Returning Home to Australia with my Son
01/03/2004 by Paolo Black
We heard Paolo Black’s story read out on ABC Radio National on Monday 1 March 2004. His story captured our attention, so here it is for your enjoyment – obtained and published with Paolo’s permission.
In 1980, when he was appearing nightly on the national current affairs programme Willessee at Seven, Paolo Black was nominated Australian Television’s Reporter of the Year for an investigative series. Before that, he’d been at the ABC, as a reporter and as a producer. And then, in 1984, he disappeared from Australia, for 20 years. Now he’s back, with a young son in tow, and a story to tell…
My son Cameron is barely six, but he’s already flown more than 100-thousand air miles. He’s got a little British Airways flight log book, signed by every captain on every trip we’ve made together.
On this flight to Australia two weeks ago, Captain Mike Roche, announced over the p.a. that Cameron had flown 104, 071 air miles, and that he was glad the flying kangaroo had clocked up the big 100 for him.
Moving Overseas with Kids
I’m a television producer/director, and it’s the nature of my work that I fly all over the world making films.
I’m also a lone dad – and have been since Cameron was 9-months old, and so when I was commissioned by the BBC to make a millennium documentary on the one thing the world’s greatest scientists would like to see invented or discovered in the new millennium and why, I flew everywhere with a 3-chip digital camera, a stupidly heavy tripod, six bags, a McLaren lightweight buggy, and Cameron.
He was a dream. He slept through 22 of 24 interviews. We had just one slight hiccup, which was entirely my fault. We were on a flight from Birmingham, Alabama to Los Angeles when I realised I had run out of nappies. Cameron was humming, and I knew I had to do something.
Before I could get the flight attendant’s attention, a huge black lady four seats away stood up and said: ‘Aint you got no diapers for that boy?’ I apologised and admitted I’d run out. She turned, and called to a completely full 300-seater airbus: ‘I want a diaper, and I want it here now!’ Seconds later, a Niagara of nappies cascaded over us, and calm returned to row 14.
On that flight, the captain made an entry in Cameron’s flight log book – ‘Bring Diapers.’
Captains Log, Star date 1999, traversing the gamma quadrant when cabin pressure rose uncontrollably. Passenger revolt narrowly averted after Huggies fiasco. Or as Albert Einstein famously said: “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”
Teaching Your Child About Their New Home
Now he’s six we don’t have the diaper problem, but six brings new problems. When we spoke about coming to Australia to live, he asked me: Do Australians speak English? Jokingly, I said ‘nope’ they speak Australian mate – stupid me.
For days he carried great concerns that he wouldn’t be able to communicate here. Even after I apologised and explained that Australians speak exactly the same language as him, he kept asking me: ‘What’s the Australian for this? … and what’s the Australian for that?’
And then came another great concern, will they have Pokemon and Yu Gi Oh! trading cards in Australia? I bought three packs of each in London and brought them in my bag just in case.
It was a hard decision to come back here. I went to London for two weeks, almost 20 years ago, on the way home from a year in New York. I was just going to visit my Auntie in London, and then work and love followed swiftly.
Now, I’ve made a positive decision to bring Cameron here where we have a strong family support mechanism, and where it’s my hope that Cameron can be brought up to believe that if he tries hard enough, he can do anything – the famous Australian ‘have a go’ mentality.
The first thing I had to ensure was that Cameron made a good transition from his wonderful school in London, to a highly-recommended school in Sydney.
The children of year 1 at John Betts School in Hammersmith had made Cameron a fabulous farewell card with a picture of the Sydney Opera House on the outside, and self portraits by all 29 of his fellow students on the inside. I’m sure some will stay friends all his life.
‘Goodbye forever’, called his best friend Otto in a way that only six year olds can. And then we were gone. At the airport I paid almost the price of another air ticket in excess baggage charges – 20 years is a long time.
It was 12 hours from Heathrow to Singapore, and Qantas had only made one children’s movie available ‘Spy Kids Three.’ Cameron watched it four times, without complaint.
Then, like most six year olds, he had no trouble sleeping on the aeroplane – another seven hours from Singapore to Sydney, and we were on the ground, with a dozen bags, on two trolleys.
Cameron pushed one, and I pushed the other. I knew we were in Australia because a Customs Officer offered to help. ‘Welcome home mate,’ he said, and he pushed the trolley out to our waiting car. It would never have happened at Heathrow.
Cameron began school just three days later, at Glenmore Road Public School in Paddington. His teacher, Miss Andersen, who had worked in London for three years, was very sensitive to making Cameron’s transition as painless as possible, and she dedicated James to show Cameron around.
At the end of the day, I picked up my boy, and discovered he’d had a spectacular day, and that James had shown him many things. An object I found in his pocket revealed a bonding story of amazing proportions.
Apparently, James had shown Cameron the boys’ toilets, whereupon the pair had discovered a dead cockroach floating in the urinal. Having then anointed it with their special blessing, somehow, it had ended up wrapped in a tissue in Cameron’s pocket.
I’d forgotten about cockroaches. In London, you never see the wildlife. You are lucky to see a snail, although there’s plenty of evidence of where they’ve been. Having said that, London’s Time Out Magazine ran a cover story two years ago claiming London was suffering a plague of rats. In London you are never more than three feet, almost a meter – from a rat, it claimed.
Well, I must admit I did come face to face with one once. Carol, my French neighbour, came running into my house screaming ‘Paolo, there’s a rrrat in my bathrrroom.’ Stupid me imagined she was running from a mouse, and I offered to be her hero.
In her bathroom, the door shut behind me, I came face to face with super rat. He was about the size of a cat, and he was hiding behind her loo.
Having donned my super hero mantle, I had no choice but to face super rat down. In one swift motion I reached behind the toilet, grabbed him by the neck, and ran up the stairs and out of the house.
It was like holding Arnold Schwarzenegger’s flexing muscle. He turned his head and hissed at me, and I imagined one bite and I’d be stricken by bubonic plague. I made it as far as the drain before I let him go, and he darted into the drain pipe, no doubt to come up in someone else’s bathroom. To be honest, I never made another rat’s acquaintance.
Dealing with Culture Shock
But Sydney, well that’s another story. Every day since we’ve been here, we’ve seen cockroaches, spiders, lizards, mozzies and flies. ‘Daddy, why do Mosquitoes bite you?’ asked Cameron.
Well, I’ve practised the rule that you always answer a straight question with an honest answer, and so I said: ‘It’s only the mummy mosquitoes that bite you darling, they take a little bit of your blood to feed their babies.’ I might as well have said ‘during the night, while you are asleep in your bed, thousands of vampires will come and suck all your blood.’
From that moment, despite the heatwave, and the hottest night for more than three years, he had to supervise the locking of all windows and doors.
Now, we’ve just come from England where the children are throwing snow balls at each other, and the thermometer in my car says it’s three below zero, and here we are in Paddington at close to 40 degrees with all the windows and doors bolted against the evil blood sucking mosquito.
The next day I bought the Mortein plug-in-zapper, although I hated the idea of chemicals, however safe, permeating the air that my little boy breathes and so the day after that I bought a fabulous mosquito net, and turned it into a game.
We had to inspect the net and make sure there were no spaces, anywhere, where the mighty mozzie could sneak in with her little needle nose, and finally, we were allowed to open the windows, that is until I told him the tarantula story. Talk about glutton for punishment.
I did tell him it was Byron Bay and not Sydney, but anyway, some friends had invited me to stay in their bushland retreat 25 years ago. It was very dark, the kind of dark you only get in the country where there’s no light seepage from anywhere. I woke up during the night, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a little bit of the ceiling moving, and then another, and then another.
I slowly reached over for the torch and lit up the ceiling. It was completely covered in black tarantulas, each one bigger than my hand. I prayed they wouldn’t loose their grip, sleep was out of the question.
Cameron’s on the telephone to his grandmother in London – Cameron: ‘they have these giant spiders here, and they’re called tarantulas, and theyre bigger than daddy’s hand, and..
Me: ‘thanks Cameron. No nanny, he’s fine, no they’re only in the country, we’ve only seen little daddy longlegs here, no he’s absolutely fine.’
Earlier that day, I’d seen a group of children teasing a cockroach in the school playground. They were surrounding it with their feet, and then kicking it. I imagined it was about to be squished, and so I picked it up and threw it in the bushes. Unfortunately, I created a rod for Cameron’s back.
Later on, children were pressing poor Cameron for a re-enactment of my heroic gesture. A girl in Cameron’s class threatened to squish a cockroach in front of him. She pushed him, and he kicked her. I got a phone call from the principal to say he was concerned about Cameron’s behaviour.
He shouldn’t have kicked her. I agreed and pointed out that Cameron had never hurt another child in his life, so there had to be a very good reason. The principal was right, of course, but Cameron was only trying to save a life, however small.
It’s going to take a while for us to get used to the animal kingdom here. On Sunday I got stung by a blue bottle just walking along Manly beach, and so now the beach is out for us too. Finding Nemo has a lot to answer for.
Sadly, I think Cameron will get his entomological education from his peers. Maybe you should check back in 12 months time to see whether his sensitivity to small creatures remains intact.
Even so, perhaps I shouldn’t tell him about the mutant genetically engineered killer venomous arthropods hiding behind the fireplace.
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