I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that five years have passed since I first launched the Collecting Postcards blog on April 13, 2014. Some parts of the last five years are easy to quantify. Two agencies, five job assignments. Three cars. Homes on three continents. Travel in 14 countries. Five hospitalizations. Two pets. I’ve written 180 blog posts which 33,000 visitors from over 165 countries have viewed nearly 105,000 times. Everything else that’s harder to quantify? Well, that’s where you’ll have to read more deeply.
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).]
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!
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.
Whenever there is a three day weekend – be it for a U.S. or a local holiday – I’m generally keen to go out of town, taking advantage of an extra day off without using leave. And back in August, I’d planned ahead for a quick getaway up to Brisbane, the capital of Queensland state, for the Veterans Day weekend.
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.
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.
No, not us – a small Macedonian dog named Kikiriki (“Peanuts”) who we’ve been caretaking for the last four months. Her owners, our dear friends J and M who previously served in Canberra, made it to their onward assignment in Pakistan and sent for her. So on the morning of September 11, we gave Keeks our typical Foreign Service goodbye: “See you on the other side somewhere!”