Travels in Oz

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Perth library is fascinating

Just a quick post today - it's my last day in the library before a mini-vacation traveling around the southwest, and the books are calling. But I can't wait for some time off. As it turns out, spending 10 days straight huddled over a microfilm machine isn't the nonstop thrill ride I had been led to believe. At least I've gotten some good work done, and incredibly quickly too. Perhaps if I can do 3 months of research in a couple of weeks, then I can write up the dissertation in a month or two?

The weekend was filled with interviews for my research - none of which were particularly notable, except for one woman, aged about 85, who decided to take me on a little driving tour of Perth and Fremantle after we had finished. As we passed through the suburbs, she kept pointing out dilapidated houses, saying things like: "There's a house from the 1950s. The architecture is so interesting, isn't it? No, not interesting. It's fascinating, just fascinating." Believe me, this was an abuse of the term fascinating. And it went on for hours and hours. Just when I was considering throwing myself from the car, we passed an old pub, built sometime in the 1920s. "Oh that's a historical pub," she said. "It's listed with the National Trust. And it's also the first in Peth to feature topless barmaids!" Now that was fascinating. How she knew about the stripper waitstaff is anyone's guess.

My friend Andrew arrives this evening, and the plan is to rent a car and drive down the coast to the wineries of the Margaret River Valley, and then loop back to the "Tall Timber Country" in the east. Wine and trees, hooray!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I'm in Perth. Yay.

Hello from Perth, a city that appears to be one giant suburb. When I was first planning my trip to Australia, I thought I would split the six months between Sydney and Perth. Then I discovered how nice Sydney is, I made friends, I found a place to settle in - and my time in the west kept getting shorter and shorter. Now, I'm hoping to fit three months of research into about ten days. It means spending eleven hours a day in the library, and filling my weekend with back to back interviews, all of which leaves little time to sightsee. But that's actually alright, since there doesn't seem to be much to Perth. I went for a run yesterday next to the river, which was nice, and passed a bizarre tower that houses (randomly) the 18th century bells from London's St. Martin's in the Fields. It's apparently the biggest musical instrument in the world - a challenge if I ever heard one. Surely we can come up with something larger; a giant kazoo perhaps? There's also a big park that's worth a wander around, and as the airport shuttle bus driver told me, one street with good bars and cafes. And that's about it.

Still, it's probably too early to judge, especially since I've spent the vast majority of the last two days huddled over a microfilm machine in the state library. For the interviews I'm doing this weekend, I'll have a chance to get out of the city and see a bit of the surrounding area, which is supposed to be beautiful. (Of course, this also means renting a car and driving on the left-hand side of the road for the first time - please pray for me.) I got a glimpse of the countryside on the flight, and the views were really amazing. Perth is right next to the Indian Ocean, and is surrounded by farmland, but further east there is really nothing - just miles and miles of red and brown emptiness, with gigantic mud holes appearing periodically. It was strangely very pretty.

In other news, last weekend in Sydney was tons of fun, starting with a double feature on Friday with Ellena. Actually, we were just going to see one movie - a French film called Hidden - but it was a little too obscure for us. In fact, after it ended about half the audience lingered in the lobby reading the reviews and chatting to each other in a vain attampt to figure out just exactly what it was about. Ellena declared that she didn't like the move and felt she hadn't gotten her money's worth. The only way to even the score was to sneak into another movie. Well, her logic made sense at the time, and in any case she had already barreled into the next theater, so we ended up seeing some British comedy about a guy who swims the English Channel. It was pretty lame, but whatever, it was free.

On Saturday night, it was off to Paramatta with Andrew to see a band from New York, Living Colour. They haven't toured for 13 years, and were fantastic, but the show ended late and we had to sprint for the last train, or else risk a hundred dollar cab ride into the city from the suburbs. We just caught the train as it was about to pull out of the station, making us feel victorious in a Chariots of Fire sort of way. The next evening I headed over the Nadine and Emilie's house for another evening of music, but of a somewhat more kitschy variety: the Eurovision song contest! (Jealous, Wendy?) Americans sadly don't get to experience Eurovision, which was started in 1945 by a philanthropist who wanted to repair the discord of the Second World War by bringing the nations of Europe together in song. It's a beautiful idea, but over the years has devolved into perhaps the cheesiest spectacle ever created. To give you an idea, it's where ABBA got its start. But I absolutely love it. Where else can you see bleached blondes from Moldova wearing gold lamme jumpsuits sing about true love while pyrotechnics explode in the background? This year Finland won in a bit of an upset - their entry was a death metal band that wore monster masks and costumes with caps and wings. Unorthodox, yes, but they certainly expanded my understanding of Finnish culture. And really, isn't that what Eurovision is all about?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A whirlwind trip to Brisbane

The best thing about being a grad student is that you can take your weekends in the middle of the week. Last Tuesday night I flew up to Brisbane for an impromptu visit with my former roommates Peter and Andrew. It was a cheap flight, I needed a break, and Andrew’s pictures of the beautiful new house, complete with a pool, were just too much to resist. Moving up north hasn’t changed Peter and Andrew at all – they are just as silly as before, and it was great to have the chance to relax with good friends. Plus, I got to see Toby and Lulu, their very lovable golden retrievers, and to spend some quality time with the espresso machine that I’ve been missing so deeply for the past two months.

Wednesday was my day of sightseeing, and Brisbane is small enough that you can do all of its attractions in one go. I started by taking a ferry down the river, which meanders through the city, and hopped off at the Botanical Gardens. My father is an ecologist, and after countless walks through the woods with dad as a kid, I should be able to tell the different types of trees apart. Sadly though, I’m lucky if I can distinguish an oak tree from a bush. But, ignorant as I am, I still find botanical gardens serene and impressive, and the one in Brisbane was no exception. There was a wooden walkway through a marshy area by the river that was particularly beautiful, and made a perfect spot for lunch. I was then off to the art gallery, which was fairly small, so I saw pretty much everything in an hour and a half. Actually, the best pieces were in an exhibition of prize-winning work by Australian high school students – some of them really blew me away. Of course, then I just started to feel old and unaccomplished (after all, my two greatest achievements in high school were playing a bit part in Bye Bye Birdie and not failing Chemistry) so I quickly moved on to the nearby Museum of Brisbane. It was, by far, the strangest museum I’ve ever been in. Here’s a selection of the exhibits it held:

Ceramics from the 1970s
Stuffed polar bears, stuffed kangaroos, stuffed birds, stuffed possums
Old trains
Egyptian mummies
Pickled snakes in jars of formaldehyde
A dried skeleton of a lizard with a bird in its mouth (apparently it had tried to eat the bird, but bit off more than it could chew, choked on the carcass, and was found – mummified by the sun – years later)

Weird.

Afterwards, it was time for a recuperative coffee on the south bank of the river, and then back home for dinner; Andrew made an incredible lamb bruscetta, and we spent the evening chatting over some wine. The next day I lounged around by the pool, then met up with my friend Ragne, who I lived with during my first two weeks in Sydney before she moved up the coast. It was a fantastic mid-week weekend. Thanks Peter and Andrew – I had a great time.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Wierd stuff, including ants and the return of the Wolf

I’ve settled very well into my new, yuppie lifestyle this week, discovering that if you give me a dvd player, I will most likely spend an entire Sunday on the couch. It’s nice to have a day of gluttonous vegging every once in a while, especially if it’s accompanied by an old bag of marshmallows and a bottle of ginger ale. The weekend was actually very busy, starting off with a play, “Trivia,” in Newtown on Friday night. I like independent theater – you never know what you’re going to get – but I probably wouldn’t have gone if a friend’s brother hadn’t written it. I got free tickets, and so was happy to pretend to like it even if it was the most boring thing I’d ever seen. But it was actually really good – very polished and incredibly funny. It’s always nice to know that I hang out with people who come from a talented gene pool. The next night we were off to Kings Cross, historically a pretty seedy area of the city that is becoming more and more gentrified, so that it now has some nice bars tucked away next to the strip clubs and massage parlors. The night ended in a club on Oxford Street called Spectrum, which that plays rock music you can dance to. It was fantastic. Strangely enough, when trying to find a cab on the way home, who did I pass but Carl-Ó! I said hello, he howled back, I laughed at him, he took it as a compliment, we both kept walking.

But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that I’d bump into the Wolf again. Weird things have been happening lately. For instance, the other night I was eating peanut butter (yes, on its own, out of the jar, with a spoon – I admit it, I love the stuff), screwed the lid back on and went to bed. The next day I got the jar out of the cupboard to make a sandwich (ok, so I eat peanut butter every day, sometimes twice a day – there’s nothing wrong with that), opened it up and hundreds of ants came pouring out. It was like a really bad surrealist movie. Being the levelheaded person that I am, I considered the situation and felt that it would be best dealt with by screaming, followed by some jumping around the kitchen yelling “Ants! Ants!” I threw away the jar (don’t worry, I already had a spare, which was happily still ant-free), but still can’t figure out how they got in there. Even stranger, the next day I noticed a few ants in the bathtub, and decided to turn on the tap to wash them down the drain. As the water started pouring out, so did hundreds of more ants. This time I started wondering if you can have acid flashbacks without ever having actually done acid. My roommate says that the ants come and go, and that by flooding them out, I’ve probably taken care of the problem. But I’m not so sure. I once saw a great ‘70s horror film (called, I think, Ants) where giant ants took over the world and rigged up some futuristic machine that turned humans into ants. Seems eerily similar, no?

One more anecdote, then I’m off to bed. I had the terrifying experience this week of losing my ipod. Before I go on, let me just say that I’m deeply in love with my ipod. I’ve become one of those annoying people who’s constantly walking around with those little white headphones in her ears, listening to all of the new CDs she’s purloined for free from her friends’ collections. Plus, it’s one of those cool new video ipods that you can use to watch movies and tv shows, which is perfect for long flights. Thanks mom and dad. Anyway, I was listening to it on the walk to the library, put it down to get some books out of my bag, and just forgot to pick it up. What can I say – I’m practicing for the role of absentminded professor. I was having dinner with my friend Marissa that evening, and discovered that it was missing on the way to her house. So not only was I bereft, but the poor girl had to listen to 2-hours of my moaning, the constant refrain being, “this is why I can’t have nice things!” Marissa, however, pointed out that if anyone would turn an ipod into the lost and found, it would be some library geek, which was mildly comforting. I made sure I was the first through the door the next morning, and lo and behold, she was right, some wonderful person had turned it in. Thanks library geek. But the funny thing is, the security guards had obviously been listening to it all night long – the batteries were almost down to zero, a different album was selected, and somehow the display had been changed. My roommate Alex said that it was typically Australian: do something nice, but be a little bit cheeky about it at the same time.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Diggers, Two-Up and other assorted mysteries

Well, after six weeks of my squatter lifestyle, I’ve moved out of the empty house and up in the world. Actually, just across the bridge to an apartment in North Sydney, which I’m sharing with a lovely couple in their late twenties who’ve just gotten back from a year of traveling around the world. The trips Australians take never cease to amaze me. The woman works for an agency that finds foster homes for international students, the man is a chef – one has a good heart, the other has a great knife collection – both are assets in any house.

North of the harbor is definitely more sedate than my old Inner West neighborhood – much more the latte/housewife/SUV set than the beer/hippy/public transportation set. But I can’t lie, it’s nice to have stuff again. In fact, there’s quite a bit of stuff: I have an actual desk (replacing the wicker bookshelf that I had collected off the street and turned sideways to balance my laptop on), a dining room table (no more eating breakfast on the front stoop) and more than one chair (which, I should point out, has BOTH of its armrests and hasn’t been salvaged from someone else’s garbage). The furniture, on top of the fact that the neighborhood is distinctly civilized, makes me feel like I’ve somehow jumped a number of income brackets overnight.

The past weekend was full of packing, cleaning and moving, none of which is terribly interesting. I did see Wolf Creek on Saturday, which is the biggest horror film to come out of Australia last year (probably ever). It was, well, disturbing, and really didn’t make me want to drive across the outback anytime soon. But besides hauling my luggage across the harbor and scaring myself silly, the main event of the week was Anzac Day last Tuesday. It was first declared in 1916 to commemorate Gallipoli, but now stands as a catch-all veterans day. There’s a dawn memorial service and a few parades – all pretty typical remembrance ceremonies, but there were still a few things I couldn’t figure out. First of all, Australian army vets are called “diggers,” but no one I spoke to had an explanation for why. Also, people pin poppies and rosemary to their shirts as a tribute; the poppy is understandable, but I couldn’t for the life of me work out the reason for the rosemary. Any guesses?

But here’s the strangest Anzac Day ritual of all: it is the only day out of the entire year that a particular gambling game, Two-Up, is legal. Of course, I decided that I had to see some Two-Up being played, since this could be my only chance to witness such a rare event. So I grabbed Chris and Insoon, headed to the pub and found some Two-Up. It was bizarre. A group of about 25 people gathered around a big mat, and one volunteered to be the spinner. The person went to the center of the mat, where they received three coins placed on a thin piece of wood. Once the spinner was ready, the other people frantically started placing bets, gambling $10, $20, even $50 on heads or tails. Once each person found someone else to bet against and had thrown their money on the mat, the spinner proceeded to hurl the wood in the air and run off, dodging the coins on the way back down. The officiator then announced whether the majority of the three coins had landed heads or tails, the money changed hands, and the entire process began again. It was kind of charming to see people get so excited about such a simple game, although since I wasn’t playing (even betting ten bucks is too rich for my grad student budget) it got boring fairly quickly. Plus I kept wondering: shouldn’t it be called Three-Up?