Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas in Australia continued

Here are a few more observations from the many Christmases I've spent here in Australia (click here to see the beginning of the list):

6. Being summer, Christmas seems like quite a casual affair here in Australia. I can only speak from my personal experience, but I remember Christmas in the USA to be a time for dressing up and putting on something more formal than jeans and a t-shirt. As a girl, my Mom always made sure we had a Christmas dress to wear when we celebrated with my family. As I got older, I wore dresses some years or nice pants with a festive jumper (read: sweater) for others. While some Aussies do get dolled up for Christmas, I do see plenty of people in shorts, singlets (read: tank tops) and thongs (read: flip flops). The Christmas parties we go to here seem to have a mix of fashion--some people are rather dressed up while others are very casual. There doesn't seem to be any hard and fast rule about Christmas fashion here. I do find that frustrating I must admit. I know the weather says one thing--it's hot, dress comfortably, but the occasion says something else, this is a special event and you should dress up. I really never know just what to wear on Christmas Day here in Australia. I've tried asking the Handsome Australian for a bit of guidance, but let's just say he ALWAYS errs on the side of comfort and so his advice can't always be trusted. Smart casual seems to be the way to go...that's something I'll have to explain another day.

7. Christmas baking isn't that popular. When I lived in the USA, I really got into baking around Christmas time. I always had a batch of sugar cookies on the go. There were special breads I'd make as well. All of these lovely homemade items made great gifts for friends and work colleagues and they didn't go unappreciated; people loved receiving them. When I moved to Australia, I tried to maintain this same tradition. I did it for many years until I realised something--it's too bloody hot here to have your oven going for long periods in December. We don't really receive plates and plates of homemade goodies like I remember from the USA, so I'd venture to say that most of the population has already figured out the whole baking in hot weather is a bad idea thing. There are probably some stubborn Expats like myself who still try to give it a burl despite the unforgiving temperatures, but we'd be in the minority.

8. Cherries seem to be a big deal for Christmas. I know I mentioned food in yesterday's post, but I forgot to single out the humble cherry. In the state of Victoria where we live, the cherry season is a very short one. The cherries seem to ripen just in time for Christmas each year. You'll start to see them in the shops in early December and the prices will fluctuate greatly in the lead up to the big day. When I think about Christmas in Australia, I do associate it with cherries. Regardless of what is being served at my in laws for Christmas lunch, there are always cherries. Most of the food advertising that happens around Christmas on television always features cherries. The cherries are never cheap either. I think the cheapest I've ever seen them has been about $7 AUD per kilo. So it is certainly a treat to have them on Christmas.

9. Carols by Candlelight abound. This is a tradition I really like about Christmas in Australia. I've always been a fan of a good Christmas carol and I am really delighted by the various events sponsored by local councils, shopping centres and the like which feature plenty of Christmas carols. Most local councils will sponsor a "Carols by Candlelight" event in their areas. These concerts will be free to the public, will take place in an outdoor setting and will have a mix of local entertainers. Some of these events even feature fireworks at the end. It's a really lovely atmosphere for families. There are two larger concerts--one in Sydney and one in Melbourne that are televised nationally. You actually have to purchase tickets to these larger shows, but the entertainment is top notch with many of the nation's most talented singers and musicians performing. The only drawback to these events is they do go until quite late--it has to be dark to really have candlelight doesn't it? So they can be a bit tricky with little ones, but hey it's Christmas!

10. Australian radio stations don't play Christmas music (well not with any regularity anyway). I have to say, this is an observation I made for the first time this year. We don't normally listen to a great deal of radio at our home. Most of my radio listening happens in the car going to and from places. This year we happened to be in our car quite a bit on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. On both days, I couldn't find a single Christmas song on any of the stations. My daughter was requesting Christmas carols and I couldn't find anything. I couldn't believe it. When I thought about it, I remembered some American stations playing Christmas music almost exclusively through the Christmas period. There would surely be at least one station in your regular set of stations in the USA that I would have found a Christmas song on. So my thinking on this is, the Australians like to limit their Christmas carols to the Carols by Candlelight evenings mentioned above. I really have no other explanation as to why there weren't any Christmas songs on the radio on Christmas Day. Odd.

There you have it, my Christmas in Australia observations. Have you ever wondered what Christmas was like in another place? Has this list sparked more questions about Christmas in Australia? Ask. Please. Just ask away. I'd love to dedicate the next post to answering any questions y'all might have about Christmas in the Land Down Under! So go, post them in the comments section...that is if there is anyone actually reading this.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas in Australia

Christmas 2008 marks my 7th Christmas spent here in the Land Down Under. I've never really stopped to think too much about the Australian Christmas traditions, that is until now. Since I started writing this blog, I've begun to take a closer look at all the intricacies of Aussie society that I had previously taken for granted. I know, lucky you right? Here are a few of my observations from this Christmas.

1. Santa dresses the same despite the seasonal difference. Yes, that's right if you go to any Australian shopping centre (that's mall for those Americans amongst you) in the lead up to Christmas, you'll find Santa Claus as you know him--white beard, red suit with the white fur accents. He'll be wearing the hat and the glasses, boots, etc. My first thought when I saw these Santas dressed for winter in the middle of the Australian summer was, "Those poor fellows. They must be absolutely burning up in there." It just seemed a bit odd to me. Now though, I like seeing these men dressed in traditional Santa costumes because it reminds me very much of the Santa I knew and loved as a kid.

2. The stores and shopping centres begin to decorate for Christmas in October. It seems to get earlier and earlier every year, and I do remember feeling this a bit when I lived in the USA, but I feel like in the USA we have several big holidays before Christmas that puts a bit of the brakes on the early Christmas decorations. It seems like retailers take aim at Halloween, then Thanksgiving and finally Christmas. I don't know, I haven't spent much time in the USA during the lead up to Christmas in many years. What do y'all think?

3. Christmas lights and outdoor decorations are growing in popularity here in Australia, but haven't really caught on. I do remember when I first came here noticing that there really aren't many lights around at Christmas. There aren't a lot of houses decked out in decorations. You might find one or two scattered about, but there really aren't huge light displays on private homes. Each year though, I've noticed that more and more people are getting into the spirit and putting up Christmas lights and those larger outdoor decorations. I'm not sure what has changed in people's minds--perhaps more of these type of decorations have become available in recent years. Who knows?

Although, it's very easy to understand why Australians don't put up the Christmas lights with such fervor--because it's summer here, it doesn't get dark until about 9:30pm so you really can't appreciate the lights unless you are up quite late. Having young kids ourselves, it is quite tricky to find a time when you can take them to see the light displays--it has to be a late night for them, unfortunately.

4. The lead up to Christmas is a killer! December marks the beginning of the Australian summer, the weather fines up, the year is drawing to a close and almost everyone you come across is in a celebratory mood. This means there are heaps of parties, barbecues, and other social occasions to attend. December seems like one late night after another with plenty of indulgent food and beverage. I think it must have been Australians that invented the New Year's detox! Honestly, you really need such a thing after surviving the "silly season" as it's so aptly called here.

5. Aussies eat lots of different things on Christmas Day. Your normal Christmas Day lunch in Australia really depends heavily on which immigrant group the family in question belongs to. Those with British heritage stick to a menu that is very much like the North American tradition--there will be turkey and ham with all the trimmings and for dessert a plum pudding.

Those people who have acclimated a bit more, won't choose such a heavy meal on a hot summery day. Instead, seafood becomes the center piece. Prawns, crayfish and oysters will find their way to many an Aussie Christmas feast. Generally these seafood platters are all served cold.

Still others may opt for the good old Aussie barbecue. Perhaps there will be seafood or just meat on the barbie and plenty of cold drinks all around.

In my husband's family, there is not a traditional Christmas menu. One year we had cold seafood platters with salads. Another year we had a selection of curries. This year was a feast featuring mostly signature Lebanese dishes. You just never know what it will be until you turn up. Normally, I'm a fan of consistency and tradition, but I like the randomness of the Christmas menu in my husband's family--it keeps me guessing. Also, there are so many talented cooks in the family, it really doesn't matter what they serve--it's always really, really good.

More observations to come...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Wiggles Wonderment...still coming

I haven't forgotten to finish the post about the Wiggles Concert...because I know you are all waiting on the edge of your seats to hear all about it. I'm waiting to get some photos to post with it. My camera just gave up on me that day and so I'm waiting to get some from one of the other members of our party. It's coming. Hang in there! In the meantime I'll be posting as often as the Silly Season allows. It's getting sillier and sillier all the time. (Is sillier even a word?)

A Christmas Miracle

A few days ago, I was traveling down the main road near our home when I approached a stop light. On the corner of this particular intersection is a large grocery store whose parking lot has an entrance/exit on to the road I was traveling on. Before I approached the lights, a car exited from this grocery store and proceeded to block several lanes of traffic. This road has about four lanes--one for cars turning left, one for cars turning right and two for cars going straight. The car in question was blocking the left turn lane and one of the straight lanes and had it's headlights pointing in the direction of the second straight lane. It was a bit difficult to tell where this driver was trying to head. Upon closer inspection, I noticed it was an elderly woman behind the wheel. I decided that she probably wanted to get over to the right hand turning lane, and had just crept her way out into the traffic waiting for the lights to change and her opportunity to move across. Why else would she be blocking several lanes of traffic. Her position on the road didn't bother me as I was heading straight and she wasn't blocking my path. I merely found the whole thing a bit curious.

The light remained red for a little while and the traffic began to build behind this woman. The car immediately behind her held a young P-Plater who appeared to be in a hurry. He was drumming his steering wheel impatiently. From my angle, I could see the elderly woman was the driver of the car in front of him, I'm not sure he could though. I immediately thought to myself, "I hope this guy doesn't start abusing this old woman for blocking his way." That thought popped into my head so quickly because in Melbourne, the drivers are actually very free wheeling with their abuse of other drivers. Any slight annoyance on the road, and people are honking their horns at you, swearing, making hand gestures. That's one of the first things I noticed when I started driving here. 8 years later, I find I get a bit excitable in traffic as well. Yikes. All these abusive drivers are rubbing off on me.

I'll call Melbourne drivers abusive, but I won't call them rude. If you don't mind being honked and sworn at, they are actually really good about giving way to one another and letting you in on a congested road. That aspect of driving here always impressed me. There are some roads that are so busy you think you'll never get a look in, but then someone waves you in and off you go. It happens all the time.

So what happened to the old woman blocking the traffic with a P-plater hot on her bumper? Nothing, absolutely nothing. I could not believe how restrained this young driver was. He was obviously wishing he could get past this woman, but never once did he honk, swear or scream at her. When the lights turned green, she straightened her car a bit and proceeded straight through the intersection in the "straight" lane she had been blocking. Turns out she didn't want to get over to the right turn lane, she just wanted to go straight. Where did the P-Plater go? Once the way was cleared, he got into the the left turn lane and turned left. Something he could have done several minutes before if she hadn't been in his way. Even so, he'd kept his cool and this little old woman was given the courtesy someone her age deserves. I couldn't believe it really. I thought to myself, "This must be a Christmas miracle." That's how odd it was.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Wiggles Wonderment

Firstly, I must apologise for being away from the blog for so long. The silly season is well and truly taking over our lives at the moment and I don't see any relief in sight until after New Year's. That said, I'll do my best to keep posting when possible.

Today began as a wet and wild one. The wind was blowing and their were sheets of rain falling from the sky. It looked to be the kind of day that made you want to curl up in your bed and stay there all day with a good book. Unfortunately, back in June I made plans for today that required rising early and getting the Handsome Australian and our children dressed, ready and out the door by 8:30am--which is fine for a weekday, but this is Sunday people--it should be a day of rest.

What was so important that I was up making pancakes at 6:30am? The Wiggles that's what. Yes, that's right, Australia's second biggest export after Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter, were playing live at Rod Laver arena in Melbourne today. If you've had children in the last 15 or so years, then chances are you are familiar with the Wiggles and their music. Perhaps you are more familiar than you'd like to admit or even better, perhaps you are more familiar than you'd like to be!! Well, here is how it is at our house...

We LOVE the Wiggles. It wasn't always so. When I had my first child, I was determined her mind wouldn't be wasted on such mindless nonsense. I wasn't really familiar with the Wiggles then, but didn't like the idea of this new life in my charge spending endless hours in front of the TV watching four guys in turtlenecks jumping around and singing. Oh yes, we know so much as new parents don't we? Slowly but surely though, my daughter was exposed to the Wiggles at other people's houses. She liked them, but I never encouraged her by buying any of their DVDs or music. She didn't seem fussed. She had other favourites and still seemed free of the Wiggles disease.

Then my son was born and someone gave us a Wiggles DVD. My girl still didn't watch it much. We were still a pretty Wiggle neutral household. Time went on and favourites came and went. One day my girl got the Wiggles DVD from the shelf and we wiped the dust off of it and put it on. She was mildly amused, but the effect the music had on my son was amazing. He would have been just over 1 year old at the time. That was it. He was HOOKED. We watched the DVD maybe two more times before forgetting it again, but any time we were anywhere there was Wiggles merchandise, he was pointing and shouting, "Wiggles! Wiggles!. Talk about brand recognition--those DVDs had worked their black magic on his little mind.

A few months later, a family member gave my boy a Wiggles backpack in preparation for an upcoming trip to the USA. He was beside himself with glee. This is the kid who had seen the DVD three times. That's it. He wouldn't take the bloody thing off. He walked around with it for hours. He probably would have slept with it if I'd let him. Not usually one to give in to this brazen commercialisation, I found myself secretly pleased he had a focused interest because that would make distracting him during the 14 hour transpacific flight a little bit easier. So in addition to the backpack he'd been given, I went out and bought a few Wiggles figurines to surprise him with on the flight and a couple of Wiggles story and colouring books. (I think this is the point at which I became an enabler).

The tale of that 14 hour flight was something like this: We boarded the flight and he played with his Wiggles figurines quietly while we took off. The Qantas flight attendants came by with WIGGLES themed activity packs for the kids. A lucky coincidence really, but the little fellow was pleased nonetheless. Once the newness of the figurines and activity pack wore off (about 45 minutes later) I had a wiggly 18 month old on my hands. I looked across at my daughter who was engrossed in the video screen in front of her playing on demand children's shows. Ah hah--what a great idea. So I turned on the video screen in front of me and the wiggly one and searched through the Qantas Entertainment network until I came across--you guessed it--a Wiggles movie. I tried putting those cheap airplane headphones on his little head so he could watch the movie, but he kept pulling them off. I was a bit disappointed because I thought there is no way he'd watch the movie without the sound. What fun would that be?

I couldn't have been more wrong. 13 hours later, our plane touched down in Los Angeles. My daughter had slept for about nine of those hours. My son on the other hand, was awake for all but one of them. I know, you can hear him crying from where you are sitting right now can't you? You're thinking he was so overtired and upset that he was throwing all sorts of tantrums--because that's what any normal kid would do right? Well, this kid isn't normal. He watched that Wiggles movie over and over and over again. I think we must have seen 10 rotations of it. 10 rotations WITHOUT the sound. He just sat in my lap and watched it (I think it was then that my love affair with the Wiggles was born). Yes, I didn't get any sleep on that flight, but my kid sat still and didn't cry at any point so I call that a victory folks. Thank you Wiggles. Thank you. Thank you.

As my son's love for the Wiggles grew, so did mine. They were constantly getting me out of difficult situations--he was so easily distracted by anything Wiggles related that any difficult situation could be diffused by simply pointing to the Wiggles logo on the back of a book cover or singing a Wiggles song. I'm telling you the power they hold over my son is amazing.

So obviously, when the opportunity arose to take him to see the Wiggles live in concert, I simply had to take advantage. So back in June, I bought six tickets to see the Wiggles: one for me, one for the Handsome Australian, one for our girl, one for our boy and one for their Grandmother and Great Auntie who wanted to come along to see what all the fuss was about.

And what a day it was...

To be continued...

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Trip to the Darkside

My husband, the Handsome Australian, actually has another alias: the Healthy Australian. Ever since I've met him, he has continually shunned the fast food lifestyle and has always opted to take the high road when it comes to food choices. There is very little that passes his lips that isn't fresh, healthy and in most cases carefully prepared. He is after all, a self declared food snob who enjoys a healthy meal, but wants it to be really tasty as well.

On the other hand, I'm a reformed fast food junkie. Growing up in the USA meant it was very hard to escape the multitude of fast food options available. As a high school student I can recall crossing the road and eating at McDonald's 4 days out of 5 each week during our lunch hour. I cringe at the thought of the calories and fat I was shoving into my adolescent body. I really didn't know any better at the time. When I got a bit older and had a car, I could drive all the way down to the local Whataburger for lunch. Oh my, Whataburger. Yum, Yum, and Yum. So much better (tasting) than McDonald's, but still not very high on the health-o-meter. Don't even get me started on all the Tex-Mex fast food choices. It will only end in tears...oh how I miss it.

When I first arrived in Australia, it became obvious that the fast food options here were limited. Also, Australian fast food isn't exactly the same as American fast food. Aussies seem to flock to the Fish and Chips shops when they need a quick meal. They also like to pick up a quick meat pie or sausage roll (YUCK and YUCK) or another Aussie favourite the pastie which is a pastry shell filled with assorted ingredients (meat, potato, veggies, etc). The country isn't overrun with Burger joints although it does have it's fair share of McDonald's and Burger King (or Hungry Jack's as it's affectionately known in some parts of Oz). This new fast food scene took a bit of getting used to.

As the Handsome Australian was really one of the few people I knew in Australia when I first turned up here, my food choices were largely dictated by his tastes. In keeping with his healthy attitude towards food, this meant little or no fast food. Slowly but surely, he worked the fast food almost entirely out of my diet.

Once our children were born, the Handsome Australian expressed his desire to keep them largely away from the McDonald's and Burger Kings of the world. He's not a fast food Nazi or anything, he's happy for the Grandparents or Aunties and Uncles to take the kids to McDonald's as a special treat, but he believes as their parents we should avoid taking them there. It's his theory that we should lead by example.

How can he be so perfect, this healthy living Handsome Australian? No junk food, nothing but goodness for the kids, it's all a bit frighteningly utopian. That is unless you know his secret, because let's face it we all have a dirty little secret don't we? The Handsome Australian's secret is when push comes to shove, he loves a little bit of the Colonel! That's right folks, he's a KFC man. Where did this chink in his armour come from? Turns out the Handsome Australian's Dad was partial to a bucket of finger lickin' goodness now and again when the Handsome Australian was just a boy. He has many fond memories of demolishing these buckets with his Dad and brothers. It reminds him of being a kid.

So when the Handsome Australian is feeling a bit on the cheeky side, he'll have a bit of KFC. He doesn't visit KFC very often, so it is particularly noteworthy when he does. Even more noteworthy is when he takes his own children there, for a meal. That's exactly what happened this weekend. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the Handsome Austrlian standing at the counter ordering lunch for all of us on Saturday. I had to take a photo.

Will wonders never cease? What are your secret fast food splurges?

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Silly Season

I can't be sure if it's Australia or if it's just the way that life itself has become, but every year for the last four or five years, it feels like we are running a marathon that starts in November and finishes on New Year's Day. Australians have coined a phrase to refer to this time of the year, they call it, the "silly season". Silly is just the tip of the iceberg really...

In Melbourne, the month of November begins with the Melbourne Cup. This is a famous horse race known in Australia as, "The race that stops a nation". It happens each year on the first Tuesday in November and it's a public holiday in Victoria (the state of which Melbourne is the capital city). Melburnians and Victorians more broadly are not the only Australians who observe Melbourne Cup Day--people in other states might have to go to work, but there is no doubt that when the actual Melbourne Cup Race is run during the day, these people will take a break and watch to see who wins. Australians love to have a bet on the Melbourne Cup and you'd be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't have something riding on the race whether it be in an office pool or with a bookie--almost everyone seems to have a stake in the final outcome.

The Melbourne Cup is not just a horse race though--it's part of a month long horse racing carnival known as "The Spring Racing Carnival". So I guess really, the silly season starts back in October. The horses are only one aspect, the fashions on the field are also of great concern. Men and women alike spend weeks and months preparing their racing outfits for the racing carnival. The fashion, the food, the drinks, the horses, the money changing hands--it all makes for a very festive atmosphere and so begins the silly season.

Once we get the horses out of our system, it's all down hill until New Year's Day. It becomes very important in Australia, as the year winds to a close, to get together with each group you are associated with. What this means is every group that you are involved with will have some sort of a break up party. There will be work Christmas parties to attend, school concerts and parties to be had, as well as gatherings with friends and family. It's as if all the people in your life need to see you before the year finishes. It's like you've all got to bid a final farewell to the year together before the new year can be ushered in.

The refrain,"Let's catch up before Christmas" has become all to common here. I can't figure out why it is that Aussies are so keen to get together this time of year. I have a few theories. Firstly, it's summer time here and the weather is conducive to getting together and having barbecues, etc and so people are keen to take advantage of that fact. I also think that another reason people are so keen to get together with one another before Christmas or New Year's is that the vast majority of people tend to take multiple weeks off in January and travel to coastal towns to spend their holidays on the beach. So it's almost as if people know they won't see much of each other in the coming month so they want to get quality time in now before that happens.

I don't know, I can't explain the phenomenon. What I can say is that our social calendar is pretty much non-stop from the beginning of November through till New Year's day and it gets busier every year. Is Australia the only place where this happens? Are they the only ones that socialise their way through the end of the year in a "the world's coming to an end on Jan 1st we must see each other before then" kind of way? Please...enlighten me!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

What Australians are laughing at...

Radio and television personalities Hamish and Andy are some of the hottest comedic talents in Australia at the moment. Thought it might be interesting to share a bit of their recent road trip from Melbourne to Darwin with you. They have a very Australian sense of humour. Hope you enjoy it!

So what's the verdict? Are they funny or not? What do you think? I personally think they are hilarious, but that's just me.