At age twelve I designed my dream house for a school project. There was a large pool in the backyard, the house had three levels, the top level was home to a family playroom with a window overlooking the yard, and from this window a waterslide snaked down to the pool. The house hugged the slide proudly in a crescent shape. I got full marks for design and some extra for the heart.

But the real world goes like this: I sit down on the plastic chair in the blank white conference room, next to the very friendly lady. “What do you do?”—she asks. “I’m a mathematician.” “Ew”—she wrinkles her nose—“worst subject ever!” This does not bode well.

She then asks me about all kinds of numbers: salaries, rent, child care, bills. She types them into her laptop, which churns out a new number: “This is how much we can lend you”. The number is astronomical, but it does not come near the median house price in our neighbourhood. “Then you’ll need this much for a down payment”—she says. This number is about double our life savings.

“I can’t even stress about it”— a fellow mathematician tells me. “Those numbers are too large for me to grasp”. “You’ll see more zeroes than you ever thought possible, disappearing into this hole”—shares another. He recommends breathing deeply into a paper bag.

On the weekend we go out and eat avocado toast instead.

I live in Sydney by accident. I stepped on the slippery slope four years ago, when I applied for 64 post-doctoral positions on three continents, and won exactly one: a two-year fellowship in Canberra. It may as well be on Jupiter, I thought, but I can live anywhere for two years. As my boyfriend and I collected our luggage after the 35-hour flight, I didn’t yet know that Australia would be the fertile ground for every dream I had ever dreamed. Except for the one in which we settle in Toronto.

In two months’ time Pink and I were married, and two weeks after that we conceived our son. Pixie still had birth muck behind his ear when friends told me of a permanent job opening in Sydney. I groaned at the idea, but academics survive by not wasting any chances. Leave it to a ten-week-old to make a job interview feel like a day at the spa: talking with grownups, sitting down to eat with a fork. “You just won somebody’s dream job”—said a friend.

Rent in Sydney is a high premium to pay in order to live in somebody’s dream city. The sun hurts my skin, the sand is annoying, the ocean is blue but so are the Great Lakes. Christmas is at the height of summer. The nearest part of our family is 24 hours and thousands of dollars away. I cried a lot when we first arrived.

Then we began, dutifully, to explore. Weekend brunches became my weakness. We found the custard tarts, then the good baguettes. But it was the scent of Sydney mornings that won me over: rain on eucalyptus with a hint of salt. It started early in October, after balmy nights replaced the slight chill of Sydney’s not-really-winter. When the Jacarandas opened their purple blooms – almost as sweet as cherry blossoms – I breathed in and thought, one day, this could be my home.

I’ve been missing Canada badly. It must be that – after six glorious months – the good baguette bakery has gone out of business, and living on custard tarts alone is not healthy. The hot, humid Sydney summer has worn me down and I miss Toronto’s seasons—even though I disliked all but the week of spring and the month of fall. I miss Christmas in the winter. I miss spruce.

I love how much my world has opened up since I left my hometown. I have seen beautiful places, I have been exposed to different cultures and I have learned a lot, thought a lot, about my place in humanity. But I hate being a Hungarian immigrant homesick for Canada living in Australia. I hate that so much. I want so badly to be at home. To belong.

I had a very sheltered childhood. My parents, incurable perfectionists, were going to raise me… perfectly. Parenting advice at the time emphasised stability in the early years. When I was a few months old, my parents were scared to move my cot from one side of the room to the other, lest they disturb my sense of security. I spent the first twenty-one years of my life sleeping on the same side of the same room; in the same house where my mother had lived since she was two years old. I attended the same school with the same thirty kids and the same teachers from age ten to eighteen. Most of us went on to universities nearby and remained close friends.

At a conference a few weeks ago, I complained about feeling uprooted to a guy at dinner. He looked at me, baffled, and asked “You belong with your family, don’t you?”. This is true: I am at home in our house with Pink and Pixie. But growing up I had a community: parents, siblings, grandparents, lifelong friends. I need that, and it’s hard to recreate; at best it takes a long time. I need to belong to a society. Growing up, I belonged to Hungary, but I no longer do. Later on, I belonged to Canada, but when I say this people look at me funny. Maybe one day I will belong to Australia. Maybe I hope so. Most of all, I want Pixie to belong: if we stay here, my childhood home, and Pink’s, will be heritage to him at most. I want Pixie to have a home.

Maybe we’ll move to Canada one day, but I can’t live the rest of my life waiting for that miracle to happen. I have to get attached to Sydney. We need to take on the exorbitant mortgage, cross our fingers that nothing bad happens to us while we have a second mortgage’s worth of chid care costs, we need to buy a place we won’t get kicked out of and make it home.

Learn to surf.

And enjoy the magnificent avocado toasts.

  4 comments for “Sydney

  1. Matilde L.
    February 5, 2018 at 3:06 am

    What a nicely written post! I went through a similar story. Disclaimer: I ended up in a city where it’s reasonable to buy a house, and therefore, I don’t share the same feelings in that aspect. But I totally understand those feelings, having been born and raised in the same house that I only left when I left my home country to do graduate school in the US (my parents allowed me change the room configuration at 14, so there is also that!)

    I’ve been living in someone else’s dream city for 7 years now while my dream city is 5 hours away by plane… I do call my current city home, but it took a while, it had to earn it! One thing that I learned to appreciate about my home city is that it’s very nice for raising a family. I don’t know if my dream city is as good, my experience there reduces to being alone as a postdoc, which is very different life. The final act that made me realize that home city was home was when my husband got a tenure track position in our home city in a university other than mine (thus solving our two-body-problem). It was as if the city was doing everything possible to win our hearts.

    I still get butterflies in my stomach when I visit dream city though. I will always do.

    • MC&C
      February 5, 2018 at 9:20 am

      Ok now I’m curious, what is your dream city? I think I’d be quite happy where you live too, I’d just complain bitterly from March to early May;). And same here about jobs, although it’s not two tenure tracks but Syndey is doing its best to get us to stay…

    • Matilde L.
      February 5, 2018 at 9:35 am

      My dream city is Vancouver!

      When we moved to home city we had a tenure-track position and a postdoc. Two years after we had a tenured and a tenure track positions! Crossing my fingers that things progress in the right direction job-wise for you guys!

    • MC&C
      February 5, 2018 at 10:49 am

      Oh, you’re in good company! (Amongst the many people whose dream city is Vancouver:)…)
      Thank you!

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