I lived in Australia for 9 months a loooooonnnng time ago. To be more precise, in 2003 and long before my blogging adventures began. It was my second time outside of North America, and my first time living in another country. I was 18 years old, wide-eyed and totally naive, and in for one of the hardest, most memorable 9 months of my life.
Here are a few of the memories that stand out, starkly, in my mind’s eye. Most people don’t know these stories. These are only a few of the experiences that so deeply impacted me and that I can still recall extremely vividly these many years later.
I don’t want to depress you guys, but to be frank, it was NOT a good time overall.
But I certainly learned what I was made of. Australia is largely responsible for changing me from a soft, buttery girl into the woman of steel you all know now.
(I’m kidding you guys! Kinda…)
And I added a few of the great memories, because those happened too. What a topsy turvy time it was!
I hop into her car on a sunny Sunday morning – any Sunday morning, as it was a common occurrence.
“Where to first? The docks then food?”
The docks – it sounds like it should be seedy, doesn’t it? But in Brisbane, the docks line the beautiful river and you can sit along their edges and watch the local ferries go back and forth in a soft zig zag all day long and into the evening.
We come here all the time to read and write, take photos and talk, sit in silence and giggle over everything. It’s our place. Just two new friends with loads to say and no money, happy to have found a kindred spirit and a quiet spot to share for free.
Sometimes we’d go for breakfast afterwards and as often as not you’d treat me. Often we’d order three meals and share them.
One day we ordered two meals each and just ate and ate and ate…and giggled and felt embarrassed for ordering so much food…and then giggled and stopped feeling weird cuz who cared? We were just two Amazon women eating together. At 18 years old, it was the first time another girl or woman had just joyously sat and ate with me. I’d search for that beautiful joy in future female friendships.
I’m staring at the empty shelf, bewildered and panicked. I know I left a banana here. On this shelf. On MY shelf. Where was it? What could have happened to it? This isn’t the logical thought process of an 18 year old girl, but then I was not in a logical state of mind.
I was hungry. Had been hungry for days now.
Sanity slowly seeps in and I realize the obvious and not-so-special truth: one of the three boys I live with has eaten my banana. And by that very small act robbed me of my only meal for the day.
My chest constricts and the sobs just barrel forward out of seemingly nowhere. Seconds later I’m screaming down the hallway, half crazed “Who ate my banana!? What the f**k you guys!? We have [assigned] shelves for a reason you dicks!”
I don’t remember if they were even all at home that day. The ex-heroin addict, alternately my saviour and my tormentor in this house of strange boys, comes ambling toward me looking mildly amused – and in that moment I hate him for it.
Then again he’s the only one in the house who knows what an empty belly and a lack of options feels like, so I cling to him, mentally, illogically.
He watches me as I try to calm down and explain the situation. I can’t catch my breath.
He doesn’t admit to having taken the banana but I know he steals my food more often than the other two.
“I’ll give you all the savings under my mattress and you can buy as much food as you want…if you sleep with me.”
I can’t tell if he’s being serious. He does this – f**ks with people, toys with them like a mouse pawing at yarn. I’ve seen him do it to the others. It’s the first time, really, that he’s done it to me.
For a split second I consider it. I figure it’s possible if I agree he will give me some money anyways without making me uphold my “end of the bargain”. I consider whether I could just steal his money but he so rarely leaves his room and honestly, that’s not really my style either. I feel my tummy constrict. I’m hungry and so tired of it all.
“F**k you” I tell him scathingly and I sit down on the floor because I can no longer stand in the face of this indignity.
He pulls me to my feet and pushes a $20 bill into my hand.
“Get up and go get yourself some groceries for god’s sake. And next time, say something before it gets this bad.”
I walk to the grocery store lighter than I’ve been in days and I think I couldn’t possibly love and hate the same someone more. I’m not sure if I mean him or me.
The hot Australian sun is beating down on my neck and bare back. I didn’t think to buy sunscreen – I’ve never really been in a situation where I’ve had a sunburn before but I can feel it coming on now as the sun creeps higher and higher, beats stronger and stronger.
The zucchini plants I am picking of their goods are leaving my fingers raw and my hands scraped, even through the gloves. Zucchinis grow in the wet shade of large leaves and the plants are covered in small prickly bits. It’s not even noon and I’m in agony.
Since the plants grow low on the ground, I’m bent over moving from plant to plant, searching out the damned squash. It’s back breaking work – literally – and the first time I’ve done anything even close to manual labour in my life.
When a bucket is full I have to heave it over the rows and rows of plants all the way back to the truck. I only get paid for each full bucket emptied into the truck and the truck gets further away as the day goes on (by bent of the fact that we get deeper into the fields).
There are so many of us from all over. Australia has a huge economy of backpackers pouring in from all over the world to pick vegetables in exchange for free or discounted stays at hostels and a few veggies to put on their plates.
I’m not the first to have believed it was as manageable as it seemed, nor the last to fail at this rite of passage.
I shook my head all the time, wondering how I had come to be living with the ex-addict, the DJ and frequent drug-user, and the relatively straight-laced but dopey drummer of a death metal band in a rundown house at the end of a cool street in a nice neighbourhood across from the newly erected and very busy (and noisy) rugby stadium.
Could things get any more Australian, or so very different from my rural Alberta upbringing?
Tickets to the games were way out of our reach and we would watch the masses stroll past our front door game after game, excited and loud, tossing empty cans into our front yard as though the whole place was the fans’ personal trash can.
So one day Jaime, ever the upbeat one, said f**k it! And before we realized what he was doing, he was dragging every piece of our living room furniture out into the yard. He set the couches with the backs to the street (stadium behind us), put the tv in front of us, turned on the game, and we watched the game right there in our front yard “with” everyone else. It was brilliant!
When the crowd in the stadium cheered, it was almost deafening, and we cheered too. When it was intermission, we got beers and snacks.
After a while, there were passersby leaning over our fence, and new friends sitting on the couch, and someone running out to get more beer to share with us all. It was free and fun and absolutely one of my favourite memories of poverty – which seems a weird thing to say. But I felt uplifted and hopeful that night. I didn’t feel like I was missing out, I wasn’t tied down, I didn’t owe anyone anything.
I was free. We all were. And we were free together. Plus, you know, sports! 😉
Have you ever lived abroad and had a really raw, life-defining time? I’d love to hear from you and know it’s not just me! <3
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