Working alone is not my forte. Alone I am nervous. I am uncertain how things will go and I've no bravado.
I am used to working as part of a two-man team, with my colleague. We are different but do work together well.
When we work together the bravado exists. It helps to make things happen and sometimes makes it possible to do things
that no one else would do. One of us is full of uncertainty on the outside but inside doesn't really care; the other is
full of confidence on the outside, but inside is deeply shy. That is the combination that makes the collaboration work.
There are times though when I have to work alone, despite the discomfort, and I do these trips with some numbness, just going through the
motions, knowing that there'll be no post-mortem afterwards over a few beers and Harbin sausage. One such single-handed trip was
to Canberra, ostensibly to be a guest at the Day of Russia celebrations. These celebrations are put on by the Embassy of the Russian
Federation in Canberra each June to celebrate the beginning of a new and more democratic Russia born on June 12 1992. There was also the chance
to liaise with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, with my new contact there, Sophie Rice, what a sexy name, and also to try to make some
progress with the Russian one-year, multiple entry visa I was trying to secure.
A week before, I had exchanged messages with sexy name, and she'd said she'd be happy to meet me at whatever time suited once I'd arrived in
Canberra. Of course I sent a message back. I would call in to see her at 1pm, but that message was never answered and so the time and the
meeting were never confirmed. I got there in a kind of blur. I'm used to driving and used to driving a long way. I didn't stop, except quickly
in a lay-by at about the half way point when I had to momentarily switch the car engine off and then back on again to stop its incessant
dinging prompt telling me that a rest period was required. Arriving, I rolled pretty efficiently down Northborne, keeping left and dealing
with the Lane One Form merges. Left into State Circle, then left into Sydney Avenue. I parked in the DFAT car park right in the middle of
lunchtime. Did she remember an appointment? Probably not. I called her office from the car outside. No answer. She was obviously out to lunch
and had ignored my proposed 1pm meeting.
Normally in these situations, my side of the team would just accept this as a failure. There would be no liaison at all. I am so easily
just nudged away. The team though would not be phased, and bluster through. Trying to think like the team, I called again, and this time I
left a message and dictated my mobile number onto her machine. Then I went to the DFAT desk, through the double glass doors, past the lunchtime
crowd, past the only visitor, a man in chinos, past the men in suits, the women all in tweeds, into the cavernous minimalist building. I spoke to
the younger of the two automatons on the desk, trying to be upbeat:
"Hi, I have an appointment with sexy name - err I mean Sophie Rice, can you please check if she's in?"
To her credit the receptionist, finding Sophie was out, then called her colleague at the East European desk
nearby and asked if Sophie was due to return.
"She's just out at present and will be back". "OK thanks" I said "I will call back later. Can you tell
me the nearest place I can get a coffee?"
"Yes, our cafe is just on the other side of the building, you can get coffee there".
Around the other side of the building was the staff-only entrance, more suits and tweeds, most of them wearing IDs in a badge that looked like an ASIC,
some were off in groups to the Realm hotel for a proper lunch, others pinned themselves against the white cobble brickwork out of the wind to smoke a
lunchtime cigarette. Inside the cafe it was 'public service world'. All the men were again in suits, except the visitor who I'd seen waiting by reception
earlier. The chinos looked so out of place. Everyone was paired up or in groups of four, talking about their work. Young ones, thin, walking a catwalk,
older ones, maybe at senior level with white hair. Stereotypes do make sense. My phone rang
"Hi, Sophie Rice".
I could not believe it, she'd got back to
her desk, retrieved her messages or been prompted by co-worker nearby and phoned me back.
"I am in your cafe" I said "just getting a coffee".
"Great, sorry I missed your call, I was just out to lunch. I will come and meet you there." "How will a recognise you?" I asked.
"I will be wearing an orange jumper".
Impossible I thought, not in tweed? An hour and twenty minutes later she and Brendon and Stephanie, two of her
fellow executive officers from the DFAT East European desk, and I, had shared all there was to share about our
Russian work, and we promised to keep in touch. I was amazed it had happened. So unlikely for me, when working alone.
Sexy name was not such a stereotype after all. She was warm, cute, serious, dark-haired. A Kristen Scott-Thomas look-alike in her twenties.
I wondered, what makes a young woman, ex New England Grammar, with an International Baccalaureate and a Commerce degree, want to work as a
DFAT brat? Maybe it's the excitement of Canberra.
Around the National Circuit precinct I pride myself on being able to negotiate the roads without a GPS. That night, however, I set off
through the car park of the Rydges on Canberra Avenue, out the side exit, expecting to go left and down to the National Gallery. What? I
don't remember this roundabout, or this roadwork sign. Aren't I on National Circuit? Please, show me The Realm, the National Press Club,
Sydney Avenue, Kings Parade, Old Parliament House. No, I'm off in the weeds, and the GPS is actually not in the car. Round and round I go,
onto some slip road, across some water, into King's Park. Lost, and 6pm has come and gone. I stop and backtrack.
I arrived at the Day of Russia event, in the National Gallery, eventually. A sensible 6:30pm for a 6pm start. Shaking hands with the Vladimir
Morozov, the Ambassador, and his wife, I started to mingle. Maxim was there, second secretary and proud to have his wife leading the parade of
children as they got their artwork prizes. She looked like a child herself. I must be getting old. Next, Alexander, third secretary, who is a great
ally. We had a great chat too but he was so much in demand that the conversation was split into six or seven rushed two-minute conversations,
at various times through the night. The networking is easy at these events but you've got to be brash, so the two-man team would have worked well
in this situation. Working alone takes some steal, especially when the waiters want to ignore anyone who is alone. To get into a conversation, you
have to stand next to a couple and wait, and make eye contact, and wait again, and look as if you know them. They're thinking "Who the hell is this?"
Once you break the ice, the connection is not so tough. People are people. The standard question is "What brings you to the Day of Russia?"
The answers are thankfully varied. Often "I am Russian" a student or artist or visitor, sometimes they are charity personnel, who work with
the Embassy. There are others who don't know why they're there. "I am the flight commander's batman" one says. Really? A red-headed, female batman?
In 2012? If there is a standard answer it is "I am in DFAT" or "I was in DFAT". Some of these are ex DFAT now. John is a real-estate agent, specialising
in buying and selling houses to DFAT employees, or finding apartments for 'DFAT brats' the children of DFAT people.
One woman was there that I'd met the previous year. Tall, thin, about 65 years old, weathered but elegant and worldly. We downed another vodka together.
She was telling me that if you started to drive to work, down Northborne, before 8am, and you scored one of the green lights, then you could arrange your
speed so that you could score all of the lights on green. We both drank another wine, and ate some more chicken shashlik. She looked across the room. We
took another vodka. There was a man there, about 55 years old, of average height, but with a massive gut. He looked like he was pregnant. We drank.
She said "IsnŐt that disgusting? Look at the size of him. Perhaps he has a massive prick."
I thought, well yes I guess you're right. All I could manage to say was "I guess he hasn't seen it for a while".
John the real estate agent introduced me to Richard. Richard was ex-DFAT. Genteel, older, slight, wearing a cravat and carrying
a walking stick. His father was in DFAT, after a diplomatic post in India. John described Richard as a DFAT brat. I wondered why
Richard wiped his hand on his trousers before shaking my hand.
"Why the wiping of your hand?" I asked. "I just shook hands with Peter Slipper" he said.
The formalities were nicely brief. The Russian National Anthem, a speech by the Ambassador, all about the relationship between Russia and
Australia, the Australian National Anthem, a speech by the director of the East European desk at DFAT, all about the relationship between
Australia and Russia. Cleverly I thought, Vladimir said
"You will know the expression from Shakespeare: 'Brevity is the soul of wit'
Some of you may also know that we have a Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov, who's words were
"'Brevity is the sister if talent', I would like to have some of that talent and so I will be brief"
and his speech was, and was well accepted, and we went back to networking, vodka, shashlik and wine.
By 9pm there were few of us left. I talked to Yuri Aleshin again about trade in Russia. We had met before, at St Kilda in Melbourne, at the Aerospace event,
but he had forgotten me. I chatted to the Consul and his administrator Natasha about their visa office and I lined up a visit with them for 10am the next day.
Vladimir gave a longer speech to the few of us remaining, in Russian, and most people there, except me, seemed to understand what he said. By 9:30pm I was gone.
Thankfully, the Russian Embassy is just down Canberra Avenue from the Rydges so I had no trouble getting there the next morning. At first though, it's hard to
recognise. The whole perimeter has been planted out with pine trees which are now quite tall. They're only about 30 cm apart at the base and they make a formidable
sight barrier. They work. The Embassy is easy to miss. For many years the top floor of the small and lonely hotel directly across the road, next to the service station,
was occupied by ASIO officers. They maintained constant and direct observation of the Embassy and, I assume, logged the comings and goings of diplomats and visitors.
Luckily those days are past. When you get close to the building you realise that the whole perimeter is also surrounded by a high and strong metal mesh security fence.
There's two vehicular gates and about three personnel gates too, and these are locked with a grey press-button intercom installed on each one.
When I finally realised that I was at the correct location, I approached one of the gates. No sign, no indication of who was to enter there. I kept walking. At one point
I had to divert off the concrete onto the grassy verge as there was a workman there repairing a break in the footpath. He was so typically a workman: young, high-viz vest,
mobile phone, a trady's ute parked up right next to the security mesh.
"G'Day", he said.
"Hi" I replied.
I suppose the warm sunshine of that winter's day was preferable
to any hotel room, but I still canŐt figure out how he kept a log. Maybe my photo was taken with his mobile phone.
At the last gate there was a sign identifying the Embassy and I knew that I had indeed arrived at the consulate office. I mentally prepared what I was going
to say and pressed the button. Immediately the door-open buzzer sounded and with a push I was through. The consulate office is very small, but comfortable.
It is a not a new or polished or corporate office but rather plain and functional. I was soon engaged in a conversation with Natasha and the consul I'd met the
night before. They had just obtained a new coffee machine too, one which takes those small capsules of pre-packed coffee. It worked well and was the best coffee
I'd had on the whole trip. We chatted, mainly about the differences in a life in Canberra vs one in Sydney, the traffic, diplomatic postings, the Russian School
enclosed in the Embassy grounds and so on. Before long we got down to an examination of my official letter of invitation from the Russian Academy of Sciences in
Vladivostok and with signatures, checks with the Ambassador, and payment, my visa was ready. It was excellent, friendly and efficient service.
That night I had a couple of glasses of wine in the Fig Tree restaurant and then watched the beginning of the second state of origin football match on the large
format TV. It was a 5am start for me the next day, back to the office.