Monday, July 26, 2010

Discovering the Joys of Inner City Living

Our leafy suburb in sub-tropical Australia was mind-numbingly quiet, apart from the odd yapping terrier or drone from a chorus of cane toads. Our social life was reduced to nodding at other dog owners when walking our Labrador on the rainforest track.

We exchanged this coveted tranquility for the unpredictable exhilaration of inner city life in London, hoping to revitalise our lives in our early 50s instead of sliding into the tedium of early retirement.

We re-homed the exuberant Bonny to an idyllic farm with a creek and three energetic kids to spoil her. We sold our beautiful new house to a young family who can fully appreciate the parks and closeness to schools and surf beaches.

In contrast, we now live on a busy road with traffic whirring past our bedroom right through the night. I suspect I will come to find the cacophony of traffic sounds comforting as I attune to the pulsating rhythm of our colourful neighbourhood.

Saturday morning I venture to the local Post Office to find a motley mob, including one bedraggled young man in his pyjamas and leather jacket loudly discussing how to split the gas bill with his flat mate; not a bit self-conscious about his eccentric attire. I smile to myself at this flamboyant community I’m now a part of and join the queue waiting for parcels to be weighed and stamped by the polite Indian lady.

Next stop, I’m wondering if the Charity Shop is open on Saturdays so I can drop off a load of goods that, although shipped all the way from Australia, don’t fit into our new scaled-down house. I find the shop teeming with eager bargain hunters, a veritable feeding frenzy.

I have come down with a virus and head to the chemist, expecting gleaming, modern premises. But I find instead a quaint, old-fashioned store with a hunched old lady reaching for medications on lofty shelves and fumbling at the till for my change. I smile at the quirkiness of such independent traders, still alive and well in the historic streets of west London.

To my utter delight, we discover the consummate English Pub within walking distance. It is a traditional pub straight out of my BBC fantasies. I’ve always wanted our very own ‘local’ so husband Andrew can wander down the boozer for a pint with the lads whenever he feels henpecked by the missus. The fact that he gets tipsy on one light beer is beside the point!

One Sunday we venture to the nearby multi-cultural church, held in a fancy old cinema, offering up worship so overflowing that the vibrant African and Caribbean congregation of ladies in vivid dresses and headscarves can not suppress their joy and leap to their feet to dance. I love it!

I found out about the church from an elderly black man on the bus, who was nursing a bible on his knees. It seems only elderly men with failing eyesight find me interesting these days. Another kind old chap helped me onboard with the big rubbish bin and mop I bought from the Pound Store.

But then, middle-aged women also notice each other when out and about in public. We nod and smile knowingly as if members of a secret society; understanding without words what it is to be a with-it old chook still holding her own amongst the Young and Trendy Texting Set.

These days we are car-less so I no longer drive miles to the supermarket. I walk around the corner to my local Fruit & Veg and Co Op stores. Lugging bags of groceries along the gritty streets is so different from packing a load in the boot of the car!

I also shop online and have clothes and household goods delivered straight to my door. The nice guys from Argos delivered our flat pack wardrobes and Andrew spent a weekend assembling them! Thankfully he’s a whiz with jigsaw puzzles.

The Tube is a new way of life. I study my trusty little Tube map to figure out which line to catch and where to change. Rattling along through the tunnels, squeezed tight with fellow commuters, I am amused at being part of humanity in motion.

Emerging from the underground is like being in Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree and popping into an exciting new land. Or maybe it’s like playing on a life-size Monopoly board. Where will I land today? Bond Street? Leicester Square? Covent Garden?

As an explorer in the journey of life, I like all modes of transport. My daughter and I went horse riding in Hyde Park, clip clopping along like demure characters in a Jane Austen novel and hubby and I stroll and cycle all the local parks, reveling in the blooms of spring.

Here we are middle-aged newcomers to London and life is full and rich with new adventures. We shipped across all our furniture and belongings in a 20-foot container plus 60 more boxes of family history.

Our new house, although three-storey, has much smaller rooms than our Australian house so we’ve had to down-size; selling on e-bay the huge coffee table, my massive hand-crafted desk, the towering bookcases, the giant lounge chairs and the sewing machine and cabinet I never used anyway.

We have swapped a spacious Aussie home with its purpose-built media room and Big Screen, abundant storage space and large laundry for a cosy home with a clothes washer in the kitchen!

But we are close to the Tube Station that transports us into the heart of culture, West End shows, galleries and museums, restaurants and pubs, markets and parks. Jump on the Piccadilly Line and we’re at Heathrow in flash.

In the years ahead, I expect we will make new friends with newcomers from all over the world who have converged like us, to start new lives in this vibrant multi-cultural metropolis and we will host a steady stream of curious Aussie house guests.

And our little West London home will be a refuge for our globe-trotting kids, their partners and friends and future grandkids. We’ve made a fair exchange. In the ever-changing Journey of Life, London is an enthralling destination.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Moving Countries in Midlife

At midlife, with kids grown up and flown the nest, it is hard to make a major life change. But for me, it was harder NOT to, harder to be stuck in a rut, harder to stagnant. My once-flourishing career and fulfilling lifestyle had hit a dead end.

Our family had lived and thrived on the idyllic, sub-tropical Sunshine Coast in Queensland for 18 years. We had raised our kids in the laid-back beach culture. I had enjoyed an active role in the community as a journalist with the Sunshine Coast Daily, survived a high profile term on council and run a counselling practice.

I was proud I’d made a contribution but had to face the fact I’d exhausted my career opportunities and felt like a frustrated gold fish swimming in futile circles in a fish bowl, yearning to leap into a bigger pond.

I was gripped with the gut feeling I’d run my course in the Land Down Under and it was time to move on to new challenges and satisfy the longing to live ‘overseas’.

Moving countries is no mean feat. It requires a massive dose of motivation, which can only be driven by extreme optimism.

In seizing the courage to migrate, I didn’t need criticism. I needed the unconditional encouragement of a cheer squad. I did have a few supporters, including my mum, whom, despite how tough it was for her to be left behind, unselfishly encouraged me to pursue the dream I’d postponed for 30 years.

My mother remembers me in my early 20s, as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed cadet reporter, with a dream to jump on a plane for Fleet Street, having embraced the original Lois Lane as my childhood role model.

I would rush home from school every afternoon to watch Superman; not for the heroics of the man of steel but for thrilling exploits of that feisty newspaperwoman. My plan took a long and winding detour due to family tragedy when my brother was killed in a car crash. So mum, of all people, knew the unfinished business in my heart.

However it seemed almost everyone else had a cautionary opinion. Friends warned us against the bleak English winters and implored, in universal disbelief, “How could you leave the sunshine?” Some insinuated it was almost disloyal to want to live in another country.

The truth is I found the sweltering humidity unbearable. I would pour with sweat in a frenzy of menopausal madness 24/7. My only respite was hiding at home in the air conditioning and when forced to venture out in my car, it was like driving in a mobile sauna!

And what about the legendary English winter? Here is a confession. After years of humidity and wearing sandals and singlets, I actually enjoyed rugging up in boots and jackets and the bracing sensation of chill on my cheeks! To see a blanket of pristine snow cover our own little backyard was a thrill!

And now it is summer and light until 10pm. Many Aussies don’t know about the beautiful English summers when dappled sunshine is like a gentle embrace on evening strolls in the park and magical nights in the city. They haven’t tasted the succulent raspberries and cherries from Kent!

I love experiencing four distinct seasons, seeing gardens explode with pretty flowerbeds in spring and crunching leaves underfoot in autumn.

What about our careers? As a journalist seeking fresh stories and meaningful causes to champion, being based in the UK has opened up unlimited possibilities. And Andrew’s business is thriving.

I felt isolated in far-flung Australia and nursed a dull ache from the tyranny of distance. At this mature stage of life, I want to fully participate in global issues.

After a hectic year living in London, I’ve discovered a real love of city life and culture, the fabulous concerts and shows, museums and galleries, buzzing street activities, festivals and attractions. We enjoy the multi-cultural mix of people and delight in riding the Tube and local buses. Public transport is still a novelty!

We relish exploring the genteel English countryside and quaint villages. Our roots are English, Irish and Scottish. After decades in exile, we have reclaimed our heritage. We are also keen to travel widely and Heathrow is an ideal launching pad to Europe and exotic destinations.

Our move has opened up a rich and fascinating lifestyle where we can continue to learn and grow, not wind down and retire. It’s challenging some days to muster the energy but I’d rather jump on a train than plonk on the sofa.

It is a bonus that our two adult children are living in London. They moved here first, blazing the trail. We are re-united as a family unit and have recreated a stable home base for our 'kids' and young travellers.

Some city-jaded, bone-chilled Brits might yearn to swelter in the distant tropics, frolic on sun-scorched sand and feel the rush of wild surf. Personally I have seen enough beaches to last a lifetime.

So we have left a spacious new home on the other side of the planet and I am sitting here at my desk in my cosy loft in West London and couldn’t be happier. Making a major change at midlife is not easy but it opens up an exhilarating vista of surprises.