Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Living Abroad Matters Two - Settling In

Belonging to a Community

I am searching for somewhere to belong. I don’t want to be a fleeting visitor or detached tourist. I want to find a new home away from home. I want to connect with and contribute to my new community. How do I do this as an individual? And how do we do this as a couple?

After finding our little flat, we had to become orientated to our new neighbourhood and learn to find our way around. My former stomping ground, the Sunshine Coast is a burgeoning car-dependent region where it is almost impossible to get around without your own vehicle to negotiate the daunting multi-lane motorways. As someone who is prone to day dreaming while driving I have enthusiastically embraced the shift to public transport. (This is a great relief to other drivers too!) It was a simple matter of working out that I have to catch the 266 bus to get to the train station and catch the 266 home from the other side of the road going in a different direction; same number, same bus route. Such logic is reassuring. And I love the logic of the Tube. By studying my little Tube diagram and swiping my trusty Oyster card, I can take the Central Line into the heart of the city or jump off at various stations along the way to explore attractions in the north, south, east or west. And then I WALK! Pedestrian Power makes sense; more sense than the stress of driving in heavy traffic and getting lost in a tangled web of confusing streets. And as a bonus, I get to people-watch on buses and trains!

The Sunshine Coast is a homogeneous community of mostly white Aussies with True Blue Ocker accents. I seldom saw a black face or heard other languages spoken on Mooloolaba beach or in the Plaza teeming with sweltering shoppers in board shorts and thongs. Maybe all the ethnic families were hiding within their four walls but they were sadly not highly visible. These days I am taking delight in the multicultural mix. With a population of 7.5 million, London is the most racially and culturally diverse cosmopolitan city in the world. One in five Londoners was born outside the UK and many more are the children of migrants. Hence the locals speak around 200 different languages.

I enjoy sharing bus rides with Moslem ladies wrapped in headscarves, hearing snippets of Spanish, French or Cantonese while forging through city crowds or being entertained by animated Germans celebrating their team’s win in the Boozer. I am seeing the black faces, brown faces and honey-coloured faces of people of African, Indian and Middle-Eastern descent who speak with broad English accents. I am amused when I eavesdrop on huddles of mobile-wielding, gum-chewing Indian girls at the bus stop spouting the sassy street-speak of English teenagers, you know, “whatever”, or an old black codger holding forth in broad Cockney or Scottish brogue. I am convinced that the family and culture we grow up in is the biggest influence in making us who we are, rather than the skin tones of our genetics. Becoming immersed in a myriad accents and languages is a delightful novelty for this Aussie and I am gleefully jumping out of my sheltered life and into the melting pot.

It’s true, there are so many pubs in London you could stay drunk from morning to night. You could taste-test dozens of lagers daily and elevate drinking beer to an art form or acquire a taste for fiery spirits to warm the cockles of your heart. But most of these pubs are beautiful, traditional buildings with a friendly, inviting atmosphere not intimidating dens of iniquity. They have earthy names like the Red Lion, Dog & Duck, Lamb & Flag and Nag’s Head or royal titles like The Castle or the King’s Bar. It’s not so much the booze as the pub grub I find irresistible. My palate has regressed. Jaded with exotic cuisine, I hunger for the old-fashioned, hearty meals of my childhood. Steaming roasts fill me with comfortable familiarity. This is my heritage. The Australian way of life I grew up with in the outer suburbs of Melbourne was a pale imitation, a fading photocopy, of this rich, bustling English life.

I have discovered the origins of my cultural imprint; found my Inner Pom! Suddenly I appreciate where I come from! I’m English on my Dad’s side, hailing from the Robinsons of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and pure English convict, Irish and Scottish on my Mum’s side! My maternal great great grandfather, Charles Ainsworth was a 20 year old woodcutter from Oxford who was transported to Australia in 1840 for stealing 27 files. For such a heinous crime he copped 10 years in the notoriously cruel prison at Port Arthur in remote Tasmania. Just 168 years later, in 2008, I have brought back hundreds of files in my laptop to make amends!

But to return to the subject of food, like every good homemaker, I was compelled to investigate the supermarket scene the instant we arrived to ensure a steady food supply and eliminate any risk of starvation! I have a weakness for dairy products and thankfully don’t suffer an allergy so I can give my desire for cheeses full reign! I discovered an abundance of delicious varieties from every shire of England. Is it my imagination or are the groceries of better quality here? There are more gourmet and wholesome foods, Fair Trade products and minimal packaging; good moves for humanity and our environment.
There are all kinds of funny little stores and shops everywhere I turn in close proximity and easy accessibility. I can walk up the street to my local convenience store or grab some take-away for a fiver!

I wanted to find a church to join and I was willing to visit a different church every Sunday for months to find the right one. And like pubs, there are thousands of them. The first week we wandered into a tiny church with about 12 faithful members, mostly elderly ladies in their Sunday hats. We swelled the congregation to 14 and felt somewhat conspicuous belting out the hymns with gusto! We were given a warm welcome but I wasn’t sure that this little throng could become our home church. The next Sunday we wandered further along the main street and stumbled upon (you couldn’t miss it) an imposing century-old traditional church. I felt immediately at home. I didn’t need to search the countryside to find somewhere to belong. I only had to connect with fellow believers in my new neighbourhood. They are right here; all ages, all colours, all accents…same faith. I am experiencing just how good it is to belong to the fascinating human family.

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