Becoming an Australian: a brief summary of an unexpected 14 year odyssey

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How Emu-sing

A few days before I took the pledge and became an Australian citizen, I celebrated my impending ‘Aussie-ness’ in true style by enjoying the spectacle of the AFL Grand Final – Pies v Eagles – in my local pub in country Victoria.

Can there be anything more Aussie then sipping a pot of cold beer, surrounded by dinky-di locals hurling abuse at muscly boofheads on a big screen amid the pungent aroma wafting up from an unwashed carpet?

Perched on a bar stool, holding an ale, there I was offering my limited analysis of the great Australian game (whose rules I still haven’t quite figured out after 14 years of trying), wondering how the hell I ended up here in the first place?

After all, I was the least likely person among my circle of Johannesburg friends to ever contemplate moving Down Under, someone who once famously vowed never to live in the same country as Steve “You’ve dropped the World Cup” Waugh and Shane Whatshisname and all the other Aussies that had, more often than not, thrashed us South Africans on the cricket field and other sporting arenas.

But here I was, a few days out from joining the other 25 million-odd people in this vast and curious land who call themselves ‘Australian’, and feeling rather pleased with myself.

This might have had something to do with the three or four pots of ice-cold beer I’d enjoyed as the game drew to its thrilling climax, creating a warm glow in my belly.

Or perhaps it was the un-expectantly jovial conversation (unexpected, since I’d walked into the pub knowing no one) I’d struck up with Jason, the larrikin bloke sitting next to me at the bar, who it turned out lived on my street and was full of funny tales from his job on the Melbourne docks and his travels with his wife to Nepal and who by the end of the afternoon was slightly rat-arsed and could only make it half way through a story before chuckling to himself, because he’d forgotten the point entirely.

But the feeling was deeper, like maybe, I actually belonged here, that I’d absorbed something of the country’s essence – it’s essential “fair go” good heartiness, it’s fair dinkum spirit and inexplicable cultural oddities and contradictions.

It was as if I’d grown a new layer of  ‘Australian identity’, over my South African roots and the other layers of ‘me’ – my traditional Orthodox Jewish upbringing and my adopted Englishness, courtesy of four cherished years living and working in London.

Sydney

As the evening of the citizenship ceremony at Kyneton Town Hall drew nearer, I became gripped by nostalgia for the past 14 years.

My mind danced back to the day I touched down in Sydney in late September 2004 after a long flight, and feeling the muggy heat of a surprisingly humid Spring day as I exited the airport building. From there I was taken to La Perouse, named after the French navigator who landed there before Captain Cook, to enjoy the view across Botany Bay whilst be warned to watch out for snakes.

The bright sun and deep blue waters were a stark change from the grey, Autumn skies of London, where I’d said goodbye to my  friends a day earlier, before hopping into a mini cab in Golders Green in the metropolis’s northern suburbs for the motorway out to Heathrow.

In suburban Sydney, newly unemployed and work visa-less, Australian pop culture got its early hooks into me courtesy of morning re-runs of The Secret Life of Us a show about a group of twenty-something friends living and loving at Melbourne’s St Kilda Beach, narrated by the philosophical observer and writer, Evan (played brilliantly by Samuel Johnson). I took daily jogs beneath the fig trees of Centennial Park only a short walk away, went on weekend excursions to the Central Coast, visited Canberra and attended the Floriade (an annual flower shower) and was introduced to the music of Cold ChiselThe Whitlams and Powderfinger.

Brisbane

Sydney soon departed, as did my relationship, in a cloud of self-induced misery, giving way to the humidity of tropical Brisbane where I secured a job in PR (writing media releases that no one read) and a cherished 457 work visa. I vividly remember feeling both exhilarating and melancholic waking up on Australia Day 2005 in a shared townhouse in Stafford in Brisbane’s Northern Suburbs realising I was completely on my own.

I also won’t ever forget that scorching hot day wandering aimlessly around the Brisbane Botanical Gardens, Southbank, and the city, the Triple J Hottest 100 playing on the radio, (the number 1 song that year was Wish You Well by Bernard Fanning) wondering just what the bloody hell I was doing here.

Rather then become a recluse, being alone jolted me into a new and surprising phase of gregariousness and adventure. Within a few months, with the help of websites like the Gumtree, I soon gathered around me a motley crew of new friends, most of them local Brisbanites, who had returning from London work stints. They were all lovely, warm and welcoming people who made me feel at home, and I’m sad to think that I’ve since lost contact with all of them.

We’d catch up after work in the city or in Fortitude Valley (Brisbane lively inner city party suburb), drink ourselves silly and rock out to the local band playing cover versions of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Hunters & Collectors, Paul Kelly and the Rolling Stones at the Elephant and Wheelbarrow or Pig & Whistle.  By that time I’d relocated to a shared apartment in leafy New Farm on the banks of the Brisbane River (my previous flatmate, Sharon, with a propensity for having loud, moaning intercourse with her boyfriend, having kicked me out for a few harmless indiscretions including using her expensive goat hair winter blanket without asking).

I would often stumble home down Sydney Road after a night of drinking, dancing and canoodling in the Valley, crawling into bed as the sun was just starting to come up.

I remember a wonderful Christmas spent as the pseudo-adopted son of my delightful new flatmate Jane’s Gold Coast family in their swimming pooled home, a holiday which included a Formula One-like ride in her father’s super-charged Holden Commodore to pick up a relative in Murwillumbah across the border.

There were new discoveries: the gaudy neon delights of Surfers Paradise only an hour away, the beaches and markets of Noosa on the Sunshine Coast, the rather depressing hippyness of Nimbin, a weekend away to taste the bohemian air of Byron Bay, a holiday at Rainbow Beach below Fraser Island with its bleached white sandy beaches -and a string of short-lived romances.

The party stopped soon after that Rainbox Beach Christmas holiday, when I got “boned” from my job (they finally figured out I actually did very little all day) and ended back in Sydney, working as a journalist for a trade publishing outfit on the North Shore on another 457 visa.

(As a side note I should add that Brisbane was where I sat enthralled watching the epic 2005 Grand Final between Sydney Swans and West Coast, a game which was instrumental in developing a surprising  interest in the sport alongside my established passions of rugby, cricket and the English Premier League.)

Back to Sydney: Coogee Beach and Dural

Coogee Beach

Coogee Beach

In Sydney, I made my first home in an Art Deco flatshare overlooking Coogee Beach and then later, after I met the gorgeous Kiwi who was to be my wife (we were introduced by mutual friends at the bar at the Lord Nelson Hotel at The Rocks), to a two-storey apartment in Woolloomooloo that we shared, nestled amid the hipsters, drug addicts and down-and-outs of Kings Cross (as well as Russell Crowe) for two funky years.

With the bustle and hustle of rainbow-flagged Oxford Street only a short walk away Betty’s Soup Kitchen (sadly no longer there) and its homemade damper bread  and cramped Don Don’s with its enormous bowls of Chicken Katzu became favourites as did drinking holes like the Gaslight Inn, Dolphin and Clock Hotel.

I attended my first Mardi Gras parade, ran my first City to Surf run, and took our dogs, two playful silky terriers for morning walks, heading up to the NSW Art Gallery, as trains rattled below, and to the rocky wilds of the Royal Botanical Gardens and sensational views across the harbour.

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Python-esque

When our Woolloomooloo lease ended, inner city Sydney with its buzz, noise and congestion gave way, for a magical six months, to country living as we joined my future wife’s sister and her partner sharing a large house on a couple of acres north of Dural on the rugged and bushy northern outskirts. On the property were half a dozen horses, five dogs, and a couple of Diamond-backed pythons who made a home in the roof above the living room,  feasting on rodents. They could often be seen slithering through vines outside our expansive lounge windows. (It was at this time that I bought my now well-thumbed copy of A Guide to Australian Snakes).

A delightful wedding in historic Clyde, below the snow-capped majestic mountains of Central Otago surrounded by 50 of our closest family and friends (followed by a honeymoon road trip around the New Zealand South Island) gave way to a magical year-long backpacking adventure around the world (read about my BEEG Adventure here) and then a new chapter, Melbourne, when we returned to Australia from our travels in February 2011.

There after I got an online writing job in the city, and soon after, we started a family that has most recently grown to five. It was in Melbourne, that I also landed a cherished role writing for The Australian Financial Review in August 2013 where I recently clocked up five years. Where does the time go?

Return to the country

We spent almost six years in the rather bland Northern Suburbs of Melbourne – Oak Park and then Niddrie – before packing up and heading north on the Calder Freeway for leafy Gisborne with its rolling kangaroo-hopping green hills and country fresh feel.

Which of course brings me right back to the country pub, and the big screen telly, and the Grand Final and the pots of beer in the belly, and the locals laughing and yelling and my new friend forgetting the point of his stories and me feeling rather pleased with myself after my unexpected 14 year odyssey.

So here I am. As Aussie apparently as the next bloke, part of this fabulous, swirling multi-cultural melting pot with an uncle called Bruce (truly), father-in-law who barracks for Collingwood (sadly) and three Australian children, wondering…who the bloody hell I am going to vote for at the next federal election?aussie citizenship

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Why do I delay my citizenship application?

IMG_0072I’ve been eligible for Australian citizenship for over four years and yet I still I haven’t applied. In fact, I haven’t done a thing.

This seems odd. Doesn’t the whole world want to move over here? Aren’t people jumping aboard rickety boats, making perilous journeys across choppy seas for the chance – faint though it now may be – to call themselves ‘Aussies’?

Seven years ago, I got taste for it when I attended my wife’s citizenship ceremony in the Sydney Town Hall. There we were seated in a room packed with would-be Aussies of every denomination, ethnicity, faith and sexual persuasion, all full of joyous anticipation.

My principle memory of that day is not of my wife’s beaming smile as she received her certificate from Lord Mayor Clover Moore, but of  a middle-aged, Middle Eastern-looking man who leaped up weeping with joy as his name was called out, completely overcome with emotion.

There were tears in everyone’s eyes as this humble man-made his way to the stage, embraced the diminutive Lord Mayor, yelping and hooting and proclaiming with joy: I am an Australian.

I can only begin to imagine the journey he had made from a life of struggle, possibly horror and brutality, to sit in a wood panelled room above George Street in the middle of one of the world’s friendliest, safest cities and take his place among the 23 million privileged citizens of this Great Southern Land.

I was jealous. Not even a permanent resident back then, living on a 457 work visa, I longed for the time when I would hear my own name being called.

Time has passed. I am now, through marriage, a permanent resident and have been eligible since about April or May of 2011 for citizenship and an Australian passport.

But apart from printing out the booklet that you’re supposed to read before doing your citizenship test, I’ve done nothing about actually applying.

Perhaps, I’m just addicted to those colourful visa stickers that have filled up my South African passport for more than 20 years.

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Indeed, I almost wept with joy when I found by chance after more than two years of looking, an old South African passport of mine that I had given up as lost.

It was the one I used on a round-the-world trip backpacking trip I made with my wife in 2010  (a trip I faithfully recorded in a blog called the BEEG Adventure) The passport with the coat of arms long since faded was buried between the pages of a car manual in the glove compartment of our Ford stationwagon. I found it in February, when we were trading in our car.

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It’s jam-packed with colourful visa stamps from Europe, the USA, Morocco, India, Egypt, Turkey and Thailand, tracing the journey we took over the course of a year, a fine souvenir.

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It eventually became so full of visa stamps that I ran out of blank pages and I had to get a new one.

My nostalgia aside, becoming an Australian citizen would entitle me to an Australian passport and my visa application days would be a thing of the past.

I would also be proud to be an Australian having put down roots here for more than a decade, gotten married, had Australian kids and forged a career and a good life.

But the paperwork, form-filling and document gathering required (I must also apply to the South African government if i wish to be a dual citizen) put me off time and time again.

Perhaps, also, on some subconscious level I feel uneasy about becoming an Australia . For I feel revulsion at our refugee policies and those poor, desperate asylum seekers locked away in secret and in miserable conditions with little hope to cling to.  Perhaps, they are more deserving then I of that coveted citizenship? Perhaps this is some form of protest?

Maybe this is not the greatest country in the world after all, despite what those liveability surveys may say.

An Australia Day contemplation on becoming an Australian

australia dayA week ago, I rang up the Department of Immigration to enquire about a passport matter.

Whilst on the phone, I asked the woman on the end of the line if she could tell me when I would be eligible for Australian citizenship.

To my surprise, she told me it was mid-March…this year.

I’d expected to be told it would be a couple of years off.

Despite having lived here for over 8 years (and qualified enough in my eyes as my tax returns can attest) I know all too well that there are convoluted rules about how long you must be in the country on certain visas before you can, in the words of Peter Allen (or Qantas), “call Australia home”.

Forests in Tasmania have been decimated to supply the paperwork to complete previous visa applications: two for a work permits and one for my spouse visa.

But that of course is the Australian way.

Finding out about my upcoming dual citizenship opportunity has got me thinking a bit more about what it will mean to be an Australian, provided the spooks (ASIO) don’t deem me a security risk, and send me to the Ecuadorian embassy in London to join Julian Assange, or worse, Pretoria.

Should I pledge my allegiance to Dick Smith and only buy Australian-made products, even if they cost more?

Do I now support the Wallabies, the Kangaroos, the Baggy Greens, the Socceroos, the Olyroos, the Hockeyroos, the Boomers, the Diamonds, the Matildas, the Opals and the Koalas?

Do I have to shout for Lleyton Hewitt? Do I? Do I?

And must I call the mayor the “mare”?

So much to ponder!

Finding out about becoming an oke ‘Stralian has also coincided with the run up to Australia Day tomorrow (January 26) with the nation getting the day off on Monday.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Australia Day.

My mind always seems to conjure up images of drunken yobbos, Australian flags draped over their shoulders like capes, stomping on cars and hurling abuse at anyone not white enough, as happened in Manly a couple of years back.

And I also tend to think of that famous Australian “pride” t-shirt. You know the one that says:

“This Is Australia – We eat meat, we drink beer and we speak f#ckin english!”

Losely translated it means:

“Unless you’re white, kindly f*ck off”

Strangely enough, this Howard-era slogan has not quite disappeared under the slightly left-leaning Labor government.

Instead, it’s morphed into:

“This is Australia: We  eat meat, we speak English, but if you have $5 million, we couldn’t give a f*ck”

Not quite as catchy I admit, but true.

The ‘$5 million, no English’ required refers to the new ‘Golden ticket’ visa – or the more official sounding Significant Investor Visa – the government is giving out to anyone who can stump up a wad of cash, no matter if they speak Martian.

At the same time, they’re deporting refugees who arrive by boat to remote island hell-holes or forcing them into poverty on the mainland, by not allowing them to work.

Which of course brings me to the issue of who I am going to vote for, since voting is compulsory (a strange phenomenon I have yet to get my head around) and there is an election coming up towards the end of the year.

I was never  a fan John Howard and Mr Speedo (Tony Abbott), Shrek (Joe Hockey) and Condeleeza Rice’s cousin-from-another-mother (Julie Bishop) hardly seem much better.

Perhaps if Malcolm Turnbull took charge I’d consider it. Or maybe I’ll have consider the Greens. I’ll have to do some reading.

On that note, I’ve been reading up about what Australia Day really is all about.

Officially, it serves to commemorate the arrival of the first British fleet of convict ships in 1788 and the laying of the foundations for modern day Australia.

But it seems to mean different things to different people, or nothing at all.

The white bogans in the far outer burbs, rusty cars parked on unkept lawns, pit-bulls at the ready, use the occasion to lament the days when Australian culture was whiter the washing washed in OMO.

The aborigines call it invasion day, and who can blame them.

The government talks about celebrating everything that’s great about Australia, but usually just end up in fisticuffs with the opposition, or as happened last year, with the prime minister being unceremoniously dragged off by her security personnel after Tony Abbott had fanned the flames of aboriginal anger.

As for new citizens-to-be like me?

We’re still trying to figure out the bloody rules to Australian football, ponder why football is called soccer and rugby football, and why that red-faced balding geezer who once coached the Wallabies is still on the radio.

Perhaps on Australia Day this year, I’ll just take inspiration from that marvellous Paul Hogan ad from the 1980s – you know the one where he talks about:

“The land  of wonder, the land down under“.

And throw a couple of shrimps on the barbie.