Backtracking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My life in a shed and other junk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things I think and/or hope are in there:

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

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

Coming full circle

It’s been over a month since we arrived in Canberra. I expected to be blogging sooner but our Internet connection got screwed up and we had to wait. So this was drafted on my phone and finished over the weeks after our Internet was connected.

The move itself was insane. An interstate move is hard enough without hiring your own truck and having few volunteers to help load and unload. We really struggled to get people to help, due in part, I think, to my inability to embrace Sydney as home and make friends. Those who ended up coming to help were amazing! We planned four hours to load, meaning we’d be in Canberra for unloading at 3pm, but it took a lot longer, over two hours longer actually, which meant the truck, with Mr Chewbacca and our good friend S in it, arrived in the dark! The house at least has good heating, and we had a few movies on a USB to plug into the tv and stare at while we wolfed down pizza and beer before passing out. Dude ended up being in bed two hours after his bedtime. It was awful having to pull the mattresses and bedding out of the truck in the dark.

Packing and unpacking boxes is a thankless task!
Packing and unpacking boxes is a thankless task!

The next day I roped a couple of people into helping with the unloading which was easily done in an hour while I fiddled about trying to locate the coffee machine and get caffeine into everyone. What an ordeal! Yes, we saved a lot of money that we really haven’t got, given we’re both unemployed, but I can guarantee I won’t be attempting that again. It was made extra hard by needing to clean the new place before we could put stuff away. We’re only now finally unpacked, with a couple of near-empty boxes still floating about.

I am so glad to be out of Sydney! Despite the fact that we still have no income and we can finally see just how great a renovation job we’ve got to face, it feels good to be here. The weather has been great, some frosts and cool, crisp days, and we’ve been doing a bit of exploring. I’ve even been going for walks around the neighbourhood, which is something I never did when I lived here before. It feels great to exercise again (more on that aspect in my next post) and I’ve realised more and more just how strangely familiar this move is for me.

When I was two going on three, the same age as Dude is now, my parents and I moved to Canberra from Sydney. My dad was to get a job in the public service. We moved in with friends who had raved about how great Canberra was for kids and had relocated there a few years previously. I have vague memories of being there in those early days, and I’m pretty sure I had my third birthday there. Our friends had two huge German shepherds that would run around and up and down the stairs that led down to the back yard, stairs that seemed to go on forever. I once slammed my ring finger in the thick, oak front door. Blood was everywhere and my finger is very different from its counterpart on the other had to this day. My mum was more upset than me, I think. Somehow she thought if I were let to run wild a bit I’d be damaged. Or something like that anyway. The other kids, three of them, with the middle boy being my age, were louder and more outgoing than me. I think back and wonder whether I’d be more outgoing now if it weren’t for being cushioned. I don’t know.

My blurry photo of the first house I ever lived in Canberra
My blurry photo of the first house I ever lived in Canberra

Earlier this week, on the first of my energetic walks, I walked to this first house I ever lived in Canberra. Coincidentally, it is only about 40 minutes walk from our current house. Typical me, I still remember the address despite not having been there in at least 25 years. I wheeled the stroller containing a sleep-fighting dude along the complex network of walking paths that extend across most Canberra suburbs, through the awesomely convenient tunnels under the main roads (they used to seem scary to me as a child; now they’re just very convenient, although I often expect them to smell like stale urine. Most don’t actually). I ended up approaching through a cul-de-sac, where some other kids our friends knew used to live. I won’t ever forget watching Dirty Dancing at that house, after being forbidden to watch it by our mums. I think I must have been about eight. The cul-de-sac leads into what used to seem like a huge park in a massive expanse of empty land. It wasn’t as big as I remember! I walked past where there had been swings once. Huge boulders that seemed even bigger when I used to climb them still lay as if scattered by some giant.

I turned right onto the street and the house was next to me. It was pretty much exactly the same, albeit smaller and a little more overgrown with trees and hedges. I wanted to stop and snap a photo but felt like whoever lived there now could see me, so I just pointed my phone in the general direction and took a picture without stopping. Hence the pointless image above.

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One of Canberra’s many footpath underpasses – Dude loves them, he shouts ‘echo!’ as we go underneath

As I walked up what used to seem like the steepest hill in the world, I thought that this move to Canberra, while great, is definitely not a permanent one. I now have a new-found love for this place and I will always love it as my home town but I think we need to do what we came here to do and move on to Melbourne where we can start fresh. In addition to my lingering need to get a feel for life in Melbourne and hopefully settle there permanently, I have this uneasy, suffocating feeling about repeating history by staying here. There are too many similarities between our move and my parents and mine over 30 years ago and while I’m eternally grateful to whatever force caused my parents to leave Sydney, many of the things that happened in Canberra to my family were not great and I don’t want any possibility of any more history repeating itself. There’s more to say, but I’ll leave it at that.

So after a brief chat with Mr C, the decision has been made to prep the house for sale and blow this Popsicle stand as soon as we can. So much more to do yet but at least we have a plan!

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One aspect of many that we need to do with at our Canberra place – the back yard. This is actually part way through the work we’ve done to date, which involved removing 40-year-old Banksia roses that were so overgrown, they were starting to collapse the fence. We’ve now planted cypress trees around the fence which will eventually grow into a high hedge.

An unexpected change in the plan

Okay, let’s face it, there wasn’t really a ‘plan’, per se, more of a general hope on my part and perhaps a bit of dread on the part of Mr Chewbacca. But we certainly didn’t expect to be moving so soon, especially interstate, and not even to Melbourne! The big move to Canberra, back to my old stomping ground, is happening in two weeks! No need to read any further, but if you want to know the story…

Let’s begin, well, somewhere logical. Things have been a bit strange for us recently. How do I explain it? I began typing out the whole story, but deleted it as I was up to 450 words and hadn’t even gotten to the actual change of plan yet. Basically, through a weird turn of events, we ended up without an income between us, buying a brand new car. We got up on a Saturday morning, early, as is inevitable with a two-year-old, and I spontaneously said, ‘let’s do a road trip to Canberra’. We wanted to give our new car a run and we hadn’t been to Canberra since before the Dude was born. So we booked a cheap hotel in the city and off we went for a night.

It was great being there again after so long, and I realised there were so many places I wanted to take my boys. It’s a great city for children, so much to do and so easy to get around (due to lack of traffic, not availability of public transport!) and we had a great time just enjoying the clean, cool air, walking under the autumn trees, playing at the park, eating pancakes. It felt comfortable. In fact we both breathed a huge sigh of relief as we drove down Northbourne Avenue into the simple, clean, empty, order of it all. Pre-child, I felt trapped and bored by it all, but it was a totally different experience as a family. Despite all the goodness, as we drove home on the Sunday afternoon, I said to Mr C that I am absolutely certain that the move to Melbourne is the way forward and although living in Canberra might be nice enough, it’s not where we need to be, and he agreed. It was so nice to have that confirmation.

Fast forward a few weeks and Mr C had come so close to getting a number of jobs but still nothing! I had begun to apply for a few jobs, but half-heartedly. Leaving the Dude would be hard and having to travel in Sydney for work even harder. God I can’t describe how much I hate Sydney! And the city is a complete toilet! I would seriously be happy never to have to see it ever again in my life. There is nothing there for me.

About two weeks ago, I got an email; the tenants who’d been living in our house in Canberra for nearly six years were moving out in a month! Within a few minutes, after completely freaking out, we realised that paying rent and the mortgage would be an impossibility, given we had no income as it was. We’d previously had an agent go through the place (it’s been rented privately this whole time, I got lucky with some lovely tenants) and he’d indicated it would need some serious smartening up before it could be rented out again. It had been renovated a bit before I bought it, but that was nearly eight years ago now. No doubt it was looking tired. We realised that renovating and paying the mortgage and our rent too was impossible and crazy. I think it was Mr C who jokingly suggested we move to Canberra and live in the place while we fix it up. I think I knew from that moment that we’d actually be doing it, but I couldn’t just say it; Mr C takes time to deal with changes like this.

After a couple of days of speaking to friends, getting some perspective, and finding ways to stop freaking out, we agreed: we’ll move to Canberra. And with that, we were excited! Of course, since then, the reality of our decision has set in. We’ll be hiring a truck and doing it ourselves – hopefully this time it won’t be covered in graffiti and six hours late (long story there) – and we have had to recruit some friends to help load and unload. In addition, we’ve discovered, as I feared, that Mr C is unlikely to get a job in Canberra because he isn’t eligible for citizenship until January. So although he’s applying, I am kind of on deck to get something. Which isn’t totally scary. I’ve applied for a few and still have more to apply for, and I actually had a phone interview, which was a surprise. I don’t think I was successful as it was two weeks ago now and I’ve not heard. But still, there is hope if I can get an interview despite not really having worked for two years.

What is totally fantastic about this move, aside from getting out of Sydney which is like a dream come true, is that the Dude will get to have a bit of time in Canberra, kid utopia and we’ll get to enjoy the second half of winter properly. No more humidity, no more mould, no more 20 degrees in the middle of winter! And despite our excitement, we are still focusing on our eventual move to Melbourne in six months. Just in time for Mr C’s 40th… I’m going to have to come up with something good to make it perfect!

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.

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.

Long haul: co-sleeping on the move

This is the second in a series of posts I’m doing on our recent trip to South Africa and the UK.

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The candelabra chandelier at out cabin on the farm. We never lit it but in winter, with a fire going in the grate, this would be gorgeous. No electricity is lovely!

When planning this trip and getting in touch with all the people we’d be staying with, the question was always, ‘oh, what about a cot for the little one?’ And the response was always, ‘oh no, don’t worry, he sleeps with us’. Most people, I think, know this is what we do.  Some probably just think, okay, whatever, don’t know why you’d do that but okay. Others probably think the ‘rod for your own back’ thing. And obviously some, who do the same, realise how easy co-sleeping can make things. Not that I’m saying I’d have chosen to co-sleep before the Dude arrived. In fact, I was staunchly against it when my midwife first broached the subject. But it has given us more sleep than trying to get him to sleep on his own in a cot, that I’m absolutely certain of. I have a dream that the next one will be like I was as a baby and sleep 12 hours a night from three months. Ha!

So, on this trip, we slept in a lot of different places (including the plane, although I don’t know I’d count that as sleeping, more passing out temporarily from exhaustion, only to be woken by a kick in the face and an angry screech). First up was our good friend’s parents’ place in Krugerstorp, just outside of Johannesburg. They have a typically South African gorgeous big rambling house with heaps of room, pool, tennis court, beautiful grounds, all surrounded by tall iron gates. We spent one night there before driving out to ‘the farm’, and we stayed in a lovely big room which was sort of outside the rest of the house, or at least the entrance was, with an ensuite bathroom across the way. The bed, we were informed, was very old, apparently made by our friend’s grandfather or great-grandfather, beautifully carved wood, but sadly only a standard double size. We have a queen at home with the Dude’s cot side-carted (he has finally started rolling into it sometimes when he’s asleep, woo hoo!) so lots more room. It was very peaceful in the room. I finally succumbed to sleep when I put the Dude down about 8:30pm and he did manage to stay asleep for a couple of hours. We dragged a big old piano stool to my side of the bed and put pillows all around, just in case he decided to roll off, and that sort of worked although he did push it away when he was really restless. Of course, because of jet lag, he woke about 2:30am and started playing around. I gave him some travel flower essence and some rescue remedy for sleep that I’d bought in preparation and let him play around a bit. Mr C, who’d stayed up far too late having beers and catching up with our friend’s brothers, was in no mood to be jumped on, but he sleepily tolerated it. Amazingly enough, Dude was awake about 40 minutes, and then I switched off the light, laid him back down and he went back off to sleep! That was pretty much the extent of his jet lag, and when you consider that Sydney and Johannesburg are something like nine hours apart time-wise, I think that was pretty impressive.

The next day, we drove through to our friend’s parents’ game farm, which is about 90 minutes away.  I sat in the back between our friend’s mum and the Dude.  He slept part of the way and was pretty good, but towards the end he got really upset and just wanted out. Of course, I’d forgotten: TIA! This is Africa! Stuff keeping kids restrained and all that! His mum said to me she’d actually prefer me to have him on my lap and that it’s no big deal, they wouldn’t get pulled over for it. I realised she was right when I noticed all the utes with half a dozen guys just sitting in the back, cruising along the dusty, pot-holed highways at 100km/hr.  So I put him on my lap, held him firmly, fed him, and he was happy. When we arrived at the farm, it dawned on us that there is no electricity. None at all. But paraffin and gas lamps, gas hot water, and even a paraffin fridge meant we had all the comforts of home, more or less. It did pose a bit of a problem arriving home after dark and having to get the Dude changed by the light of lamps, or when we were feeling too tired, our phones. On that first night at the farm, the Dude woke again around the same time, but he couldn’t get up and play because it was absolutely pitch black.  Mr C found it quite unnerving, being unable to see even your hand right in front of your face, but for me it was just brilliant not to have that distraction of electricity and technology. And because it was so dark, I think the Dude must have thought he was still asleep, so he wrestled around for a few minutes, had a booby, and fell back to sleep. And that was it for jet lag, all done. I seemed to have recovered fairly well too, but Mr C struggled the whole time, waking at 2am and being unable to sleep or see anything. The cabin we stayed in was well ventilated but no fly screens were on the windows which we left open the whole time. Luckily it cooled down nicely at night. The Dude had to sleep between us which was a bit squishy, again, in a double bed, but it worked and made things so easy without having to work out the logistics of fitting in a cot and trying to get him to stay asleep in there. The interesting thing about co-sleeping is that when I’m telling others about it, I always find they have their stories about how they did it, even though it wasn’t the done thing. Our friend’s mum had stories like that, and she’d had five kids, all grown up now.

After our five night in South Africa, we headed over to the UK for the Dude to meet his grandparents in Manchester. We had explained to Mr C’s mum that Dude doesn’t sleep in a cot, but I think she had a hard time working this out in her head as her kids had all slept in cots whether they liked it or not. She had gone to the trouble of getting us a travel cot (which was never even unpacked) and even another little blow up bed which was really cute, but again, the Dude just jumped around on it for a few seconds and then was totally disinterested. Because he’s always slept with us, he doesn’t get the concept of having his own bed and I wasn’t about to try and transition him when he’s already in a strange place. So he slept between us in the spare bed, again, a double, which made it pretty squishy. I’d forgotten how much smaller everything is in the UK, space-saving.

We’d decided we’d try and take advantage of having grandparents around and head out a couple of nights. The second night we were there, we had tickets to see Ben Folds at the Manchester Apollo.  I got the Dude down to sleep at 7pm and we headed out. Nanna was in charge. I’d warned her that he almost never stays asleep and that he won’t just go back to sleep after a bit of a grizzle.  She’ll need to go in and pick him up and rock him back to sleep, or lie down with him and cuddle him. Even that, I was pretty sure, might pose problematic. I knew he’d scream because he’s used to me being there, or even daddy coming in sometimes to lie down with him. He barely knew this person, despite the fact she is is nanna. When we got home, shortly after 11pm, the scene was pretty dismal. Nanna was exhausted, having tried everything to get him to chill out, and Dude had eventually passed out once or twice but was lying half awake in her lap. She whispered at me in horror, ‘he’s not normal!’ as I went upstairs to get him back to sleep again. I knew this would happen. It’s nearly impossible to impart to someone with such different ideas about parenting just what we do and how we do it. And I don’t think she realised that the Dude doesn’t ever back down, he never gives up, he tells you what he wants and will keep telling you as loudly as possible until he gets it! I don’t see this as a negative thing necessarily, not for an 18-month-old, as I think he isn’t aware of himself as an individual yet and is just expressing his needs and happens to be very good at doing so. My mother-in-law is of a different school of thought. She believes babies and children should be placed in their cots when the adult determines it’s bed time and the door shut and the baby left to get to sleep any way possible, even if that means lots of screaming and crying. Personally I believe this can permanently damage a child. And aside from that, I don’t agree with ignoring cries of distress from any loved one, adult or child. If my husband was afraid and confused and needing the comfort of my arms, I’d give it to him. Why not a baby?

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London, man, you can’t beat it!

Anyway, the ten days or so we were in Manchester were very interesting. I know my mother-in-law doesn’t see eye-to-eye with me on many aspects of parenting, and I know she mentioned it a few times to Mr C, but to her credit, she didn’t try to have a go at me about it or start a fight. She mentioned a few times politely what she thinks should happen and why, and I explained why that wouldn’t work for us and we really just left it at that. I would love the Dude to sleep in his own bed, and yes, in his own room, I’m not going to deny that, but I know that’s not what he needs and it’s not in keeping with the basic, instinctive needs of babies and children, which dominate more than our learned behaviours, particularly at this age. One day, he will transition to his own space, perhaps with some gently assistance from his parents, but never will I force him into anything. I know someone who is now desperate for love and touch and comfort because he never received enough as a baby. I don’t want the Dude to end up that way.

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The pond down the road from Mr C’s nan’s house in Carlisle. Gorgeous and icy!

On our second last night in Manchester, something interesting happened. We went for dinner with friends, leaving nanna to deal with the Dude again. When we got home, he was miraculously sleeping peacefully by himself in bed. Apparently he’d woken as usual but she’d done something different this time. She got the distinct impression that he was afraid of the dark, so she turned on the light. He saw she was there and quickly fell back to sleep! Of course, I don’t know how long all this took or what else happened, but he seemed very different. My mother-in-law said she just knew he was scared to be in the dark and as soon as he could see where he was and that someone was there, he was fine. I have had that idea before, but I can’t say it’s ever helped me, although my experience of getting him to sleep is always going to differ because I’m the mummy with the boobies! So I was relieved that MIL managed to work out how to get him settled and he was happier to be around her. I was also glad because I think she had been feeling somewhat rejected and this really turned things around.

We stayed in London with friends for the last five days of our trip. They’d asked the cot question too of course and had kindly arranged a whole bunch of other stuff for us which we actually didn’t need, like a highchair and stair gates. It was interesting because they have chosen not to have kids, so while they like them, they are happy in their lovely house, just the two of them. We tried our best to make sure the Dude didn’t trash anything and that meant turning off most electrical stuff at the wall and turning the bin around so it was less accessible. The bed, thankfully, was a queen size, so we were pretty comfortable. Of course, the Dude getting sick and vomiting in the middle of a restaurant and then later in the hallway and in the bed (luckily we’d already put towels down) was a pretty hideous way to end the trip, but what can you do? He is a vomity person, it seems.

Overall, co-sleeping worked really well for us while travelling, and saved the hassle of organising cots and rearranging rooms. Small beds are hard to deal with, and I know sometimes he is disturbed by us being next to him, but other times he is woken because we’re NOT there.  It’s hard when the Dude is between us and kicks off the covers as we all end up cold. So there are pros and cons. As I say, if I had a child who would fall asleep and then be put in a bed without waking, I’d be doing that. But I don’t. Next time we go, he’ll be in his own bed, I hope.

The next and final installment in my series of posts on long haul travelling with a toddler will be about coping with big cities and non-child-friendly places.