real life

The moment my bubble burst: How COVID ended my immigrant life in Australia.

When the November 2015 terrorist attacks struck Paris I was visiting my parents there with my partner and our three kids. We were lucky to be safe and in a different part of town. 

I remember feeling a lot of things: shock, horror, fear, infinite sadness. I also remember feeling thankful. 

Thankful that I was there, with my family, when tragedy hit my hometown, and not 20,000 km away in Australia, where I live.

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It is a version of the same feeling that has convinced me to move my family back to France this year, after nine years in Australia. 

The pandemic ultimately pushed me to tackle the dilemma I’d postponed for years: settling here for good, or going back. 

A decision that many immigrants grapple with on a regular basis (at least those of us lucky enough to have a choice in the matter). A decision that boils down to asking yourself: where is home, really?

That question was hard enough to navigate pre-COVID. You don’t necessarily move abroad knowing you will stay for a decade. 

I thought it would be a parenthesis of a few years. After we got married my partner and I agreed that we wanted a baby and to move abroad, not necessarily in that order. The baby came first, and after that there was no keeping us in France much longer. 

Australia was a pretty obvious choice - our English was good, we’d visited Sydney a few years before and thought it would offer the perfect combination of great job opportunities, a family-friendly environment and beautiful beaches (spoiler alert - it did). 

And so we packed our toddler and our things, farewelled our envious friends, excitedly kissed our crestfallen parents goodbye, and moved 20,000 km away without looking back, with that beautiful, enthusiastic selfishness of 30-year-olds who think the world revolves around them anyway.

Image: Supplied.

At that point there was no doubt we would return some day. France was still home. 

The move was just for a few years, long enough to travel around the country, experience another culture, explore career opportunities and have our daughter learn English, then we would return full of fascinating stories and experiences to share with impatient friends and family. 

But gradually, our perception of where home was started to shift. After a few years, it was when landing back in Sydney from Europe that we felt we were coming back home. We got Australian citizenship. 

Every year we’d be saying “let’s just give it another year”. We got pregnant with twins and grew our family. 

Image: Supplied.

I hadn’t realised how much having kids somewhere can anchor you to that place. Moving felt a lot harder all of a sudden, let alone across the globe.

And that is how our host country became a bubble. 

A bubble because we seemed to live out of time. 

While we were so far away, it was hard to remember that time was passing in our homeland too, that life was continuing. Periodically, we’d be reminded, sometimes brutally, that that was the case: the year following our move to Sydney my father-in-law passed away unexpectedly from fast-spreading cancer aged only 61. 

It was our first visit back since the move, and my daughter and I landed in France hours before his funeral (my partner had thankfully got there earlier). 

That was our first bubble-bursting moment. It gave us a distorted impression of how time was passing in our absence, a brutal realisation, earlier than we expected it, that our parents wouldn’t be around forever.

We made sure to burst the bubble when we could and visit the homeland, saving most of our money and annual leave for those trips. 

The “bubble-bursting” manifests in suddenly taking in how much time has gone by since you last came, something that you can’t fully appreciate through Skype calls. Everyone seems to age faster, you catch up on months-old news and barely have time to meet a new sibling’s or friend’s baby or partner, then it's time to say goodbye again and see you when we next visit.  

There is also wonderful excitement in coming back after a long time, appreciating your country of origin with new eyes as a tourist, catching up with everyone. 

Because interactions are so rare, you are every bit the prodigal child and only get the best of family and friends. 

There is only time to celebrate, no time to get into arguments or build grudges. 

On the trip back, still emotional from the goodbyes and fresh from all the memories, was when the pull of the homeland was strongest and when we would elaborate scenarios to move back.

Until we got sucked into the bubble again. A few days back in Sydney were often enough to feel like there was no rush moving after all and that life here was pretty great. 

Image: Supplied.

It felt again like time was suspended.

It wasn’t, and while inside the bubble we missed a lot of milestones. I missed my little sister’s wedding because I had twin babies to look after. 

I lost my two grandmothers over a couple of years and couldn’t attend their funerals. I missed countless family Christmases and birthdays. 

I relied on Facebook to keep up with divorces, career changes, new houses. 

Missing those precious moments was the price to pay for living in the bubble and we accepted it, but we started to notice that a bubble was not a real home. 

It was more like crashing at someone’s (very nice) house and forgetting to look for your own place because you love it there. 

We weren’t behaving like we belonged in Australia. We were never talking about getting our own place one day, never making any long-term plans, and though we welcomed new friendships we rarely initiated them, as if we knew subconsciously not to get attached. 

But having kids gave us a countdown - if we stayed a few more years, they’d call Australia home for good and would end up making their own lives here, meaning we’d have to do the same if we wanted to see our potential grandchildren and not suffer the same fate we'd imposed on our own parents. 

Image: Supplied.

Then COVID hit.

The pandemic has transformed the way everyone thinks of travel and distances. 

For immigrants it has also transformed the conditions upon which we left our country of origin, the parameters that defined how we were supposed to stay in touch with our families and native cultures: no more visits, borders closed, uncertain flights, the difficulty to get there if someone got really sick. 

Skype calls, now the only get-togethers, now revolve around “How is COVID over there? ...How is lockdown going?”. 

As we entered year two of the pandemic, after the crisis had shifted into a long-term situation, we decided that we wouldn’t accept the new conditions of our emigration which now stated that being in one country meant being entirely separated from the other. 

That was never what we signed up for.

We could have waited another year. 

I know many immigrants who decided that the best thing for them to do was to stay in Australia and wait out the pandemic, seeing how well controlled the virus is here compared to many other countries. 

It is perfectly understandable and probably a very wise decision.

But in our case, the virus helped us see what we wanted from life. 

It was the catalyst that got us to act on a decision we’d already started to make but were hesitant to execute. Once that became clear, it became impossible to stay.

While we will miss Australia terribly, our wonderful friends and way of life, while it seems daunting to readapt to a life and culture that almost feel foreign again now, especially in a more COVID-riddled environment, it is time. 

And I hope that, whatever we find there, I will once again be thankful that in times of adversity I am where I want to be.

So just like that, for better or worse, we’re bursting our bubble. 

Feature Image: Supplied.