Three years among the vines

The view over the Barossa from Mengler’s Hill – 29 July 2017

Three years ago today, a family of four, including two little boys aged three and five, left their motel in NSW, drove through Victoria and arrived in South Australia. In the early afternoon, with two children asleep, they drove into Tanunda, the place they had decided (with only some online research, two friends and a handful of visits) was going to be their new home. Leaving the boys to sleep, they drove by the school (where they were meeting the principal the next morning), and the house they were hoping to rent. The weather wasn’t great and as they arrived at the motel, they were a bit worried about that choice, but it was exciting. Besides, since leaving their house in Hanoi six weeks before, they had already stayed in eight different places. A massive storm hit as they were picking up supplies from the supermarket and as they put together a meal of pasta and sauce on the floor of their motel room, she was grateful they were together – even if they didn’t know what would come next.

That family was us and I still can’t believe it has been three years since we moved here. We have had our share of ups and downs, but I don’t think we have ever regretted the decision to move here. It still surprises me how quickly it all happened. We arrived here on the Tuesday and moved into our house on the Friday, with the stuff we’d had stored in Canberra arriving that same day. The boys started school and childcare that day and Simon started work the following Monday. Suddenly I was at home alone, the reality of my career and lifestyle change slowly sinking in.

I wrote this post a year after we arrived and I think a lot of it still rings true. Probably the one thing I didn’t expect was while you can make friends and feel settled quite quickly, there are still days where it doesn’t come easy. People often joke that you need three generations of Barossan family buried here to call yourself a local. While we have made incredible friends through school, work, the kids and their sport and more recently through Crossfit, there are times when you can’t help but feel like an outsider. I think it’s for that reason we’ve tried extra hard to learn about the history, explore places to eat, find our favourite cellar doors and get involved in the community.

We’ve really appreciated the friends who have provided job opportunities for us both, got our  boys playing hockey and basketball, invited us to social activities and made us feel welcome. When Simon had surgery in early 2016 to have a cancerous tumour removed and 20cm of titanium inserted in his arm, we were blown away by the support that was offered to us. The boys consider this their home, and after we bought our place last year, I have to say that I feel truly at home here.  A wardrobe full of too small clothes is also evidence that I’ve heartily embraced the best the Barossa has to offer, but fortunately in the last year, I’ve started to focus on exercise again and I’ve started running again.

After three years, I still find the juggle of part-time work,  housework, the boys activities, trying to develop a writing career and have a social life can become overwhelming and I think I’m just coming to terms with what a big change it was to leave a 15 year career. Deciding to wind up the consulting business I started was a difficult decision, but it has been great to just focus on  my part-time job in the wine industry while I try and write more. Leaving my career and not knowing what I would do next has probably made settling down more difficult, particularly as it isn’t something my friends here have experienced. I am only just coming to terms that making such a big career change also necessitates a big lifestyle change. There is the odd pang of jealousy when I see a Facebook post from a friend on an overseas posting enjoyable some fabulous travel experience but then I remind myself of the beautiful place we’re living and the opportunities that we have on our doorstop.

One of the highlights of living here has been visits from friends and family as it always provides a great opportunity to explore new places and revisit and share our favourites. It is hard being away from family, especially when they might be unwell or missing important birthdays and other activities, but it has also made me appreciate friends and family more. We couldn’t have made such a massive change without their support.

Reading back over my post from the first year (and a post from one of my favourite bloggers about her tree-change seven years ago), I was trying to think whether there was anything I would have done differently and I honestly can say, I don’t think there is. I think had we thought too much about our decision, the enormity of it all probably would have caused us to chicken out. I feel like three years on, we are all starting to feel settled, having our own house has given us a base to build on and there is no question this is where we want to be.

And while the locals might not see us that way (and the Swans remain my number 1 footy team), this is our home and we’re pretty happy about it.



7 things I have learned from my career change so far

It’s just over five months since I had my last day in the office in Hanoi. In some ways it feels a million years ago, but in reality, it has gone pretty quickly and if I am really fair, we have crammed a lot in – and I did need to take a break. But as I have started to explore what I want to do next, I have been thinking a lot about how a career change works. For me, it wasn’t a simple decision of leaving one job for another but rather deciding I wanted to work in a different way and have a different lifestyle.

So, in no particular order, a few things I have learned over the past few months.

  1. If you don’t know what you want to do – at least you know how you want to work

This is the big one for me. Leaving the public service after 15 years was a lot to do with wanting to change the hours I worked, the environment I worked in and the way I worked. I knew I wanted more flexibility about where I worked and how I worked. I had some ideas about what I thought I want to do, but once we moved to the Barossa, I realised that I didn’t really want to be commuting to Adelaide (which is only an hour away), so I have started to explore some different options locally, including looking at my own business/consultancy.

  1. Be open to opportunities

While in some ways it would have been easier to have a very defined idea of what I wanted to do next (and of course many people do), the fact I didn’t has meant I have been able to look at options that fit around the lifestyle we want to create. For me this means looking at taking on a number of smaller roles or volunteer positions as both a way of finding what I want to do and building my profile in a new place.

  1. Network

I have been lucky that an email to sign up for a women’s networking lunch resulted in an invite to coffee from a woman who also gave me the push I needed to start this blog who then introduced me to some other friends. Since then I have also used my studies to connect with people in the local council and the arts field. I also a big believer in the power of social media to make connections when you move to a new place, and I have set-up a couple of meetings with people who have been able to share insights on the local area. It is amazing how willing people are to share their insights over a cup of coffee. These informal chats have also been a great opportunity for me to talk about what I have done and share the sorts of skills and experience I have to contribute. In a small place like the Barossa, this sort of networking is really valuable.

  1. Schedule time for your career change in your diary, just like you would work

Because I have had other commitments, including for the first time in 3.5 years, having to manage a household, do house work, shop and do the school run, I have often found that both my physical time and the headspace to research options, set up appointments or just read or listen to inspiring speakers has been limited. I have had to be more disciplined and set aside some time each day to blog, research and connect with people.

  1. Accept that it is a big change and try not to rush it

I’m a naturally impatient person and I am prone to rushing through things. But the reality is, for me, after a very busy 3.5 years in Hanoi, I did need to take a break and enjoy the down time. I also had to accept that moving to a new place, setting up a house, getting the boys settled, and making new friends wouldn’t necessarily mean I had loads of time to focus on my career. But apart from being time poor, I have also realised that I really needed to get to know the local community, and spend some time understanding where my skills and experience could contribute. That said, at some point, I am going to need start applying for jobs or set up a business. This doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to learn and network, but it becomes more about career development than just exploring options.

  1. There are pros and cons to combining a career change and moving to a new place

While for us, my career change is about supporting our lifestyle change, it means there has been less time to focus purely on my career. But so far, the positives have outweighed the negatives. Moving to a new place has opened up opportunities and networks and has really provided an opportunity to re-invent myself because no one here really knows what I did before. At the same time, being somewhere new gives you a new perspective on things. Taking some time out to focus on my family and study has really reinforced the sort of lifestyle I want this career change to provide. I don’t think I would have been able to make this jump from a public service career while living in Canberra. There would have been temptations to accept job opportunities just because they were safe or paid well.

  1. Invest in some outside help

When I first started thinking about a career change, I did a great online course called the Work Life Bliss Career Transformation program and I had read a lot and listened to great podcasts. But now that I suddenly have all this time to explore my interests and consider my next steps, I am really benefiting from working with a coach, Lisa from Multiples of Two. There is so much information out there that is easy to get overwhelmed and having someone work with you to clarify what it is you are trying to achieve is really helpful. It can also be a fairly lonely experience, especially after years of working with people in an office. And for me, it has been really useful to get some outside perspective as I try and work out what really interests me and what I am good at. After so many years working for the same government department, I sometimes struggle to see what skills I have and I how can take them to build a new career.

These are just a few of things that I’ve learned from my career change so far. I would love to hear from you if there are other things you have learned or tips you would like to share.

Barossa – blue skies and space

When we started to consider me leaving the public service and thus Canberra, it was sort of a given that we would look at a wine region so that Simon could resume his career in the industry. We had always talked about spending some time in a wine region after our posting and used to joke about me running wine tours utilising my fabulous Chinese and Vietnamese language skills. Alas my Vietnamese never really stuck and my Chinese is a little rusty, although fortunately still there.

South Australia was very quickly on the top of list as it seemed that things like property were going to be more affordable, which was certainly a consideration given I was planning to take some time of before starting in a new career. We were fairly influenced by social media, first from seeing friend’s posts about things like the Farmer’s Market and then as we started to follow various people and organisations on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to get a feel for the place. I was so relieved when our first visit to the Farmer’s Market exceeded our expectations.

Another consideration was definitely fresh air. After 3.5 years in Hanoi, we needed to escape not only the pollution, but also the general climatic conditions that come from being at sea level. Humidity, mists, the damp cold of winter and the even damper summers. As my former boss told me before we went to Hanoi, “No one goes to Hanoi for the weather”. Although he had been posted there and been back many times having met his wife there, I really thought he was exaggerating. I’d had pretty warm weather during the few February days I had been there in 2003 and I figured I’d survived the extremes of Beijing (minus 15C in winter and 40+ in summer).

Old Quarter Hanoi - space is at premium so feeling crowded is a constant
Old Quarter Hanoi – space is at premium so feeling crowded is a constant

I had to concede early on he was right. We arrived during a particularly cold period and I remember going to visit houses the day after we arrived and being freezing. My classroom for that first month was awful and a trip to the bathrooms worse. It was cold, damp and grey and then after a few weeks where the weather couldn’t decide what it would do, it would be hot, really hot, and humid until at least November.

This last winter was particularly bad, and between January and March, I think we saw blue skies on two or three days. At least when the weather was good people appreciated it, and made the most of it, but that much grey does play havoc with your mood.

West Lake Hanoi - the morning we left in June 2014. One of the few places in Hanoi that didn't feel crowded. In there distance you can see the 60 storey building that dwarfed my 3 storey office
West Lake Hanoi – the morning we left in June 2014. One of the few places in Hanoi that didn’t feel crowded. In there distance you can see the 60 storey building that dwarfed my 3 storey office

So coming back to Australia for some fresh air and blue skies, we were probably a little disappointed when we drove into Tanunda on a cold and wet July day. Fortunately the rain didn’t last too long, and we have since been treated to some beautiful weather. After Hanoi’s constant heat once summer hit, the fluctuations in temperature during spring have been a bit hard to get used to but no different to Canberra.

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

And even after 3.5 months, I still marvel at the blue skies and the scenery. I swore leaving Hanoi, I would never take blue sky granted, although now I find myself wishing for a little more rain as we head toward the summer bushfire season. At the same time, I have realised that it wasn’t just blue sky we craved in Hanoi, but space. While we were lucky to be close to the huge West Lake giving us some sense of space, for the most part we were cramped – at home with four or five three and four storey homes around us, at work by the construction of a tower which eventually reached about 60 stories and on the roads by traffic, business and life on the footpath.

An incredible sunset in Tanunda - November 2014
An incredible sunset in Tanunda – November 2014

So the fact that even on the five minute drive from our house in the “suburbs” to school, the fact I drive past vineyards and can see the hills is just beautiful. I’ve already decided that our next house will need to be more rural with a view that isn’t a metal fence but even so, the sunsets we watched from our house the other night were spectacular. And this morning, as I took a detour along a dirt road due to some road works on my usual route, I couldn’t help but pull over and take some photos of the vines and mountains.

My view on the drive home from school this morning - 11 November 2014. A welcome detour
My view on the drive home from school this morning – 11 November 2014. A welcome detour

And as the seasons change, we’re also reminded of how long we have been here. From arriving in winter where the vines had just been pruned so were brown and barren, but the fields were green, to the yellow fields of canola and the buds bursting on the vines, to now where the vineyards are a sea of green but the surrounding fields are brown and dusty. It would be easy to take it for granted, but after those years away, and realising just how much the blue sky, fresh air and countryside is contributing to both a sense of calm and a sense of inspiration, that won’t be happening any time soon.

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

Career change without a plan

As I wrote in my first post, this blog was partly to tell the story of leaving a 15-year career as a public servant for something new. But unlike many people who embark on a career change, I didn’t have a new career in mind – and I still don’t .

I don’t have a particular creative talent that I want to explore or I job I always wish I’d done. In fact for me, being a diplomat was probably the best job I could have imagined. The jobs I thought about as a child – fashion designer, journalist or lawyer don’t hold any attraction anymore. And leaving the public service, the big thing for me was changing the way I worked – being able to work from anywhere and not necessarily doing just one thing – which apparently even has a name – a Portfolio career.

Telling the story of how we came to be in the Barossa to new people I meet is quite funny because as I listen to myself speak, it doesn’t really sound like me. The fact that we pretty much decided to move here on the basis of some great recommendations and some enticing Facebook pages (so glad the Farmer’s Market has lived up to expectations), arrived on the Tuesday and had a house by the Friday makes us sound really adventurous. Whereas I’m actually someone who organises travel with spreadsheets, who spends whole days agonising over which hotel to stay in and writes packing lists. In truth, we were packing up and leaving Hanoi and were going to end up somewhere different!

Deciding to do a Masters in Arts and Entertainment Management because I enjoyed the public relations/cultural relations/event management side of my job was a great choice because the skills I’m picking up are fairly broad (although my main take-out from Financial analysis may simply be – employ a good accountant) and could take me anywhere. Doing a subject on Community Arts Management this semester, which involves designing a community project has also been a good excuse to meet with local artists and get to know the area.

And while formal full-time work has been replaced with 3 subjects for my Masters (involving a lot of catch up after spending the first few weeks moving), I’m less worried than I should be about finding a job (although I guess I need to earn some money soon). I’m enjoying being able to focus on my studies while still having time to cook and spend time with my family. I’m having fun painting furniture and some gardening and sewing are next on the list. I’m enjoying sleeping in past 5.45 and meeting new friends for a coffee in the morning.

Most importantly, I am loving having the chance to sit back and think about what really matters and explore new things. My Dad had some significant career changes (all after he turned 60) that came about from the connections he had and probably being in the right place at the right time. In only a short period I have met some great people and talked about some interesting possibilities and realised that some of the skills I acquired in the public service over the last 15 years might actually be useful on the outside.

But not knowing what I want to do is actually exciting because it opens up a world of possibilities.

Unpacking our life

After 2.5 months, and 3 weeks in the house, on Monday we finally received our shipment from Hanoi. About 164 boxes, many of which were full of crockery, ornaments, toys, clothes and photos. No surprise then that this lot of unpacking is taking much, much longer than when we received our (mainly) furniture shipment from Canberra.

On Sunday, I wrote the following list of 11 things I was looking forward to seeing.

  1. my stick blender, colander and assorted kitchen utensils
  2. boys toys – and the boxes, baskets etc to keep them in
  3. the dirty clothes basket
  4. coffee making stuff – plungers, grinder,  machine, reusable cups
  5. paintings and photos
  6. the rest of my wardrobe
  7. the toaster
  8. all the beautiful things that will remind us of our time and our friends in Hanoi
  9. Simon’s tools – let the reconstruction begin
  10. cook books and cake tins – and everything else I need to cook
  11. my step-ladder
The boxes start arriving - this was before every available surface started being covered in stuff!
The boxes start arriving – this was before every available surface started being covered in stuff!

A few days later and I am not sure there is much more to add to the list. However, after living with a fairly basic lot of kitchenware for 3 weeks, it did strike me that we probably have way more plates, glasses and serving platters than we will EVER need. I also realised that in addition to loving a bit of shopping, I tend to hoard keep old things even once I purchase the “replacement” just in case something breaks or gets lost. I am also very sentimental which means I have just about every souvenir I have ever collected and many gifts I no longer want, need or like. Clearly a lot of guilt clutter but the upside of having been without it for so long, is that I have happily parted with a lot of things we don’t need, most of which will be going off to one of the local charities.

Finally - a functioning kitchen - just don't ask to see the cupboard bursting with cake tins and plasticware before I do my cull.
Finally – a functioning kitchen – just don’t ask to see the cupboard bursting with cake tins and plasticware just yet.

The boys were most excited to have the TV back (and it has been good to have news again) and play with their toys. The trampoline is on slowly decreasing list of things that need to be built. But the most excitement was reserved for their new bunk beds. So much joy – but unfortunately I have already realised what a pain they will be to make.

Just before the shipment arrived, I mentioned to friends that I was feeling a little sad at the realisation that this delivery really closed the chapter on our Hanoi posting. We are definitely all very happy to be back in Australia (and I’m certainly enjoy the change from working) but seeing all the things we had surrounding us in Hanoi and that we acquired over the 3.5 years brought back lots of great memories. So many reminders about great times shared with friends, many of whom I hope will visit us from various parts of the world. But, I’m also excited about really settling into our new home and creating a space to welcome new friends and create new memories – just as soon as we unbury ourselves from under the pile of packing boxes!