Australia in the 1950s was a very different country from what it is now. This is quite obviously true of many countries today, but Australia’s isolation was especially significant and clear in the millennia before jet air travel, global tourism and the internet.
60 years ago as I write, my family and I were just one day from our arrival in Sydney on 5th May after an arduous six week ocean voyage on a somewhat crowded migrant ship. As I wrote last week, most of the 600 or so children on board were sick with measles and one had died. We arrived in the later afternoon and lay at anchor for some hours before Australia’s health officials allowed the ship to berth at West Circular Quay (where the Overseas Passenger Terminal is now). I remember having to be being carried ashore sick and listless with my brother and sisters in the gathering darkness. We were driven to a house in Sydney’s (then remote) western suburbs (Wentworthville) where we helped swell a large number of other recent arrivals to 23 (yep!).
After some days our sponsoring organisation (a Sydney church) found us other temporary accommodation and we moved to a basic fibro cottage in suburban Carlton which was owned by a church lady who very generously took in Dutch migrants including our household of 7. (We had a young woman in our family circle who had agreed to assist mum in her onerous task as mother to four very young children and many other motherless but church-linked Dutch migrants.)
Some 6 weeks later the church authorities found my father a house which became the base of his work for the next few years. Only then did Australia start to feel like a place where my intrepid parents could build for God, their Christian community and their family’s future.
I had started school just 6 weeks before leaving Groningen in the Netherlands and have just a few hazy memories of that: a forbidding dark brick building, working with a slate tablet. Starting school in Australia was different again. I remember having a lovely caring Christian lady as my teacher, but she understood little of what I needed most. She decided to seat me next to Boris Saroka, a 5 year old Bulgarian immigrant, “so we could talk to each other”. How thoughtful! I am so thankful that my natural love of language took over so that in 2 years’ time I got my class’ best marks for spelling. During most of my 10 years of schooling in Sydney’s southern suburbs my siblings and I were the only non-Anglos in our classes.
Although we loved many aspects of our new life in Australia (chiefly sunshine, space and the sea) my siblings also find (as do many other migrants of that era) that we missed out in several ways socially and culturally, with some lasting effects. I have recently reflected on that briefly and want to write more about that soon.
My family has just spent a week together in beautiful Noosa, just north of Brisbane. A visiting cousin described our life there as “luilekkerland” (Dutch for “a land of leisure and culinary delight”). Among many other things we celebrated our arrival in Oz 60 years ago, swam and surfed every day, enjoyed richly multi-cultural meals, and also marked the Dutch Queen’s Birthday by dressing in orange and singing the “Wilhelmus” (the Dutch national anthem)! The cook even topped each of our menu choices with grated carrot (= orange) and added a sachet of apricot jam to our desserts! What a difference from my well-meaning but unicultural teacher in May 1951.
Australia has come a tremendously long way in 60 years… and so have those four little measle-miserable migrant kids. We love the Sunburnt Country of the Long Weekend: we have each been able to give it our best and it has come good for us – and much more.
But after 60 years we still belong to two countries and two cultures – in both mind and soul! That’s a rich mix.