I've been here over 11 years now. Am I still am expat? I don't have a contract that I know will end in 2-3 years and then I'll go home. I moved for love. My wife is British and I moved to England to live with her. So....lovepat it is.
So how does a one way ticket feel for a lovepat?
It's quite something to sit on a plane, having packed up your entire life and know that you're leaving home, but not know if you will ever return. I felt excited and enjoyed the feeling of the unknown, but I was also a bit scared and slightly unsure - was I doing the right thing?
But deep down I knew that I still had choices to return home to live if I wanted to.
But what if you can't go home?
I heard the most amazing play on BBC's Radio 4 this week. 'Minority Rights and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon - The Fernhill Philosophers'. In it the Eritrean character - a highly educated man, who was unable to go home said, "Exile is a kind of death, but I try to live".
It's a powerful statement isn't it? 'Exile is a kind of death, but I try to live.'
Imagine living with that everyday. Imagine our friends in Syria who cannot go home as home no longer exists. Imagine the exiled LGBTQI person that will be murdered if they go home. Imagine knowing that you will never go home to all the people and places you hold dear.
It's beyond painful....
But exile is not just about people from other countries. Imagine feeling like you're in exile because no one understands you and your autism. Imagine the stress of trying to do your job well, but your dyspraxia plays havic with your ability to remember what your boss asked you to do. Imagine people always looking at you oddly because your muscles make you walk differently.
We need to care and support people. We need to ask them what they need, because until we've walked in their shoes we know nothing of their lives.
But we can listen. We can listen openly and with love, and we can see ourselves in everyone we meet. If we listen we start to learn differently and we also start to learn the similarities. I love the Vietnamese expression, 'same same, but different'. We are the same but we are all different too.
We are all a piece of the giant puzzle of humanity. No two puzzle pieces are the same shape, all rounded slightly differently, but I know that I can't make up the picture without another puzzle piece, and another piece.....and another, and another, until we all fit together; different, but each forming an integral part of the same picture.
We need each other.
Whomever we are - what ever country we come from - and whatever our abilities.
Sometimes we're that lone piece of the puzzle that doesn't seem to fit anywhere. We can't seem to find our way. But suddenly the piece of puzzle is turned around and with a shift in perspective there's a connection - a connection to another piece and another, and as more and more connections are found, the puzzle bonds together more firmly.
It's much like life and community. On our own we may feel unconnected and wonder how we fit into 'the bigger picture'. But start to shift perspectives and you start to see others more deeply.
You start to see the intangible layers, the personal stories in people's eyes, the body language that shows their discomfort, the way they eat food that shows a rich cultural heritage, the non-stop talking that tries to hide their nerves, the accent that makes them 'not like me' and makes them hide the other 5 languages they speak, the jokes they make so you love them, the respectful silence you take as shyness, the constant movement that helps them to focus, the clothing they wear with pride but you don't understand......the.....the..... The list is endless.
All I ask of you is to pause.
Open your ears and eyes.
Open your heart.
Be the shift in persepective.
None us of want to be that lone puzzle piece.
The next day I found myself driving to the site with an old Aboriginal man as my passenger. I wondered what on earth I was going to talk to him about as we were worlds apart. There I was, a young non-indigenous woman from the city, him, an old Aboriginal man from the country. We drove in silence. I wasn’t frightened by the silence, but it made me think about other times I’d been ‘out bush’ with my family on 4WD holidays.
I started to talk about my love of the bush and camping in the middle of nowhere. We passed a dead roo by the side of the road, the smell hitting our nostrils, making me screw up my face and smile. I made a comment about the dangers of roos by the road at sunset, when he began to recount an amazing story about having to drive along a country road at night without working headlights. The lights had died on route and the only way he could see well to drive was to stick closely behind the well-lit road-trains (large trucks) which frequent country Australia. But, this didn’t work for long. The road-train must have hit a kangaroo, because suddenly a dead kangaroo came flying out from under the truck and landed on his car! We talked about kangaroos, camping trips, camp fires, watching the sun go down over the desert, and about his life as a feral goat catcher.
Arriving at the art site, I got on with work and he sat in the shade. We occasionally acknowledged each other throughout the day and again shared silence over lunch. At the end of the day I put out my hand to shake his and said, ‘thank you’.
He took my hand, said nothing, and shook it in the usual manner, but as I went to release my grip, he wouldn’t let go. He continued to hold my hand firmly for what felt like ages, placing his other hand on top of our hands. Finally he looked up and smiled at me. ‘Thanks love’. Two simple words, but it was a special moment that confirmed we’d had a good day together.
This banter has always existed between Aussies and the Brits, but what has taken me by surprise has been me not seeing the boundaries and assumptions of my culture. I guess all of us look at the world through our own lense, but the moments you realise, are good opportunities for reflection.
When I first arrived here I was lucky enough to get a job with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. I had no idea just how highly esteemed they are. I often wonder if not growing up with the cultural and social context of the RNLI meant that to me it was 'just a job' and so I relaxed in my interview, unaware of my wife's huge excitement at me potentially working for the Lifeboats!
But I digress....
In my time at the lifeboats, I took part in a lifeguard day, great for team morale and a fun day out.
It was a good day for many reasons, but three things have stayed with me.
I've since taken up snorkelling too. For roughly 30 years I lived in one of the hottest countries on earth with a massive coastline, but it took me to come to England to take up snorkelling. Weird huh? It was so cold that I came out with very dead looking white big toe.
#2 - I didn't know I'd been afraid of sharks my whole life
The oddest thing happened. As I ventured into the surf, I felt a strange sensation in my body. It was almost as though something was physically draining from me. I realised that I was relaxing in a way that I never had and it was because I knew for the first time ever, that there was nothing in the water that could eat me. Now, shark attacks in Australia are fairly rare, but having watched jaws as a child which led to a recurring dream of my bloody body washing ashore, the idea of swimming anywhere but in a swimming pool was clearly frought with danger. I'm not sure I ever really realised how ingrained in me this was. It was just second nature to be aware of sharks in the same way that you shake your boots out for spiders before putting them on. I just hadn't comprehended how much of an impact it had on me.
#3 - Being a lifeguard is bloomin hard!
This was such an eye-opener. I'd been going to the gym and thought I was fairly fit, but I couldn't have been more wrong. It was all I could do to swim out to the buoy and back with my flotation device, let alone think about actually rescuing someone. I came away with huge respect for the RNLI's lifeguards. Their fitness, strength and endurance is second to none and I felt privileged to witness it.
I sit here writing as Storm Emma, aka the 'Beast from the East' is bringing us snow. We very rarely get snow where we live, so it's a real joy to watch it coming down. If I ever had to write a section of the FAQs I've been asked in my time here, one of the top ones would be 'does Australia get snow?'
And in case you're wondering.......
Yes it does and we have ski fields too.