‘It feels almost naughty to leave’: for returned Australians, open borders bring new dilemmas – The Guardian

To live and work overseas is a rite of passage for many Australians. Life abroad, however, took on a new sense of fragility with the rise of Covid-19. More than a million Australian citizens were forced to choose between riding out the pandemic in a foreign country, or returning to the relative safety of Australia.

Since March 2020, it is estimated about half of those living abroad chose to come back, while tens of thousands wished to return but were unable to.

Those that did make it were forced to swiftly recalibrate to a life they thought they had left behind, but with travel bans lifted for fully vaccinated Australian citizens and permanent residents, a new choice has arisen.

For some, it is the moment they have been waiting months for, for others the start of a difficult decision making process, pitting new lives against old dreams.

Chillie Vary back in Australia after months of lockdown
‘It was scary, and getting worse, and I just knew I had to get home,’ says Chillie Vary, who is back in Australia after living in New York for six years.

Photograph: Chillie Vary

Chillie Vary had lived in New York for six years working as a landscape architect when Covid hit. Her apartment was just a few blocks from Brooklyn’s main hospital, giving her front row seats to the disaster of New York’s pandemic. “It was like the apocalypse,” says Vary. “Nothing was open. You couldn’t order food. The hotels were empty. It was scary, and getting worse, and I just knew I had to get home.”

The journey back to Australia was harrowing. Her visa was complicated, she was travelling with her dog, and she was forced to leave her American boyfriend behind.

Shortly after returning home to Melbourne in January of this year, she found herself plunged back into another lockdown. Months and months of confinement in Melbourne gave Vary “something that feels like PTSD” and an underlying sense of mistrust for the Australian and American governments. “It feels almost naughty to leave, like it’s against the rules. If I do manage to get back to New York, I’m scared I’ll never get home again.”

Vary says that Melbourne’s lockdowns prevented her from properly reestablishing her life. The state of emergency she felt in New York is still running hot in her mind. “No one really understands it here, the death,” she says, adding that her experience has been a polarising force when trying to calibrate to the local scene.

“I still don’t feel settled, almost a whole year after arriving back. My relationship ended, purely because of Covid. We thought we’d be back together by Christmas, but that won’t happen.”

Despite being desperate to get back to New York, the reopening hasn’t done much to buoy her hopes. “If I could get on a plane tomorrow, I would – but the cost? The rules? I just don’t think I will be getting back for a long time,” she says flatly.

But a long time does not mean never. “I think if you’re a true expat, you never get over that joy of living abroad.”

Global professional network Advance released a survey in March this year in which they spoke to 1,301 Australians living abroad about the circumstances under which they returned home in 2020 – and how Covid-19 had affected their decisions. The survey found that almost half of the Australians who had moved home – like Vary – intended to return overseas when the borders open or some time in the future. But 37% have decided to remain indefinitely.

The location of your home town became something of a lottery for returning Australians. If you were flying back to Melbourne, like Vary, the comparative shine of life abroad lingered. But what if your pandemic hideout was located in sunny Queensland?

Director Ashleigh McCready has split her time back in Australia between Noosa on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and her home town of Brisbane. With only a handful of brief lockdowns and more freedom than most other states, she has had a vastly different homecoming. Eighteen months after returning from Los Angeles, she is pregnant, engaged, and producing her very own stage show. “I love being back home, and I’m staying put,” she says.

Ashleigh McCready is producing a show in Australia after losing her ‘dream job’ with Cirque de Soleil in Los Angeles.
Ashleigh McCready is producing a show in Australia after losing her ‘dream job’ with Cirque du Soleil in Los Angeles. Photograph: Ashleigh McCready

But it wasn’t an easy road. Just a few months into her “dream job” as assistant creative director for Cirque Du Soleil based in Los Angeles, McCready was sent home to Brisbane for “a couple of weeks” to see out the pandemic. Before long, Cirque Du Soleil was forced to shut down. All shows were cancelled, 3,500 staff were let go, and in June 2020 they filed for bankruptcy.

McCready grappled with this upheaval from afar. “I was in a really bad place … I had worked my entire career to get to that point. To have that ripped from under my feet was devastating.” She felt isolated, with the response from locals being less than understanding. “There wasn’t much empathy for the entertainment industry. It was like ‘oh you better go find another job’.”

Thanks to Queensland’s relatively light-touch experience with lockdowns, however, she managed to scout an impressive assortment of local and expatriate talent to produce and direct an entirely new show, Cirque Bon Bon, showing this December at the Brisbane Powerhouse.

With life back home “falling into place”, international travel doesn’t hold the allure it once did. “At the start of my time in Brisbane, I was waiting for the next flight out. But now, I’m more excited to recreate what I had overseas … right here in Brisbane. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I would never have considered getting married or having a baby – so I’m incredibly grateful for how things turned out.”

The enforced stillness – and perhaps lack of choices – of locked-in life back home has changed other hearts too. Berny Nguyen and her husband, Vladamir, had been working for the cruise line industry since 2012, making “home” little more than a pit stop between contracts. “It’s taken a long time to accept that we were back for good,” says Nguyen. “I still haven’t unpacked some of my luggage!”

Berny Nguyen and her husband Vladamir back in Australia with their rescue dog Ernie
Berny Nguyen and her husband, Vladamir, back in Australia with their rescue dog, Ernie. Photograph: Berny Nguyen

A year-and-a-half on, the pair have moved back to her home town and set down roots. They adopted a foster dog, Ernie, and are considering starting a family. “When we first came back we didn’t want to commit to any long-term jobs, but now I’m in a full-time position which I really enjoy. It would be hard to leave.”

Life on deck feels further and further away. “We spent so much of our lives working and building an identity in one world – and now we have had to start a new chapter,” she says.

There are so many stories of young Australians having their time abroad cut off prematurely – but what about those at the other end of their careers? Anna Odfeldt, 54, and her husband, Mikael, 62, had just moved abroad when Covid hit. Mikael was working as a management consultant in Amsterdam and Anna, retired, had been waiting decades to travel.

“We never had the chance to live and work overseas when we were younger – we went straight from school, to marriage, to mortgage, to kids. But our children had finally grown up, so we were at an age where we could leave them and go and have that experience,” she says.

“Our children had finally grown up, so we were at an age where we could leave them”. Anna and Mikael Odfeldt in Amsterdam, before the pandemic.
‘Our children had finally grown up, so we were at an age where we could leave them.’ Anna and Mikael Odfeldt in Amsterdam, before the pandemic. Photograph: Anna Odfeldt

After seeing out the first year of European lockdowns in Amsterdam, the Odfeldts were pulled back to their children, and the stability of Australia’s healthcare system. But the disappointment of thwarted retirement plans is hard to shake. “One of our big dreams was to bring the kids to us in Europe and show them where their family is from.”

When news of the border closure ending was announced, Anna said that she was sceptical, but hopeful. “I was very excited for the simple reason that it finally gave us some choices.” As time goes on, however, that window of unencumbered opportunity may shrink.

“My levers right now are around my children,” says Anna. “I’m not a grandmother yet, but once that happens, we will have a very different conversation. I wouldn’t leave again if I had grandkids.”