Earlier in April, I went on TDY (temporary duty) from U.S. Embassy Canberra to U.S. Consulate Sydney to cover a short staffing gap. Although I was only in Sydney for a week and a half, it was a fantastic opportunity to help out the mission while learning how to do a different job. And of course, I was able to spend time in one of my most beloved former home cities – and visit old haunts, old friends, and even my postgraduate alma mater, Macquarie University. It was rewarding, it was fun, and it was even a little bittersweet.
I don’t talk much about my work on the blog, because the State Department is sensitive about officers or their family members commenting on Department activities in the public sphere. I can understand this, but activities “of interest” to the Department can be a gray area. It also subjects that type of writing to a clearance process. This blog is mine – it’s about my life, and my thoughts, and it also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to consider the personal security implications of putting too much information online, or even the potential “according to a State Department official” quote popping up. So I don’t really go there.
But I also understand that what Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) do generally is of interest – and frankly, not well understood by the public even though there actually is lots of open source information available. Bottom line, I could probably do a better job of explaining it and because people keep asking me to, in the future, I think you will see more on that in this space.
Describing the work of a political officer alone (or a consular officer!) deserves its own post. But for now suffice it to say that on this TDY, I was able to cover a couple of new-to-me portfolios and learn about working in a consulate vs. an embassy. I was also able to do some consultations with our interagency and host country partners who sit in Sydney, and deepen bonds with other first and second tour (FAST) officers and the management team in the consulate, all of which was important to me.
Also, the views of Sydney Harbour from the lounge deck on the top floor of my hotel (above) and through my dirty-ish office window (below) provided a stunning and inspiring backdrop in which to work.
I mean, are you kidding me?! I also have to point out here, in case I didn’t previously, that the consulate is on Castlereagh Street, a mere five blocks north of my old apartment building. I would frequently walk by back then and wonder, how could I get a job there? Just, wow, I can’t even sometimes.
By day, I would spend about 8-10 hours at the consulate. Sometimes in the afternoons I would walk to Starbucks (none in Canberra!) or grab something from the massive food court below the high-rise MLC Centre, in which the consulate occupies three floors. (The food court alone is worth a TDY, IMO, because the area around the embassy is a suburban food desert.)
In the evenings, I would go for long walks around the city. One evening I went out to a swanky dinner and drinks with colleagues in the Rocks, another evening worked a reception at the Consul General’s Residence (what a fabulous house!). Still another evening I watched the Consul General give a 40 minute live interview on national news.
There was also some quality alone time, and time for wellness and personal maintenance, which I value. So. Much.
I was in the city for one full weekend, which I took full advantage of, to get some exercise and retrace my steps.
One of the places I revisited was St. Mary’s Cathedral, a couple of blocks from my old apartment and a place that has always brought me peace. Sitting quietly in the back at the end of a Mass, listening to the choir singing in Latin under timber and ribbed stone vaultings and a ceiling of painted oak, can feel so profound that even those not particularly religious might feel called to pray. Founded in 1821, the church welcomes many tourists and visitors and thus is seen as having a social, in addition to an ecclesiastical, stature.
I also went back to the Sydney Tower Eye, the tallest building in the city (although this time I had the good sense to skip the 4D film with moving seats – my friend AB will remember our 2005 visit there in which I spent more time in the bathroom than looking out the windows).
So weird being higher up than the consulate, which is near the top of the MLC Centre (pictured below):
I stayed up in the eye for a long time, picking out postcards, charging my phone, changing positions from time to time to get out of the sun or get a different perspective. The only thing I didn’t love was being packed 10 to a small triangular elevator to ride the few minutes up and down, pressed against strangers.
The tower was something that my husband would have had little interest in doing given his fear of heights, but I don’t share that fear. I thought the aerial perspective on the city was terrific. I even stood on the viewing platform and looked straight down, ignoring the mild vertigo creeping in around the edges. (In fairness, he did agree to have brunch with me last July at the Seattle Space Needle, but my food poisoning from the night before shot that down.)
I also tried (and failed) to return to the Sydney Aquarium, because high winds on the wharf in my floaty dress and what looked like an hour-long line utterly mobbed with people and their screaming kids ended up being a no-go. But I did hit the time zone sweet spot and spent a happy hour sitting in Wyndham Park among the ibises, catching up with my dad and stepmom on the phone while enjoying good coffee. Unlike last time I lived here, I now have free U.S. calling.
One new place that I went was the Museum of Sydney. I don’t recall ever having gone there before, as it focuses mostly on the city’s architecture and development history. But their billboard advertising a special exhibition on 1920s Sydney mugshots entitled “Underworld” was visible from my hotel room. Um, vice, sharp-dressed mobsters, and Art Deco a block from Circular Quay for less than ten American dollars? Obviously!
I already knew a little about the way mugshots came to be standardized internationally, but what I didn’t know was that Sydney police in the 1920s allowed suspects to strike their own poses. The accused were allowed to smoke, and hold bags, papers, and conversation. This makes many of Sydney’s mugshots from that era look more like unique, commissioned portraits.
Those being photographed were not handcuffed, so as not to prejudice witnesses in a potential lineup. The photographer would later write details like the suspect’s name or arrest date backwards on the emulsion side of the plate, explaining why writing on the front of the photographs sometimes looked hokey.
Back then, when people were acquitted, they didn’t have a right to request their photos be thrown out. So the city’s archives contain mugshots of everyone from those with cases dismissed, to petty “crims”, to opium addicts, to some pretty serious hustlers and violent offenders, with not a lot of distinction made between them, including in this exhibition where innocent and guilty stand side by side. Women in particular were judged both in the eyes of the law and in the informal court of public moral opinion; in one example, the police repeatedly tried to “rescue” a woman from living with a Chinese man even though she said under no duress that she was there of her own accord.
If you know anything about Australia, you’ll know that the British government shipped more than a hundred thousand of its finest here between the 1780s and the 1860s to serve time for mostly petty criminal offenses. The British wanted to lessen the burden of their own overcrowded jails (and I suspect, find a “solution” to erase their troublesome social underclass and political troublemakers) and basically turned Botany Bay, several miles south of Sydney proper, into their own big penal colony. “Transportation” was considered a humane alternative to the death penalty; over 200 crimes in 1700s Britain carried a death penalty, even though most were crimes against property rather than person.
Australia received convicts from England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, many of whom served hard labor in lieu of a death sentence. I traveled in 2005 and 2006 to several of these former penal colony prisons in New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania (then-called Van Diemen’s Land), and find the women’s prisons an especially fascinating commentary of the day on gender, social expectations, and mental illness. Eleven of the sites are now on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
(FWIW, the British shipped convicts to “their” American colonies by the tens of thousands during the 17th and 18th centuries, too; their defeat in the Revolutionary War put a stop to that.)
From what I could see of 1920s Sydney, there were plenty of shoot-’em-up gangster brawls, opium dens, and men who worked in shipyards by day and committed breaking-and-entering burglaries by night. There were also con men and women, and all manner of hustlers running scams from dishonest contracting to selling stolen goods.
One demure and wide-eyed woman was accused of a snatch-and-grab on a fur coat. One mugshot was accompanied by a particularly epic story of the subject’s later demise: one night while he was sleeping, an enemy broke down his door and opened fire. The subject managed to sit up and return fire, and both men lay dead as doornails before the smoke had settled.
It follows that many of these adults in Sydney 40 years after the last British convict ship landed in “godforsaken” Australia could have been proud, direct descendants of their convict parents and grandparents, who after serving their time, decided to try and forge a life in this new sunny land along with the free settlers who kept arriving, rather than return to an uncertain life in the northern gloom as convicted criminals. (Most were not permitted to return to England, but some were given “limited freedom” to leave Australia and settled instead in New Zealand.) Or maybe they were a mix of economically disadvantaged people making bad decisions, or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The worst of them made their living exploiting and harming others, often with no remorse. Looking into these century-old gazes and trying to understand the complexity of their circumstances, whether they were born in Sydney in such wild times or came from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, was in every way mesmerizing.
My impression is that Australians are proud of their convict history, similar to the pride you see in Americans whose ancestors “went west” despite difficult odds, or worked their fingers to the bone in miserable conditions settling the heartland. Although “convictism” used to carry a negative and embarrassing social stigma here, these days it’s almost considered an honor to have a convict in your lineage.
(If you visit Sydney after this exhibition ends and you’re interested in these topics, I highly recommend the Police and Justice Museum, which provides a truly fascinating foundational history of the New South Wales crime and court systems.)
I also visited the Queen Victoria Building, six blocks from my old apartment at Museum Towers, and where I used to catch the bus out to North Ryde to attend uni. I rounded the corner and walked towards the bus stands, grinning to think how many dozens of times I had hurried there, 2004 edition iPod pumping a nonstop mix of house, ambient, and EDM into my ears. Was it Stand B, or C? Route 288? 292? I couldn’t remember, and it didn’t much matter, because had I needed to know, I would have found out. Amazing how we all found our way before smart phones, Google, and GPS. I never missed a bus, and I never missed class or was even late. Somehow, when I was younger, when I was in some ways stronger than I am now, or maybe just hungrier.
I was also lucky enough to spend time with two old friends from my Macquarie master of international relations program that I had not seen since July 2006 – EH, who acquired a PhD, a husband, and two small children since last we met, and PT, whose youthful heart is just as kind and big as I remember. It was stunning to see that they both look just like I remember them, although so much time has passed.
We laughed about the last times we had seen each other: me on the street in front of my building with EH, giving her the rest of my furniture, and me at the airport a few days later with PT, emptying my Australian coins into her palm and trying not to cry.
The spaces between us could have grown into chasms over the years, despite the exchange of Christmas cards and keeping tabs on each other’s lives across social media, filled with new people and new priorities. So many memories made in the meanwhile that we had not been a part of with one another. And yet when we reconnected, the same friendly feelings were there, the same laughter but on different topics now.
Even though we no longer sit side by side in class, on the bus, or in the bars, I found there was still room for me in their current lives, the prodigal friend who returned again. We walked a path together when we were young and ambitious and finding everything out, and Macquarie and our friendship led each of us to our own futures and who we were supposed to be. Meeting exceptional people who I never want to not know was just icing on the cake.
And this brings me to the bittersweet, I suppose. The day before I came back to Canberra, I went out to Macquarie to talk to an expert on one of the topics I’m covering. This topic is multi-faceted, and in order to understand it and thus to write about it, I have to talk to people beyond just government contacts in Canberra: community practitioners, law enforcement, think tanks, and academia all play a role. So off I went.
Because my schedule was packed on either side with meetings and consultations, I wasn’t able to re-live the nostalgia of riding the bus out there from downtown, about a 50 minute trip. Although there has been a train now, too, for the last several years, a 28 minute Uber ride fit my timeframe best. (My former self would have been horrified by this expenditure: to think that when I moved from the dorm to the city, I carried things back and forth over several bus trips rather than paying for a cab – back when time was worth less than money.)
The drive out to the campus looked familiar in some parts, not so much in others. I realized I had never actually gone to the campus in a car, so I only would have really recognized the bus route, and I’m sure that has also changed in 12 years. When I got to the campus, I did my consultation, and then went in search of lunch and the campus bookstore to replace my ancient Macquarie sweatshirt.
It was difficult to get my bearings. I thought about finding where the city busses drop off, or even retracing my steps back to the dorm where I lived my first semester, but in the interest of time I instead just figured I’d wander and be able to recognize things. I looked at Google Maps and campus signage, which somehow confused me more.
Given the massive number of new buildings and removal of some older buildings, I almost had an impression at times that the campus had been picked up and reoriented in a different direction. I’m not particularly good at direction anyway, so it’s no surprise I was perplexed.
But what was weird is that when I launch Google Maps and retrace my old haunts on other campuses or in other cities, it’s so much easier somehow. This was truly almost like a new place. I peeked into a lecture hall. Had I seen it before? Sat in it countless times? I was unsure.
I strolled along a sidewalk crowded with graduates in caps and gowns, posing with their families. They looked impossibly young. The irony of inadvertently going there on graduation day was not lost on me, as I moved away from both SDSU and Macquarie after finishing my studies on the winter semester, and missed my own spring graduation both times. (Isn’t that sad? I just didn’t have the time or money in CA to go back down to San Diego, and in Australia my visa was expiring and I had to depart and find work.)
I found some steps down to the old bookstore – walled off. As I climbed back up from a different direction, I had an incredibly strong sense of déjà vu. But more even than a feeling of familiarity, I had a feeling of déjà vécu – a feeling of recollection. It was on those stairs that I was discussing Montenegro’s independence referendum with my international law professor, the week it happened in May 2006. These were the main steps, I thought excitedly, now knowing with certainty where the old center of campus had been.
I walked up to the top and there should have been a coffee cart across the courtyard, but somehow it was on the right hand side in front of me. Well, you can’t win ’em all. It occurred to me that when I did my epic 2014 scan n’ shred, I had scanned all my old class schedules complete with room assignments. If I’d prepared better, I could have truly retraced my steps! Instead I just let it wash over me.
It was almost like the bones of the university were “underneath” and every once in a while I caught sight of them. When I found the relocated bookstore, I was told somewhat abruptly that all the Macquarie-branded merchandise had been moved online. Doesn’t she know I’m what the university refers to as a “distinguished alumna?” I joked dryly in my head. I had turned down an offer to be shown around, preferring to lose myself in thought. I did end up ordering a sweatshirt, coffee mug, and water bottle that night from the site which I received through local mail at my home in Canberra three days later.
As I was heading off to my next appointment, I swore to myself that I would come back to Macquarie with V, likely for either a career faire or an alumni speaking engagement, and spend more time looking around. Macquarie students have come twice to the embassy during my tour, and both times I was asked by our public affairs folks to sit on the panel and discuss American culture, governance, and politics with them. I was not surprised at the quality of their questions or the level of their critical thinking, even from undergrads. Seeing the admiration on their faces when they learned I was one of them always brought me so much joy.
And so I share here a small collection of photos from my time specifically on the Macquarie University campus, 2005-2006. Hard to believe I had so many hairstyles (and colors!) in thirteen months’ time.
The girl on the bottom left (above), JP, is a German diplomat now, and I flew from Tashkent to visit her and her husband and daughter on their Sarajevo posting in 2015.
It was before the time where we all walked around with camera phones and everyday life was a photo-worthy “event”. But the moments that I did have are precious to me, and the friends I made even more so.
Last week on campus, June 2006 (below). The guy I am standing with is my dear friend BW, who I went to see in Germany in 2010. About a year later he came to DC to visit V and I, and in 2013 he flew to San Francisco with his beautiful fiancée for our wedding. In the bottom picture, the girls on either end are the ones I saw here this time, and the girl to my left with the silver scarf, EA, I also went to New York in 2006 and to Germany in 2010 to visit. She has three young kids now, so it’s harder, but one day will be easy again.
Printing and turning in final papers, June 19, 2006 and finishing grad school officially with EA (below). Little could I have imagined that day the circumstances under which I would return to the campus on April 16, 2018.
There’s just so much more, so many great off-campus photos, and so many thoughts that I have about this, but this post has gotten so long, and there will be other days and other posts. I guess what I’m left with is gratitude – that I studied at an institution like this, and that I had the wherewithal to make it happen (I paid my own way entirely, and only finished paying off my grad school loan one year ago this month!).
I also am happy to see that the university has continued to grow and become more prestigious, to deepen its expertise as a research institution, to open a satellite campus in the Sydney Central Business District (CBD), to advance its private sector partnerships and make strides in medical and cochlear implants, to modernize the campus and make it more high-tech, to connect to the CBD by train, and to open new faculties and departments to help train students to meet the critical global challenges we face today. There were also cafes and restaurants and hang out places all over campus that sure would have been nice to have “in my day!”
Thank you, thank you Macquarie, for welcoming me, then and now, and helping me to acquire the tools, theoretical frameworks, and skills I needed for a leg up. I give you a lot of credit and my highest regards.
The below picture over Sydney Harbour hardly looks real, like most of my lucky life spent in Sydney, but it is!
Until next time, dear old friend Sydney.