To the Lighthouse

Donnie and I took on an interesting challenge for the month of May: No spending money on anything other than groceries and transportation.

Traveling is a major priority for us while living in Australia, so we wanted to see if we could save money while still enjoying our new home and not being boring homebodies. While Australia, specifically Sydney, is one of the most expensive places in the world, it turns out it is almost one of the best places for fun, free activities.

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One of the top places on my “free in Sydney” list was the Barrenjoey Lighthouse in Palm Beach. Palm Beach is located right at the tip top of the Northern Beaches, about 20 km from our neighborhood. We hopped on the bus and settled in for the hour-long journey.

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The lighthouse sits in the Ku-ring-gai National Park, where it was built in 1881. To get to the top, we took what was described as “an easy 1 km walking trail” to the top. The walking trail was short and paved, so there was no real hiking involved, but the trail was at one of the steepest grades I’ve ever encountered. There’s a chance we took a few “Oh look at that beautiful view” breaks that were poorly disguised “gotta catch my breath” breaks on the way up.

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Once we reached the top, the views were unbelievable. It’s supposed to be a great place to spot whales, but we didn’t have binoculars so we were unable to see if there were any passing by. With the bay on one side and the sea on the other, you are almost completely surrounded by water.

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It was an absolutely lovely day to sit and enjoy the views once we reached the lighthouse. Our late fall (or autumn, since “fall” isn’t really a thing here) has been almost consistently mid-70’s temperatures and warm, bright sunshine, so we’ve been spending as much as time outside as possible.

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While we were enjoying the lovely panoramas, I was overcome with gratitude. Australia is truly the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen, and I have the freedom and opportunity to explore and enjoy each day here. My life has changed significantly in the three months I’ve called Australia home. I am surprised and thrilled with the direction my life is heading, and Australia is the gorgeous catalyst for those changes.

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As for our May challenge, we did great! With the exception of a ballet and a Swans (Aussie Rules Football) game, which we had bought tickets for prior to May, we limited our spending to groceries, transportation, and a few necessary household items. I was shocked at how much money we were able to save without feeling like we were sacrificing anything. The best part is planning the trips we’ll be able to take! I also got a part-time job this month, which has been really fun while also contributing to our travel fund. I’m teaching Kindy to Year 6 students in private and small-group literacy lessons. My kiddos are adorable and the center where I’m teaching is fabulous with really great materials, curriculum, and support. The hours are flexible and should work well with my class schedule once my masters program begins in late July.

May has been a pretty fabulous month!

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Home Sweet Home

When we started talking about the possibility of moving to Australia, one of the hardest decision we faced was what to do with our beloved house. At first, we weren’t even sure moving was an option, as we had been homeowners for less than 2 years. Eventually we realized we would have to sell, as the rental market wouldn’t be profitable or stable enough for us.

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I don’t have great attachment to many material possessions, but giving up our first home was painful. It wasn’t so much the actual building (and it definitely wasn’t our tiny yard) that I hated to leave– it was the memories, the love, the comfort of home. We started our home building process in November of 2013 when we signed the contract for a tiny little lot of hilly, muddy land. Over the next few months we painstakingly chose every finish and detail possible.

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I’ll never forget the look on Donnie’s face when he realized that the only option for the (gorgeous) off-white cabinets I had my heart set on for our kitchen were in the highest price bracket of cabinets. Not yet married, we started navigating the challenge of balancing the practical with trying to make the one you love happy. I gave up an all-brick exterior and jets in my garden tub so we could have an extra living room upstairs and built-in speakers throughout. Donnie gave up fancy surround sound and opted for just the wiring, while doing the hard work himself. Together, we planned a lovely little first home for ourselves and our puppy.

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It was exactly what we wanted: a large master bedroom, open plan kitchen, dining and living room all on one level, an extra living space for Donnie and his sports-watching, an office, lots of natural light, and a little fenced in yard for our pup to run around. We only had just over 2,000 square feet, but for our little family it was perfect.

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We celebrated our birthdays (Donnie hid my present in the guest bathroom bathtub) and our first Christmas, which really made the new house feel like home. We had fires on our patio, planted new flowers, and completed an unknown number of projects around the house– including installing hardwood in our bedroom and building our farmhouse table (OK, Donnie really did most of the work on those two.) We came back to our house after trips to St. Martin, Charleston, Jacksonville, London, and so many other adventures. Every day, when I walked through the door, I was greeted by an overly enthusiastic pup and my husband, and I was home.

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Leaving our home, selling it to another couple who would make it their own, was difficult. I cried my share of tears over the hours of packing and moving, already missing this place that was so very ours.

But giving up our first house brought us to Sydney. And our tiny little apartment on Wheeler Parade is already starting to feel like home. We live on a quiet, tree-lined street on the Northern Beaches, in a little town called Dee Why. When we came to inspect this apartment, I knew it was for us, and we decided the address was a sign! (Wheeler is my maiden name.)

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We still have loads of decorating to do, but it’s slowly but surely coming together. We spend a lot of time outside on our balcony, as the weather has been gorgeous since we arrived three months ago. I cook, and Donnie grills, every night in our tiny little kitchen and on our baby grill outside. Our king-size bed quite literally takes up our entire bedroom, and we’ve gone from each having our own separate (and huge) walk-in closets to sharing a tiny robe (what they call a closet here.) We traded in our beloved chair and a half, couch, and 6-seater leather, reclining sectional for one little blue couch. We traded our granite and stainless steel, gourmet kitchen with a large island and so many cabinets and yards of counter space, for an L-shaped little nook with peeling grey benchtops (that’s what Aussies call countertops) and barely enough space for two people. And I couldn’t be happier.

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We use our tiny kitchen more here than we ever used our large one at home. We spend much more time outside with just our balcony than we did in our yard at home. We gave up so many nice luxuries, but we’ve found a peace and contentment that we’ve never had. Here, alone, so many thousands of miles from everyone we love, we’ve had to rely on each other for so much, and this experience has already made our relationship stronger. We appreciate our little apartment so much, because it’s our little piece of home in this country. We may not have a lot of space, but we have a 5 minute walk to a gorgeous beach. We may not have a lot of clothes (or places to hang them!) but we have beautiful weather for months on end.

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I always liked to believe that I wasn’t materialistic, that I appreciated experiences and travel more than “things,” but I had my doubts. It wasn’t until I gave up almost all of my material possessions that I realized how truly valuable experience is, and how lucky I am to experience this season in my life with my favorite person.

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And, thanks to my Mama’s crafting skills, Nashville never feels too far away!

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Back to School

I’ve got some exciting news to share with you all: I’m going back to school!

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It’s been quite a while since I was going off to college– 10 years, actually, which doesn’t really seem possible.

I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Evansville. UE is a pretty tiny (about 2,500 students) liberal arts college in southern Indiana. I’m still not 100% positive how I ended up deciding to attend, but it met most of my (18 yr old self’s) crucial requirements: private liberal arts, small classes, and study abroad. I was mostly focused on studying abroad, and UE makes that easier and more accessible than any other school to which I applied.

Just so you have an idea, this is where I lived and studied in the East Midlands of England during the Fall semester of 2007:

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Although my heart was mostly set on traipsing through Europe, I ended up getting a lot more out of my time at UE: lifelong besties and a phenomenal education, just to name two. I also had the opportunity to join an organization called “College Mentors for Kids.” The idea is that college students are paired with a local elementary-age students from an underserved school population and spend a couple hours together on campus every Monday learning and exploring different topics centered around higher education and career, community service, and culture and diversity.

To keep this concise, I was paired with a student who challenged me, frustrated me, pushed me, and opened my eyes to the realities of educational inequalities. He also brought more light and laughter into my life than I ever expected. My relationship with my little buddy was a major catalyst for me to pursue joining Teach for America later.

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I was also gifted with some incredible professors who taught me a lot more than how to write a stellar press release or the concept of prurient interest in a media law case. (If Peter or Jamie reads this, I hope you appreciate that throwback.) Dr. Wandel, one of my all time favorite professors, taught me a lot about accepting responsibility, real-world consequences, and how to be an articulate, professional, badass woman. Dr. Stankey taught me that creativity is a vital component of success, and that rules should never keep you from doing what you feel is right or necessary. Dr. Brown taught me how to find and appreciate the beauty in the written word.

So why does all of this matter: Studying abroad, my little buddy, and the professors who shaped me as a young adult? All of these experiences and relationships helped me figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Now we’re back to 2016 and me adrift in life, living in Australia with no job and no real responsibilities. For me, all of this freedom led to a lot of reflection, prayer, mapping my goals in my Passion Planner (if you don’t have one, you should immediately order one now!), and getting really honest with myself about what I want, regardless of anyone else’s perceptions or judgments.

I want to be a professor of Literature. I want to read books, discuss books,  and write critically about books. Donnie tells me this makes me a huge nerd, which I am perfectly happy to accept. I know what I want, so now it’s time to make it happen.

I’m starting a Masters of English Studies program this July at the University of Sydney. I’ll be attending school full-time, and I am also in the process of getting certified as a “casual teacher” which is basically like a sub for primary and secondary schools, but requires a teaching license and several other certifications. I know that I love teaching, and I feel like a teacher in my soul, but instead of teaching first graders how to read, I want to dive into great works of literature with college students.

I am thrilled to be starting this program. It wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for my amazing husband who trusted me completely when I told him this is what I needed to do. His immediate response was, “We’ll figure out a way to make it work,” which is why he is my favorite person ever. It’s a luxury to be able to study a subject I love, and to be able to do so in a foreign country is the cherry on top.

In two short months, I’ll be heading back to college after a 6 year break. I’m a little nervous, especially since it’s been almost a decade since I cranked out an annotated bibliography, but I am so excited to finally be taking this important step towards the future I’ve dreamt of for years. And I’m excited to share this new part of our adventure with you all– so stick around, it’s about to get even crazier!

 

 

Koala Heaven

The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is one of the most peaceful, happy places I’ve ever visited. The Sanctuary was our top priority for our weekend in Brisbane, and we couldn’t have asked for a better day: sunny, nice breeze, high-70s (I’m still just not getting the whole Celsius thing.) Lone Pine is about an hour bus ride from Brisbane CBD and we were lucky to get on the bus first, because it was quickly packed with (mostly) tourists heading to the land of koalas.

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The Sanctuary is very spacious and shaded by so much greenery, you really feel as though you were in the forest, encountering these animals in the wild. They have giant Cockatoos and laughing Kookaburras right at the entrance, although both have become commonplace to us, it’s kind of like seeing a deer at a zoo in the States. (Cockatoos are pretty, but they make the most awful screeches you’ve ever heard!) We also saw some “flying foxes” (actually bats) and a few other Aussie birds.

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The Dingos were going out for a walk when we arrived. They really look just like domestic dogs, and we were able to pet them– even if Donnie was a little scared to until a two-year old jumped right in. We obviously couldn’t resist a few Dingo quotes: “Maybe the Dingo ate your baby” (Elaine on Seinfeld) and “alligators, dingo babies” (Kevin on The Office) our favorites. (I had to watch the clip of Kevin’s Aussie accent again just now. Do  yourself a favor and watch it.)

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One of the highlights of the Sanctuary was actually seeing a duckbill platypus! Usually these guys are hibernating or hiding, so we had yet to see one at any of the other zoos we’ve visited. This platypus was swimming up a storm, and so weird looking! Donnie decided it looks like a cross between an alligator and a beaver, which I think is pretty spot on. He was a lot smaller than I expected, and impossible to photograph!

The main draw of Lone Pine, for us anyway, is that is one of the few places in Australia where you can actually cuddle a koala! The koalas are protected and closely monitored– each koala is only allowed to be cuddled for 30 minutes a day, and they are very serious about switching them out when their time is up. Unfortunately for us, our koala was on the very end of his shift and did not really want to be cuddled. We persevered and got some terrible pictures, but holding the little guy was an experience I won’t forget. You basically are told to “be a tree” and keep your hands locked and low, not moving even if the koala decides to move.

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When it was Donnie’s turn, our little guy actually tried to climb him! Their claws are incredibly sharp, so Donnie had a few scratches on his shoulders and some holes in his shirt by the end of it! I think Mr. Koala was ready to go back to nap time.

After cuddling our antsy koala friend, we headed over to the kangaroo and emu enclosure. There are dozens of kangaroos and several emus who just hang out and wander around the large open area, and visitors are permitted to walk among the animals. You can even feed the kangaroos if you buy food in the visitor center.

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We spent some time just walking around, soaking up the glorious sunshine, and watching these fascinating animals hop around and lay down for their naps. We even saw an emu running full speed down the hill toward the entrance gate, which was terrifying. Giant birds not my favorite.

There are several animal encounters and animal shows on daily, and we were happy to catch two: the birds of prey and the sheepdog show. The birds of prey show was fantastic! They bring out different birds, or have them fly up from a trainer down the hill, and you get to see them in action– diving for food, soaring, and, if you’re me, hitting you in the face with their wings as they fly right past you!

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The most impressive bird was the peregrine falcon who can dive at speeds up to 400km/hr and kills its prey on impact. Apparently these falcons even lurk around in cities in Australia because of the abundance of pigeons! The keeper giving the talk was really great. She told us about the different birds’ personalities and temperaments, and was very engaging and entertaining.

After the bird show, we walked across the paddock to the sheep enclosure. Here we got to see a Border Collie and an Australian Kelpie herd the sheep. They were so cute, and so good at their job! The sheep would try to run away, especially two cheeky sheep who kept trying to sneak off, but the pups would circle back and get them every time. They moved the herd through an obstacle course and down into the pen. If you wanted to stay after, they did a demonstration shearing the sheep as well.

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By mid-afternoon we had visited all of the animals, cuddled (and been wounded by) a koala, been hit in the face by a flying owl, and seen an impressive sheepdog show. It was time to head back into Brisbane, but we truly loved our time at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, the highlight of our trip! If you find yourself in Brisbane, the Sanctuary should be at the top of your list!