Anna Koestenbauer is an Austrian-Australian: born in Vienna, she has lived in six countries and now calls Timor-Leste home.  Anna loves the English language and looks forward to communicating with this global, new-media community about perspectives and our sense of place.

Dunja Kaczmarek was born in Yugoslavia in 1989 and moved to Australia with her family as a baby.  Dunja is one of the Founding Co-Editors-in-Chief of be:longing and enjoys interacting with others who feel similar connections to other places and cultures as she does.

In this interview series, we talk to contributors to be:longing, and find out who the person is behind the words – behind the piece or pieces that they’ve contributed.  Here is PART 2 of Dunja’s conversation with our guest, Anna Koestenbauer.  Read PART 1 here, and PART 2 here.

Dunja Kaczmarek (DK): So, you’re at uni – you’re in Canberra – and you’ve found out that you’re pretty comfortable with who you are; you’ve expressed yourself in multiple different ways, and you felt ready to go.  Where did you go next?

Anna Koestenbauer (AK): I went on uni exchange to Copenhagen.  The reason I chose Copenhagen was because a) there weren’t that many law schools where I could do an exchange program and that was one of them, and b) there was a program at the time on SBS called ‘Ørnen’, which was one of those ‘Scandi noir crime dramas’ and the main actor was really attractive, and so I thought, ‘Fine, that sounds great.’

DK: Perfectly valid reason. 

AK: It’s not the most intellectually profound insight but, I mean, hey – I was what, 20? – and I thought, ‘Great, yeah, let’s go do that.’  And Copenhagen was not like in the TV show, you’ll be surprised to know.  It was just as wet and as grey and as depressing, and I had my first experience of what I would now call ‘seasonal depression’, which – now that I’ve learned more about it: vitamin D deficiency, the lack of sunlight, the lack of movement, the lack of fresh air – that can really affect you mentally.  The thing that was great about Copenhagen was that I made a whole bunch of friends… but not with Danes.

DK: Yes, I remember this.  You and I were both on exchange in Europe at the same time.  You were in Copenhagen and I was in Milan.  Towards the end of that semester, I remember you came to visit, and I asked, “What’s Copenhagen like!  It seems so – ”

AK: So sophisticated?

DK: Yeah, sophisticated!  It’s that whole idea of ‘progressive Europe’.  What was your experience of being there?

AK: I went into it thinking, ‘I’m going to learn Danish, and it’s going to be amazing.  I’m going to have a Danish boyfriend, and I’m going to miraculously turn into this European savant who just… I don’t know… becomes a human rights lawyer and “saves all the children”.’  And that didn’t happen. 

DK: Which you could have done, to be fair!

AK: Well, I learnt a bit of Danish; I made the effort to.  I had the advantage of having German, so it wasn’t actually that foreign to me, but Danes speak amazing English – it wasn’t even worth trying to order a coffee [in Danish].  Even if I tried really hard to put on a Danish accent – my best Danish accent –they’d respond in English.  And after a while you just give up, because it’s just so bloody demoralising, right?  [You think], ‘I’m just not going to do this.’  I tried really hard to make friends with the Danes in my law classes.  I attended Danish-language law classes, not as my cores, just as my electives that I could do, because I wanted to meet people who were locals – but it was just a closed-shop.  This is not a criticism of the people that I met.  I have since come to realise in talking to some Danes that a lot of the time these are people who are in the same friendship groups that they’ve had since kindergarten – they haven’t really moved.  And there’s the feeling that ‘Look, you’re a curiosity that’s here for six months, and I’m not going to throw over my friendship group that I’ve had for two decades because you want me to come to your birthday party on Friday.  Like, I’ve got shit to do.’  (Another Australian quirk – I swear a lot.)  So, it was actually disappointing. 

The great thing that came out of that was that I made friends with other international students.  And, in particular, I remain close friends to this day with two German ladies called Heinke and Henrike.  I met them totally separately, and the three of us formed this kind of triumvirate of German speakers in Denmark.  Heinke was working at a law firm, and Henrike was studying agribusiness, so we didn’t have anything academically in common, and we’re still friends today.  We went on trips; we got out – we went to the museum and we went to brunch, and we supported each other.  It was a different way of belonging than I anticipated. 

Anyway, then I came back to Canberra and did the last semester – smashed it out – and then needed to find a job.  And that was… totally demoralising, because I had not done any summer clerkships.  I had not made all these connections at law firms like the other students, and I didn’t know any lawyers myself.  I didn’t really understand how to navigate the Australian job market, and I didn’t know people who could help me, really.

DK: That’s so interesting.  I felt the same way when I was finishing university, I think – not knowing how to navigate it all.  And I think that’s another thing children of migrants have to deal with.  Parents who make the decision to migrate probably don’t anticipate how that will affect their children’s lives down the track, because as children become adults themselves, they don’t have access to parents who know what’s going on either.  And if you’re pioneering your whole life from the beginning… even though you came with parents (you didn’t come as an adult yourself to a completely new country), you’re still in a place where people around you have that understood, handed-down knowledge, but you’re still figuring it out for yourself. 

AK: My mum will freely admit this: she never thought it would be the same.  The issue was more that, my stepdad being Scottish meant that [we thought], ‘Oh, Australia is English-speaking, and it’s similar to Scotland, so I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.’  But what we came to realise was that they haven’t been teenagers here, and they haven’t been university graduates here.  Actually, I’m the first one out of all of us to be a university graduate in the 21st century in Australia, and there’s a very different set of rules at play in that scenario.  I think the universities have gotten a lot better at that and a lot more proactive at trying to help graduates, or soon-to-be graduates, navigate into the job market.  I was completely abandoned, at the time.  I mean, I pushed out 48-55 job applications… I honestly can’t even remember…  I went for every grad program that I could find, and I got nothing.   

Fortunately, I managed to get work at an NGO in Melbourne, which was supposed to be holiday work.  I moved back to Geelong, back to my parents’ house, and felt like a complete failure after 5 years of undergrad.  But I went to work, and work was amazing.  Work is the most confidence-building, self-esteem boosting, liberating experience of my life.  Working is absolutely, bloody fantastic. 

DK: Okay, that’s the only time anybody is ever going to hear another human say that. 

AK: Okay, I mean, not that I don’t love holidays, but I particularly love salaried holidays.  Salaried holidays are amazing.  So, yeah, I had that first experience of having a boss who was really great, and having tasks that I could complete to a high standard.  Then the first month passed, and they asked, “Can we keep you on?”  And I stayed on a little bit more, then a little bit more.  Then, randomly one night, I sent off an application to do a Masters program in London – at the London School of Economics.  And I got in, which was a surprise.  So, in October, by the grace of a lot of help from all of my parents and the money I’d saved up by working until that point, I moved to London and did the Masters.

*** End of PART 3 ***

© Anna Koestenbauer and Dunja Kaczmarek, 2021