The Last One (maybe)

It’s that time of year when most folks who have done teacher exchanges are winding up and getting ready to go home.  I have been following a few friends in this process, and remembering our last weeks in Australia.  It was an emotional time.  We were very settled in our life in Newcastle, and saying goodbye was hard.  The kids’ school sent them off in fashion, with a red and white day (instead of uniforms) and a special assembly where they sang O Canada and Advance Australia Fair.  It was incredibly moving.

Our homecoming was beautiful.  My sister made sure of that.  We felt so welcomed to be back.  The kids were thrilled to run around the house and remember their rooms, their stuff, especially the toys.  We fell back into routines with good friends.  Life was returned close to what it had been.

Yet, returning home has been a strange journey.  I walked into my house and realized I didn’t live here for a year and someone else did.  We found traces (actually, more like big reminders) of these people as we reacquainted ourselves with our home.  I had to censor myself from saying “in Australia”, or “where the kids went to school”, etc. in every other sentence as I talked with my friends and family.  I dealt with this mixed emotion of being at home especially when people would say “you must be happy to be home”.  It’s not that I wasn’t happy, it’s just that I was grieving the loss of leaving a place where I also had been happy.   I was still adjusting.  It’s hard to explain and hard to understand unless you’ve been there.  I realize that I have changed some and many of my friends have, too.  It’s inevitable.

We finally feel settled back into life in Vancouver.  We would be lying if we didn’t say that we miss some of our life in Australia—oh, that sunny and warm weather!  We think of friends often (especially you, Amanda and co!) and relish frequently in good memories which warm our hearts.  Thank goodness for phones and technology to help us stay in touch.

Someone posted there are one of 4 ‘–ates’ that exchangees do when they return home:  separate, procreate, renovate, or relocate.  None of those have applied to me (although I have considered a small reno or two, I have to admit), so I’ve added a fifth one—contemplate.  I’ve returned with a different lens.  My whole family has.  We contemplate life in a new way because of our experience.  The exchange gave me a beautiful opportunity to reflect upon so many things.  I had to dig deep to flourish, especially when my dad passed away, and so did my children.  We are stronger people because of that.

Awareness comes out of contemplation.  I have learned that I can feel at home in more than one place—most of it comes down to attitude and heart.  For that, I feel grateful.  And for the foresight my husband had to keep bringing up the exchange through his eternally optimistic view that it would all work out.  Yes, honey, you were right.

Happy holidays to all my friends and family here, in Australia and so many places around the world.  May 2015 be full of adventures, happy memories and hope.

The difference a year can make

A year ago today we arrived in Newcastle. The sun was shining and it was warm by our standards.  Funny, it seems colder to me now. I guess I have acclimatized?!

What a year it has been! We have been to Queensland, Victoria, ACT, New Zealand and of course, to many places in New South Wales. We’ve played cricket, netball, tennis, handball, tips (tag) and soccer, and had one surfing lesson. We learned more about footy, how to speak Australian, and about new flora and fauna (are spiders fauna??).

We never did learn to like Vegemite, though.

We are in the throes of cleaning up, purging and packing. I found the cards many people gave us before we left on our adventure. One of the cards is from my dad to Tobias. In it, he said: “Have fun, learn, love everything new. We’ll miss you but it won’t be long till we see you. Carpe diem.”

Bittersweet words as we never did see him again. But we had fun, learned and loved most things new. It does not make the sadness go away, and the tears flow as I think about not seeing him again. However, it is a constant reminder that being present is the most important thing in life. We got so much out of this exchange because we were able to do that more often than not.

Thanks for the words of wisdom, dad.  Seize the day, folks; life is meant to be lived.

Sorry, no Aussie slang this post.

The First of the Lasts

It has begun.  The first of the last things we’ll do in Australia.  It seems like just a few months ago that we were doing all of our firsts.  I cannot believe we’ve been here for almost a year.  How time has flown!

Today marks the last week of term and the last week both Mike and the boys will be at school.  That means the last week of wearing uniforms, too!  It will also be a week of last tennis practices/comps, last marking and teaching of Australian students, Scout meetings, skating coffee club meetings, soccer practices and assemblies.

It is the beginning to the end of an incredible journey.  In three weeks we leave Newcastle to begin our slow journey home.  This does not mean it is the last time we’ll be in Australia.  Nor the last time we see many of our friends.  In fact, I think it marks another first.  The first of many Australian goodbyes!

Aussie Slang:

Duvielacker:  thingamajig

Bogan:  kind of like a redneck, a slacker with low social status

Reef and Rainforest Part 2: The Rainforest!

feeding a baby kangaroo

feeding a baby kangaroo

Beautiful fan palms

Beautiful fan palms

Swinging off of the trees in Cow Bay

Swinging off of the trees in Cow Bay

We arrived back in Cairns to a lovely evening, with beautiful lanterns lit up amongst the trees on the promenade.  That made the walk back to the Rydges Esplanade easier to take (or maybe it was the treat meal at Macca’s??).  The next day we made our way up to the Daintree area.  We stopped in Port Douglas briefly—what a beautiful beach, with such warm water!

We finally arrived at our bed and breakfast in the Daintree, which was also a zoo— such a highlight for the kids.  They got to touch and feed the kangaroos/wallabies, who ran wild on the property and were our buddies on our way up to breakfast.  They also had crocodiles, dingoes, a wombat, and a cassowary, which were not running wild, thankfully, and a bird section with owls, parrots, kookaburras, etc.

We drove up towards Cape Tribulation for a day, and enjoyed the rainforest.  We opted not to pay for the Daintree Discovery Centre walks, and did our own (I know, we’re cheap.  No wait, we’re just on a budget.  Yeah, that’s it).  Just down the road from the Centre are several great walks in the forest, some with boardwalks and one on a lovely trail.  We saw amazing trees, plants, and flowers and swung off of strangler figs’ big tree branch vines.  No Cassowary sightings.  We were disappointed about that, but it might have been a good thing.  They are large birds and have been known to attack if threatened!  We did see a cool lizard, though.

We went on several other walking tracks and enjoyed the mangroves, big ferns and other flora.  Took a quick dip in the water by Cow Bay and Tobias had his first Huntsman spider sighting.  On the back of the outhouse door!  Poor kid, he still is traumatized, and won’t go into an outhouse or anything resembling one.  We saw Cape Tribulation and I was able to take a trip down memory lane about my trip up here almost 20 years ago.  Not that much has changed, really!  The Bat House was closed when we got there—what  a shame.  I enjoyed feeding the rescued bats fruit when I was here last, and looked forward to showing the boys the centre.

The Daintree is still one of my favourite parts of Oz.  There’s something about the lush scenery being so close to the beaches that make it such a beautiful place to be.

Cassowary!

Cassowary!

the cool lizard

the cool lizard

One of our friends on our way to breakfast

One of our friends on our way to breakfast

Aussie slang:

Macca’s:  MacDonalds!

Ute:  Utility vehicle.  It is not, and I repeat, not, a truck!  It does look like a large pick-up truck with a cargo trailer in the rear.

“Too easy”:  what you say when it is not a problem, eg “can you pick up my kids from tennis?” “of course, too easy!”

Reef and Rainforest, Part 1

Sunset from Fitzroy Island

Sunset from Fitzroy Island

Gus, the resident monitor lizard

Gus, the resident monitor lizard

Fitzroy Island

Waaay back when, in September 2013, we spent most of our first school holidays in the Cairns area of Northern Queensland.   We chose to go at this time to avoid jellyfish season, typhoons and supreme humidity.  Nevertheless, the heat and humidity hit us as soon as we came out of the airport, even at 7PM.  The hotel hit the spot, though, with a cool-looking pool and tennis courts.  We checked out the pool right away and Tobias and Mike even played a little tennis.   We then ventured out to check out the night market and it was fun to see the kids get excited over buying their first Aussie souvenirs!

After a big buffet breakfast, which we needed for our long, hot walk to the ferry terminal (note to self:  make sure you calculate how far a walk with luggage is really going to be), our next stop was Fitzroy Island!  We arrived at the resort, the only hotel on the island, to find out we had been “upgraded”!  Yay!  Hmm, not sure I would call it an upgrade–it was a few minutes closer to the beach but that was about it.     So we downgraded and got our original room, which was much bigger, more luxurious and came with a real kitchen full of stainless appliances which we needed for all of the food we had schlepped along.

There was great snorkelling around the island.  We saw turtles, beautiful coloured fish and coral, and I even swam close to a spotted stingray!  It was great to see Tobias get over his fear and enjoy his first snorkelling adventures.  Lukas preferred to dig on the beach and jump in the waves.  We made the short trek down to Nudey’s Beach, and it was sooo worth it.  Beautiful sand beach, cool snorkelling and fewer people.  No, not naked people.  We were sorry we didn’t check it out earlier.

Even though it was pretty hot, we hiked up to the summit on the island (maybe we should have gotten up earlier?).  It was a little hard on the boys going up, but they made it and then ran back down.   At the end of our trek, we ran into Gus, the big, local monitor lizard, as he sunned himself.

We went on a glass bottom boat tour, which wasn’t really worth the money.  It’s hard to look down for a long time on a boat—it makes you seasick!  We cruised along the same spots where we had been snorkelling already, and didn’t even see some of the amazing things we saw.  Having said that, it gave Lukas the chance to see blue coral and some cool fish, so we were happy about that.

Overall, I would say our trip to Fitzroy Island was a success, in spite of the pricey hotel.  We saw beautiful sunsets, amazing underwater sights, I found heaps of sea glass hidden amongst the coral on one beach, and the kids loved the free movies and table tennis (as did Mike)!

Aussie slang:

“Exy”:  short for expensive

“Bottle Shop”:  beer, wine and liquor store (they even have drive through ones here!)

IMG_6128

Our first view of Nudey’s Beach

fish seen while snorkelling

fish seen while snorkelling

Turtle!

Turtle!

When the unthinkable happens

This post is dedicated to my father.

Deciding to do a teacher exchange in Australia is something one doesn’t make lightly.  You weigh many different factors—how it will affect your children, your spouse, when to go, where to go, the financial aspects, etc.  One factor can be the distance from friends and family, and many people consider the health of their parents or other relatives before they commit to an exchange.

We got full and final confirmation of our exchange for July 2013 in March of 2013 (yes, it was a very short timeline!).  Not long after that, my father began to experience some health problems.  It didn’t seem too serious, more disconcerting than anything and the doctors were on top of it, so we elected to continue with the exchange.  Then the unthinkable happened:  my father became more seriously ill and passed away in April 2014.  I returned to North America, along with my family, to pay my last respects and be with my mom and sisters.  I had no option to return home in time to see him in person due to the distance.

Sometimes I struggle with the guilt of coming here.  The last time I saw my dad was at the airport in July.  Had I still been at home in Vancouver over the past year, we all would have seen him again at least once, and I could have gone down to be with him and my mom when he was sick in the hospital.  My boys could have had more time with him, with the Grandad they loved to play Monopoly and trains.

I know that my dad would not want me to regret our decision.  He loved to travel, to meet new people and discover what the world had to offer.  When I was a kid, we moved from Montreal to St. Louis and lived there for 4 years before moving to Brussels, Belgium for 8 years.  Those experiences shaped me positively, and contributed to our decision to take on the exchange.  You could say it was in my blood.  My dad wouldn’t have wanted it any other way and I know that my coming over here is more a testimony to him (and my mom) than anything.  It’s too bad my heart and head can’t merge about that yet.  Time will tell.

My father’s passing does not detract from the experiences we have had or memories we have made here in Australia, and it won’t take away the friendships we have made.  The support from our friends and colleagues here has been overwhelming, as it has been from all of our friends across the world.  How lucky am I to be able to say that?

I miss you like crazy dad.  I only wish I could have seen you one more time, to give you a big hug and say thank you for everything.  I am thankful that my sons and I had the chance to talk with you 3 days before you died.  I am grateful that in my family, we always said I love you before we hung up the phone, so one of the last things I heard from you was that, and one of the last things we told you was the same.  I love you, always will, dad, and as my younger son reminded us, you still love us too.

Redback spiders and other little critters

Redback spider in our yard

Redback spider in our yard

Aha, it finally happened, we found a redback spider close to home!  She was hiding underneath a rattan chair in our yard, which had been overturned because it had gotten soaked in the rain.  It was a good thing we did find her, as she had a whole bunch of babies in cocoons getting ready to hatch.  Suffice it to say, she is no longer with us, and neither are her babies.   We really didn’t want a family of redbacks living in the children’s play area.  No, it wasn’t really that scary, more intriguing.  Since then, we have found 2 more, which were both living in our BBQ cover.  EWWW!

We have yet to find a Huntsman spider in the house (knock on wood!) but we did recently find one on an outside wall.  The worst part is when they disappear.  Where has it gone???   Not in my car, I hope!  (I know, I know, they’re harmless!  But they’re big and scary looking!)

There are plenty of other outside spiders around, though.  They are very quick to build webs around here.  The only ones we have to deal with inside are the Daddy Long-Legs.  They’re just annoying and make the corners of the house dirty, especially the ones I cannot reach!

Other than spiders, we have had to deal with other little critters, which are all just a way of life here in Oz (snakes have not been an issue, thankfully!!):

Ants:  little lines of them in the bathroom, mudroom and kitchen.  We even found a whole pile of them in a kitchen drawer, once.  Yuck!

Cockroaches:  the best way to find them is to turn on the light in a room at night.  They go scurrying, and still make us jump and squeal when they do.  We’ve found them in the mudroom, living room, bedrooms, bathroom, and kitchen.  Wait, that’s the whole house!   So I guess that means we’ve found them everywhere.   Now I’m not talking about an infestation, just the odd one every now and then (we are talking about a period of 8 ½ months here).   The worst place we’ve found them has to be the dishwasher—I’ve found both alive and dead ones in there.  Ewwwwwwww!

Flies:  what can I say about them other than there are lots of them around and they are annoying!  They are extremely persistent and generally not phased by our attempts to shoo them away.  If they do go away, they come right back.  They love to just hang out on food.

Mozzies:  just like anywhere else, you notice them the most in the evening and in wooded, wet areas.  Screens are an essential part of living as is mozzie spray!  Fortunately, we usually find them outside, unless someone forgot to close the screen door!

Aussie Slang:

“Aeroguard”:  common brand of mozzie spray

“Aussie salute”:  what you see someone doing when they’re waving their hands in front of their face trying to keep the flies away.

“Bunyip”:  from Aboriginal mythology, a dark mythical creature thought to live in swamps or rivers, kind of like a Yeti mixed with Ogopogo or Lochness Monster.

Some other big spider living close to the bottom of the eave of our roof

Some other big spider living close to the bottom of the eave of our roof

Cross Country Carnival

Run, Lukas, run!

Run, Lukas, run!

Two weeks ago, the boys had their Cross Country Carnival at school.  This is one of several sports carnivals the school has every year—they also have a swimming carnival and athletics carnival, all of which happen during school time.  Everyone is expected to participate to the best of their ability, and in the case of cross country, whether that means you walk the whole way or sprint it.  They also are expected to cheer on their team and display good sportsmanship to everyone.

When children come to Wallsend South, they are put into one of four different “houses”—Hunter, Allyn, Goulburn and Paterson.  Siblings are put into the same house.  This will be their house for the rest of their years at the school.  Each house has a female and male house captain and assistant captain, all of whom are year 6 students who have been voted in by the students.  Each house has its own colour, which the kids can wear instead of their school uniform on carnival days.  During the carnivals, the houses get points for a variety of things, including the numbers of students who participate and for sportsmanship behaviour.  I think they also get points for placing in the top ten for each race, but don’t hold me to that.

The course is pretty long and a little hilly.  Students are grouped according to age.  Students aged 8-10 run 2km, while students aged 11-12 run 3km.  Having recently just run only 1km myself, I was very impressed with how hard the kids were running, especially as it was a pretty warm and humid day!  The kids do train at school during gym time for a few weeks, so they have an idea of the course and what their limits are around walking/running it.

The top four finishers move on to compete at the Zone trials.  Most schools in NSW would have held a cross country carnival, and our students will compete against the students from schools in our area at Zone.  Those who succeed then move on to Regionals, and then on to State.  Tobias just missed the cutoff for Zone (he came 7th) and is a replacement in case someone cannot make it.  Lukas finished in the top ten, a bit of a surprise to us as he told us that he usually walked much of the course!

Aussie Slang:

“Suck it up, princess”:  yes, you know what it means!  It would be said to males and females, and is sort of a cultural norm that kids need to just deal with stuff.

“Heaps”:  as in ‘lots’.  They love to use the term heaps here!!

Happy Autumn!

March 1 has come and gone, so it is officially autumn in Australia.  It is not fall.  I found this out in Lukas’ class last year when I was helping him to describe Canadian Thanksgiving, and explained that it happens in our fall, which is their spring.  The teacher helped to wipe the blank looks off of many faces by clarifying that what we sometimes call fall is autumn.   Oops, funny how you get used to “slang”.

The nights are cooler—thank goodness!, the days are feeling shorter already (most noticeably with the darker mornings) and soccer season has started.  The mandarin oranges are growing again on our tree.  It even rained quite a bit on the weekend!  Definitely all indicators of autumn.  Temperatures are still warm, though; we’re talking around 24 degrees Celsius during the day.  It’s all relative, isn’t it?!  I have certainly acclimatized to the weather here.  I was wearing a fleece yesterday morning and I’m pretty sure it was in the low 20’s.  Who would have thought?

Daylight savings will end on April 6 at 3AM (exactly).  This will put us back on the same time as Queensland, who along with Western Australia and the Northern Territory, do not observe it (although they all have at different points in time in history).

Unfortunately, if it is autumn, it also means that we only have a few months left on our exchange.  It feels like time is flying now.  It seems similar to having a baby—the first few months seem to crawl by and then it all just seems to go faster and faster as the kids grow up.  We have made a list of what we want to do and see before we leave in July.  Some of it will happen, some will just have to wait until the next trip Down Under :-).

Latest Aussie Slang

“Acka-Dacka”:  what they call AC/DC  (yes, as in the band)

“bench”:  counter (as in the part of the kitchen upon which you make food)  I had a hilarious conversation with my girlfriend about her kitchen reno and the misunderstanding of what a bench was…

“horse poo”:  yes, it is what you think it is.  It’s quite funny to see signs people put outside of their houses/farms advertising it, instead of using the term “manure”.  My boys certainly get a good laugh out of it!

Happy 3 Month Anniversary!

As of October 8, we have been on our exchange for 3 months.  Time sure flies when you’re having fun!

Somebody asked me recently if it has been all that we hoped.  I had to pause and think about it before I replied.  I think it is a question we truly will not be able to answer until we are at the end of the exchange.  We certainly love the weather, the beaches and the easy-going vibe.   I guess I realized that I was not sure what my hopes for the exchange had been.  Was it just to experience another culture and have the opportunity to explore another part of the world?  Or was there more to it than that?  It couldn’t be just enjoying a year off of work, could it?  Hmm, something upon which I need to reflect.

One of the biggest things (for me, especially) has been adjusting to living in someone else’s house.  I’m sure it is the same for our exchange family.  There’s different toys, different furniture, different kitchen stuff, a much smaller space.  Yes, you deal with it knowing that it is time-durated but I still miss little things, like certain baking/cooking stuff and my little laundry room (anyone who knows my quirky love of laundry will understand)!  Oh, and the ability to entertain large groups of people.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not ruining the experience at all, it’s just something to own up to.

School was the biggest thing for the boys, of course.  They have done a tremendous job of showing their resilience—it’s not easy moving to a new school in the middle of the school year, never mind to a whole new country!   Tobias’ biggest challenge was adapting to the loud school bells—they use a siren-like one as well as an emergency type bell to sound all of the transitions (the bells go off 7 times a day!).  For Lukas, it probably has been the emphasis upon reading and writing; the latter, in particular, is not his strong point.  However, both boys have coped well, and the teachers/school staff have been supportive in helping all of us adjust to the new routines and expectations.  It is interesting to see the focus on behaviour at school—there are high expectations for kids to sit down and do their work quietly. I’m not sure how much support there is for those children who struggle for whatever reason to do that.

Another piece that has stood out has been building relationships.  It’s easy enough to meet people, but really getting to know them takes time and work.  Again, it’s not a bad thing, just the reality of moving somewhere new.  The boys have been able to build friendships through school, and Mike has gotten to know co-workers well at work.  Luckily, we have met another family with children of similar ages with whom we spend a lot of time.  We share similar values, and I know I we have met life-long friends.  Being able to share in so many experiences together has made all of the difference, especially to me.  I also have been lucky to connect with several of the mums from school—not only are they friendly and helpful (they put up with lots of questions from me!), but lots of fun!

On that note, whether or not the exchange is all that we hope it would be, it is an experience we will never forget, one that we will not regret and we will leave with good friends, good memories and probably, a lot of sand in our suitcase.

A little bit of home on the beach in Queensland

A little bit of home on the beach in Queensland

More Aussie terms:

“Struth”:  Exclamation, kind of like “whoa” or “my goodness”.

“Penalty Notice:  What comes in the mail to tell you that you have a speeding ticket.

“Snag”:  a sausage, usually cooked on the barbie.