When Living in Australia Is Not a Day at the Beach

Storm over Bondi November 2015

This is a vent, a rant. Given the dark days we’re living in, if you don’t want any more negativity, and I don’t blame you one bit for that, go ahead and slip off this page. Come back another day when I have lovelier things to say. Today I’m going to grizzle and whinge.

I’ve been basically housebound for a good two weeks now. I’m going stir crazy. It all began with a stupid mistake I made, that was then exacerbated by a physio who fancied herself a physician. I’ve been to a real physician now and she instructed me not to go back to that particular physio, or leg wrencher.

Being stuck here at home gives me lots of time to ruminate on the glories of renting in Australia. We had our share of troubles back at our first rental. The place was riddled with mold, sheets of water poured down the entire expanse of upstairs walls when it rained and the property manager told us to put a bucket under it. There was the electric shocking shower issue that we were simply told wasn’t in fact happening, although we’d both experienced it several times.

When we moved into this place three years ago, we were convinced that it would be a different experience. At first, both the owner and property manager seemed approachable and responsive to issues. That was the first week.

A few months later, they did the first walk-through inspection to be sure we weren’t trashing the joint. They sent me a form to fill out with any repairs that needed to be attended to. I listed the loose stone in the front stoop that seems dangerous, the oven that only works on 4 of the 9 settings, and a couple other minor issues. They did send a guy out to look at the oven. He said, “just use a different setting.” That’s great as long as I don’t ever want to broil anything, or simply use the basic bottom burner oven function instead of air circulated heat. Air circulated is great for some things, but not all. He did also say that the door to the oven was broken and should be replaced. Not a one of the issues with the oven or otherwise were addressed.

About three months before the lease was ending, they started pestering us to sign a new lease. We didn’t plan on leaving yet, so weren’t too fussed, even if it seemed a little odd. According to Australian law, we only have to give two weeks notice to vacate.

That following summer we had some issues with the central air. They did send someone out, who told us that what he did was a patch and that the unit needed to be replaced and he would advise the owner of this, as he had done on a couple of previous trips out before we moved in. It wasn’t replaced.

When the first cold air of winter blew through, we turned the heat on and the fan went kerplunk kerplunk. They said they’d send someone out to look at it. They sent an electrician over to change a light bulb instead. We didn’t need a light bulb. For the next few weeks they kept asking us to send photos of the problem. The unit is up in the ceiling somewhere.

They finally replaced the unit just in time to turn it to AC. Granted, winters here are nothing like in Utah, but it is cold and wet and it’s painful to shave the legs when covered with goosebumps.

This year, on the evening of April 17, we were running the dishwasher, when we heard a loud pop. Once I switched the breaker back on I saw dark smoke started billowing out of the machine. I reported it the next morning. They replaced the dishwasher in late May.

There was the leaky toilet earlier this year. Small ponds were forming at the base. I may or may not have accused my husband of peeing on the floor. But, it happened even when I made that bathroom off limits for a day. The owner sent her own “plumber” out to look at it. He told me there was no leak. I pointed at the wet floor. He told me it was mop water. I told him I hadn’t mopped. He stuck his finger in the water, wiped it off, and said, “see? No wet.” I dipped a piece of toilet paper in the puddle and said, “see? Yes wet.” He wiped a piece of toilet paper through the puddle, folded it over to the dry bit, and said… yeah, you get the picture.

The owner does send a painter around about once a month to fix the bubbling paint on the balcony railing that no one can see.

Late last October the property manager started bugging us about the lease again. Mind you, it didn’t terminate until February. Knowing that our Visas were ending this year, we couldn’t sign a year lease. We didn’t know if we’d be here. We told them that we needed some time to see what was going to happen. They said ok. Then about a week later started questioning us about it again. And the next week. Finally, we offered to sign a three month lease and they agreed. One month into it, if that, they started in again trying to get us to sign the twelve month lease. Still no Visa, but “she’ll be right mate!”

After many phone calls and emails and explaining our complete lack of control over whether or not my husband’s company would try to renew the Visa or if Australia would even approve it, they finally agreed to a seven month lease with a “no penalty for early termination” clause. That’s up in December. Today is October 10. They started with the emails September 5.

We still have no confirmation on the Visas. The company is pursuing them, at a snail’s pace. As soon as they submit the application it will be up to Australia to decide whether or not we can stay.

My husband is threatening to have us move to another apartment, one where he hopes we can rent month to month after the initial twelve month lease ends. We do still plan on moving back to the US, and that flexibility would be helpful. Our landlord isn’t flexing that way. She’s not budging at all. Of course they raise the rent with each new lease, to pay for the repairs that took them months to make.

I have to wonder if her fixation on this inflexible lease doesn’t have something to do with all the incidents of arson we’ve had in the neighborhood. It could be hard to rent if we leave. And do we want to stay in a fire hazard zone? I’m pretty certain it’s the hoodlums next door who are the culprits. No proof of course, except for the photo I have of them out front vandalizing the share bikes. The primary hoodlum’s mother, told me when we moved in that she was good friends with the owner. Maybe the owner is trying to get the place burned down in order to collect on the insurance.

I’ll shut up now. I have to go to my new physio. I hope he doesn’t hurt me.

Discovering Alexandria

After coasting along for nearly four years now, I’ve become intensely aware of the looming expiration date on our Australian stay. Granted, it’s still a fuzzy expiration date; kind of like buying a tub of yogurt and the sell-by date says, “ehh, sometime in the next year or so.” Anyway, my point is, I feel motivated to experience as much of Australia as I can before we leave. Day to day, I can’t travel far, can’t take a quick jaunt over to Ayers Rock or Darwin. What I can do is absorb all the interesting bits of Sydney and surrounds.

The trouble with trying to find interesting things to do here is when you do a google search all you come up with is the same list of “ten best things to do in Sydney” over and over. Most of that involves drinking, beaches, or drinking by the beach. I love the beach, with or without alcohol, but I want more. I want to find all the quirky bits and curiosities Sydney has to offer. I want interesting neighborhoods to explore, with history and beauty. I’m searching for places that invite a deeper exploration, that spark wonder. I know they are there; it’s just a matter of finding them.

My exploring buddy, Joanne, is always eager to visit new locales with me. Because so many of our excursions involve shopping or running errands, or just eating, we’re making an effort toward a more creative examination of our city. We were all set last week to do something different by making the trek over to Rookwood Cemetery and the Hidden Sculpture exhibit, when my knee started screaming at me. My search for something interesting that didn’t involve too much walking kept coming up empty, so finally I said, “there’s this pretty little coffee shop I’ve been wanting to go to since I came here,” which took us to Alexandria.

Alexandria is an inner-city suburb, just south of the CBD (central business district). A historically industrial area, Alexandria is now experiencing the evolution to hip suburb. Completely by accident, we found one of those places I asked for, the ones that invite more exploration, and we barely scratched the surface.

The suburb is easily accessible by public transport. We hopped off the train at Green Square Station and headed toward our destination, The Grounds of Alexandria. It should be about a ten minute walk if you don’t stop at the Mitchell Road Antique & Design Centre, which we did. It took us a bit longer.

A smiling crocodile greets shoppers when they enter the massive space that is brimming with retro yumminess and a fair bit of Australiana, some of which is perhaps a little distasteful for modern sensibilities, but definitely a curiosity. I am by no means an expert on these things, but it seemed like much of their wares were priced quite a bit higher than what I’ve seen for similar items in thrift stores or my mother’s basement. Still, it’s tons of fun to look and say, “oh my grandma had that!”

A little dizzy from the smell of dust and old ghosts, we continued on up the road to The Grounds. I was expecting good coffee and fresh food, some sort of garden room and maybe a greenhouse or something. I wasn’t really sure. But wow! I wasn’t expecting what we found. I had read on the internet that people come from far and wide to experience this. It was clear why.

The lush garden atmosphere encompasses several venues in one sprawling location. The Cafe is a hopping place with a retro vibe, where you can get amazing coffees to go with your breakfast or lunch, and they have beautiful pastries to drool over. If you’re feeling more fancy, in The Potting Shed you can dine on fresh, local harvest, while surrounded by hanging plants and fresh flowers.

The Garden is an enormous space where you can sit at long tables under the flowering arbor, or in one of the many other courtyard or intimate nooks, and sip a cocktail or a fresh squeezed juice from the Garden Bar or have take-away lunch from the BBQ, or pizza from the Wood Fired Kitchen. To be honest, we couldn’t find the Wood Fired Kitchen. It’s in there somewhere, but the place is huge! And we were hungry. We had delicious design-your-own salad bowls from the BBQ.

Having a little taste of Alexandria, I do want to go back and finish exploring. The Grounds alone has so much more to experience! Just a couple blocks from there is the green expanse of Sydney Park where you can stroll the walking path, have a picnic on the grass, or bird watch at the wetlands. Another great spot for coffee and inspired breakfasts, that I have been to, is Mecca on Bourke Road. I’m keen to see what other treasures can be found on my next visit to Alexandria.

Searching for Home

“Home is Wherever I’m with You”, I painted on a 12x12x2 inch square of wood. That was four or five years ago, and I did mean it then. My husband and I were contemplating the idea of moving abroad, far away from Utah, something we’d often talked about in a “what it” kind of way. Now though, it had become a possible reality; we were actively taking steps to manifest this dream. The plaque was to demonstrate my commitment to taking this leap with him.

The plaque now rests on a bookshelf in the living room, or ‘lounge’ in the Australian vernacular. Like I said, I was sincere about the sentiment when I gave it to my husband. I wanted to learn what living was like outside of the US. My friend Joanne, another American expat here in Australia, says, “it’s real life, someplace different.” I didn’t know that when I was still back in Utah, but I was ready to find out, to make a new home in a new country and culture. I believed that no matter where we were, we could make it home.

We spent a year in limbo, waiting for confirmation that the relocation was actually going to take place. We didn’t know whether or not we should start packing or put our house on the market. We didn’t know how much we should tell our friends and family about our plans. Why stir things up if it wasn’t going to materialize? I remember I felt frozen, in a state of inertia, unable to move forward in my life because I didn’t know what my future held for even the next few months.

As we come up on the end of our four-year visa, I find myself once more in that limbo state, and pondering the meaning of home. Over the past three and a half years, I’ve come to realize that the concept of home is much more complicated and multifaceted than I understood when I made the plaque. I decided to poll my friends to get their take on the concept of home. Their answers reinforced the notion that home isn’t just one thing or in one place.

I’ve just spent two and a half months in the US, first in Texas, then Iowa, Colorado, and finally Utah, all places I’ve called home at some point in my life. When people here ask us where in the US we’re from – as soon as they hear our accent, that is the first thing they ask – we tell them we moved here from Utah, but rush to assure them (us really) that we are not from there, but consider Colorado home. Even when I say that, I have a question mark in my head.

Back in May, the plane I was on came to a bouncing landing in Dallas, Texas. I quickly pulled out my phone, seeking reassurance that my new granddaughter hadn’t arrived first. She landed in the wee hours, a day later. Over the next few weeks, I navigated the once familiar roads of the Dallas Metroplex, running errands and picking my elder granddaughter up from the same school my own children had attended. I had the oddest feeling of déjà vu, like I’d been picked up out of my world in the present and plopped back down at a point in my past that I had worked hard to escape from; this is actually a reoccurring nightmare I have.

Ellen, who responded to my polling question, talked about her parents’ experience immigrating to Australia from Slovenia in their 30s. “As an immigrant, you become homeless in a way. You have a past you cannot share with your new home and you no longer belong in your old home, because time has moved on.” She said that home for her parents is a point in time that no longer exists. My Texas home was certainly that. Driving around, the streets became more and more familiar; I remembered routes I’d taken regularly during my life there, and even a few times when I was lost in thought, I’d find myself on auto-pilot, taking one of those routes. Where was I going? Not home. Home doesn’t exist there anymore.

People and relationships were a common theme in my friends’ responses to my question. Maureen told me, “I consider both Australia (been here 16 years) and the US home. The hardest part for me and it doesn’t get any easier, is missing my family in the US. However, the love of my life is here along with my step daughters and 7 grandchildren plus lots of friends so that means home to me.” Sarah added, “Home is about feeling adapted to a place, rather than ‘out of place,’ about the connections I make with the people there, friendships I make, and the memories I build. But I think for me, my family is really what I think of as Home.”

After six weeks in Texas, I joined my husband in Iowa. I moved to Iowa as a young girl; my mother and brothers live there still. All these many years I have traversed the corn-field lined country roads, every summer taking my own children there when they were young, and now my daughter brings her daughters. I feel a comfort there in the nest of my family; they are ‘home’, but Iowa has never been home, even when I lived there. I never had that feeling of having adapted to a place as Sarah mentioned. Back then, I longed for the other home we’d left behind.

When my daughter and I arrived in Colorado many years ago, I immediately felt at home. The mountains gave me a feeling of being grounded, safety and comfort. This idea of feeling at home in a place you’ve never lived or perhaps never even been before, was something else I heard from my friends. Carmen told me that she feels a strong bond to Italy, the place, people, their behaviors. Her family is Italian, her parents having immigrated to Australia. She was born and raised here, yet when she goes to Italy, she feels like she’s arrived home. She tells me that she can be her authentic self there, and isn’t self-conscious about speaking loudly and animatedly. Everyone else is doing it, too! Sally says, “the first hour I was in Germany, the bus came up over a hill, and it hit me, ‘I am home.’ So what is that? I didn’t know people, culture or scenery, but felt a connection.”

Like Carmen, Merrolee spoke of the “shared values and experiences…ways of being and doing” that she finds when she returns to her New Zealand home. I, too, experience this when I return to the US, particularly Colorado. When I am there I can be myself in a different way than here in Australia. I’m not constantly aware of my otherness. And yet, while in the US this last time, there were several occasions when I bumped into a reverse otherness. I would find myself stumbling trying to perform some task, because I was doing things the Aussie way. I had to stop and say to myself, “oh yeah, it’s done like so here.”

When I’m here in Australia, I refer to the US as home, and when I’m there the reverse is true. I do feel like an outsider here in Australia. As much as I have adapted, I never really have a feeling of true belonging. And back in the US, I no longer feel I completely belong there either. I feel homeless in the way Ellen spoke of. And while I have shared experiences and memories while in Colorado, the place I keep referring to as home, I do wonder how much of that is just a point in time. Yes, my son is there, and friends who are family. They are home. But is Colorado home? When I look at those mountains now, it’s almost like looking at a postcard of a place I once was.

In Boulder, we held the gathering of “Americans who had met in Australia and just happen to all be in Colorado the same week”. As I sat there, sipping wine and discussing with these friends what home meant, I suddenly had the light bulb flash that I felt at home right there, in a way I hadn’t since flying away from Australia eight weeks prior. These people were my new normal, and they could be my “home” whether in Sydney or Boulder.

When we lived in Utah, each time we drove back there after visiting Colorado, as we came through the canyon and the Salt Lake Valley opened up before us, that song from the 1980 Popeye movie would play in my head, “oh sweet haven, god must love us.” That rust and sage colored landscape with the city nestled in the valley felt safe to me. During our renewed contemplation of moving across the waters, Utah has been part of that conversation. I did still consider it a possible sweet haven. Returning there after being away from that particular state for almost four years, I was much more aware of the ingrained passive-aggressive culture than I was when I lived there. There was nothing safe about it anymore.

At the end of ten weeks spent in the US, I longed for the quiet and solitude of this home, this room where I sit typing now, at this desk, this window with a view of the eucalyptus trees and the sounds of the currawongs and magpies. I was weary of sleeping in strange beds, sharing bathrooms with too many people, and cooking in other people’s kitchens. When the Delta ticketing agent told me there was a problem with my passport and that there was no proof that I had permission to be in Australia, I teared up and just about vomited on the counter. I was terrified that my return home would be delayed.

So here I am. Home. In limbo again, wondering what will happen with the visa; where will home be six months from now? When we left here to visit the US, there was no indication that the visa would be renewed, so we told people we were probably returning in the near future. Now I’m wishing I’d listened to my own advise from five years ago. It looks like the visa may be extended, after all. I do feel somewhat of a reprieve. The truth is, if my family were not in the US, I wouldn’t be rushing to move back there, even though I miss the seasons and the landscape.

My conversations with friends has helped to solidify the understanding that home is not a single concept, even for one person. Home is the people we love, it’s memories shared, a safe haven where we can be who we are, a feeling of familiarity and belonging. And home doesn’t have to be in one physical location. Perhaps understanding this can help me to move past the limbo and just be where I am. Perhaps I can do as my friend Joy, who I met when she lived in Australia and now lives in London, said, “we simply make our ‘home’ wherever we move to in the world.”

Hallowe’en Down Under

rookwood-cemetery-9-of-33 It’s All Hallows’ Eve in the northern hemisphere. My own little grandgoblin is probably just finishing up trick-or-treating. Hyped up on sugar she’s giving her mom fits, dancing in circles and crying, “but I don’t wanna go to bed! Just one more piece of candy? Puhleese?”

I still can’t quite get my mind around the idea of Halloween here in Australia. Halloween is a harvest festival, one last blast before the nights get long and dark and cold. It doesn’t fit here where the nesting magpies are swooping and the the flora is in full flush and it’s just about time to hit the beaches. Halloween is a relatively new phenomenon here in ‘Straya. It’s only been in the last decade that it has started to take hold.

Which is why I was unprepared last night when I glanced out the window to see two ghoulish tots climbing the mountain of my front stoop with their plastic pumpkins, calling, “trick or treat!” I froze for a moment, dumbstruck, then ran to rummage through the cupboard looking for that package of cookies I bought to make Halloween witch cupcakes for a party I didn’t go to. I couldn’t find them and had to disappoint the little monsters. The little boy shook his finger at me and told me to do better next year. I looked at the parents and said, “I’m sorry. We were told that you all don’t trick or treat here.” “Yeah nah,” she told me, “there’s heaps that go around here.”

Last year, we were told that trick-or-treating isn’t a thing here, that some households do it, and the kids only go to houses that are decorated or to friends’ houses where it’s been prearranged. We were at a party last year, so were clueless as to what may have been happening on our street. An internet search for answers brought up a great debate between supporters and detractors, those who shamed me for disappointing the little ones, and those who made the Halloween is un-Australian Facebook page.  Apparently Halloween is growing in popularity; some point to the Americanization of Australia through social media, television, and film where Halloween shows up regularly. I did see many etiquette lists that said stick to the decorated houses if you want treats, and that if you don’t want trick-or-treaters, don’t decorate. Well that makes sense, but had me wondering if the kids mistook all the real spider webs for spooky decor. I swear I swept them down a day ago!

After the kids climbed back down the stoop, I closed the door, drew the blinds and hid in the shadowy recesses of my lolly-free house. A short while later I heard a rumbling, a great horde of children screeching, “trick or treat!” as they grew nearer.  I started shaking. I had visions of the scene in Frankenstein where the angry villagers come over the hill carrying torches, intent on mayhem.

The roar of that sugar-hungry mob reached a deafening pitch as they came closer. I cowered in the corner of my sofa, glancing over at the door, wondering if I should throw the deadbolt, latch the chain. I held my breath and peered through the blinds as they reached the front of my house. Whew! They passed by! I could breathe again. I listened to them swarm on up the block. A good fifteen minutes later I could still hear them in the distance.

I thought, “yeah little kid, I’ll remember next year. I’ll remember not to be home.” But now I kind of regret not having decorated the porch and bought heaps of lollies to hand out. One of the arguments I read in favor of the holiday was that it brings communities together, helps you get to know your neighbors. I would love to gain a reputation with the kids as the scary witch who hands out the best treats. We have been wondering how to meet more of our neighbors; I think I missed out on a great opportunity.

Hmmm…. I bet Halloween decorations are really cheap right now!

 

 

Art in the Cemetery

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Rookwood Cemetery is amazing to behold. Located in Lidcombe, historic Rookwood is the oldest and largest cemetery operating in Australia today. The cemetery was founded in 1867 as “The Necropolis at Haslem’s Creek”. Today it covers over 314 hectares and is the resting place of over a million people from 90 different religious and cultural groups.

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In the early days, the local residents of Haslem didn’t appreciate their suburb being so closely associated with the cemetery, so petitioned to change their name. According to the website, in 1878 the residents settled on the name Rookwood, for the many crows in the neighborhood. By 1913, the cemetery had once again adopted the name of the suburb where it lay, so the suburb name was changed to Lidcombe.  Rookwood stuck.

rookwood-cemetery-2-of-3           Rachel Sheree Peace in Death

Each spring, HIDDEN – A Rookwood Sculpture Walk is held at the cemetery, an opportunity for the public to experience the beauty and cultural significance of a historic site that they might not visit otherwise. The thought of the late afternoon sun falling over artwork tucked in among the gravestones being too much to resist, I grabbed my camera and took an excursion out west.

rookwood-cemetery-13-of-33George Catsi & Anne Kwasner Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep

While for the most part I’ve appreciated the ease of traveling around Sydney on public transport, there are some places that are a bit more difficult to get to. What would have been a 20 minute drive (on the left side of the road; something that still gives me a lot of anxiety) took over an hour plus three modes of transport: light rail, train, bus. Four actually, if I include the 9K I put on my feet with all my wandering from here to there. The closest bus stop was still a few blocks from the cemetery. Feeling cocky about my adventure as I hopped off the bus, I soon found myself having to backtrack almost a full lap around the block when I came up against a cement barrier blocking my access over the A3.

rookwood-cemetery-22-of-33Michael Garth Expiry Date

I was still feeling pretty jaunty when I walked through the gate and saw the big sign pointing the way toward the general office, where I was headed first to pick up my map of the art exhibit. Apparently, I hadn’t studied the website close enough, and Google maps didn’t show the “general” office, just some other buildings that I guessed were the right place and weren’t. I walked in the direction of the arrow (the direction I thought it was pointing; now I’m wondering…), until I came upon a building I hoped was the office. It was an office, a closed office and not the one I wanted. I pulled out Google maps again, hoping, and reoriented toward a different wrong building. Did I mention this cemetery is over 314 hectares? Just when I’d about given up hope of getting a map I saw another “general office” sign pointing the same way as the signs for HIDDEN. I went thataway.

rookwood-cemetery-20-of-33Adam Galea Speak with Dead

I saw the first installation and near it another camera-wielding visitor. When I inquired about the whereabouts of the general office, she pointed up the road another 200 meters, shaking her head and looking at her watch. It was five minutes past closing. This very kind woman told me she was just finishing and offered me her map. I am forever grateful to her, because I would still be wandering around lost in there, trying to find the art.

rookwood-cemetery-16-of-33Linde lvimey Bella Donna, (Deadly Night Shade)

She pointed out the section where I’d find most of the artworks, in the oldest part of the cemetery. I thanked her for her kindness and trundled off. Hot, irritable, thirsty, needing to pee, and already so very tired of walking, I juggled my camera, map, and a heavy bag slung over my shoulder. Each time I lifted the camera to take a photo, the wind blew my hair and the map into the frame. I was really wondering if any of this was worth the effort and thinking that perhaps photography isn’t my thing. I was ready to say, “fuck it” and call an Uber.

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Then the wind blew again and the spirits whispered, “no, stay.” The light was starting to take on that golden glow and was playing hide-and-seek with the shadows around the worn and crumbling graves. The tall grasses and wild flowers growing in this unkempt section of the cemetery convinced me to stop, take a breath, and continue my adventure. I had all the time in the world now. Well, until they locked the gate with me inside. Keeping that in mind, I located the next artwork.

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Making my way deeper into the quiet, forgotten areas, I felt more at peace myself. This portion of the cemetery stood in stark contrast to the gleaming granite, manicured lawns, and oft-frequented area where I had entered the grounds. Here nature was given free rein, the ravens, magpies, and butterflies the only other visitors. Now and then I’d come upon a withered bouquet left on a timeworn grave, and wonder who it was honoring their long dead ancestor. Or was it someone who pities the forgotten ones, and transplants bouquets from other areas of the necropolis?

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I wanted to sit and contemplate the artwork, the leaning headstones and toppled angels. There were no benches to sit on and I hadn’t thought to bring a blanket. I didn’t dare rest my derriere on a tumbling grave, for fear I’d tip it clean over. Or, those spirits I felt on the wind might whip through my hair, knock me down, take my breath and follow me home for interrupting their repose.

rookwood-cemetery-5-of-33Robert Hawkins The End of the Conversation

Having come to the final artwork, I decided, since I was halfway there, to continue to make my way overland to the far side of the cemetery and catch the train instead of going back to the bus. In the distance I could see a tall fence around the perimeter. Another thing I hadn’t reckoned on. Was there a gate on that side? It was getting late; I didn’t know how long it would take me to trek back to the east entrance, and my feet were starting to cry. I was beginning to feel a little panicky; I do have a fear of being locked inside creepy places, like that time at Gilgal Sculpture Garden in Salt Lake City.  My phone battery was dying, I wasn’t sure an Uber could get to this section of the cemetery, and I knew I couldn’t scale that fence, even if I wasn’t wearing a dress. I asked the local spirits to puh-leeese let me out! I’ve never been so happy to see the other side of a fence in my life.

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The HIDDEN Sculpture Walk ends on Sunday, but even without the art this cemetery is a beautiful place to visit. When I grow a pair of ovaries I’ll drive back out there, leave my camera at home, and just visit the residents.

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A Change of Season

nature - autumn (1 of 1)Peeking through the bank of native trees outside my study window, I see splotches of the red and orange of a deciduous immigrant. The sun sparkle dances off the leaves creating tongues of flame licking at the blue above. The ground beneath the trees is wet with puddles reflecting leaves and sky, remnants of the rain that pelted us over the last few days.

nature - autumn (2 of 6)According to the calendar, we’ve passed from autumn to winter here down under. The Aussies count their seasons from the first day of the month in which the equinox or solstice occurs. Yet, there are not actually only four seasons here. That’s an idea the Europeans brought with them. In fact, season is not so much a matter of calendar or even temperature as it is of other natural indicators. A couple days ago, we were bundled in wool sweaters and socks with the heater on, and yesterday I had the window open, and the scene from that window looks like autumn.

stitched wheel of the year (1 of 1)I’ve been stitching an embroidered wheel of the year, one meant to represent the seasons of both the northern and southern hemispheres. This awareness and marking of the seasons is a primary tenet of my personal spiritual practice. As I tried to force the Australian seasons to match up with the northern hemisphere round, it became clear that the seasons aren’t just flipped.

Even in the northern hemisphere, “spring” may arrive before or after the Vernal Equinox. As I chose symbols to embroider for each season, I could see how the seasons meld one into the next, and the date of the equinox or solstice wasn’t necessarily an indicator. What is spring in Texas is still winter in Utah. Of course, others will tell me that “spring” in Utah means snow. And in Colorado the locals refer to second and third winter, those heavy, wet snowfalls that cover the land then melt the next day with the return of the sun.

nature - autumn (4 of 6)As I enter my second winter here, I continue to try to wrap my mind around the idea of Australian seasons, to take my brain out of the four season European paradigm, to take a more intuitive approach. I’m learning about the seasons by marking the daily weather conditions in my calendar, and by being aware of which native trees are blooming around me as I go on my walks.

nature - autumn (6 of 6)These kind of natural indicators are how Australia’s Indigenous people have been counting the seasons for the last 50,000 years. The Aboriginal idea of seasons has traditionally been connected to food supply, need for shelter, animal behavior, and the land itself.

seasons of the year D'harawal PeopleI went on an internet search wanting to understand Australia’s seasons from the perspective of the Traditional Land Owners. I found this chart that shows we’re now in the time when the Burringoa, or Red Gum, is flowering. I’ll remember now that when the wind blows drifts of pollen into my living room it’s Tugarah Tuli.

I find nature’s cycles comforting; they ground me in place and time. Now nature tells me it’s time for cuddling on the sofa with afghans, and for baking bread and simmering pots of soup. As I watch the seasons change again and compare this June to last, I’m feeling a growing sense of familiarity in this still new-to-me land; I feel my roots reaching a bit deeper into the Australian soil.

Catching Up

Brisbane (1 of 30)I’ve become a lousy blogger. It’s true; I’ve gone from posting most every day, back in the crafty beginnings of my blog, to posting three times a week, which I thought was really slacking. Now it seems I’ve dwindled down to a few times a year.

I wrote awhile back about deciding what I want my blog to be, and I keep coming back to wanting it to be a documentation of what this journey has been. In years to come, I want to be able to look back on this and remember this crazy thing we did. I also hope it can be of help to other people who are thinking of making such a move. I haven’t been documenting very well!

Yes and no. I mean I keep a handwritten journal, and that of course has all the nitty gritty details that I don’t want to put out in cyberspace for public consumption. And that public consumption would be why I’ve not been posting. I know when we blog, we are making a choice to put ourselves out there. And we choose how much to put out there. Anyone who reads a blog and thinks that now they know a person is mistaken. There are those bloggers who over-disclose. I choose very carefully what I share; sometimes I share personal information, for example in speaking about my depression. I choose to share that because there are so many people out there who struggle with depression and who feel alone. If I can reach one person and let them know they are not alone, then that’s a good thing. I found myself in a situation though, where I felt too exposed, and the thought of blogging made me squeamish.

But you know what? I have a hard drive full of photos of beaches, kangaroos, rivers, gardens, art, historical sites, and other images of adventures we’ve been on here that I need to write about before I completely forget what they are.  So, I’m going to make a concerted effort to get back in the blogging groove.  I’ll be back with some stories of places we visited last year, and I’ll work my way up to the present. I promise. For real this time.

 

One Year’s Flown

kookaburra (1 of 1)The sidewalk was sprinkled with blossoms and the air redolent with frangipani. I was still shaking off the fog of jet lag, and absorbing the novelty of this new environment: exotic birds and flowers, new (and often incomprehensible) accents, streets filled with cafes and the delicious aroma of espresso, and the ubiquitous Vegemite, sausages, and beetroot.

As I walk along the city sidewalk, I look down and again see the frangipani blossoms. A year has passed. A year since we left everything and everyone behind to come to this strange land, to explore the world outside of what we knew.

It has been a year filled with highs and lows. Good things have happened, mostly in the form of wonderful new friendships. I’ve made good progress, both in forging a freelance career, and in immersing myself in the characters and events of the novel I’m writing. As 2015 came to a close, I finally saw my first kangaroo, and got to venture out away from Sydney somewhat, to see a little more of this country.

There were low points as well. I struggled to understand how systems work here, pulled out my hair at the lack of customer service, especially the terrors of renting. I’ve struggled with home sickness, watching from afar as my grown children faced struggles of their own, and me feeling so distant and useless to help them through. Depression, fueled by feelings of isolation, crept up on me and hit hard in October. With the support of my husband, I pulled through, counting each day I was still alive as a major success.

As summer unfurled, with explorations into this land and an influx of nature energy, along with the building of new friendships, at last I started to feel like this was a home. Over the past year, I’ve felt very transient, a feeling that began with four months of living in a practically empty house while waiting for our household goods shipment to arrive.

Our rental had many problems, from moldy ceilings and walls, to a shower that delivered a nasty shock, and property management that completely disregarded our concerns. We didn’t know if we wanted to renew the lease on this place when the time came, or look for another.

While during most hours of the day I enjoy living in Australia, and have no burning desire to live in the U.S. again, especially under the current conditions, I do know now that I have to be nearer my family. I want my grandchildren, present and future, to be able to pop over when they want to. I need my children to come over for Sunday dinner.

Knowing we’d just be packing up again, I wasn’t invested in nesting and making the space between these walls into an actual home. I wasn’t motivated to decorate anything beyond the living room, and I didn’t want to purchase anything – like an expensive stand mixer or those beautiful celadon porcelain cups at the market – that would have to be left behind or stood the possibility of breaking on an ocean voyage.

We had come to the conclusion, from talking to other renters, that moving house would likely just trade one set of problems for another. The shower shock had resolved itself at the same time that a light in the bathroom burned out. I had gotten a handle on the mold, and armed with a dehumidifier, thought I’d be able to battle the wet, cold season to come.

Having finally come to the place of accepting this as home, even if only for a couple years more, I decided I was ready to nest. So we went to IKEA and bought bookshelves. I built one, put it in the kitchen, unpacked my cookbooks and styled the shelves. I was just choosing the perfect wall spot for a photographic calendar of Scotland sent across the pond from our new friends, when we got word that our lease would not be renewed. The owner requires the unit, probably to fix all the repairs we requested and then rent it for more. We are sorely tempted to replace that light bulb.

So now we’re out looking again. So much of what is on offer in the way of rentals is hideous, with dirty worn carpets that the agencies list as “as new”, to toilets in one room and the shower in another way down the hall.

Living without a car impacts our choice of area. Completely aside from the issue of public transport, we have set up our lives here in this suburb. It’s close to our friends, Craig’s work, our doctor, the pharmacist who compounds my thyroid medicine, our favorite farmers market, and the little family owned corner market and its proprietor, Joe.

I briefly entertained the idea of moving closer to the eastern beaches, but when I thought what that meant in terms of starting over from scratch, and how far it would be from my social network and support system, I couldn’t face it, ocean or no ocean.

We are waiting now, to hear if we’ve been approved for a lovely townhouse in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood, close to public transport. We should have heard by now and my mind is tempted to fill with negative thoughts. I’m trying to visualize us in that house, with the gleaming wooden floors and the (almost) normal size oven, and most of all, that little room upstairs with a window looking out on the leafy street, where I can sit and write. I’m ready to get started on our second year in this still strange land that I grow to love more and more every day.

The River City of Brisbane

Brisbane (5 of 30)Story Bridge

After two months shy of a year living in Sydney, we finally got to travel to another region of the country. True, Craig has been down to Melbourne on one occasion, but he was working, and didn’t see any of the city. This time, on another business trip, I tagged along for a visit to Brisbane. Why had no one told me about this gem?

Brisbane (1 of 2)The Old Windmill

Approaching Brisbane by air, I looked out to see vast swaths of green, forested areas, interrupted here and there with a small clearing containing a swimming pool. The blue-polka-dotted fabric of green made me laugh. As we stepped directly off the plane into Brisbane, the first impression was an oven blast of heat and humidity, but during a quick taxi ride to the hotel I already became enamored with the city. After depositing our bags, we set off to explore.

Brisbane (25 of 30)The ceiling of the Regent Theatre

The capital city of Queensland, Brisbane is nestled in the hills and valleys of the winding Brisbane River, named in 1823 after the governor of New South Wales, Thomas Brisbane. We hopped aboard the City Hopper, the free ferry that loops the river bends of the city. The site of today’s Brisbane began as a penal colony from 1824 to house the worst offenders of the Sydney convicts, until 1842 when the Moreton Bay area became a free settlement.

Brisbane (15 of 30)Air Raid Shelter

Aboard the ferry, on our way to a free concert at South Bank Parklands, we were waylaid by a big storm that came through. The ferry moored to wait it out and we enjoyed the light show and the cool wind. Later we heard that 100,000 lightning strikes were recorded by Energex, the local energy provider. The storm quieted and we disembarked at South Bank, too late and too wet for a concert. What I discovered there, though, was worth it. Epicurious Gardens is a gorgeous produce garden, dedicated to teaching the public what real food looks like. They even make the harvest available to the public. What thrilled me about this was being about to see what the new White’s Creek Community Food Forest and Orchard, that I wrote about a few months ago, will be once it is established.

Brisbane (2 of 2)South Bank Parklands

On Monday, I took advantage of the Brisbane Greeters program. It’s a free service in which a volunteer takes a group on a 2-4 hour tour of the city. Our volunteer tour guide, Coral, gave us a wonderful overview of what the city has to offer, from gardens to historical sites. She was a wealth of interesting information, and I made a list of places to return to for extended visits.

Brisbane (9 of 30)Splashing pools at South Bank

Back on South Bank, I visited Queensland Museum, Queensland Art Gallery, and the Gallery of Modern Art. I barely touched on any of them. There was so much to see, and I found myself frustrated with my lack of stamina. I wanted to keep going all day, to see every single exhibit.

Brisbane (12 of 30)Queensland Art Gallery

On our final day there, I visited the Roma Street Parklands, the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens, the Regency Theatre, and City Hall. There was still so much more to see. The city is a beautiful blend of old and new, with new modern architecture built around the older stone buildings, and the very present history sitting side by side with the vibrance that is today’s Brisbane. I intend to go back!

Brisbane (3 of 6)City Hall
Brisbane (4 of 6)The former Regent Theatre, now the visitor center

Homeground

Homeground (3 of 6)After ten months with an Antipodean address, it feels like I’ve finally landed in Australia. Sydney is a city similar to so many other cities in the world. Much like airports, cities each have their flavor, but apart from the predominate language you hear, it’s hard to tell where you are in the world. All the cities have tall buildings, people rushing in a swift current down the sidewalks, bumper to bumper traffic honking like so many geese. For the moment, I am able to block out all that and focus on the mud stripes, the pale handprints on brown skin, and be transported to a time when what mattered was a people’s connection to the Earth, to nature and her rhythms.

Homeground (1 of 6)A line of men striped with mud paint, the colors of Earth, skin and soil (we all make up Earth in our varied palettes of brown) stand like a held breath, ready to leap into the sand circle. They are followed by the women draped in fur cloaks. Is that kangaroo? The low vibrating sounds of the didgeridoo call the Waang Djarii dancers forth, to dance the memories of the elders passed down over thousands of years. I’m at Homeground, a celebration of First Nations music and dance, taking place outside the Sydney Opera House. Five troupes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dancers have come to compete for a grand prize of $15,000.

At the start I am distracted, held back from flowing into the dance, by the negativity surrounding me in the present. To my left, a man is annoyed at being asked to move back from the circle, and by the invasion of his personal space by others who are stepping past him. To my right, a woman is angry at another who sat in front of her in the space where we were told not to sit. She is shooting nasty epithets under her breath and making threats. I want to reach over and wrap my arms around this woman, pull her close to me and coo in her ear, “there, there. It’s ok. Let it go.” I’m afraid of having her vitriol turned on me.

I imagine how the woman in front may feel. She’s thrilled to have scored a front row seat for herself and her daughter. Then, hearing the hate being spewed from behind her, she fills with doubt and unease, wondering if she’s committed a social faux pas but not exactly sure. If she were to get up now, that would create a commotion in itself, and she’d have to go to the far back, behind the crowd, where her little daughter would have no chance of seeing the dancers. Maybe there is a thread of ancestry there, an inheritance she wants to share with the girl, and so she chooses to block out the nastiness.

Homeground (2 of 6)As the Waang Djarii dance, the woman beside me quiets, turning her focus to the dancers. The women are waving branches of gum leaves, cleansing the space. As women it seems this is our sacred role through the ages. I’m not talking about housework, but of creating sacred space, in whatever form that may take. We do it as we nest and create homes and care for our families.

Homeground (1 of 7)The next group are the Djaadjawan dancers from Yuin Country. As these eight women dance their dance of healing, I continue to think of the connectedness of all humankind. I imagine their healing being channeled out to the wide world, to Paris, Beirut, and Nigeria, to the Syrian refugees and all those people so full of fear that they want to block their borders, and to the angry people on either side of me, afraid of people invading their space and taking what they believe is rightfully theirs.

Homeground (2 of 7)The women are beautiful, their faces, arms and legs, even their hair, striped in terra cotta and white mud. They are dancing the sacred feminine, they are the Wild Witch, the Blessed Mother, that same image that came to me on a mountain top in Utah, as we danced the Autumn Equinox, that petroglyph from the Fremont People, of the woman holding the spiral wheel. There was a time when all of our ancestors danced the spiral. The women before me now are dancing a continuous thread woven across the fabric of fifty thousand years. Me, I’m picking up dropped threads of an unraveled tapestry.

Homeground (3 of 7)Now Yuin Ghoodjarga from Koomurri Nation slither into the circle. Their bodies painted with red and white stripes snaking over their chests and circling their forearms and calves, the young men send their electric current into the crowd.

Homeground (5 of 7)The chanting voice at the microphone sings them through the metamorphosis from death adder, to kangaroo, to black duck.

Homeground (4 of 6)Thika Billa from the Wiradjuri region, with their scarified chests painted in traditional orange symbols leap into the circle. They become kangaroos, jumping, scratching, frolicking, and nibbling on gum leaves.

Homeground (6 of 7)The final group, Naygayiw Gigi from the Torres Strait Islands are a force of nature themselves.

Homeground (5 of 6)Grass skirted warriors blowing on conch shells, flourishing sticks and bows and arrows dominate the space with a sharp flick of their white feathered headdresses.

Homeground (6 of 6)The women then fill the circle with a joyous exuberance, wearing the same grass skirts, cowrie shells circling their heads, and carrying woven baskets that look like a summer handbag. This group steals the show with their spectacular performance, taking away the big check.

Watching these groups perform, even as my mind follows many threads of what our world is enduring today, I’m filled with hope for all of humanity. I feel a sense of awe at the power of human culture to endure. These people here today sharing their culture with us have held on to ancient traditions. They represent the oldest continuing, adaptive culture on earth. That is such an amazing and glorious thing! They have refused and still refuse to let their culture be killed off. They have survived the great white scourge. If they can do that, can’t we all together survive a handful of terrorists? I just keep thinking about how in the big scheme of things, we’re all in this together. We all belong to the human tribe. I wish we could all join the dance.