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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
When I first moved to Australia in 2005 and exchanged my U.S. dollars and euros for Australian dollars, the first thing I noticed was how beautiful they were. Australian paper money looks and feels different than American paper money for three main reasons: the denominations are different colors, they vary in size, and for approximately the last thirty years, all the notes have been polymer. The plasticization, clear windows, and other security features make these banknotes almost impossible to counterfeit or rip. Currently an Australian dollar is worth 78 U.S. cents. When deciding whether or not to make a purchase, I mentally do the currency conversion by slashing 25%. That helps me see if the item’s price is fair or “worth it” to me. Despite the sticker shock that Americans legitimately feel with the smaller dollars and generally higher prices here, the colorful money is delightful.
This past week, I took a big step on the road back to good health with a toe-straightening operation. Now that I’ve conquered the bone infection, it’s time to get my foot into a condition to resume wearing shoes without scraping and reinfecting my toe. In the ongoing saga of how-much-trouble-can-one-toe-cause, I am continuing along a trajectory toward wellness. And despite how un-Christmaslike southern hemisphere December weather feels to me, the season of gratitude is in full swing.
Wednesday afternoon Canberra time I walked into the consultation room of my orthopedic surgeon’s office and sat down on the elevated, paper-covered examination bed. Through the window behind me, Telstra Tower stood on tree-covered hills in the distance, looking like an omen from some futuristic society. I swung my legs slowly, looking left and right at my doctor’s diplomas, medical books, and family photos. In a few minutes, I expected him to walk through the door and tell me the prior day’s MRI results, followed by the date for amputation of my toe.
Friday, November 10 was a federal holiday in observance of Veterans Day, and it was also the 242nd anniversary of the founding of the United States Marine Corps. At U.S. embassies around the world, it’s the Marines who protect our embassy facilities and everything in them. We owe them (as well as our diplomatic security partners and our host country guards) a debt of gratitude, and everyone in the Foreign Service knows that November means the Marine Ball.
In mid-October, our HHE (household effects) arrived at last. Mr. Postcard has been hard at work unpacking it, several boxes at a time. At more than 120 boxes, the piles seemed like they were never going to end. But sure enough, more and more, the look of our house is starting to take shape as familiar and beloved items are unwrapped. My Felix the Cat cookie jar. My grandmother’s crystal rose and gold decanter set from her 1944 wedding. My fireproof safe. And so many things both sentimental and practical. Things I haven’t seen since our packout last May in Tashkent and in some cases, almost forgot about. I tend to easily and intentionally shed clutter and things I don’t love, especially in this lifestyle, so the things that arrived were precious. There are two boxes yet missing and being sought, and we are getting to the bottom of that, but for the time being we are trying to turn a house into a home. As we unload and reassemble and reimagine our things into the spots where they’ll live in this new configuration we are establishing, I remind myself that through the mess and chaos, at a certain point there will be a critical mass of things falling into place.
It took us about eight weeks from the time we arrived in Canberra to really get out on the weekends and start to explore the city. Sure, we’d spent precious weekend hours running what few errands one can during non-business hours here: Setting up banking, assessing the offerings of Australian Costco, and even having blood drawn. Lots of things are slowing our jump from survival mode to enjoyment mode. My husband looking for work. Car trouble, repeatedly. And of course there was my six week hospitalization, my full-time job, and having everything we own on a cargo ship somewhere. At a certain point, we decided not to let anything stop us from having some fun – not the freezing cold weather, not the 24 inch chest catheter tube coming out of my upper arm, and not the fact that our lives are in boxes and we don’t know where our socks or cheese grater are. In October, as spring began to warm the Southern Hemisphere, we’ve been out and about in Canberra.
Earlier this month, I sat propped up in my hospital bed listening to an orthopedic surgeon and an infectious disease specialist address me with gentle concern. For a fourth day, intravenous antibiotics flowed into my veins through a clear tube. Beneath my red rubber-studded hospital sock, the fourth toe on my left foot felt scalded and rotten. Discolored, deformed, twice its normal size, and sporting an open wound, even the nurses said it was a stunner. I’d been neglecting it for almost two years, and my slo-mo crash was finally starting to burn. (Note: I won’t be too graphic, but the medically squeamish may wish to give this post a pass.)
Today marks the one month point since our arrival in Australia. I’m grateful for so many of the advantages of being here, which are already obvious. If I’m honest though, I can’t help but notice that my settling in time has been marked by a number of inconveniences ranging from annoying, to painful, to downright comical (in the “what-else-could-go-wrong” sense). Every officer knows that the period of adjustment and settling in at a new post can be this way, even in a lucky first world posting and with lots of helpful colleagues. My time in Sydney in 2005 and 2006 was so charmed that I really wasn’t expecting to struggle so much at the beginning here. Is it bad luck? Karma from some offense committed in a prior incarnation? Being overly impatient with myself and others? No matter the genesis, I’ve tried persistently to see the glass as half full.