Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Mom's summer vacation highlight - a day trip to Palmie

This year marked my mom's fourth annual trek to Sydney to visit us. Her extended stays range from four to eight weeks and necessitate that she not simply play the tourist, but make a life for herself here: find friends, develop routines, exercise and generally become a local. I'm always delighted to retell stories describing just how much of a local my mom is here; she's befriended butchers, given directions, spotted celebs and even found a bargain or two.


from left to right: me, Helmut, Roxanne

Though she loves Sydney, we make an effort to show her other parts of NSW/Australia during her trips. We've taken her to Kiama, Berry, the Blue Mountains, Adelaide, the Clare Valley, the outback, Byron Bay and even Canberra (I know, we were really scraping the barrel of Australian destinations there). She's been to Melbourne once and there are still plenty of worthy winter destinations on her to do list including, of course, the rock and the reef.

I was in the red with vacation days when Mom showed up in June so we decided to stick closer to home. Palm Beach, a fashionable yet relaxed beach community, is just an hour north of Sydney and home to some of Australia's rich and fabulous. The fact that Australia's most iconic soap, Home and Away, takes place in Palmie solidifies its status as the premiere aspirational beach town. Anyway, it reminds me of Carmel and I knew that Mom and Roxanne would love it.

Mommy in Palmie
Sydneysiders sans cars can take the L90 bus all the way up to Palm Beach, but we opted to hire out a goget car to allow us greater flexibility. Sandra, our friendly neighborhood Toyota Yaris, was unavailable so we reserved Helmut, a tiny Suzuki Alto that boasts four doors and an amusingly dinky 50 horse power or something close to that. All jokes that day revolved around Helmut's German heritage and his lack of get-up-and-go, but ultimately he was a great sport and got us safely to and from Palm Beach.

The weather threatened to put a damper on our beach adventure, but the rain was off and on and fortunately while we were in Palm Beach, mostly off. In fair weather, Palm Beach and the Boat House in particular can be absolutely magical. The sun shined through the clouds while we dined on fish and chips, salt and pepper squid and steak salad alfresco. It became warm enough to ditch our jackets and don our sunnies while admiring the water views.

We couldn't have dreamed up a better day. Mom read her Kindle near Helmut while Mick, Roxanne and I climbed up to the lighthouse at Barrenjoey head. Mickey had done this walk before, but the gorgeous views of the headland, beach and isthmus were new to me and Roxanne. When it started to sprinkle, we carefully trekked back down the hill, avoiding slippery rocks and mud puddles.

fish and chips of the gods
We concluded our jaunt up north with hot drinks at Jonah's at Whale Beach, a snooty restaurant with great views. The wait staff didn't want to waste the heat lamp on patrons who were only paying for coffees, but they did give us some blankets.

I'm sure Mickey and I would visit Palmie more often if it were a bit easier to reach. However, I suspect it is this relative remoteness which makes it so attractive to the wealthy folks who call Palm Beach home.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Curlew Camp Artists' Walk

A view of the city from the bush
For the most part, this winter in Sydney has been mild and pleasant. It's not quite warm enough to swim in the ocean, but it's been an ideal temperature for short bushwalks and even tennis.

Horizon Building reflected by another
I was eager to take my mom on one of my favorite inner-harbour walks, the trail that stretches from the Spit Bridge to the Manly Wharf. The three-hour walk marked by plenty of ups and downs seemed a bit daunting, though, so we hunted online for a shorter inner-harbour option. It wasn't long before we stumbled on the Curlew Camp Artists' Walk (1.5km) which begins at the South Mosman ferry and ends at the Taronga Zoo ferry.

It begins with an intimidating staircase, but Mom bravely trudged up them. The rest of the walk, in fact the entire day, was simply gorgeous.

Roxanne's fantastic photo of two kookaburras

Sirius Cove
One feature that especially endears the inner-harbour walks to me is the variety of scenery you can experience over very short distances. Of course, there are great views of the city, bridge and Opera House, multi-million dollar homes, tiny coves dotted with sailboats and calm beaches, and surprisingly untouched coastal bushland.

Every time I take one of these charming hikes, I vow to return in summer with my cozzie (bathing suit) and a picnic hamper. Let's see if I remember this time.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Whale Watching Outside Sydney Harbour

Mickey and I have recently visited a couple of prime whale watching destinations: Western Australia and Hervey Bay. Sadly for the former aspiring marine biologist in me, we were there out of season and didn't catch sight of migrating whales.

Katie and Becca waiting for our boat at Circular Quay

Katie and Becca's visit to Sydney, however, presented the perfect opportunity to spot some whales just outside the harbour. Katie scored some coupons and generously paid for the four of us girls to hop on the Discovery Whale Watching Tour. It departed a little after 10am on a spectacularly clear, sunny day from Circular Quay. We grabbed seats on the top level of the three-story boat and enjoyed the sun and fresh air as we motored beyond the Opera House, past the heads and out into the open ocean.

The kind lady at the ticket booth advised that our chances of seeing whales was quite good because the boats had been spotting them for several days straight and the company tracks the whales overnight via radar. Fortunately, if we didn't see whales, we would be allowed to take another chance on the Discovery Tour later in the season. I was reluctant to get my hopes up, but pretty satisfied with this guarantee.

Our boat wasn't in the open ocean for ten minutes before we spotted the first couple of sprays from blowholes along the horizon. We approached a group of whales and then followed them for the remainder of the two hour tour. The experts with the microphone explained that we were following a "competition pod," a group of presumably adult males pushing each other while jockeying for position as the top dog, er... whale.

Dorsal fins

The experts couldn't explain the whales' behavior with certainty, but the whales in the competition pod sure put on a show. There were four of them in the group that literally pushed up against one another and aggressively raised their heads and fins out of the water and smacked them down again.

To my delight and astonishment, the whales got really close to our boat. It is against the rules to get any closer to the whales than 100 meters, but if they approach your boat, you're meant to just stay there and let them do their thing until they move along. We were the biggest, but certainly not the only boat following that active pod. Much smaller boats (practically dinghies) broke the rules by getting too close to the whales and were lucky that they weren't accidentally capsized or killed. The whales don't know the rules after all.

Because the whales were so busy that morning, I began to hope that I might see one breach clear out of the water. I'd seen clips on the news of whale watching boats getting such a treat, but dared not hope for it until it started looking not just possible but even likely.

One of the whales turned on his side and began smacking his two meter long pectoral fin onto the surface of the water over and over again. We were so close to the whale that we could clearly hear the noise of the smack on the water. I felt like we were watching a Sea World show, but it's likely that the whale was sending a message to the three others in his pod, not us gawkers on the boat.

Indeed, the whales had something to express because not long after the fin smacking, another whale (or maybe it was the same show-off) breached! I couldn't believe our good luck. Watching the enormous humpback whale lunge clear out of the water was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen (I'm turning into such a nature geek as I age). Mom, Katie, Becca and I all squealed with delight and amazement. We had seen a whale breach; that alone would have been worth the $80 tour cost.

So, you can imagine how we felt when the whale decided to breach again. Yes, it was just icing on the cake at that point.
Mom and me on the top deck of the boat

As we motored back to shore, Mom excitedly began to plan another whale watching trip with her friend Roxanne. I had no interest in going again, though. The naughty whales in the competition pod had spoiled me with their boisterous show; I'm sure I'll never be that lucky on future whale watching trips and am happy to cement this one firmly in my memory.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Vivid Sydney 2011

The art geniuses behind Vivid Sydney once again projected animated images, colors and designs on to the sails of the Opera House and created pure magic.


It seems they've elevated their game each year, perhaps hiring ever more clever artists or maybe learning over time how best to utilize a canvas as unique as the Opera House.

Mickey dragged his tripod to Circular Quay on a chilly evening in May to capture some Vivid moments. This one reminds me of a really cool retro sweater.


This one spread out like a fan.


This is a composite image. Mickey left the camera on a slow shutter speed and the colors bled together. It's my fave.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Royal Wedding

Now that my student days are long gone, I find myself genuinely interested in history, particularly social history. When I read about events that took place within the last century or so, I wish I had a record of how my ancestors experienced it. When the World's Fair came to Chicago in 1893, did my great, great grandparents attend? How did Grandma feel when Pearl Harbor was bombed?

In my own humble way, I hope that this blog serves as a record of one girl's twenty first century life and perceptions. Who knows, maybe my posterity will experience the same curiosity about the past and my family's relation to it that I do now. Even if this blog doesn't last generations, perhaps I can look back on it and recall details about my own life that I'll forget due to having children, dementia or the long-awaited robot takeover.

In any case, I feel the need to record my own experience of the royal wedding between Prince William of Wales and Catherine Middleton because it was such a significant media event. Of course, I've always felt a certain closeness with Wills because he's only three days younger than I am and my mom has fond memories of being pregnant at the same time as Princess Diana. I remember weeping in front of the television when the news revealed that she had died in a car crash and felt terribly sorry for William and Harry. They had grown up in the lap of luxury, but no amount of money or influence could bring back their mum.

My other "tie" to the royal couple is that I studied in Edinburgh, Scotland in one of the same years that Wills and Kate were studying at St Andrews. My flatmates and I had vague plans to stalk the prince when we visited St Andrews in 2002, but sadly, we didn't catch sight of him.

Anyway, Will and I have a bond (of which he remains unaware) and I was delighted to learn that he was going to marry the lovely Kate. The British tabs are legendary for their cruelty, but the worst adjective they had for Katy was 'waity.' Indeed, she was poised to be the perfect people's princess: beautiful, stylish and approachable. Ever since the royal couple announced their engagement in December, the world began to eagerly anticipate the wedding of the century.

I feel lucky to have witnessed the royal wedding as an American in Australia for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it aired at a reasonable time of day for us: Friday evening at 7pm. Dedicated royal wedding watchers in America had to set an alarm for the middle of the night to watch live coverage. Secondly, because of a genuine love of Diana and desperation for a positive news story, the American media went a bit bonkers with royal wedding coverage. When the Daily Show poked fun at the Today Show for interviewing some guy who makes iconic British building jelly moulds, I was glad that I missed most of the craziness.

Mickey and I were fortunate enough to score the perfect royal wedding viewing spot: Thor and Jennie's couch. I practically insisted that Jennie let me come over to watch because I love her and her house and TV are amazing. And because she's one of humanity's gems, she agreed and even prepared a perfect British roast meal complete with an Eton mess for dessert.

We watched the entire royal wedding from the arrivals to the balcony kisses on the BBC in high definition with no commerical interuption. The coverage on the beeb was first rate, but the commentators assumed a level of background knowledge that this yank just didn't have. I kept barking questions to Jennie and Thor: "who is he talking about? She's related to whom? They reconstructed her nose when?" (How did I get this far in life without learning about Tara Palmer-Tomkinson?) 

I loved every moment of the royal wedding. The outfits, hats and celeb-spotting were spectacular. I found it fascinating that plenty of seats in Westminster Abbey wouldn't afford a good view at all. Kate's gown couldn't have been more perfect and she was utterly radiant. No one really agrees with me on this, but I would have liked to see what a makeup artist could have done with her lovely face. I think she did a superb job, but I'd like to see the Duchess move beyond the black eye pencil on the lower lashline.

According to the media, Kate's maid of honor, sister Pippa Middleton, almost stole the show. While I thought she looked lovely, I don't understand why the media now won't let the girl live her life in peace. She didn't sign up to be a royal... yet.

It amuses me that my American friends and family were far more excited about the royal wedding than any Brits or Aussies I know. I sensed that Thor and Jennie, like plenty of Brits, are sort of "over" the royal family and their silly antics. Asking about the purpose of a monarchy in a democratic society is a legitimate question I guess. As an American who has no tax-based reason to question the royal family, though, I am inclined to love and be fascinated by the Windsors (is that tecnically their surname?) What's not to love about an impossibly rich and stylish family with a long history of infidelities, backstabbing and scandal?!

At the conclusion of the coverage, even Thor and Jennie were impressed with the flawless execution of the royal wedding. The pagentry of the event struck the perfect note: enough pomp to do the British tradition proud, but not so outrageously over the top as to make the royals seem completely out of touch.

I can't wait until Harry gets married so we can do the whole thing over again.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Legacy of Tuesday Trivia

The first time we met our dear friends Chris and Jess (formerly in Sydney), we asked them to join us at The Fringe Bar in Paddington for Tuesday trivia. We hadn't been in Australia long enough to know that you need bookings for almost everything so there wasn't a table for us that night, but our blind couple date was a success and we decided to meet up on subsequent Tuesdays at the Fringe Bar (as long as someone made the booking).
Steph's last trivia night at The Fringe Bar

We assembled a crackerjack starting line up consisting of Thor, Jennie, Steph, Lee, Tim and eventually Mike and Laura in addition to ourselves. We loyally attended trivia night at the Fringe every Tuesday for three years despite a love/hate relationship with the current host, mediocre food and appalling customer service. It became one of the most pleasant and reliable parts of the work week: an opportunity to catch up with friends while having a drink and nerding out.

Though Jennie has an incredible ear for music and Tim's general knowledge and familiarity with all things Australia served our team well, our MVPs couldn't always deliver a win. Fortunately, the Fringe often awards prizes to those coming in second, third, fourth, seventh, etc. so we usually concluded the night with a bar voucher.

The first host we came to know at the trivia was a handsome, easy going bloke called Murray. Now that I'm familiar with a couple of different trivia hosting styles, I realize that Murray's strength was his attitude: 'enjoy the game, but don't take it seriously; though I'm holding the answers, I understand that I'm not God.' We enjoyed Murray and like many other teams, named our team the not-so-subtle "when's Murray back?" and "we want Murray back" when he was replaced by a very small guy and eventually the current host, DJ Mike Blades.

For those who haven't encountered DJ Mike Blades, I must refer you to Steve Carrell's character on the American Office, Michael Scott. My feelings toward him vacillated from pity to mild loathing, sometimes in the same night. We got creeped out when he started massaging our friend Jess' bare shoulders without provocation, but would then later feel sorry for him when he revealed, 'it's my birthday tonight and I'm here,' or told a sad anecdote about his ripped jean shorts.

Blades called us trivia participants "party people" and enjoyed the power trip that the role of host afforded him. He would whisper answers to some teams (ours included) and imagined that his mildly sexist jokes were charming. For better or worse, though, we were committed to The Fringe and Blades for our Tuesday night meal and entertainment. It was there that we discussed and celebrated Thor and Jennie's engagement, Mike and Laura's engagement, retold stories about our travels, introduced new friends, entertained visiting families and guests and excitedly talked about our friends' post-Sydney plans before they moved away.

Well, we thought we were in it for the long haul until one day, without warning, we showed up at The Fringe Bar to learn that DJ Mike Blades had been replaced. New management, new food and drinks menu, new host, new format, it was almost too much to bear. We had long discussed trying out other trivia nights and this change at the Fringe presented the perfect opportunity. What did we have to lose?

Tim won all the coins in the jar!
We carefully researched and then ventured out to several trivia nights in Surry Hills. We quickly realized how many different elements compose an enjoyable trivia environment: location, noise level at the pub, quality of food and drink, variety of food and drink, personality of host, pacing of the questions, difficulty of the questions, etc. We encountered a couple of bars that had decent questions and food, but were in slightly inconvenient locations. At Trinity Bar in Surry Hills, we encountered familiar questions. In fact, we learned that we'd answered those exact same questions 32 weeks prior when we met the host, none other than DJ Mike Blades. It felt so strange seeing him in another trivia context.

He told us the whole story about how the management at the Fringe Bar told him on Monday that he wouldn't be needed on Tuesday, but then rang back Wednesday indicating that the new format was a failure and would he please come back next Tuesday. While we had imagined Blades was on to bigger and better gigs, he had been back at the trivia for weeks. We found ourselves back at the Fringe Bar, too, for Mike and Laura's last trivia night for old time's sake.

When they left, Paddington was no longer a central meeting point for all so we decided to give The Harlequin Inn in Pyrmont a try. Pyrmont is convenient for Mickey and Thor because it's near the Google office and it also happens to be down the road from Tim's place. It's not quite as easy for me to get there, but the quality of the questions make the trek worthwhile. Host Jason Dean writes a crossword and two rounds of twenty questions from scratch each week. Many of the questions and all of the answers involve pictures and video. Jason keeps it lively and delivers the questions at a good pace. Best of all, the questions are easier than at the Fringe (no obscure Aussie sports questions!) and we've actually won first prize twice. I can't say if we'll be at the Harley forever, but it's certainly our Tuesday night home for now.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Fraser Island, Hervey Bay and the big white Hummer

While living in Switzerland, before we had planned our next move to Sydney, our friend Pete mentioned that Fraser Island in Queensland was one of the most beautiful places he had ever visited. This piece of information stuck with me though we spent our first three year's worth of Australian holidays in other tourist destinations: the reef, the rock, Tassie, etc.
Sunset on the ferry

When this year's glorious five-day Easter/ANZAC holiday loomed near on the horizon, I remembered Fraser Island and grew excited about squeezing one more beach trip out of the season. By late April, Sydney's beaches are a bit cold for all but the most hardcore swimmers and surfers, but further up the Australian east coast in Queensland, the weather becomes warmer and more tropical.

Because the options for staying on Fraser Island are limited (you can stay at either of two resorts or camp), we booked in at a B&B in Hervey Bay, a sleepy seaside town that serves as the gateway to Fraser Island. I was initially disappointed that this meant that we'd only have one day in Fraser Island, but it ended up working out beautifully.

Fraser Island only has two resorts because it's extremely underdeveloped. In fact, it doesn't even have paved roads. Ferry travel from the mainland is expensive ($80 - $90/vehicle, one way) and restricted to cars with 4WD that can cope with the sand traps that pass for roads on Fraser Island. Obviously, we didn't want to deal with potentially getting a rental car stuck in the sand so we booked an all-day tour of the island that would include pick up and drop off from our accommodations.
Get the linens out for a morning tea in the rainforest

Mara, the helpful proprietor of our B&B, strongly recommended a luxury Hummer tour. Now, riding in a Hummer is something which ordinarily conflicts with my principles because they are known to be ecologically unfriendly. However, I rationalized this particular Hummer ride because I would enjoy it in a one-time tour through a place without real roads context as opposed to a daily, suburban housewife dropping kids off at school in a military vehicle context.

What really sold me on the Hummer tour was the individual attention it afforded. Other tours had up to thirty people, but ours had just four. That allowed us to stop at certain spots and hop back into the vehicle without waiting for 29 others to take their seats. The promise of a gourmet morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea didn't hurt either.

Our tour was fantastic and great weather made it all the better. I knew we were in luck when we saw two wild dingoes saunter past my side of the vehicle when we weren't ten minutes off the ferry. Fraser Island dingoes are known for being among the most pure in Australia (not crossbred with domestic dogs). We started the day with a walk in the rainforest and concluded it with a dip in Lake McKenzie, the clearest, cleanest body of water I've ever had the pleasure of swimming in.
Clear water at Lake McKenzie

It's funny that the premiere swimming attraction of an island is its lakes and not its beaches, but the beaches are kind of a dangerous place on Fraser Island. Because it doesn't have paved roads, the long, flat stretch of beach serves as its super highway and 4WD vehicles travel along it at a frightening clip. It's kind of sad that frolicking on the beach is ruined by the danger of oncoming cars. So, who exactly is traveling at 100K/hour on this otherwise isolated island? Bogans racing to their campsites, of course.

Yes, bogans are the other hazard of Fraser Island's beaches. Indeed, bogan campers, beer, campfires and largely un-patrolled "roads" do not a safe holiday make. I was happy to observe their daytime festivities from the comfort of the Hummer.
Note the sticker on the truck: "WHERE D PHUKRWE"

Mickey and I spent the rest of the holiday enjoying Hervey Bay and the surrounds. We took a road trip up the coast on Sunday and encountered some beautiful beaches, more bogans and delicious macadamia ice cream from a small roadside shop. On Monday we reminded ourselves why renting bikes always sounds better than it actually is: oh, the sore bums! Still, Hervey Bay has a fantastic esplanade for walks and enjoying the coast.

The highlight of the trip, though, was actually the meals we enjoyed at our B&B, Villa Cavour. The hosts Mara and Rocco once owned a restaurant in the mountainous Piedmont region of Italy and brought their talents to Australia almost a decade ago. We decided that home-cooked Italian food would be vastly superior to other Hervey Bay fare and boy, did that decision pay off.

Mara and Rocco asked that we decide at breakfast whether or not we would want dinner also. They offered us a lengthy menu, but we got a tad frustrated when we'd point to a menu item and Rocco would say, 'no, no, no.' He had an abridged menu in his mind that would have made a better basis for selection. Anyway, Rocco offered to make gluten free gnocchi so I was thrilled. The grilled vegetables that preceded it were cooked to perfection.
Can you see why we need this?

We were so pleased with this meal that we decided to take a private cooking class with Mara and Rocco the following evening. Rocco was absolutely fearless when it came to experimenting with gluten free flours to make gluten free pasta. I would have warily hunted online for the right combination of flours that make the most edible pasta, but Rocco simply swapped the all purpose flour for the generic gluten free variety and varied the amounts of water and egg until he reached a workable consistency. We haven't yet repeated the experiment at our house (partly because we now need a pasta roller), but I cannot express how exciting it was to eat fresh ravioli for the first time in years.

As with most trips, we'll likely remember the extremes: incomparable Italian food, the bumpy rides in the Hummer, the restorative properties of Lake McKenzie and its fine white sand, and the Jim Bean flags that the bogans used to mark their campsites.

Laura's Hens' Night

Our dear friend Laura and her fiancée Mike once lived in Sydney, but have moved back to the states and are now only weeks away from their June wedding. Before she left, Jennie, Katy and I sent her off with what I don't mind saying was a pretty epic Hens' Night.

Any party at Jennie's is special because of her gorgeous home at McMahon's Point and superior hostessing skills, but all the girls contributed to a memorable night. Jennie and I had taken a page from Martha Stewart's book (literally) and created some elegant yet inexpensive ceiling decorations. Jennie also hung white wedding bunting and arranged some beautiful white flowers on the dining table; her place looked perfect for a classy girls' night.

Of course then Katy walked in with penis straws to top the cupcakes and cheap Mardi Gras-esque beaded necklaces! We didn't want them to taint the Martha-inspired theme, and smiled through our teeth while saying 'oh sure, it's fine to stick the plastic penises in the cupcakes...' In the end, we were glad that Katy contributed the kitsch because Laura and the girls had fun with it.

I was in charge of games and prizes and had way too much fun writing edgy, but not offensive bride's and groom's quiz questions. The party ended the way all lively good nights out do, wandering around the Rocks searching for clubs that play music we described as 'USHER AND HIP HOP' in too loud voices, talking to strangers and of course giving up on finding another club and jumping in cabs to go home instead.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

from Cleveland to Sydney: the Katarias' Visit

As far as guests go, Mickey's parents were two of the best when they visited for the month of February. They had hot and healthy dinners on the table when we came home from work, cleaned up often and didn't expect to be entertained extensively.

They'd come out to Sydney five years ago to visit extended family in the Blacktown area and, though they love the Australian branch of the Kataria clan, probably didn't imagine that they'd return to the land down under. It's a long journey from Cleveland and their issues with troublesome knees and backs don't make the hours across the Pacific very pleasant. Anyway, Mickey convinced them that waiting out a frigid Cleveland February in sunny Sydney with us was the way to go and booked their tickets after Christmas.

We truly enjoyed having them and learning some new tricks from each other. Mickey's mom bravely experimented with different gluten free flours until she found a roti equivalent that was acceptable for my consumption. Mickey in turn showed her how to use his favorite Christmas present, the tortilla press, to make fresh tortillas.

My in-laws taught me how to play Seep, a complicated Indian card game. I introduced them to Glee, which I don't think they cared for. We all learned a bit more about what doulas are when Estee unceremoniously announced her pregnancy while brunching on Indian food at our house. Indeed, the visit was enlightening.

One anecdote that will stick with me involves the barbeque that the Aussie Katarias hosted out in Blacktown. I'll preface it by saying that Mickey and I disagreed about what sort of relationship we should have to alcohol during his parents' visit. They don't drink and that's fine with me. I would never disrespect their home by drinking alcohol there. I figured that when they're in my home, though, I should be able to have a glass of wine now and then. Mickey doesn't see matters exactly this way, but we'll leave it there.

Anyway, no Aussie barbeque is complete without lots of grog: beer, wine, whatever. The Blacktown Katarias know this and offered me a glass of wine during our visit. I said I'd have one if they were opening a bottle. Well, they opened a bottle... served me a glass... and closed the bottle. No one else had any wine. As if the white, American wife who doesn't speak Punjabi and cannot eat bread didn't stick out enough at this party, my lonely glass of wine confirmed my outsider status. It was terribly awkward, but really funny, too.

I'll admit I was a bit daunted by the month-long visit with the in-laws, but when dropping them off at the airport, I grew sort of teary. Mickey's mom said something to the effect of, 'don't stay here, move back,' in a way that wasn't delicate, but was absolutely sincere. They don't want to have to travel 24 hours to see us and I can't blame them.

We'll most likely take her advice and move back at some point, but I hope her visit provided her with a glimpse of what keeps us in Sydney for now.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Australian Open 2011

Stuffed Roger fans in front of us
2011 marked our third year attending the Australian Open, a truly fantastic events that even non-tennis fans can enjoy. We purchased a quarter finals package to ensure that we'd be able to see our Swiss hero, Roger Federer (as long as Roger made the quarters, which he did, of course) because we'd missed him on previous years.

Luckily for us, the quarter finals package allowed us to see all the top players: Rafa, Wozniacki, Murray, Na Li and the eventual singles champs: Djokovic and "Aussie Kim" Clijsters. Our seats and the weather were fantastic. The only thing to be desired was a bit more excitement in the matches; those players who won did so seemingly pretty quickly and easily ending the matches in a timely fashion.

This was painfully true of Rafa's match against his countryman David Ferrer. He wasn't well and couldn't win and even started to break down in tears between games, but decided to finish the match rather than withdraw. Ferrer played brilliantly and Rafa might have had trouble beating him even if he were in top form. I came away with more respect for both players.

Rafa lunging for the ball

Perhaps the most entertaining player to watch was Francesca Schiavone, an Italian who was incredibly strong and determined. Her grunts, let alone her backhand, intimidated her opponents.

I'm already looking forward to next year's Open and a chance to cheer for Rog and perhaps a fabulous American or Aussie player (Sam Stosur, we're looking at you).

Tasmania - Cradle Mountain and Launceston

Because Australia Day fell on a Wednesday this year, we grabbed the opportunity to take two days off and treat ourselves to a long weekend in Tassie prior to the Australian Open in Melbourne. We had visited (and loved) Hobart and were keen to explore the Cradle Mountain area near Launceston.

Our friends Dan and Estee gamely agreed to accompany us and tolerated our choice of accommodation. The first stop enroute to the Cradle Mountain Lodge was Christmas Hill Raspberry Farm, an overpriced but delightful spot with a cafe serving raspberry-infused everything (even tea). It was indeed a lovely drive through picturesque farmland and tiny towns that, despite their size, each had a claim to fame. There was Railton - Town of Topiary and Sheffield - Town of Murals not too far from each other. Mickey asked if I wanted to pull over for photos, but I sufficiently enjoyed the topiaries and murals from the comfort of the passenger seat.

Cradle Mountain was beautiful and especially easy to enjoy in the good weather that we were lucky enough to experience. We took some leisurely bushwalks around the lake and national park and were treated to a poem about wombat droppings by an overqualified ranger. The dude almost fell off a cliff taking this photo:

Wombats and other native Australian creatures are a highlight of any trip to Tassie. Because most are nocturnal, we took a night spotlight tour with Cradle Mountain Lodge. I was thrilled to see an eastern spotted quoll, a sight which the driver/tour guide indicated was rare, but a bit disappointed that we didn't see any Tassie devils in the wild.

Fortunately, our penguin tour on our last night in Tassie made up for any previous disappointments. We were told to meet the tour company, which operates out of a tiny beach shack, at 9pm (twilight at that time of year). Three guides broke us into three groups of ten or so people and led us down to the beach to tell us more about fairy penguins. Our guide couldn't have been more than 17 years old, but he did a fantastic job. As the sky darkened we started to notice tiny penguins emerge from the ocean and waddle up the beach in small groups. Pairs were headed back to their nests to feed their young.

I helped the guides lug around a large battery-operated red/orange light that we could shine on the penguins without hurting their eyes. To say that they were cute is a profound understatement. The babies, though not much smaller than their parents but fluffier, were even more adorable. Hunger drew them out of their protected nests and caused them to holler for their mamas and papas. We took about a zillion pictures and painstakingly culled them down to a manageable number.

I've enjoyed all of my visits to Tasmania and hope I can take my own kids there one day.

What has art done for you lately?

Back in January, the Sydney festival gave anyone the chance to see their name in lights across the top of the Australian Museum a stone's throw from our house. American artist John Baldessari's exhibit "reflects the changing cult of celebrity in modern society and recalls Andy Warhol's prediction that in the future everyone will have their 15 minutes of fame" according to the Sydney Festival website. All you had to do was enter your name on the website and wait for them to let you know about what time your name would appear. 


Here's mine:
Yes, I became famous at exactly 6:47am so we decided to take a screen shot from the site's webcam rather than drag ourselves out of bed early to take a photo. 


This is probably the coolest thing that art has ever done for me.

Monday, April 18, 2011

NYE 2010: Santa Barbara

In an attempt to maintain the tradition of spending each New Year's Eve in a new location, Mickey and I wound up in Santa Barbara on the last evening of 2010. We had "done" LA and San Francisco in prior years and didn't wish to leave California so we decided on the lovely seaside town of Santa Barbara, a place known for a once-legendary Halloween party, but not for any particular NYE festivities.

And that was fine by me, because I'm one of those who believe that NYE is always overhyped and disappointing. You could dress up and get tickets for a fancy evening at a restaurant or club, watch some fireworks and hope for good music and good company. OR, you could buck tradition and start your own. I've decided that my favorite NYE traditions are a night in with friends full of games, making top ten of 2010 lists but not getting past number three, a dip in the hot tub and s'mores at midnight. At least that's what I did this year and hope to do again on subsequent NYEs.

Of course a night in with friends was appealing to me because "in" was the gorgeous, cozy holiday house we rented for the weekend and "friends" were five of my favorite people on the planet: Mickey, my dear friends Andrew and Alyssa, Nic and his girlfriend Kat. We spent plenty of happy hours playing Dance Central on the xbox 360 Kinect, the 'it' gift for last Christmas. Poor Nic couldn't make it to midnight because of a brief episode of stomach flu, but he was in fine form the next day when we went wine tasting.

This was one of my most enjoyable NYEs. In fact, the only part I would not do over again is watch the prerecorded Snooki ball drop on the Jersey Shore at the stroke of midnight. I'll stick to smooching my sweetie and s'mores.

CleveLAND

Directly after Christmas, Mickey and I flew to Ohio to spend some quality time with his family and by quality time I mean eating-intensive visits with family structured entirely outside of normal mealtimes. "Please don't say we're going to Aunty's place. I might barf because I'm so full" is sort of the sentiment after two and a half days of breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner visits. Of course, each of these meals (even breakfast) concludes with dessert, too. And choosing not to eat would offend the host, so gluttony is the only option for my visits to Ohio.

Our joke of the trip was saying "this week was sponsored by Jaipur Junction" in a singsongy advertising voice. The size of our gatherings required some catering because even the most tireless little aunty couldn't be asked to throw together a meal for twenty and Cleveland's favorite Indian restaurant Jaipur Junction was the takeout of choice.

The highlight of any trip to Ohio is spending time with our niece Priya and twin nephews Isaac and Isaiah. They're boisterous, but ridiculously adorable. We only see them once a year and it was delightful to observe their budding personalities. Isaac follows Priya, the loving big sister (and only person other than their momma who can tell the twins apart reliably) while Isaiah dances to a different beat. Though he can barely talk, he expressed his preferred clothing and shoe brand to his mother thusly: "Mom, Nike shirt." This cracks me up because it's adorable, but also sort of terrifies me. Does Nike know that their Swoosh is recognized by two year olds?

When not half heartedly stuffing Jaipur Junction's butter chicken down our throats, the tykes and I played Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. Good times.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Bowling in the new year

It's April, but I'm still writing about the Christmas/New Year holidays. Yes, I'm a bit behind.

If our holiday trip to the states had a subtitle it might be: American Bowling Alley Tour 2010/2011. We literally went bowling four times over the course of the holiday, first at our beloved 4th Street Bowl (aka Ghetto Bowl) in San Jose, then again in Diamond Bar and Parma, Ohio and finally somewhere in Ventura County enroute to LAX.

Though Mickey's a good bowler, I can't say that we're particularly attached to the sport (we own neither our own shoes nor ball). So, why did we go bowling four times over the holiday? Well, there actually is some logic to it. When you get together with family and friends over winter holidays, you can only go out for meals so many times. At some point, you want to do something mildly active, but the weather doesn't always permit it. Going to the movies is a great option, but it's not very social.

And that's when bowling becomes your go-to holiday activity with friends and family. It's indoor, bowling alleys are everywhere in the US, they're cheap and they have something for everyone. Competitive and/or athletic? Stick to the bowling. Can't stand bowling and/or your family? Well, the bowling alley probably has a bar. Teetotaling or entertaining little ones? They probably also have a jukebox, arcade and nachos. See? You just can't go wrong with bowling.

After touring the four bowling alleys, I noticed a slightly disappointing trend, attempts to renovate and modernize. You may wonder why a bowling connoisseur such as myself isn't excited about replacing the clunky CRTs with flat screens at bowling alleys across America and it's because 'slightly dingy' and 'retro' are the descriptors for which every bowling alley should aim.

Have you ever been bowling abroad? I've been bowling in Zurich and Sydney and the bowling alleys there are all wrong: bright colors, loud music, high prices, menus with items like sliders and satay skewers and way too clean. No, if you ask me, plastic seats, cheesy graphics and cheap cocktails are part of the American bowling alley's charm.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Christmas Part II: It just wouldn't be Christmas without...

Some of my expat friends spent gorgeous Christmases here in Sydney on the beach enjoying seafood barbecues and summer sun. Though paradise to many, a beachy Christmas away from family strikes me as terribly lonely and inauthentic. I guess I'm just not as adventurous and adaptable as my friends who bravely forge new Christmas traditions of beach bonfires and mango margaritas.

To me, there's only one Christmas. It's celebrated in LA with my mom, brother and Mickey and it just wouldn't be Christmas without...
  1. a fabulous family party at Aunt Tina's with a bit of glamor, lots of cousins and an impromptu talent show - The Mallinson, Rennie and Pakfar clans used to gather on Christmas day when we were little, but now that our families are growing, we generally get together at my Aunt Tina's house in Northridge during the weekend before Christmas for a dinner party. We have some good-looking family members, so mom and I stepped up our game this year by getting our makeup done at MAC before the party. I used to be intimidated by the makeup artists at MAC because their own faces often express the drag queen/Lady Gaga-spectrum of their talent, but they're perfectly capable of creating normal party-pretty looks without a touch of Marilyn Manson. Anyway, it was lovely to catch up with all my cousins, especially the Oettinger contingent from Texas who I hadn't seen for several years. Aunt Tina unfailingly serves up a fantastic feast and this year was no exception. The saffron sour cherry rice, a Persian dish this year served up by Uncle Hamid's mom, is always a highlight. We were entertained by seven year old Brandon who sang Justin Bieber's hit song "Baby" twice. Though he was good, my cousin Brittany's three year old son Charlie's effort to literally push Brandon out of the way and then sing the same song was even better.
  2. taking turns opening presents on Christmas morning and wishing I had maybe gotten dressed and put on makeup because Mickey's taking a ton of pictures - On many Christmas mornings of my youth, my brother would awaken me and our parents at around 6:30am. There were plenty of Christmases where the whole thing would be over by 8:15am. Nic's still an early riser and jet lag contributed to another early start to Christmas morning. Some families tone down their Christmas celebrations and the quantity of gifts once the children leave their childhood and teen years, but my family remains remarkably generous and the number of gifts under the tree seem to increase as the years go on. This is also because our family has grown to include Tom and his family, Mickey and his family and Kat, of course. In one critical way, I've matured enough to realize that it truly is better to give than receive. I'm rising early not because I can't wait to see my haul, but because I'm eager to see how everyone else likes the gifts I gave them. This year's highlights were the xBox 360 Kinect with Dance Central game for Nic and Kat and a tortilla press for Mickey. I was thrilled with several generous gifts from my family: clothes from Mom, a signed cookbook from Nic and Kat and games, music and more from Mickey.  
  3. my childhood stocking and the luscious chocolate orange inside it - I sometimes feel sorry for families who hang the traditional red felt stockings with cheap white faux fur trim because my own stocking is so special to me. It's white and green with a delicate quilted pattern; I've had it since birth and my mom recently had my name embroidered on it. Every Christmas I find it filled with a number of small, delightfully useful things: cute pocket Kleenex, Chapstick, socks and a magazine. Without fail, it also includes a chocolate orange fashioned like a real orange complete with sections and pith. You know the type; you have to knock it firmly against a hard surface to separate the sections.  
  4. exchanging gag/ugly gifts with my cousin Holly - We initiated this tradition when I brought home my first lot of teacher Christmas gifts. Bless their little hearts, but the gifts I received from my darling first graders were... well, exactly the types of trinkets that a six year old would find beautiful. I saw my fair share of red and white stuffed animals, silk roses with glue meant to look like dew/rain drops and lots of porcelain, glass and faux-crystal figurines. It sounds cruel, but I found most of these figurines profoundly ugly and perplexing and I would literally cry laughing while imagining the thought process that went into them. A porcelain ballerina pig with a real tulle mini tutu and Dreamsicle-esque flower crown was particularly memorable and inspired me to share this peculiar joy with Holly. Now that I no longer teach, Alyssa generously donated her "best" gift to our cause. It was a mermaid figurine with a glittery bikini top and inexplicable belly chain. Priceless.
  5. going to the movie theater on Christmas day and choosing a film to suit the whole family - Our family are big on movies. For some of us, the Academy Awards are a holiday on par with Easter or the Fourth of July. Finding a movie that's appropriate for all of us (and that most of us haven't already seen) can be a challenge, but we found a winner this year in The King's Speech with Colin Firth.
It was a beautiful, happy Christmas and I'm so glad I was able to spend it at home.

    Thursday, January 13, 2011

    Customer Service: A Tale of Two Countries

    "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." Actually, it doesn't matter what sort of economic times Australia or the US are experiencing in regard to the quality of customer service in each nation. Though Mickey and I love Sydney and its Aussie inhabitants, we find the efficiency and friendliness of service here below the American par to which we are accustomed.

    (Oh, did you want to find out what happened to the sack of Christmas presents I thoughtlessly left at The Hotel Griffon in San Francisco? I know you did. We'll get there. Stay with me).

    So, without further ado, I'll present the evidence, the Sydney customer service "horror" stories we tell at parties to shock our friends:

    1. Return Policies (or lack thereof) - I've had the misfortune of needing to return clothing from a TGV store in the CBD and Veronika Maine. For fear of this exact situation, I held on to my receipts, didn't remove the tags and returned the items to the stores the day after I bought them. The t-shirt shop in the TGV insisted that I get store credit though nothing in the store had any hope of fitting my non-emo sized brother; that's why I was returning it! The manager eventually refunded my money, but it was painful. I wasn't as lucky at Veronika Maine. I had to accept store credit and pick out something else. I cried in the store and they threw in a pair of leggings so really I guess this isn't so egregious. I just wish every store could be a bit more like Nordstrom. I had to return something there over the holiday and they didn't even require my receipt and asked no questions... what a relief.
    2. Property Managers and Estate Agents - If you believe in reincarnation and met a Sydney property manager/estate agent, you'd agree that they did something really, really bad in a past life to wind up in this one as an estate agent. In fact, if you have to deal with them on a regular basis, you start wondering what you yourself did in a past life to deserve it. I'm convinced their job descriptions bind them to not call you back. However, when they want a response from you, boy, they want it quick. They often show property for a fifteen minute window. Fifteen minutes in Sydney? Really? For estate agents, who are notoriously late, to schedule something from 3:15 - 3:30, say, is a joke. Real estate agents in the states aren't saints, but they call you back.
    3. Restaurants - The stories are too numerous to list here, but here are a couple of my faves. We once went to a Japanese restaurant that ran out of tea. We found this out 30 minutes after we ordered our tea. First, you're a Japanese restaurant! Second, why didn't you let us know when we ordered? Many Sydney restaurants prefer that you make a booking beforehand and look at you funny when you present them with a bit of walk-in business. I'm always stunned when the restaurant is half empty, but they tell you they're booked out. We've been to many restaurants that have separate menus for different sections of the restaurant. The bar menu is for the bar and the longer menu is for the restaurant. Sometimes the dividing lines for these sections are so nonsensical you find yourself asking the servers the same retarded questions more than once: "so, if I sit three meters away, I have to order off of this menu?" Or, "I can only purchase that cocktail upstairs and then I have to walk through security again to bring it back?" I could go on and on and on, but our latest experience was kind of funny. A bar told us we couldn't have a pitcher of cocktails because "people kept asking for them and they take too long to make." 
    4. Dry Cleaners - Aside from the Incident, I've had other less violent, yet still disappointing experiences with dry cleaners. There are two different vendors that added new stains to my clothes and then looked put upon when I asked them to re-clean them. When I showed up to collect my clothes at another on the appointed day, they told me my items wouldn't be there until the next day. "If you need to pick it up Saturday, you have to say Friday." Silly me for not counting backward one day.
    5. Port Stephens Samurai Beach "Resort" - I can't generalize to say that Australian hotels and/or B&Bs are lacking. In fact, most that I've stayed at are great. Yet, we had a very interesting experience at the Samurai Beach "Resort," a spot puzzlingly ranked number one on tripadvisor. Housekeeping staff did not clean the place daily despite it being a beach "resort" and the tendency for sand to get everywhere. Their method of delivering extra blankets, pillows and towels to our room was shouting 'hey, you guys!' when we walked by reception one morning. They tried to charge us $30/night for our third guest presumably for the extra pillow that we ourselves had to pick up from reception a day after we requested it. Maybe I could cut Samurai some slack if I had seen the koalas that allegedly live on their property, but I didn't so I won't.
    6. George Street Cinema - While sorting out a seating issue before a movie once, an ornery usher told my friend Jess to move her handbag. It wasn't in the aisle, it was just in front of her, yet he told us to "put your handbags in your lap or leave it at home." What?! Since when is that the rule? Everyone's familiar with don't talk and turn off your phone, but keep your handbag in your lap? This guy was nuts. 
    7. Online shopping with Big W - My savvy colleague Adam bought a DVD for his wife from Big W online. He was told it would arrive in about eight days. On the eighth day he rang them to find out the status of the order. 'Actually, that item is out of stock,' they told him. They had already charged his credit card and seemed to have no plans to let him know his item would never arrive.
    8. Health Insurance - don't. even. get. me. started. My limited dealings with my health insurance company have turned me into a bitter, crazy person. Why do they insist on conducting business via fax? Can't they tell I'm under 30 and incapable of using that machine? :)
    Mickey was meant to write about the hassles of banking, setting up internet and phone service and even trouble with booking seats on Qantas, a usually quite reliable airline, but perhaps his rage is just too fresh. :) 

    And just how does this compare to my experience in the states when I left that precious little sack of Christmas presents in the Hotel Griffon and remembered two days later? Well, in a panic I rang them 30 minutes before we were to depart for southern California. They said they'd look into it and call me back. They didn't call me back, but when I rang them back they said that my items did not turn up in lost and found but that they would check with the housekeeping supervisor on duty next Monday. This was a bad sign that my items did not turn up in lost and found. Surely, a canvas bag would have been identified as lost property. 

    I called them a couple more times on Monday morning (when they said they'd get back to me) and by Monday afternoon they had the following story. A housekeeper added the bag to her cart, then it was somehow mistaken as trash, then they went looking through the trash and discovered some of my lost items. Okay, here's what was in the bag: a set of five NARS lip glosses, unopened Orbit gum, unopened hot mustard, bar of soap shaped like a horseshoe, unopened calendar, Christmas card and five bags of special chocolate toffee candies from the ferry building's farmers market. Here's what was recovered: two of the bags of chocolate candies, the Christmas card and the canvas bag once containing all of these presents.

    When I later received these surviving items in the mail, I realized how completely implausible their story was. None of the items looked like they had been anywhere near a trash bin. If they had, that assumes the hotel staff dug through 2 - 5 days worth of trash in order to recover them. My mom and some friends are convinced that the housekeepers stole the items and were guilted into returning some of them to management. In any case, Hotel Griffon apologized profusely, sent the surviving items to my mom's house and credited our account with $150, the value I attributed to the lost goodies.

    I had trouble forgiving myself for this carelessness initially, but in the end, it could have been much worse. Now, I like to look at it as my small contribution to boosting America's economy.

    In comparing the quality of customer service across nations, the conversation always returns to tipping. Because the tipping culture runs rampant in the US, does it improve customer service? This may be true in some cases, but if you've ever been to Japan you'll know that excellent service doesn't always require a tip.

    While griping about the inconsistencies of America's tipping culture, when to do it, how much, etc., it occurred to me that the housekeepers at Hotel Griffon may have treated my lost bag of Christmas treats as their holiday tip. Mickey stayed there for a week and a half and didn't tip the housekeepers, perhaps inciting their anger and prompting sticky fingers. Tipping the housekeepers didn't even occur to me and that's what's really frustrating about tipping, the lack of clear rules.

    On one side of the Pacific, you have sometimes appalling Australian service, but no tipping culture (even low-level workers are paid a living wage). On the other side, you'll find better service in America, but confusing and often uncomfortable expectations in regard to tipping. My conclusion? Perhaps both nations need to take a lesson from the Japanese. A stronger sense of shame and embarrassment might encourage service providers to step up their game. Though on the other hand, a healthy dose of shame might have also prevented me from writing this post. 

    Monday, January 10, 2011

    Christmas Part I: San Francisco

    Mickey and I recently returned from a glorious month-long trip to the states. How do we sum up such a trip to friends since returning to Sydney? Well, 'fun' and 'wonderful' are a couple of words that come to mind, but I feel I can describe the trip better by breaking it down into its four component legs: San Francisco (the part where I got sick, lost some Christmas gifts, but still had an amazing time), LA (the part where it didn't stop raining, but we had a mega-happy Christmas anyway), Cleveland (the family and food intensive bit) and Santa Barbara (the part where we actually enjoyed video games and initiated a new tradition).

    I'll devote this post to our week in the San Francisco bay area.

    The trip started off with joyful reunions with our dear friends Andrew and Alyssa (who just returned back to the states after teaching in Shanghai), Chris and Jess (who left Sydney for a new life in Denver) and Steph (who left Sydney for San Francisco). Because our hotel was located near the ferry building, we wandered there often for meals, snacks and gifts. The Saturday morning market was especially good to us; Jess bought a wreath and I tasted a piece of pure heaven: a gluten free cinnamon roll from Mariposa. I hadn't enjoyed a cinnamon roll since before my diagnosis and I couldn't believe how true to my memory of a real cinnamon roll it was. Mariposa drew me back a couple more times during my stay, but I wasn't able to sample every baked good they offer; gf ravioli, I'll be back for you.

    Steph hosted a delicious Mexican lunch for us on Saturday afternoon. There we toured her gorgeous new home in the Mission and met up with more Sydney friends, Shannon, Mike and baby James. Though I lived across the bay from San Francisco for a couple years, I never really explored the Mission. It was a treat to peek in the neighborhood's numerous taquerias, panaderias, markets and any other shop selling colorful crepe paper piñatas. After the meal, Steph took us on a quick walking tour of some of the Mission's famous murals. Chris snapped some excellent photos of these.  

    The work week was quieter because everyone except me had to return to their homes and jobs. I spent the time binge watching MTV's 16 and Pregnant in the hotel when I was feeling ill (I had a nasty flare-up on this trip) and shopping and meeting up with old friends from Cal when I rallied. Mickey hosted me for lunch at the San Francisco office (they have a slide from one floor to the next!) and we enjoyed more delicious meals at Slanted Door, Ozumo and Shalimar.

    Our dinner at Shalimar, a casual North Indian/Pakistani restaurant, was a bit more eventful than we would have wished. We were waiting for our food when I saw an employee run at full speed around the counter and out the door. We later learned that he was chasing two young men who stole cash directly from the register. He told us that he caught up with them, but backed down when they pulled out a knife. What's surprising is that this was the second theft I witnessed that week. I watched a homeless-looking man in his 70s steal a scarf from Kenneth Cole at a nice mall. Of course these things happen everywhere, but I couldn't escape the sense that America is more dangerous and desperate than Australia in the current economic climate.

    On Thursday morning we said goodbye to San Francisco and drove down the peninsula to our new digs, the Four Seasons in Palo Alto, an extraordinarily elegant hotel. I dropped Mickey at Goog HQ and headed further south to San Jose. I visited Andrew and Alyssa's Rocketship schools and was reminded of my stint as a first grade teacher in a low performing school. Nothing about the day made me wish I had stayed in teaching, but I was delighted to assist Alyssa and give an impromptu lecture to Andrew's students on Australia.  

    I met up with my lovely friend Leah that evening and helped her students build gingerbread houses the next day. The two days in public schools were chaotic, but I left feeling tremendous pride in my friends who educate America's future.

    It wasn't until the next day in the San Jose airport when I suddenly looked up from my Kindle and gasped. I had left an entire bag of Christmas gifts in our hotel in San Francisco two days before. Tune in soon to find out what happened.

    Thanksmas

    Last month Mickey and I hosted our fourth annual expat Thanksgiving/holiday party. As usual, it was a tremendous amount of work (even though my friends helped A LOT), but really rewarding, fun and tasty.

    Part of what makes organizing an expat Thanksgiving interesting is that not all of the stores are catering to a nation of people who are doing the exact same thing. You won't find enormous frozen Butterball turkeys at the Coles or canned pumpkin and frozen cranberries at the Woollies. In fact, Mickey and I visited at least ten unique vendors in order to tick off our T-day to do list: order $70 chemical free bird from the butcher - check, find a non-plastic pitcher in which to serve a blood orange champagne cocktail (thanks, Lee and Jennie) - check, warn the mushroom guy at the farmer's market that you'll need a quarter kilo of fresh shiitakes next week - check!

    I hope this doesn't sound like complaining because pulling off an out of season Thanksgiving really feels like an adventure, not a chore. In terms of dishes, we were only responsible for an appetizer (roasted sweet potato fries with chipotle aioli dip), the bird, gf/vg stuffing and a gf pecan pie. Mickey was keen on brining the bird like we did last year, but I stuck to my guns and insisted we do a salt rub as per the recommendation of bon appetit. Mickey managed the whole process and it came out lovely: crispy brown skin on the outside and moist, flavorful flesh on the inside. Lee, who dropped in again this year from Singapore, made the gf pecan pie, painstakingly arranged the native flowers and set the whole table. That left me with plenty of time to organize other things and enjoy the party.

    Our friends supplied salad, yamallow, veggie meatballs, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, vegetables, pumpkin pies, wine and lots of holiday cheer. We played Wits and Wagers and snapped photos on the balcony. I suspect a good time was had by all.

    This year there was much to be thankful for: wonderful husband, family and friends, good health, harbour views and most recently, my Kindle. Mickey had someone bring one back for me from the states and I must say that it's my favorite technology toy. I was just getting into my library copy of Clan of the Cave Bear when the Kindle came into my life. I wanted to play with the shiny new eBook reader, but was also really into the other book. For fun, I browsed the Kindle store to learn that Clan of the Cave Bear was available for only $1.59! I downloaded it immediately and stopped stressing a late fee.

    The feature that I most love is the ability to download a free sample of almost any book before you purchase it. Though seemingly simple, this feature has completely changed my relationship with books. In the pre-Kindle world, I think most of us just read the back cover or jacket before deciding to buy or borrow a book. You might have glanced at a couple of pages, but for the most part books weren't a try-before-you-buy kind of item (unless you're one of those folks who make themselves really comfortable on those Barnes & Noble couches). Now, you can read free samples 'til the cows come home and not feel bad about taking up valuable B&N couch space and then buying nothing.

    And if I thought I had a lot to be thankful for in November, I had no idea what was in store for December... Stay tuned for the Christmas post.

    Lead up to the Holidays

    I've ignored my dear blog for far too long not because nothing interesting was happening, but to the contrary because all kinds of wonderful things were happening!

    Thor and Jennie hosted another incredibly awesome Halloween party complete with sweetly spooky decorations, genuine American pumpkin carving kits, a scary movie and of course, food! I got into the spirit with a Halloween headband and prepared a colorful candy bark with chocolate, Reece's, M&Ms and other goodies. Highlights include Mike and Laura's costumes (Popsicle stick masks of Mark Zuckerberg and trivia host extraordinaire Mike Blades) and Jennie's gf chicken tenders and scones (my friends spoil me).

    Of course it wouldn't be November without a photo-filled wander through Sculptures by the Sea. After this, my third time attending the annual art event, I've determined that the best sculptures are not those that are inherently coolest, but those that use their allocated coastal space best. Everyone (including us) wanted photos with giant yellow letters reading 'OMG,' but I preferred this rusty camel on the cliff. It's interesting to see her outside the context of an ocean of desert sand and instead against the backdrop of a well, actual ocean.

    Another November highlight was our trip to Taronga Zoo to check in with some of the world's cutest animals ever born in captivity: baby elephants Pathi Harn (aka Mr Shuffles) and Tukta. Mickey and I hadn't been to Taronga Zoo since we first arrived in Australia almost three years ago and it turns out that the Sunday of our visit was an ideal day. A small misting of rain minimized the crowds and Tukta was then just one month old and terribly little and cute! She hung by her mama's side, but Mr Shuffles entertained us by playing with old tires. He was so pleased with himself when he managed to get all four legs on a tire and stand just a bit taller. Anyway, Taronga's elephants are adorable and I highly recommend seeing them while they're still young and goofy.

    Check back soon for more holiday posts.