Monday, December 23, 2013

That Time We Almost Moved to France

"What would you think about moving to Australia?"
"Let's do it."
That's the conversation that started our journey to Australia a little over three years ago. And that was pretty much the extent of our discussion. Drew applied for the job and interviewed shortly after that. We found out his application had been successful a few days before Christmas, which left us to break the news to our family over the holiday.

Our announcement was met with varied reactions. Some of our family were naturally worried about us moving so far away, while others excitedly promised to come visit. (I'm still waiting on that visit, brother o' mine.)

When I think back on the people we were then, I feel a rush of love for those two wide-eyed idealists who leaped without looking. Oh sure, we researched the cost of living and determined that we could, in fact, live off of Drew's salary if I couldn't find a job. But for the most part, we saw a fantastic opportunity and let our enthusiasm propel us across the ocean.

We had a similar decision to make just recently, but our reaction to it was so very different.

A couple of months ago, Drew was offered a job in France. I could picture myself there...sitting in a French cafe, typing away on my great American novel—like Hemingway and Fitzgerald—un café in one hand and un pain au chocolate in the other. (Never mind that I couldn't type if I had a coffee in one hand and a croissant in the other. Also, I suppose if I really wanted to be like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, I'd probably have a carafe of wine in front of me.)
Taken during our trip to France in April. Bienvenue means 'welcome.'
We spent weeks going back and forth, making lists of pros and cons, and crunching budgets. Reality kicked in. The salary wasn't enough to support both of us and there was no guarantee that I'd find a job easily.

Plus, to be honest, we now know just how hard it is to move to a new country. It's not just the physical moving of all your belongings. It's having to find a place to live, organizing health insurance and visas, and trying to make sure you don't commit any cultural faux pas once you arrive. It's the constantly feeling like you're out of sync with everyone around you, whether it be because of language barriers or because you walk on the wrong side of the sidewalk or because you didn't watch the same tv shows growing up.

We turned down the job. I waved goodbye to my dream of living in France. It was the right decision, I know that. It gives us more time in Australia, more time to spend with our friends here and to explore all of the places in Australia that we still want to see.

In the meantime, we're starting a travel fund so that, one day, we can spend a month or two traveling around France. And we're not ruling out moving to a different country in the future. We're just checking out the ground below us before we leap these days.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.

We've been in Australia for a little over two years now. When we first moved here, I was a bit overwhelmed—by the accents, by the new currency, by all the unfamiliar words, even by the loud caws of the brightly colored birds.

Fast forward to now and I suppose you could say that we are finally fitting in. Don't get me wrong, we haven't suddenly gained Aussie accents—it's obvious to anyone who talks to us that we are American. (Although, quite a few people ask us if we are from Canada...)

Most days, it no longer feels like we are living in a foreign country. Writing favourite and organise are now second nature to me whereas before it gave me a twitch similar to the effect of nails on a chalkboard.

I can't rightly tell you when it happened, but sometime over the last six months, Australia has begun to feel like home. Perhaps it started with our apartment which is now well lived in. We've accumulated a mass of belongings after having arrived with only 7 boxes. The first month we were here, we didn't have any furniture. It was the cold of winter and I can remember sitting on the living room floor on a camping pad, cursing the fact that Drew was at work in a heated office while I sat shivering in the apartment, waiting for deliveries of a mattress, a fridge, a washing machine, and finally, finally, thank goodness, a couch.

(Now, we have two couches.) 

The biggest change though is that we have found our community. We have lots of friends and social engagements several nights of the week. We play soccer with a fantastic bunch of people. I've joined a writing group. We both enjoy our jobs and our coworkers. Nowadays when Drew goes camping in the bush for weeks at a time for his research, I no longer feel abandoned.

I could tell that we had finally 'made it' when on a recent camping trip with friends, one of the Aussie guys made a comment about "the two Americans in the group". There were actually four Americans in the group—he had forgotten that Drew and I were not Australian.

I'll always be giddy, though, when I see a mob of kangaroos. 

"Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart." - Confucius

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Sydney Opera House: An Insider's View

When you think of Australia, there are a few things that immediately come to mind: kangaroos, Crocodile Dundee, vegemite, and the Sydney Opera House. Today, I'd like to take you on a tour of Australia's iconic performing arts center.
Sydney Opera House on a rainy day

I have visited the Opera House twice now. The first time was last November when Drew and I spent a week in Sydney with our friends Chris and Taryn. My second trip came just a few weeks ago when my mom was visiting. Both times I took a tour of the venue which is more costly than you would expect but worth every penny. Which now that I think about it, isn't worth very much in Australia since they don't have pennies any more. Let's just say that it is worth every platypus-engraved 20¢ piece.
Your tour guide for the day

The Sydney Opera House and its gleaming domes dominate the view from the Sydney Harbour. It is such a key element to Australia's identity that it feels as if it's been there forever when, in fact, it opened its doors for the first time in 1973.
Sydney Opera House on a sunny day

From a distance, the Opera House's arches, or "shells" as they are called, look to be a pristine white. However, when you get close, you can see that each shell is made of chevron shaped tiles in various creamy, beige colors. If the tiles were perfectly white, on a sunny day it would be impossible to look at the shells due to the glare. 
Standing between two of the largest shells, this section is affectionately known as "the cleavage."

Once inside the Opera House, I was amazed at how huge everything feels. All of the ceilings are high, even in the foyers and the inside is decorated in massive chunks of concrete and wood.

Interestingly, while the ceramic tiles for the shells were made in Sweden, the wood inside of the Opera House was all sourced from Australian timber. The dark wood in the photos is brush box and is native to Australia. The other wood used is White Birch which is native to the United States, though this particular batch was grown in Australia.

There are seven performance halls within the Sydney Opera House, making it one of the busiest performing arts buildings in the world. So far, I've seen six of the seven venues. (The seventh one is currently out of commission as they build a new underground loading dock.)

The most impressive room is the Concert Hall. It's the biggest room and the stage actually sits in the center giving the audience a 360° choice of seats. The cheapest seats are the ones behind the orchestra, which look into the conductor's face. I think I would actually love those seats though - wouldn't that be such an interesting show, seeing the conductor's expressions throughout the performance?

The Concert Hall

The ceiling of the Concert Hall is so high that it would normally produce a 3 second delay between when a musician plays a note and when he/she can hear it. As you can imagine, if left uncorrected, this would cause chaos in the orchestra. The solution is what's known as an acoustic cloud. It's those acrylic donut-shaped circles that you see in the photo above. Whenever a concert is performed, these are lowered down over the orchestra so that the music has less distance to travel before it is bounced back.

The Grand Organ (which you can see on the back wall in the photo above) initially took several years to tune due to how large it was. It has over 10,000 pipes. Luckily, after the hard work that went into that first tuning, it only takes a couple of hours to tune these days.

My second favorite room in the Opera House is the foyer outside of the Concert Hall. It was designed to mimic the feel of a ship's bow. The glass windows curve out from the building, giving the impression that the Sydney Harbour is right below you. The foyer also has a very purple carpet leading into the Concert Hall. When he performed at the Opera House, the famous Italian singer Luciano Pavarotti refused to walk on the carpet because, in Italy, purple in the theater is an omen of bad luck.

Whether you're inside or outside, the views of the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour are astounding. Perhaps the most interesting story about the Opera House is that when the contract to build it was awarded to Danish architect Jørn Utzon, he actually had no idea how to do it! There was no precedent for building the curved shells. It took him six years to find a solution, during which time construction on the base had already started. 

But Utzon persevered and the Sydney Opera House was one of the first buildings in the world to utilize computer modeling in its design.

Like all good tours, I will end this one in the gift shop where even Barbie makes an appearance.

Sydney Opera House Barbie
Thanks for joining me on my tour today and be sure to enjoy the view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on your way out.

(All photos on this post come from my two visits.)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Great Australian Food Challenge

Whenever we visit a new country, Drew and I try to sample the popular and traditional foods of the area. In Switzerland, we tried loads of yummy cheeses, traditional meat dishes covered in the mysterious 'hunter sauce,' and croûte au fromage, Drew's favorite. In Peru, we tried Pisco Sours, llama tenderloin, coca tea, and a stew with unidentified local root vegetables. And in Nepal, Drew had a fermented wheat drink that made him very, very sick...

When we moved to Australia, we noticed a lot of similarities between the local cuisine and American food. Pizza Hut, McDonald's, and KFC all exist here. A trip to the grocery store, though, highlights the subtle differences in cuisine. And thus, the Great Aussie Food Challenge was born.
Challenge Accepted!
The Classic Australian Dessert - TimTams
Photo from wiki commons
  • TimTams (chocolate cookies)
  • Slices (these bars come in all sorts of flavors such as caramel, vanilla and rum-raisin, and can be found in most bakeries)
  • Caramel Koalas (bite-sized chocolate/caramel candies in the shape of koalas)
  • Lamington (sponge cake with chocolate frosting and coconut on top)

Caramel Slice. Each bakery makes it slightly different, some have more caramel or coconut on top and some, like this, have a brownie bottom.
Tea Time
  • Tea and Biscuits (tea and cookies - traditionally enjoyed every morning at 'tea time.' Drew and his workmates break for a morning and an afternoon tea.)
  • Scones with jam and cream (delicious, sinful breakfast food)
Mandy's favorite: Scones with Jam and Cream

Kangaroo Steak
(Tucker is an Australian word meaning food. It's shortened from 'bush tucker', food gathered/hunted in the bushland.)
  • Kangaroo steak
  • Burgers with Beetroot
  • Meat pies (kind of like mini chicken pot pies but they come in different flavors)
  • Sausage rolls
Drew's favorite: Meat pies and Sausage rolls - often served with tomato sauce (ketchup)
Photo from

  • Sweet Chili Sauce (A sweet sauce, similar to honey mustard sauce, that is spread on everything imaginable. My favorite use of it is mixed with sour cream and dolloped on fries.)
  • Vegemite (yeast and salt. It looks like tar and comes in a jar that expires way too far into the future)
  • Coconut (A lot of foods come with coconut here in Australia, from oatmeal to apple pie.)
Vegemite on toast
Photo from

We first tried The Great Aussie Food Challenge on our friends Chris & Taryn when they visited last November. They made a valiant effort but fell short when they put off two items til the last minute. Searching high and low on their way to the airport, alas, they couldn't find lamington or burgers with beetroot.

My mom, who was just here, was soooo close to defeating the challenge. She missed out on Vegemite, mainly because we don't keep any in the house. (Partially due to Drew's extreme allergy to it and partially because ewww gross, how can people eat that stuff?!) I might have to send her some now just so she knows she can't escape.  :)

Our friends from the UK will no doubt recognize a lot of these food items from British cuisine. Though 'bangers and mash' didn't seem to make the oceanic jump...

What's missing from our list? The one food that all of our Australian friends agree is missing from the Challenge is pavlova. Pavlova is a meringue and fruit dessert that may or may not have originated in Australia. It is named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova who visited Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s. Drew and I have yet to try it though so that's why it's not on the Challenge.
photo from wikipedia
Do you like trying new foods?  Come visit us and see if you can defeat the Great Aussie Food Challenge!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

It's Fiji time!


That's how you say hello in Fiji. And when you're in Fiji, schedules are very loose things. Everything is on "Fiji time." Maybe a little bit early, but most likely a little bit late. (That's my excuse for waiting 5 weeks to post about our Fiji trip...I'm still on Fiji time.)

Our trip to Fiji was a combination of a too-good-to-pass-up travel deal and our desire to see more of the Southern Hemisphere. It didn't hurt that the trip also fell during the week of our seventh wedding anniversary.
I have to say that snorkeling and walking on the balmy beach in Fiji was much more romantic than cold Canberra where winter was already settling in.

From our room at the resort, it was just 15 steps to the water's edge. (On that note, I seriously can't think of anything better than hearing the ocean every night when you fall asleep.) We took advantage of the beautiful weather and went snorkeling every day. Our underwater camera broke the last time we took it out so I don't have any photos of the beautiful sea life. The most exciting things we saw were clown fish (like Nemo from the Disney movie) and lionfish (which are deadly poisonous so I went "Aaaiiieee!" in my snorkel mask and quickly swam in the opposite direction when we saw them).
Broken bits of dead coral that had washed up on the beach.
 While there, we visited two different Fijian villages, both within walking distance of our resort. At the first, we were invited to drink kava with the village elders. Kava is a traditional drink in many Pacific cultures, made from the root of the kava plant. In my opinion, it's one of those things where it's good to experience once...but once is all you need (sort of like Vegemite). The first sip tasted like muddy, gritty water but then the aftertaste is a bit like peppermint and made my mouth go numb.

The second nearby village hosted a firewalking event one night. Perhaps a bit theatrical for the benefit of the tourists, it was nevertheless very impressive. In many cultures, firewalking is seen as a rite of passage. Our photos didn't turn out that well, so if you want to see a really impressive photo of firewalking in Fiji, check out this one on National Geographic.

By far our most favorite experience during the trip was a garden walk with the resort's head gardener, Skipper. It was just me and Drew on the walk, so we were regaled with all sorts of stories about Skipper's life on the island and his connection to the native plants. One of the most interesting plants was a creeping vine that is used medicinally. All you do is crush a couple of leaves in your hand, rolling them into a ball, and  a green watery substance seeps out of the leaves. Our guide said he still uses this liquid if he cuts him self while working in the garden and it stops the bleeding almost instantly (and it's also antiseptic).

Pineapple Palm
I was also impressed with how much they used plants for decoration. For example, below is a photo of a bure (hut) that was used for a wedding. All of the decorations are made from tree bark that has been soaked and dried, then painted with mud inks.  Called masi cloth, it is made from the bark of mulberry trees.

And here's a larger photo of one of the bows. What looks like white fabric is actually bark. And the bow has been tied off with some sort of plant fibers and sea shells. It's amazing how many alternate ways they have to make things out of rainforest materials!

They also weave palm leaves together for use as wall hangings or fans.

Woodcarving is also popular, both for decorative items like the totem poles below and for traditional weapons such as spears. While weaving is considered a woman's job, woodcarving is done mostly by men.
Cycad (tree fern like from the time of the dinosaurs) trunk carvings
Our last night in town was a Sunday night and we were able to see a performance from the local village's choir. Half of the hymns were in English and half were in Fijian. The smallest children were in the front row and they alternated between taking things very seriously (as in the photo below) and grinning and giggling. It was a lovely and fun end to our trip.

Children from the village choir
If you have the opportunity to travel to Fiji, we recommend it. The laid back culture is perfect for a relaxing holiday and the snorkeling is world class and easily accessible.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Travels to Europe - Part 3 - London

The last stop on our whirlwind Europe trip was London.  We only had two days in the city and we were determined to make the most of them. Our purpose in London was two-pronged. First, we wanted to do as many touristy things as possible so that next time we were in England, we could explore the countryside. Second, I wanted to see old stuff.

Lovely church garden, with garden in bloom even though winter was still hanging on
I've always enjoyed history and was really looking forward to seeing the places and buildings that I'd only read about in books. Plus, there's not a lot of old buildings in Australia. 
The Rosetta Stone at the British Museum

Given the extent of our mission and the short time frame, we ended up walking a lot. On the first day, we clocked over 10 miles. By walking everywhere, we ended up seeing many fascinating things that weren't on our original list of must-sees. Like this photo below of the Sunken Gardens at Kensington Palace. Reason why this was a happy encounter: our alma mater, William & Mary, has a Sunken Garden in the middle of campus and it was fun to see where W&M got it's inspiration. Although, the Sunken Gardens at W&M did not have a lake in the middle...

Sunken gardens at Kensington Palace
The best way to show you our trip of London is through our photos. As I was putting these photos on here, I realized that most of them look very gray. It's true that it did rain (and snow) on us while in London, but we also had plenty of sunshine. We just didn't seem to take any photos when the sun was out. :-)

Early morning horseback ride in Hyde Park.

Wellington Arch. Also early morning as evidenced by the lack of tourists.

Westminster Abbey - the only photo I took as you weren't allowed to take photos inside.

Big Ben - the first London icon we saw when we emerged from the depths of the Underground

Bangers & mash at Stockpot Restaurant. Recommended by our good friends Steph and Peter.
The Globe Theatre - reconstructed so that it looks as it did in Shakespeare's time.

St. Paul's Cathedral - designed by Sir Christopher Wren who also designed the Wren Chapel at our alma mater, William & Mary

Drew on the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral

Shackleton's crow's nest. We discovered this in the crypts of All Hallows-by-the-Tower, the oldest church in London.

Somewhere in the Tower of London

Gargoyle on the Tower of London

How can he see anything with this hat??

London Bridge

The Thames at night

The London Eye at night