Travels in Oz

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

Sunday, February 26, 2006

I'm late, again...

This picture of the kangaroo requires some explanation, but I'm catching a bus to Canberra in an hour for yet another thrilling research trip, and unsurprisingly am running late. So I'm just uploading it for now, and will explain everything later (hopefully tonight from the free internet terminals at the National Library. By the way, as a travelling tip, public libraries and archives are great places to check email for free - I haven't paid for internet since I've been here.)

But some food for thought until I'm back: why are they called joeys?

My first kangaroo (by proxy)

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

This was before the line dancing

Andrew, Insoon, Chris and me at Retro Posted by Picasa

Monday, February 20, 2006

Dancing for Peace

It's been very hot here lately. Humid too, which doesn't help. It was just about bearable on Saturday morning, so Nadine and I decided that we would go to Glebe market, a large open-air market near the university that sells peasant skirts, beaded jewelry, paintings, and other hippy-type items. But a missed bus and a traffic jam put us at the market around noon, right when the sun was at its peak, and we quickly learned that trying on clothing in a tent in the sweltering heat is not actually that much fun. You'll all be happy to know, however, that we would not let global warming and the ozone hole ruin our ability to shop. Nadine bought a shirt, necklace and a painting, and I left with a new dress and matching earrings. Take that, mother nature!

We then picked up Nadine's roommate Emilie and headed to the Botanical gardens for a picnic with a few friends. The gardens are beautiful and overlook the harbor; even in the heat, I could count myself lucky for being there. As we walked around the harbor, I discovered that Nadine, an architecture major in college, is full of interesting information about the opera house. Apparently, the design was originally cast aside, and was only saved by the reject pile because a new director thought it had promise. But once the plan had been chosen, the builders had an immense amount of trouble figuring out how to make the building structurally sound. The architect (so they say) figured out the problems by peeling an orange and arranging the segments to approximate the design. He then proceeded to have a major falling out with the director of the project and has never actually seen the finished building.

Anyway, the picnic was fun, but by about 4 in the afternoon, I was wilting. I caught a bus home, and had just enough time for a quick nap before guests started arriving for a party my roommates were throwing that night. In fact, I wandered downstairs around 6pm to find Peter in the kitchen making lychee daiquiris and Andrew putting on a cd called "Total Hits of 1988," which, I have to admit, was a really nice way to wake up. (Lychees are little fruits, about the size of a golf ball, that are covered in a spiky skin. I had never eaten them before, but they're very good - at least, mixed with enough rum.)

The party was a big success, and afterwards my friend Chris and his girlfriend Insun decided that we should go to a club downtown called Retro, which specializes in '70s and '80s music. There we were, dancing away, when an Ike and Tina Turner song came on. Suddenly, men and women started arranging themselves in lines, and within a minute, the entire club was moving together, doing an incredibly odd but exceptionally coordinated dance routine. It was an amazing sight. Then the song ended and everything returned to normal; the lines broke up and people went back to bopping around independently. I turned to Chris and asked, "Um, so what the hell was that?" He looked at me uncomprehendingly and said, "That was Nut Bush. You know, Nut Bush, City Limits." When I let him know that I had never heard the song, let alone knew the dance, he was shocked, as if it's peculiar NOT to start spontaneously doing the grapevine with 50 strangers. It turns out that these dances are a big thing in Australia. I saw at least two more of them that evening - one to "Bus Stop" by (I think) the Four Tops, and another to a song that, judging from the video, was sung by a band dressed as giant stuffed animals. I have so much to learn about Australian culture. The craziest thing is that when I asked if they did the Electric Slide, no one had ever heard of it! This strikes me as odd, since I think I did the Electric Slide at least weekly from 6th through 8th grade. But the whole experience has given me the brilliant idea that the Peace Corps or the UN should start a program to teach line dances from around the world in order to build bridges between nations. Now, who out there wants to secure me some funding?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Lazy weekend

Happy Valentine's Day everyone. I spent the entire day in the library, pursuing the very unromantic task of writing my dissertation. I'm suffering from a case of writer's block. In the past week and a half, I've managed to write five pages - very, very slowly. I know that the best solution is to just sit there and think, forcing yourself to work through whatever it is you're stuck on. Although it's amazing what else you can find to do when you're sitting at a desk alone with your computer. My nails are now perfectly filed, and my laptop's keyboard has never been cleaner - which, by the way, led to an unfortunate moment when I pulled out some of my cat's hair from between the T and G keys, and thought seriously about keeping it as a memento.

Moving swiftly on, I spent a fairly quiet weekend in Sydney, just relaxing and catching up with people. On Friday I had my former roommates over for a dinner that turned into somewhat of a fiasco. I was making lasagna and peach pie, but first I bought the wrong cheese, then found out that the machine I thought would be perfect for making a pie crust was broken. I ended up with a gooey lasagna and lopsided, overly-filled pie (definitely did not live up to the standards of my mother's peach pies). But my friends were happy to get free food, and had brought over enough wine to make up for what the dinner lacked.

On Sunday I met up with my friend Chris - he's taken it upon himself to be my personal tour guide, and calls up every once in a while to say "Meet me at this train station at 11am. I've got a plan." This time it was Milson's Point, which is an area on the north side of the harbor. The neighborhood is yuppie central, with a lot of sidewalk cafes, little boutiques, and delis where you can buy a turkey sandwich for $12. But it made for a very relaxing Sunday morning, and since it was sunny and warm, we wandered down to a park on the water that has fantastic views of the opera house and harbor bridge. Afterwards Chris went off to a cricket game, and I caught a ferry back to the south side to take a nap, which is one my favorite ways to spend a Sunday.

Monday night, it was time to cook another dinner, this time for my current roommates. They all love to cook, and I often come home to find an elaborate spread ready and waiting - so after eating their food for weeks, it was my turn. I decided to stick with the Italian theme and made eggplant parmesan, since my motto is: you can't go wrong if you put enough cheese on it. The dinner turned out very well, and now I can guiltlessly continue eating their meals, at least for another week or two.

Harbor Bridge

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Melbourne - Part II

Not much has happened this week except for trips to libraries and archives (and I'm sure you're all dying to hear about that), so I'll finish up the Melbourne recap. Saturday was a day of interviewing, so feeling virtuous for having worked on the weekend, I set all of Sunday aside for sightseeing. I started at the Immigration Museum, which sounds like a snore but is actually very interesting. I was surprised to learn, for instance, that the aboriginal population wasn't eligible to vote in federal elections until 1962, and weren't even included in the census until 1967. The fact that the White Australia policy lasted for so long does make you appreciate how much work the country has had to do in the last forty years to create a multi-cultural society. And I also learned that Melbourne was originally settled by a man from Tasmania named John Batman, who "bought" the land from the aboriginals in the late 1830s. For a while he wanted to name the new city Batmania, but some forward thinking individual talked him out of it. It is a little sad to realize that all of the Batman Lanes, Batman Parks and Batman Boulevards aren't actually named after the caped crusader, although who knows? Maybe this John Batman was fond of capes, and perhaps he even had a faithful butler and a really fast wagon.

After the museum, I caught a tram to St. Kilda's, which is a neighborhood next to the beach that a number of people had recommended. To be honest, I didn't think it was that great. There was a market on the esplanade, but it was full of craft shlock - little statues of kangaroos made out of copper wire, big felt hats that not even Mayim Bialik could love, row upon row of oil paintings of the desert. I wandered down to the beach, where they were having a volleyball tournament. I wasn't terribly interested in following the games, but did perk up when I saw a line of tents giving away sample products, since I was then able to cobble together a free lunch of mini protein bars and Dixie cups of juice. After trying unsuccessfully to find a coffee shop that a friend had mentioned, I gave up on St. Kilda's and went back into town.

My next stop was the Melbourne jail, which was established in the early 1800s, and was a working prison until the first decades of the twentieth century. It looks exactly like you would expect - long corridors of tiny cells with big irons bars (and for the historians out there, it even had its own panopticon exercise area, but that was torn down decades ago). Each cell has the personal history of a convict, and sometimes their death mask, which was pretty gruesomely fascinating. I spent hours strolling in and out of cells, happily reading the intrigues and gossip of a hundred years ago. The Melbourne jail is also where Ned Kelly was executed - he was a famous bushranger of the 1880s, who ran a gang that lived off of stealing horses and occasional bank robberies. He's a legendary figure in Australia, perhaps because of the way he was caught. He built a weird suit of armor to wear to his shoot-out with the cops, which featured an iron upside-down bucket for his head and a breastplate. Feeling he was protected, he just walked out into the open to get better aim, but he hadn't thought of making any coverings for his bottom-half, so the police just shot him in the legs and brought him in. Well, duh. There have been a lot of movies made about his life, including one from the early '70s starring Mick Jagger, which has to be worth watching, if only to hear Mick Jagger doing an Australian accent.

After an afternoon in jail, I had a fantastic Greek dinner - Melbourne apparently has the third largest Greek population in the world after Athens and Thessaloniki - and then met up with Rachel, a grad student in history who I had been emailing for months (we're putting together a panel for a conference), but who I had never met. She, like all Australians I've met, was very nice (do they put something in the water?), and took me around to a couple of trendy bars. Melbourne's bar scene is pretty famous, so I'm glad I was able to discover it, if only just a little.

And that, pretty much, was my weekend in Melbourne. I'm still happy that I decided to live in Sydney, but Melbourne is definitely a fun city, and I'll have to go back for another visit. But maybe I won't take the train.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Melbourne - Part I

I'm just back from four days in Melbourne. I went ostensibly for research, since I had to interview a few people for my dissertation, but unsurprisingly the trip quickly turned into a mini vacation. I spent the first day sightseeing with a sense of lingering guilt about not being in the library, but by the afternoon the guilt had gone and I decided to relax and enjoy myself. It seems the longer you stay in Australia, the more laid-back you inevitably become - after all, living in a place where the unofficial motto is "no worries" can be very good for your mental outlook.

The plan was to take the overnight train from Sydney to Melbourne (the cities look fairly close together on the map, but are actually about 12 hours apart). I've been mulling over the idea of taking a four day train journey to Perth in a few months, and figured this would be a good way of testing my stamina. But when I mentioned the idea to my friend Chris, he smirked, gave me a "silly tourist" look, and told me to watch out for the hoi palloi. Well, I had no idea what the hoi palloi was, but it didn't sound good. Turns out it means something like riffraff or country bumpkins, which was quite a relief, since I was picturing giant flesh-eating insects. Anyway, the train journey was uneventful - the highlight was passing through a town called Wagga Wagga, which I liked because the name reminded me of the Muppet Show, and I had a nice few minutes imagining a village populated by Fozzie Bears. I got to Melbourne Friday morning, tired and with a sore back, but generally no worse for wear.

There are two places that, no matter where I am in the world, I always love: the planetarium and the aquarium (you might think there's a theme here, but you'd be wrong - I have no time for solariums). Melbourne has no planetarium that I could find, but it does have a huge aquarium, so that was my first stop. It was wonderful. I saw some of the strangest fish I've ever come across - one looked like a pineapple; others were from the deep ocean and had pale, glazed-over eyes; a moray eel that had swum into a tube and gotten stuck so that its head poked out at a perfect right angle to the rest of its body; hundreds of brightly lit jellyfish floating in slow circles. It also had a wide array of deadly sea creatures - at one point I was looking at a fish that resembled a lump of rusty iron, which happened to be sitting on a sea snake. A guy who worked at the aquarium came over and said "Yeah, it's funny, the most venomous fish we have sitting on the second most venomous creature we've got." We spent a few minutes talking about how we'd stumbled across the perfect weapon for the next James Bond movie, and then another few minutes trying to decide just how ugly the fish was. Our consensus: very, very ugly.

The best part of the aquarium was, of course, the shark room. Like a lot of aquariums, you walk through the center of the room and are surrounded by the tank on all sides. This is always a great experience, but at Melbourne it's made even better by two glass tunnels on either side of the shark tank, that allow you to walk directly under the sharks and stingrays as they float overhead. I absolutely loved it, and probably stayed in the tunnels gawking for a good half hour. The last part of the aquarium was a motion stimulator ride (the seats bounce around as you watch a video, making it seem like you're on a roller coaster). It was a lot of fun, but slightly confusing, since the video had nothing to do with fish, or the ocean, or even water in general. But it didn't matter - I had had such a good time in the aquarium that anything at that point was just icing on the cake.

The afternoon was spent in the art gallery, and the evening in a café in Fitzroy, a Melbourne neighborhood with a very Greenwich Village feel. For news from the rest of the weekend, including my trip to jail and stories about Batman, you'll have to tune back in in a couple of days. There's just too much for one post…
The ugly, deadly fish. Posted by Picasa
A giant squid on ice Posted by Picasa
A shark overhead Posted by Picasa