You Can't Go Home Again

It was the southern summer of 1969 and my wife and I were living in a flat in Melbourne close to the television network where I worked and close to a public transport route for my wife to take to her work at Melbourne University, when we made the decision to immigrate to Canada. It was the middle of May 1970 that we arrived by train in Toronto from New York City. We had no children at that moment and we had been married just two years.

I was probably the one who pushed to leave Australia. Both sets of parents were alive. We had friends in Melbourne, Sydney and in several other places. But professionally, I felt I was going nowhere. Now 30 years later we are in Toronto. Our two Canadian-born children are adults. Our parents are dead, as are many of our friends. We are still married. We have lived and work in Toronto, New York and London, before returning to Toronto.

In May 1999 we spent three weeks in Australia. This was my first time back since three days in 1974. My wife had been back several times due to the illness and subsequent death of her mother.

I felt like a tourist. The country of my birth and its customs are foreign to me now. We spent time in Melbourne, rural Victoria, with my brother-in-law on the Queensland/NSW border, we drove from there to Sydney, seeing friends and family along the way.

All the old annoyances came flooding back. My wife and I rowed constantly for the first three days making it most uncomfortable for the person we were staying with. Then my wife gave me advice: "pretend you're a tourist and not an Australian."

I had traveled enough professionally to make that adjustment. But what were those old annoyances? With benefit of 20/20 hindsight they were really things that weren't the same as "home" and "home" for us is Toronto. And they weren't major annoyances. The subway from Town Hall to Kings Cross didn't exist when I was growing up in Kings Cross, so how did it get so dirty in such a short time?

The wonderful public sweep of Martin Place has been ruined in the name of progress and profit. Why are there so few ferries working the Harbor? We waited seemingly forever to go from Circular Quay to Neutral Bay. The stupidity of the school bus system. The lack of working pay phones. Come to that, the lack of working home phones. In Toronto we were able to select the final four digits of our phone number. We have seven phone outlets in our city townhouse. We get a detailed bill every month. We have a separate service provider for long distance calls. And yet another service provider for our cellular phones. It's called competition. Although we had no call for using it, we heard horror stories about the banking system. We did use our Canadian debit card in an Australian ATM - twice - without problem to get cash.

One Sunday, after we had visited family in Blaxland, we drove further up the Blue Mountains and opted to have afternoon tea at the Majestic in Wentforth Falls. Instead of turning the room with a view into a major part of the hotel and making it THE place for afternoon tea, everyone lines up. Places their order. Pays their money, and it's not cheap. Takes their tray and tries to find a table to sit at. Once you've cleared a table from the previous occupants, you don't care if there's a view. We just wanted to get out of there. There was no sense of service.

In Melbourne we wanted to get some maps, so we visited an RACV store. After showing our Canadian Automobile Club cards, we were given a large collection of maps and directories. Only one involved a cost. And they were so helpful and friendly. We checked our airline tickets - an internal trip and back to Toronto - at the local branch of Canadian Airlines. They were terrific and we left feeling confident everything was in order, and it was. Qantas Airlines from Hawaii to Sydney were, for the most part, OK. It's a long overnight flight (10-hours) and the cabin crew were helpful during the boarding, but then the service seemed to drift off. Qantas from Sydney to Melbourne was an interesting experience with the boarding agent doing his best to be like the soup nazi from Seinfeld.

At the end of three weeks, I had to ask myself: would I go back to Australia? And as I write this now there is several inches of snow outside and a temperature, with windchill, nudging minus 30-degrees Celsius. The answer is probably not. Not for a few years at least. Yes, we're close to retirement and my wife and I are giving very serious consideration to retiring to south-west Scotland.

Why don't I want to return to Australia? Maybe it's because all the old ghosts are still there. Professionally I've done very well, so I have no qualms about that. This local kid did make good. Is it the distance Australia is from the rest of the world? The feeling of isolation. Bushfires worried us. We saw several examples up-close during our three weeks. And we heard many horror stories and my 90-year-old aunt has lived in the Blue Mountains since the early 1950's and she takes every precaution. But as young reporter in Australia I covered enough bushfires to know they are dangerous, wild affairs. I don't want to be near them.

The cost of living scares us. And what is this desire to auction property? I could get no sense of the price of homes in many areas as I poured over real estate supplements and brochures. Everything seemed to be up for auction. How does anyone buy a home under those conditions? Like England, all the nutritionally good food is expensive (eggs, butter, cheese) while food groups that can make you fat and take out your teeth (flour and sugar) cost only pennies. Talking of food, the cost of eating out in Australia we found very, very expensive. Even a simple bacon and egg breakfast for two at a greasy spoon in a shopping mall cost nearly $30. And a dinner for six at very modest cafe (not even a restaurant) with one glass of wine, cost nearly $200!

The problems I had trying to get a cup of simple drip coffee will haunt me for a long time. And decaf seems to be a rude word. The wine is wonderful. And we drink it by the case in Toronto. We had a wonderful afternoon touring the wineries of the Mornington area. It was a deserted, sandscape when I reported on Harold Holt disappearing into the sea. The new motorways are wonderful. The drive down the NSW coast was, for the most part, very easy. The twisting parts are gradually being straightened out and not before time, either. The drive from Gosford to Blaxland seemed to take only a few minutes.

Public transport anywhere is not perfect, but I wish the single decker buses didn't have seats so low you cannot even look out the windows. I've been able to work out how to buy a machine ticket on the Tokyo subway system to get me from downtown to Yokohama. But trying to get a ticket from Martin Place to Kings Cross defeated me and we had to buy them from a ticket seller. And the monorail system could do with a good clean -inside and out. There is much that I still liked about Australia, but warm weather and a strong surf doesn't pay the bills. The quality of television programming was, for the most part, excellent. But why doesn't Brian Henderson retire? I worked with Henders when he was 27 and hosting Bandstand. Now he anchors the Channel 9 news in Sydney, although you wouldn't know its Brian since he doesn't introduce himself and the 1950's opening animation that TCN uses doesn't name him either. I heard John Laws, Lawsie, on the radio. I spent many a long ago afternoon in his 2GB studio in Sydney.

My wife and I are agreed that we wouldn't live in Sydney. It's just far too expensive for what's on offer. Rural Victoria had a lot of attractions, except for the bushfires. The road system is now good enough that places we once knew to be a solid half day's drive away, are now only a couple of hours.

I guess what it comes down to is what we are familiar with. We know, understand, respect and want a North American style of living. And it's too different from an Australian style of living. We know the UK system, because we lived there for several years, and its a half-way house between the North American and Australian style. So, who knows, maybe after a few years in Scotland, we just might want to return to Australia.

Louis Cooper