From a distance.

There’s something quite surreal about watching a news broadcast where all the pictures are familiar but the language is one you are yet to understand. As I stand in our Doha kitchen, spreading butter on my toast, the Arabic voice continues while waterlogged but familiar shots of my homeland appear on the screen. I’m completely gobsmacked. I haven’t had the lead up, the constant news updates, conversations at the office and the supermarket, this is my first piece of footage. I’ve heard some of the stories on twitter and facebook, I’ve read pieces in “The Australian” and personal stories on Mamamia but there’s an impact that arrives with seeing your home country in turmoil on International news.

When we lived in Jakarta, before the days of facebook and twitter, family and friends would phone from home with a slight hint of panic in their voice as they enquired if everything was okay. “Sure, why?” we’d ask. “Oh, we just saw footage of a riot and it looked crazy, they said 10,000 people had taken to the streets?” We’d explain that yes, they had, but it was brief and orchestrated, the demonstrators had packed up and gone home. In the meantime I’d been to the supermarket, G had had a round of golf, life had continued on as normal. We’d quickly downplay the incident almost feeling guilty that we’d unnecessarily worried people.

That’s what happens when you’re watching news from afar. You can’t help but immediately do a head count. You wonder if you should be worried? “They would have rang us if there was something to worry about” G tells me. I take another look at the screen “You better ring your parents” I say to G.

G is a Queenslander. This doesn’t mean he’s a high maintenance house on stilts. It means he uses terms like “smoko” when he’s having a break from doing something and when we go on holiday he becomes allergic to footwear.  For 12 years, everywhere we’ve traveled, people have usually opened the chat with “Where are you from?” G’s reply is always the same “Queensland”, then, just when you think he’s not going to say it this time, he adds with a smile and wink ……”God’s country”. Every time, every single time.

After he says goodbye to his father and puts down the phone, he gives me the run down. His parents have been in to the Brisbane city centre that morning, they volunteer at their church and today they’ve been in to close the doors. They are now safely back at the apartment, they have plenty of supplies. I know they’re fine, they’ve been expats and are originally from the country, they know about life without electricity. He gives me the run down on his country cousins, someone’s lost fencing, someone’s store is possibly flooded, cattle are loose and possibly gone, but everyone is safe and grateful. I pay special attention to the details as I know I will have to relate this information to my mother when she asks.

Granny Max is a Professor of Meteorology and river systems. Okay, so maybe she’s an Accountant, but after close to 50 years of living with my father in rural South Australia and listening to “The Country Hour” each day, she does a fairly good impression of someone who knows what they’re talking about. My home town is on the River Murray. I don’t think there’s one person in my town that doesn’t know about the flood of ’56. We grew up hearing constant references to ’56 almost as if it would be a crime to forget. My father had to catch a bus to the neighbouring town to go to school, everyone’s life was interrupted in some way. To someone of my generation it just means black and white pictures of people in small dinghy’s inside shops and halls, these pictures are hanging in sporting clubs and pubs, consequently we all grew up cruising along the “flood banks.”

I was a young child in the flood of ’74 but I remember walking down to a stretch of road with a small bridge and watching the water frantically power through it, the noise was incredible, the bridge had been completely destroyed, the road was broken in to pieces. I remember the story of the boy who drowned. G asked me last night where that bridge is and I realized for the 12 years we’ve been married, it’s been a dried up creek.

Until recently, my hometown like many others has been stuck by drought. People have gone broke, local business disappeared, water became a high priced commodity and a constant source of antagonism.

A couple of years ago in a time of desperate need, when there was constant fighting over allocations of water, our local member of Parliament said we would need “water of biblical proportions” to solve the problem. She wasn’t re elected. I wonder what she’s thinking right now? Did she think it would actually happen?

As I watched the BBC this morning I found myself getting irritated, Australia initially grabbed the first 3 minutes in its headlines but there are many other disasters today, flooding in Sri Lanka, suicide bombers in Afghanistan and political drama in Tunisia. I’m not going to get the details I want on the BBC or Al Jazeera. I want to know how fast and how far it’s traveling, where it’s going next, if the picture of the crocodile in the main street of Gympie is real. I want more personal stories, the kind I’d get on Australian morning TV, naturally I want to know when it’s going to make it’s way to where my parents are,  I know  this is not International news.

Luckily, today our internet signal strength is strong enough for ABC24, yesterday they removed their IP Geo-lock for expats, I’d love for them to do it permanently but it seems it’s strictly for disasters and elections. ABC news is information crack to an expat. Hands down the ABC in Australia has some of the best journalist in the world.

When I was thinking about my in laws this morning I wondered about their days as expats, how they received their news from home. No email, skype, facebook or twitter. I imagine an old newspaper or a very expensive phone call from home would have been a much cherished sole provider of news. Technology has improved the life of an expat dramatically, it’s provided the illusion of being “right there” until something like this happens and you realize it’s all a facade and you really are miles and miles away.

* about 5 minutes after posting the blog I heard that Leigh Sales was going to be on the BBC, I haven’t seen it as yet but I’ve heard she did a great job.

If you would like to donate to the thousands of families affected by flooding in Queensland you can do so here.

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