Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Reason to Hope


Day to day, my life is organized around what happens here in Australia; my job, activities and some friends are here. Yet, living in Sydney, thousands of miles from the campaign trails, made me feel that the US presidential election had never been so important.

When you live in the US under an administration as incompetent as Bush's, you can complain about it with your friends and neighbors (especially in the bay area) communally. You're all in the same boat, but that boat is sinking. When you live as an American abroad, however, you have to take the heat from angry non-Americans who, in ways large and small, have also suffered over the last eight years. Their boat is sinking, but it's because of something that our boat did.

I felt embarrassed and ashamed every time 'Dubya' opened his mouth. I didn't vote for him and he doesn't represent me, but George W Bush and the negativity that surrounds him springs to mind when people from outside the US think of America and Americans.

I barely slept the night of November 4 after having stayed up late to watch early election coverage from the US. As we were going to bed, the polls were just opening and when we woke up and walked excitedly to work, the polls were closing and results were filtering in.

My Australian colleagues were just as interested in the US election as I was and our boss (American) generously allowed us to project MSNBC coverage on the wall all morning and afternoon as the results came in. MSNBC called states for either McCain or Obama with only tiny percentages of the precincts reporting, while the New York Times, whose website I refreshed every five minutes, was much more conservative.

Regardless of what you were watching though, Obama had a lead that only grew as the day wore on. The notion that a person of color would become president of the United States slowly dawned on America and the rest of the world. In a way, America had put its money where its mouth was; maybe anyone, regardless of skin color, gender, religion (or even ability in Sarah Palin's case) could in fact become president.

When it became clear beyond a doubt that Obama had won, MSNBC showed clips of the excited crowds at Rockefeller Center, or Election Center as NBC temporarily called it, young black college students crying with joy at Spellman College, the somber atmosphere at the Biltmore in Pheonix and the sea of people waiting to receive Obama himself in Chicago.

I actually felt a bit sorry for John McCain because his concession speech was so gracious. My sympathy for his camp waned, however, when his Arizona supporters booed mentions of Obama's win. I smiled when McCain thanked Todd and Sarah Palin, hopeful that she would be remembered as the butt of jokes on SNL and not as a serious political candidate.

The anticipation built as the cameras switched back to Grant Park in Chicago. At least one coworker and I got a little choked up when Obama took the stage with his family. I wonder if Sasha and Malia had any sense of how their father's career was shaping history and how their own lives would be effected in years to come.

I wanted him to dance down the walkway and celebrate his hard-fought victory. It had been two years of campaigning and traveling to Pennsylvania an indecent number of times and I felt that there was room for a moment of levity. Instead, Obama approached the podium with solemnity, probably relieved that he had won the respect of so many Americans, but humbled by the task ahead. The economy is in the tanks, we're still in Iraq and the pace of climate change isn't slowing. Perhaps a victory dance in the end zone wouldn't have been appropriate.

A week or so after the election I watched a short New York Times video describing the world's reaction to the US presidential election. Unsurprisingly, if you were to zoom out from a map of blue and red states, the rest of the world would be blue. Indeed, people interviewed for this video from Germany to China to Iran were excited that Obama had won and hopeful that their country's relations with the US would improve as a result.

I was most struck by the words of a young man from Kenya, where a national holiday was declared in honor of Obama's win. "I don't care that he is the first black president of the US," he said. "It matters that the white people [of America] were civilized enough to vote for this man." It fascinated me that the election could have such different significance for different people.

Australians are no exception in that they also are pleased with Obama's success and fortunately, their goodwill trickles down to expat Americans like me who call Australia (temporarily) home. My Aussie friend Kate confided, "I have good feelings for you Americans now."

My days of being embarrassed by George W Bush are numbered and I'm looking forward to being proud of my president. We Americans won't have to settle for a 'c' student at Yale who only found himself there because of his father's connections or even a veteran who graduated at the bottom of his class. We've chosen a candidate with brains, strength and character and can hold our heads a little higher now when introducing ourselves as Americans.

A week after the election I heard someone pessimistically saying that Americans' day to day lives wouldn't change immediately after Obama's inauguration. They'd still be concerned about losing their homes, filling their cars up with gas and putting food on the table. I disagreed with him, though, claiming that Americans' lives have already changed as a result of the election. We have a reason to hope.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Glutarded


Four years ago, when I joined Teach for America and began teaching first grade I started to experience unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms. Naturally, I thought that the stress of teaching twenty little people to read was the root cause of my troubles. But if that were true, then my symptoms should have disappeared when I gave away my best pocket charts, locked the classroom door for the last time and said goodbye to my identity as Miss Rennie.

Of course they didn't. They followed me across three continents and at least as many jobs and doctors. Clearly, I couldn't blame it all on the first graders. A particularly astute gastro specialist in California indicated that a blood test pointed toward Celiac's Disease, an allergy to gluten (a protein in wheat, barley, rye and oats). Because I had just shared a year's worth of meals with a Celiac's sufferer, my kiwi friend Hannah, I knew exactly what such a diagnosis entailed.

And I wanted no part of it. Hannah had gotten used to her diet, but it seemed incredibly inconvenient and miserable to me. How could I consider giving up bread and my other wheaty essentials? I'd always considered cake and pie to be more like hobbies or even old friends than favorite foods. I decided that as long as pain wasn't one of my symptoms, I would ignore this condemnation of a diagnosis.

I was symptom-free in Australia until mid June when I got another flare-up of gastrointestinal malaise. However, it wasn't until I read that Celiac's sufferers are at increased risk of bowel cancer and infertility if not adhering to a gluten free diet that I decided that I had to face the music and find out if I truly was glutarded.

A blood test confirmed with 99% accuracy that I did have a gluten allergy and an endoscopy (an outpatient tubey down throat procedure) complete with creepy internal pictures left no doubts. I have Celiac's Disease and the cure is staying away from wheat forever. Period.

For once, I didn't cry. I said farewell to gluten with a stylish high tea instead of a mournful funeral. Mickey and six friends met me at the Victoria Room in Darlinghurst for an afternoon of treats which don't have an appealing gluten free alternative: tea sandwiches, scones, biscuits and cakes.

My first week on the gluten free diet was difficult. I was traveling in Queensland for work and attended catered lunch meetings that offered only sandwiches. I came prepared with nuts and dried fruit, but I almost cried thinking that I wouldn't have the willpower to keep saying no to sandwiches. The second week was even harder because I met with a dietitian and learned about other items that were off limits: preservatives that you'll find in barbecue sauce, candy, soy sauce, chicken stock, mayonnaise, medications, etc.

Indeed, it seemed like wheat was in everything and that eating out at restaurants and friends' homes was always going to be difficult. I also feel terribly guilty when I think about how this diagnosis will effect Mickey's diet. He's loyal to me and has been avoiding some of his favorite foods because he'd have to eat them alone. Even if solidarity with me got old, it would still be inconvenient for us to prepare two of everything.

However, I cheer myself up by thinking about the things I can still enjoy: chocolate, sushi, ice cream, Mickey's gluten free pancakes and more. Even more encouraging is the fact that my symptoms are already improving and that I will begin to absorb nutrients better. I had wondered why I've made such little progress with weight training and building muscle. Now, the world had better watch out. I'm getting strong and healthy.

Friday, October 10, 2008

China: My First Stop Outside the First World

Feeling loose and relaxed as we left the Shanghai massage parlor two weeks ago, Mickey and my friends and I compared notes about how we communicated 'too much pressure!' to our Mandarin-speaking masseuses. We laughed at my cowardly approach: praying that squirming, gasping and scratching the linen with my fingernails meant 'please go easy on me' in international body language. Though my young Chinese masseuse didn't speak English, he probably would have understood if I had said plainly, 'that's too hard.' But I didn't because I was afraid; I was afraid to admit to my friends and even to myself that I was too sensitive for China.

We planned this trip months ago when we knew that our friends Andrew and Alyssa would be teaching at an international school in Shanghai. They had a week off and generously offered to spend it showing us around their new hometown. The summer Olympics had inspired us to fly to Beijing and spend a couple of days there in the middle of our trip. Realistically, it should have been easy. Shanghai, a modern, westernized city of 20 million and Beijing, a city that had prepared for years for an influx of visitors like myself could be called 'China-lite.' The language and culture are Chinese, but these metropolises also offer the comforts of the west: cornflakes, Zara, high-speed trains, etc.

And yet, even when I was getting a massage, an experience that is meant to be relaxing, I felt beaten down by China, overwhelmed by the pressure. I felt like there was danger and trouble at every turn; if you weren't alert, you would get pushed, ripped off, run over and/or mocked. And in a nation of 1.3 billion, no one would notice or care.

The lack of rules and anything goes mentality was terrifying to me. I actually started crying on the way through security in the Shanghai airport because I was so stressed about not being able to reach the check in counter. The Chinese are notorious for not queuing and I was worried that we'd get pushed so far that we'd never make it on the plane. Though we made it just fine to Beijing, it was the return back to Shanghai that deserved more worry. Our reservation was mysteriously canceled and we had to purchase new tickets on a later flight.

The pushing and reluctance to form a proper line were aggravating, but the anything goes approach to driving was outright dangerous. Most taxis didn't offer seat belts, most drivers treated traffic lights as mere suggestions and most bikers didn't wear helmets. It's a wonder that the roads weren't caked with blood.

During the first half of my trip, like the massage, even the positive aspects of traveling in China made me feel like a fool. One of these is the low, low prices for goods and services: $15 for a two hour massage, $6 for a season of your favorite TV show on pirated DVDs, $.50 for breakfast on the street, nothing to complain about, right? Well, I'm the kind of woman who doesn't often refuse a bargain so I felt like a fool for not taking full advantage of China's scarily cheap stuff. (I don't really need a Folex, but it's only $5!) Then, when I did actually decide to purchase something and attempted to bargain for it, I'd feel like an even bigger idiot for settling for the 'stupid foreigner' price. Anyway, I didn't feel a lot of satisfaction from my first couple of purchases.

Containing special economic zones, Shanghai has been open to the west for decades. Thus, the Shanghainese don't find it strange to cross paths with someone like me. In Beijing, on the other hand, my blondish hair and round, blue-green eyes made me somewhat of a novelty. At first, it was flattering, some people asked if I'd pose for photos with their kids while others surreptitiously snapped pictures while I was fighting the crowds. Is this a fraction of what celebrities feel? I imagine they must feel admired, but I just felt like the joke was on me.

At the midpoint of our trip, my mood had fallen and it couldn't get up. I had arrived in China looking forward most to our day in the Forbidden City, but when I got there, I was devastated by the crowds. The Gate of Supreme Harmony might as well have been the Gate to Tourist Hell (it didn't help that we went on a national holiday). It was hot, crowded, polluted even by LA standards and I was desperate for a western toilet (I hadn't yet consigned myself to using a squatty potty). I didn't care what gate I had to go through: Supreme Exhaustion, Heavenly Crowd Surfing, I just wanted to get out of there.

After exiting through the north entrance to the Forbidden City, we'll call it the Gate of Extreme Holding It, there were no western toilets to be found. After several cabs passed us by and right before Mickey unsuccessfully attempted to bargain with the rickshaw drivers, is when I started to sob on his shoulder. He realized this was no Chinese fire drill, this was a genuine spoiled wife emergency. So, he rushed me to the nearest fancy hotel, as any good husband would, where they had clean toilets and wretched, over-priced hot chocolate. Still, I sipped it gratefully while drying my tears and discussing the philosophy of travel with Mickey.

Is it worth thousands of dollars to literally travel outside of my comfort zone in order to learn about a new culture and expand my horizons? Might our money have been better spent on another trip to New Zealand where I could enjoy natural beauty and a warm Kiwi welcome? I have a BA in Anthropology for christsakes, the answers should unequivocally be YES and NO respectively. Still, I was trying to be really honest with myself and with Mickey. At 26, should I look inside and be realistic and unashamed about my travel limits, or, should I push myself to grow and change?

Well, my mood had hit a Great Wall and there was nothing to do but turn it around. (Note: when I wasn't complaining, I was cracking jokes far worse than this at the Forbidden City. 'Can we go in here or is it... forbidden?' I asked more than once). Alyssa helped me see the funny side of the anything goes mentality as it applies to fashion. It is totally acceptable for men and women to wear pajamas, the type where the shirt and pants are the same fabric and print, out on the town. It is also fashionable among young couples to dress alike. We'd give each other people-watching points if we spotted a couple in the exact same shirt and extra if their trousers and/or shoes matched and a bonus if the man was carrying the woman's purse (also okay in China). The winning pair of the whole trip was a couple whose orange T-shirts read: his - "our love will," hers - "go on forever." Their kid was also wearing orange. Elsewhere such a fashion statement would be ridiculously corny, but in China, it worked.

However, while these couples could express their commitment with their apparel, public displays of affection are taboo. In this case, I could not adopt a 'when in Rome' attitude despite my reluctance to attract even more attention or offend. Mickey is too irresistible not to be hugged and kissed.

Another diverting people watching game is trying to find the cart or scooter carrying the most unusual or precariously balanced load. Once we saw a motorscooterist with a houseplant and a desk chair (and another passenger) strapped to his bike. Later, we saw a man with a humble cart carrying more Styrofoam boxes than could an F150.

China had shoved me around, but I was learning to push back. I became a bolder and yet more cautious pedestrian. Twice I threw my 'STOP' hand up like a New York City traffic cop and to everyone's surprise, the driver waited for us. Maybe that's the protocol when a strange white woman jumps in front of your car.

And though I've complained about roller-coaster taxi rides and feeling swindled, we were always safe and treated fairly in China. When travelling in Spain or Italy, a woman has to worry about her handbag (and a man his wallet) and ignore catcalls and stares from local young men: "rubia! bella!" Sure, in China some wanted my photo, but no one disrespected me and we never felt that we had to hang on to our wallets with a death-grip. In China, there's a stricter penalty for stealing from a foreigner than committing the same crime against a local.

Of course the highlights of the trip were trying new foods and spending time with our brave, gracious hosts, Andrew and Alyssa. They took us to a range of local restaurants and encouraged us to sample everything from scallion pancakes and caramelized hawthorn berries on the street to the freshest Taiwanese noodles I've ever had to spicy Cantonese and Sichuan favorites. Then, when we tired of sauce-heavy Chinese food (even my fruit salad had a sauce), they treated us to the best of the west. I devoured the tastiest burger I've had all year in Xintiandi, a western-style shoppertainment center, slurped multiple glasses of fresh watermelon juice and stuffed myself at brunch at Azul in Shanghai's French Concession. We couldn't get over the quality of the blueberry pancakes and fluffy banana muffins. I also had a second course of huevos rancheros plus a fresh juice and a tea for a grand total of $18.

Yes, China offers eastern and western food and fun at every price range. As Andrew and Alyssa's colleagues have proudly confided to them, 'I've lived here for seven years without a word of Mandarin and I can get by just fine.' However, Andrew and Alyssa don't want to surround themselves with only western words and comforts and I'm so proud of them for that. Could I ever do the same? Having spent ten days in China, Mickey wound up with a tummy bug while I suffered a 120 volt culture shock. It's good to alter your routine, open your eyes to something new and learn how other people live. The Chinese may wear pajamas while not holding their boyfriends' hands on the street and actually prefer a squatty potty, but inside, I bet they're the same as me.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Instant Karma

Even though we are borrowing Chris and Jess's car, I decided that the train was the best way for my cousin James to get to the airport. Maybe this was my first mistake. Read on and see if you can pinpoint the moment that I went wrong.

Central Station is just far enough away that you need to get a ride if you're hoofin' it with a just-under-the-20-kg-limit suitcase, a carry-on and maybe a jacket or purse. James's luggage was modest in size and weight, but I opted for a cab anyway and phoned the concierge to call us one. Just five minutes later, the taxi driver buzzes to say he's downstairs. We meet him there about 90 seconds later, but somehow the meter reads $5.70. "What?!" I exclaim. "That's really rough." The driver assures me that it isn't and encourages me to read the square-shaped sticker on pricing. I skimmed it, but argued with him anyway, claiming that there's no way he had been waiting long enough to start the meter at $5.70.

The station couldn't be more than a mile and a half from our place, but it feels like it takes ages to get there. The meter races up to $13.80 by the time he stops the cab and he asks for an additional $2 on top of that. I refuse. I borrow James's money because I don't want to give this guy my fifty dollar bill. I hand him $13.80, the amount still shown on the meter. He starts yelling at me and refuses to open the trunk where James's suitcase is. Poor innocent James is listening to this guy rage about how he knows where I live and will charge me for fare evasion. I'm flustered, embarrassed, anxious.

As I attempt to get out of the cab and pull my bag along with me, my thumb gets stuck in the patent leather strap. My nail bends backward and immediately it starts to bleed and sting. Instant karma. I'm angry and in pain and James is still listening to this guy from inside the cab. We can't win. I give him the rest of the money and bang on the rear window, demanding that he unlock the trunk.

I bought James's train ticket, embarrassed that he had paid for an expensive ride made more so by my behavior, and washed my hands in the ladies room. I emerged with clean hands, but a messy conscience. I hugged James goodbye and hoped that memories of his trip to Sydney wouldn't be tarnished by the last 20 minutes of our time together.

This drama unfolded this morning and I haven't yet gotten over it. Some of us believe in a westernized notion of karma; what goes around, comes back around. When we have been unjustly treated, it is comforting to think that, some way, somehow the perpetrator will get his/her comeuppance. However, when it happened to me, I was shocked that what went around came back around fast enough to bite me in the... er, thumb, instantaneously.

I don't always believe in karma. Our friend was attacked here in Sydney two weeks ago by two young men who he had never met. They didn't want his laptop, nor did they want his money or credit cards; they just wanted to beat him up. This was terrifying to Mickey and me and all of our friends. Our friend hadn't provoked these guys, not with words nor with flashy clothes hinting at wealth. It happened in an ordinary neighborhood, in the middle of the day, near a train station. If it happened to him, our gentle yet strong friend, then it could happen to any of us.

It is indeed scary and terribly unfair that our universe doesn't operate according to karmic law. Those two guys physically hurt our friend, violated his sense of safety and ran away. Thankfully, justice stepped in for karma (or was it karma in the guise of justice?) and the police arrested one of the assailants the day after the attack. Our friend's blood was still on his shoes when they picked him up. Our friend identified this punk at the police station and the detectives were fairly confident that he'll be put away for a while.

Our friend's bruises have healed and he somehow manages to see the bright side of this dark day. "At least I still have my teeth," he said with a smile. Soon, the bruise under my thumb nail will fade too, but I hope I will have learned a lesson before it does. You can't explain certain acts of violence or tragedy; life is unfair. However, when you have the opportunity to be compassionate, generous and patient, you'll be better off if you take it.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Watching Beijing from Sydney


I'm a little behind the times; the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing ended two weeks ago. However, I can't let the opportunity of reporting on my first Olympics abroad pass me by.

And for whatever reason, I was more "into" the games than I've ever been before. As a little girl, I'd always watched the gymnastics and ice skating intently, and in college (2000 summer games in Sydney), the girls in my dorm couldn't get enough of Ian Thorpe, or, the "Thorpedo," as he's known in Australia. Anyway, we spent our evenings and weekends watching obscure sports instead of our regularly-scheduled dose of nerdlicious competition, Jeopardy (reruns, so no loss).

I saw for the first time a synchronized swimming event and marveled not at how they maneuver without touching the bottom of the pool, but wondered instead how their makeup didn't smear. I came to understand the rules of handball and why falling ungracefully is such a huge part of the game, cheered for Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt, watched a bronze medal women's softball game (Japan vs Australia) that should have won a gold for most boring 3.5 hours of Olympics and found rhythmic gymnastics crinky (creepy + kinky).

Most importantly, I watched the Olympics from an Australian perspective: Channel 7 coverage complete with wacky breakfast program called 'Yum Cha' (Australian for dim sum) and Australian advertising. My American friends and I whined about missing NBC's Bob Costas and the human interest stories about the athletes ("she left home at the age of three to train and has only seen her mother once a year since...")

My biggest complaints were that the Australian commentators were uninformed and that the network jumped from a heat of one event to a semifinal of another and then to a bronze medal match of another just to capture Australian athletes. My friend Hannah, who was visiting from NZ, mentioned that the American networks must do the same to feature our own athletes and this is true, but I feel NBC does a better job of showing all the top contenders in a given event before moving on to the next.

The opening ceremonies began at 10pm Sydney time so I was nodding off by the time Bulgaria paraded into the arena three hours later. We knew we would miss the Australian and US entrances so we recorded the NBC coverage via Tivo and Slingbox. Despite the commercials and fact that they waited until prime-time on Friday to air it, NBC's coverage of the opening ceremonies were superior to the Australian equivalent.

While the Australian commentators had some facts about the various national teams, their knowledge was sketchy at best. NBC, on the other hand, had a different approach. When a country strolled into the Bird's Nest, its name, flag and, most importantly for geography-inept American viewers, its place on the world map were displayed at the bottom of the screen. Then, they'd cut to a close-up of the flag carrier and display his/her name and sport on the screen. Now that's the kind of information I was after. The Aussie commentators would blather on about the costumes when I wanted to know what a 350lb guy was doing carrying the Polish flag... (ah, weightlifting, of course).

Likewise, when I watched an early round women's basketball game (US vs Czech Republic), I noticed that the Australian commentators had left their briefs at home. "The American women had better watch out," they warned when the Czech team was up 6 points fifteen minutes in. I later learned that Lisa Leslie and the US team won the game by almost 30 points. It turns out that the US team begins with their B team, but the Aussies in the press box were completely oblivious to this.

Perhaps the most revealing moments of the Olympics were the commercial breaks. One of my favorites featured an Aussie swimmer proving the durability of a Lenovo laptop. It begins with her jumping out of a pool (remember this) and walking over to the sidelines to use her Lenovo laptop. Someone else drops it, but it's still okay and another clumsy person spills a glass of water all over the keyboard, but it's still okay. Wait, you're thinking, the fact that she just jumped out of a pool dripping wet wasn't enough to prove that this thing was water resistant and they had to use a glass of water? Yup. I couldn't get over it. 


Another less funny ad that I've seen outside of the Olympic coverage is one for the Commonwealth Bank. There are several in this series, but they all feature bank execs in a board room scenario. Two guys from an American advertising agency (labeled as such at the bottom of the screen) are pitching a dodgy marketing strategy to the Australian employees of the Commonwealth Bank. Of course, the ideas presented by the ad men come across as overly complicated and dishonest and the bankers save the day (and the innocent, straight shooting Australian public) by opting for a simple and reasonable idea. The underlying sentiment is clear: foreign (especially American) tactics are deliberately deceptive and inappropriate for Australian consumers. The same way American advertisements employ a British accent to make a product/service seem sophisticated, Australians use an American accent to signal something untrustworthy and foolish. This puts me as a person working in client services at a disadvantage. Does my accent speak louder than my words and reflect poorly on my company? 



On a more positive note, the theme of the other ads was Australian pride. One for Coles supermarkets glorifies the dutiful mum who accompanies her budding athlete child to early morning swim and rowing practice while claiming to be "proudly Australian since 1914." Another features different people watching in awe as some Aussie Olympian wins gold while enjoying McDonald's (it's so moving and patriotic that you'll forget that McDonald's is American). And another involves that same laptop girl carrying "the spirit of Australia" to Beijing in her suitcase. 

The national pride here is tremendous and it was fun to watch the news headlines change as the Olympics unfolded. Whereas we in America are isolated in that we don't really look beyond our borders, Australia is physically isolated and its people are highly conscious of their distance from the rest of the world. They respond by bonding together, training some of the strongest athletes and thus demanding that the rest of the world sit up and pay attention to this down under nation of 20 million. 

Here on my couch, I was cheering on Team USA and nearly cried when Phelps won his eighth gold medal, but there were plenty of times when Mickey and I shouted out, "Aussie, Ausssie, Aussie! Oy, oy, oy!" 

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

South Australia

North of us in Queensland is the beautiful Gold Coast and still further north is Cairns, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. To the south are the Australian "Alps" in Victoria and Sydney's edgier sister-city, Melbourne. And in the middle of this great country is Uluru, a rock in a class of its own. Keeping in mind these varied yet intriguing destinations that Australia has to offer, it's a wonder that we opted to take a holiday in South Australia. My mom and two of our dearest friends were visiting us on their first and perhaps only trip to Australia, and there we were on our way to Adelaide, South Australia's capital.

In order to explain how we chose Adelaide, I must provide some background on our travel history as a foursome. Last July, we traveled around Italy for two weeks together before Mickey and I tied the knot. We took the train from Zurich to Milan and then made our way over to Como, Tuscany, Rome and Venice. We explored medieval hill towns and we dined on wild boar pasta and carafes of Chianti over long lunches; we had a marvelous time. However, this romantic romp around Italy was almost ruined by the heat and crowds that come with summer travel. Sure, Cinque Terre would have been magnificent if the views of the coastal villages weren't obscured by other rich, fat Americans and their Rick Steves guide books.

Anyway, we desired the opposite of Italy in July and found South Australia to be just that. It was cold and, despite its beauty, SA is a destination that not many Australians would visit, let alone Americans. Best of all, SA is home to Australia's best Rieslings, so it was an ideal destination for the tasters among us. Moreover, none of us had been there before and the experience was new to us all.

We left on a Thursday afternoon and arrived in Adelaide too late to journey to Clare. Out of fear of running down innocent kangaroos, we restricted our driving to daylight hours and spent our first night in Adelaide. Wandering down streets littered with retail clothing stores at best and seedy strip clubs at worst, we were unimpressed. The restaurant and hotel accommodations recommended by Fodors did little to improve our opinion of SA's capital. Luckily, a venture outside of town to Mickey's colleague's lovely home saved the evening. He treated us to heaping plates of gourmet nibblies (cheese and spreads) and some sticky (dessert, sweet wine).

A visit to the Central Market, the largest produce market in the southern hemisphere, improved our opinion of Adelaide. We loved our breakfast at Zedz so much that we came back for a picnic lunch of fresh bread, cheeses, olives and creamy, berry topped yogurt. I also particularly enjoyed the botanical gardens. We ran to catch up with a free tour, but were delayed by a sudden hailstorm. We waited out the downpour in a covered rainforest exhibit and a greenhouse devoted to giant water lilies.

Our last stop in Adelaide was a quick tour of Haigh's chocolate factory. I went in eager to see thousands of little chocolates traveling along conveyor belts into hundreds of identical boxes. I was surprised to learn how much is actually done by hand at Haigh's. And not by the hands of underpaid child laborers, but by probably unionized Australian workers who looked rather content as we admired their work from behind the plexiglass. After purchasing a couple of bags of Haigh's specialty, scorched chocolate almonds, we drove north out of Adelaide and into the Clare Valley.

Though usually dry and golden, the winter storms colored the fields and low hills a healthy green. We passed through several tiny towns en route to the Old Stanley Grammar School Country House in Watervale. I only booked this place because everything else was unavailable. Looking back, I consider this to be a happy accident because we ended up loving the place.

The Stanley Grammar School first opened its doors to young male boarding students in 1857 when Australia and its wine making industry were still new. Back then and to this day, a fair number of Australians send their children to boarding school not to prove status, but because it's practical. This country is sparsely populated and having students board at school during the week makes more sense than long commutes.

Anyway, despite the hundred year old spit balls that still cling to its ceiling, the Stanley is elegant and comfortable. Denise, the proprietor, had decorated each room with attention to detail. Keeping such a large old building warm is no small task, but they manage with faux fireplace heaters in the bedrooms and an actual roaring fire in the enormous lounge (once the main school room). Denise and her husband Frank had only recently been granted the local permissions allowing them to turn this heritage building into a B&B, and their greenness as hosts showed. They surrendered their own living quarters to other guests and had to spend some cold nights in their camper van. They kept saying they'd "leave us be," but we found ourselves awkwardly sharing the kitchen.

Soon, they'll have learned from their new B&B mistakes, such as not making the beds when guests have paid $200+ for you to do just that. Housekeeping wasn't Denise's strong point and as it turned out, neither was cooking. She said she had tried preparing a cooked breakfast for guests, but that the timing was difficult. I thought this was strange because, as the owners of a B&B, you're supposed to make it work. Her solution to upholding the breakfast end of the deal while avoiding cooking was to fill large baskets of food and stick them in the fridge for guests. This worked for us because we enjoyed frying up eggs and bacon at our leisure.

We spent the first day on rented bikes from Sevenhill Cellars, one of the Clare Valley's oldest wineries owned by Jesuit priests. The property was picturesque and being able to bike around it only added to the charm. However, the Riesling Trail was the reason behind my desire to hire bikes. A wide, well maintained path atop old railway tracks, the Riesling Trail is mostly flat and provides easy access to the wineries. We deviated away from it to spend a wine soaked three hour lunch at Skillagalee Winery and encountered a couple of challenging hills for us novice bikers. Still, it was a picture perfect day complete with a sighting of 'roos lazing among the vines.

The next day we encountered more stunning landscapes en route to the outback. We drifted west in attempts to catch the southern tip of the Flinders Ranges, but didn't notice a dramatic change of scenery. As we headed back northeast, though, the land slowly began to change from grassy fields to red dirt and endless bush, to our great relief. The rest of SA had been so verdant, we wondered if the outback in winter would be the same uncharacteristic green.

However, when we arrived at the East Whydown Station, 30 kilometers outside of a nothing town called Yunta, we knew we were getting the real outback experience. In fact, it was a little too real, too authentic even. My heart sank when our hostess Joan showed us to our plain, toilet-less rooms. The dunnys (outdoor lavatories), were about 20 meters away from our beds in the shearers' quarters. Twenty meters was not far enough to get lost on the way back from a sleepy shuffle to the toilet, but it was long enough to encounter an insomniac boxing kangaroo or a deadly spider. Such thoughts make the chamber pot idea look like a reasonable option. Anyway, I had to do some quick outback math: 20 outdoor meters away from the potty - 5 kilometers to the main road (and the world of indoor plumbing) + $600 already paid to Chris and Joan = no turning back in the outback.
In retrospect, I'm glad I didn't know that East Whydown lacked indoor toilets, insulation and heating. I would regret never having had this adventure. Almost as soon as we arrived, Chris led us on an informative tour of the woolshed. We later learned that Chris is affectionately called 'Decimal' by his friends. This is an apt nickname for a man who loves throwing around unit-less data. "That looks about five, six, eighteen, fifty maybe," he'd estimate while gazing at his sheep. Was he talking about the birthweight of his lambs? Centimeters of rainfall? The price of a kilo of wool, or what? After the tour, the five of us admitted that we only understood a fraction of what Chris had said. Fortunately, we put our fractions together to construct a whole picture of how the sheep station operates.

The next day we were treated to another tour of the entire property. At first, the 245 square kilometers appeared unchanging; there was nothing but desolate bush in all directions. However, as Chris guided us and pointed out variants of gum trees and salt bush, I began to notice subtle changes. The tour of this immense nothingness, was indeed chock full of... stuff. We kicked up pottery shards from an abandoned homestead, mustered wayward hoggerts, had a picnic in a woolshed and lived a day in the life of two modern-day pioneers.

It wasn't hard to say goodbye to East Whydown because we were sick of being cold and longed for the luxury of not needing shoes for a trip to the bathroom or shower. However, I do miss the night sky in the outback, the quiet and the beauty of red dirt contrasted against a blue horizon.

We took six days out of our busy routines to explore a slice of Australia and flew back to Sydney not having seen the reef nor the rock. I'm still eager to visit those Australian must-see destinations, but I loved my days in South Australia, dunnys and all.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Let’s take the Chunnel!

Not to be outdone by my brother, my mom, Nan Rennie, wrote a guest post of her own. Here, she reflects on her past as a traveler and how it shaped her attitude toward spending two months with us in Sydney.

My earliest memories are of travel and eating. Go figure. When I was two and a half years old, my family flew from Chicago to Seattle because my father had been transferred. My sister Jill was a baby in my mother’s arms (there were no infant seats in those days) and my sister Tina was not yet on the travel scene. I mention my sisters because they play a large role in my travel story.

It wasn’t until my teenage years that I flew again. That time it was from NYC to Fort Lauderdale, Florida and the Bahamas. The airplane trip became memorable because I was old enough to be aware of the thrill of acceleration, lift off, and a sense of soaring toward adventure. We “dressed” for travel in those days. I remember the exact outfit I wore. It was a kelly green, linen sleeveless mini-dress with matching white shoes and bag. I wore the same outfit on my return along with a sassy straw hat and jewelry purchased in Nassau. For fabulous travel garb of the same era, watch the 1967 movie "Two for the Road" starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. The story followed a marriage via the couple’s travels through Europe in various vehicles showcasing great wardrobes. Audrey looked absolutely adorable in every outfit. All my female peers wanted our travel experience to be just like Audrey’s: cool, nonchalant and dressed to kill.

In my twenties and thirties, travel consisted solely of bi-coastal visits with family and in-laws. I dreamed of the Great “Trip to Europe,” though. It was a very hip thing to do in the late 1960s, after college and before real life. My husband and I married young and made plans to work for a year or two, save money and go for our budget version of “The Grande Tour.” Sadly, it was not to be. I came down with Hodgkin’s Disease the trip was put on hold and then relegated to a part of the past.

In the meantime, my sisters kicked it up a few notches. Jill was and still is a “take time to smell the roses” kind of traveler and Tina wants to “do it all”. There was a 1969 movie titled, “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.” The title hints that the plot centers around a whirlwind tour of Europe. Tina does it with style, but she could exhaust any travel companion on five continents. We used to say she could compete in the faux-lympics in two events: endurance shopping and cross country travel.


Jill became an RN. She worked double and triple shifts, and when she had enough money in the bank, chose her next destination. She traveled with nurse friends and went to exotic Bali, New Zealand, Australia, South America and Europe. Her subsequent marriage to an art expert and museum curator took them to many European and Latin American sites. Her second daughter’s first words nearly were “not another cathedral!” Tina’s marriage to a Persian man already familiar with Iran, Italy and Switzerland, later traveled for business. This afforded her the opportunity for global excursions. They have been just about everywhere. They complement each other beautifully because they are both full of adventure, energy and wanderlust.


Many years later (in my fifties), I finally made it to Europe. My sweet daughter, blogger extraordinaire, studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh during her junior year. I applied for my first passport in order to visit her there. Proof positive that this time I was going to get to do my little version of Europe.


A few months later, I was awarded a grant from an educational foundation and traveled to Japan and Korea for three weeks. I was busy from early morning until late evening every night for three weeks. Frankly, many of the cities and incredible beauty were lost on me because of exhaustion. I have to consult my travel diary to remember big chunks of time there. It was the earlier trip though, the Edinburgh one, that prompted the phrase, “Let’s take the Chunnel!”


When planning the trip to Scotland, I mentioned to Tina that I was flying in and out of London and on the return had seven free hours. Tina immediately asked, “aren’t you seeing Paris?” She stated matter of factly, that during the layover I had enough time to take the Chunnel, have a coffee, see the Eifel Tower, Arch d’ Triomphe and return. Could I picture myself with a flip of the hair, and a wave of the hand, a la Audrey Hepburn exclaiming, “Let’s take the Chunnel, dahling!” Nah, not me. I may be terminally uncool, but I know my limitations and unsuperpower.


I am a liberal in many areas, but travel isn’t one of them. I am a conservative traveler. I tend to play it safe. I don’t enjoy long days filled to the brim. I prefer the small adventures I can take the time to savor and sit with for a while. I love it when someone else draws up the plans and I get to go along for the scenic ride.


Last year, I visited my daughter and her husband in Switzerland for a month. This year I spent eight weeks in Sydney. (Thank God for kids who have great jobs in great locations and actually want me to share time with them!) One highlight of the trip to Zurich was a two day stay at the countryside home of an employer’s mother. As women of a similar age and occupation, I had the chance to talk for hours with a British born, Swiss woman and gain insight into her daily life as a mother, teacher, wife and widow in an almost parallel universe.


This winter/summer in Sydney has helped me determine just who I am as a traveler. I love living in a place, not just visiting there. I love talking to strangers, making new friends and inquiring about their lives. I talk to everyone, be it a student waiting for a bus, a passenger on an elevator, or someone I share a lunch table with at the Bondi Junction Food Court.


I am not the Ugly American (although I have traveled with him), nor am I the woman who will “take the chunnnel” but I am the happy traveler who just might take a neighborhood walk to the food market and chat up the greengrocer during a layover.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Words to Stop Using

My husband talked about doing it many times, my mom even started one, but my brother beat them both to the punch and submitted a guest blog to me last week. Below, Nic Rennie calls for the abolishment of two rather tame English words not because they stir up trouble, but because he thinks they're unnecessary. Sorry, Nic, I didn't realize how often the f-word came out of my yuppie mouth. Now, I know better and you, dear reader, will too.

We all have (at least I assume we do) certain words or phrases that get under our skin. Some of us don’t like profanity; my sister doesn’t like “the c-word.” A lot of people (namely the fascists who program spell check) still ain’t down with the word 'ain’t.'

I may be unique in that I am not bothered by words for their obscenity or late arrival into English dictionaries. I am bothered rather by certain words simply because of the way they are used, the people who use them, and/or my deeming them to be unnecessary.

The first word I think everybody (at least people under the age of 75) needs to stop using is "supper”. This word is a thing of the past. There is no more such a thing as supper; Jesus had the last one, get over it. The s-word is to old people what the n-word is to black people. It's okay when they say it, but it’s not okay when you say it. Exactly why this one bothers me I can’t really say, maybe it’s because it reminds me of old people (expect a whole article on the phrase ‘the greatest generation’). Or, maybe it’s because although I love slang and the evolution of language, we do not need two words that are exactly the same, unless we are talking about body parts, bodily functions, or marijuana. Supper means dinner, and dinner is already a word. It’s not even like you’re replacing dinner with a cool new term like “the late plate” (ok that’s not actually cool, but you get the point). Does it make you more mature to say supper? Does it describe your meal more accurately? Does it stop you from being a douche? No, no, and no.

A word I like even less, or perhaps more appropriately, a certain usage of a word I like less is when people use the lame, pseudo-intellectual, ambiguous and totally unnecessary word “film” in place of the totally functional word “movie”. I don’t mind if you have a thin filmy substance to describe or need to get film for your non-digital camera, but to call a movie a film is to call oneself totally smart, hip, and elite while being totally wrong. Okay, f-word users, when was the last time you went to the films? Do you own any films on DVD? Does that even make any sense? When movies are recorded and displayed completely digitally (probably sooner than later) are you still going to sit there and display your superior intellect by taking the verbal road less traveled by? Or, are you going to display it by continuing to strive for technical correctness and say things like “yes, I saw ‘digitally encoded information’ and I was moved to tears because I’m a big, fat, soft-hearted idiot”? I can’t wait, oh wait, yeah I can.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Yulefest

I predicted that Yulefest, a Christmas dinner in July in the Blue Mountains, would be cheesy. And with artificial trees, sequined Santa hats and red and green colored champagne, it lived up to my expectation. What came as a surprise was the fact that it truly felt like Christmas. Nearly everyone was dressed up and cameras flashed frequently as families took cheerful photos in front of the Christmas tree and festive fireplace.

We knew it was Christmas when the ladies at the next table got roaring drunk during the first course of the meal and had a little too much fun with the noisemakers in their Christmas crackers. Of course, we couldn't retort with our own noisemakers because there was a misunderstanding about our seating, another telling sign of Christmas.

Fortunately, no one needed to turn on the tears before the situation was rectified; our American sense of entitlement did the trick. The management added a table to the end of our own, completely blocking the path and thus violating the fire code, I'm sure. If there had actually been a fire, we would have made like Santa and escaped by twitching our noses. The management also gave us two complimentary bottles of wine and we were more than satisfied with that.

We settled in to our extra long table, poured ourselves some glasses of wine and finally cracked open our delightful Christmas party favors. These Christmas crackers are one of the best parts of celebrating the holiday in the UK or Australia. They're meant to crack when you pull them apart, but not all of ours did. I'm guessing the Mountain Heritage Inn didn't spring for the most expensive crackers. Anyway, each comes with a colorful paper crown and some other trinket or noisemaker.

The crowns are good fun because they level the playing field in a way; whether you're young or old, painfully sober or off your face drunk, the crown makes you look silly. And once people all look ridiculous and feel ridiculous, then they can loosen up and have fun. Isn't it amazing how a simple hat can work the same magic as alcohol? Outside of a southern US cattle ranching context, wearing a cowboy hat, for instance, indicates that one is ready to party.

The food wasn't great; it's what you'd expect from a mid-range hotel kitchen serving 200 almost identical five course Christmas dinners. The creamy pavlova was sandwiched between two deceptive white disks of meringue. They look like two fluffy what sugar pillows, but they're actually too hard and cloying. Likewise, the Christmas pudding was tainted by alcohol and thus not appealing to me either. I always say that adding alcohol is the quickest way to ruin a dessert.

Still, we didn't come for the food; we were there for the atmosphere that accompanies the food. And there were plenty of helpings of that. We were entertained by three amateur singers who would have been eliminated in the very first round of American Idol (and I'm sure Australian Idol) auditions. Sadly, we couldn't play Simon Cowell and abruptly say, 'next!' Nor could we veto their costumes which looked like Dickensian caroller meets Christmas-themed Vegas casino elf.

After a couple of drinks, though, we were singing along to Rudolf and Santa Clause is Coming to Town. It wasn't Norman Rockwell, but then again, maybe he never celebrated Christmas in July in Australia.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Zen and the Art of Entertaining

There's a niche in the entertaining genre of how-to literature waiting to be filled. Martha Stewart helps you outdo your friends by teaching you how to make not only Christmas candies, but their individually decorated wrappers as well. Likewise, the folks at Good Housekeeping share recipes for chocolate cakes that actually burn fat (yeah, right) and the pages of Real Simple are chock full of ideas for turning recyclables into centerpieces and storage containers.

After flipping through the glossy pages of an entertaining magazine, you'll learn that throwing a Noah's Ark themed baby birthday party complete with unique marzipan animals atop every cupcake is possible. As we know, though, just because we can doesn't mean we should. And why should anyone work so hard in the name of hosting a good party? I want to know how many of these magazine articles cover the why of entertaining. I want to read about the joy or zen achieved through hours of menu planning, shopping, cooking and cleaning.

I suppose for many, impressing one's guests as the hostess with the mostest is entertaining's reward. Others derive satisfaction from making loved ones happy and baking a homemade pie is a quick way to accomplish that. For me, hosting a party is the best way to gather the people I want to see. As my dad used to say, "I love parties at my house because I know everyone there." There are two primary reasons behind this sentiment: 1) he was shy and not always enthusiastic about meeting new people and 2) my mom prepared all of the food, cleaned the bathrooms and set the tables.

As a young wife, I'm beginning to embrace domestic joys. Like my mother before me and my grandmother before her, I love hosting parties. I like trying new recipes, dusting off my favorite serving platters and lighting scented candles around the living room. At least I did love those things until I hosted two parties in the same week last month and felt completely overwhelmed by the effort.

Perhaps hosting a party wouldn't feel like such an arduous process if I were a more confident cook living in the vicinity of a fantastic supermarket. Alas, I am a novice chef and must trial run all my dishes before I serve them to guests (thus, double duty) and my local markets are far from super. Australian markets aren't allowed to sell alcohol, so a party for anyone but your friends in AA or your mommies-to-be group requires at least two stops. If you wish to impress and indulge with farmer's market produce or fresh bread from your local bakery, make that three or four stops. And that's not unreasonable when you have a car and an afternoon. However, when I hosted my book club and then a birthday party, I had neither and was completely wiped out after scouring Sydney for plantains. I had the misfortune of actually finding them and then had to go get them from a suburb 45 minutes out of town and figure out how to prepare them. After we'd washed and dried the last margarita glass, I felt like I wanted to take a good long vacation from entertaining.

Again, my grandmother loved to entertain and I remember her mentally menu planning weeks in advance of her parties. "Well, I already made the vegetable soup and froze it," she'd say. "But, Grandma, the party's in two and a half weeks." She'd always say that she wanted to be prepared because on the day of the party she'd have so many other things to do.

So, if someone were to jump into the zen of hosting literature market, maybe they would herald thorough planning as the vehicle to party peace. If I were to take a stab at dishing out not only hors d'oeuvres, but advice as well, I'd tell the hosts of the world to be realistic and take shortcuts when overwhelmed. For instance, preparing a multi-course meal is a lot of work. Give yourself a break by perfecting the main dish and let the deli do one of the sides. Or, go to your baker if you can't trust your wonky oven. Other shortcuts include: asking your friends to bring something besides wine and saying 'yes, please' when they offer to help with clean up.

Maybe I should write this hosting handbook before Thanksgiving. My darling husband wants to host Turkey Day at our house and I'd like to do that too... without throwing a 7.5 lb turkey at him or out the window.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Bogan Bingo


Jeff Foxworthy and his brand of blue collar comedy are often called 'crude, irreverent,' even 'hilarious,' and especially 'American.' A redneck is often an uneducated person who resides in the southeastern part of the US. Or so I thought. Sure, you might be a redneck if you drink Miller Genuine Draft while parking a trailer in your front yard, but replace Miller with an equally poor brand of malt liquor and then replace 'redneck' with another derogatory title for a country bumpkin and you could be anywhere. Jay Leno and Michael Moore hand-pick and then film a number of ignorant Americans to prove a point or get a laugh, but don't be fooled into believing that America's cornered the market on inarticulate hillbillies.

Every country has hicks; they just go by different names and binge drink different kinds of alcohol. Here in Australia, these people are called bogans, and I've been fascinated by them ever since my coworkers clued me in to their existence.

Bogans are few and far between in chic Sydney, but I've gathered the following about their appearance:

Males
  • 'wife-beater' undershirt
  • shorts
  • flip flops
  • 5 + visible tattoos
Females
  • either 20 lbs. underweight or 20 lbs. + overweight
  • thong underwear peeking out of athletic pants or jeans
  • 2 + visible tatoos
For me, spotting a bogan is a thrill not unlike catching a glimpse of a rare, graceful bird. "Guys, I think I saw a bogan," I'll report back to my coworkers. "Where?" they ask doubtfully. When I tell them I saw the potential bogan in Paddington, a hip neighborhood bordering my own, they shake their heads. "You did not see a bogan in Paddington." They hadn't even seen the potential bogan, but they know the types of places they do and do not frequent.

Once we were at lunch when I spotted a bogan only a couple of feet away at the next table. "Guys, is he a bogan?" I whispered not softly enough. "He heard you," they warned. "And if he beats us up, the answer is yes." Oops. I guess this was a close call, but I haven't had a run in with a bogan yet. It's a good thing too because I understand they can be dangerous when drunk.

That's why it's best to observe bogans from the safety and comfort of one's own car. Be the first in your vehicle to spot the following and you'll win bogan bingo:
  • a male sporting a 'wife-beater' undershirt and multiple tatoos while drinking a beer and (oh God) driving
  • a female with exposed thong underwear who's drinking a beer while smoking a cigarette and holding her baby
Of course, you are awarded extra points if the male is driving a modified/pimped out truck (raised or lowered) or if the female has more than one child and looks younger than 22. I didn't think it was possible to hold a baby, a beer and a cigarette at the same time, but apparently multitasking is a skill required of the bogan lifestyle. Noticing when a fellow pub patron has looked at one's girl and reacting irrationally with violence is another.

I have not yet played bogan bingo, but I'm eager for one of my coworkers (one whose car has power locks) to drive me out to the appropriate suburbs and give it a go. If you find yourself outside Sydney, but not yet in kangaroo-sighting range, give bogan bingo a try. It's certainly more enjoyable than playing the punch buggy game with your sharp-eyed, sharp-fisted brother (ouch). Happy hunting!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Hunter Valley

We've explored a decent portion of Sydney and its fantastic beaches. We've also spent a weekend in the Blue Mountains and plan to return next month. Only one not-to-miss New South Wales destination remained on our list and after this weekend we crossed off the Hunter Valley (wine country). Australia celebrates the Queen's Birthday (even though the current Queen's birthday was back in April) with a long weekend and we were thrilled that not everyone in Sydney decided to spend it wine tasting. The roads were mostly clear, we were able to find great accommodations and we got plenty of the sommeliers' attention in the cellar doors (tasting rooms).

We quickly learned that our gracious travel buddies Jess and Chris, who patiently drove us around all weekend in their car, have much more refined palates than we do. They can taste and smell the difference between Chardonnays aged in French oak barrels and Semillons fermented in stainless steel. When I taste wine, I always yearn for a better vocabulary to describe my experience.

I swirl the liquid around the sides of the glass and then take a thoughtful whiff because this is what I've seen others do. Smelling the wine summons words like rich, light or fruity, but never do I sense 'black cherry, herbs' or 'hints of licorice.' When attempting to describe the taste or texture of wine as I slowly swallow a small sip is when I really grasp for more sophisticated adjectives. 'Rich' is the word I use when I taste a wine with comparatively stronger flavor. It drives me crazy when I identify a wine with rich, heavy flavor and the winery's description of the same bottle includes phrases like 'earthy, leather notes.' I'm still sipping wine; has everyone else gone off licking the barnyard?

Still, I'm learning and can proudly taste the difference between a young Semillon with lots of acidity and an older one that had mellowed with age. I knew I was really making progress when I actually understood why the vintner mentioned leather, horses and saddles when he poured us glasses of the viognier. The aspect of wine tasting that still baffles me is 'the finish.' I read phrases like 'finishes long and strong' and wonder what a short finish would feel like. I can work on my mastery of appreciating the finish next time.

Because there definitely will be a next time. We enjoyed our stay at Pindari House, a small B&B in Lochinvar, so much that we're already planning our next visit. However, when we first arrived I didn't think I'd be so in love with the place. The owner Monika greeted us warmly at the door with her big, friendly dog. Because I detest dogs, the friendly ones are just as bad as the mean ones; they run around sniffing and licking everyone. I quickly told Monika that I was allergic and she looked at me like I had just landed from another planet. "What happens to you?" she asked. "Um... I start sneezing," I said defensively. I felt my pet dander allergy confused her just as much as would a condition in which bubbles come out of the ears when in the presense of cheese. Still, she banished the dog from our sleeping, eating and living areas and I became more comfortable.

And comfortable is certainly the best word to describe Pindari House. As is typical with B&Bs, I found the decor on the tackier side of charming, but it was a clean and pleasant place to relax. I can confidently claim that Monika is the best hostess in New South Wales. A former personal flight attendant for an Australian billionaire, Monika's travelled all over the world on private jets. Her walls are covered with pictures of the rich, famous and even royal folks she's met over the course of her career. Not only does she have a talent for entertaining, she also loves it, so it makes sense that running a B&B is Monika's retirement plan.

From the moment we arrived, Monika attended to our every need. She served us tea, coffee and cookies when we arrived and then champagne and hors d'ouvers before dinner. When she whipped out flaky sausage rolls straight from the oven, we cancelled our dinner reservation, slipped into our pajamas and terrycloth Pindari House robes and played Squatter (an Australian, sheep farming Monopoly-esque board game). The next morning, Monika pulled out all the stops with fresh baked chocolate muffins in addition to the full cooked English breakfast.

Though the meal was tasty, the highlight of my breakfast was (nerd alert) bird watching in the garden. I can understand why bird watching in North America is only a hobby for the truly dedicated. You have to get up extremely early in order to catch only glimpses of boring, mostly brown, white and gray birds with ordinary, cheerful calls. Here in Australia, though, you get the impression that the zoo's most exotic birds escaped their aviaries and populated this continent with the strangest and most colorful feathered creatures imaginable. I was completely entranced by the whitish gray birds with bright pink undersides, the red headed parrots, the fairy finches and of course, the rainbow lorikeets. All I need now is a field guide and some good binoculars and then I can add 'bird watching' to my list of Australian hobbies, right under 'lawn bowling' and 'bogan bingo.'*

Later that day, we spotted more notable native Australian animals bouncing around the vineyard: a family of kangaroos! What a treat it was to see these guys in the wild. However, as I cross these experiences of visiting the Hunter Valley and photographing a wild kangaroo off my list, I'm inspired to add more to dos such as: identify more wines and more birds.

*Bogan bingo is an Australian car game deserving of its own post.

Monday, June 09, 2008

They Call It 'Autumn'

For better or worse, I grew up without seasons in southern California. I have memories of splashing in my cousin's pool and jacuzzi on Christmas day, and none of sledding and school cancellations due to heavy snowfall. You'd think as a SoCal kid I'd be more prepared for Sydney's hot summers in January and mild winters in July, but I've actually found the reversal of seasons pretty disorienting.

I was taking an afternoon stroll in mid-May and noticed it was suddenly fall (or 'autumn' as they say here). The air was crisper and the leaves on the maples and oaks were beginning to turn brown and fall off their branches. These were the slight changes that always signified fall to me. We couldn't expect big drops in temperature or the leaves to put on a fiery show as they do in New England, but there were subtle changes nonetheless.

Like any SoCal kid, I relied on marketers to remind me what season it was supposed to be. Fall catalogues depicted children bundled up in scarves and sweaters, kicking piles of leaves and thrilled about returning 'back to school.' I loved the idea of needing those clothes, but they'd only be practical for over air conditioned classrooms, not the temperature outdoors.

My student days are long gone, but the coolness in the air brings back those feelings of excitement and expectation surrounding the first day of school. Who will my teacher be? Which of my friends will be in my class? As the season goes on, there's always something new to look forward to. Once you've settled in to your classroom routine, there's your Halloween costume to plan. When you're left with nothing but Jujy Fruits and Smarties (bleh), you can begin to think about feasting on something other than candy: Thanksgiving dinner. And when you've eaten your last turkey sandwich, it's time to string lights around your Christmas tree (but you've actually been itemizing your wish list since September).

It didn't matter that the transition to fall required only jeans and a light sweatshirt for chilly mornings instead of the shorts and T-shirt that is the norm from March to October. We watched the store window displays and the classroom bulletin boards rotate from apples to jack-o'-lanterns to turkeys to Santa and for me, that was just as good a season as any.

Here in Australia, though, everything is different. The seasons are reversed, so the changes in temperature that we're used to in November and December occur here in May and June. Here we are in the first week of June; the weather is slightly cooler, light breezes blow crackling brown leaves off the trees, surely pumpkins will begin appearing on doorsteps, but they don't. It's a little bit like the twilight zone; kids aren't going back to school because they've been there since January. Somehow, this is fall, but the stores aren't selling pumpkin carving kits and Thanksgiving turkey tea towels. Hold on... this is winter with chilly mornings, early sunsets, wet weather and NO CHRISTMAS. It's actually kind of awful. Didn't the wicked queen of Narnia cast a spell on the land that made it always winter, but never Christmas? I wonder if Australia would be a kind of hell for C.S. Lewis. I certainly wouldn't call it hell, but it does remind me that I'm down unda, in a place where my expectations feel upside down.

As Australia was first settled by English people, we aren't the only ones who feel like Santa on a sleigh makes more sense than Santa on a surfboard. Thus, the good folks in the Blue Mountains host a Yulefest in July when there's a chill in the air, occasionally a bit of snow on the ground and clearly, nothing else this side of Labour Day to look forward to. (Thank you, benevolent marketing geniuses for saving us from our seasonal-holiday delusions).

Anyway, you too can join in the Yuletide fun any Saturday night in July at the Mountain Heritage Hotel & Spa in Katoomba. One hundred and thirty dollars buys you a six course Christmas dinner with a roast, pudding and all the trimmings. A pianist plays Christmas songs and all are expected to sing along. At some point during the evening, Santa's going to make an appearance to spread holiday cheer. It sounds like a touristy, cheesy way to celebrate a holiday that gets more than its share of attention and money later in the year, but we couldn't resist. We booked a table for ourselves, my mom and four of our friends. Will the food taste like Christmas dinners of the past? Will Santa's beard look real? Does he know that I still want a pony even though I'm grown up, married and live in a high-rise apartment? Who knows, but it will probably be the merriest Christmas in July we've ever had.

Because this continent is a land of extremes (lush coastlines and barren outback desert, etc.), it seems fitting that all significant holidays are crammed into a single season: summer. I can imagine a modern day creation myth in which the gambling-obsessed Aussies established their calendar with a roll of the dice. They lost on winter, but upped the ante to double or nothing on summer and won big. After a wet, chilly winter, the spring/summer season is kicked off with a huge horse racing event. Apparently it takes place in Melbourne, but is celebrated and watched nationally, like the Superbowl, but with hats and on a weekday. Then, of course, there's Christmas, New Year and Australia Day (this country's Fourth of July, but on January 26). Don't forget that all of these events take place during summer vacation. As a kid, the two happiest times of the year are Christmas and summer vacation; can you imagine experiencing both at the same time? I can't, but I'm going to try.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Shrimp on the Barbie (I'm Serious)

For me, there's almost nothing more satisfying than finally doing something I'd always talked about doing. Ever since I took more of an interest in food and cooking I've wanted to take a cooking class and last weekend, I did.

My friend Steph booked the three and a half hour barbecuing seafood course for herself, but was unable to attend (and unable to get a refund) and couldn't bear to see it go to waste. You'd think I would have jumped at this opportunity as soon as it was offered, but I was hesitant at first. I'm a novice cook (I'm only just learning soups) and I thought barbecuing shellfish was a little advanced for me. Shouldn't I start with a simple fish curry before I gut, butterfly and sear a garfish? But I guess cooking doesn't have to be like math, so armed with my pre-algebra level skills I dove into culinary calculus. (What a nerdy metaphor!)

Lucky for me, I wasn't attending any old cooking class; for an afternoon, I was educated at the Seafood Cooking School at the Sydney Fish Market. They have a great set up with a mini lecture hall facing a demonstration kitchen and a larger room with multiple fully equipped workstations. This place was like Chuck E. Cheese for beginner chefs like myself who do most of their cooking on a single teflon pan; you could play with anything you wanted and you didn't have to clean up. But before I had my pick of butcher knives, we had to learn how to prepare six barbecued seafood dishes.

Not wanting to miss a single sizzle I sat in the front row and took notes. It turns out that sitting in the second row and thus viewing the demo stove at a higher elevation might have served me better, but I still saw the meal come together. I learned a couple of new tricks including how to select fresh seafood, how to mash garlic into a paste with the back of the knife and how to get live mussels to close before cooking.

Watching the instructor plate dish after delicious fishy dish was torturous in a way because I made the mistake of showing up hungry. It seemed sort of mean that she didn't award the plates to eager students who correctly answer seafood barbecuing safety questions. When I sat in the front row at the Rachael Ray show, Rachael personally handed me a fruit kebab and that seemed the classy way to go. When the instructor at the seafood school finished, I asked what was going to happen to the beautiful demo dishes. "We save them for the staff or wrap them up for later," she said. After just talking about the importance of serving mussels when they are fresh and steaming in a garlic butter sauce, I was surprised by this aspect of the seafood school routine. Oh, well.

After an hour and a half of dos and donts, we were eager to get our hands dirty and get cookin'. We were instructed to find a workstation and thus form groups of five. When I approached one of the front tables I didn't feel the need to meekly ask if its occupants wanted to be my partners. I paid (actually, Steph paid) and I had just as much right to claim the table as anyone else. I figured if I made a new friend, great, but I wasn't lonely or desperate. I was used to working solo in the kitchen.

As it turns out, though, dividing the work of preparing six dishes between five people is in many ways harder than working alone. Miraculously, we all haphazardly volunteered to make different parts of the dishes and it all came together. The exercise was organized well in that we all prepped and cleaned our own pieces of seafood; we all practiced beheading the prawns and squid and carefully removing the digestive tracks.

Almost all of the dishes involved garlic and I offered to chop a couple cloves. A red haired woman on my team watched my work carefully and when I finished told me that it needed to be chopped finer. I don't know how she became the overlord of our counter space, but I gave the garlic another go for the sake of perfecting my knife skills. Later, I left my cutting board to check on the progress of the barbecue (the red headed overlord's red faced son had nominated himself grill master even though this is the skill we had paid $135 to master) and returned to find this woman chopping my garlic!

She didn't apologize or explain; I guess it was assumed that she wouldn't allow my lack of skill to compromise her meal. Later she had a problem with my squid dressing. "There's meant to be four tablespoons of liquid here, but there's only about two," she accused as she held up my plastic mixing bowl. "If you don't like it, you can can do it," I replied to that horrid cow, but she hadn't heard me or was perhaps ignoring my rudeness. I was seething and tried to avoid her for the rest of our class.

When we sat down to eat the feast that we had prepared, the dictator and her grill-hogging son were perfectly nice to me. Looking back, of course I was the horrid brat and she was just trying to help me learn. I'll admit that my garlic mincing did need some work and I didn't measure a single ingredient of the squid dressing because I thought I could wing it. I guess my home kitchen is a more appropriate place for experimenting and it's the only place for a bad attitude. I've emerged from the experience with stronger cooking skills, but my ability to work in a group...? Well, maybe I can find a class on that.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Sissy Gym

Every gym has its colorful characters and mine here in Sydney is no exception. However, I didn't know it was a gay gym until the subject came up with one of Mickey's colleagues. "Oh, you go to City Gym?" he asked. "Sissy Gym. Everyone calls it 'Sissy Gym' because that's where all the gay guys work out." That would explain why the characters here spanned the color spectrum from royal purple to spray-tan orange.

Like most gym members, I don't have the nerve to strike up a conversation with my fellow patrons. But that doesn't mean that I don't know anyone there because I feel like I do. The same faces appear in my Body Attack and Step classes week after week and I've imagined stories for many of them. I always smile when this one small, early forties Asian lady shows up to my Monday night class. She's not as strong as her 6'2, 185 lbs of muscle gay friends, but that doesn't stop her from playfully slapping them on the back and shouting words of encouragement.

At the end of a work day, going to the gym is the last thing I want to do, so every bit of motivation counts. Also at my Monday night class (it's called 'Body Attack', but it's mostly just running and jumping to the music) are a group of gay guys who egg each other on throughout the torturous 55 minutes. They try to see who can kick one's leg highest and teasingly jump into each other's space. These friendly Monday night contests are small celebrations of gay pride. The men of City Gym probably spent younger years feeling out of place during masculine displays of power on the rugby pitch. Now their time has come to strut confidently in front of their compadres, exerting testosterone generated strength and energy to house beats in an aerobics class.

Again, I don't know these guys but watching them inspires me to push myself a little harder. One night I was so thankful that I high fived a total stranger. It's a wonder that such a sense of camaraderie is created without exchanging words and simply knowing that we're all feeling the same aches. And perhaps this feeling of camaraderie and encouragement instead of self consciousness is the best part of belonging to a gay gym. As a single girl and especially now that I'm married, I try not to worry about people evaluating my body at the gym, but still there's something liberating about knowing that the men of City Gym are checking out each other's biceps, not my cellulite and stretch marks.

There's one City Gym regular who neither inspires me nor makes me smile. In fact, he kind of creeps me out. He's always wearing a sweaty, stained white T-shirt and itty bitty black shorts. The whole point of athletic gear is to be comfortable and allow movement, but I can't imagine pulling, adjusting and tucking in his sports wear is comfortable for Mr. Gross. If attending one of the group exercise classes, he wants to be seen going above and beyond what everyone else is doing. His step has six risers instead of two, he works out before as well as during class and he adds an initial 'puh' sound to his exhales. You can hear him 'puh... puh... puh-ing' through the abdominal set and it drives me crazy. Then other times I feel sorry for Mr. Gross and angry at myself for detesting him. Maybe he's totally nice and uses working out to relieve the stress associated with a tough job or breakup. Who knows?

My favorite City Gym character is one of the most distinguishable; he usually rollerblades into my Thursday night Step class wearing a black unitard and a goofy grin. He's hard to miss before the music starts, but after it's blaring you can't take your eyes off him. The choreography at my Step class is extremely advanced, but Paul doesn't miss a beat. The first time I saw him I was sure he must be a retired alum of the Sydney Dance Company. He even adds his own moves, replacing a boring step march with a reverse mambo cha cha and extra turns.

About six weeks ago I noticed three large pictures of Paul on City Gym's message board. There were hand written notes in the border that said things like, 'we are praying for you, Paul,' or 'we love you, Paulie.' This is how I found out his name was Paul. I just stared at the happy photos until a City Gym employee walked by. "What happened to this man?" I asked. He explained to me that Paul had been hit by a car while rollerblading. He wasn't wearing a helmet and had already had multiple surgeries on his head. "He's okay," he said, "but it's not good." I picked up news about Paul's condition by listening to his friends from our Step class as the weeks went by.

Three weeks later I found myself at St. Vincent's hospital visiting our friend Jess whose tumble down some stairs escalated from a broken foot to dangerous blood clots. She was a great fighter, though and managed to get released early, twenty minutes before I showed up to surprise her with an assorted box of cookies. While waiting for the elevator to go back outside who do I see at the end of the hall?

"You're the guy from my gym!" I blurted out before thinking. Paul didn't recognize me (he had had four head surgeries) and we had never formally met so we introduced ourselves in the hospital corridor. I asked him about his recovery and he complained about a plastic helmet that the doctors and nurses required him to wear. "They're going to put a steel version of this in my skull next week," he said while holding it up. I couldn't imagine the pain and discomfort associated with multiple surgeries and weeks at the hospital, but after getting hit by not one but two cars, I guess he was lucky to be alive at all. He said he'd like to sneak out of the hospital to go to Step class and I did my best to encourage him to stay put and get well. I don't know the result of his most recent surgery, but I hope to see him stepping and smiling again soon.

It's ironic that a place filled with some of the fittest and strongest guys I've ever seen is called 'Sissy Gym.' However, I have a feeling that this negative term is embraced and recycled by the gym's gay patrons. They're proud to flex at Sissy Gym and so am I.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Make New Friends, But Keep the Old...

Friends at home and in Switzerland often ask about Sydney's social scene. 'Are you making new friends?' is what they're really getting at. I told them before I left on this latest leg of our adventures that I felt wildly lucky to have met a number of quality friends so far. On one hand, it felt so foolish to abandon groups of friends with whom we felt comfortable and content. Why volunteer for the exhausting task of being on my best behavior for the sake of scoring new friends again?

And meeting new friends when you're grown up and married or have a partner truly is work. It's the kind of work that reminds you of dating with the same stiffness and awkwardness of getting to know each other, but without the thrill of a crush. The tricky part about making new couple friends is the compatibility factor. The guy has to get along with the guy, the girl with the girl and all four have to gel together as well.

I think this is why you see less of certain friends when your status changes from single to married or, as Facebook would say, 'in a relationship.' It's not that a significant other makes you a fundamentally different person, it might just be that your girlfriend can't relate to your friend's girlfriend when she talks incessantly about her Siamese called Muffin. Or, your husband can't bear an evening with an old college buddy who still thinks beer pong is an appropriate game for a thirtieth birthday party. And perhaps this is the real reason for upholding the tradition of a boys' night out; it's a chance to bond with the folks your wife would rather clean the toilet than visit.

Anyway, this is why making decent couple friends feels like winning the lottery. 'She doesn't have a habit of berating him in public and his social skills mask the fact that he's a software engineer,' you find yourself sighing in relief. 'Excellent, we can tolerate each other for an evening, but do we want to make this couple friendship long term?' Sadly, one of the most important factors in compatibility is money, or to be more accurate, the way you and your prospective friends prioritize spending it. If you and your partner enjoy fine dining, but your new buddies are perfectly content with Hungry Jacks (Australian Burger King) and wouldn't dream of diverting cash away from the jet ski fund, then perhaps you aren't a foursome made in heaven.

Another deal breaker is taste; it's even more critical than politics in my opinion. For example, almost everyone laughed at the film Napoleon Dynamite and those who love it have a cult fascination with it. Of course I'm in this latter group and when I showed it to a friend and she didn't love it, I questioned our friendship. I thought it was funny when Napoleon explained his drawing of a liger and Nat didn't, yet we are friends. It is indeed a mystery. Likewise, Mick and I have some couple friends who not only paid to see the Wayans Brothers 2004 movie White Chicks, but liked it as well. The reality of White Chicks being worth ten dollars opens up a world of possibilities that I just don't understand. Anyway, we haven't gone to the movies with them since.

Against the odds (one of which you must have gathered from the above paragraph is the fact that I'm a total snob), we have managed to make great couple and single friends. We adore our friends from Houston, California (including California transplants) and the UK. Do you notice anything odd about my social circle? I do; with the exception of our English friends, all our Sydney pals are... American. And for some reason, I feel I need to mention this and thus qualify our friend making success. 'Yes, Mom, I have made friends, but none of them are Australian."

Last year we were patting ourselves on the back for building a mini model UN social group with friends from Switzerland, the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Finland. And in Switzerland this makes sense because being a native English speaker provides you with an instant bond. You whinge together about how strange Swiss German is and ironically because of these friendships, you never really learn it.

Here in Australia, though, everyone speaks English so you must form the bond of friendship over something else. In our case the something else is being recent arrivals to Sydney and Australia. Being new adds grease to the wheels of an ordinarily tiring and lengthy process. There's always something to talk about: cultural differences between Oz and the home country, where to find the creamiest peanut butter, etc. And without an existing social network, you don't have anyone else to call on a Saturday night so you get to know each other quickly.

Thus, making an Australian friend is going to require some work. Bonding over our new status as Sydney-siders won't be an option and I'll have to appear interesting and charming on another level. Check back with me in a couple of months; if I've made an Australian mate, I'll give you some tips on scoring local friends, but if I haven't, you'll know how truly lazy I am. :)

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Mellywood


Before our plane had even touched down in Melbourne last weekend, we knew it would be our kind of place. We had read and heard that it was very European, Sydney's artier and more sophisticated sister city. Melburnians apparently would rather sip espressos in sidewalk cafes than bake on the beach and that sounded right up our alley.

The occasion was ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) Day, a three day weekend honoring the service and sacrifice of soldiers in the first world war. Veterans and current servicemen and women rise for a dawn ceremony and then parade down the streets. I was impressed by the way Australians used the day off work to celebrate and recognize their veterans of war instead of treat it as another day to go shopping as we often do in the states. ANZAC Day even has its own (oatmealish) cookies and a special gambling game played in pubs only on this day.

And speaking of gambling, Mick and I were both stunned to learn that our hotel (rated number one on Tripadvisor in Melbourne) is part of Australia's biggest casino. We came for the cafes and one of a kind boutiques, but on our first night, we might as well have been in Vegas.

The next day we miraculously found our way out of the labyrinth that is the Crown Casino and explored the far quieter Melbourne University. In general, attending college in Australia is a different experience than it is in America. Not everyone is expected to go, students can earn diplomas and certificates that don't always require four years and many students live at home. The city campuses are usually more functional and less condensed than their American counterparts. These facts in mind, I was surprised to find Melbourne University very similar to US universities with hundred year old buildings sitting alongside more modern structures and residential college housing.

Later, we toured the Royal Exhibition Hall which was originally built to celebrate Australia's centenary: 100 years of European settlement in Australia. It was once a very grand place featuring dozens of shops and food stalls, a maze and even an aquarium with penguins. Today only ten percent of the original structure stands and it's only used occasionally as a reception hall and for an annual flower show. The whole thing seemed kind of sad, especially when we learned that the exhibition hall had once housed the second largest pipe organ in the world. According to our tour guide, the instrument hadn't been played since the 1920s, was looted by soldiers during the second world war and completely dismantled in the 1960s. Now why is it that some European structures have withstood centuries of wear and conflict, but Melburnians struggle to maintain this exhibition hall for a mere hundred years?

A tradition that I suspect will endure much longer in Melbourne is the recognition of the many cultures of people who make up this cosmopolitan city. On one of the pedestrian bridges across the Yarra river is a row of glass panels depicting the countries of origin of Melburnians, when they came and what languages they speak. A stroll outside Melbourne's city center reveals the lasting cultural and culinary mark these immigrant groups have left on the landscape. One street serves as a Little Italy while the perpendicular road was established as a Little Vietnam by a later generation of immigrants.

Fortunately for tourists and locals alike, a taste of Melbourne's diverse heritage is available at the Queen Victoria Market, a European-style market offering food and non-food items. With the exception of an Italian leather belt, most of the non-food items fell under the category of "things I'd have to throw away/donate to Goodwill within the year:" low quality shoes and clothes and Aussie tourist treasures like boomerangs with aboriginal designs and stuffed wombats.

However, the food was more than worth the trip. We indulged with a three course, sweet-savory-sweet breakfast of Italian mini pancakes served with berries and cream (who knew the Italians had pancakes?), a beef pie and American style doughnuts. It's not their Americanness that makes these doughnuts irresistible, it's the fact that they're made fresh in a van that does nothing but doughnuts in the jelly or plain with sugar variety. By the time we found the Spanish doughnuts van (churros con chocolate for dipping) we were already full to the gills.

These delicious treats from around the globe made up for my disappointment about missing the food tours. One guides you through the Queen Victoria Market and organizes sampling of the goods. Another is run by a private company called Chocoholic Tours and leads, you've guessed it, five different types of culinary tours highlighting the best chockie in the city. You can imagine my disappointment when I found out they were booked solid. 'Next time,' we sighed, 'we'll save that for next time.' I can't wait for next time.