Travels in Oz

I'm off - for 6 months of adventure (er, research) in Australia.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Big Day Out and the Hari Krishnas

The more I travel, the better I get at mooching. Take Australia Day, for example. I was wandering around trying to figure out how to spend the afternoon when I bumped into Ian, a friend from trivia, who doing exactly the same thing. While we were chatting, he got a call from his roommate asking if he wanted two spare tickets to the Big Day Out, the biggest music festival in Australia. Since our own plans were admittedly lame (I wanted to go to a used bookstore, he suggested watching cartoons), we were off to the festival. The line-up wasn't the greatest - Franz Ferdinand and the White Stripes were the headliners, although Iggy Pop stole the show - but what did I care, it was free! We also got to see Henry Rollins, who said that from what he could tell, Australian men celebrate national holidays by walking around shirtless and sunburned with a beer in one hand, which seemed incredibly accurate to me.

Friday night I got a call from Nadine who invited me to dinner and a movie with a bunch of Hari Krishnas. How can you say no to that? We met up with some of her friends and headed to a place called Govindas in Kings Cross, which, by the way, is either the seediest or the most gentrified neighborhood in Sydney, depending on who you ask. As it turns out, Govindas is just run by Hari Krishnas, and although they don't actually eat with you, they're more than happy to give you free reading material on transcendentalism or guides on figuring out who you were in a past life. They also cook a mean vegetarian buffet. After dinner, we went upstairs to the cinema, which has no seats; instead they covered the floor with huge, fluffy pillows so that you can watch the movie lying down. The film (The Brothers Grimm) was absolutely awful, but we left the theater completely relaxed anyway. My theory is that over their multiple past lives, the Hari Krishnas have, through trial and error, stumbled across the most perfect way of going to the movies.

The next evening it was back to the Domain to watch a performance of Madame Butterfly. There are so many wonderful, free events going on in Sydney at the moment that I feel slightly guilty about enjoying them all. But then I check my bank account and feel better. It was only my second opera (the first was a student production in Michigan - does that count?), and it was great. It was a bit odd watching a middle-aged Russian woman playing a 15-year-old Geisha, but whatever, artistic license.

On Sunday, two new girls moved into the house - they usually live in Berlin, but are visiting Sydney for the next 6 weeks. They're very nice, and have started teaching me all of the German expressions involving sausages. There are more than you can count. My favorite so far is "a sausage for a sausage," which is a way of saying an eye for an eye. You can also call someone a sausagehead, and generally insult one's family honor by referring to their poor sausage making abilities. You see, living in foreign countries really does broaden the mind…

the movie theater with no seats

Yes, it's a dark picture, but don't Nadine and her friend look comfy? Posted by Picasa

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Australia Day

Happy Australia Day everyone. For weeks, I couldn't figure out exactly what this holiday commemorates, since the country formally became a nation on the 1st of January (1901 for those who care) and ANZAC day is celebrated in April. It turns out that January 26th is the date of the first white settlement (1788, for the history dorks). It seems that the aborigines aren't thrilled about the fact that the most important national holiday also marks the beginning of the destruction of their culture - I suppose it's akin to how the Native Americans feel about Columbus Day - but apparently the government has taken steps in recent years to make Australia Day more inclusive. There was an aboriginal ceremony in the Botanical Gardens this morning that I was planning to go to, but had second thoughts when my alarm went off at 6am. Anyway, cultural politics aside, Australia Day is an excuse to take a day off in the middle of the week and mill around the harbor in the sun. When I asked some people how I should celebrate Australian culture, the consensus was to drink beer and eat copious amounts of meat products, which is pretty much how I like to celebrate anything (birthdays, Christmas, Tuesdays).

My housemates have taken a last minute trip to Brisbane, leaving me on full-time dog duty. I really don't mind, because these dogs are adorable, although they're also big and a little unruly. The neighbors seem to enjoy the spectacle of our afternoon walks - picture me being pulled around the block by two gigantic golden retrievers yelling "Heel! Heel!" as they each charge off in different directions. At least it's a workout. The reason for the trip to Brisbane is that just as Peter was about to sign the contract for his new house, he discovered that the property is subject to an easement, meaning that the city council can enter the premises, remove the floorboards, dig up the back yard, even pull the entire house down - all without warning. He figured that the possibility that he might come home one day to find his house destroyed was somewhat of a deal-breaker, so he has to start house hunting all over again. Personally, I think that between the giant snake and the easement, cosmic forces might be trying to tell him that a move up north is a bad idea, but he wants to be nearer to his mother, so how can you argue with that?

In other news, I finally went to Bondi beach last weekend, which was loud, big and packed with people. A friend had recommended walking south along the coast to some of the quieter beaches, but honestly, I was happy staying put and watching the surfers. I did wander along the cliffs for a bit, and found a sign commemorating a day in the 1930s when lifesavers pulled some 250 people from the water in a single afternoon. That's a wonderful feat, but doesn't necessarily make me want to jump right in.

Anyway, the barbequed sausages are calling me

Monday, January 23, 2006

glowing rubic cube type sculpture in Canberra

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the city from above

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Federation Hall in Canberra

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Neat floating orb outside the art museum in Canberra

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

What a nicely landscaped city

I'm back from Canberra, and I have to admit, it really isn't that bad. My trip got off to a bit of a bleak start - everyone had warned me that Canberra is hotter than Sydney, so I showed up with only a couple of skirts and t-shirts to find it cold and drizzly. Now, you're going to think that I'm completely naïve, but when I was packing for Australia, I really didn't think I would need an umbrella. Canberra proved me wrong. I checked into the hostel and set off for the archive, which turned out to be a 45-minute walk away. I showed up drenched and miserable, already feeling sorry for myself for having to spend three days in this place.

But after the inauspicious start, things quickly got better. If you'll let me indulge my nerdiness for a second, I just have to say that the archives in Canberra are fantastic. The building is only 7 years old, so it's beautiful and clean, there's abundant cheap coffee, the staff is helpful and actually interested in what you're doing - and here's the best part - they are digitizing their collection. So it turns out that about a dozen of the files that I thought I would need to look through onsite are already online. What this boils down to is that I'll be able to do a bulk of my research from bed, wearing my pajamas.

When I finished work, I wandered around the city for a while, looking at their neo-fascist architecture (Mussolini would have loved Canberra) and trying to get a feel for the place. The city is immensely spread out, with a big man-made lake in the middle, so deciding to take a walk around downtown can be a commitment. Canberra was only established in 1927, and since very few people actually live there, it's still quite clean. A couple of times I walked through spots on the sidewalks that smelled wonderful - like ferns, or pine trees, or roses - which is definitely a change from New York, where I used to play a game with myself called "what stinks?" (This is a challenging game, since 95% of the time the source of the stink is completely unidentifiable.) Also, since you meet so few people when you're wandering around, the times when you do cross paths with someone turns into an event. People smile and say g'day, and give you encouraging looks that say, "sure, we're all stuck in Canberra, miles away from wherever we're going, but think of all the exercise we're getting!"

On the second day I met up with Ritchie, a friend of my former roommate, who I had met in Sydney the week before. He drove me around town, and up a nearby hill with views over the city. The weather had cleared by then, and it really was beautiful - plus, getting an aerial view of Canberra really brings home how much work must have gone into building this huge, well-watered city in the middle of the bush. We then found a sidewalk café for coffee, and I found out that Ritchie used to work for the immigration department (perfect for my dissertation) so I was able to pick his brain for a while about Australia's immigration restrictions. He also told me that his sister used to teach in a mining town near Adelaide called Coober Pedy, which is so hot that the entire place is underground. People live and work in dug-outs, and hardly anyone surfaces during the day. I need to go there.

So anyway, on the whole my trip to Canberra was pretty good. My only complaint is that I was followed around the entire time by one extremely persistent fly. It would meet me in the mornings outside my hostel, buzz around my face on the walk to the archive, wait patiently outside while I worked, then walk me back in the evening. After swatting at it for two days, I finally found out that the secret to getting rid of flies is to completely freak out, jumping around in circles while waving your arms franticly around your head. True, this makes you look like an idiot, but luckily in Canberra there's no one around to see you.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Pythons and pokeys

First, an update on the python-puppy incident. Turns out that the original version, while completely true, was over-optimistic. The puppy later died, proving once again that a story along the lines of, "my puppy was eaten by a python…and lived!" has a much higher feel-good factor than "a big snake ate my dog."

My induction into Australiana continued this weekend when I got my first taste of pokey machines. These are pretty much just slot machines, but they are everywhere, and for some reason that I haven't yet discovered, seem to be highly addictive. On Friday night, we were hanging out in a very nice bar, when it was decided that I needed to experience the joy of playing the pokies. They were kept downstairs in the smoking section, so it really felt like we were descending into a dank, smoky underworld filled with dozens of silent gamblers. Someone put in $10 (no mom, not me), which we then spent the next 30 minutes slowly losing. At one point, I managed to get the total back up to 10 bucks, so I decided we should quit while we could still break even. But the machine refused to pay out. After hitting the "collect" button a few times, Ragne went up to the bar to find the manager, and returned 5 minutes later armed only with a pamphlet warning about gambling addictions. Needless to say, we never got the money back.

Saturday night was spent listening to jazz in the Domain, which is a large field off of the Botanical Gardens. Nadine and I took a picnic, met up with her friends, and then just relaxed for a few hours while the sun went down. As dusk settled, I started to notice that some very large bats were flying overhead - apparently they live north of the harbor and fly south every night on the hunt for fruit. The darker it got, the more the sky filled with them, and it was an amazing experience to be lying on a blanket in Sydney, listening to jazz and watching hundreds of giant bats flying overhead.

I moved into my new room on Sunday, which is in a much more subdued area of the city than I've been living. There are fewer cafes and bars around, and I'll definitely miss the gelato store, but at least I won't have to sleep with earplugs anymore. Just before I left, Nadine gave me a necklace that she had made as a housewarming present - or, as I thought of it, a get-out-of-my-house present. She said that in certain cultures, if you say that you like something, it's customary for the owner to give it to you, and since I had told her how beautiful the necklace was, I should have it. I was really touched - then I told her how much I admired her stereo.

I'm off to Canberra tomorrow for a three-day research trip, and I'm really looking forward to going, since whenever I mention having to spend time in the city, people either give me a pitying look, or say things like "It's really not as awful as you'd think." Any capital city that's highest praise is being "not that bad" needs to be seen.

Monday, January 16, 2006

A Picture for Johnny

I found this street on Saturday - not surprisingly, there's a fantastic comic book shop 2 blocks down. Posted by Picasa

Nadine's necklace

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Saturday, January 14, 2006

I promise I'm not making this one up

No time for a full post, but one story definitely needs to be shared. I'm moving into my new place on Sunday, so I called the owner yesterday to set up a time to get the keys. He starts by telling me that he's had to take an unexpected trip to visit his mother in Brisbane, and when I ask if everything is alright, he says, "Well, she's fine, but…" And then he told me the greatest story I have ever heard.

As it turns out, his mother has just gotten a 12-week-old puppy, which likes to play in her very large backyard. The other day, his mother happened to glance out the back window to see her puppy - and I swear this is true - being eaten by a python. Frantic, she calls her son in Sydney, who phones one of the mother's neighbors. The neighbor springs into action, picks up an axe, runs into the backyard and hacks up the python. Miraculously, he was then able to pull out the puppy, who apparently didn't look too good, but was essentially fine. They expect the puppy to make a full recovery. The mom, of course, was a little unnerved, so my soon to be roommate Peter flew up there to spend some time with her. He'll be back on Sunday night, when I hope to get some more gory details and at least a few photos.

By the way, no one knows how the python got into the backyard (she lives in the suburbs), but speculation is that it crawled out of a riverbed that runs behind the house. I guess that's just Australia for you?

Friday, January 13, 2006

Meeting the neighbors

Number of people spotted wearing hats with corks hanging from the brims: 1 (possibly a tourist)

My roommate Ragne is moving to Brisbane tomorrow, so last night we made a goodbye dinner for her. We decided to stay in both because Dom (the cricket-obsessed roommate) is a great cook, and because Nadine (roommate number 3) had just bought a dining room table, which has become the love of her life. Before we ate, she loaded us up with coasters and placemats - I was given a couple extras for safety's sake - and throughout the meal would randomly say things like "isn't this table fun?" and "doesn't the table make the dinner look pretty?"

It was a beautiful night, but hot, so we kept the windows open wide to catch the breeze. About halfway through the meal, a guy across the street decided to sit out on his ledge with his stereo, which he turned up to 11 and blasted throughout the neighborhood. At first we thought it was kind of quaint, especially since we didn't have anything of our own to listen to. But then he started repeating "Red, Red Wine" by UB40 over and over and over again - don't get me wrong, it's a great song, but by the eighth time we were ready to pelt him with forks. Nadine decided that the situation was ruining her enjoyment of the table, so she leaned out the window to yell "Oy mate, would you mind changing the song please?" to which he replied, we think, "Buzz Off" (well, imagine a cruder, and not so fit for publication version of "buzz off"). Undaunted, Nadine shouted back, "Pardon? I didn't quite catch that," which we thought was very polite, given the circumstances. After a few minutes of yelling, she eventually gave up and we started to search the kitchen for weaponry. He must have had a change of heart though, because he then switched to playing 1950s surf music, which was infinitely better.

I haven't gotten up to much exploring this week, although I did discover that the library at the University of Sydney is open for anyone who looks vaguely studenty - and with my daily ensemble of flip-flops, a tank top and ¾ length pants, I fit right in. (I know what you're all thinking: "Flip-flops? ¾ length pants? Those look good on, speaking generously, about 3% of the population." Trust me, I realize this, but it really does seem to be the Australian summer uniform.) I should also report that the trivia team I've wormed my way onto came first place, trouncing the competition by 11 points. My shining moment was being able to identify Naomi, Wynona, and Ashley Judd. (L - playing trivia with people of our own generation is becoming addictive…) Besides that, I've just been miraculously productive, working away at the research, setting up interviews, and planning a trip to the national archives in Canberra next week. I'm ready for the weekend though. On tap tonight is a Japanese restaurant, described by Ragne as "a place where a lot of food is thrown around, often at the customers. It's great!"

Monday, January 09, 2006

Tales from the sea

Number of sharks spotted: 0 (but not for lack of vigilance)
Number of pictures I've taken of the opera house so far: approximately 4000

One of my roommates is obsessed with cricket, so as I write this I'm also receiving an extended lesson in the intricacies of the sport. This is not exactly by choice, but the match seems to have been on the tv pretty much since I arrived last week, so every time I'm near the lounge I get another lesson. It's a weird game. I would describe it in detail, but I honestly still don't really get what's going on. All I know for sure is 1) they have to catch a little ball with no mitt, which looks like it would hurt 2) after the batsman hits the ball, he can choose whether or not he wants to run back and forth between wickets and 3) at a match in Sydney yesterday a guy went around the collecting old beer cups and putting them together, and he eventually managed to create a 23 meter "beer snake." This accomplishment warranted full coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald, so it must be a big deal.

Manly Beach turned out to be spectacular. The day started with a ferry ride that passed by the opera house and gave an incredible view of the harbor. My roommate Ragne and I got to the beach about a half an hour later, just when the sun broke through the clouds, making the ocean almost blindingly bright. After an hour or so of just lazing around and watching the surfers, we wandered up the sand to find a boat race going on. But it wasn't your typical row across the water, turn around and chug back type of race. This was a hard-core event. Teams of about 10 piled into large wooden boats, which they then rowed over the breaking waves, while a guy stood at the back with a long pole and tried to keep the crew facing in the right direction. If they made it past the waves, they then turned around and surfed the boat to shore, with the goal being to make it back to the beach before the other teams. Sounds straight-forward, but it was amazing how many teams ended up flailing in the water, trying to turn their capsized boats back over, collect their oars, and not drown. One race saw three out of the five competing boats overturned in the first two minutes, and one of those teams spent the next 40 minutes trying to climb back into their boat while being pummeled by waves. (The announcer summed it up by saying "Well, we saw a bit of carnage during that last race, didn't we?") Just watching those poor guys go through that ordeal was exhausting, so we fortified ourselves with some fish and chips and went back to lazing around on the beach until the sun went down. It was a great day.

I woke up the next morning with the oddest patches of sunburn: one shaped like a diamond on my right forearm, and a tiny blob next to my shoulder. Why only in these places and nowhere else is a complete mystery, since I'm sure I had covered them with the sunscreen.

Speaking of hidden dangers, the news over here has been full of terrible ocean stories - a woman was killed when three sharks attacked her near Brisbane this weekend, and a little girl died after being stung by a jellyfish. They also had a story about a guy who had gone missing during a fishing trip, and although they didn't actually make the connection, they ran footage of a sign saying "Danger - crocodile infested waters" during the report. So basically, I'm getting a hazmat suit tomorrow. Or will just keep myself wrapped in duct tape, since that stops all evils, right?


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the boat race

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Friday, January 06, 2006


The thing I love about the first week in a new city is that everything seems remarkably exotic. This morning I found myself staring at trees, thinking "wow, what different kinds of leaves they have here - how interesting!" Then I took a picture of a pigeon. So, in the spirit of tacky tourist observations, here are some random things I've noticed about Sydney so far:

1. Walking the streets is made much more exciting by crossing signals that sound like you're in a game of Space Invaders. It beeps rhythmically while you wait, then suddenly the light changes and it emits a high-pitched zapping noise, followed by what I can only describe as the sound of someone rapidly beating a hollow coconut with a wooden mallet.
2. There seem to be a million birds in the city, or maybe just a few thousand extremely loud ones. Today as I walked to the library, a big white cockatiel flying around some skyscrapers followed me down the block, screaming at me - giving me a momentary flashback to the infamous bird-attacking-my-head incident of 2001.
3. Sydney reminds me a lot of San Francisco. There's the water, the pretty bridges, the cute neighborhoods each with its own feel, scores of coffeeshops, and a large Asian community and Chinatown. It's a very diverse city too, which kind of surprised me, given the riots of a couple of weeks ago.
4. The subway trains are double-decker, which is just plain fun (why would anyone sit on the bottom level?), and have signs in them that say "No smoking of any substance." Fair enough, but I don't see why the "of any substance" is strictly necessary. If it just said no smoking, would people think, "well I'd better put out this cigarette, but break out the crack pipe and let's have a party!"
5. Australian money is plastic, meaning that you can take it into the shower with you. I don't think you have to ask whether I've already tried that. The coins are also a bit wacky: the 20 cent piece is the biggest one, and the 2 dollar coin is the smallest - only slightly larger than a dime.

The library closes a couple of hours early today since it's Friday, so I'm off to find a pub in The Rocks, the 'historic' district next to the Harbor Bridge. Then tomorrow I'll be up early to head to Manly Beach on the north side of the harbor with one of my roommates. It's apparently tamer than Bondi, but just as spectacular. We'll see…

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Productive and Trivial

Number of grody spiders spotted (in the library): 1
Number of times I've seen Paul Hogan: 0

My jetlag is getting better, although I'm still waking up every morning at 5am. If nothing else, this gives me the chance of seeing the sunrise. I've had a couple of incredibly productive days: got a cell phone, found a sublet, went grocery shopping, figured out how to order books in the state library, and (best of all) wormed my way onto a trivia team in the local pub. One of my roommates invited me along, and as anyone who knows me can tell you, I'm a big fan of all things trivial. My shining moment was when I managed to remember the first names of the guys from Milli Vanilli (Rob and Fabrice, for those not in the know), which the rest of the team decided was helpful, but kind of sad that I knew it in the first place. We missed first place by only one point, meaning that within two days of landing in Sydney, I've become enmeshed in an intense pub trivia rivalry.

The sublet is also great news. I'll be living in Petersham, which is a nice little suburb about 20 minutes from the city center. The house itself is huge (I'm finding that things in Australia seem big even to an American), and my old apartment in New York would easily fit into the back garden. The owner is a soft-spoken, cheerful guy who lives there with his partner, one other lodger, and 2 goofy, stupidly friendly golden retrievers. But here's the kicker: there's a gorgeous espresso machine in the kitchen, of the kind that I used to pine for every time I went into a Starbucks. Australians appear to take their coffee seriously, which really is the only way to take it

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Just arrived

Number of marsupials spotted: 0
Number of people I've heard say "Krikey!": 0

Turns out 14 hours on a plane isn't as bad as you'd think, especially when you're rewarded with Sydney on the other end. After two wonderful days with three of my oldest and dearest friends in San Francisco, I got on the plane on New Year's Eve, and got off it on the morning of January 2nd. At first I was a little unsettled about losing a day of my life, but then figured that since I usually spend New Years day sprawled on the couch watching tv, I should just write that one off. Apparently, the view of Sydney harbor is spectacular from a plane and well-worth being crammed next to a window for the long flight, but sadly I managed to fly in on one of the few overcast days in the city. But I can't complain too much, since the rain had broken an insane hot spell (the day before the temperature had been 111ºF), and I'd rather have clouds than schlep my luggage while simultaneously melting.

I found the apartment where I'll be staying for the next two weeks without a problem, and was thrilled to see that it's across the street from a sushi shop and gelateria (two different stores, not one that serves fish flavored ice cream). It's also next to a porn shop, but nevermind that. I'm staying with Emilie, a friend of my friend Felicity - both of these ladies have made my life SO much easier by saving me from living out my jetlag in the dorm of a hostel. After dropping off my suitcase and a (much needed) shower, I decided to forego a nap and explore the city instead. I took off towards the skyscrapers and an hour and a half later turned a corner to find the harbor right in front of me. I should point out, by the way, that the walk took about twice as long as it should, since I somehow walked up and down the same street 3 times without realizing how I had gotten turned around. I blame the jetlag, although it could also be that my sense of direction is about as acute as a 4 year old child's.

The harbor is immensely beautiful. The opera house sits on the right-hand side, and is even bigger and more spectacular than I had imagined. On the left is the harbor bridge, and as I sat on a lawn looking up at it, I realized it actually had people standing on the top of it. Apparently if you shell out a couple hundred dollars, you can spend 2 hours of your life attached to a rope, climbing the pylons while watching the cars zoom by below you. I don't think it's for me.

After wandering around for the rest of the afternoon in a happy but increasingly jetlagged daze, I went back to the apartment where my new roommates were making some 'welcome to Australia' cocktails. They're all incredibly nice, and the added perk is that two of them work at the Sydney Aquarium, meaning that I'll be able to get in and see the sharks for fre