what I’m doing at uni, purely to document what’s happening. I am obsessed with documenting personal history, so this is part of that. So if you find academic stuff a bit boring, click away now!

One of the pages of the first edition Alice I had the chance to study
 
As I have mentioned, I’m doing an MA Italian Studies and a collaborative program in Book History and Print Culture. This means I’m doing six courses this term! I remember finding three or four a heavy workload, and that was during my undergraduate studies when I had no children or responsibilities. I didn’t even have a job!

Anyway, just as a bit of background, I mentioned previously what my journey to this masters program has been thus far. I went on to do a Graduate Diploma in creative/professional writing and got part way through another one in editing and publishing but it wasn’t really stimulating me so I didn’t re-enrol. I kind of wish I’d stuck that one out as maybe I’d have gotten some more editorial work. Anyway.

An illustration by Maggie Taylor from a 2008 edition of Alice
 
So upon planning to give Canada a go, and realising the easiest way to do that was for me to study, and given I’d wanted to do a masters for years, ten years actually, I set about deciding exactly what to study. Initially I planned for creative writing but I very quickly realised I didn’t have what it takes. Not only were my English marks shockingly poor during my BA, I didn’t do particularly well in my postgraduate writing studies either. I think the best word to describe my achievement level is “mediocre”. Marks in the 50s and 60s amounting to a Credit average. In addition to this, there was no way I could get the required two academic references from professors who probably didn’t know me during my study, let alone over a decade later… I found one program I could apply to using a portfolio, so I did that. I also applied to a comparative literature program, an English program, and an Italian program. I’d done well in Italian and my professors were only too happy to give me references, despite not having heard from me in about 13 years. I was a bit sneaky and asked them for references for the non-Italian programs too. I actually thought I might have a shot at the literary/writing programs and somehow they’d overlook my dodgy grades. Yeah right!

Alice talking to the Cheshire Cat, original printing of first 1865 edition
 
I ended up getting into only one of the four programs I applied for, the first one I’d applied for, the one I least expected because it was the most prestigious university of the lot. UofT apparently has the largest Italian department outside of Italy! Not to mention world-class teaching staff and amazing facilities. I must admit, though, as soon as I realised I was in, I developed a lump in my throat which I swallow at various intervals but which has remained since. I didn’t feel true drive and passion for Italian. But I was excited, and knowing how well I do with languages I knew this was the right choice as it would be easier for me than something literary. Little did I know that in fact it was a literary program I’d gotten into! Just Italian literature! Uh oh… my undergrad was pretty much straight language… and no, reading “Spotty va al circo” and a bit of Italo Calvino doesn’t count!

Anyway, I was excited. I had some time to think about my research interests and I had a vague idea that they resided in two areas: a kind of editorial/textual area, which involved loving words and books and language structure; and the other is about migration and cultural identity, how we come to know where we belong and find peace with our culture. So two totally different areas. My main goal through this program is to nail down exactly what my research interests are and specialise in one area. Not as easy as it sounds for an all-rounder lazy person like me.

When I finally worked out how to enrol in courses and that I’d be doing six of them (what?!?!), I found there wasn’t a big pool to choose from. I had to choose one particular introductory course for book history, then what was described as a “pedagogical” compulsory course for Italian. The other four courses were up to me, although there was only five to choose from. I opted out of studying Pirandello, given I’d never heard of him before and the prospect of having to read an entire book in Italian freaked me out. So I ended up enrolling in one about film and perceptions of China and Italy from both camps, one about something I’d never heard of before but that I got extremely excited about (philology), one with an extraordinarily long title that had something to do with new ways that Italian language and culture is being mixed into Canada and vice versa, and the last one was about a migratory diaspora from a particular part of Italy that I’d never heard of. Very exciting but very scary given how little I knew about what I’d be doing. I felt both thrilled and terrified.

Another stunning Maggie Taylor illustration from Alice
 
So this is supposed to explain my research interests. Well, I’m halfway through the first part of the program now, and I can safely say that my interests still lie in those two areas but I think I’m leaning more towards the migrant diaspora stuff. And not necessarily Italian. I’m finding the textual stuff interesting but there is also a lot of boring stuff that seems like much ado about nothing sometimes, whereas the cultural identity stuff feels like me, I want to know more, and my personal connection to and experience with these issues means it is somewhat cathartic for me to study this stuff. There is purpose there. I absolutely adore the philology, it’s amazing, but it feels, I don’t know, kind of abstract. Like it’s great but it doesn’t relate to me enough. Gee, that sounds so self-indulgent! Oh well.

I think I want to tell stories, those of people I know, myself, but also others. I want to create connections with culture and investigate the concept of home and belonging. It’s something I’ve been looking for in my life and I daresay there are many others in the same situation with less capacity for or interest in finding the answers. So that’s where I’m at. The density of information that I’m absorbing, the sheer volume of it, is surely going to mean I’ll be clear on exactly what I want to do after this, whether it’s a PhD or something else.

Never love

It’s been about four months now since we landed in Toronto. I’m proud of how we’ve managed to pull ourselves together and make a life here. I hate that we have no money and are financially so much worse off here. I knew that would happen but somehow it’s a worse prospect now it’s actually happened. The weather is beginning to cool down, not enough really, and the amount of snow thus far has been pretty pathetic, but Torontonians assure me there is plenty of time for that and I should just be grateful for the continued lack of it for the moment.

I miss Australia desperately. I don’t remember ever missing it like this. It’s not so much because I don’t like Canada, there’s a lot to like, the weather and the nature being two of the best aspects. I like that my son has made friends and we know our neighbours. I love my uni course even though I don’t know how I will get through the amount of work I’ve got. I’m not really liking how conservative Canadians are and how they don’t seem to get saracasm and are a bit up tight, but they’re not all that way – you get different people everywhere, it’s silly to generalise. I absolutely hate the safety obsession though and I’m not overly impressed with my son’s school. The way they’re teaching, the behavioural policies, the way they relate to the children, everything is sub par. People are nice, but that doesn’t account for everything. The systems and processes and ‘the way things are done’ are all pretty lame here in Canada generally. Well, no, I can’t speak for the whole of Canada. Here in the GTA, there are a lot of crazy, convoluted, ridiculous, weird, confusing, illogical and just plain stupid ways of doing things. I come across something every day that make me pause and say, what the fuck?! So that drives me insane on a daily basis.

Autumn leaves I collected while waiting for Thumper to wake up – she fell asleep during a drive to Niagara on the Lake

My course is great, really. I kind of wish I wasn’t doing the Book History program, as, aside from it being yet more work, I’m not particularly inspired by it. I am enjoying aspects, like researching the assignments, but the reading is a little boring and the size of the class just isn’t conducive to good discussion. I find myself wondering whether it’s all much ado about nothing a lot of the time. Like seriously, who cares what database storage application you use to access your journal articles and whether it changes the way you approach your reading of those articles? Okay, well maybe some people do care about that. I don’t. On the other hand, I’ve been privileged to be able to handle some very rare books, read some interesting articles, hear about really fascinating topics, and study some wonderful primary source material. I’ve used a hand printing press and flipped through a first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I think my feelings about this course are telling me that I really don’t have a future in pure literature, like I’m not meant to do this sort of stuff.

The varsity stadium, I think they call it. The oval, sports ground, at the uni

So what is thrilling me? Well, my favourite course is philology, although there’s a lot about that which is just fun and interesting rather than something I’m actually going to pursue at the next level. I think the course that’s made me realise where my future lies is one on a particular diaspora. I am really inspired by the process of gathering the stories of exiles and emigrants, by this question of home and cultural belonging. It’s something that plagues me constantly, and probably always will, and I feel as if I have a lot to say about it and I just want to know more. So if and when I do a PhD, it will be something relating to that. I would like to do comparative literature but you need a third language for that so I’d need to learn one. Maybe German? Or would French or Spanish be easier? Because of my German blood, it would make more sense to learn that I think. But it’s a hard language. At least I don’t have a mental block about it like I do with French which drives me mad with its ridiculous pronunciation! Anyway, that’s the plan.

I got into a subway carriage that was only Star Wars ads, and lots of them!
 
But I digress. What this post is really about is what I’m feeling about staying here in Canada. Mr Chewbacca wants another year, and I do too, kind of. I can see why it would be an advantage. I feel terrible about uprooting my kids, the Dude really, as Thumper is still little. I guess no matter what he’s going to be uprooted and sent to a different school regardless. I feel like I’m working so hard and not getting enough time to enjoy life here, plus the constant worry about money and when we’ll ever settle is really getting to me. I want to go home, find a niche. But at the same time I know we still won’t have money. It’s all gone, all that we could have used to buy a house in Australia. I don’t know if I can come to terms with that just yet. I feel like we might have made a mistake. And yet, I know if we didn’t come here, we’d always have wondered.

On my side of the family, they did it, they took the plunge and moved across the world. Twice, in fact. Both sides of my family actually.  On Mr C’s side, they didn’t. There was talk of that possibility and it just never eventuated. Lots more stories to be told there. It certainly feels like history repeating itself for me, anyway.

One thing’s for sure, and I thought about this as I glanced out the window as my train approached the city: I will never love Toronto.

What is home? (Part 2)

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

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The exhibition building opposite the Melbourne Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.