A Year and a Half In – Reflections on Living in Australia

Note – this is Jamie writing, not Nicole. She has not in any way endorsed the content below.

Today marks eighteen months in Australia – we landed here as a family on the 1st of August 2013 – jetlagged and squinting from the unfamiliar sun that had eluded us for most of our lives prior to then in Seattle and Reading. Funny to think it was only a year and a half ago – now the kids’ entire lives are in the sun, the beach and the water. They have integrated into their Aussie schools, made friends, picked up the local dialect and play local sports. And Nicole and I have as well, maybe less dramatically, but we have settled into a life here where we can always hear and see the water. We have made friends and adjusted to local custom. We have over the last couple of weeks met good friends for BBQs on the beach with the kids playing down in the water as the sunset and had the whole work team and their families up to our house for a post MYR celebratory BBQ. We have celebrated two Christmases now in Sydney, in the hot of summer and with a surf before dinner. We have made the flight with the kids back to Seattle to visit and had the feeling that it was nice to see family but we really want to get home, back to Sydney. I am not sure when this happened, this sense of home, but it had to be sometime over the last eighteen months. A moment there when we no longer missed the UK and Australia had become our home. I am reminded of Grandma Bly’s advice – home is where your family is. Maybe it is as simple as this.  
It is an awkward milestone – eighteen months; it lacks the evenness of one year or two years or a decade. But it is an interesting milestone nonetheless for me as it is the moment when we decided that our adventure in England had about run its course and we started to consider our next step – reaching out into the network, debating the whole move back to US or stay abroad, phone interviews, etc… which led to a move at the two year mark. If we were again to move on the two year mark, say this August, I would need to get the ball rolling now – where do we want to live, what roles will be available there, what makes the most sense on the work side and the family side, etc… It is this debate that we have started to go through, this tiring and maybe futile assessment of would we be better off doing this or that, what will be best in the long term, for the kids, for work, for us. But aside from the debate on stay or go, the eighteen month milestone has made me lean back and reflect on our experience thus far which is what I wanted to share today.
People say that Australia is a hybrid of UK and US culture. I believe Nicole already wrote about this so I will spare you my impression, but it is at least at a basic level a reasonable assessment. What sticks out to me the most about Australia is how similar it really is the US, or more specifically, how not dissimilar it is. In England we really felt that we were in another world – everything felt different from the US – the language was undecipherable at times, most things felt much smaller than they should be (cars, houses, fridges, etc…) and we were surrounded by an immeasurable wealth of history and culture. We could run into London and see Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, St. Peters, Tower Bride, etc… Or step into a museum and stand before the Elgin marbles, Michelangelo statues, Van Gogh’s sunflowers. We could hop into the car and explore any number of castle ruins before a cosy lunch and pint of ale at a pub that dated back before the US was founded. And once we tired of exploring the UK, Europe was at our doorstep. This is not to say that the UK was perfect. We found living there hard in a lot of ways, and wet. I love that we had the opportunity to do it, but I do not yearn to go back by any means. But it felt different, distinctly different, an experience that we and the kids would remember, justifying the distance from our families and friends in the US.
Australia in contrast has appeal in a very different way. The museums here in Sydney fall a bit short, as does the historical architecture and to my knowledge there are no castle ruins or even real pubs to explore. Asia is at the doorstep, although the journey is an eight hour or more flight to get there. A long driveway if you will. Australia, or Sydney more specifically, is however beautiful. Water is everywhere – from inlands protected bays and coves to breaking waves on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. The flora and fauna is unworldly and in abundance – wallabies, kangaroos, koalas, lizards, spiders along with beautiful eucalyptus or gum trees, banksia, creeping jasmine, giant agave and the incredible frangipani. The weather is temperate and mild and allows for shorts just about every day through the year. The sunsets are unbelievable every night. Pollution is about as low as you will find in a developed country, crime is not something that occupies the public imagination (neighbours leave houses unlocked) and people are friendly. It is all unnerving at first, I found myself aching for a little biting sarcasm or a cold rainy day at first. But you quickly succumb to the pleasantness, drifting into life here in Australia.

It is this pleasantness that is at the heart of our debate over staying or going. Pleasant is a funny word, synonymous with agreeable, amiable, and likeable. Pleasant is good, but is it great? Is pleasant enough to justify the financial cost, or the emotional burden of living so far from family? Or is pleasant just what we need at this formative time in the kids’ lives?
While we may no longer be exploring new countries or rich history, our life here is very nice. I work with a great team and enjoy what I am doing. Patrick just started year 10 and is in all advanced placement classes, is almost as excited about his studies as he is the upcoming beach bonfire or surfing with his buddies, learning to drive and maybe even kissing a girl (gasp). Kellen is starting ‘real school’, or kindergarten, on Monday and cannot wait to tell us about his science studies which he is sure he will do on day one. Ella had her first few days of preschool last week and is proud to be the big girl who gets to stay after having brought and picked up Kellen every day last year. Nicole has integrated well and made her group of friends as she always does and is even considering going back to work here in Sydney. We live on the northern beaches outside of the city, a long commute into the Sydney CBD but a stones throw from an idyllic little village with a grocer, a butcher and a baker. The house overlooks Bilgola beach to the back and Avalon beach to the front, with view of the water from most rooms. The community is small but great, with the same people at the ballet recital as at the nippers morning or soccer or just in the grocery store. Not that everyone knows everyone, but it is close. A place I feel good with Patrick running around town. Almost what I imagine stepping back into time would be like, to the town my parents grew up in with the exception of being on the east coast of Australia vs. the plains of northern Minnesota. Small difference. The family is happy here, the lifestyle is great, the environment perfect for raising a family.
But somehow something still pulls at me. Maybe it is lingering wanderlust, a yearning to get out and explore the world, new cultures, meet different people. It is this that set us out to begin with.
We are approaching an inflection point – if we moved this August, Patrick would be entering his final two years of high school in the northern hemisphere. I could not justify moving him later than this which leads us to the conclusion that either we push on this winter (August) or we hold tight and let Patrick graduate down here in three years. We either pack up and start again, likely in mainland Europe somewhere, or really settle in – apply for Australian residency, maybe buy nicer cars, think about getting a dog. The shift from living somewhere where you anticipate being a couple of years vs. somewhere you plan to be longer, maybe a lot longer, is subtle but real. Little decisions around cell phones or where to live or gym membership are put into new light. Vacation planning changes. Work and career conversations shift. College research for Patrick takes a different light. We would need to get local drivers licenses.
I am not sure where we will land with the decision – my heart pulls me to move on while my mind tells me the best thing to do is to stay for a while and enjoy life – see Patrick graduate, the kids build deeper friendships and Nicole not thrust into a new place again to make friends from scratch. Fortunately it is not a decision we need to make today, so until we do, we will be enjoying the pleasant life and be swimming between the flags.
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