Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Why Lawn Bowling is Better Than Ten Pin

There's an element of Australian culture that remains a mystery and mostly inaccessible to me: the world of sport (not 'sports'). Not that I was an avid sports fan in Switzerland, but I knew that the most popular sport was fussball (soccer). No problem; unathletic as I am, even I played AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) as a kid and can comprehend the basic rules of play. Australians are a competitive folk and football (soccer) is also one of the most popular sports here along with rugby, cricket and Australian rules football (not soccer).

I guess we in America were a British colony long enough to adopt English as a national language, but not long enough to fall in love with those sports that are so popular in the commonwealth countries. Instead we developed three different sports that the rest of the world doesn't really care about: American football, baseball and basketball. When you think about the American independent spirit, sports doesn't always spring to mind, but maybe it should.

Anyway, I don't think I'll become a crazed cricket fan or paint half my face blue in support of a local rugby team and I certainly won't play any of these sports for exercise or recreation either. When we got invited to our friend Chris' lawn bowling birthday party, though, we had unknowingly stumbled upon a perfect compromise. Lawn bowling doesn't require protective head gear or (lucky for me) heaps of coordination and it resembles ten pin bowling and bacchi ball, two "sports" we know and love.

I had watched lawn bowling on TV and even lived next door to a lawn bowling club when I studied in Edinburgh. I gathered that you were supposed to wear white, but little else. When you're as unathletic as I am, the accompanying food and uniforms are half the fun of sports. I go to ball games for the hot dogs and garlic fries and want to take up tennis so that I can purchase a skirt and matching polo.

Anyway, Charlie of the Paddington Bowling Club ("Paddo" in Ausspeak) showed us the basics of the game when we were all gathered on the lawn. From a distance the balls appear round, but up close you can see that they are weighted toward one side. When you first release the ball, it rolls in a straight line, but as it slows down it curves toward the heavier side. At the beginning of the game, someone throws a much smaller white ball, called 'the jack,' down the lane and this becomes the target of the game. The team with the balls closest to the jack wins and balls bowled outside the lane are out. That's pretty much it; at least that was the depth Charlie went into when describing the rules to us newbies. Instead, he focused on Paddo's two most important rules: no drinks on the lawn and keep the noise down because they're being sued by the old folks home next door.

The rule prohibiting wearing heels on the lawn probably ran a close third. Because even my kitten heel could have aerated the grass, I bowled barefoot (allowed by the rules). And though avoiding stepping on cigarette butts became an added challenge to my game (my friends wore flat shoes and thus were allowed to keep them on), I still left loving lawn bowling. Forget stinky bowling shoes that have seen who knows how many strange feet; lawn bowling allows you to feel the grass between your toes. And the fact that it is an outdoor "sport" is primarily why lawn bowling is better than ten pin bowling. You've got the grass beneath your toes, the sun on your back and you can hear your friends without shouting. The absence of 25 lanes of fourteen pound balls smacking into a pyramid of pins makes it possible to concentrate on your game and chat with your team without your head ringing.

Still I can see why lawn bowling hasn't overtaken ten pin bowling in places without the luxury of great weather. When it started to rain on our game, we were relieved that Paddo has a backup plan: come inside and drink more. The interior had been recently renovated and it was indeed a pleasant place to wait out the weather. When we ordered lunch we were delighted to learn that the menu offered more choices than burgers or hot dogs. Paddo was light years ahead of most ten pin bowling alleys with Asian noodle salads and the "salad" we ordered with sweet potato, parmesan, pinenuts and extra chicken. Yeah, you wouldn't find the boys from the Big Lebowski here and that's fine with me.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

They're Neither Blue Nor Mountainous, But I Loved the Blue Mountains

No offense, Australia, but wouldn't "bluish hills" be a more accurate name for this range 48 kilometers west of Sydney? The blue effect in the distance is created by the evaporation of eucalyptus oils, fair enough. And again, the peaks aren't very tall (1,000m), but after an overnight visit, we found what they lack in height they make up for in charm.

People say that we need a car to really explore Australia, not only because this country is enormous, but also because the public transport isn't great. We are sticking to our guns, though and livin' la vida car-free as long as possible (i.e. as long as we can bum rides off others). The current plan is to rent a car when we want to get out of town and pray that we master left side driving on the way out of the rental lot.

A trip to the blue mountains, however, didn't require any behind the wheel luck so we decided to spend a night there two weeks ago. Thankfully the train couldn't have been easier. We found accommodations at the Argyll House in the town of Leura, an easy walk from the Leura train station. Mickey insists that this is the first "real" B&B we've stayed at together. "The others were just hotels calling themselves B&Bs," he said. "But this is the real deal." I guess the fact that the building was a house turned guest house and the fact that we had to share a bathroom gave it B&B charm and credibility in Mickey's eyes. I was more impressed by the full cooked breakfast prepared daily by the owner and her artist daughter. Guests were asked to place their orders the night before. We had the choices of porridge (oatmeal), fruit, eggs, bacon, etc. or (because the Argyll House has a Scottish theme) a full Scottish breakfast complete with blood pudding, tatties and yes, haggis. Not even the B&Bs in Scotland serve haggis in the morning, but here's this little old lady in the blue mountains proudly plating this dish that most Scots only consume on Burns Night if then. It makes you wonder where she's ordering it from, but if you really want to eat it, you probably should stop wondering.

As this was an overnight trip, there wasn't time to explore the caves or ride on the steepest cog railway in the world (I could have sworn that a Swiss train at Mt. Rigi made the same claim... I'll let them duke it out). However, we did take our first bushwalk. Before I left for this weekend getaway, my colleague recommended various blue mountains sites and asked if we enjoyed bushwalking. It always throws me for a loop when walking outdoors is elevated to the level of a hobby or even a sport by renaming it hiking, hill walking, or in this case, bushwalking. "I like trails that take a couple of hours," I cautiously answered, "but I've never been on a multi-day hike with a backpack." My colleague assured me that you don't have to wear combat boots and dress like Paul Hogan in Crocodile Dundee to bushwalk. From what I gather, then, bushwalking means walking outdoors in a non-urban Australian environment. And after a brief trek down to the Leura Cascades, along the rim of the gorge and concluding at the Three Sisters it turns out I can add 'bushwalking' to my list of hobbies on my social networking profiles without being ironic. Sort of.

Despite the natural haze (created by said eucalyptus forest oils) and smoke from a nearby fire, the views were spectacular. Before we ran into a noisy group of IT guys on a work offsite, Mick and I had the peace of the wilderness to ourselves. As we peered over the misty, forested valley, I felt like any moment we'd stumble upon a clan of endangered silverback gorillas a la Dian Fossey. Wrong continent, I know, but the mood and the excitement were just right.

Surprisingly, one of the biggest tourist attractions in the blue mountains is indoors. The Edge Cinemas boasts a six story IMAX screen on which they project a 45 minute film about the blue mountains. The narrative was so mixed up that you might have thought Tarantino had lent a directorial eye to the picture. Were the stories of the early colonists, paleo-botanists and spelunkers all going to intertwine in the end? No, but I'll give away the best part of the documentary right here (spoiler alert); in 1994, scientists discovered a species of tree in a remote part of the blue mountains that until then was believed to have died with the dinosaurs. Truly impressive.

It's only a two hour train ride away; would I return to the blue mountains? Absolutely I would. The quiet, scenery and fresh air alone are worth the trip, but the great food and general quirkiness are certainly a bonus.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Suppose you had to start over. Maybe the mob is looking for you and the witness protection program just isn't your style. You not only need to relocate, you also need a new identity fast. Europe is too close, the Caribbean is too obvious. What about New Zealand? Did it even make your list? I guess I can never go into hiding because now you all know that I'd be trying my luck as a kiwi.

Unusually warm weather and an exceptionally gracious hostess were perhaps the rose-tinted glasses through which I viewed and then of course fell in love with New Zealand. With only an extra long Easter weekend to explore kiwiland, we opted to focus only on Wellington, NZ's capital and visit the south island on a separate future trip.

I'd been imagining what Wellington would be like for a year now. Not because I'm obsessed with Lord of the Rings (LOTR) or anything, but because part of almost all my days in Switzerland were spent with my fellow au pair buddy, the sweet and stylish Hannah. Welly is her hometown and thus the backdrop of all her stories. She and I often dreamed and planned what would happen and where she would take me when I one day visited her. I'm thrilled that that one day turned out to be Good Friday and that we made those hypothetical plans a reality so soon. Most kiwis at the arrival hall were waiting for KISS (they dominated first class on our plane), but Hannah was there for us and we felt like rock stars in her care.

What struck me about Welly is that residents don't have to sacrifice big city comforts for scenic, country living. You can have the nice house, beautiful garden and quiet neighborhood yet drive/ferry/train into town for gourmet coffee. Not that I would know good coffee if it burned the taste buds off my tongue, but I'm told that Welly's roasters offer some of the best cups around.

In a country of four million people spread over two islands a little larger than the UK, space is plentiful, but not endless and the kiwis treat it accordingly. By the look of it, someone decided that they didn't want a chain restaurant or retail outlet on every corner. The result is a cityscape marked by hip restaurants, funky boutiques and of course, dozens of cafes. Thus, shopping in Welly can be an expensive, yet refreshing experience; kiwi designer shops are intermixed with the brands we know and may not love. Eating out, on the other hand, was reasonably priced by Australian standards. I didn't satisfy my hunger for NZ lamb (all the more reason to return), but we did sample some artisanally made chocolate from Schoc. Who knew sea salt and cardamom went well with milk chocolate? These guys apparently.

My guidebook featured a quote from Elijah Wood who spent years in NZ filming LOTR. At first I thought it was really stupid to quote an American actor of all people on NZ's beauty, but his words stuck with me throughout the trip. "NZ has all the landscapes you could imagine on Earth, and even some you can't."

On our first day out Hannah took us to Martinborough to sample some local wines. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to see that the grapes thrived on rolling golden hills, just as they do in California and Tuscany. But as we ascended the mountain heading back toward town, we were transported to a lush tropical forest and I was reminded of Hawaii. I've read that there are geysers in the north and lakes and rugged glaciers to the south so maybe Frodo was right.

What impressed me even more than the landscapes, however, was the kiwi attitude toward land and the people who claimed it before the pakeha (Euopean New Zealanders), the Maori. Te Papa (meaning 'our place' in Maori) is NZ's national museum and the best national museum I've ever visited. Every sign and plaque is written both in English and in Maori. This was the first among many indications that native culture is fully embraced by the kiwi people. In my own country and Australia as well, the history of the relationship between European settlers and native peoples is one of violence, ignorance and pain. Te Papa presents what seemed to be a balanced picture of the struggle for control of the land. There was an acknowledgement that NZ's government discriminated against not only the Maori, but later waves of non-white immigrants as well. There was also evidence that they had learned from their mistakes. One of the most striking tributes to NZ's diversity are two rotating exhibits. One allows specific Maori tribes to tell their own story while another is dedicated to a particular immigrant group and both are changed every two years.

New Zealand was the first country that gave its women the right to vote in 1893 and a woman currently serves as its prime minister. Progressive values, great wine, friendly, English-speaking people and it looks like Middle Earth... why aren't we all there right now? Sadly, that's because the jobs in NZ aren't as plentiful or well paid as they are in Australia and elsewhere. That's why you'll find young kiwis seeking better economic opportunities all over the world. It must be sad to say goodbye to this island paradise, but maybe some find it too isolated. I'm sure the vacancies are quickly filled though by LOTR pilgrims, wealthy travelers and maybe even a few ex-gangsters on the run.