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Moving back to Ireland would mean working till 10pm, no home of my own and bad coffee

It’s sad when the numbers say you’re better off leaving Ireland

Emigration is a matter of arithmetic, but not necessarily a straightforward one. Not for me at least, or for anyone who is not adept at quantifying a life.

There are the lists, for one thing. Endless lists. The things to do. The visa checklists. The people to call or email. The things to rehome. The things to take. The things to store and the things to buy. The things to pitch on to a ship and send to Australia because your best guess suggests they’ll probably still be relevant to your as-yet theoretical new life when they arrive in six to nine months’ time.

Then, when they arrive you look through the boxes and think, “who was that person? The one who packed this teapot or these sheets or this scarf?”

There are the lists once you arrive. Lists of rental properties to look at and bank accounts to open and forms to fill in. Lists of utilities to set up. Everything seems to come down to numbers in the end as you sit, jetlagged, on a foreign floor next to a foreign socket and realise that nobody has packed enough adaptors. That even after you eventually buy enough adaptors, your electricity bill is less than half the price in Australia and you can’t quite compute why that might be when you’re heating the place in winter and cooling it in summer. That chicken is cheaper and so is beef and so is rent, yet the price difference is paid in time and distance from home.

There are costs to every decision, whether you stay or you go.

The other night, himself and I went out for dinner with a couple of friends here in the Australian capital. For steak, to be precise, because Australians are excellent at food in general, but they have a particular gift when it comes to steak, and it was a special occasion. The food is one of the elements of this country that took me by surprise – just how good most food and drinks are. You don’t have to be in the vaunted restaurants that make Sydney’s international culinary reputation.

You can wander into many eateries here in Canberra and stumble out an hour later, sonneting sonnets about what you anticipated would be a humble salad or a quick sandwich. You can order a casual cup of coffee to go in most cafes and find your knees locking in the street when you take a sip as your brain tells your legs to “hang on just a moment” so it can appreciate the rich flavour. The silken milk that whispers over your palate like a softly spoken word of reassurance, and you look at the cup in astonishment and you think of overpriced cups of burnt coffee in Dublin chain cafes.

For a moment, you can’t imagine why you’d go back.

In this nice Canberra steak restaurant, where steak and sides for four, two starters and drinks cost €200 all round, a British friend asked me whether I was experiencing pangs of longing for home. They too are relatively recent immigrants to Australia, but spoke of being a little surprised that on internal examination they could find no longing at all for their native London. “There is room for reflection here,” they said. “I don’t know if it’s something about the vastness of the landscape, or the slower pace of life.”

Or perhaps, they said, it is because they leave their place of work at the end of each day and are almost never bothered by an out-of-hours email. That the culture here is one that values family time and free time more highly than they do in London and seeks not to encroach upon it wherever possible.

I thought about how different my life is in Australia to the one I led in London, and in Dublin before that. It was entirely usual that I would still be working at my desk at home at 10pm most nights. Most of my money evaporated on commuting to and from wherever I was then earning money, and buying terrible cups of overpriced coffee to stay awake while there. My guts seemed linked to my email inbox so that every ping caused my stomach to somersault in anticipation of bad news, a task I didn’t want to undertake, or another employer explaining why they would pay me (a freelancer), for the work I completed two months ago, in 12 weeks’ time. Then I would do the numbers – figure out the bills and the groceries and how much more work I would have to take on to compensate, hoping that the money would come in when it was supposed to.

I thought about my friend’s question – whether I was missing home.

Figuring out the answer seems to be a problem of arithmetic. Weighing costs against benefits and counting up the difference. Because yes. Yes and, then again, no. Like most of us, if I had unlimited funds I would live differently. I would spend the summer in Ireland, filling my niece and nephew’s laughing little faces with sugar and mincing my stiff toes into still-chilly June seawater. I’d make a base in west Cork and fill my lungs with that whirring, hay-sweet summer air, watching the sea unfold into the vast horizon.

Yet, that’s a fantasy life.

It isn’t the one that awaits if I return to Ireland.

There would be no easy pink lungs filled with summer air. It would be hunched at a desk working till 10pm again and being unable to afford a home. It would be burnt chain coffee and endless frustration with a bafflingly disconnected Government. It would be an instant itching to be gone, knowing that basic comfort is not all that easy to achieve at home. Knowing how many are struggling already.

That is the arithmetic of emigration.

The costs you must consider because you pay one way or the other. There is the kind of life you desire – one where you can stop and catch your breath for a moment – and there is the place you love most, but where you have to run after yourself so that you can never quite stop and fill your lungs.

Most of us cannot have both, so you calculate the costs, and you pick.

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