It must have been sometime in 2001. I remember sitting in the pub with my best mate, the pub we had been to a thousand times, having the same conversations and bumping into the same people, ad infinitum. I hadn’t had the best run up to that point, a dead parent, another absent one, unacknowledged depression and self-medication with too much beer and weed (the latter of which being my kryptonite). I lived a sleepless existence, perpetually exhausted but refusing to sleep at night in favour of unhealthy pursuits. I’m not particularly proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either.
As we sat lamenting the clouds around us we formed the idea we should spend a year travelling Australia to escape what we perceived as a glum existence. We spoke about this ‘plan’ the next time we were in the same pub, and the next, and the next. We weren’t doers at that time, we were talkers. After another thousand visits to the same pub, I decided to take a different path. I was sick of washing dishes and punishing myself with a self-inflicted sense of underachievement so I (successfully) applied to University and prepared myself for the new experiences and opportunities it might bring.
As is often the case in life, just when I had settled on one plan, another presented itself to test my resolve. This time it came in the form of my best mate along with four of my other best mates deciding that they would follow through for once and spend a year travelling Australia. I was jealous, conflicted and unsure which way to go. I came within a mouse click of booking a ticket and spending my university loan to go with them, but at the last minute decided it was a foolish move. This split second decision fills me with terror and fear when I look back on it, fear of the life I wouldn’t have had if I had clicked that button. I almost hear myself shouting “don’t do it” as I sit here thinking about it.
So I waved my mates goodbye as they went on their travels and I went to the less glamorous destination of University. Over the next year I heard stories of their adventures and envied every minute of their amazing lives, as I continued with the drudgery sitting at home sipping a lonesome beer, struggling to find any mates left in the country to go for a pint with. I felt as if that was significant at the time, but it wasn’t. I was just a silly boy with hardly a clue about the world.
One of the benefits of University was the excessively long Christmas break. After working part-time and saving some pennies I decided I would visit my friends over Christmas and New Year in the hope of sharing in their adventure, even for a short time. They had a shared rental in Sydney, and boy was it a good one. Somehow they had lucked out and found a rental in an exclusive area that the owners needed occupied for a short time before they renovated the house. It had a partial view of the opera house and Harbour Bridge and it was incredible. I spent the next 2.5 weeks sleeping on their sofa, swatting away flying cockroaches coming in the window and living in a suburb that to this day I wouldn’t be able to afford to live in. I was in love. The positivity, vitality and energy of Sydney was captivating and I vowed I would come back one day, whatever it took.
I returned to Scotland and spent the next 3 years studying, listening to stories of their adventures, eventually welcoming them home and watching as they struggled to readjust to life back in Scotland. None of my mates had a trade or qualification before they left so they came back to a feeling of being stuck, unable to return to the country they had loved and each of them fighting their own battle to find their path. Some loved being home, others really struggled; others still were broken by it.
I went on and finished uni and spent the next year working to pay off some debt. Like many others, I realised that a degree in of itself was fairly useless and I learned that there was very little I could actually do with it. So for the first time I had a good think about what I actually wanted to do with myself. This included balancing what I was good at with what I wanted to achieve and cross referencing that with the Skilled Occupation List of the time to see if I could kill two birds with one stone. I settled on a Master’s Degree that was in “shortage” and thus was therefore free to attend (or rather the fees were paid for) and attracted a non-repayable bursary. I was lucky, without both of these things I would never have been able to afford it. On reflection it was one of many moments where luck was as important (if not more so) than any other factor in guiding me along the right path. The Master’s degree was 2 years long and it was intense. I worked part-time, went to uni, undertook full-time work placements and somehow saved some money. I also developed an obsession – Australia.
All those years since my visit I imagined returning to work, live and explore Australia. In the summer break between years of my Master’s degree I booked a visit back to Australia to explore a bit more of Australia. I visited Melbourne, Brisbane, Gold Coast and back to Sydney. Melbourne didn’t do it for me at that time and Sydney was dominated by the Pope’s visit, but Brisbane and the Gold Coast wowed me. I stood on the beach with the ocean gently washing over my feet and the warm Australian winter sun on my back, struggling to believe that life could be this good. I walked along the coast to what I would later (years later) learn was Broadbeach and took a photo of the path to the beach, opening out into forever with the sand and ocean on the other side. For me it represented hope, opportunity and the unknown. It would be my screensaver and motivator for years to come.
After returning to complete my masters I started working, saving and paying debt. Life largely went back to normal and I counted down the months until my work experience would allow me to secure a job in Australia. Unexpectedly, one of my many emails to recruiters threw up an opportunity in Melbourne and I jumped at the chance, moving on a 457 visa. It was my dream realised, a new beginning, endless opportunity, a clean slate. I couldn’t believe my luck and boarded the plane without hesitation or a second thought to the effort involved in building a new life. I was woefully unprepared, foolishly naïve and inexcusably ignorant of the effort and hard work required to start a new life across the world.
On reflection, in my head, I was belatedly sharing my friends backpacking experience around Australia and trying to relive that missed experience. I got it wrong on almost every level and it broke me. My dream turned into a personal nightmare of my own making. The rental market was horrendous, my temporary accommodation ran out and I still didn’t have a place to stay. I had to resort to more temporary accommodation but it wasn’t available immediately and I spent a night sleeping in a hire car. The demons I had suppressed for many years resurfaced and my body and brain chose that moment to start dealing with long-standing unresolved grief that I hadn’t realised was there.
The short version of the story is that I returned to Scotland with my tail between my legs to regroup and sort myself out. I spent the next few months literally crying my eyes out. I didn’t know I had that many tears in my body and I had no idea it was possible to eat while sobbing uncontrollably. But that’s depression for you and sob I did. Sob, eat, exercise, sob, sleep, repeat. Over and over. I couldn’t have imagined when I boarded the plane to Melbourne that my “Dream” would turn around so quickly into this nightmare. Life is funny like that; it likes to keep you guessing. When things seem all lined up in life, it throws you a curve ball, and when things seem bleak and miserable, it throws you an opportunity. And throw me an opportunity it did.
After slowly getting myself back into the world of the living I regrouped. I wasn’t going to let a minor setback get in the way of my hopes of experiencing life in Australia. I started exploring other job opportunities and skilled independent visas. I worked and saved, but most of all I planned. I was a fool the first time, but I refused to make the same mistake twice and I researched and planned obsessively. One morning, after a lot of patience, I woke up to two emails. One was the grant of a skilled independent visa and the other was a job offer for a position I had applied and interviewed for (via skype). Life really is funny and unpredictable. As I lay in bed reading those two emails side by side I just laughed, what else can you do?
So I boarded another plane to Australia. This time rather than excitement, the overwhelming feeling was one of terror and fear as I was acutely aware of the many things that could go wrong. I subconsciously war gamed for every possible scenario, every possible set back, ways to avoid them, how to overcome them, how to succeed. I had pre-arranged rental viewings for day 1 this time, had a rental pack prepared, application forms pre-filled, made connections online to attend meet-ups and decided to say “yes” to any and every social invite. I figured if I machine gunned social events even with people I didn’t click with, I might meet other people at those events that I did click with. Most importantly I had come to work this time, not to play. I hit the ground running, I treated weekdays as if I was still back home and I loved it. Again I was really lucky, my manager was amazing, my team at work were great and the people I met became good friends. Life was good and I knew at that point that I would never return to Scotland. I was 100% sure of it.
Over the next 6 years I had some amazing, life changing experiences. I used my annual leave to travel around Australia. I revisited Melbourne several times and put some demons to rest. I saw the place with new eyes and no longer attached it to negative feelings. My favourite thing to do in a place is walk, wander and soak it up. I love to get lost and find back streets that show real life. Watch people rush to work, look stressed, watch them play in the park looking happy, travel on buses and trains, go to the tourist spots, anything that lets you soak it all up and get a feel for a place. Melbourne is a great place. Sydney too is amazing, so full of energy and opportunity (although expensive if ever considering moving there). I travelled with friends from the Gold Coast up to Cairns for a holiday, via Fraser Island, the Whitsundays and everything in between. It’s an absolutely glorious part of the world. I wouldn’t change a single thing about any part of those years.
I also decided to experience living in Queensland for a while after several visits left me open eyed. I secured a job, sold most of my furniture, squeezed my life down to whatever could fit in my car and I drove from Perth, down across the Nullarbor, up through South Australia, Victoria and into Queensland. I spent six days driving between 7 and 8 hours per day with only myself for company. I listened to music, talked to myself and thought about life a lot. The hypnotic passing of the bitumen under the car tyres, the incredible sunsets and sunrises, the silent noise of the road was like a 6 day mediation. I found some peace on the road, put aside some baggage I hadn’t realised I was carrying and discovered a few things I still needed to work out. The person that arrived in Brisbane was different than the one that left Perth. I was ready for something else.
Something else found me and as always luck was on my side. My work put me on an induction training course that I fought tooth and nail to avoid. I almost succeeded too, but in the end I capitulated and went along. I spent the next week at an office 45 minutes from my house share on the induction training. On the first day I cursed the commute and cursed the universe for conspiring to force me there. But the universe knew better and when I walked in I heard an unusual accent. It was a novelty because normally I was the one with the unusual accent in the room. I spent the first day getting to know the person behind the accent. By day 2 I was transfixed by her. By day 3 we went for a drink after work together and by day 4 I couldn’t stop looking at her or thinking about her. She was incredible, smart, funny, kind and a far better person than I could ever hope to be.
She lived on the Gold Coast so on day 5 we agreed to have a few drinks together on the coast. I had joked through the week about liking dirty old pubs with sticky floors and broken glass, so she took me to probably the dirtiest and grottiest pub in the whole of the coast. I was smitten, so much so I moved to the coast and found a rental in Broadbeach QLD. Once living on the coast our relationship really took off. We just clicked and it just worked. Our weekends were picnics and BBQ’s in the park, drives up to Mount Tamborine, food and wine at home. Simple things.I also bumped into that beach pathway I took a photo of ten years earlier, the one that had been my screensaver and motivator all those years ago. I would never have guessed I would have lived a 5 minute walk from that photo, with the person I was living with and the life I was enjoying.
Looking back that whole period of time feels like a dream. But we were restless and wanted other experiences. As idyllic as Queensland can be, wages can also be low. We made the decision to return to Perth to save and plan a new adventure. This time I set off to drive back across Australia with a co-pilot. We drove back and stopped off in the Barossa valley, the Great Australian Bight and arrived in Perth full of dreams. We both also started to realise that we were missing some amazing things happening back home. I missed one of my best mate’s weddings, I missed my nephew being born, and then I missed another two nephews being born. I couldn’t be there for my best mate when his dad died. I missed the funeral of a family member that was a huge and significant part of my life. Despite knowing I would miss things like this and preparing myself for it, experiencing it was different. My partner had many similar experiences as well and for both of us, thoughts drifted to our respective homes.
The biggest feeling I had was guilt. I was over in Australia having the time of my life while people were suffering. People that had supported me when I needed it were now people that I couldn’t support when they needed it. Not only that, I looked around at the wealth in this beautiful country and I felt guilt that there were so many people living in such poverty back home. Not to get political but I watched the austerity agenda across the UK push more people into poverty. Not just the ever maligned “benefit cheats” rags like the daily mail persecute. This was honest hard working people, working two jobs and still not having enough money to feed their kids. I would sit at the lunch table at work and listen to colleagues stories of youth that universally had undertones of wealth, opportunity and absence of struggle. Not the wealth of mansions and boats and never having to work, rather the underappreciated ‘wealth’ of middle class.
This isn’t a criticism of those people; their parents worked hard to make a life in Australia and had achieved wonderful success for their children. They should be lauded for that. But it grated with my inner sense of “Working class’ and I found it difficult to marry that with my knowledge of how difficult life was (and is) for many families back home. It was the first time that I felt I didn’t fit, until I realised that I too had drifted from being the working class son of a panel beater to someone I would have considered being ‘middle class’ as a child (I hate class terminology). I realised that I was no longer overwhelmed by debt; I no longer tallied up the cost of groceries as I went round the supermarket and I no longer watched in terror as the groceries were pushed through the checkout with a pre-selected list of items in my head to discard when the cost outweighed my money.
I no longer walked 5 miles to get somewhere because I couldn’t pull together enough cash for the bus. I could afford to buy lunch at work if I couldn’t be bothered taking something from home. I don’t know when it happened, but by virtue of my very average wage employment something shifted. I worked with vulnerable working class families but Australia had been very kind to me and families no longer saw me as ‘one of us’ and now saw me as ‘one of them’. I didn’t share their struggle anymore, causing me to struggle with an identity crisis of feeling working class but not living working class. How could I claim to be a working class boy when I lived a 10 minute walk to the beach (albeit in a rented property), flew across the globe twice a year, bought wine online from my favourite winery in South Australia, when I HAVE a favourite winery for Christ sake.
Something didn’t fit any more and we started talking about leaving Australia for a while. I had my citizenship and my partner’s PR visa was processing, so we developed a plan to leave for a new adventure once her visa was granted. That way we would have the luxury of five years to live closer to our families and re-evaluate. We visited Scotland and settled on the idea that we would work towards spending a year or two in Scotland once we had saved enough to do so. We had a time frame of 12-18 months for this plan, but again the universe had different ideas. My partner’s visa was refused due to a very stupid error on our part. She had 35 days to leave Australia and we had to accelerate our plans. We managed to develop a solution that enabled us to remain in Australia temporarily to save for our move, but the clock had been ticking and we had to take action.
One month ago I flew back to Scotland for an interview and was offered to job. We are now in the advanced stages of moving to Scotland and I can honestly say that we have been lucky. The UK migration system makes it very difficult to bring a partner over and had it not been for the motivator of my partner’s visa rejection in Australia I imagine we would have given up on moving to Scotland long ago. I recently read a blog that spoke about the best decisions in life being the ones we don’t make. Looking back over the last 15 years I think I agree with that. I didn’t make the decision to fail spectacularly in Melbourne, but it ultimately led to me moving to Perth. I didn’t make the decision to attend that training course in Queensland, but it led to me meeting the person I share my life with. I didn’t make the decision to have my partner’s visa rejected, but it has led us to the brink of moving to Scotland and it feels right.
Having lived in this wonderful country I have changed. My home has also changed. I can’t wait to live in that new place as a new person. There are many things I hope to take with me when I go, none more so than the feeling that you can do what you want to do and be who you want to be if you’re willing to work at it. The knowledge that everywhere is flawed and everywhere has wonder. You can choose to focus on the flaws or you can choose to focus on the wonder and ultimately that has a significant impact on your experience of a place, home or away. I think as a migrant I spent a long time focussing on only the flaws of home and only the wonder of Australia, but that’s not a fair comparison. I’m still aware of the flaws at home, but I also see the wonder of it now. I feel energised by the chance to go back and put my money where my mouth is, work with vulnerable families struggling back home and try to make a difference.
Just as an extra last minute surprise, the universe threw out an invitation to apply for a permanent visa for my partner just as we leave. So once we go we’ll put that offshore application in too. If moving to Australia taught me anything, it’s that things change and while Scotland feels like the right place for us this year, we might feel different in two or three or five years’ time. I was 100% sure I would never return to Scotland and here I am, fighting tooth and nail to get there. I leave Australia with sadness but also with hope. I leave appreciating everything this wonderful country has allowed me to do, everything it’s given me and the lessons it has taught me. It is a country that is beautiful, wealthy, and full of vitality and youthful energy, but a country that is also still finding itself. It will always be a place I feel a strong connection to and I wouldn’t rule out pinging back at some point in the future.
But for now I’m heading home. To the clouds and the rain and the cold that’s only softened by the warmth of the people, their personalities, humour and laughter. I’m equal parts excited and terrified and treating it the way I treated the move to Perth. In many ways Australia is what I know now and Scotland is alien. I’ll have to work harder to reintegrate than I did when I moved to Australia and banish any expectations that things will be the way they were before I left. God I hope they’re not! I’m nervous it won’t work, that I’ll regret the decision, that we’ll leave as quickly as we get there.
So Basically I feel exactly the same as I felt when I left Scotland to come to Australia. If this move is half as good as the move to Australia I think we’ll do just fine.
I think I’ve gone on long enough and I’m tempted not to post this at all as it’s unusually personal for me. I write this for myself more than anything else so that I can gather and organise my thoughts. I suppose it’s my journey to Australia and back again, the ups and downs, the twists and turns and the sheer luck of it all.
I hope it’s not too self-indulgent and if you’ve made it this far thanks for reading.