What happened to the winter
Is it almost summer? I still can’t remember seasons here, but my news feed is full of pumpkins and corn mazes and kids in wool sweaters playing in piles of leaves, so it must be spring. As most of you unpack the mittens and snowsuits, we’ve been rolling away space heaters and losing track of months as ‘winter’ gives way to ‘spring’ and the dry heat and lightning storms fill the sky with eucalyptus smoke. I don’t think I’ve worn socks in at least month. It is inconceivable that Christmas is, let’s go count, oh, seven weeks from now. My Australian calendar (made up mostly of business chalkboards on sidewalks reminding me that it’s almost Melbourne cup time and the army of chocolate Santas that turned up at the store) says it must be.
In early September, we reached the one-year mark in Newcastle. One year was my mental milestone for coming to a definitive opinion on life in Australia, the time period where I would attempt to withhold judgment and just live into the days.
What can I say after a year here? I’ve had some good days, a few awful days, and a string of mediocre winter days resenting the chilly uninsulated architecture of New South Wales. The last twelve months (twelve years? Let’s blame it on Ace…) I’ve made a habit of saying yes. By September, this had gotten a little out of hand–I was, for a few months, acting president of the board of the local YWCA [successful handoff earlier this week], as well as chief instigator/manager of a very cool community portrait project [ongoing through March]. I am also 23 weeks pregnant. We’ll blame that one on Ace, too.
Being pregnant again is grand and delightful and utterly exhausting this time around. I’ve been sleeping instead of writing. But in the last year we’ve made friends. We’ve found places to go and things to do, and when we spiral back to the small world of newborn life, we will have some people around to help take care of us.
The one-year anniversary itself passed without ceremony, but not without angst. Australia is changing us. In August, far sooner than expected, the girl switched her simple North American oh sound to more of an aoooew sound. Being 3, her r sound is sporadic anyway, so suddenly my own flesh and blood started asking for yaoogeht and referring to my sister Jo as Auntie Jaooew. It was a real blow. It also didn’t help that Ace was getting ready for 2 1/2 weeks of research time back in Vancouver with old friends and favourite places. I might have broken over dinner one night before he left and asked him to take a second look at Canada while he was there.
There is nothing wrong with Australia in and of itself. Lots of it is good and sensible and pleasant–except for the poorly insulated housing the sheer distance across the Pacific to my family, friends and history, and its not being Canada–it has more going for it than most of the planet. One of my main struggles this year has been to try to judge Australia on its own terms, without holding it against the doctor, the grocery store, the traffic patterns, the institutions that we frequent, our new friends, our child’s new accent, that they aren’t our old ones.
How to be grateful for having had something wonderful and letting that enrich the present, instead tainting it with perpetual grief?
I suspect this will take more than a year in Australia to sort out.
The thing is, it wouldn’t bother me at all if my kid started saying a good Canadian hoase instead of house, which is at the core of my struggle with Australia. It is claiming my future. My progeny. This new baby will be born Australian, and I am unprepared for that. Until 18 months ago, I never imagined living here. Australia has never been a part of my mental landscape, and 13 months here hasn’t done much to fill in the map.
Canada, on the other hand, has always been there, decades before we moved to Vancouver. In summer, my hometown in Montana is half populated by visiting Canadians. When I lived there, grocery stores and gas stations took Canadian coins at face value. The Canada flag flew at the mall. My mother sold most of her art to visiting Canadians. Even in Europe, it was still next door. I spent three years in an international high school in Germany accredited through the Saskatchewan Department of Education. I had a Canadian boyfriend. I took Canadian history. I flagged my English notes with little maple leaves when our teacher emphasized what we would need to know for our Canadian exams. I came back to Montana to study, and my old friends picked up on my Canadified vowels. Then Ace and I spent three years in BC, followed by three in Ontario. We had our daughter there. In year five, I fell in love with the farmland east of Lake Huron, and I thought maybe that was it for us, geographically.
I suppose I moved to Newcastle on the rebound. But for Ace, it’s been love at first sight. He came back from Vancouver and said arriving in Australia felt like coming home. Then we spent a week ‘together’ in Sydney while he went to a conference morning, noon and night, and O and I explored the town and ate a lot of Thai food by ourselves. I saw a dugong at the aquarium. And humpback whales breaching off the coast. And a small girl playing mermaid in a hotel room that could have been anywhere on earth, but will now mark Sydney for us.
Of those long weeks in Australia without Ace, three things:
One: I try not to inflict my grief over past places on my daughter, but one afternoon I briefly crumpled up in a sad ball on the couch. She brought over our world map, and said ‘It will be okay, Mama, let’s look at the map.’ She’s on to me.
Two: While Ace was on his own in Vancouver, he picked up a beautiful striped organic cotton sundress for O on the clearance rack at Mountain Equipment Co-op–the kind of purchase I would have made in a saner state of mind, say after two weeks of eating sushi with old friends and doing ‘research’ while rock climbing in Squamish. Two days before we were finally all together again and sleeping in our own bed, O and I wandered into a toy store a few blocks from our hotel in Sydney. After obsessing over how much she would like to own a battery-powered tiny cash register, she spotted a rack of mermaid costumes and changed her plans. Sequined, tailed, ruffled and bowed polyester mermaid suits MADE IN CHINA. After 8 seconds of deliberation, I decided $40 was perfectly reasonable, and yes, she should wear it immediately, constantly, without washing.
Three: After three weeks of boycotting playgroups and spending all of our time together/watching American kids’ shows while I worked on launching the portrait project, my daughter’s vowels starting sounding like mine again.