"Universally" Speaking

What do you think when you think of Australia? I’m going to guess that your answers might include:

Kangaroos
Koalas
Sydney Opera House
The Outback
The Man from Snowy River (for the movie buffs)
Waltzing Matilda (for folk music buffs–and n.b., it’s not what you think it’s about)
Laid back Aussies with cool accents
World class swimmers
“No worries!”

None of these are wrong.
That list is, in fact, what I would have come up with four weeks ago. These things are but a small sampling of what make this country unique and wondrous, but they are not what living here is about. Since being here, in this characteristic, small-ish Australian city, I’m accepting what the first few novelty-filled weeks allowed me to forget temporarily. There are some things about human living that are seemingly universal. Mornings are spent bustling to get everyone dressed, fed, and off to school/work on time. People dash in and out of the grocery store between work and whatever their evening plans are. Young people fret about job prospects and dating prospects. Parents contemplate whether they have the desire–or the energy–to have one more child. They chide themselves for having scolded their kids so loudly that their neighbors might have heard (and judged them). Tired adults, young and old, look forward to sitting down in front of the telly in the evenings. People worry about their retirement accounts and tax rates. Radio talk shows debate how to solve the trending social problem.

More likely, many of these things are “universal” to middle class life in Western cultures–and the privileges that come with it. Just as I’m aware of those privileges, I’m aware that norms about how to raise children, how much free time you are supposed to have and how you’re supposed to spend it, how closely time is followed, etc. would look very different were we in a different country. This both comforts and unsettles me.

We are not in a different country though. Neither are we in the States, and many practices, while they might look similar on the surface to what’s in the States, often have very different underlying values, the subtleties which I am sure will be fodder for future entries. The beauty of this experience is that we have the opportunity to experience day to day living here, but with cultural norms and objects that are new to us.

Last week, we were told to stock our kitchens and check our torches (that’s “flashlights” for you American readers) in case the approaching cyclone, Cyclone Marcia, downed the power and flooded the roads leading here. (Snow storms would have been more familiar.) Unlike other cities north of us, we never did lose power or access to food, but we did lose the beach to the high waters!

The coming months will include, I hope, visits to see the Outback, and the real Snowy Mountains. And the Sydney Opera House. But for the moment, I am content to observe what’s immediately around me, sing, “Waltzing Matilda” on the way to school with the kids, and to take pleasure in the little things that make life here quite different from life in the States. Like the fact that our three year old has, at school, adopted the very Aussie habit of running around barefoot.

And yes, in case you were wondering, our kitchen is regularly stocked with vegemite. And better yet, crumpets and ginger beer.

No Immunity from the Quotidienne

If it is a virtual escape to the sunny tropics you have come for, read no further. A bubbly entry about mangoes and birds this is not.

Although we have seen rainbows on at least two occasions.

But enough of that.

We finished our second week and began our third still quite occupied with the tasks of settling in. I suspect moving is a headache no matter where you do it, but it’s been a while since we’ve done it. Our state of limbo has even extended to the kitchen. Here, though, I will brag that even with a spice rack consisting only of salt, pepper, cumin, and rosemary, hubs and I–ok, mostly hubs–have still been able to whip up some pretty good-looking meals.

Still, you know those weeks when it’s only Tuesday night and you are sure that Sunday was ages ago? It was one of those weeks. A lot happened: our application for a place to live was approved (yey!). I spent no less than five hours, most of it waiting, trying to set up phone/internet service for said place. Efficiency is under-rated in these parts, a fact that became painfully clear as I tried to occupy a three-year old at the same time. We began to look for a car, a process which included getting our Queensland drivers licenses.

A picture of some Australian bills, because I think they’re just so cool. How often do you see bills with windows in them? And it was a good way to spend the time while the license was being processed.

Despite all the mundaneness and headaches, there were a couple moments of transcendence. We attended church for the first time this weekend, and although there were probably no more than 7 or 8 families at this tiny outpost of a Coptic church, the visiting priest observed that 5 continents were represented. There were the Australians, of course, a German-Copt who’d moved to Australia several years ago, a member’s mother visiting from Egypt, an Orthodox Filipina, and us American Copts. If there’s one thing that makes my little heart happy, it’s multi-national gatherings.

Then, just last night, my husband called me outside to look at the night sky. Even with a little light pollution, it was absolutely stunning. Clusters of stars, some faint and blurred together, provided the backdrop for others, bright and innumerable. He pointed out Orion, and we might have seen the southern cross that appears on the Australian flag (we’ll need to employ the use of Google Sky to confirm this).

I am appreciating this new adventure, which is not to say that I don’t deeply appreciate the virtues of home and belonging. But it’s dawning on me that the line between the two is not as thick as I would have imagined. One evening, while I was burning dinner and the 3-year-old was screaming about some injustice I had apparently inflicted on her, it hit home that, yes, some aspects of our lives would remain exactly the same. Our children will unconsciously absorb much of their surroundings, true, but they will also be kids: kids who will test the boundaries their parents set for them, who need their parents’ patience, and who will look to us to help interpret the world around them and what they are to do in it. They will admire the new animals and plants in this new place . . .

 

. . . but they will not spend the energy that I am spending to try to analyse things like cultural norms. For the kids, this chapter will not be about experiencing a different culture. It will just be what it is. And perhaps, if only for now, that is what I too should let these early days be: the wonder and the mundane mixed in together, toddler tantrums and all.

Not Vacation, Not Ordinary Life Quite Yet

Thing I love about Australia: morning tea.
Thing I should avoid if I want to continue to enjoy the savory pies at morning tea: a scale.
Thing I’d forgotten about moving internationally: you spend the first weeks carrying around every document you own proving your identity and trustworthiness. The number of times we’ve been asked for these documents is unreal.
Creatures we are learning to live with: the little lizards that visit our window screens nightly.
Creatures we are happy to meet: the hermit crabs that we saw literally by the dozens at low tide the other day. (The water recedes, by the way, no less than 75 yards at low tide. It seems endless. The close-up picture is the “family” of crabs Samantha lined up together so they wouldn’t lose each other.)



Thing that reminds me just how close we are to the Tropic of Capricorn: mangoes.
Driving down the street, we have seen so many mango trees with mangoes fallen and split open. Mangoes are so common here that one grocery store even had a box of them offering customers to take one–for free!
I’d consider stopping to pick up mangoes by the road, but that presents too much of a driving challenge: which side can I safely stop on, again? I no longer have to focus quite so much on staying on the left, and I don’t panic when I see a car approaching from the right near side and turning to my right. I turn on the windshield wiper instead of the turn signal just once a day now, instead of every time I turn. Still, mango harvesting might have to wait til next month.
Every morning since we arrived, we have woken up to the sound of some unique birds. I would blame our early mornings on their calls (one warbles like an aspiring soprano, one outright screams), but between the jet lag and the early light, I can’t. The sun rises early: by 5:30am, it’s quite bright outside. Try convincing a three year old that just because the sun is up doesn’t mean that she has to be. I’m a morning person, though, so I don’t mind. Much.
In short, one week in, we are alternately comfortable in, frustrated by, and charmed by our new surroundings. The cross cultural trainer in me fully recognizes that we are still very much in the honeymoon phase…but the experience is very different when you are with kids/family. That will be the substance of future postings, I’m sure. But for now, bed. The morning birds won’t wait.

REMINDER #53735 THAT LIFE HAPPENS HOW IT HAPPENS

We had planned the logistics of this trip down to every detail, or so I’d thought. The kids had what they needed to be comfortable and entertained for the 30 hour journey. We had favorite snacks and books and tablets. Everything was going surprisingly well those first 26 hours. I even remember thinking, as our trans-Pacific flight was down to the last few hours, how this particular leg of the trip, that I’d so dreaded, had actually gone much better than I’d dared hope. Once off the plane, the kids acted up while we stood in the–very long!–customs line, then the very long bag drop line, but if that was the worst of it, we were ok.

Then we get to the transfer desk in Sydney, and it all falls apart. How could this happen? We had just one short flight to go! We were a couple hours from arriving, unpacking, showering, and celebrating a trans-global journey with young kids completed. We had school interviews to complete and school supplies to buy for the kids the very next day. We were not supposed to get stuck in Sydney!

And then I heard that last line again. First world problems much? Had we not just safely traveled over 9000 miles, mostly over ocean? Was I actually complaining? About unexpectedly finding ourselves in one of the world’s most beautiful cities for a day? Was I really going to spend it fuming about airlines’ complete sadism (although Virgin Australia is pretty un-Australian-ly unhelpful)? No, we would move on. If only because those kids of ours had been such troopers this incredibly long journey, and I, as the grown-up, was not going to be the one to pout for the rest of the day that we were jet lagged, still in our travel clothes and carrying our bags. And trying to keep the kids, who were by this point too delirious to do otherwise, from running off. No, we were going to unload at the hotel, explore a little of Sydney, and start that unwinding and celebrating now.

And so we did. We chatted with a taxi driver who had immigrated from China 26 years earlier. We sampled Thai food Aussie-style, and Emile had the best mango and sticky rice dessert he’s ever had. (Actually, it was more like sticky rice with a hint of mango. The mango slices mostly disappeared. Maddie’s juicy little fingers and declaration of, ” I wub mango!” might offer a clue.) We saw a man on stilts wearing a fruit covered skirt and hula hooping. Samantha found him fascinating, being an avid hula hooper herself, then upon closer inspection, “creepy” (she didn’t like that his face was painted). I had coconut water out of a coconut. And, of course, we let the kids let loose in the hotel room to enjoy those carefully chosen toys and watch their first Australian kids’ programming while we allowed ourselves to relax.

We started to absorb the vibe of this nation where we’ll be spending the next 12 months of our lives. I think we’re going to love it.