31 January 2008

Dear Colleagues (Part 2)

Thank you for your overwhelming support in my efforts to restore the tea room refrigerator to an acceptable level of bio-safety. I appreciate your appreciation.

I have made another executive decision in favour of general-use condiments. In an effort to reduce redundancy of common condiments, such as butter/margarine, chilli sauce, fruit preserves, etc, I encourage people to share these relatively inexpensive items with their colleagues. Henceforth all un-labelled items may be considered available for general use. Please try to reserve the upper shelves for general-use items.

Despite what my husband says about me, I do not enjoy micromanaging other people’s behaviour, thus am reluctant to institute a roster system for maintenance of inventory and regular cleaning. Instead, I choose to believe (perhaps naively) that the selfless actions of mature people, acting in good faith, will balance themselves out - even if some people cannot figure out where tea bags come from…but I will save that rant for my next project.

Again, thank you. And don’t forget:



29 January 2008

Straya Day, 2008

This year, we decided to forgo the national day of public drunkenness that is Australia Day in favour of a more relaxed weekend of relatively private drunkenness. Had it not been for the unfortunate demise of Trevor Drayton in an unplanned winery explosion, we would not have been researching his family history on line and would not have followed the link to the Eagle Reach Wilderness Resort. Thus, we most likely would have had a repeat of last year’s hands-and-knees-crawl through the rancid albeit historic pubs of The Rocks. Instead, we spent the long weeKEND in blissful communion with nature atop a mountain ridge overlooking an idyllic valley that alternately cured and worsened my homesickness in regular 15 minute intervals.

Spending some quality time in a quiet A-frame lodge, listening to a symphony of insects, birds, and breezes while relaxing upon an expansive wooden deck illuminated a surprising revelation: The discomfort of my adjustment to life in Australia has less to do with living in a foreign land than with having moved from the peaceful solitude of the bush to the constant noisy grind of the hustle and bustle of city life.

City life comes with many distinct advantages such as convenient and diverse take-away food, serviceable public transport, and easy access to a variety of culturally enriching venues, which, although they often cause me to frown, also provoke thoughtful reflection and spirited discourse. But nothing soothes my soul like clean open vistas, air spiced with trees and wildflowers, while communing with (read: feeding junk food to) abundant native fauna.

Our first night, we had dinner at the TreeHops Restaurant, which boasted the culinary talents of Stephen Hitchings, Sir Richard Branson’s former personal chef. I’m not entirely sure if listing one’s former employment, particularly with an eccentric such as Sir Richard, is an endorsement of one’s talents or illustrative of one's shortcomings – after all, if it was such a good gig, why are you now working in the remote wilderness, and if it was a such lousy gig that it would drive you into the remote wilderness, why are you bragging about it? Regardless, the food was delicious and paired perfectly with a local 2006 Chambourcin, which had distinct barnyard characteristics and an unmistakable finish of pig manure (it’s not for everyone). We were distressed to learn the vineyard had recently been purchased by a wealthy woman with a love of horses who had immediately desisted all farming and wine making activities upon the property. We made a mental note to purchase a souvenir bottle to take home with us.

After a dark and peaceful sleep that was not bookended by the sound of inbound trains at 1:37 am and 4:47 am, we indulged in a hot breakfast before joining the guided walk through a unique pocket of rainforest beneath a canopy of noxious vines and obnoxious birds. Invigorated by the steep but short circuit, we opted to tackle the more strenuous Moonabung Trail. Several sweaty kilometres later, we were moping over the prospects of the return hike to our car when we encountered another couple coming the other way who informed us we were a mere fifteen minutes from the reception lodge and the bounty of free bicycle hires therein. The bicycles were total crap, but that was of no concern as we glided all the way down the road to the carpark. With feelings of triumph, we had earned a bottle of wine, a soak in the private hot tub on the rear deck of our cabin, and a couple of massages at the on-site spa.

Exhaustion from the previous day’s exertions pre-empted the next day’s plans for kayaking. No drama after an inspection of the lagoon revealed it to be not much bigger than an Olympic sized swimming pool, though it was covered with lovely water lilies and served as home to a large goose, who had been quite a nuisance to paddlers prior to the mysterious disappearance of his girlfriend. Instead, we opted for a country drive through the rolling green hills of the Allyn River Valley on a route which just so happened to include a couple of boutique wineries - and also a lavender farm (which may be the most overrated scent of modern day history) where we sampled a concoction called “Driver Reviver”…who wouldn’t become suddenly alert after being spritzed in the face with a potion distinctly reminiscent of the odour of cat piss. The highlight of the drive was a visit to the friendly owner/operators of the Camyr Allyn Vineyard, who upon hearing of our infatuation with the now obsolete Chambourcin, immediately got on the phone to their newest neighbour and helped her “unload” a case of the reviled liquid for a mere $100. Considering we spent $39 a bottle at TreeHops – and were prepared to spend it again – we were quite delighted with our good fortune. So delighted, that we felt obligated to buy some of their own delicious wine.

After a brief pit stop at the local olive farm (heh), we returned to our tranquil ridge-top lodge to complete the corruption of the dietary habits of large Australian marsupials and to further contemplate our past, present, and future positions in life. As that turned out to be way too heavy, we decided to try our hand at yabbie fishing instead.
For $5, we purchased a yabbie fishing kit consisting of a length of string, some frozen red meat, and some rather optimistic recipe suggestions. The staff advised us that the trick to successful yabbie fishing was to ‘flick’ the yabbies out of the pond and that this could be facilitated by tying the string to a “random stick or odd branch”. I opted for a random stick. They neglected to mention how I was supposed to keep the bait away from the ravenous long-necked turtles and swarms of hungry minnows, but it did not take me long to perfect my technique - much to the dismay of the two blokes on the other shore who had been trying in earnest to catch dinner for several hours. We suggested they try using an odd branch, and indeed their success rate improved dramatically. They soon caught their second yabbie of the day, and then left shortly after I flicked my fifth yabbie out of the pond…though in retrospect it might have had something to do with the inordinate amount of shrieking and giggling that accompanied each catch.

On Monday, always searching for a road less travelled, we followed a winding and circuitous return route to Sydney. Oddly, the road was extremely well travelled, considering the fact that we were really in the middle of nowhere. As we traversed a mountain pass into the insignificant town of Wollombi (pronounced ‘Wollombi’), we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by the chaos and congestion of a small town market day. Many rural communities have monthly markets, which are apparently a more significant social event than I ever would have imagined. With the promise of goofy antiques, local produce, and grilled onions atop fried sausage sandwiches (with coleslaw for a mere $3.50, proceeds benefiting the Wollombi Rotary Club), we braved the stifling mid-day heat and meandered through the crowds.

As nap time beckoned, we returned to the road but opted for the less travelled ‘Old Pacific Highway’, an endeavour that proved immensely satisfying as the road twisted across the traffic jams of the F3 Motorway. (Which was closed for five miserable hours the next morning following the explosion of a truck.)
Overall the weekend was tremendously fun, as evidenced by the number of bruises, bites, and scrapes with which I returned home. And, I will forever cherish the memory of Kevin making out with a Macropus robustus robustus...

22 January 2008

Dear Colleagues,

I was so mortified by the horrific odour emanating from the refrigerator in the tea room this morning that I was loathe to place my lunch inside lest it become infiltrated by the stench. Thus, in my disgust, I went on a rampage of purging the offending appliance of shrivelled apples, mouldy bread, and numerous takeaway containers filled with frothy unidentifiable substances. If any of those items were your intended lunch, come see me and we can have a little chat about gastroenteritis.

The refirigerator (and freezer) still contain several dubious food items and the smell is not much improved. Therefore , I am VOLUNTEERING to provide a thorough scrubbing of the interior. In exchange for my efforts, I am making an executive decision:

Effective February 1st: ALL food, beverage, and condiment items stored within the refrigerator MUST be clearly labelled with a name and date or they will be discarded (or eaten) on a periodic basis with no warning or due compensation.

If you would like to discuss this policy, please come talk to me. I am open to negotiation. However, being that we are all reasonably educated and mature adults, not to mention scientists – to whom dating and initialling should be second nature by now – I do not see that there should be any objections to implementing a system that will foster a more pleasant, if not hygienic, kitchen facility for us all.


Audra McKinze

19 January 2008

Yanks Down Under

Minutes of the Sydney Yanks Down Under Meet-Up
Chapter 457

Saturday, 19 January, 2008 17:30

James Squire Brewhouse
Darling Harbour

In Attendance:

Audra – Always happy to be in a brewery.
Devona – Got a job. Congratulations!
Jonathon – Can build serviceable furniture from empty takeaway containers.
Kevin – Didn’t yell at a single taxi all night.
Mike – Doesn’t want to hear how expensive anything is.
Natasha – Heiress to the Vernor’s Ginger Ale Empire – the paparazzi were annoying.
Saji – His accent is going to throw Australia for a loop.
Tracey – Not on the board, but a Yank Down Under nonetheless.
Val – Has an excellent collection of airline blankets.

1) Meeting called to order
2) Motion to order drinks
3) Introductions: place of origin, employment status, time in Australia
4) Floor opened for general discussion.
a. 14 hour flights
b. Apartment hunting
c. Customer service
d. Ikea
e. Gastronomy
f. Taxes
g. Superannuation
h. Vasectomies
i. Merits of public transport
j. The Cricket (Saji broke the consensus, so if you are looking for someone to go to a test with you, contact him directly.)
k. Reasons for the Australian skills shortage
l. Money transfers
m. International freight
n. Cruise liners
o. Australia Day activities
p. The blessing that is Dan Murphy’s
q. Cross examination of techniques for public urination
r. Spelling and syntax
s. Visa subclasses
t. Travel within Australia
u. Medical insurance
v. Doggy blow jobs

5) Motion to order more drinks
6) Motion to order several racks of ribs
7) Tracey and Natasha departed to make enchiladas for their Aussie boyfriends. Motion carried that Tracey and Natasha will soon make enchiladas for the rest of us.
8) Motion to order more drinks.
9) Meeting relocated to Cockle Bay for performance of Water Fools.

Sorry – bear with me for a moment while I break into a rant: Modern art in general and performance art in particular invariably causes me to frown. I suppose that the purpose of such art is indeed to encourage people to examine the deeper meaning of existence and the human experience while reflecting on the evolution of social themes, but why can’t it ever make any fucking sense!? Perhaps I am trying to over-intellectualize what is meant to be a purely sensory experience, but the imagery becomes a splinter in my brain. I know the artist is trying to communicate some great universal truth, and I feel it is a personal shortcoming because I simply cannot understand the language of a naked crone with sagging breasts and gazelle antlers spinning in circles in a fiery canoe while another lady pushes a baby carriage with a child and an alien in tow past a large floating bed tethered to a tree with sheets as another woman rides on top of a hamster exercise wheel until her head explodes. What are you trying to tell me?? MY head is about to explode!

10) Meeting relocated to Scruffy Murphy’s
11) Motion to order more drinks
12) Meeting relocated to Hungry Jacks.
a. Resolved: Hungry Jacks has the best cheeseburgers in Australia, not only because they have real pickles, but they taste great.
13) Meeting relocated to North Shore Line via Town Hall.
a. In transit entertainment courtesy of NSW Police
14) Saji departed North Sydney
a. Resolved: Saji to post pictures because my photography skills are seriously lacking.
15) Meeting relocated to St Leonards tavern
16) Motion to order more drinks
17) Motion to order more drinks
18) Meeting Adjourned

Next Meeting tentatively scheduled for Sunday, 24 February - Location TBD

16 January 2008


We first encountered the concept of ‘certified copies’ when we were gathering materials for our visa application to Australia. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship requested ‘certified copies’ of crucial documents such as diplomas, transcripts, passports, birth certificates, and our marriage license. After some research, we learned that a certified copy is simply a photocopy bearing the signature of someone officious who can verify that it is indeed a copy of the original. We figured the US equivalent could only be a notary public. After much blinking and frowning and circular argumentation, the notary public refused to certify a photocopy of the original, because she had no way to verify the authenticity of the original. This seemed painfully reasonable to me. However, it did not solve our dilemma with the Australian Government. Eventually, we just ordered originals from all the various bureaucratic agencies and submitted those.

Although our visa was granted without any complications, we still have frequent occasions to supply the Australian Government with various certified copies in support of various bureaucratic pursuits, such as Medicare Levy Exemption Certificates, Notification of Passport Renewals, and It Has Been Six Weeks Since You Filed Some Sort of Paperwork Submissions. For an activity that is clearly ubiquitous, the general population maintains an amazing level of ignorance as to its execution. Asking around, I have been told several blatant lies. The most believable of these lies being that I can get such copies at the Post Office, because the Post Office does everything BUT handle mail (note to self: write blog entry on the overextended services of the Australian Post and be sure to mention the cute little Postie Bikes used to deliver mail, and the fact that they won’t pick up mail from your mailbox, and that junk mail services are sub-contracted.)

My first attempt to get certified copies was rather painless, and in retrospect, possibly illegal. I took photocopies of my passport to the Post Office on campus and asked to have them certified. My request was answered with the blank stare unique to the incomprehension of non-native speakers.


“Yes, certified copies.”

“Copies, 50 cents.”

“OK, certified copies?”

“OK”. He took my passport and proceeded to photocopy each page, then handed me the stack.

“Don’t you need to certify them?”


“Sign them or stamp them or something?”

“You want a stamp?”

“Yes, certified copies.”

“OK. You want stamp, I give stamp.” And he stamped each page with a round decal that said Australia Post and the date. Whatever.

I sent the copies off to the Medicare Office and soon received my exemption certificate. On the next occasion I had requiring certified copies, I went to the St Leonards Post Office, also staffed by non-natives, but each having a distinctly better command of the English language.

“Sorry, we can’t make copies at this office.”

This morning, running late for work and not having much to do once I got there, I thought I would take advantage of the occasion to visit the General Post Office located in a beautiful venetian style building at Martin Place. The not particularly pleasant woman at the counter informed me that Australia Post does not certify copies. I said I had had it done at another office, but she shook her head and adamantly claimed that was not possible.

“The Post can make copies, but we cannot certify them. You can get free certified copies from the Justice of the Peace at the Supreme Court, on King Street at the top of the hill. Next in Line.”

Certifying tourist documents seemed to me a mighty menial job for a high-falootin’ office such as the Supreme Court of New South Wales, but who am I to argue with bureaucratic process. I considered returning to the dodgy campus post office, but this seemed like a fun opportunity to poke around historic buildings with a semblance of purpose, so I marched up the hill.

The Supreme Court building is a cavernous sandstone (what else) structure attached to a cavernous sandstone church located in complex of other cavernous sandstone government buildings from the early years of Sydney's history. The complex sits at the bottom of a replica of London’s Hyde Park called, unimaginatively, Hyde Park. I meandered through the intricately painted arched hallways tiled with black and white marble hexagon, searching in vain for the Justice of the Peace, my curiosity aroused by the numbers of groups of muslim families huddled in anxious consultations with men with slick curly hair in sharp wool suits. What exactly happens in the Supreme Court? Finally, I poked my head inside the Sheriff’s Office (I don’t think the Sheriff in Australia serves the same function as in the States) and asked for directions.

I was sent across the street to a modern high-rise where security officers x-rayed my sushi before sending me to the fifth floor. When my number was called, I approached the lady at the counter. Despite my best attempt at perfect courtesy, I watched a sneer crawl across her face when she detected my foreign accent. She directed me to a small office across the lobby that did not require a number. At this point it occurred to me that I was probably supposed to bring my own copies with me. She confirmed my suspicions with another sneer and said “Well after all, what else are we supposed to certify for you? What did you think?” Since I was no longer in need of her services, I decided to vent the considerable whinge that was building up inside of me, including a childlike display of stomping up and down while flailing my arms about my person just to illustrate the physical dimension of my frustration.

Then I left the building before she could called security.

12 January 2008

About Time Off

Depending on my current disposition – degree of homesickness, level of annoyance with Shitty Rail, B.A.C. – I alternate between believing that Australians have an excellent work ethic and thinking that they are a bunch of incredible slackers. But, since I myself am an incredible slacker, I am typically in awe of the structure of Australian vacation time. Not only is my work day technically only 7.5 hours, I earn 4 weeks of vacation per year, plus two weeks of paid holiday leave over the Christmas break (not to mention two weeks of sick time) – and get this – I get paid 17% MORE money to take time off! The logic behind this brilliant piece of union negotiation is that workers who are paid hourly usually earn lots of overtime. As their living expenses generally swell to match their earnings, they can not afford to take their vacation time because their pay checks would be smaller and they wouldn't be able to cover their horse racing bets. In an effort to encourage relaxation (and perhaps give employees more time to spend in the gambling parlours), the government agreed to ‘leave-loading’, so that ordinary workers would actually use their time-off. I am on salary and do not get overtime pay, but for some inexplicable reason, I still get this benefit under my employment contract. Mind you, I am not one to complain about getting extra money, but the logical side of my brain goes into gentle spasms when I really think about this.

However, there is no denying the inherent civility of a two-week Christmas shut-down. And when I say shut-down, I mean the whole country is pretty well shut down. All major business, many retail shops, and numerous small restaurants are completely closed during this period. Only basic services such as grocery stores, public transport, and drinking establishments remain open, and with the exception of transport, even those are closed on Christmas Day, Boxing Day (whatever that is – honestly, no one really knows for sure, or really cares – it’s a day off), and New Years Day. In the States, you can usually find a grocery store that is open until 2 pm on Christmas Day for those last minute essentials (Fuck! I forgot stuffing – can’t have Christmas without stuffing), and there is always a local liquor store run by opportunistic heathens open until the wee hours for your last minute lottery needs, but here you better be prepared or else you go hungry (and thirsty) for two days.

For two weeks, the city was a ghost town. Trains, motorways (they can’t call them Freeways, cuz most of them require a toll), and city streets were all but deserted. A relative hush descended on our neighbourhood – mostly because the de-construction site across the street was closed thus sparing us from the horrors of awaking each morning at 6 am to the sound of jack hammers. Grocery store shelves and coolers became spartan. Even now, the city is calm and quiet since the schools are on holiday until the end of January and most families have fled to the beaches for their summer holidays.

Which brings me to a revelation: A two week shut-down over Christmas is a fine tradition, but a two week shut-down over Christmas, in the middle of summer, while days are long and nights are warm is totally awesome! It rekindled memories of childhood summer vacations that had been buried beneath the burden of steady employment.

To get the most from our break, we cultivated intense periods of boredom (a trick I learned from Joseph Heller - page 17, 2nd paragraph), thus making the two weeks seem as long as possible - with the exception of New Year’s Eve, which, as mentioned previously, passed in about 20 minutes. Our holiday was spent sleeping until noon, going for walks, taking naps, reading books, and staying up late watching movies. Perhaps not the best use of our time in a foreign land, but nonetheless thoroughly restorative while providing the time we needed to reflect on the last year and make new plans for the future.

More on those as they unfold.