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.

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A life lived large

This is my granddad, Hector:

I’ve had this photo in my possession since I was 14. I did a family history project then, which was the beginning of my genealogical research. That was nearly 20 years ago now.

See the eyes? They were a bright, piercing blue; my son has them. And those pointed, slightly buck teeth? Same in my mouth. My dad got his black hair from granddad. Luckily no one else in the family has inherited that nose – you can’t see it in the photo but it was large and hooked. You can see the smooth confidence this young man exudes, he’s an open book.

All I knew previously was that this photo was taken around 1943 or 44. But now I know more.

“We went into town, got drunk, and had our picture taken.” This was 1944, at the end of granddad’s training for the paratroop regiment. He was 17. He tried to join the army the year before but his mother followed him down to the recruiting office, gave the recruiting officer a serve and dragged granddad home by the scruff of his neck. “If you must join up, you’ll wait until you’re 17 and for Christ’s sake, stay off the water! Get into something with wheels on.” This was his father’s lecture. He’d just returned from five voyages to Dunkirk. He knew what his son would be confronted with. And he knew how vulnerable being on the ocean would make him.

Granddad did get into something with wheels on, but only because of a slight tall tale he rattled off. Upon signing up at 17, when asked by a superior what aspect of duty interested him, granddad mentioned he knew how to drive a bren gun carrier. A lie of course, unless you count the one time he and his mate accidentally drove a bren gun carrier into an Air Raid Warden’s hut. “Which side are you on?” shouted the Warden. “Silly little buggers.” They were 15 and had no licenses.  But that was war, that was the way things went in London in those days. The superior officer was impressed and assigned young Hector to drive trucks. He had a day’s lessons, no real driving experience, and then he was put at the wheel of a first world war Leyland Lynx, a huge monstrosity of a vehicle that required some clutch skills just to get into the next gear. Which was a challenge for Hector as he didn’t actually know how to change gear at all. Luckily his superior and the mechanic were riding up front with him and taught him as he went, with 30 troops in the back, complaining all the way about the bunny hopping.  Off they trundled, in convoy with another truck, across from the far north east of England, Newbiggin by Sea, to Kirkcudbrightshire, just over the Scottish border further west.  They hit the notoriously bad weather in those parts, and the second truck broke down.  This is where destiny begins to show itself in granddad’s life.  He suggested to the officer in charge that they put the 30 troops in his truck.  And against his better judgment, the officer agreed. So now he had 60 troops, two officers, and the mechanic.  The others stayed behind with the broken down truck. The mechanic mentioned they might make up for lost time if they removed the speed limiter the truck was fitted with, and granddad liked this idea a lot.  They came to a sign at the top of a steep incline. “Use low gear”.  Granddad ignored it.  He took off down the hill, spun the truck and overturned it into a tree, the troops having abandoned it halfway down the hill and the mechanic hiding in the footwell. Broken gear stick.  Disaster.  He hadn’t even been in the army three months, and this was his first driving assignment.

So even though it wasn’t his fault, although he could have been more cautious, he was reprimanded and sent off to peel potatoes all day as punishment for two weeks. It didn’t seem much of a punishment.  He and his mate (he always had one with him) were on their lunch break.  They’d snuck off beyond where they should have been and were having a smoke and watching the planes coming in over the downs doing bombing raid practices. And suddenly they saw one plane land roughly and crash nearby.  Without thinking, they rushed across and dragged out the pilot and rolled him in the dirt to put out the fire on his suit, shortly before the whole plane exploded. They disappeared as soon as the fire brigade showed up, hoping their little stunt might go unnoticed. The pilot remembered them and pointed them out.  They were transferred to another unit, “got rid of”, sent back to London on a week’s leave with orders to report back to the CO.  Apparently they had been labelled as ‘good round aeroplanes’, so to their shock and confusion, Hector and his mate, who he refers to as Bennett, were sent up to Marlborough and then Leicester for paratrooper training.

There’s more to the story, so much more, but this is just a little snippet of my granddad’s extraordinary adventures, taken directly from his own narration on the tapes I’ve been transcribing which he recorded in 1996. Unfortunately, as I think I might have mentioned before, I got to the second recording only to discover it’s unintelligible. All is not lost though, as I’m going to try and adjust the sound with some software.  I am desperate to hear about how he met my grandmother.  All I know is that they met at a dance sometime around the end of the war and he told her he’d marry her during that first dance and she laughed and said there’s no chance. I can imagine that.