The Once-in-a-Lifetime NYE That Almost Wasn’t, Part II

On Saturday morning, December 29, V and I drove up to Sydney for a few days of relaxation before celebrating New Year’s Eve at the Sydney Opera House. On Thursday evening, V had torn up his arms and one leg in a cycling accident that had landed him in the hospital until Friday night. Besides the fact that he was in pain and uncomfortable, it had looked for a time that we may not make our trip at all. To my great happiness, the wounds were cleaned, he was patched up, and we were on our way. As I drove down the highway with V napping and the radio on low, I felt relieved. I had spent NYE 2005 in Sydney, and it had gone down in history as my all-time favorite fireworks; I was sure that 2018 would be better! But as I soon found out, although our weekend would ultimately happen, it would also be marked by the same roller coaster of worry, good luck, and bad luck that had seized the previous few days.

This piece is the second installment in a story about the almost-derailment of our New Year’s Eve plans in Sydney. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.

Two days until New Year’s Eve.

After a GPS failure in one of the tunnels along the Eastern Distributor, and a minor debacle trying to find the parking garage entrance for our Central Business District (CBD) building, we finally arrived an hour early for check-in. And somewhat unsurprisingly, the apartment was not ready and we had to wait. We sat in the lobby feeling a little cranky after driving about 160 miles (255 km) and not sleeping well.

Ultimately, that afternoon was divided between a personal appointment for me and unfortunately, another emergency room visit for V, who decided after again calling the embassy doctor that he may be having an adverse reaction to the anesthesia. In all honesty, I thought what he really needed was just rest, but he was clearly unwell and felt he should take every possible precaution. It was not a fun afternoon for either of us, with me busy and him having one inconclusive test after another and feeling no better.

He ended up being released in time for us to still celebrate our anniversary a day late in the Sydney Tower Eye, at 360 Dining. But there was uncertainty about it all afternoon. By the time I knew for sure we were going, I honestly felt pretty wrung out with worry about his health and wondering if we had done the right thing by coming to Sydney at all.

In any case, we were both determined to enjoy the dinner together the best we could. What is it that people say? “You gotta eat anyway?”

What can I say about this experience other than that it was incredible. Our waiter was fantastic, remembered our whole order without writing anything down, and made excellent recommendations. The food and wine were absolutely superb.

The one thing that I had not anticipated is how sick I would get from the verrrry slowly spinning restaurant. I kept trying to look out across the city and ignore the contrast between the diners below us and the window. After we had been there an hour and made one full revolution of the city skyscape, the vertigo that had been creeping in around the margins finally hit me full force. We had to cancel our third course, and the staff very graciously accommodated our quick departure. Even V who generally does not get motion sick was affected by the spinning. I have never paid a bill so fast in my life – while practically laying my head down and hanging on to the table.

We both suffered the three minute (three hour?) elevator ride down, and as soon as I got some fresh air, the dizziness began to recede. I still didn’t feel good enough to get into a car, though. Our hotel was only about three blocks from the tower, but between V’s leg bandages and my vertigo, it took us at least 15 minutes to walk there. It was stupid that I did not take Dramamine until the dinner was underway – I think I was so stressed and preoccupied through the afternoon that I just wasn’t as focused as usual.

In any case, if you are not bothered by motion sickness and have a chance to eat at 360 Dining, I would HIGHLY recommend it! This upscale, romantic, atmospheric spot definitely does not feel like a tourist trap.

One day until New Year’s Eve.

Sunday morning dawned, and we both felt pretty good at last. After enjoying breakfast on our apartment’s balcony overlooking Sydney’s Town Hall and Queen Victoria Building, I headed out to pick up some sandals I had ordered and get my nails done.

Good morning, Sydney! ❤️🇦🇺

Highly recommended – Le’s Nails, in the Cosmopolitan Centre across from the InterCon Double Bay

After I was done with my errands, V and I met in The Rocks, under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, for brunch at one of my favorite Sydney institutions – the original Pancakes on the Rocks. Then we went shopping very briefly at The Rocks Market where I was looking for Aboriginal art, but given our very limited ability to walk around, had to postpone a deeper look for some future date.

Spent so much time here in 2005/2006, and it never gets old!

12 years ago right now DC time, we were on our first date!

The Rocks Market, Sydney

That evening, we went on a Sydney Showboats Cruise, something I had really been looking forward to. I had not done a cruise around the Sydney Harbour since 2005, and I was really eager to share the beauty of that place with V. As a bonus, this cruise included a dinner and cabaret show!

I was a little bit nervous about getting seasick on the boat. But I did not want to spoil (or at least interrupt) another dinner because of my vertigo, and it’s impossible to flee from a three-hour boat ride if you get sick.

Looking healthy at King Street Wharf

So I took Dramamine in the afternoon, and then again an hour before boarding, and had asked to be seated either outside or near a window. And what do you know? Our seating and the whole cruise were perfect!

Every element, from the very attentive cruise director, to the tasty and beautiful food, to the weather and scenery, to the talented and gorgeous dancers.

From start to finish, every bite of the meal was aesthetically pleasing and delicious! The company was great too 😉

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Fabulous experience and would definitely do it again

All in all, Sunday was such a lovely day, and it seemed like our luck was finally turning.

New Year’s Eve Day finally arrives!

Monday morning dawned hot and humid, and with thunderstorms in the forecast. It was finally December 31! One of my sorority sisters, A, who I had not seen since our graduation from San Diego State in 2001, had contacted me a couple weeks prior on Instagram. She said it so happened that she and her fiancé J would be celebrating the New Year in Sydney and would I be around? So I arranged for us to meet for brunch at the InterContinental near Circular Quay.

Haven’t aged a bit! 😉

I was so excited to catch up with her, meet J, and hear all about what she has been doing for the last 17 years. It was really fantastic to see her living well, now a successful attorney, and literally looking the same age as when I last saw her. Unfortunately V had to rest up at the apartment and could not attend, but we’d decided that was probably the best way to save his energy for the NYE festivities.

Afterwards I had a hair appointment for an updo. My hair always looks a mess when it’s humid, and having it up so I wouldn’t have to keep pushing it out of my face all evening sounded ideal. I figured what more could possibly warrant a special hairdo than VIP tickets to the Sydney Opera House on New Year’s Eve?

Unfortunately, even though I brought a picture, the stylist did not do what I asked him to do, and when I gently redirected him, he got a little offended. I stayed friendly, blaming my hair, and trying not to hurt his feelings – even though, CLEARLY, he was more interested in exacting his vision than he was in listening to me. This is also a person who has colored my hair several times and who I trusted, so I was kind of stunned. (Tangent: there have been so many times where I’ve been in a nail salon, for example, and the woman next to me – after her nails are totally done, mind you – decides she hates the color and wants to change it. I am so NOT that kind of person! It’s really hard for me to say that I don’t like something when I know it’s going to inconvenience someone, so that goes to show how much I really could not live with what he was doing!)

The second hairstyle he did was even worse, and as his vibe towards me got more tense, I decided to cut my losses. Obviously I had two choices: be super assertive but probably still not get what I wanted, or just leave. I wanted to stand up for myself, but honestly did not see the point. It literally looked like I scraped my hair into a looped bun before running out to the gym and then sprayed the crap out of it. It looked terrible from every angle and I can only assume he knew that and just did not care. I had to pay for it, and it wasn’t cheap. I have walked out of there with amazing-looking hair a half dozen times, so needless to say I was disappointed, then furious, then on the verge of tears.

I had planned to take an Uber back to the apartment to protect my hair since it was still only around lunchtime. But I found myself walking the 20 minutes instead. I was considering how I might salvage my hairstyle once I got back, but the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that I would end up disappointed with what I’d be able to do. It is probably stupid, but I always have more fun when my hair looks great, and I had waited for this night – planned it, paid for it, protected it – for so long, I thought I couldn’t let it go down like this.

Across from my favorite Starbucks (right around the corner from the apartment where I lived as a grad student), I glimpsed a Toni & Guy salon. Although I had never been there, it has a good reputation, and I had walked by it a million times in the past. I found myself at the intersection hesitating, considering whether or not to go in.

I really almost never do anything on impulse. But I found myself crossing the street, climbing the stairs, and going in. I explained to the receptionist that I had just had my hair done, and that it looked nothing like what I had asked for. I showed her the picture, and she grimaced with pity. I told her that I understood it was New Year’s Eve, and that I would completely understand if they were booked out and no one had time to fix it. But if there was any chance, I would wait or even come back.

Within 10 minutes, I was in a chair and on my way to getting it fixed. Incredible props to stylist Amy, who listened to me, calmed me, and with the help of dry shampoo, a comb, and about 46 bobby pins, made me beautiful! Even though I had to pay, of course, it was worth every cent. (And cheaper than the first place – go figure!)

Amy @ Toni & Guy Salon, Elizabeth and Park Streets, Sydney CBD

V and I celebrated my hair comeback with a big Japanese lunch, and then launched into getting ready for the evening.

New Year’s Eve, at last!

We were ready early, so decided to grab a cab before all the streets closed down. Originally the plan had been to walk, but I wanted to save V as much walking as possible.

Fortunately, our cab was able to take us to within a couple of blocks of Circular Quay, where all the road closures were firm. After some wandering around in all the security and confusion, we made our way through an ever-tightening series of perimeter checks towards the Opera House.

Getting closer!

People without tickets had been camping out for a day to snag their prime viewing spots. I heard one guy at the security check asking a guard where he could get Opera House tickets. The guard looked incredulous. “Sold out, mate.”


Crowd insanity

We proceeded to our check-in area and got in line. We were among the first, which made me happy. Only an hour and fifteen minutes until ‘doors’. We struck up a conversation with some other Americans in line, who we were amazed to learn were from the small South Carolina town where my stepdaughters grew up.

Eventually staff came around and scanned our tickets, issuing black wristbands. I was engrossed in the conversation and it did not occur to me that maybe as VIP ticketholders we should have had special wristbands…

Finally the doors opened and we made a (classy and dignified) beeline through the Opera House, through the Portside area, and out onto the western broadwalk. As we approached the VIP section, we were stopped at the steps by a curt staff member who explained with a knowing smile, “This area is for VIP guests.”

I held up my wristband and told him we were VIP. “Actually, this whole event is VIP, but this section is V-VIP,” he said condescendingly, eyeing my black wristband. I whipped out my phone, pointed to my receipt and the price I paid, and a manager promptly appeared to help. While they were sorting it out, other VIP guests (with GOLD wristbands!!) streamed past us, occupying the lounges and seats one by one until there were seemingly nearly none left. I felt sick. “This is my nightmare!” I lamented to V. “I have planned this to the last detail for months, and now look!!”

Finally we got a sincere apology from the manager, the correct wristbands, and proceeded into the VIP section. “That jerk doesn’t even understand their own branding,” I fumed to V, still stung with embarrassment. I sipped my welcome champagne and tried to make a quick attitude recovery, wondering had we initially been issued the correct wristbands, whether there would have been somewhere else for us to wait in the hour and fifteen minutes preceding doors opening – even though I’d checked whether we were in the right line upon arrival, I really did not have confidence in retrospect that everyone knew what they were doing. At the end of the day, you can plan everything, ask all the right questions, make a pain in the ass out of yourself, and sometimes it’s still not enough and things just go wrong. Letting go and having fun anyway is the answer!

The only VIP seats that were still open by the time we were deemed suitable for entry were in the back, underneath a section covered by an overhang on the building. “I wanted a closer view of the bridge,” I complained, looking around.

“It’s right there! And it’s going to rain any second,” V said. “Let’s go under here.”

Five minutes later, champagne in hand, an hour and a half before dusk, enjoying our conversation on a comfy, sleek black couch, I was feeling happy and like the night was under way. The DJ was spinning house music, my favorite. Although 80% of the VIP space was open-air and the other 20% was a little more tucked away, I felt like we had a good view.

And then… the sky opened up and it commenced to POUR. It started with a sprinkle and quickly turned in to an absolute deluge. People fled from their open-air couches, stools, and lounges and crowded into the covered area where we were to escape the rain.

Ten minutes passed, and then 20. The downpour intensified, while Portside staff worked frantically to cover the open-air furniture in plastic. The music ceased. Wait staff circulated under the overhang area with champagne and heavy hors d’oeuvres, but with 100% of people perched every which way in 20% of the space, it was tough going. The servers did an above-and-beyond job, however, and I tried to suppress my annoyance with the crush of people infringing on what minutes before had been relaxed and nearly empty. If the event managers had put out very large patio umbrellas throughout the open-air area (and then removed them for the fireworks), it could have alleviated much of the crowding issue. It also would have provided a way for guests to make it from the VIP section to the indoor buffet without having to dash through the pelting rain.

At least everyone was nice, and we all talked, shared the food, and did our best to laugh it off. I thought about the people in the tents and along the harbour who had been perched already for more than 12 hours to hold their spots, and who were now surely drenched through.

I could not help but feel, though, some disappointment that the stuff-up with our VIP access had stolen precious daylight time to have taken a few pictures in the lounge with the bridge in the background, before the whole environment got flooded and became “less picturesque.” Oh well. We took pictures on our couch!

The rain continued off and on until the first set of fireworks at 21:00. Every time the rain would ease up, staff would shake off the plastic furniture coverings and push water away with giant brooms. Guests would return to the open-air areas, and the DJ would start spinning again. But within 10 or 15 minutes, they would all come running back into the covered area when the rain restarted.

Some brave, champagne-fueled souls donned clear plastic ponchos and hit the dance floor with abandon. The music was great and the excitement was building. It’s hard to adequately describe the feeling of being there. It was so special that even women in the ladies’ room cooperated, shared sink space, held the door, complimented each other’s attire, and laughed like old friends.

The hours ticked by and we ate, drank, and chatted. I had some great talks with guests who had come from all over Australia, Spain, Brazil, and the U.S. A woman sitting next to me asked me why we lived in Canberra, and I told her we were posted to the U.S. Embassy. She smiled, “So your husband’s a diplomat!” I smiled back. “I’m the diplomat.” She nodded and clinked my glass.

Finally the real countdown was on!

We abandoned our seats and got as close to the bridge as we could. The rain continued to sprinkle down, off and on. The Opera House “sails” sailed above us.

Last moments of 2018

We joined an audience of over one million in-person viewers and over one billion people watching on television as we counted out loud, “Ten! Nine! Eight!”... and finally, welcome 2019!

Photo credit: Portside Sydney Opera House

No way our phone photos can do it justice

Here is a short video that V took to give you some idea of what it felt like to be standing there:

And to give you a more complete perspective on the atmosphere, here are a few more videos! (Sorry that I am kind of a moron with HTML code and embedding videos; if the video thumbnails don’t show, you can click on the links until I manage to fix them.)

Official Videos:

Sydney’s NYE Fireworks 2018:

Sydney Opera House Portside NYE 2017:

Sydney Opera House Portside NYE 2016:

As the festivities wound down, we started the walk back to our hotel along with literally hundreds of thousands of others. Most of the streets in Sydney’s CBD were closed, and people walked, ran, jumped, strolled, limped, and stumbled south in every direction, away from the harbour. For our part, we were of good cheer. I was happy that V was actually walking better than I was, ambling along while I had to pause three or four times to catch my breath.

We finally made it back to our hotel around 01:30, where we started to get ready for bed. As I finished brushing my teeth, V came to the doorway and told me we had a problem. His ankle, below the surgery site, was grotesquely swollen and bruised. Although it did not hurt, he was concerned, based on what his doctor had told him about warning signs, that it could be a blood clot. At 02:00 on New Year’s Day, I could have hardly imagined a less desirable place to be than the emergency room of a major metropolitan area. I thought going to bed for six or seven hours until our check-out time, and then driving back to Canberra to look into it would be best, but V felt very strongly that the right thing to do was to go to the ER. I agreed it looked a little scary, so off we went, to the fourth hospital visit in six days.

Exiting our apartment building, all the streets were closed for blocks in every direction. We went east, scuttling across Hyde Park in the direction of Kings Cross to try and catch a taxi on one of the open streets. The first three taxis stopped, but refused us, because apparently we were on the wrong side of the street for the direction we were asking to go. When the fourth taxi stopped, I opened the back door without asking, holding my stomach and saying, “We need to go to St. Vincent’s now.” I am probably overweight enough to look pregnant and the driver eyed me nervously in the rearview mirror. We went.

An x-ray showed no acute fracture to the ankle, and the nurse said the injury did not present like a blood clot, but that she could not definitively rule it out. She went on to say that even if the doctor did think it was a blood clot, no ultrasound could be conducted that night. Once I realized that they did not see his injury as acute and were not actually going to be able to do anything for us, I said we should go back to the apartment, sleep a few hours, and then head for Canberra as scheduled, but V thought he should stay and speak with a doctor. The check-out time for our hotel was 10:00, so I called them to see if there was any chance to extend and got it amended to noon.

Between the homeless, the injured, the puking drunk, the obvious mental health issues, the hideous smells, and various other goings-on there, it was quite disgusting. I sat miserably in my nightdress, face washed clean, updo still in place, feeling that we shouldn’t be there but not knowing what else to do. We ended up sitting in the ER until nearly 05:00 as patient after patient with a more urgent situation arrived and took precedence and V hung on to hope.

To be completely fair, when it comes to emergencies, I am probably not the best person to ask. My answer is usually that it’s not a real emergency. I walked around with a torn rotator cuff for a year before I even noticed; it took me another year to do something about it. I once went to bed with severe chest pain that the next day turned out to be a pinched cardiac nerve. I once fainted in JFK Airport after hemorrhaging so much blood that two people near me screamed; my response was to wake up and catch a taxi to my hotel. I also walked around for more than a year with a bone infection and spinal cord injury that left me unable to treat the worsening joint destruction of my arthritis. My pain tolerance is incredibly high, and even when I am in pain, it takes a lot to make me truly afraid. And I mean a LOT. Otherwise, I’m a “suck it up, cupcake” kind of person.

Had it been my ankle that was bruised and swelling after a debridement procedure below the knee, I would have chalked it up to too much walking around, rested a few hours, and seen a doctor at home the next day. It did not seem like an emergency to me, but I was afraid to be wrong. I could not have lived with being really wrong where V was concerned, and I’m not a doctor.

My husband and I are also quite opposite in the way we tolerate pain, illness, and injury, and the way we assess what needs to be done (think: a blinding headache can be ignored vs. a blinding headache is probably a deadly brain tumor!). I don’t think it’s unusual for people with different personalities, upbringings, and cultural backgrounds to have different takes on medical stuff. It was one more reminder that marriage is compromise, and that sometimes both positions need to be amended to the middle, to something more reasonable.

Finally we left, because it became clear they were not considering him acute enough to be seen by a doctor, and soon the sun would be up. The one bright spot had been sitting in the emergency room on hard plastic chairs, in the too-bright light, and V receiving an email about a job possibility he has been pursuing for a long time that is a pretty big deal. We looked at each other incredulously, as if to say, Could the ups and downs of this whole weekend get any more dramatic?

The next morning, after far too little sleep, we rolled out of the parking garage with the car loaded up around 11:30. When we got to Canberra, V saw the embassy doctor who thought the bruising was just down to too much activity, but not a blood clot. I think that was a relief for both of us, as well as finally making it home and being able to focus on recuperation.

I have spent the last week and a half since we made it back to Canberra sick with a cold and pink eye in both eyes. Literally, sick for the past 10 days! I’m really not surprised I got sick given that I am severely immuno-compromised, and spent a lot of time stressed to the brink of disaster in germ-infested places! That is probably the one way in which this furlough has been a blessing – between getting sick and V’s cycling accident, we probably would have had to use so much sick leave over the past two weeks. As it is, we have gotten a second chance.

In the end, I can say that although everything did not go perfectly as planned, this New Year’s Eve will be one we never, never forget, and felt lucky to be a part of – no matter how much we had to rally! Being so close to the Opera House and bridge gave a unique perspective on the fireworks that I could not fully appreciate until I watched the official video and saw the wider perspective of the show that had been going on all around us. (In 2005, I had been at one of the northern beaches and far enough away to get the whole picture, which blew my mind. Sadly, I only have one blurry photo of it, but it lives on in my mind – and the full video is on YouTube!)

Until we meet again, Sydney… Have a great 2019!


Photo credit: Getty Images / City of Sydney

  3 comments for “The Once-in-a-Lifetime NYE That Almost Wasn’t, Part II

  1. January 16, 2019 at 16:51

    You have made me laugh out loud! Sometime, I’d like to hear how being the “accompanying spouse” is for your husband. But not til he’s (and you) are all better. Rest up!

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 16, 2019 at 17:07

      I’ve asked him many times to do a guest post – not really his thing. Maybe someday… 🙂


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Sarah W Gaer

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