Falling head over heels with a foreigner can be an exotic and heady affair. Merging lives, with one person forced to leave everything to settle in another country, is an altogether more challenging proposition.
Just inside the front door of our home hangs a small watercolour by the artist Jim Pavlidis. Jim, a friend from The Age, painted it years ago to accompany a column I’d written about my wife, Nikki. The picture never made it into print, but Jim gave me a copy, because I love it, because it spoke to the heart of that column – and the heart of this story, too.
The painting is a landscape of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, where my wife grew up. Her birthplace – Glens Falls, settled 1763 – was named “Hometown USA” in 1944, and boasts every Capra-esque, Rockwellian hallmark of the American dream. We lived there together once, at the foothills of those rounded mountains.
We used to hike them in summer, under a canopy of hemlock and fir. In the autumn, the turning leaves became a blazing quilt of copper and plum. But the sierra stood out best in winter, when you sensed the scale of the snowy peaks, which were shaped by ancient glaciers that melted into icy lakes.
We were married in a stone chapel on the shore of one such lake, and so on its surface Jim painted a warm reflection of orange and yellow: a sunburned country. The picture is thus two halves of our world, connected yet separate – one reachable, one refracted. The title of the column was “Bittersweet is love in all its sacrifice”, and the topic was simple: the gift my wife gave me in leaving the US for Australia in 2010 – living here rather than there – forsaking her home for mine. For ours.
It’s a story repeated all over the country, of course. According to the 2016 census, 49 per cent of all Australians were either born overseas or had at least one parent born overseas. In 2018 alone, a quarter of all Australian marriages – 28,452 – were between a local and a partner born abroad. But all too often we hear only the giddy beginnings of these tales…