Twenty years ago today, I landed in the UK for the first time. I was on a working holiday visa and my plans were simple: work, travel, train as a midwife, get some experience then go home. I expected to stay maybe 3 years, 5 years tops. I had dreams.
I was a nurse who wanted to work at one of the legendary London hospitals: St Bartholomew's, Guy's or St Thomas' ("Bart's", Guy's or "Tommy's"), before increasing my skills and qualifying as a midwife. British midwifery training was sold to us as being the best in the world, a step up from the training I would have had in Australia. Unlike in Oz and the US, pregnancy and childbirth are almost entirely midwife-managed events in Britain. During a normal pregnancy and delivery, the mother never encounters an obstetrician. Since my ultimate plan was to go work in a remote hospital in the Bush, I needed the best skills possible. I wanted to study midwifery at Tommy's or at Queen Charlotte's (Charlie's). I'd tried applying from Australia, but all the hospitals wanted you to be in the UK first - they wouldn't even schedule an interview - so here I was.
The midwifery dream collapsed with the nursing dream. Within a year of arriving, a bad job at a certain south London hospital killed my confidence and removed me of the desire to ever nurse again. I ended up as a secretary until the firm I worked for trained me as an accountant.
I'm not sure what I expected when I got here. I certainly wasn't prepared for what I found: a country where the cost of living was double what it was in Australia, even before you factored in the exchange rate (if a loaf of bread was $1 in Australia, it was £2 here); a job that barely paid a living wage and certainly paid less to a qualified nurse than what I'd earned as a first year student nurse; a banking system 50 years behind ours (Aussies could walk into the London branch of Westpac and check the balance of their accounts in Australia, move money around, make withdrawals, all within a few clicks on the computer; I couldn't withdraw money from a different branch of Barclays without them phoning my branch to check my balance! And then charging me £10 for the privilege). The $1,000 I'd brought over in traveller's cheques vanished in the blink of an eye. I was instantaneously broke.
Looking back, I wonder if I was naive. I was certainly a romantic fool. If I could take a husband back home with me to Australia, so much the better. Posh Englishmen had a certain cache - blame Brideshead Revisited - and my mum would have loved it if I'd married a Jewish doctor. Add to that the fact that life had yet to cure me of the reactive response: the deeply embedded one that says you have to date someone just because they fancy you, because it's better to have someone than no-one in your life even if they treat you like dirt. (Pretty, popular teenage girls recover from that one early.) I tried not to believe I was capable of such a thing, but it is how I ended up dating Dumbo (also, I think I was blinded by his Oxford MA). I was such an idiot!
Even the travel dream didn't come off. I'd flown into the UK after spending 5 days sightseeing in Copenhagen. Apart from a weekend in Paris with some girlfriends to attend a Eurythmics concert, I didn't leave the country again until I flew home for my mum's funeral. I didn't see that much of Britain, either. Dumbo's idea of a holiday was the Conservative Party Conference each year (which I inevitably paid for) and I couldn't afford to go off on my own.
Gradually, painfully I grew up. I'd have sworn, 20 years ago, that I was an adult, but in reality I wasn't. I was a fledgling, just emerging into independence. It wasn't until I chose to walk towards the light at the end of the tunnel of my relationship with Dumbo that I think I came into myself. The life I'd settled for wasn't the life I wanted. It forced me to give up so much of the essential me: my love of travel; my crafts; my music. Oh, how I mourned the music - I didn't sing for 15 years and Dumbo's idea of music omitted everything between Bach and Blue Oyster Cult, so I didn't listen to classical, rock or pop music either during the years we were together. I even gave up knitting.
One hot summer's day in 1998 I decided enough was enough. My world had crashed down around me and I saw what my life was really like. That was the day I decided to divorce Dumbo. Slowly, gradually I began to reclaim myself and build the life that I wanted.
I think I'm lucky now. All the essential bits of me are back: I knit. I sing. I've built a new career. I've met and married the love of my life. We travel, go to concerts, listen to music as diverse as Nickelback and Mozart. He shares my dreams and I share his.
I wonder what the next 20 years will bring.