October 2010. Three months in Australia and I had an appointment in the city to work as a volunteer at the handicraft store of a religious Catholic congregation. It would be a wonderful place to practice English, make friends and feel useful I thought. I had never caught a train.
With Sergio working and Lucrecia at school, I had to do it alone. I had to leave my new house, that little refuge where I had voluntarily shut myself away during those first months in Australia.
Sergio sketched the route and explained how to take the bus, he had written down what I needed to say to buy a ticket, how to change to the train and how I could move around by tram in the city. He thought it was easy but of course, he had used public transport a thousand times. And he also spoke good English and so didn’t have to worry. He was encouraging but I felt he spoke to me with a mocking tone, which led to me feeling anger, fear and general impotence.
We ended up fighting and my tears were not long in coming. This victim had a tantrum in front of Lucrecia, who had never seen her mother so fragile, tearful and sensitive. So I shut myself away in the bedroom to cry and try to sleep. I couldn’t get on that train alone. Someone was going to talk to me. I was going to get lost. How did I get home if it was dangerous in the city after 6 pm? So many scary thoughts.
Fortunately, I remembered Carol, a new friend from Chile who lived close by and worked in the city. I quickly called her to seek her help.
Sergio dropped me at her house before 7 am. We walked to the bus station. I had with me a few words that I should say to the driver to buy my ticket. “Daily, full fare, zone 1 and 2”. Easy? Not at that moment. I did not really understand what it meant. When I got onto the bus I pulled out my piece of paper, read it to the driver and offered him my $50 note.
He looked at me strangely and said a couple of things to me that I could not understand. I looked at my friend for help and she told me that we should sit down quietly because the driver had no change and we should buy the ticket when we caught the train. I felt happy and safe by my Spanish-speaking friend’s side, and the adventure began.
We transferred to the train. We sat alone in a place for six people. Even though the majority of the seats were empty she told me to keep a space for her work colleague who would get on a few stations further on. As she was Australian it would be a good opportunity to practice my English.
And so I chatted in basic English to the coworker, telling her my story, which by that stage I knew very well as I had spent one month repeating it to the English-speaking people I had begun to know.
Like typical Latin women, we were speaking loudly and effusively. Obviously, there were many people looking at us trying to understand what we were saying. It was a lot of fun – until we arrived at Flinders Street, the main station, where my travelling companions had to catch a different train. They took me to my platform, gave me instructions about which station to get off at, farewelled me and left me all alone.
Everything was going so fast that I didn’t have time to be afraid. I had my mobile if anything were to happen to me. I glanced at it, but oh no, the battery was about to run out. What to do? Luz, take deep breaths, relax. Everything is going to be OK. Be calm. Concentrate on the names of the stations and remember that you get off at North Richmond. So I stood up near the door and fixed my eyes on the screen where the names of the stations would appear until finally, the name of mine appeared.
I got off and followed other passengers. I realised powers of observation were very important at that moment. The things others do would help me. But there were two streets at the station exit.
How to find Victoria Street? How to ask? I was not confident to ask fellow passengers.
When I reached the street I approached two men who seemed to be repairing a hole in the street. I plucked up the courage to ask “Sorry, I go to Victoria Street. Can you help me?” They looked at each other but they clearly understood me because one of them told me that I was already in Victoria Street. I smiled with relief, thanked them and began to walk. Then the challenge was to find the shop that I was looking for or the sign of the Good Shepherd, which according to the instructions was very close to the station.
At that point, I mentally thanked my husband for insisting that I learn to use the Melways, that huge, complex and strange directory which is full of maps and street names. With his teaching, I knew how to look for the street number and I quickly found it.
The shop was still shut. I looked through the glass door and a friendly young woman indicated that it would open at 10 am. So I had an hour to look for something to do.
I began to walk along Victoria Street. It seemed a lot like Springvale, a suburb mainly populated by Asians. In reality, I didn’t feel as if I was in Australia at all, but instead in China, Japan, Vietnam or another of those countries whose cultures I didn’t know much about. I imagined that everyone was looking at me. I wanted to look for a toilet and then sit down for a moment to have a coffee and think about where I was living. But I was afraid to go into any of the places that were already open, for fear of having to speak or not understanding, or not knowing what to do. I kept walking but the urge to go to the toilet was strong.
At that moment I found a large silver cube standing in the middle of a pedestrian street that said “Toilette”. I approached it to see how it worked. I pressed a button and the door of the toilet opened. It closed when I entered and then began to play background music. A sign in front of the toilet said that I had 10 minutes before the door would again open. The warning worried me because even though rationally I knew it was enough time, I imagined the door opening and me with my pants down in the middle of the street. I pulled up my jeans, washed my hands and then checked out the interior of the bathroom, which being silver-plated seemed to be from another planet. The mirror was shining metal and the walls were as well. They were completely wet as if at a specific time, water with detergent would automatically fall from the ceiling for a hygienic clean.
There was a receptacle for used syringes. Then I explored the exit buttons. By then I had been in there long enough. When the door opened I felt as if I had conquered a planet … I had peed in a high-tech public toilet in the middle of one of the main streets of the city. Haha, I had marked my territory.
Happy with this small new conquest I entered the first Chinese café I could find. When I passed through the door, the two Asian waiters ran over to look after me. I was probably the first client for the day.
I didn’t always understand what they were saying but one patient showed me the different sizes and types of coffee. I chose the cheapest and I sat down at a table to look out onto the street and read my book … in Spanish.
Since my arrival, I had refused to read in Spanish because I felt I should only read in English. Obviously, this lowered the level and quality of my reading. However, my friend Cate wisely recommended that I allow myself to read in Spanish since reading was an important activity for me and I shouldn’t ignore it simply because my priority was to learn English.
It was time for my appointment. I walked there quickly and met the young woman who had earlier signalled through the glass.
I gave her the name of the person I was looking for. She immediately identified my accent and asked me where I was from. She was Venezuelan and spoke Spanish. What relief and surprise I felt. I would find Spanish-speaking people wherever I went even though they only made up 3% of the migrant population in this country. While we were waiting for the store manager she not only told me about her life but also how the store worked. We had more than enough time. Not a single client looked in. It seemed to be a very quiet place, perhaps located in the wrong area.
When the manager arrived I immediately gave the speech that I had prepared for this employment interview. “I am a medical doctor with two postgraduate degrees in business and marketing. I am also finishing a Master in Communication. In Colombia, I was working in strategic planning and providing advice to big organizations. I believe I can to be useful in developing strategies to attract customers to come here … blah, blah, blah”.
I took a deep breath and then noticed that everyone, including the manager, was looking at me strangely. Then he said something that I didn’t understand and my new friend translated it into Spanish.
He was asking what day of the week I could work. In a rush to answer, I said any day. He suggested Wednesdays from 10 am to 4 pm. The meeting was over. I couldn’t believe it. Was that it? That easy? How fantastic. Now I had a job in Australia. One whole day a week I was going to leave home and be independent. I thanked him, hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. I also hugged and kissed my new friend and even when I got to the door of the store I kept on thanking and farewelling them effusively.
Ten minutes later I had nothing to do so I decided to take the return train to Flinders Street station to go for a walk around that part of the city, or maybe to find out how to catch a tram and go to the University of Melbourne. Memories came to mind of preparing to come to this country and commenting to my friends in Colombia that I would start work there as a waitress or a cleaner whilst I was learning the language and then little by little I would meet teachers and administrative staff to whom I would show my competencies and talents and would end up working at a university as I had in Bogota.
That day, almost two years later, that dream seemed improbable and a long way off.
Without even considering the other fears which blocked and paralysed me, learning the language was not as easy as it had seemed. Would I be able to change my current reality and again be what I was before? I keep asking myself this.
The university seemed very similar to those I already knew. I decided to ask about English courses. I decided that if I studied there a couple of hours a week, I could again take up the objective I had set for myself in Colombia. In my search for this perfect language program, I was sent from one building to another until I realized that it didn’t exist. You could only study at the university the day you spoke, wrote, read and understood English well. Demoralized, I took a tram back to Flinders Street station. I would have to satisfy myself with the small new achievements that I had managed that day. I now had a job in the city and I had learned how to get around alone on public transport. A lot for one day.