Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Making of an Expat

It would have been impossible for me to know on that fateful night 12 years ago when I first met the Handsome Australian, that one day I would not only be his wife, but would make my home in a strange land far away from all that, up to that point, was comfortable and familiar. The future ramifications of our love affair never really played on my twenty-something mind. I was swept up in the excitement and open to the adventure. Come to think of it, I've never really been much of a planner. I've never had a 5 year or 10 year plan. I'm not a goal setter. I'm a "let's ride this wave and see where it takes us" kind of girl. And that's precisely how I approached my relationship with the Handsome Australian.

When we first met in Buenos Aires, I had no expectations for our blossoming relationship. He was a great guy and we had fun together. The reality was that he was Australian and I was American and we were both in Argentina for a finite amount of time. At the end of which, we both had intentions of returning to our home countries which may have well been opposite sides of the earth--oh wait, they are. It seemed perfectly reasonable to treat the whole thing as a holiday romance and just enjoy the fun while it lasted. So this is exactly what we did. We never talked about the relationship or about a future or about anything particularly serious. We just had a really, really great time.

At the end of the Handsome Australian's time in Argentina, he booked a trip to the Southern region of the country to visit Lago Argentino and Glaciar National Park. Saddened by the thought of him traveling alone during his final week in the country and finding myself a bit more attached to him that I wanted to admit, I spontaneously contacted his travel agent and booked myself a seat next to his. I wasn't sure how the Handsome Australian would take the news, but it was very well received. He was glad to have a travel companion and happy to spend one last week with me.

Our time in the remote town of Calafate on the periphery of Lago Argentino was magical. Our days were filled with sight seeing tours and our nights were spent sampling the local cuisine. The glaciars were mind boggling and beautiful. Each night the food we ate was amazing. Everything was perfect. I remember wishing it never had to end. It occurred to me during this *final* week of our holiday romance, that I might just be on to a good thing. I might have just found something worth holding on to. Only problem was that this something, or someone rather, was about to get on a flight to the other side of the earth and I was meant to head back to Buenos Aires solo. What was a girl to do?

With about 4 hours left before my flight was set to depart the Rio Gallegos airport and I was due to say goodbye to the Handsome Australian, we sat together having lunch at a hodgepodge Asian buffet--in the heart of Patagonia. The food was an unexpected and bizarre mix of Argentine standards and Chinese favourites. The concept of the restaurant was almost as crazy as the ideas that were running through my head. So with this mixed up meal as my preface, I floated the idea of me possibly coming to Australia after my time in Argentina was finished. And then I waited.

The Handsome Australian began to sweat profusely. His normally calm and relaxed face took on an anxious and confused look. Perhaps he was even frightened. Then came the questions. How? When? Why? I did my best to answer his queries, but I was shy on details because well, I'm not a planner. This was just something I knew I needed to pursue and the how and the when would have to come later. The 'why' was obvious. I'd come to the realisation that this was more than a holiday romance and that if I didn't follow my heart, and take this chance then I'd always be left wondering 'what if'...

The clock ticked on and it was time to catch a cab to the airport. It was during this cab ride, that the Handsome Australian slowly returned to his former self. He had started to consider what neither of us had considered up until 2 hours before...a future together. The more we discussed the possibility, the more relaxed he became. Still, he proceeded with caution and warned me that life in Australia would not be like the life we'd known together in Buenos Aires. I told him I understood, but I still wanted to ride this wave and see where it took me.

By the time we reached the airport, the shock had worn off and he'd agreed to think about the proposition and was speaking more and more positively about the idea. Our time had finally run out. We said our goodbyes and I walked out on to the tarmac and up the stairs of my waiting plane, not wanting to look back I marched up the stairs, but then suddenly turned around to see the Handsome Australian standing inside the glass with a smile on his face. I gave him one last wave and moved into the plane.

For the next three hours, I sat in a window seat looking down on the vast and sparsely populated Patagonian landscape below and I felt, for the first time in my life, completely and utterly at peace. I'd said what I'd needed to say. I'd put it all out there. I'd ridden the wave. No regrets. What happened next wasn't for me to decide. The ball was in destiny's court and I'd just have to wait to see what came my way.

Monday, August 23, 2010


In one of those remarkable cosmic moments, I found an American penny on the streets of suburban Melbourne a few months ago. I was most excited by this unusual find and henceforth deemed the penny "my lucky penny". I brought it home and put it in a very safe place...the top of my chest of drawers. I wasn't sure what I was going to do with it, but I knew that I needed to hang on to it.

Several weeks later, the Handsome Australian and I were out in the City for dinner. He'd booked us a table at 2010's Pizzeria of the Year, +39. The Handsome Australian had dined there before and promised me charming Italian waiters, fine wine and simple but tasty pizza. The occasion? We were marking 12 years since the day we met back at the Embassy in Buenos Aires.

When we arrived at +39, our table wasn't ready so the host sent us to the casual bar across the road. We had a few drinks and then headed back across the street to claim our table. We were seated in the very back of the cozy little restaurant...somewhere between the pizza oven and the toilets. True to his description, the waiter arrived and began to explain the menu in the most beautiful broken English with a very heavy Italian accent. The Handsome Australian became "Bello" and I became "Bella". We ordered some wine and an antipasto platter to start and some pizzas to come later. "Perfetto," ordained the waiter as he disappeared to organise our wine.

The Handsome Australian then slowly reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a little box which he placed in front of me on the table. Taken by surprise, I looked searchingly at the little blue box with the white ribbon and wondered what could possibly be inside. After all, this was really more of an informal anniversary. It wasn't our wedding anniversary, just the day that we'd met all those years ago.

The waiter returned with our wines, saw the little blue box sitting in front of me and his eyes grew very wide. He placed the glasses down very quickly and rushed off waving his hands apologetically and repeating, "Scusi, scusi, scusi." Poor guy. I think he thought he'd interrupted a wedding proposal.

Keen to find out what was inside the box, I untied the ribbon and opened the lid. Inside I found this:

It was a beautiful sterling silver locket in the shape of a heart. The Handsome Australian indicated I should open it up to see what was inside. Intrigued, I did just that.

Inside the locket, I found a photograph of the two of us that had been taken in Hawaii earlier this year. While we were there, we'd celebrated our 10th year of marriage with a vow renewal ceremony. The photo was one of the two of us during the ceremony. It was such a lovely sentiment, but then the Handsome Australian told me to lift the photo out of the locket.

Why? I wondered. What else could possibly be in this locket? So as not to disappoint my dear husband and to cure my increasing curiosity, I did just as he instructed and lifted the photo gently out of the locket...

and there, sitting secretly behind our photo was my lucky penny. The Handsome Australian had realised how significant the finding of this penny had been for me and said he wanted me to have a safe place to keep it (hmm...I guess the top of the chest of drawers just wasn't cutting it). This way, according to him, I'll always have my lucky penny (and the USA) close to my heart.

The antipasto arrived. It was lackluster. Then there was pizza of some description and several glasses of wine followed by some sort of nuttella dessert pizza. All, truthfully, not that memorable. Or perhaps just eclipsed by the Handsome Australian himself.

Handsome and thoughtful. What a combination. I'm a lucky more ways than one.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

One night in Buenos date with destiny.

On a winter's evening in the leafy Buenos Aires suburb of Belgrano, music could be heard bubbling over the fence of a well manicured garden belonging to one of the many stately mansions that lined this particular Calle. Amongst the music, a bevy of accents and languages mingled with the sounds of clinking glassware. A garden party? In the middle of winter? Why yes, nothing's impossible in Buenos Aires. Peeking through the gate you'd expect to see fancy cocktail dresses and fine suits, but that wasn't the case. Just inside the fence, on the lush abundant lawns, were dozens of people, young and old, in all make and manner of fashion. A first impression from the footpath may have been misleading. This was not a fancy soiree. No, in fact, it seemed more like a casual barbecue amongst friends. Yes, there was a waft of sausages a sizzle about the night air. A glance at a very official sign posted just on the wall near the gate and it was obvious who was hosting this delightful gathering...a very serious looking Kangaroo and his partner, an Emu with a wry smile. This was the Australian Consulate after all, who else did you think might host such an unusual party?

It was July of 1998 and I found my twenty something self wandering through the gates and into the middle of this eclectic little cocktail party searching for a familiar face. Very much as Alice tumbled down into the strange and stunning world of Wonderland, I reluctantly traipsed through the sea of faces and into the beginning of my fairy tale. It wasn't long before an acquaintance caught my eye. An Economist of sorts and a fellow countryman, he struck up a conversation the details of which I can no longer recall. I'm sure we exchanged pleasantries and remarked about the lovely setting in which we found ourselves, but all the while I was scanning the lawns looking for someone else. Finally, I spotted her, the girl I'd come to meet. I politely excused myself and made my way over to the bar where she stood.

She had an unmistakable laugh that made you happy just to hear it. On this evening amidst all of these strange new faces, I was thrilled to hear her laughter. It was after all, the laughter of a friend. As I approached, I noticed she was holding court with a very odd couple. One was a very short and mildly handsome man with a friendly smile who spoke both English and Spanish with a very heavy Italian accent. As it turned out, he also spoke Italian with a very heavy Italian accent. The other half of this odd couple towered over both my friend and the Italian. With his dark eyes and charming good looks, he could have been a citizen of a dozen different countries, but when he spoke, his accent exposed him. Unlike his Italian mate, he didn't struggle with English, but instead spoke it confidently and softly albeit with a subtle but charming Australian accent. I wanted to hear more...

Introductions were made immediately and this mysterious Australian and I began to exchange tales of what had brought each of us here to this enchanted city, to these generous gardens, to this very moment. His was a tale of a capitalist well on his way up the corporate ladder. His firm had brought him to Argentina to work on a important project. He spoke little or no Spanish upon his arrival, but now three months in, he could get by. He'd come along this particular evening because his fellow compatriots had made a tradition out of attending these gatherings on a monthly basis. Who was he to argue? Besides, as he explained, where there are drinks, Australians will never be far away. Curious and curiouser indeed. Mine was the tale of a young student on a scholarship with a love of languages and a greater love of travel. My wanderlust had brought me to Argentina where I'd already spent 6 months absorbing the language, the culture, the food. I'd met other Expats along the way and many had become good friends, including my American roommate who had first told me about this party on this night. It was because of her and my lovely laughing British friend who'd been chatting to this Handsome Australian when I arrived that I found myself at this party. In this moment. Talking to him.

The evening slipped slowly away as we discussed a great many things. From the corner of my eye, I noticed my British friend had finally escaped the well meaning Italian and moved on to a more lively group of Germans. Yes, there were some truly fascinating people at this party, but none so fascinating to me as this Handsome Australian. There was something about him and his gentle manner that made me happy to spend my evening in conversation with him, and him alone.

In the wee hours of the morning, the drinks had stopped flowing and friends and acquaintances alike were bidding one another farewell. It was time to say goodbye to this Handsome Australian. We'd chatted effortlessly through the evening, but when it came to goodbye, we didn't quite know what to say. With an assist from an inebriated Englishman who had interrupted the final moments of our conversation, the Handsome Australian found the courage to ask for my number.

It was in that moment, that my life's trajectory was irrevocably changed. Although it was impossible to appreciate at the time, my path had been completely reset.

And that my friends, is how *this* Alice came to live in the Wonderland of Australia.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A bit of luck...

A few weeks ago, our children spent the day with their grandparents and the Handsome Australian and I managed to duck out for a lovely lunch together. We hadn't planned on going to lunch necessarily, but when we realised our day's errands would take us past Carrington Road, Box Hill we couldn't resist. We both love a bit of Vietnamese food and Box Hill is one of a few Melbourne hot spots for Vietnamese cuisine. Carrington Road is home to quite a few tasty Vietnamese restaurants. Our favourite amongst the bunch is Indochine, but on this particular day, we thought we'd try something new. So we took at table upstairs at Tien Dat.

We spent the next little while in the sunlit dining room amongst families of all different sizes and cultures enjoying a lovely Sunday lunch. There were mixed spring rolls to start. A warm pot of tea to take off the chill of a winter's day. Then we stuffed ourselves with a lovely Chicken salad and Bun with Lemongrass Beef. With our tummies contented, we made our way downstairs to pay the bill and continue on our merry way.

As I stepped outside the doors of Tien Dat and began to make my way down the footpath along Carrington Rd, I looked down and saw this:

A coin lying on the footpath. I didn't think too much about it, but then I looked again.

To my surprise, on the ground in front of me lay not just any coin, but an American penny (1 cent piece). Immediately, my mind was transported back to my childhood and this little rhyme began playing in my head, "See a penny, pick it up. Then all day you'll have good luck." So I reached down and picked up this little penny and gleefully showed it to the Handsome Australian. "Look! Look what I've found here. It's an American penny! A real American penny! That's amazing! What is an American penny doing lying on the footpath in the middle of Box Hill?" Then I proceeded to sing the rhyme to the Handsome Australian. After which, I deemed this penny my "lucky penny". I read the date on the penny--1988. "Was 1988 a good year?" I asked the Handsome Australian. He seemed to think '88 was a decent year. Honestly, I thought to myself, what are the chances of me, an American, walking along this particular footpath at this particular time and finding this particular coin? It definitely seemed like destiny to me.

I tucked the penny in my pocket and when we picked our children up later in the day, I told them all about Mommy's new lucky penny. They were very impressed and wanted lucky pennies of their own. I told them sagely, "One day, your lucky penny will find you somewhere when you least expect it." After all, that's exactly what happened to me.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy 4th of July

There were no fireworks in Melbourne for the 4th of July today. There was no parade or barbecue, or watermelon or children running around waving bright sparklers in the setting sun. In fact, it was hard to tell it was 4th of July at all. So the little people and I decided to whip up a little something patriotic to mark the day in our own quiet way...

Happy 4th of July to all the Americans out there...wherever you may be.

*BTW, you're looking at AUD$9.00 worth of blueberries there. This is what happens when you celebrate a Summer holiday in the middle of Winter. Yikes!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Expat issues a: Please Explain

Wow what a day in Australian history. Last night we went to bed wondering if Australia would be in or out of the World Cup and whether Kevin Rudd would be in or out of Australia's top job. Turns out both scenarios ended disappointingly for the players in question. The Socceroos fought the good fight and came away with a hard earned win, but alas it wasn't enough to keep them in the tournament. The end of Kevin Rudd's term as Australia's Prime Minister became fait acompli in the wee small hours of the morning and he gracefully stepped aside in the caucus room later in the day, handing the reigns to his deputy, Julia Gillard.

In a sporting mad country like Australia, you would have expected such a valiant effort by the national soccer team to have been all over the media. It would have been if it weren't for the political upheaval that was happening simultaneously. So needless to say, soccer took the back seat to politics and all day the media ran around telling us about Australia's first female Prime Minister. An exciting story, certainly, but curiously, the biggest thing I took from today's proceedings was this: there is some stigma attached to being a Redhead in Australia. As an expat, my understanding of Aussie culture is constantly evolving and even after 10 years of living in the thick of it, quirky little things like this pop us and make me question if I even know go from whoa.

So to the Aussies out there, can someone please explain to me why terms such as "Ranga" (short for orangutan as I understand it), "Ginga Ninja", and "Bloodnut" are being tossed around to describe the newly minted Aussie PM. Why is it such a crime to be a redhead in Australia? Isn't it just a hair colour?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Big USA Pilgrimage: Traveling with Preschoolers

I recently wrote a post about traveling between the USA and Australia with an infant in tow. As I said then and will repeat now, making these transpacific journeys with children adds a whole other dimension and as children age, their requirements change. So in this post, I'd like to talk a little bit about making the journey with preschool aged children.

The good news is, I think as my children have aged, the journey has gotten a bit easier. Firstly, the hard work I've put in in the past has started to pay off. The journeys I made with them as babies gave them an introduction to the trip itself and to the goodness that waits for them on the other side: grandparents, cousins, get the idea. My kids never complain about the length of the journey to the USA as they've been enough times to understand that the pain is worth the gain in the long run. Of course they get bored and sometimes frustrated during the trip, but the fact that they've been so many times now means that they well and truly have an understanding of how long it will take and as such have reasonable expectations as to what will happen and when. This understanding of the journey itself is priceless. So put that in the column of reasons to take them and take them often.

Once my kids were beyond the baby stage, I had to transition my thinking from how will I keep them fed, changed and well rested on the flight to how will I keep them entertained (and fed, and well rested and worst case scenario...changed)? So I began researching ideas on how to entertain young children on such a long journey. I spoke to other Expats about it, I read articles online and I tried to take away ideas that I thought would work the best for my kids.

The first thing I did was decide that the children were going to have to share the load a little bit. My children were still young enough to require some nappies and a few changes of clothes, add to that snacks, travel documents, cameras, wipes, medicines, and on and on and on and my carry on luggage was well and truly full. So I got each of them their own little backpacks. They both have a special blanket and a small stuffed animal they sleep with. I packed their blankets and stuffed animals in their bags so they would have those special comforts on the plane.

Then for about a month or so before the flight, I scoured the $2 shops for things to entertain them on the plane. Something I read online said you should take a mix of old and new things for the kids. A few old and loved toys that you know they will enjoy having along, but then something new to surprise them and distract them once their old favourites have lost their luster (ie the remaining 13.5 hours of the flight). Here's a few ideas of the sorts of things I've included in their backpacks over the last several trips (I've got a girl and a boy, so hopefully the list covers ideas for both genders):

*Small notebooks or drawing paper
*Coloured pencils/pens/crayons/textas (or markers)
*Stickers (pages of stickers)
*Colouring/Activity books
*Crayola Recoloritz (reusable themed pages that can be wiped clean and coloured in again and again)
*Story books (paperback is the way to go, even though board books are sturdier--they are heavy)
*Paper dolls
*Play doh w/a few small cookie cutter shapes
*Polly Pocket dolls & accessories or similar (small, light weight, but easily lost so beware)
*Hot wheels cars (or in my son's case the cars from the Disney Pixar Cars movie)
*Fold up play mat for the cars
*Small plastic animals
*Barbie dolls with a few accessories (again, accessories can go missing so beware)
*Magnetic Dress Up Dolls/Robots/Pirates
*Magnetic Playbooks by Tiger Tribe
*Playing cards
*Flash cards
*Figurines (choose your poison: Batman, Superman, the Wiggles, Ben 10, etc, etc)

There you go. A few ideas of the kinds of things we've packed during our past several trips. It sounds like a lot of items to fit into small backpacks, but we don't take very many of any one thing and we don't necessarily take everything on the list. For instance, this year my son was very heavily into the cars from the Cars movie. He has a small collection here at home so I got him to choose 5 that he wanted to take with him and we put them into a zippered pencil case to keep them together in his backpack. (A Ziploc would do the same trick, but a pencil case is sturdy and will last the whole trip.) Then before we departed, I got him 2 new cars for his collection which I put in his backpack. So when we are on the plane, he opens it to find the cars he packed and loves plus a surprise two new ones. He's happy. I'm happy. We're all happy and these cars keep him busy for ages. With my daughter, she was very keen on her Barbies. So I got her to choose two Barbies and a few changes of clothes that she wanted to take along. She stored her things in a pencil case inside her backpack as well. Then I found some mini-Barbie figures that were tiny and could be used as siblings or babies of the bigger Barbies and I put them in her backpack. On the plane she opens her pack to find her old Barbies plus a couple of new mini ones. She's happy. I'm happy. We're all happy.

At some stage, I began to question the number of things I was purchasing to put in their backpacks for these trips. Between the few new toys and the crayons, colouring books, etc. I was spending anywhere between $30-$60. Then in the middle of one of our trips, I realised something. These items in their backpacks weren't just for the plane. They were for the car rides once we got there. They were for the days at people's homes who don't have children or toys. They were for the fun of sharing with their cousins and the knowledge that even though my children were away from their homes, they still had a few things with them that were truly theirs. These items weren't just for 14 hours of entertainment, they were for 6-8 weeks of entertainment. When I thought of it that way, it seemed like money well spent.

What we don't take is a portable DVD player or DVDs of any kind. I often see people lugging these on the flights and I'm not sure why. Qantas has on demand movies and TV shows on individual screens in each seat. My kids can watch their choice of shows and I don't have to carry the DVD player. When we get to the USA, there is so much to do and so many people to visit that we don't usually have time to watch DVDs. So what would be the point of having it? Others might find it necessary or useful, but we've survived without it.

Hopefully this post is useful to those of you making this long haul journey with your preschool aged children. Do you have any useful tips of your own? Please feel free to add them in the comments section as we can all learn from one another.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

An Accidental Accent

When my children were very young, they spoke with the Aussiest of accents. The fact that they had an American mother who was their primary care giver never seemed to rub off on them. Their accents were so Aussie that their American grandparents had difficulty understanding them over the telephone (It was heartbreaking, but predictable. Americans aren't known for their ability to understand other English dialects). I never put much thought into how they pronounced their words or what vocabulary they used when they spoke. To me, they were just my children and their voices were their voices.

When my daughter was 4, we traveled to the USA for our annual holiday to visit my family. During our time there I noticed a difference in the way she was speaking and the things she was saying. She was slowly but surely picking up the the American accent. Not just a subtle accent though, a very obvious American accent. When we came back to Australia after being in the USA for 8 weeks, EVERYONE commented on how her accent had changed. That she was speaking like an "American" now. At one stage, she asked me, "Mom how long will I speak American for?" Hmmm, I thought, "Well, really as long as you like." She liked to speak like an American, so this accent continued for quite awhile. Slowly though, it began to fade and the Australian accent came back.

My son, who is younger, had a similar experience when we returned to visit the USA this year. He picked up lots of American words and came home speaking with a slight American accent. It was nowhere near as profound as the one my daughter came home with last year, but it was certainly noticable.

Several weeks after our return home, we had a birthday party at a local Gymnastics school for our daughter. My son, the flirt, had one of the gymnastics instructors eating out of the palm of his hand. The girl spent so much time with him during the party. He loved the attention and she seemed very taken by him. At the end of the party he told me, "Mom, the Gymnastics teacher at the party asked me if I had an American 'accident'." To which I replied, "Oh, you mean, 'accent' right?" But he insisted, "No, I don't mean 'accent' I mean 'accident'. She asked me if I had an American 'accident' and I said 'No' because Mom I don't speak American."

So it seems while my daughter's American accent was intentional, I have a charming yet stubborn 3 year old with an accidental accent.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A slide by any other name...

Would be called, "a slippery dip". If you lived in Australia that is. I've lived in Australia for 10 years and this is news to me. See what you can learn on ABC Kids?

The view from the top is still very much the same as it was when I knew it as "a slide", but the potential for fun seems to have increased exponentially.

That's the key to the Aussie spirit...same stuff, funnier names.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Big USA Pilgrimage: Traveling with an Infant

International travel is always an undertaking, but never more so than when you have kids in tow. The flights between Australia and the USA are so long that one must come prepared. I was extremely anxious before we took our first transpacific flight with my first born. She was 7 months old at the time and I know I lost sleep for many nights before we departed wondering if she'd scream her guts out for 14hrs and how exactly I'd deal with the ensuing mutiny if that really did occur. Fortunately, my nightmares never saw the light of day and my daughter was relatively well behaved. Of course, half of that is credit to her personality and the other half is credit to good planning on my part.

When traveling with an infant on a transpacific flight, I always tried to contain my hand luggage to just the nappy (diaper) bag. The reason being, I'd need to have my hands free to carry the baby. Inside of the nappy bag I'd pack:

*nappies (enough for the flight plus extra in case we missed a connection or had a delay)
*Plastic bags
*changing mat
*bottles (w/formula if you require or to be used for milk)
*baby food or snacks
*baby's blanket
*Couple of changes of clothes for baby and a clean shirt for me
*Medicines: panadol, dimetap, bonjela, etc
*Travel Documents
*My personal toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, etc)
*Toys: 6 or 7 small items, some old favourites mixed with something totally new but NOTHING with noise (your baby might like the sounds, but your fellow passengers don' me!)

(This is not an exhaustive list, but just a general idea)

I always pack these items in sealed plastic bags (ziplocs or space bags). I did it on a whim the very first time I flew the distance with my new baby and have stuck to this method ever since. It's much easier to pack and repack ziploc bags holding groups of items rather than each item individually. Also, something always spills or leaks, so if every item is zipped up in plastic then you won't have any big consequences with these unfortunate spills.

My children always traveled as lap children when they were under 2 years old. This meant we only paid 10% of the full fare for them and they aren't allocated a seat. When they are small enough, they can sleep in a built in bassinet while on board the plane. The bassinets fold down from the bulk head at the front of each section of the plane (on Qantas anyway). Many parents find this a useful place for baby to sleep during the flight. My kids have always hated them and never settled to sleep in them . So in my personal experience, they were of little value, unfortunately. Don't be deterred though. Give them a go and see if they work for your child. If it means having your lap free for 7 out of 14 hours, then it's all worth it. The downside to these bulk head seats is the arm rests house your tray tables so they do not lift up. So if you do have an empty seat next to you, you can't really stretch out because the arm rest is in the way. So bottom line is, if you aren't going to use the bassinets, try to request seats elsewhere so you can spread out more easily if you have the chance.

Another item I found really useful during my travels with my infant children was my Baby Bjorn. This came in super handy when baby number 2 arrived and I needed to have my hands free to hold child number 1's hand or push child number 1 in a stroller (pram). You do have to completely remove baby from the pouch and put the whole thing through the x-ray machine at the security check point, but it was nice to have my hands free for checking in, paying for food, carrying hand luggage, etc. (It might be important to note here that a great many of my USA trips with my children have been done solo due to my husband's work commitments. So having my hands free was very important because I was doing everything myself),

I always take a small collapsible stroller that I can gate check. I found it useful to have the kids buckled into a stroller in a busy airport so 1) they don't get lost and 2) we can move quickly if necessary. Also, I've found the stroller a great help in transporting my hand luggage as I'd generally hook that bag on the handles. A basic stroller that can fully recline with some sort of small storage space underneath is what I've always used. The stroller has always been really helpful in the LAX airport waiting for our return flight to Melbourne as that flight doesn't depart until 11pm LA time. By this point, my kids are beyond tired. So I just wheel them around in the stroller till they fall asleep and then wrap them up and carry them on board the plane when it's time to depart, turning the stroller over to the airline staff at the jet way entrance.

As for car seats, we've never taken them along. Partly because we've got so much other luggage and partly because we are always able to borrow seats from kind family and friends upon arrival in the USA. Now that our kids are older and only require the basic booster seats, we've actually purchased their own inexpensive ones in the USA and leave them with family members there from year to year. This works well if you always visit the same place.

I'm sure this does seem like a lot of things to consider, but when it's all packed up, it' isn't really that bad. I'd love to hear from others about what things you take along and what's worked for you. Please share what you know in the comments section! Thanks.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Big USA Pilgrimage: Airline Choices or Why I heart Qantas

I get plenty of comments on this blog (when I actually find the time to post) from Americans who have recently moved to Australia for work purposes as well as other young American women, like me, who have fallen head over heals for their own Handsome Australians and have decided to settle in Australia. In either case, we all need/want to travel back to the USA at some stage. Some of us will do it often, some of us will do it rarely, but it will be done. In this post, I thought I'd outline my thoughts on the airline choice we make for the Australia-USA journey. I'd love for this to be a conversation where everyone shares their opinions and thoughts regarding the various airlines in the comments section. We can all learn something from one another right?

Here it is: We ALWAYS fly Qantas. This isn't meant to be an advert for Qantas, but over time they've proven to be the airline that best meets our requirements. Having lived in Australia for 10 years, Qantas, United, and Air New Zealand were originally the only choices we had to choose from regarding our travel to the USA. From Melbourne, United stops in Sydney before heading to LAX or SFO. Air New Zealand takes you from Melbourne to Auckland before continuing to LAX. Qantas takes you directly from Melbourne to LAX non-stop. Need I say more?

Before I had children, I didn't mind stopping in NZ or Sydney, but since I've had kids I've learned that the most direct and quickest route is the best choice. The fewer times you have to get on and off a plane, the fewer times you have to shift luggage, the fewer times you have to resettle a restless child--frankly, the better. Qantas isn't always the cheapest choice, they may be a few hundred dollars more than the competition at times, but during these long trips I'd pay far more than that for the sanity I gain through only having the one direct flight. (Obviously from other parts of Australia your choices will be different and in many cases, better).

In the past few years, the route between Australia and the USA has been deregulated allowing for more competition. New airlines have come into the market that weren't flying these routes 10 years ago. Delta, V Australia, and Jet Star are among the airlines that now offer services to different parts of the USA. As we only travel to the USA once a year and are heavily invested in the Qantas frequent flyer program, we have yet to try any of the other airlines. Some of you may have traveled with the other airlines and have valuable insights about them. Feel free to chime in with your experiences in the comments section. =)

So, the obvious reason why we fly Qantas is the ability to fly direct, but there are other things I like about the experiences we've had. Qantas offers an excellent on board entertainment system that makes traveling with children a lot more enjoyable. Each seat in Economy class (because that's where we fly!) comes equipped with a TV screen in the seat back in front of you. Your arm rest holds the remote control and at your finger tips are hours of "on demand" TV shows, movies and games. There is a plethora of child friendly content and the kids can pick and choose what they want to watch or play. (This has recently become even easier on the new A380s as the entire system is operated by a touch screen--so easy even my 3 year old can do it on his own). I love it! I don't have to carry a portable DVD player or lug a laptop. The kids don't have to argue over who gets to watch what--we all decide our own destinies! It's fantastic.

Qantas still offers a meal service and a 'kid's meal' option. I always book the children a 'kid's meal' and generally ring Qantas to confirm ahead of time because we've been caught out a few times. Their kid's meals are very kid friendly and offer a selection of items on the tray both hot and cold, sweet and savoury. This is something you take for granted and then one day you fly Jet Star and you realise how good you had it on Qantas...more about that another day.

Generally, there is a kid's activity pack that gets passed out at the start of the journey and my kids always seem to get at least 45 minutes of joy out of these. These packs are ideal for bridging the gap between take off and when the entertainment system is up and running (on the 747s anyway, the new A380s let you start watching videos before you even take off--hooray!). If you don't get handed one, be sure to ask for it. Once the initial excitement wears off, we tuck them away and revisit them later in our journey.

Qantas staff have been, in our experience, polite and helpful. I find the Melbourne ground staff to be really, really friendly. The flight attendants on board are generally nice and good with our kids and have given us extra help when we require it. The happiness and good will seems to end in LA though as the staff that work the counters and gates in LA seem to be missing the laid back and friendly Aussie spirit, and are more in keeping with the sometimes rough and unpredictable city in which they work. I have found that even the sternest of encounters can be softened by a smile from my son, so I keep him nearby to charm these tough LA gatekeepers. Hey, whatever works right?

The benefits of sticking with Qantas has meant that we've been able to take advantage of their frequent flyer program. Since we know we'll be making a USA trip each year, we've set ourselves up with credit cards that earn Qantas points and we take advantage of other opportunities like Woolworth's Everyday Rewards program, that allow us to collect more frequent flyer points. We are all members of the Qantas frequent flyer program--including the kids. We enrolled them when they were 2 years old and we had to start paying for their seats. This means we all earn points each time we fly with Qantas and their program allows you to transfer points between family members. So, all of these things add up and we get a couple of free tickets every second year or so. When you are looking at airfares for 4, every little bit helps!

There you have it, the many reasons why we choose Qantas for our USA trips. Again, I am not trying to intentionally promote the airline, bur rather outline the reasons why it's proven to be a sensible choice for our family. Would love to hear what everyone else thinks! Let the comments begin!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Big USA Pilgrimage

The time rolls around each year when the Handsome Australian and I prepare ourselves and the little people for our pilgrimage to the USA. Since I've been living in Australia (for the better part of 10 years) I've averaged about 1 trip to the USA each year. In the beginning, our trips generally lasted for 2 to 3 weeks. The Handsome Australian and I both had busy work schedules and this was pretty much the maximum amount of time we could afford to take off in one hit. Packing for those trips was easy as we typically traveled over the Christmas period and we confidently loaded our bags with jeans and jumpers and off we went.

Now that we've had two children, our trips to the USA have become a completely different endeavour, as you might imagine. Firstly, we've changed the time of year that we travel. While being with my family during Christmas would be lovely, we've found that airfares to the USA are nearly double during the Christmas period. Airports are crowded and the weather can be uncooperative. Who wants to be stuck in an airport with over-tired toddlers after a 14 hr flight waiting for 6 hours because your connection has been delayed or canceled? Certainly not I. We've found some of the best fares to be had are generally during the North American Spring and Fall. Typically February, March and April are good travel months as well as October and early November.

We've chosen to travel during March/April for the past four years. This has meant we've spent Easter with my family each time. Since we are unable to be in the USA for Christmas, it's been lovely to share another significant holiday and its traditions with my family. Our children look forward to the colouring of eggs, the big Easter egg hunt and all the play time they get with their many American cousins. It's a tradition and while I'd love my kids to have the opportunity to spend Christmas with their cousins as well, I appreciate that life as an expat has its limitations. Many times this lifestyle requires compromise and thinking outside the box. So instead of being homesick and sad about missing Christmas, we've endeavoured to create a new set of customs that fit our schedule and don't bust our budget.

How long do we normally visit for now? What do we pack? Stay tuned for a new series of posts where I will endeavour to share what I've learned over the years about making this big journey. Thanks for stopping by!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Jock's Ice Cream

Australia isn't known for it's ice cream, and with good reason. Quality ice cream is a hard thing to find in the land down under. The variety of ice cream outlets and even grocery store options are something I took for granted during my time in the USA. I never realised that the rest of the world lived without Ben & Jerry's. OMG! I didn't appreciate the Blue Bell Homemade Peach (the Texans among you know what I'm talking about) until it was too late. Honestly, I'm not even a true ice cream connoisseur. Deep down, I'm a Slurpee girl at heart. So when I first moved to Australia, I didn't even take notice of the lack of good ice cream. I just wanted to make sure there was a ready supply of Slurpees.

As it turns out, I married an ice cream fanatic who, unfortunately unbeknown to him, happened to live in a country with paltry ice cream offerings. The Handsome Australian loves nothing more than a cold bowl of ice cream at the end of the night. Until we lived in the USA together for a stint early in our marriage, he was quite happy with the ice cream he'd grown up eating in Australia. Then I introduced him to Ben & Jerry's and the like, and thus began his dissatisfaction with the Australian ice cream industry. He couldn't believe the myriad of flavours on offer in the USA, nor the quality. Just as we wondered how Americans survived without Tim Tams, we also wondered how Australians survived with out Ben & Jerry's.

After living in the USA, the Handsome Australian became a true ice cream snob. It was the only part of his food snob persona that had yet to be cultivated, so it was no surprise really. He was all ready a coffee snob and a restaurant snob; to become an ice cream snob as well was really the logical next step.

As you can imagine, once you become an ice cream snob, not just any ice cream will do. You want to eat really good ice cream all the time. How do you do that when you live in a place where really good ice cream is hard to find? Well, you pack the wife and kids in the car and you drive across town to visit Jock's.

83 Victoria Ave, Albert Park

Jock's Ice Cream & Sorbet is both a well kept secret and an institution. Tucked appropriately between a Pizzeria and a Video shop on Albert Park's Victoria Avenue, Jock's always has a steady stream of customers. The place seems to do a roaring trade with the locals who all arrive on foot, bicycle, skateboard or scooter. Some come just for one scoop, while others arrive with cooler bags and grab a couple of litres to take home. How lucky are these folks to have Jock in their neighbourhood?

Then there are the diehards like us. The people who have driven over half an hour to marvel at Jock's wall of awards (yes, there is a wall full of framed awards in case you were in doubt about the quality of the ice cream) and drool over the offerings in the freezer case. There is a definite quirkiness about Jock's and a true originality when it comes to flavour offerings. On our most recent visit, the Handsome Australian chose "Baked Apple" to top his cone. Imagine a baked apple pie, but as an ice cream flavour. Honestly, it was so smooth and subtle yet extraordinarily delicious.

I was enticed by the "Obamarama", which was peanut butter and jelly ice cream.


Seriously. I wouldn't normally go for that kind of a flavour, but after tasting the Baked Apple, I knew that Obamarama, while unusual, would not disappoint. It certainly didn't.

Our little fellow loves lemon. If there is a lemon sorbet on offer, that's what he wants. Inevitably, we always have to eat half of his cone because it starts to melt before he can finish...or that's how we explain it to him anyway. This means I've tasted a lot of lemon sorbet over the years and Jock's version of the lemon sorbet is definitely the best I've ever had.

Loves a little Lemon

As for the little lady, she loves anything involving a mixture of chocolate and vanilla. Jock's answer for her was a flavour called, "Chocolate Ripple". This is another popular Aussie dessert, Chocolate Ripple Cake, as an ice cream flavour. Nothing but smiles from her, confirming yet another winning flavour combination.

Her smile has a ripple effect

After the hard work of choosing your flavour is over, you can relax on large communal benches outside or take your ice cream for a stroll along the beach which is a short three blocks away. Fantastic ice cream in a lovely neighbourhood right next to the beach. Who could ask for more?

Not this guy, he's in heaven!

If the ice cream is this good, how could it still be a well kept secret? This is the one thing I don't understand about Jock's. When I mention the place to people in our area, no one has heard of it. Yet the newspaper clippings and magazine articles singing the praises of Jock's line another wall inside his store. Some things just can't be explained, but I'll tell you this--run, don't walk, to Jock's today for your own little scoop of ice cream heaven.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Starting all over again...again.

Two short weeks ago, I started over. My oldest child began her first year of primary school here in Australia and although I've been living here for 10 years, this experience has been a whole new ball game. I felt once again, like I'd just arrived. I know lots of parents have to adjust to the difference between preschool and primary school, but I can't help but think that as an expat, there is another dimension. I feel like, in many ways, I've got far more things to consider than my Australian counterparts going through the same transition.

Australians have a basic working knowledge of the school system here because they were educated in the very system in question. I, on the other hand, was educated in the American public school system. I can't help but constantly feel like I'm on the back foot and everyone else is two steps ahead of me. The school schedule, the daily routine, the curriculum, all seems to be second nature to most of the other parents, but I'm taking in the information as quickly as it's coming and I still feel a bit like a deer in the headlights. The Handsome Australian is a good reference for me because he was schooled here in Australia, but his memory is vague. Really, really vague. (Is there a man out there that remembers details? Anyone?) So I soldier on, trying to work it all out.

The basics are all there, but the approach is vastly different to what I remember of school in the USA. During a Parent Information Evening last week, our daughter's teacher was explaining the "No Worries" approach that the school takes with the children. If they make a mistake, they are told, "No worries, we all make mistakes. " That seemed fair enough. Then she said, "If they forget something at home like their hat or their jacket or their show and tell item, please don't rush home and get it for them even if they are crying. We just say, 'No worries'. It's okay, you forgot." I appreciate that these kids are very young and teaching them to not sweat the little things is probably good for their resilience, but gee it seems really laid back to an American like me. I'm not saying it's wrong, I'm just saying it's different. It's many subtle differences like this that mean I have to constantly rethink my expectations, readjust my understanding and review the process.

Then there is the whole social side of things. Just like my daughter in her new class, I've got to make new friends with the other Mums. I've always said Melbourne social circles can be a hard nut to crack. My prior experience here has taught me that most Melbournians have well established friendship circles full of life long friends and family which leave very little room for expats like myself. I'm not saying Melbournians are unfriendly, I'm just saying the lack of transience in their culture means the ties that bind are that much stronger than a more transient society like the USA. Which means as an Expat, you have to work that much harder to create a network for yourself--especially when you spend 2 months out of the year back in the USA, which has been the case for our family for the past 4 or 5 years.

Yes, just as the school year is settling in, and we've started to learn the names of the other children and parents, we pick up and go back to the USA for 6-8 weeks. When our daughter started preschool, I thought nothing of our trip to the USA and its social implications for either of us. When we returned from our trip I realised the friendship groups in the class and among the parents had formed and we were on the outside looking in, once again. This isn't a problem that doesn't solve itself over time, but it's just the constant feeling of starting over, starting over, starting over. Of course as soon as we settle in to the group, the year is finished and the following year is a different class or even a different preschool...and repeat.

Now that my daughter is at primary school, I know we'll be in one place for quite awhile so the friendships we make now will hopefully be lasting ones. Still, with a trip to the USA pending 6 short weeks after the beginning of the school year, I am doing everything I can to meet and befriend as many of the families as we can to try and avoid that starting over feeling again once we return from our trip. Who knew there would be so much to consider?

I thought I'd gotten the hang of this country, but here I am starting all over...again.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A peanut butter injustice!

The Handsome Australian and I had the opportunity to take our little people to lunch at the local cafe today. We don't exactly live in a suburb that is overrun with first rate eateries. In fact, I can't think of a single one in a 2-3km radius. Most of the places near us are typical suburban cafes. Nothing fancy, prices are reasonable and the coffee is generally 'good enough'. As the Handsome Australian is a self professed "food snob", it takes a bit of convincing to get him to eat locally. He much prefers the inspired menus, award winning barristas and slick fit outs of the inner city eateries. Unfortunately, for the Handsome Australian, you can't be cool 100% of the time--especially when you have kids.

Our cafe of choice today is one frequented by the children and I on a regular basis. We pop in to have coffee, milk shakes and smartie cookies at least once or twice a week. It has a real neighbourhood vibe. We always know at least one or two other customers when we arrive. The kids love the place because there is a bucket of toys in a corner in the back and they spend the entire time playing with their mates while I catch up with the other Mums. It's not flashy, but it serves a purpose. It's a good neighbourhood meeting place for the desperate housewives of our little slice of suburban Melbourne.

So when we went today for lunch with the Handsome Australian, I tried to prepare him for what he'd find upon arrival. I told him the coffee wasn't going to compare to the ones he gets from the award winning barrista across the road from his City office. I told him the menu was limited and to be honest, I don't actually eat there, we usually just grab drinks and cookies. I wanted to lower the expectations as much as possible because when the Handsome Australian goes for a meal, he doesn't like to be disappointed. I thought I'd done a pretty good job of lowering the bar...

When we arrived, we found they had a kid's menu which was very reasonably priced (they aren't paying City rents are they?) with many options that our children would find appealing. After a brief discussion, our oldest decided she'd have a Vegemite sandwich and our youngest chose to have peanut butter and jam (or jelly for the Americans out there). The Handsome Australian and I chose a couple of foccacias and then we waited.

The waitress brought out the kids' sandwiches first. They are served on plastic kid friendly platters with cute pictures. They are cut up into bit size squares that kids can easily handle. So far so good. Then I looked over at the little man's peanut butter and jam and my jaw hit the floor. There were piles of margarine oozing out the sides of his sandwich. (Don't believe me? Have a look at the photo above? Large quantities of margarine clearly visible!!) This was a real, WTF? kind of moment. Who puts margarine on a peanut butter and jam sandwich? Isn't the butter in peanut butter implied? Do you need to add butter or margarine? Never in my 30ish years have I ever seen such a disservice done to the humble peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Who knew you could tamper with something so pure and simple? Wow.

Poor little man didn't eat it. I wonder why? I've never understood the Australians' need to put margarine on the bread of every sandwich they make. Surely common sense should prevail in a case like this. From now on I'll be ordering the peanut butter and jam sandwiches WITHOUT the butter!!!

Yes, this is a crazy, crazy place. Or perhaps this particular well meaning suburban cafe is a crazy, crazy place. One thing is for certain, after seeing this crime against peanut butter and jam, the Handsome Australian will never set foot in this cafe again. I guess I just didn't lower the bar could I have known?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Expat or Texpat?

I was shopping recently and came across a sales woman with a familiar sounding accent. She was clearly American, and once she heard me speaking to my son, she realised I must be as well. She asked, "Are you from North America?" (Which is the polite way to ask someone if they are American by the way, because if you ask a Canadian if they are American, well, you'll never hear the end of it. The accents can sound very similar sometimes especially with a little Aussie lingo in the mix that you can never be sure. So to be on the safe side, go for the whole continent and then work your way down). I said, "Yes, I am." So then she asked me even more politely, "What part of North America? Canada or the US?" To which I replied, "Oh me, I'm from Texas." Then we had the standard conversation about how she couldn't believe I was from Texas (always a hard sell) because I don't sound anything like a Texan (insert stereotypical accent here). We talked about places she'd been in Texas and the fact that she actually lived there for five years once herself. Turns out this particular saleswoman was from Chicago originally, married an Aussie and is now settled here in Melbourne with her very own Handsome Australian and a couple of kids.

When we finished with our pleasantries I wished her a good afternoon and continued my shopping. As I walked along, I replayed the conversation in my mind and started to think about my response to her question about where I'm from. When she said, 'Canada or the US?' I didn't even blink and shot out 'Texas'. Why? Maybe I was just trying to skip the next question: whereabouts in the US are you from? I don't think that was the case though. I think it was a case of Texas pride, because we Texans are, amongst other things, a proud people. Yes, the more I think about it, I wanted to make it very clear that I was not just from the US, but from Texas.

You know, there is a saying that goes: Texas. It's like a whole other country. The longer I live in Australia, the more I feel that way about Texas. When we make our annual trips to the USA to visit, we visit Texas almost exclusively. I've got family spread out all over the state and it takes us the entire 6 weeks just to fit them all in. So we really aren't visiting the US, we are visiting Texas and it is like a whole other country to us.

So I'm thinking instead of the 'Expat' label, perhaps 'Texpat' is more appropriate.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Yesterday it was 43 degrees here in Melbourne. That's in Celsius by the way. In Fahrenheit, that little number becomes the great big number of 109.4 . I don't care where you are from, that's hot. An American friend asked me if that was common here this time of year. I wouldn't say 43 is a common occurrence in Melbourne, but it's not completely unheard of. We had a few days of 40+ degrees last summer--some of you might remember what happened then...the Black Saturday bush fires. When the mercury climbs this high and the winds start to blow, I get a sinking feeling now. I start to think about the possibility of another bushfire--and we live in the city, not even in the bush where the threat is very real. I can only imagine the terror in the hearts of the people actually living in the heart of the bush. Yesterday as my children and I sat nestled inside of our air conditioned home, I watched the laundry whipping in the wind on the line in the back garden and I hoped that there would be no stories of raging fires on the evening news. I hoped that our neighbours in the bush would be spared this year. The day came and went with little or no incidence--fire wise that is. Hundreds of trains were cancelled due to the heat and the Handsome Australian was forced to find another way home. We normally shut the air conditioner off overnight, but as we made our way to bed around midnight, the mercury was still sitting at 32 degrees (89.6 F) and when I awoke this morning it was 31 degrees (87.1 F)--so needless to say, we kept the air conditioner humming. Last night was apparently one of Melbourne's hottest nights on record. Today's forecast is for a high of 40 degrees (104 F) so we'll be staying close to home, trying to stay cool and hoping the best. I'll also be folding all of that laundry as I wait for the cool change to come through...