An Expat Opinion: The opening line

This is the introductory post for An Expat Opinion, my regular column at (Australian news commentary site) Crikey.com.au.

jaymartinThe first song on the CD my husband puts on happens to be Paul Kelly’s Leaps and Bounds. “I’m high on the hill, looking over the bridge, to the MCG…”, he sings the opening line. And I’m surprised to find tears pricking my eyes.

As I write this it’s 13 outside my apartment in Warsaw, Poland. Minus, that is. It hit 25 last night. Minus. When I tell people here that the top temperature in Canberra in winter is about 7 or 8, they always ask, “is that minus?” I used to think that was odd. Until I moved here.

I remember joking with my flatmates about the “balmy Canberra weather” on the exceptional winter morning it would hit minus 2 or 3. Except that does seem rather warm now. OK, maybe not exactly balmy. But, after all I’m Australian. One of the many things I’ve learned after two years in Poland is that we’re a comparatively optimistic bunch.

It’s fair to say I never expected to end up in Poland. So much so that when my husband told me his job was moving him there (and by extension me), I replied, “Great! Umm… where’s that?” “Glad you asked,” he replied, pulling out the map he’d printed off for exactly that reason, and we spent the next few hours poring over all the amazing places we could go, talking about the things we’d see, and wondering what the next few years would hold.

I’ve been here in Central Europe for two years now and all I can say is that, if I’d had all the time in the world, I never could have imagined some of the things I’ve gotten up to. (Note: Poland is in Central, NOT Eastern Europe. It’s one of the first cultural gaffes I made. There have been many since. Luckily Europeans don’t expect much from us in the way of culture. I more than live up to these expectations).

I never imagined I’d end up in the Ukraine with a friend on a dodgy visa run (hers, not mine), in the process discovering there’s a country where you can feel completely overdressed in a bikini.

Or that I’d spend the summer solstice in Lithuania jumping over bonfires and singing the sun farewell on the shortest night of the year.

Or be asked to give a lecture on representations of Indigenous Australia in contemporary Australian film, followed by judging an ANZAC Biscuit competition. (Since I’m Australian, I’m obviously an expert on everything regarding the country).

Or a road trip to see the opening of the World’s Biggest Jesus (which, as of November, is in Świebodzin).

Or the completely humbling experience of finding myself among the VIP guests at a dinner for Holocaust survivors.

Mind you, not everything I have now discovered is in the ‘expat spouse’ job description (which, incidentally, I’m still waiting for my copy of) has been quite so great. Like my first official function, which involved showing our community spirit by picking up rubbish along the river. In the driving rain.

Or not working for the first time in my life, and discovering that when my husband goes out to lunch it’s called “networking”, but when I arrange to meet potential new friends for a meal during the day it’s called “why didn’t you pick up the dry cleaning?” Yeah, there’s been a bit of domestic as well as international negotiation along the way.

People ask me if there are things I miss from Australia. I always say not really. Of course there are a couple. Having the Saturday newspapers delivered and spending the day in bed reading them comes to mind. Weekends down the coast with friends — which usually involved the Saturday newspapers, as well, now that I think of it. (I thought about calling this column Please send the weekly magazine from any major east coast weekend newspaper, but it didn’t have the same ring to it). But what I really mean is that everything I get to do, see, experience and involve myself in here more than makes up for the things I miss.

It was — ironically enough — exactly as I was going through this spiel with an Australian friend who was visiting that she interrupted me. “Oh, I brought something for you!” she said, reaching into her bag and pulling out a bunch of dried gum leaves she’d picked for me. I closed my eyes and inhaled the scent of the eucalyptus. Of jogging up Red Hill after work. Of camping trips by the sea. Of my bush capital where kangaroos and pink and grey galahs announce the end of the day. And I felt such a deep and overwhelming longing for home that there was nothing I could do to stop the hot, wet tears from pouring down my face.

I love Poland and I love living in Warsaw. It’s not my permanent home, but it’s home for now. Which I guess doesn’t mean that, every so often, I don’t hear Paul Kelly and feel a sting of nostalgia for my other home on the other side of the world. Where the hills smell of eucalyptus and it’s probably not going to be 25 degrees tonight. That’s minus.

It’s all part of my Australian expat life, anyway. I hope you’ll be part of it, too.

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