Thinking about making tracks?


IT IS the classic holiday fantasy. Once a year you unwind in a beachside or country town, or another city, and before long you're casing the real estate agents' windows. Could I live here? What would life be like with a smaller mortgage, less traffic and a better lifestyle?

For many, the fantasy is a tropical one. While it is notoriously hard to trace internal migration, each year a significant number of Victorians holiday in Noosa, the Gold Coast or the Sunshine Coast and never make it back down south.

How do they survive the transition from fantasy to reality? Alive and reasonably well under the cover of a good tan, for most, but they are likely to be on a not-so-good salary, having taken the dive and cashed in cold-and-well-paid for warm-and-getting-by.

In 2012, in my first real job here on the Gold Coast after migrating from Melbourne two years ago, I managed a team of four. Among that seemingly random selection of people, three originally came from a suburb in which I lived in Melbourne and the other came from Ferntree Gully.

As I asked further afield, I came across more Melburnians, a large handful of Brits and a couple of Brisbanites. Some of us have been here for 20 years and some of us for a few, but we keep coming in waves.

My husband is a barista on the Gold Coast and we would like a dollar – what the hell, we'll take 50¢, we don't need to buy so many clothes up here – for every Victorian who holidays here who is surprised that they can get decent coffee, discovers we are from Melbourne and wants to know, "Was it the right thing to do? Do you regret it?"

The first time moving north from Melbourne occurred to me, I put it down to mid-life crisis or the effect of yet another rollercoaster ride of summer heat and summer freeze. For a sun-seeker like me, it was a strange form of torture that the culinary, cultural and artistic delights of Melbourne could not dispel.

I fantasised about consistently hot days, tropical greenery that would not be killed off by water-saving measures and wearing clothes other than black. And I threw in on top of that a picture of myself with a whole new career. No, actually, a whole new NON-career, with a job that is local, slow-paced and just enough to pay the bills and buy a new cozzie every now and then.

Slowly, the idea started to seriously take hold. Everything began to get under my skin: the weather, the traffic, the cloying sameness of Melbourne's endeavours to be Australia's European city – an element I once loved. I was falling out of love with my once adored city and nothing, not even the knowledge my two teenage sons were likely to suffer at leaving friends, was a discouragement.

Instead, I focused firmly on their future in the outdoors, in the sea every day and away from the game console. The more people said I wouldn't go through with it, the more I set my mind to it. The more friends became concerned for my finances, relationships, career and skin, the more time I spent browsing real estate sites.

And, so, voila! Here I am. Sitting by the pool with a golden tan and wearing one of my wardrobe of 10 bikinis. I kid you not – they are just not as expensive as they were when I was young. Gazing across the canal at the back of our Gold Coast property, with the towers of Broadbeach just peaking above the house directly opposite. The temperature at 6pm is a mild 25 degrees and a gentle breeze is lifting the palm fronds every few minutes so I can see the frangipani more clearly and check if the kids have caught any bream off our jetty yet.

My husband and I have just come back from an early-evening walk on the beach because I have also managed to land a redundancy package and no longer need to commute every day to Brisbane – or anywhere until I start worrying, after Australia Day. My husband and I are tossing up between Byron Bay or Lamington National Park for tomorrow's outing. Or maybe just hang on the beach again and crawl back home via the surf lifesavers club and a cold beer.

Sound too good to be true? Well, by and large, yes, it is not as good as it sounds. There is a lot of our day not described here. I feel compelled to write the truth about this move just to know what I think.

My husband was born in Italy and is now a veteran migrant, having moved between three countries and two states. I have lived for two years in the Philippines and five years in China.

Between us, we thought we had street cred when it comes to migration, but it has been 18 months and the battle to feel at home isn't over. It is, however, fascinating to watch ourselves in the process of adapting and, importantly, it is still game-on for me in my desire to make this work.

Each member of the family wanted something different from this move – other than our youngest son, then 14, who did not want to move at all. Predictably, perhaps, he is the most unsettled still. The 16-year-old, now on his way to 18, was happy either way but suffered from losing close friends at a crucial time. Of all the teenagers I have met and spoken to who are in a similar position, none found the move easy. I feel a keen responsibility to remain confident and positive for them so they can find their place slowly.

When my husband and I toss our feelings around, whether we are arguing or gloating, we dance provocatively around the same subjects: why we wanted to move; how we find the locals; making friends; and what the move really cost us, taking into account the job market.

Friends are hard to make here. The first person I met was another mother. She and her husband originally came from Melbourne – of course – and have divorced since arriving. She told me in our first speed-chat that it took her two years to make a friend, so not to hold my breath. I naively mistook this for being the result of her strange manner. Eighteen months later, with a mere three acquaintances in place, I know the truth.

I was listening to a radio program recently about the difficulty in managing the immunisation program here with such a transitory population. In many ways, the Gold Coast remains a place for a party or a visit and even members of its "permanent" population are not sure how long they'll stay.

Maybe the fact people here move on and apart is connected. Among the 10 Gold Coast friends and acquaintances my family can amass between us, only two have not been affected by divorce.

People who are wandering souls are more likely to move to the coast, but when you arrive here with no friends or job and having spent a lot of money, as your children are fraying around the edges and the glorious beach is becoming everyday, you are quick to understand the real depths of your friendship with your partner and whether you are an all-weather team.

Many find that the glue of their previous location with its particularities, friends or family was the only thing holding them together.

The most difficult thing for me in moving, hands-down, was the loss of job status and the identity that went with it. I didn't realise that how I felt as a providing mother, a wife and a woman was so intimately tied up with the recognition I received in my job in the public service.

There is little government work here and wages in general are much lower. Despite my solid policy, planning and middle-management experience, I may only find a job with half the salary, and even this may be optimistic after recent cuts to the Queensland government.

In the end, this is why I came here: to force myself to experience something else. But it is certainly something to keep in mind when considering the size of your mortgage.

For me, the question was not would it be worth it or would I regret it, but what if I never find out what it is like? What if I just stay a comfortable public servant in a prosperous bayside suburb with a regular kind of increase in net worth?

Well, life is short and I gave it a go and now I know – well, I partly know – and I am enjoying the feeling of living differently, taking things slowly and the formidable stimulation of living by the sea. I know it will not be forever and I, too, will be part of the transitory population, but it feels good now and my sons will grow from it – when they get out of the water.

This story Thinking about making tracks? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.