29 June 2010

ATL to SYD to ATL again

Well, I said I wasn't going to post on this blog anymore, but as you all know, I'm sort of a liar.

I haven't had a moment to figure out Wordpress since I landed back in this big smoggy forest-filled city, but I already have so much to tell you, dear friends.

The flight from Sydney to Atlanta was murder. Nasty, long and brutish. We had individual screens for watching movies and TV shows, but really, after two movies, I've had enough. They were good movies, some Almodovar, some Hitchcock, but still. My vegetarian meal was disgusting, so I couldn't eat it. I got really hungry. Luckily, Monika from the Alfalfa had given me a snack pack full of raw organic cashews, dried mango, and chocolate. It saved my life. I couldn't sleep, because I had a headache, so I took a Panadol (which is an Australian Tylenol) and promptly endured a pretty vicious allergic reaction to that. I'd never "lost my lunch" on a plane before, and wow, that is not a good idea. I do not recommend it. In the end, I had a headache, I couldn't take a painkiller, and I had no food in my stomach, which only made my headache worse.

Horrible. I was hoping to buy some food in the LA airport, but between customs, passport check and boarding my connecting flight, I had no time. I'm not too proud to admit I bought a can of Pringles on the flight, and I scarfed all the reconstituted potato mash I could get my hands on.

But then, finally, I was at the Atlanta airport, and my mom and dad and Lynn (Craig's mom) were all there with smiles and hugs and–importantly–food. Lynn even brought me a piece of the old-fashioned vegan cake from Javamonkey. For y'all Aussies reading this, Javamonkey is one of my old haunts in Decatur, GA. A coffeeshop I used to work at, a cafe that has been my third place for years.

And as my parents drove me home, I felt what probably everyone feels after years away from a place. A strange sense of same but not, intangibly different, essentially unchanged. The big church by the highway is still there, and kudzu still reigns mighty over the trees. The Georgia State University dorms, where I lived my first years away from home, are now Georgia Tech dorms, and my parents' house has a new water heater and a new roof.

Yes. It's weird to come home. Everything tingles with familiarity, but nothing sparks with knowledge. I keep having these moments: "Ah, yes! I remember Dekalb Avenue... but I don't remember where it leads." Flickers of memory, but they're not connecting up yet. The city right now for me is like the star-filled night sky... I just can't work out the constellations.

I've been told that I am talking just a bit strangely, and my friends look at me funny when I call their pets "little mates."

And I've had an eventful week. It's hot here. Really hot. I got a cold because of the weather change, and I'm still not quite 100% yet.

My niece and nephew have been well-occupied in their summer vacation. Last Thursday, I witnessed my first ever swim meet. I've never been particularly athletic, and I certainly never got into swimming, because I'm afraid of water. I'll wait for you to stop laughing.

So, swim meets are new territory for me. Have you ever been to one of these things? They take ages. We sat in the stifling heat for hours watching kids race, or occasionally wander, through the water against the clock. My nephew (we call him Nanu) swam his little body to shreds, finishing second in his heat on the backstroke. And then, he won his first ever heat that night, too! Freestyle! It was super-exciting.

My niece, called Nanki, had a gymnastics camp last week, so I've been lucky enough to witness some gymnastics dance routines, as well. It feels really good to connect with the chickens again, with my own little mates. And hanging out with my family again, especially my dear sister, has been lovely. We never stop being amazed at how different we are, and how much we still like each other.

On Friday, I caught up with my pals Jeremy and Katie and Lemuel. Jeremy and Katie are the kind of young people who totally have their shit together and already own a giant a house with 3 bedrooms and two bathrooms and a back garden and a front porch and a shed. And an alarm system, because the only neighbourhood they could afford all that in was Grant Park, which is sometimes still a little bit rough. They also live with a giant Maine Coon cat named Terzaghi, after this guy. Jeremy is a civil engineer, with a slightly unnatural love of rocks and soil, if that goes any way toward explaining the cat's name. The cat is so big, he had to turn himself around about 5 times to fit in this box. Like he had to screw himself into it. But he likes being in boxes, so he was happy.

And Lemuel is the kind of young person who plays the drums with members of the B-52s and occasionally tambourines his own hands to pulp. 

We ate Mexican at Mi Barrio, a little hole filled with amazing Mexican food. You Sydneysiders have no idea. Mexican food here is so damn good. To finish the night, we bought some Sweetwater beer (note Terzaghi's box). That first sip of Sweet Georgia Brown Ale brought back so much that I love about the South, about Atlanta. I'd missed these guys a lot over the past two years, I had missed proper Mexican food and Sweetwater beer. It was lovely to see them all again.

Then on Saturday, I went to watch the World Cup USA v GHANA game at the Brick Store Pub with Lynn and Wayne (Boy Wonder's parents). I really missed this place, y'all. Back when I lived in Decatur, if the Javamonkey was my third place, then the Pub was my fourth. It was our local, and considering it's been rated the second-best beer bar in the world, you can see how it was a pretty amazing local to have. They ordinarily have no TVs, though they bring them in for World Cup, and they have a fabulous beer book. Over twenty beers on tap, and not a single Budweiser in the joint. Of Sydney bars, the Taphouse in Darlinghurst is most similar to the BSP, but it can't really compete.

It's surreal, being back in these places after so long. Some of the same people are working at the Pub as before I left. Craig was in a band called Gentleman Jesse and His Men, and Jesse was tending bar on Saturday, so I got to catch up with him. He's a lovely guy. A good sort.

What's more surreal, though, is being surrounded by people whose faces are painted with the American flag and who are screaming "USA! USA! USA!" I just haven't heard that in awhile. Lately, if anything, I've been hearing "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oy! Oy! Oy!" which is Australia's oddly Jewish super-aggressive sporting event chant.

I drank my beer quietly and tried to look objective about the game, like I was just interested in good footwork and slide tackles, because secretly, I was pulling for Ghana. I've heard most expats get oddly patriotic, even if all they ever wanted was to move away from their home country. I guess I'm not like them. I still want the young, poor, underdog country to win. Every time. And I was happy when Ghana won, but I had to be careful who knew. Jesse quietly admitted that he was really enjoying seeing everyone's sad faces. Jesse has always had a highly-developed, nuanced sense of schadenfreude. Like a sommelier of other people's frustration.

That day at the bar, hanging out with Lynn and Wayne was beautiful. I really lucked out in the "pretty much in-laws" category. They've been telling everyone about me coming home. All their friends at the bar already knew my name and my plans and when Craig's getting here, and they all said, "I've heard a lot about you, and Lynn and Wayne-- they really love you." And we're all missing dear Craig in Atlanta, too. I stayed at Lynn and Wayne's that night, and got to see my Severine. She's fluffier (and a little chunkier) than she used to be, but she's taken well to living with her grandparents. She's happy. Or well, as happy as a peanut-brain can be, I guess. She purrs a lot.

On Sunday I caught up with Joe and Judith. We sat at the Pub (again) and talked for hours. In Australia, I missed these guys so much I sometimes ached for them. They run Love is Love Farm and are "good food" ambassadors to Atlanta. They've had a tough two years– the Atlanta storms last year flooded their farm and wiped out a lot of their soil. It was good to catch up with them, put the rough years behind us, and reconvene our friendship where we'd left it.

Yesterday, on Monday, I got to see Emma and Stefan-- we ate at some places I'd never been before, and chatted about news and the (sometime lack of ) quality thereof, because Emma works at CNN.

So, you can see I've had a busy week! On top of all that, I also got almost all my visa paperwork done– I'm just about to mail it in. I've still got loads of friends to catch up with and errands to finish, but for my first week, I reckon I've hit a good pace. My weather-change cold is almost gone, and the only big problem in my life now is that I miss my wonderful Sydney (and Wellington) friends and community.

And I am much, much too far from one very close friend in particular. Oh, mate. I miss you so.

19 June 2010

The last few...

My last days in Wellington were beautiful. The gale-force winds and freezing temperatures mellowed out, another visitor came to the house (Monika's brother Ollie), and I got to see a little bit more of New Zealand's beautiful moody capital city. On a gray day, the island from which Island Bay takes its name looks a bit forbidding.

On the Queen's birthday holiday, Ben took me to the Maranui cafe. It was closed for renovations until recently, and he was really excited to see it open again. It has a old lifesaver club or surfer club feel, with beautiful windows overlooking the beach. 

Here you see a lovely view of Wellington's premier surfing beach. It's rather flat. But the non-watery part of Wellington is rather... wavy, if mountains could be considered land-waves.

Hank is a charming little baby, happy and gurgly and snuffly, and generally doing all the lovable things that babies do. I got to hang out with him and Monika quite a bit during the week; in fact, while we were sitting in downtown Wellington, we actually saw Jemaine! As in Jemaine Clement! The HipHopOpotomus himself! I wasn't quick enough to be paparazzi, so look at the adorable Mr. Hank instead. I really like this picture-- he looks so mischievous, and the background distortion helps the effect.

In the hills by Ben and Monika's house, an old church has given some of their land holdings to traditional Maori owners of the land, and they've built an urban Marae. They're also looking into doing some native forest regeneration in the area, as it's all currently covered in thorny gorse. Ah, England has given the world so many lovely things, hasn't it? Why am I going there again?

This strange house-truck almost looks like a baby version of the Marae. Monika says someone really lives there!

On Saturday, we took a beautiful long walk along Wellington's rocky shore to see the red rocks and a seal colony. The Maori story says that the ancestor who discovered Wellington cut his hand on the rocks, and that's why they're stained red. It's probably an iron deposit, because the area used to harbour active volcanoes. Hey Benedict: if I'm recalling any of this incorrectly, please correct me in the comments or an email-- my memory is feeling a little vague. Must have been all that scotch.

The Red Rocks were beautiful in the low slanty afternoon light, the sun hidden behind the cliffs, the clouds colouring the water dark.

Hamish and Ollie spent about twenty minutes throwing rocks into the sea. I couldn't believe how long it kept them occupied. Then again, maybe taking pictures of people throwing rocks in the sea is the sillier game.

One of the genius parts of raising a baby while also having housemates, I think, is that Monika and Ben have help with the carrying. Anna and Hank get along very well.

The seal colony was teeming with big fat sea-dogs, snoozing and lounging and playing in the water. They were beautiful. Well, in a big fat sea-dog way. Seeing them sleeping on the rocks made the jagged landscape seem more peaceful. Of course, we saw our share of losers, forcing four-wheel drives along the path. Two particularly prattish teenage boys were going after a seal, trying to wake it up and get it to move. Then their dad started taunting the seal, too, and the seal got up and started charging him! The dad backed off real quick, all humiliated, especially because his act of cowardice was seen by a bunch of lousy hipster-types (us). The older boy had his camera out, trying to catch a picture of the seal going after his dad, and he screamed, "Dad! It said 'Insignificant Memory!' " Oh, we could only hope his life would acquire some more significant memories soon.

I decided, in the end, to come back to Sydney two days early, to spend more time with Craig and to say a proper goodbye to Sydney. On my last day in Wellington, Benedict led me and Hugo on a beautiful hike up some hills.

Hank loves going on walks, too.

Later that day, Monika and I went to the City Art Gallery and saw an amazing John Pule exhibit. I really liked Wellington, its gorse-covered hillsides and its moody, unpredictable weather. The nice people who live there didn't hurt either. I left for my flight at 4:15am on Monday morning, and little Hank woke up around 3:45, so I got to say a last goodbye to him and Monika. Thanks again, for hosting me and for being such lovely friends. Thanks, too, to Anna and Hamish for being so gracious.

I guess this is my last post from Sydney. I'll be back in Atlanta on Monday, and I still haven't packed. It's been just about two years since the first post. I can barely believe it. I've spent the last week hanging out with Craig, eating dumplings, seeing the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House one last time. It looks pretty much the same as it did two years ago, when I first saw it, but it means a whole lot more to me now. 

Today, Craig and I went to a Sydney Biennale art show at the MCA, symbolically sort of coming full circle. The Biennale of 2008 was one of our first outings in Sydney, before we were even entirely sure where we would live. In 2008, we were mesmerized by Yinka Shonibare's Victorian costumes sewn of Dutch "African-style" wax-printed fabrics. This year, Angela Su's delicate, otherworldly, biological, fantastical drawings drew me in.

I'm going to keep up the blog, but it'll need a new name. Start thinking of new names-- I'm going to do another polled competition, and this time I'm sweetening the pot with an actual gift that will be mailed to you! I also think this is an opportune time to give the blog a new and better home. Blogger and Google have introduced irredeemable new features that I can't stand, so over the next few weeks, I'm going to be transitioning to a Wordpress blog. Have patience, and I will get there. 

It's going to be very hard to leave this place, to leave my friends and everything I know, and especially, to leave Craig here, even if it might be for just a short time. I'm looking forward to spending time in a new exciting city, but I'm worried that doing it all without Craig by my side will be more than I can bear. I've ended up liking Sydney quite a bit, and I have often found myself comfortable and happy here. Two years ago, even one year ago, I would not have believed that leaving would be so difficult. But, two years since I first stepped foot here, as I'm leaving, I find it doesn't feel so simple or easy. I have been so lucky in Sydney, and I already miss this city, its kindness and my friends here more than I could have thought possible. If any of you Sydneysiders find yourselves Manchester-way, you must ring me. And I will see you again next time I find myself this side up.

And Atlanta folks: I expect a good lot of time with all of you this summer! Ok, now I better get packing...

07 June 2010


So far, Wellington is a charming city, if a bit wet and gray and cold. Benedict and Monika are living in a lovely house, that they share with Hamish and Anna (two lovely people), Henry (Benedict and Monika's baby), Min and Henry (two Burmese bred-to-snuggle cats), and Hugo (the dog). I know-- two Henries!! Good thing I call the baby Hank--

Their kitchen is one of the fanciest I've ever seen-- full stainless steel benches, a dishwasher (!), a washing machine, dryer and a laundry sink!

Check out the view from their back garden

The sitting room is beautiful and often features a shiny Hugo! I missed that dog.

There are little details about this house that I can't get over. The bathroom has heat lamps, for example, because NZ is cold (though it hasn't been too cold since I've been here), and the ceilings are made of beautiful... well, planks of wood.

And this doorknob, though confusing at first, is ingenius in its simplicity. Who needs doorknobs?

The animals are managing their new relationships fairly well, but it's not as swimming as I thought it would be by now. After six weeks, Hugo still just wants to sniff the cats' butts and the cats still are decidedly uninterested. Ben keeps the peace by keeping them all apart, but still-- the poor confused animals don't seem quite sure why they have to live together...

I've snapped some nice shots of Hugo looking, as Ben put it, "intelligent" and "pensive."

Henry the cat likes snuggling so much he got up on my shoulders, purred and let me take a photo!

But we've also been lucky-- just yesterday, Benedict and I witnessed the kind of inter-species friendliness that makes you think maybe people, too, can change. With only the protection of Benedict between him and Hugo, Henry decided to get up and cuddle! So near the dog! I felt honoured to be witness to this first truce, and I'm sure more are coming.

Enough cute animals? Ah, very well. In that case, my first day here was sunny and beautiful. We took Hugo out on a nice walk around Island Bay, which is the suburb my dear friends live in. Wellington is one of those cities that goes from city to bush in about 5 walking minutes, so you don't have to really try all that hard to get some nature.

We walked back down the hill to Ben's place, dropped Hugo off, and went downtown. At the waterfront, Ben regaled me with tales of his wild youth, wherein he once jumped off a wharf-type thing, into the freezing cold harbour. "This water's really deep," he said.


But the waterfront also has some very pretty outdoor artworks, and on this sunny day, it was a pleasant place to be.

And after a few hours in the museum, looking at Maori art, learning about New Zealand's imperial ambitions in the Pacific, feeling some beautiful Pounamu, and doing other museumy things, we got down to the real work of the day.

Because Monika is out of town for a few days, attending a non-wedding in Melbourne, and has taken Henry the baby with her, Ben was interested in a full night's uninterrupted sleep. And what better way to guarantee that than the old favourite pasttime-- getting just a little bit smarshed?

Now, let's all get everything straight. Ben full-on misses having Monika and the child around. You can tell, just from how he talks about holding the little munchkin, that he sort of can't wait for Monika and Hank to get back. Or at least, that's the sense I'm getting. But since they're not around anyway, he's indulging in a bit of adult-type activity, namely, going to three different bars in one night, having two cocktails and some beers, and trying his best for that full night's sleep.

The lovely Wellington bars were, in order, and it's a surprise I remember them, friends:

1. The Mighty Mighty. A loud, dirty, great place to hang out with the unfortunate propensity of having live music. I enjoy seeing live music as much as anyone. But only if I get to choose the band and I was intending to see a show. The problems with bars just having free live music are that 1. I often come to the bar with a friend, intending to have a nice chat over some good drink, and 2. rather than having a nice chat, I end up with every thought banged out of my head with a ridiculously loud kick drum, and 3. I never like the music, and 4. it's rarely just me that doesn't like the music, because the music is often crap and that's why the damn band is playing for free. Loudly. Often a theramin is involved. Not cool.
2. Good Luck. They were having a private function there later that night, so the place was super-empty, but it had a real set-in-the-most-awesome-wine-cellar-ever sort of vibe that still felt great. An enjoyable cocktail, I recall, but I don't know what it was. I had already had a beer at the Mighty Mighty, and as some of you know, more than a beer in one night and Nija goes just a touch wonky. Ben told me a great story about the place, though, it was started by some guy who had been a real screw-up as a kid, gone to prison and ended up really liking and feeling comfortable with the structure of it. And now he's started a whole load of awesome places, buying them cheap, fixing them up, and selling them on.
3. Motel. You had to ring a bell to be let into this bar, and it looked like a super-fancy speakeasy. Like a speakeasy in a movie, because I imagine real speakeasies were actually just someone's trashy unfinished basement with some milkcrates to sit on. Anyway, this place was classy. I had another cocktail here, but again... I don't remember what it was.

Saturday's lovely weather was short-lived, though, and on Sunday, Ben and I decided rainy-day options were in order. Ben, as a new parent, hasn't been to the cinema in months, of course, so we saw Boy, the new Taika Waititi film. It was pretty good and funny, and I thought it was heaps better than Eagle Vs. Shark. Always makes me happy when artists get better-- gives me a whole career of better stuff to look forward to. Some directors do amazing work on their first film but end up flickering out with a sigh of disappointment. Hopefully, Taika will continue on the "getting better" trajectory. I have hope.

Boy definitely had some problems-- the story has its own NZ Boo Radley, and I have to say, I'm over the "magical nutter who saves lives" business. Find a new style of hero. It's sort of a "prodigal father returns" tale, a lot like the Royal Tenenbaums-- in fact, it felt like Taika's been taking some courses in the Wes Anderson school of film. But it had a real sense of place, and a very NZ style of humour, and it was honest and sincere and very very likable. In fact, I liked it.

And Monday was Queen's Birthday Holiday here (whereas in Australia, it's on an entirely different day? How can the Queen not just have one birthday??). Everything was closed for the holiday and the weather was even crappier than Sunday, so Ben and I spent most of the day indoors, venturing out to the grocery store only to get very damp. "Yuck," Ben said, as drizzly rain slapped our faces and ran down our noses.

But they had some friends come over for dinner last night, and it was a lovely night. Hamish cooked some thick pumpkin soup and tomatoey Somali rice and tofu and leeks. Tasty stuff. I'm looking forward to showing off my cooking chops later this week.

Today, though, the weather is wild and windy and there's odd spots of angry rain. I'm rather enjoying my laziness, all alone in this pretty house, with a cup of tea and shelves full of books. Sitting next to a pretty dog and under two snoring, sleepy cats. I might venture out to the city later today, if I can just get Min to stop drooling on me. The unflued gas heater also brings a sense of adventure to the day!

My lovely hosts here have even set me up in a spare room that has a shelf with some Hank memorabilia on it-- I was honoured to see that the card Craig and I sent when Hank was only five days old has a prominent place. It's the green one with blue printing on it.

Monika gets back into town tomorrow at midnight, and I'm looking forward to seeing her and Hank. I really did miss these folks so much during the last few months in Sydney. It's nice to see they've settled in so well and happily here.

02 June 2010

Koala Nose Cake!

Craig and I have a favourite cookie recipe from the inimitable VEGANOMICON, by Isa Moskowitz. They're little anise-almond cookies, and you take a Black Mission Fig, cut it in half, and squish it into the middle of the cookie before you bake it.

They are delicious and addictive and a little bit fancy.

Last week, Craig was trying to think of what kind of cake to make for me for my farewell party. I suggested adapting the koala nose cookie into a cake. Craig was thinking the same thing-- so we knew it must be a good idea! If it worked, it would be delicious and surprising and more than a little bit fancy, because cakes are–of course–fancier than cookies. But of course, this time, we wouldn't have the gentle hand of Isa guiding us along. We'd have to figure out how to get all the flavours working together on our own--

Luckily for the party guests, Craig took over the whole operation, developing the recipe first with cupcakes. We dunked the figs into the batter (my idea), making them not quite koala noses, but rather fig surprise cupcakes. With delicious aniseed frosting and crushed almonds on top, Craig's new flatmate Meri declared them "a CRACKA!"

She's German.

Then he decided to make a full-on vegan cake for me as well. Basically Craig spent the entire weekend in the kitchen. Rather than dropping the figs into the batter, though, he used them as decoration on top (which I think would have been lovely on the cupcakes, too. I rather regret dropping them into the batter, because even though I love fruit surprises in cakes, I think they would have made especially lovely noses.)

Check this out.

It was three layers, with aniseed frosting in between each layer. Decorative chocolate frosting, figs and crushed almonds on top. Often vegan cakes are tasty, but a bit thin, because they don't rise as well. But this cake-- it was a good 4.5 inches tall.

Beautiful and really really delicious cake. Craig is so good at these things!

The farewell party was lovely as well. Many dear friends came out, though many could not, and we talked and had drinks. And I at least, enjoyed myself very much. In fact, we were having so much, we forgot to take pictures until the last guests were leaving. But here's one of Caddie and Brendan and Craig.

Caddie and Brendan are not only friends I haven't seen in about a year, but they were also the only folks to take on the story-telling contest (other than me and Craig), so they won the whole lot of prizes! Two bookshop certificates and a whole jar of Herts (TM) Green Tomato Chutney, which was homemade by Craig using a recipe from his great uncle Geoff. Pretty awesome prize, if you ask me. I think Craig named it Herts because Geoff lives in East Hertfordshire.

Sunday night was fun, but it was also a little sad, lots of goodbyes, and this week has continued that trend. I'm looking forward to seeing Ben and Monika–I leave for New Zealand on Friday!– but I'm not excited about the even bigger farewells that still await me here in Sydney.