Thursday, 11 June 2015

Reset :: making a new life in the shadow of the old.

image via freeimages
About 5 weeks ago, we left our adopted home of New Caledonia to return to our native Australia. What has happened since has been at various times chaotic, exhausting, fraught, educational and a little lonely.

This isn't to say that seeing family and friends again hasn't been great. Sure, moving in with parents when you have 2 small children and a bucketload of huge life decisions to make isn't a picnic, but we've made it through that chapter fairly intact and the scars are healing pretty well now, thankyou.

The difficulty hasn't just been deciding on jobs, travelling long distances, being often separated from our kids, finding a house, moving, finding's losing, and then missing, a lot of our reference points that had become second nature and which we'd unwittingly become reliant on and even unconsciously looking forward to. 

I'm talking about boring familiarity of workplace, school routines, seeing friends, going through the domestic family motions of life. Of knowing that just about every day I could guarantee running into at least one, if not several familiar, friendly faces throughout my travels to go shopping or taking Jack to kini. Of knowing that I would be wearing either thongs or sandals everyday because the weather is reliably warm. Of knowing that many of my friends were pretty much living my life and I theirs because we're all there for the same reason and facing similar challenges.

But then you leave and there's no gradual transition. It was there. And now it's not. Now it's completely different. 

Hit reset, begin again.

And gosh, we miss our NC friends. A lot.

So we've found a job, a house, a fridge, our winter clothes and today, a school. At just about every topic we debated, thumb-wrestled, argued, despaired, rallied and finally decided (note agreement not always present. Relentment often is). 

The fear of making a wrong decision or being forced into a decision we didn't want to make has been a strong emotion lately. 

But then we remember that unlike tattoos, not all decisions have to be permanent. We have the power to make new ones, better ones, different ones. Our New Caledonia experience taught us that. It's given us the power. We do feel grateful about that and we talk about it. 

So we're slowly building a new life while reflecting often on the old. Comparing and contrasting the new with the old. Wondering when we'll get back. If this life can replace that.

We couldn't really visualise our future when we left New Caledonia. It was a jump into the abyss, hoping we would land on our feet. Despite things sometimes still feeling shaky, we probably have. We're making the decisions, finding new routine. 

But New Caledonia is still to fresh in my mind I think of it everyday. I wonder when the memories will fade. Hopefully not for a long, long time.

Friday, 24 April 2015

The calm and the turmoil.

Today is kinda an off day for me. Getting so close to leaving the island and things start to get a little pressured. Shipping boxes, selling cars, winding up school, closing bank accounts.....tensions become frayed with what to do, when, who and how.

I was feeling low this morning after I ordered two chocolate cakes at the local patisserie. The plan is to take a cake after lunch into both Nellie and Jack's class for a classroom farewell party next week, and I left the patisserie after a lengthy discussion with several staff about what size they should be. 

Finally we agreed (or I convinced them) that a '6 personnes' gateau will do the job for a class or 4 or 6 year olds.

I was driving away, thinking about how I need to organise napkins, plates, juice.....but I just felt sad. 


And the frustrations over moving, and the sadness of leaving made me decide to go for a drive somewhere new and quiet.

So I drove, towards where I hoped there would be a surprise church at the end of a long road. My friend Louise told me about how she found it some time ago and I had really wanted to find it too. So, with general directions in mind, off I set.

After about 25 minutes of driving through peaceful tribu,  over hill and dale, just when I thought I was on the wrong road - a lovely church appeared, poking it's tall steeple through the top of the jungle.


Unfortunately it was locked, but l'eglise de Tiaoué was just what I needed to get my mind calm enough, my thoughts in order and shake a little of the blues away.

I never knew that such lush valleys were so close to us, with beautiful creeks, idyllic cases, the occasional dog or goat on the road amongst a sea of jungle.

We leave Pouembout in exactly a week. In this turmoil, there can be calm.

Monday, 20 April 2015

The L-word, the G-word and me.

This morning I had to give myself a stern talking-to and push past the part of me which loathes goodbyes. 

The kids went back to school today for trimestre deux (oh, how I only just made it through these holidays!) and I had to meet the school director to give him our final attendance date and then run around to finalise the payment of cantine. And since my French is tres mal, it required meeting a friend to help translate.

Because of this, I had to cancel what has become part of my Monday routine: hosting drum lessons. Which meant a friend would host instead. Which meant I could have done my chores this morning and then gone home and pretended drumming has finished for me, given that it would be my second-to-last week, and I wouldn't have to talk about the L-word. 


And it's close pal, the G-word. Hello, goodbye.

I argued with myself in the car heading back from Koné, having just emptied my wallet of pieces and borrowed 300f from my friend in order to avoid writing a cheque which may not clear before we close our account. I could just go home. Make coffee. Quietly keep on with the packing.

Or I could go home, put my coffee in my carry-cup and just be a little late for practice. And have fun.

I chose fun. Yay me! And though the discussion around *leaving* and even more, what will we do/where will we live etc was prominent, it was okay. I suppressed the fear and anxiety. Filed under 'deal with later'. Great coping!

I was sad to talk about future plans for the group. To be sitting outside on a breezy, fine autumn morning in the back blocks of Koné, knowing it has finality which is right there. To be drumming well, finding my groove and be told that I will be missed. And to know I will miss this, this moment of doing something refreshing and joyeous and for no other reason than because I like it and dammit, I'm good at it. But it has to end. Bahhhh!

Leaving is hard and goodbyes a bitch because we don't want to fun to stop. Leaving is easy when there's no enjoyment. So it's a credit to New Caledonia and all the amazing people who have been part of our lives for the past 3 years that my gut response is to just pretend it's not happening and walk away and ignore the pain of parting.

I wrote a couple of years ago here about being on the opposite side, of having to say goodbye to friends leaving NC and returning to Australia. Now we are them, and I understand it better.

So I hate goodbyes but bring them on. Perhaps the pain is therapy and the tears help to wash it away. The talking makes it real so that I can't ignore it. And the drumming helps to find the groove that will transport me, and the beat will keep me going to the next adventure.

Friday, 10 April 2015

My funny girl.

Lately I've written a lot about Jack, for good reason. But this morning I realised that my four year old daughter Nellie is doing a great job of coping with everything our circumstances throw at her.

Nellie has spent more of her life living in New Caledonia than Australia. She was a chubby 18 month old when we arrived. She slept in a cot, ate in a highchair and ate rocks off the driveway. Now she's four and hardly ever eats rocks.

So she's sort of more New Caledonian than Australian. She doesn't remember our old house in Sandringham or our two dogs, who she's scared of when she sees them at my mother-in-law's house. She's more familiar with having a 'bonne sieste' than a nap and her speech is a mix of English and French.

Nellie also loves to talk. Actually both of my kids do. But Nellie also loves to sing. She can sing and sing and sing. I don't like asking her to stop but sometimes, for sanity's sake, I ask her to sing quietly or in her room. But I tell her I do love her singing.

A few days ago she wanted to sing me a song in French. In her pajamas. I must admit I didn't understand most of it and it goes waaaaaaaaaay too long but her dedication and acting prowess is evident. I think it's a mashup of songs from school and her own composition. She gets a bit stuck a couple of times but it's very expressive. I don't expect you to watch it all. 

Just about every day she has a song for me like this. Life with Nellie is fun and I truly cherish these funny moments. I hope you enjoy Nellie's song.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Our experience :: living in NC with a disabled child (part 4)

Here we are on my final post about our experience of being expats in New Caledonia and how we manage daily life with our six-year-old son who has Cerebral Palsy.

You probably thought I'd forgotton about this post, being the final one in this series. To be honest, I'd put it off because right now endings are very much front-of-mind for me. This week I've had a girly sook twice after dropping the kids at school, thinking about how our time here is ending soon. 

Ilot Maitre
Back to business. So far I've covered school, which occupies much of Jack's time, and therapy. Today I will finish off with briefly covering the general topic of accessibility on this particular French tropical island.

So, accessibility.

As I touched on when writing about school, most of New Caledonia is not built with wheelchairs and prams in mind. Think broken or non-existent paths, heavy doors, narrow supermarket aisles. One of our local supermarkets has an upstairs section with no lift access. So I can only go to this supermarket with Jack if laundry and bathroom items aren't on the shopping list. Or alone (which, let's be honest, is the preferred method of shopping when you have small kids).

Riding bikes in the tropic rain
I also discovered that I couldn't take Jack with me into the local post office. Once up the small ramp I am greeted by two heavy doors. While battling to hold these two doors open, which would be threatening to flip me back outside, I swallow down expletives as I try to push a loaded stroller plus a whining toddler into a space about 2 metres square, already full of a queue of people. Visiting the post office is another Mummy-only event.

I only know of a couple of walking, waterfall or lookout attractions which have paved or smoothed walking tracks but none outside Noumea. We've carried Jack into only one waterfall on the east coast, which is a shame because there are lots of stunning waterfalls in that region. 

In all the time we've been here we've not visited the iconic lookout Coeur de Voh (Heart of Voh), less than an hour from where we live. The image features in lots of tourist advertising for New Caledonia but Jack is too heavy to carry such a distance (I take solace in the fact that apparently it's not as good from the lookout and that you really need to take a helicopter flight to see it).

Beach wheelchair on Amedee Island
This is not a whinge, just a fact which needs to be understood and expected. It's a shame but there it is. We would encounter similar problems worldwide however I know that National Parks in Australia and many other parts of the world increasingly have wheelchair access to allow everyone to enjoy their beauty. I do hope this catches on in New Caledonia very soon.

On the bright side, destinations such as the Noumea Aquarium des Lagons and Parc Zoologique et Forestier have good wheelchair access. We also had a really great experience at Phare Amedee where there is a beach wheelchair available to borrow through the tour company which totally made our day (I wrote about that experience here). The glass-bottom boat and boards with viewing windows for observing coral and fish were also great. 

Front row at a local music event
It's always worth asking about access for handicapé or chaise roulant, most places will do their best to accomodate with assistance on and off boats, accessible rooms and alternative entrances where possible.

In Noumea, one of our favourite things to do is just walk the fabulous promenade. It stretches all the way from Baie de Citron to  Anse Vata and beyond. Any time of day this is easy to navigate with a wheelchair or pram (except for days where there is a swim or cycling event, then nobody can navigate it!). The beaches are idyllic and shaded, full of families enjoying the clear water. Picnics are everywhere. Groups of men play petanque and cafes are close to hand. We love to go out to dinner and then work off the icecream with an evening stroll, admiring the twinkling lights and spotting the occasional cruise ship leaving port. And it's totally free and accessible.

The Aquarium
We know that the world is full of obstacles for Jack. Some are small, which we will overcome. Some are going to be too big to beat. Others will take more effort, and with lateral thinking, persistence and team effort we can conquer them. This is life. Deep, huh?

Ultimately New Caledonia is a great place to visit or live for a while. I really encourage it. It has made us better people in countless ways exactly because it has tested us. I guess that must be a positive thing or I wouldn't be tearing up every morning at the thought of leaving.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Our experience :: living in NC with a disabled child (part 3)

Hello! This is my third post in a series which attempts to lay down some context and tips on our family's personal experience of relocating from suburban Australia to la brousse in northern New Caledonia. My previous posts here and here covered school. This time I'm moving on to therapy and medical care.

The issues of therapy and medical care were top of mind for us when making the decision to come to the middle of the Coral Sea. Our son Jack needs regular physiotherapy to attend to his cerebral palsy. Although Jack has full oral control and communication skills, his condition means he can't walk independently and has poor limb and trunk control. He needs assistance with most activities including toilet and showering, mealtimes, transferring from lying to sitting to standing and in the classroom.


Therapy and medical care

We have been extremely fortunate that we were recommended to an excellent kinisitherapeute in the nearly town of Koné. Dom and her holiday replacement Olivier have both developed a great rapport with Jack and their methods of working have helped Jack to develop confidence and strength. 

First day with the new wheelchair in Noumea

For us there has not been much difference in cost of physiotherapy. In Australia we would be covered by the BetterStart system (given the allocated allowance for therapy) for Jack until age 7; here our expat insurance allowance covers most costs as well. The main difference is that we've not been able to get hydrotherapy or group therapy here so we do without and occasionally get into the pool to give Jack a good workout.

Disability equipment, especially paediatric equipment, is not readily available sur le caillou so all specialised equipment we have such as walkers, wheelchairs etc have been sourced from Australia.

Fortunately we've not needed to seek serious medical aid for Jack in New Caledonia. We are lucky that Jack doesn't suffer from complications such as epilepsy or heart problems. However for school vaccinations, chest infections and the like we've visited the local medecin, or general practitioner in our local town of Pouembout. 

The system for most doctors here is first in, first treated. Local GP's don't have small armies of receptionists taking appointments and frowning when you are late; instead, you take a seat (if there's one available) in the waiting room and wait. And wait. And wait. (Take a book. A good one). You take note of who's in the room when you arrive and who comes after you and wait your turn.

Finally (after you've finished your book and read every trashy French magazine available and come to the conclusion that French trashy mags are just as much a waste of time as Australian ones) it will be your turn. You will be rewarded with a relatively cheap but professional appointment. I have never come across a doctor who didn't speak English and I've always been happy with the medical service provided.

Our lovely local doctor charges about 4800f.  Payment is directly to the doctor in cash or cheque (no credit cards, take your cheque book. Nearly every business accepts them and in fact they are extremely commonly used at the supermarkets. Good practice for the tricky spelling of French numbers. The only exception I can think of is service stations - cash or card only). 

The other benefit of the French medical system is that pharmacy medicines seem to be cheaper than those in Australia. When my daughter had a chest infection our local doctor wrote a prescription for paracetamol, a nasal spray, cough suppressant and antibiotic. I was alarmed, thinking the whole lot would probably set me back $80. Imagine my surprise when it all came to less than the equivalent of $20. Again, the service and assistance I've had at every pharmacy I've been to on the island has been excellent.

The only interaction we've had with the hospital system was actually for myself, for the urgent treatment of kidney stones. The doctor I saw was extremely proactive and made a special effort to contact the sonographer in the next town to make sure he was available (only one in the region). She then contacted the private hospital in Noumea to make sure they would be expecting me that evening. I was admitted quickly, immediately connected to an IV and in surgery the next morning. The actual hospital conditions left a little to be desired (another blog post but some funny moments) but the medical care of doctors, specialist, anaesthetist and nurses was efficient.

It's important to note that New Caledonia doesn't have a lot of specialist medical services. For example, I have known many expat women here to have their babies locally but not with the same level of hospital quality they might get in their home country. Those with risky or problem pregnancies have opted to return to their home countries in time to birth their babies to make sure they had adequate medical support.

There is a medical clinic in our neighbouring town of Koné which is also an emergency room. There is a small hospital which also has a maternity section in the small town of Koumac, about an hour and a half to our north. We haven't used either of these services so I can't personally attest to their level of specialist care. The major hospitals, public and private, are in Noumea, over 3 hours to our south. 

We returned to Melbourne for 3 months for the surgery and rehab following Jack's major surgery last year. He had planned double femoral osteotomies which we knew would be sometime during our New Caledonian residency. We have travelled to Australia every 3 to 6 months for regular x-rays and medical and therapy reviews for the duration of our residency here, which is expensive but was always part of our plan. We keep in contact with all Jack's medical and therapy team via email to provide updates or if we need advice. They have all been very supportive and enthusiastic in making our situation workable. We really have been very fortunate.

If you are planning to travel to or live in to New Caledonia it's worth knowing all of this, particularly if you have a pre-existing condition. Pharmacy medicines here have different names and even different formulations so don't expect to easily top up on your own medicine here. For example, one of my medicines is not available in the same formulation here so I top up in Australia when I return, however I find it more convenient to buy medicines such as children's paracetamol here as it's cheaper and available without prescription.

My account can only give an inkling of the therapy and medical care available. The therapists and medical staff we've interacted with have all been excellent which has made our time here so much easier. But certainly each family must make those consideration carefully and with action plans and insurance cover should something go awry. Then you can relax and enjoy the French tropical lifestyle.

My last installment will be about accessibility. À plus tard!

Monday, 16 March 2015

Our experience :: living in NC with a disabled child (part two)

So this is the next part of our adventures on a French Pacific island with wheelchairs and walkers. As I write now we are watching the category 5 tropical cyclone Pam leave a path of destruction in nearby Vanuatu as it heads past the south of New Caledonia. The adventure never stops!

If you didn't catch part one, this series of posts is my attempt to impart a bit of firsthand knowledge of what it's like to have a normal life as an expat in New Caledonia with two small children, one of whom has cerebral palsy. It's the type of insight I searched for but failed to find when I did my own research before we embarked from Melbourne, Australia in 2012.

On y va...

Jack with his second aide Cynthia
Going to school (part 2)

Another hurdle we overcame, at least partly, was access to the school cantine - about 20 steep steps. The French school system has the option to enrol for a canteen lunch, which most families do. The alternative is to pick up your children at 11.30am, home for lunch and then back at 12.30. No lunch boxes here, which is probably not a bad idea given the climate (cheese sandwiches and bananas do not do well in a hot school bag, I still have vivid memories.....). 

It took over 6 months to convince the school director that we needed a ramp to enable canteen access. My inquiries up to this point were usually met with typically French shrugs and mumblings of "n'est possible". Unfortunately, even with the new ramp, Jack needed to be taken out the front gate, down the street a short distance where there was no footpath, and then pushed across a sports area to the canteen. A few months later the marie (council) finally paved a footpath as well. So now, although the long route to lunch, it is mainly paved although still quite a bit of muscle-work for his aide.

Sitting outside to listen to a book at school

Jack loves being able to stay at school for cantine. He sits with his class and is served a hot lunch. His aide eats lunch with him and helps where neccessary. After lunch he plays with his friends until classes restart. It's an opportunity we wouldn't have in Australia and we didn't want him to miss it.

The experience  of asking for and finally getting access to a school lunch highlighted the fact that our adopted community had not considered the possibility that wheelchair access might be needed at their school. Many Australians today would find that unusual. I think the resistance we felt in this instance was the rationale that building infrastructure for one child wasn't economical, although of course accessible ramps and paths are for the benefit of all and economics shouldn't come into it when discussing such a basic thing. We also see it as having helped to provide access for not just our child, but future children in the community with mobility difficulties.

This is not the case in all schools here. Two newer schools near the neighbouring town of Koné both have much better accessiblity, including lifts and handicapped parking spaces. My battle to find a carspace at our school to unload and reload the kids and the wheelchair is a weekly lesson in creative parking and muscle-building. It's a private battle that I'm not going to take further. I really can't see a handicapped parking spot being built. Some things just need to be endured!

First day of school this year
Despite the challenges, the sleepless nights, the disappointments and steep learning curves, being brave enough to tackle the French/New Caledonian school system is paying off. Jack speaks French with an accent that melts my heart. His marks in maths are great. He writes in a beautiful cursive that he wouldn't be taught in Australia but which belies his fine motor skill difficulties. He's a wonderful role model for his little sister Nellie who started at the same school last year at the age of 3. This year his reading of French has blossomed, adding to his wonderful English reading skills that we've fostered at home. And he has many friends who love him and greet him each morning with kisses (this is France, people) and cheers.

The next post in this series will be able how we've tackled therapy and medical care in the province nord of New Caledonia. Please feel free to message me any questions or your own similar experiences, which I'd love to hear, below or on the France has Coconuts Facebook pageÁ la prochain!