Studying abroad in Normandy, crazy flatmates in London, safaris in Africa, human capital in New York City. Sydney-born Kath Wannan has seen a few things and has some great stories to tell.
How did you get to where you are today?
That’s a really good question ... a really hard one. Firstly, I’m very restless and secondly, I’m a bit of a perfectionist. So I’ve always got to go somewhere new, where it’s going to be “perfect”.
That sounds dangerous.
It is dangerous and it’s not very wise. I traveled a lot as a kid with family and with school. Then I went to university in Sydney and studied abroad for a year in France. I did my final year in France in Caen, Normandy. It was this really crazy little town. It is built around William the Conqueror’s castle. William the Conqueror built the Tower of London and he also built this big castle in Caen.
I was sitting in a lecture while I was studying Psychology and Business Admin when this person came in to talk about opportunities overseas. She mentioned a program where you go for a year to do a Bachelor of European Business in France. So I applied for it, and got it! I went to stay for the year in France in this dodgy apartment building. There was linoleum on the floor and carpet on the walls. It was a weird mix of college kids (all of whom did not have any money) and just wanted to go bananas the entire time, as well as actual people trying to live there. I shared the apartment half the year with a girl named Lauren from South Africa, who was amazing. The other half of the year I lived with Sissy from China, who was the sweetest thing but she did some weird stuff. I don’t know why there was toilet paper in the shower so often … I used to wear my flip flops in the shower.
I loved it overall but the best bit about it was that we only had to be in school 12-16 weeks so we just traveled. We went all over Eastern Europe and spent a lot of time in England, Spain and Italy. My favorite place was Budapest in Hungary. It was so beautiful. Another favorite was the Amalfi Coast in Italy.
Did you learn to speak French?
No. I did not have much interaction with the local people while I was there and my courses were taught in English. I didn’t try very hard to speak French. Also the whole “kissing thing” really got to me. As an Australian, I like my personal space. By the end of the year I used to stand with one leg stretched out in front of me just to make sure I had some personal space, otherwise everyone was up in your business.
When I got back to Australia, in my mind I thought that in six months, “I’m outta here, I’m going back overseas.”
It didn’t matter. I didn’t even buy a phone contract because I didn’t want to lock myself in. I ended up doing that that for six years. I did get a full time job in Human Resources though, but I figured that was fine because I could just quit.
But you couldn’t lock yourself into a phone contract?
No ... but I did buy an apartment as well.
What? You own property?
I’ve got a little apartment in Sydney. It’s amazing. It’s in this horrific 1960s brick building and you have to walk up three flights of stairs. But if you stand on the toilet seat and look out awkwardly you can see a bit of the water.
I also had a boyfriend for a while in Sydney and when we broke up that was the catalyst to move. So I went over to London.
I just wanted to go overseas. I’d been saying it for so long. I had no game plan. I went with two of my friends that I met when I was in France, Holly and Bec. The timing just worked out.
We did a little bit of travel through Sweden and the Arctic Circle to try to see the Northern Lights ... did not see them! We went at the perfect time and we researched the fuck out of it. At one point we were standing on a beach at 3am in the middle of the Norwegian winter trying to see these fucking things … and nothing. Nothing! We had a really great time though.
In your mind, were you leaving Sydney for good?
Yes. The idea was to do a bit of travel and then live in London. But fuck I hated it! I hated it so much. I lived with Holly in Notting Hill, and we had a random third flatmate who was bananas. She left post-it notes everywhere. After about a year my friend Ali, who was living in New York, called me and said that her roommate was moving out and asked if I wanted to move in, I said “yes, I do”.
Was New York ever on your radar?
Yes, I always wanted to go there but when I moved it was right after the financial crisis and it was easier for an Australian to get a job in London.
I told Ali to give me six months. I was going to do some travel first. I packed up from London and travelled all through the Middle East, which was amazing. Then I went down to South Africa and trained to be a safari guide.
Holy shit balls. How did that happen?
I had some time, so I looked on one of those volunteer websites and they had all of these amazing opportunities and one of them was ‘learn to be a safari guide in Kruger National Park’. I was there for a couple of months and it was incredible. Everyone there is so passionate and love what they’re doing. It’s totally different to working in a corporate environment, where no one is ever truly passionate about what they do.
A typical day would start by going out for an early morning game drive, to see what animals we could spot, and then we’d come back and learn about something like bugs or animal behavior for two hours. Then we’d have lunch and some down time and then in the afternoon go on another game drive.
What was the purpose of the game drive?
Just to look at the animals. Generally you’d drive until you see something and then stop and everyone will discuss it and share what they know about it.
Are these people biologists?
Quasi-biologists ... Their profession is safari guide. My trainer during the program could identify over 700 birds just by sight or sound.
I was there for a few months before landing in New York. I arrived on a three month tourist visa and I found a job as a project manager. After a year I moved to my current job, which I really enjoy.
Along the way I also moved into an apartment with two guys, one of whom became my boyfriend, Sean. My “live-in lover”.
Tell us about Sean and how you guys got together.
When I first moved into the apartment, he was seeing someone and I was seeing someone. We became really good friends and would spend a lot of the time on the couch watching ‘Anderson Cooper 360’ in the evenings on CNN. We eventually got together on a trip to Montreal, I had to do a visa run. We drove up there, 9 hours in the car with a lot of Cheetos and shitty 80s music.
Sounds like a dream car ride!
After that there were some confusing times. It’s difficult to date someone while you live with them. Now we live in Stuy Town together.
Sean is American, do you find there’s a difference dating an American VS an Australian?
I don’t think it’s that different, but it’s not like I’ve dated thousands of Australians or Americans to truly answer that properly. There are cultural and language differences. Have you ever asked an American to say “squirrel”? (Kath attempts an American accent). They cannot do it. So, there’s shit like that but mostly it’s just really fun.
Does it make you see Americans in a different way?
Yes. Australians like to think that Americans are too big for their boots, a bit “show-offy”. Then you come over here and firstly you realize the place is a thousand times the size of Australia. The scale is so different. Americans are very patriotic, and I actually like that. They teach people to be confident. In Australia I don’t think we teach people to be confident.
How do you feel about New York at this moment?
I love New York. I love that there are so many goddamn people in one spot. You literally could do whatever you wanted to do and there are people out there who want to know about it. I like that.
What are some of your favorite restaurants?
I really love the restaurant at the bottom of the Marlton Hotel in Greenwich Village. It’s so delicious and kind of fancy.
If we’re talking very specifically Friday night drinks, I like Yuca Bar in the East Village. Otherwise I like Goat Town and B&H Dairy. B&H is a breakfast place, you sit along this counter, these guys cook up the shit behind you, it’s hard to spend more than $5 there. It’s just weird and crazy.
What are your favorite things to do in New York?
I like walking. It’s a good city to walk in because there’s always weird shit happening all over the place. I feel like every time you go for a walk you find something different.
This morning I went for a walk and found a huge street fair over on 8th Ave, but not one of those weird ones with the watermelon and lemonade stands.
You were saying earlier that you left Australia with no intention of returning …
Just not returning at that point. I would like to return, I feel like I have to. The one thing I don’t like about New York is that my family is not here. That upsets me. I go back once a year or every 18 months and they come over to visit too. I just feel that I’ll get to a point where I’ll regret not being closer to them. That’s probably going to happen sooner rather than later. I’m so connected to Australia for so many reasons that I don’t feel like anywhere else could ever truly feel like home.
Are there any downsides to living in New York?
One of the things that has ruined me here is the amount of money I spend. I spend way too much money. So this year I’ve decided to be fiscally responsible, reign in my spending and start thinking long term.
How have you achieved this?
I’ve stopped shopping as something “to do”. I set up a stock portfolio which I love, and I’m motivated by Mr. Fishcal.
Mr. Fishcal is the fiscally responsible fish who is my logo and motto. He was kindly put together by friends Mark and Tessa Davies. Mark did the copy and Tessa was the visualization of Mr. Fishcal. Now he’s a drink coaster.
Has this worked?
Yes! I had to just start thinking about what I’m spending money on. I pulled out every single thing I spent last year and where I spent it. That was a very good exercise.
I didn’t realize how much money I was spending on cabs, nearly $2000!
Tell us more about what you’re working on now.
At the moment I’m working on an acquisition outside of New York which means I’m away every week from Monday to Thursday. I really enjoy the work, but it’s pretty full on. The fact that it’s so busy though, means that I don’t mind being away so much. I like it because there’s always a deadline. You’re always working towards something.
How does that affect you and Sean?
It means that the weekend is awesome. We make the most of it and it feels special to be back home.
I can tell you everything on the menu at the Westin in New Jersey as well. I drive out there and listen to podcasts along the way. I listen to the Economist and Bloomberg’s Surveillance, which I really like, and BBC World News.
You’re so intellectual!
No, this is just it. I feel I need to get smart. Oh, and I listen to the Australian comedy guys, Hamish and Andy.
Is there something you do every day or every week without fail?
I wish I ate peanut butter on toast every single day. I don’t, but I wish I did. I do a lot of online window shopping in honor of not actually shopping. It somehow fulfills the shopping desire. I usually go to home sites like One Kings Lane, West Elm and Crate and Barrel. I hope that one day my favorite item will be on sale, but even then I wouldn’t be able to buy it because of Mr. Fishcal.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
I eat a lot of sugar. In any of its forms, especially anything from a bakery.
Another thing I really like that we’ve been doing a lot of is buy vegetables and roasting the shit out of them. I really like cooking. I’m not a recipe person. I like cooking things with random ingredients. Most of the time it doesn’t turn out nearly as good as if I used a recipe though.
When you think of New York what do you think of?
I actually think of the view out of this apartment of the Chrysler building and Empire State building. When I left Sydney I had a very clear idea of what I wanted and oddly it all kind of worked out. I knew what I wanted to do work-wise, I knew I wanted to meet someone I could be with for a long time and live in a place that I really like. I feel like that’s all come together for me here. I’m in a really good place.