Words and Feelings

This one is a bit longer and more polished. Things have calmed down around here so I’ve had more time to focus on writing, instead of just dashing off snippets.
I love to write, but find the blog format very frustrating. Postcards never were my thing.
This time, no photos. Just words.

Okay- One photo.

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We are settling into our new house now. Our new habitat is quite different from West End. There, there were many eclectic little shops and goings-on to check out. Here it is quieter. There are several large parks within a two-block radius of us, including a skate/bmx park, and a local library branch and shopping center nearby. Here, the neighbor came by to greet us and advise us of their mail-checking habits. We are making a little nest here of library cards and dishtowels, and all the things that make this a home.

And in that, there is room for our feelings to start bubbling. O had a bit of a meltdown last night- tears of loss and fear, things he couldn’t quite put into words, but didn’t have to because we are all feeling them. I held him and tried to help give vocabulary to it but English is flawed, and we don’t have enough words to describe the richness of human emotion. If I were a neologist or trendsetter, I would write an entire dictionary dedicated to it. But I am not, I am a mother. So I do what parents do and try my best to make up for the failings of the world.

I spent the better part of the night, and much of this morning thinking about themes and topics that have come up recently. Some stretch across BLOX, others are mine alone. Most are a combination. As the spokesperson for our little family, I will do my best to be true to the experience of BOX, but know that what is written here is filtered through my lens.

 

On Longing

Because of the snow event, all of us missed the opportunity to have one last goodbye with our dearest friends. Plans were cancelled, bodies left un-hugged. We mourn that loss.

Our dogs and guinea pig, rabbits and chickens are cozy in their new (or temporary) homes. The boys have been wanting to look at old photos and videos of them, but get overwhelmed with emotion when they hear the little squeaks and playful growls. O has designs on getting a pet turtle while we are here, but says “it’s not the same.” It’s not.

We are also missing the small things- things that you don’t realize are comforts until they are behind you: Familiarity with the geography and terrain, a sure-footedness that comes with knowing a place so well that you could traverse it barefoot in the dark; the smell of your own house; bird songs and cricket chatter that had woven themselves into your background fabric so much that you don’t even notice them anymore; knowing exactly what time by looking at where the sun is glinting off the green pickle building, and what shade of orange it is; and being versed in local jargon and colloquialisms.

It isn’t a constant longing with us. Not a pining homesickness cobbled together from overexposure to Hallmark movies and long distance telephone ads. No one here is gazing out into the middle distance or watching raindrops race themselves down grey-tinted window panes. It hasn’t been long enough here to justify melodrama (and I’m not sure that it ever will be long enough), but we are tasting the fist pangs of loss.

And knowing that, even if everything were to stay the same as we left it at home- which it won’t, but if it did- everything would still be different. Because we are already different. And maybe, we are beginning to mourn the loss of who we were back home.

… or maybe I’m just being melodramatic here.

 

On Embarrassment

“Excuse me.” I caught her attention over the rack of blankets hanging in the thrift store. “I’m sorry. Could you please tell me what ‘Manchesters’ are?” I pointed at the sign next to us. The woman looked puzzled for a moment and asked me to repeat myself. When I did, she laughed and said, “Oh. Those are linens. Weird word, eh?” I agreed and added that I am in need of an English-to-English dictionary. We laughed and she went over to tell her friend about the “funny American” she just met.

I am used to the awkwardness of language. There is no shame, for me, attached to asking for clarification. As a non-native speaker, there are still many words and phrases in Spanish that I do not know. As a person who has suffered some oxygen-loss related brain damage, I often struggle to connect thoughts to language: I mispronounce words I know well, and sometimes can’t force the line from brain to mouth- despite being able to see what I am trying to say in bright, neon lights written across my mind. But this moment with the woman in the thrift store (or “salvo” as they call it here) was a highlight to a different embarrassment.

The United States is on a bit of an uneven keel right now. Between awful celebrities and horrible politicians, our public image is… well, let’s say “tarnished.” We appear to be a spoiled, stupid people with backwards ways and too much money to keep the flibbertigibbets in check. As a whole, I’d have to agree with this assessment. Our hometown is a liberal/radical oasis in a state awash in hate and self-defeatism, in a country overcome by fear and polarization. It is embarrassing.

I am embarrassed to be absolutely a part of that culture. I work constantly to overcome the messages ingrained and internalized in me. Yet, I am it. And while abroad, I feel compelled to represent the struggle to overcome those things. And then, I am embarrassed by my inclination and desperation to present this alternative representation. And then, I am embarrassed that this thought process has spooled itself out so far that I cannot retrace it to its inception.

The boys are embarrassed about the goofy school uniforms they will have to wear. And they are goofy- please don’t say that their not. I mean- those sun hats- come on! Despite knowing that all the kids have to wear them, they are still resistant. They know that they have to go home to the US, where what you wear means so much and affiliates you with your “people” at school, knowing that they will be behind the times. And not only that, but they may not even catch up here. And in that, they’ll have to forge a new identity two years in a row as “the new kid.”

 

On Identity

A woman we met told us that we were the first Americans she had ever met, and asked us many earnest questions about things like if we had “ever met African-Americans?” and “are there really Cholos?”  Her inquisitiveness brought to light some distinct cultural and environmental differences. X and O were baffled by her interest in the demographics of their schools in the US- which are roughly equal in number across Black, Asian, Latino, and White (with a much smaller number of Native American students). Xabien was curious to her delight in his best friend being from Mexico. To them, this is normal.  And realizing that your “normal” is no longer normal takes some adjusting to.

In addition to figuring out who we are here in the context of our community, we have to figure out who we are here in the context of this family. The rules are different, because everything is different. The boys will be getting greater freedoms to walk or bike into the city or schools on their own (it wasn’t possible from where we lived in the States), and so have to be trained to get around safely. There are different chores and responsibilities here, and so they have to learn to do things like hang the laundry on the line, and do the grocery shopping on their own. They are being reinvented as Brisbane city-kids. And B and I as parents of city-kids.

We are adjusting to our new roles with one another as well. I am the reason we are here. I am the anchor. Things, at least right now, are not the 50/50 we are accustomed to. We go where I need to go, and meet who I need to meet, for the fellowship. We move where I need to move to be close to campus (though, truthfully, if it were only up to me, we’d still be over in West End).

Soon, B will find a job, and (hopefully) it will even back out, but for now- this is my circus. I am a clown thrust into the role of ringleader, and the guys are here to jump through the hoops.

And I really like circus metaphors. I like clowns. A lot. It’s who I am.

 

On Bicycles

B loves riding bikes. X and O seem to, also. Many people do. Millions of people do. I do not. Let me clarify. I love the idea of bikes, in fact I looove my bike. I even named her Matilda (after the song Waltzing Matilda, whose socialist history I encourage you to investigate).

Cycling is a mode of transportation that is, in many ways, vastly superior to a car. By comparison, the carbon footprint is negligible. You can use alternate routes, go places a car often cannot, get physical exercise, and all the other things people say when they try to convince you that you love to ride bikes.

For me, it is an exercise in frustration management. It isn’t that I struggle physically- though that is sometimes the case- but rather that I am perplexed by the attraction to it.

As we’ve been riding around this city a lot lately, I have had plenty of time to consider what my irritation is. And I realize that it is very similar to that which I feel while driving a car.

See, I am a walker. I love to walk. Walking allows me to poke about and explore, investigate interesting things, look over and behind the scenery, discovering tiny treasures and catching bits conversations that inspire my imagination. I walk so I can stop and admire. This is not so on a bike.

I can see the panorama but am whizzing by too quickly to enjoy it. I wobble because I am caught up admiring some this-or-that and veer off course. It is an unsteady agreement I have with my little Matilda. She likes to get there, where I prefer to eventually, maybe, make my way over yonder. She is achievement, where I am wonder.

But for now, Matilda and I are locked in this waltz. I need her to get me around, and she needs my wiggly butt to stay still in her saddle. But I am sure we are a sight to see, lagging far behind B and the boys, swerving side to side because I caught a glimpse of something charming. Maybe we’ll catch up to them, or maybe not.

Exploring and Sampling

Today is our last at the AirBnB. Scott, the owner, has been so amazing and helpful through our first weeks here. We will be sad to leave his home in West End, but pleased to be in our own place.

We’ve had quite a bit of time over the past week to explore the city by foot and bicycle. We brought our bikes, and B’s repair stand and equipment, from home. This will be our main form of transportation while we are here.

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While it is refreshing to be liberated from reliance on a car, I must admit that my inner wimp is crying a bit. We found the steepest hill in town- maybe the steepest hill in existence. I didn’t get a photo because I was too busy pushing my bike up it and trying not to die. We also found multiple routes around the steeper hills in town. Fortunately, the topography is such that there are almost always ways around the suffering. Almost.

Yet, the vistas here are incomparable. Getting to the top of a hill and looking out to see a phenomenal landscape or cloud formation makes it worth every bit of sweat (and strings of creative profanity) to get there.

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I mean, have you ever seen clouds that look like these? What even makes that happen?

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Or THESE?!

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Speaking of beautiful… Merv took us down to Coolangatta for the afternoon a few days ago. It was magical! The water was pretty cold, but as crystal clear as promised. In up to my chest, I could still look down and see my feet. There were these tiny sand-colored fish that would dart around the bottom, managing to just outrun my toes while I bumbled around in the strong undertow. Shark Control Program (SCP) nets with red floaters are set to keep the sharks from coming too close to beachgoers.

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I’ve realized that I am not nearly as afraid of all the deadly things here as I thought I would be before we left. I think the hype might be invented just to scare off stupid Americans who come here with our big loud voices and trampling all over everywhere. I mean.. the created “Drop Bears” for that, right? Why not make some buzz about the real creatures here?

**btw- I am delighted that the Australian Museum actually has a page for Drop Bears. I LOVE this place.

Aside from exploring our environment, we’ve also been on a bit of a gustatory adventure. Last Saturday, O and I sampled some toasted crickets and cricket-flour energy bars at the Farmer’s Market. This week, we picked up some special “viper pepper” hot sauce and kangaroo jerky.

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The boys were a bit dismayed at our choice to get the kangaroo, but they didn’t try to make me feel guilty about breaking vegetarian for it. They know my policy is to always try a new and novel food when the opportunity presents itself. I encourage them to do the same- hence crickets (but not for X, who recoiled in disgust at the thought of it).

We did talk about the Australian policy of culling kangaroo herds– they are quite the pests here, I guess- and the benefits of consuming the meat rather than have it go to waste. I’m not sure they were sold on the idea, but at least they understood.

They did go in for Vegemite, though! We had a jar of Marmite back home, so they were somewhat accustomed to the flavor. Vegemite is thicker than Marmite- think Nutella rather than molasses- and has a saltier, less bitter flavor.  We’ve been eating it properly- on toast with eggs- in the mornings.

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One thing that I haven’t tried *yet* is Musk flavored candies. I considered it, but then I smelled them. It’s a powdery chemical perfume scent, like what my Grandmother Hilton (yes, we called her by that formal surname title) used to wear. It reminds me of plastic couch covers and a doll collection we weren’t allowed to touch. I was fond of my grandmother, but not so much so that I would want to eat something that smells like her face powder. Maybe one day I’ll muster up the moxie to try some. Or maybe not.

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B and I managed to slip away one evening to hang out just by ourselves and have a drink at a nearby bar- which they call “hotels.” Hotels are also hotels. Also- chips are chips, but they are also fries. Don’t try to figure it out. Just have a pint and chill.

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I suppose I should sign off now and go get packing. The next dispatch will be from our very own home here. We are shifting out of exploring and playing around, swimming every day and watching movies, and back into some semblance of a “normal” existence.

Which, it should be noted- “normal” for us is rather abnormal. We own that.

This is going to be fun.

What We’ve Learned So Far

We’re on Day 6 here- according to O, our self-appointed timekeeper- and just shaking off the jet lag and “vacation syndrome” of our arrival. Our first week has been a rush of new and novel sights and experiences. I am a bit overwhelmed, so just made a list-thing for this post.

Here are some things we picked up on (in no particular order):

  • It’s hot, but not like “hot-hot”-  It’s Summer here. Maybe 95º midday and humid- comparable to NC high-Summer weather. We adjusted to it well, despite coming here straight from snow and ice. The new upstairs neighbors are French-Canadian and German, coming here after living in Scotland for some time. They are melting. We are frolicking. We did get a bit pinked-up after walking around for a few hours without protection… evidently, the sun is much closer or stronger or something here. Sunscreen is important. Otherwise, you’ll be sizzled to a crisp. Screenshot_2016-02-01-18-16-10-1

 

  • My hair and skin are LIVING for This Climate- I am not ashamed to indulge in some vanity here. The Greek in me is flourishing under this heat and humidity. How about hair that curls in the right way and skin that glows and gets clearer every day? I’ll take that over winter-itchy redness and frizzy flatness any day. IMG_20160131_153414.jpg

 

  • Everything Wonderful Grows Easily Here– Merv took us to his house and we marveled at his garden. In it, we saw: Mango, Avocado, Papaya, Oranges, Lemons, Pineapples, Jabuticaba, Passion Fruit, Coffee, Macadamias, Pink Lady Apples, and all sorts of amazing vegetables and herbs like Tomatoes, Silver beet, beans, etc, that grow year-round. Merv’s wife, Margaret, asked at our inability to grow such things. My heart also tsks. It really is a shame.
  • This City Smells Good. Like, Really, REALLY Good- Brisbane is an urban zone, but there are many wild spaces that are home to native plants, and those imported from East and Southeast Asia. The refreshing vapor of eucalyptus mingles with soothing hibiscus to neutralize a lot of the traffic and other city odors (odours). Also- there are many smaller markets here that offer an abundance of fresh fruits. These get overripe fast in the hot heat and emit a gorgeous aroma that reminds me of an episode of Star Trek I saw as a kid, with my dad. I am wooed by the thickness of the nectar and want to just roll around in the produce aisle and … oh… sorry, forgot myself for a moment there.
  • Englishes Are Different- I realize that I am entering graduate-level courses in an area where the spelling and grammar rules that have been banged into my head by countless well-intentioned (American) English teachers no longer apply. While not illiterate, I am definitely behind the game. I may just add an extra “u” to everything and hope for the best.
  • Fake Vodka– this is a liquid that is packaged in a “vodka” bottle and sold alongside actual vodka. It has a similar proof rating, but is a bit less than half the price. Here’s the rub- it isn’t vodka, which you probably guessed by the word “fake.” The guy at the store warned me away from it, saying that it’s basically fortified wine (think Mad Dog 40/40 or Wild Irish Rose) that kids buy to make mixed drinks with at teenage parties. The drinking age here is 18, so that makes a lot of sense. For us grown-ups who prefer not lose major organ function all at once, this is a terrible thing. A terrible thing, indeed. I am happy the friendly shopkeep stopped me from making a terrible, terrible mistake.
  • The Term “Reluctant American” exists– this is a person from the States who is not super-eager to announce that to the world. They dodge around it and prefer to spend time in the company of anyone other than more Americans. I can see how this person exists… especially with US politics standing as they do at the moment.
    • *Note: Flyer photographed in West End, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. 9,485 miles away from Washington, DC, USA.                          Yeesh…

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  • Casual Nudity is Casual- it is completely common to see people from all walks of life in little to no clothing, just out in public everywhere. Shoes are especially forgone, but also shirts and pants. I have seen more people in their underwear here, just chatting outside with neighbors or whatever, than I have since my mid-twenties. Changing out of bathing suits into street clothes while standing at the edge of the water is cool, too. I wonder why we even bother with suits (or swimming costumes, as they call them here) at all.
  • Native Trees Don’t Shed Leaves, but Rather Bark– it only appears that every eucalyptus is blighted. In fact, the trees regenerate in Summer, as opposed to our Winter dormancy, and slough off big sheets of bark so they can grow. Like a snake shedding its skin. Which is an awesome metaphor, until you start thinking about snakes.
  • Snakes!!-  I have not seen any snakes so far, but I believe it is not far off. The community center/drop-in-childcare building had multiple signs warning visitors to watch for snakes. Why? Oh, you know, because they found AN EXTREMELY VENOMOUS SNAKE ON THE PLAYGROUND! … but, you know, no biggie. They put up a sign.
  • Australians Are Waaaay Laid Back- As evidenced by shoeless nudity and snake casualness. But really- my limited experience shows me that terms like “no worries” and “well done” are not only common vernacular, but also a way of life. These phrases are used in professional and casual conversation and are indicative of a supportive and chill existence. You just can’t get all that worked up here, it seems. Maybe because of the heat.
  • Animals Are Cute, Birds Are Terrifying- Kangaroos and koalas, as it turns out, are not as huggable as I need them to be. They are pretty standoffish, actually. Whatever. Possums are cuuuute… but also not interested in my snuggles- or even in being photographed. I have several shots of darkened treetops to attest to their diva behavior. There are turtles and creepy eel-fish things in the pond on my university campus that are interested in eating fingers (so I imagine), and the birds are creepy (like ALL BIRDS EVERYWHERE are). A bird called “noisy miner” sounds like a squeaky wheelbarrow, magpies and crows attack people’s heads during swooping season, bush turkeys are city turkeys that tear up gardens and do not give a whit about you trying to stop them, ibis are relatively harmless but will steal your lunch, and a flock of cockatoos is the most terrifying thing that ever darkened the sky with their white feathers of doom. I have no photos because I do not want to die. Birds are scary. AND BATS!!!- I almost forgot about the bats. There are flying foxes here. Which are pretty much the size of foxes. With huge, leathery wings. The biggest I have personally seen had about a four foot span. Yeah- like, the size of my younger child. But, you know- it’s whatever.
  • There is a Fake Beach, on the River, in the Middle of the City!!!– South Bank is an open-access pool/faux-beach area on the bank of the river. Visitors can cool off, sun themselves, and grab a drink at one of the overpriced bars nearby. There are lifeguards on duty, despite the water being only 5’ at the deepest. As evening falls, underwater light turn the entire place lavender and you can see the reflected lights of the city all around you. It is a dreamer’s paradise!

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Which reminds me, we promised the boys we’d be back at South Bank this evening. I need to go find my “swimming costume” …

… or not.