Thursday, July 9, 2009

Down Under Times volume IX

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

December 11th, 2001

Hello again, and welcome to the final edition of the Down Under Times.

It is with great sadness that I write these words, for they signal the end of our yearlong adventure. It truly seems as if we have just arrived, and now we must pack our bags -- all of them! -- and return to Minnesota. We have seen so much, yet there is so much left to see. I guess we will just have to return one day and visit all the places on our proverbial list, including Perth, Western Australia; the west coast and western interior; the Nullarbor Plain and a trip on the Indian-Pacific railway; perhaps a ride on the world famous Ghan rail line from Adelaide, South Australia (another place we haven't been) to the Top End, Darwin and Kakadu National Park; an Australian Rules Footy match; and on; and on; and on. And this doesn't include all the places we want to see again! It's an incredible place, really, and this has been one absolutely fabulous ride we've been on.

Looking back over past editions of the Down Under Times, I realize with great regret (and I'm sure to your great relief), that there are many places and experiences we never shared with you, such as our trips around Victoria to places like Daylesford, Echuca, Paynesville, Bendigo, and Ballarat. Experiences like hosting a Fourth of July party here at the house for the staff at Fairhills; the sleepover Sophie's class had at Ferny Creek Primary School; my wonderful (!) and exciting (!) three nights spent at a rural camp with 150 or so Year 8 students; adventures while driving due to the mysterious lack of clearly placed street signs; etc., etc. But how can words relay all the things that we have done, all the things we encountered while here? They can't, and so we'll just have to have you over for 'tea' sometime and show you what we are able.

I haven't had the chance to wow you with some of the unusual language we've come across. Words and phrases like "piffing yonnies"; "wanker", "wacker" and "wally"; a "slab of stubbies"; the "dog and bone"; "skinny milk"; "windcheater" and "jumper"; "bonnet" and "boot"; "panelbeaters"; "witches hats"; and a "shocking" number of others. It's all very interesting, and really makes you wonder what we say at home that baffles visitors from other parts of the world. "Fair dinkum!"

You won't believe our children. They have literally grown several feet in the last year - Tommy is fast approaching five feet tall (not exactly, but it seems that way), and Sophie looked as much, and years older, when on stage in front of hundreds of people during her phenomenal final dance recital just yesterday. What happened to my shy little girl?? They are different people, just as we are, and have grown and changed and matured beyond their limited years. I daresay some of you will not recognize them.

We really are mourning the fact that we have to leave. Obviously we are very excited to return home, but we would love nothing more than the opportunity to travel around another month or two, with none of those silly obligations like work and school holding us back. For those of you who are thinking that we must be enjoying a wonderfully warm summer here in the Southern Hemisphere, think again. Here in Melbourne, it fairly hasn't stopped raining for the last four months, and we've had no 30 degree days (86 F) since last autumn, so we're not basking in the heat as you might think. We have been unseasonably cold with temps around 13 degrees (55 F), and lots of clouds, fog and rain. Kate actually said it (twice), and now I'm putting it down for the record: "I never thought I'd say it, but I miss Minnesota weather". So there you are, proof that we really HAVE changed!

Just as an added bonus, I have been compiling a list of the prices for various items while we've been here in Australia, and I have attached that as well. Take a gander over the list and next time you go shopping, see how prices compare. I have to admit to having no idea any longer what prices are like in Minnesota, but I'm sure the realization will hit me head on in just a few days. If you look over the prices, keep in mind several things.

1. The exchange rate. Right now, one Australian dollar will get you about 52 US cents. Therefore, the temptation is to suggest that all prices on the list are essentially half price for Americans. While true for travellers, it is dangerous if one thinks that all things are inexpensive in Australia due to that. That is because of the second thing -
2. Incomes. I have no idea what average incomes are like here in the Melbourne area. The important thing to keep in mind when comparing prices in different countries is the cost of living. If a loaf of bread in Minnesota costs one US dollar and that same bread costs two Aussie dollars, the cost of living is roughly the same. However, how much of a person's annual income it takes to purchase that loaf of bread is far more important when trying to determine the relative inexpensiveness or expensiveness of a place, and I simply don't have that information.
3. There are 3.8 liters in one US gallon, and 2.2 pounds in one kilogram.

The US is a different place than the one we left eleven months ago, and I have to admit to being a bit apprehensive about it all. We have no idea what most people in the US have gone through, just as most people in the US have no idea what we have experienced, either on this adventure or due to the attacks in September. It will definitely feel strange, but good I imagine, to be back on US soil after having been gone so long (although it really hasn't been all that long after all, has it?). Nonetheless, it will be good to be home. Dorothy (of Wizard of Oz fame) had it right.

Speaking of coming home, for those of you who might be interested, here are our flight details once more. This time we have the flight number for the Northwest Airlines flight, which we didn't have last month:

12/15 Depart Melbourne 1215pm Qantas flight #QF093
12/15 Arrive Los Angeles 730am

12/15 Depart Los Angeles 1140am Northwest Airlines flight #NW316
12/15 Arrive Minneapolis 519pm

Lastly, I must apologize. For some reason, I have become incredibly long-winded over the last year. I can't help it, so please treat me with kid gloves. I write them down more for myself and my kids than for you, although you provide a convenient outlet for my expression, and one or two of you might actually enjoy reading these things.

Thank you all for your support this past year, have a wonderful holiday season, and we'll see you soon!

The Panetti's Down Under

Down Under Times Volume IX
December 2001

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

The End
Welcome to the final edition of the Down Under Times. After spending eleven months, many dollars and a good amount of time in reflection, we have decided to close our imaginary doors and "put this paper to bed" once and for all. We hope you enjoyed your vicarious adventure Down Under -- even as we lived it -- and that you will assist us in creating even more and better memories in person after our return to Minnesota and the United States.

Perhaps you will one day join us in our home as you are serenaded by that dynamic duo…those magical musicians…the creators of adventurous aural sensations -- Kate and Tommy Panetti! You see, Tommy has been taking guitar lessons for several months, and Kate has been learning to play the didgeridoo. Sophie has continued her dance lessons, expanding her repertoire to include tap and jazz, and she can perform a delightful dance while the sonorous strains of magnificent music grace your ears, while I sit on my butt and take it all in with you, sipping some wonderful Australian wine all the while. It should be great fun!

The Great 2001 Election
I'm sure you've all been waiting with bated breath for the results of the 2001 Australian federal poll, as the election is often referred to here. Well, the results are in and…(drum roll please)… the winner once again is the man with two first names…..John Howard! In case you've forgotten (and we'll excuse you if you did), he's the current Prime Minister, and his Liberal Party will maintain control of the federal Parliament, albeit by a slim margin. It's a sad day for the world of comedy that Abbott and Costello didn’t take over the reigns of governance here in Australia. What a treat that would have been! Oh well, there's always the next election.

Things of an Unusual Nature
Speaking of unusual things, Australia has its fair share of them besides marsupials (kangaroos, wombats and koalas, for instance) and monotremes. (The platypus and the echidna are both monotremes, mammals that lay eggs and at the same time suckle their young, and they also have one bodily orifice that functions for both excretion and reproduction. In addition, the platypus has a tail like a beaver and webbed feet like a duck, and the echidna looks like an overgrown hedgehog but has a long snout by which to use its sticky tongue to capture ants. Ain't this an interesting place?) There are some unusual things that occur during elections here as well. Here's a run down on a couple of them.

Australia is the birthplace of the secret ballot, sometimes still referred to as the Australian ballot, which has spread around the world as the voting tool of choice. However, one of the more unusual aspects related to elections here is that Australian citizens are required by law to vote in every election. Australia, as far as I know, is the only place on the planet to have this requirement. (I have heard Sri Lanka does also, but don't know for sure.) Once a citizen reaches the age of majority (18 years old) they must vote or face a fine of fifty dollars. While this certainly removes the need for "get out the vote" campaigns, it doesn't necessarily guarantee a more educated voter. Actually, just because an Australian is required to go to the polls on Election Day and cast a ballot, it is not absolutely necessary to write anything on said ballot (this is called a "donkey vote"). Therefore this system is really the best of both worlds: It completely removes your free will when it comes to choosing whether or not to vote, but instantaneously reinstates your free will to cast an empty ballot. In addition, if an Australian citizen has never registered to vote, and has no intention of ever doing so, they can live their entire lives without voting, so in fact 'compulsory' really isn't so compulsory after all. Is this a great country, or what?

Here is another interesting feature of Australian elections: Preferential voting. It works like this: First, you vote for everyone on a ballot, ranking him or her according to your preference. Then, if a candidate does not get an outright majority of first choice votes in an election, the candidate who had the least amount of first choice preferences cast for them is eliminated, and their votes are then redistributed among the remaining candidates until one candidate does have an outright majority. If the leading candidate still has no majority, the next to last is eliminated, and the process repeated, until an outright majority can be reached. Confused? How about a simplified example?

Tony, Paul and Jessica are running for office, and there are 20 voters. When the election is over, Jessica has 9 votes, Paul has 6 votes and Tony has 5 votes. There is no majority, so Tony is eliminated and his five votes redistributed. If 4 of Tony's 5 votes listed Jessica as their second choice, Jessica gets those votes and Paul gets the remaining vote. Jessica will therefore win with 13 votes over second place finisher Paul, who had only 7, and Tony has been eliminated. Get it? I'm not sure I do, now that I look over that explanation.

Undoubtedly there are other quirky things in Australian politics and elections that I know nothing about (some might argue that I actually know nothing at all, after what I just wrote), but there is one more that really intrigues me. Australia is a parliamentary democracy, a self-governing federation of six states and two territories, and has a written constitution dating from about 1901. Interestingly, however, Australia is technically still ruled by Queen Elizabeth II, who is really the Queen of Australia (at the same time as being Queen of England, among other things I'm sure), as well as head of state. Because she doesn’t exactly live down the road, she is represented here on Australian soil by a person called the Governor General, a person who is appointed by the Prime Minister and may be approved by Queen herself. Now, how exactly this could still happen, I can't say for sure, but theoretically the Governor General has the power, as the Queen's representative, to dissolve the Australian parliament if the Queen is dissatisfied (or, I suppose, if the Governor General is dissatisfied). This isn't as farfetched as it might seem, as it happened back in 1975, although some rules have been changed since then to make it more difficult. The really curious thing about the 1975 precedent was that, after the Governor General installed a favorable Prime Minister that the people of Australia did not elect, the people went ahead and confirmed the Governor General's choice when the new election was called several months later, and elected him anyway. I told you this was an interesting place!

Splendid Isolation???
To live in Australia for awhile is to discover that ones travel experiences are used regularly as a litmus test for knowledge and understanding of our planet, even though travel alone doesn't necessarily lead to more and better awareness of the world. Two small but personal examples leap to mind in support of this discovery. I was visiting a doctor several months ago simply to have a prescription filled. While I waited for him to find the local trade name for my medicine, he pops out with "Americans don't see or know much about the rest of the world, do they?" I sat politely in my chair and wondered to myself if I had gone into the wrong office, or that maybe I had "Insult Me" written on my forehead. I had only just met the man! Didn't my presence in his office negate this sweeping statement even a little bit? It was quite exasperating.

The second example is perhaps even more pernicious. In one of the Melbourne newspapers (The Age) recently, a local columnist was reviewing a US television show -- a TV show! -- and she spent her entire column lambasting American international ignorance, with no small amount of specific examples from -- let me reiterate this -- a dozen or so people from a TV show. (It's apparently called The Amazing Race, in case you wondered.) The last sentence in the article expressed her "horror" that "70 percent of American politicians don't even own a passport" and that this fact explained "why so many Americans think we [Aussies] come from a landlocked European nation with a fondness for edelweiss." To begin with, I think she has her facts wrong (although I could be wrong here), and that it isn't 70 percent but 30 percent, and it isn't "all American politicians", but just US Senators (of which there are only 100 members). There is a vast difference, deplorable as it may be that 30 US Senators don't have passports. Then there is the issue (oft repeated) that Americans mix up Australia with Austria. Forgive me for suggesting that they do occasionally sound similar, particularly when spoken by an Australian, for if they have a broad accent, they pronounce the name of their country much like "Au stray ya", with the syllables all bunched together and the emphasis on the "stray" in the middle. I won't even mention the similar spelling -- oops -- guess I just did! Anyway, there are clearly some misconceptions that need clearing up, on both sides of the Pacific.

First, let me say that there certainly are Americans who are uninformed of the "outside world", as if there is such a thing. This is an undisputed statement with which I wholly agree; which plays no small part in my motivation for being a teacher; and is undoubtedly true in every country on earth. However, to suggest that this may be of epidemic proportions in the USA (which is what happens when one prints such things in a widely read newspaper column) is a bit naïve in and of itself. For example, the above-mentioned columnist holds fast to the phrase "average American" in her article. Given that there are 280 million Americans (as compared with only 20 million Australians), it isn't terribly difficult to find an "average" American, and therefore by sheer weight of numbers, there are more "average" Americans than there are total Australians. I don't know if it's accurate or not, but given those numbers it is equally possible that there are actually more international travellers in the US than the total populations of some other countries. Of course I could be wrong. It has been known to happen.

Second, according to a Minneapolis Star Tribune article I read just recently on the Internet, the American worker puts in more hours per year on the job than any other workers in the world do. (Perhaps this fact helps support the largest, most diverse economy on earth.) The result, of course, is that it is exceedingly difficult for Americans of an average stripe to find the time, with only two or perhaps three weeks of annual vacation (received only after a minimum of one year of work), for international travel. When top executives often get only four weeks of vacation per year, even they are limited as to where they might travel for any length of time, especially with lots of interesting places to see within our own country, and which are far more accessible.

Lastly, and most importantly, the Australian "system" directly supports the man on the street in his quest for temporary escape to other parts of the world. Let me explain: In most areas of the Australian economic world, a concept called Long Service Leave exists, which should be (if it isn't already) the envy of the world. This is a system that directly allows employees the ability to take a long period of time off from work, with full pay. The most common explanation I have heard has it like this: If you work for the same company for 10 continuous years, you then become eligible to take up to twelve weeks of Long Service Leave (vacation) with full pay. If you wish, you may also tinker with the numbers, and take 24 weeks of Long Service Leave at 1/2 pay, or lots of other combinations that can be individually tailored and negotiated. You are then given an additional allotment of six more weeks Long Service Leave for each additional five years you stay with the company, and if you don't use this time you can bank it until you have a massive amount of leave available to you. There may be some variation on this theme depending upon the industry in which you work, but this is what I understand to be generally true.

Two other systems exist that certainly entice Australians to travel abroad, if Long Service Leave isn't enough already. Maternity leave here is extremely generous, as a rule. It starts with twelve weeks of maternity leave with full pay, which is already a significant increase over the usual maternity leave in the US. Then, depending upon your industry, you may also be allowed twelve months unpaid leave with a guarantee to get your job back at the end. In education, it is an even more generous seven years of unpaid leave, with a guaranteed job at the end! Again, there may be some variation, but this is what I have been led to believe is true.

The last practice that will make you green with envy is called Leave Loading. This would have Ronald Reagan and proponents of "voodoo economics" foaming at the mouth. Simply put, as an employee you are paid more money when you go on vacation in order to spur economic activity in the overall economy! My understanding is that it amounts to about 17% of your normal holiday pay (only) on top of your normal annual salary, which would amount to about $600 or $700 per year for the average worker. Theoretically you would spend this extra money and help keep the economy solvent. Australians generally look at you in utter disbelief when they discover that other parts of the world do not have such generous systems in place for the worker.

One last note on the subject. Not quite as common as it seems to have been in the past is the practice of taking a year or two off before starting a university degree program, apparently called the "Gap Year". I have no idea how common it is with today's Australian university student, but it seems that it was quite common in days gone by. I don't know more than one or two people at home who did anything even remotely close to that, even if they could afford the time and the expense of a world wide year-long (or two) whirlwind tour.

What does all this mean? To me it means that Australians by and large are more able to travel much greater distances for longer periods of time (particularly as compared to Americans); they have institutional support for this travel (or at least for the time off to travel); and they take advantage of the opportunity to do so. There is no question that Aussies are well-travelled people, and it is a testament to the "Aussie way of life" that there is such systemic support for such a lifestyle. For that they are to be applauded. It truly supports the notion that one should go to other places and know about other people. It also helps to explain why Aussies look askance at Americans who've never travelled abroad, or perhaps have only done a two-week trip around parts of Europe. Generally, Aussies don't seem to know that other countries don't have these same opportunities or support, and Americans often simply can't afford to do any more than the typical two-week trip around Europe, even if the exchange rate for US dollars is favorable. (Australians are keenly aware of the exchange rate, and the rate for Australian dollars has been historically low this year. Not too long ago, the rate was much closer to a 1:1 ratio, before their dollar was floated on the open market.)

None of this excuses ignorance, mind you. That is where we come in, those of us trying desperately to teach students about the world, and to help them appreciate the big old orb of rock and water that we share. Everyone knows the old adage "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink". Well, the end result of all this is that we (teachers) are constantly trying to make horses drink when they often aren't terribly thirsty. It can be quite maddening really.

Farewell to Fairhills
I will truly miss the people I have come to know as my friends from Fairhills High School. They are indeed a wonderful group of people, and have made my time here more than welcome. I have many fond memories getting to know members of the faculty and staff during the year, both in the various staff rooms and outside of school. I can honestly say it would be an honor and a privilege to have any one of them stay with us in our home, should they ever decide to make a foray into Minnesota -- and I hope they know that I was absolutely truthful when I invited them all to do so. (Not all at once, mind you!)

Fairhills is a school of about 900 students from grades 7 through 12. The standard in Australia is that primary schools cover kindergarten (called Prep here) through grade six, and high schools (almost always called "colleges" here) cover grades 7 through 12. Fairhills is located in an eastern Melbourne suburb, about 40 kilometers from the city center. It would be more than just to say that the staff here works exceedingly hard, and care a great deal about the education and general welfare of the student body. Like any school, all the blood, sweat, toil and tears meets with sometimes limited success, as there often seems to be an oversupply of not-so-thirsty horses in attendance. But also like any good school, faculty and staff continue to show up every day, do this difficult job to the best of their ability, and receive scant little praise for their efforts, all the while hoping that they might make a difference in the lives of as many of those 'horses' as possible.

Students who wish to shine can certainly do so here, although it seems that academic and behavioral expectations (of students about themselves, not necessarily by staff) are lower than in most schools in Minnesota. A valid criticism of schools across the United States is that kids, parents and teachers are too focused on "the grade", which of course is partly done in order to help secure entrance to college one day. Here there are no cumulative grades or grade point averages, so therefore no intense focus on "the grade" as such. Similar to that US focus on grades, however, is the Australian (or Fairhills) student focus on "ticking the box", which simply means checking items off the list of things to do in order to say "I completed it", often without any real attempt at quality or to really learn the material. Obviously there are exceptions to this observation, but this is what seems to me to be prevalent.

A few things that are not at all similar to schools in Minnesota, or even to the US in general, include a staggered end-of-year release time. At Fairhills, Seniors (year 12 students are not known as Seniors here, and neither are 11's called Juniors, or on down the list) completed their last day of class for the year on Friday 10/19, which was then followed by several weeks of intense state-wide examinations. For these Seniors, the school year ended for good on Friday 11/9, even though the school year technically runs until 12/21, six full weeks later. Juniors (or Year 11's as they are called), had their last day of class on Friday 11/9 and the final day altogether on Friday 11/23, interspersed with school-run exams. Even Sophomores (Year 10's) had their last day early, on Friday 11/23 with school-run exams for one week, ending their year on Thursday 11/29 (there was no school on Friday 11/30).

For the remainder of the school (Years 7, 8 and 9), classes continue as normal (or as normal as they can be as a year comes to a close) until 12/10, when the "End of Year Program" begins. In some schools, this Program involves trips to the beach for surfing lessons; field trips (called "excursions" here) to the zoo or a museum; a day out at the mall for lunch and to see the latest movie; or other fun activities organized each day. Some schools use these last two weeks to "advance" students into the next grade level early. This is approximately what Fairhills is doing this year, so that my Year 8 students will gain exposure to Year 9 classes for most of the last two weeks. One difficulty with this program is simply getting the kids motivated to start something entirely new at the tail end of a year when all they seem to want is a break (that's all everyone wants!). As an added complication, the kids who move into a ninth grade math class, for example, may not actually wind up in February with the teacher they had these last two weeks, perhaps making the transition more difficult, not less so.

The weekly schedule (called a "timetable" here, and the person in charge of organizing it is called the "Timetabler"), is quite different as well. As a teacher I only see my year 7-10 students four times per week, as opposed to five in most US high schools, and two of those class periods come in the form of a double-period. Year 11 and 12 students do meet five times, however, and generally have two double periods per week.

Even the daily class schedule at Fairhills has at least one stark difference. Classes are scheduled to be 44 minutes in length, a fairly standard time for classes world-wide. However, when the bell rings and one class ends, the daily schedule has it that the next period has simultaneously begun, which means that everyone (teachers included) is automatically late to the next class. There is no scheduled passing time between classes, which effectively shortens every class, sometimes by up to ten minutes. Double periods are affected less, of course, because there is no break between the two periods.

There are a relatively high number of schools per community in the area, which has the result of keeping class sizes low. As the initial cost is quite a bit lower than in a place like Minnesota where the severe winter climate demands higher construction and maintenance costs, the number of schools seems to be greater. My largest class here was 26, which was a real anomaly; most were in the lower 20's. Over and above the impact of the number of schools is the relatively high drop-out rate after Year 10. An official with DEET (no, it isn't an insect repellent - it's the state of Victoria's Department of Education, Employment and Training) told me in a meeting for the International Teachers Association that 40% of public school students leave before Year 11 begins, and the Department doesn't track where they've gone. One result is that this creates a whole class of potentially under-educated young people, although they may eventually return to some form of schooling at another stage in life. Another result is extremely low class sizes in the upper grades. My Year 11 History class had only 13 students, and a good friend and colleague here at Fairhills once taught Physics in a country school to one student! These are student-teacher ratios to die for!

If school funding is a mystery to most Minnesotans (and I would wager that it most certainly is), the formula for funding in Australia is equally as baffling. Public schools are funded by the various states within Australia, and the amount given varies per school and by state. That is relatively easy to understand. However, one major difference here is that private schools also receive public dollars, sometimes in obscene amounts, even though these schools charge tens of thousands of dollars for tuition and school fees. A recent newspaper article in the Melbourne Herald Sun charted the private schools set to receive the most public dollars. Shockingly, a private secondary school called Wesley College charges $13,500 per year in tuition and fees, and in 2001 received $3.9 million dollars in taxpayer money. Under the current Howard government's plan, however, Wesley is scheduled to receive $8.4 million per year as of 2005! I highly doubt the tuition charged will decrease as the taxpayer subsidy increases. Wesley is just one example, but the article cites 21 other schools, all charging $10,000 plus per year, and all set to receive at least $1.0 million dollars EACH as of 2005. All this while teachers in many public government schools continue to teach in substandard portable classrooms that were built 30+ years ago and have long ago been condemned, and without first-class facilities like Olympic sized swimming pools or other luxurious amenities. Frankly, this lopsided system flies in the face of the whole notion of egalitarianism that Australia prides itself upon, and really exposes that belief as more myth than reality, particularly if one sees education as a great equalizer, as I do.

Another vast difference between Minnesota (and, I daresay, the US as a whole) is almost the complete absence of security measures or procedures, at least like the kind we are used to. Kids are often free to wander all over the grounds of Fairhills during recess, lunch or before or after school hours. The grounds have no more than a simple Century fence around the outside, and the entire lot is accessible throughout the day and night to the general public. While individual buildings (meaning portable classrooms and the office area) do have locks, they are only truly lockable once all have left the room and the teacher locks it up. (That is, unless the teacher has left the padlock unlocked and a wayward student locks everyone inside the portable, which does occasionally happen - but not to me, of course. I was given good counsel early on to prevent such a thing.)

The higher level of general freedom experienced by students at Fairhills does come at a price, however. The buildings are rife with graffiti and vandalism, and the grounds are fairly covered with litter most of the time. This is not the direct result of a lack of repairs or maintenance, although that is a part of it. Even when brand new garbage cans were placed around the grounds earlier in the year for the staff and students to use (which would meet with limited success anywhere kids might be), the "rubbish bins" are removed and used as backstops for pick-up games of cricket, or just stomped on and tossed in the woods. It can be quite depressing.

Part of the problem is that, in the early 90's, the state government cut a large swath through education financing, privatizing some aspects of the educational system. One of those features was for buildings, grounds and maintenance, which is now contracted out to private small businesses. They do what they can, of course, but the repairs and maintenance needed are now quite extensive after years of neglect, and seems beyond the reach of the small family-operated cleaning business that takes care of Fairhills. We were told early in the year that the portable classrooms on campus (there are about 12 of them) had been condemned a long time ago, but there isn't the money to repair or replace them. Consequently, their condition only worsens with time and more abuse.

It seems that some of these issues could be resolved, at least partly, if state government restored the balance that seems lacking in terms of the private / public funding matters I wrote about a bit earlier. I'm just an outsider looking it, however, so I may have the causes and solutions all wrong, but the effects certainly can't be denied.

The Environment
Australia is a very interesting place environmentally. It is the only country that is also a continent, contains the oldest land (geologically) on the planet, and is the driest habitable place on earth, even though it is surrounded by water. It has many United Nations World Heritage sites, and contains natural beauty and natural wonders that are really quite spectacular. While almost 20 million people live here, 90% of them occupy only 1% of the land, and so the continent is largely uninhabited. The Red Center (Alice Springs and surrounding areas) can reach temperatures well into the 120's and 130's (F), and southern Tasmania can reach 0. This is truly a place of extremes.

One of those extremes concerns its forests and woodlands. Like any industrialized nation, the economy supports the exploitation of natural resources, and the lumber and mining industries are very important to the Australian economy. In terms of trees and forest products, however, Australia is the least wooded habitable place on earth (excluding Antarctica, obviously), yet they are the world's leading exporter of wood chips. Now, I'm not a forester or a science guy, but if a country doesn't have too many trees, how do they justify taking the little foliage they do have and chipping it into tiny pieces? Lumber I might be able to understand, but wood chips?

As a highly environmentally sensitive place, Australia has lots of conservation minded people. Tasmania is the birthplace of the Green Party political movement, and was the first place to elect a Green Party member to public office. Many people have large tanks to collect rainwater for use in gardens and on lawns, as opposed to drawing from city service. (The Smiths have three 1000 gallon tanks, also used for bush fire protection.) Almost everyone we have met has a compost bin in their yard for recycling kitchen waste and other organic material, which is laudable. At the same time, while household recycling is common, it doesn't appear to have spread to other areas of society as easily. To take a trip into the city of Melbourne, for instance, is to not see much -- if anything -- in the way of places to dispose properly of recyclable material (cans and bottles). The amount of paper wasted at Fairhills in the process of photocopying has forests groaning, particularly when final reports (report cards) are being prepared.

In terms of energy, Australia seems really good at building places that make efficient use of natural light, therefore theoretically lowering its reliance on electricity. Many places have lots of windows and inserted into many roofs of public buildings, as well as in private homes, skylights let in natural light. At the same time, homes are not well insulated, so any heating done to take the chill off simply dissipates through single-pane windows (the Smiths have double glazed windows, however) or through uninsulated or lightly insulated ceilings. Consequently, it feels much colder than it really should, because it is difficult (sometimes) to warm up and then stay warm.

When it is warm outside, I have observed a colossal waste of energy as air conditioners in offices and retail stores pump out the cool air which goes straight out open windows and doors. As a result, according to the United Nations, Australia has the highest per capita output of greenhouse gasses in the world, and the figures are actually rising here while other industrialized nations show figures that are falling.

This is not a real surprise when you see the number of older cars still on the roads (which have little or no emissions control equipment), or when you hear that most electrical generation is still produced by brown coal fired power plants, which produce large quantities of these gasses. Additionally, many personal homes utilize wood stoves to heat one or more rooms, which might smell nice in the autumn, but also adds to the environmental cost. Of course the US wastes enormous amounts of natural resources as well, and is the largest producer (overall) of greenhouse gasses, but this was something I didn't expect in such an environmentally conscious and sensitive place.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (ok, maybe only Seaview Avenue)
As well as bidding adieu to Fairhills, it is now time to say farewell to our wonderful neighbors on Seaview Avenue, and also to all our new friends here in Ferny Creek and the Dandenong Ranges. One family living here on Seaview Avenue had a rather unusual surprise in store for us. Little did we (or anyone else, apparently) know that the White family, living just four houses away on this very street, was on the exact same exchange ten years ago, only to Colorado not Minnesota. Phillip and Melinda White (and their two lovely girls, Emily and Madeline), have become somewhat like mentors to us, having undergone many of the same emotions and having had many of the same experiences as we have had these last eleven months. The benefit of their experience has proven quite helpful, as has their much appreciated assistance as we prepare to leave Ferny Creek, Victoria and Australia.

They even threw a going away party for us several weeks ago here in the neighborhood, and also attended a farewell barbeque held at Fairhills just last week. They have indeed become valued friends, and we hope to one day return the favor when they visit Minnesota.

It is a bittersweet time for us, having made so many wonderful friends like the Whites, the Taylor's, the Di Stefano's, the Mraz's, the Donaldson's, and so many more. And now of course it is time for us to go. Difficult as it is, we know we will see many of our new friends on our return trips to Australia some day, as well as upon their inevitable trips to Minnesota. We look forward to those days with great anticipation.

Even more encouraging than looking forward to seeing new friends again at some indefinite time in the future is the prospect of seeing several of our new friends even sooner than that. I'm referring to our new Minnesota friends Athena and Peter Goff, our Montana friends Ed and Sherry Nissen, and our Canadian friends Alan and Maryliz Quigley, all of whom have been on the same exchange this year. We have enjoyed many meals together (particularly satisfying was Maryliz and Al's hosting of a Canadian Thanksgiving), and look forward to visits to Whitefish, Montana and London, Ontario in the near future. How different, and potentially more isolating, might this exchange have been if not for our new 'mates'.

Since I seem to have contracted "diarrhea of the keyboard" this time, I feel it is time to close this one out, but there are a few items left unresolved that I need to write about in order for me to have closure. These are rather inconsequential observations, but they are interesting idiosyncrasies about life Down Under. Here goes:

· Hook turns: You would not believe this one until you actually experienced it for yourself. Simply put, within the city of Melbourne there are twenty or so major intersections where you must move all the way to the left lane, directly in front of cross traffic (which is stopped at a red light), in order to turn right in front of a city tram. (Remember, they drive on the other side of the road here…) If you can't picture it, I'll draw you a diagram some day.
· Every school, town and community has what is called an "Oval". This is the Australian equivalent of the local baseball diamond in the US, yet unlike a baseball field, which actually has a diamond shape to it, ovals are anything like the shape of an oval. Mostly they are just big open playing fields.
· Gambling: It's been said that Aussies will bet on anything -- literally. Last year alone Tasmanians spent A$1.8 billion in all types of "gaming", and they are the least populated state in Australia. Further, I was able to convince 25 or so of the staff at Fairhills to pay money for an NFL Football pool, and they know nothing about American football (called "Gridiron" here). The most astounding example is that odds were laid on the federal election, which was then reported on the well-respected national non-commercial radio station, the ABC! (Like PBS at home.)
· "Don't fence me in…": It seems to us that Australians absolutely love to erect fences of all kinds, and often with a variety of materials (usually as part of the same fence) around their property. We surmise that there may be an innate need to keep ones property safe and enclosed when one lives in a country of such vast openness.
· "No shoes, no shirt, no problem": Bare feet are very common here, even in supermarkets, shopping malls, sidewalk shops and cafés. Less common but also observed has been the odd male with no shirt in these same places.
· Is it ketchup, catsup or tomato sauce?: Australians also have a love affair with ketchup (almost universally called tomato sauce, except of course at McDonald's). Unfortunately, even when at McDonald's they are quite stingy with the stuff. If you go so far as to ask for "a lot", you will be lucky to get two packets. If you ask for "lots and lots and lots", you might just get four. There is no such thing as the bottomless vat of ketchup, even at Mac's.
· The anti-smoking lobby seems to have lost the battle here. It seems far more common here than I can ever remember it being in the US, especially in Minnesota.
· People in the Dandenongs appear to have a peculiar sort of fondness for poultry. Everyone - ok, not everyone, but many people own ducks, geese and chickens here in the hills. All of them of course penned in by more fences. The idea, I hear, is to keep the family in constant supply of fresh eggs.
· Speaking of eggs, if one doesn't have a handy fowl to produce eggs, one gets them from the supermarket, just like anywhere else on the planet. However, those eggs in the supermarket here are generally not refrigerated, and while they technically don't have to be, it did strike this American as a bit funny at first.
· Rekon yur a gud spella?: If Australians spell labor with a 'u', why is the national political party spelled as the 'Australian Labor Party'? If 'centre', why not 'entre' for the way into something? If a basic unit of measurement is spelled 'metre', is the machine in which you place your coins when you park your car called a 'parking metre'? Just thought I'd ask.
· "What did you call me???": Some of you may be familiar with a brand of kitchen matches called Red Heads, made somewhere in Europe, I think. There is a man here by the name of Dick Smith who years ago started his own company to protect Australian business from the globalization machine, and the name of the company takes his name. Interestingly, he has quite a sense of humor, as he markets his own brand of generic red-tipped kitchen matches, and guess what he calls them? Why, Dick Heads, of course!

Au Revoir!
We have been given a great gift, those of us on this exchange - the opportunity to live and breath life in another culture (similar as they are sometimes), and to take in all that we can in the relatively short time of our exchange. The gift to essentially step out of our own lives and into the lives of another, with the comfort and security of knowing that our "old" lives are there waiting for us upon our return, changed as we may be for this experience. We have seen so many things of such a spectacular nature here in Australia, that it truly boggles the mind.

And in the end (as it turns out), we’re not really that different after all. Most of us live our lives as best as we can, enjoying our time with family and friends and raising our kids to be upstanding citizens of our respective nations. We teach to the best of our ability, and while the systems and structures by which we accomplish these tasks may vary according to country, state or even school, the ultimate goal is the same no matter where you are: we want to be happy and safe and live our lives to the fullest, and pass along those universal values to future generations. You might reasonably ask the question: "You had to go all the way to Australia to discover that?!?!" To that I would reply, wouldn't you if given the chance?

This experience has been so much more than a simple 'vacation'. Nothing in the world can compare to it, and it has changed us all in ways which we may not even yet know. If it is done well, it becomes a chance not only to learn about another country and culture, but about ones self. A chance to learn more about who you are and how you fit into the whole scheme of things. It forces you to think deeply about your own country, for people ask you questions that you may never have considered before, and you need to be able to answer them, and sometimes you struggle with the truth behind those answers. In a democratic society, we should all do these things more regularly, for it keeps us on our toes and keeps the dialogue vibrant and stimulating.


We leave here now happy in the knowledge that we have experienced things few Americans -- no, few people -- have ever experienced. We have seen and travelled and met as many people as we could over the past eleven months, and now we have new friends in another country half-way around the world. In our case, we have a surrogate family, too (Mum and Muzz, the mother and brother of our exchange partner Rowan). We have lived life to its fullest, and made the absolute most of our time here. And now it's time to go home. What could be better than that, I ask you?

"I'm dreaming tonight,
of a place I know,
even more than I usually do.
And although I know,
It's a long road back,
I promise you -- I'll be home for Christmas…"

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