It will change everything. I don’t know how it got to this. But now we are at a point where we have to make what feels like an impossible choice. It feels so hard because it will change the course of our lives entirely. It’s terrifying.
A week ago our Canadian visas were approved. Our flights are booked for a month from now. One month to move our entire lives to Canada. We don’t have the money this time. There’s no going back. But if we can’t find decent income, a house, an au pair, all the stuff that goes along with settling, we fail. Who knows where we’ll end up. The kids get dragged around the world. It’s not good, not what we’d hoped for. Even if we do find enough income, we won’t save money. Which means we can’t buy a house. Which means continued instability. And even if we did eventually save the down payment, we’re getting to that age where a 25 year mortgage really isn’t viable. We’d be working far beyond normal retirement age. We’ve left everything so late.
I actually have regrets. I really can’t believe I do but it’s true. It’s so counterproductive to have regrets too. I need a fresh start, drop all that past and just begin afresh now.
So then we stay. We build up more savings until we have a decent ten percent deposit in 12 months. We find a place in Melbourne. We buy it. We move. We settle. We make it our own, as close to anything we could get in Canada. We stay forever and have a happy, comfortable life, casting aside our discomfort at hot summers and mediocre seasonal traditions because we’re comfortable. We don’t have to worry much about money. We cruise along and forget all about how much better it might have been as Canadians.
Is this it? If we stay will we never achieve anything else? A Melbourne future used to be my dream for many years. And then I lost it, for the sake of a new and illogical yet idealistic dream. Can we return to the happiness we felt at the prospect of moving to Melbourne five years ago? We need to decide now, tomorrow is the final deadline. I have no answers and neither does Mr Chewbacca. This is so very hard.
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.
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.
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…
We are coming to the end of our Canadian adventure and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I kind of wish we’d have had the opportunity (or been coerced) to stay longer, another year. I wonder what may have happened had I been accepted at somewhere like Calgary instead, where the course was two years. I feel as if we’d stay in Canada for good if we were here another year. Like we’d be too ensconced.
One thing’s for sure: I’m not in love with Canada. I don’t have the connection to North America that Mr Chewbacca does. He wishes we were staying. I kind of understand why but I still can’t quite get over not being ‘in love’ with Canada. It’s a beautiful country, the seasons happen at the right time of year and there are proper seasons that you really look forward to. The landscape is beautiful, as are the plants and animals and all of that appeals to me far more than the Australian equivalents. Canadians are good people, nice people. Similar to the Americans, they often don’t get sarcasm, they can be conservative and overly restrained but they love their country with humility and they welcome everyone as equals. You can’t fault that aspect. Australia could really take a leaf out of Canada’s book in that respect actually. I wish we’d had the chance to visit the west coast but it just wasn’t to be. I think we will return if only to see the rest of the country.
We did do some road trips to New York and Chicago which were awesome and I’m so glad I let Mr C talk me into it. I have to be honest and say I never really wanted to come to North America. It just never had that pull for me, I wanted to go to Europe instead, a place I imagined I’d fit into. And I did, when I went. I felt that connection to the place when I lived in London. Culturally it’s quite a homely place for me. Canada isn’t. But I suppose, given more time, it could be.
Anyway, it’s too late for that now, we’re off, in two weeks’ time. Almost on a daily basis someone asks me, ‘but why are you leaving?’ as if there’s no good reason. And to be honest, when I hear myself explaining the reasoning, it really doesn’t sound convincing.
“Oh, well, I came to do a masters and it was a one-year course and so I’ve just graduated and, yeah, that’s it, I’m done…”
“So what will you do with it, when you get back? What sort of work will you be looking for?”
“Oh. Well, nothing to do with my degree. I didn’t really do the degree for that. I did it so we could come to Canada really, for the experience, and because I knew I could do it. Yes, I like what I studied, I enjoyed doing it and I want to do more, but at the same time we really wanted to see whether Canada might be our forever home.”
“And it wasn’t.”
“No. I guess not.”
“Why is that?”
“Um… I… I don’t really know. I’m not even sure… Yeah. I don’t know.” <cue the awkward silence and rapid change of topic>
“So I hear this year we’re in for a big snow fall. Typical, just when we decide to go back, we’ll miss it!”
That’s pretty much how all the conversations go. Daily conversations. I find myself questioning our decision to leave all the time in my own head, but any time someone else questions it I try to justify our decision to go home. I guess I’ve just come to the conclusion that it needs to happen, that we’ll all be happier at home, and that staying here is like staying in limbo. I’m not sure if that’s right or not really, but I do feel really excited about the prospect of going home to Melbourne and starting something new, finally settling.
I graduated with an MA today. In Italian Studies. The day was stressful and emotional and lovely. I still have no idea how or why I did this degree but I have faith that I will be presented with an answer in due course.
I got great marks and encouragement from professors and colleagues alike to do my PhD. Not quite ready for that yet! And not in Italian Studies.
I still can’t believe I did this and I feel simultaneously like a fraud and like superwoman all at once. I just wish my study path were different, or that I were passionate about what I’m good at. A work in progress perhaps.
Anyway today we left the house in record time at silly o’clock to get downtown. I rushed through into University College to pick up my hired gown, then missed the beautiful experience that is walking down those old corridors sounded by amazing architecture as I basically catapulted myself down the hall into a room full of my fellow graduates, all in their academic regalia. I quickly signed in and awkwardly slipped my gown over my shoulders. It seemed so strange getting dressed in this big echoey old room full of strangers. I briefly saw a couple of the grads from my program, waving to one in the W queue and another amongst the Ms as I stood with the Ls. I didn’t really know what to expect but I’d had no time to read any of the background material so I just went with what I was told in the moment.
We slowly filed out, down the well worn steps, over the ring road and across the grass to Convocation Hall. I looked at the PhD students ahead of me and realised just how lucky I was to be there. Although there had been some stressful and challenging moments during the degree, the year had gone by so quickly and I hadn’t even used 100 per cent of my capacity to complete the requirements of the course. Full time study for a year, excelling without full effort, and voila, a Masters. Of course, it’s what one of my professors called a ‘glamour’ degree: it’s not going to get you a job, or rather, you’re not doing it to get a job. You’re doing it because you love it. What’s odd for me is that, frankly, I did this degree because it was easy and we got to live in Canada, not because I have any great passion or love for Italy or the Italian language. It’s great to have that second language and I enjoy speaking it, although it’s quite challenging at times because still, after all these years of study and having reached this level, I am not as fluent as I’d like. I watch the news and I often find it hard to follow. I just don’t love it that much.
But as I sat in that beautiful hall with its cosy acoustics, the dense energy of passion and learning flooding my senses, I felt proud. And, just for a moment, I was really content with what I’d achieved. Just for a moment.
Where will this lead me? I say that I’ll see my path laid out before me in time, and this may happen, but deep down I feel like I veered way off my truth path years ago. More to be written on that, I’m sure. For now, I can say that I’ve achieved something pretty great and I’m excited to find out where it will lead me.
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.
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!
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!
I adore my immediate family, my husband and kids, and although they’re far away it’s nice to have a strong connection with my children’s grandparents too. But I don’t mention much about my extended family. I’m an only child, so I’m talking about aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. This is because I haven’t made much effort to be in touch with them. Actually, I’m going to be honest here, I’ve actively avoided them. And now, at the age of 37, for the first time, I’m beginning to feel terrible about that. So this post is an apology to my family for cutting them out, even if they didn’t notice.
I didn’t really grow up with my cousins. They mainly lived in Sydney and my parents and I moved to Canberra when I was two or three. We’d visit of course, but it’s not the same. And frankly, I don’t know why, but I always felt different, like I didn’t really identify with my family. On one side, I think the lack of language contributed – they all spoke or understood a bit of Serbian and I knew none at all. On the other side, I felt a little closer to them, but culturally, again, they were more ‘Aussie’ or something. When I was a teenager and even into my 20s I was a real snob. Yeah, this is an honest post. I was so stuck up, constantly comparing myself with others, insecure, immature, unable to accept that everyone is different, with different influences and ideas and desires and strengths and weaknesses.
Having said that, I was very anti-Australia for the longest time, despite having been born and growing up in Australia. I considered myself ‘European’, whatever that means. I think it meant that I didn’t identify with Australian culture and I felt like being European was classier, like people from Europe have more of a world view, are more educated, more intelligent, more refined. I was revolted by bogans. It really was snobbery on my part.
I think there were a couple of pivotal moments that changed my perception about my cultural identity and where I belonged, but it’s only recently that my familial identity has begun to matter. Just after turning 18, my dad took me to the UK for five weeks. I was so excited as it was my first overseas trip and I was finally going to visit this mythical land of ‘England’ where I felt my cultural heart truly belonged. It was a shock, to say the least. I will never forget the feeling of weight I experienced; all those people, all that history, all mixed up, rushing, spilling, washing over me. I felt claustrophobic, weighed down by the sheer volume of ‘stuff’ that had happened in that place over the centuries of city living. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t wait to get out. I was amazed at how dirty all the London transit vans were, just smog and road dirt accumulating. Some of the roads, remnants of Roman walls, puddles filling in uneven pavement, crowds trying to enter and exit stations and trains, it was all so full and overwhelming to me, a very naive, immature teenager with very little experience of the real world. I’d come from Canberra, the cleanest, quietest city in the world, a population of around 350,000 neatly arranged in suburbs around a handful of peaceful ‘town centres’. This is a city that was planned. The closest thing to a traffic jam occurs when you have to slow down a little bit because the NRMA are jump starting someone’s Datsun in the Parliamentary Triangle and it’s 8am. Everyone in Canberra drives. It’s about as far from London as you can get in every respect.
So at 18, I realised I wasn’t European. I was so glad to be Aussie. We landed at Sydney airport on a warm January evening and I have never been so glad to get into a creaky Falcon with a Lebanese driver and try not to get car sick because the suspension on those things is like a roller coaster ride gone wrong! I was home. But the gratitude for being home didn’t last long. Four years later I embarked on an adventure to take advantage of a scholarship and I studied in Siena, Italy for three months. That was a great experience and my world view expanded quite a bit.
When push finally came to shove and I realised how toxic my life in Canberra had become, I went back to London in 2007. I was 28. I planned to stay for six months and I wasn’t there to party it up or take drugs or have fun. I didn’t do fun. So much for that. As I’m sure anyone who knows me knows, my London years changed my life. I met the love of my life, I grew up about 20 years in the space of two and a half, and my sense of cultural identity got a whole lot more complex.
Moving back to Australia in 2010 and having my son in 2011, the pull to find where I belonged, to find a home, was even stronger. But I didn’t yet equate home with family. I was starting a family, sure, but I still had this firm belief that ‘my’ family would be my husband and child(ren), and the extended family, some of whom I’d fallen out with by this point over various misunderstandings and overreactions, were not going to be part of my life. I am a fair person by nature, but I’m also a classic overreactor. If I feel stressed or under pressure, I will back out. I’ll just drop everything, push everyone away; it’s all or nothing. I am insecure, I hate intervening or getting in people’s way. I don’t want to disturb. But often this is interpreted as snooty-ness or rudeness when really it’s the extreme opposite! My worst nightmare is having to ask for something, even if it’s something I’m entitled to, something I own, I just don’t want to confront, I don’t want to state my case, I don’t want to attract attention to myself.
So continuing on from my escape to London, I slowly began to extricate myself from any hint of connection to my extended family. They are all clever, sensitive, aware people, and I’m sure many of them wondered what my problem was, why I was trying to disappear from their lives. I worried that one falling out meant I’d automatically burnt my bridges with others connected to that one person, so I just unfriended everyone on facebook and set my profile to private and got on with life.
As my son grew up and my husband and I got to know each other better, questions arose. My husband was a bit miffed at not getting to meet my family, but I remember saying, oh, don’t worry, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Secretly, though, I knew that wasn’t the case. I just didn’t know how to make things right. I felt stressed out by all the emotional stuff I was going through and I couldn’t deal with the communication challenge. So I keep everyone at arm’s length.
I think since coming to Canada and experiencing such homesickness I have also begun to feel sad about my lack of connection with my extended family. I unblocked everyone ages ago and my profile is no longer totally locked down. I occasionally have a little look around, see some comments and conversations on the pages of some family who I am still privileged enough to be friends with, and I see them loving each other, my family. I see how grateful they are to have each other, how much of an effort they make to stay in touch, and I envy that connection. I wish I hadn’t been so stubborn and stupid. I don’t know if I’ve burnt my bridges, I hope not, but I don’t know what I could say that could make it right. All I hope is that my family can forgive my silliness and we can move on in peace. I hope we can reconnect, but if not, I hope they all know that I bear no one ill will and I am grateful for each person’s impact on my life.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.