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!