Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The upside of new

A fellow expat described the experience of moving abroad as similar to that of a seesaw: there are ups and downs and they keep coming and going. I'd been warned to expect a rollercoaster of mixed emotions.So I really should have seen it coming yesterday, when, just after the catharsis of venting all my sadness and confusion in a blog post, the fog seemed to lift for a while. Things began to fall into place.

I have some friends who happen to live very close to where we are staying, they are cousins of a close friend but we had met up several times both here and in Australia, they had been very hospitable the last time I was here (10 years ago now) and I had been in contact with one of them, Anita,on Facebook as my moving date approached. Anita had been extremely helpful and offered to do whatever she could to help us settle in. Initially I was waylaid by migraines and sick children, but two days after arriving I picked up the phone.Just hearing her warmth and enthusiasm and that strong Canadian accent lifted my spirits. She provided me with lots of useful information and promised to answer any other questions I might have, and that we would catch up soon. 

Then another Canadian friend Tina (who lives in Australia) put me in contact with a friend of hers who lives locally, via Facebook, and that friend sent me a lovely message offering help settling in too.It's amazing what the realisation that there are people around you can turn to if you need to can do to help you feel less alone. Even if you never actually call on them, it's good to know they're there.

Chris came home from his first afternoon at the office (although still officially on holidays, he'd agreed to go in for a handover) with useful information about setting up bank accounts, good areas to live, and we agreed that we should rent a car within the next couple of days to get out and explore some different areas.I started to think about taking the kids on some trips: Toronto Island, Canada's Wonderland, a baseball game.

Alex was still sick and I worried about being in a new country without a car, with a sick child who seemed ok but could potentially get worse overnight. I didn't want to drag him and Maya to a doctors only to pay a fortune and wait an eternity and be told to just keep an eye on him. A kind tweep whose wife is a doctor offered to ask her for advice when she got home from work, and sent me his phone number. I wondered whether to take him to the walk-in clinic across the road.  It was 5.45 and the clinic closed at 6. I didn't think we'd make it but Chris took him anyway. They arrived back half an hour later with anti-biotics. They'd walked in and been seen immediately. (Australians will understand how shocking that is!). It turned out he had an ear infection.

 As I hadn't left the apartment in 48 hours (basically since we had arrived) Chris suggested I take a walk to the shops to have a look around. It's amazing what a bit of fresh air can do for a person (my grandfather was right!). Sure there were still the luxury cars driving down the freeway to the mall. But on foot I noticed there was also a park across the road from the high rise, and even at 8pm there were people walking their dogs, children riding bikes and playing. The sun was still shining. 

I made my way across the highway and came to a sign: Pedestrians Diverted. The little diversion took me under a canopy of trees and over a little wooden bridge that lay across a creek. I would love to say there was a squirrel munching an acorn to complete this picturesque little Canadian scene but that would be too cliched surely? There was no squirrel.

At the shopping centre I found all the shops open until 9pm each weeknight (convenience!) and a giant bookstore/Starbucks. Heaven.

After a decidedly average first couple of days, things were looking up. I found an upside to the new.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The in-between

Since we moved out of our house, we have been in-between. Not here, not there. Four days in an apartment in Newcastle, suddenly tourists in the place we had called home for over five years. And now we're in a similar apartment halfway across the world. But the scenery outside has changed. Gone is the museum, Honeysuckle, the lighthouse, the beach. Instead we see highways and buildings, a strip of green and a sign announcing that Air Supply will be playing at the Markham Civic Theatre in September. Randomly I remember reading in some magazine that Air Supply were Princess Diana's favorite band.
 Alex, who we thought had conquered jet lag quickest, has fallen into a feverish sleep at 2pm, despite insisting he was neither sick nor tired. He developed a cold just before we left which prompted a last-minute dash to the GP for emergency just-in-case prednisone. Luckily the prednisone turned out not to be needed (yet) but the cold dogs him still and appears to have developed into some kind of post-viral infection. For me, jet lag meant being crazy dizzy tired with weird dreams and a headache that took all day to clear.
Waking up the children to leave various hotel rooms and get off flights was like destroying a delicate spider web - you know it's not the end of the world but it seems such a shame. The children handled such rude awakenings with aplomb, obligingly riding their trunkis and standing in line with minimum fuss. Alex even pushed one of the trolleys loaded with suitcases - he could barely see over the top but rose to the task admirably.
 Whilst living in Australia, watching American TV and movies, listening to American music, we took for granted the similarities between the two cultures. But an overnight stop in LA brought with it a new awareness of the differences. A sign in the hotel lobby reads: "WARNING: This facility contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. A brochure with more information on specific exposures is available at the registration desk." I was keen to procure one of these brochures but Chris assured me that the sign was to avoid litigation and was more to do with Californian law than any specific danger. He said the chemicals referred to were regular cleaning chemicals used in most places. All of which, yes, are known carcinogens. (Perhaps a horrifying statement on modern life rather than that specific hotel!)
We took a taxi to Santa Monica Pier, it was more crowded than the Easter Show. We bought the kids ice cream cones, each single scoop seemed almost as big as their heads. The taxi driver had arrived from Iraq 40 years earlier, fleeing from Sadaam Hussein's regime. He had nothing but praise for America. 
The service in America was so unfailingly helpful and polite that I couldn't help but be dazzled. It really shows up the Aussie laid-back attitude which often seems suspiciously like apathy. 
Talking in his sleep that night in the LA hotel, Alex said, "When are we going to get there?" In the morning, breakfast was served on plastic plates, with plastic cups and cutlery. The choice of cereal was fruit loops, frosty o's and frosted flakes. Cinnamon scrolls and lemonade were also on offer. And, of course, 2 per cent milk. (wouldn't want any fat to sneak into the diet). I also noticed the mirror in the lobby was a "skinny mirror". We used to have them at the clothing shop I worked in while I was at uni: they stretch you slightly to give the impression you are slimmer than you are. Not as much as crazy mirrors at a fun fair, but along the same lines. Only in America!
We arrived in Canada after a five-hour  flight from LA and had to wait at immigration for a while as they processed our visa application. We had to take two taxis to the apartment to fit all our luggage, costing us $150.
I know that this transition has been made smooth for us in countless ways, big and small, but that doesn't stop the shock of the new from jarring us, nor does it make the move completely seamless. We are moving to a country where we speak the language, with similar customs, where we have a job and temporary accommodation. Our furniture is on its way to us. We are grateful for all this. But we have left behind a life we loved, a familiar home, dear friends and family, and the emotional reverberations of this move are felt in myriad ways.
 The light switches go up not down. The powerpoints don't have on/off switches. The water pressure in the shower can't be adjusted. The inside of the microwave resembles nothing so much as an aircraft hangar. Everything is wrapped in plastic three times then wrapped again for good measure.
And then there are the petty annoyances that inevitably come with travel. I skinned my knee at Santa Monica beach. A hole turned up inexplicably in my merino wool t shirt. I left my good face cleanser at the hotel. But these things really just served to remind me of how much worse it could have been.
 Maya watched tv the entire first day before falling asleep on Chris' lap at 8pm and waking up at 11am this morning (even more amazing, she did not wet the bed!) and is now watching tv again. At this point, my approach is "whatever works." Chris and Alex took a bus to a mall yesterday. Alex came back and announced that "everything is better in Newcastle." His tone was more matter-of-fact than despondent.
 I've taken care to use the local expressions such as "to go" instead of "take away", "no problem" not "no worries", "elevator" not " lift", "cell phone" not "mobile", "grocery store" not "supermarket".
We don't have a car, which makes it difficult to get our bearings and explore. (Jetlagged kids don't enjoy walking very far, especially down highways!) There is a dearth of good coffee. (Chris: "I would kill for a flat white!")
There are harder things in this world than what we're doing, for sure. I think of people fleeing their countries, in fear for their lives, making the hard choice to leave loved ones behind in search of a better future for their families, not knowing when or if they will see their homeland again. We've left a life we loved in order to have an adventure, but we are missing that life and we haven't found anything to replace it with yet, so we are sad.  We're in a luxury apartment building where people drive in and out in their luxury cars and turn onto the freeway to get to the mall. We need to be in a home with a neighborhood, to walk to the shops and the park. We'll get there. We're just in-between.