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The Handshake

The Handshake

Those poignant moments of real human connection are the ones that never leave you, but are also the ones that you never see coming.

In 2003, I was part of team of people working to write a management plan for an Aboriginal art site in far western NSW. It was a beautiful place, nestled along a dry creek bed; the rock art timeless in its depiction of ancient cultural stories. As is normal with such projects, it was essential that whilst we were on site, we were accompanied by Aboriginal elders.

The next day I found myself driving to the site with an old Aboriginal man as my passenger. I wondered what on earth I was going to talk to him about as we were worlds apart. There I was, a young non-indigenous woman from the city, him, an old Aboriginal man from the country.

We drove in silence.
I wasn’t frightened by the silence, but it made me think about other times I’d been ‘out bush’ with my family on 4WD holidays.

I started to talk about my love of the bush and camping in the middle of nowhere. We passed a dead roo by the side of the road, the smell hitting our nostrils, making me screw up my face and smile. I made a comment about the dangers of roos by the road at sunset, when he began to recount an amazing story about having to drive along a country road at night without working headlights. The lights had died on route and the only way he could see well to drive was to stick closely behind the well-lit road-trains (large trucks) which frequent country Australia. But, this didn’t work for long.

The road-train must have hit a kangaroo

because suddenly a dead kangaroo came flying out from under the truck and landed on his car! We talked about kangaroos, camping trips, camp fires, watching the sun go down over the desert, and about his life as a feral goat catcher. 

Arriving at the art site, I got on with work and he sat in the shade. We occasionally acknowledged each other throughout the day and again shared silence over lunch. At the end of the day I put out my hand to shake his and said, ‘thank you’.

He took my hand, said nothing, and shook it in the usual manner, but as I went to release my grip, he wouldn’t let go. He continued to hold my hand firmly for what felt like ages, placing his other hand on top of our hands.

Finally he looked up and smiled at me.

‘Thanks love’.
Two simple words, but it was a special moment that confirmed we’d had a good day together.

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Cultural Assumptions

Cultural Assumptions

It’s funny how cultural cliches work.

People often think that if I’m Australian, I must love the rugby and the cricket. I don’t. Their jovial attempts to rub in Australia’s loss to England’s cricket or rugby team tend to collapse when I tell them that I don’t follow the sport. I’m not sure they quite believe me, but it always raises a laugh.

This banter has always existed between Aussies and the Brits, but what has taken me by surprise has been me not seeing the boundaries and assumptions of my culture. I guess all of us look at the world through our own lense, but the moments you realise, are good opportunities for reflection.

When I first arrived here I was lucky enough to get a job with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. I had no idea just how highly esteemed they are. I often wonder if not growing up with the cultural and social context of the RNLI meant that to me it was ‘just a job’ and so I relaxed in my interview, unaware of my wife’s huge excitement at me potentially working for the Lifeboats!

But I digress….

In my time at the lifeboats, I took part in a lifeguard day, great for team morale and a fun day out.
It was a good day for many reasons, but three things have stayed with me.

# 1 – It was the first time I’d ever worn a wetsuit
Given that Australia is an island nation with great beaches and waterways, just like the UK, my friends and colleagues were surprised that I’d never worn one. But then I realised that I’d never needed to. I only ever went swimming when it was warm…….which is kind of most of the time! The idea of swimming and a sandy beach seemed to constitute hot weather in my head, but I have since learnt differently, and I love seeing the wetsuited kitesurfers and windsurfers near home enjoying the water in all kinds of weather.

I’ve since taken up snorkelling too. For roughly 30 years I lived in one of the hottest countries on earth with a massive coastline, but it took me to come to England to take up snorkelling. Weird huh? It was so cold that I came out with very dead looking white big toe.

#2 – I didn’t know I’d been afraid of sharks my whole life
The oddest thing happened. As I ventured into the surf, I felt a strange sensation in my body. It was almost as though something was physically draining from me. I realised that I was relaxing in a way that I never had and it was because I knew for the first time ever, that there was nothing in the water that could eat me. Now, shark attacks in Australia are fairly rare, but having watched jaws as a child which led to a recurring dream of my bloody body washing ashore, the idea of swimming anywhere but in a swimming pool was clearly frought with danger. I’m not sure I ever really realised how ingrained in me this was. It was just second nature to be aware of sharks in the same way that you shake your boots out for spiders before putting them on. I just hadn’t comprehended how much of an impact it had on me.

#3 – Being a lifeguard is bloomin hard!
This was such an eye-opener. I’d been going to the gym and thought I was fairly fit, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was all I could do to swim out to the buoy and back with my flotation device, let alone think about actually rescuing someone. I came away with huge respect for the RNLI’s lifeguards. Their fitness, strength and endurance is second to none and I felt privileged to witness it.

I sit here writing as Storm Emma, aka the ‘Beast from the East’ is bringing us snow. We very rarely get snow where we live, so it’s a real joy to watch it coming down. If I ever had to write a section of the FAQs I’ve been asked in my time here, one of the top ones would be ‘does Australia get snow?’

And in case you’re wondering…….

Yes it does and we have ski fields too.

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Facebook Live – with Naomi Hattaway

Facebook Live – with Naomi Hattaway

A few days ago, I was interviewed by Naomi Hattaway, founder of I am a Triangle.

I am a Triangle is an incredible community for people who have lived or are living overseas. It was my life saver – the support is unparalleled and there is a real sense of a ‘coming home’ with so many folk there who understand the quirks of a life overseas.

With the release of our book ‘Living Elsewhere’, Naomi and I chatted about the book. Naomi has become a good friend in recent years and it was a great pleasure to chat with her. Despite the ‘technical difficulties’ of me not being able to hear or see anyone, I hope you enjoy it. It’s certainly very weird talking to yourself, but definitely a hoot!

Any questions? Please post them for me in the comments below.


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Venturing Across Oceans

Venturing Across Oceans

Drawn to a story arose from me venturing across an ocean, well, a few actually.
It was an adventure with expectations of wonder and a feeling that I was really grabbing at life. Moving from Australia to southern England seemed familiar in that I knew England well, having visited several times before, but I also felt a sense of something new and unknown, just as Jean Batten describes beautifully:

“Every flier who ventures across oceans to distant lands is a potential explorer; in his or her breast burns the same fire that urged adventures of old to set forth in their sailing ships for foreign lands.”

– Jean Batten 1979 ‘Alone in the Sky’

The opportunities and experiences of different cultures, of meeting new people, of trying new foods, watching different TV programs, learning new social ‘rules’ and local traditions, is incredibly enriching and enjoyable. However, it is also a particularly strange experience. You naturally evolve. It’s a constant change, so subtle that you’re almost not aware of it – you use a different word here and there or the foods you start to hanker after shift slightly. And then you go home for a visit and you realise that you don’t quite fit there anymore….and you start to question.

Who am I? Where do I fit?  What does it mean to be Australian? What does it mean to be British? or English? Complex thoughts and feelings running through me in ways I couldn’t verbalise. At the same time I was very grateful for the conflicting thoughts as it’s through this discomfort that the best thing comes…….personal growth.

I always been fascinated by stories and people and how people make meaning, how they cope with difficult experiences. As a young adult I thought I wanted to be a historian, but I realised it wasn’t so much what happened that interested me, but why and how people coped…and so then I found myself in the hot seat…away from ‘home’ wondering how to cope with challenging thoughts and feelings around identity, culture and belonging. And it is here that this story begins…… picking up a pencil, and over the course of a year, creating a set of drawings that utlimately became a book about life ‘elsewhere’.

But it’s not just about me. It’s about all of us who live elsewhere, all of us who love it, but also who are equally challenged by it. I am excited about having created Drawn to a Story to explore all our stories – to inspire, to support and to break down walls of ‘the other’, whomever that may be. After all our similarities are more than our differences.

Next time you meet a stranger, why not start up a conversation and find out their story?

You might find that it’s not too different to your own.