One Year in Australia: Highs, Lows and Homesickness
Updated: May 20, 2020
It’s more than 12 months since I moved from London to Melbourne, so I gave myself an end-of-year appraisal.
Bureaucratic navigation: 6/10
The mountain of paperwork to secure my Australian visa was only the first hurdle. Next came proving to bureaucrats that I’m a real human (and earning real, human money). Unluckily for me, it turns out I’m a ghost – even worse, I’m a self-employed person with no credit history in Australia. The kind of spectre that doesn’t so much send estate agents and banks screaming, they simply can’t see that I exist.
‘Just wait two years until you have two years of Australian tax returns,’ trilled a voice from a credit card call centre. Only two years, eh?
In fairness, I’ve also lived in France, perhaps the world leader in turgid bureaucracy. Back in the day, I waited most of a year to get my carte de séjour (official residency card). In that light, being able to get set up with Australian bank accounts, healthcare, a local driving licence and a proper accountant – one of the croaky-voiced, old-school kinds – within a matter of months seems pretty good. A middling, could-do-better score.
Here’s where self-employment brought rewards: being a freelance writer and editor meant that despite moving to the opposite side of the world, I’ve been able to work in the same way as I did in London. Even before securing anywhere to live, I could fold out my laptop and pitch, file copy, edit. I could do with a couple of new clients (what freelancer would say otherwise?) but overall the past year was a belter. And in honesty, Melbourne's libraries and wifi-endowed cafes deserve a 'thank you' in the back of the books I've co-created.
Social networks form around people you routinely interact with. So what happens when there’s no such routine, when you’re a freelancer who spends significant periods of her working life on the road?
It goes like this. Following the standard expat pattern, you ‘put yourself out there’. Events! Meet-up groups! Steal your partner’s office friends! No former acquaintance or colleague is too long-lost to ask out for a drink!
But then a thought creeps in: this one-sided generation of social energy is starting to feel like...work. Maybe, whispers your depleted inner voice, if it doesn’t happen organically, you’d be better off with a good book.
Self-critically, I recall how back in London, it was hard enough just to find time to see my existing friends. How open was I to the people around me? Moving countries is a slog for introverts, I realise belatedly.
Travel horizons: 7/10
Yes, of course I'm pining for Europe’s tapestry of languages and cultures. I'm probably looking at a map of Lithuania, listening to French radio and streaming German-language electronica all at the same time. But for this European, Australia opened up a new sense of scale.
I can no longer hop on a plane for two hours and be in a different country. But I can drive for hours, until the skyscrapers recede and the roads spool alongside ragged cliffs and honey-coloured sand. Eventually a lone motel or gas station will act as a lighthouse. All this space forces attention to detail, and makes for some of the most spectacular road trips on earth.
This is a different kind of travel to my usual ravenous sightseeing. Europe excites me with its richness: Roman ruins turned into burial grounds, then capped with churches, later crowned with minarets, now transformed into art galleries...a single building screams a history so loud that you risk missing half of its details. Rural parts of Australia whisper. You have to pay attention.
You only realise how deeply you’ve put down roots once you try to yank them up. Leaving London, my home for the best part of a decade, was more wrenching than I thought.
‘But I’m a traveller,’ I would remind myself after another teary goodbye, ‘I’ve got this.’
Reader, I did not have this. The initial months of acclimatising to timezone-dependent Skyping and WhatsApping felt like being underwater. You’re waiting for your ‘home’ timezone to wake up, and disengaged from your present surroundings.
With such a big move, you’re far from those you love in times of tragedy. You’re uselessly remote from those you seek to support. In turn, those who would cheer you on are far, far away. Encouragement and advice that you took for granted – from your friends, family and peers – arrives muted, from a vast distance away.
But I’m one of the lucky ones. My parents were able to come and visit Australia (their highlight: Hobart). On the back of a recent project for Lonely Planet’s guidebook on France, I managed to swoop in and briefly reconnect with some beloved Europeans. Unlike many migrants, I haven’t had to go cold turkey. That immense privilege has been a balm for my timezone-weary soul.
Right now, I have no idea how much longer to stay in Australia, how or when to move back to Europe, or indeed where to. The UK is home, but I’ve made no secret that my misgivings about Brexit were a factor in spending all this time away. I'm a travel nut who spends significant amounts of time on the road so ease of travel within Europe, the potential to work around Europe, and indeed the strength of pound sterling matter to me a great deal. Ideally I'd like a better idea of the impact of the UK leaving the EU before re-establishing myself in Europe, but certainty could be years away.
All the while, I slowly shifted from treading water in Australia to bedding in. There are traces of routine now. Novel new places somehow transformed into local pubs and old haunts.
But plotting a course is tricky. So much so that my significant other, Normal Matt, reading this over my shoulder, suggested I add a poll to let anyone reading decide the outcome.
So, to uncertainty and beyond. It’s rare that I don’t have a plan for something as major as ‘which end of the planet to live on’. Honestly, it’s exciting.
Living in Australia has ups and downs, but I sure enjoy writing about the place.