To my extended family

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.

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my family. none of the people in this photo are alive any more and i never met any of them. this is my great-grandparents’ wedding, taken at St Bartholemew’s somewhere in London’s East End, Boxing Day 1923

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.

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countdown to departure, July 2007

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.

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at Telstra Tower, Canberra, in 2013

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.

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London. Nuff said

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.

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I just don’t like Sydney but I must admit it was nice living across the road from this

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.

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The right path

How do you know when you’re on the ‘right’ path? I feel like I used to know, before I got distracted by life. It’s like, in my teenage years and 20s I used to have huge amounts of time to ponder and think over things. Too much time really. An ex-boyfriend (who, when he was my boyfriend, wouldn’t commit enough to my liking and I desperately wanted him to buy me some jewellery to symbolise our commitment) once bought me a birthday present, I think when I was about 22. It was a silver ID bracelet and he’d had it engraved. On the front it had my name and on the back was “No Thinking Zone”. I think we’d been dating a year or so and he wasn’t really intellectually the right person for me but he easily saw my issue back then. I was thinking too much, going over every little thing, obsessing.

Oh if only I had the time to obsess now! Something happened, I think, around the time that first serious relationship started to break down, and life started to become full. I resisted, of course, and it was only because that boyfriend announced he was leaving for a stint in London that I pig-headedly pushed my way forward and ended up leaving for my own London adventure a few months before him. I resisted it all the way, was convinced I would be there for about six months, and I wasn’t going there to party it up like all the other antipodeans. Oh no, I was just going for, um, the experience, whatever that was… And I’d be back in six months anyway. I didn’t need to let my hair down and be stupid on the other side of the world to find out who I was. I was going to fix my relationship, get married, and settle down in Canberra. Or Melbourne. That was me eight years ago. I would sit and think things over, imagine myself in various scenarios, get a feeling, and know the right path. I don’t think that’s what I did with my decision to go to London, although I know for certain it was the right choice. I became a completely different person, a much better person, after living in London. And I met Mr Chewbacca, which is one of the best things that could have happened to me.

With my decision to step into a new life in London, I forfeited this process of assessing my future plans. I began to be spontaneous, and ended up doing a lot of things I would never have considered previously as a result. Some things I can’t say I’m particularly proud of, and I don’t know how positively they contributed to who I am now, but I’m here to tell the tale (not in a public forum though!) and I don’t regret anything. I do miss that clarity, however, those moments of contemplation which allowed me to see the right path. I haven’t got the time now, to sit and think and plan, and so much has happened, life and circumstances have descended upon me in layer upon layer of possible deviations from the right path so that there is now no going back. I can’t sort back through each layer, meticulously choosing my path at every turn. Too much has happened.

So now I am on the path I’m on. I’m here, in Canada, a country I never even envisaged visiting let alone living in, and I’m doing an MA at one of the top universities in North America. As a family, we’ve taken a huge risk coming here. A risk for what? Because we didn’t know for sure if Australia was the right place for us. We couldn’t handle any more 40 degree endless summers. We wanted snow and beautiful trees and piles of leaves and traditions at the ‘right’ time of year, to be in a place that feels like it’s a little more in touch with the world. The course I’m doing is certainly leading me in the right direction and it’s fantastic to be studying again, especially with a level of maturity that allows me to apply myself fully to the material and achieve good results. But it will be ending all too soon.

Many MA programs are two years but this one is unfortunately just one year. I love this university, I am so privileged to be taught by some exceptional academics. I seriously want to do a PhD. But there’s one problem: this university is in Toronto, in the city. I don’t want to live in the city. In fact although I live 40km out of the city, that’s still too close. I can’t wait to move. But if I wanted to do further study I’d have to stay close enough to commute.

I got some clarity around what we might do next yesterday and I know what our options are in terms of staying on in Canada once I’ve graduated next year in June. Unfortunately, none of those options is clearly the right one. We haven’t been here long enough to decide whether to go back home or stay on permanently, another year testing things out at least seems the right thing, but that’s not an easy thing to do. These decisions are depressing me! I wish it wasn’t so complicated, and so much about money!

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I listen to my Aussie music, stuff I never listened to when I was at home, and I actually miss home, I miss it for the first time since London. I don’t believe in regrets, they are a waste of time, everything happens exactly as it should. But there are so many things that, if I’d just thought at the time with some clarity, taken a few moments to sit and really make the decisions without rushing, I’d have gone a different way and things would be better. At least that’s what I tell myself. I’ll never know, there’s no such thing as Sliding Doors. Right now, we’ve got some serious thinking to do and big decisions loom yet again. Wasn’t it meant to be easier than this? Didn’t I plan to settle down and enjoy simple family life when I left London?

From the farm to the mist

Just a shortie right now as I’m typing this on my phone. We’re about halfway through our trip overseas and currently enjoying some brisk sub-zero temperatures in Manchester. Here are some photos so far.

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Our accommodation on the game farm in South Africa - no electricity but oh so lovely, such peace and quiet
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You can tell Africa and Australia were once joined - animals have evolved but the earth is so similar
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Paraffin and gas lamps, the braai in the background and bones on the table. The monkey skull was eerily familiar.
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Clear blue sky, temps in the minuses, back in the UK!
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I'm not that materialistic but man I missed shopping in the UK! So many shoes...
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Manchester city centre. I don't know it at all but it was great. We ate Dutch pancakes as it got darker and colder and the mist graduated to fog. I've not developed the ability to pinpoint that transition but according to Mr C, it's obvious.

Once I’m back home I’ll be doing a series of posts on the trip and associated topics. For now, let’s just say that I’m still just as uncertain about ever moving back as I was before. London will be the ultimate test of that, and we’ll be there in about a week…

The quest for belonging

As I’ve mentioned here before, we’re not sure whether moving to Australia was the right choice. When we were in the UK, we had this idealistic view of Australia. I thought I wanted to go home to settle down. I couldn’t imagine how people have children in London with no space and high rent. I imagined us finding a nice big family home with plenty of space outside and bringing up kids. Mr Chewbacca, who’d been to Australia about five times previously, had this rosy picture of Aussie life: days lying on the beach, nights drinking in the pub and watching rugby. Between us, it was a foregone conclusion that we’d move back. And we were in a rush, for some strange reason. Not once did I really contemplate the idea that I might not feel very Aussie any more after having lived in the UK for a few years. Let’s face it, Aussie culture never made a lot of sense to me and I always considered myself ‘European’ before going to Europe and realising I actually did like my own country. I don’t think Mr C ever thought it would be what it has turned out to be either. Without going into details, neither of us are particularly happy here, for a variety of reasons.  We’ll be giving Australia one last chance in September next year when we move 1000km south to Melbourne.

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Tomorrow we’ll be taking the Dude across the world to meet his British family in Manchester, via South Africa. This is the first time he’ll meet his nanny and granddad Chewbacca and the rest of the family, and it’s the first time we’ve been back since we first came back to Australia in 2010. I can’t express just how mixed my emotions are about the trip. I agreed to a stopover in South Africa on the way, to stay at a friend’s parents’ game farm just outside Johannesburg.  I’m not apprehensive about being in South Africa as such, as I’ve been before and it’s not a scary place. I am a bit concerned about being the only one with a small child in a group of 30-somethings, most of whom don’t seem to have worked out they’re not in their 20s any more, but it’s only five days so I’ll be right. I’m not keen on the flight at all as the Dude isn’t two yet so he won’t have his own seat, which means I’m going to have 12 plus kilos of wriggling toddler sprawled across me for most of the 24 odd hours each way. How we’re going to entertain him when he’s hyped on the plane is completely beyond me, but I’m sure we’ll manage.

The major part of the rest of the trip will be a couple of weeks in Manchester and London. I’m so looking forward to the cooler weather and soaking up a bit of real northern hemisphere Christmas spirit, which feels somewhat diluted here in Australia. There’s something so special about those Oxford Street Christmas lights, despite the crowds of chavs in their soggy ugg boots fighting for a bargain in Primark. And the Christmas markets, the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, ice skating, ferris wheel, mulled wine, the possibility of snow, shopping for warm boots and being relieved at the stagnant heat trapped deep underground in Victoria station.

Our street in West Hampstead, London – February 2009

After five days braving the rough heat of the game farm, we’ll fly straight north to London, where Mr C’s good friend, let’s call him the Northern Intellectual, is going to pick us up at Heathrow and drive us straight up north a couple of hours to Manchester, where the Chewbacca grandparents reside. Hopefully by then the Dude will at least have recovered from jet lag, as, although South Africa is a good ten hour flight from London, it’s only an hour or two time difference. Anyway, needless to say nan and granddad C are very excited at meeting their grandson. And Mr C and I are looking forward to catching up after so long.  We’re also secretly looking forward to a little bit of time off from the Dude, whose nan will I’m sure be happy to hang out with him while we go to a movie or two.  We’ve also got tickets for Ben Folds Five on the night after we arrive, which is particularly exciting as we had tickets to see Ben Folds on 13 May 2011, which was one day before I was due to have the Dude.  Needless to say, he came a week early, and I missed the concert.

We’ll spend most of our time up in Manchester with a couple of nights at Mr C’s nan’s place in Carlisle.  There we’ll see her of course, along with most of the rest of Mr C’s extended family, as that’s where they’re all from and where most still live. We’ll catch up with two of his sisters back in Manchester and a few friends there, then we’ll end our time with five days in London. It’ll be mainly catching up with friends there, checking out our old haunts, and doing a few touristy things before the big flight home.

The most nerve-racking element to all of this is that I’m not sure it will be as we remember. Yeah, okay, it’s only been three years, but I have this feeling I’ll remember pretty quickly why I left. It’s been pretty hard for me not to get sucked into all Mr C’s ‘everything Aussie is inferior to its European equivalent, if it has one’ mentality, and I kind of secretly hope he gets a bit of a rude shock and realises it’s not quite the utopia he remembers. It’s hard because he is actually English, and he feels at home in London. Me, on the other hand, I don’t feel truly at home anywhere. I wanted to leave London, even though I did develop a love for it, and I wanted to leave Canberra, even though it was where I grew up.  I’ve never wanted to be in Sydney and wish I could leave every day. I’ve not had enough time in Melbourne yet to say anything, so we’ll see.

Furio Giunta: The Sopranos (image courtesy of Wikipedia

Watching The Sopranos the other week (we’re finally watching this brilliant drama after everyone else did a decade ago), we saw the episode, season four I think, where Italian mobster with a heart of gold, Furio, returns to Naples after an extended absence setting up his life in New York State. He tells someone, Carmela, I think, about how he can never go back for good because he has changed too much. He just doesn’t feel like he can belong in Italy any more. Yet when he returns to America, we see him staring wistfully out of the window of the taxi as it passes typical suburban middle-America, star-spangled banners displayed almost defensively in front yards, and we know he feels no affinity with that America either. Culturally, he’s suddenly in no-man’s land. I wonder, will we have a similar experience in the UK? We’ll see.