A weekend in Singapore

 

At the end of the Australian financial year (which falls in June for some odd reason) there was a massive sale for flights to Singapore. On a whim, my friend, Aurélie, and I booked tickets for a Friday- Tuesday night trip. It was crazy. A 7 hour flight for only 3 full days? What about the jet lag? What about the weather (30+Celcius), what about….here goes nothing.

As most trips do, this one started off not going as planned. Our little 6 hour hop across the pond, was delayed over two hours whilst we were already seated in the plane. Evidently the flight attendants didn’t match tickets with passengers correctly, and spent about an hour and a half going back and forth through the cabin coating heads, matching tickets, and furiously conversing with each other over the mishap. Eventually, the wheels were up and we were off.

We had planned ahead and grabbed a few Singaporean dollars prior to departure, which served us well when we need to get food quickly upon arrival. The airport alone was a sight to see. So big. So beautiful. So CLEAN. This was probably the most striking thing about Sinapore as a whole…the city was spotless.

As we left from the airport, I quickly learned why this city is sometimes referred to as futuristic. Their public transport system is quite simply supreme. It’s called the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT for short), and it was impressive. There were clear signs (in English, nonetheless), colored lines along the floor, and we never waited longer than about 2.5 minutes for the next train to appear.

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It was also extremely affordable. We used it exclusively for our travels during our stay and never spent more than about 5singaporean dollars per day.

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We had thoughtfully researched our location, and had pre-booked a beautiful Airbnb located in the Bugis district. The place was clean, new, well furnished, and a great launching pad to all the sites we wanted to see. The first evening, however, we were far too exhausted to venture anywhere, and with it already being about 8pm local time (though 11pm to our Aussie time-zoned bodies), we crashed after a quick meal.

 

 

Saturday- Day 1

On our first real venture out, our number one task was to find coffee. Not wanting to waste precious time, we popped into the first shop we saw, paid about 6.5 for an iced coffee (iced is the only way to go when at 9am the humidity is already above 85% and the temperature is hitting 30C). With coffee in hand we continued our walk until we saw a long line of locals queued up in front of a place called “Toast Box” (little did we know this would become our go-to brekky).

Aurélie tried a tradition kaya toast breakfast, while I indulged in what can only be described as the Singaporean equivalent of an egg mcmuffin. Only, this was SO MUCH BETTER. The bread looks like plain old whitebread, but I promise you, it simply isn’t.

Fueled by both caffeine and food, we headed off to China town (our main target for the day). Walking through the streets was a blur of color, people, shops and stalls.

I made notes of the more fragrant food options for our return trip, and we quickly made our way to the Budha Tooth Relic Temple, one of the larger ones in China Town. Our timing was impeccable as the Monks were in the middle of a morning prayer as we entered. It is traditional upon entering the temple to place extra layers of cloth over any exposed skin, and, in some instances, also remove your shoes. Seeing as the temperature was only climbing, we had chosen proper summer attire, and therefore had to add a few layers of cloth before entering. During our time in the temple, we were also treated to our first of many experiences of flash thunderstorms. We spent an hour or two wandering around the many levels of the temple (one of which included a museum), before finally reaching the rooftop gardens, where the sun conveniently reappeared.

For a refreshment, as we were both already feeling dehydrated, despite packing copious amounts of water, we stopped into a Hawker food centre. These Hawker centres are open air buildings that have dozens of food stalls within them. There is a hot debate over which hawker centres are the best in Singapore, so we chose the top rated one in China town, Maxwell Road. Aurélie’s eyes grew three sizes when she saw fresh coconuts (a luxury she has not enjoyed since her time living in Trinidad). Whilst she sipped that down (I never knew how gooey coconuts are), I found this fried shrimp pancake that I convinced myself was the perfect breakfast/lunch option. The meal was fast, cheap, fresh, and delicious. It was also an experience.

 

Did I mention just how HOT and humid this place was? Imagine 50+ food stalls (all with open flames and friers), piled into a relatively small open-air building, with nothing but a few fans helping to circulate fresh air. It’s toasty. Moreover, we quickly learned that napkins are just not a “thing” in Singapore. A very nice gentlemen directed us to sinks in the corner of the building which are evidently used for washing up after dining. Indeed, as the silverware shortage seemed to be similar to the napkin one, and thus after dining with only our fingers, it was quite necessary to have a good wash up. (the picture below is from a very nice indoor eating area at a mall…they had sinks at the hawkers, but they did NOT look like this)

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We continued on through China town, winding our way through the streets so we could pass by temples on our map.

IMG_2560We stumbled across another hawker centre in Little India, and Aurélie found another treat she had been missing, fresh made roti bread. I must admit, it was pretty delicious. Tracking down roti quickly became a theme for the duration of our stay, and proved to be quite challenging as google maps was incredibly unreliable at giving accurate opening and closing times for the food stalls. It seems shop owners here simply do as they please. So, arrive early, or no roti.

Little India had a completely different feel to China town. I must admit, I felt a lot more “watched” in the hawker center here than in China town. It didn’t seem like a lot of non-locals ventured to these lesser known hawkers and two young, female foreigners managed to attract a fair bit of attention. However, the colours and art made this section vibrant and beautiful and well worth a visit.

With a full day of walking under our belts, and our bodyweight lost twice over in sweat, we went home to clean up before dinner.

To say that I went to Singapore for this one meal is probably a bit of an overstatement, but to say I’d go back to have it again wouldn’t be far from the truth. We booked what would be our most expensive meal at Momma Kong’s in China town to enjoy the world-renowned Singaporean Chili crab. The crab was exceptional, and the sweet buns we had with it were straight from heaven. Highly, highly recommend this restaurant. A perfect end to our first full day.

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Sunday- Day 2

Having learned from our expensive first coffee, we had purchased some coffee from a store to make at home, and thus started day two with a much cheaper homemade iced coffee. We ventured over to our local Toast Box, repeating our meal from day 1, before heading off to the docks.

Today, we had decided to venture off the coast of Singapore to a little island called Pulau Ubin. With a population of 38 residents, and a size of about 10 square kilometers, it remains very underdeveloped compared to the mainland. You can only access it via little boats, and the only way to really travel the island is by bike.

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On arrival, we were greeted by 4 or 5 bike rental vendors. The lady we eventually rented from greeted us by saying “would you like a normal bike or a good bike?” I kindly asked what the difference was and she explained that a normal bike would be 8 dollars for the day, is a little squeaky and very old, whilst the good bikes are newer, have more gears, and run for 18 dollars. With the average drink costing around $15-20, we decided roughing it on an $8 bike was more cost effective. What an adventure.

No sooner had we handed over the money than another flash thunderstorm hit. Seeking the only shelter available, we huddled under a nearby tent with a few other travelers.

In true tropical fashion, the raging storm passed through quickly and we were on our way through the trails. Aurélie had mapped out our route, with an end target of the Chek Jawa wetlands at the end of the Island. While the distance wasn’t much (only a few kilometers), the bikes created some chaos. Slipping chains, missing brakes, and squeaky wheels had us very much appreciating our comparatively high-tech bikes back home in Oz.

We eventually made it to the reserve, and whilst the high tide covered some of the coral we were meant to see, the wildlife was abundant. We even caught sight of a swimming lizard ( a GIANT lizard).

Our trek by foot was slow, again, as the sun and heat was taking its toll. We found a seafood restaurant on the water. I enjoyed a small meal (feeling a bit dehydrated and not wanting to tempt my tummy), whilst Aurélie feasted on shrimp. I finished lunch at a coconut stand and finally had my first fresh cut coconut. Delicious.

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We headed back to the mainland and took a quick rest at home before venturing out on the town. We had our eyes on finding a rooftop for the sunset, and 1 Altitude Bar fit the bill. A $30 dollar cover charge seemed excessive, but with the included drink and the towering view of Singapore, it didn’t disappoint. The skyline was beautiful and seeing the shift from day to night, you get this sense that you are watching the city literally come alive from above. While most people opt to see the skyline from the Marina Bay Sands hotel (the one that looks like a boat on top of three buildings), this vantage point offered a beautiful view of the hotel itself.

Once the sun had set, we wandered along the riverbank and ended up stopping at one of the dozens of restaurants along the way. We chose ours mainly because the servers promised 30% off the food and a free drink each (you know the way to my wallet). We tried some calamari (one of my favorite seafood dishes), and the fry on them was superb and unlike any other version I’ve had before. Following dinner, we ended up exploring the Clarke Quay area, and Aurélie indulged my desire for a hearty dessert of sticky date pudding. Delicious end to day 2.

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Monday- Day 3

This morning we decided to break our routine and meander off the beaten path for a local dining experience (at least, this is the way Aurélie sold it to me). She had spent hours researching and had found this highly acclaimed traditional Singaporean breakfast café called Heap Seng Leong. When we got to the area, it took us about ten minutes to locate the tiny little café. The curb appeal was about as non-existent as the workers of the cafe.

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Two locals were having a laugh as we walked around the inside of the building complete confused. There was no front desk, no back kitchen, and no one standing up as we entered. What IS this place? Finally, the braver of the two of us (obviously not me), approached the men at the table and asked how we order. They pointed to a table at the back of the café where an old man and his father sat. We walked up to them, a bit uneasy and apprehensive, and asked for two traditional breakfasts (two poached eggs and a kaya toast) and returned to our seats. While the toast was actually not up to par with the aptly named “Toast Box” café, the kaya spread and eggs were delicious. They serve the eggs very runny (which was a bit of a worry to me), and with soy sauce.

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Amazing. I would have never walked into the place had I just walked by it, and I don’t think I would have walked up to the people in the back of this dimly lit building had I been alone. But this was the perfect example of that old adage about judging books by their covers…the cover was rough, but the story is now a cherished memory.

A little town called Joo Chiat, known for it’s beautiful housing and quirky neighborhood, was next on our list. The colours of the houses was reminiscent of pastel easter eggs.

I required some refueling after the walk (my ridiculously high metabolism was both a hindrance and bonus for the trip as I was constantly needing food, but then this allowed me to try all possible cuisines), so we ducked into a little café where I tried a different type of Bao bun (with pork floss). Bao buns had quickly become one of my favorite snacks in Singapore (think light and fluffy sweet bread), but I must admit, even for my pork-loving self, “pork floss” was a one and done experience.

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After a brief respite at our flat, we went our for the most anticipated destination of our entire trip, the Gardens by the Bay. My oh my, this did not disappoint. On arrival, we first wandered over to the onsite hawker center that some friends had recommended. I enjoyed a feast of satay skewers of shrim, beef and pork, and Aurélie found an oyster omelette and some roti. We seriously ate our way through this city.

We splurged a bit on tickets to the indoor attractions at the gardens, including the cloud forest and the flower dome. Whilst the flower dome was a bit unremarkable, the cloud forest was perhaps my single favorite destination of the entire trip. It contains the world’s tallest waterfall at 35 meters and this waterfall is the centerpiece of the exhibit creating both a calming ambiance and releasing a refreshing mist to the plethora of plants within the dome.

dscf5186.jpgThe tour through the clouds fittingly begins at the highest point of the dome. Escalators within the massive waterfall structure take you up to the peak of the falls, where you then follow skywalks that wind down and around the structure, with each level mimicking the flora of specific altitudes. Words don’t do it justice, and I’m not sure my pictures do either.

Our last stop in the gardens was by the Supertree grove. These are probably the most iconic part of the Gardens by the Bay, and, once again, they did not disappoint. Ranging in height from 25 to 50 meters, these 18 manmade trees tower over the gardens. The supertrees are adorned with over 160 thousand plants, and each tree has different planting schemes.

After we snapped some photos, we headed up to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. We bought a ticket to the 57th floor and found a table at the rooftop bar Ce La Vi. This floor provided a 360 view of Singapore, but was actually slightly less impressive having already been to the 1 Altitude Bar. We ended the evening out by snapping some nighttime pictures of the Supertree grove.

Our ill-timed meals meant we arrived back to our local neighborhood craving food. We opted to explore local cuisine and found a chain of hawker stalls nearby. We had yet to try a couple local cuisines—Aurélie was set on “fish ball soup” (how that sounded appealing, I do not know), and I went for their traditional chicken and rice. With about a $5 price tag, we both had a massive amount of food to take back to our room. I paired my meal with a local beer from Raffles.

Whilst chicken and rice may sound a bit boring (I almost didn’t go this route for just that reason), the flavoring on both the rice and chicken is very unique and delicately, deliciously simple. Aurélie’s  fishball soup, however, tastes exactly as you would imagine it would. To put it simply, it was not to my taste. She claims she enjoyed it, but would never eat it again. I think that speaks for itself.

And so ended day 3….

Tuesday- Day 4

Today marked our last day and we had honestly ticked of everything on our sight-seeing bucket-list. Thus, we decied our last day would be spent exploring the extensive shopping malls along Orchard street in the Singapore CBD. These malls were massive. I’m talking 7 stories high, with 7-8 buildings spanning multiple city blocks, with underground passageways to go under the major roads and into the MRT stations.DSCF5277.JPG

We didn’t end up doing much shopping for apparel or trinkets, but rather shifted our focus (or maybe I should say “maintained our focus”) on the cuisine. We found a grocery store that had a 30 foot long fridge full of fresh sushi/sashimi/nigiri. We grabbed the most appealing option and then continued through the shop. Taste testing items is not only an option, its practically required. Aurélie happily obliged the attendants, gleefully gobbling down every food item within reach.

Around lunchtime, she found her last “must-try” food (I swear her list grew longer and longer throughout the trip). It was called carrot cake, but there was no carrot and there was no cake. It’s cooked radish with spices, and it was something I would never EVER have ordered myself, but was probably the best thing we tried in Singapore. HIGHLY recommend. Maybe it’s a good thing we discovered it on our last day. I enjoyed a fried Kway Teow. A safe but delicious bet.

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Knowing we had our overnight return flight this evening, and being entirely determined not to eat airplane food, I began accumlating a food stash. Beyond the sushi, I also found some more kaya toast, and discovered the best beef jerky of my life. The jerky, or Bakkwa as its called there, was fresh, tasty and not at all dry. They roast it in the oven before giving it to you, which makes it even tastier. I packed away a few servings for later. Our last food purchase was Pandan cake. Again, I don’t know how we got through 3 full days in this city without trying this, but maybe it’s for the best. It’s a fluffy green spongey cake found in Southeast Asia.

Late afternoon marked the end of our adventure and we grudgingly reported back to the airport for our overnight trek back to Melbourne. The trip was a whirlwind of an adventure and has given me all the evidence I need to confirm you can see an awful lot in just 4 days. I hope to go back to Singapore one day, but I also feel like I saw all the “top things” I wanted to see. 10/10 would do again.

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Three life lessons learned from living abroad

Every stage in life, ever chapter in our own journey’s book offers many opportunities to learn and grow. I think I’ve always embraced the power of knowledge, but it wasn’t until I lived abroad that I truly embraced the power of self awareness. When you live abroad you are forced to confront a wealth of insecurities that you probably didn’t even know you had. While creature comforts are ever changing as we move through life (new cars, new houses, new city, new school), nothing strips them away quite as suddenly and completely as moving across the world. I’ve learned many many things about my new country, my home country, the research world, etc, but some of the most valuable things I’ve discovered are just about myself and how I interact with my world. So here we go, three of the life lessons I’ve learned since living abroad.

  1. The way things are done at home isn’t THE way of the world. Adjust your perspective because it’s the only thing you can control.

This seems like a funny one, but hear me out. I spent my first 6 months in Australia comparing absolutely EVERYTHING to how things happen in North Carolina. It was as if my little state (and more specifically my 40 square miles of “home territory” within it) was the standard by which everything “should be done.” Because of this, I initially spent a lot of time being pretty frustrated. The pace is slower, the customer isn’t king, and pretty much every word can be shortened to something ending in “o” (ambo, servo, salvo, avo, etc). The things that week one are hilariously entertaining, quickly become infuriatingly frustrating when they constantly conflict with your expectations. So I adjusted. This is the reality. There’s no “should, would could,” it just is. And you know what? That mindset shift changed everything. All of a sudden I started seeing some of the things that were actually better here than home. That slower pace forced me to find more of a balance. Losing the “customer is king” policy forced me to find a patience with the service industry (that to this day I still battle with, but I’m working on it), and all the Aussie slang has just made for some hilarious moments.

 2. My identity isn’t entirely tied to being an American, and it’s not my job to defend it.

One of my biggest struggles when I moved was finding out how much I unconsciously identified with my country. So much so that I personally internalized any and all negatively charged comments toward Americans (and trust me, there were plenty being passed around). I felt that since I was a part of the stereotyped country, I was being branded with the judgments being cast on my nation. Because of this, I found myself in this constant frenzied state of defending my country. It was painful, emotional and soul crushing because I turned every discussion into something personal. It took probably a year (and a lot of self work with patient guidance and understanding from a friend) for me to break free. I don’t mean to say that I don’t identify as American. Far from it. I embrace it, body and soul because where I grew up and the culture that raised me has a profound impact on the way I think and how I first see the world. BUT, it does not entirely define my personhood. My country of origin isn’t the whole me and while the culture and stereotypes that envelop it it have passed through me, so have many other moments, memories and teachings. I am my own person. And I am American. Those things aren’t the same, but neither are they mutually exclusive.

 

3. Language can be one of the most powerful connectors. Learn it, use it, be thankful for it.

I never realized just how powerful a shared language was. A vast majority of my friends here in Australia are fellow expats, but mostly from non-english speaking countries. Literally the only reason we can communicate is because they decided to study a second language (English). How incredible is that? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved the idea of studying different languages. I continued my French studies all the way through college, but studying a language and living in that language are two entirely different things. One night I was out for dinner and drinks with four French girls. I remember having this intense feeling of guilt as we all sat around the table speaking English. All four of them would have had a much easier time speaking French, but they all went to their secondary language so that I could be included. It stands out in my mind as such a powerful moment of social inclusion and acceptance that resulted in this intense feeling of gratitude. I walked away determined to devote some more time to my second language (if you can call it that). Whilst I’ve studied it for years, without having a need for speaking it, my vocabulary has dropped to an infant level. I’m very self-conscious now that I’m trying to resurrect my lost language, but it’s a feeling I’m working to embrace. Language is an incredible tool and connector, and I want to have the ability to connect with another culture using the words they connect to innately. I’m headed to France to close out 2017, so the clock is ticking. 🙂

I plan to continue expanding upon these musings, but for now I think I’ve hit the highlights. Until next time…

The enigma that is the PhD

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A PhD has always been in the cards for me.  I idolised it in college, denied it after my masters, and chased it after a few years in the workforce. It was something that, on some level, I think I always knew I wanted to take on. I think originally I sought the challenge. I wanted to see if I could really achieve that “highest” level of education, but beyond that, the more I learned in high school, college and graduate school, the more I wanted to learn MORE. I never wanted to leave this amazing “safe space” of exploration. Within the university walls, intellectual curiosity wasn’t just encouraged, it was expected.

So here I am, chasing that dream of having two simple letters placed before my name. I’d be the 4th Dr. Woessner in my family, and the only one earning that title on foreign soil. Every day I’m thankful to be going through this process (ok, well, maybe every other day or so…we all have our “off” moments) and though I remain just as driven to achieve that final outcome, I think somewhere in the last two years while I kept the “what do I want,” I’ve changed my “why.”

I always thought a PhD was that big thesis you write at the end. So my why was always, to prove that I can finish a thesis. For my non-academia centred friends, the thesis is that giant book of a document you construct to illustrate to the “world” (not really the world, the only people who likely every read your thesis are your supervisors, external reviewers, and maybe an extremely overly supportive parent) what you wanted to learn, what you actually learned, and why it mattered. For the longest time I thought this document was the PhD. Writing it, after all, marks the “finish line”… so it makes sense that you define the process by the product right?

Wrong.

While most people know the end product of the PhD, the actual process of GETTING it is shrouded in mystery. It’s like a secret society. A process best described by the following quote: “From the outside looking in, you can never understand it, from the inside looking out, you can never explain it.”

The PhD is not just a document. It’s a cult.  It’s a life. It’s a world all in its own. The further down the “rabbit hole” you go, the harder it is to poke your head back out and breathe. The only people who truly understand the extremes are the ones living through it beside you. There’s this instant state of camaraderie with any of fellow candidates. There’s an unspoken agreement to avoid “how far along are you” and “how’s your writing,” but then, even WE can’t help but to ask the questions now and then. Because we know. We get it….and let’s be honest, we are kind of curious about your progress so that we can adequately gauge our own.

But even though we innately “get” the journey we are cumulatively on, each individual is still walking their own walk. You can have research teams, groups and programs, and you can even be in the same college or university, but at the end of the day, you are the only one going through your journey. Because of this, it can be a very lonely road…if you let it.

This is the other side of the PhD, that no one really wants to talk about. The part where you spend long hours questioning every aspect of your project and all the decisions that you made, whilst simultaneously running through the countdown clock in your head. 4 years until I don’t have a scholarship, 3 years…2….1….

I guess what I’m trying to say is, the PhD is far more than the finish line. I know from the outside looking in, “when will you finish” is the only question some of my friends and family know to ask, but from the inside looking out, sometimes that’s the last thing we want to here….partly because there’s no easy answer to that. We are in a race against time are really our only hope for when we finish is that WE finish before our scholarship finishes.

I’m in the middle of my venture. I’m past the new and shiny phase of the project, but not quite to the complete disillusioned state. I still love my project. I still love the world and life I’ve created here, but it’s hard. My days, to a certain extent, will be on replay for the next 14 months or so as collecting data for my clinical trial is slow going. I’m doing other things, of course. Like almost every PhD student I know, I too am teaching, writing, and finding any  unique ways to improve my resume. I’ve also taken on a role at the university where I am helping to develop course content for several masters and undergraduate classes, and blending them into online videos and content. It has been such a steep learning curve, but something I’m sure will really help me when I am out job hunting one day.

It’s not all tough going….during your PhD you have some of the greatest “job” flexibility of your life– depending on the project you’ve set up. Mine, for instance, is an ongoing clinical trial. I am constantly enrolling new heart failure patients, and each patient undergoes about 9 testing visits over the course of 8 weeks, whilst also consuming the correct colour and dose of beetroot juice (my intervention of choice). This means that, for all intents and purposes, my project is always running, making it very hard to ever just “take a holiday.” Sure, I can work from home, and maybe take off early now and then, but if I want my project to ever be finished, I (and any holidays I want to take) am my own biggest obstacle.

Maybe for some people getting a PhD really could just be about conducting a study and writing a paper, but I think by taking that approach you would miss an incredible opportunities for self growth. Every day I learn something new about my project, my field of study, and most importantly about myself. So sometimes I think it’s good to sit back and be thankful for where I am. My what hasn’t changed. I am still doing a PhD. But my why is no longer just to face the intellectual challenge of completing a thesis. My why is because I want to challenge myself. I want to challenge my way of thinking, my determination, and the person I want to become.

This PhD isn’t about developing a project. It’s about developing myself.

What a life.

What an opportunity.

What a privilege.

Not just the highlights

Living in Australia is no longer a “new” thing. I think it’s finally hitting home just how far from home, yet at home I feel here. It’s both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.

When people ask me how long I’ve been here, I now have to pause and think. I realized I’m no longer counting up my days, weeks and months. When I first arrived, I treated my time here like young parents treat their newborn’s age, celebrating every month as a milestone. Even one year became 12 months, as somehow that felt more significant. But now I have to think. It’s over a year. No, not two. Definitely not two…How long has it been?

It’s funny how normal things feel, and yet I still “learn” new things every day. I’m still enjoying everything as an adventure, but simultaneously appreciating the comfort of the known. When I think about the US, I fondly remember my car and driving wherever whenever, but for some reason taking a tram or train doesn’t phase me anymore. I’ve almost become spoiled having instant access to a city constantly full of life. Every weekend entails some sort of brunch and yet I’ve only been to the same place twice (some places are just TOO good to stick with the one brunch per venue rule).

Home life is better than anything I could have hoped for. I’m in a beautiful neighborhood with so much character and a breathtaking garden that I walk through every morning I need to head to the hospital. I live with my best friend who is fits all the typical roles of “psychiatrist, cheerleader, adventurer, partner in crime” as well as the atypical wombat to my panda (you have to throw in some crazy). I have two other housemates that I’m forever grateful for. We have our separate lives and yet we’ve always found time to merge them altogether for a family meal or outing. I’m lucky enough to have tricked a British bloke into sticking with me for nearly half a year now (or should I count by months?? Or weeks?), and thank goodness for that as I’ve found someone who can match me in sarcasm and well surpass me in puns. A lovely accent to adoringly mock doesn’t hurt either.

All in all, I’d say this adventure is pretty swell. I could end there, but then I’d only be sharing the highlight reel of the story. Like when you cross paths with an acquaintance and you answer their inevitable ‘how are you’ with the cookie cutter ‘Great and you?’ response. It’s hard to share the other half. But when you don’t, it’s easy for everyone outside of your immediate world to have this false impression that your entire world is sunshine and rainbows. Well folks, even in Australia, even in Melbourne (the most livable city in the world) it is not perfect.

The work is hard. I’ve spent the last few months in almost a dazed state. It’s mostly self-induced. I have a knack for over-committing to tasks. I also like the challenge of ensuring all my tasks are completely and entirely unrelated to each other. I hope that the diversity of my experiences will assist me in my next phase, but for now I know they are making me stronger in the here and now. I’m teaching Masters students and being paid to redevelop all the content for that same unit into a digital format. I sit on the leadership team of my research institute with all the program leaders and director as the student representative and also lead a highly driven and passionate group of PhD students on our own committee. I’m planning an end of year conference for the research institute. I helped supervise a master’s student research project, and will be carrying on the data collection for it now that she has finished. My supervisor and I are working on two publications to hopefully get out by years end, and my other supervisor has tapped me to assist with another. I competed in a three-minute thesis competition at my university to improve my presentation skills, and through much support from friends, colleagues and supervisors, I ended up winning and will now present at the finals is Brisbane. All this said, and no mention of my actual PhD research, which is knock on wood going great.

I list them not as a pat on the back of accomplishments, but rather to highlight just how split my mind is through the day. Sure, I’ve enjoyed every task I’ve set myself up with, and yet, I’ve had many very taxing days because of this load. I push myself, and I can very easily find myself in a position of over-extension. Just last week I was forced into some rest and relaxation when out of nowhere my back gave way. I spent an afternoon in a doctor’s office getting x-rays to find out what I really need is to just stop. I need to just pause.

While the back situation is a more extreme example, I have had many nights in the last 3 months where I found myself questioning everything. In those moments, I’m even more thankful for my support system here. And the one back home. But the one back home remains a challenge. Not because it isn’t there, but rather because of me. I find it very hard in the few text exchanges I can have with people to share in any depth what is REALLY happening. So I give the highlight reel. I check the boxes off of all the “big” things that happened. Without proper time to go into a “problem” I’ve faced, I find it easier to gloss over it, to minimize its impact to some extent. In most exchanges I quickly change the topic back to the other person or at least onto happier news. It’s just easier. Why burden someone else with some of my harsh realities.

But then…why NOT? They are my friends. They are my family. It’s like I’m trying to protect this precious Australia bubble of perfection. How dare I be the one to “pop” that illusion? But I should. Because this isn’t a dream. It’s real. It’s not a holiday, it’s my life. And it’s perfectly messy. I never thought about just how hard it would be to not have ALL the people in my life that I forever took for granted back home. In the US I had friends that I’d known for decades. Friends from every single stage of life. Different friends. Different groups. I happily bounced house to house and city to city. Here I have one city. Granted, I know many internationals so one could argue I have a few countries now as well, but let’s set that aside for a moment.

It’s hard. It’s much easier for friends or family back home to “make an effort” for 3 months whilst you travel abroad. When there’s a known end date to the adventure, it’s just simpler. But my friends just know that I’m here. I have no return flight booked. I will be here at least 2 more years and then…who knows? I don’t even know. So people choosing a friendship with me right now are choosing a long distance friendship that is guaranteed to be a lot more work. I cannot at this point be a friend of convenience for anyone back home. In almost every aspect actually I’m a friend of Inconvenience. It’s work. There are only a precious few hours each day where my awake times coincide with those back home, and sadly those are my morning hours which are inevitably the busiest. It’s work.

What it shows me, however, is that the people that are still trying really care. The people that text me when I don’t respond to the first and get lost in my world are ok with inconvenience. I’m forever thankful for them. And I probably need to be better about telling them that.

It’s not yet a new year, but my current resolution is to stop playing the Australia highlight reel. Sure, I’ll still share the excitement and fun, but if you ask, I’ll share the whole story, because in the end, my life has ups and downs like anyone else’s. I’m no more immune to the moments of darkness than anyone else. Luckily, however, here in Australia Spring has sprung, and the bitter cold winter is coming to a close. The warm weather brings flowers and green and most importantly sunlight past 4:30pm. There’s your highlight reel. The other side of it? I promise I’ll bitterly complain when true summer hits and its 40degrees C (over 100F) and I’ve got no air conditioning in the house.

 

 

Three Minute Thesis

The idea of condensing your entire thesis project down into three minutes is almost laughable. Seriously. I’m just about a year and a half in, and already my project seems SO BIG that there’s no way I’ll ever be able to write enough words to do the study “justice.” So when I saw this competition advertised, I was truly intrigued. How on EARTH could people do this?

I remember going to the three-minute thesis competition last year. I rocked up to the lecture room somewhere around halfway through the presentations. There were maybe 15-20 people competing in the heats, and I made sure to catch the ones of people from my College. I was a spectator preparing to be entertained.

And boy was I. The talks were so good. Sure some presenters struggled a bit more than others. Some lost their place during the talk, or had a few too many “technical” terms, but overall, everyone in the audience could walk away generally having some idea about a myriad of drastically unique studies occurring at the University.

I found myself thinking about what words I would use if I were to present some day. Between presenters I distinctly remember musing to my friends about my silly “beet” puns and how I would give it a go sometime. And that was the last I thought about the competition.

Until 2.5 months ago. We received an email about the competition and something about it just struck me. I didn’t know how I could do it (after all, I’ve just BARELY started my study and last year the winner was already DONE), but I wanted to try.

The rules were fairly simple. Each presenter has 3 minutes (strictly 3 minutes—they had a countdown clock and everything), to present their research. Judges mark the performances based on content, delivery and engagement. You are allowed one static slide, no props, no costumes, and your speech must be in blank verse (no fancy rhyming or singing). Easy. No problem. I can speak for 3 minutes on MY research area.

So I signed up and got to work. Draft one. What was I thinking? Why on earth am I doing this? It’s not at all easy.

Woodrow Wilson (I think it was him) said “If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

And man. That quote has never rung so true. It seemed my first draft of my speech just got longer and longer and every time I tried to “edit” it down, I faced an internal battle of debating how important that one sentence, that one WORD was to the entirety of my project.

I finally got the timing about where I wanted and it was time to run my words by a test audience. Thank goodness for having some guinea pigs (I mean, housemates) nearby.

Never before have I realized just how “technical” some of the words I use in my field are. Here I was thinking I had simplified my topic too much, when in reality, my entire 180 seconds were littered with scientific jargon.

Exercise Capacity. Well yes, we can maybe guess what you mean, but what does it REALLY mean? 

Peripheral and central factors? Peripheral to what? What are you trying to say?

Beyond just the individual words, I had unknowingly written the entire talk in the format of a formal research presentation. Fantastic for a conference. Terrible for engagement of a lay person audience.

Draft two….ok they understand it now. Fix the words.

Draft three…. The university hosts a training. I realize that mine is way too long. What do I REALLY want to say?

Draft four….Supervisor. Help.

Draft five….ok. I think this works.

Unfortunately, draft five was finished precisely a day and a half before the competition date. I spent the next 36 hours in a state of pure panic as I paced the halls, office and bus stops talking to myself in a variety of tones and pitches with fairly energetic hand motions.

The day of the competition I’m in full panic mode. I am the very last presenter of the day so naturally, I have NO idea what anyone before me said as I used each of their countdown clocks to practice and time my own silent rehearsals. The presentation itself was overwhelming. I stumbled through a few parts, but other than that have next to no recollection of those 180 seconds.

We had 18 people presenting. One individual from each college (there were 5) would be chosen as the college winner to go onto the finals. Additionally, the overall winner and overall runner up would move forward as well as the people’s choice (who the audience voted for). I had next to no confidence going into the announcement, but somehow walked away with People’s Choice award, and a spot in the finals in 4 weeks time. Oh man. Now I have to go again….

I spent the next four weeks really trying to fine tune my talk. We received “feedback” from the judges. I use “” because the feedback I got was “great presentation” and “include more methods.” Cool. The university held another training day for the 8 finalists, and between that and many more practices at home with the housemates, numerous late nights of whining to the best friend, and countless train rides spent muttering to myself, I was finally ready for the Victoria University finals.

I spent the morning in a panic (fairly typical for me pre-presentation). By the time the competition was kicking off, my nerves were calming and my excitement was rising. My biggest fear is forgetting my words (and when you have 490 of them to say in less than 180 seconds, I think that’s a reasonable fear). I knew my words though. I had them memorized by heart. I just needed to get out of my way and stop thinking. Just tell your story. You know your story. Be you. Stop thinking about the words and think about the story. It was the best advice I got (thanks Aurèlie). I got out of my head. I stopped rehearsing. I was in the moment. I handed over my phone so I had no distractions. I had no one to panic to. I was just there. Waiting to go. I was second.

The stakes were high. The winner from this round, we were told, would go on to represent the University at the Asia Pacific Finals in Brisbane, Australia at the end of September (in addition to a nice cash prize). Runner up would receive a cash prize and people’s choice would win a pretty hefty gift card to the campus store. Beyond the prize though, all the presenters shared the same motivation of just not wanting to MESS UP in front of a video camera, live audience, and our supervisors.

When I stood up, I took a deep breath. It felt like 30 seconds (I’m told it was more like 5-10). I smile, and just went for it. Line by line, the next words just kept coming. I focused on the audience. I found smiling, nodding faces and spoke right to them. I got in a rhythm and forgot I was even nervous. Wait, what’s the time. Am I on time? I glanced at the clock. Ahead of time. Slow down. I did. I got to my final line and brought it home. Relief flooded through my entire body. I wanted to collapse in my chair. I did. I felt good. At that point, the outcome didn’t matter because I knew that was the best I could have done.

Over the next 45 minutes we got through the other presentations. One by one we all started smiling. It’s over. It’s done. We were dismissed for food while the judges deliberated. I was immediately engulfed in hugs and congratulations. Guys, we don’t even know how I DID yet. The best friend was literally more excited than I was. She had sent me a flurry of texts right after my presentation (that I didn’t get until after because I didn’t have my phone….SHE had my phone). I had a picture from the boyfriend that was a selfie of him with my supervisor as they somehow ended up sitting beside each other. There was so much support from my friends and colleagues and supervisors. And there was food. And so we waited.

And waited. And waited.

Finally the judges came out. After the necessary thank you’s and congratulations, they announced that the decision was so difficult that they actually selected TWO presenters for the runner-up award. But first, they called people’s choice.

Mary Woessner

What. Wait. Me? 

 I went up, accepted my prize and couldn’t stop smiling. They then announced the two runner up places. Neither were me. At this point, I’m in a state of nervous, confused, perplexed wonder. Either I wasn’t even close to the top…or….no…surely not. I hadn’t even won my college heat in the last round. I wasn’t the winner or runner up either. No…surely not.

And the student who will be flying to Brisbane next month to represent Victoria University at the Asia-Pacific Finals is….Mary Woessner.

No freaking way.

They called me up. They called my supervisor up. There were photos and smiles and all the fanfare you would expect. It was unreal. All my friends had stuck around to congratulate me and all I could think was uh oh…now I have to do this again!

It was an awesome experience. The competition pushed me to my limit. It took so much longer than I thought. It took so much more energy than I thought, but in the end, I’m really proud of where my speech got to. I have no idea what the next month’s training will be like (I’ve been warned it is intensive), but no matter what happens, this was been one heck of a ride. And I’m so thankful for everyone who has supported me on this journey so far.

(Pictures from the day from top left to right: The supervisor and boyfriend selfie they were so pleased about, the acceptance of the award with my supervisor, the overall winner certificate. From bottom left to right: the people’s choice winner certificate, a random photo from the ice hockey match we watched later that night, chosen because it pictures my biggest cheerleader throughout the entire competition–told you you should have smiled for the photo).

 

 

 

Home

Home

Such a simple word. Yet it evokes an immediate feeling. From anyone. From everyone.

Home.

When you are younger, it’s a fairly simple concept for most. It’s where you live. You go to school and then you go

Home.

As you grow, so does its meaning. The parents move. You move. It’s not just  a geographical location…but one tied with emotion.

Home.

The place where I feel comfort. At ease. But that’s not always true either is it? There are plenty of people who don’t feel comfort at all and they still call that place

Home.

Maybe it’s where I feel the most me. Or maybe it’s where I can go back to feel like the me I used to be. Which is comforting. Sometimes.

Home.

It’s becoming more complicated. Is it less about the feeling and more about the people?

Home.

Where family is. But family isn’t always where I am…and yet I can still feel at

Home.

Friends. Friend who feel like family. Or just feel safe. That’s it. Safety. Maybe safety is

Home.

But then it’s not a place at all. It’s back to a feeling. A sense. A sense of what? How do you describe a “sense of”

Home.

To me it meant one thing before and an entirely new thing now.

Home.

It’s not just the country. The state. The city. The house. The people. Those change. They always change. So what is the part that stays. Is there anything consistent about

Home.

It’s unbound. It can be anywhere. It can mean anything. Actually, when I really stop to think about it, the only consistency is

Me.

It’s me. I’m home. Where I am. Who I am. What I am. I’m home.

My life unfiltered

After travelling home for a conference and some personal leave, I’m just now settling back into my life here in Melbourne. I’ve realised that since I’ve been here I really haven’t shared a post about my every day. I think Facebook and instagram photos can be amazing snapshots into the highlights of our lives, but sometimes it’s just nice to see what everyday life is like. So here we go…Let me walk you through a day in the life 🙂

So wake up is anytime between 5:30am and 7 depending on whether I have to head to the hospital for testing or just go into Uni. This is my bedroom, somewhat straightened up  (because otherwise you wouldn’t see the furniture).

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After a quick breakfast (yogurt and muesli), I head out front. There is a bus stop about 10 meters from my door so if I’m going to uni, I wait outside there.IMG_3271

This little card is my pass for any public transport in melbourne (bus, train or tram). It’s not cheap to ride the transport but it sure is convenient. It works out to be about $7.50 a day if you ride twice (typical commute).IMG_3022

The buses aren’t too bad, but melbourne winter + early morning buses still means its necessary to “rug up” (bundle up)!IMG_3031

The end point of the bus route is Footscray station. Relatively modernist in style for a train/bus stop, but the footscray area itself is still said to be “up and coming”…IMG_3032

This is on my walk to uni from the train. Always makes me laugh “real australians say welcome” IMG_3035

Pass by a lot of old style houses with this beautiful fencing. Most of the units will be torn down as buyers are purchasing for the land and not the leftover bricks sitting on top.IMG_3044

After a short stroll, I come up to my Uni. Not the prettiest from the outside, but not too shabby either.IMG_3049

The main street in front of campusIMG_3210

The centre yard of campusIMG_3051

The back end looks out on a horse racing course, which is quite lovely.IMG_3053

A better shot of the centre courtyard (deserted thanks to end of semester and winter break)IMG_3054

My office…I picked a window desk just to feel a little less like I’m in a box.  You can’t tell from this angle but I’ve got my double screen up as I can’t imagine having just one computer screen anymore. One of the guys has set up a goal area behind me…I’ve yet to have any success in my putt putt game…IMG_3055

I’ve not been in the lab as much at the moment with all the testing of actual patients I’ve been doing, but when I do have to run some blood samples, this is my setup in biochem.

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So now I will backtrack back to the morning time. If I have patient testing, then I have to head out to the hospital in the western suburbs. For this I pop over to the train station near home (about a 10 minute walk).IMG_3118

This is the hospital where all my actual testing takes place. Amazing facility.IMG_3240

My little corner room for testing 🙂IMG_3241

So many windows make winter seem a little less coldIMG_3242

So after a long day at uni or the hospital, I head home usually by about 5-6, though if I’m teaching I won’t leave until 8:30pm. This is the last part of the walk home 🙂IMG_2892

The flatmates and I have just purchased new pillows and blankets to make the house just a bit more comfy 🙂IMG_3291

So there you have it…my typical weekday. Sometimes things can be a bit more exciting, but I guess in a lot of ways my days are like they would be anywhere else in the world. My weekends will sometimes have a bit more flare, like when I did a 3 day trip to Queensland…

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Or when we did a day trip to the great ocean road…

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But most weekends are a bit calmer….I wake up with a morning coffee

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Venture out past the gardens

IMG_0803To go have a brunch at some new spot (seriously, I’ve been to at least 2-3 brunches a month since I’ve been here and still have so many left to try!).IMG_0811

Sometimes the afternoons/evenings include some shakespeare in the parkIMG_0253

And sometimes it’s a lunch on the deckIMG_1765

Having the gardens nearby makes marking exams a bit more fun (in spring, not so much in winter)IMG_0681I always play a key role in cooking up some dinner (a supervisory one obviously)IMG_2953

And sometimes I even venture into the cityIMG_5377

For drinks out with some crazy girls IMG_5380

So there you have it….My every day world in Australia. See, not quite as glamorous as you may have thought when you take off the social media filter. But this is my world, and I am loving it. CheersIMG_8790.jpg