This is the final post in a three-part series about a teacher exchange involving the Hallman/Foxcroft family from Port Sydney and an Australian family, the Hills. Here you’ll read about the two families meeting face-to-face for the first time in Vancouver at the end of the exchange, and their thoughts on how the experience has impacted them all.
By Mara Hallman
As I sit here writing this article, looking out the window at the snow-topped trees, it’s hard to believe just two months ago we said goodbye to the beaches of Newcastle, Australia.
At the time, the fires in Australia were burning fiercely, and in the last few weeks we had to limit our time outside as the smoke was thick and burned our throats. It was hard to leave Australia in such a state; over the past year we developed a love and appreciation for the country, its unique geography, stunning beaches, and most of all the amazing people who welcomed us.
The irony of the exchange process is that it takes time to truly get to know people. The reality is that one feels closest to people just at the time when you have to turn your mind to leaving. It was hard to see our daughters upset in the days prior to our departure. A part of me felt guilty, knowing all along that leaving would be a challenge. However, at the same time, I was aware Joan and Ellie were sad because they had opened their hearts to some beautiful people, and there is an important life lesson in being so vulnerable and open.
The year-long exchange has been life-changing for both our family and the Hill family, who were here in Muskoka. We agreed that one of the biggest gifts of the exchange was having so much concentrated family time. I know many will relate to the experience of wanting to protect family time, only to have it negotiated away by outside commitments and roles. This past year, we created so many memories together, and through our experiences we gained a deeper knowledge and appreciation of each other.
Returning home, our family has committed to trying to protect more time for the four of us. Friends and family might hear us remark we are unavailable some weekend because we are “in Australia.” This is our way of protecting nonnegotiable family time on the calendar.
After writing our last article for Huntsville Doppler, we had many more adventures. We met friends in New Zealand and explored the South Island on an epic road trip which included swimming with wild dusky dolphins.
En route back to Canada, we stopped for 10 days in Thailand and explored the northern part of the country. We wanted our daughters to return home with an appreciation of the many ways we lead privileged lives in both Australia and Canada.
Thailand provided remarkable scenery, cultural experiences, and the best food we have ever eaten. While in Thailand our youngest daughter developed a new mantra: when faced with an unfamiliar food she would ask if it was going to be spicy, but ultimately decided that even if it was, “it wasn’t going to kill her.” This new mantra spoke to the commitment our family made over this past year to embrace new experiences with an open mind.
At the end of December, after our travels in Thailand, we arrived in Vancouver to meet the Hill family. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to meet people you’ve never seen face-to-face but who you know intimately having lived in their home, and having become friends with their colleagues, family, and friends.
There was much anticipation about meeting the Hills—a sort of “there-they-are moment,” but immediately it felt like we had known each other for years and there was so much to discuss and share. It was refreshing to speak with another family who could so closely understand and appreciate what this past year has been like; we talked nonstop about our adventures, funny miscommunications, and what we loved about each other’s homes and communities. The kids got along easily, as if they too sensed a familiarity and connection. Kathryn and I shared the feeling that over the past year we came to see each other‘s home as our own.
While in Vancouver we shared in some local adventures, my favourite being FlyOver Canada, a virtual ride which showcases Canada from coast to coast. My favourite moment was when we “flew” over the autumn leaves and cottage rooftops of Muskoka and our crowd let out a cheer of acknowledgement. The experience was a fitting tribute to the Hills’ time in Canada, and our return home.
It was truly an amazing experience to hand over our lives to complete strangers and then have them appreciatively hand them back to us a year later. Andrew and I feel so blessed to have been matched with the Hill family (aka Team Hill) and we hope to stay in contact for years to come. Our two families will forever be bound by this past year, which we both agreed was the best year of our lives. Our experiences have seeped into our lives in ways we probably aren’t even fully aware.
I know we will think of the Hills and our Australian friends every December when we hang our Aussie Christmas decorations, every time an Australia song is played in our home, when we make “caramel squares” or “smashed avo,” or admire the keepsakes and photos now on display throughout our home.
Coming home to Port Sydney was a surreal experience. As we pulled into our driveway, our youngest daughter, Ellie, remarked that the slide in our backyard was smaller; of course, it wasn’t the slide that had changed, but herself. A lot does change in a year: the kids in our neighbourhood look older, the trees in our backyard are taller, some folks have a few more grey hairs (us included). We also came home to the reality of loss, and to loved ones who were ill and have since passed away—leaving gaps in our lives that were not there when we left just over a year ago. For me, these losses make the gifts of our experience even more cherished, for life really is a mixture of hardships, challenges, and beautiful opportunities.
Coming home to Muskoka also made me realize how much I value the community here. There is something very grounding and comforting in being surrounded by people who are familiar. For the first few weeks, any outing in the community required extra time as we were bound to run into someone who warmly welcomed us home, and wanted to hear about our adventures—these encounters have left us feeling deeply cared for. I even found myself excited to see a familiar cashier at a grocery store, or the receptionist at my doctors office—people I don’t know by name but who contribute to the sense of being home and belonging somewhere.
Another realization upon returning is just how much time dealing with the snow takes. After a year break from what we now call “snow management”, we realize how many hours we Muskokans spend snow-blowing, shovelling, and scraping. It’s a good thing we love cross-country skiing, winter fires, and ice-skating—activities that make up for all the snow work.
We’ve already hosted our first Aussie visitors, with more visits in the works for the months and years ahead; I know the Hills are also excited to show off their hometown to Canadian friends.
There are many people, both in Canada and Australia, who supported our exchange in so many ways. Both of our families are blessed with supportive and amazing colleagues, friends, and families, who dedicated much time to seeing us off and welcoming us home.
It’s also really important to acknowledge both the Canadian Educators Exchange Foundation (CEEF) and the Independent Education Union (IEU), incredible organizations that supported our match and the exchange process. While in Australia, we learned that CEEF is no longer excepting applications for Canadian teacher exchanges. We were so sad to hear this as the experience has not only been life-changing for our families, but also incredibly valuable for Kathryn and Andrew who have gained so much knowledge working in different school systems. They are bringing home new concepts, ideas, and approaches to their teaching communities and we hope there will be continued efforts to advocate for the reopening of CEEF.
Most of all, I would like to acknowledge our children (both the Foxcrofts and the Hills). Thinking back to when I was their age, I am not sure if I would’ve been so open to the idea of moving my life to another country for a year. They have each gained so much from this experience and I am grateful for their resilience and willingness to embrace so much change and transition.
Shortly after arriving home, Kathryn messaged me and shared that some days she feels like the exchange was all a dream. I shared in this feeling; we have so easily fallen back into our regular routines—some mornings as I drive in to work I find myself wondering if we even went at all. Yet, I am also aware we have all been changed by this experience and have returned home different from when we left.
I think what I have valued most about this experience is the realization that we don’t have to be the way we always were. If you are open to them, there are always new experiences to explore and opportunities to connect with the people around you—the reality is we don’t have to go far from home to find them.
Read the other two posts in this series here:
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