If you ever feel like you’re stuck on pause, that life has become too predictable and maybe you’ve become too set in your ways and fallen out of touch with what really matters, I have some advice. Take a trip, get away, go explore and get somewhere unfamiliar and even slightly uncomfortable. At least that’s what I recently did and it was exactly what I needed to break up the winter and re-centre.
Nothing shakes things up, alters your normal pace and makes you focus on the really important stuff of life like leaving your comfort zone and getting a fresh perspective. Either locally, regionally or globally, get up and go anywhere but where you live.
My husband, Angus, and I recently travelled across the world to Australia. I actually had never felt a great compulsion to go there, at least not like I did for exploring all the corners of Europe. It’s a long way from Canada and I guess I never had any strong ties that drew me to visit there. It was not until my daughter decided to go there for Medical School and most likely has decided never to return that I felt inspired to make the long journey. Of ‘course I never bet on anything being set in stone but she is pretty determined that the Land of Oz has stolen her heart and she’s never leaving. So instead of heading east this time we flew west, way west.
I have been inundated with stories about Australia, Melbourne especially, for three years now and thought I knew what I would find. As it turns out, there was so much more than I could ever have imagined and I’m sure we only just scratched the surface. I kind of feel like you do when someone makes you read a book you really aren’t interested in and would never have chosen yourself and then are amazed, surprised and slightly embarrassed that you loved it so much.
I was also surprised (to use a little metaphor) to realize I have a very snug fitting invisible cloak. I can’t see it but I know with all certainty it’s red and white and sports a big maple leaf. Sometimes it fits very snug, so much so that I feel a little constrained, wrapped up in my ‘self shall we say. Sometimes I was tempted to peel it off, play a little looser and care free but the darn thing is hard to shed. There were moments that I wanted to twirl it up in the air proudly, letting the colours fly and declare it to be everything anyone ever needed to know about me, an integral part of me and what has defined me since the year of it’s Centennial and the year of my birth, 1967. Lastly I realized with some alarm, that the edges have frayed a little and I need to put some more effort into keeping it clean, shiny and beautiful.
I left Canada on a rainy day at the end of November. We caught a ride to the ferry, took the 1 1/2 hr. journey to the mainland, hopped a coach to the airport and waited until after midnight to board our 14+-hour flight. In an effort to mitigate the effects of economy seating on my chronically painful back, I paid the little bit more for the “extra leg-room” seats by the exit door. The unexpected pitfall to this meant the chairs didn’t recline and my hips were bruised by the metal armrests that stayed fixed and wouldn’t budge. The good news was we had a little “patio” of sorts in front of us where we could stand and stretch, bend, and keep everything moving.
Our little plot was a rather popular space for others seeking to move around and happened to be right beside the toilets, a popular spot to line up and hang out. There was nothing much to do but people watch for most of the trip from our prized seats. We empathized with several young couples struggling with young babies and toddlers, excited to be on their way home to visit families and wondered if someday this would be our Cate. There were vacation weary Aussies who had been in Canada on holidays, maybe to ski and who looked happy to be headed home. A few business people seemed resigned to yet another long journey, more than one couple going to see their University student kids there like we were and a few solo young adults, flush with excitement and obviously just a little scared. I myself was mostly fretting about our youngest, alone for the first time ever at Christmas, our house and the dogs and my friend who we’d left to manage it all alone and whether I’d survive the seemingly endless hours aboard that flying tin can. I was already feeling nostalgic, for Canada and Christmas and home.
Landing finally we walked into a wave of heat and a world that was much like ours but definitely different. It seemed somehow louder, more colorful and faster moving. People were helpful but spoke fast and the accent caught me just a little off guard. I had to really focus to listen and that is difficult to do with a cacophony of sounds and noises and in unfamiliar surroundings. We’ve landed in plenty of foreign places before but never I guess so weary from travelling. Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation and the hours confined to such a cramped space but I felt a little as if we were free falling and was glad to have Angus there with me to help navigate our way, I can’t imagine how our Cate must have felt three years prior, all alone and not knowing a soul.
The next few days found us off and running, well walking actually, all over that beautiful city. It felt large to me then, at least until we next travelled to Sydney and then Melbourne, which are bigger places than I think I’ve ever been. I find it best to explore by foot and of ‘course I almost always have my trusty Nikon strapped around my neck or wrapped around my wrist. It’s how I document things for my memory and how I love to see the world, over and over again. I think the bulk of my friends would like to burn my damn camera so that for weeks after I go somewhere their Facebook feeds and emails are not inundated with my pictures but nonetheless, I keep snapping. Angus has grown accustomed to walking and losing me along the way but eventually I find my shot, remember where I am and hurry to catch up. It was here, in Brisbane where I had my first “A ha” moment and felt my Canadian cloak wrap itself around me.
There is a fabulous development along the south side of the river that travels through Brisbane called Southbank. The Brisbane River links the different districts and is crisscrossed by bridges and water taxis that connect people easily and efficiently. Along the Southbank development is a fabulous park development that has an extensive walking and biking trail, a man made beach, playgrounds, gardens and countless outdoor activities that are open to the public and remarkably free of charge. It makes for lovely time spent outdoors and congregating people, who visit and chat and enjoy each others company and meeting new mates in addition to familiar ones. Along this route we encountered many friendly people and shared a few conversations along the way beyond a simple hello or as is the more common phrasing in Australia: How are you going?” We met one young woman who had no accent, at least to our ear and asked her if she was Canadian. She smiled and said, “ sadly no. I’m an American but I’ve been here for 10 years and will never return if things there don’t change. I am so embarrassed by what is happening there. I tell everyone I’m a Canadian, it’s so much easier and honestly it makes me sick to hear what’s happening there.”
I was shocked, saddened for her and felt a little tug at my heart for my Canadian passport. I assured her that all Americans were not painted with the same brush in the eyes of the world and that the current political climate is unacceptable to such a growing number of people that an end must be in sight, perhaps before the end of the current term of office. I cannot remember any time where I felt compelled to hide my citizenship, which must be a sad feeling.
That said, there were moments that came along as our trip progressed that had me question my Canadian identity, at least what defines us as Canadians. On five or maybe six occasions, when someone I met along the way asked if we were Canadian or American, their first response was always a familiar one that began to almost irritate me and feel compelled to explain in more detail. It went something like this.
“ Oh, you’re Canadian then. You’ve got the good looking Prime Minister “
“ Oh well then, you’ve got the punk bloke in the top job.”
“ You’ve got your own JT then (as in Justin Timberlake)?”
Truly, in my interactions anyways, if Justin Trudeau has put us on the map it’s first and foremost because he’s good looking. I guess that is okay but hardly a defining characteristic one should first consider in developing their international reputation.
One person even went so far as to say ‘
“ Well I guess his Dad was the leader once too. It’s like our parliament I guess, lots of mates to fill the seats and I imagine all the Sheila’s loved him too.”
Politics is a hollow thing at times and more often than not one’s popularity and pocketbook can dictate the outcome, not the validity, of the choice the voters make. Honestly I hear nothing in the news about Australian politics save for what Cate tells me and the Popular entertainment headlines that have on rare occasions served up a story about a certain creature in their Senate named Pauline Hanson who is so deplorable in her views that sometimes they can’t resist reporting on her antics. Otherwise I live in my North American bubble. Australian TV seems to carry a few American networks and there are definitely some strong trade partnerships with the USA there. They have their own car brand, Holden, that I think used to be manufactured there but is now manufactured elsewhere. Certainly the trucks were carbon copies of Chevy Colorado’s and there were lots of other North American models there too. I think there is far more of an interest in America than Canada amongst most Australians, probably because of trade and economics and maybe because what do we identify as, hold out to the world as uniquely ours and enticing enough to want to seek out?
There were a few occasions that my own reaction to things caught me a little off guard. One was when I saw a Bryan Adams Ultimate Tour poster splashed out on a brick wall on the streets of Melbourne. I had this weird possessive moment of ” He’s my guy. I’ve seen him in concert! Bet nobody here knows how good he is on guitar ” and then I checked myself, ” duh . you and a million other people Sarah. Really now?”
Weirder was the day I saw a Margaret Atwood book in a bookstore window. I was cooing and pointing like a new Dad at a nursery window when I realized my reaction was a little too visceral. I settled on taking a picture and a few minutes of silent self-congratulations that she was “my people.” Seriously strange I know. Had it been Jan Ardens’ ” Feeding my Mother” I probably would have cried.
A few weeks later we took a tour of The Shrine of Remembrance, a war memorial in Melbourne. It’s a fantastic memorial of the men, women and even horses that served for Australia in World War 1 and beyond up to Present Day. An older gentleman in uniform, museum garb not military literally greeted us as we walked in (no admission, by donation) and proceeded to take us on a guided tour. He would have talked to us for hours and it was wonderful to have him explain because I must admit, I knew little about the famous battles Australia were involved in, short of a made in Hollywood version of Gallipoli I think I saw as a teenager. The man told us he was Jewish at some point in the conversation and then talked at some length about the anti-Semitic undertones that surrounded even the military at one point. He also talked about the shameful way the aboriginal people who were conscripted to fight were treated. I was slightly aghast and then had to check myself because, ours is in many ways a shared history. It is only now that we are learning about it, talking about and making attempt at cultural repatriation, if only in a symbolic way, because the damage of ‘course runs deep and across generations. I would have spent the day with that man but of course we were trying to see too many places at once. He made me think, he made me feel and he made me see in a different light that the writing on the wall sometimes did not hold the whole story. I told him that much of our history has been shrouded in secrecy, hidden from our history books and certainly was not taught to my generation but there is new light on these stories now. He said, “ the children must hear this, so they do not repeat it. “ As we left he pulled out some Australian poppies of remembrance and handed us each one. I will keep those always.
I talked to lots of people during my long stay there and these are the things I got reflected back. We have the Rockies, the winter wonderland and Niagara Falls. I’ve realized we’re just really nice and well, kind of boring. We’re quiet, reserved, sometimes considered uptight and too stressed out. Some of us are open and welcoming to all genders, races, religions and some of us are still bigots and racists – yes, I said that. We are forced for long parts of the year to move indoors and that makes us more isolated and by nature, less social. We don’t sit on open patios or rooftop bars or in parks or beaches more than probably 4 months of the year, at least comfortably. We worry about weather because it’s real, we have to. It affects our day-to-day most months of the year. We tend to live to work more than we work to live. We need to have more fun, less stress, more joy and to embrace each other more than our stuff. Perhaps we gather things to fill the void where there should be more people. More parties, more getting together, in bare feet at the park. We are global citizens but we might just reflect ourselves to the world as slightly stuck up about that, like the irritating girl who always ran for School council (yup, that was me).
So I came home, delighted to put feet down on my Canadian soil and a little more clear about who I want to be next time she celebrates a big birthday, maybe even in 2067. I want the world to see that Canadians are beautiful because of our hearts and that we’re not just there for the show. I hope that as we grow as a country we continue to build our own identity, to define that which makes us Canadian. I think we need to develop better avenues for tourists to visit our country. Every large city I went to had a beautiful botanic garden and every one of them was free. Museums and Art Galleries were free, except for special exhibitions, which you could pay extra to see.
I want my daughter to understand that I love where she lives, it is a beautiful place with beautiful people but also to understand that for me, this hot and cold, wet and wild place is where I’ll always call home. I will collect less stuff and more people and open myself to more firsts and more uncomfortable situations. I’ll keep my cloak, tatters and all, because it is me and I am Canadian.