The story so far

Monday, 25 January 2010

Independence by the skin of our teeth

We are here to stay (for now.) Having been reliant on friends and family now for too long for our own sanity, let alone theirs, we are now independent again.  Hannah and I live together with our two girls in a two bedroom apartment in Killarney Heights and I can just afford to fund it and sustain us from the salary I will earn from February.  Zoe will start school on Thursday and we are looking for a place in nursery for Esme.  Hannah remains optimistic of the Australian system accepting her qualification bolstered by numerous further university qualification before the turn of the decade.

This is a time for questions though.  Did we do the right thing?  For me it is too late to ask that question for practical reasons, but interesting none the less for its academic value.

We have spent half our life savings, I now earn only three quarters what I did in the UK, Hannah is not qualified to work here and the rent for our two bedroom apartment is more than our large four bedroom house in England.  I think we will get through it, Hannah will get a job eventually and we will be comfortable again, but I can't help thinking we have set ourself back about five to ten years in terms of standard of living.

My view of this is that it is good for the sole to struggle as long as you believe you can overcome that struggle.   That I believe.  If you do not get to go out for dinner three times a week and buy whatever consumer electronic gadget (or pair of shoes, dress, handbag etc) you fancy that week, you appreciate it more when you do.

We went out for dinner as a family for the first time in ages on Friday night to a local Pizza restaurant and sat outside next to the small public park and watched all the kids from the local community playing with our two on the swings and slide.  We had one family size pizza between the four of us and two bottles of wine.  We only spend about thirty quid but I remember it being one of the best meals I have had in ages just because I appreciated it so much.  That is apart from the bust-up Hannah and I had before the food arrived which saw Hannah march off on a matter of principal until her keen smell brought her back to freshly baked pizza.

Our new situation does create tensions.  Hannah (The Cicada butcher of Coulandra) and I are not used to struggling financially or not having enough space to get away from each other and the kids.  Equally, starting work in a new environment means we need to prove ourselves again and for that, we have both lost some of the reputation value we had developed from our hard work in roles in England.  We have not lost our natural resources and abilities though and this will prevail.

For Hannah, it is particularly difficult.  She has numerous qualifications, is well respected in the education community in the UK and has been told she is not well enough qualified to teach high school science in Australia.  Not only has she been teaching it in the UK for ten years, she also has a degree in Biology and A-levels in Chemistry and Physics, which are more advanced than the Australian high school qualification.  My understanding is that Australia are currently trying to tighten standards in education, but they also have a shortage of good teachers.  Their education system is over-bureaucratic and fragmented such that there are several bodies who assess qualifications.  For example, the body who said we could come to Australia because they needed teachers, obviously hadn't talked to the one which says she is not up to scratch.  It is frustrating that they don't recognise that Hannah's level of education is higher than that taught in high schools and that excelling in your subject does not make you a good teacher?

Australia, although a great place, seems to be way behind the curve compared to Europe its development as a society.  I'm not sure why, maybe it is its size, maybe it is its age as a modern country.  Some of the side effects are bad but some are good.

It's bad that they seem to be currently over regulating teaching, probably as a backlash to more lax attitudes of the past.  It needs to find an equilibrium and we came at the wrong time for that.  It's also bad that we have been recently ripped off by a large retailer, similar to Marks and Spencer or John Lewis who sold us a washing machine, delivered us a $50 cheaper model and then told us that was the one we had ordered.  The manager had even told the sales assistant to lie to us on the phone because she told us it was a mistake and she had the paperwork to prove it and then suddenly changed her story.

I'm sure this kind of thing used to happen in the eighties in the UK, but there is no way that it could happen today.  Hannah went to the store to check and they had raised all the prices by $200!

On the plus side, the retail sector in Australia reminds me a bit of the wild west - I'm not sure if that analogy will work for anyone else, but I know what I mean.  On TV, they have much more local advertising than in the UK and clearly they can't get the budget to employ advertising companies, so they often get the employees of a store to sing and dance and make complete idiots out of themselves on live TV.  My favourites are the adverts where they have the balding company owner, dressed in his own choice of beige trousers and navy blue round-neck sweater, talking pseudo-sincerely about his company and the sale they currently have on.  It's so cheesy its great to watch and could only be compared with local radio advertising in the UK.

In the shop, there is much more haggling which means you can get a good price and much less controls in place on the sales staff.  I can imagine being a retail manager in Australia could be a stressful job as the sales staff seem to be able to sell whatever hey want at whatever price they want.  On one occasion, I almost got a very expensive TV instead of the cheap model I wanted for the same price because the sales person was able to make a mistake on the part number and correct the price manually.  For me, the good news is that as a first impression the IT industry in Australia clearly has plenty of work to do.

For me, it is a nice environment, there is more freedom to get a good deal, you have to be canny which I have learned and you can't assume that a major national retailer will not behave in anything less than an honourable fashion.  Every situation is different, you never know what you will achieve going into a shop and that just makes it interesting

Another good aspect of Australia's lag is that it feels safer here, on the surface at least.  Kids are allowed to walk to school alone more and there appears to be less violence.  The sceptical side of me says that paedophiles will be paedophiles wherever they live and if there are less here, it's more likely that Australia isn't very good at catching and exposing them compared to the UK.  I will still walk my kids to school but I am happy that people are more relaxed and prepared to look out for your kids as well as theirs when they are out and about.

So yes.  We were mad to come.  I'm not happy that we cannot assume we will be able to save enough money to return to the UK for Christmas in two years.  I don't like the way they are treating Hannah as a second class teacher when I know she is better and more experienced than most Australian teachers.  I don't like the fact that I might struggle to get to work because we can only afford one car.  But what is my conclusion?

Part of me is angry, I am annoyed that we threw away an affluent lifestyle and a lot of the proceeds we had made from owning a house in the UK to fund our set-up in Australia.  However, since you only live once and I enjoyed the struggle to get where we were in the UK, I will enjoy doing it all again and all the new experiences and friendships it will bring and has already brought.

I have no choice but I welcome the challenge.  Hannah is starting to step up to the challenge as well, her attitude visibly changing from angry, to despairing to proactively optimistic.  I think she has the biggest challenge, but I think she will rise to it.

This is good to see because the whole family is relying on her.  We know that when she gets a job and Esme goes to school our disposable income will rise from nothing to something much lower than we are used to but still something.  This will allow us to do things like save for a second car, travel to the UK and live in a bigger house.  We also should remember that we are living near the beaches, near the jobs, near galleries, museums and theatres of Sydney.  If we wanted to do this in the UK, we'd need a house in London and a second in Devon and we certainly couldn't afford that.


  1. Deb & her boys28 January 2010 at 15:58

    Nick, Hannah, I'm sure you will succeed and overcome these new challenges. It's not easy to settle in another country. I had the same feeling when we settled in Switzerland three years ago and struggled at the end of each month to pay bills and all. But then you start learning the tricks from local people on how to handle your budget and also you find out that the higher quality of life is worth the income difference. Love, Deb

  2. Thanks Deb, I'm sure you are right and its good to hear from someone else who's done it that it can be worthwhile.

  3. Hang in there Nick. I'm sure it'll work out for you all. Best wishes from us. PS Tanya and I are getting married on 9 August, but I doubt you'll be able to make it...Sadly!

  4. Nick, in years to come you will not be found tormenting yourself with unanswerable 'what if...' questions.

    I hold it true, whate'er befall;
    I feel it, when I sorrow most;
    'Tis better to have emigrated and lost
    Than never to have emigrated at all.
    -- Tenyson--

    Good luck