28 April 2007

The Eastern Barrios

If you’ve been following my exploits with even the mildest of interest, you may have observed that the most distressing aspect of living in Australia is my insatiable jones for good Mexican food. Whenever I chance to meet another American expat, the conversation inevitably turns to food, our longing for the comforts of familiar flavours, and the pathetic lump of sweet dough and bad cheese that passes for pizza here. I always enquire as to the existence of any authentic Mexican restaurants, and the replies invariably express the same sentiment: “Well, CafĂ© Such and Such is pretty good, but it’s not really Mexican. “

I recently discovered a web discussion forum called “Yanks Down Under”, and of course, a sizable portion of the discourse concerned food. Well, there I found a resoundingly good review of a restaurant called Azteca. According to a source at the Australian Embassy, there are approximately 750 Mexicans living in Australia, and on any given night of the week, about half of them can be found at Azteca, drinking imported cerveza and getting a taste of home.

Well, you might as well have told me that Jesus and Mohammed had appeared in a compromised position on a corn tortilla – I immediately set off on a pilgrimage to the Eastern suburbs (Is there some instinct that draws Mexicans to settle in Eastern Suburbs?). Kevin mapped out our journey, and on Friday evening, we met downtown to catch the L74 to Randwick Junction, a mere 40 minute bus ride from paradise. However, in the efficiency typical of Sydney Busses, there were no signs for the L74. There was an X74 and a 374, so we took a chance that they were headed for the same destination. Overhearing our confusion, the helpful driver asked where we were headed, informed us that he didn’t go there, and then drew us an elaborate map on the back of a bus ticket to show us how to get where we were indeed going. We thanked him profusely, and then walked the half kilometre, only to discover that he did indeed go exactly where we wanted to go, we just thought we were going somewhere else.

One block from the restaurant, saliva gushing onto our shirt fronts, Kevin said “Wouldn’t it be funny if they were closed for renovations? Remember that time in Bakersfield…” No sooner had the words faded from the air, than we were standing in front of a darkened store front, staring at a sign that said “Closed from April 23 to May 21st. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

We faced each other and burst into hysterical laughter, since the only alternative was to be really upset, and that didn’t sound like much fun. We walked across the street to the local pub, had a schooner, laughed some more, and began the two hour trek home. One bus, two trains, and a cab ride later, we sat on the couch reviewing the powerful lessons the universe had taught us that evening about desire, serendipity, patience, and calling ahead for reservations.

25 April 2007


Today was ANZAC Day (today was? - even I get confused by the time difference between myslef and my audience), and they take it very seriously. ANZAC Day stands for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps and is the equivalent of Memorial Day and Veterans Day combined. It began to commemorate the tragic defeat at Gallipoli during WWI, but has since expanded to include veterans of all wars as well as anyone who has or is serving in any branch of their military. It is also the only day of the year when it is legal to wager on Two-Up. Thus in the interests of social research, we boarded a bus and headed towards the Wooloomooloo Bay Hotel and the renowned Two-Up game there in. (I didn’t make up that name, and I can never quite pronounce it properly.)

We arrived downtown just in time for the big parade down George Street. We settled into the crowd in front of the Queen Victoria building and joined into happy applause as regiment after regiment passed in front of us. Nestled in between uniformed marching bands, groups of decorated veterans waved to the spectators, their faces beaming with pride and happiness. The vets wear their medals and decorations over their left breast. Family members may wear their ancestor’s medals, but only on the right side – lest they be accused of posing as a veteran to get free drinks later at the pub. Lots of people held hand made signs saying “Thanks” and shook hands with everyone they could. Almost everyone sported a small sprig of rosemary to commemorate Gallipoli, though no one I asked quite knew why.

It was the most smiles I have ever seen downtown at once.

There is a marked difference in attitude towards veterans here than in the United States. They are genuinely revered and given considerable unquestioned respect for having willingly taken on such rigorous assignments. The Returned Service Leagues are very active in the community and invest in youth outreach programs to ensure that the traditions of respect and honor are passed to the next generation through example. I know we have organizations such as the VFW, but it seems to me that they are more cloistered and exclusive rather than embracing the wider community.

After the parade, downtown was awash in sailors, soldiers, officers, and bagpipe players in full tartan regalia, including feathered hats, skirts, and long plaid cloaks. I never did find out exactly what branch of the service they represented, but they were a delight to behold. Perhaps they are a special forces regiment, called out in extreme situations to irritate the enemy with their noisy instruments of torture. A US destroyer was docked in the navy shipyards as part of the festivities, but I didn’t see any of our boys around. Perhaps they didn’t let them off the ship for fear of the renowned rowdiness of Australian servicemen after a day spent in the pubs. Indeed, most of the veterans were sporting broken noses, as much a badge of their service days as their medals.

We walked down to the wharf in Wooloomooloo – a collection of daggy pubs turned yuppie swank…except for the Bells Hotel. It’s still daggy. A lively game of Two-up was underway, as the crowd stood around with fistfuls of Australia’s brightly colored notes, hooting and cheering as they called out their wagers. Random members of the crowd were occasionally drawn into the center of the circle to run the game. Two coins are placed on a small flat stick, as gamblers shout out heads or tails and the amount of their wager, waiting for someone else to shout back and take their bet. But they don’t just shout their bet. They also just seem to shout and cheer just for the fun of making so much noise. Once the noise reaches a sufficient decibel level, the coins are flipped off the stick into the air. Whichever side of the coin has at least “two-up” wins, and then there is much shouting as the wagerers exchange money and immediately start yelling out their next bets.

Now, Australians are no strangers to gambling. There are pokie machines in every pub and you can wager on just about any sporting event, including women’s water polo. But it is only legal to gamble on Two-Up on ANZAC Day. It is a small tribute to the memory of how those poor bored soldiers passed their time on the beach while they were waiting to be massacred by the Turks. And I suppose it is otherwise illegal only because there is really no way for the government to get a cut of the action.

15 April 2007

Being at Work

I’m reluctant to write this, for fear that it will come across as whingeing (pronounce “whingeing”, with a hard H and a hard G – they’re very hard on their H’s and G’s here - interpret as “whining”), but I am only intending to paint an accurate portrait of my working conditions. If it seems that I am complaining, trust that I am not. These words are written with affection. Know that affection does not exclude annoyance (as any married person can tell you).

My ‘new’ lab is located on the ground floor of the Blackburn Building at the University of Sydney. I have no doubt, that upon it’s dedicated in the midst of The Great Depression, the Blackburn Building was considered a shining jewel, once boasting the ultimate in modern research facilities. Scientific methods have advanced considerably in the last 80 years, but alas, the moldy red brick walls and asbestos tile lined halls of Blackburn Building have not. Air conditioning is supplied by a hodge-podge of portable units placed willy-nilly through out the windows facing dreary interior courtyards. Network cables to support the now-crucial internet infrastructure are strung like multi-colored garlands along the walls whose drab paint is hidden beneath posters containing scientific presentations and images of native wildlife, both failing in their endeavor to bring cheer to the gloomy walkways. I’ve been told that the only reason the building is still standing is that the university is waiting for the last of the Blackburn family to keel over.

The labs themselves were renovated a few years ago thus possess fairly modern bench tops and cabinets surrounding antiquated plumbing fixtures. As with most Australian buildings, there is a distinct shortage of electrical outlets, which by the way, are all located about 5 feet off the ground, thus the walls and counters are tangled with extension cords and power strips. The lab faces a large wall of cracked wood framed windows whose grime so filters the light that one is fooled into believing the sky is eternally overcast. I am often surprised to walk outside into glaring sunshine. At various spots along the sills, there are piles of black wood shavings across which traverses a procession of very busy ants. The ants have developed a taste for agar, and should I leave a bacterial plate unattended for any length of time it is soon lost beneath a squirmy red cloud.

Speaking of agar plates, I have a new appreciation for just how spoiled I was at Amgen. Not only do I have to pour my own plates, I am responsible for making all my own buffers, washing my own glassware, and re-loading and autoclaving tip boxes - which in some ways makes me feel better about the effect I have on the environment, but also feels like mindless busy work…which isn’t all bad. I’ve worked in a university setting before, so I certainly knew there would be differences in the way the lab is run compared to the excessive opulence (not to mention wastefulness) of a corporate lab, but I don’t think I was fully prepared for just how poorly funded my current lab is…at least I don’t have to wash out and re-use falcon tubes or pipets. The entire lab shares one and a half sets of shabby, un-calibrated pipetmen (that leak). This wouldn’t be so awful, if there weren’t a very well-funded lab right next door. I peek into their bays with covetous envy, and frequently “borrow” items that are clearly underutilized or otherwise unappreciated…like a stray and lonely Sharpie marker, which NO lab should be without.

Aside from the facilities, and having to stomp on the occasional elephant-sized cockroach crawling across my desk, the environment is pleasant and forgiving. My lab skills have returned with surprising alacrity, reminding me of all the reasons I didn’t like lab work. Specifically, the myriad of daily failures seem catastrophic and the sparse successes miniscule and insignificant. The twenty or so people who inhabit the office space (at least I have an actual desk) comprise a veritable United Nations, and there is an investigative enthusiasm that is both refreshing and pitiable. There is some surprisingly good research being conducted at the university, and the investigators are keen to apply their findings to the development of viable therapeutics for serious diseases. At a departmental seminar last week, the presenting scientist mentioned that he was going to approach “a major biotech company in southern California” with a promising drug candidate that would cure a hideous degenerative disease that effects about 14,000 people world-wide. I winced at the thought of how his beautiful data would be dismantled by the bureaucratic machinery of finance and stock holder responsibility. But I make a concerted effort to keep my jaded opinions to myself.

If you'll excuse me, I am going to go clean the lab.

13 April 2007

Lolly, Lolly, Lolly...

I am a huge fan of adverbs and frequently lament their increasing disappearance from modern vocabulary.

However, is it necessary to elaborate on the definition of "prohibited"?

Bonus points to anyone who knows why this entry is titled as it is....

Polite Society

By and large, Australian people are remarkably polite. As a result, daily life unfolds with a level of civility and decorum that I find refreshingly uncomfortable. I often feel like a complete cretin, brutish and terribly uncouth, but slowly, I am learning the unspoken rules of gentility.

As you may know, here we drive on the left hand side of the road, thus slower traffic must keep left. This same rule applies to foot traffic, thus if you should find yourself on the right hand side of a very crowded underground passageway, you will not only suffer the gracious sneers of frantic commuters as they push by you, but will also inevitably experience extreme empathy for spawning salmon. Likewise, when navigating staircases, and especially when standing on escalators, it is important to keep left lest you be trampled by well-mannered Aussies muttering muffled apologies as they race toward their train.

The politeness on Sydney busses borders on crushing. When a bus is not in service, the electronic display above the driver says “Sorry”. At the stops, people form tidy queues and stand patiently aside while other passengers alight the bus, a practice I have never before witnessed. Upon boarding, people split into two orderly lines: people with pre-paid tickets to the right and those who are paying cash to the driver to the left. People practically clamber over each other to offer their seats to elderly, pregnant, or otherwise frail looking passengers. If someone sneezes, the bus erupts in a veritable cacophony of good blessings. Once, after being cut-off on the freeway necessitating an abrupt application of the brakes, the driver apologized profusely to everyone on board. My imagination was at a complete loss to recreate this scene in Los Angeles.

Here, school children ride public buses. If you should find yourself on a city street in the afternoon, your bus is sure to pick up a gaggle of chattering students adorned in their distinctive uniforms. (My favorite uniforms are the well-heeled boys of Monte Sant’Angelo Mercy College who wear black knee pants, long grey socks, black ties, and flat-brimmed straw hats fitted with a black and white striped silk band. In the winter, a crisp grey blazer is added to their ensemble.) Students are required to give up their seats for adults, and they do so with avid enthusiasm. When exiting the bus, each and every student shouts an emphatic “Thank you” to the driver, who politely disguises his annoyance with a grunty smile.

Crass behavior and coarse language is openly frowned upon. In fact, you can be cited for cursing in public, though no one seems to take it seriously. Everywhere you go, you are surrounded by a cheery chorus of “Good Day”, “How ya goin’, mate?”, “Pardon me”, and “Oh, terribly sorry”. Even schizophrenic homeless people are courteous to their invisible demons. I cannot help but wonder what neuroses lay beneath this veneer of civility. Regardless, when I get home after a long day, I feel a pervasive sense of calm that I never experienced after a commute on LA roadways, where a man once showed me his erection for no apparent reason.

07 April 2007

Movie Reviews: 300

300 is a visually stunning and graphically violent comic book style depiction of the ill-fated battle between the freedom-loving, politically enlightened Spartans and the evil-hearted, morally bankrupt Persian Empire. Hmmm, why does that sound familiar?

I cannot decide if this film is blatant pro-war propaganda or simply illustrates the fact that history (such as is recorded by the victors) is doomed to repeat itself.

The parallels to the present day war on terror are difficult to ignore. Despite the overwhelming congressional sentiment against engagement, (not to mention the illegality highlighted by the “corrupt” legislative body), King Leonidas takes his meager Spartan guard, along with a small contingent of supportive (albeit militarily inferior) democratic allies, to battle the hordes of heathen invaders led by the deliciously wicked god-king Xerxes. The Spartans fight valiantly against the odds, but are ultimately defeated at the hands of a traitor (a traitor who had been betrayed by Leonidas himself, mind you). Only then does the rest of civilization take up the fight against world domination and join the crusade for liberty.

I mentioned this to my husband after the movie and he said “Huh?” thus illustrating the fact that 300 may be enjoyed on many levels. If you are not a fan of political conspiracy, then you may still be fully entertained by multiple decapitations, fountains of animated slow-motion blood spatters, and a vast array of perverted human deformities – not to mention some of THE best nipples this side of Vivid Studios. And for the ladies, there is no shortage of grunting scantily clad manly men sporting six packs where beer guts frequently reside.

Ultimately, I wonder why this film was released over seas before it was released in the States. But overall, I would say it was worth the price of admission...that is if we had not paid $72 for tickets and another $75 for snacks...but that's another story.

06 April 2007

Hot Cross Buns

I never imagined that hot cross buns existed outside of the realm of nursery rhymes, but for the last several weeks, they have been a national obsession of Australia...well, that and the women's waterpolo world championships. I never imagined that waterpolo existed outside of high school PE class.

In every grocery store and bakery, shelves are literally sagging under the weight of sticky packages of hot cross buns. The morning news shows feture invesitgative reports into the makers of the best hot cross buns. The break rooms at work (called "tea rooms" here) are laden with the smell of toasted cinnamon and raisins as my colleagues stuff bun after bun into their mouths, butter dribbling down their wrists.

Good Friday marks the beginning of a two week school holiday and a four day weekend for the working class. I've never heard of Easter Monday, but I am grateful for the day off. For a country that is not especially religious, Easter is a big deal here, but it seems to be more about the chocolate than the crucifixion. An article in yesterday's paper announced that the Minister of Fair Trade is inspecting chocolate eggs to make sure they are the correct weight. Of all the social ills in the world, Australia actually has the ministerial resources to send field inspectors to shops with chocolate scales. How great a job is that! I have been dropping hints to Kevin about a 2 kg chocolate egg I saw at Coles, but he is indifferent to my needs, and now I worry that it might have only weighed 1.98 kg...

Personally, I think the Australians invented Easter Monday just so they could have another day to sit around eating chocolate and hot cross buns.

English Lessons

Last week, a very brash, but very pretty young woman from some mysterious eastern European country sat behind me on the bus and practiced her English all the way into the city. In a remarkably loud voice she repeatd:

"What time?"

"Half seven thirty."

"Job hard, no good English. Work kitchen."

"I am have hungry."

"After work, I go to play football and relax."

"Fuck you. No, fuck you. I no speak fuck you to boss."

03 April 2007

Sydney Bus Diaries

This morning, in the park above the Wynyard Station, I watched a hunched woman wearing a green coat and blue Crocs. Methodically, she worked her way around the edge of a large puddle, diligently coating the surface with hair spray. Afterwards, she sat on a bench and spoke soft kind words to it.

Everyone needs something to do.

01 April 2007

A Busy Day

Our lease doesn’t expire until June, but attending open houses is an inexpensive way to spend a Saturday morning, so we hopped an early morning bus and arrived at St. Leonards train station 15 minutes later. On weekdays, the trip takes 35 minutes. The train station is located behind a plaza of shops and restaurants hemmed in by towering apartment buildings. This is what we had in mind when we had planned to move to Sydney, modern and convenient luxury living high-rise living. Although we still adore the bay front view from our current apartment, the charm of screaming cockatoos has already worn thin. Plus, taking the train to the university would cut my commute time in half. Also, I love the idea of taking an elevator to the grocery store!

We joined a throng of prospective tenants and inspected a one bedroom apartment on the 21st floor. The unit was sharp and sunny, but we had not anticipated the view from the balcony. The entire Sydney skyline stretched out behind the iconic Harbour Bridge. Enormous cargo ships bobbed along the coast beyond the entrance to the bay. It was absolutely stunning and we contemplated breaking our lease on the spot, but the apartment was small, so we wisely chose to bide our time.

It was a spectacular autumn day. The humidity had mercifully yielded to a crisp cool breeze and the sunlight had that warm yellow quality I habitually associate with October in the Northern Hemisphere. We hopped a train downtown to the Town Hall station and made the short walk beneath the monorail tracks to Darling Harbour. (Yikes! If I were writing in pen and ink right now, there would be a streak across the page, so startled was I by the cockatoo that just screeched past the open balcony door. Nasty little bugger! – I got in trouble from the property managers for feeding them, and I think they are holding a hungry grudge against me.) We followed the scent of curry and sandalwood to Tumbalong Park where we gazed upon a colorful sea of swirling silk saris at the Holi Mahasomething Festival. We washed down some fragrant bhindi (my favorite okra dish) and freshly cooked naan with a cooling mango lassi and continued our stroll.

We followed signs to Paddy’s Market and were rewarded by discovering a gigantic indoor mall packed with stalls bulging with cheap imported goods. Now I know where to purchase t-shirts, incense, car seat covers, and boomerangs in bulk. A sizable portion of the markets consist of a magnificent array of fresh vegetables and exotic fruits of gargantuan size at incredibly low prices. Now I know where to get a good deal on dragon fruit, garlic stems, and bunches of celery the size of city blocks. We exited the markets into China town. Now I know where to get a good bowl of noodles for $3.

We caught a bus back down to Circular Quay and walked along the ferry terminal, past the painted abo’s, charging tourists for photo ops, past a man dressed as a donkey, past young lovers lounging on lawns to the Museum of Contemporary Art.

I don’t like contemporary art. Contemporary art makes me spend far too much time frowning. I read the explanations of the artists intent (“to draw us into strange parallel worlds, employing the language of artifice and illusion”) and then I look at a plastic garbage can filled with scraps of wood or a blurry photograph of a purple cabbage or a canvas or splotchy peach paint, and I feel intellectually inadequate. In one gallery, there were two beds, surrounded by four large screens onto which static was being projected. In another gallery, a square column had been rubbed with charcoal, illuminated from opposing sides with spot lights while eerie discordant music played from a circle of speakers. Each time we entered a gallery, a docent stalked in behind us to make sure we weren’t rearranging any of the (purportedly fragile) rocks that had been scattered across the floor around a chandelier attached to a stick to accentuate the chaos of a post-9/11 world. I knew there were closed circuit cameras everywhere. I looked at the other couples, deep in contemplative conversation about the social implications of sculpture of a mushroom smoking a pipe. I don’t like having that many people witness me frowning. I don’t like having to think that hard about the meaning of things. I decide that it is much more fun to BE a contemporary artist than it is to have to look at their work. When we leave, I am very grateful the Museum of Contemporary Art does not charge admission.

We walk back to the ferry terminal past the donkey man. I think maybe I should give him a dollar for being willing to make an ass out of himself in public. Unlike the artists at the MCA, he has to suffer the comments of what the general public thinks of his performance. We board the ferry to Woolwich, and, with a mixture of hopeful revulsion, I scan the surface of the water for the fourteen year old girl who is still missing after the ferry crash beneath the Harbour Bridge last week. Where could she be? The thought of her being out there, somewhere, is haunting the entire city every time they look at the placid water of the harbour.

The ferry link bus was waiting at the Woolwich Pier to take us to the Hunter’s Hill Hotel, where we stopped in for a few beers. This pub is the nearest to our home and is quickly becoming our favorite, if not for its proximity, then for the excellent peppercorn steak served during Monday Night Rugby. In general, I am not impressed with Australian food, but Australian beef is certainly the exception. You can taste the outback in every bite. It tastes like grass and wide open sky. The cows here don’t spend their time on feed lots breathing each other’s flatulence.

We got home in time for the kick-off of the AFL season opener, but I quickly lost interest in the game I thought I loved. After 15 minutes, there had not been a single pantsing or any blood drawn. There’s hardly even any physical contact, and the player’s thighs look twig-like compared to the neck-less brutes of rugby league.

7:30 – 8:30 was Earth Hour. Because they “own” the Great Barrier Reef, Australia is especially obsessed with Global Warming, bless their hearts. It makes me laugh, how much they think their 20 million people can impact the earth. They have recently passed a law to replace all house-hold light bulbs with energy efficient fluorescent bulbs by 2010. No one seems concerned that these bulbs contain mercury which will inevitably dribble into groundwater from landfills. Everyday, there is some emotional news story detailing some ludicrous plan for Australia to save the planet, yet the government promotes the child bearing slogan “One for the Mother, One for the Father, and one for the Government.” Earth Hour is a prime example.

During Earth Hour, Sydney pledged to turn off their lights between 7:30 – 8:30 to highlight global warming. Of course, everyone promptly lit a candle to ward of the darkness. I don’t have the comparative figures on the amount of CO2 generated by a light bulb versus a candle, but I am willing to wager a light bulb is cleaner, even if it doesn’t contain mercury. Overall, Sydney reduced consumption by 10%. As for us, sure, I dimmed the lights…while watching TV, running the dryer, heating bread in the oven, cooking in the microwave, with two burners on the stove at full tilt. I was tempted to feel guilty, but I know my personal child bearing decisions contribute exponentially to the future of the planet and that has far more impact than sitting in darkness for an hour.

Then, I went to bed, exhausted from my busy day.