Saturday, August 29, 2009

Penguins!


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.

video

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.