Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Pilgrimage

In a week's time, our family will embark on what has become an annual pilgrimage. Since the birth of my first child, I've returned to the USA once a year to visit family and friends. There was even one year when I went twice (a family wedding--couldn't miss that!). My first born is now just shy of turning 5 years old and this trip will count as her 6th visit to the USA. I sat down recently and did the math. She's spent a total of 27 weeks in the USA which is approximately 6 months and about 10% of her life thus far. These annual trips are adding up. We generally spend six weeks stateside when we go, but this year we'll spend 8 weeks. My children have many lovely memories of these trips. They get to spend time with their American grandparents, Aunties, Uncles and cousins. They get to eat food that we don't have in Australia or in some cases, food we don't let them have in Australia. They learn plenty of American words while we are there and even come back with slight American accents. The maturity and personal growth I've witnessed in both my children as a result of these trips is mind boggling, given their relative ages. It's such a truly rich experience for them. We are blessed to have the opportunity.

Of course these journeys have their down sides as well. The first being the distance. It takes so bloody long to get to the States. 14 hours on a plane is a really, really long time when you are a small child. It's a really, really, really, really long time when you are the parent of said small children. Of course the 14 hours just gets us to Los Angeles and then we have to connect to Texas. I'm not a real fan of Los Angeles, but sometimes I wish my whole family lived there. It would make the trip a little bit shorter each time.

As the children get older, making the trip is easier because they understand where we are going, what we are doing and who we will be seeing, but on the other hand they know what they will be missing from here while they are gone. Like any young preschoolers, they've got plenty of things they do each week--preschool, swimming lessons, dance lessons and play dates galore. All of these things must be organised before we depart. The list of people we need to notify and arrangements that we need to make before we go seems to get longer each time.

It's not just the activities the children miss, it's the people too. The neighbourhood we live in here in Australia is filled with children of similar ages and our children are in constant contact with many of them. I knew I was in trouble when my then 2 year old daughter burst into tears during one of our USA trips and began saying, "But Mommy I miss my friends!!" Was she serious? She was only two!! In hindsight, I think she was serious and she certainly does miss Australia when we are away. At the same time, she has a real fondness for America and often gets emotional about missing family members that live there (emotional attachments that she wouldn't have if we didn't make these trips).

I think the transition between the two countries is another element of these pilgrimages that is sometimes difficult. It's almost as if you have to put your life completely on hold in one place and then try and slot yourself in when you arrive at the other place (where you haven't actually been for an entire year). The same is true on the've got to remove yourself from your new found comfort zone and return to your "regular" routine (that you've been missing from for 2 months). It's enough to make your head spin.

Good and bad, we continue to make the journey. I can't imagine it any other way.

Monday, March 9, 2009


My first visit to Moomba (Australia's largest free community festival) was 10 years ago during my first few months here in Australia. I knew little of Australia or Melbourne then and I had no idea what Moomba was. The Handsome Australian and I met up with a couple of his friends in the city and set about navigating our way through the crowds. My memory of the evening is something like this: There were lots of carnival type rides and games. There were booths where you could buy your typical carnival or festival type foods and it was all set out along the Yarra River in the city. I remember the Handsome Australian and his mates decided we'd all choose three rides and go on them together. I think the aim was to choose the most nauseating ones (you know the ones where they lock you in a cage and spin you vertically and horizontally at the same time?) and see who could ride them all without vomiting. Ah yes, the memories. (This was yet another occasion which proves my theory that youth is wasted on the ignorant.) I think we rode two rides and we were done. We felt sick for the rest of the night. And that has been my memory of Moomba until this past weekend...

On Sunday morning, the Handsome Australian mentioned we should take the kids into the City to Moomba.

Me: "Moomba? Oh yes, that's the festival we went to ten years ago and rode those rides that made me feel like vomiting for several days afterwards. Yes, brilliant. Let's take the kids. They'll love it and I'll enjoy the extra laundry this week."

HA: "It's not just rides you know. They are doing the Birdman Rally today."

Me: "Remind me quickly what that entails?"

HA: "That is when a group of contestants jump off a platform into the river in different contraptions they've built--kind of like costumes but, well, look it's complicated to explain. That's why we should go and see it. The aim is to see how far they can travel in the air before they land in the river."

Me: "Classy."

HA: "Come on, the kids will love it."

Me: "I'll be right with you."

At this point I hit the net and my favourite Melbourne website to find out more about Moomba. According to the City of Melbourne website, there were going to be heaps of family friendly events as part of Moomba. There was an entire area dedicated to free events for the kids including face painting, clowns, arts and crafts as well as a section with rides geared towards the littlies. It was sounding more promising. I liked the possibilities for the kids and I liked the idea of free activities. The Birdman Rally was also going to be running during the afternoon and I knew that would keep the Handsome Australian happy. So I went back to the meeting armed with more facts.

Me: "Okay, we'll go to this Moomba again. There are lots of great activities for the kids apparently."

HA: "See, I told you. Fun for the whole family."

That settled it. We packed up the little people and were off. The drive into the City from our house takes 30 to 40 minutes depending on traffic. While we were driving the Handsome Australian was lamenting about where we'd find a car park in the City. I told him we'd use my favourite City parking garage because it was perfectly located to the action and was relatively unknown. (I don't know why people don't use this particular parking garage because it's so convenient and the rates are reasonable, but it's good for me if it stays quiet! Maybe one day I'll tell you where it is.)

Parking space sorted, we made our way to the Yarra and it wasn't long before we were in the thick of it. The place was buzzing with people. There were families with young children everywhere as well as groups of international students and young teenagers running in packs too. There were lights flashing and music blaring from different gravity defying rides on both sides of the river. Stalls lined the footpath offering food, drinks, information. Creepy clowns leered while their caretakers urged you to have a go 3 balls for $2.

We didn't get sucked in though...

Okay so maybe that's a certain Handsome Australian who can't go past the Beer Can Smash without having a turn. The results were disappointing much to the chagrin of the little people who had visions of giant tacky stuffed toys dancing in their heads.

As Moomba is a Water Festival and uses the Yarra River as its centerpiece, Melbourne Water had a strong representation along one side of the river. We made our first stop in one of their tents where children could make an animal mask using pre-cut materials and simple templates. It was good fun--well my girl and I thought so. The Handsome Australian was busy wrangling the youngest and impatiently waiting. I think he was hoping the Birdman Rally would start soon. My oldest chose to make a fish mask. I think it came out quite well.

Hungry for more craft, the oldest and I slipped next door to ArtPlay where there was meant to be another free craft activity on. (ArtPlay is an initiative by the City of Melbourne to provide opportunities for young people to have access to professional actors and artists who run workshops covering a whole bevy of topics. They've always got something interesting going on and our kids have always enjoyed their workshops.) We put our names down on the list and waited a few minutes for the next session to start. Once it was time, we were shown upstairs where the materials were set out to make a tree frog hat. (Notice the aquatic theme running through the activities?)We spent the next 25 minutes busily constructing the hat. My oldest was pretty pleased with the results.

A finer looking tree frog I've never seen.

At this point, the Handsome Australian was beside himself with angst. He really wanted to get to the edge of the river to score a possie to watch the Birdman Rally. So we left ArtPlay and made our way down to the water. Well, we got as close as we could. Unfortunately, the Rally had already begun and the crowd was very thick. We couldn't see much. The Handsome Australian suggested we put the children on our shoulders so they could see. I reluctantly agreed (I'd like it noted here that the Handsome Australian is a large fellow and chucking a small child on his shoulder's is not a big for me, well, I was having flashes of physio appointments filling my days and maybe a few visits to the chiro for good measure). As the children precariously balanced on our shoulders and we stood on our tip toes, they could see the bizarre people jumping into the river. I could see nothing except a really nice pair of Skechers that kept kicking me in the face. After two contestants had a go, I was buckling under the weight. I expressed my inability to stand there any longer with 5 year old child on my shoulders and the Handsome Australian relented and suggested that perhaps we grab some lunch.

Food snob that he is, he turned his nose up at the "festival food" and insisted that we eat in one of the restaurants in Federation Square. So we made our way up the river to Fed Square and had a look for a kid friendly place. Historically, I haven't had much luck with the restaurants in Fed Square. I think on the whole many are overpriced and there really isn't a place you can get something simple with the kids. Or so I thought...

The Handsome Australian chose Transport Public Bar as our lunch spot.

It was packed with people, presumably all in the city for Moomba as well. He ordered our food at the bar and then waited for our number to be called while the kids and I sussed out a table outside. We finally ended up sharing a table with another family because there was no where else to sit. They were English tourists. A Canadian sat on the table behind us and there were a handful of German backpackers a few tables away. So we found Melbourne's tourist hot spot!!

Lunch was a few plates of fish and chips which the Handsome Australian deemed delicious. The kids enjoyed them too. And we also had a plate of dips to share--the dips received mixed reviews.Personally, I wasn't hugely impressed with our meal. The Handsome Australian indicated this was typical pub fare and was a pretty reasonable standard for such food. I indicated that 1. the key ingredient to a good pub meal was missing--a drink and 2. perhaps I'm not a pub girl. In hindsight, it was probably an easy place to take the kids and the most kid friendly food we were going to find in Fed Square so it wasn't all bad.

After we refueled, we decided to cross the bridge and work our way down the other side of the Yarra where there were still more sections of Moomba to explore. We walked past beach volleyball demonstrations, a blow up soccer pitch, more food, and rides as far as the eye could see. The little people were pulling on our pant legs asking for a turn on some of the rides so we decided they could choose two. The most obvious choice was the Magic Circus which was a three story fun house of sorts. It had all sorts of tricky mirrors, moving sidewalks, funny steps and a twisty slide that spat you out the bottom with an impressive amount of inertia. They loved it.
They followed this up with a ride on a very tame roller coaster that was shaped like a little caterpillar. It was very, very tame. (Read: lame for Mum and Dad, but on the upside not nausea inspiring).

Wow! All that action it was surely time for another food break. The oldest had her eyes on some fairy floss (that's Cotton Candy for the Yanks among you) and the little fella was keen on an icy pole (that's a popsicle). The Handsome Australian and I found a lovely little stall that was selling Byron Bay Organic Donuts. I don't know how they were organic, but somehow sticking the word organic in front of them made them sound hearty and less likely to lead to heart disease. Did I mention they were filled with chocolate? Yes, that was another selling point. So we got a couple to share. We found a spot under a shady tree and took a moment to enjoy our treats. They were delicious. We did a bit of people watching and then decided it was time to pack it in and head home. So we took one last look down the mighty Yarra and headed for the car.

Happy to report a good time was had by all and there was no vomiting. What more can you ask for?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

And then the rains came...

Monday was a reasonably nice day here in Melbourne. The weather was warm but not excessively hot and the air was still. I spent the day at my daughter's Kindergarten playing in their sandpit, singing songs, eating lunch at miniature tables and taking in the view from a four year old's perspective. We had a full day and when we returned home, the routine of dinner, bath, bed time took over and I had little time to think about the weather or the news. Then at some point my mobile phone beeped indicating I had a new text message. I picked it up and read the following:

Extreme weather in Vic expected Mon night & Tues. High wind & fire risk. Listen to Local ABC Radio for emergency updates.

Amazing. A text message sent directly to my phone to warn me of an impending storm and increased fire danger. I have always been impressed with Australian bureaucracy's ability to adapt and change quickly. There was great debate following the Black Saturday fires as to whether or not an official warning system could have saved some of the lives lost. That was a mere three weeks ago and now when faced with similar weather conditions Victorians were receiving these alert messages on their mobile phones. Whether these messages reached the appropriate targets or were the appropriate medium will be debated in the aftermath, but for now, I'm just bloody impressed they organised themselves so quickly.

When the Handsome Australian arrived home, he also brought news of impending storms and gale force winds bound for Melbourne. He spent a bit of time gathering up loose items in the back garden and storing them in garage so they wouldn't become dangerous projectiles. I collected the laundry from the clothesline noting the deep orange sunset and the absolute stillness of the air that surrounded me. It was really still. I had a sinking feeling. Was this the calm before the storm? That text message I'd received earlier had given me a real foreboding feeling. I'd seen the damage that a fierce wind and fire cocktail can produce--our whole community is still reeling from Black Saturday. I shuddered when I thought of the news I might wake up to the following morning.

Back inside, the evening rolled along and each time I looked out the window the trees sat there silently. No rustling, no swaying, just still. I started to wonder if the warnings were all a bit of hype. I headed off to bed and drifted off to sleep. I was woken a short time later by the sound of the wind whistling through the trees outside, the branches scraping against the window panes. It was really, really windy. I had a difficult time falling back asleep as I thought of the winds and the fire and the people whose homes and lives might be in danger.

On Tuesday morning, the winds were still whipping around outside. It was a blustery day. In many ways it reminded me of the desert southwest in the USA where I spent my youth. Sand slapping you in the face as you walk down the road, bits of rubbish blowing along. The only thing missing was the tumbleweeds. I suppose it should have been comforting, this weather. It should have reminded me of my roots and where I'm from. It's not pleasant weather, but it is so typical of my hometown. On this day though, every gust made me cringe. I found myself hoping against hope that we wouldn't see a repeat of Black Saturday.

On the whole, the news on Tuesday from the fire fronts seemed to be stable. There weren't any fires jumping containment lines and the fire fighters seemed prepared. It was just a bit of a waiting game. Then Tuesday evening, the winds picked up again and really whipped about. The Handsome Australian and I were sitting in our lounge room listening to the wind howl, when something unexpected happened. It began to rain. It wasn't just a light rain either. It was a good hard rain. The Handsome Australian and I looked at each other and simultaneously let out sighs of relief. Finally the rain has come. I can't remember the last time it rained here in Melbourne.

The rain fell off and on all night and we woke to gray skies this morning. The kids and I had to wear jackets most of the day as the temperatures have cooled right down. The rain continued to fall throughout the afternoon and early this evening. On my drive home tonight I was tuned into ABC Local Radio when the news broke that one of the major fires that had been threatening the towns of Warburton and Healesville had officially been contained. The text messages from relieved residents of that part of Victoria were coming in thick and fast and the ABC host was reading them out. Some people had evacuated 3 or 4 times during the last 10 days as the weather and the fire menaced their communities. Psychological exhaustion has reigned and this was the first good news these communities have had in what seems like a long, long time.

Let's hope this is the beginning of the end of this bush fire season.


Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Celebration of Community

During the recent bushfires that have devastated parts of Victoria, chaos ruled. Fire raged through communities burning everything in its path leaving trails of devastation that have since been described as "war zones". In the midst of the fires and the ensuing aftermath, there has been one voice that has remained constant. One voice that has comforted the survivors, one voice that has mobilised the community and one voice that continues to keep its eye on the ever present fire threat, and this is the voice of ABC Radio.

ABC Radio, which serves as the Emergency Services Broadcaster here in Australia, has worked tirelessly to keep the public informed during this bushfire season. The ABC works in conjunction with the CFA and the DSE to provide accurate and up to date fire threat information to communities all over the state. This fire season has been different to others though, with the Black Saturday tragedy in the forefront of every one's hearts and minds.

During the Black Saturday crisis and in the crucial days that followed the ABC served as a conduit for the community--matching up those in need with those who had something to give. The ABC hosts broadcast live from bushfire stricken areas and brought us the stories of the people who had survived. They shone a light on their needs and encouraged us to give whatever we could. As a community, we responded and the response has been overwhelming. In many cases, offers of help have been so overwhelming that some donations of food, clothing or other items have been turned away as relief agencies struggle to process this unprecedented outpouring of goods.

So it seemed fitting today that the ABC decided to celebrate the communities it serves and thank them for their recent support of the bushfire victims and survivors. As the ABC described on their website, "In the aftermath of the bushfires, the ABC Community Concert is a thank you to all Victorians for the tremendous support they have shown towards those affected by the fires. " What better way to celebrate the idea of community than with a free public concert?

And it was this free public concert that had the Handsome Australian and I rolling out of bed in the wee small hours of the morning to organise our brood and head to the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in the heart of King's Domain Gardens. Until today, our family has never attended an event at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and I was looking forward to it.

The ABC Community concert was to run all day at the SMMB, with the first half of the day dedicated to children's entertainment and the second half of the day geared towards the adults. Our little people had been buzzing all week in anticipation of the concert. They were particularly keen on the promised appearance of Dorothy the Dinosaur and The Fairies.

The gates opened at 9:45am and I'd say we pulled into a sweet parking space overlooking the Yarra river on Alexandra Parade right around that time. The first sign it was going to be a nice day was the fact that the parking time was unlimited as the parking signs indicated there were only restrictions on those particular spaces Mon-Fri. Hooray! Free parking! That's such a bonus in Melbourne.

We unloaded the little people and all their gear (Does this stuff multiply in the boot? There is so much of it!) and we crossed the road heading for concert. The crowd was mixed as we made our way along the Tan and then uphill to the SMMB. There were plenty of morning joggers and other fitness fanatics making their way around the fabled path in addition to the plaid blanket carrying, pram pushing, overloaded family types like ourselves.

As we arrived at the gates of the SMMB, there was a patchy green (we are in drought after all) hill sloping gently downwards toward a stage with limited undercover seating directly in front of it. I loved the venue immediately. It was architecturally interesting, open air and spacious. We decided to fore go the covered seating (which meant actual seats) and instead chose to spread out in the grass with all our goodies.
It's here that I'll admit we don't actually have a plaid picnic blanket like EVERYONE else in Melbourne seems to. You know the lovely ones with the synthetic backing that keeps the damp out. The ones that fold up into nice little squares and tuck neatly inside your picnic basket. Yeah, we don't have one. So instead I pull out our DORA THE EXPLORER fleece blanket (a thoughtful gift from a well meaning Aunt) and feign sophistication while sitting squarely on top of Dora's bilingual little head.

The crowd was teeming with under 5s and their weary parents who made a beeline for the coffee vendor up the back. There was never less than 20 people waiting for a hit...I mean a latte. Once the show started though, adults and children alike were mesmerised by the parade of characters before them.

Jay Laga'aia and Georgie Parker of Playschool fame led the charge. They treated the kids to several songs before bringing on Dorothy the Dinosaur (of Wiggles fame). Our son was transfixed (Wiggles aficionado is an understatement) and loved dancing along with Dorothy. (Dancing is always easier in your sister's bejeweled plastic pumps: see below)

The Fairies came next with their friends delighting all the fairy wannabes in the crowd.

They were followed by the truly Aussie Koala Brothers who had children jumping like Kangaroos.

Concert Headliners B1 and B2aka The Bananas in Pajamas rounded up the entertainment for the morning and left the crowd wanting more. More lattes that is...
Because judging by the empties lying around it was time for another round.
This time for the kids. Can you say babychino? Because any self respecting 18 month old Melburnian certainly can.
Yes, a good *coffee laden* time was had by all!

Good on you ABC! We are pleased to be a part of your community!