Leaving on a jet plane – an exchange year begins

Leaving Sydney - 6 January 1992
Leaving Sydney – 6 January 1992

25 years ago yesterday I started my first overseas adventure without my parents. I flew out of Sydney with a group of other Rotary exchange students, bound first for Melbourne (where we would pick up another big group), then Singapore and then Copenhagen. Arriving in Denmark, we flew on to Odense, where we would have a two week crash course in the Danish lanuage – not to mention the art of Danish dinner parties, nightclubbing, eating and walking in the cold and ice.

I can remember the day as clearly as it was yesterday. My parents and sister were there, along with friends, my Grandparents, and other relatives. After checking in, we met with the Rotary area coordinator to receive our HSC (final year of high school) results three days early. This was almost a bigger deal than leaving our families for the year. Opening mine to receive a score of 96/100, I could breathe easy knowing that entry to my prefrred course of Commerce/Law was pretty well guaranteed and that I could enjoy my year knowing I had a place to come back to. I knew the small group from our Rotary district as we’d had various get togethers and from memory, we were all pretty happy – although I remember one friend holding out until we were outside Australia to open her incredible result.

I was so excited that I didn’t even cry saying goodbye to everyone the first time, but then my sister’s best friend (who was like a little sister) started crying setting Dad off and then it was on. I vividly remember doing the rounds of the group a couple of times before deciding that I really had to go.

Excitement soon took over as the NSW crew met on the plane. We stood out with our bright blue or green blazers with big yellow name badges and the beginnings of our pin collections. We swapped business cards and the addresses of our host families and settled in for the flight to Singapore which included a trip up into the cockpit. In Singapore our numbers grew, and from memory, the 52 Australians all flew into Copenhagen together. It was on the flight that I finally met the gorgeous Olivia – who I would go to school with in Vejle and who is a friend to this day. It was hard to believe she was only 16 and had just finished year 10 because she had more confidence and spunk (and could dance better) than most of us.

Olivia and I at our first school party
Olivia and I at our first school party

We were billeted to various Rotary families for the two week language course.  I stayed with a lady called Inge together with a girl called Nicole from Sydney. Inge’s daughter, who had died in her mid-20s a few years before, had been an exchange student with my Rotary Club in Australia and so she liked to have students from my clubs. He husband had also been involved in the exchange program and so the two weeks was a whirl of dinner parties as she introduced us to lots of exchange students, past and present. She even entertained the head of the Rotary  Program in Denmark – “Onkle Arnie”who was ultimately responsible for all of us – and would enforce the rules – “no dating, no driving, no drinking, no drugs” (to which we may have added, “do have fun, don’t get caught” – but then Denmark was pretty relaxed compared to Australia. We would soon learn the concept of “freedom with responsibility”.

I’m sure I put on five kilos in that two weeks – the food was exciting and new, I couldn’t understand a word so I took second and thirds during dinner parties and Inge was determined to feed us up. Nicole and I would also buy danishes on the way home and then eat chcoolate cake with hot chocolate (with cream on top) for afternoon tea when we got home. Dinner usually involved large amounts of pork, fat, butter and potatoes – and dessert.

My first dinner party in Denmark - the day after I arrived - January 1992 (and have just realised I now have some of those wine glasses I bought here in the Barossa)
My first dinner party in Denmark – the day after I arrived – January 1992 (and have just realised I now have some of those wine glasses I bought here in the Barossa)

We had two weeks of lessons and I can picture my classroom so clearly. Like many of my classmates, I had never learned another language which put me at a disadvantage as we struggled with the grammar, not to mention wrapping our Australian accents around the complex Danish vowels. Lunchtimes were spent eating hot chips, drinking beer and mucking around on the frozen lake outside school.

My Danish Class in Odense, 1992
My Danish Class in Odense, 1992

We went along to Rotary and made speeches, were introduced to the now trendy concept of “hygge” (which is probably closest to cosy and comfortable – think open fires, low lighting, candles and Scandinavian design), before parting ways and getting on trains to head to the towns we’d call home for a year.

Dinner with our host Rotary Club, January 1992
Dinner with our host Rotary Club in Odense, January 1992

This was the era before email and mobile phones, so we swapped addresses and telephone numbers of our host families and planned to catch-up at the first exchange student catch-up in March. Unfortunately I missed that thanks to a school excursion to Italy! Imagine Mum and Dad’s reaction when I rang after my first day of school to get permission – and the funds – to head on a week long tour to Italy the following month. Apart from Olivia and a few people close by, we’d next meet up on our crazy European Tour in May – 50 exchange students, a yellow bus, 2 chaperones and 8 countries in  a couple of weeks – aka – a recipe for disaster! Might save that story for another post.

At the Vatican, March 1992
At the Vatican, March 1992

Before I finish, a note on the title. Danes are big performers and a few weeks after arriving at school, all the classes in my year performed at assembly in advance of our upcoming study tours around Europe. I’d never heard John Denver’s Leaving on a Jetplane, but by the end of the first verse, I was in tears for the first time since leaving Sydney two months before.

For the first time, I realised that not only did I miss my family, but that at the end of the year, I’d being saying goodbye to all these amazing new friends and host families who had made me feel so welcome. Now whenever I hear that song, I’m reminded of how bittersweet travelling and making new friends can be – but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I still consider my Danish host families as family, and I’ll be forever grateful for the experience they provided a young girl from Wollongong.

Farewell party with some of my host families, January 1993
Farewell party with some of my host families, January 1993
My first visit to the little mermaid, Copenhagen - April 1992
My first visit to the little mermaid, Copenhagen – April 1992

My exchange year developed my love of travel, gave me the confidence to travel and live overseas on my own and would eventually lead to my diplomatic career (and coincidentally, yesterday also marked six since years since our first adventure as a family when we headed off to Hanoi). 

P.S: When I set out to write this post yesterday, I thought it would be a general post about expat life and friendships – instead, I took a lovely long trip down memory lane. So over the coming months, I’m going to share a few more posts about my exchange year – going to school in a foreign countries, living with my host families, travel, turning 18 and making friends. Maybe they’ll inspire a whole new generation of exchange students!

 

I’m back…where to start?

I cannot believe I haven’t written since last year. That said, I’m not sure where the first two-thirds of this year disappeared. Writing a blog post about all that has happened might seem like a whole lot of excuses – so instead, here’s a month by month snapshot and some photos with the promise of more to come.

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Stunning beach at Port Hughes – a couple of amazing days at a cabin in the caravan park

January – a great Christmas in Sydney, sold our house in Canberra and came back ready to start the year. A few days in Port Hughes making the most of a great summer. Decided I really needed to get a job so started looking around for cellar door roles. Got the boys ready for school. Simon finally decided to see why his arm was bugging him so much – and bought a ute. Finally we had 2 cars.

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First Day of school – Year 2 and Reception (Kindergarten)

February – 1st of the month saw our youngest join his brother at school and I got a job. Simple. Met for a coffee, chatted, walked to the office – organsied handover. I like to decsribe my job with Schwarz Wines as anything but making the wine – which isn’t entirely true but it’s an awesome mix of office administration, finance, marketing and recently, even some selling. We got back into the groove of working and school and I got ready to run my first training session on free trade agreements as part of a China Ready program run by the local regional development association. Great presentation – not such a great day. Turns out the pain in Simon’s arm was a tumour.

March – day 1 of the month was Simon’s biopsy and 11 days later his amazing surgeon confirmed the worst. A 9.5cm tumour (chondrasacoma) in the cartlidge in his upper arm bone.. The treatment – removing about 20cm of bone and replacing with titanium and so another 11 days later, Simon was under the knife. Amazing doctors and nurses at Flinders made us very glad of our choice to move to South Australia – and thankful my Mum could come down and help. After a week in hospital, brough Simon, his bionic arm and his sling home to start rehab. Fortunately with this kind of tumour, treatment was limited to cutting it out – and as he went into surgery, we learned it hadn’t spread.

April – no idea what we did. Simon went back to work pretty quickly. His employers and colleagues at Artisans of Barossa were amazing. The boys took it in their stride. Friends were amazing. Teachers and after school carers a huge help. I started Crossfit because I needed some exercise after Easter! The Dawn Service in Tanunda was lovely and I realised it was the first time I’d attended a local service. We had a wonderful visit from old Beijing/Canberra friends and again got to play tourist in our own town. Lots of great wine was drunk. Simon’s first follow-up appointment showed all was looking well and the surgery had removed all the cancer. Went on my first decent bushwalk in the Barossa – so beautiful.

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First proper Barossa bushwalk – 10km from Little Kaiser Stuhl to Bethany

May – continuined the juggle of work, my business, trying to stay fit, kids sport etc etc. Went to Sydney for my sister’s 40th – great to spend time in their newly renovated house and catch up with some many friends. On a whim, booked the trip to Vietnam we’d thought about earlier in the year.  More walking and the rain began….

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Rainy morning in the vineyards

June – June was just June. Winter so cold and so wet. The countdown to Vietnam was on. More fantastic walks, work, work and family stuff.

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Hanoi really turned on the weather

July – The countdown to Vietnam continued and Mum came to look after the boys for the first week of the school holidays. It was freezing. I got hailed on going to the toilet at work one day and Mum pointed out it was colder than Lithgow or Canberra. We got our work done and finally we left for Vietnam. 10 amazing days. We landed in Hanoi exactly 2 years and 1 month after leaving – but I’ll save that for another post. We came back and it was still cold, wet and there was work to do. But then a friend pointed out a house that was on the market.

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Beautiful weather for our escape to Hoi An too

August – The first week was jam packed. Did our tax (yahoo money back), saw the mortgage broker and I went to Sydney to sell wine. Was glad I’d listended to Simon over the years. Sucked at getting public transport (even with apps on my phone I missed trains) but discovered Uber. Caught up with friends as well as my family. Came home and got serious about buying the house (more on that to come). Simon’s recovery continues and he’ll hopefully be behind the wheel again soon. I’m getting clearer about the work I want to do with my consulting business and got to work with my execllent B2B colleagues on a fantastic conference (more on that soon too).

September – its trying to warm up but it’s still wet. The canola and blossoms are beautiful. I’m working on a great project that will helpo business to understand how to create better value for consumers. Settlement it later in the month. Right now its all about booking tradespeople, deciding on colours and choosing lights.

It’s definitely been busy, and had it’s ups and downs. I’ve wanted to write but couldn’t work out when or where to start. But while we were in Vietnam, I suddenly had this huge urge to write about our posting experience and the experience of my three trips to Vietnam – first as a single girl in my 20s (during my posting in China – so lots of comparisons), then our posting which started with a 3 month old and a two year old and me going back to work, and then going back.

So, it’s time to start writing blog posts again, and while there might not be a theme (and expect lots on rennovations, gardens and decorating), I’ll try and make it fun – and include lots of photos.

12 months in the Barossa – and some tips for making a lifestyle and career change

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Today marks 12 months since we arrived in the Barossa Valley. As is often the case with milestones like this, in some ways it feels like we’ve been here forever, but at the same time, the year has flown.

Looking down over Tanunda - the place we now call home
Looking down over Tanunda – the place we now call home

When we decided to make the move to South Australia after our 3.5 years in Hanoi, we didn’t really know what we were in for. For me, it was about leaving a career of 15 years behind to do something new. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but I knew I wanted a more flexible lifestyle and that I wanted to be doing something that made a contribution to my community. For Simon, it was about getting back into the wine industry after being the stay-at-home Dad for most of our time in Hanoi. For the boys, it was about embracing life in Australia, the outdoors, fresh air and friendships. We chose South Australia because the cost of living seemed low and there were numerous wine regions to choose from.

Don't think I'll ever grow tired of wide open skies and vineyards
Don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of wide open skies and vineyards

12 months on, I think we can honestly say we made the right decision. We’ve got some great friends, we’re doing work we love and we have 2 happy kids (and a happy cat).

Boys at Mengler's Hill soon after we arriving - the sculpture park is still a favourite spot
Boys at Mengler’s Hill soon after we arriving – the sculpture park is still a favourite spot

Some of the highlights from the last year include:

  • starting a business from nothing that I really hope will contribute to the local community
  • making lots of great friends – from Mum’s at school to work contacts and friends of friends

    New friends and exercise buddies
    New friends and exercise buddies
  • being involved in the Vintage Festival parade – being part of the community and connected to the history of the place

    One of the floats from the 2015 Vintage Parade - which was also a part of the first parade in 1948
    One of the floats from the 2015 Vintage Parade – which was also a part of the first parade in 1948
  • getting involved with the Kindy
  • starting this blog
  • getting involved with the Spence Club – writing content for the blog and nominating for the board
  • having time to cook, knit, sew and read
  • having family and friends come and visit and love the place

    First Barossa Christmas with the family
    First Barossa Christmas with the family
  • shopping local – the Barossa Farmer’s Market Facebook posts for about 6 months before we arrived were a big influence on my feeling that this was the place – and I love that we can buy local, meet the people we buy from and contribute to the community

    Our first visit to the Farmer's Market was as good as we expected, and has been a weekly trip since
    Our first visit to the Farmer’s Market was as good as we expected, and has been a weekly trip since
  • the power of social media – as in Hanoi, Twitter andInstagram have been great platforms to learn about theBarossa but also to connect with people and make friends

    New hobbies in the Barossa - playing German bowls - Kegel
    New hobbies in the Barossa – playing German bowls – Kegel
  • the beautiful scenery and history that surrounds us – from old buildings and churches to living a 5 minute walk from the oldest Shiraz vines in the world – and of course, lots of great wine

    The Freedom Vineyard at Langmeil - some of the oldest Shiraz vines in the world, 5 minutes from home
    The Freedom Vineyard at Langmeil – some of the oldest Shiraz vines in the world, 5 minutes from home

It hasn’t all been sunshine and lollipops, and there have been some big adjustments.

  • being at home – without the household help – and trying to balance studying then starting a business with cleaning, cooking, school pick-ups etc
  • losing my identity – so much of who I was, was tied up in my job and it was strange to not have that
  • not earning disposable income – and not being able to find the “bridge” job I thought I could have because
  • stress of the early days – no one to call if I was running late for pick-up, crying myself to sleep because Xavier didn’t have many friends to invite to his party and feeling like an outsider at school
  • doubts of starting a business for the first time

But the highs definitely outweigh the lows and there is so much that we’re looking forward to in our next year here. – Finding our own house – but given gardening abilities haven’t been as I’d hoped might need to find a compromise between the rural idea and the ‘burbs – but I do want chickens

  • Getting my business off the ground
  • More great adventures with family and friends as we explore theBarossa Valley and more of South Australia

    Definitely looking forward to exploring more of the beautiful coastline of South Australia
    Definitely looking forward to exploring more of the beautiful coastline of South Australia
  • Getting to know even more of the fantastic people that bring us our great food and wine
  • Seeing our kids continue to thrive
  • More cooking, crafting and maybe even some preserving
  • Getting my health and fitness back on track and running the Barossa Half Marathon next year

    Definitely need to expand the veggie patch
    Definitely need to expand the veggie patch

And for anyone thinking of making a big, bold lifestyle and career change, here’s a few things I have learned:

  • it takes time – there will be good days and bad days but stick with it, and know some days you just have to cut yourself some slack
  • knowing why you want to make the change makes it a lot easier to cope with the challenges
  • be open to new stuff, say yes – but don’t completely overwhelm yourself.
  • If you’re a planner, you’ll still need to plan. I realised I still need menu plans, to-do lists and I still need to get up early because even though I I’m working full-time and be flexible with my day, part of my career change was about having time to do other things like cook, exercise and craft – and there are still only 24 hours
  • Coaching and networking is so valuable – especially if you’re starting a business. It’s great to have someone keeping you accountable and cheering you on, especially when you are doing something completely new and don’t know that many people.
  • Enjoy it! Celebrate the little victories, get to know your new town and focus on the good stuff!

IMG_3269 Finally, a huge thank you to Simon and my boys, our family and friends – old and new, who have provided so much support along the way. We couldn’t have done it without you!

From public servant in Hanoi to business owner in the Barossa

Leaving Hanoi, June 2014
Leaving Hanoi, June 2014

For the last week, I have been struggling to come up with a blog post to mark one year back in Australia. What could I say that wasn’t simply a rehash of the last month or so of Timehop photos I’ve posted from our last weeks in Hanoi and our arrival in Australia. I thought of trying to come up with a list – maybe the things I’ve learned, the best bits about being back in Australia, the things I miss most in Hanoi.

My boys on our last morning in Hanoi. Hard to believe they were only 2 years and 3.5 months when we arrived
My boys on our last morning in Hanoi. Hard to believe they were only 2 years and 3.5 months when we arrived
My favourite photo from our Disneyland stop-over
My favourite photo from our Disneyland stop-over

But nothing really flowed, and to be honest, I’ve been fairly busy trying to get my business off the ground and getting organised to head back for our first trip to Canberra, Wollongong and Sydney since we moved to the Barossa.

But as the week has gone on, I felt like I needed to write something about the last year, because when I look back at it, it has been pretty amazing and I am sure a period of our lives we will look back at and wonder how we did it.

The blue skies and open spaces were things we'd really missed in Hanoi. Tanunda, August 2014
The blue skies and open spaces were things we’d really missed in Hanoi. Tanunda, August 2014
  • We packed up 3.5 years of our lives in Hanoi and moved back to Australia
  • I left the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade after 15 years – my first (and only) full time job
  • We moved to the Barossa Valley (where we only knew a couple of people)
  • Simon started back in the wine industry and now has a fantastic position at the Artisans of Barossa tasting room
  • Angus started Primary School and Xavier started Kindy (pre-school)
  • I started a blog
  • And probably the biggest of all, at least for me, I decided to launch Angela Pickett Consulting
View from the deck at Artisans of Barossa
View from the deck at Artisans of Barossa

I am not very good at keeping a diary or journal, but I recently found some entries I made last year about taking a redundancy, deciding to move to the Barossa Valley and restarting our lives back in Australia. There was an entry where I scoffed at the suggestion from my good friend Lisa (who would become my business coach ) that I should start my own business. There was also an entry about crying myself to sleep because Xavier only had a couple of friends coming to his 4th birthday because we’d only been in the Barossa 6 weeks and I’d planned his party for the first day of school holidays and the AFL (football) grand final. Reading that, I really wished I had written more because it was great to look back and see how far we’d come.

He didn't care how many friends turned up - as long as the cake was great
He didn’t care how many friends turned up – as long as the cake was great

I think one of the hardest things for me over the last 12 months, but also one of the most exciting was losing the part of my identity that was so closely tied to my career. It has been refreshing to make new friends who have nothing to do with work and who have no idea of what I have done in the past. Many of my new friends are the Mums of the boys’ friends and I feel very fortunate to have such an amazing support network. I truly feel part of a community where I know there is someone to call if I’m running late for school pick-up or need a last minute babysitter. Not only that, but I know have exercise buddies, ladies to chat and laugh and share the (occasional) glass of bubbles with.

The Young and the Breathless taking on the 6000 Adelaide Oval Stair Stomp
The Young and the Breathless taking on the 6000 Adelaide Oval Stair Stomp

At the same time, thanks in part to social media, I’ve also developed my own networks and it is through these networks that I have been able to take opportunities and start my own business.

New hobbies in the Barossa - playing German bowls - Kegel
New hobbies in the Barossa – playing German bowls – Kegel

When we left Hanoi, I knew I needed a break from work, and as I wrote in my last post, my study provided with a bit of a safety net. For me, and I’m sure for friends and family, giving up a career didn’t seem so crazy because I was studying towards something new. I’d always said I just wanted to change the way I worked, and I wanted to be more flexible and yet, I dismissed the idea of having my own business.

While it is still (very) early days, I wouldn’t change this decision for anything. While my initial post-fulltime work idea of going to the gym after school drop-off has been replaced by early morning workouts and I am still doing way more housework than I’d like to do, I am loving being my own boss. I am busy but it is doing the things I want to do and it is exciting. For so many years, my working life was so tied up with the frustrations of working in a very bureaucratic structure, where responsibility and reward were tied to your role and level. Now its just me, and while this can sometimes be a bit daunting after so many years of asking permission, I am actually enjoying being in charge of both my own business and my own choices. There is no-one else to blame if things don’t go the way I had planned and I finally feel like I can make mistakes that I can learn from.

I do miss having colleagues to brainstorm ideas with but thanks again to social media, I have great networks across the globe who can provide advice, support and encouragement as I tackle things I never expected I would be doing – setting up my accounts in MYOB, briefing a graphic designer, setting up a website and writing proposals for clients. I’ve become a huge podcast fan – especially during my morning workout – and have learned so much from podcasts like Being Boss and The Lively Show.

I finally feel confident and in control and while my to do list is never ending, I love being to pick the boys up from school, catch up with my friends for coffee or take some time out to cook. I’m finally getting my fitness and nutrition back under control (which is really hard when you are surrounded by great food and wine) and I’ve even started running and agreed to do an obstacle course event next month.

Of course, there have been moments where I have wondered if it was the right decision and wished I had had the foresight to know I wanted to start a business and put away some money to start, rather than waiting until I worked out that the perfect job didn’t exist because this was what I was meant to be doing. I’ve also realised I’m really impatient. When I feel like the business should be further advanced and I should be doing more, I have to remind myself about how far I have come.

Beautiful views over Tanunda, May 2015
Beautiful views over Tanunda, May 2015

Looking back, it has been a fantastic year. I think the life we have created here is probably even better than we had imagined, and at least for now, I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

The expat departure – leaving while the others continue the party

West Lake Hanoi - the morning we left in June 2014
West Lake Hanoi – the morning we left in June 2014

Saying goodbye is pretty tough and it can be even tougher when the place you’re moving to is a whole new place.

For some expats, and especially in my former life as a diplomat, the next assignment, apart from those lucky few who get a cross-posting, is heading back to home base usually where you have a house, friends, schools for your kids, family. But even then, things change while you’re away. Kids grow up, people make new friends, things change. And you change too. I don’t think anyone could spend an extended period living overseas without it having some impact on the way you view life and the world around you.

For others, moving on from the place you have spent the last few years means starting from scratch. In our case, it really was a new start – me quitting work, my husband finding a new job, moving to a new town (and a new state) and my eldest starting primary school.

For us we’ve experienced reverse culture shock in many ways, moving from a big bustling overcrowded noisy city to a rural town of about 5000. I can no longer walk out of my lane and walk across the road for a coffee, call the bakery for delivery or walk down to the convenience shop. I can’t walk outside and hail a taxi (although I couldn’t afford it) but at least I can quickly get myself on a nice running track surrounded by vines, which is almost as good (and sometimes just as smelly) as West Lake.

At least moving back to Australia the cultural and language barriers don’t really exist – but even then Australia has still prices go up, service offerings are more complex (don’t get me started on setting up internet!) and if like me, you’ve moved from somewhere with help, the washing, cooking and cleaning is never ending.

But all those changes are pretty easy to adjust to and as an expat you get used to making new friends.

So, the hardest thing I’m finding right now is thanks to world of Facebook. Don’t get me wrong I am a huge Facebook fan and I love being able to keep in touch with friends all around the world, many of whom I’d lost touch with for years. And I have loved sharing updates about our life here.

But sometimes, watching groups of friends hanging out in Hanoi, seeing them visiting a favourite restaurant or discovering a new restaurant, seeing snaps of a rare blue sky Hanoi day or any of the sights of street life that kept me enthralled for 3.5 years, I get a little sad and I realise just how much I miss those people and those places. Fortunately for us, we always knew our posting was 3 years (and were lucky to have a short extension) so there is never the question of “should we have stayed”?

Anyway I’m sure I’m not alone seeing those Facebook posts and feeling like I left the party a little too early and everyone else is having fun while I’m hanging out washing, vacuuming and doing the groceries!

But even when that feeling of jealousy starts to creep in, I just have to remind myself about all the positives of our new life and be thankful for all those experiences in the first place.

Spring in the Barossa Valley, September 2014
Spring in the Barossa Valley, September 2014