Come over for a salmon board sometime

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

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Autumn in our street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Timmy’s!

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

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

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

That time we found our place in the world

So, it’s official: we’re going home! Yes, that’s right, after… what is it, seven months? I don’t know, something like that… seven months in Canada, we have decided we actually belong in Melbourne. So we’re going home. It’s not been an easy decision, not at all, and although it’s completely thrilling to think we are going home, it’s also somewhat scary. And there’s that feeling of… I don’t know, disappointment? No, that’s not the right word. Not regret either. I don’t do regret, it’s a waste of time. But… there’s this feeling that we should have known. But you know, the longer I stumble along through life, the more I become aware that some lessons can only be learnt the “hard” way. That is, there was only one way we were going to come to the realisation that we belong where we were, and that was by going away.

Freshly fallen snow while I wait for the bus
Freshly fallen snow while I wait for the bus

It’s been a pretty amazing journey in a lot of ways. Well, I can really only speak for myself here, but I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to do this MA here at U of T. It’s taught me so much, and that’s not even including the stuff I’m actually meant to learn for the program itself! The more I do, the more I put myself out there, challenge myself, the more chances I take, the more I realise I have a right to do this too. Just because these people here are doing PhDs or studying at this amazing, prestigious university doesn’t make them any more special or talented than me. And no, it’s not a competition. But I think when you’re sitting at home in some backwater like Canberra you develop a little bit of an inferiority complex. Or rather, you think that all those people studying at Harvard or famous people in Hollywood or people who work for The Economist in London or some top PR guru at some swanky firm in Sydney have something you’ll never have. And that’s just not true. You can absolutely be up at the level of anyone else. There is no one “better” than you. Just because you’re studying photography at TAFE doesn’t mean you haven’t got the same potential as someone doing a PhD in English Lit at Oxford. It’s all perception and self-belief.

Anyway, It’s time to go home to Melbourne. I still have about six weeks of study left (what?! Is that it?!!) and then graduation in May plus the Dude will see out the school year up until the end of June. We’ve booked to fly out at the end of July and now I’m gathering quotes from moving companies. We will have some rest time at my mum’s before heading back down to lovely Melbourne and reconstructing a life there. Hopefully we can both get work fairly soon and a mortgage will be on the horizon. I balk slightly at the amount of work this is going to take, but my heart is warmed at the thought of finally setting up home somewhere. To think I was complaining about not being settled some eight years ago when Mr Chewbacca and I met!

I'm not sure if squirrels are supposed to hibernate but they seem to be hanging around throughout winter this year. These ones are in Queen's Park.
I’m not sure if squirrels are supposed to hibernate but they seem to be hanging around throughout winter this year. These ones are in Queen’s Park.

Some people might say this is history repeating itself. My British grandparents came to Melbourne as Ten Pound Poms in 1959. The decision to leave London was, I think, partly motivated by my grandfather who had travelled a lot during his time in the army and knew there was more out there than doing what ten generations of his family had done before him working at the docks in London. My grandmother was very much attached to familiarity and found it hard to leave her home. She didn’t feel safe a lot in her life and London gave her a feeling of safety which she left when she agreed to go to Australia. So they went. And it was hard, I think. But granddad got work and things were going well enough. Then he had an accident at work where two fingers were severed. It was serious enough to land him in hospital for a time and the family without an income. I’m pretty sure my grandmother was either heavily pregnant or had just given birth to my uncle at the time. My dad, who was about 12 or 13 when his brother was born, was the eldest. The story goes that he ended up on some kind of game show that donates money to families in need and apparently this helped the family get by while granddad was recovering. In the end, the accident was the best thing that could have happened as granddad received an insurance payout and for the first time ever the family had the opportunity to put a deposit on a property. While waiting for the payout to be awarded, another spanner brought the whole thing to a grinding halt: they had word from London that my granddad’s mother was ill and may not last long. With the insurance money through, the family actually had the means to return home for her funeral. But that would preclude any home-buying in Melbourne. Granddad, typically, left the family’s next move in the hands of fate. He decreed that if the property purchase was approved by the following Monday, they’d stay. If not, they’d return. And as fate would have it, they ended up returning. It was a mistake, of course. Well, nothing is a mistake. But returning to the UK was like a step backward and wasn’t really good for anyone. There’s a lot more to the story, lots I don’t know and probably some bits I got wrong, but I wanted to share this to illustrate why what’s happening for me and my family now is something of a repetition. This time, however, this time we’ve done it right. We are making the right decision. I know, because I have no doubts whatsoever about it.

As I write this, the snow is falling outside – probably the last snowfall of the season before spring descends and humidity returns with a vengeance. It is probably as close to a perfect winter’s day as you can get, exactly what we came for. It’s been generally a disappointing winter for the most part, quite mild and so erratic, although I suspect the latter is normal. I will definitely miss the snow when it goes. But we will go to the snow back home and take the Dude and Thumper skating at the only rink in Melbourne.

So it’s all happening, the wheels are in motion. There’s a lot more to write about this, in the context of why we decided to come to Canada in the first place. There are a few unanswered questions. I’ll get back to you later on those. While there is a slight feeling of disappointment that our little experiment didn’t quite work out, there’s a much stronger feeling of happiness that this is exactly where we need to be, right now. We are going home and we are satisfied that it’s our home. No more searching and wondering and restlessness. We’re for Melbourne.

Is snow enough?

It seems we moved to Canada for winter. Being an introvert, and having few friends due to so many moves, I thought connections could be made in time over here as they would be anywhere and the beautiful winter, proper fall and defined seasons would be enough to make me fall for Canada (no pun intended). Over Christmas I began to get increasingly down in the dumps. Despite it being cold outside, having a beautiful tree and millions of lights in the street, even a few flurries of snow, I still didn’t feel the Christmas spirit. 

It’s odd because in Australia it’s so hot at Christmas, too light for little kids to see any lights before bedtime, Californian pine trees that shed needles and droop, no holly or mistletoe… Going to the beach in 40 degree heat and finding ways to cool down are not Christmassy. But it’s how it is and it’s home. 

This winter, so far, is unseasonably mild here in Toronto. But we have had some snow, flurries, as they say. I adore the cold, I feel like I’m physically designed for it, like I’m more alive in winter. I love winter sports like skating and skiing. It’s been amazing actually owning skates for the first time ever, despite learning to skate as a kid. Dude has been having lessons and is really good, and after about ten lessons has gone from being unable to even stand on the ice without assistance to confidently shuffling himself from one end of the rink to the other. We sometimes go to a casual session as well which is fun although it’s getting increasingly difficult to wrangle Thumper who just wants to get out on the ice. I sometimes skate her around just with her feet on the ice and holding her under the arms which she loves but my back is not a fan! They also bring out some witch’s hat plastic cones for the less confident skaters to lean on so sometimes I get her to stand on the base of one and push her around. I think she’ll be getting skates for her second birthday! There’s a pond in the next street which apparently freezes in winter and the kids skate there and set up hockey goals and stuff so that’ll be fun. 

 

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winter
 It’s a bit annoying keeping the kids warm and dry enough. Especially Thumper as she finds the bulky snow gear pretty restrictive and can’t play as much as she’d like. At least it’s easy to come by a large range of decent snow gear for cheap via all the consignment stores. They are one of my favourite things about living here, definitely something worth creating in Australia. The wind chill factor is what it’s all about here, the “feels like” temperature. So, for example, it’ll be 2 degrees but feel like -5. And it’s wet. I’ve owned my down jacket and Merrell hiking shoes for about six or seven years now and it’s only being here that I’ve discovered neither is waterproof! Of course I’m doing a lot of walking outside, especially with catching public transport back and forth to uni. I have no trouble doing 10,000 steps in a day. 

Anyway, back to the snow, yes, we’ve had a little and it’s been great. I enjoy the biting cold on my cheeks, much more pleasant than sun burning me in a few minutes. But. Now I’m here, feeling all this cold, and this is what I wanted, I don’t think it’s enough. Not that it’s not enough snow or cold, but just a cold climate isn’t enough to make me feel at home. I know with any new place you have to give it time but there isn’t a lot here to love (for me, anyway) and I’m feeling a pull to Australia. I can’t stand the city, does nothing for me and I have no desire to walk around it. It’s kind of like Sydney actually, kind of messy and dirty and always road works and stuff being built or repaired, shirtless homeless guys taking up the majority of the sidewalk next to intersections, everyone trying to get everywhere all the time. 

 

our street and a few lights
 
I also don’t love where we live. It’s an average suburban neighbourhood, the house is big and good enough although plenty of shortcomings. We’re 40km outside the city so it’s about an hour and a half to Toronto taking bus, train and subway with a walk at each end but that’s not an issue. Our neighbours are great, it’s so nice knowing so many of them. Lots of kids in the area go to the same school so there’s a sort of community feel which is nice too. But there’s something about all this that is extremely mundane and that bothers me. I’m not sure how to explain it but I kind of feel like people are just going through the motions around here and I feel like I want to be in a place of excellence, something exceptional. I can’t explain it but suffice it to say, if we stayed here we’d move. 

But can we really go back to all that heat, the tired bush, the overpriced coffee? Culturally there is a lot I don’t feel matches me in Australia. And that’s the struggle, still presenting itself after all these years. I wish I felt more affection for Canada, I really do, but I just don’t. If we’re talking love for a place, it goes back to the UK for me, hands down, yet I could never live there again. All signs are pointing to Australia… But… Snow!

Christmas in Canada is green

Since we arrived we’ve had people telling us not to get our hopes up for a white Christmas. I guess I didn’t really think about whether we’d have snow at Christmas, I just kind of assumed it would happen. It just so happens that this winter has taken a long time to set in and, so far, has been unusually mild. It feels kind of like a British winter I guess.  

trying to capture a stunning sunset from our balcony
 

And yes, Christmas was green, as they say here. It was cool but not cold. We did have a bit of snow a few weeks earlier but after a few bizarre unseasonable days of around 15 degrees and some rain, there was no snow left. But it was coldish and everyone had their Christmas lights up plus other decorations so that really helped create some atmosphere.  

our tree. a proper fir tree, not those ones we get in Aus
 

Despite all this, and even though we played all the Christmas music we could find and watched every Christmas movie available as well as putting up copious amounts of lights and decorations, more than any other year, I struggled to feel Christmassy. I’m sure the fact that I had to write three essays in the week leading up, and had to go into uni as late as the 21st to hand in one of those essays, didn’t help. I had my final essay due in January too so it wasn’t like I had a true break mentally. But the lack of Christmas spirit wasn’t just about that. 

Thumper trying to eat decorations off gingerbread biscuits we made
 
I can’t really explain it, to be honest. A lot of stuff didn’t feel right, especially just being in Canada. It’s like we had to create Christmas from scratch. We went to the Santa parade in the city which is about as Christmassy as you can get but even that didn’t seem right somehow. 

Anyway, we did have a good Christmas, despite being woken at 5:15am by two children who I am amazed were excited and aware enough to get up so early and perpetuate the stereotype of kids getting up at the crack of dawn to open presents. I mean, seriously, they are 4 and 1, surely they can’t be so aware as to wake early due to anticipation! Aren’t kids not meant to have a sense of time until like 8 or something?! Hmm, this doesn’t bode well for subsequent Christmas mornings!

trying to keep Dude amused while waiting for the Santa parade to start
 
Mr Chewbacca spent about 80 per cent of the day in the kitchen (I have no idea how to make a roast and if I attempted it, we’d be eating burnt, cold food at midnight). We drank plenty of alcohol, eggnog, Bailey’s, wine, cider, mulled wine, so that was good. I think eggnog will be a staple at Christmas henceforth. 

So Christmas crept up and then ended pretty abruptly. I can’t say I’m a fan of the short holiday break here and the propensity of Canadians to work themselves to the bone right up until Christmas and then dive straight back in the day after. This year was good because of when the weekend fell but I imagine other years would be worse. 

somehow this is one of the only images i managed to capture of the parade itself
 
Anyway, the conclusion here is that, despite the season’s appropriateness, I had the least Christmassy Christmas of my life. I think I may even have missed the summer Christmas! (You can’t buy fresh prawns here!) I hate the extreme heat that often dominates an Aussie Christmas but this experience made me realize that I’d not only become accustomed to a summer Christmas, it actually had begun to define Christmas for me. Don’t get me wrong, there is not much that can top the feeling of drinking hot mulled wine with the cold stinging your cheeks while you listen to Fairytale of New York and watch your Christmas tree lights twinkling. Or that first walk down Regent Street in London after the lights are up. That’s Christmas. But… So is G&Ts on your verandah while the kids splash in the pool. Fresh seafood on the beach. A giant, boozy trifle full of berries. Sitting round the tree in your shorts and singlet as it’s already 28 degrees at 7am. Getting pool toys for Christmas. This is all just stuff you can do or experience on a hot day, but the more you do things, the more they become tradition. Whether they’re stereotypically Christmassy or not, they become the markers that help create that feeling you so desperately crave at a time like Christmas. They help you focus on what’s important, family, being with those important to you, just being. They help you temporarily relinquish all the messy, stressful, day-to-day clutter and find peace and love in simplicity. That’s what’s important to me about Christmas, I realise that now. 
when the snow began
 
For the first time, I began to wonder whether “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” was a song about being in another, warmer climate during the holiday season. I think it might be. Or at least that’s how I’m going to take it from now on. 

It’s gonna snow

So excited about the possibility of snow! I keep looking at the sky and seeing snow clouds, the kind I’d see over the hills surrounding Canberra growing up. I’ve known what snow clouds look like for a long time, but so rarely have I actually been anywhere where it snows while it’s actually snowing. I just love the cold so much, it matches me.

The weather report changes all the time and this winter is, thus far, (although technically it’s not winter for another month) unseasonably warm. There was apparently snow on the ground this time last year, yet we haven’t even been needing winter jackets every day. Mr Chewbacca isn’t impressed, but I know the snow is coming, it may just be a little later, and that’s fine because I know it doesn’t thaw until March or April anyway.

Nothing else to report, just wanted to say, it’s gonna snow!!

The big move

So now our big overseas trip is over, we’re planning our even bigger move to Melbourne. This kind of thing is so hard to plan, given neither of us have lived there before and we’re really on one income so Mr Chewbacca finding a job is imperative. It’s all a bit chicken and egg really. To complicate matters further, Mr C’s job might be changing a fair bit, which is a fantastic opportunity for him but might mean he needs to put in the hard yards for a while here in Sydney and build up some experience before he can apply for something in the same vein in Melbourne and expect to get a look in. We’ll find out at the end of the week what the verdict is there. In the mean time, we’ve also got a friend’s wedding in Thailand in October, and although I wasn’t totally sure about going – spending all that money, dragging the Dude to Thailand – Mr C made a very good point: this might be our last holiday for a few years, given we’re planning the big move and making a new baby later this year. Okay, so that might not all pan out, but still he has a point. Plus the wedding is going to be freaking awesome, because our friends don’t do anything by halves.

Perfection
Perfection

And then there are the bigger elements of a decision like moving to another city. It’s not just whether we’ll be happy there or not, it’s more that Melbourne is a last ditch attempt to settle in Australia. Just this morning, before work, I was watching an episode of Who Do You Think You Are (the American one, not the best) and Brooke Shields went to France to discover her royal ancestry. I watched the amazing shots of Paris, the city, the life, the history, and then the even more incredible footage where they drove out to the countryside to find the 300-year-old farm house of some ancestor, a huge stone building sitting in the middle of an exquisite forest, thick snow on the ground, grey birch trees’ delicate branches like the fingers of a ballet dancer reaching elegantly into the soft white sky. As usual, when I see footage like this, or read Soulemama‘s blog or look at some photos I took while living overseas, I felt the tears begin to well up hot behind my eyes. Nothing brings that surge of emotion into my heart like the Northern Hemisphere. I love Australia in a way, some of the landscape is stunning, and the space is just fantastic; but it doesn’t make my heart soar like a European winter. I definitely feel more at home in places where proper winter happens (ie. south east, and not Sydney). Here, the winter is, to use a typical Aussie expression, piss weak. It gets down to about 12 or so, maybe a little cooler overnight, and sometimes there’s a bit of a half-arsed frost. You need a heater and a jumper and jacket. But you don’t really need gloves and you don’t need central heating. It’s only cold for a couple of months. Canberra, at least, gets much colder, into the minuses, and frosts are common, as are frozen pipes, woolly hats and gloves, and wood fires. But it only snows regularly in the snow fields, which are a good couple of hours from Canberra in NSW and Melbourne in Victoria.

Just last night we finished watching The Sopranos, all six seasons. Both Mr C and I would sigh in almost every episode at the sight of the natural landscape shown. The trees, autumn leaves, snowy fields, black forests, bright grey skies, huge Georgian houses with rambling verandahs, attics, French windows, peaked roofs, wooden panelling, wood stoves… We both have a connection to that kind of world. A world where it snows in winter, you can get lost in a pile of leaves in autumn, and summers are spent on a big wraparound deck. This world of the northern hemisphere is nearly impossible to find here in Australia. In fact, yes, it’s not possible. You can build the house, of course, but you won’t get the weather, and even if you did get snow, it’s not ingrained in the culture here like it is over there. So our move to Melbourne will be done with a little hesitation and hope. We both wonder whether we’ll be able to settle there, and we both hope we can get some sort of resolution and feel at home. But I think both of us are a little apprehensive. The pull to the northern hemisphere is pretty strong. It’s certainly been with me my whole life, even though I was born and grew up in Australia. And for Mr C, it’s his home.

An amazing image I captured on my phone after a wintery afternoon at the Christmas Markets in Hyde Park (London) sometime near the end of 2008
An amazing image I captured on my phone after a wintery afternoon at the Christmas Markets in Hyde Park (London) sometime near the end of 2008

So that’s the consensus: if Melbourne doesn’t work, and we’ll give it a few years, as we did Sydney, it’s back to the UK for us. Something about that possibility doesn’t seem quite right either. There are some drawbacks about living over there and I always begin to think about living elsewhere in Europe, which we could do given we’ve all got British passports. And that’s when I think that home really is where the heart is so we could be happy anywhere, providing we are all together and have opportunities to make life good. I don’t want to end up regretting not following my heart in later years, but by the same token I don’t want to uproot my family and never feel settled because I didn’t really make an effort. Which is why I will be putting every bit of my heart and soul into settling in Melbourne. Now it’s just a waiting game, waiting for our mortgage to be refinanced, waiting for Mr C’s job to be sorted out, waiting  until we have the money to move. It’s been done before a million times, but I can’t help feeling like it’s the hardest thing in the world.