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.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Backstage Drama

There is a fine line between love and obsession and I think I may have crossed it in Sydney. Shortly after arriving I entered a contest for a free Backstage Tour of the Sydney Opera House and although I didn’t win, I was given a chance to take the tour at half price. Some people might say three trips to the Opera House in the space of six weeks was excessive but I chose to ignore those naysayers and focus on the voice inside of me that wanted to tread the boards and test the famous acoustics for myself.

That’s right, I recited Shakespeare on the stage in the Concert Hall, conducted an imaginary orchestra in the pit of the Opera Theatre, and then sang The Pirates of Penzance on its stage. The drama geek in me was on fire as I danced through the corridors where privileged few had gone before.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I am not in any way shape or form a morning person so you can imagine my bliss when I learned the Backstage Tour started at 7:00 a.m. The early start, we were told, helped ensure admittance to more spaces before the artists needed them. Thanks to my genius move of sleeping through my alarm, I didn’t even have time to grab a venti triple shot white mocha before I arrived to meet the other seven people who would be joining me for the tour. We were a ragtag group from all over the planet with not a single morning person among us.

The tour, we were reminded, was not a traditional Opera House tour but rather one designed to take us through the inner workings of the famous landmark from the Kissing Wall behind the Concert Hall to a private dressing room with its own grand piano and a view of the Harbour Bridge. As a lifetime theatre geek I was literally bouncing with excitement despite the lack of caffeine.

We started our morning exploring some of the smaller venues at the Opera House like the Studio and the Playhouse. Both seemed well suited for high school or amateur performances. The Studio, in particular, was a great space for interactive or perhaps modern dance performances.

The group made its way through the truck corridors that run under the Opera House and Troy, a tourism major at the local university, regaled us with stories about everyone from Queen Elizabeth II and her bulletproof vest to an incredibly kind Pamela Anderson. We continued along the lower corridors and spotted inactive sets from the operas currently being performed. We also learned to respect the term “suicide door.”

Our first stop in the Opera Theatre was the orchestra pit where I began what would soon turn into a habit: ignoring Troy in favour of doing something cooler. In this case it was being the first to wander onto the conductor’s platform, pick up an imaginary baton, and lead my invisible orchestra in a few bars of something with a solid 4/4 time.

Somewhere between quieting the brass section and inviting the strings to raise their bows in preparation for the next bar, I overheard Troy explain the purpose of the net above our heads. It turns out that many years ago live chickens were needed as stage dressing during a performance. The chickens, it seems, were not very good at taking stage directions and kept falling into the orchestra pit. In addition to saving chickens from stuffing up any random tuba bells, the net also saved someone’s life when an actor tripped during a sword fight and fell point down into the woodwinds.

We left the ghosts of chickens and percussion past to explore a hallway with dressing rooms and costumes ready for that night’s performance of Pirates of Penzance. Naturally, when everyone else was content to walk by and photograph the entire rack, I felt the need to pick one up and hold it up to see if it would fit. In addition to being surprisingly heavy it was also, sadly, too long.

Finally, we reached the door of the Opera Theatre and I was reduced into a quivering puddle of fangirl goo. Poor Troy was once again cast deep into the background of my consciousness as I ran upstage and began to sing a verse of Modern Major-General just because I could. Puck’s final speech from Midsummer Night’s Dream was next and, if I may brag for a moment, I must still have it (or at least be able to project effectively) as I saw workmen in the back of the balcony turn to listen me. Then again, they were probably hoping they were “slumbering.”

After I kissed the boards goodbye, we descended once again into the maze of corridors that link the different theatres to one another. We proceeded into the Concert Hall, which was currently occupied by the Sydney Symphony. Despite not having any rhythm what-so-ever I gravitated to the timpani in the back and from there recited a little Julius Caesar quietly enough for only the drums and xylophone to hear me. “Friends, percussions, symphony members, lend me your sheet music!”

Exploration was the keyword of the day and we soon found ourselves wandering the area beneath the stage where the trapdoors lead. Here, we were told stories about sleeping stagehands and performances canceled due to broken technology.

After an exploration of the remaining theatres we discovered our time was up and Cinderella was due to turn back into a pumpkin in time for the day’s matinees. Thankfully before we were all transmogrified into mice we were ushered into the large, airy greenroom where a lovely breakfast awaited us.

Over bacon and eggs our poor guide was subjected to a battering of questions by me everyone else from the moment he sat down. “How many times as the Scottish Play been performed here? What calamities accompanied the production?” “Is it possible to get up on the roof?” “How many operas are in the Company’s repertoire?” “What happened to the idiot to painted over the autograph wall in the star dressing room?” “What famous person most surprised you?” Troy was incredibly patient and answered all our questions no matter how random or bizarre.

I literally bounced out of the Sydney Opera House that morning. I had performed on the same stage as some of the most famous actors of our time. The fact I was doing it for a bunch of workmen and amused tourists could not diminish my accomplishment: I was Pavarotti and Sir Laurence Olivier all rolled in one. I am incredibly glad I participated in the informative and exhilarating Backstage Tour. More than that – I’m glad I was able to do it for half price thanks to the contest I “lost.” That morning last place felt an awful lot like first.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”
William Shakespeare

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Part of the Collective

Little in this world can make you more agreeable, flexible, and humble than communal living. From creaking bunk beds to silent battles over square footage on the bathroom counter, sharing a room with total strangers can be an eye-opening experience for even the most adaptable and easy going among us. And heaven knows I’m neither of those things.

Growing-up the only girl of three children, I lucked into my own bedroom. This inadvertently nurtured many selfish tendencies including reading until all hours of the night and an alleged habit of dropping dirty clothes on the nearest flat surface.

At University, I unconsciously scared my first roommate off and she moved across campus to the all-girls dorms the first chance she had. The Ex was really the first long-term roomy I ever had and he didn’t really have much choice in the matter. He learned to put up with my piles of laundry on the chair by the door, and I pretended not to notice when he left the seat on the toilet up for the umpteenth time.

Running away from home on a budget means that I don’t get to stay in nice hotels and rely instead on hostels and rooming houses. In Auckland, I lucked into a flat with awesome housemates. Better than that, I lucked into a private room with a nice big bed. Insomnia be damned, I could read in bed with the lights on until six in the morning, drape my laundry line with undies and bras, or forget to make my bed safe in the knowledge that my room was my private sanctuary.

After BBS left Sydney, I was faced with a new reality – hostel living. I quickly found myself one of six people in a room where the only space I was allowed to claim as my own was a locker at the foot of my bed. Twelve years of living with The Ex had not prepared me for living in close quarters with five other people, each with their own annoying quirks. One older woman turned out the lights every night at 7 p.m. One roommate snored so loudly, I had to run down to the front desk and beg for a pair of earplugs. (Most of my hostelmates, for the record, were lovely but they make for far less interesting blog posts.)

Looking for a flat in Sydney is a lot like banging your head repeatedly into a brick wall with rusty nails sticking out of it – but more painful. For a mere $300 a week, I could be one of 11 people living in a two bedroom flat with dubious hygienic standards. For $250 a week, I found a fabulous flat where I would be one of 10 plus my rent came complete with free rice. I found places with people sleeping on couches, the floor, or even the balcony in one case.

I was thrilled when I eventually found my flat in a great neighbourhood within walking distance of virtually everything. I was allotted a top bunk in a room with three other girls. There were a total of six people in the flat and we each had our shelf in the fridge and cupboards assigned to us in the kitchen. I staked out a corner of space in the bathroom for my toiletries and unpacked my clothes into the wire Ikea drawers in the closet. In deference to our tight space issues, I tried to keep my laundry in bags in the corner and made my bed each morning before I left for the day.

My bunkmates were two great girls from London, Pink and Mrs. Ronaldo, and a lovely girl from France named Frenchie. Despite the differences in our upbringings and ages, the four of us got along quite well. Many nights found us joking around, singing off-key, and teasing each other long after the lights had been turned out. Our group was known to go for picnics or spend the occasional Saturday evening at a local bar or club dancing the night away.

Rumor had it that one of the girls in the room snored but I have always been a sound sleeper and never heard it myself. My personal contribution to the chaos came in the form of a tiny pink reading light with an incredibly bright bulb. When the room was dark my small reading light was likened to a mega-watt spotlight. I eventually started reading under the covers in an attempt to keep from driving the other girls crazy.

We said good-bye to some people and welcomed new girls in their place as the weeks went by. New personalities wedged their way into our lives and fresh habits drove us to occasional bouts of thinly veiled politesse. For the most part, however, we all got along incredibly well.

Living with strangers is always a lesson in humility but bunking with them was something I was completely unprepared for. There was no door to separate the private from the public – our lives were on display and it was only discretion and a polite aversion of the senses that helped maintain the illusion of privacy. That said, I wouldn’t trade the weeks I spent in that room with those girls for anything. They kept me laughing and dancing even when teeth gnashing and foot stomping were my preferred choices. They taught me how to be less me for the sake of their sanity and reminded me how to be more myself for the sake of my own.

(I, it should be noted, have no annoying quirks. Nor do I snore or do anything that would make me a less than an ideal roommate. Anything you have heard to the contrary are all lies concocted by the Typ0 Defamation League. Really.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Thank Bacchus

I have a secret to share but you have to promise not to tell anyone else. You see the truth of the matter is that I like wine. From time to time I enjoy imbibing a glass of vino and have even been known to open a bottle of fermented grape juice without sharing a drop with anyone else. This news is shocking, I know, so I can only hope you won’t be too overwhelmed to learn that I participated in a wine tour – this time in the Hunter Valley.

The tour began right in front of my flat where I was picked up at 7 a.m. sharp by our driver/guide, Phil. Imagine my surprise when the van doors opened to reveal my roommate, Mrs. Ronaldo, and her mother. I knew they were also attending a tour that day but had specifically picked a different tour so they wouldn’t think I was trying to horn in on their family time. Plus they had an even earlier pick-up at a location about ten minutes from Mum’s hotel. For reasons the three of us were unable to determine, they had paid less money for an entirely different tour and we all still ended up together. Go figure.

After I boarded we proceeded to pick up a Norwegian couple, a British couple, and a French guy. With the team assembled we set off across the Harbour Bridge and made our way into wine country.

Those of you who know me well can imagine my bliss when I discovered our first stop was the Australian Reptile Park. An hour with snakes, spiders, and other random forms of creepy crawly critters – oh yay. I am proud to say that I managed avoid having a complete nervous breakdown during our interminable brief visit. After a bracing cup of coffee and the world’s smallest muffin most of the group broke off to visit the animals and I hightailed it back to the van before the snakes found out I was there, broke out of their pens, and came to attack me.

My relief was palpable when we pulled out of the parking lot and hit the road again. Our next stop surprisingly not alcohol related but historical. We were shown existing remnants of the old Convict Trail and told some of its history. I’m the first one to crack a joke about Australia being a land founded by jailbirds but the history behind the convicts is actually really interesting and Phil did a good job making it come alive.

As much fun as history and scenery can be I was more than ready when we finally pulled in for our first drink of the day at Wollombi Tavern for a taste of Dr. Jurds Jungle Juice. The tavern must be cursed considering the calamities that have befallen it over the years, yet it has managed to survive the seven plagues in part thanks to Jungle Juice – a bracingly strong combination of port and brandy. I was by no means tempted to buy a bottle of the fire-inspired beverage but must admit that the rather sweet concoction was a nice pick-me-up at eleven o’clock in the morning.

We were finally on our way to our first winery of the day. Brokenwood was currently on a high from winning the “Best Winery” and “Best Cellar Door” of year from 2010 Hunter Wine Industry Awards. With hype like that I had lofty expectations as the eight of us lined up along the bar in the tasting room. Our tasting guide for the day was Ron, an incredibly charismatic former Canadian who kept us laughing and drinking for our entire visit.

The first thing I noticed was the cringingly warm temperature of the first white wine we were served. I have little shame in confessing one of my greatest wine sins is my adoration of overly chilled whites, and the thought of tasting a series of what could have been lovely wines at room temperature made me shudder. Ron, however, defended the choice and explained that while chilled was better for daily drinking, warm was the best way to enjoy a tasting glass and appreciate the subtleties of the selections. I’m still not sure I entirely buy his explanation but warm or cold the seven wines we sampled that day were definitely top notch.

I wasn’t the only one feeling slightly tipsy when we departed Brokenwood Wines and was rather grateful to hear our next stop was lunch. Our four course tasting meal at the Hunter Valley Resort was a nice way to break up the day even if the wines were mediocre at best. It may be my salad leaning bias showing but I felt the Caesar Salad was easily the highlight of the meal. I was pleased to note that our guide, Phil, took note that Mrs. Weegie required gluten-free options and made sure that she would have appropriate choices for each course.

Thanks to generous friends who were not enamored of the wine choices with lunch, I had officially lost track of how many glasses I had drunk by the time we boarded the van for our next stop: Oakvale Wines.

To be fair, I should point out that Oakvale was incredibly busy when we arrived so our tasting guide was stuck helping at least two tables in addition to our own. Bad dye-job aside, her explanations of the wines were rushed and she appeared to have little love for the wines she was describing. Her greatest fault wasn’t even of her own making: she simply wasn’t nearly as much fun or informative as Ron. This may or may not have coloured the group’s overall opinion of the seven dismally average wines we tasted.

If you think that is the end of my tale you have no faith in my ability to pick a winning horse wine tour. Our next destination was one of the reasons I picked the tour in the first place: the Hunter Valley Chocolate Company. If there’s one thing I love more than a nicely chilled glass of wine, it’s a perfectly delectable bite of chocolate. I’m a simple woman, with simple needs and this tour gave me both my true loves!

We were initially given several samples including some chili chocolate that I found quite tasty but Mrs. Ronaldo else complained was too “spicy.” I admit to buying a bottle of wine at some point during the day but my best purchase all day was a bag of chocolate coconut macaroons like my mum used to make. Yum!

The tour was easily some of the best money I spent in Australia. Although we didn’t visit as many wineries as I would have liked, the quality of those we did more than made up for it. On our way home Phil even regaled us with a recitation of The Man From Snowy River as he drove back through the picturesque Hunter Valley toward Sydney. Good wine, good food, good friends, great chocolate – sounds like a perfect day in Australia to me.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Thursdays at Coco Cubano

I have half-a-dozen half-written blog posts on the screen in front of me. A dozen more ideas are floating on the edges of my mind. My fingers ache to tap the keys and create a symmetry of words that finally delight my soul. Words flow through me only to be deemed lacking. I strike the delete key and another paragraph becomes lost to history.

I turn my head to the sun and close my eyes to bask in its warmth. The chill of the day is gone and shadows are banished. Inspiration comes at me from all directions: skateboarders in their concert tees, suit-clad office drones escaping their glass prisons, lovers with their fingers intertwined, dented fenders on expensive cars. I attempt to write all their stories and fail. I lean on the delete key and another urban fairy tale disappears forever.

I am an autonomous island in a sea of coffee craving café goers. The smell of hot chocolate wafts past, tinged with the scent of lime from my neighbour’s Corona. Secrets are whispered quietly between friends oblivious to the strangers around them - they lean into each other as if the millimeters between them were a great chasm to be overcome. I sip my sweetened coffee and brush my fingers over the keyboard - it is my job to observe and record. I drum the delete key and erase the unworthy words again.

Music flows through my earphones and lights up my smile as song after song reminds me to be joyful. Buses fly past on their way to a dozen places far from the window at whose edge I perch. Strangers dance by each other through the intersection, uncaring of the stories that might secretly connect them. The blue sky of the day fades into the pink of dusk and there is a sudden moment of clarity as cars pause at the red light and silence echoes for the space of a breath. I draw the picture in words and hit save.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Go Tell it on the Mountain

Before I wrote today’s post, I looked up “adventure” in my thesaurus but nothing seemed to quite capture what I had in mind. An exploit, a venture, an escapade – none of these words possessed the soul to accurately describe the thrill of hanging hundreds of meters over a forest supported only by a piece of glass. I suppose “exciting activity” might begin to express the rapture of giggles that ensued when we broke the rules and rode a horse, or played with echoes at the base of the valley. I suppose you could say we had fun but that seems such a tame word when compared with reality.

Katoomba’s Scenic World, I learned, is the best way to get the most bang for your Blue Mountain buck. From here, LoJo, Minnow, and I would have the entire Jamison Valley at our feet along with tour guides, rides, and even a gift shop to buy postcards to send home. Never one to do things by half measures, I quickly voted that we should check out the Scenic Skyway, Scenic Railway, and the Scenic Cableway. (They are obviously big on original names here at Scenic World.)

Our first stop was the Skyway, which would take us from one side of the valley to the other in a cabin suspended 200 meters above the Jamison Valley. The huge picture windows along the perimeter of the car aren’t the only way to get a good photo – shortly after departing the station, the center of the cabin was revealed to be made of glass and allows passengers a truly breathtaking view.

Our guide (and ride operator) shared facts about everything we saw from Wentworth Falls on our left to Orphan Rock on our right. LoJo was somewhat uncomfortable with the slightly swaying cabin suspended as it was so precariously high above the valley. She was, however, a great sport, and shared stories of past visits to the area. When we reached the other side, we took a short break for more photos before hopping back on the Skyway for the return trip.

Now that we had seen the tops of the trees from the Skyway, we needed to get down and see them up close so we hopped aboard the Scenic Cableway. The cable car’s operator/guide was giddily cheerful and a great ambassador for both the park and Australia. I’m usually so hyper I'm forbidden from eating sugar after 8 p.m. and even I was amused at our pixie stick fueled Cableway guardian.

We arrived at the bottom of the Cableway into lush green forest. The trees reached high above us and formed a canopy that shielded us from the blue skies above. The path in front of us offered walks of differing lengths but since our daylight was fast disappearing and we still had a long drive home ahead of us, we opted for the shorter route to the Railway.

A devoted and hard-line city girl, I am none-the-less in awe of places like the Blue Mountains where nature literally wraps itself around you. I knew it was unlikely, but I half expected an echidna or wombat to peek around the corner at any moment. I was fully under the spell of the ancient trees when LoJo started demonstrating the Valley’s amazing echoing capabilities. Soon, not only was the valley responding but so were other tourists. Never one to let an opportunity to yell in public pass me by, I quickly joined in with a rousing round of “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!” and waited for Minnow to respond with the appropriate, "Oy! Oy! Oy!” Obviously our delightful Skyway guide had rubbed off on us.

The remains of the area’s original coal mining operations are still visible for tourists and are an integral part of the experience for visitors to Katoomba. Part of this historical montage is a brass horse pulling a cart of coal. You might be surprised to learn but despite having a passing thought or two, I was not the first one to hop aboard the horse. To the shock of other tourists, the envy of several children who wished their parents were so cool, and the glee of her friends, Minnow was posing with the brass horse and moments later LoJo was astride it.

We each took turns and were delighted when one of the park’s employees walked by and laughed that she “saw nothing.” The three of us had regressed into giddy children and loved every minute of it.

Our final event of the day was the Scenic Railway – a 415-meter ride back up to the top of the valley at a 52-degree incline. The line was originally constructed in the 1880’s to haul shale up from the valley to the escarpment. After the Second World War, it was converted into a tourist attraction and has been wowing people ever since. We were perched at the front of the car so that the only thing between us, and a 52-degree drop back into the Jamison Valley was a thin wire cage. I read this was the steepest funicular in the world and I believe it. The trip back up to the escarpment was breathtaking for an entirely different reason than the ride down in the cable car.

The Blue Mountains are known as such because they appear to possess a bluish aura when viewed from a distance. Whether this is caused by UV radiation or light reflecting off the eucalyptus leaves is matter of some debate but either way, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a definite must see for anyone in the Sydney area. I doubt anyone could possibly have as much fun as LoJo, Minnow, and I did that day but I dare you to try. Good friends really do make the difference between a good day and an amazing one. Thanks, girls!

Sunday, November 07, 2010

River Deep, Mountain High

After an entire week with only me for company, LoJo was no doubt thrilled that Friday’s adventures expanded to include our fellow ecfriend, Minnow. I had been hearing about the Blue Mountains ever since I arrived in Sydney and was excited to finally see the popular tourist Mecca in person.

Our first stop was Leura Cascades for some light hiking, photo ops, and even a swing in the park. My months trekking up and down Sisyphus Hill in Auckland held me in good stead as we walked along the rough-hewn paths that cut through the beautiful forested park. Every so often, the creek skipped around a new corner and we were presented with another small waterfall.

While we explored, the three of us talked about the upcoming and much anticipated release of Jean M. Auel’s sixth book, The Land of Painted Caves, and what we hoped would happen to our favourite couple in the final installment of the Earth’s Children series. Some argued in favour of death and closure while others contemplated villains and offspring. We probably sounded rather crazy to anyone passing by but we didn’t care – we were three literary -girls exploring the great unknown.

After a brief break, we continued up the road to Echo Point and its breathtaking views of the Blue Mountains. From our vantage point we could see the Three Sisters, the Ruined Castle, and the Jamison Valley below.

I’m not quite certain why I thought there would have been a medieval castle in the middle of the Australian Outback but I was still surprised to learn that the
outcropping that made up the Ruined Castle was a natural formation. I mused silently that early settlers must have thought they had seen a strange oasis in the distance the first time they happened upon the sight before me. Perhaps they thought they had found the first Aboriginal Knights Templar only to be disappointed to discover rocks instead of tapestries.

Despite my documented fascination with castles, my favourite part of the view was definitely the Three Sisters. Known (highest to lowest) as Meehni, Wimlah, and Gunnedoo, the Sisters are accessible via a trail that leads to a small bridge that, from our vantage point, appeared to connect visitors to all three sandstone outcroppings. Known as the Giant Staircase, the track runs all the way into the Jamison Valley below and is reputably a lovely walk.

An important section of Auel’s The Plains of Passage takes place at a location known as the Camp of the Three Sisters, so naturally I insisted on countless photos of Minnow and LoJo with the Sisters in the background. Although we never spotted any of the S’Armunai, it was not due to any lack of diligence on my part. (Nor, I’m certain, was it due to the fact that the S’Armunai lived in modern day Czech Republic and not New South Wales, Australia.)

In true democratic style, we voted to forego a walk into the valley and instead headed to lunch at one of the nearby cafés where I ate a traditional Aussie Pie with my hands but without tomato sauce. Our day was only half over and we still had a descent into the valley, a bronze-age horse ride, and a flight over the canopy ahead of us. In fact, I would go so far as to say we had a Scenic World to look forward to.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Life is a Highway

I have never liked driving. Being a passenger means I literally have the time to sit back and enjoy the scenery. Truth be known, I don’t even have a valid driver’s license any more. I cannot tell you how lucky I was in Sydney to have a wonderful friend like LoJo who was not only a world class ambassador for her fabulous city but who also didn’t mind being the one to drive along almost every major highway in and around Sydney over the course of a week.

If Tuesday was about industry and cities then Wednesday was a return to nature. Our first stop was the lookout at Mount Keira where we cast our gazes down upon Wollongong. Perched in the hills like an oversized aviary, the lookout is an incredibly peaceful spot to grab a cup of coffee or, it turns out, to get married.

LoJo and I noticed several padlocks attached to the iron fence that formed the outer perimeter of the lookout. The locks were all engraved with names and dates and fastened by their brides and grooms. It seemed to me a very romantic gesture for the couples to leave their mark in such a symbolic way. I did, however, wonder what they did with the keys afterward.

We drove back through the mountains and over to Warragamba Dam near Penrith. The dam, I learned, is operated by the Sydney Catchment Authority and helps distribute water to locals in Sydney and the Lower Blue Mountains alike.

Perhaps our visit to Toronto the day before had home on my mind, but my first thought as we breathed in the clean rain-scented air was that the area reminded me of Cottage Country in Northern
Ontario. From the winding blue waters to the endless blanket of green forestland it was like Muskoka had been transplanted and was simply waiting for me to build my Great Canadian Dream on the shores of the Warragamba River.

The facilities and grounds at Warragamba are quite impressive. It is easy to see why so many Sydneysiders would make the drive to the dam to enjoy a Sunday picnic. The area was incredibly peaceful and LoJo was able to point out several different species of native birds we spotted perched here and there throughout the day.

I couldn’t get over the beauty of the land that surrounds Sydney. A short drive in almost any direction and you’ve left behind the oppressive clamor of the bustling city in favour of an ocean of nature and beauty. A wander through wine country, a picnic at the river’s edge in the mountains, or simply a chance for an eagle’s view of the urban chaos below – it is all available in Sydney if one only remembers to look for it.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Rocking the Suburbs

Sorry to leave you all hanging Monday but I figured that everybody loves a good cliffhanger. It has been over a year since I’ve been home so you can imagine how excited I was when I found out about the wormhole that could take me all the way from Circular Quay to Queen’s Quay. Our destination that Tuesday was that famous city on the lake: Toronto, Australia.

I was amused beyond words when LoJo mentioned we could visit Toronto on our way to Newcastle. After all, it isn’t often you find a city at the bottom of the world named after an Iroquois word meaning "place where trees stand in the water.” The world is replete with Waterloos, Yorks, and Londons but I always thought Toronto was fairly unique.

My curiosity got the better of me and I was determined to find out if Toronto South, as I started calling it, was actually named after the city of my birth or if it was an incredibly bizarre coincidence. According to the Lake Macquarie Historical Society, the city was named for a very modern reason: publicity. In the late 1880’s the resort town still had no name and was visited by Edward Hanlon, a world champion rower from Toronto, Canada. Perhaps hoping to gain an edge on the budding 19th century tourism industry, they named the resort on Lake Macquarie ‘Toronto’ in Hanlon’s honour.

In an amusing twist of fate, sports would once again unite the two Toronto’s over a hundred years later when the winner of the 2009 RBC Canadian Open Golf Tournament was won by Nathan Green – a Torontonian from Down Under.

Further proof that Toronto, Australia shares its heart with Toronto, Canada is evident the moment you speak to one of its denizens who know enough to drop the T’s and pronounce the city’s name “Chorono.”

Somewhat smaller than its Canadian sibling, this Toronto boasts a palmtree-lined main street and its own version of my city’s Royal Canadian Yacht Club. One of the most populous cities in New South Wales, Toronto has a thriving business community and yet still manages to maintain a small town quality that I found quite appealing.

Later that day, LoJo drove me from Canada to England. Located 165 kilometers North of Sydney, I was surprised to learn that Newcastle is a popular commuter town and many of its inhabitants make the daily trek all the way into Sydney. LoJo and I wandered along Nobby’s Head before heading to Swansea, on the banks of Lake Macquarie for lunch.

By the time we arrived back in Darling Harbour, I felt I should have had my passport stamped several times that day alone. I had traveled from Australia, to Canada, to England, to Wales, and then back to Australia in a matter of hours. Three continents in one day is pretty impressive by anyone’s standards and I still had two more days of traveling with LoJo ahead of me.

We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.
~Hilaire Belloc