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Shepparton woman shares life in the Big Apple

By Jessica Ball

Each day as Liana Oster walks to work she passes the grim reality of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Enticed by the bright lights of New York City, the former Shepparton woman moved to the Big Apple three-and-a-half years ago.

Now, the temporary morgues sitting outside The Brooklyn Hospital, just over a block away from her Fort Greene home, are a frank reminder of the virus which has gripped the world.

“It is one of the biggest hospitals in Brooklyn and every time I walk past there's a new morgue added,” Ms Oster said.

“When you walk past it you're reminded this is why I am at home, this is why I'm not doing anything, this is really serious."

Spending February between work in Brazil and renewing her visa in France, Ms Oster arrived back in New York to find coronavirus had turned the usually bustling city into a ghost town.

“I got back to New York within a handful of days before they shut off all the borders to Europe,” she said.

“It was honestly a really weird feeling in the city.

“When I walk into work I cut through bits of SoHo or the (Greenwich) Village to get in and there's no-one in the streets at all, when normally I would walk and they would be packed full of people, it's really eerie.”

While Ms Oster thought about escaping for Australia, she decided to stay and tough it out.

It was not an easy decision and a meant missing her mum Irene Lia's birthday.

“The only reason I didn't do it was purely because my livelihood is here and the unknown of not knowing if I could come back,” she said.

“I had flights booked to come home in April, I was going to surprise my mum for her 60th and when I realised that I couldn't come home I was so upset.

“The hardest thing at the start of it was not being able to be there for Mum's birthday — and that's when you feel isolated being so far away.”

Growing up in Shepparton, Ms Oster served coffees at Gloria Jean's, worked behind the bar at Noble Monks and graduated university with a masters in clinical exercise physiology.

But it was when she was working at Melbourne's Bar Americano she realised it was hospitality that made her happy.

“I decided I loved hospitality and that's what I wanted to do,” she said.

“It was the hardest decision I ever made and I thought ‘Mum's going to hate me'.”

Now the former Shepparton High School student is the head bartender at Dante, a restaurant and bar voted the world's best.

It is a position that has taken her all over the world with pop-up bars in Russia, London, Spain, home to Australia and, most recently, just before the pandemic hit, Brazil.

“We were doing a month-long residence at a bar in Rio,” she said.

“We take over certain bars and make it Dante; it's really cool to be able to bring that to countries and you get to learn so much about different cultures and places.”

Back in New York City, Ms Oster said she felt incredibly fortunate to still have a job — especially one that comes with health insurance.

“Just being an Australian citizen over here is scary because a lot of people right when this first started were getting laid off, and if you don't work your visa is not intact,” she said.

“The governor of New York did an amazing thing and regulated or changed the laws that liquor could be served to go, which wasn't a law before all this.

“It helped so many businesses, it just meant that you could still trade without having people in your restaurants, so it's all takeout and delivery.

“The best thing for us is we've been doing a lot of community meals, every week we do meals for the hospital and any of the frontline workers, so you feel like you're giving back to the community.”

For Ms Oster, it has been a huge change — from the 50 to 60-hour weeks of absolute mayhem with a line out the door, to takeaway-only services.

New York City remains largely shut down, but as the weather warms up ahead of the Northern Hemisphere summer and the number of deaths start to reduce Ms Oster said people were ready for life to return to normal.

“It was really scary at the start and now it just kind of feels like a new normal and we're just kind of waiting for things to open up so we can get back to what it was,” she said.

“There's a lot of people who just want to get out to whatever they want, and you can't really control that.

“It's nice to see what's happening at home because it's a lot better than what's going on here.”

While the future is up in the air, Ms Oster is happy and would love to spend a little bit more time in New York.

She just hopes the borders open up so she can fly home for a friend's wedding in October and deliver on her mum's 60th birthday present: flights to New York City in December.

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