Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Oz Files, #20: Those things about Australia

You think being back from Australia for over three weeks is going to prevent me from ranting blogging about it? Seriously, people, this is me we're talking about.

Here, then, for your reading pleasure, is a random collection of things that I noticed about Australia, which I urgently need to share with the world. Yet another a truism about travel: Things out there are different than things over here. Some things that are different aren't really worth mentioning, since they're clearly that way due to British colonialism: driving on the left, using the metric system, adding the letter "u" in the middle of words where it doesn't belong ("colour"? Come on.). But some other things...well, read on.

- The whole system of waiting tables in restaurants is entirely different. At least in the majority of places that aren't super-fancy, waiters don't have particular tables or zones assigned to them, so they all are responsible for covering the whole restaurant. The reason for this is likely the fact that waiters are actually paid a decent living wage in Australia and don't have to work for tips, like they do here, so they're not as reliant on making nice to the customers. That said, the effect of this system is to make the service extremely erratic. So you can be seated at your table by one person, wait 15 solid minutes to be brought a menu, and then have three different people come up in the course of thirty seconds asking if you've placed your order yet. Sigh.

- Some phone numbers have 8 digits. Some have 6 digits. WTF?

- Everyone (at least in Canberra) is in denial about the fact that it gets cold in the winter. I mean, it's not Boston, but it does get down below freezing at night for a few months a year. But there's no insulation anywhere, no seals around the doors, no double-glazed windows, no proper heating, and you're expected to hang out outdoors at all hours under propane-powered heat lamps that don't work worth a damn. Wait, I get it, I'm in northern California!

- Some words have s's at the end that shouldn't (maths). Some words don't have s's at the end that should (sport). Maybe s's are migratory?

- Smoking ads, and ads in general, are much much much more graphic than in the US. For example, cigarette packages have pictures of actual atrophied limbs and gross gangrene-infected toes. And there are huge signs over the shelves where the cigarettes are sold saying things like, "It's time to quit smoking while you still have a chance," and "Smoking leads to death. Stop smoking." Not that this does any good, but you've got to applaud the effort. There's also this classy ad I saw on the homepage of the Sydney Morning Herald: It was advertising a new erectile dysfunction drug, and it featured a downward-turned banana, slowly spinning until it curved upwards, along with the text, "Your doctor can point you in the right direction."

- The news here is awful. I mean, the news itself is fine, but the news shows on ABC-TV or whatever, as well as most of the newspapers, are terrible at reporting it. They spend maybe 5 minutes recapping world events, plus 2 minutes or so on local events (3 if the prime minister has done something particularly stupid), followed by 25 minutes or so on sports (sorry, sport). And the morning news shows are even worse. They're pretty much just nonstop infomercials for various travel companies and hair care products, sprinkled with the occasional celebrity gossip. Don't believe me? Check out the afore-mentioned homepage of the Sydney Morning Herald for some truly Pulitzer-worthy reporting on the hot issues of the day.

- More on sport. (Hey, that's all they talk about so that's what I'm going to talk about.) There's soccer, of course, which in Australia is called "soccer." Fun fact: The world cup Australia team is the Socceroos. Isn't that precious? But hang on one bloody minute here. Why is it called soccer when every sane country on earth calls it football, including Mother England? Because, dear readers, like our own beloved country, Australia has a different game that it calls football: Australian Rules Football, or AFL, or Ozzie Rules, or just plain "footy." This game it has the dubious distinction of making even less sense than American football, and quite possibly even less sense than the other two games that Austalians are gaga about, namely rugby and cricket. I've watched a few minutes here and there on the telly, and it mostly looks like people running into each other at high speed and balls being kicked long distances, where more people run into each other in an attempt to catch said ball. The fun part is that there are no pads, no helmets, no offside rules, and hardly any penalties. According to that source of all knowledge, wikipedia, there are also no set positions, and balls cannot ever be thrown (one of the few game-stopping penalties is apparently actually throwing the ball, as opposed to kicking it or bumping it around). In defense (er, defence) of the game, I should add that Ozzie Rules players make for rather fine examples of wholesome, buffed, Australian beefcake. Which is just fine with me. Go team!

- They use A4 paper. Okay, that happens. But. The computer guy at ANU changed my default printer settings to take this into account, so I had to re-format all of the documents that I started while I was there so they wouldn't be squished. Argh.

- As in England, what we call French fries are called chips, and what we call (potato) chips are called crisps. Okay, that makes a certain amount of sense. However, the chips come in all sorts of, I mean all sorts of flavors. Like Thai chicken, and steak, and bacon, and hamburger. Seriously, hamburger-flavored potato chips. I have just one thing to say: Ew.

- There's a bomb-threat checklist. On campus at ANU. In the women's bathroom.

- Some reflections on light switches: Here, light switches go up to turn the light on and down to turn it off. This, to me, seems logical, and I'm going to argue that it's logical not just because it's what I'm used to, but because humans tend associate positive with up and negative with down. Think about the way this is codified in our language. When things are going well, we say they're looking up, or on the up and up; when things are going badly, we say they went south, or downhill. Good scores are generally higher than bad scores, not lower. (Golf is an unfortunate exception.) When we feel good, we stand up tall; when we feel bad, we slump to the ground. When we flip the switch up, the light goes on; when we flip the switch down, it goes off. Okay, so it's a little Whorfian, but I don't think it's necessarily crazy. Compare the up/down issue with driving on the left vs. driving on the right, which is entirely arbitrary. The point? In Australia, flipping the switch up turns the light off, and flipping it down turns it on. It drove me absolutely crazy.

- Things in Australia are hairier than they have a right to be. Consider, if you will, Australian spiders. This is a funnel-web, which, in addition to being hideous ugly, is also hideously poisonous.

Or, consider Australian trees, like the yellow wattle:

I think that one might get away with being merely fuzzy, rather than hairy. Well, there's always the banksia:

And, of course, there are Australian philosophers. Here's Kim Sterelny, again:

and David Chalmers:

I rest my case. Hairbrushes all around!

The Oz Files, #19: You can't go home again

I've been back home for a little less than three weeks now, and have already settled back into the routine of summer: breezy skirts, fantastic summer produce at the farmers' market (tomatoes, corn, eggplants, peaches, blackberries...), and dreading the start of the school year. Surprisingly, it didn't take too long to re-adjust to this time zone, a few days at most, mostly involving an inability to stay up past 9 pm and popping out of bed at 6 am. Very uncharacteristic. What took longer was re-adjusting to looking the correct way when crossing the street. I'd gotten so used to cars driving on the right side that it actually was hard to go back to seeing the cars drive on the left, even though I've had vastly more experience with that setup. I had to keep telling myself: look left, then right. Left, then right. (Shades of JFK.) The mind is a funny thing.

And while it's true that, in a certain sense, you can go home again, it's a truism that travel makes you see things in a different way --- not just because you're looking the wrong way into oncoming traffic. I've noticed this particularly with the birds and animals here in Philadelphia. Because there were all these wonderful parrots and cockatoos and kookaburras around in Australia, I was sure that our silly little sparrows and crows would pale in comparison. Ditto the mammals: Who would trade adorable brush-tailed possums for disgusting, rubbish-eating squirrels? But not so. Sparrows are actually terrifically fun to watch as they flit around, and even squirrels can muster a bit of cuteness when they're sprawled out on the benches to avoid the heat. It's hard to just see these things when they fade into the day-to-day, so I'm grateful for the opportunity to see the world with fresh eyes.

That being said, if one of those damned squirrels falls through our ceiling again, I will have no compunctions about getting out the shotgun. :)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Oz Files, #18: Last weekend in Sydney

Alas, our Australian adventure has drawn to a close --- but in spectacular fashion.

To get from Canberra to Syndey, we booked onto the early train, which left at 6:37 am, necessitating at 5:30 am wake-up call. Now, most sane people fly between Canberra and Sydney, and anyone else with half a brain takes the bus, which is much faster than train and cheaper. But no, we took the train. Here's why:

When we got to the station, it was still dark outside, and cold and clear. We could see a slim line of pale light just starting to illuminate the eastern hills, but towards the west it was starry. Venus was sparkling, and we stood outside the train before it left to watch our breath freeze in the air and say one last goodbye to Canberra. Once we started moving, we got some breakfast from the cafe car and took it back to our seats to watch the countryside roll by. The tracks are very old and there's only one set, meaning that only one train can run at a time, and only quite slowly at that. But once we got outside the narrow space around Canberra and the hills started to fall away, we got to see what we'd come for: kangaroos. And I mean hundreds of them, scattered throughout the hills, in twos and threes and little knots, grazing in the rising sun. The best thing was when the train startled them into hopping away, and we could see their silhouettes bounding across the top of the hills. In the valleys between the hills, a thick fog had settled on the ground, giving the landscape a sleepy, ghostly feel. It took about half an hour into the trip for the sun to rise fully up through the fog, scattering red light across the eucalyptus groves and casting long shadows on the dewy ground.

I watched the 'roos until I couldn't stay awake any more, then dozed until we hit the outer Sydney suburbs. We arrived at Central Station around 11:00, and took a cab to our hotel, the Kirketon, to drop off our bags. The Kirketon is just down the street from the Altamont, where we'd stayed at the beginning of the trip, and we stopped back in to say hi to innkeeper Alan and his dogs one more time. Then we got a proper breakfast at Latteria: creamed spinach / tomato / mozzarella paninis, plus some coffee. When we finished, it was still too early to get into our hotel room, so we took a stroll around the neighborhood and bumped into a lovely farmers' market with food stalls down in Kings Cross. Despite having just eaten, Michael got a breakfast paratha from a Malaysian food stall and devoured it with glee. (Okay, I helped. But only a little.)

After wandering around the market and stopping into The Artery to pick up our painting, we were able to get into our room. The Kirketon is a little too hip for the likes of us --- dark gray painted walls with plush red carpeting, mirrors on everything, LCDs in the stairwells playing clips of old Charlie Chaplin movies --- but it's a good place to stay for a few days. Not longer, though; the rooms are really small and there's barely a place to open up the suitcase, let alone unpack properly. But unpacking wasn't really on our minds, since the early morning departure was still taking its toll, so we had a nap instead.

In the afternoon, we walked down to the Harbour and around the downtown area a bit before coming back to the Surrey Hills neighborhood for dinner. Michael had found an intriguing-looking Indian restaurant with a very veggie-friendly menu, so of course we had to check it out. Holy cow (pun intended), it was awesome.

The place is called Guru. The chef, Opel Khan (how's that for an awesome name?), was trained in classical French cuisine. So the food is basically Indian/European fusion, something that I've really never seen before. Most upscale Indian restaurants are still serving the same stuff as you can get at any lunch buffet, only with fresher ingredients and more complex sauces. But this was something new entirely. We had the Vegetarian Journey: a 5 course degustation with 3 palate cleansers, plus wine pairings. Nothing like a splurge to make you forget the end of vacation is nigh, eh? Here's the menu:

saffron and cumin veloute

Deconstructed Samosa
cubed potatoes, lentil batter shell, fresh garden pea curd, pear chutney, red pepper gel
NV Jed Blanc de Blanc from Uco Valley, Argentina

Baby Pimento
stuffed with basil mousse with tomato-basil sorbet, butter tuille, baby beets and tomato confit in mustard seed oil
2007 Fermoy Estate Semillon Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, NZ

Palate Cleanser
salted lassi foam with pistachios

Wild Mushroom
with poori mille feuille, sweet corn crepe, carrot and turmeric emulsion
2006 Konrad Pinot Noir from Central Otago, NZ

Saffron Kofta
with baby spinach, raisin compote, pistachio milk
2007 Alpamanta Malbec from Argentina

chai-spiced poached pear

Chocolate Marquise
with coconut bavarois, pistachio kulfi, chickpea dust
2007 Innocent Bystander Moscato from Yarra Valley, VIC

Super super super yum. The chef himself came out towards the end of the meal to ask how everything was, so we told him it was brilliant and couldn't wait for the cookbook. He even signed two menus for us to take home when we asked him if we could have a copy of what we'd eaten. And then we strolled --- slowly! --- back to the hotel.

One minor incident over dinner which I must note: Our waiter was a little less than perky during service. In fact, if it wasn't 7 pm, I'd say he was hung over. Well, these things happen. But in addition to the lethargy, he was doing a terrible job of describing the menu items, often forgetting what was in a dish and horribly botching the names of things he hadn't forgotten, including the wines. (For the record, it's semillion. Seh-mee-on. It's not that hard, people.) Being anal-retentive, I finally got a little fed up when he announced that our wild mushrooms were being served with "mill full, or something like that, I can't remember..." So I helpfully supplied "mille feuille," with all the confidence of my high-school French and a bit of wine to help me along. I honestly hadn't meant to be insulting, since he'd already admitted that he didn't know how to pronounce it, but I'd apparently embarrassed him sufficiently that he didn't return to our table for the rest of the evening. Eep. We got a lovely blonde waitress instead, who did a nice job of explaining the difference between muscat and moscato when it came to the dessert wine, and I've since decided that I refuse to feel bad about it.

On Sunday, we returned to Latteria for breakfast, accompanied by Michael's student Alkistis, who had been at ANU but was visiting a friend in Sydney for the weekend. Then we packed in the highlights for our last day. In the morning, we went shopping for more Icebreaker gear at Snowgum, then strolling through the arts fair at The Rocks, then lunching at Wok On Inn (yet another pan-Asian fast food place that would be fantastic to have here in Philly), then walking down to the Harbour to catch the ferry to Manly.

We didn't particularly want to be in Manly, it's just the the ferry provides you with the best views of the Harbour that $12.80 can buy. This is the lighthouse beside the channel leading out to the Pacific:

And the Opera House, seen from the deck of the ferry:

Here's the best part: On the way into the Manly ferry terminal, the boat pilot called our attention to a pod of dolphins, swimming just off the port side. Cool!

We took a brief walk around Manly, but it was windy and the sun was going down, so we didn't stay for long. After the ferry ride back, we took one last walk through the Botanic Gardens and then headed back to the hotel. Bird sighting from the Gardens: a masked lapwing and her chick:

We had our last dinner in Australia (!) at Onde, the same neighborhood gem just down the road that we'd visited when we were last in Sydney. I know it's been a bit of a food-heavy post, but I just have to tell you what we ate.

We decided to share an appetizer so as to save room for dessert (good move): roasted Jerusalem artichokes on toast with green olive tapenade and radicchio. For dinner, Michael had the same thing as last time, the garlic and tomato linguini with caramelized onion sauce. I saw that they had a gnocchi dish on the menu, but made with rabbit and bacon, so, being the pushy sneed I am, I requested to get the gnocchi but in a different sauce. The chef came through in spades, and I got deliciously ethereal gnocchi in roasted tomato sauce with basil and fresh shavings of Parmesan. Finally, dessert was a generous portion of gorgonzola dolce with dates and a chocolate terrine with light cream. Give you one guess as to which one of us ordered which.

All good things must come to an end, I suppose, so after dinner we headed mournfully back to the hotel room to get everything packed up for our flight home.

On our last morning in Sydney, we went out in style with breakfast at bills: the famous scrambled eggs again, and his signature ricotta hotcakes with honeycomb butter. Come on, we had to have something to take our minds off of the impending airplane food.

I will spare you the details of the 26.5 hour saga of our trip home, but suffice it to say that we made it in one piece, with our luggage and our sanity mostly intact. This was due in no small part to a nice and slightly wet-behind-the-ears gate agent at the Sydney airport: Our assigned seats for the San Francisco to Philly leg of the trip were in the very last row of the plane, right by the bathrooms, and we knew that they wouldn't recline properly because they were up against the back wall. So we'd planned to sweet talk the gate agent into switching us to something better, or, barring that, to spend some airline miles for an upgrade. Maybe we're going soft in our old age, but there's no point in suffering like that for 6 hours, especially not after coming off of a 13 hour flight. The sweet-talking part didn't work too well, mainly because there weren't any other seats available on the flight. (We later found out that this was due to a huge group of Phillies fans flying home after a four-game series in SF. Stupid baseball.) So we decided to bite the bullet, spend the points, and move up to Economy Plus. Luckily for us, the procedure for doing this was so complicated, and the gate agent was so new that he didn't know how to put through an upgrade for two separate miles accounts, and we were just so charming, that he upgraded us for free. Score!