It was never JUST about Australia

All the challenges and obstacles I once envisioned with regards to this international adventure were originally based around me finding a way to settle into this brave new world. I naively imagined that my accomplishments and self-satisfaction would peak when I finally hit that moment of feeling “at home” in Australia…but the funny thing is, I’ve recently come to realise that  this move was never really about adapting to a new country. It wasn’t about Australia,or some grand adventure to travel to the farthest ends of the earth (no, Mom. The intention was never to be so far away from home)…In this past year I’ve truly come to realise that the most significantly meaningful part of this experience has been learning how to define, embrace, improve and accept myself in a place where emotionally and geographically I have no one BUT myself to fall back on.

Throughout life I can pinpoint certain moments, days and events that have had a significant impact on my life course. Each one has in some way shaped me either professionally and personally. There was the time I got my acceptance letter into college,my first puppy, my first “big girl” job, my first time living alone, my first loss of a loved one etc etc. Up until now these moments have been just that–a moment. A singular point in time that had an impact. This past year, however, is completely different because it has been 365 days of these moments. Never before have I been able to look back at an entire year and so clearly see a dramatic difference between my current life perspective and my old one. I’ve grown. I’ve changed. In some really big ways, but also in a thousand little ones.
I’m the same person I’ve always been, but more confident. I’m self assured but self-reflective. I’m imperfect in a hundred ways but I’m embracing the flaws, highlighting the strengths, and working towards more. I find myself embracing the unexpected more readily. The adventurous spirit that used to be buried deep under a layer of social self-consciousness now shines brighter than ever before. My critical rational self is slowly learning to express thoughts and emotions more readily. I still pride my loyalty and friendships above all else, but I’m learning where and who to invest my time and energy in. I’m taking care of others but not at my own expense.
There are challenges. Oh my are there challenges. Instagram and Facebook tell a story of adventure, but the pictures only tell one side. I’m not trying to misrepresent my time here. Overall it really is so much better than I ever could have imagined, but time is flying and when you only have minutes to spare to share a story, you want to share the happy one. You want to post the photo of the fun. You post it for the loved ones back home to see you are doing ok (because really, even in the chaos, things are OK), but you also post it for yourself. Sometimes a quick photo with a thoughtful caption can be the reminder you need that the day to day is fairly frivolous, but within this frivolity is life. And taking a moment to smile at the big picture, or even the small picture, can be just what you need to keep chugging along.
I never thought this move would be easy. I knew it wouldn’t be. I used to pride myself on being independent, but I now realise how superficial and materialistic my definition of independence was. I lived far away from my family–INDEPENDENT (they had moved and I stayed within 30miles of where I’d always lived). I lived on my own–INDEPENDENT (I was too unorganised to find a roommate and so I became more hermit like). I went to movies by myself –INDEPENDENT(ok, I think this is still a good thing to do now and then, but really? that shouldn’t count as independence). I still pride myself on independence, but in a different way. I’m thinking for myself without being constrained by what other people may think. I’m not bound to any past history here because no one has known me for longer than a year. When you move, the nicknames, stories and character analysis is limited to the last 12 months, which frees you up to refine and redefine any aspect that you like. It’s freeing. It’s automatic independence from the expectations people had of you before as well as the expectations you had for yourself. I think my thoughts and share my opinions free of the labels that I let define me when I first arrived– American, english speaker, foreigner, athlete, PhD, homeschooler, etc. I’m independent of the both the societal and individual constraints I once let consume me. I’m not perfect, and I definitely still have my moments, but overall I truly think I’m becoming the best version of myself.
Australia was never just about kangaroos and koalas. It was never just going to be a study abroad experience. I think I always knew this trip would be life changing….I just never expected it to be so ME changing.
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Magnetic Island, Queensland Australia (photo credit-frombat)

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Turkey Day in Oz

Being an expat is exciting. Every day has some element of “newness” to it. Even today. Even ten months into this whirlwind of an adventure I find something new each day. There are the lunchtime debates surrounding the proper way to eat a sausage (why do they not like hotdog buns here??), the horrible screeching sound some of the birds here “sing,” the highly suggestive ice cream bar commercials, the animal character adorned icy pops, the tongue twister worthy outer suburb names, and so on and so forth. It’s all new. It’s still new. And as fun as it is…it’s also challenging.

For every new discovery, there’s an unfamiliarity. There’s no history, experience or memory associated with at least half of the things I’m experiencing here. Which is great! Talk about a crash course in broadening your horizons. Consider me officially dunked in the proverbial pool of cultural awareness. It is hard though. The best way to describe it is like being on the outside of a constant stream of inside jokes. Only the jokes aren’t jokes–they are a candy. And they aren’t called candy. They are lollies. And then when you go to share your “insider information” on your country’s oddities, there are blank stares and you become very aware of the fact that you are an American. And you are not in America.

I’m sharing this not to make the expat experience seem less exciting than it is, because, as I said, it’s pretty exciting. I just wanted to shine some light on the other side of things. Sometimes we get so caught up in sharing the new and exciting that the whole experience loses some of it’s authenticity. Hopefully by shedding some light on the challenges associated with this expat life, the other moments are able to shine just a little brighter and carry a bit more weight. Take Thanksgiving, for example…

This was my second thanksgiving that I spent without my Papi who passed away last year, and my first without any of my family. Let me take a second to say how blessed I know I am to have had 25 years of never missing a thanksgiving meal with my family. I was so worried about spending this time of the year away from home because I have been completely spoiled with love, memories and amazing food on thanksgiving for 25 years of my life. I am very thankful to say that absolutely nothing changed this year. Well. Sort of.

I am in Australia, not the US. I was homesick for the first time since I got here. I spent my week working at Uni rather than sitting at home with family. I had to track down a turkey. When they only had frozen ones (and TINY 4kg ones at that), I had to thaw it out over the course of a week. I actually had to COOK the turkey, and not sleep in while my mom or Nana did the work. I had to bake the pies and organise the food, drinks, dishes and people. I had to plan ahead and do a grocery shop at the only american food store in Melbourne to collect a few “key” turkey day items. I had to host the meal outside because I had 16 guests and a small apartment.It was work. It took time. And I could stop here and leave thanksgiving as this, but let me back up and tell it properly.

I am in Australia, not the U.S. So every time I spoke about thanksgiving, everyone just got really excited about this whole holiday they never experienced. Expectations were high, and it honestly made my holiday mean a bit more to me to have so many people so excited about it too. I was really homesick. There’s no way to sugarcoat that one. It was a hard week and in years past, the week of thanksgiving is the easiest most relaxing week because you just sit at home with family!

I did have to find a turkey, but when I did and realised they were only 4kgs, my other American friend here stepped up to cook a second turkey. Then I ended up grabbing another quarter turkey. So all in all, thanks to Australia and their teeny tiny turkeys, I set a new personal record for number of turkeys at one thanksgiving at 2.25.

At home the pies are one of the highlights of the meal (duh), so I was very nervous to take on this task. Luckily I didn’t do it alone. One of my best friends here spent a very late friday night baking pies with me. It was quite a task because the ovens here are 1)in celsius (boo!) 2) are fan forced (which just really destroys any confidence I have in my cooking). I also did not make the process any easier by proclaiming the pies burnt every 5 minutes. I was entirely obsessed with “oven watching”–I swear that night it might as well have been my television. You know you have a good friend when there are flowers, cookies, wine and patience in response to my complete and utter pie meltdown. They turned out delicious by the way…

I did have a long trek to the one and only American food store, but, as is the theme of this story, I wasn’t alone in that either. Not only did one of my guy friends drive me down to the shop, but he even walked away with a few goodies too (though I did advise against the twinkie purchase). ha. Here are some of the items only available at the American food store!

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He also took on the ultimate thanksgiving challenge by tackling the stuffing. After an awkward conversation about what stuffing ACTUALLY was, he emphatically took on the task. (when I said stuffing he thought he was going to make what was going into the bird. I had to explain that in America stuffing is a side dish and does not necessarily get shoved into the turkey. He then started calling it dressing, which was equally confusing, but I’d heard the term before so I was convinced at this point we were at least talking about the same thing)

Stuffing is my absolute FAVORITE part of thanksgiving. He was well warned of the importance of his mission, and I’m proud to say he surpassed all expectations. He left the recipe up to me, so I went non traditional and assigned him a beer bacon and cheese stuffing. That dish disappeared immediately on thanksgiving. So good.

Back to prep. I did have to cook the turkey. There was no getting out of that one. Luckily another friend came over to cook his banoffee pie (never heard of this before, but it was another fan favourite) the morning of thanksgiving (we celebrated on a saturday), so he got roped into turkey baking as well. I played my whole “it’s burning, thanksgiving is ruined” game again for a while, and ended up with a beautiful turkey. I have no idea why I didn’t take a final pic of the turkey, but here’s the quarter turkey (a quarter of a very large bird) and the turkey carving.

Sixteen guests meant the party was not going to be a traditional sit down because my apartment is way too small. Instead we moved the party down riverside. It was perfect. The weather was beautiful, we set up on a picnic table, brought out eskys (coolers), and waited for the guests. Everyone really came together for the event, bringing a dish and drink to share. As is traditional, all guests were required to share a thing they were thankful for before the meal.

As cheesy as it was, we all shared some semblance of a statement about being thankful for each other. But you know, I hesitate to call that cheesy. In that moment, that’s all that came to mind. All week I had been so stressed about not being home and then about making this meal perfect and as I was standing there all I could think about was how thankful I was for that moment. For those people. For that day and memory.

So you see, in a lot of ways this Thanksgiving was nothing like the last 25. I am in Australia. I’m away from family. There wasn’t one giant turkey. I wasn’t seated around a huge table. I wasn’t home. But you know what? Nothing important changed.  I have been completely spoiled with love, memories and amazing food on thanksgiving for 26 years of my life.

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Nous Restons Unis (United We Stand)

There I was standing in solidarity amongst my French friends as we gathered together to mourn a tragedy. For me, it was an attack on Paris and on humanity, but for them it had the added element of being an attack on home. We all felt a sense of loss, but the drive, the history and the emotion behind it varied. No one’s emotions are ever less than another’s, but they are, by nature, inherently different. I was standing in the crowd. It was an almost out of body experience. I was part of the moment but a bystander as well. I glanced around. Thousands had gathered. A sea of voices surrounded me, but they were speaking a language I only know pieces of. Sometimes when I spend time with my French friends, I jokingly remind them to speak in english (side note-very rarely is this necessary…they are all incredibly thoughtful in this way, always opting for their second language so I can speak my first). This day, however, was not a day for them to make adjustments for me. It was a day for me to just be. I could pick up words here and there, but only a few. Someone sang a beautiful rendition of the French national anthem. People sang with her.I didn’t know the tune or the words. But somehow that was ok. I was just being. Being a part of a moment that was far bigger than any individual. Bigger than any country. It was a moment where the world was coming together, I thought. Coming together in response to an attack that was meant to tear us apart.

A year ago I think that moment would have been very different for me. A year ago I did not personally know anyone from France. Today I do. I know amazing, incredible women who, like me, have left their homes on a grand adventure to Australia. What brought us to Australia may be different, and we each have unique personalities, histories and stories, but it is these very differences, and the celebration of them that brings such a richness to every shared moment between us. Today I know people from France. I have friends who spent the day contacting everyone they could to see if their friends and family had survived. I can’t even begin to imagine what that felt like.

When I found out about the attacks, I suddenly felt homesick. Overwhelmingly homesick. I just wanted to be back with my family. Then came a pang of guilt. I’m wishing to return home to the safety of my country and family and yet I think about how my friends here must feel. Their home is not a place of safety at the moment. A rush of emotion takes me back to the feeling I had after 9/11. You can never truly compare two tragedies. They were entirely different. But then again, in their most basic sense, they are entirely the same in that they both compromised peoples’ sense of security. There was an immediate loss of safety following 9/11. That day, no American felt truly safe. We fought off fear, we stayed strong, and we persevered, but in that moment, home was not safe. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but the feeling after November 13th is similar to me. The world was attacked, humanity was attacked, and for the French specifically, their home was attacked. Fear will be fought off, the people will stay strong, and they will persevere, but this day will never be forgotten- nor should it be.

While I say the moment would be different had I not known anyone from the country, I don’t think it would be any less impactful. I don’t think you have to be directly affected to experience the devastation of an event of this magnitude. This attack was coordinated. It was meticulously planned and expertly carried out. It was disastrous. And, sadly, it is not unique. Terrorism and terrorist attacks seem to be more and more commonplace. This attack was in Paris. There was another in Beirut. The attacks could be anywhere. It becomes less and less about the where, what and how and more about the who and why. No, not even who to blame…who are they attacking? And why?

Say what you will about the president of the United States, but this quote rang true to me:

“This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.”

–Barack Obama

They aren’t just attacking France or Beirut, they are attacking the the values people hold most dear. The bombs and gunfire struck Paris, but the aftershock has hit the entire world. And the response from the world in the wake o this travesty was overwhelming. Around the globe, landmarks, buildings, media, and Facebook profiles lit up in support of France. In support of the people. In support of peace.

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So on Monday, November 16th, Melbourne organized a peaceful gathering for the French community and supporters. Federation square was set up, guards were in place (just in case) and the French community (as well as official representatives) came together to mourn for the lives lost, not just in France, but around the world. One by one speakers shared their thoughts on the tragedy. Some highlighted the loss of life, others detailed the events, but the all-encompassing message of the night was clear: We will not live our lives in fear. We are one world united.

 

After the speakers, John Lennon’s song “Imagine” played…and for a few minutes, we all just listened. For me, the lyrics rang truer than any other time I’ve heard them.

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one”

As the official part of the program ended, one of the most poignant moments of the night began. The community joined hands forming a circle and slowly, one by one, people walked to the center and laid down tokens, flowers, candles, shirts and photos in remembrance of the lives lost.

image3Aside from the gentle music in the background, the only sound in the entirety of Federation Square (a city center spot normally abuzz with daily happenings) was the soft clapping as people laid down their offerings. For a moment, time stood still. It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever been a part of.

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By the reactions of those walking through the circle, you knew who had lost a loved one. There was one man in particular who broke down completely. I don’t know his story (he was interviewed so maybe at some point it will be released) but in that moment, the details of his story didn’t matter. We all knew. We all felt it. And it was heart breaking.

The emotional crescendo of the evening was when a man walked into the center of the circle and lifted high a shirt with #notafraid written on it. I can’t remember if the symbol above the words was the Eiffel tower or the French flag, but in that moment the words spoke louder than any image. The crowd erupted in cheers. It was the loudest moment of the night, and a beautiful end to the evening.

Overall, to me, it was an experience that was respectful to the community, mournful of the loss felt by all, and yet it was permeated by this sense of strength and unity. In that moment, we were one people. Race, religion and country were all secondary to the one thing we all share: a sense of humanity.

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** Disclaimer– The views expressed in this post are mine and mine alone. I don’t pretend to know or explain how this event impacts anyone but myself. All pictures were shared with permission from my lovely French friends.**

 

 

 

Australianisms

Back by popular demand, here is another post on the aussie-isms I’ve experienced as of late. I feel all of these lend more support to my continued stance of Australia having it’s own language.

One of my more constant battles here is in regards to measurement systems. Since arriving here I have learned and accepted the use of the Celsius scale. While it had it’s challenges, after using conversions for the first few months to know what the day was in Fahrenheit (it’s approximately celcius x 2 +30 if anyone is curious), I’ve finally learned to recognize what the actual Celcius redings mean without having to convert back.

The same goes for kilos and grams. At first going to the supermarket and ordering 500 grams and 1 kilo seemed very odd, but now it’s second nature to not even need to convert to pounds. I even know my weight in kilos (not sharing). The last, and probably most challenging hurdle for me has been measurements of distance. All my life it has been inches, feet, yards and miles. These units were my norm and never once seemed odd until I came here and was forced into the metric system. Early conversations had me remaining quite defensive of my beloved feet and inches, but more recently I am “seeing the light” so to speak, on the benefits of units that are a set factor difference and therefore easily convertible. Sample conversation:

Friend: but where did feet and miles even come from? I don’t even know how many feet are in a mile.

Me: Oh easy. 5280.

Friend: That’s ridiculous.

Me: Not once you just know the numbers

Friend: Well how many inches in a foot? 10?

Me: 12

Friend: SO DUMB…well what’s smaller than an inch?

ME: ….? Uh…a half inch?

Friend: And smaller?

Me: A quarter of a inch? An eighth of an inch…a sixteenth..etc

Friend: …..*blank stare*

As funny as the conversation was, I honestly can’t disagree with her assessment. It is pretty silly that we can only go to smaller units by fractions. The metric system definitely has some benefits in this regard. However, there is one small caveat to the story. I have caught Australians on more than one occasion refer to their height at 5’4 or 6’2, etc. WHAT? You know your own height in feet and inches, yet you know not what a foot is?? Crazy.

I’ve also had some entertaining lunch chats on the pronunciation of different food items. Apparently, all my life I have been mispronouncing simple words like oregano (or-ay-ga-no), basil (bay-sul), tomato (toe-may-toe). Imagine my surprise when my Aussie friends rattle off “Or-e-gahn-o, bazzle, tom-ah-to.” What? My next question was the ever so obvious “well you don’t call them po-tah-toes do you?” But that only got blank stares, followed quickly by “well you don’t pronounce al-u-min-Ium correctly either.” So that lead to looking up what I call aluminum foil. We had to agree to disagree on this one as it is spelled both ways. My dad pointed out there are multiple spellings depending on country.

An ongoing debate I have with my crew centers around the difference between scones and biscuits, in Australia pronounced scawns and bikkies. To me a scone is dense bread, while a biscuit is soft and fluffy. In Australia, a biscuit is a cookie. Could be sweet or savory but a cookie or cracker like item, and their “Scawns” are more like what I would call a biscuit. For obvious reasons I am perpetually confused when I am offered a biscuit. I truly never know what to expect.

Sticking with the topic of never knowing what to expect…here is my most recent experience with a new Australianism. One afternoon some coworkers came by my office and the conversation was as follows:

Coworkers: Hey do you want to go for a gaytime?

Me: What?

Coworkers: A gaytime. Have you had them before?

Me: No…what?

Coworkers: it’s an ice cream!

Me: OHHHH…sure…yeah. You should lead with the ice cream part….

Seriously guys. It’s a thing….And apparently it’s hard to have one on your own…

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Today is meant to get into the 20’s, so I think after popping over to the store to get a few hundred grams of OREGAHNO, and a couple TOMAHTOS, I’ll walk the half a kilometer back home, snack on some bikkies, and treat myself to a gaytime. Cuz I’m in ‘Straya Mate.

Where Were You?

I can’t believe there are 13 year olds out there who have never seen a time when both twin towers stood. It’s hard to even fathom that a historical disaster like that stands so clear in my mind, and yet there are millions of people who have never known a world before it. There are children who grew up in the aftermath of 9/11 and were quite literally born into America’s War on Terror.

Meanwhile, in my generation this event was a defining moment in each of our lives. We are plagued by the question that so many who experienced that day can answer without a second’s hesistation: where were you on 9/11. No one actually asks this question anymore…and yet, there we all are answering it as if it’s an expectation or right of passage that we are old enough to remember that moment in history.

Sometimes I think it would be better to have been born after that fateful day in American history–to have not seen the live news feed as the second tower was hit. To some students that moment is like any other in their textbooks–history. Part of the past. Sure it happened in the more recent past, but it was before their time and hence it is not their past.

But it is my past. It has shaped the world I live in as well as the worldview I hold. My sense of country and pride took ahold of me that day. I was young. I was 12 years old. That was half a lifetime ago for me. I can’t say with confidence that in that moment I knew exactly what that day would mean in history as time passed, but I knew it would mean something. Everyone knew it meant something. What did it mean?

Looking back now I think that day represents different things to each person that experienced it. To some, it was a reminder of the fragility of life. Others, a realisation of the brutal world we live in. I remember a lot from the news that day and the years following. I remember names of attackers, death tolls, and haunting images that will be forever burned into my mind….but what I remember most clearly are the heroes. There were civilians in the offices leading coworkers out of the building, firefighters risking their lives to save victims from the rubble, passengers on the flight that was meant for DC. I remember bravery. So today rather than hating the people that caused it, questioning why it happened, and judging the politics around it, I will choose to remember the bravery of the country that came together to respond to great tragedy.

I was asleep in my bed at home. It was just another morning for me until my mom raced into my room and pulled me out of my bed. I reached the tv just as the second tower got struck. I remember watching closely as my Mom explained the gravity of what was unfolding. I was in my home watching the tv with my mom and sister. That’s where I was when the twin towers fell.

9/11 is a part of my past, and as much as it redefined security, flying, politics and foreign relations, for me, it also redefined the sense of country. America has so much further to go in terms of uniting as a people. As with all countries, we have our faults, flaws and shortcomings. But as terrible as 9/11 was…as much it brought our nation to its knees, it also brought us together.

Being in Australia on such a heavy day of American history was an interesting experience. The entire day passed by with only one conversation about 9/11. Granted, that conversation included the “where were you,” and it shocked me that even as far away as Australia is, even my friend remembered where he was at that moment. I actually didn’t even realize the date until about lunch time because here they report the date as day, month, year. So it didn’t click until midday that 11/9 was 9/11. I know as the US wakes up to their 9/11 day, my newsfeeds will be flooded with the stories and pictures forever burned in everyone’s memories. Sometimes this type of information overload can be a bit exhausting, but on days like today, I love it. I love watching my country, one that is so often plagued by divisions (of religion, education, race, etc), come together under one flag and simply remember. Remember a tragedy, remember a history, but most importantly remember the heroes and the day that America fell apart only to rise again as one.

(some of this post was written two years ago…but I’ve tweaked a few things and the words still ring as true to me now as they did then)

Winter Summerland

Over the past 6 months temperatures have slowly taken on a new meaning to me. I’ve adjusted my Fahrenheit brain to recognizing 30 as hot and 20 as a lovely day. I’ve learned a Melbourne 3 feels a heck of a lot like a North Carolina 15, and anything below zero here might as well be frozen tundra weather because I will NOT be going out in it. While I’ve finally learned the Celsius scale, and even swapped my iphone to the new system, I’ve recently started to take notice of a much more mentally taxing weather woe of Melbourne-the seasons here are completely and utterly flipped.

Ok, before you go off at me for stating the obvious, and discovering a “known” fact, hear me out. Before I came to Australia, I obviously knew the seasons here were reversed as compared to the states. I’d heard of “Christmas in July,” and I knew that come December I’d be trading my usual white Christmas for a very sunny, sandy one. However, knowing this and experiencing it are two very different things.

Being an international also poses its own unique challenges in relation to this topsy-turvy weather. Whilst I experience frigid winds, gloomy drizzles and overcast skies in my Melbourne winter, my friends and family back home are cheerfully posing in their bikinis whilst lounging beach-side with fruity umbrella drinks. So strong is my weather envy that I’ve joked on more than one occassion about avoiding social media through my winter months.

Taken my weather-induced trauma a step further is that while I expected the switcheroo for my winter and summer seasons, and even came here thinking a sunny sandy Christmas could be good fun, I didn’t even consider the months in-between. The end of August, for me, has always marked the start of cooling Fall weather. The transition into September was welcomed cheerfully as North Carolina summers could be quite brutal with intense heat waves lasting for weeks at a time. Besides, it’s no secret that Fall is one of my favorite seasons. Septembers, Octobers and Novembers back home were full of red and orange leaves taking over the trees, bonfires, pumpkin flavored everything, hoodies, state fairs, haunted mazes, jack-o-laterns and Thanksgiving turkeys. I loved hitting up the local market to find cinnamon scented broomsticks to fill my apartment with the “smell” of fall, and my table was always adorned with at least 2-3 pumpkins by the time October rolled around.

I imagine everyone has these types of emotional ties to certain times of the year. I guess on some level I knew of my attachment to fall, but now that I’ve “lost” that season, it’s taken on a much deeper meaning. Ok, I know that I haven’t actually lost the season. Obviously in the most literal sense, Fall still exists, it’s just been misplaced at the start of the year. So I may not have lost the season, but I did lose the connection between the season and the time of the year. I also more recently made the horrifying discovery that Halloween is not a “thing” here…And when you talk about pumpkin carving you are met with “she’s a crazy person” stares.

While these realizations have obviously been quite a shock to my system, I’ve accepted them as a challenge. I may not be able to find the giant perfect-for-carving pumpkin on a pumpkin patch hayride like when I was back home, but I can surely find A pumpkin somewhere in this country that I can slice and dice into a makeshift sort of jack-o-lantern. I may not be able to show everyone in Australia the amazingness that is a proper Halloween themed party, but I can surely convince some friends to dress up, eat good food, and enjoy some Halloween festivities. And I definitely won’t be sitting at home surrounded by my family for Thanksgiving (a holiday I have never missed), but I can surely round a few people together for a friendsgiving to share some delicious, homey, American dishes (who doesn’t love a good pumpkin or apple pie?).

There are many days here when I completely forget that I am in Australia because life here is just, well, life. But then there are those days when you realize the things you have always just accepted as givens, are no longer givens. The norms are not the norms. Your life becomes a constant state of adjusting to a new normal. And as with most things in life, you have two choices. You can choose to be bogged down by the differences and overwhelmed by the unknown, or you can take it as a challenge. Sure, my home country had holidays and traditions that have always and will always have a special meaning to me, but that doesn’t mean that what I have here will be any less. Every day, every month, every holiday, tradition and norm will be redefined and reshaped by my experiences here. I’m not losing something by being here and not home. I’m adding a whole new layer of depth to how I have always experienced my holidays and seasons.

The holidays away from home will be hard. I know they will be, even though I am months away from facing the reality. I hope when the time comes that I can keep my same big picture perspective that I am preaching now, but who knows. For now though, I’m choosing to look at it as an adventure. I won’t be bogged down by the differences. So go on and keep posting those August summer pictures my friends, because come December I will happily be sharing beautiful pictures of my Melbourne Winter Summerland.

PhD Students…we run the world

It’s hard to explain what being a PhD student is like because every experience is so unique. While success in the endeavor requires all aspiring students to possess a few standard qualities such as self-motivation, determination, and a certain level of intellectual curiosity, the journey one takes toward the finish line is a very personal one. Two students setting out on the same path, even in the same field of study, would have vastly different experiences based on how they choose to approach their research, who their supervisors are, the environment they are working in, and their own personal motivation and drive.

I knew coming into this PhD program that there would be long hours. I knew that this was a marathon, not a sprint, and I knew I had a LOT to learn….what I didn’t know, however, was how quickly I would become invested in my project and how simultaneously lost and found I would become in my research. Obviously prior to starting the candidature process I had a passion for clinical exercise physiology, but my path to a PhD started long before I knew anything about the clinical realm.

Like most people in the sports science field, my passion for exercise science began from my obsession with athletics. As a lifelong athlete, when I found out that I could major in “Sports” at college, I was immediately won over. What could be better than working with high performance athletes? Forever driven by my competitive nature, I knew working with other athletes was my dream job. I very quickly learned, however, that of all the students who endeavor to work professionally with athletes, maybe only about 10% actually make it. Undeterred, and knowing I needed something better than a bachelor’s degree to “make it” in the field, I progressed to a masters in Exercise Physiology.

It was in my masters program that I was first introduced to clinical research studies and the exercise is medicine movement. A shift was happening whereby exercise training was becoming more mainstream and starting to be recognized as a medical intervention to aid in both treatment and prevention of diseases. How cool. I mean, obviously we all intuitively KNOW exercise is good for our health, but gosh it’s just so much work to wake up early to get in a workout before work. But what if you knew that just 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week can dramatically improve your health outcomes. What if you knew that regular exercise could combat high blood pressure in similar magnitudes as some medications?

This exercise is medicine movement is what first sparked my interest in clinical exercise physiology. I loved the idea that exercise could act as a treatment in lieu of medications, and, in some cases, actually be MORE effective. Over the next few years my interest in clinical populations slowly became a focus…and before I knew it these patients were my passion. As cliché as it may sound, I found myself finally feeling like I was truly making a difference in my little niche area of research. I was working with patients who could hardly walk 10 meters. Three months of an exercise intervention later and they were bragging to anyone who would stand still long enough about how they had walked all the way from their car without stopping, or how they did their grocery shopping with a cart instead of a scooter. I had one participant explain that for the first time they were able to get down on the ground to play with their grandkids, without worrying about how they would stand back up. Hearing all these stories made me realize that this is the type of research I want to be involved in. I was making a measurable, significant and quantifiable difference in the every day lives of these patients.

My PhD project differs slightly from my previous clinical work in that I have shifted to working with patients with heart failure. I have no prior experience in this population, but I have spent the last 6 months learning everything I can about the disease pathology, progression and prognosis. I will be working with some of the most fragile clinical patients, which is both exciting and daunting. Exciting because these are the people who need interventions the most, but daunting because they are typically very physically compromised. While I won’t be incorporating an exercise intervention in my project (while 3.5 years seems a long time for a PhD, it’s actually quite short for a clinical trial), I will be testing the effects of a natural dietary intervention (yay beetroot juice) on exercise tolerance in heart failure patients. Before you scoff at the idea of beet juice, go Google some articles on exercise performance following beet juice supplementation. There is some pretty cool data. I won’t go all science-nerdy on you just yet (I’ll save that for when I reach expert status in my PhD process), but I will say that there has been promising data from both healthy people and clinical patients demonstrating the benefits of beet juice on exercise performance.

So for me, my PhD journey started a long time ago. My project is now set. I know what I am working towards. Pieces may be tweaked, but the overall concept is pretty much in place. Even so, this process leaves me in a constant state of learning, development, and self-reflection. Working on a PhD is unlike any other degree. You are truly in charge of your own education, and while homeschooling for most of my life definitely taught me the power of independent learning, this level of studying is a whole new extreme. Some days I literally get lost in the literature, only to emerge hours later wondering where the daylight went. But I truly wouldn’t have it any other way. I am being paid to learn everything I possibly can. I have been given 3.5 years to focus on one area of a field that I have a deep passion for. Three and a half years to make some meaningful contribution to the study of a disease plaguing millions of people worldwide. And, on a more self-indulgent level, I have been given 3.5 years to build myself into the strong, independent, confident researcher I’ve always wanted to be.

Everyone’s journey is unique. This is simply my story. Hopefully this gives a small insight into my motivation and passion for my chosen field. One of the things I value most about this experience is sharing it with other students who are equally as passionate and motivated as I am, but in a completely different focus area. While we can’t always help or advise each other on methodologies or recent articles, we can share in the experience of taking an idea, formulating a hypothesis, and changing the world, one dissertation at a time. Ok, fine…maybe we won’t all change the WORLD, but if my research somehow made a difference in the life of even just one person, that would be good enough for me.

On that note, I’ll share a piece of writing I particularly identify with…a poem I discovered many years ago at a LeaderShape conference (spoiler alert, it’s the one in the featured image of this post, so if you read it there, feel free to disregard the following):

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