Monday, August 16, 2010

Amsterdam or Amersfoort?

Craig and Annie joined us for a Tues-Fri trip to Amsterdam, about a 6-hour train trip from Berlin. More accurately, we joined them, since they planned the entire trip, bought the train tickets, and booked the house where we stayed about an hour's train ride from Amsterdam in a little town called Amersfoort. We arrived early enough to walk around our scenic little village and eat ourselves silly on tapas.

The following morning we took the train down to Amsterdam, only to be overwhelmed by the hordes of tourists. We walked around with Craig and Annie for a couple of hours looking at crooked buildings on canals before retreating to a cafe for breathing space. Following lunch, Craig and Annie retreated all the way to Amersfoort while Eric and I saw some additional sights.

We visited the Houseboat Museum, which confirmed that Craig was correct in referring to them as "housefloats." Most of the live-aboard barges have neither sails nor motors and only leave their moorings every 3-4 years to have their bottoms cleaned. I guess it's still waterfront real estate, but it kind of takes some of the romance away knowing that they're really only floating apartments. Still, the museum was interesting, with lots of pictures and videos of the creative ways people have utilised the limited space aboard their housefloats.

Then we moved on to the photography museum, as Eric and I both tend to enjoy photography more than Renaissance paintings of fat ladies, fruit, or men on horses. Unfortunately, the only exhibit on was by some famous fashion photographers, which translated to lots of female nudity. For a while, I felt like we were in Amsterdam's famous sex district rather than a museum.

We followed the museums by a stroll through what the guidebook referred to as one of Amsterdam's most "international" markets. It was only international in the fact that in cities all around the world, they try to sell pointless crap to tourists. After killing a little more time at a canal-side cafe with a typically surly waitress (but nice, cold beer), we checked in on the line for the Anne Frank house again. Apparently everyone had read that it was the "must-see" attraction in Amsterdam as the line had to be at least 3 hours long, even at 6:30 pm. Knowing my attention span, after waiting in line that long, I wouldn't have the patience to read any of the exhibits, particularly with strangers touching me. Thank God for the internet, where I can view pictures without sharing others' oxygen!

Amersfoort felt like a refuge after the crowds of Amsterdam, so we decided to spend the rest of our time there. Therefore, our 4-day trip to Amsterdam turned out to include only about 8 hours in Amsterdam, but we were happier for it. Amersfoort was really, really lovely and surrounded by a perfect canalside trail for jogging or strolling.

Our last full day in Amersfoort was the best day of the vacation yet. Eric and I rented a couple of cruiser bicycles and rode down to Utrecht. We were a bit sketchy on how the bicycle highway system worked, turning a 23-km ride into a 2.5 hour tour of the countryside, but it was fantastic anyway.

Utrecht was more touristy than Amersfoort by less overrun than Amsterdam. We enjoyed wandering around for a while before visiting the Dick Bruna Haus museum. I always thought that Miffy was a cheap knock-off for Hello Kitty, but she was actually the inspiration. Dick Bruna started drawing her in 1955, and Hello Kitty didn't appear on the scene until 1980! The Miffy books are the second-best-selling children's books, just behind Roald Dahl's collection. So there.

Overall, we spent about 7 hours on the bikes that day, and it was great to stretch our legs and breath some fresh air. I've been jogging when I can, and goodness knows we've been walking enough, but sometimes the sight seeing really does feel more like a death march than recreation.

One thing that was surprising was how well the Dutch all spoke English. Many of them barely seemed to have an accent. This is in sharp contrast to Germany, where very few people seem to speak English, and where I can't understand the train announcements that are in English any better than the ones in German. Now before anyone gets up in arms, I realise that I'm in their country and speak no German - I'm just highlighting the comparison between the two countries.

Now everyone's first question upon hearing that we were visiting Amsterdam was whether we would be partaking in any illegal drugs. I'll disappoint you all by telling you here that the only Amsterdam substance we imbibed was Heineken. While we had an 8-months-pregnant lady to blame our lameness on, it really comes down to a lack of interest in spending one day of four in a semi-comatose state. And we weren't entirely sure how to order it anyway...

Sunday, August 8, 2010


We only had a couple of days in Munich, which was enough for me. This is mostly because the transition from fish and rice in Japan to heavy cream, potato pasta, and sauerkraut in Germany was too much for my sensitive stomach, and I didn't feel at all well. It was really nice to have Ralf along to order food for us, and he booked us rooms at a very traditional, German inn a 30-minute walk from the Marienplatz, ro the centre of town. A highlight was meeting up with another friend from Sydney, Sebastian, his wife, Elizabeth, and their gorgeous 7-month-old baby, Clara. You could tell the baby was half-German, half-Australian by how happy she was to spend several hours watching us drink huge beers at the Hofbrauhaus.

It's kind of creepy, but I couldn't help thinking as I wandered the streets in Munich how many Jews had owned the businesses lining the streets or lived in the apartments above them. Every time I saw an older person, I wondered what they did, or perhaps more importantly what they didn't do, during the war...then again, maybe I was just sick and thus ready to move on from Munich.

Tokyo and Kyoto

Ten hours after leaving the Australian winter, the first thing that we noticed stepping off the plane in Tokyo was the heat and humidity. After a couple of trains and a long, lost walk to our hotel, we were already soaked through with sweat. Unfortunately, we were forced to drop our bags and go for another wander before we were allowed to check into the hotel.

However, without this delay, we wouldn't have seen any of the eisa dancing up the road in Shinjuku. Eisa dancing is unique to Okinawa, the island where I lived for three years in high school and to which my family returned for several years when I was at university. Okinawa has always been the poor cousin of the rest of Japan, except as a beach resort destination, so this was really unexpected. The whole time we were in Japan, things seemed familiar, like the big, green telephone boxes, but I was sad that I wasn't actually back in Okinawa. At least the eisa dancing was a small piece of the Okinawan experience.

The next morning, we got up early to catch the bullet train, or skinkasen, to Kyoto. I had delusions of it being cooler up near the mountains, but this was not to be. If you look closely at the pictures from Kyoto, you'll see that my hair is flattened to my head with sweat in most of them.

We visited the three "must see" sights in Kyoto, the Golden Temple (Kinkakuji, actually made of gold), the Silver Temple (Ginkakuji, actually made of wood), and the palace (Kiyomizu). The fact that the Golden Temple was actually covered in gold was impressive, but other than that, it really wasn't that interesting as you could only view it from a distance. The Silver Temple was more interesting, particularly for the view down the hillside into Kyoto and the Philosopher's Walk along a canal of small art studios connecting it to Gion. Kiyomizu is an entire complex with lots to see, including a lover's walk between two stones. You are meant to walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed. If successful, you are destined to find true love. If you already have your true love, he or she can provide guidance by giving directions.

The two highlights of Kyoto for me, though, were our ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, in Gion, the traditional geisha district, and Kodaji temple, just up the street from the ryokan. When we arrived at the Montonago Ryokan, there were several Japanese staff in traditional dress at the door to meet us. One soft-spoken older lady in a kimono took us up to our room, prepared tea, and showed us how to don our yukatas to come down and use the public baths (which we could reserve for private use). After much giggling and a relaxing soak, we decided to take a quick stroll up to the Kodaiji Temple, which the lady at the ryokan had recommended. It's lit up at night, and it was the best temple we visited. There were only a few people there, including some girls in full geisha dress, and it was really serene.

Back in Tokyo, we went to the fish markets, where we were almost run down by carts of heavy sushi bound for the city's restaurants before a nice security guard explained that the area was not open to the public until 9 am. Then we took a stroll around the Ginza and the Imperial Palace Gardens and finally wound up at the Ooedo Onsen in Tokyo Bay. The open spaces of Tokyo Bay allow an American to finally draw a deep breath after the crowds in the city. Tokyo Bay is like some bizarre, futuristic suburb on an industrial port that was built with expectations of a large population flocking to it from the city, but for some reason it never really took off. Perhaps the Tokyo natives just don't like those broad open spaces. Three hours in the public baths, including a 45-minute foot massage, were fantastic after the four-day "we must see everything in Tokyo and Kyoto" death march. Ralf and I also visited Dr Fish, which involves immersing your feet in a shallow pool filled with little black fish who eat dead skin. I'm not sure of the actual health benefits, but I do know that it feels really funny having hundreds of fish swarming and nibbling on your feet. At first it was so ticklish that we could hardly bear it, but then it dissipated to being just plain weird.

We enjoyed our four days in Japan, although our motivation to visit the sights was sapped somewhat by the heat, but it's not somewhere I would ever want to live. People are unfailingly polite, and the food is amazing, but from an outsider's perspective, it's such an unfulfilling, commercial culture. I've never seen so many shops full of electronics and other things no one needs, or bars filled with businessmen who could be home with their families. It just seems like everyone is looking to buy the happiness that their daily lives can't provide. Then again, maybe I was just hot and grouchy...

Sunday, January 31, 2010

We're here!

Riding into Melbourne last night in the taxi was really strange. I've come to the city so many times just for the day for work, that it made me panic a bit to realise that I wouldn't be flying home to Sydney 12 hours hence. I live here now. I think the short 1.5 hour flight time makes the distance between Sydney and Melbourne seem minimal, but driving it in 11 hours last weekend brought it home: this is no different really from our move from Colorado to Minneapolis. There will be no going back to Sydney for the weekend just for dinner with friends. Maybe that hadn't really hit me yet because it looks like I'll be back in Sydney Monday through Friday for most of April and May. I still really have one foot in each place. Or maybe just a few toes in Sydney.

Anyway, I felt much better once we got into the house and went for a walk around our amazing neighbourhood. We walked over to the bay in about 5 minutes, which was closer than I realised, and then found the amazing St Kilda Public Baths. They are a gorgeous swimming and exercise facility on the bay, and they host outdoor movies on the roof all summer. How cool is that? And the path along the esplanade looks ideal for more knee-skinning skateboard action.

This morning is my first morning working from home. I keep feeling pressured to settle into a routine, because I'm so worried I'm going to lose my mind working from home. But how does one settle into a routine when the only furniture you have is an air mattress? I think for now I need to just focus on living in the moment, as my good friend Justine used to always (try) to remind me to do.

I did walk up the road for coffee about 20 minutes ago, and I felt the greatest sense of well being that I have in about two years. I know this sounds a little crazy, but the air here feels like Florida in the Fall. Not just today, but every time I've been out here in the last few weeks. I just want to breathe it all in. Anyway, Melbourne is famous for its coffee, and I was in no way disappointed by the cup I had this morning. And the barista was really friendly. For lunch, I'm going to take a sandwich and a book to the public gardens, just about a minute's walk away. Ahhh...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Man and cats in Melbourne...time to go

The day after my last post, the estate agent I had been stalking throughout the weekend left me the saddest voice mail ever: the owners had decided to go with another tenant. I tried to cheer myself with the news that we'd gotten the lovely four-bedroom house we'd applied for, and for at least a year, space wouldn't be an issue. Each cat could have their own bedroom if we liked.

Now, given our luck with real estate, wouldn't you guess that the real estate agent from the first place called saying the owner had "re-considered our application" just as soon as we'd paid the first month's rent on the house online? However, we hadn't yet signed a lease, so I figured it would really just be bad manners to back out, and I was willing to be the Ugly American. The estate agent for the house was really cruisy about the whole thing and agreed to transfer the first month's rent back into our account.

Until, as you may have guessed, we hit a speed bump. We were the only people at the showing for the house, and I don't know how long it had been on the market, but the owners decided to interpret email exchanges and the deposit of the first month's tent as a legally binding sign of intent. Why then, I asked the estate agent, were we suppposed to come into sign a lease in a few days, if email exchanges were considered legally binding?

Anyway, a day of intense stress followed, with me afraid of losing my dream apartment and being forced to live in this house against my will. All's well that ends well, though, and we settled with the owner of the house by letting them keep one week's rent to make up for the time lost between the showing we attended and the one they could schedule for the following Saturday. It was a crazy 36 hours.

Eric flew to Sydney for the weekend, and in the 109 degree heat (remember, no one here has AC!) we boxed up our entire apartment. After staying out til 3am Saturday evening/Sunday morning, we loaded the Turquey, the camper van, with our most valuable items (cats for me, TV for Eric) in a very hungover state on Sunday. On Monday, the temperature had dropped to about 90 and we set out on the 11-hour dive through the hills of New South Wales and Victoria.

Now, Turquey isn't a spry young van - she's more of a vintage model - and she had one scary hiccup going up a long hill. She jerked a couple of times, and then Eric was slowed to about 15 mph despite having the gas pedal on the floor. We rode in the shoulder for a bit, afraid to stop since she might never go again. In a few minutes, she pepped up and was willing to give it another go. Needless to say, every time she shuddered for the rest of the afternoon, we held our breath. On a positive note, these injections of adrenalin, along with signs constantly warning me to be on the lookout for koalas (I was!), kept us from falling asleep!

On a tangential note, on a break from packing on Saturday, Eric and I went out for a quick swim to bring our blood below the boiling point. We both looked at this bird bobbing about 10 feet away and turned to each other at the same time to ask, "Is that a freaking penguin?" I am not sh*tting you, we swam with a penguin. Not a March-of-the-Penguins-syle Emperor penguin, but the little fairy ones we have all around the southern part of Australia. There's a penguin reserve about a half mile from our new house in Melbourne. Just a reminder that our nearest neighbour to the south is Antarctica!

When we arrived in Melbourne, I was delighted to find that our apartment was every bit as wonderful, better even, than I remembered from the viewing. I feel kind of like a guest at a really nice b&b. Eric and I are upgrading some of our furniture to be worthy of the place. It's one quarter of an old house on a lovely tree-lined street a block from the St Kilda Botanic Gardens. While it has all of the charm of an old place (stained glass in several rooms, fireplaces, carved ceilings), it's been completely modernised. I have a dishwasher for the first time in years!

Similar to my last visit, it was tough to come home today. My life is now divided between Sydney and Melbourne. I arrived back in Cronulla tonight just minutes before the Australia Day fireworks were shot off from the beach right in front of my house. From my third floor balcony, I had the perfect view with a glass of wine. But I'm alone here now, and I don't even have furry little faces to greet me. I'm homesick for a place I haven't left yet, but I'm anxious just to GET ON WITH IT. Time to move to Melbourne.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Move to Melbourne

I stopped adding to this blog after my trip with my sister, because I thought that we were all settled and I had nothing of interest left to say (did I ever, you ask?). Am I completely unable to learn from the past? Isn't that some kind of sign of mental illness? Sometimes I wish I was that kind of Psychologist. Clearly my life is destined to be a constant progression of changes, admittedly mostly brought on by my own decisions.

Just before Angela's visit, we decided that we'd like to live near the beach, both to reverse our commute times (shorten Eric's, lengthen mine, which was only a fair swap) and to improve our surfing (have only sustained one black eye recently). After an exhausting search of several Saturdays, running from showing to showing while Eric worked, I came to the conclusion that real estate agents choose the only decent vantage point of any given property to post on the web. Naive much? Was I the last person to figure out that truth doesn't live on the internet? The larger issue was that 100% of properties in Cronulla don't allow pets.

Angela came, and we resigned ourselves to another few months of living in our shitbox in Erskineville. One weeked shortly after she left, Eric posed the query on a Friday night, "So have we officially given up on living in Cronulla?" I half-heartedly searched the web, found two questionable properties with inspections the next day, and agreed to give it one last shot. As you'd expect in any good fairy tale, one of the properties the next day was dramatically underpriced and had an amazing view of the ocean. At the urging of all of our friends, we decided to jump on the bandwagon of lying about the cats. "Everyone does it," they said.

Now because Eric and I have been huge dorks our entire lives, we were a little sceptical about this lying gig, but it seemed like the odds were with us. WRONG. Part of the deal with the new place was that the landlord would keep a few things in the garage. As it was a double garage, this was not really a concern. He sent me a text to let me know he was going in on Monday, so I figured we were good for a while after that and took the cat cages down on Monday night. On Tuesday I received this text: "Not to be pedantic, but can you please confirm that there are no animals in the unit." Shit.

While I was down (mostly) with the lie of omission of leaving the cats off the rental application, direct lying was really beyond my experience. I moved on to pleading. Similar to the time my best friend and I were pulled over in high school in some rather compromising circumstances and promised to go to the movies every weekend until we were 23, I just began offering things: additional bond, covering the sofa (the place was furnished), keeping the cats out of the bedroom. To be honest, I was pretty proud of my salesmanship, and in the end he decided not to exict us. By "in the end," I mean that the negotiations continued over several days, days when I couldn't eat without feeling nauseous. At work, I became known as the "crazy cat lady," and I was afraid Eric would finally follow through on the promise to chuck one of the cats off the balcony.

The last four months in the place have been amazing. One morning, I saw dolphins from the balcony, and I was able to run down to the beach and be in the water within three minutes. We can walk to go surfing, I jog along the ocean every morning on the path that runs right in front of our house, and I've been able to do some cycling again, none of which was possible when we were living in the city. We live so directly on the sea that our address is 14 The Esplanade, The Esplanade being the path that runs along the ocean. There isn't even a road in front of our apartment block.

Cronulla is referred to as "The Shire" by Sydneysiders, and upon mention of liking the area, the response is always, "Have you heard about the riots?" Apparently, some years back, there were some race riots. Groups lower on the economic ladder tend to flock to Cronulla at the weekends. As in most places, this includes a mix of bogans and people of various ethnic backgrounds. This was an explosive mix that was set afire one day by the warm summer sun, and suddenly Cronulla had made a name for itself. Other than the preponderance of scantily clad teenage girls who flock to Northies on a Sunday night and teenage boys with faux hawks and rat tails, we haven't really been much bothered by the seedier side of Cronulla.

When we moved here, we signed a six month lease since a possible move to Melbourne had been on the cards since late May. However, my firm hope was that I would eventually be buried in Cronulla. That's how much I love it, despite the 3 hours of daily commute time. On 10 December, though, we got the news that Eric was expected in Melbourn on 4 January. At least they gave us plenty of notice. I picked my parents up on 11 December from the airport having barely absorbed the news. The next month I was conveniently distracted by all of the fun activities I had planned for their visit, even when Eric took off a couple of days after New Year's.

Now it's all becoming real, though. I spent the first couple of weeks of Eric's time in Melbourne scouring the internet for places to live without a real idea of what areas were nice. This weekend, though, I went down for a crash course in Melbourne suburbs and to see as many properties as possible. We found several nice places, which we've applied for, one of which I've become obsessed with. The real estate agent has to think I'm some kind of stalker at this point given how many voice mails and emails I left her this weekend. Come to think of it, if she wanted me to do her laundry or rub her feet, I'd probably be down for it. I really love this place.

But then I got back to Cronulla tonight. It was really sad leaving Eric at the airport after being there with him all weekend and feeling like Melbourne was almost a normal place for us to be, but it was also really sad sitting on my balcony with a glass of red wine listening to the ocean thinking about how soon that would all be over. I mean, look at the pictures of this place. Who in their right might would want to leave it, right? But then again, how bored do I get with any place in about 6 months? Every place I live, I convince myself that it's the best place in the world, and I never want to leave it. Then, at most a year later, I want to move just to be somewhere different. Charater flaw? Probably. But it's just reality. And I'd be lying if I didn't admit that this entire weekend in Melbourne, I was convinced that it was going to be a fantastic place to live, particularly the little neighbourhood that I fell in love with, which I've already dubbed "The Triangle."

It does make it easier that we're not starting entirely from scratch. Since engineers who have worked on other desalination plants are in short supply, many of Eric's colleagues from the Sydney plant will be moving with us. In particular, a couple with whom we've spent a fair amount of time and who we both think are fantastic are going, as well as another guy who has a new girlfriend in Melbourne. God willing she'll be cool, and then there will be at least two other couples with whom we can hang out. I'm not sure I have the energy to start all over again so soon.

One big stressor is that I'll be working from home in Melbourne. I did it for Sun Microsystems for a year, and I very nearly lost my mind. And that was only part time while I was writing my dissertation and had lots of stimulating interactions with the university library staff. I mean, a good three hours of my work day on average is spent chatting and making idle comments about things that don't really concern me. I'm not sure I'm cut out for spending all day in the house by myself, no matter how lovely that house may be. For now, I'm trying to focus on the positive: Without the three hours of commute time, I should be able to cycle for an hour and a half in the morning before work. I can work in the park or at a coffee shop. I won't be exposed to the negative atmosphere that exists (partially created by my constant whinging) in our office. On the other hand, I may turn into a gross person who never wears makeup or puts on a dress. And I may be so lonely that I die. We'll see.

I'm fairly certain that none of this is of interest to anyone, but the good news is that I think everyone stopped reading this blog ages ago. And it serves the same cathartic purpose as a journal, but I don't get the hand cramps I do from writing in a journal since the only hand writing I do these days is to-do lists at work. How long before pencils and pens are phased out all together?