This weekend, we took a small road trip 50 miles south into New South Wales’ Snowy Monaro Region to experience a black truffle hunt. The greater Canberra region is known for its fresh black winter truffles. This year, the tenth annual Canberra Truffle Festival runs from June through August (the southern hemisphere equivalent of December-February). What better way to experience the festival and support local farmers than enjoying a black perigord truffle-infused brunch and tagging along with dogs trained to hunt the savory black gold?
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.
Between November 2002 and August 2004, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Macedonia doing environmental education and management. At that stage of my life, I was in my mid-20s, single, and a recent San Diego State University graduate who hadn’t seen much of the world outside of California, Nevada, and northern Mexico. Every few years, I take a look back at some of the emails and letters I sent to friends and family during that time. Even though some of the writing is spectacularly convoluted and would have benefited from thorough editing, I do see glimpses within of the person I would become. Some of the letters, while not a complete perspective on my service, are also a heartwarming reminder for me of my young resiliency, hope, and the struggles I had in adapting to my new home. Although some days I succeeded better than others, the prevailing legacy of that time was an openness to seeing life through others’ eyes. I’m sharing a few excerpts of those letters home here.
If you have been reading my blog for a while, you know that I served my first diplomatic tour in Uzbekistan starting in 2015. Many of my blog posts while there were focused on things other than Uzbekistan; although I wrote about narrow aspects of my life, and chronicled our trips around the country, the list of unwise subjects to publicly write about in that particular environment was lengthy.
In retrospect, there may have been more “content” I could have produced about the unique parts of Uzbekistan had I been there under different auspices. There is no question that the high-fraud consular work, security posture, and challenges of being a non-mother in a society where women derive their place chiefly from motherhood all negatively affected my perspective at times. I also was very focused on not drawing attention to my whereabouts and activities too, especially when my blog “mysteriously” became accessible only by VPN. Another American I know succeeded much better in explaining and appreciating what he and his wife experienced during their three years in Uzbekistan. Thirteen months almost to the day on from my departure, it has been an unexpected delight for me to see Uzbekistan again through their eyes.
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!
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.
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.
In a previous post from last month, I talked about how I first came to Australia in 2005 and figured out that there were some differences in U.S. vs. Australian English. I promised that the second edition in the series would be about food, so in this post I’ll talk a little about some of the differences between eating in the U.S. and Australia, and share some Aussie food-related vocabulary.
On the afternoon of July 22, 2005, I flew into Sydney’s coastal winter for the first time, having left behind a European summer. I was moving to Australia to study for a master of international relations at Macquarie University, and one of the things that had attracted me — besides the obvious perks of living in Sydney and MQ’s solid academic program, of course! — was the ability to study in English. I’d been living for a couple of years in the non English-speaking world and I was keen to study in my mother tongue again. After a few memorable, unintentionally offensive, and head-scratching moments, I realized: the mother tongue has gone in such delightfully different directions over the last few hundred years.
It’s a little hard for me to believe, but November 11 marked fifteen years since I left my home in California to become a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the Republic of Macedonia. Me and 19 other trainees attended a two day Staging workshop in Washington, DC before heading overseas, arriving in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje on November 15, 2002. I had pursued my PCV candidacy at that point for about fourteen months: during my senior year in college, beyond the September 11 attacks, and through a bewilderingly bureaucratic set of recruitment hurdles. Being brave enough to get on the plane and leave for the Peace Corps started a process that forever altered the trajectory of my life.
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.
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.
During Soviet times, Tashkent had a functioning aircraft production plant called the Chkalov Aircraft Factory, previously also known as the Tashkent Aviation Production Organization (TAPO). The factory was named after famous Soviet pilot Valeriy Chkalov. Although the factory still boasts some contracts and foreign projects, by and large its glory days have passed. I don’t know whether or not the compound is open to the public, but a group of us from the embassy were lucky enough last week to be invited there to check out the museum and some of the planes still on display.
I strolled slowly downhill through the gravel and broken pavement towards the Aral Sea as raindrops began to fall. The Land Cruiser rolled up slowly on my right, and M called out through the open window, “Hey lady, want a ride?” Looking skeptically over my shoulder, I replied, “I don’t usually take rides from strangers. But you guys look all right.” I laughed at myself as I clumsily climbed in and we rolled the remaining few hundred yards down to the seaport.
[This is a companion piece to my prior post about traveling to the Aral Sea earlier this month. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]