Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Hot Christmas

I know I've said it before, even as a southern Californian (where December temperatures are regularly in the 70s and 80s), I'm not crazy about the idea of a hot Sydney Christmas. I'm somehow comforted by the fact that though I won't wake up on Christmas morn to find a sled or new ski boots, some other kid on my continent will.

What do Australian kids get from their grandmothers instead of hand-knit sweaters and mittens? How does Santa's sleigh fare through the outback's red dirt? What are Hindu and Buddhist kids supposed to sing at the school holiday assemblies if not songs about winter wonderlands filled with frosty snowmen and jingle bells? I'd guess they sing about the jacaranda blooming while the kookaburra nests, but folks aren't super PC down under so the Hindu and Buddhist kids probably sing about baby Jesus along with everyone else.

Anyway, I don't like hot Christmas, but Sydney practically specializes in celebration so I'm really starting to enjoy some of the decorations and festivities here. Mickey and I attended a tree-lighting event last week at Martin Place. It was aimed at kids, but we still enjoyed the carols and the fireworks show (what a surprise) that followed the tree-lighting.

Nostalgia set in when we recalled our wintry romp around Zurich taking pictures of its more traditional holiday display in December 2007 with our friends Thao and Martin. Zurich wins points for its elegant trees with understated ornaments, but Sydney also wins in my book for replicating the Vivid experience by projecting beautiful, colored patterns on the side of St Mary's cathedral.

Indeed, it may be hot, but it's no less festive here in Sydney. Have a look.
Zurich: The Credit Suisse tree in Paradeplatz

Sydney: Colors projected on St Mary's cathedral

Zurich: Real tree with nearly real candles

Sydney: Buff, platform shoed Santa riding a shark, surely a disgrace to Swiss images of Sami Claus :)

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Halloween Pictures

Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, this looks a bit silly, but I really wanted to post some more pictures of the best Halloween weekend ever.
My kangaroo jack 'o' lantern

Other spooky jack 'o' lanterns

Thor doing all the hard work

Monster cupcake party fun

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Circus Indeed

Britney Spears performed at the first Sydney concert of her Circus tour on Monday, 16 November and I was there. I consider myself to be a feminist with reasonably good taste and yet I didn't go to the concert to be ironic (well, not entirely). Do I need to explain myself? Okay, here's the whole story:

Back in early July when the tickets first went on sale, my friends suggested that we all go. I'm not a huge Britney fan. In fact, I don't own any of her albums or songs, but I love a danceable pop song as much as the next girl. Spending time with my girlfriends gawking at the whole spectacle and singing along to Hit Me Baby One More Time sounded like a pleasant way to spend an evening so I debated with myself about whether or not to buy a $100 ticket.

In the end I decided that 'meh, I'd rather buy a nice top or dine out with Mick than spend the $100 on Brit' and told Jess, the designated organiser, of my nay vote. The very next day, however, she emailed me something to the effect of 'happy birthday, I bought you a ticket anyway.' By purchasing my ticket as a gift, Jess liberated me from any qualms I had about paying $100 to see this overproduced starlet. Once it was free, I got really psyched about going to Britney's Circus.

My friends are obviously women of good taste, too. What motivated them to cough up the big bucks? Well, if I were feeling a bit nerdier today I'd whip up a pie chart, but this will have to suffice. Here are some of our reasons:

It was 22% the biggest pop star of our generation is here in Sydney, not every musical act travels down under, let's get in on that;
37% okay, yes, I really do like some of her songs; and
41% voyeuristic schadenfreude. Poor Brit lost her mind and then her hair and then her shoes that time she was at a 7 Eleven bathroom and then a custody battle to Kevin Federline. Evilly, we couldn't wait to physically witness Brit slip up and say something like 'Happy Easter, Melbourne!'

It seemed like months since Jess ordered the tickets, but the reality of going to this concert set in when Brit kicked off the Australian leg of her tour in Perth and was criticized sharply for lip-syncing the whole show. I immediately decided that anyone who was disappointed by such a show was a fool, a sentiment John Mayer shared via tweet oddly enough. If we're being honest with ourselves, let's admit that our Brit didn't rise to the top because she's an amazing singer and that her recorded music sounds better, more true to the auto-tuned tracks we've come to love and employ as ringtones.

Nah, we weren't bothered by the lip-syncing, my friends and I concluded over glasses of sangria before the show. There was a zen to pop icon concert enjoyment: go in expecting artists to create music on stage and you will be disappointed, go in expecting pyrotechnics, multiple costume changes and choreography and you will be delighted.

Having dinner and drinks together at the White Horse in Surry Hills was the extent of our preparation before the show. We thought about dressing up and aimed for pink as our unifying theme, but didn't look cohesive and that was okay. That's why it was such a surprise when our friend Sus showed up in a full on Britney circa 1998 costume complete with braids, midriff baring button-down shirt, skirt and even those whispy things in her hair.

Sus wasn't seeking attention; she was in it purely for fun and for that reason, Sus is my hero. Here I am psychoanalyzing and justifying our reasons behind going to a Britney Spears concert, but Sus simply saw a Heidi wig while browsing in a costume shop and figured, 'yeah, that'd be fun.' While perusing my own closet my mantra was juvenile and festive, but I wound up looking sort of suburban and boring in my pink tank top, jeans and sandals. Oh, well.

Of course, our group wasn't the only one that dressed to impress for the concert. When we boarded the train, we found it packed with a couple other Britney lookalikes (not as convincing as Sus) and hordes of other young women in night-club attire: tiny cocktail dresses and sky-high heels. This was a surprise as we were expecting to see women our age, tweens and gay men. Instead, the concert was attended by very few men, a number of families with young children and the above mentioned lady-bogans in their late teens and early twenties.

We weren't interested in the opening act, DJ Havana Brown (who?) and arrived about ten minutes before the circus began. I was naively looking forward to seeing animals on stage, but we were treated to the Big Apple Circus instead, a group of somewhat non-traditional acrobats, midgets and those with a talent for spinning large hoops on or around their bodies (is there a word for that?). The most memorable performer was the legless trampolinist; watching her bounce felt wrong somehow, but at the same time I was glad that she isn't always bound to her wheelchair.

After 30 or so minutes of circus, Brit finally made her grand entrance. The crowd was nearly choking with excitement, but we left an hour and a half later underwhelmed. I knew all along that Brit would lip-synch the show, but still felt disappointed that she didn't bother to connect with her audience. There was no 'Happy Easter, Melbourne,' no, Brit was in reasonably good form, but there was no 'Hello, Sydney. How are you tonight?' either. The carefully choreographed interludes between songs were taken up by costume changes and left no room for improvisation. She attempted to sing one ballad, but lazily left it to the backing track a few bars in.

I'd love to say that what Brit lacked in actual singing she made up for with sharp dance moves, but I can't say that either. Britney is a talented dancer, but she was only 75% in it. It looked as if she were just racing to cover all parts of the stage and wasn't concerned about hitting every target.

I had never been to a concert before during which music wasn't created on stage and didn't know exactly what to expect. However, I did expect that Brit would have people out of their seats swaying and singing along to their favorite bubble gum pop anthems. Nope. No one in the nosebleeds was up and moving, looking further down, I noticed that neither were the fans in better seats or even those in the VIP ground area. When Britney sashayed to their area of the stage, they were too busy capturing the moment on their iPhones to scream and stick their hand out wildly in hopes that Brit would bless them with a sweaty high-five.

So, all in all, I was grateful that I hadn't paid for this show. I was even more grateful still that the best part of the circus was sharing it with friends.

Monday, November 16, 2009

You're never too old to boogie board

My friends Mike and Shannon recently relocated to Manly and invited us all to warm their new digs with a brunch party last weekend. The festivities were initially scheduled for the prior weekend, but were rescheduled because of the weather forecast: rain with a chance of bleh. I didn't understand the need for a sunny day; we were coming to see their home, we didn't need the beach! Oh, how wrong I was.

The weather Saturday was warm and perfect for brunch followed by an afternoon at Manly beach. Mike and Shan are, among our friends, the best, most ambitious and most prolific cooks in Sydney and thus it came as no surprise when they treated us to fresh mango smoothies, breakfast tacos with homemade pico de gallo, delightfully spiced coffee cake and juicy watermelon. After waiting the requisite 30 minutes, we threw on our suits and wandered en masse down to the beach (only 7 minutes from their house, those lucky dogs!)

Saturday was one of the first beach days of the season so the beach was understandably crowded. We found dozens of kids in what appeared to be a junior surf life saving club in addition to the usual crowd of sun-loving (but fearing) Aussies on Manly beach that day. Protectively clad in rash-guards, wetsuits and gobs of sunscreen, the kids had an absolute blast paddling their surf boards out to sea, legs kicking in unison and then riding the waves back to shore.

When I saw a six year old girl surf right past me on a gentle wave, I knew I had to grab one of the boogie boards that Mike and Shan had loaned us for the day. I recruited Jess and the two of us retaught ourselves how to catch the waves on a boogie board. After a half an hour of a ridiculous amount of fun, we passed the boards off to other members of our crew so that they could give the boards a go. However, I reclaimed the board twice when one of them wasn't being used.

The tide was very low and I rode the waves practically all the way to the sand. I have yet to learn how to gracefully roll off the board when I've beached myself on the sand and return to a standing position while holding the board. Basically, I looked silly and awkward, but the thrill of being pushed along on top of a wave was worth it. That sudden burst of speed as the wave surges forward is a feeling I hope to never forget. But if I do, I can remake the memory because, fortunately, you're never too old to boogie board.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Best. Halloween. Weekend. Ever.

I didn't have a lot of plans this past Halloween weekend. Gabe and Margaret graciously invited us to their monster cupcake decorating party on Friday, but there was to be no dressing up or pumpkin carving on Halloween day. I was a little disappointed, but I'm an adult living in Australia, what could I expect from this American holiday for kids?

A lot, as it turns out. Gabe and Margaret's second annual monster cupcake decorating party was a huge success. I offered to bring my own glutard cupcakes (courtesy of this delicious recipe), but Margaret, an experienced baker, made not one but two types of gluten free cupcakes all on her own! I was impressed by her baking prowess (she adapted the recipe I sent, a daring move when you're working with glutard flour) and grateful that I had my pick of vanilla or chocolate cupcakes, just like everyone else!

None of us adults were dressed for the occasion, but my boss' children came in costume and that really put me in the Halloween spirit (no pun intended). We filled up on spicy bowls of chili and of course, overloaded on sugar from fluffy cupcakes, sweet green and orange frosting and lots of candy! None of my cupcake designs came out as intended (making a skull from brown and white M&Ms on a three inch cupcake doesn't work), but a good time was had by all.

In fact, we were having such a good time that Thor and Jennie decided to throw a Halloween party the next evening. Bless their hearts, those two Brits went absolutely wild transforming their apartment into classy Halloween central. They spent their entire day searching for decorations and preparing for our arrival and their efforts really showed! They had balloons, an orange and black Trick or Treat banner and had even switched out their light bulbs for spooky red ones.

Thor didn't realize that part of the drama/fun of pumpkin carving is scooping out the pumpkin's stringy, goopy insides and had done all the work for us on four different pumpkins! All we had to do was draw jack-o-lantern faces and carve. I wanted our pumpkin to say something about our surroundings and was inspired by the kangaroo crossing road sign. Mickey gives me all the credit for our good results, but his carving was top notch.

We lined our four pumpkins up along the window, lit candles inside and enjoyed their glow while we binged on snacks, chips and more candy. Nostalgia inspired us to watch the classic It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. We had no idea that the television special is 43 years old; it's so clever and timeless, easy for young and old to enjoy. We followed that with Black Sheep, a kiwi horror comedy about zombie sheep. It was preposterous and not afraid to make fun of itself, good for laughs and not nightmares, thank goodness. Thanks, Thor and Jen, yours was the best last minute Halloween party in history.

We kept the festivities going into Sunday as well, spending a sunny morning on the coast admiring the Sculptures by the Sea at Bondi and Tamarama. The annual event always draws a big crowd and we were glad to arrive before the rush. I enjoyed it because sculptures that I might not have given a second look in a museum seem to make more sense in the context of the water and cliff side. I still had no patience for the abstract, shiny metallic sculptures, but genuinely loved the colorful installations and those that moved with the wind.

As if the weekend couldn't get any better, we spent Sunday afternoon at Jess and Chris' Mexican fiesta, an occasion very loosely tied to El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). They provided all the fixings for carne asada super burritos: grilled steak and peppers, rice, refried beans, cheese and salsas all wrapped up in homemade flour tortillas. We also gorged on chips and guac and Jess' margarita pie for dessert. Wow, what a treat!

Almost nothing can compare to the excitement of planning one's Halloween costume and dressing up for trick or treating on October 31 as a kid. However, if the Halloweens of my future are still filled with sweets and good friends like this one was, I'll be a happy lady.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Restaurant Review - Agave

Eating out in Sydney doesn't often inspire me to share my dining experience with the world. In telling friends about new restaurants I've tried, I find myself saying the same things: "good, but expensive." It seems the only variable in my reviews is the quality of service (usually somewhere between okay and terrible).

Last week, Mickey and I dined at Agave, a new Mexican restaurant in Surry Hills, and I'm delighted to actually have something besides 'good, but expensive' to say about it, so I gave it a blog post.

As ex-pats, we complain about food in Australia all the time: why don't they sell regular Cheerios? Why would anyone eat Vegemite? If cookies are biscuits and biscuits are scones then where are those things that we know as scones and why doesn't KFC here sell biscuits? I could go on and on, but the reality is that there is great food in Sydney. The produce and seafood are fresh and you can't beat the Thai.

Still, I feel our only legitimate complaint is that about the dearth of good Mexican food, a dietary staple for those who grew up in California or Texas, let alone Mexico. The scarcity of restaurants I can understand (there isn't a huge Mexican population in Australia), but the unavailability of key ingredients such as chilies, sauces, cheeses and decent tortillas makes it hard to replicate the taqueria experience in your own kitchen, too.

However, those who could live on burritos (they created the breakfast burrito exactly for this purpose) and now call Sydney home can get a taste of authentic Mexican food at Agave. I'm thrilled to say that I loved everything I tried at this restaurant and I can't wait to go back.

Last Sunday we caught the tail end of happy hour and celebrated with sangria, arguably more Spanish than Mexican, but it was the best sangria I've had in Australia, like juice. We knew we were in for a treat after our flautas appetizer arrived. The tender shredded beef complemented the perfectly crispy deep fried tortillas beautifully. Best of all, the flautas were topped with real guacamole (as opposed to mashed avocado) and queso cotija, that light, crumbly Mexican cheese. This was a huge find for us because Australia is great with cheddar, feta and blue cheeses, but Mexican cheeses such as queso fresco and Monterrey jack are nowhere to be found.

Our mains were equally enjoyable. Mickey went for chicken mole, an excellent choice considering how difficult it is to make mole at home, and I opted for a regional lamb dish, cooked in parchment paper. Both were flavorful, but the highlight was wrapping our meat in fresh corn tortillas. Living in California, I never paid attention to the night and day difference between packaged and fresh tortillas. Now that I'm living gluten free in Sydney, the contrast couldn't be sharper. I was in heaven with those corn tortillas!
Sadly, we didn't have room for flan on Sunday, but I'll be back soon enough. I could have kept Agave a secret, but I'm feeling generous and I want this restaurant to flourish! We were some of only maybe ten diners on Sunday, so word has yet to get around about Sydney's newest culinary treasure. So, if you're in Sydney, give it a try, and bring me back some corn tortillas!

PS - In looking for a picture for my post, I found a review for Agave in the Sydney Morning Herald by Terry Durack. If you don't read the article, I'll summarize: Terry describes Agave as only average; what a pendejo! Watch how fast I can discredit our man Terr, though. He walked in to the restaurant with the following attitude: "There are only three or four meals in a day - why on earth waste one of them on Mexican?" Agave is totally wasted on him! Furthermore, here's Terry's guide to pronouncing the name of the restaurant: "(a-garv-ay)." Yuck! What's the 'r' doing in there? Terr, you couldn't be more wrong.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Island Hopping

As the weather warms up in Sydney, festivals start popping up all over town. Some relate to food, others focus on art, I can't keep track. Regardless, we like to partake in most such events. A couple of weeks back, we met friends for dinner at Hyde Park's Night Noodle Market, an event in which Asian food vendors set up stalls, picnic tables, chairs and lanterns throughout the park.

Maybe a week prior to that, we all went Island Hopping in the Sydney harbour. As part of one of these festivals, one ferry ticket could buy you a trip to four ordinarily inaccessible islands in the harbour: Fort Denison (the one with the cannon), Shark Island (named because of its shape), Clark Island and Garden Island (off limits because it belongs to the Navy).

When I tried to sell Gabe on the idea, he indicated that $48 was a bit much for such an event. It's funny that my reaction to the $48 price tag to get ferried around to four different islands was 'what a steal!' It must be a testament to the fact that I've been in Sydney for almost two years, but Gabe's only been paying Sydney prices for five months.

Anyway, it was a drizzly, but fun day out on the harbour. Highlights include Steph's three minute tour of Fort Denison, watching aboriginal dancers teach two year olds an emu-inspired dance and Laura's encounter with a persistent puppet.

The puppeteer did a great job in that she made it look like she had no control of the puppet's annoying behavior. Funnier still was my family's reaction to seeing the pictures of the puppets; they took bets on whether or not they were real animals. It tickles me that Australia's real native wildlife make puppets like these seem plausible.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Nic and Kat in Australia

I've loved being my family's excuse to renew their passports and travel internationally. I was thrilled when they joined me in Edinburgh, Scotland when I studied abroad in college and was again pleased to draw them to Europe when I got married in Switzerland two years ago. My mom has enjoyed two fun-filled trips to Sydney, but I was worried that my brother would never make it here because of his school schedule and the expense.

Fortunately, the global financial crisis and corresponding airline ticket fare wars worked to our advantage this year. My brother and his lovely girlfriend Kat purchased roundtrip tickets from LA to Sydney for the low, low price of $603 USD each! Unbelievable, right? I bet the cost of getting to Australia (adjusted for inflation) has never in history been lower. With the cost barrier out of the way (thanks to help from my mom and Kat's credit card), we only had to work around Nic's school schedule and that was a cinch.

They arrived on September 11 and I had exactly ten days to show them as much as possible. I wasn't able to take more than a day off work, but still had four weekend days and plenty of evenings to entertain my beloved guests. Their first day was grueling; I dragged them all over Sydney after allowing them only a two hour nap post-arrival. Days two and three were just as busy with a tour of my favorite markets, an evening at the bowls club, a hike in coastal bush land around the harbour and lots of Wii golf in between.

Nic and Kat remained jet lagged for most of the trip, but were very good sports about it. They even swam in the cold harbour - good on 'em! For each of the days during the week I was at work, I planned out detailed itineraries for Nic and Kat. I made sure that they took in the best of Sydney: tasting chocolates at Haigh's in the Strand Arcade, delicious lunch with Mickey at Google in Pyrmont, Taronga Zoo, Blue Mountains, etc. They probably had almost as much fun following my instructions as I did writing them. Seriously, I need to turn that into a career of some type that doesn't involve a double decker bus and a microphone.

We spent our last days together wine tasting in the Hunter Valley. As my brother is mostly a beer man, I had no idea that he'd enjoy the wine as much as he did. However, even more enticing than the Hunter's semillons and shirazs was the lure of showing Nic some roos in the wild. Probably since the first moment I saw a kangaroo here in Australia, I'd looked forward to sharing the experience with my brother. We both love wildlife and treasure family stories about him seeing a moose in Vermont, me spotting a big horned sheep in California, etc.

Fortunately, we did see some roos and Nic and Kat were even able to snap a few pictures. One of my brother's best qualities is that he can make almost anything fun and he is very easy to please. He dutifully ate everything we fed him and enjoyed every place we visited. Part of this zest for life is his nature; we're talking about the guy who found a house party alone on his first night in London after all. Another part of his joy stems from being with Kat, a beautiful person who has been the inspiration behind positive change in his life.

Of course, I cried when I had to say goodbye to them at the airport. However, throughout the trip we planned future adventures together: sushi dinners in LA, a visit to my favorite amusement park, Knott's Berry Farm, and maybe even a cruise one day. Nic and I share many happy memories of family vacations when we were little. As we get older, I hope we'll still travel together as our lives change and our families grow.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

the Reef

Twenty months after we moved to Sydney, we finally made it to Australia's can't-miss natural attraction, the Great Barrier Reef. We took the first Friday of September off from work to make the most of our weekend in Port Douglas (one hour drive north of Cairns), once a small fishing village, but now a tourist hub acting as the gateway to the reef.

Mickey booked us in at the Thala Beach Lodge because it boasted its own beach and eco huts in a rainforest setting, 15 minutes from Port Douglas. Clouds covered the sky when we first arrived and I felt disappointed initially by Thala's eco offerings: no pretty landscaping or gardens and no heated pool. However, the next day brought better weather and I began to see Thala in a new light (literally); I came to appreciate its natural beauty and the privacy of its wild beach.

We celebrated our first night at Flames of the Forest, not merely a restaurant, but an outdoor dining experience. A van collected us from our hotel and drove us to the rainforest location (we could tell we were getting close when the driver turned off the headlights and stopped in front of a burning stick in the road!) We sipped champagne and mingled with the other diners while taking blurry photos next to a candlelit tree. A bride and her small wedding party were celebrating their reception at Flames of the Forest and many other diners were there for special occasions: honeymoons, engagements, etc.

Unfortunately, I don't think Flames of the Forest was worth all the expectation. $200 per person promised a six-course meal, wine, transportation to and from your hotel and aboriginal entertainment. I was excited about the show because Mickey and I had yet to experience an aboriginal performance while in Australia. Shortly after arriving, an indigenous gentleman and his brother appeared in traditional "clothes" (a loincloth and body paint) and led us to the dining tent, decorated elegantly with candles and richly colored linens. He spoke for a couple of minutes about his personal family history with the land where we were dining and told a dreamtime story while his brother played the didgeridoo mid-meal. They stood politely next to diners for pictures (very awkward), but that was the end of the entertainment.

In retrospect I might have paid the $150 per person for the experience minus the "show" which is an option a couple nights of the week. Most of the food was both local and tasty (crocodile and kangaroo risotto), but the pavlova for dessert was most memorable.

The highlight of our trip was our snorkeling adventure on the reef the following day. There are at least a dozen different boat companies that offer dive and snorkel tours of the reef, but we chose Wavelength because they never take more than 30 people out each day and stop at the best snorkel sites. About an hour into the hour and forty five minute boat ride to the outer reef, Mickey started feeling seasick and I wondered if we might have been better off in a bigger boat. However, we dutifully swallowed the seasickness medicine and Mickey ate a ginger biscuit and felt better.

He's not really comfortable in open water so upon sliding in to the turquoise water, it looked like the whole day was going to be a no go for Mickey. He was terrified and outside his comfort zone. However, he pushed through his fear and slowly gained confidence with his mask, snorkel, fins and noodles for flotation. With the gear, a wetsuit and holding my hand, there was no way he would sink and once he realized that, he started to feel more comfortable. I'm so proud of him. If he hadn't pushed himself then he would have never seen the coral, brightly colored fish, sea turtle and even four sharks that we saw.

Wavelength took us to three different reefs and served lunch on the boat. The marine biologists led a snorkel tour around the reefs and pointed out giant clams and rays and took lots of pictures. In the end, we bought the $30 pictures on CD because we needed to document such a special day. I felt so free in the cool, clear water. Observing the reef from the surface of the water felt like flying over a different world.

We spent our last day in Port Douglas on a tour of the Mossman Gorge and Daintree River and Rainforest. Our young Australian tour guide, Sabine, was a really sweet girl and knowledgeable about the region, but a bit naive when it comes to cultural sensitivity. Less than an hour into the trip, she commented "Mickey, you're really brown!" Looking back, she must have assumed that he was a white guy with an incredible tan. Again, later she boldly declared "Mickey, you look almost aboriginal" before asking "what color is your skin normally?" Mickey was amused by the whole thing, but I hope for Sabine's sake that she stops commenting on her guests' skin colors.

The style and pace of our tour indicated that it was geared for seniors and less mobile tourists, but I loved every minute of it. We saw a saltwater crocodile on the Daintree River and enjoyed a tropical fruit tasting at lunch.

I spent our last hours in north Queensland playing in the waves on Thala Beach and deciding that it was the best beach I'd ever visited: calm waves, warm water, soft white sand and no crowds. At first I found the lack of bathers alarming; could there be a reason why no one else is swimming here? Sharks and stingers (jellyfish) came to mind. After a while a couple other people joined me in the water so I stopped worrying about deadly creatures.

If it's possible, I'd love to take another trip back to Port Douglas. It's a beautiful place and I can see why it's so special to so many people. Thor and Jennie met there a couple of years ago and got engaged there just last month. At the end of June, Mike and Shannon exchanged wedding vows there on the beach. Now, Mickey and I have created our own memories there and I'll cherish them always.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


The words 'adorable' and 'manly' don't often go together, but when adorable describes the fairy penguins who seasonally reside at Manly beach, the combination is quite apt. Fairy penguins are the smallest breed of penguin in the world, not weighing more than one kilogram, and they live in Australia and NZ, (lucky for us) as far north as Manly.

At one point, a couple hundred fairy penguins lived there at Manly, but numbers have dwindled to around 60 pairs because of dogs and even foxes. Because of the protection it provides, a couple of penguins nest under the Manly wharf and can be seen coming in from the ocean and waddling up the beach at sundown. We caught a glimpse of one such little penguin last weekend when we rode the ferry to Manly. He and his friends were a bit shy and hovered close to the boardwalk, but we did watch one of the braver birds stretch his wings and make the cutest noises.

The volunteer rangers who've stationed themselves on the beach to protect the penguins don't allow people to take photos with flash, but we still got a couple of good shots and a video clip. Of course one idiot did take a flash photo then walked away and the rangers thought it was us when we'd been following the rules the whole time.

The experience was a huge thrill for me. I told Mickey I felt like we had stumbled upon giraffes grazing outside a shopping mall. I guess that didn't make sense, but I meant that I had never seen a wild animal that special in such an urban spot. When you move to Australia, you're prepared for kangaroos, but fairy penguins? What a bonus!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Back in California

During last week's brief trip home to California, I was able to spend a lot of quality time with my mom. While driving us to LAX, she cleverly distracted me from the sadness of saying goodbye again by retelling stories of her younger years: her move to California with my dad, their stint on a houseboat in Sausalito and an ill-thought out move to Missouri. "Never decide to move to a place while on vacation," my mom warned. It seemed like great advice because after a week back in sunny, summer-time California, I was ready to move home for good.

Though the official reason behind the trip was to prepare our condo for renters, I still managed to cram a lot of joy into my eight days at home. During every trip stateside, Mickey and I make eating Mexican food as often as possible a priority. This trip, we satisfied our cravings by filling up on tacos, beans, real corn chips, creamy flan and aguas frescas at taquerias, a lunch buffet and even on the Google campus. I was afraid to try my other American favorite, burgers, because I thought my glutard bun-less alternatives could never live up to the real thing. I was right, of course, but was pleasantly surprised by the lettuce wraps at both In n Out and my favorite burger restaurant, Barney's in Berkeley. Enjoying gluten-free steak fries and a massive strawberry milkshake at Barney's also helped me forget my bun-envy.

Home-cooked food didn't make it on to our mental lists of California must eats, but the food we ate at my mom's table was even more memorable than that of the chain restaurants. Mom welcomed us back with a simple, but delicious seasonal meal: balsamic marinated baked chicken, grilled sweet corn and summer salad with heirloom tomatoes. It's easy to forget just how good summer produce is (oh, the peaches and melon!) when you've just come from winter. The fact that some of our salad ingredients came directly from my cousin Brittany's garden, made the meals even more special.

Second only to eating Mexican food on our list of US must dos, is bargain shopping. As anyone who's been to Australia would know, most consumer goods are significantly more expensive than they are in the states. Thus, we made trips to Costco and Target for cheap everyday "necessities:" body wash, vitamins, T-shirts, etc. Of course, I'm prouder of my trophy tags from Loehmann's and DSW - a $278 dress for $58 and two pairs of shoes for just $70! I was definitely patting myself on the back.

Most frivolous of all my vacation activities was binge-watching What Not to Wear and TLC's new gem, Toddlers and Tiaras. As you can probably guess, the documentary-style "reality" show features obese southern moms who spend a significant amount of family income on baby beauty pageants. The show features clever editing which portrays these moms in the worst possible light and was clearly designed to outrage people like my mom and myself. It does that very well because we couldn't get enough. We cried laughing at one delusional mom who entered her two-week old in a pageant and said things like, 'he wants to get out and meet people.'

The true highlight of this trip was catching up with friends and family. Living far away from some of the people we care about most has its challenges, but I've learned to treasure the moments I share with them. We spent one eventful day visiting first Mickey's uncle and aunt and then my cousin and her beautiful family in Orange County. I could have watched her kids play all day: Heidi is all grown up, Emma looks exactly like her mom and Charlie was a sweet little monkey.

We had dinner and brunch the next day with Andrew and Alyssa, two of my favorite people. Their trip home from Shanghai and our quick visit only had a day or two of overlap, but we managed to get together for some good times. I miss them and hate thinking that I don't know when I'll see them next.

In subsequent days I saw other girlfriends who were celebrating their one year anniversaries. I wasn't able to attend either wedding last summer and I feel sad about that, but thrilled to see them thriving in relationships that seem so right for them.

Fortunately, another reason behind this trip was to attend my friend Katie's wedding. She looked beautiful in her white dress and I couldn't help but cry when she strolled down the aisle. My best friend Allison gave birth to a healthy baby boy at almost the same moment. I know this because she called me while in labor and posted pictures on Facebook almost as soon as he was out! Though this all happened in Washington, DC, I felt a step closer to her because I was in California.

With all these touchy-feely "we're growing up" kind of moments packed in to one week, it's no surprise that part of me felt like moving home. However, as my mom wisely warned, vacation is not reality. Vacation is waking up late, eating too many meals out and driving endless miles to see friends and family. Reality is commuting to work, commitments and precious weekends of together time with one's partner. For now, I'm content in Sydney and will have to be content with those brief moments of reconnecting with loved ones far away. In the meantime, there's Facebook and email and I can live with that.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

On Ambien

The piece below was generously contributed by guest blogger, Nan Kirkeby, my mom.

My daughter Alane’s friend Jess remarked recently that all her funny family stories begin with “one time Aunt Jeannie took an Ambien...” My recent travel to Australia prompted my own experience with this most entertaining and quirky drug.

I know I am not a drug addict or an alcoholic by the same litmus test I use for the “drugs” I am addicted to. Think yeast, sugar, butter and heat in one package. Think bakery. Think donuts. Think Homer Simpson. I have never been able to take it or leave it. I have never been able to take a half of some sweet yeasty item and not finish the entire dozen. That is not, however, how I behave when it came to liquor or recreational drugs.

Since I can take or leave them, I leave them. Simple. In my past I might have sipped on a Sloe Gin Fizz or even (yuck) a beer at a college party and left it alone after a few tastes. I could sit in a circle with friends, pass a joint and listen to Neil Young albums with the best of them, but I didn’t particularly care whether there was another joint coming, or whether I planned to do it again the next night.

In my 12 step recovery program (think Donutholics Anonymous) the use of recreational drugs (mind altering) or alcohol (liquid sugar) is verboten and I abstain from those substances, but it actually remains a non-issue out of lack of desire. I can remember a restaurant meal from 37 years ago in graphic and delicious detail, but I can’t recall the last drug participation or sip of alcohol other than a champagne toast at my daughter’s engagement. And, yes, that was a slip. So, I know that I am not going to abuse Ambien, but I am just the teensiest bit interested in what will happen the next time I injest that tiny little rest pill. Remember Mick Jagger singing about Mother’s Little Helper?

The first time I heard about Ambien was when some Kennedy goof off attributed his irresponsible behavior to the side effects of this “sleeping pill”. At that time, I considered the press release ludicrous and concocted out of blatant spinelessness. He claimed to have driven under the influence and didn’t know he had done it. Jeez, really, just how gullible do those Kennedy nephews think we are? Our parents may have bought Chappaquiddick, but I’m not falling for that one again.

The television ad for Ambien I heard just this morning mentioned possible side effects. Something about “eating under the influence” caught my attention. Reading between the lines, this begins to sound a lot like sleep walking, a vague awareness of action and yet a place of not being really responsible for one’s behavior.

Recently, I decided to ask my physician for a prescription of Ambien in order to adjust to a 14 hour flight and a 17 hour time difference in Australia. Qantas knows how to do their job and appears to follow an unwritten rule that once airborne, everyone is on Australia time. We might actually be somewhere over Catalina, but we were “Downunda” now. The dinner trolley came down the aisle relatively soon after takeoff, and never one to miss the opportunity to rationalize an extra meal, I ordered. “Chicken, please.” I had popped the Ambien on takeoff and remember discarding the roll and dessert from my tray. I may have taken a pill that caused some people to eat in their sleep, but I wasn't going to throw away my recovery program on such nonsense.

Sometime later I had an awareness that time had passed. The travel agent from Washington in the seat next to me peered curiously at me. She gently offered the information that she hoped she hadn’t offended me when she took the fork out of my hand and the meal from my chest. Evidently I had paused, fork mid air, while eating salad, and drifted off to dreamland. Oh yeah, I thought, something, something had happened, time had passed. What an odd experience. Rather like when I had my wisdom teeth out and asked the nurse if I had told any secrets while under. Also somewhat like post colonoscopy. You mean it’s over? Wow!

I looked down at myself and noticed the bits of salad that remained. Oil smudges darkened my favorite plum tee-shirt; the one I had dropped 40 dollars on. I have seen my own babies in high chairs fall asleep like this. They may have been eating Cheerios or melba toast, but when those little eyes blinked verrry slowly and they dropped their precious little heavy heads, they were down for the count. I headed for the lavatory and took off my damp, dirty, 40 dollar tee shirt, turned it inside out and put it back on. The matching plum jacket was zipped up a little higher, and I felt sheepish but presentable.

In that first rush of hugging and reunion joy, my daughter and I noticed that we had dressed in the same color and laughed. I told her the story of the Ambien eating and we laughed at the absurdity.

When we traveled to Canberra a few weeks later, I took another Ambien late one night after a marathon day of sightseeing, museums and walking. I don’t always sleep well in a hotel and felt this was a safe thing to do. My plan was to unwind with a little tennis on TV followed by a restful night in a hotel bed. The Wimbledon Championship is a favorite of mine and both Alane and Mickey follow it enthusiastically each summer as well. With London/Australia time differences, the high profile matches just get going around 1 a.m.

I don’t remember Wimbledon that night, I don’t really remember going to bed that night either. Reminiscent of my recovery friends who were formerly blackout drinkers, I asked the leading questions one does to find out just what had happened last night.
Uh, did I do something odd last night?
Uh, yeah Mom. (odd look)
Well you fell asleep with your head on your chest and we tried to get you to go to bed.
I didn’t go?
No, you said you wanted to "notch" Wimbledon.
Notch Wimbledon? What was I doing, carving it into my belt?
We let you go for it but eventually had to walk you into your bedroom to make sure you got in there okay.

Our roles were suddenly reversed. I remembered when this lovely, accomplished young woman was a toddler who fell asleep at play with her pretty “My Little Ponies” spread about her on the blue carpet in her room. Her splayed legs indicated she had been kneeling and simply leaned back and gently passed into that other place of consciousness/unconsciousness. That night I was the caretaker. I lifted her into my arms and placed her in her bed and smoothed the hair from her face. My precious daughter, I am not ready to be the child to her adult.

Before they expire in a year or two, an occasion of travel or insomnia may arise and I might choose to try Ambien again. I am going make my own prescription label though:
Take with water,
While in bed,
With jammies on,
Prepared to sleep.
Post toilette . (Friend Jess’s Aunt Jeannie reportedly had an Ambien sleep experience involving a toilet, a hotel, a locked door, angry roommates and security break-in)
Nighty night.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Canberra: Not as Boring as You Think

In preparation for our trip to Canberra, I instructed my mom to read Bill Bryson's chapter on Australia's notoriously boring national capital in In a Sunburned Country. She then passed it on to Tom and we all had a laugh over Bryson's cynical wit, but prepared ourselves for the worst: colder weather and getting lost.

Bryson goes on at length about how Canberra was planned; it was modeled after Washington DC with roads that loop and vantage points that lead the eye from one monument to the next. Had Canberra grown and thrived as it was meant to, such a layout would have made sense, but instead the city is too spread out for its own good and is marked by impractical empty spaces. Bryson joked that locals drive around in circles wondering, 'where the f$%k is my house?'

Mom found this particularly funny and we'd repeat to each other, 'where the f#$k is my hotel?' and giggle throughout the three hour drive from Sydney. We eventually located it without much trouble at all and found the city to be pleasant, but eerily empty. Parliament had just broken up apparently and you could feel the absence of energy.

Still, we enjoyed an informative tour of Parliament House, a modern building consisting of 4,500 rooms that only opened in 1988. We were dumbstruck by the number of people (four) milling around the outside of Australia's capitol building on a bright Saturday morning. Mom grew concerned for the Girls' Choir from Seattle who we learned were to perform in the foyer at 10:30. 'The girls came all this way and there's no one here to see them.' We stuck around though, clapped politely and watched as a small crowd came from out of the woodwork to watch.

The true purpose of our visit was to see Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 at the National Portrait Gallery and it was well worth the trip. Of course I was fascinated by the Annie Liebowitz shots of recent Hollywood A-listers, but also enjoyed the older portraits of authors I was familiar with, but of whom I had never seen photographs: Hemingway, Arthur Miller, Chaplin without makeup, etc.

We also stopped by the Australian War Memorial, a mega complex consisting of sculptures, lawns, museums with full-sized planes and more. Though war memorials aren't my favorite type of attraction, we could have spent the entire day there looking at different things. The highlight was the beautiful and very Australian mosaics, stained glass and ceiling in the Hall of Memory.

When dinner time rolled around and we began hunting for restaurants, we knew we were in the same city that Bill Bryson loved to loathe. He swore there wasn't a restaurant within miles of his hotel (The Rex) so he helplessly ate and drank there every night of his stay. We found a number of decent looking restaurants, but all of them, despite seemingly empty tables, were "booked." With hangic (hunger + anger + panic) quickly setting in, we opted for the local club/RSL.

For those unfamiliar with the Australian club/RSL (Returned and Services Leauge, as in veterans) scene, clubs are "members-only" restaurants and bars known for basic, unpretentious meals and plenty of beer at reasonable prices. Non-members are welcome to patronize clubs for a modest fee ($1 per person, in our case).

With an out of character "when in Rome..." attitude, I ordered a steak. This was a mistake as it was way overcooked, but everyone else seemed to enjoy their food. Mom's willingness to fit into the club scene served her well as she won $40 at the pokie machines before dinner.

The next day, we packed up our things and departed early; Sydney and the Big Merino in Goulburn beckoned. We enjoyed our one day in Canberra, but I can't say that I'm desperate to go back.

Saturday, July 04, 2009


I've been complaining since the beginning of the season that winter has nothing to offer Australia. In New Zealand, winter brings snow and all the winter sports that go with it. However, for most of this continent, winter means a bit of cold, wet weather and no Thanksgiving or Christmas to make it interesting.

That's why the ideas behind Vivid Sydney, a festival of light, are so ingenious. Artists from around the world designed light installations to illuminate different buildings and other public spaces. Then, festival organizers created a map showing tourists and locals alike where to find each. We took a delightful stroll through familiar neighborhoods (primarily the Rocks) which held a new fascination for us when bathed in a different light.

The most remarkable display was the ever changing colors and patterns projected on to the Sydney Opera House. Perhaps the most creative thing I have ever seen, the Opera House was transformed, becoming not only an Australian icon, but the world's most unique canvas as well. It wasn't Christmas, but it was a festive way for people of all ages to spend a chilly dark evening. I'm so glad that my mom was there to see it.

Most Unconventional Birthday Message

A couple of days before my birthday, my friends and I were gathered at the Fringe Bar in Paddington for the weekly trivia quiz. My mom, who was visiting at the time, encouraged me to go to the restroom, something she hasn't done much since I passed the age of four. I knew something was up and sure enough, the above message was chalked onto the bathroom wall. It was such a pleasant surprise! I then went around the table accusing different (female) friends of leaving such a clever message for me when I realized that it had to be Shannon. Thankfully, Steph took a picture. I'm truly grateful for my thoughtful Sydney friends.

Friday, May 22, 2009

American Idol

The longer I live abroad, the more I'm drawn to American Idol. It connects me with some of the people who are in my heart and thoughts, but aren't a part of my daily routine because of our distance: my mom, aunt, best friend, sister-in-law, etc. Watching the show from our separate corners of the earth and then meticulously comparing notes and conspiracy theories allows us to share an experience in a way that isn't usually possible for people oceans apart.

I'm a relatively new Idol fan; I began watching the Taylor Hicks season (5) covertly in 2006. I was busy trying to teach poor kids in San Jose how to read and was thus embarrassed by my frivolous Tuesday and Wednesday night guilty pleasure. When season 7 premiered in 2008, I had just moved to Sydney and craved the familiarity of Paula's nonsensical comments, the Coke cups, the intro music and even the way Simon pronounces 'terrible.' Yes, the show is cheesy and contrived, but I'm thoroughly entertained by it and now don't care who knows that I follow it religiously.

Weeks after David Cook won the title of American Idol last year, I learned that my clever, sophisticated friends Andrew and Alyssa had followed the whole season. I was surprised by their interest in the show, but more disappointed that I'd missed my opportunity to discuss it with them week after week. I would have loved their fresh insight on this monster hit reality show that I thought captivated only commoners like me. It was as if an unknown dimension of our friendship suddenly revealed itself.

While watching Ryan "honor" this year's outstanding male and female during last night's finale, I recalled (as I do every year) how profoundly different the first few weeks are from the rest of the show. The first episodes of every season depict the judges dutifully scouring the countryside for America's best and most delusional singers. I used to believe that awful singers sought fame or were actually aspiring actors/comedians who create a character and then try to put one over on the show's producers as an artistic challenge.

However, I now believe that most contestants aren't that clever and are simply delusional. My generation grew up listening to Mister Rogers tell us we were special and received sports trophies for merely participating (heck, I scored goals for the wrong soccer team and I still got one). Those of us who were lucky realized that the term special is relative. The unlucky ones have good-intentioned parents who, blinded (or, should I say deafened) by love of their offspring, cheered on years of mediocrity.

All grown up, some of these people audition for American Idol and are utterly perplexed by their rejection. The looks on their faces tell the same story every time: they genuinely believed that they were talented singers and are stunned to learn that the judges don't agree.

In stark contrast to the thousands of lousy singers, this year's top 8 were fantastic. If you don't recall how significantly more talented this year's lot were than last year's, let me point out that Christy Lee Cook and Jason Castro were in season 7's top 8. 'nough said. Aside from fugly tatts (my pet name for Megan Joy) and blind dude (Scott, bless his heart), I loved watching everyone this year.

Though my friend Steph disagrees, my mom and I are convinced that the show deliberately tried to conceal Kris' wife. There was one performance show a couple of weeks back during which he specifically mentioned her. Simon called him on it, advising that it wasn't wise to seem unavailable. From then on, when the camera panned to Katie, the caption never indicated 'Kris' wife.' Likewise, montages of his homecoming in Conway, Arkansas featured emotional reunions with his parents, not Katie.

There was also a lot of speculation about Adam's sexual preference: was he gay? why the guyliner? does that matter to America? I'm not sure whether Adam ultimately didn't win because he's gay. Homophobia perhaps played a small part, but that isn't the only reason why America sided with Kris. Adam was the front-runner from the beginning; many agree that he's the most talented performer to have ever graced the Idol stage. America fell in love with Kris more slowly because he grew as an artist as the weeks rolled on, he was handsome, charming, had unique arrangements and played both the piano and guitar.

I adore Kris, but am convinced that America got it wrong. When faced with a choice between someone truly great and innovative and someone good, but more familiar, they opted for the more conservative contestant. Though the comparison is ridiculous, I'm glad that America opted for the more progressive candidate (perhaps the Adam Lambert of politics) back in November. In other words, I'll take Obama and Kris Allen over four years of John McCain any day.

Despite my disappointment with the results, I loved the finale show: the duets with the greats, the jeers at the judges and the awards for those who brought us laughs in the early weeks: Norman Gentle and Tatiana. I screamed when Kara joined bikini girl on stage and whipped out her own two-piece for charity. She was so brave.

Adding to my enjoyment of this season's farewell, was watching with my friends Jess and Chris. It was fun to act as our own judging panel: evaluating the celebrity performances, Paula's tan and level of drunkenness, etc. For me (cue Randy Jackson impression), American Idol isn't important the same way the presidential election is. The fact that Kris Allen won isn't really important either; both Adam and Kris (and Alison and Danny for that matter) will go on to have successful careers in music. What's important about the show is the way it shapes bonds between me and the people I care about, both here in Sydney and back home in America.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Two Up

I wanted to spend Anzac Day, Australia's day to honor the sacrifices of its brave service men and women, in style at the races. In the US, 'style' and horse 'races' don't belong in the same sentence unless you're talking about the Kentucky Derby maybe. Here in Australia, you can get drunk at the races (getting drunk is an integral part of every Australian holiday), but the fashions at the Randwick Racecourse elevate the sport of horse racing to a level more sophisticated than the hot dog days at Santa Anita in my youth.
A day at the races is so much more than senseless betting and beer when it's framed as Randwick's Autumn Carnival, an event sponsored by Schweppes and the phrase 'princesses will stop at nothing,' which I still can't relate back to horses or Schweppes products. Anyway, I can't say anything more about the races because Mickey and most other members of our crew weren't tempted by the prospect of drinks and horses in pretty clothes as I was. Maybe next year.

Instead, Jess, Chris, Mickey and I met our token Australian friend Tim at his local watering hole, the Quarryman's in Pyrmont for drinks and two up, a gambling game that's legal in Australia only on Anzac Day. (Funny that our plan B also involved alcohol and betting. It's clear that the boys couldn't be bothered dressing up).

Two up is pretty simple, but has a couple of nonsense rules. Someone holds two coins on a small paddle. People make bets on whether the coins will land heads or tails sides up. The spinner, or spinnah, as we say here in Australia, must make the coins flip around a couple of times at least at a height over his/her head. Two tails mean that tails wins, two heads mean that heads win and one of each means that you must flip again, a rule designed to help people lose money just a tad slower.

Again, it's a simple game, but it kept Tim's crew and the other patriotic Australians in the pub entertained for hours. I generally loathe gambling, but took a chance and ended up tripling my money. That's right, I came in with $5 and ended up with $15. The luck of the fallen soldier was with me alright.

I achieved the most enjoyment from watching Jess take the paddle and get gently heckled by the drunken gamblers shouting, 'come in, spinnah!' in a cockney accent which, like two up itself, is unique to Anzac Day.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Urban Hiking

Since learning about multi-day alpine treks and their southern hemisphere equivalents in NZ (Milford Track, Kepler Track, etc.), we'd been itching to try one over the four day Easter weekend. The problem is that we don't have any proper gear such as backpacks or sleeping mats. Heck, until our trip to NZ in February, I didn't even have appropriate shoes.

View Larger Map
However, now that I have the shoes, there was no reason not to brave a multi-day walk. But without a tent, backpack, travel cook stove (or the certainty that we'd want to invest in any of these), we knew this would have to be an urban hike. And by urban hike, I mean that we ate in beachside cafes and stayed in reasonably comfortable hotels. We did travel, though, completely on foot from Manly Beach to Palm Beach (30 miles) over three days and for that, we're patting ourselves on the Jansport backpacks.

We walked an average of ten miles per day on sandy beaches, rugged coastal headlands, residential neighborhoods and busy coastal highways. It was never boring because when we weren't minding our steps to avoid golden orb spider webs and other dangerous native creatures, we were people watching and playing a loose game of coastal walk bingo. One point for kayaks, native birds, fishermen and cute babies; five points for dolphins, nude/topless bathers and ostentatious beach houses, one million points for penguins. Mickey is still disappointed about missing the penguins in NZ and raised the stakes pretty high. Sadly, we didn't see one, but I did spot a baby sting ray in the shallow waters of low tide near Palm Beach.

I like to joke that we were so not away from it all that Lee was able to bus in to Sunday's lunch spot (the town of Avalon), hike with us to Palm Beach and then ride the bus back home after dinner. We dined that night on imported and local cheeses and an incredible cioppino, or fish stew. It was a rewarding conclusion to a sometimes strenuous, but mostly relaxed, leisurely stroll up the coast.

I don't know how soon we'll be purchasing a tent and sleeping mats, but we just may work our way up to the Milford Track-esque hikes that involve pre-organized nights in huts. Especially if those huts are situated in and among wineries in Provence.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Our trip to Wellington, New Zealand last Easter to visit our friend Hannah left us hungry for more kiwi charm. Thus, we took the first week of March off from work to visit the famed south island, the significantly less populated bit where Peter Jackson filmed the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

We heard that the most beautiful spots were in and around Queenstown, the adventure sports capital of the world, but because flights there were expensive, we decided to fly in and out of Christchurch and make an eight-day circuit around the center of the south island.

As we began planning the trip, it sounded less and less like a trip I'd actually enjoy: we'd be staying in different accommodations each night and driving between two to four hours each day. However, my desire to see as much as possible (ignited by glossy photos from the Lonely Planet) won out over my natural inclination to linger in a couple of choice spots.

In the end, I'm glad we made that decision. We passed the hours in the car each day soaking up scenery and listening to President Obama read "Dreams of My Father" and other quite serious podcasts. Likewise, rocking up to our bed for the night each evening wasn't stressful as I'd imagined. Each welcome at a new B&B came as a delightful surprise: would they have a tub? the ubiquitous Mackintosh's Toffee and Minties? cable that would allow me to watch American Idol?

I don't think I can recount here how we spent each glorious day, so I may just have to make a top ten list to cover the highlights, retell my favorite stories and draw sweeping conclusions about the differences between NZ, Australia and the United States.

10. a nation of isolation gets personal

I've developed this theory that Australians and kiwis are more inclined than the rest of the world to share personal information with strangers because of their isolation and sometimes limited opportunities for social interaction. An hour after arriving at our cozy Haast B&B on the wet west coast, we tried to make friendly conversation with our hostess. We asked her how long she'd been running the place and she admitted that she was trying to sell the place and was desperate for a vacation. This was awkward, but I'm sure we tried to sympathize. Things just got weirder when she started complaining about her haircut: "isn't it awful?" she asked. 'I hope that was rhetorical,' I thought to myself. We couldn't agree with her and we couldn't really defend the haircut either. We'd never seen this lady before!

Our friends had a similar experience while wine tasting in South Australia. Funny and friendly Texans, Chris and Jess are masters when it comes to polite banter with the pourer/vintner. However, even they were left speechless when their hostess asked their opinion about whether or not she should have told her daughter-in-law that she hated her new grandson's name in the delivery room. Come on, they asked for a sip of the late pick verdelho, not an anecdote about how she alienated her family!

9. the best situated winery in the world

While walking off a delicious lunch of cajun blackened fish around Lake Wanaka, we came upon a sign indicating that the "most beautiful winery in the world" was a mere 300 meters up the hill. Mickey wanted to press on, but I insisted that we check it out. Boy, it was a bold claim, but this place lived up to its hype. The tiny rustic tasting room sat atop a hill overlooking the vineyards, the shimmering lake, rugged mountain peaks and clear blue sky. One of their reds was great, we bought a bottle, but the others were just average. Still, I'd love to return just to view the landscape draped in the color palette of another season: fiery orange leaves or pure white snow.

8. shoe story (short version): woman brings impractical shoes, has to buy totally-not-kidding-around-outdoor-shoe mid-trip

(long version) I hate wasting money on shoes, but it's inevitable because buying women's shoes is a total gamble. You can walk up and down the aisles of a department store 35 times, but you aren't really going to know whether or not they'll work out until you've bought them and walked to work in them. And no one but Nordstrom has a decent shoe return policy.

I brought two pairs of shoes to NZ: some red leather low heels for casual dinners out and my non-sexy European walking shoes for daily romps on trails. I didn't want to bring my running shoes because I wasn't planning to run anywhere (no dangerous animals in NZ) and I just don't want to be the American with the bright white sneakers. I travel light and bringing more than two pairs of shoes wasn't an option either.

Anyway, my shoe karma must not have been good because I started slipping out of the non-sexy European walking shoes and nearly twisted my ankle. They just didn't fit anymore and my situation had become mildly dangerous. If you get injured on vacation, you stand a good chance of ruining it.

Thankfully, Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world, is the place to be when you require totally-not-kidding-around outdoor shoes. It's hard for me to admit this, but I was ready to purchase something approximating hiking shoes. Surrounded by sophisticated poly-whatever jackets and camelbaks, Mickey and I felt really conspicuous in the sporting goods store. Our Zara clothes didn't match the sea of khaki and fleece around us; it felt absolutely necessary to preface our conversation with the sales guy about my need for shoes with the fact that we were city slickers completely out of our element.

Mickey tried to assure me that this or that pair of feminine outdoor shoes were "kinda cute" or "not that bad," but a part of me knew that I'd have to check my notion of acceptable footwear at the door. We ended up with something appropriate for NZ, but I wasn't sure they'd ever resurface in Sydney. I became hyper-conscious of people staring at my shoes and Mickey and I would burst out laughing every time it happened.

7. Mickey's innocence warms my heart

Same store, different story. Before descending upon the ladies footwear area of the store, we browsed the tents. Mickey pointed to a model tent and said, 'I never knew whether those were for pets or what.' It was hard not to laugh. 'Love, I think those just try to show what the tent will look like when you assemble it.' I love being reminded that Mickey's notion of the great outdoors is centered around mosquito nets in India, not nylon tents with Girl Scouts.

He also had me nearly in tears of laughter when he dutifully followed the advice of a tour guide. We were putting on rain slickers and life jackets in preparation for our ride on the Shotover Jet boat with a bus load of American senior citizens. Their guide called everyone over for a group photo and I had to grab him by the slicker before he picture-crashed. 'I think it's just for their tour group, honey.' He's so precious.

6. NZ: a glutard's paradise

New Zealand is a nation of only four million, but most of its restaurants cater to glutards like me, amazing! We enjoyed some really great meals for reasonable prices because of the favorable exchange rate for the US dollar. I was delighted by the number of menus which indicated gluten free meal options and impressed with the servers' apparent knowledge of my condition. I ordered NZ lamb as often as possible and was never disappointed.

Another standout was the creamy pumpkin and feta soup from the Lake Matheson Cafe near the Fox Glacier. I feel that when you stumble into an American town of 3,200 people, you're bound to find a McDonald's and maybe an Arby's, but your restaurant options end there. In NZ, we found charming cafes serving fresh food in towns of all sizes. It was such a remarkable treat.

5. spotting wildlife in the wild, or how I became a bird nerd in NZ

My fellow American expat friends in Sydney and I adore wildlife parks. Jess got up close and very personal with pretty much her favorite animal, the wombat at a wombat rescue center in South Australia. Likewise, Lee loved posing with the koalas at a wildlife park in Port Stephens.

I enjoy admiring kangaroos up close because I can marvel at their long, powerful legs and ooh and aww over the joeys when they poke their chihuahua heads out of their mums' pouches. However, there's something thrilling and primal about seeing a kangaroo or any animal in its natural habitat. Of course I rarely get close enough to spot a joey, but that's what makes the experience special. Instead of paying $10 to pet and feed animals in a fenced in park, I love catching the chance glimpse of a wild animal, observing its seemingly timeless routine.

In NZ we were looking for native birds, not kangaroos of course. When Europeans began colonizing the islands a century and a half ago, exotic bird calls filled the air day and night. Since the introduction of dogs, cats and stoats, a weasel-like creature, the number of New Zealand's native birds have dropped dramatically. Take for example the beloved kiwi, a remarkable flightless bird that once numbered in the millions is now in danger of extinction with only a few thousand surviving in protected pockets.

Though Mickey and I didn't spot a kiwi in the wild (we would have loved to, but they are nocturnal), we did find two in Queenstown's bird sanctuary. We were lucky enough to spot and photograph two species of native birds: the clever but naughty kea in Arthur's pass (they love destroying windshield wipers) and the keruru, a NZ pigeon, near Lake Te Anau. We found the three keas looking for trouble on the roof of a cafe along the main road. The gorgeous keruru (looks nothing like a regular pigeon with a white breast and beautiful iridescent blue green wings and head) we heard before we saw along the Kepler track. It's known for the 'whoosh' sound of its wings.

4. most stylish nation per capita

For some, Bed & Breakfast is synonymous with old & chintzy. I'd argue that in NZ, this is almost never the case. We stayed in a number of modern, stylish B&Bs and boutique hotels that made our trip all the more enjoyable. I particularly loved the Queenstown Chalet and Dun Luce in Te Anau. Kiwis' insistence on world-class style, coffee, fashion, food and design never ceases to amaze me.

3. dipping an oar into the world of extreme sports

Many young backpackers who pass through Queenstown splurge on a bungee jump. After all the "sport" was invented there. I don't think I need to explain why I didn't partake in this aspect of local culture; if I'm looking for thrills and frights I can bird watch and shop for hiking shoes.

Still, I didn't want to leave Queenstown without having done something a bit risky at high speeds outdoors. That's how we wound up riding the Shotover Jet with the American senior citizens. The whole thing was cheesy, but totally safe and a lot of fun. The noisy boat goes barreling through the canyon along a sometimes shallow river, narrowly avoiding gigantic jutting boulders. Every couple of minutes the maniacal driver will twirl one finger in the air indicating that he's about to pull the boat into its trademark 360 degree spin. At that point, we had to hold on to the heated handrail for dear life. The cheesiness (they had a wall of fame featuring celebs like Giovanni Ribisi) of the Shotover Jet experience was balanced out by the incomparable beauty of the river.

The other adventure sport we tried which actually required muscle was sea kayaking. Mickey was quite brave to give kayaking a second go after our first experience in Hawaii five years ago in which I tipped the thing over. This time we had our own kayaks to manage so we couldn't blame each other for falling out. Our guide from the cruise ship took us out for about an hour and a half in a very calm corner of Milford Sound. Propelling myself forward was a serious workout and I couldn't seem to reposition my oar without getting wet, but the scenery and peaceful sounds of the oar gliding through the water made it all worthwhile.

2. our first cruise!

Yes, you could call our experience 'cruising lite.' We'd never been on a cruise before and were eager to start small. Thus, the chance to spend one night on a boat in the beautiful Milford Sound sounded like a gentle introduction to the world of cruising. Mickey was afraid he'd suffer seasickness, but he was pleasantly surprised by the whole cruising experience.

We boarded the boat in the afternoon and were treated to muffins (one was made gluten free especially for me!), coffee and tea while we listened to the crew introduce themselves and describe the safety features of the boat, etc. We then cruised through the sound almost all the way to the entrance to the Tasman Sea before turning around to spend the night in the calm area where we kayaked. Milford Sound gets up to six meters of rain a year so it was lucky that we enjoyed views of waterfalls, seals, glaciers and steep cliffs unobstructed by rain clouds.

I think we were two of the only passengers under 65, but we powered through the buffet with the best of them. The food wasn't amazing, but it wasn't bad either and I was thrilled that they could accommodate my glutard needs. We anchored for the night and devoured a very hasty breakfast before venturing into the enormous swells of the Tasman Sea. The captain turned us around and headed for port before anyone lost their breakfast thankfully.

1. lucky duckies

Mickey and I tried to remind each other at every stunning vista how lucky we were to be on such a trip. Economic downturn or not, we know that relatively few can afford luxurious vacations in New Zealand. Thus, I try to live these experiences for the generations who've come before me in an era when international travel was impossible for all but the uber wealthy. I imagine what my grandma Onie would say if she could have seen the dahlias in the gardens of Christchurch or how my great grandmother would have compared the sheep ranches in New Zealand to those she knew in Scotland.

Likewise, I think about the generations that will come after me and how the landscape may look to them if they ever travel to New Zealand. Perhaps my great, great, great granddaughter will honeymoon on the moon and think abstractly about me and my comparatively minuscule earthly adventures. Even if my memories fade and my photos get lost, today I am lucky and for every day that I have Mickey and the others I love in my life I am truly grateful.

Monday, February 16, 2009

An Island Off an Island

After spending just shy of 24 hours in Melbourne to spectate at "the tennis" (Australian Open) over the Australia Day weekend, Mickey and I caught a flight further south to Tasmania.

My dear friend Alyssa, a seasoned traveler herself, reckons that we've earned major travel cred for visiting this remote island off an island. And from an American perspective, she's absolutely right. Those of us lucky enough to journey to the land down under usually stop in Sydney and/or tour the dying Great Barrier Reef. Few of us Yanks make time to explore Tasmania because we know so little about it.

Indeed, I remember the first time I met a Tasmanian native, a colleague of Mickey's, and recited what little I knew about his home. It is an island off the southeast coast of Australia with a population of less than half a million and home to one of the world's strangest creatures, the famed Tasmanian devil. Even years later after I had befriended another Tassie native (and a little devil in her own way), Kate, I still knew little about the fascinating place.

Since moving to Australia, I learned enough to know that I had to visit. Some Aussies joke that Tasmania is a bit hick because it's so sparsely populated. My boss and I laughed about the 'no worries' attitude evident at Hobart's single terminal "international" airport. Likewise, another colleague warned me about the speed of service, or Tassie time. "You order your coffee, wait 15 minutes and then wait some more and it will eventually get there."

Others take a different view, identifying Tasmania as a chic artist's retreat, reverent of its natural beauty, tranquility and fine food. Both camps agree though, that Tassie is an ideal place for a holiday.

Mickey and I only gave ourselves three days to see what all the fuss was about, knowing that truly seeing the island probably takes weeks. We decided to stay near Hobart, but make three separate day trips outside of town. Our home base was the beautiful Bellerive House, just across the water from Hobart. This is the nicest place I've ever stayed bar none. This B&B, owned and operated by hosts David and Jacqueline, is a large, charming old house that was very recently renovated. The decor tastefully integrates antique furnishings with modern fixtures and luxurious linens.

Bellerive offered everything you love about B&Bs: personal service and character without any of the "old house" inconveniences such as poor water pressure, squeaky doors or mold. In fact, Bellerive was spotless and served some of the best breakfasts I've ever had. The title of one of its Tripadvisor reviews was "Breakfast Dilemma" because guests are spoiled with delicious choices. Though the creamy porridge with brown sugar wasn't an option for a glutard like me, David and Jacqueline made sure I had gluten free muesli topped with fresh yogurt and seasonal, local fruit. And that was just the first course! The second ranged from baked eggs to grilled mushrooms to souffle pancakes. For better or worse, we stuffed ourselves all three days and didn't require lunch until one or two in the afternoon. In the evenings, we'd feast our eyes on the fresh flowers in our room and satisfy our sweet teeth with gluten free cakes, port, chocolate and cherries that David and Jacqueline had left waiting for us.

Somehow, we tore ourselves away from the pampered life long enough to make day trips to the Freycinet Peninsula, Bruny Island and Port Arthur. We spent a lot of time in the car that first day, relishing the surprisingly dry and sunny weather, admiring quaint farms and remarking on the frequency of marsupial roadkill. We picked up a picnic lunch in Swansea and devoured our burgers overlooking the Friendly Beaches. The guidebook had mentioned Tasmania's inexplicably deserted white sand, turquoise water beaches, but I had to see it to believe it. The water was cold, but the shores were pristine; why wasn't this place packed?

We hiked up 300 stairs to the Wine Glass Bay lookout and then down 300 more to get a closer look at the beach. There we found people feeding a wallaby, exactly as the sign advised not to do. We stopped in Orford on the way home for gluten free pizza and locally made ice cream.

Our second day on Bruny Island (population 500), the island off the island off the island was spontaneous and romantic. We dashed down the coast toward Kettering to make the 9:30am ferry. We got caught behind a motorbike and fretted until the last minute that we wouldn't make it, but we did. We stopped at a fairy penguin rookery overlooking the narrow isthmus between north and south Bruny. The penguins were away in the ocean for the day (they waddle back to the beach at dusk), but the views were spectacular.

Later we went berry picking on a small farm (big fun for city slickers like us) and for an easy walk along the coast. We lunched on Mediterranean fish soup at the Hot House Cafe overlooking the water. We joked all day about the guidebook's warnings about booking ahead in January, Tasmania's busiest month. As we encountered very little traffic on paved and unpaved roads, we wondered where everyone was. We found them in line waiting to board the ferry back to the "mainland." We thought we had plenty of time to make it back for the 5:30 and even stopped for cheese tasting en route. In a way, we did have plenty of time because we didn't make it on the 5:30, or the 6:30, but eventually on the 7:30. We felt lucky that we didn't miss the last flight back to Sydney the way the French tourists in the next car did.

We spent our last day in Tasmania on the Tasman peninsula south of Hobart. We stopped at a Tasmanian devil park whose sign dares tourists to "come face to face with a devil." We made it to the 11am feeding of these foul creatures and watched them tear through rats, fur, bone and and all, squealing and stinking all the while. I thoroughly enjoyed (nerd alert) the birds of prey show featuring falcons, a gallah, a cockatoo and a tawny frogmouth. Most intriguing of all though was the exhibit on the (possibly) extinct thylacine, or Tassie Tiger, a strange dog-like marsupial so named because of its striped back. The last one supposedly died in captivity in 1936, but there have been sightings since then. There are parts of the Tasmanian wilderness that remain unexplored and I'd love to believe that the thylacine still lurks there, but it's unlikely. However, plans to clone the tiger give me hope.

Our next stop was Port Arthur, an entirely different type of tourist attraction. Once a brutal but thriving penal colony, Port Arthur is now a high profile tourist destination with multiple types of tours, ruins, cafes a cruise and a sad past that doesn't end with the penal colony days. One day in 1996, a man opened fire on innocent tourists and staff at Port Arthur, murdering 35 and injuring several more. The cafe that was the main site of the massacre was gutted completely and rededicated as a memory garden.

This morbid past makes Port Arthur a creepy place but an important one historically. The pain and suffering inherent in this place didn't match the beauty of the blue skies, sprawling green and golden hills and clear, calm water on the day we visited. One of the most haunting spots was the area where the repeat offenders were sent, solitary confinement. Here, neither prisoners nor guards could speak and they assigned the inmates each a number to eliminate the comfort and familiarity of even hearing one's own name. Here also stands a chapel like no other in the world. It has separate wooden stalls that allowed prisoners to see the preacher, but not each other.

Looking back, I'm not sure that we deserve massive travel cred because Tasmania was so accessible. Flights to and from Melbourne and Sydney are cheap and frequent, despite some unpaved roads travel is easy, the food is fresh and delicious, the service is slow but friendly and of course the language is English. Yet, it's an island off an island and almost no one goes there. Could Tasmania be one of the world's best kept secrets? If so, I've just spilled the beans.