Subscriber OnlyAbroad

The arrival of our belongings changes the move to Australia from experiment to reality

So much has happened since we left that I’ve forgotten most of what was packed

Our apartment in Canberra has bare walls and none of the cosiness I have always tried to create in a home. In some ways, it represents the sort of place I never envisaged wanting to live in. Utterly modern. White and minimal. Several floors up in a tall building, all spot lighting and glass.

It couldn’t be less like the little Victorian cottage – our first house – that we bought 30 minutes out of London two years ago.

The cottage has impractically steep stairs and a pokey little butter-yellow kitchen that must have been the previous owner’s idea of country chic when they installed it in the 1990s. The kitchen is so small that you can’t stretch out your arms to do a little spin in there. All the rooms have small Victorian fireplaces and knotted, warm wooden floorboards that speak creakily of everyone who has traversed them since 1840. There’s a long narrow garden, typical of the time, to allow you to keep human waste as far from the house as possible and to grow vegetables.

Hopefully not too close together.


This was the home we left behind last August when we decided to move to Australia. The centre of a different life. A little old house with sash windows that was freezing in the winter but immensely cosy in the darkest months of the year. A place where we kept wellington boots on the step and paid a teenage boy from the village to cut the grass in summer when the hay fever proved too debilitating. It is the house we packed up before leaving for a life that we knew would be completely different, but couldn’t yet anticipate precisely how.

There, in my attic office in the cottage, I packed five boxes of things I either thought I might need or felt I wouldn’t like to be without. It was a stressful situation – googling wildly to try to comprehend the demands of a life I wasn’t yet living and couldn’t coherently imagine. We had to be sensible. Couldn’t send too much. It’s expensive to ship a lot of things to the other side of the world. And then there was the fact that we didn’t know anything about life in Australia. Neither of us had even visited before moving here.

Would I need winter boots and my warm hat? (Yes, as it happens. Canberra has bitingly cold winters and when it rains here you fear it may take you with it as it passes.)

Would my beloved Dyson Hair Dryer work in Australia? (Yes, it turns out – Australian plugs are different but the voltage is the same, unlike the US, where I discovered the hard way that my hair dryer was rendered more of a bag weight than a personal grooming tool.)

There is something about being confronted by choices made by a past self – the one who packed those boxes – that generates a sense of mild unease

The print of Irish artist Denise Nestor’s Delicate Animals that struck me so forcibly walking past a shop window in Dublin a couple of weeks after my mother’s death that I strode in and bought it on the spot. It has hung in all of the 10 or 11 places I’ve lived in since then, including our cottage. My plain, utterly inoffensive Rains backpack. The one that, being waterproof and slender but ideal for a laptop, is ubiquitous in London. A girl in her mid-20s leant out of the back window of a car to taunt it as novel last Christmas when I was back in Limerick and walking over Sarsfield bridge with my groceries conveniently on my back, hurtling me back to adolescence in a reminder that it’s “notions” to do anything unLimerick in Limerick, including not carrying your burdens with your arms.

Summer clothes and shoes were confidently packed up in the boxes too – we’d need those, surely – but we are now well into the Australian summer and still awaiting their arrival. I know someone who says it took nine months for their stuff to arrive from Ireland by sea. Our boxes left the UK in August. You can track the ship as it makes its journey, which is fascinating. As far as I can tell, it appears to have stopped everywhere from landlocked Offaly to Pyongyang (that may be an exaggeration but I can’t guarantee it) on its way. It berthed in Sydney Harbour just before Christmas and as soon as it has been rifled through by the world’s strictest customs and quarantine officers on earth, it should make its way here to us in Canberra.

So much has happened since we left that I’ve forgotten most of what was packed. Something about the arrival of our belongings feels like the completion of a process initiated well over two years ago. It changes the move to Australia from experiment to reality. Yes – I know it’s already a reality. Sunny weather and much cheaper rent and a shocking dearth of sausages as a breakfast food in cafes prove that well enough.

However, there is something about being confronted by choices made by a past self – the one who packed those boxes – that generates a sense of mild unease. As though I’ll open them to find what she chose to equip me with and feel horrified by her ignorance or unsettled by her sentimentality. Or perhaps I’ll just feel grateful that she had the foresight to send me my favourite shampoo. It’s a convergence of the old life and the new one.

So much has changed in those few short months. The papers from my desk, boxed up and shipped via Wyoming and the Knock shrine, might smell like that Victorian cottage. That print might feel alien on an Australian wall. The lives they represent might feel jarringly far apart.

But emigration can do that.