Off to Oz

The suitcase migrationThe suitcases are about to come out again.

Although I do know a few people who follow the sun or somehow spread themselves over more than one continent/country/culture, most people live in one place. However, I live in two. I have my Australian life, where friends would shake their heads in bewilderment to see me watch the curling on TV with rapt attention, and my Canadian life, where people would be astonished to see me step into the pulverising waves at Manning Point for a body surf.

In both lives, I garden a lot; I live near the ocean, go for walks, connect regularly with great people, watch movies, do the NYT crossword with Rick, read books and blog.

For eight or nine months of the year, home is in Australia: a conglomerate of strong yellow sun, black flat stones on the beach, regular trips to the Great Barrier Reef, shrubs that have been with me for twenty years, cattle in the pasture next door, little sundresses—and mostly, a generation of friends, some of whom are attached to me very specially as housemates.

But there is also home in Canada: relatives new and old, friends new and old, oyster beds, Costco, Japanese restaurants, ferry crossings and mountains.

For someone who likes a bit of variety in life, it couldn’t be better. (For someone who likes a bit of continuity and stability, it could be a major disruption. But that’s another story.)

So, you might ask, how did this happen? Let me drop you into a story—an evening long ago, when you could say it all began.

It was a rainy December night in Vancouver. I was leaning against the piano, half listening while our good friend Thom quietly played something jazzy. Across the room a cluster of friends was grouped around the fireplace, feeding logs into the fire and discussing the end of civilisation. The year was 1981; those of you of a certain age might remember this as a time when the Cold War was at its peak, with everybody in the northern hemisphere aiming pointy missiles at everybody else. This group of friends had been discussing possible perils, painting scenarios and debating plans for many months. There were eight of us, a diverse lot – including a mother and teacher (that was me), a computer analyst (my husband Rick), an accountant, a stock market analyst, a computer programmer, a cook, an American draft dodger and a first violinist for the Vancouver Symphony. The group was informally led by Fritz, an eccentric genius who had been a scientist researcher at the Berkeley lab’s particle accelerator before escaping to Canada for something to do with tax evasion.

The plan at the top of the group’s list involved moving to Australia – a peaceable, English-speaking, democratic, warm and fertile country tucked safely away in the southern hemisphere. No one had been there but it looked like a good, safe place to raise a family and live a life, whether or not the top of the world got caught in a radioactive cloud or two.

…So, back to the piano, with Thom tickling the ivories. On that particular evening, notwithstanding my casual demeanour, I was deeply troubled. I recognised the group was at a cusp, that we had begun talking in circles because we were breathing the thick atmosphere that precedes a major decision to be made. Somebody was going to have to say, “Stay or go? Give it up or get moving?” I knew that I, as a mother of two (a newborn and a two year old), close to my family with a strong network of friends, had much to lose and perhaps much to gain. I knew Rick was okay to go but would support me either way.

The Australia dollar coinI clearly remember an image of a giant coin in front of me, that we had shouldered up, up, up onto its sharp edge. I pictured how I could walk over to my friends and say, “Look, we’ve had a great time talking; let’s pack it up and make the best of what we’ve got here,” and the coin would effortlessly topple. Heads, say.

Or I could say, “Okay, time to make a move, who’s down to the Australian embassy tomorrow?” and the coin would topple the other way. Tails. The Australia way; the falling-off-the-end-of-the-earth way. The Here-there-be-dragons way.

So I took a few deep breaths and concentrated for a moment on Thom’s rich chords. I checked the coin, poised there in perfect balance. Then I walked over to the fireplace, waited for a break in the conversation, and said, “So what’s the deal? Are we going to give it up, or give it a go?”

There was a long moment of silence. I watched the coin tremble, the faces become tense. Then Fritz said, “Well, we have been issued a challenge!” Over the next few minutes, brows furrowed, chins were stroked, and then one by one, everyone embraced a new future. The coin had toppled: tails.

…Which brings us back to today, over three decades since Rick and I arrived in Sydney one January with two small children, 100 cubic feet of possessions and very pale skins.

Today the Russians and the Americans have shaken hands (well, sort of) and the war games have subsided (well, sort of). There have been many times since when geopolitical events have led Rick and me to nod at each other and say, “Lucky thing we’re in this part of the world”—but mostly it’s just become home. We love the people, the climate and the culture, and have put roots firmly down.

There was much I didn’t see in that moment while the coin stood on its edge. I didn’t see, for example, that we would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel expenses and lost income travelling back to see our families. I didn’t see that when our children became adults, they would be drawn back to Canada to try their hands at the country of their birth. I didn’t see my father or my brother drawing their last breaths while I was twelve thousand kilometres away.

How can you ever know these things?

You can’t. You can only watch for that moment of choice, be as wise as you can inside that moment, and then make the best of it after that.

How different it was for migrants a hundred years ago. They said goodbye to their families forever and kissed the soil of their homeland one last time. They didn’t get to have two lives.

Although the packing of the suitcases isn’t something I look forward to, soon I get to see my mother, my kids, a good many of my vast extended family, my dear in-laws and many friends. I breathe different air. Not such a bad deal.


Mount RobsonHousemates Michael and Judy are coming to visit in Canada this summer. What a treat to share with them my mother, her beautiful home on Georgia Strait, the Rocky Mountains and the prairies where I grew up. Now, THAT’S something that wouldn’t have happened if the coin had dropped the other way.



6 thoughts on “Off to Oz

  1. Great to bring back memories, Heather. What a crazy plan that was, eh? And how many other changes, not even hinted at in your post, flowed from your initial decision: our own four-year sojourn Down Under and the Manning, NSW on our marriage license, being just two. 🙂 It seems a great lesson for where Cheryl and I are in our own lives right now, and the power of making momentous, if mysterious, changes. The “future’s not ours to see”, but the excitement of waiting for that coin to topple is. Looking forward to connecting soon “Up Over.” Say hi to “Fritz” if you see him.

  2. An interesting memoir Heather. The idea never clicked with me and I stayed here. But interestingly, my daughter is now in Australia on a year’s working visa and she wants to stay there permanently. She has made new friends, including a boyfriend, and has found employment as a dance instructor and as an au pair. The big problem for her is extending her stay after September as Australia’s current rules for immigrants are fairly stringent and expensive. But it looks like Janis and I may have your situation in reverse in a while with a daughter living in Oz. If that transpires, we will likely be making the occasional trip out that way. Our daughter is living in Perth, a twenty minute walk from the ocean.

    • When we moved to Australia, my parents took the opportunity to visit and to tour the country. My dad in particular had always been interested in things Australian. You gotta find an upside when the kids go upside-down!
      Hope we can catch up this summer.

  3. “Be as wise as you can inside that moment” such words of wisdom Missy Heather…..

    This is another gem…..

    LpoveSent from Windows Mail

  4. What a lovely reminder that our lives can takes such different paths depending on a single decision. I’m so glad my own parents made the decision to bring us to Australia when I was a child. And if I hadn’t taken my own somewhat reluctant leap to move up to our farm on the lovely Mid-North Coast of NSW, I think I would have missed so much that I now treasure, including new friendships such as yours, Heather.
    These momentous decisions can be so scary at the time, but if my courage is failing over taking on something new and unknown, I like to give myself a bit of a push with this little adage: if you get the chance to sit it out or dance, then dance.
    Keep dancing, Heather!

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