Thursday, January 29, 2009

Aussie language

After just a few weeks here, I've started to realize why Australia produces so many great writers, songwriters and poets: these people just love language!

We went last night to see Marco Gliori, a poet who was performing at the Noosa library. He's in the same tradition as Max Boyce, Attila the Stockbroker, or Pam Ayers -- comedians who perform in verse, rather than serious poets who recite (yes, I know my references are rather dated!). It was great fun, and it felt like taking a bath in a warm tub of linguistic excess.

This is a great country in which to perform in that vein. The language here is exuberant and playful. It`s not just the rich field of slang terms, although that certainly makes listening to morning radio entertaining (yesterday I heard an ad for a meat pie shop that offered a special`for tradies guaranteed to keep ya full from smoko till knock-off`. And I actually knew what they were talking about!). There are plenty of other examples which have been collected in Australian slang dictionaries like this one --

But that`s only a part of it. There`s also a rich appreciation for a new turn of phrase or new word. Names are always changed, just for the fun of it. Sharon is Shaz, Andrew is Rew, Isaiah is Izzy. Others are created on the spot. I heard a singer named Ange something-or-other interviewed in a conversation which began `How ya going Panjo`She started laughing and said she`d never heard that one. I tried to picture a Canadian host doing the same thing, making up an abbreviation for someone`s name on the spot, and couldn`t do it. (`Today we`re pleased to welcome Shania Twain to the studio. How ya going Shanny`)

But the most entertaining of all is the bluntness of officialdom. There`s a government-sponsored ad on t.v. these days urging people not to speed. The tag line is `slow down, stupid.`McDonalds recently sponsored a campaign against drunk driving, with the tag line `If you drink and drive, you`re a bloody idiot.` News stories are even better. Some examples from yesterday`s Daily Telegraph: in a story about hooligans on Australia Day, the president of Australia`s version of the legion said they were `bloody dickheads`; the commissioner of corrective services, commenting on a prisoner who hacked his finger off in a protest, said `Took him 20 minutes to saw it off, the idiot`; the education director-general, referring to an ad campaign that got the back-to-school date wrong, called it a `stuff up`. That`s in the first five pages of a fairly respectable paper.

I love it! I`m not sure I`ll ever again be able to write straight Canadian news copy, though.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Australia Day

Monday was the Australian national holiday, a celebration of the day in 1788 when the First Fleet dropped anchor in Sydney Harbour. The fleet consisted of 11 ships and 1400 men, women and children, more than half of them convicts. They'd been travelling for more than 250 days, and managed to land with almost everyone still alive. They actually landed at Botany Bay, to the south, a week earlier but soon realized that it was a really crappy place to build a colony. The trees were so big and hard they had to be blasted out of the ground with gunpowder, the natives were unfriendly, there was little fresh water and the harbour was exposed.
It would be more than two years before another ship would arrive in Australia, bringing supplies from England. (Well, perhaps not exactly supplies: the Lady Juliana actually had a cargo of 226 women, most of them prostitutes, since it was felt the new colony needed to grow. A genuine supply ship arrived a couple of weeks later, followed a few days after that by another fleet of convicts).
To mark all of this, Australians drape themselves in flags and their national colours of green and yellow, and head to the beach.
The alternative this year was to watch South Africa, wearing their national colours of green and yellow, pummel the Australian cricket team in a one day match. Happy Australia Day indeed. As one news web site put it: "So pronounced was Australia's decline from 2-110 when Ponting and Mike Hussey (28) were together that they were ultimately left to take the batting powerplay at a punch drunk 8-189. Gibbs soon rendered the total inadequate as he climbed eagerly into the outswingers of Ben Hilfenhaus (1-49), cracking him disdainfully over mid off and mid on despite the moving ball."
Couldn't have put it better myself... even if I did have a clue what on earth they're talking about.
Anyway, we decided to give the cricket a miss and headed to the sands of Noosa's main beach. The kids joined in a thong-floating event -- nobody was really clear what it was about, other than some sort of world record challenge. The main point seemed to be to get in the water, float about, and shout "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oy, Oy, Oy." All great fun.
By mid-afternoon we were tired and sunburnt, so we headed home for a dinner of barbecued sausages and prawns, and some of the truly excellent Australian beer. We decided to give the fireworks a miss, as it was the first day of school the next day. Summer's over. Time to get to work, kids.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Settling in

This week we started making the transition from visitors to residents. Sharon got her first look at her new classroom on Monday, and we've been busy looking after mundane but essential details such as registering the children for school, ensuring we have enough uniforms, arranging bus pick-up for Ana, etc. The school uniforms have caused enormous joy in the household. Isaiah thinks the broad-brimmed hats they have to wear look goofy, and Ana is dismayed by the entire concept. (I walked past the computer when she was having a video chat with some of her friends in Canada earlier this week. Judging from the laughter that was coming from the northern end of the conversation, the Canadian girls found it much more amusing than Ana did. I'll see if I can get a picture of her in the uniform, and then I can use the threat of posting it online in order to get her to clean her room or help with the dishes.) Once they get to school and see everyone else wearing them, though, I think they'll be happier with it.
Isaiah was very happy to hear that they have a rock band for year 7 students, which means he'll be able to audition on drums. He's been getting good use out of the set we have here.
Ana will be doing a mix of year 9 and year 10 courses, since she's already done a semester of grade nine in Canada. She was pleased to get into film and t.v. studies, where she'll be learning about camera angles, editing, and various other production issues that those of us who work in the print side of the industry know nothing about. Guess who's going to be editing the family video collection.
We continue to be surprised by the price variations, with some things much cheaper than in Canada and others considerably more expensive. For example, I stopped in to a music store this week to pick up some new guitar strings, and while there I naturally tried out some guitars. They seemed to be considerably cheaper than in Canada -- I played several 12-strings, which ranged from $399 to $699 for a quite decent sounding Cort. Given that those prices are in Australian dollars (currently about 17 per cent below the Canadian dollar) and they include taxes, it's quite a bit cheaper. Then I bought a set of strings and saw the other side of the equation: Ernie Ball strings, which normally cost around nine bucks in Bracebridge, were $20!
Fresh produce can be a bargain, and lamb and cheese are cheaper, but milk and eggs seem to be more dear.
We went to the farm market in Noosa on Sunday morning, and had a great time. It's still a little odd to be buying "farm fresh" mangos, limes, lychees, pineapples, passion fruit, macadamia nuts, etc., and realize that they really were picked by the person you're talking to. I feel a little like the proverbial city kid who can't quite grasp that milk comes from cows and eggs from chickens. I know, theoretically, that someone must grow pineapples and macadamia nuts in just the same way as someone grows tomatoes and carrots, but those pineapple and macadamia farms have always been a long way away from me. That's no longer the case. Even though I can see a mango ripening on the tree from where I sit, it hasn't quite hit home that we're living in the (sub) tropics.
The photo shows the fruits of our labours, as well as the vegetables, prawns, and Moreton Bay bugs of our labours.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Damn! Those are big waves!

Ever hear of something called a King Tide? Well we've had them this week along the Sunshine Coast. Apparently it's got something to do with the combination of a full moon and strong winds driven by a cyclone in the north. It creates bigger than usual tides and massive waves.

The surfers love them, and even though we're not surfers we love playing in waves too. So we've been in the water a couple of times. Today we went to Sunshine Beach, which is just a few minutes up the coast and is the nearest patrolled beach. (Castaways Beach itself is just a few minutes walk from our house, but it's not patrolled. And everyone -- and I mean every Australian I've ever spoken to -- has told us not to swim on an unpatrolled beach. People die, every year, from swimming on unpatrolled beaches, where there's nobody to save you when you get caught in a rip tide. We take these warnings seriously, so we look for the lifesavers and their flags.)

Anyway, today we went to Sunshine Beach to play in the waves. It was great fun, for the first hour or so. We took turns riding body boards and body surfing. The waves seemed about two metres high and were stacked one on top of the other. The sea going back out was sometimes as powerful as the waves coming in, and just as capable of knocking you down. The beach was open, but the lifesavers were warning people not to go deeper than waist deep.

By the end of it, we were all buffeted, bruised, sand-whipped and salt-filled. It gave us a whole new appreciation for the power of the ocean. Tonight we read in the local paper that the lifesavers at Noosa's main beach performed about 20 rescues over the weekend.

This photo was taken at another beach in the area a couple of years ago, but it's a pretty good representation of what we saw today.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The weird world of vegemite. And more on coffee.

Forget religion, politics or sport. The thing that really defines a people is their attitude toward particular foods. After two weeks in this country, coffee continues to confound us: while restaurants typically serve capuccinos, lattes and the like, in their homes it seems most people drink instant coffee. I suspected as much by visiting the grocery stores, where the coffee selection is typically split between espresso and instant.

It's quite good instant coffee, but it's difficult to explain to Australians the deep-seated prejudice many Canadians have against instant. In Canada, instant is the coffee you drink if you can't find anything else, suitable for camping, particularly rustic cottages, and rather run-down workplaces, but really not something you would choose to drink every day. To have instant coffee topped with professionally-frothed milk and a dusting of chocolate sugar is nothing less than bizarre. Still, as I said, it is very good instant, and I can quickly get used to it.

Stocking up on food is another area where we seem to differ. It's not difficult to see why: Canadians come from a culture in which you have a few months to grow and store the food that will get you through the winter. We're only a couple of generations removed from the time when a pantry full of canned foods, a root cellar full of potatoes and turnips, and a few smoked hams hanging in the attic were signs that it was going to be a good winter. Even though we can now buy "fresh" strawberries trucked in from Florida in February, most of us still keep a few weeks of food on hand in our pantries and freezers. Australians, from what I've seen, don't seem to do that. When farmers bring in the summer crop, that just means it's time to start growing the winter crop. The one exception, I've been told, is in the northern areas where they have a pronounced wet season, and people stock up to ensure they've got enough food in case they get cut off by floods.

Then there's Vegemite. It's a complex part of the Australian psychology, more myth than food. Foreigners don't like it, and aren't expected to. The ability to eat and enjoy vegemite is a defining national characteristic. I really can't come up with an analagous custom from Canada. Our national foods are things like donuts, butter tarts and poutine, foods which are easy to enjoy; we haven't taken dishes like seal flipper pie or prairie oysters and made them into national icons. Our most iconic trait is winter: we take pride in our ability to withstand the cold, and relish hearing others complain about it, but the analogy doesn't hold since most of us don't really enjoy winter the way Australians enjoy vegemite. After all, when we go on holiday in winter we usually go somewhere warm; when Australians go on holiday, they take a jar of vegemite with them. (In fact, it's now available in tubes just to cater to travelling Aussies who don't want to risk having a glass jar burst in their luggage).

Other Australian dishes are much easier to like. Their meat pies are fantastic (there are pie shops in many towns), we were already fans of pavlova and Australian wines, and the beer is excellent. We've had store-bought lamingtons (sponge cake covered in thin icing and rolled in coconut), and been underwhelmed, but I'm told we really need to get homemade lamingtons to fully appreciate them. I'm looking forward to trying kangaroo, "bugs" (lobster-like sea critters), more seafood, and various types of "bush tucker". But Vegemite is going to take some more getting used to.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Noosa: first thoughts

We flew into Maroochidore, which is an interesting experience since the plane comes in low over the water and lands right beside the beach. At one point we wondered if it had to have pontoons since you don't actually see land until you're nearly on it.
The bus brought us right to the door, and we got our first look at our new home. Jacqui and Charlie's house is just as lovely as it appeared in the photos, and the kids were soon upstairs sorting out who got what room. That taken care of, it was in to the pool, something Charlotte in particular had been waiting to do for days.
After a quick swim, I got in the car and went to find some "takeaway". (Incidentally, it's quite funny how we're all starting to pick up the lingo. We buy takeaway and stand in a queue without a second thought. I haven't got used to being asked "how're ya goin?" though: I keep wanting to reply "I'm going by car.") I ended up in Peregian Beach, which is just to the south of us. It's a funky little beach village, whose commercial area seems to consist mainly of a square block or so containing half a dozen restaurants, a grocery store, and three bottle shops (liquor stores). It was just after dark, and the square was bustling with families and couples sitting at sidewalk tables and at picnic tables, sharing a meal and watching the kids run around. Very casual, very cool, very fun.
Early to bed last night, as we're still a bit wrung out from the road. Turns out the neighbours are very noisy. Not the human ones, but the birds and frogs. The house backs onto a national park, and after dark the volume of noise from the frogs and insects is insane. It gets even louder around 5:00 when the parrots and other birds start to wake up. Still, it won't be hard to get used to it. This morning, as we had a coffee on the deck, we watched as a bush turkey strutted into the yard (picture is courtesy of Flickr). I said that was all very well and good, but we wouldn't be as thrilled if snakes and crocodiles started coming out to visit us. Sharon says we need a gun -- first to silence the squawky birds, then to shoot a turkey for dinner. A true Muskoka girl, that Sharon.
We took a quick look around Noosa today, but we're still a bit whipped and none of us seem to feel much like doing anything but lounging around the pool. Tomorrow we'll go exploring a bit.
So far Noosa and surrounds reminds me of a mix between Port Carling and Grand Bend -- communities that are home to locals but exist for the tourists. It's very easy to see why Noosa is such a popular vacation destination, and why so many Australians, upon learning we were going to be spending a year here, congratulated us.
As an indication of how renowned Noosa is, in the travel section of yesterday's The Australian newspaper, there was an article on the growing popularity of cruise ships. The lede said "Cruise ships are the new Noosa."
Now it's time for a dip before dinner.

Melbourne in three days

You can't get much more whirlwind than that. We arrived in Melbourne early Wednesday morning after a long, long train ride. Picked up a rental car and began the exciting process of learning to drive on the left while finding our hotel. Then we all slept for a few hours before going for a drive in the afternoon.
We ended up driving to Dandenong National Park, a fabulous landscape of twisting roads and massive trees. Even though the temperature can get almost to freezing here in south Australia, the forest is a rain forest with jurassic-looking ferns the size of trees, and trees that shoot straight up for 30 metres before the first branch appears.
The next day we headed south to the much-hyped Great Ocean Road... and quickly discovered that it is the busiest week of the year for the region. We lucked into a motel room, then set out to drive along the road. It was built after WW1 as a living tribute to the servicemen, and took some 3,000 men with shovels and wheelbarrows to carve this road out of the coastline. It's some of the most amazing scenery in Australia, and we didn't even get to the best part of it. (It was one of those compromises you make when travelling with kids -- Sharon and I could have spent all day going happily from lookout to lookout, but after a few hours the kids felt they were all starting to look the same.) So we stopped at a beach and watched the surfers and kite-flyers, and ran in the wind and sand, and marvelled at the fact that the next land out to sea from us was Antarctica. (We weren't sure if Tasmania was in the way, but decided we could probably skirt around it in our imaginary voyage. Sorry Tasmania.)
On the way back to the motel, we drove past a golf course we'd been told about: kangaroos! Dozens of them, staring at us and thinking we look just as odd as they do. You can't help but look at them and wonder how they must have appeared to the first Europeans to arrive here. They look freaky enough to us.
On the road again on Friday, hoping to get to Phillip Island to see the penguin parade. Our hopes weren't high as we hadn't found a place to stay by mid-afternoon, but we lucked out in a place called Frankston. It was a little over an hour from Phillip Island, but we knew that was as close as we were going to get.
We were a little apprehensive heading to the island, as we'd been told it was overdeveloped and commercialized, with bleachers on the beach to watch the penguins. Turns out there are bleachers, but with good reason: before they were built, people would just drive down to the beach, often running over penguins or crushing burrows on their way. Now it's a serious ecotourism operation, where the penguins come first. You're not even allowed to take photos, for fear you'll frighten the birds.
We took a tour of the site with a ranger, then headed down to the beach to wait for dusk. It was FREEZING! About 10 degrees with a fierce wind whipping off the ocean (all the way from Antarctica, remember). But around 9:00, we started to see the first of the penguins come ashore. Then more and more came, in groups of six to twenty, wading out of the surf, looking around for predators, dashing back in, then eventually making their way across the beach to the dunes where their chicks were waiting in the dens. By walking along the boardwalks through the dunes we could get within a couple of feet of these penguins, listening to them chatter to their chicks and discussing the day's events. It was a real highlight of the trip for all of us.
A great way to end our perigrinations. The next day, Saturday, we returned the car and hopped on a plane. Tonight we arrived in Noosa at last.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


You know how everything you read about Sydney goes on about the beautiful harbour and the stunning architecture of the opera house? Well it turns out to be fully justified. It isn't until you travel through the harbour that you really realize how big and how beautiful it is. And the opera house is truly a remarkable building, lovely from every angle.

A few other random observations about Sydney, and the bit of Australia we've seen so far:
The Aquarium is world class. Unfortunately, it knows it. Admission is pricey, refreshments are exorbitant, and on a weekend in January the crowds are nearly impenetrable. Not a high point of the trip.
The Olympic site is absolutely massive. Really drives home what an enormous undertaking the Olympics really are. I took the younger two children for a swim, and we spent hours playing in the wonderful new splash pool at the aquatic centre.
Australians warned me that we couldn't get Tim Hortons here. No worries, I thought --I find Tims to be over-rated anyway. What they didn't tell me is that you can't get regular coffee here at all! You can get very good lattes, espressos, mochas, etc at every turn, but a plain coffee with milk? Forget it.
Parramatta, by the way, has the largest concentration of coffee shops on the planet. It's the suburb of Sydney that we stayed in. No word of a lie, in a one block stretch of road beside our hotel there were eight coffee shops.
We had expected Bondi to be overcrowded, overpriced, and over-rated . It wasn't any of them. Yes, it was very busy, but it was a great beach, and the town itself has that funky, fun vibe that you find in all well-used beach towns, combined with a rolling, higgledy-piggledy road system that had me glad I was riding a bus. Think Wasaga Beach meets Quebec City with a slightly faded 1920s facade.
The Blue Mountains are absolutely stunning. We did a day trip from Parramatta (1.5 hours on the train each way, with a hop-on hop-off bus pass to get around the towns of Katoomba and Leura). Breathtaking scenery, and a fantastic hike through the rain forest.
City Rail is the best value for families. The trains are clean and on time, and right now you only pay for the first child in a family. We have hardly missed a car at all in our time in Sydney.

Now we leave Sydney behind, and take the night train to Melbourne. (It was supposed to be the day train earlier today, but that fell victim to the Murphy's Law that seems to be our constant travelling companion these days.) Just a short trip to Melbourne, then we fly up to our new home on Saturday.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Three countries later...

We got on the Dec 29 flight to LA, a tight-as-sardines excursion that landed at LAX on time. We still came very, very close to missing our next connection as we changed terminals and went through security. With seconds to spare (the ticket agent was literally shutting down the flight as we arrived at the gate) we got on board our Air Pacific 747, en route to Fiji at last. The flight was long, but not unbearable, and the staff of Air Pacific were wonderful. I'd definitely fly with them again.
We landed in Fiji on Dec 31. Our luggage, however, hadn't made the same sprint between planes and was reportedly still in LA. No worries, though, as we had been warned this might happen and had packed our toothbrushes and bathing suits in our carry-on bags.
Fiji is a beautiful country, and the people are incredibly friendly. We went shopping in Latoka, the second largest town on the island, and spent all afternoon replying to strangers who greeted us with a friendly Bula. (it means hello. That and vinaka, or thank-you, sums up my knowlege of Fijian.)
The new year's eve party was a bit of a bust, as we all fell asleep by about 10, but we toasted the new year on Canadian time the next afternoon.
After 28 hours in Fiji, we collected our bags (5 of the 6 missing suitcases showed up on the next flight from LA; the sixth is still MIA), bought a bottle of Bounty rum at the duty free, and hopped on yet another plane. Next stop, Sydney.