Coming to Australia was, at most, a dream: one of my first dreams as a young girl, when I was trying to resist the communist regime. We were not allowed to speak, so having these dreams was a rebellious way of saying ‘I detest communism’. I imagined that one day I would defect. I would run away from that life of ration cards, of soap and deodorant purchased on the black market, of restricted news. A life cooped up in the cage of the Communist Party.
I came up with two options: Canada and Australia. Australia was my favourite option because I wanted to go as far away as possible. As a girl I had heard a lot about ships coming from Australia to our Black Sea ports. Early on I became committed to English classes at school, both because of a natural talent for foreign languages and because my instinct was telling me that one day I would need English.
But how was I going to travel to the Black Sea? How could I find an Australian ship to hide on? How much food and water would I need to survive hidden for a few days? How far would the ship need to go before I came out of my hiding place without risking being sent back?
Then life started to take my dreams apart.
I got married and had my daughter in 1989, in the same month and year as the revolution came to Romania, and Ceausescu was executed. My dream was not a fight-for-my-life necessity anymore. My father had real hopes for Romania to return to the rich society that it once had been between the two wars. It did not happen — not then and not ever since — and he died before any remote glimpse of past times returning.
Then, my son and my divorce came very close to each other, and I found myself a single mother of two in a patriarchal society. My drive and intellect were an impediment. This is how I spent the next twelve years, not hating the Communists anymore but hating the inherited mentality.
My life in Romania was lived with a sense of unrest. But even when, at long last, my dream did come true, I was not prepared for the challenge it turned out to be.
I met my friend on an online chat forum. As if ET was ready to come home, it was my first contact with an alien: an Australian. My exotic online friend who was to become my husband.
Less than two years later, I landed in Australia. It had only taken me twenty-eight years.
I came — or in fact we came — to Australia, ready to take the world by its enigmatic horns. I was positively happy to be with my man and ready to show my children what opportunity means.
One month into the adventure, they hated me and hated Australia.
It was July, rainy, cold and windy, after coming from a summer in Bucharest where we’d spent the last week before departure by the pool. The Australian rented weatherboard house was chilly and half empty. There were no carpets, and the second-hand mismatched furniture smelled of the sweat and unwashed feet of previous owners. We called it ‘the shack’ and we meant it.
On a weekly basis my children and I would ‘accidentally’ find ourselves together on the living room sofa, where we would talk about memories of friends and family. Talk and cry until early mornings.
In time, the weekly crying meetings became monthly, then even less frequent. From the beginning, though, I was afraid to ask them if they were happy. I knew this wasn’t home, and I did not want to hear their answer.
The months went by and it was not easy to see the looks of disappointment on my children’s faces. My heart went out to them. I was feeling the same, but I could not let them see that. I had to be strong, for their sake. I started to grow knots in my soul. I was afraid for my children, that if they didn’t like the new country and their school, they would rebel and start using drugs. The result of living with this constant panic was that my children distanced themselves from me.
They were children, just children, who were supposed to feel secure and have simple, happy lives. But it seems they had to grow up before even having the chance to be children. At least we were going through it together.
As it turned out, my children are as free-spirited as I am. They have a low tolerance for ignorance, stupidity, unfairness, injustice, bribery and communist mentality. After their first visit back to Romania, they stopped hating me for bringing them to a new continent. They went through a rainbow of sensations and emotions learning about their new country and new life. I believe they each found their own way to enjoy the new opportunities and started to build their own nest to call home.
Nowadays, we do sometimes sit and talk for hours, but there are no more tears.
So, how was our life?
Well, one morning, in the first month we were in Perth, my son came to breakfast with a face clipped by awkwardness. Hesitantly, he asked, ‘Are there monkeys in Australia?’
We laughed at him, thinking he may have been dreaming, but he was convinced that every morning he could hear a monkey under his window. We continued to laugh, but my husband had the answer.
And so it was that, with good humour, we met the kookaburra, which we all still jokingly call ‘the Australian monkey’.
Then there was the time we ran out of milk. It was late in the evening, and we needed milk for breakfast.
My husband, happy to oblige, told me, ‘There is a deli down the road. We can go there.’ I was interested to know where this place was so I would know where I could walk to next time. In Romania, ‘down the road’ means what it says: literally, down the road. You walk for five or ten minutes to the closest intersection, and there you are: down the road.
Well, we got in the car to go to this deli, and we drove into a beautiful Australian night — one of those evenings when you want to drive into the sunset with opened windows surrounded by the smell of wet leaves. The aromas of the Australian plants overpowered the night air. No matter how enjoyable, fifteen minutes later we were still driving. Did we take the scenic route? Was my husband planning a romantic drive? On the dark and empty streets, another five minutes passed before I looked at my husband and enquired, ‘Where is this place? I thought you said it was just down the road?’
‘Oh, it is,’ he said, and drove for a few more minutes. Finally, he parked in front of a lit-up deli, where the shop assistant was watching an empty store and three deserted fuel pumps.
My husband excitedly said, ‘Well, this is it.’
‘This is down the road to you? Down the road was ten streets back. Down the road was five lights back. This not flaming down the road!’
We went in and got the milk, and I sulked all the way back. All of a sudden, the Australian night was not so lyrical.
And so, with irritation, I met the deli-down-the-road.
We argued about ‘down the road’ endlessly. Or, better to say, I argued. I was in a foreign country, and already in my first month I was fighting against it, as if I had never left home. I had no idea what was happening. If I could not even understand my husband, how was I supposed to shield my children from all the bad things in the world?
Suffice to say, I learned not to ask ‘how far’ it was to some place or another, but rather ‘how long does it take’. If I heard ‘down the road’ again, I would go ballistic. Do I need to mention that I never had the chance to take an easy walk down the road to that deli?
Or, how about the time — also in my first few months in Perth — when my husband offered to take me to a shopping centre.
‘ What shopping centre?’ I asked excitedly.
'It’s something like the malls in Bucharest. Maybe a bit smaller, but still, lots of shops, supermarkets and eating places.’
In Romania, every time we go out of the house — to the shops, the doctor, for a coffee, to a pub, even to visit friends — we dress up. We wear our good-going-out clothes and shoes. So, on the day of the visit to the shopping centre, I got ready. I showered, put make-up on and got dressed in a tailor-made woollen skirt, hand-knitted jumper, and handmade high leather boots. I remember them, even now, a beautiful dark blue colour. I also remember something else: it was the last time I wore those boots. I insisted on my husband changing his Perth Glory soccer t-shirt for a proper shirt and knitted jumper. I was a very good wife, but if Australian life had been a school subject, I would have failed miserably.
We arrived at Belmont Forum. Me: impressed by the immense car park and the huge building with its unknown number of entries and exits. My husband: happy about my delighted face. We entered the Forum, hand in hand. Fifteen steps into the building I stopped in the middle of a round hall, surrounded by the smell of freshly made coffee. My mouth was agape. And not because of the coffee. As I stood there, embarrassment rose into my face. In my fancy winter clothes, I looked like an idiot and felt like an idiot. I was also sweating like an idiot.
People were walking up and down, going about their business and totally at ease, dressed in shorts, t-shirts, jogging trousers or summer dresses. And on their feet … wait, wait, this was what surprised me most … Ugg boots or thongs, flip-flops. Shorts with Ugg boots, shorts with thongs; dresses with Ugg boots, dresses with thongs; jeans with Ugg boots, jeans with thongs. Occasionally there was a light jacket or flimsy jumper and a scarf around a neck. At first, I thought this place was unique, but over the years I learned this was actually a popular Australian costume.
And so, with shame, I met the thongs and Ugg boots.
I hated thongs and Ugg boots for a long time, turned my nose up and avoided them like cholera. It took me years to reconcile myself to the feeling of inappropriateness, bad taste, and fashion faux pas. I hated that in Australia you needed to put a notice at the door of the pub asking for proper attire and stating that no thongs were allowed. I was critical about it, but I was the new kid on the block, and I was not here to change anything. I just had to accept that thongs and Uggs would be part of my life whether I liked it or not.
Now I go shopping in shorts and Ugg boots or thongs.
I went back to Romania; it was seven years after I moved to Perth. I had to go to the store to get some missing ingredients for a dish I was cooking. I went to the supermarket down the road — which really was a five-minute walk — in shorts, a t-shirt, and thongs. My cousin frowned. ‘Are you going out like this?’
Me, being innocent and not giving a rat’s behind, replied, ‘Yeah. Who the hell knows me here?’
Well, as I was about to find out, that was exactly the point. They did not know me, and me showing up at the store dressed like a beggar made the guard take a cautious step and place himself in front of the entrance, as if trying to stop me from getting in.
I frowned my malicious frown with my left eyebrow lifted high and my lips shut tight. Something in my eyes must have deterred him because he backed up and let me go through.
In my home country I felt purged and rejected, and in Australia I was unadapted. I wondered so many times, what I have done to our lives? If our move to Australia was not going to work, I would have destroyed my children’s lives so very easily. A fear of uncertainty and disconnection dominated my life for many years. I was a guest in both countries.
Then, how about the time when I experienced my first Australian summer?
Well, it was January. I was working from home while our three children were at school and my husband was at work. I did not have a car, so I decided to walk to the shopping centre — a good one hour walk there and back, I estimated. Just perfect to stretch my legs.
It was a gorgeous day, with a cloudless blue sky which almost seemed surreal. No change of nuances of blue and no spot of clouds. I was ready to go out at about eleven.
I started my walk and, thirty minutes later, when I realised I was lost, my blue morning walk turned into a nightmare. I could not find any familiar buildings, and the streets all looked the same. I tried to find my way back and changed direction a few times, only to end up in an industrial area. The heat was above my head and all around me. I was thirsty and felt the sun burning my face and arms. My feet were heavier with every step. I knocked at doors which remained closed. I started to panic, overwhelmed by a feeling of sheer loneliness. One cannot understand loneliness unless they walk for hours in the midday sun on streets that seemed unlived in. When I finally saw somebody, I wondered if she was a ghost coming out from the waves of heat floating on the street. She was real and she told me the right way. It came as no surprise to hear it was in the opposite direction.
I dragged myself back to the house where I arrived after three hours in the sun without a hat or sunscreen, exhausted and dehydrated. I sprawled on the sofa, with heatstroke finally taking ownership of my mind, after crashing my body. My mind could barely process what had just happened and my eyes blindly stared at the curtains which I dutifully pulled over the windows. I just wanted to stay away, shaded, hidden, and protected from the nasty sun.
Of course, I’d been in the sun before, I’d been sunburnt, I’d even had bad heatstroke in my life before. But this… this was an Australian experience. This time my encounter did not anger me, but instead it frightened me, and something else, humiliated me.
My people had sandwiches for dinner, and I spent the night awake and filled with doubts. Australia was another planet. I was not home and maybe I did not belong here.
And so, with humility, I met the Australian summer.
In my second year in Australia, I got a job outside the house. I worked in a medical clinic and every lunchtime we would lock the front door and sit in the reception to have lunch together. For months, I listened to them talking and tried to participate in the conversations. I was only guessing the meaning of their words. I could not understand the slang, and I could not separate the words which seemed stuck together, some of them five in a row.
Feeling as if I was underwater, I experienced a complete deafness to the meaning of the words. I sometimes cut off completely. I only pretended to listen until I shut down and out. It was exhausting to pretend that I understood what they were saying, and only rarely did I risk answering back. I was always missing the point and making a fool of myself. It took me a while to admit I was struggling and let them know they needed to speak slowly for me. They had a good laugh and finally understood my weird behaviour.
And so, with anxiety, I feared the Australian slang.
When my son first called me ‘mate’ I felt insulted. ‘I am not your mate!’ In Romanian there is no such word between men and women, let alone between mothers and sons. There are pals, friends, colleagues, drinking buddies, but not mates. But it took me a few years to get it.
I could not finish without mentioning the ‘How are you today?’ When I was first asked this question by a shop assistant, I thought she must know me from somewhere, then I thought she was nosy. The girl, in her Aussie laid-back way, was just greeting me politely, even though I did not think she expected an answer. She hadn’t made eye contact, which was for the best as she could not see the puzzlement on my face.
I was so worried about all the misunderstandings, so anxious about all the things I could not get used to. I could only see this ‘How are you today?’ as an empty platitude. Why would somebody bother asking me how I was if they were not even looking at me?
It took me long years to embrace the question and to reply, ‘I am good, thank you’. Even more years to ask, ‘And how are you?’
Ten years of my life I lived as if I was in a slow-motion movie, placing one foot in front of the other cautiously, allowing all my dreams and plans to become hazy. Before I could think about my prospects here — building a life, building a house — before anything else, I had to learn to live the Australian way. First, I had to deal with anger, fear, shame, bewilderment, uprooting. I was new and an immigrant, exiled from my family and friends, from my customs and food. As the years went by, I felt like a moth trapped by the light. There was no way back, and it seemed the way ahead was harder than I had thought.
Oh, I don’t know why I am writing about all these things. Australia has more immigrants than Australians, so to speak. There are so many people who have had their thong moments, listened to a laughing kookaburra, or fought the heat of a day. But here I am, fifteen years later, and Australia still amazes me. Every day I still learn something new, every day I still see something new. Over the past year, with Covid, I have started to feel that I finally belong. The Covid times made me reassess the meaning of words like ‘mate’ and questions of ‘How are you?’. The events of the past year have made me realise where my place is. I’ve been in the right place to witness the united front put on by Australians, people believing and accepting that only together can we get out of this shit.
I am now happy to be Romanian-Australian. I will never stop being Romanian and I will never be fully Australian, and that’s okay. I think I have finally succeeded in removing the constant guilt that I deserted my country, and that in Australia I should do more to be part of it. It does not matter too much, because in Australia being an immigrant is essentially another kind of citizenship. And I am okay with that, too.
It has only taken me fifteen years.
Once, somebody told me and my children, ‘Go back where you came from, you stupid immigrants. Nobody wants you here.’
But you know what? I do belong in the place where I can ask ‘How are you today?’ and I belong in the place where mates are. Clearly that person did not know the real meaning of these words, and maybe they were the ones who didn’t belong.
by Maria Grigorescu
Maria Grigorescu was born in Romania between 1960 and 1970, and lived there until 2006, when she moved to Australia and started a new life with her two children and husband, a life that only gave her more nuggets for her stories. Born and bred right in the middle of the famous Transylvania land, surrounded by 2000 years of history and traditions, and with her father’s war stories. She always wanted to share her stories, some of them carry a seed of reality inspired by the struggles of day-to-day life, and the trials and dreams that come with them and others are just a figment of imagination. In 2021 she completed a collection of short stories and self-published the book ‘Feelings in Staccato: The book of stories’. Her immigration story ‘The good, the bad and the Ugg’ is part of this collection. Throughout her working life, she has worn many hats: mother, bookkeeper, yoga teacher, to name a few. Her favourite hat, however, is writer. A second collection of short stories is now on its way to be published. She lives in Perth, Western Australia, with an extremely tall husband and a dog.