Monday, December 06, 2010

Already There and Long Gone

Thanks for the memories, Australia.
I’ll see you again soon.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Filling in the Blanks

A few weeks ago, one of my friends called me Carmen and asked “where in the world” I was that day. I laughed aloud when I typed my response and explained I was still in Sydney, Australia. Although I may no longer live the life of an Expat Princess, I still haven’t given up my wandering ways and if I had my druthers I never would. Reality, however, is a horrible affliction that has invaded my life and bank account like succubus on the prowl.

I have put off that dreaded fun-sucking demon for at least another few months for the sake of my Devoted Readers. Over the past five years, I have written about and lived on five continents and that seems a little lazy to me. What kind of blogging tour guide would I be if I couldn’t tell you about life in South America? So for the sake of the blog, that’s where I’m headed next.

Argentina and Brazil are my first stops followed by a super special Christmas pit stop that I’m keeping secret as a surprise. So please continue to watch this space and forgive the occasional silences as I look for Internet cafés while I’m on the road.

I’m still not sure where all this traveling is leading me. Nor do I know when I’m going to give in to the necessities of adulthood, head home to grow up, and get a job. For now, I’m enjoying living out of my suitcase and through this blog. I am literally living my dream and don’t plan to wake up any time soon.

South America better prepare itself because Hurricane Typo is on her way.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Of Hats and Horses

I grew up in a house that paused every year for the Kentucky Derby. Every year since I can remember, my father has made the trek South to join the “Run for the Roses” to see the year’s best 3-year-olds cross the line at Churchill Downs. The North American community may follow the Triple Crown like a pack of teenage girls on the hunt for Sparkle Vamps, but they have nothing on Australia’s almost 150-year obsession with the first Tuesday of November.

They call it “the race that stops a nation” and they aren’t kidding. Before post-time, office buildings empty and nationwide productivity drops to nil as everyone gravitates to the nearest television to watch the only thing on TV that matters – the Melbourne Cup. Aussies love their racing so much that the day is even a holiday in Melbourne. For weeks in advance, ladies can be found trying on cocktail dresses and, more importantly, finding the perfect hat to wear to one of the thousands of viewing parties held across the country.

Ever a vigilant reporter of local customs, I naturally threw myself into Melbourne Cup fever. On the morning of the big race, I primped and preened before donning a new dress, borrowed heels, and a fluffy white floral headpiece. I probably looked like a reject from a bridesmaid-themed prom but I felt pretty as I made way across Darling Harbour to Criniti’s for brunch.

I put a great deal of thought and research into choosing my Cup Day brunch. A good meal at a fair price is important but all you can drink sparkling wine trumps all. After being seated on the balcony, I quickly put in my order for my first course of munchies and a bottle of bubbly to get me started. I dug into my plate of flat bread and dips and was amused to note my solo table received plates piled with as much food as the ones bound for the larger groups around me. This soon became a little intimidating as a plate of calamari and a second of croquettes soon followed.

The tables around me filled quickly with smartly dressed men and fantastically hatted women. Well into my first bottle of sparkling wine, and halfway into my incredibly tasty plate of pasta, the table next to me sent their men off to place bets on the race. Never one to shy away from not having to things for myself, I asked them to place one for me too. After all, the restaurant may have taken it amiss if I had disappeared with my purse halfway through the meal. It was at this point when the ladies took pity on my solo status and insisted I join them.

The brilliantly amusing women, it turned out, were flight attendants on a 56-hour layover. They kept refilling my glass while we chatted about everything under the sun and continued to nibble. Shortly after the boys returned with our bets, my pizza course arrived and I shared the huge board with my new friends while they waited for their own pizza to arrive.

Soon one of the waiters came out to tell us the big moment had finally arrived – the horses were ready at the post and the race was about to begin. Everyone rushed inside to find a spot in front of one of the large flat-screen televisions. And then they were off! I yelled at the screen, I stamped my foot, I cheered, I clapped; I became a temporary Aussie joined in spirit with millions of others hooked for two minutes on one goal – the finish line at Flemington Racecourse.

My horse, I should state for the record, did not win, place, or show yet I still can’t find it in myself to be disappointed in the outcome of the day. I skipped the final course and stumbled home to pass out on my bunk content in the knowledge that I drank too much, ate too little, made some wonderful new friends, and had a fantabulous day.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Three Musketeers

My time in Sydney was quickly coming to an end when LoJo reminded me we had one last adventure to embark upon. There was one place we hadn’t yet hit on our tour of Australia: the capital. So at some ungodly hour of the morning on a brisk Sunday early in November LoJo, Minnow, and I piled into Bluebird (LoJo’s new Toyota) and headed for the Australian Capital Territory.

I have visited many national capitals over the years from my own chilly Ottawa and its American counterpart Washington, DC, to Paris, London, and Vienna, but they are all drastically different from the thoroughly modern city of Canberra. A planned city with a current population of 345,000, the first thing that struck me was how incredibly green it was – there were trees everywhere and the way it appeared the buildings were fit around them rather than the other way around.

After a brief delay that had nothing to do with getting lost, we made our way to the Black Mountain’s Telstra Tower and its breathtaking views of the city in the valley below us. The windy observation deck was the perfect spot to take in the beauty of Canberra. The 195 meter high tower serves a practical purpose as a telecommunications tower in addition to a tourist stop and is home to both a revolving restaurant and a lovely café that makes tasty milkshakes.

The city gets its fair share of grief for being boring and antiseptic but there is no denying the peacefulness that lies within its carefully designed borders: from the perfect line from the War Memorial, down the ANZAC Parade, across the river, to the Old Parliament House, and then up the hill to the creatively named New Parliament House with its distinctive flag tower. Even the embassies and high commissions seemed to follow a particular set of laws that I haven’t noticed in other capitals. I realize Canberra is a young city but the embassy groupings seem to actually have been thought out rather than merely popping up when land became available.

After a quick lunch, we piled back into the car and headed to where all the magic happens: parliament. The new parliament building was conceived when the old one became too small to house the needs of a rapidly growing country. Construction on the modern edifice was completed in 1988 and is truly a unique building in my opinion.

From Parliament Hill in Ottawa to Capitol Hill in DC, most government buildings I’ve visited are old and reek of the ghosts that haunt their halls. Canberra’s Parliament House, on the other hand, is brand spanking new and feels it. In direct contrast to how I feel about the rest of Australia, Parliament House is a cold, uninviting building from the moment you walk into its cool marbled entry hall. That is not to say it isn’t beautiful and architecturally interesting – it’s that and more. It is perhaps more a reflection of my preference for buildings that tell stories and breathe their history.

The moment we stepped inside the Pepto-Bismol pink Senate, to the right of the entrance hall I was cast back in time to high school when I participated in the Forum for Young Canadians program up in Ottawa. It was there I first really started to entertain the idea of becoming a politician and reforming the world (or at least Canada) in my own image.

Sadly, I was unable to get down to the floor of the House in Canberra as I did all those years ago in Ottawa, but by the time we walked across the building to the green House of Representatives, I was well into reforming my plans for world domination as World Dictator Typo. The Lower House’s familiar arrangement made me envy the kids that worked there as Pages when Parliament was in session. It is, after all, easier to get people to hire you as World Leader when you have some experience on your resume.

The highlight of the new Parliament building isn’t on the floors of power but upstairs on the roof. From there, you can see the beautiful city of Canberra was laid out at the feet of Parliament in exactly the manner of how its city planners, Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin, intended. The centerpiece of the roof is situated above the beautiful glass pyramid. The huge Australian flag atop the unique 81-meter high steel flagpole can be seen waving in the wind for miles throughout Canberra. Perhaps, I thought as LoJo, Minnow, and I wandered around the roof, a new modern building is appropriate for this very young, modern country.

I amused myself counting how many items had been monogrammed with Australia’s coat of arms as we made our way back to the car. From there, we drove along ANZAC Parade to the Australian War Memorial where the country’s contribution to the last several wars was on display. I explained the significance of the paper cranes in the Hiroshima/Nagasaki display and Minnow told me about the contribution her husband’s ancestor had made toward the war effort in Gallipoli.

Our final stop was Mount Ainslie for a final bird’s eye view of the city. The fountain in Lake Burley Griffin cast water into the air as cars drove past Old Parliament House, and people made their way into the city’s quiet business district. With the capital at my feet, it suddenly dawned on me that my Australian adventure was almost over.

We had a three-hour drive (or in my case nap) ahead of us before we had to once again part ways. I’m not sure when I will return to Australia but I know when I do who I’ll call. I ran away from home only to land safely in the arms of friends on the other side of the planet. Thanks, ladies.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Shut-up and Drink Your Moscato

I’m a fat girl and I like food. I won’t apologize for either of those things. There is little in this world as tasty as a box of Kraft Dinner and from time to time life requires a Big Mac combo. I love a good salad as much as the next girl and a pint of Greek yoghurt may well be the best way to end a long day. Don’t get me started on the joys to be found in a chocolate éclair or the many ways a perfectly made sandwich can be a finer meal than anything created by Alain Ducasse.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that when the Crave Sydney International Food Festival began in October, one of the events I was most looking forward to was the Food and Wine Fair. Scheduled as one of the final events of the Festival, the tasting took over Hyde Park where the almost 70 vendors set up their booths for the big day. I made sure to arrive at the park well before the noon start time so I could get a feel for the lay of the foodie land and plan my eating appropriately.

Tickets, it should be noted, were not inexpensive at $19 for five. A glass of wine generally cost two, a pastry was one, and a small plate of food three. I even saw
some vendors charge as much as four tickets per sample. Needless to say, I spent slightly more than I planned that afternoon but since all the proceeds from the event went to the AIDS Trust of Australia, it was hard to complain.

Within five minutes of having my first band of tickets and free Sydney Morning Herald bag in my hands, I purchased my first glass of wine. It had been my intention to kick off my afternoon with a glass of bubbly, but the woman at the Beelgara Estate booth convinced me to try their Moscato instead, and it was so good I have actually consumed several bottles in the weeks since.

Now armed with a glass of wine, I veered to the left and braced myself for the onslaught of humanity that stood between me and my lunch. Some of the top restaurants in the city were present and determined to make me spend more on tickets than my budget allowed. I did some initial recon and convinced myself to walk away from the Icebergs’ table with their Belvedere vodka and grapefruit drink. Guillaume at Bennelong had crepes plated to look like the Opera House but despite my well-documented obsession with that building, I walked away.

After doubling back, I noticed a large line in front of the booth for the Hungry Duck Restaurant. Normally, I would purposely avoid anything that looked so popular but when I spied Duck Springrolls in one happy customer’s hands, I lined up to part with another two tickets. “Oh my God these are so good!” I gushed aloud upon popping the first bite into my mouth. The contrast of flavours was a revelation of yumminess, and if I hadn’t been determined to try as many different things as possible I would have gladly eaten spring rolls for the rest of the day.

I chatted with people at many of the booths and found them to be universally helpful and well informed. From the volunteers to the chefs, it honestly appeared that the people working at the Food and Wine Fair were having a good time and their positive attitudes were contagious. Whether from the inexpensive wine, the good food, the great weather, or the profusion of goodwill from raising so much money for a great cause, everyone in Hyde Park seemed to be having a brilliant time.

Caught up in the general good spirits of the day, I headed over to the Hudson Meats booth to try their Moroccan Lamb Burger with Green Salad and Tzatziki for three tickets. Although tasty, my advice to future vendors at events like these would be to avoid dishes that require knives and forks because the style of the day simply does not lend itself to standing in a crowded corner and cutting into a lamb burger while balancing a glass of wine, a camera, a purse, and a free swag bag. While not as outstanding as my earlier springroll, the flavours of the lamb and tzatziki complimented each other nicely.

I soon found myself dreadfully parched so my next stop was the Tempus Two table for a glass of their well-advertized Moscato. The wine, I was told, normally sells for $20 a bottle, so my two ticket sample seemed like a good deal. As refreshing as the wine was, I would definitely have bought one of their awesome t-shirts had they been for sale.

Foodgasam isn’t a word one should throw around willy-nilly but it is definitely one I uttered when I tasted the sublime lemon tart from Bourke Street Bakery. In fact, I think several passers by thought I was having my very own personal Meg Ryan moment when they overheard me moan in ecstasy over the pastry perfection of that tart. I had to force myself not to go back and spend the rest of my tickets buying up their supply of lemony goodness.

The heat of the day was really starting to affect me so I made my way over to the De Bortoli Wines table for a glass of sparkling wine. I was told the wine I sampled was the drier of their two sparkling selections, which only made me glad I didn’t have the other one as I found it to be rather cloyingly sweet for my tastes.

By two o’clock, at least two tables I walked past had run out of food and closed up shop. The Delicious Magazine table had even reduced the price on their food goody bag from four tickets to a much more affordable three. Packed with a bag of pink salt, cooking chocolate, Bertolli pasta and sauce, an apron, and several other items, the bag was a good way to bring a piece of the fair home with me and even provided me dinner for a few nights.

Sipping fine wine, nibbling on great food, and walking through Hyde Park is a pretty good way to spend a Saturday afternoon, in my opinion. I would be tempted to tell you more but I have another bottle of Moscato begging for some attention and I must obey the shirt.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

1964 – 2010: I Will Remember

Sometimes words fail me and it takes longer than it should to find the right thing to say. Sometimes, however, words don't have to be right or wrong: they just need to be shared. You see, I’ve written about a lot things over this past month but I never told you about Mary.

I met Mary the same day I sat in the corner on a barstool at the Delhi Network and cried because I was alone and didn’t have any friends in that place so far from home. Mary was also there during one of my most embarrassing (and to her consternation unblogged about) moments in India as she and I drove to Gurgaon and I was so hung over I had my driver pull over multiple times. Mary also was there when I needed to vent about the woes in my life or simply to share a random laugh.

Mary and I signed-up to join the boards of the AWA and Delhi Network together. She dragged me shopping and made me realize I had to buy things I never knew I needed. It was with Mary that I officially became “a lady who lunches,” and we hit more great lunch spots in Delhi than I can think of. She was always game for one last round or a good chat over a Diet Coke. Mary was the best bad influence in town.

When I talk to people about how awesome it was to be an expat, why I love Delhi, or the good friends you meet and keep while traveling the world, I usually talk about Mary. She was that kind of a friend.

I hate going back to places I’ve been because subsequent visits never live up to the hype of a first meeting. Delhi has always been a rare exception to that rule and Mary was a big part of that. I’ll never forget my first return visit when she played hostess to The Ex and I. One morning, we were both feeling so lazy we stayed in bed and texted each other from across the hall to figure out our plans for the day.

Mary always had a smile on her face, pink somewhere in her outfit, and an effervescence to her spirit that made the day a little brighter.

As much as Mary loved crafting, her friends, shopping, and travelling, there was nothing she loved more than her family – her adorable son and her wonderful husband. To Mary, there was no job more important than that of being a good mother and wife. She loved her son more than the sun, the moon, and the stars. He was her world.

Mary talked about going to Toronto as part of her home leave vacation this past summer. Although I have enjoyed every moment of my post divorce “journey of discovery,” I will regret not going home to Toronto if only to see her one last time. I have always been dreadful about keeping in touch with friends and family. Facebook and the blog have become my way of saying hello and giving hugs from afar. I always thought that was enough. I was wrong – it isn’t.

My wonderful, and good, and awesome, and always smiling friend Mary died one month ago today and I miss her. She passed suddenly and left her sweet son and beloved husband behind. She had so very much to live for and was taken from us.

I found out by reading Facebook. I joined her friends from all over the globe and watched her memorial service live on YouStream. I left words of mourning on an electronic guestbook for a friend I met halfway around the world. This is death in 2010: modern but still eternally painful.

I will miss my friend Mary and I will never forget her. Her smile, her quilts, her gossip, her faults, our lunches, her shopping, her kind words, her laugh, her zest for life, her love for her son, her pokes on Facebook, her tough love talks, her cross-continental calls for phone numbers, her friendship.

Mary was one of the first good friend I made in Delhi. I miss you Mary and more importantly I will remember you.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Fly in the Soup

If you make customers unhappy in the physical world, they might each tell 6 friends. If you make customers unhappy on the Internet, they can each tell 6,000 friends.
- Jeff Bezos

The annual Sydney International Food Festival was held in October and was marked with great events like Breakfast on the Bridge, Night Noodle Markets, and the “Hats Off” chef-hosted dinners at several of the best restaurants in town. The extensive month-long program also included prix-fixe lunch menus at numerous restaurants around the city. After a great deal of research and time spent comparing menus, I planned my Food Festival participation in the form of lunch at Bécasse – a French restaurant located near the QVB. My $65 lunch would include three courses and a glass of wine, which is a good deal in any book.

Midmonth, I headed to Clarence Street and popped into the restaurant around 1:15 p.m. About a third of the tables were empty so I didn’t anticipate any difficulties. The rather brusque hostess raked her eyes along me; from my scuffed Doc Martin sandals, my worn black jeans and white lace top, and finally ended with a look of distaste at the bun I had hastily fastened in deference to the heat of the day. Although I wasn’t in a business suit, I was by no means ill dressed or slovenly - a review of the dining room showed equally casual patrons.

I replied to the hostess’s condescending tone with a smile and explained I didn’t have a reservation and would like a table for one. “No reservation? I’m afraid the earliest I can seat you is two o’clock.” I smiled and said it was okay but would try again another day. Part of me knew this was the response she was hoping for but I didn’t care. It was a lovely day and my favourite café was only a thirty-minute walk away.

A week later, I returned to Bécasse on a whim. It was 12:20 p.m. and once again the dining room was busy but not full. The same hostess greeted me with the same Ice Princess aloofness she demonstrated on my previous visit. This time when she offered me a 2:00 p.m. seating, I thanked her and said that would be perfect. Before I left, I made sure the kitchen would not rush me due to the late seating. She explained that if I wanted the prix-fixe, it wouldn’t be a problem and seemed perturbed by my desire to actually read the menu before I committed myself.

After some enjoyable window-shopping, I returned to Bécasse twenty minutes before my scheduled reservation. I smiled at the now familiar hostess and said I knew I was early but would it be possible to be seated. The response was an unequivocal “no.”

“May I just sit and order a cocktail?”

“We don’t really have a bar,”
she replied with some vague hand waving toward the small bar area behind her. “There are lots of cafés in the area you can sit at.”

I was literally shocked into silence. Rather than let me sit and pay for the privilege of not being served, she was sending me away. Even if they didn’t have martinis, I could have had a glass of wine and thus provided revenue for the restaurant while I sat in silence. I understand that kitchens don’t like to be rushed and wait staff rely on timed seatings so they don’t have to serve too many people at one time, but all I wanted to do was sit with my Kindle and have a drink while I waited patiently for 2:00 to roll around.

That was the straw that broke this camel’s back. “You know what, that’s fine. You can cancel my reservation,” I said in a decidedly arctic tone. “All I wanted to do was eat lunch and yet this is the third time I have entered this restaurant and the third time you’ve been borderline rude to me. I just wanted some lunch but never mind.”

“You’ve come during Let’s Do Lunch so we are quite busy,”
she replied defensively.

“Let’s Do Lunch explains the seatings but not why you have been discourteous and impolite. Have a good day.” I turned, walked down the four stairs to the front door and walked out with the Ice Princess sputtering behind me.

I left Bécasse literally shaking with fury. Just because I’m not wearing a size six dress by Chanel is no reason to be disrespectful. Customer service is important to me – whether I’m calling my bank, buying a dress, or dining in a restaurant. Poor customer service irks me like little else and it is always an important factor in how I review any restaurant or business.

Blind with righteous indignation, I stalked up Oxford Street and soon found myself back at my café: Coco Cubano. I walked in the door and was greeted with a smile by one of the baristas who grinned and asked if I wanted an Iced Blanco (cold white chocolate). I smiled ruefully and said bemoaned my predictability. “Not predictable,” he replied. “We just like seeing our regulars.”

My heart did a little flip flop. I smiled stupidly and paid for my cake and iced chocolate before taking my usual seat in the big front window. I was a regular at my favourite café in Sydney. How freaking cool was that?

In the space of 45 minutes, I had literally run the customer service gamut. I had seen service that would leave Frank Bruni cringing and then been the recipient of as high a compliment a customer can possibly receive. Good food can only get a restaurant or café so far because no chef or owner can be on the floor all the time. In the end, good front of house staff can make all the difference between a two or three-star rating, or that ever important factor in all businesses – repeat customers.

I hope the Ice Princess is happy. Sure, I was never going to be a regular at Bécasse but I was a willing, paying customer who wanted a good meal and a glass or two of wine. She judged me lacking because I didn’t meet some mysterious criteria known only in her mind - and after some thought I’m okay with that. I may not have had a three-course meal and a glass of wine but I did become a regular at a place that makes amazing hot chocolate. Sounds like a good day to me.