Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Kokoda Memorial Walk


A couple of weeks ago we headed out to the Dandenongs with a group of friends to walk what many Melburnians refer to as "1,000 Steps". Also known as the Kokoda Memorial Walk, the trail was built to honor Australian soldiers (also called "diggers") who fought on the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea during World War II.

The hike itself does not take very long if you are in relatively decent shape. At the top there is a picnic ground, where our group hung out for an hour or so before making the descent. There is a separate, wider trail built intentionally for exercisers right next to the original trail, though we still passed plenty of people running up and down the steps instead of the exercise track.
Our group (minus Erik and I) on the way down!
We saw (and heard!) many kookaburras on this hike. They have a very distinct song that can be heard here if you are interested.

This short hike is definitely worth a visit, especially combined with a few other stops in the Dandenongs, whether that be another hike, a stop at the Sky High Observatory, or coffee at one of the quaint towns nearby.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Public Transport

Public transport in Melbourne is quite good compared to places that we have lived in previously.  We can get to many places using public transport, which is a combination of trains (like the Metro in DC), trams (like trolley cars, above ground), and buses. We live close to two different tram lines and several bus stops. The prices are cheaper on the weekends, which is when we usually end up using public transport.

Unfortunately, there are occasionally accidents involving trains and trams. Melbourne's public transport system has been running a campaign for a while now called "Dumb Ways to Die", complete with a game made for the iPhone. Below are some pictures of some of their slogans, which I thought my American readers might find amusing!




Aussies use 'cos as slang for "because"

Erik heading to our "platform"
The tram system has posters up everywhere reminding passengers and pedestrians that being hit by a tram would be the equivalent of being run over by 30 rhinoceroses.

Recently, the campaign was taken even further when trams started getting paint jobs to look like rhinos. Creative work by the public transport employees in Melbourne, don't you think?!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Permanent Residency

Some of my neighbors must be reading the blog, because just after I posted about the lack of Christmas lights in our 'hood, three houses in a row started showing off holiday decor! Needless to say, it was a nice surprise, and it helped to encourage a little Christmas "spirit" on my end.

Over the course of the last year, Erik and I have been taking the necessary to steps to ensure that once our visa ends next August, we will not be kicked out of the country. We want to have options - either staying in Oz or moving back to America, and we did not want to leave that decision in the hands of the Australian Government. We could have applied for a visa similar to the one we are currently on, however, we decided to go a bit further and apply for a permanent residency visa. 

The process of applying for this visa was tedious and required a fair amount of effort on our part. We had to get heaps of documentation from the States regarding Erik's previous work, transcripts, and proof of graduation/degrees. We applied under his name because fortunately the state of Victoria is in need of people with PhD's who study science. Both of us had to be fingerprinted for an FBI background check and we had to have police checks in Australia as well. The hubby had to get numerous letters from employers here in Oz and had to show proof of previous and current work. Erik also had to take the English test, where he spent an entire day proving that he has sufficient English reading, writing, and speaking skills (normally he would not have had to do this, however, due to our ages, we needed more "points" for our visa, and the English test helps with that). We spent nearly an entire day getting medical exams that required bloodwork and chest x-rays. I organized these things on my own (rather than using an immigration agent) to save money, as this process is not a cheap one. Fortunately I crossed all of my t's and dotted all of my i's and on October 21st, 2013, we received an exciting email.

Ironically October 21, 2003 was our first date. Ten years to the day that Erik took me to Outback Steakhouse (an Aussie-themed restaurant for those readers who are unaware), we were granted the rights to stay in Australia permanently.
Taken over 10 years ago...just a few nights before our first date!
At this point, we are unsure as to what will happen when Erik's contract ends next August. He will be applying for jobs in the States and in Australia, and now that we have the flexibility to stay or go, we can choose the best option for us. There are many reasons that we would love to stay in Oz and there would also be advantages to moving "home", so there will be lots of big decisions to make in our house over the next few months! There are no restrictions with permanent residency, and the next step would be to apply for Australian citizenship. However, to become a citizen you have to be living Down Under for at least 4 years, and time spent out of the country (including holidays to the USA, New Zealand, Thailand, etc.) does not count towards those 4 years, so we have some time before we can think about the option of dual citizenship.

If there are any readers out there who need advice or assistance with applying for PR, please don't hesitate to contact me with questions!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Summer?!

Today, December 1st, is the first day of summer Down Under. As if the weather gods knew that summer started today, we have been blasted with a warm (85F), sunny day. Normally, Erik and I would have no complaints, as we find that temperature just about perfect, and any day with sun is a good day in our books. However, as I have previously mentioned, it is certainly hard for it to feel like it will be Christmas in 24 days when everyone is walking around in tank tops, shorts, and thongs (flip flops for the non-Aussies!). Very few houses have lights or decorations because, to be honest, it's not getting dark these days until about 9pm, so very few people would be able to enjoy those lights. We do have one neighbor who has gotten into the festive season though!

As far as 'trimming the tree" goes, I'm pretty sure that most Aussies use a fake tree, though there are a few Christmas tree farms within a reasonable drive of Melbourne that will set you back about $100 for a tree. I actually think that the risk of fire, due to the climate being so dry, is a deterrent for having a real tree in the house.
Our "tree" last year...if you can find the actual tree in the picture!
Pavlova, or "pav", a summer/Christmas tradition in Oz. This one was made by my dear friend Ellise.
I am sure that if we had grown up here, we would associate this type of weather with Christmas. Many Aussies that we know spend the time around Christmas soaking up sun at the beach and having picnics in the park with friends, which is nothing to complain about, except that is just doesn't "feel" right. Our association with Christmas is cold, snow, and snuggling up under a blanket or by a warm fire with baked goods and hot chocolate while lights twinkle outside the house. Quite a different scene, but we are trying to embrace the traditions of our new home, having spent last Christmas hiking along the beaches of Wilsons Prom. Surely there could be worse things in the world than spending Christmas at the beach?! :)
Christmas greetings projected on Melbourne's Town Hall last year.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Melbourne Cup

The beginning of November marks "Spring Racing Carnival" time in Melbourne. A week of horse racing takes place annually at Flemington Racecourse, just down the road from where we live. The biggest race, Melbourne Cup, takes place on the Tuesday, and it is often coined as "the race that stops the nation". It is a public holiday, which means no work or school in Victoria and often in neighboring states the case is the same.


I had been wanting to attend Cup Day since our arrival in Melbourne. One of our friends who lives in Queensland was coming down for the race with some of his friends, so we thought it would be a good chance to hang out with him and to see the races.
Joe and I. Contiki 2004 reunites again!
There are several races (10) throughout the day, but the actual Melbourne Cup race is the one that everyone gets excited about, and that race takes place around 3pm. We arrived about 10am with lots of snacks, a blanket, and chairs (which actually did not survive the day!), finding a spot very close to the rail to allow for a good view of the races. The crowd built gradually over the day and eventually there were 104,000 people there for the races!
In the early hours there was plenty of room to move around.
Our view of the horses from the rail.
Crowds started to form on the rail around midday.

By the time the Melbourne Cup race rolled around, there was not any space to move!
video

One unique thing about horse racing in Australia is that most races take place on grass, and Melbourne Cup is no exception. Also, there was a warm up area for the horses where spectators could get very close, and I honestly have no idea if that exists in the States for races like Preakness, Belmont, or the Kentucky Derby. I do know that there are a very small percentage of people at Melbourne Cup that do not dress up for the races. Headwear, in particular is something that stands out, as there are often unique hats or fascinators worn by women attending the races. From what I have seen of those big US horse races mentioned earlier, there are generally a lot of people in the infield who do not dress up and sometimes the well-dressed crowd is limited to the grandstand. We saw a few people in shorts or jeans but most men were in suits and most women in dresses.
One of the horses showing off to "punters" before the races.
In a city where the weather is completely unpredictable, we could not have picked a more perfect day. Blue skies, light winds, and no rain made for excellent conditions for watching the races and for socializing. I had heard horror stories about lines to get drinks and for the toilet, but I was impressed with the efficiency of those lines given the number of people in attendance.

All in all, we had an awesome day at Melbourne Cup. I am told that in order to truly experience horse racing in Australia, I also need to attend a race in the country (often termed "Country Vic" by the locals), so of course that is now on my radar and I will be looking for a country horse race to head to soon!
Horses and jockeys racing with the CBD skyline in the background.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Chinese Food!

Trying different foods was certainly a major highlight of the China trip, so I felt that "food" was worthy of its own blog post! I wasn't really sure what to expect with the food in China based on what I had heard from previous travelers' experiences. Our manager, who has traveled to China many times as a coach, recommended that we buy Travelan, which is taken before every meal in order to prevent stomach issues. We stuck to the routine of taking a pill before each meal, so perhaps that helped to keep us healthy.

Our typical breakfast, served in the basement of the Sports School, consisted of rice, hard boiled eggs, frittata-like pancakes, dumplings, bananas (if we were lucky), bok choy or some other green veggie, and yogurt (once we figured out how to ask for it!). There were other choices as well, but these were the main things we ate for breakfast. Lunch and dinner were typically done on our own, as we were out and about for most of those meals.

On our first full day in China, we were very eager to try some Peking Duck, which is supposed to be a Beijing specialty. Low and behold, there was a Peking Duck restaurant INSIDE the sports school, down a few levels underground and next to to boxing hall. We had asked our guide earlier in the day about where we could get some Peking Duck. He said that he would tell us about that later... needless to say we did not expect the restaurant to be underneath the track and tennis courts of the school!
Our duck being carved. It was delicious!!
Every duck comes with a certificate!

Our first experience with Peking Duck was outstanding, however, the boys thought that a lot of meat might be wasted when the duck gets sliced. Therefore, we decided to have a go at carving our own Peking Duck. Let's just say it was quite messy and there is a reason why the restaurant offers to carve it for you!
Not as easy as we thought...
Street food is served everywhere and one of the most popular items on the street in Shichahai seemed to be traditional Beijing yogurt (suannai in Chinese). Every stall had a stash of little clay pots sealed with thin white and blue paper tops.

One of the things that I loved about dining in China was the round table. Essentially you order several different dishes for your group and and everyone shares by spinning the table around like a big lazy Susan. This concept creates opportunities to taste many different dishes.


Our cheapest meal was at a place I read about in Lonely Planet, where we paid less than $4 each for what was essentially all you can eat dumplings, including drinks!


The most adventurous eating took place at the Donghuamen Night Market. The boys made much more dramatic choices than I did by eating scorpion, spiders (big ones!), sea urchins, and starfish (though I did, in the end, try the starfish). I chose to try snake, which was chewy and did not taste very good!
Seafood
Insects
Fruit! In case you were wondering if there was any "normal" food at the night market.
Scorpion!
One for each of them...
Cheers!
My first bite of snake!
I will let you use your imagination to figure out what these foods are!
The night after our interesting eats at the Night Market, we were really craving Westernized food, so a stop at Maccas (aka McDonald's for the American readers) was in order. That was our only "Western" meal during our time in China.
Cal is shorter than me, so you can see that places are not really built for tall people in China!
Not only did we get to enjoy some of China's finest food, but we also indulged in just a few of their beers. Alcohol was quite cheap compared to Australia, so we took advantage of that when we could. Footy finals were on while we were there, so we found an Aussie pub where we could watch the games. Professional development combined with team bonding made this trip an incredibly enjoyable one!