The only way is up

When I left my old job in Bristol, England, to move to Australia, one colleague was more envious than most. G and her husband J had been toying with the idea of moving to Oz for a while, but kept putting it off for various (eminently sensible) reasons.

Now, they’ve finally made the leap and joined us in Melbourne. They are making good progress in sorting out their new life, which they are reporting on through G’s excellent blog. But today G is having a bad day. The previous tenants of the rental property she and her family have just moved into turned out to be grubby types, and it’s getting tiring sleeping on camping mattresses. First world problems, maybe, but problems most migrants will identify with. I certainly do.

For the first few weeks after the Silver Fox and I landed in Australia, we moved from holiday let to holiday let, unable to find anything longer term that suited. The first was fine, except for the infestation of millipedes that I would find curled up like tiny, crunchy Cumberland sausages everywhere – including, one evening, in our bed. The second had nicer decor (and a washing machine!) but only a bed to sit on – and you couldn’t see the TV from it. By the time we moved to the third, I had a contract at a university and was working from ‘home’, which meant editing on a netbook on a rusting garden table that we’d moved in from the small balcony.

Millipedes: not my ideal housemates

Millipedes: not my ideal housemates

The Silver Fox had a job to go to the Monday after we landed. I got one too, following an interview the day after we arrived, but it didn’t start until a few weeks later. This meant I was left in charge of setting up the things that make life easy: phones, broadband, health insurance, Medicare… I hate dealing with corporations at the best of times, but after a few days of doing little else I was broken. As yet another call centre worker told me I really should pay the highest health insurance premium “because it’s all about peace of mind”, I cracked. I put the phone down, I wept, and when my eyes dried I rang the Silver Fox and told him he would have to do it. I couldn’t take any more.

But once the basics were taken care of, and we had moved into more permanent accommodation, things did get easier. There were still moments of intense frustration with Australia, as I struggled to live by a set of unwritten rules no-one had ever taught me, and got tired of everything just being so hard. The lowest point was an appointment with a GP at the local health centre, when I needed a repeat prescription for something I’d had in the UK. After a wait of two hours (something I had never even experienced on the NHS, and yet I was paying for this!) I finally saw the doctor, who chastised me for not having made an early morning appointment when I just wanted a repeat prescription, and made me feel like a stupid child for not totally understanding what medicines were available in Australia and exactly how Medicare worked.

Packing it all in and going home wasn’t an option for us, so I focussed on the positive. Despite my naturally pessimistic character, there were many things to be positive about. I now had the opportunity to see Paul Kelly play regularly. I found a great dentist who (admittedly for the price of a medium-sized luxury yacht filled with gold bars and steered by a diamond-studded wheel) sorted out my NHS-ravaged teeth. And at my first proper job, I met some great people with whom I am still friends today. (I also met the most rigid bureaucracy I have ever encountered, a fair amount of bullying by senior staff and a dash of good old-fashioned racism, but that’s another story.)

Five years on, and having moved to the city I should have lived in all along, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I’m still not in a rush to review my health insurance options, but I’ve got an amazing GP and I know where to go for the cheapest prescriptions. I know how to find a Justice of the Peace for those times when a piece of paper just has to be witnessed by someone you’ve never met before for no apparent reason and I understand why you can’t find out how much something costs on certain retail websites without entering your postcode first. And although we’ve now bought our own place, I learned to accept the limitations of our last rental while charming the letting agent into getting the biggest problems fixed.

I feel your pain, G and J, I really do. But you’re going to have to trust me on this one. When you’re at your lowest point, remember there’s only one way you can go.





Outside my comfort zone

Comfort zoneSince moving to Australia I’ve pledged to accept pretty much every invitation offered, even although this has occasionally gone horribly wrong. This ‘say yes to everything’ policy means I frequently head out on my own – not every invitation is extended to the Silver Fox, and even if it is, he doesn’t always want to join in.

While this has been a fantastic way of getting to know new people and learning about my adopted home, it has aggravated a phobia I’ve had all of my life – a fear of going into a pub on my own.

If I arrange to meet someone for a night out and will be arriving alone, I will go to ridiculous lengths to make sure I don’t have to meet them inside the venue. I’ll query their transport arrangements with the hope of finding a sensible meeting point at a station or tram stop, or turn up at their house an hour early so I can travel with them. I don’t know what I’m actually scared of, but I suspect it’s a mixture of a fear of not being able to find the venue, coupled with a sense that nice girls don’t sit on their own in bars. The former is a rational reaction to a lifetime of not being entirely sure of my location or which direction I should be walking/driving/cycling in; the latter a stupid idea formed by years of watching films where the only girls sitting alone at the bar are prostitutes.

Melbourne is particularly ill-suited to the nervous solo pub-goer. So many bars are hidden away, down alleyways and up stairs, and you’re never quite sure where you’re going to end up. One I visited recently could only be accessed by a lift tucked inside a (totally unrelated) Chinese restaurant. To get to another, you have to go through an anonymous doorway, head up two flights of stairs, and pass through a different club before reaching your destination on the rooftop. It is, of course, these quirks that make Melbourne’s bar scene so famous, but if I don’t know the place, my anxiety rises with every flight of stairs conquered or floor passed in the elevator.

Things have certainly been made easier by the mobile phone. I can now harangue my soon-to-be-companions with texts, updating my progress towards the venue and confirming theirs, with the aim of magically arriving at the same time. If I’m running early and need to delay my arrival, I can pause in the street and amuse myself on Facebook for a while pretending to be checking urgent work emails. And if I – horror of horrors – actually get to the venue first, and successfully find my way in, I can perch at the bar/in a corner/outside the toilets and nonchalantly check Twitter, as if it were the most comfortable place in the world for me to be.

People I know well are used to my insecurities and make the required allowances. With new friends, however, I have little option but to take a deep breath and head into the unknown, lest they think I am anything less than the confident, hilarious and kind-spirited person I spend my days pretending to be.

This act was put to the test last night when I was invited to watch a (new) friend’s son’s band play at a jazz venue in the CBD. The Silver Fox had planned to come with me, but pulled out at the last minute, overcome by exhaustion caused by a month of early starts to watch the football and a fortnight of late nights watching the cycling. Not only would I have to turn up on my own, once I got there I would only know one of the group of eight or so attending.

But of course it was fine. I turned up first, found myself a seat at the bar and ordered a drink. My phone couldn’t get a signal inside so I had no option but to just sit there, people-watching and enjoying the music. It no doubt helped that it was a jazz bar and not a club frequented by drunken 25-year-olds, but still… When the group I was meeting turned up 10 minutes later, I told one of the women about my ‘say yes to everything’ policy, leaving out the detail of the anxiety attacks it causes. She was lovely, praising my positive attitude and congratulating me for stepping out of my comfort zone. And that’s the point. Every time I do something like this I do step out of my comfort zone, and it’s almost invariably worth it. Last night certainly was. If only my heart rate would listen to my head.

Image: Comfort Zone by redfishingboat (Mick O) is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0