All in the [Australian] Family

Last week over at the Go! Girl Guides, one of the Go! Girls, Rease, wrote about finding a family away from home while you’re traveling. Her post really resonated with me and couldn’t help but make me reminisce about the two Australian families I became a part of during my semester there. This has the potential to get lengthy, so I may just talk about the first in this one.

Family #1: The housing manager who opened up his home

The first day that I was on campus at Curtin, my friend Krysta and I were getting our orientation at Vickery House, where we would be living for the next five months. As the housing manager asked us where we were from and we told him Elon, he immediately said, “Oh, do you know Lisa Marie?”

It’s a small world after all

We determined that he was talking about my favorite sociology/women’s studies professor. She had actually told him beforehand that I was going to be at Curtin, but no one knew at that time that I would be living in his housing area. It turns out that he got to know Lisa when she was leading one of Elon’s winter term trips there years ago, and they’ve been in touch ever since.

From that day on, Krysta and I were in good standing with Paul. He immediately put us at ease about this experience that was more than a little bit daunting. Anything we needed, he would help us with. Anything he told the other Americans “no” about, he gave us a hearty “yes.” All of the staff in the office knew us by name and house number within a couple of days. He took us under his wing and it was only a matter of time before he extended an invitation to his home.

Amicable Aussies made us feel at home

The first time we went, Krysta and I took the bus to a main bus depot and then Paul picked us up with his precious little girl Savanna (6 years old) and their dog Bailey in the car. He took us to a nearby monument near Freo to watch the sunset for a bit and let Bailey roam around (or drag Savanna around).

One of the monuments at the park in Fremantle where Paul took us to watch the sunset.

When we got to the house, we got our first dose of Australian family life. Paul’s wife Deb greeted us with big hugs and lots of enthusiasm. Their son Sam (13 years old) was a little more subdued than Deb and Savanna were, and I can’t say I blamed him.

We started the evening out with some cheese, crackers and wine out at the picnic table. Little Savanna couldn’t wait to interrogate us about everything and was especially eager to give us a gift – pieces of red string that we were to wear around our ankles or wrists (we chose ankles) and not remove until all the color was gone from them. I want to say it had something to do with the Dalai Lama?? I can’t recall, it’s been a while. But it was a sweet gesture for such a young girl. We talked about Lisa, about how Krysta and I were getting along so far, and how we were always welcome in their home.

The power of a home-cooked meal

The food that night was phenomenal. I’m not sure if it was the actual quality of the food or just that it was the first real, home-cooked meal we’d had since leaving the States. There is something to be said for a real house, a real kitchen, and a meal prepared by a mom. We had our “family dinners” among our group of friends, but they were always just a smorgasbord of whatever was on sale and in our fridges that week. Nothing particularly gourmet and never really with that true home-made feel.

So when Deb presented us with a crazy-good chicken risotto, amazing potato bake, fresh vegetables, and I can’t even remember what else, we were thrilled. It smelled and tasted amazing. For dessert we had a pear tart a la mode. I still dream about that tart frequently.

When Paul drove us back to campus that night, insisting that it was far too late for us girls to be taking the bus back by ourselves, our hearts were as full as our stomachs. We had found a family to call our own for this time away from home, and here was Paul, who puts on this tough exterior in his job, playing a real father figure for us. We knew we would be back to see them again.

Round 2: The family was complete

The second time we went to dinner at Paul’s house, my housemate Fraser joined us (at Paul’s invitation). This time, it felt even more like a family affair.

When we got there, Bailey came running up with a wagging tail. Then again, so did Savanna. She clung to us and yanked us over to play Monopoly, Jr. with her. From our spots on the living room floor, we called in to Deb, who was hard at work in the kitchen. We offered our assistance, but she refused to let us help.

Ahhh Monopoly Jr. Classic.

So while she and Paul were putting the last touches on dinner, Krysta, Fraser and I played Monopoly, Jr. with Savanna and Sam. Sam was trying to keep Savanna from cheating, Fraser was getting frustrated at losing, and Krysta and I just kept laughing. It was like our little family was complete now with Fraser there. Krys and I had our big brother (even though I’m older than him by three weeks) as well as our little brother and sister. And of course our dog and Mom and Dad.

A great hangover cure: family and love

Deb outdid her last meal with this dinner. I’ve gotta say, it was a perfect hangover cure for those of us who had overindulged the night before. (Guilty.) And for dessert this time? The all-American apple pie a la mode.

After we helped clean up and do the dishes, we all settled down in the living room to watch their favorite Sunday night television – Grey’s Anatomy and Brother & Sisters. It turns out Krysta and I had a lot in common with them. As we joined their Sunday night routine, including tucking Savanna into bed, we truly became a part of the family. We were even given the task of muting the tv during the commercials, as they were accustomed to doing.

The place that brought me so many different versions of "home" and "family."

At the end of the night, it was much too late for Paul to drive us all the way back, so he called a cab for us. And insisted on giving us money for it. We protested ad nauseam, but finally he just slipped the money to Fraser and walked away saying “Good night, kids.”

When we got back to campus, Krysta went back to her flat to talk to her parents on Skype and Fraser and I went back to ours to chat with our housemates. I went from one of my families in Australia to another. And while I missed my family back in the States, I felt like I had really found my place there. Like I had found myself. And that family was a huge part of that.

Family then and forever

Sadly, we did not get back for another family dinner before leaving Oz. And I haven’t really talked to Paul and Deb and the kids since I left.

But I know that if I contact them if when I go back to Perth, I will absolutely be welcome in their house again. Once a family, always a family.

In fact, maybe I’ll contact them again soon just to catch up. I can’t wait to hear what antics Savanna’s gotten into in the past three years. And Sam should be getting ready to head off to uni in a just a couple years…crazy!

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