2001 Annual Letter
25 December 2001
Table of Contents

G'day from the US of A

That’s right, mates! We have not yet entirely lost our Australian quality but we have certainly learned to appreciate some of what life has to offer here in the USA. However, let’s back up a bit for the benefit of those who may not have caught up with us since the 2000 annual letter.

First a word of explanation about authorship. Majella claims, with some justification, that, as chief foreign e-mail correspondent, she has written so much and so often in the past few months that her readers might appreciate a different point of view. So, under great pressure and rather later than she or I intended (I’m starting this on Christmas Day), it seems it is down to me to write the annual tale of the Albion family for 2001. That’s a first, so enjoy it because it may not happen again, especially if Majella wants the letter out before Christmas in future.

This year has been great but it could scarcely have been more different from 2000. In 2000 we were all living in Toowoomba. Jane, Lea, Emily, Joel & Sam were renovating a house in Debra Street which was within easy walking distance of Marguerita Court. Nick was back in Toowoomba to complete his engineering degree and was sharing a house near the university campus. Hannah was home from her exchange in the USA and completing her education degree. That was all about to change.

Our mobile children

A little before Christmas 2000 Nick packed his bags and set out to seek his fortune in the wide world. He traveled to the UK where he celebrated Christmas in London before traveling to Edinburgh where he celebrated New Year with the Michies. In January he traveled to Copenhagen where he had an interview arranged for a job. He reported that he thought he probably could have had the job but eventually decided against it. He thought that the Danes, especially the young women, were a beautiful people, but he did not care much for their taxation system which he thought might collect almost 50% of his income and had some concerns about working in a place where he could not reliably interpret even the street signs. He returned to London where he had an offer of a job for very good money using his structural steel drafting skills but decided he had done enough of that. After some more searching he managed to land a job with Sony Semiconductor in Basingstoke which is a couple of hours to the south west of London. With the job settled he found accommodation in Basingstoke and moved out there to live. While waiting for his work permit for Sony to be arranged he managed to find a variety of temporary work mostly in bars and kitchens.

Hannah also moved out in January, to start her first teaching position at Marymount Primary School behind Burleigh Heads at the Gold Coast. She and a friend leased an apartment at Carrara and managed to get together enough furniture and other household goods to set themselves up comfortably. Everybody, especially Matt, who helped them move must have wished they had less goods and chattels since it required several trips from Toowoomba to the coast before they were settled and ready for school to begin.

Jane and Lea also had some early changes going on, with Joel starting school and Sam off to preschool. Emily progressed to Year 3. With Lea in the business and Jane doing some part time teaching, there was plenty happening in the Batham household.

On the home front

Majella started the year without a single full time job but, with some teaching in Psychology, some more teaching in Education and work on various projects running in the Psychology department, she managed to keep busy enough. I continued in my job at USQ while considering options for broadening my experience with at least a period of time in foreign parts.

The first week of March saw me attending a conference in Orlando, Florida. On the way I visited Iowa State University where I had been invited to discuss possible employment. That opportunity did not eventuate as expected but, through contact with Peg Ertmer, I was able to arrange a visiting position at Purdue University in Indiana from August 2001 until May 2002. USQ was kind enough to grant leave without pay for that time and contributed to the cost of travel. Discussions with Purdue began at the end of March and it was well into April before the arrangements could be formalized.

Just before I left for the USA in February I had been to the doctor to have something minor checked. He decided that he did not like the look of a mole that I had been watching on my right shoulder for some years. A day or so after I arrived back from the USA I had it removed for biopsy and it was found to be a very early stage melanoma. I had minor surgery a few days later to remove a larger piece of skin. The surgeon is confident that it is all gone and poses no further risk though it should be watched.

During March, Jane had applied for and been offered a teaching position at South Burnett Catholic College in Kingaroy, a P-12 school formed from the secondary school where I was principal from 1980 to 1983 and the primary school where Jane completed years 2 to 5 and Nick completed years 1 to 3. Jane and Lea had been considering a move because she wanted to teach and Lea wanted a change from the business he had been operating successfully for 12 years. They decided to accept the opportunity which meant selling house and business in Toowoomba and moving to Kingaroy. They managed to rent a house in Kingaroy and Jane started work in Kingaroy towards the end of April. For the first couple of months they were back and forth to Toowoomba most weekends sorting out business and getting their house ready for sale. They sold it in August and shortly after bought a house in Kingaroy. I truly admire Lea for being brave and generous enough to make such major changes to give Jane her chance at teaching. The first year in Kingaroy has been hard work for them both but, with housing settled and all three children in school, 2002 should allow them a chance to settle into their new lives.

April was full of excitement for the rest of us too. Nick, Hannah, Majella and I all graduated from USQ in three different ceremonies on two weekends a fortnight apart. Nick returned from England for his graduation and to remove the remainder of his gear to England where he expects to be working for Sony for at least the next 2 to 3 years. His graduation with honours was a fitting celebration of eight years of study most of it done part time while supporting himself in a full time job. Hannah graduated with distinction and finished with the top result in her program. Majella and I collected our doctorates. The four of us managed to make it onto the front page of the Toowoomba Chronicle. The party we held to mark the occasion did multiple duty for the graduations, farewell to Nick, farewell to Jane and Lea and was the first of the farewells for Majella and me.

Clear the decks

With graduations over and knowing we were off to the USA at the end of July, it was down to business at home and at work. Comfortable as we were at 11 Marguerita Court, the house had been designed to accommodate us when we had three teenage children at home and we were becoming less certain that it was the house we needed for two of us and occasional guests including returning children and grandchildren. We had already thought about selling it and buying another house in Toowoomba. So we decided that, rather than move out, lease the house for a year and then return and probably decide to sell it, we would be better to sell it before we left for the USA. There was an urgent flurry of activity in the garden and Majella, with some advice and assistance from a professional (Matt), filled the holes in the plaster left by her numerous hangings and freshened up the paintwork. Early in May we put it on the market but, because we needed somewhere to live until the end of July, we were not keen for an immediate sale.

As it happened, we sold the house, in late May, to the first people who seriously looked at it. Fortunately for us the house they were selling was on a long contract and they were looking for a long contract with settlement in early August. That suited us since it would allow us to stay in the house until close to our departure on 28 July and meant that we would still be there to entertain our visitors from Switzerland in mid-July.

May and June were something of a blur as we worked on tidying up loose ends at work and home, while at the same time making arrangements for travel to the USA. Using the Internet I managed to locate and arrange a lease on an apartment at Blackbird Farms in West Lafayette. Because I was committed to attend a conference in Copenhagen at the end of July, my travel was being funded by USQ and had to be arranged through them. Majella’s travel had to be arranged separately through a travel agent but we needed to be booked on the same flights. It was the end of June by the time we had all of that in place, including a weekend with Nick in Basingstoke and a side trip to New York for our thirtieth anniversary in December.

By the start of July we were partly packed and had already had the obligatory garage sale. Travel arrangements were put on hold temporarily while we entertained our visitors from Switzerland. We had been looking forward to that since we visited them in Switzerland in 1998 and were not about to let a small thing like moving halfway round the world stop us from enjoying their visit. Marie-Francoise, Roland and Michel arrived on 7 July and from then until their departure on 18 July Majella played hostess and tour guide. One of our recollections of our visit to Switzerland was musing one day about the possibility of taking about a 4 hour drive to any one of four different countries. Majella treated the Swiss to around 3000 km of driving in SE Queensland. Each time they went out they wondered if they might need their passports. It was a fun and memorable visit for them and us, capped by a weekend in the Bunya Mountains with the other members of our family group. For me, the most challenging part was the dinner at which Majella entertained our visitors together with Willy Muller, a Swiss living in Toowoomba, and his wife and two sons. Nine people for dinner with eight fluent (or at least passable in Majella’s case) French speakers, three with limited English. I think I caught a few phrases but we all managed to have a good time. We enjoyed every moment of their visit and it seemed a fitting conclusion to our time at Marguerita Court.

On the move

Farewell to the Swiss, and we had just over a week to finish packing, send our household goods into storage, sell the car and leave the country. All of that had to be fitted in around a hectic series of fond farewells from family and friends. We managed it with surprisingly few hitches and on the morning of Saturday, 28 July drove to Brisbane to catch our flight. One final farewell from family at the airport and we were off, via Hong Kong and London, to Copenhagen where I presented two papers at the World Conference on Computers in Education. The following Friday we returned to London where Nick met us and entertained us in and around Basingstoke. Then it was back in the air on Sunday, headed for the USA. Peg and Dave Ertmer met us at the airport in Indianapolis and drove us to Lafayette to start our adventures in the USA.

I am not going to offer a blow by blow description of our time in the USA. Majella has covered that in her regular email dispatches. If you have not been receiving those and want the full saga you should write to her at <malbion@mac.com>. What follows is a very brief account of some of our activities.

We arrived in the USA on 5 August. I was scheduled to start work on 13 August with classes commencing on 20 August. Dave generously loaned us his van for a couple of days so on Monday we set about gathering basic furnishings and other household necessities. By Tuesday evening we had basic furnishings and had bought a car. By the weekend we were well enough settled to begin exploring the local area and the following weekend we ventured up to an Amish area in northern Indiana. We have continued our explorations and most weekends we have headed off for a day on the (mostly back) roads of Indiana. Our trips have included the Oktoberfest in Michigan City (Indiana) on the first weekend of September (apparently there were too many competing events in October), Middlebury Amish Festival, Brown County to see the Fall colours, Putnam County for Turkey Run State Park and the covered bridges, Indianapolis for the Art Gallery, Chicago and Wisconsin on Thanksgiving weekend and Louisville (Kentucky).

We have especially enjoyed serendipitous discoveries of places such as the Mexican Restaurant where we ate at nearby Delphi on the way home from the Amish Festival, the cheese shop and taxidermist in Dayton and Marengo Caves in southern Indiana. It has given us an appreciation of the hidden treasures of the US Midwest and a renewed interest in exploring the Australian countryside to see what treasures it might hold.

Majella found the first few weeks very hard. With no job, and not even the necessary papers to seek paid employment, she was stuck in the apartment with little to do. That did not last long. She quickly arranged voluntary work at the Hanna Community Center and joined the Sweet Adelines. Her connection at Hanna got us both into a 6 week Spanish class. Majella has added to her involvement by joining a voluntary counseling project (The Harbor), taking up with a group of older women she met through church and various other activities. There have been weeks when she was out practically every night and had things happening during the days as well. Although she has recently applied for a couple of jobs (her papers finally came through) I’m not sure where she would find the time. I expect she will find it almost as hard to tear herself away and return to Australia as she did to get here.

Work in the USA

I have been enjoying the experience of working in a different environment. The classes I am teaching cover similar material to classes I have taught at USQ but the institution is substantially larger (over 35000 students on campus compared to 4500) and the culture is different. Students expect to do well and many are visibly (sometimes vocally) disappointed if they don’t. Most are looking to receive As and, though an occasional B may be acceptable, Cs and Ds are not generally welcome. I had around 15 h each week of classes and class related meetings. Much of that was with sections in courses coordinated by others but I had one course for which I was entirely responsible. Since I had little time to prepare before classes started that kept me busy for the first month or two but eased off once I had the basic material prepared. Some of the classes included lab exercises which were turned in for grading each week. Coming from a system where students typically had no more than 2 or 3 assessment items each semester, the frequent grading was a major adjustment. There probably is little or no more grading overall but the load for students and faculty is spread much more evenly across the semester. My teaching assignment is essentially the same for Spring semester so I expect that will be a little easier going.

At the same time as teaching here, I have been teaching online classes for USQ. I taught 2 courses with a total of around 75 students from July until November and, although I had somebody else do the marking for 20 students, that kept me busy most nights. I have 47 students in one course from November until February. After that I should be done with my USQ commitments until we return to Toowoomba in late May.

The US academic year does not allow much in the way of breaks, especially in Fall semester. There is a long summer break from mid-May until mid-August and there seems to be an effort to maximize the use of time in the rest of the year. Fall semester included the equivalent of a week of break, two days of Fall break in September and 3 days at Thanksgiving in November. There are just 3 weeks between the end of Fall semester finals on 14 December and the start of classes for Spring semester on 7 January.

Holiday doings

We have tried to make the most of the time I had between 14 December and 2 January when I need to be back on campus to prepare for classes. On Saturday 15 December we drove 3 hours or so down to Louisville in Kentucky to spend some time with MaryJo Milburn who I met at a conference in Birmingham in 1995. We visited the Kentucky Derby Museum, saw some local sights and enjoyed a pleasant dinner with MaryJo and friends We drove back on Sunday via the scenic route (see Majella’s recent account) on the Sunday. On the following Tuesday we drove to Indianapolis from where we flew to New York to celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary. That was an enjoyable but exhausting experience as we managed to fit in quite a lot of walking around the city. We arrived home very late on Thursday night. On Saturday afternoon we drove to Chicago where we met Nick who had come, via Iceland (see his saga for details), for Christmas.

Until that time winter here had been unusually mild and there had been no snow at all. Historically, Greater Lafayette has less than 50% chance of a white Christmas and it was looking like a definite “no show” for snow in 2001. That all changed on Sunday afternoon as we stepped out to go to the movies with Nick and noticed the first few flakes falling. By the time we came out of the movies there was enough of a dusting to qualify as a white Christmas, at least for us. There were more flurries on Monday and we were greeted by falling snow as we stepped out of midnight mass. Majella has clearly inherited some of her mother’s uncanny lucky streak – pity she has not yet learned how to use it for monetary gain.

Christmas morning we slept in before getting up to have breakfast and open presents. Majella had made preparations for the full Christmas spread - roast turkey with home made cranberry sauce and vegetables followed by pumpkin pie, caramel apple pie, ice cream and a near equivalent of Nick’s favourite broken glass pudding. Nick built a mini-snowman and we managed a walk across the street by the frozen pond while waiting for the turkey to cook. After a late lunch Peg and Dave came around to visit and we finished by completing Majella’s Australian jigsaw puzzle, which was one of her gifts from her parents, Vince & Dulcie. As Nick said, it was the best American white Christmas we ever had.

On Wednesday we drove north to Michigan City where we had a quick look at the mix of sand and ice on the cold and windy foreshore of Lake Michigan. We drove into Michigan for a quick look at the village of Three Oaks (home of the Prancer movies) where we saw a picture postcard snowy landscape but no sign of reindeer – probably on vacation in the tropics. From there we drove to Chicago where we strolled along the Magnificent Mile in the wind and snow. We spent the night in a motel near O’Hare airport where we dropped Nick this morning (27 December) to catch his flight back to Basingstoke.

What a year!

It has been an amazing and memorable year, full of interesting and challenging new experiences. It has sometimes been hard being so far away from family and friends. That has been especially true in moments of crisis such as the events of September 11 and at times of celebration in which family and friends are the focus such as at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We have had each other and at times it has had echoes of those first years setting up home together. We have had email and the telephone for contact with family and friends but there have been times when keeping “in touch” that way has been a poor substitute for physical contact. Despite the occasional difficulties both of us are glad to have had the opportunity for this extended time in a different part of the world.

This has blown out to a somewhat longer piece than I had anticipated. I hope that, and its lateness, might persuade Majella to resume the task next year. Until then, may God bless you all and keep you safe until we see you again.

Peter & Majella

Last updated: March 30, 2002
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