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 fiancĂ©e 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.