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


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.