My husband and I were at San Francisco International Airport on a warm night in late July. Bags checked, phone calls made, dinner enjoyed, black passports in hand. Time to go. I strolled up to the departure gate in a long queue of passengers for the flight to Sydney, trying to appear nonchalant. In the pit of my stomach was this dread that one of the eagle-eyed Qantas gate agents would confront me about my carry-on baggage weighing two dozen kilos above the limit. They were all the right dimensions, but if anyone lifted them, they would have been aghast.
I was ready with all my smiles and reasons – diplomatic posting and requirements to hand-carry government property and valuables, etc. Do you have any idea what a pain in the ass it is to PCS while carrying on all of your precious jewelry, personal records, computer equipment, electronics, prescription medications, training notes and work papers, and the embassy’s heavy paper medical package? Fortunately, I rocked up, was wished a pleasant flight, and breezed through. I settled into my aisle bulkhead seat with a sigh of relief.
Somehow the 13+ hour flight passed in a flash. I’d figured I would watch a few films, especially as I can never sleep sitting up. However, most of the flight was in pitch black, as Qantas tried to ease the strain of us leaving on a Thursday evening and miraculously arriving on a Saturday morning, and the glow of my TV in the dark cabin annoyed even me. As Friday disappeared into the Pacific Ocean, I listened to podcasts in the cool darkness, remaining alert as an owl while everyone around me dozed hour after hour.
We had a two hour layover in Sydney, which ended up being barely enough time to pass immigration, baggage claim, agricultural inspection and customs, baggage recheck, security, and shuttle to the domestic terminal. But incredibly, since the Aussies have their act all the way together, it somehow went off relatively smoothly. After a short delay for fog, we flew the 50 minute flight to Canberra. I was initially peeved at having to gate-check my carry-ons, but the plane was so small I literally saw my bags going underneath.
I watched from the window as we flew at low altitude, the Sydney coast and suburbs disappearing behind us to the east. As the plane moved inland, the fog mysteriously thickened.
We arrived at the airport and were picked up by our social sponsors, M and A. I was excited, but overly tired and shivering from our sudden arrival into winter. They helped us with all of our baggage and M drove us in an embassy van to our hotel…while sitting on the right side of the car and driving on the left side of the road, I noted.
We had learned a few weeks earlier that unfortunately, we would have to spend our first three weeks in Australia in a hotel; embassy staff were preparing our house after the prior tenants PCS’d (known to FSOs as the “make-ready”).
Once our fabulous sponsors bid us farewell, my husband unpacked and went for a walk. It was lunchtime, but all I managed to do was to wash my face and lay down. When I awoke, it was fifteen hours later – 03:00 on Sunday morning and I thought, “I have to to go to work tomorrow!” I spent most of Sunday resting and getting organized for my first day at the embassy.
There is a part of me that feels I have come home, home to Australia; had someone told me during my 2005-2006 postgraduate studies in Sydney that someday I’d come back to Oz as an American diplomat, my jaw would have dropped. And yet it’s happened – oh lucky me!