31 March 2008


1:30 am

Awakened by the sound of chatter, I rolled over and opened a bleary eye to my husband. In a very clear voice he said:

"You know everyone is always taking about the nougat."

"What are you talking about?"

"You know, the nougat. The creamy white stuff, with the pistachios. The nougat."

"Are you awake?"

"Yes, I'm awake, and I'm talking about the nougat. Nougat. NEW-GAT."

"What about the nougat?"

"You know, they have those GI Joe's now...made out of nougat."

"You are NOT awake."

"What do you know? YOU grew up in one of those pretty nougat gardens."

"Kevin, wake up and go back to sleep."



25 March 2008

Easter in Australia

No other holiday brings Christians out of the closet like Easter. Not even Christmas. After all, Christmas is merely a birthday, whereas Easter is a shot at forgiveness, redemption, and a one way ticket to Heaven – certainly worth the price of a two hour church service once a year.

In Australia, Easter is the one time of year where you can find cinnamon in baked goods. I never realized how much I took cinnamon for granted, but it is not a flavouring widely used here. When I compare cultural notes with Australians who have travelled in the US, there is almost always an exchange about the relative abundance versus absence of cinnamon (usually followed by an intensely emotional discussion of the merits versus the horrors of pairing peanut butter with chocolate – this from people who think spreading a bitter tarry film of rancid dead yeast in between two pieces of white bread constitutes a sandwich.) However, at Easter, the bakeries are filled with the delicious aroma of cinnamon wafting from trays of hot cross buns.

According to my extensive research (none), no one really knows the story of hot cross buns, of why they have a cross on top, or why they are typically only eaten on Good Friday. I am inclined to believe there is a pagan origin to this tradition, but I don’t want any of you sending me links to Wikipedia in support of this. (As an aside, I would like to point out this article and make a footnote reminder to revisit the topic of political correctness, which Australians seem to think was invented by Americans for the sole purpose of annoying them – and despite their blustering, it will happen here eventually.)

As part of our cultural immersion experience, Kevin and I bought a package of hot cross buns – but really only because we discovered the existence of fruitless buns (i.e. no ‘sultanas’ aka raisins) and also because we happened to be in Queensland and heard that Coles was giving away free bullets with every pack. (‘Pulled from the shelves’ my ass, but they were marked down considerably!) I would like to report that they were awesome, but they were just fluffy dinner rolls with a hint of finely ground cinnamon, and the cross was some weird sort of dough and not the gooey sweet icing we had expected. However, any food that serves as a vehicle for melted butter is O.K. in my book.

But, I digress. I did not mean to write another article about hot cross buns. I meant to write an article about the bizarre liquor laws on Good Friday.

Australian society – and I say this with heartfelt respect and admiration – is extremely alcohol oriented. And lest I be accused by my Australian readers of being a judgemental American, I back up this statement with the fact that every news broadcast for the last month has featured a headline (headline!) story discussing the role of alcohol in Australian society. I have performed exhaustive field research on this subject, and hope to complete my thesis by the end of the year, but for the present, I will share my observations about drinking on Good Friday.

First of all, I must point out that liquor stores are open on EASTER SUNDAY, but are closed on GOOD FRIDAY.

Most businesses are closed on Good Friday, which is an official public holiday (along with Easter Monday, but that is another topic.) All bars are closed, however many pubs open in the evening. Last year, in New South Wales, we were informed that every purchase of alcohol must be accompanied with a food purchase (although this may have been a rule peculiar to the particular movie theater we were in at the time - oh, by the way, you can drink in movie theaters here). This year in Queensland, we were issued a meal ticket with a time stamp before entering the pub. We were allowed to drink for one hour before being required to order a meal. We could then drink for one hour after ordering our meal. After two hours, we were required to leave the premises. Managers checked our tickets every fifteen minutes to make sure we ordered our dinner and then promptly gave us the boot. The streets were jammed with displaced half-drunk tourists who didn’t know what to do with the rest of their Friday night.

On Easter Sunday, it was business as usual for the pubs and bars.

I reckon it makes some sort of sense that Sunday should be a day of celebration, since Christ came back from the dead to save us and all, but it seems if ever there was a time when a Christian needed a drink it would be on the occasion marking the atrocities perpetrated against one’s saviour. But apparently, Good Friday is a somber day that is meant to be suffered in sober contemplation of one’s sins, preferably on a full stomach.

So, why is it called “Good” Friday?

16 March 2008

Revisionist History

Today marks the anniversary of the day when the Irish loaded all their snakes onto convict ships and sent them to the new colony of Australia. Without snakes, the tiny emerald isle was soon over run with killer gerbils, so everyone came to Australia to get them back. But the snakes had slithered off to the outback to eat bilbys and other small marsupials, and the Irish people soon became very thirsty and hungry, but they couldn't find a Guinness or a decent meat pie anywhere. They had no choice but to open a pub. On every corner. To celebrate, they declared a national day of public drunkenness, but named it after Saint Patrick to lend credibility to the event.

Indeed, on my way to work, the patios of Paddy Maguire's and Scruffy Murphy's were already overflowing with sloppy louts sporting green and orange jester hats or giant foam shamrocks.

Come to think of it, what the hell am I doing at work?

15 March 2008

A Bad Ending to a Good Day

Splish! Splish! Splish! Splish!

Each step leaves a foot-shaped puddle of water that quickly reabsorbs into the hall carpet as I shuffle tired and grumpy into the kitchen to make coffee. I don’t think I ever fully appreciated the functionality of a bath tub overflow drain. Until now.

However, I do have a new appreciation for the genius of elevated floors, as the sight of water cascading down the sloped tiles that form the transition from bathroom to bedroom is indeed a beautiful sight, even if it did launch me into a complete frenzy of futile behaviors involving towels and a squeegee.

In the wake of last night’s flood, one might suppose I would have made peace with the unlikeable drain in my bathroom floor. Unfortunately, I keep it covered with a bath mat. While this does prevent the intermittent discharge of disagreeable odors, it renders it completely useless as an escape route for the 30+ minutes of forgotten bathwater that breached the confines of the bathtub while I was immersed in the ‘absolute final last director’s cut, and I really mean it this time, unless I run out of money or think of something else I can do to ruin an otherwise perfectly lovable movie’ version of Bladerunner.

Sydney is a particularly moldy city. Fortunately, the humidity of summer has eased somewhat in the last few weeks, so I am disproportionately hopeful that the bottoms of the closets will dry out before a thick growth of mildew takes root.

Note to self: Don’t store toilet paper on the floor.

On the lighter side, Kevin and I discovered yesterday that we can walk to the beach! Granted, it is a 6.5 km 2 hour walk, but doable nonetheless. We might have done it quicker, but Military Road is lined with myriad interesting shops and restaurants, all of which required my scrutiny.

Balmoral Beach is a clean and quiet cove on Middle Head (not to be confused with North Head or South Head) in Sydney Harbour. This suits me well, as I can pretend I am swimming in the ocean only there are no dangerous waves or undertows. We picnicked on a low stone wall beneath a giant fig tree.

Nothing creates a feeling of belonging so much as running into someone you know in a remote location. As Kevin and I discussed the astronomical odds of seeing our friend Gerry on that beach, we did instead encounter one of his associates from work. Perhaps not unexpected, as he is known to frequently patrol that particular stretch of beach in search of accommodating skank, using his young children as bait.

Fortunately, a convenient bus route connects Balmoral Beach to our neighbourhood, thus sparing us the 6 km return walk. Regardless, I was in desperate need of a bath by the time we made it home…

09 March 2008

Creepy Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys

I am a big fan of trivia. In the US, my favorite television show is Jeopardy. Too cheap to pay for cable (aka Foxtel), here in Australia I must settle for a quiz show on public television called the Einstein Factor, a show in which the contestants get to choose their own personal, and often esoteric 'special subject'. In Round One, they have 90 seconds to answer 15 questions pertaining to Austin 7 Cars, The Films of Martin Scorcese, The reign of Peter the Great between 1683-1684, or Nick Drake. (If I go on, I'll pick Raiders of the Lost Ark...or Molecular Biology.)

The three contestants work in cooperation or competition with "The Brains Trust", three ostensibly educated and respected scholars. Now mind you, I have absolutely no problem with racial epithets in general, and certainly none when they are directed towards The French (or Canadians, or especially French Canadians), but I was mildly shocked to hear one of the scholars on last night's show employ the phrase currently serving as the title of this entry.

I mean, it's one thing if you are a politician, a cartoon character, or The New York Post, but it seemed completely out of place on an intelligent quiz show. And, the addition of the word 'creepy' to an otherwise popular phrase added a touch of malice that caused me provocation. However, I guess I was most startled because the word 'monkey' has been volleyed around the press recently, as a result of the heated and controversial month long (if not longer) cricket match between Australia and India, in which one of the visiting players called Andrew Symonds 'a monkey.' (sniggers withheld) This incident made me think of one of Howard Cosell's famous blunders.

How delicate and precise has our language become when a word may be freely applied to one race but not another? Certainly, monkey is not the only word that fits this context, but...oh, what is the point I want to make here...?? I guess I don't want to be startled by the use of such an innocuous word on television, and I certainly don't want to listen to it debated from hell and back on the sports segment of the morning news. Besides, you don't see The French pitching a fit about it.

But maybe that is because they are a bunch of cheese eating surrender monkeys...

07 March 2008

Peripheral Vision

Just before we left the US, I sent out an email to everyone in my very extensive address book announcing our departure and linking them to my blog, should they want to keep in touch or follow along vicariously. From the number of people that ever leave comments on my blog (mostly people I have met virtually or with a few notable exceptions in the flesh only since my adventure began), you might never suspect that I maintain fairly regular contact with over 150 people that I have ‘collected’ over the years. Granted, I am no Aunt Bette, who managed to remember and mark the birthday, anniversary, and any other card-worthy event of EVERY person she EVER met in her entire life (God Bless and Keep Her), but I do try. I send post cards and Christmas cards (most years) and while I do get personal satisfaction from keeping this electronic diary, every entry is written with fond thoughts for all the people I know/love who might be reading it.

Oddly enough, I know for a stone cold FACT, that the people I consider my absolute closest friends – those I have known since 3rd Grade (Oscar!), or Junior High (Beki!), or High School (Kathy!) do not, and WILL not read my blog. Ever. I reckon they think that anything I have to say to them should be said in person, and honestly, a few words just sprung to mind. I suspect Sofia might read, but I know she is busy, and I know Doug checks in on occasion when he is not too busy cracking one under the table over Lindsay Lohan mug shots or picking his mother up from the drunk tank at Elmwood. I also know that a lot of my friends and family (except maybe Lee and anyone born before computers existed, except Mom) read my updates with any regularity, even though, for various reasons they do not leave comments or write to me very often. At the bottom of my inbox is a pile of old emails that I just can’t bring myself to delete. Maybe because I think that one day they will serve as a reminder to follow up with someone, or maybe they are people I just don’t want to lose. Well, evidently, I too am floating around in the bottom of other people’s inboxes.

Last week, I got an email from one of those people at the bottom of my inbox. I wrote a long list of praises here about him, but I had to delete it, not only because it sounded like a eulogy (all about how he made my mother and my grandmother cry at my high school graduation), but because I truly he believe that one day he will be a senator or maybe even president (or at least a circuit judge in Fresno) and that a mention on the blog of an accused (but acquitted) felon might not serve his best interests in the long run. He wrote to me because he is turning 40 this year (I believe he was the baby of our graduating class) and something I wrote about it last November resonated with him (although he thinks it is for different reasons – he’s wrong – they are the same reasons!) I replied, reciting the sentiments expressed above, and he replied with surprise that I felt that way about him, having assumed he existed only on my periphery. Interestingly, I have always been under the assumption that I only ever existed on the periphery of his (and every one else at that damn school) as well.

And this is what got me to thinking enough to get to writing…on the value of collecting people who knew you when you were young, even if they are people who simply knew you when you were younger than you are today. Life races by so quickly, and so often we only have time to focus on the road ahead. But the periphery of our lives are filled with people who occasionally catch glimpses of our true selves as we whizz past. The human brain has the amazing capability to create whole pictures from many small parts. The unexpected addition of a new part can sometimes redefine the image you had of yourself. Say, for example, you are attached to an image of yourself as a nerdy outcast; it can be eye-opening to learn that someone you thought was cool thought of you as intelligent, witty, and brave...even if she thinks of herself as a nerdy outcast.

I feel compelled to end this with a call to action - to tell you to reach out to some long lost acquaintance and tell them you thought they were all right, or that you thought about them at all and then I might have made a pitch to leave me a note letting me know you stopped by for read. But, as I was searching for links for this post, I came across a similar plea on Eddie's blog, and I quickly realized my own shortcoming in leaving comments for other people, and then I felt silly for begging for attention. So, I must persevere to consider that I write for myself and me alone, for the satisfaction of working out my own triumphs, fears, and insecurities, and simply be ever so grateful to anyone who takes the time to sift through the effluent of my mind.

Thank you.

And Happy Birthday, Sam.

05 March 2008

Spam, spam, spam, spam...

Dear Readers,

I really didn't want to do this, but my blog has become the target of a really nasty spammer who adds nonsensical comments to my posts in a spineless attempt to draw traffic and back links to his own worthless website. It takes me considerable time and effort to remove this gibberish from my blog. Regretfully, word verification has not prevented this asshole from posting his trash.

Therefore, I am now forced to enable comment moderation. This means that when you post a comment, it must first be approved by me before it will appear on the blog. So if you don't see your comment right away, don't re-post it 5 times. Unless I am travelling, I should be able to moderate my comments frequently throughout the day.

I hate to do this, because I know so many of you are already reluctant to post comments (whether because you can't be bothered to let me know you are reading, or because you are too high and mighty, or simply because you have nothing to say - I do not know).

Hopefully, I will only have to do this for awhile until this spammer gets bored with me. So thank you for your cooperation and for all your feedback. It is the highlight of my day to log on and know that my efforts have not merely been absorbed into the ether.



02 March 2008

Townsville Photo Gallery

Catching up from last week's trip to Tropical Queensland:
Taking advantage of unlimited kilometers on the rental car, we decided to spend Saturday afternoon exploring the Townsville surrounds. The urban center is actually the composite of two sister cities, Townsville and Thuringowa. The current tourist campaign is "Discover Thuringowa" and most brochures feature inviting photos of a mossy arched stone bridge spanning Little Crystal Creek Falls, a popular swimming spot. Having always wanted to swim beneath a waterfall, we set out for Central Thuringowa.

After much circling through a maze of strip malls and dubious looking housing tracts, we finally realized that Crystal Creek Falls lies just outside the rain forest village of Paluma, 80 km to the North of Central Thuringowa. In the interim, we did discover a hoard of tiny tree frogs along the edge of a rather odiferous reservoir formed by the Ross River.

An abrupt mountain range frames the coast of Northern Queensland's beaches, providing a stunning backdrop and a natural catchment for the abundant tropical rains. Thus, nestled among the tops of these ranges are beautiful pockets of lush rain forest. After an expensive and unappetizing lunch at the only restaurant in Paluma (no wonder Australians are such good picnickers), we hiked 3 km beneath a dense canopy filled with strange bird calls and lined with interpretive signs that might have been written by Mrs Petersons's Kindergarten Class along the ridge to the Witt Lookout and were rewarded with this striking view of Big Crystal Creek winding its way to the Pacific:
Halfway down the twisting mountain road, we stopped at the picnic area beside the mossy rock bridge, which had somehow become known as "my bridge", as if I was obsessed with finding it - which I was - to have a swim in the delicious rock pools beneath Little Crystal Creek Falls. Oddly, the parking lot was just beyond a sign welcoming us to the City of Thuringowa.

I am often simply flabbergasted by the amenities provided to make such amazing places so accessible to the general public in Australia. It is one area where the US almost always falls short, and I often wonder if it is just a matter of sheer numbers of people or if there is some shortcoming in our national personality that makes it impossible to keep clean functional toilet facilities in remote locations. Steep cement staircases lead away from the lavish picnic grounds on either side of my arched bridge. Groups of Tongan families (damn they are big people), teenagers, and gossiping old crones congregated in the cool pools of sparkling water that cascaded over smooth boulders. Young men scampered fearlessly up rock walls and leaped from dizzying heights into the deep green water, so confident in their immortality and in their ability to heal from any injury. As Kevin and I gingerly picked our way through the maze of stone and water, we came to realize just how scarred our spirits still are from his single misstep on a cement staircase in Mexico. We were only too aware of just how far we were from the nearest hospital. We watched the kids hopping from rock to rock with a stab of regret for our own lost days of fearlessness.
But we swallowed our fears and plunged into the wonderfully cool water. It felt like a baptism, a cleansing rebirth of sorts. I tried to swim beneath the plunge of the waterfall, but the force of the down pour matched my strength and pushed me back to the edge of the pool. We rewarded our bravery with a stop at The Frosty Mango for ice cream on the way home.

On Sunday morning, we perused the stalls of the public craft market along the Flinders Street open air mall, where we spent extravagant amounts of money on tropical fruit products. We bought pineapple wine, passion fruit wine, passion fruit butter, and mango wine. And we bought every odd and unusual tropical fruit we could find, including star fruit, dragon fruit, and Jack Fruit. (I don't want to hear any crap about linking to Wikipedia - they had the best pictures and EVERYONE knows that the information presented therein may or may not be wholly accurate and should merely serve as an introduction and a guide for further reading!)
The star fruit and the dragon fruit (both white and red) were slightly disappointing. Their texture was appealing, but they were a little short in the flavor department. But the Jack Fruit was an adventure worthy of a video. The one pictured above is on the small side. It only weighed about ten pounds. Most are about twice the size of your head. The leathery skin holds a fibrous collection of fleshy pods surrounding large slick seeds. The pods have the texture of an onion, but a very strong flavor that is a cross between banana and pineapple - sort of like juicy fruit gum. It had to be removed from the apartment after it was opened, as the smell soon became overwhelming.

I stayed on through Monday and enjoyed a lovely walk along The Strand to the Rock Pool. The Strand is a 3 km pathway along the beachfront, dotted with parks, exercise stations, water fountains, and of course, Anzac memorials. The walk culminates in a gigantic Rock Pool - an enormous enclosure by the ocean's edge filled with filtered sea water and patrolled by lifeguards - once again, serviced by extraordinary toilet and shower facilities.

Aside from being a safe and sheltered swimming enclosure, rock pools serve to protect the public from the swarms of deadly jelly fish that inhabit the waters of Queensland from November to May. There are two particularly nasty species, that according to informational signs along the beaches, if someone should fall victim to their sting, you are to apply vinegar to the site of the trauma, call for medical aid, and immediately begin administering CPR.

My friends and colleagues are a little bewildered by my enchantment with Townsville, though most have never been themselves. I reckon one of the things I like about it is that it is not particularly a tourist center. It is a place where a traveller might stop off for a few days on their way to somewhere else, but it is not in and of itself a vacation destination. Because it is a port town on the edge of the mining world (indeed, there are daily commercial flights departing the airport exclusively to the Century Mine, the Cannington Mine, and The Phosphate Hill Mine), Townsville has a distinct industrial flavor - and after visiting some shops in Central Turingowa, I suspect that there may be a fair amount of toxic mine dust polluting the water supply, as there seemed to be an inordinate number of serious birth defects. It is also a town laden with military bases, which explains the huge numbers of gigantic bars that are packed out until 5 am each weekend. But Townsville boasts some lovely public venues adorned with an abundance of quality street art. Below are two of my favorites.
These 'ant hills' were constructed from found objects collected by local school children.

I'm not sure what this is supposed to be, but to me it looks like a gigantic potato gun.
Whew, that was a long tedious post. If you're still reading - bless your heart! And, you'll be pleased to know we will be returning to Tropical Queensland in thee weeks time over the long Easter weekend, in search of still more pristine waterfalls, untasted exotic fruits, and, perhaps, the elusive platypus.

01 March 2008

Party Gras

There is nothing more startling than waking up in your own bed when the last place you recall being is at Hungry Jack’s (aka Burger King) downtown.

“Why did the gays claim Mardi Gras for their own?”

“It’s all about feathers and sequins.”

I followed the trail of my clothes, dropped thoughtfully like bread crumbs, to the living room and was delighted to see my wallet, though I wondered how the contents came to be strewn across the floor.

“How come there are 1000 Dykes on Bikes, but only 15 Boys on Bikes?”

It took me a little longer to find my camera. It was next to the bathtub. I am afraid to see what is on the video card. Did I take a bath? I smell rather clean, considering...

“Are Gays so Catholic that they celebrate Mardi Gras?”

“I’ll wager there are more gay Catholics than you would suspect. Actually, Mardi Gras celebrations here last about 6 weeks. I don’t think they quite grasp the concept of lent – or maybe they do and this is their answer…you know, we missed the Gay Lesbian Pool Party two weeks ago and the Wet and Wild Fashion Show.” Just then, the Gay Catholic Society Float gyrated past. They were all dressed as altar boys.

There is a huge lump on my forehead. I have no idea how it got there.

"The parade brings in 650 million gay tourist dollars to Sydney over the weekend."

"Gay Dollars? So that doesn't include the 20 bucks I just paid to rent a stool?"

The Castro Cotillion drifted across my field of vision, the San Francisco skyline painted down the side. Lots of leather on that float.

"Are you going to the after party? It's being hosted by Cyndi Lauper and Olivia Newton John."

"Uh...I heard it is sold out."

I took several hours of video of the parade, but it shows like the Gay Wear Bitch Project, and I am a little to off-balance to try to edit it into something cohesive. Just imagine lots feathers and sequins.

I'm going back to bed now.

About Australian Seasons

Today is the first day of autumn. I’m sure many of you are somewhat startled by that statement, knowing that the equinox is still three weeks away. As I have mentioned previously, Australia cannot be bothered to follow the laws of physics or astronomy, but once again, they seem to be spot on. (And – courtesy of The Prof - there is a case for their rebelliousness – but I would like to remark that the Romans were wrong about a great many things.) This morning the dark clouds that have covered the sky for the last three months are no where in sight. The air is cool and dry with a crispness that makes you want to shop for new shoes, sweaters, and spiral bound notebooks. The sunlight has the unmistakable golden slant that tells your body to get ready for Sunday afternoons watching ‘the gridiron’. (More than anything else, the lack of a fall football season screws up my celestial body clock.)

Normally, I am invigorated by the first day of fall, and I welcome the relief from summer’s oppressive heat, looking forward to cozy evenings spent making stew, curling up on the couch under a Mexican blanket, and staring at women’s boots with a covetous hunger that borders on psychopathic obsession. But this year, there was no oppressive heat from which to be relieved. In fact, this was the coldest – and certainly the wettest – summer I have ever experienced in my life. Allegedly (BK, I am reporting hearsay and have not verified the facts in the statement I am about to make), there were only 2 days over 30 degrees (86 F). In February, (I did check this statistic) the mean temperature in Sydney was a stifling 24.9 (76 F) degrees and we had 448 mm (17 inches) of rain. Neither of those points truly warrant complaint, but neither fit with my definition of summer, considering ‘back home’ the average summer temperature is 94 F (34 C) with 0 inches (0 mm) of rainfall.

But blogs about weather are boring. Hopefully tomorrow, I will be writing a blog about tonight’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. But wait, you might be thinking, wasn’t Mardi Gras three weeks ago, and doesn’t it usually fall on a Tuesday?

Allow me to reiterate: Australia cannot be bothered by a calendar based on reasonable and predictable celestial phenomena.