Sunday, December 27, 2009

Another Christmas in Australia....

So it appears I had quite the Grand Final hangover since I haven't posted anything since Geelong secured their berth in this year's big match. They went on to win the whole thing by the case you were living in a cave for the last few months, or outside of Australia where very few know what Aussie Rules Footy is all about. Sorry about my lack of posts, I'll try and be better in 2010!

Christmas has now officially come and gone at our house and we've survived. Every year, the festive season in Australia seems to get more and more festive. Our calendars begin to fill with holiday gatherings from mid-November until well in to January. It's incredible the amount of things we need to celebrate and the number of people we need to do this celebrating with. That's a lot of champagne folks, and we still haven't reached the finish line. Cheers!

Boxing Day (as the 26th of December is known here in Australia) provided a much needed day of rest from the madness that came before and is due to follow. So yesterday while I was sitting around doing absolutely nothing for the first time since I can't remember when, I started to think about Christmas here and Christmas in the USA (because on Boxing Day in Australia, it is still Christmas in the USA). I realised the following things:

1. Where is the Christmas music in Australia? Seriously. There are Carols by Candlelight across parks, churches and community centers throughout December so I know they like caroling, but there is no Christmas music on the radio. Where is the Christmas music on the radio? Aren't there stations in the USA that play Christmas music solidly for about a week in the lead up to the big event? Am I making this up? Is this revisionist history? This is what I remember. Can someone please set me straight? Also can someone from my Aussie audience (that is if there is still an audience out there somewhere) please explain why there is no Christmas music on the radio because it's just not Christmas until I hear a bit of Wham...Last Christmas I gave you my heart...

2. Andes mints--they were in our Christmas stockings every year when I was a kid. Nothing said Christmas like those little foil wrapped slices of heaven. There are no Andes mints here. I have to say that normally this is not a problem for me, but yesterday, I really missed the Andes mints.

3. As I watched weather reports from all around the world roll in and I saw people stuck at airports and planes sliding off runways and blizzards all over the Northern Hemisphere, I was glad to be having Christmas in the summer. It's taken me nearly 10 years to become used to this custom, but it just makes things so much easier logistically speaking. Travel is easier, catering for large numbers of people is easier because you can entertain outdoors. Summer food is easier--no need to worry about getting all the food into the oven and hot at the same time--we're having salads!! No cooking required. In this respect, I was really pleased to be spending Christmas in Australia this year.

4. Speaking of cooking, we hosted Christmas at our place this year. The Handsome Australian has a rather large family and we did our best to accommodate them in our humble home. Our kind neighbours loaned us a spit to roast meat on in the back garden. This was genius. That meant no cooking in the oven and it also meant the boys were in charge of lunch! The one down side to this was the smoke from said spit wafted into our house for about 12 hours. It's now several days later and our house still smells like a barbecue pit. Ugh, but did I mention we had 30 people over and I, personally, cooked nothing!! So I guess you have to take the good with the bad eh?

5. Christmas gifts aren't as big of a deal amongst my Australian family. It seems each year, we are giving and receiving fewer and fewer gifts--which I have to say, isn't really a bad thing. It seems like the gifts we do give and receive are to and from acquaintances (like the children's teachers and the boy that cuts our lawn) more than friends and family. The best gift I received this year for Christmas, besides the health of my family, was a chocolate croissant from Noisette. Run, don't walk to Port Melbourne and get yourself one, unless you happen to be in France in which case you can probably find something similar at your local patisserie.

6. My children don't love the Boxing Day Test Match (that's Cricket at the MCG y'all) on the TV as much as the Handsome Australian does. There were plenty of tears yesterday as the Handsome one monopolised the television for his love of the game. He hasn't brain washed them on the Cricket yet like he has with the Aussie Rules. Perhaps that should be one of his resolutions for 2010?

Hope you and yours have enjoyed a lovely holiday season right around the world!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Go the Cats!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It's these hands that are responsible for the Geelong Football Club (I'm talking Aussie Rules y'all) love affair that plays itself out in our house each year.
As he tells it, the Handsome Australian has been a Geelong supporter since he was knee high to a grasshopper. His love of Geelong was borne out of the brain washing of a fanatical Geelong loving Uncle...and so the dynasty began. Our daughter, who is now five, has loved Geelong since she could string together the words, "Go the Cats". She adores going to the football and watching the matches on television with her Dad. This year, as our son entered the age of enlightenment (he's two) his father continued the indoctrination program that had been so successful on our oldest and, as if by magic, another Geelong supporter was born.

Our boy LOVES the CATS! Last night Geelong played in the Preliminary Final against Collingwood (for those of you who don't follow Aussie Rules, that is the last play off game before the Grand Final. The Grand Final being the equivalent of the NFL's Super Bowl). The suspense had been building all week and the little people were charged up and ready to watch the game. Would Geelong make it to their 3rd Grand Final in as many years?

Last night, the answer was a convincing YES! As Geelong schooled Collingwood on how to play Finals footy beating them 120 to 47. Unfortunately, the littlest Geelong fan in our house couldn't keep his eyes open for the game. In fact he fell asleep on the couch before the pre-game show came on. He was one tired little fella.

So we shared the good news with him this morning when he woke up, wearing the Geelong shirt that he's had on for the last three days.

Hey, hey you! Over there. Guess what happened last night?
Geelong beat Collingwood! They won!
He was speechless, but I think the squeaky noises he was making loosely translated to the following: "Oh my God!! They won!!!"
"This is too much! I can't take it. Wow. I'm overwhelmed."
"Gee, I, I just don't know what to say. I'm so proud of the boys. I just can't believe it."

"I'm so excited, I could eat my own football!! GO the CATS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

"Watch out St. Kilda! We've got game and we're bringing it to the MCG next week. GO THE CATS!"

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Always keep a little Texas in your heart

I bought these boots for my little fellow when we visited Texas earlier this year. He wanted a pair of boots really badly and refused to take these off after trying them on at the store in Texas. The man had to cut the price tags off and he wore them home. He's been living in them ever since.
He gets lots of comments on these boots here in Melbourne. It's not that common for two year old boys to run around in such handsome cowboy boots here in the big city. He adores them and so do I. They are a daily reminder of Texas and of my maternal Grandfather who wore boots very similar to these most of his life. Just trying to keep a little Texas in our hearts...and on our feet!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Trivia Night--Fundraising Aussie Style Continued

If you've come late to the party, you can read the first half of our Trivia Night adventure here.

Once we arrived inside the Church Hall, we were greeted by the excited committee of Mums who'd organised the evening. There was a door prize drawing that needed entering and a seating plan posted on the wall indicating where our table could be located. We'd been assigned table 12. Lucky table 12!! Right? Well, we were feeling lucky anyway so I decided it would be referred to as lucky table 12 for the remainder of the evening.

We made our way to our table, carefully dodging the various eskies scattered about the aisles. Judging by the size of the eskies, this was going to be a BIG the Hall...of the Church. Pushing my puritanical American sensibilities to the side, the Handsome Australian and I began to unpack our drinks and nibbles and set them out on the table as our friends arrived to join us. A quick glance around the room and it was clear that if nothing else, our table took catering very seriously. While other tables were breaking out Tupperware filled with carrot sticks and pretzels, the Handsome Australian and I were putting together Antipasto platters, arrays of homemade dips and freshly toasted Turkish bread. It can't be helped, it's the Lebanese in us.

We were pretty proud of our offerings and appreciated the oohs and ahhs from our friends as they indulged in the nibbles. We took quiet satisfaction in the fact that no other table would be outdoing us with their food. That's when one of my friends pointed to the next table and said, "Have a look at that woman. She's brought some beautiful cupcakes and even has them displayed on a cupcake stand." What??? Cupcakes on a cupcake stand?? I'd thought about making cupcakes (they are one of my trademark baked goods) but I'd run out of time. Our friends wanted to know where our cupcakes were. I had to explain that I'd only brought brownies. Brownies that had cooked a bit longer than they should have because I was busy. Busy making heaps of tasty homemade dips. Sorry, I apologised. I needed to lift my game I was told.

The fact that we had heaps of dips and some overcooked brownies but no cupcakes was an early indicator that we had not come fully prepared for this Trivia Night. At our table of 8, we had a talented list of people. There were 2 Engineers, 1 Accountant, 1 Chef, 1 Photographer, 1 IT Professional, 1 Secondary School Teacher, and 1 Ultrasound Technician. The nationality breakdown was this: 1 American, 6 Aussies (five of which are first Generation Aussies hailing from Lebanon, China, Italy and Malta) and 1 Czech. Sounds like a pretty versatile and formidable team. We certainly thought so. Then the questions began...

Each table is given an answer sheet that they use to record their answers. There is a host with a microphone that asks the questions, you discuss them amongst your table and record the answers on your sheet. At the end of each round, you swap your sheet with a nearby table and correct each other's answers as they are read out by the host. Once you tally up the correct answers, you pass the answer sheets up the front where they are tallied by one of the administrators of the evening.

There were about 6 rounds with 13 questions in each round. Each round had a theme. The first theme was, "Bit of this, bit of that". It was predominantly pop culture questions with a heavy emphasis on Australian music. Umm, yeah, count me out on that. Lucky I'd brought along my brain trust of Aussie mates. We thought we'd done reasonably well until we swapped our sheet with the table next to us. They'd absolutely rocked the round and gotten a near perfect score. They were pretty nice about it though and didn't gloat too much to us. I guess table 12 wasn't that lucky afterall!

The night went on and the rounds continued with themes like "Australiana" (which had a heavy emphasis on Aussie music), "Famous Faces", "Music across the decades" (which had a heavy emphasis on Aussie music through the decades). Our answer sheets got worse and worse and our scores for each round got lower and lower, and the table next to us got better and better. So good that they began to make fun of our answers really obnoxiously (don't forget those eskies weren't filled with lemonade!) during the correction period at the end of each round. We ignored them, but were getting slightly annoyed with the questions. It was obvious that no one at our table had a strength in obscure Aussie music and if you didn't, there was no way you were going to win this game.

Our performance didn't disappoint only us, it garnered sympathy from the host who was roaming the room with his microphone while asking the questions. When he'd walk past our table, he'd look over my shoulder and read our answers. Then he'd turn the microphone off and whisper a couple of answers to me. I watched him carefully through the night and didn't notice him helping any other tables. We really were pathetic!! I felt bad taking his answers, but we needed all the help we could get.

During one of the last rounds, one of our friends spotted something at the table next to us. The table that had been performing so well and making fun of all of our answers. She spotted not one, but two iPhones. They were looking up the answers on their phones!!!! So perhaps that's why the Host had been sharing answers with us. Were we the only table that wasn't using our mobile phone to google the answers?? What is the world coming to? First the alcohol and now wide spread cheating at the Trivia Night, for the religiously affiliated Kindergarten, in the Hall next to the CHURCH!

When the final scores were tallied and the winners announced, we had to hang our heads in shame. The average score was about 140 points. Our team had managed a measly 115 points. The only positive thing about the final scores was that the obnoxious table next to us came in 2nd place.

Yes, this event was certainly like no other I've attended. The competitive spirit inside me was disappointed that we'd performed so poorly. The American in me was confused by the alcohol (at a school event) and scandalised by the cheating. The Aussie in me was happy to be amongst my friends enjoying some good food, a few drinks and plenty of laughs. The Mum in me was proud that at the end of the night, our shenanigans had contributed to a successful event which raised nearly $8,000 for the Kinder.

Next year, I'll have cupcakes and perhaps a professional DJ at our table.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Trivia Night--Fundraising Aussie Style

Even though I've lived here in Australia for about 10 years, there are still events that I attend that make me feel as if I've just arrived. The Trivia Night at our daughter's Kindergarten (preschool in the USA) was one such event. This is how it went...

Several weeks ago, we got a flyer from the Kindergarten announcing the Trivia Night would be held as the major fundraising event of the year. Since most Kindergartens here in Australia are community operated or at the very least, underfunded by the Government, they must do a significant amount of fundraising to stay operational. The Kindergarten our daughter attends, while exceptional, has been under poor financial management for the past few years and is really struggling. This Trivia Night was to be the main source of supplemental income for the school during this calendar year. As such, the Handsome Australian and I wanted to do as much as we could to help make the event a success.

Tickets to the event were available on a pre-sale basis only and you were asked to book a table of 8-10 people. So I sent out an e-mail pleading our case to some of our closest and most intelligent friends--because we planned to win!! I was pleased to see there was a bit of enthusiasm amongst our peeps and we organised what looked like a very promising brain trust. I booked our table and then started to think about the catering.

The instructions for the night were that the event was BYO drinks and nibbles. As an incentive to our friends to come along on the night, I promised I'd provide all the drinks and nibbles. As this was an event taking place in Australia, I assumed by drinks they meant of the alcoholic variety and I was pretty sure this is what my friends would be expecting. Then the American in me crept in and pointed out that this was a fundraiser for a preschool--a religiously affiliated preschool at that--and perhaps it wasn't appropriate to bring alcohol along to the event. I was a bit perplexed. So I asked the Handsome Australian what he thought and he was pretty certain that alcoholic drinks were indeed acceptable beverages for the evening. No worries then, we'd stock up on beer and bubbles and I'd put together some chips and dips and maybe a brownie or two.

On the evening of the event, it occurred to us that in order to provide drinks for our entire table, we were going to need a large esky (that's an ice chest or cooler for those of you in the USA) to transport and cool the drinks through the evening. So again I asked the Handsome Australian about the protocol of lugging an entire esky of alcoholic drinks into the Hall at the Church that is affiliated with our daughter's Kinder. Would that be too over the top? Was it wrong? I had so many doubts that the Handsome Australian began to doubt the process himself. Perhaps an esky full of alcohol was a bit too much--it wasn't a frat party or a cricket match after all, it was a fundraiser for our daughter's Kindy.

So we hatched a plan, we decided that we'd take the esky full of drinks and leave it in the car. Once inside the venue we'd assess the situation and see what other people were doing and if it was appropriate, we'd rescue the esky from the car and if it wasn't we'd leave it there and every one would be none the wiser.

As we pulled into the parking lot of the Church, we saw blokes carrying eskies. It wasn't just one bloke carrying one esky, it was two blokes per esky. In other words, the eskies were so laden with beverages that they were too heavy for one man to carry. It was on for young and old folks, on for young and old. The Handsome Australian was pleased to see he wouldn't be making multiple trips to the car, and was disappointed that he'd doubted himself.

"What was I thinking?" he muttered. "This is Australia, of course there will be eskies full of beer."

And with that, he and his handsome brother pulled the esky out of our boot and lugged it inside where the evening got off to a promising start...

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sweet, sweet lullaby

It was the summer of 2003-2004 (here in Australia) and I was heavily pregnant. The Handsome Australian and I lived in a small rented flat that had no air conditioning. It wasn't a particularly hot summer by Australian standards, but when you are in that stage of a pregnancy, even a mild day can be unbearable. The temperature of our apartment and the size of my growing belly made sleeping at night extremely difficult. I was up and down, up and down all night long. I had ice packs, cold drinks, fans and still I couldn't manage to knock out a good night's sleep.

As luck would have it, I didn't have anywhere to be during the days as I'd finished up work several weeks beforehand. This meant that each day was mine to fill as I'd choose. I would generally have a leisurely breakfast before heading out to a shopping centre, cinema, cafe or anywhere that had air conditioning. I'd spend a few hours in the cool air and then I'd return to our flat for a late lunch and a bit of time on the couch. When I'd sit down and put my swollen feet up, I'd put the television on hoping to catch a bit of mindless entertainment--an episode of Oprah perhaps or maybe a really trashy soap opera. Anything really to take my mind off the discomfort and the heat.

Unfortunately, summertime television offerings in Australia are generally sports related and more specifically Cricket related. Each day I'd put the television on and find there was nothing except Cricket, Cricket, Cricket. Nearly five years had passed since my initial introduction to the game, and I'd learned a lot more about the rules, the rivalries and the players (not willingly mind you). I still wasn't a huge fan of the game, but at least I could make heads or tails of what was going on...kind of. So there I'd sit, on our couch in the heat, and watch a bit of the Cricket. Ten or twenty minutes later, I would be fast asleep. I slept for hours at a time with the Cricket in the background. The commentators quietly discussing the play and forever replaying vision of the one and only wicket that had been taken in the last four hours.

The days went on and on in the same fashion. No sleep at night, outings in the morning and Cricket in the afternoon. The Handsome Australian would return home from work and find me fast asleep in front of the Cricket. He was always keen to see how Australia was faring in the Test and would watch more of the match while we ate our dinner. I'd bring him up to speed on the day's play as I'd subconsciously heard it replayed dozens and dozens of times during my nap. He couldn't believe how much I knew. I was naming players, talking about batting averages and throwing in an LBW or two. This lead him to doubt the results of an ultrasound that indicated we were having a girl and he began to predict I was indeed carrying a boy--a son that would play Cricket.

I knew the truth, though. I needed the Cricket. It was the only way I could sleep. I needed to hear the quiet commentary and the sudden bursts of enthusiasm from the crowd. This little cocktail was my key to a few hours of rest. The more I watched, or slept through, the Cricket, the more involved I became in the game itself.

This was an important time for Australia as they were about to bid goodbye to one of their most successful Test Captains in history, Steve Waugh. I'd watched him all summer. He was an excellent batsman and had a very calm and cool demeanour on the field. He had a rugged handsomeness to him and a penchant for sentimentality--wearing the same baggy green cap for his entire career. He was a very likable character. I was very hormonal. I got sucked in.
So there I found myself on the edge of my seat as Steve Waugh took to the pitch of the SCG on the 6th of January 2004 as the Aussies faced a formidable Indian side. I hung on every ball bowled. Each time he had a crack with his bat, I cheered along. When he was caught out by Sachin Tendulkar for 80 runs, I cried. This was the end of an era in Australian Test Cricket history. The Australians ended up losing the Test to India, but it didn't matter because this was Steve's day. His teammates carried him on their shoulders for a lap of honour around the field and I cried some more. I never realised it was going to be so hard to say goodbye to Steve.

Never before and never since have I watched the Cricket as intently as I did that summer. My love affair with Cricket was a brief one, but the knowledge I gained has served me well ever since. Not to mention the respect from the Handsome Australian who was very jealous I got to see Waugh's last innings live and is still amazed to this day when he's got the Cricket on and I come along and remark, "Gee, that Billy Bowden. What a funny little umpire he is. Glad to see they put Stuart Clark back in the side. He might be just the answer we need to retain the Ashes." Then I cuddle up beside him on the couch and fall into a deep, deep sleep.

Friday, August 7, 2009

About the Cricket...

Australians are a sport loving people. True to his nationality, the Handsome Australian loves sports. He really loves any sport that's going, but among his favourites are Aussie Rules Football and Cricket. I'd say these are the two sports he follows the closest and the ones that the children and I are subjected to watching most frequently.

In another life (before he married an American girl) the Handsome Australian was actually a talented Cricket player. He played with the same club throughout his youth and, if you believe the braggings of a proud father, was asked at some stage to play for Victoria. Turns out the Handsome Australian wasn't involved in Cricket for the fame and fortune--he just liked playing the game and wasn't interested in taking it any further than his local club. So play on he did, filling his summer weekends with bats, balls and beers.

When I first turned up in Australia, the Handsome Australian was still very much involved in his Cricket club. His weekends were consumed with matches and I was left to entertain myself. At some stage, I decided I should take an interest in his Cricket playing and attend some of his matches in a show of support. So I organised to have one of the Handsome Australian's Handsome brothers deliver me to the Cricket pitch one Saturday morning to see my man play. To his credit, the Handsome Australian's brother tried to warn me.

Handsome Australian's Brother: "Are you sure you really want to go and watch a match? Grass growing is often more interesting than Cricket ya know."

Me: "It can't be that bad, it's probably a bit like baseball. I'm sure it will be interesting. Besides, it will be nice to see him play."

HAB: "Okay, look I'll drop you off, but I'm coming back in an hour or so just in case you change your mind. That way you won't be stuck here all day."

Me: "If you insist, but I'm sure I'll be fine to watch the whole match."

HAB: "You do realise the match won't be finished until TOMORROW afternoon right?"

Me: "Um, yeah, tomorrow, yeah. Look just drop me off, I'll be fine."

I got out of the car wondering what the heck I'd signed myself up for. As I made my way over to the Cricket pitch I noticed something straight away. There were NO SPECTATORS!!! Absolutely no one was watching this game besides the players from each team that weren't currently on the field. I imagined a small crowd of people would be gathered and I'd be able to meet and chat to a few of them. No such luck. Not only that, I was probably the only female in a 10km radius. I felt totally out of place.

As I approached the club house, some of the boys took notice of my presence and asked if they could help me with anything. Our conversation went something like this:

Cricket Dude: "Hi there. Can I help ya find something?"

Me: "Oh I'm just here to watch HA play."

CD: "Oh, righto. You must be that American bird he was telling us about."

Me: American bird? Huh? What had he told them? "Yes, I guess that's me."

CD: "Well there he is. He's out there bowling at the moment. He just took a wicket before, but you missed that."

Me: Not recognising the foreign language being spoken to me "I see. Is that a good thing?"

The entire group of boys laughs.

CD: "They don't play a lot of Cricket in America do they?"

Me: "No, no they don't"

CD: "That's not obvious at all."

More laughter from the boys

Me: Laughing nervously. If you can't beat them join them I thought. "Yes, I clearly have a lot to learn. Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll just go and sit in the shade of that tree and see what I can glean."

Oh my God I thought, what kind of boy's club was this? I sat under the tree watching balls being bowled back and forth, back and forth and the Handsome Australian took another wicket or two. Although I had no appreciation for what that meant at the time. Then, after awhile, I heard the toot of a car horn from the car park and looked up to see the Handsome Australian's brother waving to me. I got up and literally ran to his car. I'd had enough of this rubbish to last a lifetime.

HAB: "So what'da think?"

ME: "What a colossal waste of time! And those guys--they are a bit rude really."

HAB: "I tried to warn you."

ME: "I know, I'll take your advice much more seriously the next time."

HAB: "What'da wanna do now?"

ME: "I think I need a stiff drink."

HAB: "Now, that, that is a good idea."

Off we went to the pub to try and erase the memories of my one hour foray into the world of Cricket. It wasn't until much, much later that I actually began to appreciate the game...

(Did I just say 'appreciate the game'? Uh oh, this can't be good)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

It's the guilt really...

When I first settled in Australia with my husband 8 years ago, we lived in a small flat close to the City. We had no laundry facilities inside our flat itself. Instead, there were communal laundry facilities on each floor of the three floor building. There were top loading washing machines and large clothes dryers just like the ones I was accustomed to back home in the USA. For the first couple of years in that flat, the use of these machines was free. Well, I'm sure it was somehow calculated in our rent, but we didn't have to put coins in the machines or anything. We could just walk into the laundry room and put a load on. So the Handsome Australian and I washed and dried all of our clothes in these machines. We didn't really have much of a choice. We did have a balcony, but there were strict rules about hanging clothes out to dry--this was a bit of an old school chic area and the neighbours--mostly very wealthy widows with lots of time on their hands--weren't afraid to point out the rules to anyone who dare break them.

I was pretty happy with this laundry arrangement. It was a bit inconvenient, not having the machines in our own flat because we'd have to babysit the laundry for fear that it might disappear or some 'helpful' neighbour might chuck all of our fine washables in the dryer (which wasn't always our preference) in a bid to make room for their clothes in the washing machine. For the most part though, it was pretty satisfying. We could do multiple loads at a time (as there were multiple machines) and we could dry most things quickly in the dryers. In a couple of hours, we could knock out all of our laundry for the week.

A few years later, we had a baby. We needed more space. So we bought a little house in the suburbs and moved. Owning our own home was a very exciting prospect--especially the part about having our very own laundry facilities! We would be able to put some wash on and actually leave the house without worrying what would become of it. Yes, these were exciting times!

My mother-in-law and I went shopping for the washer and dryer to fit out my brand new laundry. I was dead set on getting a top loading machine. That's what I'd always known. They were big and easy to use. My mother-in-law had been using a top loader for years and she agreed with me--we both liked their capacity. So off we went to the shops.

We were greeted by a friendly salesman who did nothing but sing the praises of the front loaders. They washed clothes better he told us. They were gentler on your clothes. They were more water and energy efficient. The top loaders seemed clunky dinosaurs in comparison. We were sold. We selected a very pricey front loading machine and then moved on to choosing a dryer.

This is when things got interesting. We had selected a 7 kg capacity washing machine and the salesman suggested I should get a 5kg capacity dryer. Why would I want a dryer that held less than my washing machine I wondered. So I asked. He said I really wouldn't be using the machine that much as I'd put most things on the line so it would only be for smaller items or on a rainy day. Oh really? I'd be putting things on the line would I? Yes, my mother-in-law agreed. That's how she used her dryer--rarely and generally for small items like socks. Well, maybe that's okay for you I thought, but I'm American and I do things differently. I'm going to dry my clothes in the dryer.

Of course, never one for confrontation, I accepted the advice of the salesman and my mother-in-law (hey, can you think of a more powerful combination?) and bought the 5 kg capacity dryer and resolved that what I did in my own home was none of their business and they'd never know if I used the dryer every day or not.

The machines were delivered and I washed and dried to my heart's content. My mother-in-law asked me how the laundry was coming along and I said, "Very well thank you." Then she started to ask me about using my clothesline and telling me how lucky I was to have such a large clothesline already installed in my back garden. Um, yeah, really lucky I thought. That thing was just an eyesore as far as I was concerned.

Then one day she came over and offered to help me with my laundry--I was a lactating new mother and needed all the help I could get. When she took the clean clothes out of the machine she asked me where my clothes pins were for the line. Oh sh*t! The clothes pins. I didn't have any. So I had to come clean. I confessed that I put everything in the dryer. Not a problem, she'd just pick up some clothes pins for me and bring them with her when she visited next. And she did.

I let my mother-in-law hang our laundry on the line when she'd come to help out, but I still used the dryer quite religiously. It wasn't until our little girl began to sit and crawl and loved being outside that I started to consider the clothesline. We were outside all the time and while it was fun playing with my little one, I did feel a bit unproductive. So I started hanging clothes on the line while we were 'hanging out' together outside. Each time I put a load up, I felt a sense of accomplishment. Not to mention all those little baby clothes looked so cute blowing gently in the wind. My little one loved watching the patterns on the fabric and delighted in sitting in my laundry basket. So very cute.

Slowly but surely, I converted to the clothesline and used the dryer less and less and less--except when it was raining and then I dried everything in the dryer. Then the ideas of global warming and climate change started gaining importance and it became clear to me that hanging clothes on the line was really a very practical way to save energy. That's what my grandparents did after all--before everyone owned a clothes dryer. If it was good enough for my grandparents I thought, it should be good enough for me.

If all of these reasons weren't enough to keep me in my clothesline habit, then the State Government started running these ads:

And now every time I think of using the dryer, all I can think of is these black balloons. So I trudge up to my clothesline and hang another load. I do like the idea of the clothesline now, but honestly, it's the guilt from the black balloons that keeps the laziest part of me wearing down the path between the line and the laundry, the laundry and the line.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Different? Yes. Delicious? You're asking the wrong girl.

I was watching TV the other day when I saw some guy offering people tastes of Vegemite. They were all commenting on how creamy it was. It was definitely Vegemite they said, but different. Turns out it was an ad for the NEW Vegemite. A New Vegemite? I couldn't possibly imagine what could be done to Vegemite to make it more appealing. In my experience, you either love it or hate it. There isn't much of a gray area. You can count me amongst the haters, but still, I was intrigued.

Our entire household isn't full of Vegemite haters. In fact, I'm on my own in my disliking of this salty brown tar paste. The Handsome Australian and both of our children count themselves in the lovers camp. No one more so than my girl. She really LOVES Vegemite. She could eat it all day every day. So it was for her that I picked up a bottle of this New Vegemite at the grocery store this week.

It looks kind of like the old Vegemite, but is screaming out for a name. In fact, KRAFT is looking for some good inspiration in that department and asking consumers to submit their naming ideas. Turns out the original Vegemite was named by the Australian public in a similar fashion way back in 1923. It'll be interesting to see what the Aussies come up with now.

Overlooking this New Vegemite's obvious identity crisis, I decided to serve it to the Vegemite connoisseur in our household this morning. The package promises it will be, "A deliciously different Vegemite experience." Hmm...she'll be the judge of that I thought.

I told her that I found a New Vegemite at the grocery store and asked if she wanted to try it. I told her I'd heard it was creamier than the original. She was excited. She's an enthusiastic kid. "Oh, yes please Mommy. I'd love to try it." So I went to the kitchen to put the bread in the toaster and she came around the corner with a thoughtful expression on her face. Then she said, "Mommy, can I taste a little bit first--before you spread it all over my toast?" Ah ha! It seems 30 seconds of processing by the five year old led her to the same conclusion I had--what the heck could they have done to the Vegemite to make it taste better? She went from enthusiastic to suspicious.

So I put a little bit on the spreading knife and she dabbed her finger in it. She put the finger in her mouth and tasted it. I waited. "Mmmmm...." she said.

"Do you like it?" I questioned.

"Well, it's not sour. I like it sour. This isn't sour. I want the other Vegemite on my toast please Mommy."

Sour? What did she mean sour? Vegemite is sour? How the heck would I know? I've only tasted it a few times and all I remember is that I don't like it. Again, I was intrigued. So against my better judgement, I tasted the New Vegemite. It was creamy and lighter in colour. It tasted like Vegemite, but not as much. It was a more subtle Vegemite flavour. It just didn't have the Vegemite bite.

I hadn't bothered to read the label on the New Vegemite at the store to ascertain exactly how it was different from the original, but after tasting it, I was curious. So I had a read.

Turns out they basically added cream cheese to the original formula. Interesting. That would explain the creaminess and the less concentrated flavour.

It was clearly not fair to taste the New Vegemite without comparing it with the old and so I had a small taste of the original. By 'small', I do mean 'really, really small' because I haven't completely lost my mind.

Oh yes. It was salty and yes, I guess sour in a way. I remembered yet again, why I don't like Vegemite--because it's disgusting. I couldn't help but thinking, however, that much like bad reality television, Vegemite is oddly compelling. I keep coming back to it and marveling at the fact that people actually eat and enjoy it. Then I try it, and it's still disgusting.

The ingredients of the original Vegemite are much more straight forward. Despite it's super concentrated flavour, I think the original has a lot going for it. As it clearly states on the label, it's suitable for Vegetarians and I couldn't help but think--people with milk allergies like my nephews. The New Vegemite isn't as friendly in that way.

If that's not enough to put you off the New Vegemite, then I read this, "Refrigerate after opening. Best consumed within four weeks of opening."

No, no, no. I'm not going to refrigerate my Vegemite. The beauty of Vegemite is that it's low maintenance. I can chuck that tube in a back pack for a day out with the kids. I can pack it in my suitcase and lug it around the USA for months at a time (as I've been known to do). No sir, there will be none of this New high maintenance Vegemite for us. We'll stick to the original, thank you very much.

Wait, did I just say, "we"? I told you, it's oddly compelling. I've just put up a case for why I prefer the old Vegemite to the New Vegemite. Not to mention the fact that I've actually tasted both today. I still don't like it, yet I'm still here talking about it. What can I say, it has a strange power over me.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to make my way to the KRAFT website to propose my name for the New Vegemite: I Mite Not.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Things are different Down Under

Let's face it, the Handsome Australian and I are raising a multicultural family. Not only do our children have one Australian parent and one American parent, but they have an entire extended family that is Lebanese and well, there are the Texans on the other side. Yes, a very rich heritage indeed. Given the various influences on their language and diet, I think our children move between these worlds (as I like to think of them) quite seamlessly. They've been lucky enough to be surrounded by a very interested and involved network of family and friends--each one imparting the best bits of their culture to our little sponges. Their vast knowledge of these various worlds came to light recently when their American cousins came Down Under for a visit.

We've been fortunate enough to make annual trips back to the USA since the birth of our first child five years ago. So fortunate, in fact, that our daughter made her sixth trip to the USA just before her 5th birthday. This means that our children have had significant exposure to all things American, and more so, all things Texan. Our daughter figured out long ago that Americans use different words for some things than what we use in Australia. When she is in the USA, she does a good job of converting her vocabulary so that she can be understood by her American cousins. Such a good job in fact, that I don't think her cousins really picked up on the fact that things in Australia are quite different to the way things are in the USA. Lots of words are different, food is different, weather is different--it's all really, really different.

When our Texan cousins came to visit a few weeks ago, I watched as my daughter acted as their unofficial tour guide in this strange and wonderful land. I overheard things like:

My girl: "My Dad's going to take us to the Milk Bar to get an icy pole."
My nephew: "What's an icy pole?"
MG: "Oh, in America you say Popsicle. In Australia, we say icy pole."
MN: "Y'all call Popsicles 'icy poles'?"
MG: "Yep that's right. We do. We also call ketchup 'tomato sauce'"
MN: "Y'all do?"
MG: "Yep, we do. We say a lot of things differently here."
MN: "Why do y'all say those things differently?"
MG: (Authoritatively) "That's just the way they planned it."

Yes, I never said she understood the reasoning behind the differences, I just said she recognised the differences.

It was really fun to see Australia through the eyes of a five year old American boy for two weeks. This kid has a lot of Texas pride and was making constant comparisons between things here in Australia and things he knows in Texas. Australia came out ahead in two areas--my mother-in-law's freshly squeezed lemonade was, "better than my Mommy's lemonade" and the bacon from our local deli that the Handsome Australian fried up one morning was, "better than Houston bacon." Other than that, he pretty much resolved that we should just move to Texas because things are generally better there.

His most surprising observation, after watching my toilet training two year old run around pant less for the good part of two weeks, was, "Mommy even the penises are different here. They are pointy." His mother just quietly agreed and left the whole circumcision discussion for another day. Ah yes, things are different Down Under.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A day at the footy...

What better way to immerse ourselves back into Australian culture than spending a wintry afternoon at the MCG watching a game of Australian Rules Football? The Handsome Australian's beloved Geelong Cats were playing against the Hawks from Hawthorn and he was determined to be there to watch it all happen.

We've been to the footy many times, the Handsome Australian and I, but we've never been to the footy as a family. Last season, the Handsome Australian took our daughter to her very first footy match and she's been a huge fan ever since. She loved it. It was the coldest, rainiest day of the year and she sat through the entire match. Never complained and hasn't stopped asking to return. For one reason or another, the Handsome Australian hasn't managed to take her back to a game. Geelong plays a lot of night games which we thought would be too late and too cold for her and they play a lot of games in Geelong which means we'd have to travel quite a distance to get there. This weekend though, all the stars were in alignment and it was meant to be.

As for our little fellow, he'd never been to a footy match before. Nearly 3 years old now, we decided he'd probably be able to handle a game of footy--or would at least welcome all the food bribes we'd be offering throughout the match. When we told him the news, he was excited. He kept saying, "Take me to the footy match. I want to go to the footy match." So take him we did.

Knowing that I'd require a small bit of convincing to take our two young children out into the chilly winter air and endure four hours of their antics whilst he was engrossed in the football, the Handsome Australian offered a sweetener--if we got organised, we could leave early and have lunch on Victoria Street in Richmond before the match. As much as I hate to admit it, I was easily swayed by this suggestion. I love Vietnamese food and I love eating it in Victoria Street at my favourite Vietnamese restaurant, Thanh Phong. Just the thought of their tasty spring rolls and a bowl of rice vermicelli with beef and lemongrass and I was in the car wearing Geelong colours before the Handsome Australian even put his shoes on.

Our lunch at Thanh Phong was delicious. The children love the spring rolls, the Handsome Australian digs the prawn rice paper rolls and we all love one of the vermicelli dishes. The staff are friendly and they are great with the kids and most importantly, the food comes out quickly.

Full and happy, the Handsome Australian indicated we needed to get moving and get ourselves to the MCG. Not interested in fighting the traffic that would surely be swarming the MCG at this stage, the Handsome Australian suggested we leave the car behind in Victoria Street and make our way to the stadium on the public transport. So we walked up the top of Victoria Street and caught a train at East Richmond station. Two stops later and we jumped off at Jollimont--right at the doorstep to the MCG.

The Handsome Austrlian forged ahead and queued for tickets. We got General Admission tickets which meant we didn't have assigned seats. The tickets were $20AUD each for adults and the kids were free. Even better!

Tickets in hand, we navigated our way inside the iconic stadium and decided our best bet for seating would be on the upper deck. Instead of climbing the endless flights of stairs with two little people, we found a lift and took it straight to the top. When we walked out into the seating area, it struck me just how high up we were and how immense the MCG really is. Previously, I've always sat on the lower level quite close to the field and the atmosphere has felt intimate. From the top deck though, things looked a lot different. We still had an excellent view of the field, but I spent a great deal of time worrying that the little fellow was going to somehow topple down the super steep seats. Definitely not a place for anyone who suffers from acrophobia.

The children were rife with anticipation as we watched both teams warm up on the field. The Handsome Australian was answering their questions and pointing out different players to them. Before we knew it, it was game time. Shortly after the first bounce, the little fellow curled up in my lap and fell asleep. Yes, he fell asleep. Crowd roaring, whistles blowing, buzzers ringing--none of it stopped this kid from sleeping. It was amazing.

Our girl watched the match intently and peppered her father with questions. Unfortunately, her father had brought along his pocket radio and had the earphones in one ear so he could listen to the commentary of the game. You'd think being there would be enough, but apparently you also need to listen to someone else explaining the play. Watching the game and listening to it on the radio simultaneously is pretty much the extent of the Handsome Australian's multi-tasking capabilities, so I was left to answer many a footy question from the inquisitive five year old.

"Who's that player Mommy? The one with the number 3 on his shirt?" she asks.

"Oh number 3, that's Jimmy Bartel (luckily one of the 5 players I can name). He won the Brownlow Medal once (a bit of trivia emerges from the depth of my brain surprising even me)."

"Does that mean he's a good player Mommy?"

"Yes, he's a good player. He's also really hot!"

"Hot? Is that because he's running around a lot and it makes him hot?"

"Yes, that's it. That's exactly what Mommy meant."

Ah yes, conversations like these were had throughout the match. I'm sure she learned heaps and heaps of very accurate details about the football. What can I say? I'm a true fan.

The match itself was always very close. Geelong was behind for most of the game, but found that little bit of something special in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. With minutes left, they managed to pull even with the Hawks. For all intents and purposes, it appeared as if the game would end in a draw. Then in the dying seconds of the game, Jimmy "the Hottie" Bartel took a mark. Then the buzzer went. When you "take a mark" in Aussie rules, you are entitled to an uncontested kick of the ball which meant that Bartel had one last kick to make. He only needed to score a single point to ensure a Geelong victory. The crowd inhaled deeply and waited...Bartel kicked the ball and scored the needed point. The crowd erupted. It was so exciting. The Handsome Australian and our little girl were jumping up and down. I was jumping up and down.

Meanwhile, sleeping beauty who'd been awake all of 5 minutes was looking at us like, "What's the fuss all about? How come everyone is screaming and most importantly, where's my apple juice?" Yes, I think the thrill of the game was lost on the little fellow. Maybe next year he'll get more out of it. I'm certainly keen to go long as there are spring rolls involved that is!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Settling In...still

Wow. Where has the time gone? It's been nearly 8 weeks since the little people and I returned from 2 months in the good old USA. After an initial week of jet lag and self imposed quarantine (seems everyone was convinced we'd brought the swine flu back with us from the USA) we returned to our usual activities...for a week or so. Then school holidays came along and some of our American relatives turned up for a visit. Two weeks went by and another set of American relatives turned up. We've been busy, busy, busy!

Why so many American relatives and why all at once? Well, it turns out that both the Handsome Australian and I have siblings that reside in the USA. In the same Texas city in fact. Yes, it's true. Wait, how did that happen? My sister lives in Texas because well, she's always lived in Texas. The Handsome Australian's handsome brother lives in Texas because, he's married to an American girl too! What can I say? Good taste runs in the family.

So it was the Handsome Australian's handsome brother and his gorgeous little family that arrived first in Australia (two weeks after we returned from the USA). Much like our annual pilgrimage to the USA, they generally make an annual trip here to Australia to visit with the Handsome Australian's family. This makes my inlaws tremendously happy and it makes their extended family even happier. A festival atmosphere begins and there is night after night, day after day of large family gatherings. There is lots of food, plenty of drinks and heaps of laughs. It's a good time. We always enjoy their visits. This year was no different. We had the little ones up late night after night as they spent time playing with their cousins. Bedtimes seem irrelevant when you consider how precious these moments are for these two families living so far away from one another.

As the two weeks with the Handsome Australian's brother came to a close, my sister arrived from the USA with her husband and family in tow. They overlapped the Handsome Australian's brother by one day. So we said goodbye to one set of cousins and geared up to entertain another set. This was my sister's (and her husband's) third visit to Australia and the second one she's made with her children. The children were very young the last time they came, so we had plenty of ground to cover. There was much to see and do in the short time they were here. Here are a few highlights of what we got up to:

*A visit to the Melbourne Aquarium where we saw a very lame performance by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

*A visit to Scienceworks where we saw the special Star Wars exhibition. Star Wars loving brother-in-law was pleased with this.

*A trip to the Tivoli Theatre in Malvern to see a production of Jack and the Beanstalk.

*A trip to Chadstone...the Fashion Capital.

*Swimming at the local indoor pool

*A self guided tour of the Queen Victoria Market in the City.

*Greville Street and Chapel Street walking tour in search of music stores.

*Visits to the many local parks

And because I wanted them to have a complete tour of Melbourne, I also took my nephew to the Emergency Department at Cabrini hospital one weekend at 2am. He was released three hours later without too much drama and was almost as good as new the following day. For his parents, it was an interesting peek at the Australian health care system. What can I say? We like to offer the full package.

This second set of American cousins departed for the USA last Tuesday. So now it's just us here in Australia again. Back to normal....whatever that is. It's been so long, we can't really remember. Time to find our feet in Melbourne again...

Monday, June 8, 2009

More Easter fun...

Where has the time gone? A month ago, I posted about what we did for Easter which was a month before that. So this post is officially two months late! Shame on me. I hope I can be forgiven considering my recent rigorous international travel schedule. Now that we are safely back at home and tucked inside for yet another Melbourne winter, I've had a chance to catch up.
As I was explaining in my last post about the subject, we have a very special Easter tradition in my family. Each year we get together at my Mom's house in Texas and make cascarones. There is a lot of work that goes into making these which you can read about in my previous post. Once they are made and Easter Sunday rolls around, a group of us head out to my Mom's back garden and hide the eggs for the children to hunt later in the day.

When it's time to hunt the eggs, the children line up at the back door, kind of like horses lining up at the beginning of a horse race. They wait, baskets in hand, for the door to be opened and then they run like the wind through the expansive back garden in search of eggs! The next fifteen or twenty minutes is consumed by little people running around, looking high and low in search of the rainbow coloured treasures.
Once all the eggs have been collected, the children pose for photos with one another. We usually have at least 10 kids, so getting a good group photo is nearly impossible, that's why you don't see one here! After the photos have been taken, the fun really begins. As the Handsome Australian says, "It's on for young and old!" The children and the adults (who have generally tucked a few eggs away in pockets or secret hiding places as a means of stockpiling their own personal arsenals) begin chasing one another and cracking these gorgeous confetti eggs on each other's heads. Madness ensues. Rivalries are borne out. Sitting still makes you a sitting duck. Mostly though, everyone has a great deal of fun and shares plenty of laughter. It really is a lovely tradition and one I'm glad we've been able to be a part of for the last three years. Easter just wouldn't seem the same otherwise.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Welcome to Melbourne!

We arrived in Melbourne last week amongst much fan fare--I mean I assume those folks at the airport wearing masks were there to greet us. Sure they were taking every one's body temperature, but they spent extra time with us. You know, because we are so important. Okay perhaps it was merely because there were three of us and it takes a bit longer to thermally scan three people, but we felt like rock stars nonetheless. I am certain, however, that we did get some preferential treatment in the Customs line. I declared a stack of stuff and was simply asked to explain myself briefly and was then waved through to the exit. Do you think my screaming 2 year old son had anything to do with the speed of my dismissal from the Customs area?'s worth considering. Next time I might just have to pinch one of the little people right before we get to the front of the line so as to expedite the process. You know, after a 15 hour flight that was diverted to Sydney for several hours before finally landing in Melbourne, I'm going to do whatever it takes to shorten the time spent waiting to get out of Customs.

Coming home from the USA is always a trip. Firstly, returning "home" to the USA is always a trip. After living here in Australia for 8 years now, going back to the USA always takes a bit of getting used to. Then after we're there for two months we are used to it. So when we return to Melbourne, it's like a whole new place. It's crazy how no matter how many times we make exactly the same journey, we always experience this little bit of culture shock on both ends. No matter how much mental preparation goes into convincing myself I won't be affected, I always am.

My first shock when I arrived in Australia last week was when the Handsome Australian was not at the airport waiting to collect us. I would have thought that after five weeks away and a flight that had been delayed in arriving by three hours, he'd have had plenty of time to get himself to the airport. Apparently not. See, this whole swine flu mania is sweeping Australia. You think it was bad in the USA back in May, the Americans--as paranoid as they are--have got nothing on the hysteria that is running rampant in Australia. I think at some point the Handsome Australian was convinced we might not even be allowed entry to Australia because of the fear we could bring the flu in with us. He told me over the phone several days before our departure that I should prepare myself for several hours in clearing customs, that there would be heaps of paperwork and that we'd be checked thoroughly before being allowed in. Great. That's something to look forward to after a long flight I thought. He was so convinced that we'd be waiting in queues for ages that he instructed me to dump any food I'd carry with me so I would have nothing to declare. I'm sure this sounded like a good idea to him at the time, but have you ever been in a long ass Custom's line with two hungry kids? How would I explain that the only food I had I'd left in that rubbish bin just back there? Yes, sometimes the Handsome Australian's advice is best listened to and then ignored.

Our actual experience in Customs this time was quite a positive one. We were greeted by people wearing surgical masks not too long after we disembarked from the aircraft. They merely directed us into various lines where the thermal scanning was taking place. This meant two guys aimed a little camera at us for about 3 seconds and then waved us through. No hassles at all.

Passport control was a breeze, the bags came out in a timely fashion and even the pram was waiting for me in the oversize luggage area--something that has never happened before in my entire history of making this journey. Piled all the suitcases sky high on the little trolley they provide, picked up screaming two year old, handed in required paperwork, answered the standard beef jerky question--no I don't have any beef jerky--and then I was waved to the exit. We were free!!

Meanwhile the Handsome Australian was waiting patiently at our home--about a 40 minute drive from the Melbourne Airport for our flight to land before he departed home to come and collect us. This explains why he wasn't waiting in the crowd for us when we arrived.

To assuage the disappointed children I quickly herded them into the airport cafe and bought them some apple juice. I also needed a coffee. You know, when you need a coffee for sanity purposes? Yeah, it was kind of a coffee emergency. Two apple juices and one coffee--$15.90AUD. Wow. That's a lot for three drinks, I don't care where you are. Welcome to Melbourne folks! Welcome to Australia! Prepare your wallets to take a beating.

Yes, it seems two months erases all sorts of memories.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

I heart SWA

My love affair with Southwest Airlines has been long and for the most part--very rewarding. Growing up in Texas with our family spread all over the State, Southwest was our carrier of choice to get to and from the major cities. When I moved across the state to attend Uni, Southwest was my ticket home for Thanksgiving, Easter, Spring Break, etc. I've always appreciated their casual attitude and no-frills approach. Their fares are always reasonable and they've got heaps of specials all the time.

In all my years of flying SWA, I don't think I've ever come across a grumpy SWA employee--and I'm talking everyone from the ticket counter to the baggage handlers to the flight attendants. That's right, these people are nothing but smiles. I can't say that for other airlines I've traveled...Tiger? United? American? Are you listening?

Yes, there has always been something different about SWA. The friendly smile, the willingness to help you out and above all the fun atmosphere they exude. I fondly recall one rainy evening in Austin, Texas when it seemed like every flight was delayed. With a lounge full of impatient passengers, the SWA employees were playing TV trivia games over the loud speaker--and there were prizes too.

I've had so many funny flight attendants, I can't even recall all the stories. SWA flight attendants have a way of making the in flight safety instructions highly amusing. Considering most people fly with some regularity, this small bit of entertainment can make an unusually dull and repetitive speech much more enjoyable,

"While we never anticipate a change in cabin pressure, should one occur, oxygen masks will drop from overhead. Please place the mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally. If you are traveling with a child, please secure your own mask first then help your child. If you are traveling with two or more small children...well, you've got some choices to make. If it was me, I'd start with the one that has the most potential. You know the one that's going to be the Doctor or NBA player that will support you in your old age. Put their mask on first and then make your way down the line."

That was the funniest line on our recent flight from Dallas to El Paso. The whole cabin was giggling and this guy had more. He had a whole arsenal of jokes. I like their approach and appreciate the way they use humour to put folks at ease and entertain them.

Something happened during our recent time in the USA that further secured my love for SWA. During the initial days of the swine flu mania in the USA, I cancelled a set of flights we were due to take and opted to drive the route instead. I forgot to cancel the flights until the day we were meant to take them and when I went online to cancel them, it was too late as the flight had already departed. This meant I had to ring a number and cancel them over the phone instead. I was annoyed with myself because it meant something that I could easily have done for myself online would now have to be completed over the phone with someone in a call centre. I wondered how long it would take before I got to speak to someone. I reluctantly got the phone and dialled the number. I was greeted immediately with a recording that indicated what the expected wait time would be. Then I was offered an option--leave us your number and we'll call you back. This won't affect your place in line. It just means you don't have to sit on the phone and wait for us. What???? They'll call me back?? Were they serious? This was too good to be true.

So I took them up on their offer and left my phone number. An automated message confirmed my number and told me I'd be called back in approximately 12-17 minutes. I certainly hoped so. I hung up and went about preparing lunches for the children, etc. It was no more than 10 minutes later when the phone rang. The Caller ID showed Southwest Airlines on it. Wow! This rocked. I answered the phone and confirmed I was the person they were looking for and then I was transferred directly to an operator who cancelled my flights and credited my account in about 2 minutes flat. Now, that's service. I LOVE IT!!! Did you hear me folks, THEY CALLED ME BACK!!! Fanbloodytastic!!!

If you've never flown SWA, then you are really missing out on one of the best value for money airlines on the planet. I'm constantly amazed at their innovative ideas--it's as if they actually listen to their customers and give a damn about service. If only such a quality low fare airline existed here in Australia...a girl can dream can't she?

SWA, I love you!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Deep in the Heart of Texas 2-Collin Street Bakery

Our side trip to Corsicana, Texas continues...

In addition to a real love for their home, my Grandparents also began to take great pride in their newly adopted hometown. They supported the local Theatre and the historic preservation of the town. Each time we'd visit they'd drive us to the see the local sights. Sometimes it would be a new factory being built in town or perhaps an old building downtown that was being revitalised. For ages we had to drive out to witness the construction of the new overpass. I admit, as a kid, some of these outings weren't particularly interesting, but I can now appreciate the great love they had developed for their little town. Over the years, they slowly introduced us to the town's hidden treasures.

One of those "hidden treasures" and perhaps the reason Corsicana, Texas rates on any one's radar is the Collin Street Bakery at 401 W. 7th Street. This family owned bakery founded in 1896 is probably most famous for its DeLuxe Fruitcake which it sells directly from its Corsicana headquarters to about 196 countries worldwide via mail order and more recently, online. Chances are if you've eaten a fruitcake at Christmas, it might just have been one from this little bakery in Texas. Who knew? According to Wikipedia, they make approximately 3 million pounds of fruitcake each year which translates into about 1.5 million individual cakes. Apparently the fruitcakes account for 98% of their sales. That's a lot of fruitcake folks!

On this particular afternoon in May, it wasn't fruitcake that I had in mind though. First and foremost, we were in need of a ladies room. Our Sonic cherry limeades were making themselves known to us. Emergencies of the bladder aside, I thought it would be delightful to stop in at the bakery that my Grandmother used to rave about and share the tradition with my children.

I have very few memories of actually going to Collin Street Bakery. I can recall maybe two occasions when I physically entered their shop, but I do remember my Grandmother having baked goods from there at her house with some regularity. If it was summertime, she'd have an Angel Food Cake for my brother's birthday. If it was Christmas, she'd have a fruitcake. During other times of the year we might have cookies from the bakery. She was very proud of the fact that the little bakery from her newly adopted hometown was world famous.

Not exactly a fruitcake fan, I thought the kids and I might grab some cookies for the road. We pulled into the Bakery parking lot and made our way inside. My attention was peaked by the sign out the front that promised gourmet sandwiches as well as coffee. I don't remember those items being on offer when I was a kid. It seemed as if some things had changed at Collin Street Bakery since I was last there.

As we walked through the glass doors into the bakery, I noticed a nicely arranged cafe style seating area on the right with a self serve coffee bar and to the left were baked goods of all shapes and sizes. The children were excited at the sight of all the different cookie varieties on display. I saw a basket with pre-made gourmet sandwiches which looked delicious. Hmm...this place looked like it had some taste bud pleasing potential.

We waited patiently while a mix of locals and tourists were served by the friendly bakery staff. Things seemed to move quite slowly inside the bakery, but we didn't mind, these cookies looked like they were worth the wait. Finally, it was our turn and we each selected a cookie--the little fellow chose one with M&Ms in it, my daughter chose a chocolate cookie with white chocolate chips and I chose a traditional chocolate chip cookie. As we made our way to the cash register I told the man at the counter I'd like to pay for our cookies. He said, "How many do you have there?" "Three," I replied. "Oh, don't worry about it. Consider them free samples," he said cheerfully. "Really?" I questioned. "Really," he said. So we promptly thanked him and made our way to their cafe seating area and sat down to enjoy our "free samples".

One bite into this cookie and I was in heaven. I'm a baker. I make lots of cookies and cakes at home all the time. I don't usually like to get cookies or cakes from a commercial bakery because they are never quite as good as what we make at home. These cookies were an exception. They were delicious. There was a distinct nuttiness to them. I think they had some ground pecan nuts mixed through them. It just so happens I love pecans. I loved these cookies. Wow. They were so much better than anything I remember eating as a kid. My little people loved them too.

As we sat enjoying our cookies, I took a moment to read the various news articles that lined the walls. Stories that had been written over the years telling the world about this little bakery in the heart of Texas; this little bakery in my Grandmother's adopted hometown. It was as if we were enjoying not just a cookie, but a piece of history; a tradition handed down over generations. It was lovely.

The loveliness didn't end there. We finally made our way into their ladies room and it was the nicest ladies room! There were granite vanities with lovely taps. A nice floral couch welcomed you as you entered. The little people took a moment to relax on it. My five year old said, "Gee Mom, this is like the nicest bathroom I've ever been in." Not too bad for a little pit stop three hours into our last road trip I thought quietly patting myself on the back all the while still thinking about the cookie I just consumed.

Once we'd finished in the ladies room, it was time to bid goodbye to the famous little bakery. We had one foot out the door when I said, "You know, we should really get some more of those cookies." Amazingly, there were no arguments from the little people. So we turned around and got back in line.

Ten minutes later we left the bakery with four dozen assorted cookies carefully packed away in a box to be enjoyed at a family wedding on the weekend. Taking the cookies to the wedding was my daughter's idea and I loved it. I felt like I was taking a little piece of history with us. It would be unexpected, but welcome and it made me feel as though my Grandparents would be amongst us in spirit. I felt them both smile at me as I carefully packed these cookies into our car and we drove slowly out of town, out of their town, and back onto the interstate.

Not sure when I'll be back in Corsicana again, but when I do return you better believe I'll be stopping at Collin Street Bakery.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Last week we had occasion to drive from Houston to Dallas. The last of our Texas road trips for the 2009 Tour de Texas. The children were beside themselves at the thought of more time in the car, but I had big plans for them.

Somewhere along I-45 between Houston and Dallas lies the sleepy town of Corsicana, Texas. It was there, deep in the heart of Texas, that I spent many a Christmas holiday and summer vacation in my youth. My Grandparents owned a very regal, historic home on a stately street right there in the middle of Texas.

My Grandmother, an Interior Decorator by trade, happened upon the house one day in her 70s when she and my Grandfather were looking to buy a small rental property in this little town southeast of their Dallas home. As she told it, she saw the house first from the street, told the agent she was interested and waited quite awhile on the porch in the heat while the agent went to pick up the keys so they could have a look inside. She declared she wouldn't return to Dallas until she'd seen the house.

The house had been empty for a long time and was in a bit of disrepair, but my Grandmother saw the possibilities there. She knew instantly that this was the house she'd always dreamed of owning. She told the agent they'd take it--pretty much on the spot. Before we knew it, they packed up their place in Dallas and moved out to Corsicana--a town that was completely unfamiliar to the rest of the family.

The renovations of the house began soon after the move. It was a labour of love and a process that was very interesting to watch. In hindsight, my Grandparents had incredible amounts of energy for their age. They were climbing ridiculously high ladders and painting the ornate ceilings. They did a lot of the work themselves. Slowly, the house was transformed as we watched a lifetime of skill, my Grandmother's impeccable taste and the intelligence of my Grandfather to simply nod and say, "Yes dear" come together to produce a warm, inviting and very dignified home--both inside and out.

I loved that house and its history. I loved its character. I loved its ghosts (my Grandmother was convinced there were several). I loved all the amazing things she'd done with it. Most of all I loved going there and wandering from room to room noticing something new and truly unique with each visit.

Over the years we had many large family gatherings inside the magical walls of their home. We played ball on the massive lawns. We helped hang Christmas lights. We laughed and shared many a meal. It was the perfect family gathering place and my Grandmother, ever the Matriarch, knew that. It's as if she planned it that way.

Eventually at the age of 88, my Grandmother lost her battle with ovarian cancer. My Grandfather lived in their house for another year before he passed away and then the family was left with the task of sorting out their estate. It was decided at the time that the house would be put on the market as no one in the family lived in Corsicana nor did any one have any plans to live there. Once the decision had been made to sell the house, it wasn't long before a potential buyer came along. The story was very similar, the buyer had little ties with the small town of Corsicana, but had fallen in love with the house. It seemed the perfect fit--the house would be sold to someone who was just as passionate about it as my Grandmother had been the day she first saw it.

Now here I was 8 years down the track driving through Corsicana with my two young children in tow. I was excited to show them the house that had meant so much to my Grandmother and my family. I hoped that it would look the same and I'd hoped that the new owners had looked after it.

On the way to their street, I began telling my children stories about the things we used to do at my Grandparent's house. When we exited the freeway my daughter was clearly uninterested in this little side trip, but as we got closer to the house she became more and more intrigued. I swear to you, the house has that power over people. When we turned on to the street, I told my daughter stories about each of the neighbour's houses that I remembered visiting with my Grandmother. She said, "Wow Mom. This is a really special street isn't it?"

Finally, we reached the corner where my Grandparent's house sits on a slight hill. It was stunning. Just as I remembered, but even better. The new owner had done lots of work to the house (which admittedly had fallen into a bit of disrepair as my Grandparents had aged) and he'd even made a few additions. There was a gorgeous glassed in sun room that had been added to the side of the house and a lovely covered parking area that extended from the house to the guest house that sits beside it. Several fountains had been installed in the ample gardens and there was even a gazebo of sorts set off to one side. Flowers were blooming and the grass was a very shiny green. My heart swelled as I thought of my Grandparents, particularly my Grandmother, and what she'd think of these changes to her home. I think she'd have liked them, but I know she'd be thrilled to know that someone who has such obvious passion for the house was now living in it.

We sat parked across the road for several minutes as I surveyed all the changes and relived some of the memories of my youth. I so wanted to take a photo, but my camera was in the boot of the car and I didn't want to look like some kind of stalker. I'm kicking myself to this moment for not getting out and snapping a few photos. What was I thinking?

As we drove away slowly, my daughter asked me, "Mom, if your Grandma was still alive, would she like us to come into her house and visit her?" Tears welled in my eyes as I did a u-turn to take one last look and replied, "Oh darling you have no idea. She would have LOVED for us to visit her and she would have thought the world of both you and your brother."

"Mom, thanks for showing us your Grandma's house. I really liked it and this special little town." were the words I heard as we turned off my Grandmother's street and back onto the main road. "I'm glad," I replied, "It truly is special, and I've got one more thing to show you before we go..."

To be continued

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Taste of Texas

Texas tastes really good y'all! When our family first hit Texas nearly two months ago now, we were on a mission: Consume as much Tex-Mex as possible. Mission Accomplished! Just ask my thighs, stomach and backside. The proof is certainly there. We've had tacos, flautas, enchiladas, chile rellenos, tamales, and my personal favourite...the humble gordita. There have been beans and rice, and of course a margarita...or three or perhaps more than that. Margaritas aren't conducive to counting. Oh did I forget to mention all the glorious salsa we've consumed and the yummy tostada chips?? OMG how much do we love this food?

So here are a few photos from our Tex-Mex adventures. How will we be able to say goodbye to all this?

Shredded pork tamale with red chile. These were delicious.

That's love on a plate. can you understand the state of my thighs?

Let's not forget the Tex-Mex standard...the Taco!

I love the hole in the wall taco stands. We got this delicious bag of tacos for $7
The taco stands alone

Our oldest gives these tasty Tex-Mex treats the thumbs up!

This is only a small representation of what we've consumed. I didn't want to torture anyone. (To be honest, I was too busy eating to photograph each meal.)Now I must return to Australia where I can return to a normal body weight and live without temptation. I'll never find anything this good there. =(

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tour de Texas

During 2009's Tour de Texas, we've done a lot of driving. As Texas is an enormous state, we generally opt to fly. This time I had plenty of internal flights booked with only a few short driving segments. When swine flu first hit the USA, there was a media frenzy and heaps of hype. As a result, I opted to cancel a few of our internal flights and make the same trips in a car instead. This seemed a sensible precautionary measure at the time. As more became known about the flu and the hype died down (and you could finally purchase antibacterial hand gel in the stores again) my choice to drive rather than fly seemed extreme. Some might say, stupid (especially given the long distances and the two small children factor) but in the end I'm glad it worked out the way it did.

By taking to the roads, my kids saw more of Texas than they ever would have from a plane. If you ask them, they probably saw more of Texas than they ever cared to or would ever care to see again. I, however, take comfort in the fact that one day when they are sitting around and complaining about what a lame job I've done as a parent, they'll recall with particular disdain the time, "Mom dragged us across Texas in Pop's car and we saw nothing but tumbleweeds for five hundred miles." It was really only 300 miles, but they'll exaggerate for effect. Teenagers do that. "Yeah" the younger one will reply, "That was so BORING!! What was she thinking?"

Maybe I'm giving their little 2 and 5 year old memories too much credit. Perhaps they'll never remember it at all. I guess that just means we'll have to repeat the exercise annually until they reach an age of awareness. Guess that sorts our holiday plans for the next five years.

Seriously, I think we all enjoyed our drive even though the scenery was at times, repetitive. You know, for like 300 miles. Personally, I grew up making the long drives across Texas to visit relatives, although it's probably been a good 10 years since I've done such a long road trip across Texas myself. I'd forgotten the vastness of this state I so fondly called home for most of my life B.A. (Before Australia). I'd forgotten how the landscapes are so varied and extreme from one side of the state to the other. I'd forgotten the names of the little towns that dot the long highways between the metroplexes. Gems like, "Van Horn", "Welfare", "Ozona". I'd forgotten how I could rely on these towns for their Dairy Queens. I'd forgotten all about the blizzard and the Hunger Buster.

In 10 years, not a whole lot had changed along a stretch of road I traveled with great frequency during my younger days. Same gas stations, same arid landscapes--although I was pleased to see a new massive wind farm perched on the mesas that give some texture to the barren far West of the state. Finally, I thought, something useful in this sandy, wind prone bit of desert. The giant windmills were a welcome distraction for the little people in the back seat as well. It's truly a pity the Handsome Australian wasn't with us to witness them too--he LOVES a good wind farm. Even took me on a tour of one in Australia once. Yes, I'll tell you all about it one day or perhaps you could just have a root canal--it might be just as interesting.

I don't know if it's my age or simply the time I've spent away from Texas, but I really soaked in so much during these drives. I took note of things I'd never noticed previously. I wondered things I would never have thought about in my youth. I appreciated the simple beauty of the landscape--I stopped to smell the flowers. Okay, so maybe I didn't stop for the flowers, but it's been my experience that cactus isn't particularly fragrant--that and can you imagine the first aid disaster that would be two little people covered in cactus prickles?

I did stop for a coffee at the McDonald's in Van Horn, Texas. I ordered a latte from their new coffee menu. As we drove away and I sipped on my latte from Macca's (as we call them in Oz) I thought to myself, "Wow. This is a good coffee." After which I immediately thought, "Wow. I've been away from Melbourne for far too long."

I guess time away from "home"--wherever that may be--makes you appreciate it all the more when you return and sometimes, you might even see things in a different light.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Easter in Texas

I realise Easter was a month ago, but this is the first chance since we've been on the road that I've had a chance to sit down and put some thoughts together.

One of the holidays I miss the most living in Australia is most certainly Easter. It's not that the Aussies don't celebrate Easter, because they do. It's also a pretty big deal in Australia and in some ways bigger than Christmas with the shops closing and people having public holidays on Good Friday and Easter Monday. It's just the way that Australians celebrate Easter that strikes me as uninspired. Well, hang on a minute, I love the idea of a public holiday and will gladly take those, but after that, the Aussies have a lot of chocolate and that's pretty much it.

I've never seen Easter Egg colouring kits in Australia and I've never known any of my Anglo Aussie friends to actually colour Easter eggs since I've lived there. We've had friends and family who are part of the Orthodox church share their tradition of colouring eggs and then playing this game where you try and crack each other's eggs. Whoever has the last egg that isn't cracked wins the game. It's fun and light hearted, but in my experience their eggs are only one colour--red or maybe blue. They used regular food colouring to colour them and don't have any fancy swirls or glitter or anything remotely fun like that.

We've had the fortune of spending the last three Easters in Texas with my family. All of these occasions have been filled with heaps of fun and my children will have many lovely memories of sharing this special holiday with their American cousins.

What makes our Easter so special each year? A little something called, cascarones. Historically a Mexican tradition, our proximity to Mexico has seen this endearing ritual spill over the border and into our hearts and minds. Like anything worth doing, cascarones take a lot of time, love and care.

Here's how we do it...during the year, my Mom will start saving eggs for us to colour. Each time she uses eggs for cooking, she cracks them a special way (using a knife to break off one end) and drains the egg out keeping the shell mostly in tact, except for a hole on one end. She then rinses the egg shell out and puts it aside to dry. My sister -in-law does the same at her house.

When Easter weekend rolls around, we pull out all the egg shells that have been put aside. Then on Good Friday, we have an Easter Egg colouring session. We get out several long tables and set the kids up outside with aprons on and colours galore. They spend the next several hours colouring the egg shells beautiful colours. Because the shells are empty, they are a bit more delicate--there are always a few casualties, but with 18 dozen or so to work with we can afford a few mistakes. The kids are surprisingly gentle with the eggs and have a great time creating lots of different colours with them. We put the eggs back in the cartons to dry.

They dry overnight and then sometime on Saturday afternoon, we have another egg preparation session. This time we give each kid their own bowl of confetti and they begin to fill each egg with a small handful of confetti. The holes at the top of the eggs are pretty big so it's not too hard for little hands to accomplish this task. We usually direct them to hold the egg over their confetti bowl so that any confetti that doesn't make it in the hole just falls back in the bowl ready for the next egg.Once the eggs are filled with confetti, they are placed back in the carton to await the next step.

I don' t know about you, but I can already see the fun brewing in these eggs!

While the kids are busy with the confetti, the adults generally sit around and start the sealing process. This involves small squares of tissue paper, some glue, a toothpick and a bit of patience. First, we take the glue (your Elmer's variety is fine) and spread it around the opening of the egg with a toothpick.
Then we carefully place a piece of tissue paper over the hole and smooth it down over the glue. This acts as a seal to keep the confetti on the inside of the egg.

Here is a carton of eggs with their seals waiting for the glue to dry. We leave them overnight.

On Easter Sunday, the Easter Bunny comes along and hides all these gorgeous eggs in the garden. This is when the fun really begins...