Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Obligatory Food Post

Some of the best culinary treats Sydney has to offer originate from outside Australia. Immigrants from Thailand, Vietnam, India, Maylasia, Italy and elsewhere brought their curries and laksas along when they moved to Australia seeking greater opportunities and fortune. And judging by the sight and smell of the Central Business District (CBD) at lunchtime, it seems that most of these dishes are heartily welcomed by Aussie taste buds. However, if you wander the streets later, much later, after the business men and women have gone home, just about when the bars and pubs are declaring last call, you'll stumble upon the wee hours when Aussie comfort food reigns supreme.

In Europe, it's a kebab; in New York, it's a hot dog; in LA, it's a taco; and in Sydney, it's a pie that you'll want after hittin' the club. Now, the word 'pie' carries a lot of weight with me because, in my opinion, a good banana cream pie is the closest you can get to heaven on earth. However, I knew before ordering my first that 'pie' here indicates a savory treat, not a fruity one.

Indeed, when an American orders 'pie,' she wants apple, pumpkin or, depending on where she lives, maybe even pizza. Most of us yanks are probably familiar with the 'chicken pot' variety (especially Marie Callender's) and the anglophiles among us have surely stumbled upon a traditional sheppard's pie, but our experience with savory pies pretty much ends there. Across the ponds, though, meat pies are a hearty and satisfying component of the Brit and Aussie diet. I imagine that the Fab Four regularly devoured pies after playing gigs in Liverpool in the early sixties before they knew about Indian food.

I ordered my first steak and mushroom pie at a busy shopping mall cafe during lunch hour here in Sydney. The crust was perhaps not as flaky as desired and the contents of the pie were not clearly distinguishable as either steak, mushroom or filling. And sadly, I don't know if this consistency is a feature of a good pie or a not so good one. I'm leaning toward this not being the best pie, but maybe the good ones make the meat so tender that you can't distinguish it from the mushrooms? Nah, I don't think so either.

I may have struck out with my first pie, but my first encounter with banana bread was a raving success. Now you're thinking, 'what's the deal with banana bread in Australia? Isn't it the same as banana bread in the states?' These were my thoughts exactly until I noticed banana bread's ubiquity in Australian cafes. It turns out everything I ever thought I knew about this delicious loaf pan dessert was wrong...

The banana bread that I'm used to should be called 'banana cake.' It's made from batter as opposed to dough and is usually eaten in a dessert context instead of as the end pieces of a sandwich. Here in Australia, banana bread is prepared the exact same cakey way, BUT it becomes a bread when you order it 'toasted and with butter.' It turns out that there is no other way to order and eat banana bread. I suggest that you try my own 'Australian' banana bread recipe:

1. Follow directions on package of regular banana bread mix.
2. When banana bread is cool, slice and toast a piece.
3. Slather this piece with butter and enjoy!

I've Sharpened my No. 2 Pencil and Ironed my No. 1 Pencil Skirt; Bring on the Interviews

We love Sydney already, but we were really happy in Switzerland. We met beautiful friends who touched our lives and relished a car-free existance in a public transport haven in the center of Europe. We were living the good life, but the career opportunities for me (a non-German speaker and non-EU passport holder) were limited and thus we decided to move down unda. And ever since arriving, four year work visa in hand, I've put a lot of pressure on myself to find a job and even more broadly, to find a career.

However, before you get a job, you have to get through an interview or two. I've had a couple here in Sydney over the last couple of weeks and from now on I will always associate the process with a tight-rope walk. It truly is a balancing act.

This may sound like a lie (I certainly thought it did), but I was turned down for one job because I was "too smart." Apparently, after asking 'one of the most intelligent interviewee questions' the interviewer had ever heard, she knew that I would get bored with the role after three to six months. Really? You're really saying no because you think I'm too smart? Maybe she didn't like my outfit or my American accent and the way it would sound on the phone to clients and went with the kinder 'you're too smart,' rejection. Who knows?

My concern that my outfit may not have been right is actually sincere. The recruiter literally spent about three minutes describing what type of dress was appropriate for this company. "They're a really creative, boutique company," she said. "A standard business suit simply will not work in this context. On the other hand, I once sent a girl in to interview with them and her outfit revealed too much cleavage, so don't do that. I don't want to lead you..." she kept saying and indicated that I should just figure it out. That left me somewhere in between, but not including business wear and night club garb. Great. I chose a short sleeve button up shirt, a polka-dot pencil skirt, red belt and open-toed wedges. Maybe the open-toe was my downfall, but if my wardrobe matters that much, I don't know if I would want to work there anyway.

The same recruiter gave me valuable feedback on my interviewing style. She said I make good eye-contact, but am a little too formal and noted that I could be warmer. Before I went into this interview, she stressed that I should just be myself "because the manager is a very good judge of character and can see through everything." Before interviews and first dates we're told to be ourselves, but I doubt that anyone actually lands a job or a boyfriend by being themselves. When I first meet someone, I am pretty formal and reserved and probably haven't always come across as 'warm' enough. Should I pretend I'm an actress playing the lead role in Barbie Gets a Job or should I fall back to 'me' and hope that is good enough?

Until I know the answer to that question, I'll remain the acrobat on the tight-rope. I'm in the spotlight balancing too smart with smart enough and professional with warm. You won't know how scared I am because I'm smiling and staring straight ahead.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Starting Over Down Under

I've heard that Sydney is sometimes described as the LA of Australia; it's large, diverse, has great food and it sprawls for miles into the surrounding suburbs. I'll reserve judgment on the accuracy of this comparison, but for now must note another similarity between the two metropolises: like LA, Sydney is not pedestrian friendly. In LA, walking doesn't make sense because you simply can't get from place to place on foot. In Sydney's central business district, the pedestrian lights are poorly timed. Almost everyone jaywalks because they simply don't want to wait three minutes to cross the road. Imagine crossing a city street with a triangular cement island separating the turn lane from the through traffic. Sometimes, you get the 'WALK' light to get to the island (four steps maybe) and then get a 'STOP' light preventing you from safely crossing the rest of the street in one go.

Mickey and I will also have to get used to the foreign mobile phone service plans and seemingly archaic ISP plans. Under my current plan, $50 bought me $300 worth of talk time and texts. It is cheaper for me to call the US than make local calls and I get penalized if I try to top up my SIM before I am scheduled to do so. When either my first month of service is up or when that $300 worth of credit runs out, I can purchase $50 worth of credit for $50. It's almost enough to make you want to buy a wig and a fake passport and get that first month deal every month. Frustrated at the Vodaphone counter in the airport, Mickey said, "why is this so complicated?" The sales guy assured us that it wasn't at all complicated. What a comfort...

Likewise, I was stunned when I found out that unlimited internet usage plans are almost unheard of here. 'Pay by the hour?' I scoffed, 'what is this, 1997?' Mickey explained to me, however, that there are only two major pipes that connect Australia with the US and its many data centers. Apparently these pipes get overloaded and it is more expensive for ISPs to operate. In a country with so much to offer outdoors, many Aussies probably prefer catching real waves over surfing the net and I can live with that. Just don't take away my Tivo.

I've complained plenty about these minor areas of adjustment, but have not yet mentioned my favorite part about living in Australia. All the anxiety that surrounded asking for help in public is gone. When I was in Zurich or travelling elsewhere, I'd have to mentally prepare to ask 'do you speak English?' in the local tongue. I was always worried about people correctly identifying me as an American and responding rudely to my ignorance. This almost never happened; in fact, the Swiss are really quite friendly folk. However, it was frustrating that even when I got more comfortable with my German and knew how to ask the right questions, I couldn't count on being able to understand the response. I wanted so badly to get by on my German that I didn't ask for a repeat when I didn't catch something. One time I struggled so hard to order some white cheddar from the fromagier that I was too embarassed to say anything when I paid for the wrong amount of cheese. I preferred instead to have my friend Thao go to a different store and pick up what I really needed later. Anyway, it's a relief to not have to clench up and listen hard when I ask for help in public. I feel like patting myself on the back every time I understand someone.

As it turns out, I'm not the only one down unda who doesn't hesitate to ask for help in public. Last week a middle aged man approached me in the supermarket: "I hate to bother you," he stammered. "I hate to have to ask a woman this, but..." Oh my god, was I on some Australian candid camera or what? "My missus has diarrhea and I need to know what to get" he whispered as he held up his mostly empty shopping basket for me to inspect. I made a quick call to treat this as a sincere question and told the man what I knew about the BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) diet. I hope I helped. It's a strange trade, but I'll exchange my pedestrian woes and service plan confusion for the freedom to ask a question in public any day, especially if it means I can ask anything.