29 January 2007

Sleeping In

27 January, 2007 Saturday

Sleeping in at our new apartment is entirely out of the question.

I cannot imagine the din at the avian council meeting when the various species of local birdlife got together and decided who should be on ‘crack-of-dawn’ duty each morning, but I have observed that the schedule is as follows:

(note: If you follow these links, and click “sound” at the top of each page, you can hear a muted and docile version of their calls, which sounds nothing like the racket made when an entire flock of the little buggers is crowded into the gum tree just off the bedroom balcony.)

Monday -
Reminiscent of wooden wind-chimes, their call is the least distressful among the morning troubadours.

Tuesday -
Generally sweet and chirpy, the decibel level swells when they gather in flocks.

Wednesday –
Crows and Ravens
After 10 am, I am delighted by their Australian accents, but at 5:30…

Thursday -
An obnoxious gargling that typically begins before sunrise.

Friday -
I wondered how long it would take for the charm of their hideous screeching and general bitching to wear thin…three days.

Saturday -
Are they laughing at my Australia Day hangover?

Sunday -
Noisy Miners
Their name says it all. A shrill and persistent chirp.

And always in the background are the sounds of
Seagulls, Galahs, ducks (which, astoundingly, sound just like ordinary ducks), a host of other birds that have yet to show themselves to me, and a field full of large rabbits, who make no noise at all and are therefore quickly rising to the top of my list of favorite animals.

28 January 2007

Australia Day

26 January, 2007 Friday

Australia Day is the American equivalent of the 4th of July, only without the Independence resulting from an actual revolution, which somehow makes it yet another way in which this country lives in our shadow. Ooh, that statement is not going to win me many friends here...but then, I endured an awful lot of crap from the many drunken Aussies we encountered on our day long pub crawl in The Rocks. For the most part, Australians are very welcoming and gregarious, but pour a few beers down their throat, and they are all to happy to point out the ways in which America sucks, the notable exception being the two youngsters we met who explained in spittle drenched detail why Saddam was evil and had to be executed. He killed 160 people…how many have we killed in the name of democracy?

Nonetheless, I concede that Sydney definitely knows how to throw a party! Australia Day caps off the month-long Sydney Festival, a city-wide extravaganza of performance culture and prolific national pride. As always, the Sydney harbor was the centerpiece of the banquet. The landmark Harbour Bridge served as the finish line for a huge ferry race.

Later, we encountered the crew of the 2nd place winners, tossing back beers with their mascot. They informed us, that one cannot consider themselves Australian unless one wears Bond’s underwear. Turns out, they all work for Bond’s.

Five pubs and A$300 later, Kevin and I simultaneously hit the proverbial wall and took our leave of our new found mates, who were showing no signs of slowing down. The 10-minute cab ride home was the best money I ever spent. My bladder never would have been able to endure the 45 minute bus ride. But then, might that have something to do with why it’s called ‘getting pissed’?

Used Cars

23 January, 2007 Tuesday

Despite the abundance of public transportation in Sydney, we soon dashed all hopes of being able to get by without a car, since Kevin will frequently be required to visit client worksites. Besides, it is very difficult to scavenge roadside rubbish piles on the bus.

In an attempt to be budget minded, we set an arbitrary price cap of A$3,000. Cruising the myriad of used car lots along Parramatta Road, we quickly became discouraged – not only by the ravishing heat which tuned every car into a stale and distasteful sauna, but also by the universally sleazy car salesmen who introduced themselves by asking how much we wanted to spend, although the more creative among them would assume we were Canadian, then apologize and ask why we weren’t at the Country Music Festival up the coast. “Uh, cuz we don’t have a car? And Country music sucks.” But seriously, how much are you looking to spend?

We believed we might get a better deal from a private-party seller, but then we realized the difficulty faced by not having full access to our funds (I’m still too frustrated to write about Australian banking practices). So we raised our price, and resigned ourselves to the fact that we would need to obtain financing. But lo, our stellar American credit is worthless here. Ai, ai, ai.

Finally, we decided we would have to eat the extra fees and put a car on our MasterCard. Figuring that a licensed dealer in a more swank part of town (Parramatta Road is a bit daggy) would have a reputation to uphold and would therefore have a nicer inventory of used cars, I paid a visit to the Toyota dealer in Chatswood. Sure enough, the first question, in an impeccable Australian accent out of the distinctly Pacific Islander salesman’s mouth was “How much do you want to spend?” But, when I declined to answer and instead went into a rant about the inherently antagonistic relationship between buyer and seller, Peter backed down and gave me the space I needed to assess his inventory. Good on ya, Peter.

And so, we are now the satisfied owners of a 1991 Camry with a mere 110,000 km (68,000 miles) previously owned (of course) by an 84 year-old man. I swear, every used car on his lot was owned by an old man who kept it garaged and only drove it to his weekly lawn bowling matches. Still, it is a decent enough car, very clean with complete service records. We’re going to pimp it out in zebra-skin and dingle-balls. (If anyone can send us a bobble-head Virgin Mary, it would be greatly appreciated.) And all for the low, low price of A$5,500 (US$4,321 as of the time of writing), negotiated down from A$6,990.

Overall, not too bad. It has a boot big enough for plenty of discarded furniture and is spacious enough for visitors and heaps of luggage filled with chile verde burritos…hint, hint.

Note: Another way in which Australia is quite progressive is the fact that liability insurance (to the tune of $20 million dollars) is attached to the registration, transferable upon resale, thus eliminating one more pain in the ass shopping experience.

23 January 2007

On Flatulence Down Under

20 January, 2007

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Whilst availing myself of a very tidy public restroom, I came to the realization that since my arrival in Australia, I have only farted maybe three times. This is most unusual for me and a serious cause for contemplation. This observation came into my consciousness as the result of the unavoidable shared auditory experiences that occur in public toilets. Specifically, almost without fail, Australian women seem to save up their flatulatory gases for emphatic expulsion immediately following the draining of their bladders. Has this phenomenon merely gone without my notice in the USA? Did I miss some crucial point of instruction in just how to accomplish such specific control over ones digestive by-products? Do men do this? (I know Kevin doesn’t – he much prefers to release his foul wind when exiting a crowded escalator.)

But more to the point, what is the reason behind (smirk) my relative lack of anal exhalations? It couldn’t be the heavy alcohol saturated beer…or the shrill sulfurous wine…that runs counterintuitive. Might it be the lack of orange-dyed cheddar cheese? Or the dramatic increase in my level of physical activity? Could it be that the water here is so much cleaner or perhaps the presence of fluoride? There is no doubt that the meat here is of a higher quality and less likely to be infused with brine solution to ensure rich moistness. But then what are those other women eating?? I’ll bet it’s all that tea and coffee, or maybe Vegemite…

Regardless, I suppose I should simply rejoice in this unexpected benefit, placing a tick mark in the plus column for Australia.

All for McNaught

19 January, 2007

To my delight, Kevin came home early this afternoon, giving us a chance to relax and enjoy an extended happy hour on the balcony – very comforting after all the running around we have been doing. Typical of Aussie slackness, their network has been down all week, and since they rely entirely on the internet, there was nothing to do at the office so everyone left. Call the DSL tech support and they promise to have the issue resolved in 7-10 working days!! Ridiculous!

There is a comet passing over New South Wales this week, but I was sure we had missed it. I was pleasantly mistaken. It is absolutely one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in the night sky (except for the missiles launched from Vandenberg Air Force base when we lived in Simi Valley – those were pretty cool, too.) As we watched the comet descend to the west, I couldn’t help but contemplate the grand scale of the universe, my imagination adjusting its own perspective to imagine a tiny blob of ice passing over a tiny blob of iron on which sits a tiny blob of electrochemical impulses passing through randomly ordered carbon molecules that is amazingly able to conceive of itself without really knowing anything at all. Whoa. And I haven’t even been smoking weed…

A Good Day

17 January, 2007

Wednesday was a good day for me.

I awoke thoroughly refreshed from an extended descent into REM sleep induced by the solidity of the new bed. Since Kevin needed the car to visit a client work site, I was liberated from the obligation of running errands. A whole day off.

I sipped my morning coffee from a tea cup as the rising sun shimmered on the bay. Shimmer…what a great word…I expect I will wear it out living here. I took advantage of the empty space before our expansive glass wall and did some much needed yoga, bowing with grateful humility and stretching myself toward the sun with open adoration. Revitalized, I tidied the apartment which was surprisingly messy considering how few possessions we own, then

could no longer resist feeding some junk food to the sweetly curious birds watching me from the branches of the gum tree outside the balcony. Starving as I was and lacking refrigeration, I decided to walk to the nearby shops of Lane Cove West to see what the new neighborhood had to offer.

Nothing pleases me more than a well stocked produce market, thus I was in sheer ecstasy to discover a most glorious collection of fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts a mere block away. I chatted easily with an Italian immigrant about his experiences in Seattle, sharing anecdotes about the overwhelming horrors of rampant consumerism in the form of Costco, as he trimmed floppy leaves from gargantuan heads of lettuce that looked as if they were the by product of a NASA experimental farm. Indeed, most of the produce here is large, fleshy, and deliciously fresh, since none of it spends weeks traversing the ocean on steamer ships from South America.

Next to the market, there was (of course) a coffee shop. There must be five coffee shops per capita here…you’d think that with all that coffee drinking, Australians would be more productive, but apparently the time spent actually drinking the coffee detracts from the ability to get anything done. However, to my great delight, the coffee shop was nestled in between a fresh fish market and an award-winning butcher shop featuring a wonderful selection of organic meats (I really dislike that meat made out of silica, I much prefer it to be carbon-based.)

After a small but satisfying feast of battered fish (“Is it too early to get some battered fish?” – it was only 10 am – “Aww, it’s neveh too eahrlie for battered feesh!”) I walked up to the main village to join the library. I am ceaselessly amazed by the fact that, no matter where you are in the world, library staff are inevitably cut from the same cloth. With the rare exception of the occasional vibrant and enthusiastic librarian (mom) or transitional young clerk, most library employees seem visibly annoyed by your presence in front of their desk. I often get the distinct impression they would secretly like to lock the doors on their perfectly ordered collection so that it might not be perturbed by messy and inquisitive patrons. Despite the lack of recent releases (many things cultural in Australia seem to be two or three years behind, heck, Ally McBeal is just gaining popularity here), I found some local crime fiction for Kevin and selected a book for myself for no other reason than the cover featured an amusing quote by PJ O’Rourke comparing New Orleans to Toledo, Ohio.

A Bad Day

16 January, 2007

Tuesday was a bad day for me.

I woke up at 5 am in a fit of homesickness and cried myself back to sleep, only to wake up groggy and swollen eyed with a very busy day ahead of me. I had to return our rental car, pick up another rental car (since we have not yet found a suitable ‘banger’), check-out of the hotel, move the rest of our stuff into the apartment, wait for Cap’n Snooze to deliver our new bed, then struggle through the insanities of a giant shopping mall anchored by a Kmart to buy linens and pillows before heading to an interview with a recruiter…and to top it off, the seemingly mild day turned blistering hot.

I was exhausted and crabby by the time I picked up Kevin from work, but he was full of pep and eager to explore the bush-trails that lead from our apartment up to the village of Lane Cove. Knowing that a wonderful pub rests in the middle of the village, I mustered enough motivation to endure the 25 minute up-hill walk, which as it turns out, was absolutely lovely.

Leaving our apartment, we first headed down to the shores of Burns Bay, where hordes of giddy children were feeding yesterday’s bread to terminally hungry ducks. Flocks of wild cockatoos were hosting their nightly version of happy hour, which pretty much consists of screaming violently at one another and anyone else who walks by. From there, we wound our way along a shady creek side trail that emptied into a leafy street lined with beautiful homes and friendly cats who flopped onto the sidewalk for a belly scratch. The village was bustling with evening activities. Just as the butcher and the baker roll up their wares for the night, the restaurants begin setting out tables and umbrellas. The pub was packed with well-dressed commuters stopping in for a few schooners on their way home from the transit stations. We picked up some take-away curry from one of the many delicious smelling ethnic eateries and strolled home under a warm rosy sunset.

Later, sipping wine while sitting on our balcony in some perfectly serviceable chairs salvaged from yesterday’s dumpster run (it turns out that ‘kerbside shopping’ is quite an acceptable, if not sociable activity, with owners proudly offering advice and assistance as their neighbors trade rubbish – we even met a guy from Chico who told us when and where to find the best stuff), I finally experienced a wave of relief and peacefulness.

And I was really looking forward to climbing into that new bed.

14 January 2007

Mundane Details

By Popular Request:

Since our arrival, we have been staying in a hotel located directly adjacent to Kevin’s new job, which couldn’t be more convenient. He started work last Monday, and the initial reports are very favorable. He is working for a New Zealand based company called
Fusion5, with about 70 employees worldwide. The Sydney office currently has 8 consultants (counting Kevin) and they all sit around one giant table in the same room, thus promoting camaraderie and discouraging slacking. Everyone has been very friendly and eager to help us get established. Kevin is excited about being back at work and is looking forward to learning some new systems.

I have been in contact with several recruiters and am exploring my employment prospects. My best shot at making decent money lies in sales, but I confess my enthusiasm for that line of work is rather bruised from my recent failure. There is a lot of basic and applied research in the area, with a considerable demand for molecular biologists. I am considering returning to the lab bench to rebuild my confidence (and simply to get used to going to work on a daily basis again), but I am also nervous about how much I have forgotten since leaving the lab. Aussies have a reputation for being slackers, so I hold out hope that by relative measures, I may actually be considered a productive and capable employee.

We got the keys to our new apartment on Saturday and found some unattractive but very comfortable furniture at a second hand store. We lashed out and bought a new mattress, because there is something decidedly yucky about buying a used bed (which may be silly, since you are sleeping on a used bed every time you stay in a hotel, but I try not to dwell on that). I bought some kitchenware from the Salvation Army Store, and the rest of the apartment will be furnished slowly over time, mostly from discarded items set curbside for council pick-up (yesterday we scored a frying pan, some picture frames, and a “U.S. Mail Box”, which both pleased me and made me a touch homesick.

Overall impressions of the move and of our host country have been favorable, but I would be lying if I said it has been all wine and roses (though at A$2 a bottle, there has been quite a bit of wine). I have had a few fits of depression and sadness, mostly fueled by financial issues and the ridiculousness of buying items of which I already own two or more and which are collecting dust several thousand miles away. But also, I feel some pangs of loneliness and isolation, which are both alleviated and enhanced by the pace of modern communications. In some ways, I’m no farther away than I was in Shingletown, but at night, the Southern Cross and the absence of the Man in the Moon remind me of the fact that I am on the other side of the planet from those I love.

Never mind the fact that I had to get up at 5 am this morning to watch the playoffs…

Our First Aussie BBQ

We heard a stand-up comedian describe an Aussie BBQ, saying if you invite 15 people, you buy 15 sausages, 15 slices of bread, and 48 slabs (cases) of beer.

Well, our first Aussie BBQ was actually hosted by Europeans, so maybe it doesn’t quite count, but we did have an excellent time, even if we were the only people to show up (remember, Aussies are notorious slackers). Kevin and I made a pact to accept every invitation we receive while we are here, so we said “absolutely” when his coworker Karen invited us over on Saturday night. Karen is a British accountant/programmer, and her husband, Martin is an analytical chemist from The Netherlands. They have been here over two years and consider Australia to be home, with no plans to return to colder climes.

Because Australia imports much of its professional talent, we have found that our situation is extremely common. We have already met dozens of people who have left their homelands in search of adventure and opportunity, some with property in limbo, some with no intention of returning, some already looking forward to their next destination. We met a Canadian family whose two year sabbatical turned into a sixteen year, five country odyssey. I can’t even think about that right now, but there is some comfort in being surrounded by people in similar circumstances with shared frustrations and observations…like what we are doing is not so outlandish after all. However, being Americans, we are a distinct minority.

Cultural Comparasons Part 1

Ways in which Australians are incredibly progressive:

1. Public toilet facilities almost always include a ‘Parent’s Room’, typically out fitted with a diaper table, bathing sink, nursing chair, and often a microwave oven for heating formula.
2. More people than not bring their own bags to the grocery store.
3. Applicator-free tampons are the norm.
4. Most restaurants are BYOB – with no corkage fee. This may be the most civilized practice I have ever witnessed.

Ways in which Australians are incredibly backwards:

1. The Australian public has an unfortunate infatuation with the worst of American pop culture, including Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and George Bush.
2. Gigantic shopping malls are typically anchored by two or more major grocery stores, which seldom have direct access, meaning you must wind through a maze of escalators and ramps to find a market, only to discover that right in front of the store entrance are several independent fresh food stalls featuring superior meat, seafood, bread, and produce. Finding your car again requires steadfast orienteering skills.
3. Cricket.
4. There is no such thing as half-n-half.

10 January 2007

Cheap Beer and the RSL

"Australians never pay full price for anything. You'll learn the ropes soon enough," advised one of Kevin's new (and very friendly) co-workers, and sure enough, we are.

Australia abounds with "clubs", member supported organizations that provide an array of discounted services, including lawn bowling leagues, billiard rooms, fitness centers, restaurants, bars, and of course Pokies (more on my unfortunate addiction to slot machines later.) Clubs may be run by local sports teams or by the RSL, the Returned Servicemen League (sort of like the VFW). Guest membership is free for visitors, but if you live within 5 km of the club, you are required to join at the exorbitant rate of $9 per year. Membership earns you an additional 10% discount on food and drinks, which are already cheap, since member benefit outweighs profit margin. They also have nightly draws for cash, rib-eye steaks, and beer-gear.

We figure we can recoup the costs of memebrship in about 6 beers...and I am excited about the prospects of "belonging" to something so worthwhile.

20/300A Burns Bay Rd

Hooray. We have successfully rented and apartment. This link will probably stop working after we take possession on Saturday, so expect this post to be edited...but in the meantime, you can check out our new digs at:


Of course, it is not filled with all of that swank furniture. We will be absolutely rambling around, considering all we have is our six peices of luggage and a small table I picked out of some one's curbside trash. (Hey, it's a respectable form of recycling.)

The apartment is not as close to shops or transport as we would have liked, but we absolutely fell in love with the view and the quiet, especially after looking at several dowdy tenament style buildings with far too many nappies hanging on the laundry lines. We are relieved to have something secured.

Now we can start shopping for a car.

08 January 2007

For Laurie

Tumbling over rolling green hills toward the coast in our tiny but efficient rental car, we spied a beautiful dome towering above the forest of gum trees (aka eucalyptus). I squealed with delight when I saw the sign for the Baha'i Temple and insisted we pop in for a visit (yes, I am picking up a nifty Australian vocabulary already.)

Parking beneath a shady grove of gums, we emerged from the car into the most cacophonous insect din I have ever heard. To describe the symphonic wing beats of millions of cicadas as ‘deafening’ may seem a trite overstatement, but no other word can suffice. The collective buzz is so loud that it by-passes the ear drums altogether, penetrating directly into the brain, plucking all 12 of the cranial nerves so that your entire body vibrates with the rise and fall of their love sick song. I stood in awe gasping for breath, my heart swelling with love for these unseen flying musicians.

After a brief stop at the visitor’s center, where an asthmatic and red-faced volunteer gave us a disjointed narrative history of the Baha'i religion, we strolled up to the temple for a look-see. Seemingly ornate at first glance, the temple was actually quite plain. Nonetheless, I fell into that mysterious spell that overtakes me in houses of spiritual worship. I sat in a plain chair, nestled among copies of the Koran, the Bible, the writings of Krishna, the teachings of Buddha and a few other more obscure religious texts and whispered a prayer - a prayer of gratitude for all that I have; a prayer of protection for all those whom I love; and a prayer of unity for all mankind. My eyes welled-up with tears as I felt a wave of peace and hopefulness wash over me.

Kevin clucked his tongue and waited outside.

07 January 2007

Apartment Prospects

6 January, 2007

We've found a great neighborhood called Crow's Nest. It is very vibrant, with lots of shops, restaurants, cafes, and pubs. Apartment hunting is a little tricky - the units are open for inspection for about 15 minutes on Saturdays, so we joined a crowd of about 15 couples, racing from apartment to apartment, frantically grabbing applications. I was feeling quite discouraged until I spoke to an agent who said she took ten applications for a unit and none of them were approved. I have no doubt that we will be able to qualify, especially if we offer a large cash deposit. It may take a little longer than we’d hoped to find a place, but I am excited about the area so don’t care to rush into a commitment elsewhere.

Lizard Dreams

4 January, 2007

To combat jet lag and restore vitality, we opted for a hike through Lane Cove National Park, a luscious forested preserve that sprawls across valleys and ridges just behind our hotel. The gentle trail follows a mossy river cut through towering sandstone cliffs and is lined with some of the most exotic and fragrant plants I have ever seen. Crows and cockatoos shrieked over head as we cut through the bush. As we walked, some very large lizards (about two feet long) skittered off the trail, pausing to stare at us from the underbrush as we walked by, then circled around behind us to watch us recede. It is rather unsettling to be regarded with such concern by so many large reptiles, and I couldn’t help but conjure scenes from Jurassic Park. I was just amazed by their size.

That is, until we came across this beauty nonchalantly strolling through the parking garage of our hotel. Sorry, I couldn’t get any closer for a better picture, but I had no doubt that the lumbering monster could obtain top speeds and gouge out my innards with its massive claws faster than I could leap back into the car. In case you can’t tell from the photo, this dragon is about 2 meters long, and the bulge in its belly is curiously the size of the stray cat we saw walking along the wall the night before…

03 January 2007


2 January, 2007

Aside from the inevitable agony that comes with being confined to a 22 inch seat for 14 hours, the journey across the Pacific unfolded without incident or upset. We landed in Sydney under stormy skies – which we might have taken as a portent, but the deliciously warm air dissipated our worry. There was a brief crabby exchange at the baggage carousel, induced by the amazing stupidity and selfishness frequently displayed by large groups of tired people with shared objectives, but in no time, we were careening through the Harbour Tunnel on our way to the suburb of North Ryde. Kevin’s new company is located directly across from the campground where we had stayed when we were touring here last year, and they are putting us up in a nearby hotel, so we knew exactly where we were going and exactly how to get there (and more importantly, exactly where the nearest beer store was located). This provided us with a considerable sense of relief and satisfaction.