Since I came back from leave at the end of February, I have been working at breakneck speed. I’ve managed visits from Washington across two separate weekends, and spent several nights in the office until 10pm trying to catch up and stay on top of workload. It honestly feels a bit like a losing battle, although in a few more days, the 100 days-left-at-Post countdown will start. With that in mind, I have tried to focus at least somewhat on having fun and enjoying the time we have left in Canberra while it lasts. Here are some memories of doing that over the last several weeks.
The original plan had been to see more of Tasmania’s capital, Hobart on the afternoon of day eight and then move on to Port Arthur on day nine. However, we as human beings had not been able to move at the speed of my paper itinerary, after all. So after a quick redrafting of the plan, the morning of our ninth day we headed to the infamous Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), about nine miles away.
After a wonderful but long day on Victoria state’s Great Ocean Road, we looked forward to a day of sightseeing in Melbourne, followed by an overnight ferry trip with the car to Tasmania. I hadn’t sailed on the Spirit of Tasmania since my grad school days in 2005, and I was excited about getting back to one of my favorite places in Oz. Only this time, I would sleep in a cabin with a bed rather than on the floor, and I wouldn’t have to drive on the left for the first time upon arrival!
[This is the second post in a series about the Australian road trip I took last month with my mom and V. If you missed the first post, you can find it here: Bush Capital to Great Ocean Road (Aussie Road Trip, Part I).]
In my prior post, I was recapping a February trip with my family to Melbourne and Tasmania. I’ll pick up where I left off on that very soon, but first wanted to share a little career-related news from down under.
Last month, my mom came to Australia for two weeks to visit V and I, and celebrate her milestone birthday. We spent a few days in Canberra (Australia’s “bush capital”), showing her around and letting her adjust to the 19 hour time difference (!). Then we took an epic eight-hour road trip through rural Victoria down to Melbourne, where we looked around the city and did a day trip down the Great Ocean Road. Afterwards, we loaded up ourselves – and my car – on the Spirit of Tasmania ferry and sailed 10.5 hours overnight to Australia’s island state of Tasmania. There we spent six days trying to circumnavigate the island’s breathtaking coastlines, lush valleys, and primordial forests. We then reversed our course all the way back to Canberra, spending a couple more days sightseeing around our little town and celebrating V’s own milestone birthday before my mom returned to American winter.
It will probably take me two or three posts to share all the cool things we did, so with no further ado – three Americans take an epic Aussie road trip across three states and one territory!
If you have ever attended a celebration, speech, or conference in Australia, chances are it began with the speaker or master of ceremonies acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land you were on. That protocol is called an Acknowledgment of Country.
If you are truly lucky, you may have even experienced a Welcome to Country by an Aboriginal elder (sometimes also referred to as an Indigenous Australian). This Aboriginal welcome practice has been going on for thousands of years, long before the first white settlers landed in Australia. It is rooted in the Aboriginal cultural awareness of being in your vs. “another’s country,” how to ask properly for permission to cross into someone’s land, and how to welcome others into your land.
Earlier this month, V and I had our first Australian sporting experience: a game of cricket between the Sydney Thunder and the Hobart Hurricanes at Canberra’s Manuka Oval. I had bought the tickets a few weeks before in a sudden burst of enthusiasm for Australian sport, which I have paid almost zero attention to during my two and a half total years in Oz to date.
On Saturday, December 22, 2018, the United States government underwent a partial shutdown due to a lapse in appropriations, and V and I became two of the 800,000 federal employees furloughed without pay. This was my fourth furlough in 13+ years of federal service, but this one felt like it could potentially go on a lot longer than the others. Five weeks later, the longest shutdown in our nation’s history came to a temporary end with the passage of a continuing resolution, days before we planned to miss our second paycheck and our dental and vision plan (paid for through payroll withholdings) was about to start direct-billing me.
As I have said many times, I do not publicly discuss politics or comment on U.S. policy in my personal capacity. That is not going to change. There are a million people out there already doing that, and some even with considerable acumen. However, there are some takeaways I would like to share on the shutdown from my overseas perspective.
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.
On January 2, 2018, I booked a one-bedroom apartment in Sydney for three nights across New Year’s Eve weekend. Yes, 52 weeks in advance. It’s not unusual to book NYE accommodation in Sydney really early, especially when some hotels are booked two NYEs in advance and it is majorly on your bucket list! More than a million visitors pack Sydney Harbour each NYE, so when I found an apartment with hotel amenities within walking distance, I put the money down. As the months went by, I purchased tickets for other things to round out our itinerary. An anniversary dinner in the Sydney Tower Eye, a dinner and cabaret show cruise around Sydney Harbour, and to top it all off: a ticketed NYE party at the Sydney Opera House Portside on December 31. All prepaid and nonrefundable, of course, although I bought an insurance policy for the Opera House tickets.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, my husband had ominously joked that he hoped his kidney stones didn’t act up and ruin the trip. Because he has been hospitalized at short notice more than once in crippling pain with stones, the joke wasn’t all that funny. But then something really unfunny happened that almost turned our once-in-a-lifetime trip into the trip that wasn’t.
I’ve now spent three Christmas seasons in Australia (2005, 2017, and 2018), and have been lucky enough to experience some of the delightful differences between celebrating an Australian vs. an American Christmas.
Over the last month, work has been exceptionally busy. Between holidays, short staffing, high-level visitors, and a number of extra projects, there has not been much downtime. As an introvert, I have been trying to manage energy and pace myself in order to say “yes” to the maximum amount of personal and professional opportunities. Sometimes I don’t really have a choice, because, work. Not only do many aspects of my job require a high degree of extroversion that I can’t opt out of (managing my political contacts, public speaking, delivering policy talks on a range of issues with little notice, and the list goes on), when you serve as an FSO overseas, the line between work and personal time often gets blurred. After-hours rep events. Visitors from Washington. Travel. Conferences. It goes without saying that there are times you have to say no in the name of energy and self-preservation. But there are other times where if you can (or must) rally just a little longer, it will help you leverage the most of your limited time with key others. I have surprised myself lately with the ability to overcome that dreaded sense of “I don’t feel like doing this just now,” without becoming totally drained.
In my Foreign Service experience so far, overseas tours can be divided into three parts. During the first third, you are focused on settling in, waiting for your shipments to arrive, setting up your household, and adjusting to your work and surroundings. During the second third, you still have a learning curve, but feel more or less competent at navigating your personal and professional environments. You have friends, routine, and all your favorite places. This is the sweet spot. You aren’t moving, and the outcome of any bidding does not seem totally real…yet. You feel (gasp) ‘at home!’ And then comes the final third, when you have received your onward assignment. You must then balance what you have remaining to accomplish in-country with what you need to arrange moving forward. Ladies and gentlemen, we are rapidly approaching that final third.
I remember the afternoon in August 2014 that I got my flag for Uzbekistan, surrounded by my cheering A-100 colleagues. And I also remember the hot summer evening in June 2016 when I received my second tour assignment to Australia and stood bolt upright in my Uzbek wallpapered living room.
And very early this morning, I had that moment again. I checked my work BlackBerry and saw an email with the subject line “Handshake.” I actually waited almost 30 seconds to click on it, fumbling for my glasses and barely breathing.
On October 19, the day that bids were due, I hedged my bets by adding one more job to my bidlist. So the final tally on the list I submitted was 11 jobs in nine countries. Since a mid-level consular bidlist with four to six bids is apparently a safe bet, I thought I had given decision-makers plenty of options to work with. But October 29, the unthinkable happened: Handshake Day came and went without a handshake for me.