Endless Summer

IMG_2173Forty-eight days have passed since my last post and during that time I have boarded seven airplane flights, changed watches in four time zones, crossed borders into five different US states, driven over 1200 miles and generally squeezed every possible moment out of our five-week trip home.

It was exhausting, but extremely satisfying. An American friend of mine who also lives in Melbourne and had taken a similar trip home at the same time summed it up: “It’s hard to say goodbye at the end, but you feel so full after a trip like that.”

And I do. I feel like the time spent with family, the outings with friends, the experiences shared over meals and glasses of wine, the boat rides, the lakes, the beaches, the warm summer nights- it all adds up to this wonderful feeling of contentment. I am truly blessed with the people in my life, no matter where in the world they live.

When you visit after living abroad, people make time for you. There are BBQs and dinners and baseball games. There are coffees and play dates and late night drinks. It’s a bit of an all-around love fest and we soaked it up, reveling in friendships that have stood the test of time and distance.

Our boys especially enjoyed a heightened level of socializing. Leaving the US aged eight and ten, they had had the time to develop deeper friendships than their younger sister. In some ways, it was as if they hadn’t left. All it would take was one text and six boys would be converging on the local swimming pool for the afternoon.

If there was any concern, it was how I was to get my children back on a flight to Melbourne after five weeks of summer holidays and the unadulterated spoiling by the grandparents. The life they were living wasn’t a sustainable reality, but I wasn’t sure they understood that. A vacation can’t last forever; a holiday eventually has to end or it isn’t truly a holiday, right?

“Are you guys ready to go back to Melbourne?” I asked as we began to pack up the strewn debris of our travels off the floor of my parents’ home.

“Yep,” they all nodded in agreement.

“I’m ready for some routine,” said our middle child.

Our daughter added, “I miss school… and my Aussie friends.”

Their maturity surprised me; I had expected some resistance.

Middle child suddenly looked up from his packing. “Hey, do you think we can do this trip twice a year? I think that would be fun.”

Fun, yes. Financially doable? Nope.

But I liked his thinking.

As for me? Routine be damned. It would take a lot longer than five weeks of vacation for me to cave and request a return to normal life.

It’s a maturity thing.

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Adults Only

Not too long ago, P and I went away a few days without the kids. We treated ourselves to three days in the Yarra Valley, a wine-growing region just over 50 kilometers northeast of Melbourne.

I had brought my good camera, determined to take photos to put together a blog entry focused on this particular part of Australia (every once in a while I try to remember the “down under” part of this blog). Even though our visit was favored with overcast skies and misty rain, it was a beautiful area and I took plenty of photos.

Which I can’t find.

I went to download them from my camera, but my camera is empty. Thinking I must have downloaded them already, I went to my computer, but no photos.

I’ve either deleted them accidentally or they’re mischievously hiding somewhere on my hard drive, but they certainly aren’t cooperating with me.

So, no photos of gourmet meals from boutique wineries or quaint pubs (I’m a terrible food photographer anyway). No pictures of rolling hills carpeted with trellised vineyards. No close-up shots of wine glasses, misty scenery blurring softly in the background. Other than a random photo found on our phones (thank you Apple), we only have the memories in our heads.

Which is fine, too.

In today’s world of tweeting, facebooking and general oversharing, I suppose a few trips that aren’t documented to the nth degree is a refreshing change. When I mention that the scenery was beautiful, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Really, it is somewhat apropos as this was supposed to be a trip for just the two of us anyway. As much as we love travelling with our children, every once in a while, time alone with your spouse is necessary.

A friend of mine calls her adult-only trips with her significant other an investment. Every year, they plan two long weekends away with another couple, travelling each time to a new city or location.

“Our kids are going to eventually grow up and leave us,” she said. “When that happens, I don’t want to sit down across from my husband and wonder, ‘Who are you again?’”

P and I have embraced that philosophy, beginning when our youngest was 18 months old. We took off to the Caribbean for just over a week in celebration of our ten-year anniversary. At the time I worried that it would be too long, that I would miss the kids. But each day away actually got easier (sitting by a pool with umbrella drinks in hand will do that to you…)

And before we had returned home, we had already booked our next trip.

I know that full-on travel without kids is a luxury, both in money and in the efforts of others to care for your children. This recent trip was our first one without kids in over two years.

If a trip isn’t possible, pare it down to date night or a Saturday morning coffee for two (who am I kidding… do you know where I am on a Saturday? Dance class, basketball game…).

The point is, figure out your adult-only alone time any way you can. Time where the two of you can talk away from your routine or normal home environment. Time that is spent rediscovering each other and having conversation beyond the mundane of the everyday. Valuable time that builds the memories that strengthen a relationship.

Consider it an investment.

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Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Wait… that’s it??

I peered at the computer screen before me, our bank account details marching across the screen. Our balance was looking strangely low, especially as a paycheck had gone in only three days earlier.

I had gone online to do some banking, nothing extraordinary, just transferring my share of funds towards a friend’s birthday gift. As I began to shut down, I took another look at the balance.

That can’t be right…

Eyes running down columns… a four-digit ATM withdrawal? Where? When was that?

One week earlier, there had been a $2.00 charge for a balance inquiry at an ATM closer to the city. And then a $1,000 withdrawal immediately after. And then another. And another.

Two days later, there was another.

A day later, there was another.

Each withdrawal was done at a different ATM, but all just southeast of the CBD. And as someone who usually has just enough cash in her wallet to pay for the next coffee, these amounts were way out of league with my habits.

I started shuffling through my wallet and quickly found my ATM card inside. I then called P and relayed what I’d found; he promptly located his card as well.

I called ANZ Bank and was directed to their fraud department. In a few minutes and with a voice a few notes higher than normal, I had detailed the outrageous and brazen theft of our funds by some nameless and faceless, depraved and conniving miscreants.

The other woman responded in a bored tone, “Yes, we identified the fraudulent transactions earlier in the week. Your husband’s card was compromised. Didn’t you get our text?”

Text?

You mean the one sent to P that we promptly deleted because we assumed it was from some down-and-out Nigerian who needed our help transferring large sums of money out of his country? (with a tidy reward for us, of course).

Ah yes, well… we ignored that text. Yes, it did claim to be from ANZ, but so do some of the scam emails that show up in our in box.

“And we shut down your husband’s card.”

Oh… yes, that too. Um, P did say his card didn’t work the other day; had to use a different one. Forgot about that.

Turns out P used his card at an ATM machine that had a skimming device attached to it.

If you haven’t heard of skimming before (and I had only vaguely), it’s a worldwide problem where offenders attach a skimming device to an ATM machine. Apparently it is quite difficult to identify these devices if you aren’t looking for them and the information contained on every card that is swiped while the device is on the ATM machine is “skimmed” or lifted from the card. The lowlifes can then manufacture a new ATM card that is linked directly to your account. When P spoke to ANZ about getting a replacement card, he was told that this is the first record of it happening in Melbourne (aren’t we lucky!).

So apparently, ANZ did everything you want your bank to do in these situations (including a promise to return the funds to our account), but we failed to listen.

Bastards.

The criminals who did this- not ANZ Bank. We’re ok with them.

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Travels and the Tax Man

Uncle Sam, money, taxes, overseas taxes, US citizens, living abroadHere’s a fun little fact for Americans living overseas:

You still have to pay American taxes.

Uncle Sam is perfectly happy to let you country-hop around the world, navy blue passport in hand, as long as you dutifully send a tax return home each year. As one of the few countries in the world that aggressively pursues taxes worldwide from its citizens, this places quite a burden on Americans living outside of the US.

This means that every year, P and I have to file a US federal tax return, even though we are living in Australia. There is an automatic due date extension from April 15th to June 15th, but that’s about the only break we’re going to get.

In addition to reporting any US income we have acquired during the year, we must also report our Australian income. That’s right- the US Internal Revenue Service requires us to disclose our foreign income for tax purposes.

The United States has tax treaties in place with over 42 different countries, including Australia. Apparently, these treaties allow for exclusions on earned income that should prevent double taxation, but I have to take my accountant’s word on that. Once you live overseas, it’s goodbye to Turbo Tax and hello to a good bean counter. Foreign taxation is extremely complex and while I used to have a decent handle on the American income tax system, the convoluted labyrinth of tax laws in play here makes my head swim.

In addition to our annual US tax return, P and I each need to separately file an Australian tax return (Australia does not have a provision for married couples to file jointly). And, as we are residents of Australia, Australia requires us to also report our American income on any investments we have back in the US.

Isn’t this fun? Everybody is keeping tabs on each other!

To add to the hilarity, Australia’s tax year ends on June 30th of each year versus the calendar year (December 31st) that is used by the United States. So when we are calculating income from each country, we cannot rely on the total amounts reported on 1099s, W-2s or other payments statements; we have to break down the income for each country by date.

Finally, the United States has become quite aggressive in pursuing American citizens who fail to annually file a Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (“Fbar”) for any foreign accounts holding more than $US10,000. So toss that little disclosure statement on top of our tax returns.

If there is anything positive in this scenario, it is that we had the good fortune to locate an accountant here in Melbourne who actually understands the systems at play (or least I think we did… I really have to take him at his word). His entire practice consists of filing tax returns for Americans living in Australia. It’s quite a niche business and one that is probably providing him with quite a good living; I’m pretty sure our fees alone last year paid for his overseas vacation.

So if you need me, I’m not too far away… just within reach of Uncle Sam.

Posted in Moving Overseas | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

What’s a Hills Hoist?

Hills Hoist, Australia, laundry, backyards

Hills Hoist: an adjustable, rotary clothes line commonly found in Australian backyards.

Moving overseas will obviously force some lifestyle changes. Whether it is language or transportation, food or customs, things are going to get shaken up in your world.

There’s one area that has changed greatly for me, though I’m almost embarrassed to admit it.

I hang my laundry outside.

Yes, I now hang my family’s clothes, towels and bedding outside to dry on a daily basis. If it’s raining, I’ll hang them inside on a rack, but it is an extremely rare day that I will fire up our tiny, secondhand, energy-sucking, sorry excuse for a dryer.

To the average Australian, the admission that this is new behavior probably seems the epitome of self-indulgence and environmental apathy. But in Chicago, I didn’t know of anyone who hung laundry outside.

A large-barreled dryer was standard in homes (and when you moved, the appliances stayed with the house- much different from here in Australia where you take your appliances with you).

Obviously, the weather is a major factor in this cultural difference. If you can’t even open your back door due to the four feet of snowdrift wrapped around your house, you certainly won’t be drying your clothes outside. (But when the heat of summer arrived, our laundry wasn’t migrating outside either).

Cost is another factor: the price of utilities in the US is generally less expensive compared to what we pay here in Australia. If I’m going to use my dryer here, there has to be a very good reason because I know I’ll be paying for it.

Finally, backyards in suburban Chicago are different than those in Melbourne. You can often see into your neighbor’s yard in suburban Chicago- and views of your neighbors’ underwear is considered déclassé when you’re grilling your dinner steaks. Some neighborhood associations even have bans that outright prohibit the hanging of laundry outside. Movements in support of drying laundry outside are viewed as on the fringe.

Remember the scene in the 1986 Chicago-based movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, when he’s racing through suburban backyards to get back to his house before his parents do? That could never happen here – backyards in Melbourne are for privacy. Our own backyard is ringed with a 10-foot high fence. I could hang the laundry naked if I wanted to and no one would know (shh… maybe I have…)

This isn’t a socioeconomic issue- I’ve seen multimillion-dollar homes that have a permanent laundry line hooked up around the corner, just out of sight of the pool and tennis court. Personally, I’ve gotten to the point that I feel drying my clothes in a dryer is irresponsible, both financially and environmentally. A friend of mine recently got rid of her dryer, “Takes up too much space and too much temptation to use it when we don’t need to.”

But what has surprised me is how much I enjoy hanging laundry outside. It’s become a quiet routine for me, one I try to do early in the morning before I get the kids off to school. There is something about drying your laundry outside that forces you to slow down- you must build in that extra bit of time to do so, but the result is fresh smelling clothes and a few minutes in the early morning air.

I can live with that.

 

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Night Routine

1:45 AM.

Eyes snap open fifteen minutes before my alarm goes off. No matter, my body has this routine down.

iPhone in hand, a flashlight app lighting my way, I rise from my bed and shuffle to the kitchen to grab a tissue and a finger pricker. With one eye still shut, I unwrap a testing strip and jam it into the glucose meter.

1:46 AM.

In my daughter’s room, her face is peaceful, her breaths are slow and steady. Even in sleep she offers a hand, uncurling her fingers so I can prick one. The blood wells up like a bead before it is sucked up by the testing strip to an accompanying beep.

1:47 AM.

The numbers flash on the glucose meter screen and I dig among her covers for her insulin pump. Pulling it from the bedding, I enter her numbers and wait until I see the telltale countdown as the insulin begins to enters her body.

1:48 AM.

I stumble back to bed, a perverse feeling of satisfaction as I look at the clock. Three minutes and I’m back under the covers. All before the 2 AM alarm has gone off. In three hours I will test again- even with a fuzzy brain, I wonder if I can break two minutes.

This routine isn’t forever; it’s just until we get her insulin rates to where they need to be. But it’s gone on for nearly six weeks and it’s reminding me of having a newborn (albeit an extremely efficient and quiet one).

There is a physicality to being a mother. It’s more obvious to others when a woman is pregnant, less so when she feels the sudden fullness of milk at the sound of her infant’s cry. It is there when a child tucks her head into her mother’s shoulder, like a puzzle piece fitting snuggly into place.

I’ve missed that physicality- hugs are less spontaneous now and often are awkward with adolescent angles. A held hand is dropped if someone might see and a nighttime cuddle is not guaranteed.

So maybe I don’t mind these brief interruptions of sleep. It’s a small reminder of what my body has done in the past.

Posted in Diabetes Should Be a Four-Letter Word, Family | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Tomorrow

Walter Payton quote We recently heard some horrible news about a family we knew from our school and church back in Chicago. The husband, a young and fit 42-year old, died unexpectedly last week, leaving a wife, four young children and a community reeling from the loss.  I’ve been shaken by the tragedy myself; heartbroken for the family and stunned by the cataclysmic rupture to their seemingly secure future.

Between that news and what I wrote about here, I’ve been thinking a lot about life and loss lately.  I think loss has a specific role to play in one’s lifetime. If it’s not so close as to tear apart the seams of your daily life, it becomes a trigger point for introspection: am I living the life I want to be?

I have a close friend who lost both her parents by the time she was a young adult. She once confided to me that she regularly questions her own mortality, measuring her life against the shortened years granted her parents. As a result, she travels often, experiencing as much of the world as she can with her husband and children.

“Why should I wait until we’re retired?” she has said. “I may be sick or gone by that time- better to give my children- and myself- these memories now, while I can.”

I know our own decision to move to Australia was borne of our belief in living a life without regrets. When P and I first began talking about a move down under, a refrain that continuously arose though our discussion was “We don’t want to ever regret that we never gave it a try.”

At the time, we were in the process of building a house for our family- what P would often refer to as our “Forever Home.” And while there is something lovely and stable and comforting in building a home for years to come, the timing felt off. In the process of working with architects and builders, the plans had grown unwieldy and in my eyes, we were going down a road that would close off other dreams and opportunities.

Ultimately, it felt wrong at the time and led us to question what we wanted out of life. And that led to a discussion of what we didn’t want from life- regrets because we didn’t listen to that quiet voice within.

I know many people questioned our move here- questioned its financial implications, its practicality and its effect on our children. To change midstream may have seemed drastic to others, but to us it felt right. It wasn’t an easy move, but it was one that has brought us closer as a family, giving us a unique lens though which to view our world.

It really doesn’t matter if your gut tells you to move across the world or to stay put within the warm embrace of your community, to change careers or to stay in your current profession, to have another child or to remain childless. What matters is to find the time to listen to the voice within- are you living the life you want?

Maybe you shouldn’t wait for tomorrow to find out.

Posted in Family, Life Down Under, Moving Overseas | Tagged , , | 11 Comments