Friday, July 3, 2009

Down Under Times volume III

(See: Back from the Memory Hole for an explanation of why these are posted now...)

Down Under Times Volume III
March 2001

All the news that no one really needs to know, but is going to hear anyway!

Welcome to the third edition of the Down Under Times! Regarding the above acknowledgement, we must inform you that Aussies do in fact say "G'day!" with great gusto and regularity. It is nice to experience a bit of variation from the American norm of "Hello" or "Hi", which gets a bit worn and boring after a while. (We can say this with some authority now, having experienced both; the former over the last three months and the latter forever!)

This greeting is especially pleasant when used coupled with another typical Aussie term of endearment, "mate". I don't believe I will ever tire of the salutation "G'day, mate!" There is something quite special about being considered a "mate" immediately upon meeting someone new. Even more appealing is being able to head off to the pub for a pot of beer with one's mate's. Heaps of fun!

Driving Aussie Style
Driving here is quite fascinating. The only thing we really had difficulty with was remembering to look up and to the left for the rear view mirror. It's a bit disconcerting to look out the driver's side window expecting to see the traffic behind you, only to find nothing but air. However, once you get the hang of being on the other side of the road (notice the word choice: other side, not wrong side) an observant driver would notice lots of fun and interesting things. For instance:

* There is a plethora of 4 X 4's here (known generally by the somewhat affectionate name of "Ute's" - as in Sport Utility Vehicles). Even though Australia has 1/15 the population of the US, there are as many Ute's in Australia as there are minivans in the US. Honest. Based on numbers of these behemoths observed, it would seem that every other person spends all their free time bumping up and down on "bush tracks" when they're not driving them around me on the road.

* Not only are there lots of big vehicles to contend with, there are also extremely narrow roads that lead to extremely narrow escapes from the abundance of 4 X 4's! This is particularly hairy where we live, with steep winding roads up into (and down from) the mountain.

* Having said all this however, we have noticed that there are a vast number of clean, undamaged cars. It is quite amazing to see lots of VW Beetles and other cars from the 1970's in excellent shape, with no dents or hanging fenders, and without rust. We have a theory about this - it's either that drivers are especially skillful on the narrow roads competing with all the big trucks, or that every time there is an accident (undoubtedly with a 4 X 4 that remains undamaged) the car is completely obliterated and has to be humanely destroyed like a British cow with foot and mouth disease.

You might recall from last month that Dave had the rather intriguing experience of the random breath-a-lyzer stop by the Victorian police. Coupled with random stops are very strict "drink-driving" (as it is called here) laws. The legal BAC in Victoria would make MADD proud - only 0.05%, or half that allowed in Minnesota. These things make for strange bedfellows with two additional Aussie institutions - the drive through "bottle shop", or liquor store, and no regulation of open containers in the car - except for the driver, of course. Complicating matters even further are laws that restrict driver's licenses to those 18 and over, yet also allow a drinking age of 18. Go figure.

Science Matters
Anyone out there in cyberspace who ever doubted the existence of the hole in the ozone layer should visit Australia some time. In American schools one will often find a "no hats" policy; whether this is to promote a more egalitarian society or to crush any attempts at free expression by students is open for debate. Here, however, schools often have a mandatory hats policy, in order that young ones out in the strong sun should refrain from getting tops of heads and tops of ears burned.

"Australia is much closer to the equator, and therefore naturally has stronger sun" the skeptic in you might say. Consider this: Melbourne is located at about 38 degrees south latitude, and Minneapolis is on the 45th parallel north. If every 10 degrees latitude on the map equals 110 kilometers then, Melbourne would be located at the equivalent of roughly northern Iowa. Guess we're not that different after all.

Additionally, there is a national public awareness campaign here that promotes remaining covered in the direct sun. Its beauty is in its simplicity - "Slip, Slop, Slap" is how it goes. Slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, and slap on a hat. This rivals just about anything we've ever seen in the US for effectiveness, as everyone (really - everyone) knows the drill. Educators and others who work with kids are positively fascist about enforcing these dictums on the playgrounds of Australia. They have to enforce these "rules": Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.

"The World's Most Liveable City"
When a local radio station announces the weather forecast, they always say that Melbourne is "the world's most liveable city". As if to prove the point, the DJ always seems to announce that the weather is "fine" or "becoming fine," no matter what kind of weather is to be expected. We've been spending more time in the world's most liveable city lately; most recently we celebrated Saint Patrick's Day at the Melbourne Aquarium, and then dined in the Italian district of the city, on a locally famous street called Lygon Street. This street is lined with more Italian restaurants and deli's than you can shake a pepperoni at. Additionally, as you wander the tree-lined sidewalks, all the hawkers come out and try to convince you to eat at their restaurant.

A very exciting and somewhat odd experience when you think about it: Four Americans on an Irish holiday eating Italian food while in Australia. Hmmm. . .how very multicultural of us.

We've also been back to Queen Victoria Market a second time, which has to be the biggest open-air market we have ever seen. Honestly, you can buy anything there, from the requisite tourist stuff like t-shirts and hats to didgeridoos and kangaroo-leather clothing, to live poultry and whole cows. Quite a sensory onslaught that you truly must experience for yourself.

Tommy and Sophie had a day off from school the other day, and Kate took them down to visit the absolutely fantastic Melbourne Zoo. It's kind of funny, really, because when we tell natives about the things we do and see, they regularly comment "I haven't even done that yet, and I live here!" Ah, the benefits of being foreigners.

Cheeseburger in Paradise???
Apologies to Jimmy Buffet, but while we may be in an ecological paradise, a proper American-style cheeseburger ("a big warm bun and a huge hunka meat", as the song goes) is hard to find here. Just step into any restaurant that offers burgers and order a one with "the lot", and you are likely to be surprised. This concoction comes with all the normal toppings (lettuce, tomato, onion) on a beef patty, as well as bacon, a fried egg, and a slice of cooked beet (which Aussies call beetroot). You could even have pineapple if you want, but who in their right mind would want that?! If you have a strong stomach, peruse the photo below of a burger with "the lot", minus the pineapple slice. Is this a great country, or what?

Speaking of food, let's talk about Vegemite, shall we? I am constantly being assaulted (verbally) by students at school who want to know whether or not I like Vegemite. "Of course", I tell them, "I keep a 2 kilo jar in my car, just in case I get a flat tire and need to patch the hole." For some reason, they don't find this particularly humorous. It doubles equally well as roof tar, by the way.

As long as we're on the subject of food, can somebody please tell me why Nescafé ever devised instant coffee? Can someone please also tell me why Aussies are so committed to this psuedo-coffee? It's a crime, if you ask me. A proper coffee pot in the staff lounge at school would go a long way, in my opinion. (PS - We actually miss having a Starbucks and Caribou on every corner!)

It bears mentioning that not all food is like Vegemite, instant coffee or burgers with the lot (thank goodness!). We have come across several items we should like to import back to the US with us at the end of this adventure, including my new favorite beer (from Australia, anyway), Victoria Bitter. The Aussie tradition of a wide variety of tasty meat pies is also quite wonderful, many of which can be purchased at a staggering number of local bakeries that also produce some really fantastic breads and pastries. Sit me down to a meal of a good steak and cheese pie, a frosty cold VB and a nice supply of Tim Tams (a really good cookie) for dessert, and I'll be in heaven.

Travels with the Panetti's
Since we last wrote everyone, we have done a bit of travelling around the state of Victoria. If you were to drive about 2 hours south and west of Melbourne, you would encounter the eastern starting point of what is known as the Great Ocean Road, a 225 kilometer road that twists and turns and undulates up and down along the coast of the Pacific Ocean (or the Southern Ocean, as it's known here). The guide-books describe this as one of the most scenic drives in the world, and while we haven't experienced what the rest of the world has to offer, we liked this road so much we went twice in the last month! It is truly awe inspiring, and has some really spectacular sights as you approach Port Campbell National Park, the seashore area where the 12 Apostles are located.

The 12 Apostles are probably the most picturesque and beautiful natural wonders we have seen thus far. Viewing these limestone monoliths standing guard over the coastline - these fossilized remains of ancient sea creatures standing close to 100 feet tall out exposed to the omnipresent waves of the ocean - one can't help but feel somewhat insignificant in the whole scheme of things. You realize that these structures have been there for millennia, and that every minute, every second of those millennia the soft rock has been slowly scoured away by the constant surge of waves.

This picture we took doesn't do the sight justice, and neither does my description. Anyone who has ever sat and stared at the ocean with awe, or gazed at a star-filled sky with wonder, knows the feeling. It is a very spiritual place, I think.

While on our first trip along this road, we visited some very nice small towns: Lorne, Apollo Bay and Port Campbell to name a few. We managed to pop in and visit our friends the Mc Kenzies in Apollo Bay, and were invited for a wonderful "tea", which is Australian code for "big elaborate dinner". They were wonderfully gracious, and we had a very nice time visiting and catching up with them, as they had only just returned from a year in Minnesota on the same exchange.

We enjoyed ourselves so much on that regular weekend that we decided to ride the road again over the three day Labor Day holiday several weeks later and really see these sights when we could make some time to sit and truly absorb it all. It was definitely worth a second trip, and is on our list to visit with some of you, should you ever make the trip Down Under.

We are very excited for the upcoming two-week holiday in April, for our travel plans are quite far-reaching. In the first week, we are traveling to the Red Center, the heart of Australia. We will visit the famous town of Alice Springs, as well as the sacred Aboriginal rock called Uluru. This is no mere pebble in the desert, however. This is the epitome of Australia - pick up any book about Australia and you will undoubtedly find a picture of a massive red rock, shaped somewhat like a malformed loaf of bread - this is Uluru. (It often still goes by the English name Ayer's Rock, although I prefer the more pleasing Aboriginal name of Uluru.) Together with Kata Tjuta (The Olgas in English), these ancient rocks make up a National Park amidst a massive area of Aboriginal lands in central Australia.

In the second week, we will fly to Tasmania, the island state of Australia, about 350miles south across the Bass Strait from Victoria. "Tassie", as it is known here, is reputed to be much like New Zealand, with mountain peaks, extinct volcanic craters filled with cold, clear water and glaciers, as well as rain forests and picturesque towns. We will also be meeting up with our friends the Carberry's, a Bloomington family on exchange north of Sydney in New South Wales. They will be visiting Tasmania with us for part of the time, and then will visit us here in Ferny Creek for a day or so upon our return. This will undeniably be a highlight, and we will give a full report in the April edition.

More Fun with Language
Here's a conversation I overheard at school one day (Not really, I just made it up):

Question: "How ya goin'?"
Answer: "My chooks' been crook, and even my Ute's runnin' a bit dodgy this arvo, so I gave 'em both icy-poles while sittin' in the car park out in the back o' Bourke. Boy did I feel like a bogan after that! Then this cheeky bugger comes along whingeing about not getting his pay rise. I told him to quit being a bludger and to stop taking sickies every fortnight, and that he should pick up a shout for his mates at the pub once in awhile and he'd be right."

Did you understand any of that? Aside from my contrived effort to use Aussie slang in a conversation that is utterly unbelievable, these words could (and do) truly and utterly confuse the uninitiated, even when used alone. It's fair dinkum, really!

Here's a few more interesting things done with the English language:

* Last month, I mentioned that Aussies say "maths" not math. The justification is that there is more than one form of mathematics, and hence it is not "mathematic". Using the same logic would then lead us to believe that the proper word for athletic activity would be "sports" as said in the US, not "sport" as it is here.

* Aussies tend to enunciate their sounds differently than Americans (at least those of us from the Midwest), and also tend to add letter sounds to some words, particularly those that end in the letter "a". Consequently you could have a sentence that sounds like this: "My friend Athener who is from Americer but is now living in Australier, is going to visit Asier at the end of the year." My personal favorite was heard on a radio commercial, and was attached to the word "bonanza", which then became "bonanzer". That one made me smile.

* Another very confusing statement was overheard in the staff lounge at Fairhills recently, when one teacher was making an announcement about an event that was going to occur "Friday week". That left me scratching my head, until I asked about the meaning and found out it meant "next week on Friday". Paying close attention to what is said is sometimes not enough!

While we all feel a bit melancholy at times, and miss our friends and family, Kate came up with a good response that helps to put these feelings into perspective. It's certainly normal to feel homesick, after all we have been gone three months already. But feeling homesick doesn't mean we want to come home, at least not yet. Keeping in touch with our friends and family back in the States and around the world certainly helps. Keep the emails (and snail mails) coming - we love to hear from you!

Snail mail:
8 Seaview Avenue
Ferny Creek, Victoria
3786 Australia


Until next month - Cheers!

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