Monday, February 18, 2008

on the fly

ok, at a really really expensive internet cafe (is there any other kind?), so this is going to be shorthand:

we have an apartment, right in downtown Melbourne, which means it is really convenient and makes our commutes supereasy but which also means it's really tiny. but at least it is ours. photos and address forthcoming, the later in an email.

petra's job is going really well so far, even though she has a cubicle.

it's really, really hot. and there isn't enough water. no surprises there, but it's still surprisingly uncomfortable.

last night we went to a great outdoor short film festival -- TropFest 2008 -- with an assortment of the cousins and other family. great fun, rather idyllic really. i'm enjoying being part of an astoundingly well-populated, fun, intelligent, good-looking Italian family. and the films were fantastic. and my favorite one won. "Marry Me," with fantastic 8-year-old actors.

did I mention it's hot here?

more soon, I promise.

Monday, February 11, 2008

sun and success

This officially ranks as the easiest job search I have ever undertaken. After 48 hours in Melbourne, I already have a respectable job at a very well-known and well-regarded international aide and development organization—exactly what I was looking for. World Vision is Australia’s largest humanitarian aide organization, employing about 500 people just in the Melbourne headquarters. They work globally, focusing in the Asia/Pacific region and parts of east and south Africa. The thing I really love about them is their focus on sustainability and community partnership.

Today was our first business day in Australia, and we put it to very good use: opening a bank account, registering with the taxation office (which is like getting a Social Security number), and visiting the Medicare office. My uncle John has been an expert on all things practical: he has been our financial advisor, translator, personal reference, proofreader, chauffer, chef, social coordinator, tour guide, etc., working non-stop since we arrived to get us set up. Some of this is perhaps motivated by his desire to get us ensconced somewhere other than his bedroom, which he has graciously lent us until we get our own place.

Having taken care of the job search, we’ve thrown ourselves into the much more exciting apartment search. We’ve been poring over maps of Melbourne and its many neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs to find the perfect place. Erika, whose love of maps is deep and abiding, has particularly enjoyed this. More news on the home front soon.

On the events side of things, yesterday we went to a festival in one of the hippest seaside suburbs, St. Kilda. 340,000 young people. Great music, fantastic food, incredible peoplewatching, lovely sandy beaches, gay men. We particularly liked a culturally-amalgamated band Direct Influence that was playing in the beer garden. Erika got a free straw hat and new sunglasses (fully covering with 100% UV protection, Lilli). Our sunscreen was in our luggage which was lost, but fortunately we remembered to pick some up before our toes got crispy. The sun is really intense here. It’s like winter sun with summer heat. The angle and brightness of the sharpest winter sky but the warmth and color of the summer sun. It can be a bit much—but we’re not complaining!

Oh, and yes, our bags arrived safe and whole. We’re good to go.

first impressions

Now that I’ve been in Melbourne for 48 hours, I feel I can authoritatively report on its nature and character.

The city is quite unique, but has something in its flavor that reminds me of southern California, Sicily, Nice, the garden district of New Orleans, the outskirts of London, a less gritty Thayer St, a dash of Bellingham WA, the most affluent parts of Costa Rica, a touch of India. I couldn’t really say what of each of these is here, but they come to mind.

It’s very lovely, clean, tropical, urban, beachy, young, sunny, open, colorful, hip, lots of graffiti. Smells good: dry grass, salt, eucalyptus, white tea, old wood, milk soap, juniper, glass, line-dried laundry, whiffs of sweet flowers and coffee and saccharine auto exhaust and curry and seaweed and biscotti. The quality of light is refreshing, crisp but not white, rich but not golden, more diffuse than such clear skies warrant, fantastic for photos. It reminds me a bit of the light on Prince Edward Island, but falling on much brighter colors.

Everything is unfamiliar, which is fun but disconcerting: trees, bushes, birds, cars, architecture, words, signs, clothes, haircuts, social signals, stereotypes. I’ve never ever seen most of them before. I’m accustomed to knowing the name and history and edible/medicinal properties every single plant and animal, accurately reading people in one glance, knowing how to get anywhere by the most scenic and efficient route, and knowing where to expect to see the sun. The sun’s on the wrong side of the sky. It keeps throwing me off. I think we’re driving east, and we’re going west. I can’t express how unsettling it is.

Because it’s such a fashionable, urban place, I keep being surprised by the fact that it’s right on the ocean, that it’s a beach city. Most places I’m familiar with are either cities that happen to be on the coast or beach towns that happen to have a lot of people living there. This is equally a beach town and a city. It gets cold at night and intensely sunny in the midafternoon, and there are urban wind tunnels. There are lots of sailboats and jetskis, and there are businessmen in slick suits and powermoms with strollers and yoga pants and pugs, chic cafes and hotdog stands, flipflops and Dolce, Jeeps and Smart Cars. There’s a great public transit system (Petra says it’s like Portland). People drive like maniacs, and there are plenty of sun-blissed beachers.

The populace in general seems quite relaxed, kind, forthright, affluent, clean, wholesome, and fun-loving. I’m not saying they necessarily ARE all of those things, they just seem so. But I think there is a real truth to their being so much more relaxed than I’m used to. The social services and health insurance and education and everything here is so so so much better than at home that people don’t have to worry as much about just coping as we do.

It’s especially notable in all the parents of young children (of which there seem to be a lot). The parents are like people at home who don’t have kids. I don’t quite know how to put it. At home, if there’s a young 30-something couple and they have a kid, they’re almost certainly going to seem more exhausted, more suspicious, more performative of responsibility, more miserly, less fashionable, less happy, less open, less social than their same-aged childless cohorts. The parents here seem relaxed, hip, social, comfortable. The kids seem to blossom as a result—they all seem calm, happy, mature, intelligent, healthy. All of them. I haven’t yet seen an exception, a single frazzled kid or parent. And with standard 12-month maternity leave, regular free childcare, excellent socialized health care, and free or practically free education all the way up through the end of college, why not relax?

More impressions soon.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

i’ll fly away, oh glory!

We’ve arrived in Melbourne safe and sound. Erika is shocked to report that Australia really does exist, and isn’t a mythical land after all. Here’s how we got here:

First we packed. A lot. It took us about 20 hours to pare our worldly possessions down to 4 checked bags of a total size less than 208” and less than 50 pounds each, two carry on bags of less than 45” and 15 pounds, and a personal item each. But we did it. Erika is a god of real-life tetris. See, those hours on the Gameboy really did pay off.

(After hours of baggage research, we’re pleased to inform you that should you ever wish to include antlers in your checked luggage, American Airlines regulations specify that they must be removed of all debris and that the skull must be fully wrapped and the tips protected. You may bring one (1) hang glider for an additional charge of $80, a charge which also applies to the one (1) javelin or set of oars you are allowed. Bowling balls must be packaged in a carry case with accompanying shoes. Unfortunately, no vaulting poles or kayaks are allowed.)

Our departure committee of my parents, Erika’s mom, and us woke up at 3:30 this morning to pack the car (the Tetris God blessed us once more by fitting all of our bags in the boot of one small SUV). By 4:40 am we were driving to Logan through the gross and slopping snow, which made us not so sad to be leaving New England after all. At the time of this writing we are at the airport and through security, eagerly awaiting the start of our 32 hour plane adventure. More soon!

The flight from Boston to LA was uneventful except for the remarkably pitiful service on this Delta leg of our trip. The airline seems determined to deprive and depress passengers as much as possible: flimsy sweaty blankets, horrid lighting, no food, very little water, wacky cabin air, and of course tiny seats. Yet there were very few people on the flight, so we each got a three-seat row to stretch out on. Erika actually claimed six seats, three on either side of the plane, and spent a good hour popping back and forth to see the different scenery. This was especially exciting when we flew over the Grand Canyon.

Upon arriving in LA, we had to find our way outside, walk about ¾ of a mile past two other terminals to get to our new terminal, check in again, get new boarding passes, re-check our bags even though we didn’t have them (the hidden baggage gnomes did), go back through security, freak out because the official told us we were going to miss our plane, find out the plane was in fact delayed and we had an hour and a half to wait, mentally shake our fists at the official that made us freak out, and wait to board. And stare at the plane that would take us all the way across the Atlantic in one go. The really, really, really big plane. I get so used to the 747s that I always forget how big these others are: two levels, with wings that are so wide they curl up at the end. It was like Air Force One. But bigger. Whoa.

I meant to ask how many people the plane fit, but forgot. My educated guess would be about 1000 passengers. Seriously. It was 10 seats wide, and we were in row 65, and were a little more than halfway down the plane, so there were probably about 80 rows in economy, plus business and first class, and I don’t even know about the upper level. We’re talking a big plane here. And in the lovely economy class, we were each granted about 22” x 30” for our 15 hour flight.

They made it about as good as it could be, considering. Most of the food was rather tasty, especially the melon creamsicles and the hot cocoa, and they kept it coming. Plenty of water and juice. A little stretching area outside the bathrooms. No seatbelt light the whole flight. About 50 personal-choice on-demand movies, TV shows, and video games on your own TV screen. (Between us we watched Elizabeth, The Darjeeling Express, The Bee Movie, Stardust, Désaccord Pafait, a documentary on Australian linguistic phonics, and played Tetris.)

Our rowmate, who had the aisle seat, was thankfully patient with our frequent bathroom and stretching breaks. I felt really bad for the people sitting with his friend, though. His friend was extremely obese, and had no legs, and had the aisle seat. No joke—and he certainly had no sense of humor about it. So the people sitting in the inner seats from him were pretty well trapped for the whole flight. Not an ordeal I would wish on my theoretical worst enemies.

I was totally excited about watching movies for 14 hours straight. After three movies, though, I was ready to call it quits. It turns out that’s not as much fun as it sounds. Unfortunately, the 6 hours I’d filled wasn’t even halfway through the flight. I spent the second half of the flight wishing I wanted to watch more movies, and feeling increasingly like a pile of toxic withered grout. By the time we arrived in Sydney, I wasn’t sure if I could stand up, let alone walk or maintain basic bodily functions. I was pushing serious exhaustion at this point, was quite dehydrated despite my best water-guzzling efforts, and was irrationally convinced they wouldn’t let me through customs and would send me home on another 15 hour flight without my ever seeing Australia. I was sure this ordeal would kill me, and was resigning myself to death by plane travel.

Of course, the immigration officer was a lovely man who kindly chatted with me and Petra, welcoming us to Australia with tips on how to find supportive communities and sincerely sharing how glad he was that we were joining his beloved country. My visa seemed to do the trick, and we didn’t even get our oddly full and lumpy bags checked by customs. We were in.

In the Sydney airport, at least. Where we still are. Six hours later. It’s 3:30 am local time, and we have two hours to go until we get to check in for our last leg to Melbourne. We found the sad little corner of the airport where they let ridiculously-layover-ed people like us sleep, claimed our over-armrest-ed set of seats for the night, and settled in. Not so bad, really. There’s a bathroom and water fountain around the corner, and they stopped jackhammering an hour ago. Here’s to hoping for an uneventful conclusion of our travels.

The flight from Sydney to Melbourne was blissfully short and uneventful. We arrived in Melbourne at 7:30 am, and my uncle John and cousin Matt were there to meet us. Our baggage was not, though. It was still in Sydney. (The friendly Australian baggage handlers will deliver them to us tomorrow.)

After figuring that out, we took a scenic drive to John’s place in Brighton where we’re staying, had showers and some coffee, and found a second-hand clothing store (“Op Shop”) and discount warehouse (“Bond shop”) where we gratefully procured clean clothes.

John then took us on a day-long driving tour of Melbourne to get Erika oriented and me re-oriented. A lot has changed in the three years since I’ve been here—lots of new building. We visited my grandmother (“Nonna”—Italian) Nella, who was having a very good day, and my grandfather’s grave as well. Erika was excited to see the University of Melbourne campus, which looks reassuringly like a real university campus, with nice gothic brick and stone buildings and ugly things from the 70s. She’s still not entirely convinced that this place isn’t a dream, since everything is backwards—not only the roads and seasons and all, but even the sun’s on the wrong side of the sky.

It’s currently 76 degrees and sunny. Everyone’s friendly. The food is delicious—even the milk is better than at home. It’s good to be here.