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.
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.
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.
Last Friday night, we attended the 243rd United States Marine Corps (USMC) birthday ball at Australian Parliament House. Although I don’t love formal events held at 6pm on work days (especially before a three-day weekend when I have an early flight out of town), we rushed home from work, threw ourselves together, and had a nice time.
As the end of the Foreign Service bidding cycle came to a close, all of the waiting and ambiguity I thought would end upon that long hoped-for handshake instead deepened into more waiting, frustration, bureaucratic entanglements, and medical clearance issues. I am working on it and hopefully will be able to announce our onward assignment in the coming weeks. In the meantime, the feeling of getting very close to a good outcome, only to keep getting further away while jumping over unexpected obstacles in my path has been dogging me. Someday I will tell that story.
Today, I’ll tell a different story in the same vein, about a day in March 2003 during my first couple of months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Macedonia. Originally entitled, “All For a List,” I wrote this piece about trying so hard to do something simple and being foiled, and foiled, and foiled some more. I silently raged against the machine, I almost lost patience, I almost let it get my goat. When the most straightforward situations devolve into total clown shows, it is the ability to laugh when you want to cry that keeps you resilient. I meet much bigger challenges more easily now, but for me that day in 2003 still marks how far I’ve since come in learning patience, thinking on my feet, and innovating on the fly. It is a snapshot in time of learning to build resiliency, and finding the calmest path to the destination you want. Don’t miss the scenery along the way!
This month, I celebrated a milestone birthday and welcomed my visiting dad and stepmom to Australia. Getting a family visit as a Foreign Service Officer, even to an “easy sell” country like Australia, is a relatively rare chance to catch up and share a bit of your FS world with loved ones you don’t see often enough. The ‘promised’ influx of visitors during our tour in Australia has not materialized; our time here is two-thirds over, and my dad and L were our first visitors! I’m not really surprised: after all, Canberra isn’t Sydney or Melbourne. And although Americans are fascinated with Australia, relatively few actually get here – less than 1% of Americans traveled down under in 2017. Although my dad and stepmom could only stay a week, we had a great time with them, touring Canberra and saying goodbye to my 30s on a road trip to the South Coast.
This past May when V and I went to the Hunter Valley Food and Wine Festival, I saw a flyer for a hot air balloon fiesta to take place at September’s end. March was our first hot air ballooning experience in Canberra, an experience we both wanted to do again. So I bought our fiesta tickets almost as soon as we returned home, in anticipation of celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary in a hot air balloon over vineyard country. And last weekend, we did just that.
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.