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:

  • 'wife-beater' undershirt
  • shorts
  • flip flops
  • 5 + visible tattoos
  • 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.