Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Home Sweet New Home

Aaaaaaand.... we're back! One of the best, craziest, most unexpected weeks of my life. Try to imagine with me:

the Australian national underwater hockey championships
in Tasmania
living on an Abalone boat
with 2 Aussies, 1 Dutch guy, and Nod and I
sleeping all together on bunk beds below deck
like a very strange summer camp, or an ill-conceived reality TV show.

That's alright, we couldn't imagine it either--at least not until we arrived and reality ended up proving once again to be much stranger than fiction. So much happened in the last 9 days that we can't fit it all into one post, so Nod and I will start writing it up digest style in the days to come--lots of videos and photos to follow.

But to catch you all up to the present, Nod and I returned from the wilds of Tasmania yesterday and began nestling into our new home in Newtown (farewell, Petersham!) where we'll live until the end of our stay in mid-April.

Newtown is a glorious, earthy mix of amazing restaurants, hip cafes, and unshaven people. If Newtown had a personal ad, it might look something like this:

Age: 19-27
Gender: questioning/trans/not applicable
Hair color: pink and ironic gray
Favorite foods: vegetarian vietnamese noodles, tofu ice cream, cheap beer.
Favorite music: obscure
Favorite things: buddha statues, thrift stores, BYOB restaurants, used book stores.

If it sounds unbearably hipster, Newtown somehow manages to walk a perfect line between eccentric and pretentious--it's almost all charming, and there's always something or someone interesting to see.

Newtown is one massive corridor of wall-to-wall restaurants and shops, and almost all of the cafes have big overstuffed couches that face out onto the street. It's perfect for drinking a soy smoothie and gawking at some of the stranger sights, which recently included 1) a woman with a brown paper bag on her head; 2) 4 different people walking barefoot down the street;  3) a woman with green leopard spots tattooed on her partially shaven head; 4) a man riding a blow-up unicorn on the sidewalk; 5) a group of Buddhist monks.

And then when you're done people watching, you can take your fill of all the Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Japanese food you've ever wanted, visit the Vegan Butcher (soy-meat products only), or indulge at the chocolate cafe.

But the best, best, best part about Newtown is our new home. We recently left behind our share house in Petersham, a suburb 2km away (To which we also say: good riddance, Petersham, we never liked you anyway).

We swapped it all for a beautiful, airy, white stucco house where we live with the lovely Ms. A., her teenage son H., and the occasional company of the whimsical and elegant matriarch, Grandma R.

Ms. A is an artist, and her house is all cool white walls, broad wooden floor boards, natural light, and low tables. They live next to a park with massive fig trees that filter out the sun and keeps our bedroom cool and breezy. Everything is tranquility here.

The entire family is warm and wickedly funny--her son H. has social skills that are 17 going on Neil Patrick Harris, and Grandma R. is an entire character unto herself. Grandma R. is a proper grand dame who literally clutched at her pearls when discussing how slang words like "Aussie" or "G'Day" have destroyed the English language here. I stayed up late with her last night as she recounted how she once sailed on her son's yacht from Naples to the South of France, how divine Paris is in the springtime ("You really must go there, darling"), how lovely her little cottage on the beach was in north Sydney before the global recession made her sell all those pretty things. H. rolled his eyes a bit as she mourned the loss of her summer cottage before they both began to recommend the latest book or documentary or play they had seen, or explain the intricacies of Australian politics. I just spent this evening sitting with Grandma R. and listening to a recording of Mahler's Resurrection with her, watching as the music moved her to tears. Just after, H. found a collection of Roald Dahl's short stories that I had never heard of before and lent them to me. They're a generous and kind family. And maybe more than anything, it's lovely to feel the warmth of community again, to have a home where Nod and I can plant our roots for a while.

Returning home from Tasmania also meant a return to French class this morning, where I found Marilou and David were still in good form. Marilou outdid herself by greeting me with Shakespeare this morning: "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun." Enormously pleased with herself, Marilou then applauded at her own performance. Meanwhile, David had been given a homework assignment to describe the day in the life of a celebrity, for which he chose: Julius Caesar. Excuse me, Jules Cesar. It started off something like, "At 5 am, Jules Cesar wakes up and takes a bath. At 6:30, he plans a war. At 8:25, he rides his horse." Only David kept interrupting himself to explain in excited English how Julius Caesar used to shave his entire body every day, or how he and his men would push logs from twenty kilometers away to build a fort, and so on, completely oblivious to the teacher's attempts to push him back on track. Finally, David resolved that Jules Cesar probably needed to brush his teeth and go to bed, and that ended the activity for the day. Ah, it's good to be back home.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Wazi's Down Under: Birthday Edition

Ta-da! It's the Wazi's Down Under: Birthday Edition, and it has been très magnifique to celebrate my birthday in as many time zones as possible. Nod's slightly odd work schedule--Wednesday's off, 15 hour days on Mondays and Fridays--also gave us some added incentives to celebrate throughout the week as his free time allowed.

So the birthday-down-under began on Wednesday, commemorating my last day on the planet as a 27-year-old. In retrospect, it will be a hard year to beat. It was the year my dear sweet pet fish Nebby came into my life (and also the same year he was "liberated" into the Potomac river after bravely battling some mysterious fish illness...with luck, he conquered the polluted waters, dodged the trash heaps, and is now enjoying retirement in the Florida Keys. At least, that's how I choose to imagine it.)

More importantly, it was the year when Nod and I got married, with all the excitement and joy that came with planning and celebrating at the wedding and our lives since then. I was also able to welcome three beautiful nieces into the world.
(Less profound, but no less delicious: I also drank no fewer than 18 eggnog lattes this holiday season, mastered the art of jalapeno cheese bread making, and acquired a lifelong and talented personal chef (ie, Nod), to make sure that I don't eat cereal and scrambled eggs into my 60s.)  Life wins, all around.

So how to celebrate the last day of such a momentous year? In epic fashion, of course. Nod had the day off, so we hopped onto a ferry to beautiful Manly Beach. 
(Side note number one: The name "Manly Beach" is just begging for a slogan contest. I invite all of you, our dear readers, to submit your suggestions below). 
(Side note number two: I'm going to steal some of Nod's photos off of his computer for this blog post. He'll probably be mortified since he hasn't edited them yet, so be sure to look at his photo uploads later and appreciate both his photography and post-production skillz).

Windblown on the Manly Ferry

Much less sunburned than I would be 3 hours later

When we arrived at the beach, we went in for a quick swim. Now, those of you who know Nod well know that he has a longstanding distrust of water...a distrust undoubtedly worsened by a particularly scarring memory of needing to wear a neon green speedo to his childhood swim classes. So rather than spend the day dodging waves, Nod suggested that we take a walk to nearby cliffs that mark the entrance to the Sydney harbor, where a former artillery base had been turned into a big national park. It sounded windswept and romantic, so I agreed. We put our clothes back on over our soggy, salty swimsuits and headed off.

Now, in all fairness, I think we were both picturing the national park to be a bit more garden-like, or thought that perhaps the walking path would at least sport a few nice, leafy trees to shade the way. Nope. When we got up to the park, we entered into a desiccated landscape of sand and scrub brush, with the sun so high overhead that there weren't even shadows to duck under. Sticky and sweaty, we did manage to find a "bubbler" (Aussie for a drinking fountain) and, about an hour later, emerged from the brush to the cliff's edge. The views were absolutely beautiful--and worth the hour long sun-beating we endured to get there.

(To be fair, I had it coming: when Nod and I first started dating we traveled to the Siwa oasis in the western part of Egypt. I had the brilliant idea to go on a nice little midday stroll, even though it was a) summer in the Saharan desert b) noon with a scorching hot sun and no clouds c) modesty required that I wear long sleeves and long pants and d) it was Ramadan, so it would be impolite to drink water in public. Nod's hot afternoon jaunt to the Sydney cliffs was certainly more pleasant!)

My actual birthday started out as appropriate as can be: in French class with David and Marilou. David and Marilou have been their charming selves in the past two weeks of French class. Marilou, it turns out, is so âgée that she grew up under the U.S. Occupation in the Philippines. (Trivia question at the end: when did the U.S. occupy the Philippines?) She likes to start each French class by reciting for me the American literature that she memorized in school as a child. Last week started with a rousing recital of "O Captain, My Captain!" On my birthday, I was treated to the opening lines of the Gettysburg Address. Pretty impressive memory, to be honest. These charming recitals nearly made up for the way she chose to correct me in front of the entire class about my incorrect verb choice for the verb "to wear." She even chatted me up after class about the Middle East, since she knows I'm studying that region. Turns out she traveled to Israel--before the 1967 war. Dang, lady.

Something birthday-magical must have been in the air that day, because David was suddenly flawlessly conjugating irregular verbs. We were even treated to a delightful French pop song (thankfully, with very easy vocabulary...when that vocabulary is printed out and I can read along, at least) for a class assignment.

But as charming as my morning with David and Marilou was, the best was still to come: a sunset cocktail cruise in the Sydney Harbour, a Christmas and Birthday gift courtesy of Mandy Paust. Those pictures are still on Nod's camera, so I'll save that story for another day.

I decided to spend my first full day of 28 as I would any other Friday (ie, Nod's long days at work) at a Bikram yoga studio. Too bad I hadn't looked at the weather report, which predicted a scorching 112 degrees--Sydney's hottest day ever on record. I could have done some yoga poses on the front lawn for free! It turns out that doing hot yoga in a studio that's 110 degrees when it's already 110 degrees outside is bad news. I emerged from class a bit wobbly and red-faced and decided that an afternoon at the pool was an infinitely wiser move. Right around 4pm, swollen black rain clouds crept in from the horizon and unloaded a downpour right on us, instantly cooling everything down by 20 degrees. Whew! Much better now.

So with that, Nod and I are now preparing for our next big move: to spend ten days in Hobart, Tasmania doing physio for underwater hockey teams during Australia's national competition. This trip promises more adventures than anything Sydney has held for us yet. We'll be living on a boat with Nod's co-workers, including 1 very fast-talking Aussie (I understand, oh, say, 45% of the words out of his mouth), 1 Dutch physio student, 1 young blonde Aussie who likes to shoot kangaroos on the weekends, Nod, and me, and all of us sporting "The Power of the Pelvis" t-shirts and learning what the heck underwater hockey is all about (We're planning a special blog post on Australia's crazy made up sports very soon). Ten days is a long. time. to spend on a boat, but the company promises to be absolutely delightful, and the whole trip feels very story-worthy. Hopefully we'll have enough internet access on the boat to blog about it during our time there.

Until then!

(Trivia answer: The U.S. first annexed (yes, annexed) the Philippines in 1899 and successfully fought off their attempts to re-establish independence during the Philippine-American war (1899-1902). We promised them self-government in 1916, then again in 1935, but only fully granted them independence in 1946. And who said the U.S. never colonized anyone?)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sydney Walkabout Photos and Timelapse

Good morning! Alissa and I are about to head out for another day of walkabouts in and around Sydney to the eastern most point of Australia and the northern beaches, where apparently surfing was born in Australia. In the meantime, here is a short timelapse and photos of several places we've been to thus far!

Sydney Timelapses

Harbor Bridge

Harbor Bridge

Opera House from Harbor Bridge

Can you answer this question?! :)

Darling Harbor

More photos can be found on the facebook.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Honest Living, or How to Talk Yourself Through Breakfast

For as long as I can remember, unstructured days have caused panic to rise up in my throat. I don't mean the kind of lazy summer days where you finally have time to relax by the pool or call up a friend you've been meaning to call, or the rare gem of a free day in the midst of a busy life that leave you grateful for a moment to collect your thoughts, to sleep in late, to finally buy your groceries.

But rather, it's the kind of day that comes up when you are your own boss, when you stare at the hours ahead of you in the day and at your own hands, realizing that it rests entirely upon your own shoulders whether you'll make the day worthwhile or not. Being a graduate student carries with it so many mixed blessings. Most of the time, I try to focus on the positive: the freedom to set my own schedule, the brilliant minds I have the privilege to mix with on the daily, the opportunity to push myself to my absolute limits, to choose for myself who I will be, what I will make my life's work be about. Truly, I live the dream in so many ways.

But these freedoms carry with them a daunting responsibility, an acute awareness that any failing is my own,  a feeling of flailing around without a clear role model to follow. (The mixed blessings of working from home as your own boss have been well summarized by my favorite web comic, The Oatmeal) These feelings are never so crystallized as they are on an unscheduled day, ostensibly set aside as a "work day" where I have cleared the day of any tasks or meetings or errands so that, in theory, I can busy myself with the reading and research that get squeezed out by quotidien responsibilities every other day of the week. But the tasks of a Ph.D. are so mammoth, so impossibly gargantuan, that these "blank days" can be absolutely paralyzing. Even with sixteen unscheduled hours ahead of me, my to-do list looks something like this:
  • Read 400 books
  • Become proficient in French by October
  • Become a published author 
It's easier just to crawl back into bed than to figure out where to start,  or how to stay motivated on the long road ahead. In moments like these, these free hours become a kind of tyranny, and I hope just to duck my head and wait for them to pass.

Most weeks, I can talk myself out of this panic by breakfast and then spend the rest of my day in responsible productivity. But here in Sydney, the situation is more complex. After all, I'm unlikely to come by fourteen responsibility-free weeks again in my lifetime. Should I spend them reading for my Ph.D. program? Should I be re-inventing myself as the bohemian barista I've always dreamt I would be? Wouldn't any sane person simply plant themselves at the beach each and every day without apology?

But these "shoulds" have themselves become crippling, rather than inspiring catalysts for action, feeling torn between expectations of what a vacation should look like while thinking of all the work my colleagues back at Georgetown are doing right now. 

Nod reminded me yesterday that "shoulds" have no place in our time here--we'll be returning to a world of shoulds soon enough. And he's right. It's one of my deepest-held beliefs that a life lived according to 'shoulds' quickly leads to regret and resentment. My hardest-fought, hardest-won accomplishment in this life has been to learn to separate the expectations of others from my own hopes and desires for myself. It's a lesson I have to re-learn every day; it's the antidote to my anxiety, the way I talk myself down over breakfast.

Today didn't begin with anxiety, however. Walking around our neighborhood last night, Nod and I spotted a Bikram yoga studio just two blocks from the house we've been renting. I recognize that seeking out specialized yoga classes on vacation places me within a certain demographic, one that probably enjoys sushi, organic frozen yogurt, and Amelie. And it's true. But there was something incredibly steadying about joining a group of other students for a class today, a sense of belonging that has been hard to create reading by myself in a cafe and so far away from our home. I emerged from class nearly euphoric, buoyed from a workout high and the joys of human connection.

It was already 2 in the afternoon when I was finally ready to open my books, nestled in a sunny nook of our rented room, shadows from the eucalyptus tree splashing over the window. It really is a beautiful little spot.  But the thought of opening another assigned book turned my stomach. I actually read two required, excellent books last week--a history of America's food aid policies in the cold war, and a global history of population control and family planning. (Quick summary, for those who are interested: both food aid and family planning were based primarily on U.S. political and economic calculations that caused a lot of people to starve and/or be forcibly sterilized). The cumulative effect of reading these books, combined with last week's newspaper headlines, left me unexpectedly in tears over the weekend. I desperately needed a break from anything smacking of eugenics, sexist discrimination, and human suffering. 

I fled to Sydney's Botanical Gardens, within sight of the iconic opera house, with a handful of essays and novels in tow. There I reveled in the delicious deviousness of reading for no other reason than to hear my own thoughts, to be transported to a place I could never reach on my own. Reading anything outside of school feels impishly irresponsible given the number of pages I'll soon need to master and be accountable for, and it's rare that I allow myself the pleasure except for a few short weeks over Christmas or summer break. But as Katie Roiphe herself would argue, there are things more tragic than being irresponsible; there are things much worse for you than choosing to set aside your work, however important or fulfilling it might be. I do not intend to have a mid-life crisis. Perhaps these mini-crises, these moments of panic before an unscheduled work day, help me to remember what it is that I want and to choose accordingly. I do love history, and most weeks, I choose the hard work that this path requires. But today, I choose to sit in the sun, let my mind wander, drink a glass of wine at sunset, and think of all the people I love. 

I also spent the day listening to Macklemore's album "The Heist." It's entirely possible that I talk way too much about Macklemore--you could chalk it up to overblown Seattle pride. But his earlier album, "The Language of My World" was an important one to me in college, and in both of these albums, I'm inspired with his absolute honesty, the standards to which he holds himself, his commitment to his art. And it occurs to me that if I express myself best, most deeply, most honestly in writing, then I need to commit myself to writing more often. And while it's true that writing historical research papers does require creativity and a critical evaluation of where I stand in relation to the past, I think it's been insufficient for the kind of reflection that I crave in life. And so, dear readers, please indulge me a bit as I use this blog to share my thoughts and writing as I journey through the south pacific. And now, I think I hear a glass of wine calling my name.

My sunny afternoon by the Sydney Opera House

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Fat Animal Alert

So to those of you who may not know this about me yet, I love fat animals. The fatter, the better. (Graham and Judy, if you're reading this, the fact that I like your cat Arthur does not mean he's fat--I promise that I admire him for his personality and photogenic qualities).

So deep is my love for fat animals--and, really, all cute animals everywhere--that I have dedicated an entire pinterest board to them. Friends regularly send me links and emails with news about fat animals (thanks to Mandy Paust for this recent gem!) From walruses to manatees, I had seen all that the world and the internet has to offer.

Or so I thought.

Today Nod and I went to the Sydney Aquarium where I encountered....Dugongs! Dugongs, ladies and gentlemen, are smaller, more agile and petite manatees. These gentle "Ladies of the Sea" (as Dugong translates to from Malay) are the origin of mermaid myths, and boy, is it easy to see why these grazing beauties would inspire legends. We watched one munch a bundle of romaine lettuce off the aquarium sea floor today and then gently coast through the waters as sting rays and tropical fish flitted back and forth. The sight was majestic to behold. Isn't she beautiful? (By the way, click on those links above, people. These are amazing).

Friday, January 11, 2013

French Class

Happy Friday to all our loved ones, near and far. For those of you who have messaged us with news of terrible Australian brush fires, pythons, arsonists, and heat waves-- we are happy to report that we are still alive and well. In fact, Sydney has dodged even the heat: while the rest of the country suffered with 100+ degrees for over a week, our string of pleasant 75 degree days was interrupted only once. It shot up to a blistering 107 on Wednesday, but fell back to a cool 72 again the next day, and besides, we had plenty of bubble tea and frozen yogurt to tide us over through the worst of it. (The temperatures are back up to 97 today, so we're taking refuge in the Sydney aquarium, courtesy of Lauren Walter).

Speaking of ice cream, I was relieved to discover that Ben and Jerry's made it across the shores of the Pacific. Pints of ice cream clock in at a jaw-dropping $11.90, but we spotted a Ben and Jerry's scoop shop near Bondi beach and treated ourselves to two (cheaper) scoops of 7 Layer Bar ice cream. Everyone, try it today. Amazing. There are so many other capitalistic creature comforts from home: 7-11 (I've been doing the Walter family proud with my regular slurpee indulgences), Subway, Nando's Peri Peri chicken, Aldi's grocery store, Starbucks. In true globalized fashion, however, some familiar chains have made some adjustments for their Aussie audiences: Starbucks offered all of its holiday drinks in frappuccino form to account for opposite seasons (no eggnog here, unfortunately); "Macca's"--slang for McDonald's--offers the "big Aussie Brekkie" sandwich.

So Nod and I are now coming up on the end of our first full week in Australia, and it's been a full week for sure. Nod has a 4 day work week and still logged about 45 hours. Partly to avoid paying for train tickets, partly for exercise, and partly to explore the city, we've still been walking everywhere. It's averaged some 8-10 miles each day, and by the end of the night we usually end up collapsed with our feet in the air, swearing that tomorrow we'll take it easy, and then doing it all over again.

But the novel part of the week for me has been the beginning of French class. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I ride the train an hour to a northern suburb of Sydney to a little branch office of the Alliance Francaise. The class consists of an irreverent, saucy, wise-cracking French teacher, two Australian retirees, et moi. One of the students, Marilou, takes it upon herself to not only do all her of assigned homework and any number of additional exercises she decides to do on her own. She also corrects the other student and I as we hopelessly butcher the grammar, syntax, and pronunciation of this august language. The other student, David, is blissfully clueless, providing Marilou with endless opportunities for peanut gallery instruction.

During my first day of class, the teacher asked us to introduce ourselves to one another in French. 68-year-old Marilou went first, rattling off several pristine sentences in perfect French about her age, profession, nationality, and interest in the French language. The teacher turned to David, a military retiree who's about 73 years old. David stretched his arms, settled back in his chair, and responded with, "Roight." He nodded to the teacher that he was finished with his turn. The teacher prompted him, "David, usually we begin with Je m'appelle..." David cut her off, "Roight, roight. Je m'appelle David." Marilou, who had been biting her tongue with impatience, jumped back in. "Your age, David, your age!" The teacher turned to shush Marilou, then to try once again to pull a few more phrases out of David. The entire classroom devolved into a friendly session of bickering and bantering between the three that eventually ended in the teacher mock-slapping Marilou and putting David on a time-out before finally turning to me and asking me to introduce myself to the class.

Feeling a bit more like I've been invited into a strange family's living room rather than a French class, I settle in quickly to the warm, albeit unconventional atmosphere. Pretty soon the teacher has us all sitting in a circle miming our daily routines to practice reflexive verbs: I practice waking up Marilou for breakfast, she mimes as if she's taking a shower, David pretends to shave, the teacher washes our clothes. Somehow I think that the state department and other government employees I took French classes with in DC last summer would have objected a bit more strenuously to this kind of self-effacing play acting, but with David and Marilou, it's all in good fun. We wrap up the class by listening to a horrible French rock song five times in a row to practice new vocabulary. David puts his hands over his ears and sticks out his tongue. It's going to be a pretty great eight weeks with this group, although I'm not sure how well my French is actually going to progress. A demain!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Monday: Part Nod

Today was the first day of the reason why we came to Australia: my physio clinical.

5AM: Woke up a balmy 75 degree day. I fumble around trying to not wake the sunburned Alissa, put on contacts, make myself a PB&J and try to down a touch of Sultana Bran (Raisin Bran Aussie style that costs $5 a box)

5:30: On the train. The train cruises at a nice 15mph and is dead silent. I flip on my iPhone and am sad that I can't read the news without my AT&T network. It's amazing how much we rely on our phones when we are by ourselves with time to kill. Luckily, out the left window was the rising sun over the Pacific Ocean, infinitely more interesting than anything my phone could relay to me. It was a nice reminder that mother nature can be both a source of entertainment and grounding.

6:15: Meet Huub (another student from Holland) and Nick (my boss where I understand only 30% of the words) at Central Station. Nick bought me coffee and I hesitantly take a sip, swallowing my pride of never ingesting caffeine during my time in grad school. It did raise the eyelids, but I still prefer a donut over caffeine any morning!

7:00: Arrive at the clinic in Hornsby, NSW. The clinic is a humble size and Nick is the only physio working on Monday, Thursday and Fridays. He runs the shop and we spend the first half an hour folding towels, getting electrodes ready and orienting me to the clinic space.

7:30 - 7:15: See 21 patients... (more to come on another blog)

7:15: Demolished from constant manual therapy, we retire to Hornsby Inn and all share a bottle of wine for mandatory 'tutorial' time. Tutorial time consists of libations, Nick telling stories about the many ways one can die in this country (bee stings, snake bites, spider bites, cassoways, brushfires, cyclones, alligators, big reds, dessication, heat stroke, gas explosions, etc... there is an Aussie fascination of death that we will get into in a later blog) and occasional physio.

9:00: Get back into the car to ride to Central Station

9:30: Arrive Central Station

10:00: Arrive home

10:02: Sleep

I have to keep a timesheet of my hours spent at clinic and since the drive up and back consists of tutorial time (Nick believes in teaching after/before patient time), I log 15:15 for day 1.

Luckily, this is not par for the course. On Tuesday, I reported to clinic at 10am and had tutorial time in his living room barefoot with a one-eyed beagle rummaging around until 12, saw two patients until 1, grabbed a beer for an hour on the beach for more tutorial time, then went to the pool by 2:30.

Wednesday was my day off. Alissa and I walked 10km along cliffs by the beach on a blustery 80 deg day. We had Ben and Jerry's (a pint runs for the ungodly price of $11.95 AUD), sat on some rocks and watched surfers at Bondi Beach and ate a Subway sandwich. It was the only way to eat for less than $10!

Thursday is similar to Tuesday and unfortunately Fridays are the same as Mondays. Although I'm logging more than 40 hours a week working, this adventure down under feels like a vacation. The hours are strange, the scenery is sublime, the characters (as Ms. Walter will dive into shortly) are blissfully entertaining and every day has been novel. Life is indeed good. Now, if we don't run into this for the rest of the trip, both Alissa, well especially Alissa and i will sleep soundly. Luckily they aren't poisonous. However, since Nick oh so delightfully informed us, 15 of the 20 most dangerous snakes in the world are endemic to Australia... Nighty night! Eeeeek!

Sunday, January 6, 2013


Happy weekend to all of you back in the US of A!

I'm reporting live from Monday morning. Not just any Monday morning, but this is the first Monday of the new year, the first of our fourteen Mondays in Sydney, and fittingly, our first day back to work. Nature is sympathetic to our plight: some heavy marine clouds rolled in last night, reminding me to keep my head in my books today, rather than at the beach.

On Mondays and Fridays, Nod will be working whopping 12-15 hour days at a physio (read: physical therapy) clinic on the north side of Sydney. He rolled out of here in khakis and a polo around 5:45 this morning, and with luck, I'll see him around 9pm tonight. By all reports we've received from those who have done this internship before, it should be fantastic--great patients and co-workers, and a really light and flexible work schedule Tuesdays - Thursdays. But on Mondays and Fridays, at least, I'm on my own.

Up until the moment we arrived here, my time in Sydney remained a bit of a mystery, even to myself. Would I use these 14 weeks to finally work my dream job as a barista? Some of my favorite jobs growing up were in the service sector, so it seemed like a great place to return to. With our "Working Holiday" visas we have employment authorization, so the world is my oyster.

Arriving here, though, things feel a little different in reality than they were in my mind's eye. Predictably with the world economy, there aren't very many job openings. Even though working either as a barista or as a hair stylist are my #1 and #2 dream jobs (historical tour guide is #3 on the list), I haven't actually gotten around to getting any work experience in any of these settings. And then we are only here for 3 months, and it doesn't seem right to have someone invest all that training in me just to leave as soon as I'm actually useful in my position.

The only job application I've sent off is for a position at a nearby Frozen Yoghurt shop. Should this work out, it would be absolutely amazing for the following three reasons:

1) FroYo all the time. Delicious.
2) My two year-stint at a Ben and Jerry's shop in high school was one of the best jobs I've ever worked, so fingers crossed that FroYo could be just as magical.
3) Minimum wage is $15.96 per hour.

But at the same time, I'm not sure that I really want to spend my limited time in Sydney working weekend shifts or encrusted in ice cream after a day at work.

So my plan B would take me off the clock and into the library. Whenever I'm in classes, I find myself wondering if I actually enjoy reading, or if it has become a chore and a burden because of the heavy reading load in my Ph.D. program. As I was happy to discover this Christmas break, I do actually love to read. On my shiny new Kindle, I've been happily bouncing back and forth between Katie Riphe's essays, In Praise of Messy Lives; Nick Cullather's study on U.S. international development policy in the Cold War, The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia; and Yaroslav Trofimov's journalistic account of the 1979 siege of grand mosque in Mecca, The Siege of Mecca: the 1979 Uprising at Islam's Holiest Shrine. All of this totally voluntary. Soo.... if my nerd credentials weren't already sealed by my years in school, this ought to do it.

And it's a good thing that I've reconnected with my love for reading, because I'll be doing a lot of it for the next few months. The next phase of my Ph.D. program is to read 200-400 books and articles in order to establish my (fairly dubious) "expertise" on fields related to my dissertation topic. So it turns out that the next few months in Sydney could look a lot like my normal life in DC: reading tons of books relating to my research, working from home, studying required foreign languages (I just signed up for French classes 2x a week, which start tomorrow. Sacre Bleu!). But the beautiful difference is my total release from multi-tasking: no need to trek 4 miles to campus to TA or go to meetings. No need even to spend much time running errands, cooking, or cleaning with our minimal set of possessions here with us. For the next few weeks, I get to settle into cozy cafe chairs, book in hand, and simply luxuriate in the task of reading. And with that, off to the library I go!

Cheers and Happy Monday to you all,

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Several Photos

Here are a few pictures of our travels thus far! More can be found on our albums on facebook here. Videos to come soon! :)

At Sea-Tac waiting to begin our 20 hour journey down under:

The balcony at the flatshare we are currently staying at. A balmy 80deg morning and our 10th open-faced PB&J sandwich:

A sad state of affairs, switching from an iPhone to an ancient flip:

Middle Harbor at a BBQ with the gold medal Australian Olympic Yacht team: 

Manly Beach:

Delightful Down Under

Welcome, friends, to our blog posts from far yonder. We miss you all so much already.

Today is our fourth day in Sydney, and there's already so much to tell. First: top five reasons why I love Sydney already.

1. I'm writing this post from a sunny little balcony off of our room, with gentle sea breezes on my face and a cup of nescafe in hand. This is how to start the day off right!

2. Nary a power suit in sight! Aussies seem to be all about hippie fashion, and I am a-okay with that. For those who know about my Project Runway celebrity crush, be prepared for some Anya-style outfits  and haircuts to follow.

3. Water everywhere. We spent the last few days walking along Darling harbor, Middle Harbor, Manly beach, and will probably make our way down to the opera house later this evening. Everywhere you turn, there are sailboats and gorgeous vistas with sparkling water. The full-sun, bright blue skies help with that, too.

4. I keep debating what the best geographic analogy is to Sydney. Does the all-day sun remind me most of Cairo? Does the laid-back atmosphere take me back to backpacking in Spain? In the end, Sydney reminds me most of Southern California, where my family has so many roots. The beach-city vibe, the eucalyptus trees, a sprinkle of hippie spirit, warm sun and cool breezes...if we ever do come back from Sydney, this might convince me to set my sights on California for our next move.

5. FOOD. Nod and I realized we're going to need to set a restaurant budget fast. Vietnamese, Japanese,  Malaysian, Portuguese, Greek...there are as many immigrant communities in Sydney as there are countries in the world, it seems, and all of them have delicious restaurants to visit. We had already decided that we were going to eat our way through SE Asia later this spring, but I think we'll go ahead and get started nomming now!

Not everything is perfectly sunshine and roses, however. The #1 drawback to Sydney? The twenty-some different species of horribly poisonous spiders and snakes, some of which enjoy lurking in cities as much as the outback.

Two days ago, I woke up in morning sunburned from a day of exploring Sydney on foot. I had spent the night dreaming in a cold sweat about all the particularly nasty types of siders endemic to Sydney itself. The airport even had signs up warning travelers against the dreaded funnel-web spider, advising us "If you see it, leg it!" (We aren't sure yet if "leg it" means to stomp on it or run away screaming, but I've already decided on the latter as my main strategy of self-defense). The next night I dreamt about a poisonous snake coming to attack me (luckily this dream snake was eaten by a bear just in time). Nod's boss helpfully explained to us yesterday that if someone gets bitten by a snake, it's best to go ahead and start CPR because they'll eventually go into cardiac arrest from the venom, but if you can just keep them breathing for, say, the twenty hours it takes for the venom to break down in their system, they should be ok. Helpful advice to live by.

So we've rented a little room in a shared house in Petersham, a quiet, residential, and artistically-graffitied neighborhood 15 minutes west of downtown Sydney. The room fell a little short of expectations, but we've decided to embrace its particular quirks as "charming characteristics" and make it our own as best we can for the next 18 days, when we'll take a short trip to Tasmania. So we're overlooking the Marilyn Monroe cardboard cut-out gracing the front window, the faint smell of mildew from the bedroom corner, and the fact that there appear to be at least 10 different residents all coming and going from this house, none of whom we ever get a chance to properly introduce ourselves to. We're embracing instead the two adorable pitbulls living in back, the view of a eucalyptus tree through our bedroom window, and the lovely balcony that overlooks what appears to be an abandoned chicken coop in the neighbor's yard. There's a delightful array of different kinds of birds chirping in the Eucalyptus tree outside our window. Even though we're living right beneath the flight path to Sydney's airport, it's a surprisingly quiet and tranquil city.

In fact, in nearly every way, Sydney is a very opposite cultural experience to DC, and I think the beaches are to thank for that. For example: while DC's streets are filled with navy suits and two-inch heels, we counted three people walking barefoot in Sydney's bohemian Newtown neighborhood. Tattoos, dreadlocks, and nose rings whisk me back to the grunge aesthetic of the 1990s, and no one seems to be in a rush anywhere. The city is refreshingly quiet--no noisy traffic with honking and sirens, no music blaring in grocery stores, and even the metro runs soundlessly. Our ears are enjoying the rest.

We gave ourselves a "full-on" (we're practicing our Aussie phrases) introduction to Sydney life in the last few days, exploring by foot, metro, and bus all the different neighborhoods on the west side of downtown so far. We've spent a day at the picturesque Manly Beach, signed me up for French classes twice a week, and randomly attended our first Aussie bbq with a bunch of world-class competitive sailors (all very friendly) with Nod's Dutch co-worker. It is here that I confess that I ate kangaroo kebabs last night. Yes, it was delicious. No, I am not proud to have eaten an adorable animal. It still breaks my heart a little bit to think about it.

Today is our last free day before Nod starts work tomorrow, so let me sign off here so we can spend one more carefree day in the sun. Pictures to come soon!

Day 1: Oppan Sydney Style

Day 1: 01/03/2013:

Good morning from 8 hours back and one day forward! After 20 hours of travel from Seattle and no vegetarian option on the plane, we arrive to 75 degree sunny skies, ever so slight humidity and wild, unfamiliar birdsong out our bedroom window. We take a 20 minute cab ride to our place that we will be living at for the next three weeks before heading to Hobart, Tasmania to do physio for the national underwater hockey tournament. More on that to follow.

The flat has 6 bedrooms with 10 people all together. There are several travelers, a French couple that doesn't speak English and a couple of long term residents that are rarely here. Two super cute pit bulls live in the backyard and the train station is a 2 minute walk away. To live in a studio or 1 bedroom apartment in Sydney starts at around $1800 for an unfurnished place. Most people we have met live in a flatshare or share rooms. Another student lives right downtown in a 3 bedroom house with 12 guys. He pays $150/wk. Suddenly Seattle rent looks cheap!

We find ourselves hungry after settling in and decide to get some 'brekkie' in Newtown, a funky mile long strip near the university with Seattle-like cafes, pie shops, used book and clothes stores, natural health food co-ops, an animal adoption facility, asian cuisine to satisfy even me, and even vegan/vegetarian restaurants! There are cafes with long hammock-esque chairs overlooking the street and many a people walking barefoot. Alissa is transfixed on all the used and vintage clothing stores as I read every Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai menus. Vietnamese food it is! Coupled with strong Vietnamese iced coffee, it hits the spot!

Cell phones are next on the agenda as my sad iPhone is now a wifi device (however, if you can iMessage, we can text for free!). We settle on the cheapest world phone they offer, a purple Samsung flip phone that doesn't even have snake. It makes Paddy Downey's phone look trendy.

We wander through Sydney University, spot Ibis and make our way to Darling Harbor, which is just west of the Opera House. Although it's pretty touristy, it's still pretty. Located right next to the aquarium, there are ferrys to and from other harbors, abandoned navy ships, fro-yo stands and commuters on their push-bikes (Aussie for commuter bike). Bike commuters use the pedestrian bridge in darling harbor to commute as main arteries are not friendly to cyclists. At least there's a helmet law! The water in the bay is crystal clear and you can spot thousands of jellyfish hanging out by the boats.

A market lies just south in Chinatown where tomatoes are only $2/kilo! Normally everything is about 1-2x more expensive here in Sydney as compared to DC (i.e. a lunch entree is $14 and a smoothie is $7). We stop for a minute to grab some bubble tea and realize that both of us, having been in Seattle for the last week with our translucent lack-of-any-sunshine skin, are burned.

We catch the train back to our neighborhood, make a spinach salad with a PB&J sandwich for dessert and call it a night.

Pictures to follow shortly!