Swapping country life for mountains

By Shepparton News

Some people live all their lives in the same village, creating deep connections to place, people and community.

Others travel the world and build new networks wherever they land, but the memories of some places linger.

The News’ chief of staff John Lewis speaks to two former Shepparton residents who left to live and work in the United States.

Six years ago, the head of Shepparton’s University of Melbourne School of Rural Health Professor Dawn DeWitt and husband Alan Talbot swapped country Australia for the mountains of Canada and north America.

Skiing, bicycling and donning wet-weather gear became part of their daily routines as they found work and saw their two children — Morgan and Lauren — finish school in Vancouver and move on to university.

The siblings attended Goulburn Valley Grammar School until they left for Canada.

This week, Prof DeWitt and Mr Talbot were back in Shepparton on a fleeting visit and happy to reflect on life in the United States compared to their eight years in Australia.

For United Kingdom-born Mr Talbot, this is his first return visit to Australia since leaving in 2012.

US-born Prof DeWitt has returned twice for professional conferences.

The simple things are always the most obvious when you have just arrived after a 16-hour flight.

‘‘We miss the sunshine, the fresh air and the food, the gum trees and the birds,’’ Prof DeWitt said.

‘‘And the coffee,’’ Mr Talbot said, ‘‘Starbucks is no comparison.’’

After leaving Shepparton, the family spent nearly four years in Vancouver, Canada, where Prof DeWitt took up a position as Associate Dean at British Colombia University.

There, she was in charge of more than 290 students and helped change the curriculum to open a new part of the medical school.

Mr Talbot took up a consulting role in design and quality at British Colombia Children’s Hospital.

Movies and money

The couple said Vancouver was vibrant but expensive.

‘‘Lauren said ‘we’re going to have half the house for four times the money’,’’ Mr Talbot said.

‘‘It was like the LA of the north — a lot of the big TV movies are made there.

‘‘Everywhere you go in Vancouver you’d see TV and film sets. I’d ride my bike to work and pass them.

‘‘Then you’d see a film on TV that was supposedly set in New York but we recognised it from Vancouver,’’ he said.

While in Shepparton, the family made deep connections to the arts and business communities.

Mr Talbot joined Rotary, while Prof DeWitt used her musical skills playing clarinet with Goulburn Valley Orchestra.

Both appeared in several musical theatre productions with Shepparton Theatre Arts Group and Echuca Musical Theatre.

A special place

Prof DeWitt said they had found nothing like the opportunities for community involvement in Vancouver or in Spokane, Washington, where they now live.

‘‘There’s nothing like that there,’’ Prof DeWitt said.

‘‘This place (Shepparton) is pretty special.

‘‘We’re so sorry we just missed Wicked.

‘‘We miss the community spirit — individuals making a difference. That’s harder to find in a city,’’ she said.

Life, liberty and guns

On a broader scale, they believe the quality of life is better in Australia than in the US.

‘‘Americans think they have a better quality — but they don’t,’’ Mr Talbot said.

‘‘The gun laws for instance are crazy. It’s so fascinating — people have this strange myopia when it comes to gun laws.’’

Drink-driving is also more common where they live compared to Australia.

‘‘There’s no roadside testing — it’s about personal liberty,’’ Mr Talbot said.

Being health professionals, they notice big gaps in health care compared to Australia.

Prof DeWitt works in a clinic for the homeless where she deals with the human cost of America’s lack of basic healthcare.

‘‘I can diagnose people straight away — but to get them what they need is so difficult.

‘‘I can spend three hours with a social worker and a nurse just to get somebody a pair of socks if they have a foot ulcer or something that’s causing them pain. It’s ridiculous,’’ she said.

Mr Talbot said opposition to a national health system was ingrained in the American psyche.

‘‘What’s bizarre is that people don’t believe they should pay for other people to get healthcare.

‘‘People make comments like ‘why should I pay for my neighbour to help remodel their bathroom?’

‘‘There’s not a feeling that some level of health care should be there as a national standard,’’ he said.

Oz dreaming

There are some things the couple does not miss about Australia — such as Aussie drivers’ attitudes to cyclists.

‘‘We commute to work by bicycle and I don’t miss Australian motorists taking you out on the bike,’’ Mr Talbot said.

But while their children head into careers in medicine and engineering in the US, the couple is still dreaming of Australia.

‘‘At least every other week I think about moving back here,’’ Prof DeWitt said.

‘‘The schools and health care here is so much better. I’ve just published an article in a big medical journal in America on the difference between practising here and America.

‘‘It got a fair amount of attention. Practising here and taking care of patients is so much better — Australians have no idea how lucky they are.’’