Australia: Part One

Australia presents contradictions that still resonate. We were neither locals nor expatriates in the common understanding of that description.  Americans—Americans like us–were too close in background and shared Anglo culture to stand out as different.  We were not part of a tightly knit expat scene; in fact, I don’t remember even knowing any other Americans, and certainly not as friends.

Our children went to an Australian school; we went on Australian holidays; our baby was born in Australia and baptized in a uniquely Australian Protestant church.  The close friendships I developed at work were with Australians. Our social friends were mostly the parents of other children in our boys’ Australian private school.

Yet, we are not Australian and that difference was subtle, sometimes imperceptible, and a fact that made us both insider and outsider.  In Spain and Singapore we were clearly and only outsiders, expats, made all the more pointed by our transient circumstances.  We weren’t part of anything.

Individually, and as a family, we loved Australia.  We still do. David and Sam look back on their experience, even dimly remembered, as an idyllic time. Adam, who moved back to New York as a one year old, thinks of Australia as a home he once came from.

Melbourne was the safe haven afforded me by John Bradstock—whom I regarded as both mentor and guardian angel—and his former Needham colleague Peter Bennett.  I had been given the choice to relocate to either Sydney or Melbourne.  I chose Melbourne for personal rather than professional reasons and never regretted the decision.  Schools were easier to select; the suburban towns were pleasant and closer to the city; cultural life was more accessible; the restaurants were better.  I liked the idea of Victoria: the sheep farms and gold rush legacy.  Nearly everyone we met would within a few minutes say, “We were never a convict colony!”  As a city, Melbourne was, and remains, one of the most civilized cities in the world.  Its English heritage is more evident than in Sydney, or Australia’s other coastal cities.

Given its distance from Singapore, I had to select a town, a house and a school on my own.  It wasn’t practical to fly the family back and forth.  Guided by new associates in my office, I found a house in the bay side town of Black Rock—not as tony as nearby Brighton, but on the beach and convenient to anything we could want.  The house I rented on Arkaringa Crescent was large and well suited to our family, with a typical walled garden complete with an in-ground trampoline.  My wife was pleased with the choice—a small miracle.  Finally we were reunited with all of our furniture and household goods, which had been in storage in London and Singapore since our overseas adventure had begun.  We could at last have a settled life.

What has stayed with me from that time are several life-long friendships, a passion for Aboriginal painting, an envy of Australia’s more egalitarian and more democratic society, the pastoral beauty of the Victorian countryside, the great breadth and emptiness of the continent.  I love the stories that define Victoria and to some extent the country: Burke and Wills, Ned Kelley, the Melbourne Cup, the Australian Open. Driving through the giant fern forests of the Dandedong Ranges was like traveling back to the age of dinosaurs.  I often relive our trips to the sheep farming towns of Bendigo and Ballarat.  I think of Melbourne itself as the final jewel in the progression from tiny sheep stations to Gundagai–and its dog on the tucker box- to the next largest Victorian city Geelong.  Prince Charles spent time at Geelong Grammar, giving it a glamor over and above its fine academic reputation.

I was lucky to travel extensively across the country.  We drove across Victoria and New South Wales—stopping to see the giant radio telescope in Parkes that tracked  and televised the Apollo 11 moon landing—to spend Christmas at the Queensland beach resort Noosa.  (Half of Melbourne seemed to spend the Christmas holidays in Noosa.)  I remember one particularly vivid experience in a tiny, rough neck town near Byron Bay.  Finding no restaurant where we could have dinner, we stopped at a country bar that served typical Australian pub-grub meals.  It was the kind of place where only men hung out and all conversation stopped when strangers walked in.

We sat at the furthest table we could find and ordered dinner.  Over salad, David announced that he didn’t like the taste of carrots and lettuce in his mouth and immediately and copiously vomited all over the table.  I went over to the barman and asked for an extra napkin or two and when he gave me tiny cocktail napkins I said they would never do. He then discovered the problem and exploded with a string of expletives beginning with, “Jesus Holy Mother Fucking Christ…”  I threw more than enough money on the table and got us out as quickly as I could.

With work, I accompanied a country-wide television production for our client Telecom Australia that took me to places as diverse as the Capital Canberra, the Tidbinbilla Deep Space Communications Complex, Coober Pedy, the Blue Mountains, the Barossa Valley outside Adelaide, and many lonely places in between that had only Aboriginal place names, ancient rock formations, goannas and 1500 year old Baob Trees.

Australia also penned the first paragraphs of the final chapters of my marriage.  Though long, the steady descent from our final year in Melbourne led directly to the unfortunate events of 2007: another story for another time, perhaps.

We moved back to New York reluctantly.  I could have continued on at DDB Needham in Melbourne, but with the changed status from an international division employee to a local one. It would have been a seamless transition.  We thought about staying for a long time.  We liked Australia and our life in Melbourne.  We had made many friends. Our boys’ school was excellent.  Still, we were very far from our aging parents. My own career advancement was back in New York.  We were still American.

Leaving was emotionally difficult; we had many farewell dinners; our friends were sorry to see us go and we were sorrier.

We filled two entire ship containers with everything we moved back to the States, taking two weeks to pack up the house.  The boys cried the entire time.  Once home, we wept while we were driven from JFK home to Tarrytown.  We at once regretted our decision to return.

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