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 piƱatas. 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.


    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.