Category Archives: Living abroad

On the Yarra

I’m not a food snob.  I cook a lot but nothing fancy, and I enjoy whatever is put in front of me when I go out to eat.  Our meal at the Independent was memorable because the food was so flavorful.  We had scallop ceviche, maple-smoked carrots with coriander and peanuts and chili, crispy chicken with smoked eggplant, and on and on.  We had drinks and desserts and coffee and aperitifs. Being a tapas restaurant, we ordered a dozen dishes for the four of us, and I could hear a little “cha-ching” in my head with each plate we added.  This was a special meal, with friends I might not see again for a long time.  When we split the bill we each paid $60Aus, or $42US, for an amazing meal with great company.

On the subject of drinks, when ordering beer in Australia you must know the difference between schooners, pots, and pints. A pint is a pint—20 ounces—except in Adelaide where it’s an Imperial Pint.  A schooner is 15 ounces except in Adelaide, where it’s a pint. A 10 ounce glass of beer is a pot—not a half pint—except, apparently, in Canberra, where it may be called a middy.  Apparently you can order a seven-ounce glass of beer called (creatively) a glass or a five- (or four-) ounce glass called a pony depending on where you are.  There are also shetlands, middys, handles, butchers, bobbies, foursies, and small beers.  I ordered a local craft brew in a schooner because I liked the sound of it and hoped for the best.  It was good, but the waitress swooped it away before I’d finished.

The next day we were old hands at taking the train and got up early to get a move on.

We boarded a cruise ship on the Yarra River in downtown Melbourne and sat back to enjoy the scenery and listen to our captain, who was also a comedian.  I won’t attempt to reproduce his banter here but he really was clever, assuming you like jokes about drowning.  He had clearly made an effort to make what would otherwise be a boring job into something entertaining for himself and his passengers.

Melbourne is a deep-water port.  I write that as if I know what it means.  There were gigantic cranes everywhere; we didn’t see them in action but I guess they load and unload containers onto ships so we can all have our plastic pens and clothes and storage bins that will all end up in the Great Pacific Plastic Island some day.

There was an interesting assortment of architecture and many more cranes building new buildings in which more people can keep more plastic items.

There was a fabulous Aboriginal statue that served as a nonlinear counterpoint to the buildings.

My favorite building was this deserted, burned-out, graffiti-covered former plastics factory.

What does that say about me?

About 80 Japanese businessmen boarded.  They dashed around taking photos of every building and paid no attention to the commentary.

This building came with a long background story where every feature symbolized the Eureka Rebellion in nearby Ballarat.  I believe this was like the American Tea Party, except it was gold miners rebelling against the British over taxation without representation.

This bridge was unremarkable until the captain informed us that the pylons are one meter higher than Sydney Harbor Bridge.  That was the whole point of the bridge, besides getting cars from Point A to Point B.  They were not out to build a beautiful bridge, just one tall enough to best Sydney.

Melbournians are mad about sport.  We passed Melbourne Cricket Ground, and this is Marvel Stadium, formerly Emirates Stadium.  Maybe next year it will be Amazon Stadium.

“Those low-rises on your left,” intoned the captain, “are condos that’ll sell for $7 million once their finished.  Each one comes with its own private yacht berth.”

“Crikey!” he said next.  “I just got a Google alert that the Dow Jones fell 800 points today.”  This was not in the script, and he sounded genuinely alarmed.  “Good thing I didn’t invest in one of those condos.  It might only be worth $4 million now.”

Melbourne

Day 14 or 15 in Australia.  I was halfway through my time here.

In my last post I wrote that I’d gone to Greece with Heidi, Rob, and a second Aussie girl.  Her name was Melissa and I would not see her on this trip because it was just too dang complicated to get to her in Whyalla.  She’s a single mum who works full time so she couldn’t come to me.  Heidi and I had tried to work it out—I would have to fly to Adelaide, then rent a car and drive for five hours.  Heidi wouldn’t be able to accompany me so this could have been my initiation into driving on the left, but in the end there just wasn’t enough time.

I had bought a Minnesota baseball jersey for Melissa and a jersey from our soccer team for her son.  I stopped in the post office near the train station and mailed them.

The three of us then stood in front of the ticket machine at the station for 15 minutes trying to figure out what to do.  In Melbourne there is the Myki transport card, much like the Oyster in London or the Opal in Sydney.  You buy some initial credit then top up the card when needed.

Except there was no way to buy a card, and no information on where to get one.  Heidi and Danielle had Mykis from their last visit, but I didn’t.

“I’m okay with just getting on and talking my way out at the other end,” I said.

It took an hour to get into Melbourne, so I had plenty of time to come up with a sob story for why I had been unable to buy a Myki card.  But when the train deposited us at the Flinders Street Station, the bored guard just waved me out and over to a service window where I bought a card.

It’s a beautiful station.

This was my first view of Melbourne.  Immediately, I had the impression of a very cosmopolitan, bustling, super-charged city. Sydney is a big city, but it somehow feels more laid back.

There were construction cranes in every direction.  The banner on the old church said “Refugees Welcome,” which was good because blonde, blue-eyed Aussies appeared to be in the minority.  At one point I lost my bearings and wondered if I had somehow been transported to Beijing.

The streets were heaving with trams, buses, cabs, pedestrians, and bicyclists.  We made our way to David Jones, one of the big department stores, where I bought socks and boots for my cold feet.

“It’s almost racing season,” Heidi said excitedly, “so all the stores have their selections of frocks and hats on display.”

“Aww,” I replied, “I wish I could be here for that!  We could start an annual streak of dress-up sporting events, like Wimbledon last year.”  Yes, we had gone to Wimbledon in 2017, buying the cheap tickets and sitting on the lawn, drinking Pimms and watching the matches on the jumbotron.  It was a scene.  It was a blast.

I could have taken photos of frocks all day but Heidi and Danielle were on missions to find shoes for their dad and a watchband for their mum.  We went from store to store and never found either. I looked at jeans in Target but had no idea how Australian sizes correlated to American.

I was cold and tired.  Suddenly I that moment that comes during even the best trips, where I think, “I want to go home now.” And by home I mean my own home, with my bath and my bed and all my familiar things, where I can lounge on the couch watching TV in my pajamas while shoveling popcorn into my mouth.

Instead, we got on the train for the hour commute back to Dean and Lisa’s.  Their house was lovely and welcoming and comfortable, so if I couldn’t be taking the train back to my own home, theirs was a welcome second choice.

Within a few hours the five of us were seated in a cozy Argentine restaurant gabbling away over tapas and I was back to being the happy traveler.

Overlapping Circles

Under a heavy duvet I was warm but I knew it would be frosty once I got up that morning.

I’ve written about this before.  As I write this it is 13 degrees Fahrenheit (-11 Celsius) in St. Paul, Minnesota. This is normal.  It’s been cold and dark since November, and it will remain cold and dark until April.  And so there’s this psychological hurdle I can’t get over where I believe everywhere else must be warmer.  And mostly, everywhere else is.  But not Melbourne in spring.

I don’t know how cold it was in Melbourne last October—below 50F/8C in the house in the mornings, for sure.  I could hear a feeble whishing of air from a “heating vent.”  My heating vents at home issue forth gusts of hot air that could knock you off your feet.  There was no basement in Dean and Lisa’s house, and the windows weren’t double glazed, so any heat went straight out the windows, literally.

I summoned the courage to crawl out from under the duvet and made a run to the toilet room.  The dog, Penny, a black lab, came loping toward me and I hugged her, if nothing else for the warmth.  Heidi was up making a cup of tea.

“Oh hi there, how’d you sleep?”

“Really well,” I replied.  “I think I’m so tired here every night that even my Restless Legs are taking a vacation.”

Dean and Lisa had left for work.  They work at a nearby Aboriginal girls’ college, a boarding school, and—I’m not going to get this all right—but there is a branch component for Aboriginal kids in the outback.  So Dean flies to the back of beyond and stays for weeks at a time.  He loves the kids and the job, but there is nothing to do when he’s off duty.

“We don’t have a ute,” (a truck) he said, “although even if we did there’s nothing in town to do.”  Dean teaches maths and science and Lisa is the school’s e-learning coordinator.

Before leaving Minnesota I’d spoken with my cousin’s wife, who is Native American, about maybe bringing some Native American-related gifts for the girls at Dean and Lisa’s school.  “They’re Black, aren’t they?” she asked.  “Then get them some magazines like Ebony and Teen Jet.  They probably don’t see Black faces in ads or billboards or magazines.”

That was an excellent idea, so I had handed Dean a stack of teen mags.  But the one I had bought on a whim, a publication about how to live off the grid, would prove to be the most popular.  There was a full-page ad for guns on the back cover.  “But it’s got good articles on starting a worm farm and making lamp shades out of animal hides,” Dean had observed as he’d flipped through it.

How do we all know each other?  Simple.  Heidi was in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt looking to go diving and someone said, “You should go see Dean; he’s an Aussie and he’s the Mayor of Sharm El Sheikh.”  The unofficial mayor, of course.  Dean had been living there for some time and knew who to talk to.

Eventually they both wound up living in London, where Dean met Rob, who is from Bemidji Minnesota.  A mutual friend introduced me to Rob when I was living in Oxford, and one day he said, “Hey Annie, wanna go to Greece next week?  There are these two Aussie girls who teach with me who want to go and we need four to avoid the single supplement.”

Heidi was one of the Aussie girls.

Dean and Lisa being at work gave me the opportunity to snoop around. Not that I looked in any of their drawers.

The house is perched on a steep hill.

I couldn’t get over all the fruit trees growing—just growing!—in their yard.

This appeared to be a giant daisy tree.

I have this plant in a pot at home but it’s 12 inches tall, not twelve feet.

The three of us faffed about for hours, then Dean came home on his lunch break to take us to the train station.

Eternal Road Trip

Bedtime at the Paddlesteamer Motel.  The name makes it sound quaint, which is wasn’t. However, the décor was updated and it was very clean.

Heidi sat hunched over the guide book on the edge of the king-sized bed she would share with Danielle.  I had already crawled into my rollaway twin.  We were all testy after the long day on the road.

“We’ll need to leave here no later than 7am,” said Heidi firmly, not looking at Danielle.

“Yes, Miss bossy boots,” Danielle responded to no one.

Siblings. Heidi and Danielle got along remarkably well, considering the strains they were under.

I put in my earplugs, rolled over, and went to sleep.

We were up and out by 7am, Heidi stood at the open boot of the car and Danielle and I threw our bags over the balcony while the resident cat tried to trip us by threading our legs as we dashed in and out.

Our objective this morning was the Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary just outside of Melbourne.

“The platypus show is at 11:15,” Heidi had read, “and it shouldn’t be missed.”

“We should be able to just make it, if we run from the entrance gate,” she went on.  “It’ll be close; I reckon it’s a three and a half hour drive with no stops.”

From my bolthole in the back seat, I panicked and leaned forward to get my head through the seats for maximum impact and whined, “But we will stop for coffee, right?”

“Eeyehsss,” Heidi confirmed, in that drawn-out way Australians say “yes.”

We stopped at a truck stop somewhere—Wodonga?  Wangaratta?  Benalla?  There were also English names along the route: Glenrowan, Swan Pool, Winton, Merton.

It was a truck stop like in rural America, with a couple fast food restaurants, a convenience store and petrol station, and showers and maybe nap cubicles. We had passed innumerable road signs that warned, “Trouble Concentrating?  Power Nap Now” And “Stop, Revive, Survive.” A couple of groggy, grungy truckers in baggy jeans, heavy boots, and filthy t-shirts stared blearily at the menus.

One moved ahead to place his order and I could tell he was speaking Aussie English but I couldn’t understand a word.

“What’s with the chicken schnitzel on every menu?” I asked Heidi as we gazed up at the board.

“I don’t know … isn’t that normal?  Don’t they serve chicken schnitzel at MacDonald’s?”

“No.” I replied. The undecipherable guy had left with his order and I asked Heidi, “Could you understand him?”

“Yes, but barely.  He had a real proper country accent.”

“Ah, it’s similar in Minnesota.  The farther from the cities people grow up, the more pronounced their Mee’-nah-soda accent is.”

We were up.  “What’ll ya have, doll?” asked the cashier.

I ordered a coffee and toast with butter.

The guy who was stocking the cooler nearby mimicked my pronunciation: buh’-der.  Aussies would say buh-ter’, I think.

Back on the road, and we listened to more Australian music.  “This one’s about the Vietnam War,” explained Heidi.

“Great!”

I was Only 19,” by Redgum, could win the “Most Depressing Song” contest.  The refrain is:

And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can’t get to sleep?
And night time’s just a jungle dark and a barking M.16?
And what’s this rash that comes and goes, can you tell me what it means?
God help me
I was only nineteen

It’s important, though, to listen and learn and it might sound Pollyanna-ish, but I’ve got four nephews and two nieces to think about, since women can now serve in combat.

Don’t think it could never happen again.

We made one more pit stop, at a road house that was frozen in the 50s and run by a wizened Indian guy who was muttering to himself in front of a wood burning stove.  I bought a box of Shapes which I imagined would be his only sale of the day and hoped they wouldn’t be stale.

We wound along the Maroondah Highway, passing Yarck and Alexandra, then entered the Dandenong mountain range.  Heidi was asleep in the backseat.

“We have to wake her,” Danielle urged. But we couldn’t, and we couldn’t do justice to describing the scenery later.

The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

We would make a detour to Wagga Wagga, where Heidi had attended Charles Sturt University.

“Wagga Wagga,” she said, “So nice they named it twice.”

We mosied around a riverside park.  Of course it had public barbeque stations, and the landscaping was lovely, with the wisteria and forsythia and other trellises in full spring bloom.  It was lovely until I got to the Sandakan Prisoner of War Memorial.

In 1942, 1,800 Australian soldiers were defending Malaya and Singapore from the Japanese.  When the Japanese took Singapore, they transported the Aussies to Sandakan, an island which is part of what is now Borneo. Borneo, a place I would love to go on vacation.

Half of Aussies died of “ill treatment” in the first year.  But wait, it gets worse! As the allies closed in, the Japanese marched the prisoners through the jungle toward the center, executing anyone who fell, then massacred all that survived except for six men who escaped.

There was a second memorial, this one for the Wagga Wagga Kangaroo March during World War I.  It details the way recruits were rounded up and marched from town to town, with stirring speeches and music—as if they were going off to a festival, not a war.  The plaque didn’t mention how many of the recruits survived.

We drove on, subdued, and Heidi and Danielle played a mix of patriotic Australian music.  There was the beloved “I am Australian,” written and popularized by The Seekers.  Here’s one version, and here are the lyrics.

It acknowledges everyone who has contributed to making Australia Australia, including Aboriginals, convicts, and farmer’s wives.  The refrain is:

We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We’ll share a dream and sing with one voice
I am, you are, we are Australian

Even the lyrics to the official anthem, “Advance Australia Fair,” are quite mild, extolling the beauty and bounty of the land—sort of like “America the Beautiful.”

Why does our American anthem have to be the very-difficult-to-sing, self-congratulatory ode to war, the “Star Spangled Banner” (rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air)?

“This one is about the kangaroo marches,” Heidi DJ’d as the next tune began.  “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” by The Pogues, has to be the most depressing song of all time.  These are the first two verses; there are three more that get progressively darker.

When I was a young man I carried my pack
And I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murrays green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in nineteen fifteen my country said Son
It’s time to stop rambling ’cause there’s work to be done
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we sailed away from the quay
And amidst all the tears and the shouts and the cheers
We sailed off to Gallipoli

How well I remember that terrible day
How the blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk he was ready, he primed himself well
He chased us with bullets, he rained us with shells
And in five minutes flat he’d blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia
But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we stopped to bury our slain
We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then we started all over again

“Whoa!” cried Heidi, “Let’s switch gears!” and she popped on the actual old folksong, “Waltzing Matilda,” followed by “Down Under” by Men at Work, then a really stupid rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas, Australian style.

It was dark now.  We stopped in central Wagga, got a pizza, and were eating it off the trunk of the car when all the power went out.

On the way to Albury, Heidi managed to find and book a motel on her phone, and at 10pm we pulled up in front of the Paddlesteamer Motel for the night.

Hoppers and Hunters and Kookas

The plan was to leave by 8am for Melbourne so we wouldn’t be driving in the dark.  However as things sometimes happen, we didn’t leave until 1:00pm so I had time to nose around the farm while Heidi and Danielle made sure Des and Hedy would be okay during the girls’ brief absence.

I ambled down the lane to the main road.  I gazed over the fields and thought, “This looks just like Minnesota.”

Except for the kangaroos.

I spotted this mother and her joey, and a couple other adults, and was entranced by the way they hopped.  It looks so inefficient and tiring.

Back in the house I reported my sightings to Hedy.  “They’re coming in closer and closer to towns and houses because of the drought,” she said.  “Last week I opened the blind on the kitchen door and there was a joey napping on the patio.  He looked up at me as if to say, ‘What are you looking at?’”

“There’s a Huntsman in the hall,” Danielle said casually, “If you want to see some proper Australian wildlife.”

Thankfully I am not afraid of spiders.

“Do you kill them?” I asked.

“Nah, we just let ‘em be,” replied Danielle.  “They’re good for hunting bugs, as their name implies.  That one’s been hanging around for a couple days.”

I walked around the house and noted the boxes of photo albums and strongboxes stored by the front door, ready to load into the car and spirit away in case of a bushfire.

“We keep the grass cut really short,” Heidi had told me.  “It’s not for appearances. It’s a fire deterrent.”

Scary stuff.  Australia routinely deals with deadly bushfires; the worst was the Black Saturday fire in 2009 that killed 173 people.  Two months after I returned home, we Americans would be watching in shock as the Camp Fire in northern California killed almost 90 people and nearly wiped the city of Paradise off the map.

As an aside, while reading up on fires I learned that the largest one in US history was in Cloquet, Minnesota in 1918—453 people died, 52,000 were injured or displaced, 38 communities were destroyed, and 250,000 acres were burned.

I admired the family photos on the baby grand piano, Hedy’s collection souvenir spoons from her travels, and shelves full of books.  I could easily spend a couple months here, curled up on the couch reading.

The only photo I took of the interior was one which illustrates an Australian oddity.  At least, it’s an oddity to Americans.

Yes, the toilet is in a separate room.  I don’t know what the thinking is behind this.  Entering this room removes any doubt about what activity you may be performing.  You are prevented  from running the water to cover up any awkward sound effects you may need to produce.  [And may I just insert here—Australian toilet paper is really thin.] Then, after you have finished, you have to exit the Toilet Room and into the Bath Room to wash your hands.

It ranks up (or down?) there with the Dutch toilet’s “viewing platform” and the English deep-bowl sound-enhancing toilet.

We made half a dozen stops on the way to Melbourne, but Facebook unhelpfully deleted almost all my photos.

Before exiting Blayneyshire, we cruised through the historic town of Carcour, population 200.  You will have to take my word for it; it was very picturesque.

We stopped at several botanical gardens, since I had clearly established a reputation as someone obsessed with flora.  And why wouldn’t I be?  Here’s another massive tree.

GPS was intermittent, so there were some false starts and turns.  We passed Mandurama, Wattamondara, Koorawatha, Wombat, and Wallendbeen.

We stopped at a park in Cootamundra so I could receive a tutorial in cricket.  Cootamundra is the hometown of Donald Bradman, Australia’s most beloved cricket captain, and the park featured busts of every captain since the dawn of time.

Suddenly I was startled to hear insane laughter coming from the trees.  “My God, what is that!?” I called to Heidi.  It took her a few seconds to realize what I was talking about.  “Oh that?  That’s just kookas.”  Kookaburras.  Here’s a sample from YouTube.

Next stop: Wagga Wagga and the Sandrakan Memorial.

Bally Cotton

In the dark, the car headlights flashed onto a sign: Bally Cotton.  I went back and took a photo of it the next day.

“It was the name of the farm in Ireland Dad’s family came from,” Heidi explained.  Her dad’s family had been in Australia for several generations, while as I wrote before her mother had come as a refugee from Austria after World War II.

Her dad, Des, and her mum, Hedy, had met at work, at Commonwealth Bank.  Hedy had had to quit her job when she got married.  They had lived in a suburb of Sydney while Heidi and her sister Danielle were young, then bought this property and built their dream house. They had had cattle, but then health problems came and most of the land was now leased to a neighboring farmer.

One of the things that binds me with Heidi is that she and I are both supporting aged parents.  After visiting the farm, I will never again complain about having to drive 20 minutes to get to my mother’s assisted living facility, where there are no stairs, she gets three meals a day, someone does her laundry and gives her her medications, and she’s got loads of activities to choose from to keep her occupied.

Heidi makes this drive almost every weekend—it takes her four hours with no stops.  Danielle lives at the farm full time; it’s hard to imagine Des and Hedy being able to stay there otherwise because services just aren’t available—there aren’t enough home care providers and they would spend all day in their cars if there were.

Everything is a long-distance proposition, like getting groceries, going to the doctor, or getting an oil change.  “Blayney’s a dead town,” Heidi said.  “It had a movie theatre and a Chinese restaurant when we were kids, but then everything moved to Orange, another half hour away.”

Heidi pulled the car up into the driveway and we began carrying in our gear.  It was so dark we had to grope along the brick wall to the back door, which led to a gazebo.  Des was eating his supper and Hedy was doing what she had probably always done—cooking, cleaning, washing dishes.  They don’t use a dishwasher because it requires too much water.

I had met Hedy in London years ago and it was nice to now meet Des.  He’s had some serious health challenges uses a walker but his smile lights up the room.  Des and Hedy couldn’t have been more warm and welcoming.

Heidi showed me up to “my” room, which had been hers as a youth.  It was full of photos and mementos from high school and college days.

“But where will you sleep?”

“In with Danielle,” she replied.

“Oh you’re kidding!  Are you sure?  I could happily sleep on the couch. I could never share a bed with my sister—we both have the Restless Legs and we’d be kicking each other over the side all night.”

“Aw, no worries, Annie!  We both sleep like the dead.”

The next day was Heidi’s birthday.  We all went out for breakfast at a café.  When you have a parent who uses a wheelchair, a walker, or just moves slowly, you can’t be impatient or in a hurry.  I know this from transporting my own mother, and in my finer moments I think of the slow-motion process as mindfulness practice.

It was a cold, blustery spring day, but pleasant, sitting near a sunny window and reminiscing about Heidi as a child.

Next up for the birthday girl was wine tasting at Phillip Shaw, just outside of Orange.  We sat near the fireplace and there wasn’t a bad wine in the bunch.  They had a needlessly complicated system of characters and numbers which none of us could make any sense of.  I bought a bottle of champers for Heidi for her birthday, a bottle of red for Des and Hedy, and a bottle for the friends we would stay with in Melbourne.

We topped off the day with homemade stroganoff and a birthday cake, then turned in early.

Tomorrow we would hit the road again for the eight-hour drive to Melbourne.