Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Back from the Memory Hole

Before the ravages of time (or the inclinations of Big Brother) destroy the historical record of our year in Australia on a teacher exchange program in 2001, the stories below will provide many minutes of enjoyable (or painful) reading as I attempted to recap our incredible experiences Down Under.

Since there isn't any logical, easy or even possible way to simple "link" past editions of our family newsletter to this site, I've simply pasted each in a new blog post. Unfortunately we lose graphics and photos with this method, but so it goes. Not the most efficient, but I'm not one to bother about that; I only want to preserve the record for posterity, as my old copies are either on paper or on that archaic thing called a floppy disk.

Down Under Times inaugural edition:

Down Under Times Volume I
January 2001
All the news that no one really needs to know, but is going to hear anyway!

Well, here we are. We have finally settled in here in Ferny Creek, and are slowly becoming accustomed to living in Australia.

It has been an eventful month since we departed Minnesota, and as we prepare to begin school next week, "life" appears to be taking hold over "vacation". We have set up our household in a wonderful home here in suburban Melbourne, found a Target store nearby (!), learned to drive on the other side of the road (it's easier than you might think), and have purchased a car. All things considered, other than our location on the other side of the planet, life is pretty much returning to normal.

After an exciting trip around both islands of New Zealand, we arrived at the Melbourne airport on a warm, smoky and hazy day. Apparently a fire about 500 miles away near Tasmania was causing a significant haze around Victoria and Melbourne. It was our initiation to the idea of "bush fires" and their potential effects, even around our new home.

The house is located about 40 kilometers (about 24 miles for you non-metric types), east of the Central Business District (downtown) of Melbourne. We now live on the edge, literally, of the Dandenong Ranges National Park, a large area of forested hills covered with enormous ferns and eucalyptus trees, fantastic red and blue parrots called Crimson Rosellas, kookaburras, another beautiful green and orange parrot called the King Parrot, and the occasional possum and wallaby. Quite a place to spend a year!

We were met at the airport by our new family, Rowan's brother Murray (Uncle Muzz to Tom and Sophie), his mum Helen and their good friend Marg, as well as a neighbor / colleague Carl Di Stefano and his young daughter Bridget. Everyone has overwhelmed us with kindness and thoughtfulness, and we have thoroughly enjoyed their company and generosity.

We arrived at our home not really knowing what to expect, even though we had been well prepared by the Smiths long before we left the US. The house is better than pictures represent, with wood floors throughout, three bedrooms and a large living room, a comfortable covered deck where the above mentioned birds visit us often, and a refrigerator filled with fresh fruits and the basics (milk, bread, eggs, cereal, cookies and the like). We spent our first days here just getting used to living in our new home.

While life has begun to take over, it hasn't been all work and no play. We have enjoyed taking the train into Melbourne to visit such sites as the Fitzroy Gardens and the Rialto Tower - the "Tallest Building in the Southern Hemisphere", Chinatown and the local trolley service throughout the downtown area. We spent a day visiting with our new friends the Di Stefanos at their home higher up on the mountain, and then visited the Healesville Sanctuary, considered Victoria's top wildlife sanctuary with more than 200 of Australia's unique species of birds, animals and reptiles. Carl's wife Sandy even arranged a small playgroup of five or six little girls for Sophie to meet, and to help her celebrate her birthday.

Our new family has been extremely welcoming and generous too. Uncle Muzz has spent lots of his own time with us, taking us grocery shopping, showing us around the hills, driving around the area to "get our feet wet". He and mum even dedicated an entire day driving us around Port Phillip Bay (where Melbourne is situated), across the straits on the ferry and up through the other side to show off the natural beauty that makes metropolitan Melbourne such a wonderful area.

Even a local car salesman has been in on the act. We were out car shopping at a Holden dealer (GM for you yankee's), and the salesman was engaging us in polite conversation. He told us about a reservoir half an hour away where kangaroos came out of the woods at dusk to feed. This was a chance to see them in the wild, not behind a fence in a sanctuary, but au naturel. We must have seen 40 or 50 of them, spread out behind a massive wall of crushed rock that made up the Cardinia Reservoir. Very cool! (Even with his helpful advice, we bought a Toyota!)

For Australia Day (January 26th - kind of like the 4th of July in the good ol' USA), we drove south about two hours to a place called Phillip Island, on the end of the Mornington Peninsula. Getting there was half the fun, for we had just picked up our "new" car that day. Phillip Island is world renown as the only place on earth where a colony of "Little Penguins" lives. They used to be called "Fairy Penguins", but Little more closely matches their scientific name. They are the smallest species of the 17 varieties of penguins, standing only about 35 centimeters tall. In addition, the highlight of seeing these tiny creatures in the wild is that they swim to shore and climb out of the sea at sunset in order to waddle all the way up the beach (past awe-struck and amused humans) to their rookery in the sand dunes far from the waters edge. You absolutely have to see this to believe it - probably the coolest thing we have seen so far!

On Tuesday, Dave starts back to school after a nice, month-long vacation. He is excited to start anew after having just started the year several months before, and has met with his new principal and several colleagues already. A tour of the campus and buildings is on the agenda for Monday so that he doesn't look like the new kid on his first day of school!

Tommy and Sophie are going to attend Ferny Creek Primary school, up the hill about two kilometers from the house. They are really looking forward to starting school again, as they have only had their old mum and dad as company these last few weeks, and we are getting a bit stale! They miss the interaction with other kids and the rich learning environment of school. These next eleven months will certainly provide them with more enrichment than anyone ever counted on!

On the dangerous creature front, we have yet to see anything more poisonous at this point than pictures found in our guide books of the various nasty bugs and reptiles that inhabit Australia. The house was and is sparkling clean, with no hint that poisonous things have ever lived within these four walls. While we are certain that such things as the red-back spider, the white-tail spider, the huntsman spider, and various other eight-legged creatures (and some without legs, like the 200 most poisonous snakes in the world!) do in fact live here in Australia, and perhaps even nearby to our house, we have yet to spot any. Whew! What a relief that has been, even though Kate checks the bed linens and under the bed every night, we have seen nothing more dangerous than the kind of spider you might see in Minnesota.

Well, thanks for sharing your emails and letters with us while we settled in here in Ferny Creek. We look forward to many more from family and friends, and hope that we can keep in touch over the next year.

Ooroo! (Goodbye, Australian-style.)

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