Over the course of the past 9 months, I’ve gone back and forth about what I want this blog to be. Is it merely a travelogue? Is it about the everyday reality of ex-patting, a word one of my American friends used the other day? (I looked it up on Urban Dictionary. It’s a verb. “v: Expatting, to expat. The act of moving to another country for the purpose of building a better life or a more fulfilling career.”)
When writing a blog, there is a fine line between telling one’s truth and over-disclosing. I find I’ve been going in the far opposite direction, only choosing to show the pretty bits. But that is not an authentic representation of what this experience is. Living in Australia is not all beautiful beaches and interesting flora and fauna. There is a danger, I believe, in thinking that when you move to another country, everything is going to be wonderful. Logic mind may tell you otherwise, but that magical thinking part of the brain thinks logic mind is full of shit.
First there is the issue of “wherever you are, there you are”. Any personal issues you had in your home country are going to be part of the baggage you check. My own issues with depression, while they remained unpacked for awhile, have made an appearance. Being so far away from everything and everyone familiar has made dealing with the depression more of a challenge.
Aside from the personal baggage you bring, there are minor inconveniences and adjustments, things no one tells you about before you arrive. For instance, I really wish I’d gotten in better shape before coming. While I actually love not having to worry about a car or driving, the amount of walking I do in a day quadrupled upon arrival here. While the rest of my body adapted fairly quickly, my feet struggled with it, and still do occasionally. I had severe pain in my feet for the first couple months. I learned that a quality walking shoe was imperative, even if it wasn’t fashionable. As I watch the fashion plates that are young Aussie women running around the city center in their towering heels, I lament the probability that I’ll never again be able to wear heels. My feet have also increased in size since arriving. I don’t know if that’s all the walking made them spread, or they’re just always swollen.
Depending on public transport is, for the most part, a relief from driving and the costs and tedium involved in owning a car. It’s fairly dependable; still it’s always good to allow extra time for busses that never show up if you have an appointment. We can walk out our front door and get most anywhere we want to go. While it takes only a few minutes to get into the city center, whether by bus or ferry, it does take quite awhile to get to any other area. That’s mostly because of where we chose to live. If we were closer to a train station, it would be different. So that has been an adjustment. When I start to fret, I just remember that when I lived in Dallas a million years ago, it would take an hour to travel what should have taken twenty minutes without traffic. There are some places that public transport doesn’t go to, like the Ku-Ring-Gai National Park, and we can’t very well go looking for kangaroo from a bus.
The whole issue surrounding material objects has been a learning experience. Letting go of most of our belongings was hard. Still, now that I look around at what we brought, I wish we’d stored more of it at home. When we came, we didn’t have a good idea of how long we’d be here. Then, we were open to the idea of extending our visa, staying longer than three years, and so brought what we thought we might need. Now, when I contemplate replacing items we didn’t bring, I think of how I don’t want to pay to ship it back (because now I intend to go back sooner rather than later), and if it’s anything that runs on current, it will have to stay here.
Not having what I need at my fingertips has been a frustration. There are so many little things like gardening gloves or a box to mail something, that I used to have lying around. Now it’s not only an effort to go source these items, everything costs so much more than I expect. When we first arrived, and I had only had a quick look around, I thought prices were comparable. That was before I started trying to replace necessary items.
Quality is also hard to find. I went to the local craft store to find a plastic, compartmented box to hold my crafty supplies. They had one style and it cost $45 on sale. The lid wouldn’t stay on long enough to get to the bus stop. I debated taking it back, but knew that was about as good as I was going to find for less than $100, so decided to make do. That kind of sucks.
Language issues also pop up when I’m on the hunt for stuff. I went out the other day, looking for index cards. I’m in the process of writing a novel and want cards to keep track of notes and research. They aren’t called index cards here and I had no idea what they were called. Trying to explain what I wanted and why was an exercise in not losing my cool. You can’t just go to a grocery store and pick up a pack like you can in the U.S. The office supply store I went to didn’t even sell them. I had to go to a news agency, the place you buy magazines and newspapers.
Language can be fun, too. An electrician is a sparky. That just makes me happy for some reason. Tall, good looking sparkies make me happy too, but I can’t write that here in case my husband reads this.
Another adjustment comes in the form of customer service. The idea we have in the U.S. of “the customer is always right” doesn’t exist here. In most of the smaller shops I’ve had a wonderful experience; the people are lovely and so happy to have you in their shop. It’s in the bigger institutions that the trouble starts, specifically with rentals. Housing is so competitive here, that the property managers and owners pretty much have you over a barrel.
Since moving into our place, we’ve struggled with rain pouring down the walls, a horrific mold infestation, a random man that shows up in our locked courtyard once a week, and an ongoing, really frightening problem of experiencing an electric shock while showering. The property management’s response to all of this is, “it’s not happening. We’ve managed this property for twenty years and this has never been a problem before, therefore it must not be a problem now.”
When we first signed up for internet, the provider decided to change my husband’s name to Neil. They refused to change it to his correct name unless he brought his passport to the “customer service” department. After spending over an hour with them, trying to prove he was Craig, not Neil, they still didn’t change it. They kept mailing equipment to our house, but delivery required Neil’s signature and it had to be checked against his I.D.
The biggest issue I’ve faced in coming here has been isolation. Being a writer means I spend a lot of time alone, without the benefit of workmates, and making Aussie friends has proven to be difficult. When we first came, I purposely did not join any ex-pat groups. I didn’t want to isolate myself within the American ex-pat community; I wanted to assimilate. That’s a lot harder to do than you’d think. From what I’ve observed and from what I hear from the ex-pats I have gravitated to, it seems to be an issue of both culture and my age group.
Culturally, Australians tend toward a very friendly, gregarious personality, and socializing is a major past-time. They’ll strike up a conversation at the bus stop, and when we see familiar faces at the farmers market, they’re keen to chat, but more formal socializing is generally kept within an established group that they’ve known all their lives, and seems to be centered around family groups.
Age-wise, I’ve looked into various meet-up groups and they tend to be geared to or dominated by young people. There is a local community center that I thought might be an option. All the programming is for senior citizens. I feel lost and invisible in the middle of all this. I think it’s important to associate with people of all age groups, but I do want all the age groups represented. I think the young people would be just as uncomfortable with me there as I would be, and I don’t have the proper card yet to join the senior citizen groups.
The cost of everything adds to the isolation. It makes it hard to go places and see things. I end up feeling trapped at home, which in turn contributes to the depression. If I go back to that Urban dictionary definition – “The act of moving to another country for the purpose of building a better life” – from a financial aspect, our quality of life has decreased, especially since the Aussie dollar has dropped 30% since we came (it’s not our fault!)
If I look at life quality from a non-material point of view, it’s improved. I’m more active, partly out of necessity (no car) and also because there is so much to see and do. In the U.S. I didn’t feel an urgency to do touristy things, and as a result, I left there not ever having seen the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone Park, even though each were less than a nine hour drive away. Because I have a timeline here, I’m out exploring as much as I can on the budget. When we do go out to eat, there is more ready access to good food, and we have quick and easy access to natural places.
The second part of the definition, about building a more fulfilling career, definitely rings true. If not for this complete upset of the status quo, I don’t know if I would have been able to focus enough to build my writing career. Back in Utah, I was too distracted by my zillions of craft projects and the upkeep of house and garden; add in the bone deep inertia I’d cultivated, and I wasn’t ever going to succeed. Since being here, I’ve made great strides forward in both my freelance business and in my fiction writing.
Even through the tough parts, I do not regret coming here, and I am definitely not ready to go back just yet. Friend and family connections will eventually take me back to the U.S. and when I go, I’ll miss Australia and the friends I’ve made here. This place, for all its frustrating bits, is a beautiful and wild country, full of beautiful people, and I’m told there are even kangaroos.