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In My Father’s Footsteps

My father was 22 when he moved to Australia.

He had just completed his military service in Vietnam, serving in a war that no one wanted, let alone was proud of. During a break from his tour, the Army sent him to Australia for some R&R. He quickly decided that once his service was over, he would move there. The vast, wild landscapes spoke to him, and he had fallen in love with the country almost instantaneously. When he did finally move there after Vietnam, his adventure started in the (then) agricultural city of Adelaide, before travelling from farm to farm across the country, tilling the land and driving on highways made of bright orange gravel. He told stories to us kids about seeing the Opera House while it was still under construction, and of strange animals that bounced around carrying their young in a pouch.

Beyond this, however, I knew very little of his time in the outback, but I was eager to follow in his footsteps. I wanted to learn more about his time of self-discovery before self-discovery was even a thing.

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My father has never really been one to talk much about his past, so I knew that if I wanted to hear more stories, I had to find them for myself. In a pursuit to learn more about him post-Vietnam, pre-marriage, and pre me, I made the trek to the isolated, odd continent that I was so incredibly curious about on so many levels.

My trip to Australia was a hasty one. A divorce left me feeling very alone and confused, thinking: Now what? On the surface, I was energetic and carefree, making cappuccinos daily at the lovely Åpent Bakery cafe in Oslo, and travelling about once every month or so. I was, however, lacking a sense of self or self-confidence. Without much idea on how to motivate myself, or how to move on, I hoped that a year abroad would light something within me. Maybe I could volunteer on a farm somewhere. Maybe I could run off to an ashram in Thailand, or learn Spanish while sipping yerba mate in Argentina. But in the end, all of these options felt as if I was running away from something, and I didn’t want to run.

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Instead, an idea would gently tap on my shoulder one particularly chilly Oslo afternoon: study in Australia. It instantaneously felt natural, as if I would be coming home. I thought of Adelaide and desperately wanted to see this city that had captured my father’s heart, this country of dusty fields and strange vehicles called utes. Within a couple of weeks, I had applied to grad school in Melbourne.

Letting the heart on my sleeve be my guide, I was eager to be scared, challenged, and feel alive. Fuelled by the adventuresome spirit inherited from my father, I packed what few belongings I had and said goodbye to Oslo, not knowing if or when I would see it next.

I quickly fell in love with Melbourne. It was an extremely liveable and vibrant city, with extensive public transport and a fierce passion for coffee. Although I enjoyed my studies, I was itching to travel where Dad had, and when my first school break came, I ventured out to Dad’s first port of call: Adelaide.

It’s a funny thing, visiting the life your parents once lived. Before you were born or even desired, they had a life. They played sports with friends, drank way too much beer, and tried to figure out what they wanted to do in life. My father was no exception. Dad lived in Adelaide only a few months before he started to trek from farm to farm. The friends he made there were the ones who pushed him to see more of the country, to not settle for $1.25/hour working at the local Chrysler factory. So he did, and the adventures he had while on the road naturally became the part of his time there that he would talk about the most. And these friends have managed to keep in touch all these years, however sporadic the letters and phone calls may have been.

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Meanwhile in Melbourne, the semester was wrapping up, and winter had descended upon the city, with blowing rain in 5C temperatures. While the popular thing to do was to run off up north to Byron Bay, for some good waves and epic parties, I was off to Adelaide, a city that bore the complete opposite reputation. But I wasn’t there to party. I had contacted Dad’s friends, and they knew I was coming. Their daughter, who had met my parents a couple of times, offered for me to stay with her. Although she was 8 ½ months pregnant at the time, she showed me around the city and drove me to some of the best wineries Australia has to offer. The following day, we went out to her parents’ farm for dinner.

Arriving at dusk, fog had spread over the hills, and kangaroos had come out to munch on the grass. As we exchanged greetings and they started to talk about their farm, I stood mostly in silence, looking out over the landscape that had once captured Dad. Looking out onto those fields, I felt an all-encompassing calm. Even though I had no idea of what to expect of the landscape, the air tasted like home, it felt and looked like home too. The world stood still, and I knew I had made the right decision to visit.

These friends told many stories about their time with my father and his brief stay in Adelaide, and how he was a hard-working, reliable guy. They told me what Australia was really like in the 1970s, a time of intense racial divisions and a booming economy. Later in the evening, I had them Skype with Dad, the first time they had seen each other since Dad last visited in the 1990s. So many stories poured out from their shared pool of memories. Just as I was starting to feel slightly overwhelmed with emotion, they brought out a folder containing some of the letters Dad had sent throughout the years. Barely organised, I managed to pull a few noteworthy ones out at random: one from 1980, one from 1997, and another from 2002. I was floored. This was without a doubt my father’s handwriting, and little did I know he had written so many letters throughout the years. My father, the farmer, the toiler, the maker, wrote all of these letters. I held back tears as I read through them.

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The letters were amusing and informative. I learned so much from those letters. A true farmer, there were written weather updates and crop reports. Dad had included pictures of my brother, smiling proud with a whitetail deer from a successful hunting season. He also noted that I did well in school, and that he was proud of me. One line in particular stood out. It read, “8 Jan 1980: I bought an old house and fixed it up. Built a new garage, now I can sell it and make a lot of money if I could find a nice acreage or small farm for a reasonable price. The town where we live is a small town, about 300 people. It is about four miles from where I lived before.” Although Dad did eventually buy property out in the country, we never did move from that house, the house that my brother and I grew up in.

These letters brought back a wave of memories from the 1990s. At dinnertime growing up, we had placemats with facts about Australia and some of its wacky animals. When Dad came back from a visit to Australia in 1995, the evidence of his travels poured over the edge of his gigantic suitcase. He gave me an opal necklace with a kangaroo on it, which I still wear on Australia Day and on his birthday.

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My entire time in Adelaide, I felt like I had been there for ages, or as if I had somehow been there before. Without necessarily realising it, I had actually gained a better understanding of whom I was and what I had to offer my world. I felt very peaceful in Adelaide, and leaving it was therefore tougher than I had imagined it would be.

Back in Melbourne, however, I felt more at home in the city centre than I had been before I left. My background as a barista may have made the city a natural choice for me, but now more than ever, I was willing to breathe out and relax in my surroundings. I felt at ease with my studies in Communications, and knew that I had made the right choice to come. I wasn’t running away from my troubles back home; I was simply discovering who I was and what I wanted in my newfound independence. In the middle of this adventure to a land so foreign and far away, I felt where home was.

As kids, through my father’s time in Australia and my mother’s Norwegian background, we were taught that the world is our home. My siblings and I were encouraged to treat it as our playground, show it respect, and share it kindly with others. It was this sense of a global community that just made sense to me, and visiting these friends of my father subsequently felt very natural.

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The relationship between a father and daughter is seldom based on common interests, but is unwavering in loving nature nonetheless. I do not hunt like my brother does, and I hold little interest in having a farm of my own, so Australia became the glue that bonded us. We had both seen Sydney; both enjoyed Adelaide, and knew that the outback was a world unlike any we had really seen before. The landscape of Australia in the 1970s was unforgiving and diverse, and the people had a proud, unwavering spirit, and it still held true in 2014. He was able to tell me tales and dreams of a young Australia, and I was able to share with him just where those dreams had taken them.