A few weeks ago, I went on a work-related trip to Melbourne, Australia’s second most populous city. Nearly thirteen years had elapsed since my prior visit, but it was evident that Melbourne still has a spirit all its own – it is definitely not Sydney, or Brisbane, or Adelaide, or Perth. Melbourne is one of Australia’s most diverse cities; often called Australia’s “cultural capital,” one-third of Melbourne’s 4.9 million residents were born overseas. Visiting the melting pot that is Melbourne to attend the Strong Cities Network conference on preventing violent extremism, amidst this year’s confluence of global politics, the threat of terrorism, and the halfway point of my tour as a political officer in Canberra, made me reflect on the immigrant experience in Australia and Melbourne’s successes in social cohesion.
High atop Canberra’s Black Mountain within the treeline sits Telstra Tower, a futuristic-looking spire that looks like it was dropped straight from outer space. Opened in 1980 after almost a decade of bureaucratic wrangling, the tower serves as a national television and radio transmission hub, and also supports area telecom and interstate relay services. Attracting nearly half a million visitors per year, my husband and I have wanted to visit “the spaceship” since we arrived here nearly a year ago. Finally this month, on one of the coldest days of the year, we had a hearty brunch and then made the trek.
For Memorial Day weekend, we went on a road trip to New South Wales’ Hunter Valley wine region. I planned it a few months ago; although I last went in 2005, my husband had never been, and I thought it would be a nice getaway for us after a stressful few weeks at the embassy between official visits, long hours, and feeling bummed after the departure from post of two close friends. Throughout May and June (late autumn and early winter), the Hunter celebrates its annual Wine and Food Festival. But with 150 wineries, restaurants, and cellar doors to choose from year-round, it’s always a wine and food festival there!
Before I moved to Australia in July 2017 to start my second diplomatic tour, I was pretty nervous about driving on the left side of the road. I’d done it before: a friend and I had spent a week in 2005 driving a little rental car around the island state of Tasmania. And I’d been a passive observer in 2005 and 2006 while studying at an Australian uni and riding the bus. But actually buying my own car with the steering wheel on the “passenger side?” And driving it around every day? A different story altogether. Colleagues here told me I would get used to it after a few months, and believe it or not, that ended up being true. And the thing that had worried me the most – staying left – was not even the hardest part. After several months, I have finally managed to collect some observations, lessons learned, and tips about driving down under, including what happened the first time I drove my Australian car. Buckle up!
In 1996, the United States Senate designated the first Friday in May as “American Foreign Service Day.” It is on this day that members of the Foreign Service around the world come together to recognize the work that our nation’s diplomats do. It is also a day to pay tribute to those we’ve lost; today at high noon, we at U.S. Embassy Canberra gathered at the chancery flagpole for a few moments of reflection and remembrance.
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.
Australians take a four day weekend for the Easter holiday, which I didn’t pay much attention to until it was nearly upon us. But a chance to go out of town for more than one night was too good to pass up, so I searched for romantic getaway places on AirBnB. I found and booked an inexpensive but nice-looking one with excellent reviews on the Sapphire Coast of New South Wales, a couple hours south of Canberra where we hadn’t yet been. After a day or so, I realized the reason that property had still been open when everything else – as is so typical during school holidays – was already booked solid: our AirBnB was in the coastal town of Tathra, which had headlined national news a couple weeks earlier while being ravaged by bushfires.
During my childhood, on my nana’s refrigerator hung a postcard featuring colorful hot air balloons floating over rolling green meadows. I would gaze at the balloons from my chair at her 1950s formica kitchen table, drinking orange juice and eating raisin toast, and think about how much I wanted to see hot air balloons. (That postcard might actually even still be there, come to think of it.) Somehow over the years, that fascination with the balloons’ appearance turned into a wish to ride in one. So in 2006 when she came with my mom to see me in Australia and we took a side trip to New Zealand, we made about five attempts to hot air balloon in Christchurch. Sadly, each try was rained out by unlucky southern hemisphere autumn weather. To add insult to injury, the day of our departure dawned bright and sunny. We groaned about it the whole way to the airport to catch our flight back to Sydney. My nana had hot air ballooned previously though, so she was mostly just disappointed for me. For twelve years, it remained on my bucket list. Until last month when I finally – on about my seventh attempt – flew for the first time in a hot air balloon.
March in Canberra signals two things: the official start of Australia’s autumn harvest season, and the annual Enlighten art and community festival. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government sought to attract tourists and encourage people to see Canberra “in a whole new light” with the first Enlighten in 2011; since then, the events have become increasingly larger and more popular for both locals and out-of-towners. Over Enlighten’s two and a half week run time, Canberra is awash with roving light installations, film screenings, outdoor activities, special exhibitions, kids’ activities, cultural and musical performances, and special ticketed events like outdoor dinners and dawn hot air ballooning. Enlighten’s centerpiece, though, is the nightly illumination of Canberra’s cultural institutions, all of which come to life after the sun goes down.
Earlier this month, my husband and I took a weekend trip to Sydney that I’d planned last October. The impetus for the trip was to see my favorite band, Incubus, play at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion. The guys hail from southern California, but tour worldwide a fair bit. Their Australia/New Zealand tour announcement had absolutely lit my inbox on fire; although I haven’t been to a concert for years, I bought my tickets online literally two minutes after sales opened. To make things even better, the show fell nicely on a three day weekend for Canberra. Although my husband had made a quick work-related trip alone to Sydney already, I hadn’t been back since I finished postgraduate school there in 2006 and flew home to California via a Balkans vacation. I made a list of things to do on our first trip together: Royal Botanical Garden, Taronga Zoo, Sydney Opera House, visiting my old apartment, and road tripping instead of flying or taking the train. I’m happy to say that we did all that, and more.
Towards the end of February, we celebrated my husband’s birthday and his new embassy job with a weekend escape to Katoomba in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. We also visited Featherdale Wildlife Park, located about an hour from Katoomba in the equally charmingly-named town of Doonside. On balance, even with weather extremes and about nine hours in the car over two days while only a month out from my back surgery, it was still very well worth the trip.
Since our first month in Canberra, our Australian car has been a money pit and an ongoing source of dread. I’ve procrastinated writing a post about the situation for months because it had no clear resolution, and every time I thought about it, I felt too angry and frustrated. Truthfully, I’ve also had many other things to whinge about and I didn’t want to write one more bad-news entry! But I’ve come to the realization that this story could be of help (or at least entertainment) to someone else, and venting might actually make me feel better too.
Let me preface my tale of woe by saying that Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) switch overseas assignments every few years, and procuring and shipping cars can involve a significant amount of planning and expense. I’ve heard horror stories of fellow officers’ cars smashed in transit, sunk to the bottom of the sea in a shipping container, and emerged from years of government storage full of mold or insects. This isn’t going to be that kind of story. But it is a lessons-learned story about buying a lemon of a used car and our journey to discovering it. And buckle up: it’s a long and painful one. Although it’s common in the Foreign Service to buy cars from colleagues sight unseen, anyone along the continuum from unlucky to outright burned will tell you: buyer beware.
At the end of January, I had back surgery to correct two herniated discs. One of them had been pressing on a nerve for more than a year, but it couldn’t be operated on due to an older bone infection in my foot. A month after I finally beat the infection with six weeks of intravenous antibiotics, I was cleared for the back surgery and it was booked. I was ecstatic. When I packed for the hospital, I packed three books, not realizing that I wouldn’t crack a single one. The first 36 hours were a bit of a harrowing experience, but I tried to right-brain my way through it by reminding myself that it would end. I needed no reminder that it was for the best. I’m only about ten days into my recovery now, but I feel like my fortunes are starting to turn for the better.
While most people we know are experiencing winter, summer is going strong here in the southern hemisphere. As I watch snowfall on my friends’ social media posts, Australians are looking to beat record heat, and with about 15,000 miles of coastline and a population of less than 25 million, Australians are spoilt for choice when it comes to beaches. And although Canberra is inland, as opposed to Australia’s other major cities found on the coast, it’s only a 2-3 hour drive from Canberra to most beaches of Australia’s famed south coast. Before Christmas, I started exploring south coast trips once I realized that beautiful beaches and inexpensive AirBnB options abound.
On New Year’s Day, my husband and I decided to go for a walk at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. The reserve, located about 11 miles from our home, is 34 square miles of protected land on the north edge of Namadgi National Park. It’s also part of the Australian Alps, a series of parks and reserves spanning south-eastern Australia. Full of wildlife, nature trails, and picnic areas, our first Tidbinbilla excursion was a perfect way to kick off a healthy and adventurous 2018.