Saturday, September 27, 2008

A night of coincidence

You know all of that crap about a flap of a butterfly's wings in Peru causing a baby to have colic in Ethiopia? For proof, keep reading.

I met Chad in Destin ten years ago, and we've kept in touch sporadically since I moved away eight years ago. When we were in town visiting my parents this summer, he invited us over to meet his other friends who were moving to Sydney, Stephanie and Jake. Now those of you familiar with the Florida panhandle will realise just how strange it is for two couples at one dinner in Destin to be contemplating moving to Australia.

ANYWAY, that is how we found ourselves sharing a nice Italian dinner with Stephanie and Jake last night, comparing notes on the quirks of life in Australia. We continued to a typical Australian bar up the street, where we saw Ralph, from our sailing crew. In a city of 4 million people, I shudder to try to calculate the odds that we should see one of the ten people we know. I felt, gasp, like a local.

Well, we weren't such locals that we managed to be at the correct bus stop, so we watched in dismay as our bus whizzed by. As it was past midnight, we decided to cut our losses and catch a cab to the train station. Eric and I were chatting in the backseat when the cab driver asked if we knew the couple he had just driven home, who had told him they were from the top part of Florida. I guess it's not that crazy that the cab driver looped back by the bar after driving Stephanie and Jake home, but after the night as a whole and a couple of fizzy cocktails, it seemed like some kind of bizarre alignment of parllel universes.

Friday, September 26, 2008


I was just out in the backyard hanging some clothes on the line to dry (we do that here) and noticed how pretty and tropical our trees look. The palm tree in the picture is actually in the neighbor's yard, although we have one, too. The poky tree is in our yard -- not sure what those melon-looking things are, but I found a huge, rotten orange fruit on the ground, so they must be related. The giant pole obsessed Eric for a while. They're all over the neighbourhood, topped by these big mesh globes. Someone told him they were for venting sewage (lovely) but aren't in use any more.

After hours office fun

In Australia, it is common to have Friday afternoon drinks and "nibblies" in the office. I thought this might just be a PreVisor thing, but I'm assured it's pratically a national worker's right. In our office, we have Corona, wine, and lots of cheese/meat/crackers beginning around 4:30. Every department shares their highlights for the week, like big sales or projects delivered, and there's a lot of teasing and hilarity. Then we sit around finishing our drinks and discussing weekend plans. It's a really nice way to end the week. Sometimes, like last night, a few people are enjoying highlights so much that we continue to a bar. Six of us went to this huge open-air bar, basically the size of a large park, and it was packed with people enjoying the beautiful Spring weather. Queues at the bar were 4 or 5 deep.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Doing hard time

The cats have arrived in Australia! They are settling into their prison cells at the Eastern Creek Quarantine facility. I can call their caretaker, Joshua, every week day between 1-3 pm for a report. I don't know what bet he lost to end up with the most high maintenace cat mom ever. I'm hoping to make the trek out there next week to make their cells a little more homey. You know, pictures to hang on the walls, blankets to cushion the hard concrete. And I hear they can trade smokes for special favours while they're in the can. They'd probably like some catnip, but I'm not risking extending their sentences by bringing them hard drugs. I'm relieved that Otis is probably the biggest cat in there and should be able to provide some protection for his brother, although the grouchy look on Leroy's face should keep some of the thugs away on its own. Unfortunately, visiting hours are limited to 1:30-3:30 Tues/Thurs or M-F during business hours for 30 minutes by appt. I'm trying to take a full day off of work on Tuesday to accept our worldly belongings from the shipping comany in the morning and then to hightail it out to see the cats in the afternoon. I believe I can pick them up on 24 October, which will be a day for much rejoicing.

Last weekend was fairly eventful. The yachting on Saturday was okay. The weather was quite warm at 31 degrees (88 degrees for you Yanks), but there was still a lot of yelling. We were 4th across the line and 6th in terms of points out of 10 boats.

Saturday night we had Kate and Anna from my office and their respective partners over for chilli and cornbread. Since Kate and Dan are from the UK, Anna is from Russia, and Reza is originally from Iran, although he's been in Australia for 22 years, we were quite the international gathering. It was nice to hear people say that our house isn't the nightmare that we sometimes still think it is. Apparently we're getting a really good deal -- Kate and Dan pay $650/week for their little apartment! While I think our guests were familiar with chilli con carne as a dip, they didn't seem familiar with chilli as a meal in itself. Cornbread was definitely a new experience for them. Eric and I were just relieved that it was edible given the confusion here over baking soda/baking powder. Read the following passage and flash back to SAT nightmares:

Baking soda and bicarbonate of soda are different names for the same thing; in Australia, we mostly refer to it as bicarbonate of soda, but overseas, especially in America, it is referred to as baking soda. They aren’t interchangeable, but bicarbonate of soda and baking powder are both leavening agents. When included in a batter, the leavening agent causes air bubbles (produced by stirring, whipping or beating) to expand when cooked – causing it to ‘rise’.

Bicarbonate of soda is a pure leavening agent. It needs to be mixed with moisture and an acidic ingredient for the necessary chemical reaction to take place to make food rise. Because it needs an acid to create the rising quality, it is often used in recipes where there is already an acidic ingredient present, such as lemon juice, chocolate, buttermilk or honey.

Baking powder, which contains bicarbonate of soda, comes pre-mixed with the acidic ingredient for you – so all you need to add is the moisture. The acidic ingredient most often used in baking powder is cream of tartar. You can make your own baking powder: simply mix two parts cream of tartar with one part bicarbonate of soda. Baking powder has a neutral taste and is often used in recipes that have other neutral-tasting ingredients, such as milk.

In Australia, we usually just cook with self-raising flour when a leavening agent is required, unless the specific qualities of bicarbonate of soda are required. Bicarbonate of soda imparts a slightly different quality to that of baking powder when used in cooking. It can have a slightly “tangy” taste and it makes a lovely golden colour. It also makes a very specific texture not achievable with baking powder. It is very important to sift bicarbonate of soda well as it gets lumpy and to use very exact measures as the “tangy” taste can quite easily become bitter or soapy if too much is used.

This passage represents most of our cooking adventures here in Australia. Things are very similar, but just different enough that you question whether you're buying the correct ingredients. We were having no luck finding good recipes for a while. Cooking Light doesn't work for us any more unless we want to make lots of unit conversions, and all of the recipes we took from Australian websites tasted like dog food. Fortunately, Kate directed us to the BBC Food - Recipes, and we've had much better luck. I made some tasty Coq a Vin and then some Goan Chicken Coconut Curry this week.

On Sunday, the Bridge Run, aka Sydney Running Festival, was a bit of a debacle. My particular race had 12,000 people in it, and the self seeding at the beginning wasn't well organised. Therefore, you had people who just wanted to walk the course up at the front and serious runners towards the back. It took me 11 minutes after the gun just to reach the start line. I spent the entire 50.5 minutes of my race jumping up on curbs and running over onto the grass to dodge people. Consequently, I think I ran about 9.5 kilometres instead of 8.8 kilometres, and I managed to do something horrible to my back. I averaged just at 9 minutes/mile (assuming I only ran 8.8 kms!), but I had hoped to finish in closer to 45 minutes. It was dispiriting to work so hard and then not feel like I had the opportunity to do my best. It also wasn't totally triumphal to limp to the train and spend the rest of the day flat on my back. Fortunately I have a very nice husband who made me brownies, walked to get me some movies, didn't laugh at me and poke me with a stick, etc.

Last night I took advantage of late shopping hours and went to the camping stores near my work in the CBD. All of the stores that sell any kind of camping equipment are on the same block, and for a change they're actually trying to offer you a good deal. It didn't hurt that they all had big sales beginning today. I was able to get a nice backpacking tent and two North Face sleeping bags that will zip together (for the snuggling) for just over $500. Would it have been cheaper to bring our old stuff from the US? Yes, considerably. Some lessons are more expensive than others. Next weekend, the first weekend in October, is the 3-day Labour Day weekend here, and we have a holiday from racing. We're trying to go camping somewhere with Kate and Dan if we can find a place with campsites available. We're having lovely Spring weather, so it should be warm during the day and cool enough during the evenings to enjoy a fire. Ah...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Kenny, the dunny master

Our friend, Stuart, gave us a list of quintessential Australian movies to see, including "Kenny," a faux reality show about an Australian man who manages a dunny business. Dunny used to mean outhouse, but now it refers primarily to portable toilets. However, the term dunny is still invoked to make fun of country folk. ANYWAY, while the movie is definitely a comedy, it has some really touching moments, and if you watch the credits, you'll notice that Kenny's son, brother, and father are played by...his son, brother, and father. Kenny was such a hit that he got his own show, which started just a couple of weeks ago. In each episode, Kenny travels to a new country. This week, he went to Japan to see his friend from the movie, Sushi Cowboy.

Television is much more manageable here. There are only about four stations, one of which is educational. The concept of cable television has been introduced fairly recently by Foxtel, but it doesn't seem to be catching on. I'm not sure that Australians understand why they should want 6,000 stations of crap instead of four.

One weakness of the television programming here is that news is basically tabloid gossip, so I download the BBC global news podcast each day to listen to on my way to work. Until the election, the BBC is driving a bus around the US interviewing people to try to figure out what makes Americans so crazy. My friend from the UK listens to the same podcast, and she thinks she understands why we left the US now. Yesterday, this crazy lady in Arizona was defending her right to own a gun with the traditional, "Guns don't kill people, people do," to which she added, "If someone is really evil enough to kill someone, they'll do it with a chair or a pen or a baseball bat." The BBC reporter asked if it wasn't easier to kill someone with a gun, a point she wasn't willing to concede. His response was, "Well, if I was going to kill someone, and I had a gun and a chair, I know which one I'd choose."

People here are obsessed with the US presidential election. My friend came into work this morning with a Barack Obama flier for me. Some guy stopped him by the train station this morning, asked him if he knew any Americans, and they gave him a flier telling me how to get my absentee ballot. Mc Cain, Palin, or Obama is in the news here every day.

Monday, September 15, 2008

All hail the mighty wombat...

Maybe you knew what a wombat looked like already, but I just discovered him yesterday. I knew there was such a thing as a wombat, but I didn't really have a clear idea of what he looked like. Maybe a rodent, or a relative of the kangaroo. Now, he's basically my favourite animal. I mean, look at him. There is a koala sanctuary in Sydney where you can hold him and tell him you love him. I think you know where I'll be spending my next free weekend...

Spring has sprung here in Sydney. The last three days in a row have been warm enough to skip the jacket/sweatshirt, and although today is a little cooler, it's still decidedly bearable.

Eric and I got our first electricity bill, which included about 40 days for the bargain price of $90. Given that we don't have heat or air, and we've run our little electric heater for a total of about an hour, I'd say electricity is pretty pricey here.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Victory can sometimes be just the absence of abject defeat...

Saturday dawned sunny and further reprieve from the racing. We met in the bar at the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron at 11 and were delighted to see that we'd picked up two additional crew members for the race: Simon, a young accountant from the UK in Oz on a six-month contract, and Warrick, a past crew member who was probably asked along once Terry and Julie realised we were hopeless. I believe that Simon is supposed to join us for the series, but he was either shy or horrified on Saturday...we'll see if he comes back. By 11:30 we were doing as many practice jibes around the harbour with the spinnaker as possible. Despite the stress that jibing entails, we were able to watch some of the other races getting started. Up and down Sydney Harbour on a Saturday are a number of races at each of the clubs-- it barely looks like there is room for another sailboat to make its way down the harbour.

We started our race well but were having trouble picking up speed. However, we went from last to second at the start of the first downwind leg. Given our previous challenges with getting the spinnaker flying in a timely manner, gaining ground in this way was quite a surprise accomplishment. The wind picked up steadily over the 2+ hours of race, increasing the challenge and excitement of the race. Frankly, towards the end when we were really zipping up and down the harbour was when I began enjoying myself less. Mistakes started happening more frequently, and tempers rose accordingly. While I really like sailing, I've never been particularly competitive, except with myself. I've always enjoyed sports like climbing and running and snowboarding, where I can constantly improve upon my own past performance. Racing sailboats, to me, is like taking something I like and adding yelling, which makes me decidedly uncomfortable. However, it's really a privelege to get to spend Saturday afternoon out on the water, particularly a Saturday like this one. Mild discomfort seems a small price to pay to have an experience than most Sydneysiders will never have.

We crossed the line second out of six or seven boats, though, and ended up in fourth place in terms of points. I had really feared that we'd finish in last place, 30 minutes or more behind the next to the last boat. Each boat has a handicap based on anticipated speed, so your place in points is generally different from your palce across the line.

The pictures above are taken during the sail back up the harbour towards the yacht squadron after the race...there would certainly be no photography during the race! You can see the last few races in the harbour finishing up behind us.

Today, Eric and I drove south about an hour to the Royal National Park. It's quite a large park, with lots of beaches, hiking, camping, canoeing, waterfalls, etc. It was raining today, but our appetites are whetted, and we're anxious to get back to explore further. Anyway, I was looking up in the trees almost the entire time trying to spot a koala. The pictures above are from a Hindu temple just outside the park.

It's still strange to be in the car with Eric driving on the wrong side of the road. I have this hightened sense of awareness, so I can only imagine what it must be like for him driving. It's stranger still to think that I may not drive the entire time we're here since I'm not allowed to drive his company car. I'm really glad we have the car now as it makes little trips like the one we took today possible. We're thinking of driving down to Melbourne for Labor Day, the first weekend in October. It's only a few hour's drive, and the drive down the coast is supposed to be one of the most gorgeous in the country.

One other adjustment we've been making is to the safety climate here. Our front door barely has a lock on it. When I go to boot camp in the park, we all leave our things lying in the grass. On Wednesday, after having drinks with some friends from work, I waited on a train platform well after dark without worrying. By and large, crime is reduced. And without guns, the worst that can happen to you is suddenly much less serious.

When you check out at the grocery store here, the cashier often says, "See ya," like they fully expect to see you again, even though Sydney is huge.

We're not entirely certain whether sticky beak is a noun, meaning someone who is very nosy, or a verb, meaning to inspect something closely. We've heard both usages this week and are investigating further.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Happy Australian Father's Day!!

Today is Father's Day here in Australia, so Eric and I would both like to wish our fathers a wonderful day. In Australia, the traditional Father's Day gift is lollies (aka candy, a word Australians think is very funny).

Saturday brought the worst weather we've seen yet in Sydney. The rain was coming in sideways. After running about in the rain to procure some waterproof pants, we headed to the yacht squadron for our first race. Despite the fact that we'd wasted half the day getting ourselves attired and to the yacht sqaudron for the race, we were relieved to hear that it was canceled due to the downpour. We took advantage of the reprieve by practicing today, when the weather was fine (meaning nice in Australia; also, they say a "top of 16 degrees" instead of a "high of 16 degrees). I'd like to say that we made leaps and bounds of progress and now feel confident in our ability to sail to victory next weekend, but I'm afraid we're still a mess. We also had our first sight of the competition yesterday as we sat around the bar at the squadron after the race was called -- they had special sailing bags with their special sailing outfits!!! We have $30 waterproof pants...

On Saturday, Eric and I also took our first trip to the grocery store in the car. It was glorious. We bought the heaviest food we could find, reveling in the fact that we didn't have to carry it home on our backs. Eric's driving skills are improving every day. He just has to "think left."

Did you know that if someone does something stupid in Australia, he's called a pelican?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

I've given up on the inside of our house looking nice any time soon and have decided to post some pictures of the outside instead. Eric spent a lot of time cleaning up our back "garden" (what we call yards here), and I can't wait until the weather warms up and we can get a table and some chairs out there.

Eric got his car yesterday and took his life into his hands driving it home while navigating. He had some problems finding his way back to work this morning, but I played navigation system on the laptop/cell phone at home. Sydney is a mess of windy one-way roads that look considerably less confusing on the map. Tomorrow he drives down to the plant for the first time -- it's over an hour on the train, so it should be a fairly long drive.