Rose Bay is a leafy, upmarket suburb in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. My grandparents live there, on a hilly street leading away from the coast road. Under glass-clear cobalt skies, houses dot the cliff leading down to the sea from their home; when, at the end of summer, the cooler breezes finally break through the suffocating heat, the bridge and opera house can be glimpsed across the jade-and-white waters of Sydney Harbour as the tall trees begin to sway once again. The suburb offers a lifestyle that’s the envy of many a Sydneysider, and frequently features on those Kirsty-and-Phil-type property programmes. My aunts live in nearby Coogee, my cousins in reclaimed brick and steel apartments in edgier, more central neighbourhoods jostling for position with hipster coffee bars and pop-up restaurants serving the latest trend in Vietnamese street food. The few visits to the city that we’ve made as a family since I was a young child have been the best possible advertisement for all the contemporary Australian lifestyle has to offer.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to live there.
And there’s the problem you see, because over dinner a couple of weeks’ back, my Mum (British), and Dad (Australian), announced their intention to move there, now that my Dad has retired and my grandparents could use a little more help. Mum was an only child, of parents who aren’t around anymore, so what’s to stop them? And there’s me, just shy of 27, a Brit in most ways, but with this funny Australian bit bolted on, suddenly wondering, well, if my parents head off to Australia – where does that leave me? Do I stay here, in the country I’ve known as home my whole life? Or do I – as they suggested, rather strongly in fact, last night, move there with them and away from everything that’s familiar to me for a completely new life?
It can be strange having parents from two different countries. Often you don’t quite fit in in either. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that you kind of half fit in each. You spend a childhood acquiring a random selection of habits, knowledge and customs from both sides to become a sort of hybrid. In Australia, my uncles say I talk like I’ve got a plum in my mouth. I say ‘cool box’ instead of ‘esky’, ‘hostel’ instead of ‘hostELL’; and I’ve never learned to share my cousins’ nonchalance in dealing with red back spiders lurking on the back patio. Then again, my so-called Britishness is diluted by a preference for Lamingtons over mince pies, and while I managed to get through my childhood without reading a page of The Wind in the Willows, my bookshelf contains a well-thumbed copy of ‘Harry the Hairy-Nosed Wombat’ and a box set of the adventures of Blinky Bill the Koala.
My parents met when my Dad (restless ex-law student who came here as a 20-something in the early 1980s) and Mum (hospital pharmacist) bumped into each other at a friend’s housewarming party. They bonded over a mutual loathing of those smug ‘Year in Provence’ books and, presumably, Wham and mullet hair dos and in time settled in Windsor. Eventually they produced my sister, now 30 and still living nearby and then me, now living in rather less classy but considerably more affordable Brentford. Sydney not exactly being a short hop across the channel, we visited whenever annual leave and family finances allowed it – maybe 4 times during my childhood – and when that didn’t happen our years were punctuated by return visits from grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The family photo albums variously catalogue these visits as sunbleached, relaxed and carefree against the white sands and vivid turquoise seas of Sydney’s many beaches; or as attempts to entertain our shivering visitors in the drizzle at Hampton Court, the British Museum or the Tower of London.
At the end of university, I did the whole ‘6 months in Oz’ thing, spent some time working, travelled around, hung out with the folks, but at the end of it, I don’t know, I was just….ready to come back here and get my life started really. Like Dad, I’d studied law, and 4 years in things are really going well. I’ve got a great bunch of friends, I get out hiking at the weekends with my walking group, I’ve got my first flat in the pipeline…life here’s really shaping up for me. And I kind of thought I was here to stay.
Isn’t the real essence of your home country in the tiny details, the everyday certainties, the shorthand forms of communication with the people around you that you don’t even notice until you’re abroad? Post boxes, I know, are tall, round and red; emergency services can be reached by dialling 999, the Telegraph is to the right, politically speaking, Guardian to the left, and you get on the bus at the front. I know that if someone bumps into me in the street, the right thing to do is to say sorry, just in case. I know, too, that when someone hands me, say, a biscuit, or a document at work, and says “Here’s one I made earlier”, with a slight smirk and raise of the eyebrow, they’re not really trying to tell me how super-organised they are. For all that I’m an amalgam of things both British and Australian, this is the place where I feel most at home. Do I really want to leave it behind just now?
Then again, I don’t much fancy being separated from Mum and Dad – possibly my sister too – by thousands of miles either. You know what someone asked me the other day? “Are you going home for Christmas?” And much as the almost 27-year-old don’t-you-realise-I’m-a-full-grown-adult-now pedant in me wanted to reply, “What, you mean Flat 1, Cameron Lodge, Lingfield Gardens, Brentford?”, I knew what they really meant was, was I going to my parents’ place. And how long, I wonder to myself, do people go on considering your parents’ house as your home once you’re an adult? And, like it or not, how long do we carry on doing it ourselves? More than that, where will ‘home’ be once my parents are no longer in the same country?
So that’s the dilemma, really. Stay here, on my own and carry on with the life I’m building for myself? Or go with Mum and Dad to Australia, a country I like but which definitely isn’t ‘home’, and start life again from scratch?
Well, what to do. I decide first I need to talk to my friend Eloise. We go back a long, long way – to junior school in fact. She’ll give me a straight answer, if no one else does.
“You must be bloody mental! I’d give my eye teeth to move to Australia. Why’re you even thinking about it? And Sydney – it’s frigging gorgeous there – I’d come and visit you in a heartbeat! What’s the problem?”
I explain about the post boxes, the newpapers and the children’s TV references, but she’s having none of it. “Yeah, but Australia’s not that different is it? They speak English, and you’ll get a new job no problem. And you’ll be able to see your family, like, all the time instead of just visiting. It’ll be awesome!”
I come away feeling more confused than when I arrived, and so the next day I decide to Skype my cousin Simon in Sydney for a different point of view. We’ve always got on pretty well despite the distance, and he let me stay in his flat for a while when I was over there.
“You must be bloody mental! I’d give my eye teeth to live in the UK. I don’t know why you’re even thinking about it. London’s unreal – and you’ve got Europe on the doorstep. Over here you’d be surrounded by the relos – they’d never leave you alone! Stay right where you are, I reckon.”
I explain about Mum and Dad, the chance to get to know the rest of the family, start a whole new life in a beautiful city, but he, like Eloise, is having none of it. “Look – it’s a small world these days. You can come over and visit any time. But stay in the UK and you’ve got the best of both worlds – keep your life over there, and family a safe distance away.” Eventually I give up the fight and log off.
In search of some sanity, a couple of days later I Skype my grandma in Sydney. We talk about some of the options – do I have do decide straight away? Could I come over for a year, see how I get on? In the end, she sighs. “Well, it’s not an easy one love, not for you or your sister, that’s for sure. I mean, I know they say the world’s got smaller these days, and you’d only be a 24-hour plane ride from the UK even if you did move here.” She laughs a little. “It wouldn’t be like when my poor Mum and Dad came out – 6 weeks by boat if you were lucky, and that’s if you had the money for the fare! They knew they might never see their parents again, and they never did. Then again, in some ways maybe that made it easier – you made your choice, and you had to stick to it. This was your new home, you had no choice but to make it work.” She pauses, before going on, “But even these last 30-odd years, with planes and phones and visits, it’s still been hard being so far apart from you all.” She stops and contemplates me, her face distorted fuzzily by the webcam. “But this is the thing, love. We’d all love it if we could see more of you, and I’m sure your Mum and Dad would find it tough if you decide not to come here with them. But at the end of the day, you’re an adult now with your own life to live. You’ve got to make the decision that’s right for you.”
The weekend comes, and the walking group and I head off for one of our easier routes around Virginia Water and into Windsor Park. For all my Australian family’s teasing about the British weather, the late November day is cold and crisp, the sky a clear, pale blue and the ground crunches satisfyingly under our feet. The path loops through ancient parkland as we climb to the Copper Horse monument where we stop for hot coffee and chat and enjoy the view. Below us, the Long Walk stretches down to the Castle, and beyond that the town, still hung with the mist of the early morning. Beyond this still, the Chilterns, and over it all, a never-ending cycle of planes departing from Heathrow, the sound of their engines muted by distance, a reminder of the choice I have to make; to stay, to continue to invest in the life I’ve begun to create here; or to go, to seek out new adventures and new beginnings.
It’s a few days later now. I’ve made my mind up, and tonight I’m heading off to meet Mum, Dad and my sister for dinner so we can discuss our various plans. So there we are, reader, I’ve made my decision. Now it’s your turn – what would you do?