During the past two weeks as we have worked our way towards the end of phase 2, the course has shifted slightly in content and structure, foreshadowing expectations for phases 3 and 4. Since we are getting closer to the halfway point of the 24-week program, we are supposed to complete our “building the base” activities so we can move into professionalization and consolidation of what we have learned. As my second speaking and reading progress assessment looms first thing on Monday morning, this post is a short update before I buckle down and disappear into my preparation for the next 72 hours.
During the past few weeks, the amount of coursework and difficulty of my Spanish class has started to accelerate. Our tasks have become more complex, at least for me. I have found myself more frustrated that my performance in class activities does not seem commensurate with the amount of effort and study I put in. I also feel mentally tired, experience procrastination and brain freezes, and need more alone time to recover. Of course, I am not bad at everything, and I have good days and bad days. I guess it is typical at this point to think you suck when you’re actually doing OK. The whole two steps forward, one step back thing.
I don’t recall feeling as “on” all the time during my FSI Russian class (2014-2015). It wasn’t easier, but our activities felt less intensive. The expectations were also definitely lower. However, I have also been heartened by a couple of special opportunities to help my learning – an invitation to a side course in consular Spanish, and a possibility to travel to South America on an immersion language trip.
Three months ago, during the last week of July, my diplomatic posting to Australia was ending and my colleagues threw me a going-away lunch. Over Indian food, one colleague asked what I would miss about serving in Canberra and what I was looking forward to in the United States. Funny he should have asked, because at that time, what I was going to miss about Australia was a topic I had been thinking about a lot. I’d actually been sketching a blog post outline about it for several weeks!
However, life happened and I didn’t manage to finish writing and editing the post before I left, or even during the past several weeks since we returned to the U.S. I started thinking about it again when I saw the post sitting in my drafts folder, and during my recent Spanish evaluation, when I was asked to compare and contrast life in the U.S. with life in Australia.
So here are my thoughts, in no particular order, about what I miss (and don’t miss) about living in Australia.
Last weekend was a three-day weekend due to the Columbus Day holiday, and it was also my birthday. Long weekends for me usually mean a chance to bug out of town, especially when I can’t take any time off. So now that our car has been repaired and I trust it more than 15 miles in any direction, we decided to spend the weekend in Berkeley Springs. Berkeley Springs is a little town in West Virginia about two hours from DC, and it was a great break from the city and our daily grind.
During our time there, we went to the Apple Butter Festival, hiked in the forest, visited an 1830s-era canal tunnel, and tried out the local food scene as I marked the beginning of a new year.
If the theme for the first four weeks of Spanish class was accepting whatever came my way without saying no and letting it all wash over me, the theme for the past week has been playing along. I don’t mean that in the sense of “humoring” the program or instructors in any way. What I mean is that I’m trying to do what they ask me to do, in the way they are asking me to do it, in order to learn quickly and demonstrate that I can build fluency.
I play along – I learn the vocabulary and text building blocks they give us the best I can, and I try to deploy them when I produce speech. When I mispronounce something, I try again. When I don’t understand something, I ask for clarification. In summary, I try to work with I have without trying to be perfect or make the curriculum anything other than what it is. So far, this strategy is working pretty well.
I just finished the fourth week of Spanish language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, where the State Department sends its diplomats and staff for training ahead of overseas assignments, sometimes for months at a time. In my case, late next spring I will become Deputy American Citizen Services (ACS) Chief at our consulate in Cuidad Juárez, México, so I get six months (24 weeks) of Spanish. FSI teaches dozens of languages and tradecraft courses, so you’ll find employees from across the U.S. government studying there, too.
For me, the change of pace from a busy political section at our embassy in Australia – where the bilateral relationship is huge – to sitting in a small classroom for several hours per day has been nice, but challenging in its own way. It’s also crazy to think I am one-sixth done with Spanish already! My first progress evaluation is on Monday, so this is a good place to pause and reflect.
Tomorrow marks three weeks since V and I returned to Virginia and started the several months of training required for my next assignment to Mexico. A few aspects of the transition and settling-in process have been bumpier than I expected. Although moving to the U.S. (“home”) should be easier than an overseas move to a new country, in a lot of ways it isn’t. Without an embassy to help you set up your life (again), there is a lot of surprisingly tedious stuff to deal with on your own, and not much time to manage it.
During this Permanent Change of Station (PCS) from Australia to Virginia, between problems with our new apartment management, problems with timing our unaccompanied air freight (UAB) and storage deliveries, and problems with my car turning up damaged from two years of overseas government storage, the past few weeks have felt like one aggravation after the next. And all of that doesn’t even take into consideration my new full-time job of Spanish learning, and the challenge of going from two incomes back to one. However, on the bright side and after a lot of effort, expense, moral support from friends, and some luck, things are starting to settle bit by bit into place. (Warning: lengthy rant ahead.)
After wrapping up our second diplomatic tour in Australia, we spent the entire month of August on mandatory home leave in the United States, where I hadn’t been in 25 months (my longest time out yet).
As I described in my previous post, we spent the first week of our four-week home leave in Honolulu, Hawaii, where neither V nor I had ever been. We drove just over 300 miles around the island, and then we flew to California, where we threw our eight suitcases into a Nissan Pathfinder and spent three more weeks visiting family, friends, and touristing our way through California, Oregon, and Washington. Here are a few snapshots and highlights from the “mainland” part of our home leave, in which we drove 1,700+ miles through three states, after flying 7,683 miles from Canberra to Sydney to Honolulu to Sacramento.
In early August, V and I spent the first part of our home leave in Hawaii. Home leave is Congressionally-mandated vacation in the U.S. or its territories (you can cost-construct against your Home of Record) after an overseas diplomatic posting. Home leave is designed to help you reacquaint yourself with the country you are serving. It starts the first business day after your travel day (the day you land in the U.S.), and should last a minimum of 20 business days before your onward training or posting starts. I had counted backwards from the first day of Spanish class this coming September to determine which day we should depart Australia and make sure we took at least the minimum home leave.
Although home leave is required, it isn’t paid for; officers and their families have to juggle expenses and decide whether to visit family, go to a new place, or some combination. Going on vacation in a first-world country for a month, usually with no car or house, can be really expensive! Compared to our first home leave in 2017, this time I prepared better and saved up. Since Honolulu falls roughly 2/3 of the way between Australia and California, and neither of us had ever been to Hawaii before, it seemed like a terrific stopover point to kick off our home leave. Honolulu and the island of Oahu did not disappoint! In case you are curious or planning a visit, here are the things we enjoyed most – in no particular order – during our five nights and six days there.
Last Friday afternoon, we paused a moment in the foyer of our home to say goodbye and thank it for the last two years. Even though it was empty of our belongings, it still didn’t feel quite like “just a house.” We’d drug all eight of our suitcases and carry-ons out to the driveway right before the taxi arrived, and now they were loaded. It was time to go. We left all the keys, alarm fobs, and garage door openers on the kitchen counter, locked the front door for the last time from the inside and pulled it shut. We had a flight to Sydney, and then a flight to Honolulu to catch. I was about to break my longest streak yet outside the U.S. – two years, four days.
It makes me sad to write this post, because it means that later today we leave Australia. We arrived on a cold winter day two years and four days ago, full of anticipation and excitement and hope for a terrific tour. And then all of the years and months and weeks and days and hours dwindled down as we worked and traveled and struggled and celebrated and laughed and worked and worked some more, until they ran out. And yesterday as I walked out of the embassy for the last time with nothing but my purse and some souvenirs, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with how lucky I have been to serve here.
We’re only a few days now from leaving Australia. The majority of things we have been whittling away at for a couple of months now are crossed off our to-do lists (see also PCS Update I and PCS Update II), although there are still several important things to either do or just get through. Although I’m sure there will be unexpected last-minute stresses as there usually are with a Permanent Change of Station (PCS), and I’m entering an unbelievable fifth week of being sick, I’m feeling like overall we’re in the home stretch.
Sulphur-crested cockatoos are relatively large white parrots that live throughout northern and eastern mainland Australia and Tasmania, its island state. Colloquially called “cockies,” the novelty of these screechy natives can take visitors by surprise, but cockies are common in Australia, like squirrels in the United States! Since I lived in Australia in 2005-2006 as a grad student, I have loved sulphur-crested cockatoos. Although they have a reputation for being pesky and destructive, their intelligence, curiosity, and sheer brass make me love them anyway. Their brilliant white feathers, bold yellow crests that fan out in dramatic greeting or warning, and the way they strut around is just so… Aussie.
V and I have adored them in Canberra and are going to miss them when we leave. A lot. As my predecessor told me recently, “It’s hard to live somewhere with ‘normal’ birds after Australia.” I wanted to write a broader post about Australian backyard birds, but since time before our departure grows ever shorter, I will narrow it down to my long-time favorite. Here are some funny pictures and videos to remind us of cockies when we are gone and want to reminisce, and also to share with those who are unfamiliar with these entertaining rascals.
During the final three days of our 12-day Ghan trip, we hung around in Darwin and took a day trip to Kakadu National Park. It was our first trip together to Australia’s “top end,” and a chance to visit – albeit briefly – its largest terrestrial national park. Established in the late 1970s, Kakadu covers about 7,700 square miles and is home to 2,000 species of flora and fauna.
[This post is the final in a series of five posts about our Ghan train trip nearly 2,000 miles across Australia. If you missed the previous posts, you can find parts one through four in order at these links: Adelaide and Kangaroo Island, Marla and Alice Springs, Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and Alice Springs and Katherine.]
Before I get to the last post in my travelogue about our Ghan train trip across Australia, I thought it was time for an update on our upcoming Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move from Australia to the U.S. and eventually, onward to Mexico.
My posture towards the PCS is swinging back and forth between hyper-preparation and organizing everything, and hiding in my bed doing nothing. Both conditions may present even during the same hour. Ha ha! But whatever I do, it will not stop the inevitable: we are leaving Australia in less than three weeks’ time.