Friday, October 31, 2008

quicko: the "dollar" store

So you go to a dollar store to buy Halloween necessities like striped knee socks and you happen to see they're priced at $3.50, but, really, no big deal because everyone knows that it doesn't matter what the price tag says, at dollar stores everything is always a dollar and they look at you really weird when you ask them how much you owe when you bring up six items, because, duh, it's $6, can't you count?

Yeah, not in Australia.

quicko: halloween, or lack thereof

Right, so, they don't really do Halloween here.

Everyone seems to have this vague idea that it's something those crazy Americans do where everyone dresses like a ghost or vampire or witch and there's something about pumpkins and something about lollies. It's here I have to stop them and point out that we call it "candy."

Work was great fun today: I came dressed as Pippi Longstocking, but hadn't quite been able to get my braids (plaits, for the Australians reading) out to the side yet. Thankfully Jack Sparrow and her (yes, her) first mate came to the rescue and helped me finagle a clothes hanger through to horizontal perfection and I managed to make it through the day more or less without maiming anyone.

In class, I made all my students leave the room, then knock individually and say "trick or treat" and then I gave them candy and let them in. After that we practiced "trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat" until our sugar high wore off and we eased into the Monster Mash, which I later discovered they had had considerably more fun taking videos of me dancing to than they had doing their corresponding worksheet, the little goblins.

But back to the Australians -- they just really don't get Halloween. They don't mind the free candy, but they make the silliest mistakes. Jack Sparrow (obviously another American) told me she'd left a (real) jack-o-lantern out in front of her door one year and people came by and put candy in it. What a lovely idea -- I think I'll try it next year!

Another American found the dollar stores bursting with people buying the junk that passes for Halloween costuming here. (I don't think anyone realized you just concoct costumes with doo-dads you find around the house and in the costume box ...) An Australian co-worker said she had never known Halloween was "fancy dress." And no one seemed to realize that you don't have to be something scary. And they were all after "special" Halloween candy ... I don't think they grasped that, besides candy corn, it's just regular candy given in abundance. Oh, and none of them thought to check the wrapping for tampering before opening. (They haven't got a public service announcements about that on TV.)

And so, another happy Halloween, despite the lingering air of muddled confusion. Everyone was intrigued, and pretty much everybody couldn't do much but look at me and laugh (except the people on the street, who pretty much just stared until I said, "happy Halloween!" and then looked tremendously relieved). A wonderful holiday, spent in an odd sort of social isolation. Or maybe that was just my personal bubble of space being vigorously upheld by the wire tips poking out of my braids.

Thank goodness it fell on casual Friday.

quicko: nicknames

They call me Kimmy here.

I've never let anyone call me Kimmy except my closest friends, or else I've resented them terribly for presuming to be so familiar. But here it's okay. In fact, I kind of like it.

I think it's because almost everyone gets nicknames here, even if their name's short. Generally you get an -y, -o or -z added to the end -- Australians instinctively know which name gets which ending. (Hence, Matt, Steve and Sharon become Matty, Steve-o and Shaz.)

It's all so relaxed and casual -- like you're permanently on vacation. It's nice, at least for now. And so I am a happy Kimmy, glad to be included in the de-naming fun.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

quicko: roads

It's basic, but integral. There are some cultural points that vary a bit from one Australian to another, but this one is probably the closest to a blanket, absolute truth: they drive on the left here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

quicko: mate

So everybody knows Australians call people "mate."

But the extent to which this seemingly amicable, familiar nomenclature has permeated the language here is astounding. I thought things had been taken as far as they could go when I heard a TV cop say, "you're under arrest, mate." How much farther can it go than befriending the convict you're arresting?

Well, gosh, never fear, the Australians are here. Last night I heard it for the first time ... poor guy'd been told, "you're going to hell, mate."

quicko: tea

Tea is a given here.

There's always tea. Coffee, too, but the morning or afternoon event is called tea. (That's morning tea or afternoon tea, not breakfast and lunch.)

It's at work, it's at church, it's at any function or event. Of course no one would be expected to make it through the day without as many cups as they needed. I'm certainly not complaining -- I'm addicted, too.

quicko: "suburbs"

"Suburbs" are such an interesting concept here. Instead of driving ten minutes between suburbs, you can drive for ten minutes and pass through three.

It doesn't take much to form a suburb. In fact, I've narrowed it down to four integral components, all of which are found in a ten-second strip you whiz by on the bus: a dry cleaners, a bottleshop (that's a nice name for where you buy booze, not liquid dispensers for youngsters), a Thai restaurant and a real estate agency. What more does any suburb need?

Oh yeah ... a wedding dress shop. Now life is complete. Moving on!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

quicko: amen

So we have this signal in American churches: amen. It means this prayer is now over, please open your eyes. It's a hard and fast rule, and we're quite good at it.

No such rule here. It's very disconcerting. You pray in groups and suddenly someone finishes and gives the signal and up you pop, looking around for tea and coffee, only to realize everyone else is still bowed in prayer. Amen?

quicko: sunday surcharge

10%. All the restaurants. Every Sunday.
We don't do that, do we??

Saturday, October 25, 2008

quicko: school holidays

This is bizarre: the whole country takes a vacation at the same time. That's right, they schedule every single school around to have collective time off. It's called "school holidays" and everybody talks about them. Colleges might be on a slightly different schedule, but similarly have simultaneous "uni holidays."

pardon my american

If you ask an American how many countries speak English, I'm guessing you'll get an answer from roughly two (American and England) to four (the linguistically savvy will now add in Canada and Australia), and if an American encounters someone with a different accent, they'll almost automatically assume the speaker's British (which of course is the same as being English).

Since geo-political distinctions across the pond are a bit hazy, it may or may not be realized that Scots, Irish, Welsh and English have different accents (we'll just leave the distinctions within a country aside entirely for now; at this point we're doing well to get Liverpool and London placed within the same country), and, gosh, we're up to seven countries now, can you believe that? We'll think a bit harder and add in New Zealand. South Africa, though, is always the clincher. Maybe it would be easier to remember if we had any idea they spoke English there. And India, oh yeah. That brings us to ten, and I'm reasonably well traveled in the English-speaking world, but still have a funny feeling I might have left somewhere out. Additions or corrections, anyone??

I never realized my accent was something to be ashamed of until I traveled. I thought I had a nice accent, more academic than Southern, more even-keel and standard than NYC and certainly much better than Kentucky. When I went abroad (or overseas, I should say), I suddenly realized that it was. Everyone heard my accent and thought, American, here we go again. An accent doesn't just convey a set of sounds, it conveys a set of stereotypes. Everything anyone thinks about America comes coasting to the forefront of their minds when they hear an American accent. Generally that means politics, and generally I don't want to go there. Generally everybody else does.

You can tell the American accent is so distasteful because anytime a Brit or Australian tries to do one they always end up sounding miserably hick. And suddenly it hit me: that's what I sound like to them. No wonder they never stop mocking us.

To be completely honest, I'm terrible at recognizing different accents. I have a vague idea that if you sat me down in room with the ten most distinctive speakers of ten different English accents and had me place them correctly I'd be able to do all right, but that's probably just wistful thinking. I listened to sermons for weeks here before it hit me that our pastor was English (he made a joke about the Queen).

If I think to listen for an accent I have a better chance of identifying it, but even then it's tough going. Some people just seem to have an ear for it and some people just don't. Oddly enough, the Poms (those would be Brits) all seem to be in the former category.

If I were in America, I'd of course recognize another English accent as being non-American, but if I heard the same speaker amid the throngs of justifiably-placed Australians here, I'd be a lot less likely to call them out.

It starts out the same for the Australians here: when they hear me, they know automatically that I'm not Australian, but they seem to think it's pretty ridiculously clear I'm North American. (They're a bit more geographically savvy. They know about borders and stuff.) Some ask if perhaps I am Canadian?, a question I always find odd. Canadian? How many Canadians do they meet over here? Evidently enough that they've learned it's much safer to ask an American if they are Canadian than a Canadian if they are American.

At first I was amused and didn't really mind, but after the fifteenth time or so it started to get to me. First off, are there really that many Canadians here? (And why, as a side note, do all the Australians want to go on holiday to Canada? Don't they realize it's colder, much, much colder, than Sydney? Then again, why do Australians want to go on holiday anywhere when they live here?) And second off, they're asking because they're trying to be nice and polite and tactfully point out that they would never dream of making that dreadful mistake of assuming I, a seemingly nice individual, could possibly come from That Big, Bad Country. Gee, thanks. Yes, actually, I do, and, yes, actually, I love it, and, no, actually, I do not want to be Canadian, thanks for asking.

But really there's no pleasing me, because the other pitfall of someone asking me where I'm from is me shying replying, "America," and them going, "well, of course I know that. Which state are you from?," which I find also distasteful because there they go making those nasty assumptions. How do they know I'm American? I might be Canadian for all they know. Really, it's not like they can tell the difference.

My students are my favorite. Poor souls can't tell a Southern from a Scot (can't understand either), but are always excited when they hear I'm American. (It's so amusing: they think they can tell Brits from Americans because of "caHn't" vs "can't," yet in actual practice they're inevitably surprised to learn I'm American. They've just been assuming I'm English (when I was in England) or Australian (here).)

Yes, I know they're thinking Friends and Calvin Klein and Seinfeld and Hollywood and New York and LA, but it's nice to know they're genuinely excited about my country -- like I am about theirs. It's a cultural thing, too -- when they're meeting another foreigner in a foreign place, they're not going to roll their eyes and say, oh, sorry to hear you're from there. The Brits and Aussies have no such compunction. They really are sorry.

PS: To all my Canadian, British and Australian friends -- no, you guys haven't been offending me. Contrary to popular belief, some Americans actually can get your jokes. ;)

Friday, October 24, 2008

quicko: prices

Gosh, it's expensive! I've lived in Boston and London, and I still can't get over the fact that I paid $8.20 for milk and a candy bar. Or $20.25 for a box of cereal, a jug of milk and a Viennetta. Or $60 when the sandals are on sale. Or $35 for the cheap skirt. And don't even think about getting a book new for under $22 or used for under $7. Of course you can't buy a car ... so just fork over $45 for the cab ride home.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

quicko: flora

Guess what?? I have a new favorite flower: the frangipani!

You might know it as the Hawaiian lei flower, but it grows here -- on trees! It comes in white, light pink and light yellow and is absolutely gorgeous and smells beautifully. What more do you want in a flower?

The trees here are magnificent in general -- some tremendously big, some full of hanging vines that are actually supposed to be there, some with unusual bark and some twisty and turny. They're beautiful.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

quicko: politics

I just think you ought to know who the Prime Minister is here. His name is Kevin Rudd, and he's not especially attractive. He only came in office in February this year, and has so far been most praised for his near-immediate act of issuing and official government apology to the Aboriginal people. (Talk about too little, too late, but thank goodness somebody did.)

Since then he hasn't done too terribly much that's made the news, although he was on Rove the other night. Rove, as you may recall, finishes every "20 bucks in 20 seconds" round with the infamous, "and, (insert guest name here, in our case, Kevin Rudd), who would YOU turn gay for?" Ruddie didn't quite get it, though. He said his wife.

quicko: measurement

I'm very proud that I am finally getting a handle on the metric system, by which I mean I know 68 Fahrenheit is 20 Celsius and 86 Fahrenheit is 30 Celsius.

So it's not much, but it's a start. (And many thanks to Emily for teaching me my handy conversion rule.) Shortly after I got here I overheard a man say it was 75 out and I nearly went up to introduce myself and thank him for giving me a number I could understand.

The quick run-down: it's Celsius, kilometers and kilos here, unless you're talking height (I'm still 5'8"!).

Monday, October 20, 2008

quicko: clothing

Two observations here.

First, skinny jeans are in. Oh help.

Second, it's a huge faux pas to wear sneakers (aka trainers) with jeans. What else, you may ask, do you wear sneakers with? Evidently protocol only calls when one is wearing the trakkie daks (track suit pants), or possibly when one is engaged in a vigorous outdoor sort of activity, like bushwalking (which, incidentally, is more or less taking a hike anywhere outside the city center).

Sunday, October 19, 2008

rove and other television anomalies

Rove is my favorite Australian TV show, along with So You Think You Can Dance and Thank God You're Here. I like it a lot.

Rove IS the guy. It's really his name, and he actually looks quite normal. The show's kind of a late night comedy sort of thing, but way better than Letterman and with a much cuter cast than Leno.

Rove, like I said, is the host. He interviews the guests and all that jazz. He also does "20 bucks in 20 seconds," which is one of my personal highlights of the show, because he asks each guest funny, semi-insulting questions in rapid fire ("So, Mr. Swimming-Olympic-Medalist-Whose-First-Name-Kim-Forgets Hooker, we've come up with a few headlines for your newspaper columns, what have you got?") and I get to watch them squirm and try to be witty under pressure, which they often are, though generally accidentally.

The last question, though, is always the infamous, "SO, (insert guest name here), who would YOU turn gay for?" Answers have, naturally, varied. There's been: "me -- I'm pretty hot!" Or, when Rove interviewed a musical couple simultaneously, he told them he wasn't picky -- they could pick individually or communally. The man immediately piped up and said that, yes, they'd like to turn communally gay for Angelina Jolie. Hugh Jackman, though, got the goods when he informed Rove that the airline hostess had warned him about this question -- and she'd told him he could get an extra $20 if he said Rove. (He did.)

It's a question that gets you thinking, hey? Can't say she's my final answer, but for now I think I've gotta do the patriotic thing and go for Palin. You?

So also in the show there's this girl called Carrie who does "Carrie at the Newsdesk," which is a humorous take on weekly events delivered in a standard, deadpan style, and a guy called Pete with the originally titled "Petespace." Ryan is a cute curly-headed guy who does various packages on various random things, to be specific about it. Then there's the (I think he's nameless) guy at CommSec (Commonwealth being the big bank here, or at least it's mine, so I'm convinced it's the most important) who gives the weekly economy update.

My favorites, though, are Hamish and Andy, or, to be more specific, my favorite is Hamish. Andy's not bad, of course, but I'd never thought it was possible to like a guy named Hamish before I moved to Australia. Now I know I was wrong.

One of my friends kept saying Hamish Blake, Hamish Blake was her future husband and I kept saying hairy coo, hairy coo, I had a picture of a hairy cow in Scotland named Hamish.

And then I saw him on Thank God You're Here (which is like Who's Line Is It Anyway?, only with a slightly higher budget) and decided it was possible for a Hamish to be cute, and then I saw him on Rove for a couple weeks and decided it was possible for a Hamish to be hot, and then I saw him on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? (of COURSE "scribe" was right!!) and I'm not really one for celebrity crushes, especially now that Heath Ledger's dead, but I decided I was going to have to fight her for him.

Hamish and Andy are the dorky cool kids that run around making trouble and taking videos of it. Like they went to the Beijing Olympics and spent their time marching after soldiers (competing to see who could get away with longer) and finding restaurants dedicated to serving penis of various animals. What's not to love?

My least favorite part (besides the boring musicians), though, is Dave Hughes' "Help Me, Hughsie." He mostly just shouts a lot (and they say Americans are loud!), though occasionally he does something dramatic like shaving his chest or his dog.

And then there's my favorite part of the show. It's the Things that Makes Them Happy bit, where everyone goes around and says what makes them happy after Rove does his odd yoga head twist. Like Pete said that the ladies made him happy. Because, you know, it smelled so much nicer than the men's.

And that's Rove, except of course the guests, who actually do answer more than 20 seconds of questions and I think are more or less supposed to be the main highlight of the show. I was quite disappointed to learn it's actually filmed in Melbourne, though, so I can't just pop in and say hello to Hamish. Alas.

quicko: city center?

First off, the city center is called the CBD -- Central Business District. Which sort of explains this point, but not really: the thing is, Sydney city isn't all that happening when it comes to weekends. Yeah, there is stuff to do, but it can be a bit of a ghost town (especially around Martin Place and up Wynyard end) during the weekends -- its main purpose really does seem to be the Monday-Friday commerce and the people mostly live in the suburbs. Some areas are a bit more energetic (say, Oxford Street), but no matter where you are, it's ridiculously hard to get a hot chocolate anywhere after 6 pm, much less after midnight.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

quicko: girl stuff

So you have to go to a drugstore (aka chemist's) if you want to get a tampon with an applicator, and the plastic ones don't even exist, unless you've been smart and stocked up on Kotex while you were home.

While Australian girls don't seem to mind the lack of applicators, what it means in actual practice, alas, is (without getting too graphic about it), you've basically got to wash your hands before and after you go to the bathroom ... which is a bit excessive, to my way of thinking. At least I'm good and stocked up on the Purell, too.

quicko: the old "one" beer myth

I have a feeling that A. this isn't just Australian and B. I really should have known it before, but I've recently come to realize that when an Australian says they're going to the pub for "one" beer, they rarely mean anything short of three.

quicko: church

One of the things that's really impressed me about my church here is that it's not all obsessed with our pastor. Granted, our pastor is great, and actually much more rave-worthy than others I've recently encountered, but he doesn't let it be all about him, but keeps it all about GOD, which is exactly as it should be. I think one of the greatest testaments to this is that when he's away no one makes a fuss. It doesn't feel odd or understaffed or less awe-inspiring than usual -- and, more telling, no one runs up to the newcomers and says, "oh my gosh, you've got to come back next week and hear our real pastor."

Friday, October 17, 2008

quicko: xoxo

So it's the same in England, but it's true here, too: people (girls especially) often end emails, facebook posts, etc. with xx or xxx or xoxo or some such combination. It's just a friendly gesture, completely non-romantic, and very widespread practice. It caught me off guard the first few times in England (especially on mass emails or, worse, from guys I suddenly thought must be much more into me than I'd originally thought they were ... not). Girls are also pretty lovey dovey in texts and even speech to friends or whoever's nearby, too, if you take them literally, love.

UPDATE:  you've got to check out THIS LINK about x's and o's.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


I grew up in Ohio, which is clearly a state that has people clawing to get out of it. First we had the Wright Brothers, and then we had Neil Armstrong. Thank goodness Edison’d lit up the place first, or we’d all have died in darkness.

Usually when I meet people I try to keep the Ohio bit under wraps and leave it that I live "six hours south-east of Chicago, which is practically a suburb in American distances," but sometimes the truth comes out. Generally the listener pauses thoughtfully and goes, "Ohio. That’s in the Midwest, isn’t it?" and then smiles, pleased as punch at having genuine assurance his geographical skills are so finely attuned. Occasionally I hear someone’s got a brother-in-law in Michigan or even a cousin in Oregon. Is that close? Recently a woman gushed, "Ohio! How romantic!," a notion I would have liked to preserve, except that the hysterical laughter got slightly in the way. My favorite, though, was a student who thought for a second, then bravely ventured, "Aloha!"

It all backfires, of course, when I meet another American. Half the time I’m so busy placing myself south-east of Chicago that I don’t recognize an ex-pat until they stop me, "Are you talking Kentucky? What city? I’m from Columbus." At which point I ‘fess up to living significantly north of Kentucky, halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton, but really having been born in Boston. And then we forget about Boston and talk about Graeter’s and Skyline and King’s Island until someone interrupts and asks if Cleveland isn’t in Ohio, too? He remembers something vaguely with Drew Carey that he’d never understood until now.

It’s terribly exciting to meet another American abroad, though, and even better to work with one. One of my co-workers is from Missouri but married an Aussie, and has taught me numerous essential bits of Australiana like that jumping jacks are called star jumps, that estrogen is spelled estroegen and that Freddos are wonderful chocolate frog treats, though the strawberry Freddos don’t sell as well as the caramel, or even the honey. And then we talk about Jolly Ranchers and Halloween and how we both cry when we hear "Proud to Be an American," even though we don’t like country music.

Sometimes it’s the little things that I miss, like Bath and Body Work’s vanilla bean soap, tampons with plastic applicators and paying $1.98 for a hot chocolate with free whipped cream at Panera. Sometimes I wish they’d all just drop the annoying accents and talk normal, and, gosh, couldn’t they just switch to Fahrenheit and pounds while they’re at it? Sometimes my head hurts and even the Tylenol I brought over with me isn’t doing the trick and my mom’s too far away to help. Sometimes it’s 5 pm and I want to call home, but I don’t because it’s 3 am there. And sometimes I remember my family is on the other side of the world, and missing me and loving me, and then I think about them, and miss them and love them, too.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

quicko: medicine


That's it, Panadol. It's the Tylenol. Just so you know if you visit and need some. I haven't had it (I operate on a BYOTylenol basis), but it's what everyone takes. Panadol. Don't forget.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

quicko: 21st birthdays

21st birthdays are huge here. There's nothing really special that happens, legally speaking, but the cultural significance has remained and the parties reflect that. While in America most people spend their 21st getting as drunk as possible, most Australians already did that at 18 (or just some random day, yeah) so now they're ready to schnazz it up and do things right. These are real blow-outs, classy affairs with paper invitations, cocktail dresses and themes. All the parties seem to have themes here, and, might I add, Australians know how to do them to the hilt. Hurrah!

Monday, October 13, 2008

quicko: TV

There's three channels here. Seriously. Seven, Nine and Ten. Those are the options, and at least one of them usually has sports on, the other something boring and sometimes I'll hit it right with the third.

The one thing they do really decently, though, is movies. On a Friday or Saturday night gone wrong, there's usually at least two choices, one of which is usually quite watchable. Fair enough.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

quicko: travel

In general, Australians seem to be much better traveled than Americans (then again, who doesn't?). But here I'm suddenly hearing about all sorts of exotic places as everyday vacation destinations: Fiji, Thailand, Bali, Vietnam. Even the occasional jaunt to Nepal or Malaysia. Japan, naturally. It's so cliche, though.

Yes, folks, we're near Asia, so to Asia we go. And Oceania. And suddenly my geography's gotten a whole lot better. I know where Samoa is.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

quicko: marshmallows

There's really just one thing to say here: they're pink and white.

I mean, each individual marshmallow is pink or white. You can't buy packs any other way, there are no all-white packs. They simply don't exist. And furthermore, Australians have no clue that anyone else might buy them differently. It's true, I heard a comedian make a joke about marshmallows on TV the other night and it relied heavily upon the pink-white premise.

They don't do s'mores here, or Rice Krispy treats either. (Hard to, since they're called Rice Bubbles here.) I was supposed to go to an international lunch the other day and take something American. My American friend who's been here longer immediately recommended Rice Krispy treats -- such a novelty!

The texture in marshmallows isn't quite on here, either. It's very subtle, but any American would call the Aussie marshmallow bluff. It's hard to describe, but they're a bit smaller and a bit ... chalkier on the outside. And maybe a little heavier? You'll have to try one -- I recommend the whites.


YES, there are kangaroos and koalas here, and YES, they are cute ... but there are so many other animals, too!

The first creature that made me do a double take was the ibis, which I found several of wandering around Wynyard Park while trying to find my bus. Basically, it's their beaks: they're long. They're actually very long and very thin and look like someone grabbed the bird by its beak with a pair of pliers and pulled. Ouch.

The second animal that made me do a double take was another bird: the cockatoo. It's not that cockatoos are so odd-looking (they're gorgeous birds), but that it was flying around of its own accord. I'm not exactly proud, but my first thought was, "but who feeds it?"

While we're on the bird theme, let me also just mention the rainbow lorikeet, the kookaburra, the pelican and the fairy penguin. The lorikeet can be a noisy little bird when it wants (it usually does), but it's got so many pretty colors combined in one small area I find it quite easy to forgive its happy outbursts. Goodness knows I'd be making noise if I suddenly turned green and red and yellow and blue, too!

The kookaburra, of old gum tree fame, is a fairly standard bird, by Australian standards. It is known for its laugh, though I like it most just for its name, which Merryn tells me I say funny because of my American accent. Same goes for the emu, the national bird, but after seeing them up close, I can’t claim to be much of an emu fan.

As for the pelican -- I had no idea how big they were. I thought I'd seen some in St. James' Park in London, but the ones at Collaroy Beach here were nearly twice their body size and four times their beak size. They didn't do much, but they certainly were impressive.

The fairy penguins, though -- can I get a collective awww? -- are eat-them-up adorable. They wander in from the Tasman Sea every night -- in groups, for safety, the little dears. They waddle from the water to their burrows, cooing to each other as they go. You just don't get more adorable.

It's not just the birds, though. The mammals are pretty amazing, too.

I have a soft spot for wombats, having personally been one for a brief while one afternoon, but that's another story. They're cute, seemingly cuddly critters who don't strike you as the most witty of dinner companions. They're more the sort you want to stand up for and defend when the other animals make fun of them, poor precious things.

The wallabies are smaller versions of kangaroos, and much more manageable in groups than their larger cousins; dingoes are the exotic wild dogs; and Tasmanian devils are the spinning tops of the mammal kingdom. It's not just the cartoon, they really are. My friend Holly and I watched one at a wildlife park for ages and it never stopped running in circles. We eventually gave up waiting for it to stop.

The one animal I still haven't managed to see here is the platypus, and I really want to. Evidently they're very shy, well-hidden animals, but I thought I could depend on Taronga Zoo to show me one, since it features so prominently on all the road signs directing you there. And I could have, if they hadn't put it to bed before I made it to the exhibit.

I know Australia's famous for being home of numerous poisonous, deadly and otherwise annoying fauna, but really, it seems to me that they get more than their fair share of press. Sure, you don't go swimming in crocodile-invested areas in the Northern Territories or cozy up to a friendly funnel-web, but you don't drop dead just by stepping off the plane at Sydney Kingsford Smith. There's plenty of people here who are still alive, trust me.

I will say, though, that my higher creepy-crawly tolerance has risen since coming. Little lizards, ants and spiders don't phase me nearly as much as before (a debatable tolerance level, I know), though the saturated dead mouse was still pushing things. Then again, I could have found that in America.

Despite Australia's diversity of creatures, though, you still can't find everything, including some seemingly common critters I thought were nearly everywhere -- squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, wolves, coyotes, robins, cardinals and bluejays, for example. I was also surpised to go to the Royal Easter Show and the zoo and see deer -- cute fawns, especially, but the concept of a deer was actually a relatively exotic one. And, as my flatmate has helpfully added (she's been helping me with the accuracy of my list), they haven't got bears, either.

To close with the cute, though, I will return to the infinitely adorable koala, which I have actually had the extremely rare experience of seeing up close and personal in the wild near the Great Ocean Road. Not only did I see it -- I actually got to climb the tree and sit on the same branch with it. Now, there's an Australian experience!

Friday, October 10, 2008

quicko: tasmania

So, if you don't know, Tasmania is not cool.
Just thought I'd clear that up, because I used to think it was. That was before I learned that Tassie is the West Virginia of Australia.
Like there was a news story here not too long after I came, about a father and a daughter that had got married, or wanted to, or something like that. And they were from Tasmania, and nobody was surprised.

That's all I have to say on that, except there's no way I'm going to tell you what a map of Tassie is. You'll have to figure that one on your own.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

quicko: ATMs

Pop quiz!

What denomination of currency do ATMs give out?

I. $1 coins
II. $2 coins
III. $10 bills
IV. $20 bills
V. $50 bills

A. I, II, IV and V
B. III, IV and V
C. IV and V
D. All of the above

And the right answer is ... C. (Now, go back and read what that means again.)

quicko: school uniforms

School uniforms are a bit of a hot topic in debate classes, and I daresay reality, from time to time, but growing up I certainly never wore one. It was only those snobby Catholic schools that did, right?

Here they're normal. Every kid wears one. And it's adorable to see the little boys hopping on the buses in their straw hats -- yes, straw hats -- and blue check shirts. Or maybe plain blue ones. Or maybe white ones, depending on the school. They're all matching, though, if they go to the same place.

The poor girls look terrible in them, though. They have to wear these uniforms fairly high up in the academic ranks, and none of the girls look good in them. At least they suffer together. Bless.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

quicko: ads

The ads on TV here are bizarre. There's a small slew of governmental warnings: don't smoke, wear sunscreen, be happy if you're old! (A helpline for the depressed elderly.) Australians are also advised, via ads, to walk to school (carefully!), drink in moderation and, again, not to smoke!!

These anti-smoking ads, though! They're downright graphic! Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think you'd ever find an American channel showing fatty deposits in arteries, deformed toeless feet, the insides of brains and true testimonials from (now) dead people about how they want to see their children again (but didn't get to because they DIED first, did you get that, DIED!!).


Monday, October 6, 2008

quicko: at work

It's amazing how much many Australians swear at work. I remember being shocked in America to hear a colleague of mine pack on the obscenities in the workplace, but here's it everyday practice.

It's not that Australians are swearing out of anger, it's just that these are regular vocabulary words that come out regularly in regular conversation. In fact, it's hardly a complete conversation without one. I mean, where's the drama then?

quicko: language

Australians love to shorten words, and very rarely use the full one if they can help it. This results in all sorts of odd new professions and inclinations -- journos, posties, foodies and nudies (journalists, postal workers, food freaks and nudists), for example -- as well as entirely new concepts -- like arvos, mozzies, brekkie, brolleys and trakkie daks (afternoons, mosquitos, breakfast, umbrellas and track suit pants). Australians have a knack for knowing precisely how to shorten which words or, ironically, how to lengthen them in a way that makes you think the word's been shortened. 'On ya.

little cupcake

(originally from 27 July 2008)

It was perhaps a mark of living in a city for too long that I didn’t find $3.50 exorbitant for a cupcake.

Every morning my bus flies past a bakery with prim lines of intricately frosted cupcakes and every morning I think how wonderful one would be. One morning I went in and requested a little cupcake with green frosting. The girl told me it was peppermint, and I forked over the dough without a second thought, which was how Little Cupcake and I found ourselves standing at a bus stop one Friday morning.

Little cupcakes aren’t supposed to ride city buses because they are Food, but Little Cupcake came equipped for such nuisances of societal life with a lovely white paper bag, highly convenient for concealing its Foodness. Most food doesn’t fit – much less conceal itself – in a white paper bag (pineapples spring to mind, as do ice cream, sloppy joes or even, good heavens, soup), but Little Cupcake fit very nicely and discreetly.

We hopped gingerly on the bus, Little Cupcake and I, and carefully made our way to the back. We took two seats together and rode daintily down George Street, alighting at World Square to the unforeseen distress of Rain! Was ever a little cupcake so put upon as this? For while bus journeys are a force to be reckoned with, rain is much more serious. Rain can melt frosting.

We did what any reasonable duo would do. We sought shelter and reconsidered: yes, it was raining, but there was still the lovely White Paper Bag of Protection and our walk wasn’t particularly far. Besides, it would be much nicer for Little Cupcake to be nibbled nicely in the warmth than scarfed down in the dampness of World Square’s concrete open-air shopping center. Some places are simply not conducive to the well-eating of Little Cupcakes.

I peeked to check on its frosting. The problem, of course, is that even a lovely White Paper Bag of Protection can offend a little cupcake’s icing, particularly when it is peppermint green. I was most distressed that Little Cupcake’s icing would hit side, much as I constantly fear a thoughtlessly placed lid will disturb the whipped cream on my hot chocolate. Fortunately, except where the fold of the bag poked into it, Little Cupcake was an amazingly well-balanced cupcake, if not in the altogether dietary sense. I was much impressed.

We forged through the rain together and all went remarkably well in spite of the rain, except for the Elizabeth Street traffic signal, which had evidently not been preset with the crossing of Little Cupcakes in mind, but which eventually deigned to allow us to pass.

And then there was but one barrier between us.

There is a well-known concept in the world today, one that I approve of and like and generally publicly support, though one that doesn’t often come naturally to me. There are, however, times and places when Sharing is simply not meant to happen.

Anyone with any sense recognizes these times. Little Cupcake and I had just arrived at work and summoned the lift, finished our wait as it finished its five-floor descent and very nearly stepped blissfully in when one of my friends joined us. It was Friday, but she didn’t ask about our weekend plans.

"What’ve you got in the little bag?" she asked.

Caught off guard, I confessed.

"What kind?"

I hesitated. It isn’t polite to discuss such details in front of little cupcakes, but I didn’t expect her to understand this. "Chocolate with peppermint frosting."

"The best. You can’t beat choco with mint."

We nodded solemnly together. Suddenly she pressed level four. Five minutes later she emerged next to me with a warm chocolate croissant.

"Calories don’t count on Fridays," she said.

The time had almost come. I carefully extracted Little Cupcake from its haven of white, then paused to fold up White Paper Bag of Protection. It had served us well, and I’d grown rather fond of it.

Usually cupcakes are fully disrobed for proper gulping, but Little Cupcake did not invite such immodesty, and certainly not gulping. We compromised at removing half the wrapper and one of us went in for the icing.

It was the sort of icing that should probably have been gracefully ingested, but grace does not always align itself with reality. In the end, there was little left of Little Cupcake, save its delicate outer garment, which in normal circumstances would have been harvested for every possible trace of chocolate before being spit out in a little heap of saliva-ridden wrap, but Little Cupcake was not a normal cupcake. Though I daresay it would have been more fitting to burn the wrapper and scatter the ashes at sea, this would prove difficult to explain to others. At least the trash can had not yet been much used this morning.

It is very hard to proceed forward in life from a Friday morning spent with a little cupcake, but I was forced to forge ahead and sought a consolation prize in the form of a cup of tea. Which was when I suddenly wondered where my last five-dollar bill had gone.

pilgrims (but not indians)

(originally from 20 July 2008)

So this week has been World Youth Day in Sydney. How a day can last a week is a whole nother story; suffice it to say Thursday managed to stretch from Tuesday to Sunday this week.

Basically, the city has been overrun by thousands of young Catholic "pilgrims" here to celebrate, cry and, hopefully, catch a glimpse of the Popemobile’s famous rider. They’ve draped themselves in flags, painted their faces and donned matching backpacks. That’s right: nothing says humble pilgrim traveling from hither to yon in quest of religious epiphany like matching vivid red, yellow and orange backpacks. Welcome to 2008.

They’ve worshiped and sang and slept under the stars. Unfortunately, no one told half of them they’d need to bring sleeping bags. I was standing in line for my evening E68 one night when an African pilgrim approached me.

"Do you know where I can buy a sleeping bag?" he asked. We were in the middle of the city.

"Umm," I said.

"Someone told me there was a shop around here I could get one at."

"Umm. I don’t know. I’m sorry, I don’t usually buy sleeping bags here."

"But where did you buy your last sleeping bag?"

"In America," I said, then remembered that I’d actually never bought a sleeping bag before. L.L. Bean sprang to mind, but mail-order didn’t sound like what he was going for, particularly with overseas shipping costs.

"But you live here now, don’t you? Where would you buy a sleeping bag here?"

"I really don’t know, I don’t camp too much." There was the Warringah Mall, forty-five minutes away by bus and almost certainly closed. There was World Square, a twenty-five minute walk away, and not terribly likely to carry sleeping bags. There was, there was, there was – why was no one else in the whole line helping me? They’d lived here for years, for goodness’ sake! He stared at me intently, apparently wary of my utter lack of knowledge.

"What time do the stores close?" he asked. Reasonable question, but –

"I’m so sorry, I don’t know. I really don’t usually shop in the city at night. Maybe … um, I think they look like they’ll be open for a while longer. Maybe a couple hours, I don’t know."

"Someone said there was a shop nearby here. Near Margaret Street." There was something!

"Margaret Street, yes, you’re near Margaret Street, it’s right –"

The E71 pulled up, pulling the line ahead.

"There’s your bus," he smiled.

"It’s not actually mine," I said, striving for honesty as I was propelled forward. I smiled a weak goodbye, feeling ridiculously unhelpful as I sat on the bench to wait for the E68 to drag me away from the bedding-less man. I never saw him again.

He wasn’t the only pilgrim in trouble, but his was far less than the contingent of travelers who’d been mistakenly informed that Adelaide was a suburb of Sydney. They found themselves flown back by other Catholics who generously funded their lesson in Australian geography.

Most the pilgrims were quite friendly; one even asked if she could sit next to me on the public bus. Of course, I told her, and we chatted from Town Hall, where she’d boarded with 30 more people than the morning city bus usually held, to World Square, an amazingly short distance in which to learn she was from Minnesota (in the U.S., she added shyly, but perked up when she learned I was from Ohio), studied in Michigan and rarely got out of the UP these days.

It all got me thinking, though. I didn’t mind a few extra people on a bus or a sleepy soul trying to find a shop, but cities, it seems to me, should be for the people who live in them – the ones who have to come to and from work every day to support themselves and their families. And before it happened I was set to gripe and grump my way through the week, walking the extra twenty minutes each way to let the city commissioner (or whatever they call him here) brag to Melbourne that his city had hosted half a million pilgrims.

But then a funny thing happened. My bus came Monday morning. And Tuesday, and Wednesday, and, joy of joys, even Thursday and Friday! And in the afternoon, there it was on Monday. And Tuesday. On Wednesday afternoon the road was closed, so I walked. And I walked again on Thursday, but, actually, it wasn’t too bad. I’d made it through the day, I was happy, I was going home. And actually a little extra walk wasn’t that bad for me, especially if it helped half a million other people be happier and grow closer to Jesus. Maybe I wasn’t the most important one out there, after all.

Now, I still think that cities should be for the citizens, the commuters. Besides preserving historic sites and natural beauty, the people who live somewhere should take precedence. But Sydney actually let them, kudos to it. It was big enough for the Pope and for the people. Amen.


(originally from 13 July 2008)

My space heater is having a bit of an identity crisis. Maybe it’s because it’s used to being called a radiator here in Australia, but somehow it fails to see that its main purpose in life is to heat a space. It prefers to think of itself as a piece of decorative furniture. Whoever gave it the idea that a large hunk of beige metal was decorative remains a mystery, but that’s the only plausible explanation I can come up with as lately it’s taken to strutting around the room in my tight pink shirt when it thinks no one is looking. Not that I’m complaining: it’s the only way any of my clothes, pink shirts or otherwise, have the slightest hope of staying warm. Which is not to say that my space heater emanates excessive, or even noticeable, fragments of heat, but it does a good enough imitation of other space heaters (the non-decorative sorts) that cloth or hands actually clutching it tend to remember that spring exists somewhere in the world.

You see, it’s actually cold in Australia now. Well, "cold" might be stretching things a bit, but it is certainly less warm than suburban American creatures traditionally prefer. I don’t actually know what the outside temperature is. I’d like to blame my lack of knowledge on the Celsius/Fahrenheit fiasco, but the truth of the matter is I just never pay attention to the degree mark, regardless of temperature scale. There is one prominent digital sign in Neutral Bay that recently announced it was –1º Celsius, but I’ve kind of lost trust in it since it’s been announcing the same temperature for roughly the last four months. Its competitor of a slightly more erudite nature, The Sydney Morning Herald, is currently reporting temperatures between 41º and 61º (though of course it calls them 5º and 16º, so maybe my space heater isn’t alone on the identity crisis front). Not that I’m calling the digital sign a liar; I just don’t happen to ask it for personal advice any longer.

Now, I do realize that it’s a bit much to swallow the idea of a natural-born Bostonian whinging about cold on the world’s, or at least the Southern Hemisphere’s, most surfable continent, but let me point out one very important concept: central heating. In Boston, they have it. In Sydney, they don’t. That means that no matter how cold it gets outside, it (this is truly a freakish glitch of nature) gets even colder inside, resulting in the fact that I am now slightly more obsessed with temperature than Frosty’s mother.

So, since I came back to winter in Australia from America’s June heat, I’ve been layering up, snuggling up in the very friendly fuzzy purple blanket and justifying increasingly disturbing quantities of Max Brenner hot chocolate, which is why I decided to buy a space heater. It was down to that or another warm blanket and, as I’d just bought a fuzzy purple blanket which I loved, but which was banished to the bedroom as it left purple fuzz on anything it touched, including other pieces of purple fuzz, I opted for trying a new route. The problem with new routes is that, of course, they’re new.

And that was how I found myself standing hopelessly in front of approximately fourteen space heaters of varying sizes (some I could carry, some I couldn’t), shapes (some were ugly, others were uglier) and voltages (none of which I understood, but some of which appeared to be impressed with themselves for the figures they boasted). I was just about to break down and call my dad at three a.m. his time when it hit me that, of all the options, only two had the Very Special Clock, which allowed the time that they were to radiate to be set in advance, which would prove very helpful indeed when returning from a chilly night trek back from the Seaforth bus stop. Of the two space heaters with the Very Special Clock, only one fit into the carry-able category, so $70-no-refunds-allowed later, home it came and at home it promptly made itself.

Having decided that it was now safely inside my room it could dispense with formalities of, say, communication, Spacey sat in its box and stared, offering only a thin instruction manual that announced the deep, dark secret it had hitherto kept from me: it came with some assembly required.

Assembly is not one of my strengths. Not assembling large groups of people, not assemblies at school and certainly not assembly of space heaters who don’t tell you they’re not coming with wheels attached. We thus spent a long evening together, Spacey and I, and I’d like to think we bonded, but unfortunately there have been some gaps in communication, particularly as regards who’s turn it is to keep the room warm which night. Maybe it’s unfair of me to put Spacey on duty every night, but I could have sworn the agreement was for me to put the wheels on and Spacey to keep the room warm. I got those little wheels on quite well, thank you very much, just as soon as I figured out that the U-wrench wasn’t part of the contraption and that half the screws were still buried in the bottom on the box, those sneaky little critters. Call me crazy, but ever since I brought it home, Spacey’s had me wrapped around its little finger.

Now it’s pretty much the depths of winter here and the cold is enough to leave me thinking longingly of my red elf suit on those February evenings in Michigan when my roommates insisted on sleeping with the window open. I’d fly back there immediately if only I could, but I can’t tonight. Spacey and I are playing dress up.