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Penguins and the Prime Minister

sunny 21 °C

2007-2008 Fulbright scholars with the Hon. Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister.080646_-_0.._Email_.jpg

September, for me, was a flurry of complete and utter chaos. I’m not sure how many people are chasing down penguins with night-vision goggles one week and meeting the Prime Minister of Australia the next, but I highly recommend it, it's great fun.

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The month began at Phillip Island, a wonderful place to be during a sunny spring. When we weren't trying to recapture Clare's tracking devices by sneaking up on penguins in our night-vision goggles, we took to the beach to go snorkelling, spent warm nights playing guitar, poker, or shooting pool at the local pub, and had a hilarious sport-themed party celebrating the end of the Olympics. I dressed up as a member of the Canadian National Curling Team (you know, the whole shuffleboard-on-ice-with-brooms business), but other favourites were an Extreme Ironer (officially defined as "the latest danger sport that combines the thrills of an extreme outdoor activity with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt”) as well as our (male) Irish mate, who made a convincing, if hairy, female netballer, skirt and all.

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Aside from the usual Phillip Island hijinx, I also got to take a week-long trip to Canberra, the nation’s capitol, for our Fulbright enrichment seminar. I finally met the rest of this year’s scholars, who are absolutely lovely, and I now have several eager volunteers for seal work in January and February, as well as friends living all over Australia to visit and travel with.

Shenanigans on a platypus hunt.
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(Photos courtesy of Ben Fohner)

Anyone who knows me will attest that the last of my motivations in applying for a Fulbright grant was to become a Person of Distinction. Mostly I just love seal work, and I want to contribute something to conservation on the international level. I grew up in a working class family in a town too small to need a single stop light, and I tend to associate Distinction with having to wear a dress and having to know which of seventeen forks to eat your salad with. Hence, I treat it with the same trepidation I would afford a stampede of disgruntled porcupines. Even if you spend most of your time crawling around a smelly, oozing seal colony, however, Fulbright involves a certain amount of said Distinction. This didn’t really hit home until I found out we would be meeting the Prime Minister. Yes, that’s the Head Honcho of Australia, the Honourable Kevin Rudd.

The roof of Parliament House, Canberra.
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We spent the afternoon touring Parliament House and got to sit in on Question Time, which basically consists of an open forum for the opposing party to grill the current government on its policies and for the PM and his Ministers to defend themselves. It’s fantastically entertaining even for those of us who don’t generally enjoy politics, mostly because of the unruly jeering and thinly-veiled (or rather, not-at-all-veiled) insults. For example, during a discussion of new policies enacted to reduce binge-drinking, the opposition was accused of “just trying to get more teenage girls drunk”.

Old Parliament House and the Australian War Memorial, on the banks of Lake Burley-Griffin.tn_DSC00612.jpg

After that was our official meeting with the Prime Minister, who shook each of our hands and introduced himself as “Kevin” (that’s right, I’m on a first-name basis with the PM). He also sat down with us to talk about the current state of US-Australia relations (excellent, naturally) and the upcoming US elections. He’s a lovely guy, Kevin.

We have a chat with the Prime Minister.
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We also had tea at the US Embassy, where we were presented to the US Ambassador and his wife. He kindly shook each of our hands and presented us with our Fulbright pins. Now, just the week before I had been helping Marcus catch around thirty penguins, and as we were in a bit of a hurry, corralling them and chasing them down the beach, I got bitten at least twenty times. Mind you, nothing to complain about in comparison to seal bites, but penguins are experts at the “pinch and twist” (much like a purple nurple), so I had a number of healing cuts, scratches, and bruises on my hands. I swear I only told one person about this on the flight to Canberra, next thing I know I’m shaking hands with the US Ambassador and he’s saying, “Oh, I'd better be extra careful, I hear you’re the one who’s been savagely attacked by penguins!”

Julia with the US Ambassador
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Although it was thrilling to meet the Ambassador and the PM, and I enjoyed chatting and networking with many Fulbright Alums and other Persons of Distinction, it was a bit of a relief to finally take off my business attire and get into a weekend of unofficial Fulbright scholar social activities and shenanigans. Canberra has the reputation of being Australia's most boring city, but though the night life wasn't quite up to Melbourne standards, we still found plenty to entertain us - Floriade, Canberra's annual floral festival; the Australian National War Memorial; and Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, where we went on the hunt to see the elusive platypus in the wild. I am pleased to report that platypuses were indeed to be had, despite the loch-ness-monster-esque quality of my photos.

Wild platypus!
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Floriade festival:
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Australian National War Memorial:
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All in all, Canberra was a lovely and much-needed break from working hard on grad school stuff. I can't wait to see more of Australia and more of my fantastic Fulbright brothers and sisters.

Aussie Slang of the Week: avo (n., afternoon), suss out (v., figure out), possum (term of endearment, dear, love)

Posted by JuliaInOz 18:37 Archived in Australia

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