Sunday, November 28, 2010

It's a Comedy of Errors

My first time driving in Australia was when we went to the used car dealership to find a car for me.  It was a Saturday afternoon (our second Saturday in the country) and it was pouring rain.  In Australia the steering wheel is on the right side of the car and you drive on the left side of the road.  I had already ridden as a passenger in the front seat of a car several times and it was very uncomfortable.  It just felt wrong to sit on the left side of the car with nothing in front of you and nothing to do.  I found myself acting like a driver’s education instructor…stomping on the brakes, the death grip on whatever I could grab and even ducking a few times…I think I may have some control issues!  So, here we were buying our “family” car, the car I will drive for the next three years.  We decided to buy used and cheap because of the short term assignment (and because of the real possibility of me getting into a fender-bender – that hasn’t happened, yet, not even a scratch).  The pearly white Subaru Outback on the lot just said “Australia” to me so we took it out for a spin.  After Uri drove, it was my turn.  Now, here in Canberra the city is designed into one giant circle.  Basically, every road you are on circles around the city, which means there are lots of “round-abouts” as they are called here, or what I would call a traffic circle or rotary.  It may not be obvious to most, but round-abouts in Australia go around to the left.  So, not only are you sitting in the passenger’s seat as the driver and driving on the left side of the road, but you are taking a round-about in the opposite direction!  Australians, or at least Canberrans, are very fond of the round-about.  They really are quite brilliant (once you get more comfortable driving).  Round-abouts keep the traffic moving and eliminate the need for stop signs and traffic lights.  In fact, there are very few traffic lights or stop signs on the road.  When you approach an intersection you “give way” (says the sign) or yield to on-coming traffic.  After two months of driving, however, I still stop at most “give ways” because I still have a bit of panic about which way the traffic is coming and which side of the road I need to turn onto.  It’s incredibly hard to look right first rather than left-right then left.  So, I opt to be extra careful and “granny” it while on the road.
As I have learned to drive, there are several mistakes I make often.  I often forget when I approach my car that I actually need to get into the right-side of the vehicle to drive it.  It makes me chuckle every time I do this.  I’ll either pretend I am looking for something in the glove compartment or shuffle around on the floor…its silly, really, because who is actually paying attention to what I am doing!  Another issue is that the turn signal and windshield wipers have been switched.  So, I’ll be going down the road getting ready to make a turn and suddenly my windshield wipers will be going…how did that happen?!?!  Again, I chuckle.  For the first few days of driving when I was going to reverse the car, I bumped my head on the driver’s side window as I turned (the wrong way) to look behind me.   And, lastly, I reach for the seatbelt only to find nothing there...
Driving is getting easier each time that I am in the car.  When I forget myself and get too cocky, I’ll make a wrong turn or pull out into the “round-about” too soon and upset the on-coming traffic.  Yes, there have been some angry Canberrans honking their horns at me because of this.   I am happy to report that I have not done any damage to my Outback (cross my fingers).  She is a lovely car – 10 years young.  We call her Mother, short for the Mother of Pearl.  This is keeping with tradition.  The black Nissan Armada we left back in the states was called the Black Pearl.  Anabella named her that after Jack Sparrows’ ship in the Pirates of the Caribbean.   
Until next time...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

8 Weeks in Oz

When we arrived in Canberra, Australia, on Friday, September 24, after an exhausting 11 hour flight from Hawaii, we checked in to our apartment at 10:30 PM. Our friends from Connecticut (who were transferred here as well) had stocked our kitchen with some basic groceries to get us started, and they didn’t forget the wine! Uri and I got the girls into bed and settled down in the living room for a glass (or two) of wine.  Uri and I sat there in disbelief-- we were halfway around the world – it suddenly felt for the first time like there was no turning back.  Our first experience with the Australian wildlife happened that very first morning.  After very little sleep we were rudely awakened by the most hideous sound – in my delirium it honestly sounded like a baby being strangled.  It took me some time to realize that I was not having a nightmare about a baby being strangled and that there was something squawking outside our window.  It was 5:00 AM.  Although I felt like I had been hit by a Mack truck I was not going to fall back to sleep as long as that noise continued.  We learned later that morning that the offender was a very large, but beautiful white cockatoo who likes to perch on our balcony each morning.  And, yes, the cockatoo has been there every morning.  It’s amazing what one can learn to sleep through after some time.   These cockatoos are everywhere -- like robins in the Northeast.  They are such amazing birds.  It is such a beautiful sight to see them all take flight together.  But, I have to say again they make the most awful noise.  I recall one of my first visits to the local park with my friend Jodi, her son Michael, and the girls.  Jodi was telling me a story, but I had to interrupt her to say that I hadn’t heard a word she said because the cockatoos were making so much noise!  She laughed mostly because she was surprised that she had almost become immune to them. 

Our second wildlife encounter was with kangaroos (and ants).  Our friend Dave took Uri, Anabella, Chloe, and me down to the park by the lake to see the kangaroo.   I was so excited to see them!  It really is what Australia is all about – the unusual and exotic animals.  About 50 meters from the road there were about 25 kangaroo together.  When we got out of the car they stood alert, but did not hop away.  I quickly, but cautiously approached the ‘roos with my camera aimed and ready to take a picture before they got spooked.  However, Anabella was trying very hard to get my attention.  She would not give up so I finally stopped to listen to her only to learn from her that I was standing on the largest ant hill I have ever seen!  My shoes and pants were covered with very large, black ants…ugh!!  I began shaking and dancing around, then raced back to the car where I stripped off my pants to shake the ants off of me.  I was nervous and laughing hysterically.  I couldn’t help thinking about what everyone told me about the land down under…it is where the 10 most deadly creatures live.  Was I going to be bitten and poisoned by one of those creatures?  Oh, God, please no.  Now, I know that the black ants aren’t of concern, but it did sting a bit when one of those lovely creatures bit me on the knee .  When I joined my party back at the kangaroo viewing, Uri was shaking his head as if to say, “Really.  Ants.  You are afraid of a few ants.”  Dave, on the other hand, wasn’t quite sure what to make of my spectacle.  He jokingly said that I could be arrested for indecent exposure at which I responded, “No I can’t. I have diplomatic status!”  There are some perks to this assignment.

We are staying in a three bedroom serviced apartment in Kingston which is a neighbourhood or precinct of Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).  Fortunately, Kingston is quite charming and has all of the necessities, and some nice perks, too.  Directly out our front door is an IGA – yes, an American grocery store, a chemist (pharmacy), a dry cleaners, a newsstand/ convenience store, the local library, a few hair salons and spas, more cafes and coffee shops than one can count, many delicious restaurants, including Italian, Portuguese, Thai, and Vietnamese, and a few local pubs.  There are some wonderful boutiques and gift shops, too.  And, each Sunday down by the lake is the Old Bus Depot Market where artists, craftsmen and women, designers, and vendors from all over Australia come out to sell their artwork, hand-made crafts, jewellery, clothing and, of course, baked goods and other yummy foods.  I have to say the quality of the exhibits is quite impressive.  I am looking forward to buying some original artwork for my home.  I’ve got my eye on some beautiful Aboriginal glassware and lanterns.  Here’s the web address for one of the exhibitors I was looking at:  

About a block away from our apartment is Telopea Park and Lake Burley Griffin (the lake that Canberra is built around).   We spend a great deal of time in the park and down by the lake.  We are lucky to have our friends from Connecticut here at the hotel/apartment, too.  It has been very nice to have them here with us.  They arrived a month prior to us so they already found the hot spots and worked out most of the kinks.  Jodi and Dave have been generous with their time.  They have an eight year old boy, Michael, who has become a great friend to Anabella and Chloe.  We spend a lot of time together down at the park and keep each other company in the apartment.  Jodi and I began running together a few days after my arrival.  Running down by the lake is so much fun.  There is a well maintained bicycle trail around it.  Having a nice trail with a beautiful setting is motivating to me.  Each time that I run down there it reminds me of my runs down by the Charles River in Boston with my sister Lilly except with fewer people and cars, and there are black swans instead of white ones. 

Since being here we have been eating out nearly every meal (gotta love the Government per Diem). It’s given us the chance to find our favourite eateries.  For Asian, we especially like Madam Woo’s.  My two favourite main courses are the coconut and lime chicken and the beef penang.  Uri usually goes for the Laksa won ton noodle soup and the girls enjoy the clear won ton noodle soup with a side of steamed rice.  The owner, Ruby, knows just how to prepare the girls’ soup.  I favour L’Unico amongst the Italian eateries.  The owner is quite nice and takes special care to bring the girls pasta out straight away.  Having eaten in many of these places multiple times you do tend to get to know the owners and some of the wait staff.  It definitely helps.  One thing I noticed almost upon arrival was the quality of customer service (or should I say lack of…).  It may have to do with the fact that it is not customary to tip service workers including wait staff, hair stylists, bartenders, etc.
When we arrived 8 weeks ago, the biggest surprise to me was the weather.  It was cold and rainy!  We just came off of a 6 day vacation in Hawaii where the weather was a steady 80 degrees Fahrenheit every day.  Temperatures here were as low as 45 degrees Fahrenheit in the morning and mid 50s in the afternoon.  This was not what I had in mind for Australian weather.  Coming in at the end of September is the end of the Winter season and the beginning of Spring.  Canberra is cooler than most areas because it is at a higher elevation than most other cities.  I did not pack appropriately.  Within a couple of days I had Jodi drive me out to the mall to buy a fleece jacket, a down vest and an umbrella.  All have come in handy.  The Australians should be thanking us because when we arrived so did the rain.  Australia just ended a 13 year draught with all this rain that has fallen.  The locals remind me that the lush lawns and blooming flowers are not typical.  I have to say I notice the most wonderful fragrances each time I step outside.  I especially love the smell of the beautiful and delicate jasmine that grows here.  It is in so many yards.   And, the roses are so fragrant, too.
Check out the beautiful roses behind the silly girls

I am signing off of this post for now.  There is so much more to write about, but I don't want to lose anyone's interest with a long post.  I am thinking my next post may cover my driving experience, the girls' school and some of the embassy events we've attended.  Ciao for now!

Monday, November 1, 2010

G'Day Friends

So, we are in Australia!  Yup, it has been 5 weeks today, and as some predicted I have not kept up with my blog.  This is not entirely my fault though.  We are still living in temporary quarters which is a 3 bedroom service hotel...we only have minimal things with us...enough clothes to get us through about two weeks, a few toys and books for the girls, not enough warm clothes (I'll come back to that) and no computer and an I-Phone that does not work in Australia.  I have now found that the local library offers free internet so I am trying to come here at least once a week.  While here I usually have the girls with me (who constantly interrupt me) and only have time to send a few emails and catch up on Facebook.  I am going to write just a few things here as I only have another 10 minutes before I have to run to pick up the girls from school. 

Before arriving in Canberra we spent 6 nights in Hawaii.  It was incredibly beautiful and relaxing. Now it seems so long ago.  Funny enough, the girls made friends with two young girls on the beach from Melbourne.  Every day was warm, sunny and 80 degrees.  We arrived in Canberra on September 24th and the temperatures were chilly!  It was the end of their winter/beginning of spring season, and as several people told us, unseasonably cold.  After two days, I broke down and bought a fleece jacket and a down vest (yup, that cold!).  It has also rained quite a bit.  Which, again, several people have told us is unusual.  However, all the rain has helped Australia end a 15 year draught.  This spring is the greenest the Australians have seen it in a long time.  It sure is beautiful.  The flowers are much more fragrant here -- the roses smell amazing and you can smell them before you even see them.  And, the jasmine...such a delicate and fragrant flower!  I am especially excited for all of the beautiful, exotic birds that we see.  The colors of the birds are so vivid.  It's so amazing to see the shock of red and brilliant blues flying through the sky.  But, boy you have to watch out for the magpies!  These can be vicious birds especially in October when they are nesting.  Every park has warnings about the magpies swooping.  Today, I went bush-walking with my friend, Jodi.  We saw several kangaroo and parrots.  It was so beautiful and such a great work-out.  Well, friends, I am not done tellling you everything, but duty calls.  I am rushing to get the girls so we can head over the Embassy Halloween party.  I can't wait to see the carved melons!!