Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Moving up in the ranks...

In early July, I wrote a post (Sticker Shock) comparing a basket of goods in Australia compared to the same or similar goods in the USA. I wanted to see how the cost of living in both places stacked up. I'll admit, it was a very unscientific study and contained questionable data sources. Today however, the good people at Mercer have published a survey which confirms my theory. Life in Australia is expensive, but not as expensive as Moscow apparently.

Moscow was ranked number one. Sydney was the most expensive Australian city and was ranked number 15 in the world. The most expensive city in the USA was New York City which ranked 22. The next most expensive US city was, you guessed it, Los Angeles. Los Angeles ranked 55th. Our hometown of Melbourne, Australia ranked 36th. So that means it's more expensive to live in Melbourne than it is in LA. Not only that, but Melbourne moved up significantly in the ranks this year from 64th last year to 36th this year. That's 28 places. Wowsers!

It's not that things in Australia or Melbourne in particular have become tremendously more expensive over the last 365 days, it's that the value of the US Dollar in comparison to the Aussie Dollar has decreased.

So that's bad news for the Americans amongst you who are hoping to have a cheap holiday to Australia. You should have gotten on the plane 8 years ago when the US dollar was buying 2 Aussie dollars and everything was essentially half price.

The good news is, America has become a lot more affordable for Australians. The even better news is I can now shop at Banana Republic instead of Old Navy during my next visit to the homeland.

You have to look for the silver lining right?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Starbucks, we hardly knew ya...

Today, Starbucks announced that it would be closing 61 of its 85 Australian locations in an effort to boost profits and shed under performing outlets. That's 71% of their Australian stores to be closed within days. Why am I sharing this little tidbit with you? To make the following point, Australians take their coffee very seriously and Starbucks simply doesn't cut it.

Coffee is a very large part of the Australian cafe culture. Nearly every restaurant or cafe here in Australia serves coffee made with an espresso machine. That means that you don't need to go to a special coffee outlet to get your Cafe Latte. Most any typical Australian cafe would have more ambiance and atmosphere than the cookie cutter feel of a Starbucks outlet. I've only visited Starbucks one time here in Melbourne and that was because it was literally the only shop open where we were at the time. Otherwise, I can guarantee you, the Handsome Australian would cross the street and walk in the opposite direction if given any other options.

That's right, there is no love lost between the Handsome Australian and Starbucks. Theirs is a love-hate relationship. The Handsome Australian loves coffee, but he hates the way they make it at Starbucks. How does he know how it's made there if we don't patronise their stores? Well, each year I drag the Handsome Australian back to the homeland--my homeland that is--and he is subjected to Starbucks because there are only a handful of other places to get an espresso coffee in the parts of the USA we seem to visit.

Starbucks simply can't be avoided in the USA. It seems like there is literally one on every corner. (Perhaps less true now as the same article announcing the Starbucks closures in Australia also mentioned the company had recently chosen to close 600 under performing US locations...I'm guessing there is still a bloody lot of them though). It was the Handsome Australian's American holiday pastime to find a Starbucks that could actually produce a coffee he would deem drinkable.

The main problem the Handsome Australian has with the Starbucks coffees is the size. The smallest size at Starbucks, which I think is tall is approximately double the size of a coffee cup here in Australia. So it would seem as if you are having two coffees at one time just by ordering the tall size. The Handsome Australian loves coffee though so a double serve wouldn't be a bad thing except for the fact that while the tall coffee at Starbucks is twice the volume of a regular Australian coffee, both contain the same amount of espresso. This means that the Starbucks coffee makes up the rest of the tall cup with warm milk. What does this mean? It means a weaker coffee and a very cranky Handsome Australian.

During our last visit to the USA, the Handsome Australian tried endlessly to get the nice folks at about a 100 different Starbucks locations to prepare his coffee the way he likes it. After about 99 failed attempts he finally came up with a winning combination. The problem with the winning combination is it requires the Handsome Australian to explain the process step by step to the barista amid confused looks and dazed expressions.

So what's the secret combination? The Handsome Australian advises to get a drinkable coffee at a Starbucks outlet you must ask for a Cafe Latte with a double shot of espresso served in the espresso cup. The espresso cup is smaller than the tall cup. So this means there is more coffee and less milk. A nice strong coffee, just the way he likes it. Well sort of...he still prefers the standard Australian version.

What can I say? You can take the Handsome one out of Australia, but you can't take Australia out of the Handsome one.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The barbie...

Trying to shake off the winter blues, the Handsome Australian and I decided that tonight would be a good night for a barbie (that's Aussie for barbecue). We've had very chilly winter weather of late mixed with a fair amount of rain (Which we are not complaining about btw. After 7 years of drought, we'll take every precious little drop, thank you very much!) and that's made it difficult to be outside cooking on the barbecue. Today, while still chilly, was a relatively dry day and so we decided to take the leap.

During the summer months, I'd guess our family would have a barbecue about once a week. When it's winter time though, barbecues are few and far between. That is what made tonight's barbecue so was the first one we'd had in months! We had originally planned this barbecue for yesterday, but the weather got the better of us and we had to postpone. This postponement was not well received by our sausage loving four year old. She had been looking forward to it all weekend apparently.

Tonight, her sausage loving prayers were answered and the Handsome Australian cooked a barbecue for one and all. As he was outside throwing another shrimp on the barbie (oh no, not really because we don't call them shrimp here we call them prawns and while we do sometimes put prawns on our barbie we didn't this evening because the boss wanted sausages remember?) I began to contemplate the barbecue and all it's meanings. Pretty deep right? I know, I like to consider the BIG issues...

In Australia, you can invite someone around for a barbecue at your house. You might say something like, "Mate, we've decided to have a barbie on Saturday come 'round if you can." When you arrived you might ask, "G'day. How are we? Where's the Handsome Australian?" To which I'd respond, "He's out back by the barbie." Which means you'll find him outside near the grill. That means that a barbecue or barbie is an event here as well as the name for the grill itself.

In America, particularly in Texas, the word barbecue brings to mind a particular style of preparing the meat by smoking it. In this case, the meat itself is known as 'barbecue'. The Australians don't call the food cooked on the barbie, 'barbecue'. Having lived here for eight years, I honestly can't remember how you would be invited to a barbecue in the USA. Would you tell someone you are having a barbecue? Even if you didn't plan on smoking the meats? Or would you say you were 'cooking out'? Do you refer to the grill as the barbecue? Gut instinct tells me no, but I can't be certain.

So this intense philosophical thought about the word barbecue has led me to a much deeper my mind, the lines between Australia and the USA have become quite blurred. This isn't the first time I haven't been able to remember how things are done in the USA. In some cases I'll be thinking of a particular item or a word and I won't be able to remember if that is the Australian or American version of the particular item/word. Having two cultures so deeply embedded in your psyche can be very confusing sometimes.

I'd explore this idea a bit further except I smell sausages...

Learn the Lingo
barbie = barbecue
barbecue = the event and the grill itself
shrimp = prawn
g'day = hello

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Celebrating your culture...

Today the Handsome Australian and I bundled our little ones in the car and made the trip to our favourite Lebanese Bakery in Melbourne. For those of you who haven't been lucky enough to visit Melbourne, the food scene here is incredible. I've never been to another city which had such a large variety of food on offer at such a high standard. Melburnians take their food very seriously and the hospitality industry here is highly competitive.

In a lot of ways, Melbourne restaurants remind me of the ones you'd find in New York City. Most restaurants are small typically seating between 50 to 100 diners at one time. You won't find a lot of chain restaurants or franchises here either. That's not to say that these types of places don't exist, but they are certainly outnumbered by the individually owned and operated restaurants. This guarantees that most restaurants you go into here are unique, both in their decor and menu selections.

With a multicultural population, Melbourne has a little bit of everything. There are neighbourhoods where certain cultures are concentrated and you'll find restaurants, grocery stores, and retail shops all catering to that particular segment of the population. In some cases, it can feel as if you've actually left Australia and stepped on to the streets of Vietnam, or Lebanon, or China--depending of course on which neighbourhood you are in.

Our jaunt this afternoon took us to the predominantly Middle Eastern neighbourhood of Brunswick and the lovely shops and restaurants that line Sydney Road. Sydney Road is home to all things Middle Eastern. If you want good Turkish food, it's here. If you are after fresh Lebanese bread, it's here. If you want Halal meats, it's here. I would argue that anything you need to cook a Middle Eastern dish could be found in the shops that line both sides of the street.

Our destination today was A-1 Lebanese Bakery. The name is somewhat misleading because A-1 Bakery is not solely a bakery, it's much, much more. It's also a fully stocked Middle Eastern grocery store where you can find a plethora of goods including a variety of nuts, rose water, or apple flavoured tobacco for your arguile. If being a bakery and grocery store wasn't enough, A-1 is also a cafe which serves Lebanese baked goods (obviously), as well as traditional sweets and coffees.

The Handsome Australian is of Lebanese heritage and he loves to visit A-1. The staff there are almost entirely Lebanese and the clientele are a mix of local Lebanese and those 'in the know'. We fit both bills I suppose--the Handsome Australian is a local Lebanese and because of him, I'm in the know! It's good to know, really, really good to know.

Today we feasted on a bounty of baked delights. At the heart of our meal was the small, thin pizza crust type pastry topped with a variety of toppings. The two most typical toppings on these 'Lebanese pizzas', as we describe them to our young daughter, are the Lahme and the Zaatar. Lahme is minced lamb with a touch of tomato and spices on the thin pizza base. Zaatar is a herb mix, that has been described to me by my mother-in-law as a wild oregano, mixed with olive oil on top of the pizza base. It tastes quite tangy and is definitely a take it or leave it flavour--meaning you either like it or you don't.

Over the years, A-1 has become quite creative with their toppings and today we had one of everything on the menu. It was a great way to sample the new combinations as well as enjoy our old favourites. We couldn't finish everything we ordered, but these pastries pack up nicely and can be reheated at home later. That's dinner, sorted.

As we waited for our food to come out, the Handsome Australian delighted in showing our children the photographs of his mother's village in Lebanon that grace the walls of the bakery. They were duly fascinated and should probably get used to such geography lessons, because I'm sure the same one will be repeated tirelessly each time we visit the bakery. The Lebanese are a very proud people and the Handsome Australian isn't an exception.

We are so fortunate here in Melbourne to have such wonderful little gems just a short drive from our very doorstep. It's yet another thing that makes life in Melbourne very interesting indeed.

Learn the Lingo
flavour = flavor
lahme = minced lamb pizza (in this case--more generally it means 'meat')
zaatar = mixed herb pizza (in this case--more generally it refers to the herb mix itself)
arguile = ancient water pipe used to smoke flavoured tobaccos
Melburnians = people who live in Melbourne

Friday, July 25, 2008

A wintry Melbourne Day...

TGIF...In honour of Friday, I thought I'd post some recent photos we took during a day in the City. I am by no stretch of the imagination a photographer so please excuse the quality of the photographs. Melbourne is a lovely city and these photos do not do it justice. So a bit of imagination is required.... Towering skyscraper is the Eureka Tower

White spire belongs to the Arts Centre

Eureka Tower stands 300 metres and 92 stories high.

Giant Sky Wheel...largest traveling ferris wheel in the Southern Hemisphere with a peak clearance of 50 metres.

Angel by Deborah Halpern (mosaic sculpture)
I promise to post better photos in the future...well I hope to anyway! Have a wonderful Friday wherever you may be.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name...

When I first came to Australia, I found shopping a constant frustration. Most of the shops and brands were unknown to me. I couldn't find the things I was used to having and I didn't even know where to look to find such things most of the time. There weren't many large 'department stores' that stock everything like you'd find the in the USA. The Target and K-Mart brands both exist here in Australia, but they carry dramatically different merchandise to the ones in the USA. So even though some stores were familiar, the items inside of them were still foreign. I never came across a one stop shop where I could get all the things I needed.

The same seemed to be true for groceries. Different grocery stores carried different brands and I had to go to several different ones to find all the things I required. The more people I spoke to, the more I realised that people simply didn't buy all of their items in one place and didn't really have the desire to do so. I didn't really understand why.

As far as food shopping is concerned, most people seemed to have a Fruit and Veg shop they'd visit to get their, well, fruit and veg. Then they would have a butcher they'd visit to choose their meats and if they were lucky enough to have a fish monger in their local strip of shops, they'd go there for their fish. Nearly every high street shopping strip has a stand alone bakery where people go to buy their bread. The grocery stores seemed to be the place to buy dairy items such as milk, yogurt, cheese, etc as well as cereals, cleaning supplies and those other items that you didn't find in your local shops.

This shopping system clashed with my American expectations and desires. I really wanted to be able to go to one place, get it all done in one hit and then go home. I couldn't be bothered with all the running around it would take to go to all of those shops and get each of my items individually. What a hassle, I thought.

Friends would assure me that I was paying more by trying to buy everything at the grocery store. By going to each of these individual shops, I'd be saving money and supporting a small business versus a large corporation.

Initially, I was too busy working to take this advice. I simply could not be bothered with all that running around. The longer I lived here, however, the more the pressure got to me. People would frequently question me about my choice to shop only at the grocery store (I'll admit most of these questions came from the Handsome Australian's family who generally shopped at fresh food markets and almost never set foot in a grocery store) to the point that I decided I'd try buying my fruit and veg somewhere else and everything else at the grocery store. One stop changed to two stops and I admit, this method seemed cheaper.

Eventually, the Handsome Australian and I started our family and moved away from the center of the city out to a more suburban neighbourhood with lovely high street shops. In our local strip of shops there are several fruit and veg shops, several butchers, several bakeries, an excellent deli, several pharmacies, a post office, branches from most of the main banks as well as other small stores selling assorted items. This meant we didn't have to travel very far to do our shopping. We live a five minute drive from these shops and could easily walk there in 20-30 minutes. Once we are there it's a matter of walking up and down the street (the shops are contained in a three block area) to get most of the errands completed.

We may have to walk in and out of each shop and buy our things individually, but there is something really special about the relationships you form with these merchants. You are generally served by the same people each time you visit. The businesses are small and many are family owned. Service is generally very good and these people know their stock well. They can tell you backwards and forwards what they do carry and what they don't. They will tell you when it gets delivered and how much you can expect to pay for it. They'll set things aside for you, they'll order things in, they may even greet you by your first name when you walk in the door. The barista at our local cafe starts our coffees when he sees us walk through the door. He knows what we have because we have them there all the time. We don't even have to order.

In many ways, it feels like we are living in the USA circa 1950 when all the Mom and Pop shops still existed and people had a relationship with the merchants who they bought from. The days before Wal-Mart came through and sent everyone out of business. Nothing against Wal-Mart, but have you ever met a particularly knowledgeable Wal-Mart employee? My experience is they can rarely direct you in the right direction and have no idea what items they may or may not stock. Was this what I was originally hoping to find in Australia and if so, why? Perhaps it was familiar or perhaps I simply didn't know any different.

So in case it's not obvious, I'll admit it: I'm a convert. I love the high street shopping in Australia. I love the small shops where people know their stuff. It may have taken me awhile to come to this conclusion, but now sometimes I wanna go where everybody knows my name.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Where am I again?

The first time the Handsome Australian and I traveled to the USA together, we were on our way to a family wedding. The Handsome Australian had managed to get a bit of time off of work and so we thought we'd make a bit of a holiday out of it. So instead of heading straight to Texas for the wedding, we stopped over for a few days in Las Vegas.

I'd been to Las Vegas several years earlier and had experienced the circus like atmosphere and the over-the-top architecture and decor of the various casinos. The Handsome Australian had never been to Vegas. This was his first time and it was very interesting to see this unique American city through his eyes.

The first thing he noticed was the people. He said, "I didn't expect there to be so many people here. I can't get over the crowds." I thought that was a bit of an odd observation, I mean this was Vegas--it's a tourist destination. Of course there are going to be lots of people around.

Then the Handsome one said, "I can't get over how many Americans are here. It's weird." Did he just say it was weird there were so many Americans here? I'm starting to think he's a bit weird. I promptly informed him that, in case the 14 hour flight, the clearing of customs in Los Angeles and the new stamps in his passport weren't clear enough, we were indeed in America. Then I asked him who he had expected to see in Vegas? If not Americans, then who? He told me that he thought there would be more international tourists.

Most of the major Australian cities have one large casino. Just one. In Vegas there were dozens and dozens. I was living in Melbourne when they finished building the casino here and it was a big deal. People couldn't believe how big it was and what a massive entertainment complex accompanied it. When we went down to check it out one day, I realised that like many other things before it, it was big by Australian standards...not by my standards (I'm from Texas, don't forget). So you can imagine the awe of the Handsome Australian when he found dozens upon dozens of casinos of the same size as the "massive" one in Melbourne, lining the streets of Vegas. He simply couldn't get his head around it.

Neither the Handsome Australian nor I are big gamblers, so we spent our time in Vegas going from casino to casino checking out the decor. The Handsome Australian couldn't get over how fake everything was and how much he felt they were trying to channel the feeling of Europe. He finally surmised that this is where Americans must come to instead of Europe. Why would you need to go to Europe when you have the Eiffel Tower, and the Canals of Venice just a short walk from the Statue of Liberty. Only in Vegas.

I often think back to that trip each time I arrive in the USA after a year away (we tend to visit once a year). When I arrive in the Los Angeles Airport, I am always struck immediately by the multitude of people around me. I always wonder where the crowds have come from. There are suddenly so many people everywhere. There is rarely anywhere in Melbourne that ever feels this busy.

The next thing I notice is that they are all American. All I can hear is American accents everywhere. Much like the Handsome Australian was in Vegas, I am surprised. It just seems odd to hear so many American accents. I guess it's because my ear has become accustomed to hearing the Australian accent now.

It's an odd feeling, culture shock on your own turf, but I'd say that's exactly what this is...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

He said, She said...

On a wintry afternoon in May, I left our home and began the short walk to the local preschool to collect my daughter. Along the way, I stopped in at a neighbour's house to see if she wanted to accompany me. Her son is a fellow classmate of my daughter and we generally walk to and from the preschool together. On this particular afternoon we were exchanging stories about the funny things our kids sometimes say to us about the day's events at preschool. At some point my neighbour turned to me and said, "You know I think my James has picked up something from your daughter."

Me: Surprised and slightly worried as to what my neighbour could be referring to. Did she mean some kind of a bug? Or a bad habit? How did she know my daughter was the responsible one? I responded tentatively, "Picked up something? What do you mean?"

Neighbour: Elusively, "Yeah, he's started saying something at home all the time. I know he hasn't gotten it from us because we don't say that at our house."

Me: Oh no! This is terrible. What has she said? What has she taught him that he is now repeating in front of his parents? Crikey! How embarrassing is this? My mind is racing as I try to think what awful thing she may have taught him. Fearfully, "Oh really, and what would that be?"

Neighbour: "You're welcome."

Me: Huh? What's she talking about? Confused, "Sorry? What do you mean?"

Neighbour: "I mean our James has learned to say, You're Welcome, from your daughter. We don't ever use those words at our house, but he says it all the time. I'm sure he learned it from her. It's very sweet--whenever he does something for us we say, 'Thanks James' and he says, 'You're welcome.'

Me: Relieved. I was convinced this conversation was heading in a different direction and was preparing my apologies and looking for an appropriate sized rock to crawl under, but wow what a windfall! Turns out my little one was spreading the good words not the bad ones!! Thank goodness for that. I'm still a bit confused though, if they don't say 'you're welcome' then what do they say? Inquisitively, "So you think it's a bit odd that he says this? What would you guys say then?"

Neighbour: "Well it's just a very American thing to say, I think. That's why I am pretty sure James has learned it from your daughter. We don't really know anyone else who would speak that way. Australians would say, 'That's okay' or 'No worries', but 'You're welcome' sounds a bit formal to us."

Me: Feeling silly yet again, "Of course. I guess you are right. I never really thought about it. It's funny what you pick up on isn't it?"

Neighbour: "Yes, it is."

Me: "Well, I suppose there are worse things she could be teaching him. You had me worried in the beginning. I couldn't imagine what she might have said!"

Neighbour: Laughing, "No, give them time though. I'm sure they'll teach each other all sorts of bad things over the years."

When I arrived home, I thought more about what my neighbour had said. I guess it's really true that children are a reflection of their parents. Thankfully, in this case, my daughter reflected her mother's Americanism and good Southern manners instead of the colourful language I may somtimes use in heavy traffic.

Learn the Lingo
collect = to pick up
crikey = an expression used to express surprise
no worries = you're welcome

Monday, July 21, 2008

Vegemite? A mother's conundrum...

Ten years after my initial vegemite taste test, I'm happy to say I may have consumed vegemite in one form or another, usually by accident, only a handful of times. That's right folks, vegemite and I have yet to become friends. Most Australians are very understanding of the fact that vegemite is an acquired taste and they don't begrudge those of us who don't share their affinity for the very salty, and dark substance. I'm quite comfortable admitting that I'm not a vegemite eater and I don't think I'll lose any credibility because of it. It is my children's credibility that I worry about...

Vegemite was really a very small part of my life here in Australia, I mean very, very small. We owned a jar and kept it in the cupboard, and the Handsome Australian would bring it out once in a blue moon to have on his toast. Generally, he only pulled it out when we had visitors from the USA and he tried to convince them that it was the best stuff on the planet and that he eats it all the time. He would delight in seeing their faces screw up and eyes boggle as they tasted it. Yes, he does have quite the wicked sense of humour or perhaps he's just misunderstood:

Beside these intermittent and casual exposures to vegemite over the years, I never really gave eating it (or not in my case) too much thought. Then one day I found myself as the mother of a young toddler and everything changed. Each time I'd take my child to a playgroup, the other Mums (that's Aussie for Moms) would have little tiny vegemite and margarine sandwiches for their kids to snack on. I normally had savoury biscuits (that's Aussie for crackers) or fruit for my child. She seemed quite content with her snacks and didn't seem to be missing out on the vegemite sandwiches.

The more I thought about it though, the more I realised that all of these other children were being introduced to vegemite at an early age and were "acquiring" a taste for it. What would happen later on at school, I wondered, when all the children had vegemite and margarine sandwiches for lunch and my child didn't? Would she be able to survive a childhood in Australia as a non-vegemite eater? Is there such a thing? I'd only ever met a handful of grown up Aussies who said they didn't like it.

As a parent, I find it difficult to convince my children to eat food that I personally find disgusting. Luckily, both the Handsome Australian and I have quite adventurous and varied palates and there aren't too many foods that fit into that category, but vegemite was certainly there for me. This situation, however, required action and I had to put my own good taste aside.

I decided I would offer my daughter the opportunity of eating vegemite and margarine sandwiches so that she could decide for herself whether she liked it or not. I bought a new jar of vegemite because we'd had the same one in the cupboard for about 6 years (if she was going to try it I reasoned, she should be given a fresh batch). I made her first vegemite sandwich one day and she ate the whole thing. She loved it! There was no hard sell, no coaxing, she just ate it.

The next time we went to playgroup, I took along tiny little vegemite sandwiches for my child as well. We continued in this manner for months and months. Then one day one of the other Mums asked me what was in my child's sandwiches. I told her it was vegemite and she said, "Oh, she must like it a lot because the sandwiches look quite dark--like you've spread it on quite thick." I had. Wasn't I supposed to? I never taste tested her sandwiches because I couldn't stand the smell of the stuff much less the taste. Oh no, what had I done? Was I overdosing her on vegemite? Was I creating a vegemite loving monster?

That evening, the Handsome Australian set me straight. He gave me yet another tutorial, this time the topic was, "How to make a vegemite sandwich with appropriate amounts of vegemite." Apparently, less is more when it comes to vegemite. Most people like it spread in a very thin layer over their margarine. Who knew?

I can report that several years on, I now have a very happy little vegemite eater, who incidentally, likes it spread on quite thick. Yeah, don't know where she gets that...

Learn the Lingo
cupboard = cabinet or pantry

Mum = Mom

savoury biscuits = crackers

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Vegemite..A date gone wrong.

One sunny July afternoon in the leafy suburbs of Buenos Aires, Argentina, (that's where the Handsome Australian and I first met btw, catch up will ya?) I made my way to the swish pad of the Handsome Australian where I had been invited for a spot of afternoon tea. Upon arrival, the Handsome one welcomed me in to his home and led me to the balcony which overlooked a peaceful park below. We spoke a little about the neighbourhood and then he excused himself to the kitchen to put the kettle on.

I'm happy to admit that I'd never really been invited to anyone's house for a spot of afternoon tea before and I wasn't sure what to expect. In my mind I had images from British movies where stuffy people sit around and sip tea from lovely tea cups neatly arranged on their matching saucers and nibble on delicately prepared finger sandwiches. The Handsome Australian's spot of afternoon tea, while perhaps initially inspired by the British, was about to take a uniquely Australian flavour.

While I waited for the Handsome one to return from the kitchen, I made my self comfortable on his sexy (and I use that term very loosely) floral patterned couches that I think would have been more at home in my Grandmother's home instead of the bachelor pad of an Australian Expat. (While I have learned to question the Handsome Australian's style sensibilities over the years, he cannot be blamed for the couches, they came with the apartment). There were only a few channels of English speaking television you could get in Buenos Aires, if you had the money to be a cable television subscriber, and the Handsome Australian was a huge fan of BBC World. This was playing quietly in the background and I became intrigued with some vision I saw of a sport I didn't recognise, but gut instinct told me must be Cricket.

When the Handsome Australian returned from the kitchen, I began to inquire about the sport I'd just seen on the BBC. I described it to him--the players were dressed in white and were on a grassy field and there seemed to be a bat of sorts at play. Was this cricket is what I wanted to know? Instead of asking the question directly like that, I mistakenly asked, "So how is cricket played anyway?"

The Handsome Australian glowed with enthusiasm. He handed me my tea, cleared the coffee table between us and began constructing a cricket pitch with random bits of paper. This was the beginning of an hour long diatribe about how cricket is played. I sat patiently listening and nodding at the appropriate points in the conversation and even tossed out a semi-interested question or two--all in the name of infatuation. I wanted him to think I was interested even though secretly I was dying from boredom. Help! Somebody help me!!!! I thought to myself. How do I extricate myself from this terrible conversation.

As if he could hear the small cries that were bouncing around my head, the Handsome Australian's flatmate (who also happened to be Australian, but not as Handsome) entered the room in a silky Japanese style kimono that he was apparently using as a robe. He had just woken up from a peaceful slumber after a long night at one of the many Buenos Aires hot spots. It was nearly 3pm. We said our hellos and then he said...

Kimono Boy (hereafter KB): Oh I feel like a cuppa too. I think I'll go and make one and some vegemite on toast. Aw yeah, that will hit the spot.

He left the room and went to make his toast. Luckily his kimono became the topic of conversation between the Handsome one and I and I was saved from the longest history of the game of cricket ever known to man (or woman in this case, I reckon a guy might actually have been quite happy to listen to that monotony). He may have been wearing a kimono, but he'd saved me from dating disaster by redirecting our conversation so I had a soft spot for him in my heart. That was until....

He came back to the room with a hot cup of tea and a plate with two pieces of toast, a jar of vegemite, some margarine and a spreading knife. He proceeded to spread a piece of toast with the margarine (pretty liberally I'd say) and then dipped the knife in the jar of vegemite and spread what appeared to be a minuscule amount of this awful tar-like substance ever so delicately over the top of the margarine.

I was watching this ritual with great interest as I'd always heard of vegemite but had never tasted it before. Kimono boy noticed my interest and offered me a piece of his toast. The Handsome Australian got very excited.

HA: "Oh yeah, you've got to try this. It's great. We Aussies (pronounced Ozzies) love it."

KB: "Well before she tries it, you'll need to warn her that it's actually quite salty. It almost takes like brine."

HA: "Here mate, pass her a piece. (Handing me a piece of KB's toast. ) Go ahead, try it, I think you'll like it."

Me: Tentatively accepting the piece of toast handed to me. Staring at it for a second before placing it curiously in my mouth. Then I chewed and chewed and chewed. Then I swallowed it. And I said, "Yes, it certainly does have a very distinct flavour. Give me a minute. I'm trying to place it." Pondering the flavour for a second then, "Yes, I think I've got it. That's the taste that you get in your mouth immediately before you vomit."

KB: Taking my observation very seriously, "Yes, I know the taste you are talking about and there may be a similarity here, but that's not exactly it."

HA: Laughing to himself, "So you're not a fan then?"

Me: I can't believe this is all going so poorly. Water, water, some one give me water!!!! "No, I think it's safe to say that I'm not. Please, never let me taste that again. I'm serious. Yuck."

What a waste of an afternoon I thought as I said my goodbyes later in the day and left the Handsome Australian's place.

I promised myself not to waste another minute with this cricket loving Aussie and his disgusting vegemite.

Fast forward 10 years later and I'm married to the Cricket Loving Fool a.k.a. The Handsome Australian and we have a tube of vegemite safely tucked away in our newly ordered pantry. Do I ever let this bit of standard Australian fare pass my discerning lips? Stay tuned....

Learn the Lingo
spot of afternoon tea = an opportunity to drink tea/coffee and presumably consume a small snack like biscuits or sandwiches, etc

biscuits = cookies

vision = video

BBC World = British Broadcasting Corporation World news channel, think CNN International

flatmate = housemate or roommate

Cricket = click here to read about it if you have an hour...don't feel compelled!!

cuppa = cup of tea or coffee

vegemite = a yeast extract used as a spread, one of the best sources of Vitamin B

Friday, July 18, 2008

Don't it always seem to go...

...that you don't know what you've got till it's gone? I never fully appreciated breakfast television when I lived in the USA. I certainly watched breakfast television as I'd prepare for school or work when I lived there. I was a fan of the NBC Today Show, but I never appreciated it. No, I only appreciate it now. Now that I can't watch it anymore. Well, that's not entirely true, I can watch it from 4am till 6am each morning. If I'm up at that hour, however, chances are I'm too busy cleaning up after a sick child or getting someone a drink to actually think about turning on the television and getting a Today Show fix. Actually, I'd be lying to call it a Today Show fix, it would really be a Matt Lauer fix. I love that guy. He's funny, likable, smart and serious when he needs to be. In fact, most of the people on the Today Show can be serious when they need to be. They can also ask hard hitting questions...well, except for maybe Al Roker, but someone has to provide comic relief I suppose.

I don't think I've ever seen anyone on breakfast television in Australia ask any hard hitting questions. In fact the cast of characters from the morning Sunrise program that we watch here are certainly not people I would put in the journalist category. They've got plenty of personality and nice cheerful demeanours at ridiculously early hours in the morning, but the substance is missing. The female presenters on Sunrise are particularly disappointing. If there is ever any complex political issue or economic question, they ask the most simplistic questions. They readily admit they don't fully understand what is being talked about sometimes and leave it to the goofy, know-it-all, male co-host to swoop in and make sense of it all. I hate the stereotype of gender roles this show promotes. It's irritating.

I'm also not that keen on their choice of news stories. They don't exactly go for the hard issues. Have a look..

I also don't think that promos like the following one do a lot for their credibility as journalists.

But perhaps that's just me and my limited imagination.

I guess the bottom line is Australians are happy to have a laugh and poke fun at themselves. They don't take themselves too seriously (except on the sporting fields)and this sentiment permeates every aspect of their culture--including breakfast news programs aimed at a national audience.

I do appreciate this light hearted, easy going attitude most of the time, but when it comes to news, I just want news.

Ah, yes Matt. That's more like it.

Learn the Lingo
Breakfast Television = Morning Television

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Another thing about the footy...

I really don't watch that much footy (that's Aussie for football, in this case Aussie Rules Football). Honestly, I don't. I am forced to see a bit of it each week when the Handsome Australian sits perched on the edge of the couch biting his lip and shouting indecipherable phrases at the TV while his beloved Geelong battle their latest opponent. I usually pass through the room from time to time and check the score line to see what kind of mood I can expect the Handsome one to be in following the game. If the game is close, I may sit and watch a few minutes of it. It is actually a fun game to watch if you enjoy sports. It's very fast paced and there are a lot of players on the field at one time, so it can be difficult to keep up with. I do admit I like the momentum and I like the way the game can change very quickly.

The part of the footy that I'm NOT a fan of is the biffo and argy bargy that goes on during the game. (The what? Biffo = hits or fighting not related to play and argy bargy is, in this case, the trash talk between players). Apparently in the 1970s and 1980s this kind of rough play was standard. It seems like people really enjoyed watching this style of play and the rougher the players were with each other, the better. This is what I've gleaned, anyway, from the wealth of information I get from my forced viewing of each week's Footy Show (a prime time show that attempts to present the week's footy news, upcoming games, etc in an entertaining manner. I'd say their success at achieving these goals is mixed, but that doesn't keep the Handsome Australian, and hence the rest of us, from tuning in each week).

The AFL (that's Australian Football League) seems to have clamped down on this sort of behaviour in recent years and made an effort to get players to clean up their act a bit. For those of you who know little about Aussie Rules football, there is no "sin bin" where players who misbehave can be sent to during a game. If a player makes some sort of illegal play during a game, they may be penalised by having a free kick awarded to the opposing team. If a player gets involved in a bit of biffo or injures another player intentionally, there is no immediate action taken against that player. In the AFL, the players who misbehave during a game can be reported by the Umpires and have their infractions sent to the AFL Tribunal.

I find the Tribunal to be one of the many unique aspects of the AFL. Players who are reported during one of the weekend's games are forced to appear before the Tribunal (which is composed of a panel of lawyers and individuals with a knowledge of the rules of Aussie Rules) and plead their case. Video evidence from the game as well as statements from Umpires and other players may be used to make the case against the offending player. The offending player can provide character statements from coaches and fellow players and offer up his version of events as a defense. It sounds very formal, and in some ways it is, but it's not as formal as actual court proceedings would be. After the Tribunal hearing, a decision will be handed down by the panel and the player will find out what the consequences of his actions are. In some cases there will be monetary fines and in most cases, the player will be suspended for a period determined appropriate by the panel.

What got me thinking about all of this today is an event that happened during last week's Geelong game where one of the players, Cameron Ling, was struck in the jaw by a member of the opposing team, Dean Solomon, for no apparent reason. You can watch the vision of the incident here:

Completely unnecessary and uncalled for violence on the field. Doctor's think Ling's injury, a depressed cheek bone fracture requiring the insertion of a titanium plate and screws to hold the bone in place, will keep him off the footy field for about four weeks. This is a very crucial part of the season and may effect his team's ability to make the finals. So beyond the obvious physical ramifications for Ling, there are also the ramifications his injuries will have on his team. All of this because one guy lost his temper. Shame, shame, shame.

I'm happy to say the AFL Tribunal made me proud this week by handing down an EIGHT week suspension to Solomon that will see him out of the game for the rest of the season as well as the first game of next season. In my opinion he deserved at least that. It's the toughest penalty handed down by the Tribunal in the last 11 years--and fair enough too.

A sport with that much action, so much biffo and a justice system to sort it all out at the end of the day...yes, they do things differently Down Under.

Learn the Lingo
footy = football
biffo = hitting, fighting in footy
argy bargy = trash talk or a heated discussion
AFL = Australian Football League

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The shops close when?

Guess what y'all? Today I cleaned out my pantry. It had to be done, I mean how else would I have found the three partially consumed bags of dessicated coconut that I've been apparently collecting in the nooks and crannies of that wonderful little closet in my kitchen? Now what to do with all that coconut? Ideas?

Seriously though, the some what gargantuan task of cleaning out the pantry did take the better part of the afternoon. I had to take a few breaks here and there to make the required meals for the little people that run around here and rearrange the pantry for me on a regular basis (hence one of the many reasons it needs to be cleaned out), but other than that I worked pretty solidly. Once I had finally sorted out what we should keep, where we should put it and how it should be stored, it was well after 5pm. During my pantry cleaning tirade, I made a list of helpful plastic containers that I thought would make the pantry more organised and easier to maintain--only I didn't own them and would need to purchase them.

Wanting to complete the task at hand so I could revel in my accomplishment, I set out to the shops (that's Aussie for stores) to purchase said plastic containers. Where would you go to buy these organisational tools (that's just a fancy way of saying plastic containers)? Maybe you would head to your local Target? Wal-Mart? K-Mart? Container Store? Perhaps it would depend upon which one was the closet to you or which one would be less crowded or which one had other items you needed to buy. The point being, you (well those of you in the USA anyway) would have a myriad of stores to choose from that would carry the items I required for my pantry. Many of these stores would be open till 9 or 10pm or maybe even 24hrs. Lucky you!

Here in Australia at 7pm on a Tuesday night I had only ONE option of shops to go to. And the winner was....K-Mart!!!!! Why is it that I could only go to K-Mart? That's because K-Mart is the only retailer of that type, or any type really, that is open after 5pm on a Tuesday. Most shops in Australia close at 5 or 5:30pm on weekdays except for Thursday and Friday when some shops practice "late night" trading. Which means staying open until 7pm on the Thursday and 9pm on the Friday! That's pretty late huh? I know, how do they do it? It must take a lot out of them to stay open those late, late hours.

When I first moved here, the opening hours of the shops was an endless source of frustration for me. It meant that if you are working full time, there were only a few small windows of time during the week that you might actually have to get any necessary shopping done. (I think we should note here that grocery stores do have extended hours and that is not the kind of shopping I am talking about). Many tasks had to be relegated to precious weekend hours because they simply couldn't be completed during the week.

When I complained to the Handsome Australian about the shopping hours, he said, "What you have to understand is that many shops here are small businesses owned by individuals or families and these people need a break. They need to spend time with their kids and mow their gardens as well." Yes, yes, yes. These people need a break too. He was right. But what happens when you need plastic containers after 5pm on a Tuesday???????

8 years later, I now know what happens when you need plastic containers after 5pm on a go to K-Mart. It didn't take me 8 years to learn this, it only took about 4 years. Four years ago, we moved from the inner city to a more suburban area where I happened upon a K-Mart that is open 24hrs!!! Unheard of in least in my experience up to that point. Imagine my delight.

Since my amazing discovery four years ago, I've frequented this K-Mart many times later in the evening when all other shopping options are out of the question. It's ALWAYS busy. I'm always thankful for the wide variety of merchandise they carry and it's gotten me out of a pinch on more than one occasion.

I think this K-Mart has done a lot for my acceptance of the limited shopping hours here in Australia. I'm now much more accepting of the idea that these small business people do need a well deserved break and should spend important quality time with their own long as there's still one place I can turn to in my time of need...for plastic containers. Ahhh, K-Mart, where would I be without you?

Learn the Lingo
shops = stores

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Fairy bread? Party Pies? Parcels?

Today, the Handsome Australian and I dressed our little ones in their best "party clothes" and headed out to celebrate the first birthday of our friends' son. Whilst at the party, I started to ponder a lot of the uniquely Australian aspects at play. This is not the first child's birthday party we've attended here, quite the opposite we've been to many. The Handsome Australian was born and raised here and obviously experienced many a party in his youth, but the whole Australian Children's Birthday Party scene was new to me until a few years ago when we had our own kids and we began the birthday party circuit.

Here are a few of the distinct differences I have observed between the Australian parties and the American ones I've been to:

  1. Paper Invites are Optional: Coming from Texas, I am accustomed to sending out and receiving paper invites for children's parties. Generally, the invite is related to the party theme (if there is one) and sometimes the invites will be handmade by the party hosts. I'd say there is quite often a fair amount of effort that goes into inviting people to your child's party. In Australia, people seem to be a lot more laid back about it. I've been invited to many children's birthday parties here with simply a phone call or a verbal invite when I see the person. I'm personally a fan of the written word and I like a nice invite. Call me old fashioned, call me Southern, heck, call me Texan.
  2. RSVPs are Hit or Miss: To be fair, I've lived in Australia for 8 years now and I can't remember how effective people in the USA were about RSVPing (is there such a term?) for parties, but I do remember being quite surprised at the first few parties I held here in Oz that so many people turned up who hadn't called to say they were indeed coming. I always find catering for a party a bit difficult here because I'm never quite sure who is coming or how many. My instinct tells me that Americans are a bit more efficient in this department, but again, I wouldn't really have any idea after 8 years abroad.
  3. Gifts are opened almost immediately. Growing up in Texas, I remember taking gifts to birthday parties and putting them aside on a table with all the other gifts until it was "gift opening time", at which point, everyone gathered around and watched the birthday boy/girl open the gifts. I always quite liked this method of gift opening as everyone got to see what gifts were received by the child and appropriate thank-yous could be made. My experience here in Australia has been the gift is given to the child upon arrival at the party and the child immediately opens the gift on the spot. This means the person who brought the gift gets to see the child open it, but few others. I'm not really a fan of this practice because when it's my child's birthday, I'm usually too busy in the kitchen mucking about with the food to see what gifts my child is opening. My child never remembers who gave her/him what and who knows if he/she said thank-you to the person or not.
  4. Fairy Bread, Party Pies, Sausage Rolls, Frankfurts...You haven't lived until you've eaten these delicacies at an Aussie birthday party. Okay, maybe you have lived, but you haven't lived in Australia because these menu items are standard fare and you generally won't find much else. There seems to be an unwritten code that these Aussie favourites will be on offer at every child's birthday party because I've seen them at nearly every one I've been to. Fairy bread, for the uninitiated, is merely sliced bread (generally white) spread with margarine and covered with hundreds and thousands (that's Aussie for rainbow sprinkles). When the Handsome Australian first told me about this Aussie delight, I said, "Are you kidding me? This is what you guys ate as kids? At a party? Bread with margarine and sprinkles? That has got to be the saddest thing I've ever heard." Now that I've actually tasted it, I still think it's quite sad, but after 8 years of living here, I make it for all of my kid's parties. The kids love it. I can't explain it, but I just toss it in the "unexplained love of random Aussie food items" file right next to Vegemite and move on. The Party Pies of which I speak are a miniature version of the much lauded Aussie Meat Pie. These have to be some of the most disgusting creations I've ever come across. As a rule, I don't eat meat pies. No, I'm not a vegetarian, I'm just not interested in eating a piece of pastry oozing a brown liquid that's got the consistency of gravy with small bits of "meat" floating in it. As for the humble Sausage Roll, this seems to be one of the few party food items people bother to prepare from scratch. If the Sausage roll (seasoned mince meat wrapped in pastry) is homemade, I may give it a whirl. If it's from the frozen food section of your local grocery store, I'll give it a miss. I know, I'm such a food snob. As for the frankfurts, they come in a vacuum sealed pack in the fridge section of your local grocery store. You boil them in water for a few minutes and serve them with sauce (that's Aussie for ketchup). These probably aren't too far off the American hot dog, only they are smaller and meant to be a finger food. I don't mind a hot dog, but I just can't stomach the frankfurts. Good thing the food is actually for people with less discriminating tastes...the kids!
  5. Pass the Parcel? Not only is the food vastly different, but the games that are played at the parties are different too. Don't get me wrong, the Aussies do play Pin the Tail on the Donkey, but I've never seen a game of musical chairs here. The all time favourite party game and one that the Handsome Australian reckons characterises the parties he went to as a child is Pass the Parcel. This game is played with a prize that has been wrapped in layers and layers of wrapping paper. The wrapped prize, known as the "parcel", is passed around a circle of children while music is played. When the music stops, the child holding the "parcel" unwraps one layer of the wrapping paper. There might be mini-prizes in between some of the layers, but the goal is to be the last one holding the parcel when it's time to unwrap the final layer of wrapping because this means you get to keep the prize.
  6. No Pinatas! While I've seen pinatas for sale at party stores here, I've yet to attend a birthday party where there was one. I don't think pinatas have quite caught on in Australia yet. Pinatas were a staple of my childhood birthday party experiences and I love a party with a good pinata. When my first born celebrated her first birthday, I decided I'd make a pinata for her party to carry on the tradition. I spent three weeks making the silly thing with the Handsome Australian constantly saying, "I don't know why you are bothering, it's not like she's going to remember this." When it was finally finished and every painstaking piece of tissue paper had been hand glued to the thing, I determined it had taken too long to produce and would NOT be filled with lollies (that's Aussie for candy) and smashed. So I'm not really doing my part to usher in the tradition either. Baby steps, baby steps....
  7. Hip Hip Hooray! Here in Australia, when it's time to have the cake and sing "Happy Birthday", the party goers sing the song just as we do in the USA until the very end. After they finish the last line, "Happy Birthday to you..." someone in the crowd shouts, "Hip Hip" and the rest of the crowd shouts, "Hooray". This is repeated three times. I often wonder what would happen if no one took the initiative and shouted "Hip Hip" first.

Who knew something as simple as a child's birthday party could be so different? There are probably heaps of other differences I've neglected to list here, but I've tried to cover the most outstanding. Despite the different approaches, menus and entertainment, the kids always seem to have fun!

Learn the Lingo

pressie = present

mucking about = messing around

fairy bread = sliced white bread spread with margarine and topped with rainbow sprinkles

party pies = miniature meat pies

sausage rolls = seasoned mince meat wrapped in a pastry

mince meat = ground beef

sauce (short for tomato sauce) = ketchup

Pass the Parcel = a children's party game (see decription above)

lollies = candy

Friday, July 11, 2008

A taste from home...

The visitor we've had from the USA this week has inspired me to cook a few things from home. I thought I'd share our latest creation with you. This is a recipe for a lovely Mexican style cake that will have your taste buds doing the cumbia. The best thing about this recipe for me is the fact that I can get all the ingredients quite easily at my local Australian grocery store!
With no further ado:
Chocolate Flan Cake
1 Box of Chocolate Cake Mix
4 Eggs
1 12oz can evaporated milk
1 small can sweetened condensed milk
Caramel syrup
2 Tablespoons Vanilla

Bundt Cake Pan
Non-stick cooking spray

Mix the Chocolate cake mix as directed on the box and set aside. In a separate bowl mix the 4 eggs with the condensed milk, evaporated milk and the vanilla until the eggs have blended well with all the other ingredients. Set aside.

Take the bundt pan and spray it with the non-stick cooking spray very well. Then pour the caramel syrup in the pan. You may pour as much as you like. Set aside.

This is the amount of caramel syrup we decided to put. It basically coated the bottom of the pan.

Next pour the chocolate cake mixture over the top of the caramel syrup.

Here is what our cake looked like after we poured the chocolate cake mix in on top of the caramel syrup.

Finally, pour in the egg mixture on top of the chocolate cake mix. They will not mix together, in fact it will sink to the bottom.

Watch it sink!
Is your mouth watering yet? Aye! Aye! Mine is...I can hardly wait to taste this. First you have to put it in the oven for 1 hour at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180C). Once it's out of the oven, let it cool for 15 minutes before turning it out of the pan.

Here's what our cake looks like fresh from the oven. We put the cookie sheet underneath in case it bubbled over while baking.

Carumba! This is the top of the cake once it's come out of the pan.

It's flan on top, chocolate cake on bottom! Delicioso!
*This recipe is an adaptation of one found in the Seasoned With Fun Cookbook.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Left is Right and Right is Wrong!

On a sunny morning in February eight years ago, my flight from the USA landed safely at Melbourne airport. This was to be the beginning of my Australian adventure. I was relieved I did not have to use the boomerang in the seat pocket in front of me to alert the air hostess of kangaroos on the runway (see my post Boomerangs on Planes? to read what I'm referring to). I had passed through all the requisite check points, collected my bags and been reunited with the Handsome Australian. As we left the airport, I took my first deep breath of fresh Australian air. I liked the look of the place. The people I'd met in the airport and all the Customs officials had been very friendly. The Handsome Australian and I were busy chatting all the way to the car. He was asking about my trip and I was thanking him for his sage advice regarding the kangaroos he reckoned were all over the runways here.

When we finally arrived at the car I helped the Handsome Australian load my luggage into the boot (that's Aussie for trunk) and then I walked confidently to the right front door of the car and waited patiently to get in. The Handsome Australian looked at me and smiled before he said, "So you reckon you're ready to drive already?"

Me: Confused, "What? I'm not driving, you are driving. What are you talking about?"

HA: Laughing, "Well, then why are you trying to get into the driver's side then? That's my seat."

Me: Looking through the window and seeing the steering wheel staring back at me, "Oh, right. Yes, you drive on the right here. I'm sorry. I knew that. I'm just really tired from the flight." Then I walked slowly around to the other side where the Handsome Australian was waiting with the door open for me. I climbed in and began to adjust to what life as a passenger on the left was like.

I spent my first year living in Australia studying at a local University and working part-time in a retail shop. The Handsome Australian and I lived relatively close to the City and had public transport on our doorstep. For those of you who have never visited Melbourne, there is an extensive train and tram network that is quite easy to use. The location of our apartment meant that neither of us needed to drive to work or school. We could easily walk, take public transport, or ride a bike. As a result, we didn't even own a car. So I never drove in Australia. We did from time to time borrow a car from a member of the Handsome Australian's family and take a drive down the coast or into the bush somewhere, but the Handsome Australian did all the driving. I was merely a passenger--on the left!

After a year, the Handsome Australian and I moved to the USA for an extended period for work purposes. At the end of our time in the USA, we moved back to Australia for what we knew would be a longer term stay. This meant we had to find a new place to live in Melbourne and we had to buy a car and I had to drive--on the right!! I was terrified. I'd become very comfortable with our previous arrangement of me as the passenger and the Handsome Australian as the driver and I'd never quite gotten used to the idea of driving on the right side. It all just seemed so wrong somehow.

The best way to conquer my fears, argued the Handsome Australian, was to simply get on the road and drive. So, drive is what we did. We started with driving along some quiet residential streets near our apartment. The strangest thing to me about driving on the right--other than actually driving on the right--was that I felt like the car should extend away from me on the right and not the left. It was weird that there was very little car on my right side and a whole lot of car on my left. It's a very hard sensation to put into words. I just couldn't get used to all that space inside the car on the left side. Odd. Very odd.

Once I'd learned to navigate the quiet side streets, the Handsome Australian determined I was ready for some main roads. In Melbourne the extensive tram network runs down the center of many of the main roads. This means that you not only have to navigate your way through the standard traffic of cars, trucks and bicycles, but you also have to be aware of the trams. There are specific rules relating to when to yield to the trams and certain methods for passing them, etc. It was a whole lot to take in and it took a bit of time to get accustomed to.

I'm happy to say that I've been successfully driving on the right hand side of the road for seven years now and it's become second nature...well, almost. I still walk out of petrol stations (that's Aussie for gas stations) from time to time after paying for my petrol and climb into my car on the LEFT hand side. I close the door behind me and look up to put the key in the ignition to start the car only to find myself staring down at the glove box. Glancing to the right I see the steering wheel on the other side of the car. Hmm, I think to myself, this is embarrassing. People are going to wonder what the hell I'm doing. So in an effort to save face, I open the glove box, rifle through it's contents and pull out something as if I've been looking for it. Then I open the door, get out and walk very confidently to the RIGHT side of the car and get in, trying to give off the air that, Yes I know where the steering wheel is, I was just doing a bit of filing over there." Then I start the car and get the heck out of there as fast as I can. You can laugh dear reader, but this still happens to me about every six months or so...even after eight years on the RIGHT it still feels wrong sometimes!

***Please note, I'm speaking about the position of the steering wheel in the car--ie the right side of the car. In Australia we drive on the LEFT side of the road, but we sit in the RIGHT side of the car to do so. Confused?? Try driving here one day!!*************
Learn the Lingo
air hostess = flight attendant
boot = trunk
petrol station = gas station
petrol = gasoline

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Sticker shock

When I first arrived in Australia I was astounded at how much things cost. At the time, the US Dollar was quite strong in comparison to the Australian Dollar, but even still the prices for everyday things seemed quite expensive.

After living here for 8 years, I guess I have become accustomed to the cost of living. This week, however, we've been hosting a visitor from the USA and she's been clearly surprised at how much certain items cost here. So for your reading pleasure and for the wannabe economist in me, I thought I'd price a small basket of goods here in Oz and compare them to the same or roughly equivalent items in the USA. This was an interesting exercise (well for my inner geek anyway, sorry to bore the rest of you). I've made a list below of the items I've compared. The price that appears in RED is the price of that item in Australia in Australian dollars. The price in GREEN is the Australian price converted to US Dollars (at the current conversion rate of 1 AUD =. 9524 USD). The price in BLUE is the American price in US Dollars.

$4.59/2 litres = $4.36
$2.79/half gallon

$3.66/2 litres = $3.48
$2.79/half gallon

$4.73 = $4.50

Cereal-All Bran
$3.88/12 oz = $3.69
$3.99/18 oz

$2.99/kg = $2.84

$1.25 each = $1.18
$1.79 each

McDonald's Big Mac
$3.95 = $3.75

$6.01/gallon = $5.71

I guess the lesson here is I should buy more iceberg lettuce since it's such a bargain!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Out of sight, out of mind...well, until someone points it out to you.

Having lived in Australia for the past 8 years, there are plenty of things from home (in this case, Texas) that I've forgone or forgotten. I think my initial years here were more difficult in this sense.

I remember being surprised when I first visited the local grocery store, Safeway. The name was familiar. There was a stage in my youth when we had a Safeway in my Texas town. I thought, This is a good sign. Maybe this Safeway will be very much like an American grocery store and all my faves will be there. Two steps inside the entrance and I knew I was naive to even entertain such thoughts. This place was small. I found the aisles quite narrow and there simply weren't that many of them. I think from one side of the store to the other there may have been 8 aisles and they weren't long. This was the kind of grocery store you'd expect to find in a very small town in the USA, not in a large city like Melbourne.

The next thing I noticed was the selection was extremely limited. It didn't seem to matter what item you were searching for, you'd only find two to three brands of it. I was used to having a plethora of choices in the grocery store I shopped at in the USA.
Upon further inspection, I realised a lot of my favourite items from the USA simply weren't on the shelves here. This meant many of my favourite recipes were next to impossible to cook as their ingredients simply weren't available.

Initially I was a bit distraught that I couldn't get my favourite food items and that I could only choose between Brand A and Brand B for all the other items I was buying, but I guess the longer you live somewhere the more you get used to what is on offer. Over time, I began to acquire Australian cookbooks that called for ingredients that were locally available and I learned some simple substitutes for a few of my American recipes. The recipes I could no longer make or items I couldn't find simply got shuffled slowly out of my mind and replaced with all the new local food I was experiencing. So much so that, after awhile, when people would ask what food I missed from home, I'd be hard pressed to remember exactly what it was I'd been missing.

As time passed and my tenure in Australia continued, I began to discover specialty stores that sold some coveted items from the USA. The only problem with these sorts of stores is that they charge exorbitant prices for items you pay very little for in the USA. For instance, a standard box of Cheerios (a breakfast cereal I'd loved dearly in the USA) at the specialty store would cost $15 AUD. Highway robbery if you ask me. Sometimes I'd be desperate enough for an item to pay the outrageous prices, but for the most part I tried to steer clear of the money pits that were these stores. That is until someone would remind me they were there...

We received a surprise visitor from the USA on Saturday. Since our guest's arrival, we've been discussing all the things we might have requested from the USA had we known she was coming. So much so that today she and I had to drive across town to the USA Foods speciality store and pay the outrageous prices for those items I decided I couldn't go a minute longer without having.
Here's a small sample of what we bought:

As soon as we got home, we ripped these babies open and here's what I did with them:

Put those Graham Crackers on a plate

Topped them with a few squares of the Hershey's Chocolate.

Then topped the chocolate with a warm toasty marshmallow. Can you see the chocolate melting?

Place another Graham Cracker on top and you've got yourself a S'more!! Melt in your mouth goodness. Yum, yum, yum!

Box of Graham Crackers $9.99

Hershey Bar $1.80

Marshmallows $3.00

The satisfying feeling of gooey chocolate and stringy marshmallow dripping from your chin? Priceless.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Footy Tipping

One lovely March afternoon, I walked into a meeting at work and saw one of my colleagues busily collecting money from everyone else sitting at the table. When he saw me he said, "Are you interested in signing up for the footy tipping this year?" This was my first proper job in Australia and I'd only been there since January so I'd never heard of this whole footy tipping thing. So as per my usual, I had to quickly confess my ignorance. You get used to that after awhile. Nothing like living in a foreign country to make you feel like a dumbass 80% of the time.

Me: "Sorry, I'm not familiar with footy tipping? Can someone enlighten me?"

Work Colleague: With a great deal of enthusiasm, "Oh yeah, no worries. Footy tipping is just a betting competition we run for the footy. Everyone puts in $22 and then each week you submit your tips. We'll have jackpots for each round and there will be prizes for the people that finish the top of the ladder at the end of the season."

Me: This sounds a bit complicated and I don't know anything about the footy. "What are tips exactly?"

WC: Chuckling slightly, "Oh the tips are just who you think will win each game. Surely you guys bet on the football in America?"

Me: Yeah I remember being in an illegal football pool in high school and getting busted by our Geometry teacher, but that was a long time ago, and I'm reformed now. Which is actually a good point, is this even legal? (a legitimate concern for someone on a temporary visa)"Yeah people do bet on the football. We call it a pool. I can't remember ever participating in one at work though. Isn't this organised gambling really? I guess what I'm trying to say is what does the boss think of this?"

WC: Smiling and shaking his head at the same time. "You Yanks really are a funny bunch aren't you? I guess it is organised gambling in a way, but everyone here participates. The boss asked me to organise it. We do it every year. So are you in or what?"

Me: "Won't I be disadvantaged because I know nothing about the footy?"

WC: "Not necessarily. It depends on the season really. Sometimes there are a lot of upsets and no one is very good a predicting them so it might actually be to your advantage."

Me: Feeling slightly obliged to participate in this ritual if for no other reason than the sheer sake of fitting in. "Ok, you've sold me. I'm in."

And that was the beginning of my foray into the world of footy tipping. I started off the season quite well. There are eight matches played each week and if you successfully picked all eight winners correctly, you get paid out a certain amount depending on how many people also picked the eight and how long it had been since someone last picked eight. I know, I know it's all so confusing.

I did manage to get all eight right during one of the rounds in the middle of the season, but unfortunately, so did a few of my other colleagues so we had to split the jackpot--I think we each got about $5 back or something.

By the time the end of the season rolled around, I was doing really poorly and usually only picking one or two winners a week. I didn't care though because I was having fun. The footy tipping was always the talk of the office on Friday afternoons as everyone was submitting their picks for that weekend's games. Then on Monday morning everyone would check to see how they'd gone in comparison to everyone else.

In America I remember lots of my male friends being in football pools or Super Bowl pools, etc with their mates--ie other guys. I don't, however, remember knowing a lot of women that were getting together and betting on sports. In Australia though, men and women alike were equally engaged in the footy. The women in my workplace took their footy tipping very seriously. Their love for footy went beyond the footy tipping competition though, a lot of these women were die hard fans of particular teams. They attended the matches on a regular basis. I was amazed.

As for the gambling side of one here seemed to care. The Australians, from what I could glean, were a lot more relaxed about this sort of thing--especially in the work place. The more people I talked to, the more I realised that everyone was in a footy tipping comp whether they followed the footy or not, and almost everyone did their footy tipping through work.

I got used to the idea that people at work were almost universally involved in the footy tipping, but the one that really shocked me was when I found out the Handsome Australian's brother was involved in a school sanctioned footy tipping competition. He was in high school at the time (at a Catholic School I might add) and each kid was allowed to put in $5 and participate. They would have winners for each round and a jackpot at the end as well. I was astounded by this. I asked the Handsome Australian about it and he didn't see what all the fuss was. They are just kids having a good time like the rest of us. No one seemed to be bothered besides me.

Eight years later, I still think it's a strange thing for kids in schools to be doing, but if there is one thing I've learned in all my years in Australia it's, if you can't beat them, join them! So if you'll excuse me, I'm off to see how I've fared this week!

Learn the Lingo
footy tipping=a betting pool where participants try to predict the winners of weekly football matches
footy tips=the teams you pick to win the games
no worries=no problem

Friday, July 4, 2008

But Mum, I really wanted to watch the game...and other confessions.

"But Mum, I really wanted to watch the game." These are the words my beautiful four year old muttered in protest as she was being tucked snugly into her bed this evening. The game in question is Geelong vs. Port Adelaide being played in Adelaide as I write this. The Handsome Australian is still a die hard Geelong fan and he has made it his mission in life to ensure that any offspring he produces follow in his Geelong loving footsteps.

After the scandal I created by choosing to barrack for Carlton all those years ago, I think the Handsome Australian decided he needed to buckle down and make sure the rest of 'our family' went his way. I don't begrudge him this dream, I think every guy wants to pass the love of his favourite team on to his kids. In the Handsome Australian's case, this has been extremely important (particularly in the last year as Geelong has been cruising at the top of the ladder and actually walked away with the Premiership at the end of the 2007 season--but don't call him fair weather, he takes offense to that. Trust me.).

He began by teaching both of our children the battle cry, "GO THE CATS!!" This is what Geelong fans will shout out during a game in support of their team. The Australians have a funny way of adding a "THE" between the "GO" and "CATS". It used to sound extremely strange to me when I first arrived, but now it's just second nature. Our four year old has been able to shout these words at the top of her lungs for a couple of years now. Our nearly two year old made his "GO THE CATS" debut only a few months ago. I think it's safe to say that hearing the children chanting this phrase over and over at the dinner table makes the Handsome one's heart swell with pride.

Next he taught our daughter the Geelong Song--oh yes, there is a song! Did I forget to mention that each AFL team has their own goofy little song? Well, they do! When a particular team wins a game, their club's song is played over the PA at the stadium and all the supporters sing it. Once the players of the winning team are off the field and back in the locker room after the game, they form a circle and sing the club song at the top of their lungs. Don't laugh!! The fans take this very seriously and the networks actually televise this. It's a ritual.

As luck would have it, our daughter loves music and took to the song like a duck to water. Unfortunately, she couldn't always remember the words so I'd constantly hear, "Mum, can we sing the Geelong song again?" To which I'd have to oblige and sing the song for her--over and over and over again. I can sing the Geelong song backwards in my sleep hanging upside down from the monkey bars at the local park if I need to. Maybe that's a new party trick I should put on the resume...

With the team propaganda sorted and our children suitably brainwashed, the Handsome Australian began to explain some of the finer points of the game to them while he sat on the edge of his seat about three inches from the TV screen as Geelong played game after game. The four year old can recognise 'goals' as well as 'marks' while her younger brother is still clutching to basics like, "ball", "man", "running". Don't worry though, he's a clever kid and he'll get there.

About a month ago, the Handsome Australian decided that the four year old was ready to experience her first Geelong Game in the flesh. He picked an afternoon game at the 'MCG' (Melbourne Cricket Ground) on a dismal winter's day. It was about 11 degrees Celsius (that's about 51 degrees Fahrenheit) with patches of rain. I rugged her up in five different layers and sent a blanket along with her. She was beside herself with excitement at the prospect of attending her first footy match with her dear old Dad. The Handsome Australian was beaming too. They were quite the giddy little pair. The mother in me was concerned about the weather and my little one's exposure to the elements for several hours at what I might describe as a 'boring footy match', but I couldn't deny them this experience. So, off they went.

She LOVED it!!! She LOVED it!!! Upon returning home she informed me that 1) yes she was warm enough 2)no, Daddy did not buy her any hot chips (that's Aussie for french fries) but she did manage to wrangle a hot chocolate out of him 3) Geelong won the game and 4) her favourite part was when the mascots took the field at the beginning and when they got to sing the Geelong song at the end of the game. Then she proceeded to sing the song for the rest of the day...and the day after that, and the day after that.

She didn't want to go to bed tonight because she wanted to watch her beloved Geelong with her beloved Dad. She's four. Help! Imagine how passionate she's going to be when she gets older. Yikes. I wasn't expecting the Handsome Australian's brainwashing regime to be this effective. He's got skills I never even knew about.

Here's the thing though, all this Geelong stuff, it's starting to rub off on me. How can I look in the dewy eyes of my two little lambs and tell them that Mommy barracks for Carlton? They'll hate me forever. I think I'm quietly being converted to a Geelong supporter...did I just say that? Damn he's good! Whatever you do, don't mention this to the Handsome Australian. I'll NEVER live it down!

Learn the Lingo
mark=to quote Wikipedia, "A mark is a skill in Australian rules football where a player cleanly catches a kicked ball that has travelled more than 15 metres without anyone else touching it or the ball hitting the ground"
MCG= Melbourne Cricket Ground, affectionately referred to by most as "The G".
hot chips=french fries

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Samosas and Scandal

Have you ever had to tell someone you love something you know is going to break their heart? The kind of thing that you know will go to the very depths of their soul and smash it into tiny bits in one fell swoop? How do you go about breaking such news? Do you try and soften it somehow? Do you say it directly? Do you avoid it all together and hope they'll find out somehow on their own? These are difficult questions to answer, particularly when you are talking about the footy...

Once I'd completed the step by step scientific process of choosing a footy team to barrack for in Australia, I had to break the news to my boyfriend, the Handsome Australian. I knew he wouldn't take it well, especially since I had chosen to barrack for a rival team, the Carlton Blues, and not the team that he'd poured his dedication, passion and devotion into for the last 20 years, the Geelong Cats.

I chose the softly, softly approach. I waited until we went out to dinner one night at his favourite restaurant. The Handsome Australian loves Indian cuisine so we went to one of the many great places Melbourne has to offer. We had ordered our dinner and were nibbling away on the entrees (that's Australian for appetizer...well, to be fair it's really a French word meaning entry or entrance and while I question the Australian use and spelling of many words, I have to say I'm with them on this one. It just makes sense that entree would be the first dish you'd have in a meal but I digress....) a lovely plate of samosas, chicken tikka and vegetable pakoras. The Handsome Australian was clearly enjoying himself so I thought, Now's as good a time as any...

Me: Casually, "So I've been having a think about this whole crazy obsession everyone in this town seems to have with the footy."

HA: Far too interested in the food to understand the magnitude of what was about to pass from my lips, "Yeah?"

Me: Realising his obsession with the food might allow me to sneak this past him without a great deal of drama, "Yeah and I decided that it was time that I chose a team to barrack for as well. I mean I don't want to feel left out of it or anything."

HA: Looking up as he takes a bite out of a pakora and saying very unfussed, "Oh well, that's easy. You can barrack for Geelong like I do. They're a great team. They can use all the supporters they can get this year."

Me: Realising that I might not slip this under the radar like I had first anticipated, "Yeah I've thought about that. Your brothers have sung their praises to me in many a conversation. I know you all love some guy named Abbott or...

HA: Cutting me off before I could finish, "Ablett. You mean Ablett. Gary Ablett or GOD as we like to call him. Greatest player ever to take the field for Geelong or any team for that matter. Do you know how many goals he kicked in his career?"

Me: Not sure if that was a rhetorical question or I was supposed to answer, but wanting to continue with my mission regardless, "No, I don't really know how many goals he kicked, but I know your brothers worship him and they made me watch some video the other day from the 1989 Grand Final. Um yeah, he's not that good looking you know."

HA: In disbelief, "Good looking? Good looking? You are talking about one of the greatest footballers of all time. Who cares if he's good looking. He was a bloody good footballer."

Me: Wondering if the Handsome Australian always looks this irritated when eating pakoras or if perhaps it's just this conversation. Hmm. Soldiering on, "Well, 'bloody good footballer' or not, your brothers said he's retired now and doesn't play for Geelong anymore so I couldn't factor that in to my choice of a team to support. Sorry."

HA: Looking confused and probably beginning to wonder where this whole conversation is heading, "Well it doesn't matter what factors you considered as long as Geelong was the conclusion you came to, you'll be right."

Me: Uh-oh you handsome thing, prepare yourself, "Well darling, I considered many factors and I did quite a bit of research. You'd be proud of me--really you would--and well, you see I've come to the conclusion that I will be barracking for Carlton."

HA: Spitting out a bit of chicken tikka, eyes popping out of his head, "You are barracking for WHO? Carlton? Are you SERIOUS? Get outta here--you can't barrack for Carlton. They may be going okay this season, but they've got nothin' on Geelong. How'd you come to this anyway?"

Me: Wondering how much of my scientific method I should explain to him. Tactfully, "I'd really rather not reveal my method but please understand this isn't a decision I take lightly. I've really put some deep thought into this (does drooling over photos of SOS count as thought?) and I just want you to respect my choice."

HA: Smiling cynically, "Ok, fine. You want to barrack for Carlton? Go ahead, barrack for Carlton. But keep in mind that I barrack for Geelong, my brothers barrack for Geelong, my Uncles barrack for Geelong--my entire extended family barracks for Geelong and the Geelong games are the only games we are going to go and see. So you can join us in our love for the greatest club in the comp (that's Aussie for competition) and come along to the games and enjoy yourself or you can sell yourself short and become a Bluebagger (slang for Carlton supporter) and go to the one game of the season when Geelong plays Carlton and we kick your arse (that's Aussie for ass).

Me: What? Did he just say I'd only get to go to one game if I barrack for Carlton? Sweet. This whole Carlton thing has worked out better than I thought it would. "Well, I know it's hard for you to take, but I'm going to stick with the Blues. I'm willing to accept the fact that I may only be able to attend one game this year. I'd rather that than having to compromise my personal choice just to jump on your bandwagon."

HA: "Done."

Me: "Done."

Learn the Lingo
Bluebagger=Carlton supporter