Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of our friends and family!


"Just in time for the holidays, the folks at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, give us a glimpse of a heavenly angel—not literally one of the seraphim, of course, but an astronomical delight nonetheless. The two-lobed star-forming region, dubbed Sharpless 2-106, is located in an isolated part of our Milky Way galaxy nearly 2000 light-years from Earth. The bluish "wings" are lobes of super-hot gas illuminated by a monster star—dozens of times the mass of our sun—forming in the center of the still-expanding nebula. A dark ring of dust and gas circling the star (dark bands, center), material that may one day coalesce into a planetary system, acts like a belt, cinching the nebula into an hourglass shape."
Photo & text from Science Journal

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Book for Your Wish List

As many of you know, books are a huge part of my life.  For several of the past 5 years, I've managed to read more than 200 books a year.

Of all the books that I read this year, there is one that stands out and I'd like to share it with you today.  It's called You Are My Only and it's by my friend Beth Kephart.

You Are My Only tells the story of Emmy and Sophie, two teenage girls separated by more than a decade.  Emmy is only nineteen when she marries and has a baby girl.  That baby is the center of her young world— tangible proof that she has done something right and good with her life.  One day, while playing in the backyard with her baby, Emmy goes inside the house to get something.  She's gone only a moment, but she returns to find that her little girl is missing.  The book then flashes to Sophie's story.  Homeschooled and forced to move every few years, Sophie is a 14-year-old girl who yearns to have friends and who is beginning to understand that her mother is not like other mothers. 

The narrative of the book flows between these two lonely girls.  Emmy has a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized.  Sophie ventures outside while her mother is away at work and makes friends with her next door neighbor Joey and his two quirky aunts.  The tone of the book skips in and out of haunting suspense and youthful exuberance. Beth has a gift for poetry and description, and the resulting work is one that tugs at your heart and makes you want to open your door to Sophie and Emmy and all of the delightful other characters.

To give you a little taste, here's a description of one of my favorite characters.
"Arlen squats back down beside me. His legs are wide but not long. His trousers are scruffy. He’s missing a button on his blue-plaid shirt; there’s a toothpaste stain on his collar. With the rising of the sun, he has been revealed. I am surprised by the pleasant way he smiles. . . . He isn’t a pretty man or a handsome one. The bulb of his nose sits crooked. There’s nothing on his outside that’s as nice as his inside, but still, “Will you help me find my Baby?” I ask."
There is also a certain tutor who appears later in the book for whom I have a particular fondness.  Quite possibly because she was named after me. ☺(Thanks for that gift, Beth!)

Hopefully after reading this post, you'll add You Are My Only to your own holiday wish list.  Or you'll give it as a gift to a friend or family member.  And after you've finished enjoying it, consider donating it to your local middle or high school.

If you liked this book, be sure to visit Beth's website for a peek at her next book, Small Damages, which is due out in July of next year.  I haven't read it yet but it's at the top of my wishlist for 2012!


Happy Reading!

Although You Are My Only is classified as a teen novel, it's perfect for adults and would make a great selection for a bookclub.  Character development, intrigue and suspense, child abduction, mental institutions, and the power of acceptance—there are tons of topics that one can tease out for discussion.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Finally, a Trip to the Beach!

Earlier this month, Drew and I headed east towards the coast.  It was our first trip to the beach and we were excited.  After living in landlocked Colorado for six years, it's nice to know that we are only two hours away from the ocean.

We drove pretty much straight east into Bateman's Bay, a touristy town that reminded me a little bit of Virginia Beach although not quite so big.  After a quick stop for lunch, we headed north along the highway to Pebbly Beach.  One of Andrew's work mates recommended it and it was indeed the perfect spot for our first beach trip.  Pebbly Beach is located in Murramarang National Park and has a campground a short distance from the beach access.  Even though we didn't make reservations, we were able to find a camping spot when we arrived on Saturday.  Being the camping pros that we are, we had the tent set up and our toes in the water within 15 minutes of arriving.
 

As you can see from the pictures, the beach looks nothing like the Outer Banks in the States.  While there are sandy beaches in some areas (close to where the kangaroos were hanging out), most of the coastline is rocky and abuts the cliffs.  This creates the perfect environment for tidal pools and we were lucky enough to be at the beach as the tide was receding. 

Since the water was freezing (!!), we didn't swim but rather waded around, peering into the tidal pools to see what creatures we could find.  We saw lots of anemones, crabs, and snails.  We also saw quite a few "blue bottle" jellyfish washed up on the beach. You may know of these as Portuguese Man o' Wars.*  In the picture above, you can see two Blue Bottles on the beach next to the lobster shell.  They look like harmless plastic bags, but the tentacles can sting you hours after the creature has died.


We explored along the coast line until dark and then made our way back to the campground, where we had a tasty dinner of pb&j sandwiches and oranges.  That night, a thunderstorm blew through the area and cooled everything down quite a bit.  We have a great little tent (thanks, Dad!) so the cold air and rain didn't bother us.

In the morning, the sky was overcast and the cool air seemed to be hanging around.  It was definitely not a day for swimming. After a fortifying breakfast of pb&j sandwiches and oranges (notice a pattern here?), we grabbed our water bottles, our raincoats, and decided to hike to the top of Durras Mountain. 

The round trip hike took us about 3 hours. Although we had some great views of the ocean, most of the trail was through the forest which protected us from the misting rain. The only bad thing about the wet trail was the leeches. Drew was the unlucky blood donor for one of them.  I should have taken a picture because they are somewhat fascinating creatures but, at the time, I was way too grossed out to think about the camera.

After our hike, we packed up the tent and headed back to Bateman's Bay where we had pb&j sandwiches opted for fish and chips for lunch.  We had a fabulous first trip to the beach and are ready for our next visit.  Hopefully next time we'll see a few starfish in the tidal pools. 

*Interestingly, the Portuguese Man o' War is not actually a jellyfish.  It is a "siphonophore" and is comprised of a colony of organisms called zooids.  While they may seem like solitary individuals, these zooids are dependent upon one another and cannot survive alone.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Art of Cliff Divining*

As you've probably noticed, Drew and I love climbing.  It is, after all, how we met and I could write a whole philosophical post about how the faith and trust that you put in your climbing partner is a great lesson for how to build a strong marriage.  But today, folks, I want to talk about our dirty little climbing secret.

We sometimes can't find the cliffs.

Seriously. We have a whole treasure trove of hilarious (and frustrating) stories about how we hiked all day and never found the cliffs we were looking for.  One time, we actually hiked back and forth for hours on top of the cliff that we were looking for, never realizing that it was right below us.  Not our best moment...

Mountains are big, right?  Rocks stick out of green landscapes like pineapple on pizzas.  So what is our problem?  It's a mixture of many things.  Sometimes we read the map wrong.  Sometimes the guidebook or website that we relied on is outdated and incorrect.  (Sometimes I'm so paranoid about snakes and spiders that I'm not much help.)  Sometimes it seems like we are just plain jinxed.

Take the last two weekends for example.

Last weekend, we went back to our favorite nature reserve, Tidbinbilla.  But this time, we weren't there to see the animals.  We had our sights set on Gibraltar Rocks, supposedly one of the best climbing areas within a 60 minute drive of our house.  It was a 45 minute hike to access the Rocks, and it started off great.
Within the first few minutes, we had walked within 5 feet of a baby kangaroo. (I've already seen hundreds, but they are still so dang cute!)  Within another five minutes of that, we saw a snake, lots of tiny skinks (a type of lizard), and some interesting beetles and ants.

Then the trail got really steep.  We were each carrying about 30 pounds of climbing gear in our backpacks, so the hike up felt like it took forever.  In reality, it only took about 45 minutes, minus the water breaks we took.  At the top of the hike, we found ourselves on a beautiful rock plateau, looking down over the valley.
There were rocks all around us and we thought it'd be no time before we were roped up and climbing the walls.  Unfortunately, we couldn't find a single route that was safely bolted.  Most of the climbs had old rusty bolts, or holes where the bolts used to be.  As much as we wanted to climb, the only safely bolted routes that we saw were above our abilities.  It was a gorgeous day, with a beautiful vista, and we didn't want to ruin it with a bad fall caused by a run out route.**  (A run out means that the distance between a climber and the last piece of gear that he/she placed is too great and any fall will result in little to no protection.)
Drew checks the climbing guidebook again
By the end of the day, we had scrambled around the base of all the cliffs that we could find.  Our arms and faces were scraped from hiking through brush and ducking around tree branches.  We were hot and sweaty and hadn't climbed at all.  But the view was gorgeous and we found two rock caves and saw evidence (ie, scat) of the Brush-Tailed Rock-Wallaby, a critically endangered creature nicknamed "The Shadow."  We may not have found any climbable routes but at least we had fun "bushwalking." (Quick glossary: It's hiking in the States, bushwalking in Australia, and tramping in New Zealand.)
Mandy standing next to a "Grass" tree (Xanthorrhoea).  Interestingly, this plant is not actually a grass but is most closely related to lilies.  These "trees" are specially suited to the bush—the trunks of the trees are so dense that they don't burn through during hot bushfires.  Instead, the fires activate their reproductive cycle, causing them to erupt in flower blooms after the fire has passed.

Two weekends ago, we decided to head up to Cooleman Ridge.  It had been recommended to us as a good bouldering site and we were "mustard keen" to try it out.  It had rained the entire week previously and we were so excited to be outside that we started hiking without orienting ourselves with our map.  The Ridge area isn't too big so we weren't in any danger of getting seriously lost.  We just had a hard time finding the actual rocks.  After a lot of hiking and lots of sneezing caused by Drew's grass allergy and lots of me being scared of snakes, we did eventually find the rocks.  Hooray!


The moral of this story is that, yes, we'd love to take you climbing, but you'd better make sure that we've been there before.

*Water Divining is the ancient art of finding water using a dousing, or divining, rod.  Cliff divining is a term that I made up and it is the art of finding cliffs using a map and good ol' common sense. While neither one of us has any experience in water divining, I'd like to think that one day we will be masters at cliff divining.

**In my 6 years of climbing, neither of us has taken a dangerous fall.  Although we are not masters at finding the cliffs, we are masters at climbing safely.  We always triple check each other's knots, wear helmets if there is danger of falling objects, and never climb above our abilities without the proper gear protection.  This footnote is specially for my Granny Bear who worries about us.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Americans in Australia

The past two weeks have been very busy for us.  Just when I was starting to feel a little bit homesick, we had a slew of American visitors.  It was so nice to hear American accents and it was interesting to rediscover Canberra through their eyes.  There are so many little cultural differences that we don't notice anymore...which is a good thing - it means we're settling in to life here.

Our first guests
Last week we had our very first guests and we had so much fun with them! My college roommate Catherine and her husband stayed with us for three nights.  Highlights of the visit included petting a koala and seeing a platypus (very rare—even most Australians haven't seen one!). 



Australia's first visit from President Obama
The capital city was all abuzz last week when President Obama visited Canberra.  It was his first visit to the country and everyone was excited. Australians are very politically active, probably because voting is mandatory.  However, they are also very knowledgeable about world politics.  Most of the people we socialize with are even following the primaries in the States!  President Obama stayed in Canberra for a day and a half, speaking to Parliament and visiting the Australian War Memorial. Our guests, Cath and Ben, were touring around Canberra the same day and saw the president's motorcade as it drove away from the Australian War Memorial. We all had a good laugh that the closest any of us had been to our own president was in a foreign country!
President Obama visits Canberra
(photo from www.canberratimes.com.au)
CU grad students visit for research
Andrew spent two weeks camping and collecting data at his research area in early November.  Sadly, I couldn't go with him, but he did have company.  Two grad students from the University of Colorado were also collecting data for their own research projects.  After the data collection, Kika and Jeff stayed in Canberra for another two weeks, processing their samples.  We had so much fun while they were in town, trying new restaurants and even going to the ballet one night.

 
* * *
All of our American friends have gone home now and we're looking forward to welcoming our next guests.  Hint Hint. :)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Preparing for our first guests

Tomorrow we will be welcoming our first guests to Australia.  My college roommate Cath and her husband Ben are taking a three week vacation to Australia and stopping by Canberra for a few days. They are flying into Sydney, renting a car, and taking a leisurely drive down the coast to Melbourne (stopping by our place along the way).  From Melbourne, they are flying to Tasmania.  I'm so jealous of their trip!  Originally, I was planning to go with them to Melbourne and Tasmania, but I just had to go and get a job...

In order to prepare our apartment for guests, we had to buy a few remaining items such as a guest bed and another couch.  For that, we had to drive 30 minutes south to Fyshwick. And that's really what this post is about...the odd zoning that is Canberra.
The very industrial looking streets of Fyshwick
Canberra is one of the few entirely planned cities in the world and so each suburb was zoned for a specific purpose.  For example, Barton contains most of the government buildings and the City Centre, also referred to as Civic, was originally the primary business center. Fyshwick became the industrial suburb, specializing in wholesale goods.

[On a side note, at first I pronounced it Fish-wick, but I soon learned that the locals pronounce it Feesh-wick.]

Some suburbs have melded as the times have changes, but Fyshwick remains (somewhat annoyingly) the place to buy furniture, large household items and cars.  It is frustrating because it's almost impossible to buy a bed or a couch or a washing machine anywhere else in the city.  On the other hand, if you have the time to spend a day walking around, it's very convenient to comparison shop for couches when all the furniture shops are within walking distance of one another.

[On a second side note, due to odd zoning, Fyshwick is also one of only two places in Canberra where prostitution is legal.  This results in a rather disturbing mix of family-centered household item stores and household item stores of the x-rated variety.]

I don't want to give you the image that Fyshwick is all bad though.  It does happen to contain one of our very favorite bookstores that we've discovered so far.  Canty's Bookshop is full of used books, which is super fabulous in a country where mass market paperbacks regularly sell for over $20.

Canty's Bookshop is how I imagine a proper used bookstore should be—ceiling to floor with books, the shelves so packed that precariously balanced stacks of books rest near every aisle.  In other words, paradise for booklover's such as Drew and myself.  It's a store full of kindred spirits, people who love and understand books and will happily spend half an hour discussing the merits of the latest science fiction bestseller.

At the end of our Fyshwick day, Drew and I walked away with a new guest bed, a used couch that is in like-new condition, and an armful of books.  We're glad that our guests will have something to sit on and sleep in, but we also know that the books are what really makes our apartment a home. 

Guest comment from Drew:  The best jelly doughnuts ever can be found around the corner from the bookstore!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembrance Day

Today marked the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice, the official end to World War I.  Countries all over the world celebrate the day.  In the United States it is known as Veteran's Day.  In Australia, it is called Remembrance Day.

My bus route to work takes me by Parliament and the War Memorial and I saw several service men today, gathering for the Remembrance Day service.  Many people were wearing poppies on their lapel, a tradition that owes its existence to Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields."

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

"We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
         In Flanders fields.

"Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields."

I think that this is one of those days, that no matter where you are, there is a underlying unifying element of humanity.  At work, we watched the Remembrance Day service on TV and observed the moment of silence at 11am.  The day made me think of one of our first days in Australia when we visited the Australian War Memorial Museum.  It's an amazing place—think of it as a mix between the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum and the History Museum—a vast place dedicated to the entire history of Australia's world war contributions.


 The museum is host to all sorts of war memorabilia, including fighter planes, old uniforms, bravery medals, and intricate dioramas of battle scenes.  The archives of the museum have an entire database of every Australian who has fought in a war.  On the day that we visited, many people were in the archive room, searching their family history.


 Australia is very proud of it's war history.  Shortly after it established itself as a sovereign country, World War I broke out.  Historians believe that the war efforts played a huge part in bringing the young country together and establishing a patriotic ethos in its people. That patriotic pride is evident in every room and every display at the museum. The Australian War Museum is a powerful place and a great place to spend an afternoon, even if you're not a history buff like me.
Memorial for Armed Forces Nurses who died in war

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Bouldering at Black Mountain + an Echidna Surprise

Last fall when we found out that moving to Australia was a real possibility, one of the first things we researched was rock climbing near Canberra.We knew that it would be nothing like Boulder, which is a climbing mecca in the States. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find lots of quality climbing within a day's drive of Canberra.

There aren't any tall cliffs in the city itself, so we've been doing a lot of bouldering instead. Bouldering is climbing at low heights and so it doesn't require ropes; instead, a climber usually traverses the bottom of a rock face. A second person sometimes acts as a "spotter," standing below the climber and providing a safety catch in the event of an unexpected fall.

The first bouldering area that we discovered is on Black Mountain and it's only a 2 minute drive from Andrew's work. It's a great place to go on weekends or in the evenings after work. There's evidence of other climbers—chalk on the holds and established foot paths between the various rocky outcrops—but so far, we've had the place to ourselves.

Our best trip to Black Mountain was a couple of weeks ago when we ran into a surprise on the hike out after climbing.  Drew and I were walking along the trail when I heard a rustling in the bushes a bit ahead of us.  I immediately froze, thinking it was probably a poisonous snake (most of the snakes in Australia are deadly poisonous). We took a few cautious steps forward and peeked towards the noise.  Imagine our surprise when we saw this...


I had no idea what it was! Luckily, Drew knew exactly what it was.  An echidna.  It's similar to a porcupine in that it has quills. However, it can't release it's quills on contact like a porcupine can.  Echidnas are one of only two egg-laying mammals in the world (the other being the platypus which is also indigenous to Australia). For more interesting facts and better pictures, check out the Wikipedia page on echidnas.

Besides the fascinating wildlife and easily accessible rocks, Black Mountain also boasts a beautiful view of downtown Canberra and Lake Burley Griffin. Come visit and we'll show you!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Melbourne Cup

Today was the Melbourne Cup, a large horse race that is similar to The Kentucky Derby...only much more popular.  It's called the race that "stops the nation" and I can now wholeheartedly agree with that statement.  Earlier this week, my boss announced that we could leave work early today in order to celebrate. (Yes, I have a job...more on that in another post.)  I thought this was odd, but rather nice of her.  Who doesn't like an afternoon off?
Who won?  The jockey wearing yellow with blue stars.
photo from www.melbournecup.com
Then, today when I got to work, all anyone could talk about was the race.  People were ducking out of the office intermittently to place bets and change their bets and place more bets.  Several offices were participating in an office "sweep" where everyone chips in a couple of dollars, betting tickets are purchased for each horse, and then distributed randomly so as to give everyone a fun, fair chance to win a little bit of money.

At about 1pm, we turned on the TV in our office and pretended to do work while actually listening to the pre-race coverage.  About that time, I went to the cafe around the corner and saw mobs of people dressed to the nines.  Men in suits and ladies in fancy dresses with fascinators in their hair.  They were all headed to the hotel near my office so I'm guessing there was some sort of party there.  I really wish I had my camera so that I could have taken some pictures.
Fascinators worn at today's Melbourne Cup
photo from www.fabsugar.com

The race started at 3pm and rather than heading to the pub (and since we couldn't leave work until 4:30), everyone stayed in the office to watch.  I didn't place any bets so I wasn't as caught up in the race as my co-workers were.  However, I enjoyed experiencing this part of Australian culture.  And who knows, maybe next year I will place a bet.  :)

I know some of you may be wondering the outcome.  A horse named Dunaden and his French jockey Christophe Lemaire won the race.  One girl in my office actually bet on him to win - she placed a $25 bet and walked away with around $140.  Last year, she won $250.  Apparently, one of her friends is an avid racing fan and gives her tips every year.  If I do place that bet next year, I'll be sure to ask her advice first.
Wow, that was a close finish!
photo from www.melbournecup.com
The first that I heard of this race was a couple of months ago when I was researching public holidays in Australia.  It's not a national public holiday, but it is a public holiday for the state of Victoria which is where the city of Melbourne is located. Can you imagine getting the day off for The Kentucky Derby?  Perhaps in Kentucky...

I was also struck by the track, which is not dirt but rather grass.  Tennis is also played on grass here.  I doubt that the two are connected, but interesting nonetheless.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Dance Your Thesis

Science research is important but let's face it—PhD theses can be very inaccessible to the general public.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  For several years, Andrew and I have looked forward to Science's "Dance Your Ph.D." contest.  The competition, in its fourth year, encourages graduate students to create dance videos that explain their research.  The results are often wacky, usually hilarious, and mostly educational.

Why am I telling you about this?  Because this year's winner in the Physics category is from Australia! 



Video embedded above (if you're looking at this blog in Reader, you may have to open the post to see the video). 

Even if you're not interested in physics, the video is worth checking out for its sheer creative brilliance and comedic impact.  You'll also learn a little bit about how titanium is used in bone replacements.

Floriade - A Festival of Flowers

Floriade is a flower festival held every spring in Canberra. The main attraction is the flower beds which have a new theme every year.  This year's theme was A Feast for the Senses. In addition to the flowers, there are musical performances, a crafts market, and amusements for kids, such as spinning tea cups and  a Ferris Wheel.  It's a pretty big deal in the city.  As in, at least ten people have asked me, "Have you been to Floriade yet?"  (Ten people is pretty much my entire collection of friends/acquaintances so far.)

Drew and I went to the festival earlier this month and we spent an afternoon walking around the grounds.  We saw heaps of blooming tulips.  It reminded me of the spring gardens on Pearl Street Mall in Boulder.  We saw twirling fairy ladies on stilts, a group of old men playing ukeleles, and a street organ.  We browsed the market, and bought some local, raw honey (good for allergies!) and three jars of herbal tea.  I drooled over gourmet chocolate and type-writer key jewelry.


  And here are two of my favorite things from the day...


Birdcage lights!  Floriade has a bunch of nighttime concerts and events, so they strung bulbs in birdcages and hung them on trees to light the way.  The effect was very whimsical.

Cabbage beds.  These were tucked in next to the tulips and pansies, reminding everyone that flower beds can be beautiful as well as nutritious.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Koalas and Wallabies and 'Roos, Oh My!

Last Saturday, Drew and I ventured 40 minutes south of Canberra to Tidbinbilla, a nature reserve and national park.  Several of our friends had recommended it and, thanks to Mia Kia, we finally had the wheels to take the trip.  After a nice drive through the rural outskirts of Canberra, we arrived at the Welcome Center, signed up for an annual pass (only $30!), and started our hike.

The weather couldn't decide if it wanted to be sunny or rainy, but we didn't mind a little bit of rain.  Especially since the guide book touted kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, and platypuses.*


Over the course of our day, here's what we saw:
  • kangaroos (at least 100)
  • one koala, curled up into a ball and sleeping in the crook of a tree
  • one shy Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby
  • several Swamp-wallabies
  • kookaburras
  • magpie geese
  • an emu
  • ducks, loons, and a grebe

Sadly, we didn't see any platypuses, probably because of the rain.  However, we found the spot where they are normally seen and we're "mustard keen"** to go back and try again.

*Platypuses - Did you know that there is no scientifically correct pluralization of platypus?  Scientists use both "platypuses" and "platypus" to signify multiples.  However, "platypi" has found its way into the common lexicon.  A quick Wikipedia search told me that platypi is a pseudo-Latin term and that if we were to use the Greek translation it would be "platypodes."

**Mustard Keen - An interesting phrase that I heard someone use the other day.  Apparently, it has its origins in Olde English.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Expat Tales: Buying a Car

 Meet Mia, our new car!
Mia is a '97 Kia Sportage.
She has a little over 200,000 kilometers.
She has 4-wheel drive. (yay!)
She's a manual. (not so yay)
She has been on the road longer than either Andrew or I have been driving.

Buying a car has been on our to-do list ever since we moved to Australia, superseded only by finding an apartment and setting up a bank account.  Having a car equals a bit more freedom for us.  Freedom to drive to the beach (only 2 hours away) and freedom to drive to the mountains (climbing spots are only 45 minutes away). We've been enjoying the city of Canberra but it's nice to know that we can now venture further afield.

Having taken care of the other big items on our agenda, we started scouring the For Sale ads online.  A few weeks ago, we went climbing with friends in the mountains and the access roads were a bit treacherous, so we knew that we needed something more durable than our old Neon.  With that in mind, we narrowed our criteria to 4-wheel drive vehicles.  We had been warned away from the used car dealers so we mostly concentrated our search on Gumbtree (Australia's version of Craigslist*) and the local classifieds. 

After a couple weeks of looking around, we lucked upon an ad for a '97 Kia Sportage.  It was a bit older than what we wanted, but the price was well within our range.  The girl who owned it was moving to Sydney and couldn't afford to park her car there so she was reluctantly selling it.  She had maintenance receipts for the entire history of the car and, because she hadn't planned on selling the car, she had already taken care of the 200,000k check-up and the necessary repairs from that.  We met up with her one Saturday and took the car for a test drive.  After a few days of bargaining, the Kia was ours.

Now, lest you think this deal was all roses, let me tell you the downsides.

The car is a manual.  The last time I drove a manual, the phrase "traffic hazard" was bandied about.  (Yes, Mom, I was a little traumatized.)  Most of the cars in Australia are manuals though, so I knew there was a good chance that we would buy one.  Drew has been giving me driving lessons and so far, I haven't had any horrible experiences.  The upside to having not driven a manual in over ten years is that it doesn't bother me at all that the gear shifter is on the left side.  Drew, however, has hit his hand on the door several times when he attempted to shift with his right hand.  Speaking of switcheroos, the turning signal is on the right side of the steering wheel and the windshield wipers are on the left side.  Drew's first experience driving was with his boss.  Every time his boss said "Turn here," Drew would accidentally flip on the windshield wipers, prompting his boss to remark, "Or wash your windows."

The other downside was basically our fault.  A number of the advice websites that we read told us to have the car checked out by a mechanic before we bought it.  Since the previous owner had kept such good maintenance records, we decided to skip this.  Also, we were just plain cheap and didn't want to spend the extra money.  We found out rather quickly that this was a bad idea.  In Australia, if a car is over seven years old, you must take it to an authorized mechanic and get a "roadworthy inspection certificate."  It's sort of like the yearly inspections that Virginia requires, but way, way, way more harsh.  Our lovely little car failed on 4 counts.  One of the parking lights was out, one of the wheel's bearings needed grease, and the break pads needed to be replaced.  It didn't set us back too much, but if we had had a mechanic look at it before we bought it, we could have asked the owner to pay for all of the repairs.  Well, now we know.

Overall, buying a car was one of the easiest things we've had to do in Australia.  (Renting an apartment was horribly stressful...I'll have to write about that experience some other day.)  We really do like Mia and we're excited to take her on some road trips.  Plus, she's got a kangaroo guard.  It's actually called a bull guard but most cars have them here to protect against the kangaroos jumping across the highways.  Kangaroos are like deer in the United States - everywhere and not to savvy about roads.  Fingers crossed that we never hit a kangaroo. 

*Craigslist does exist in Australia but it is mostly scams. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Happy Birthday, Andrew! {& a peanut butter cookie recipe}


Tuesday was Drew's birthday.  In our house, birthdays are a big deal.  Not only do you get presents and birthday cake/cookies, but you get to be right in all disagreements, big and small, for an entire week.  Since this was our first major holiday away from home, I tried to make it extra special.

The wrapping paper options at the store weren't so great, mostly pink princesses and plaid patterns so I bought some plain black wrapping paper.  My initial thought was to buy some pretty ribbons to jazz it up, but then I saw a silver sharpie and had a brainstorm.  Back at home and having wrapped everything in seemingly morbid black paper, I set to work writing silly silver sharpied love poems on each one.  The poems also included hints as to what was inside of each box.  This was so much fun for both of us that I will definitely be keeping it in mind for future presents.

For his birthday treat, Drew requested peanut butter cookies, specifically our friend Taryn's recipe.  Before we moved to Australia, we lived with Taryn and her husband for a month and she spoiled Drew by making him fresh cookies every couple of days.  She is a super fabulous cook and I'm always excited when he requests one of her recipes.  Also, we haven't had peanut butter in quite awhile so I was very excited about these cookies.


Happy Birthday, Husband!  Now it's time to start counting down the days until my birthday...

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Here is the easy recipe for the peanut butter cookies...

Peanut Butter Cookies
1 cup sugar*
1 cup peanut butter
1 egg
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup chocolate chips
Mix and bake at 350 for ~10 minutes

*You can cut the sugar in half if you want.  I didn't this time because it was a birthday treat but it tastes almost the same if you do.  Also, you can substitute a banana for the egg.  Andrew is allergic to bananas so I used an egg. I also sometimes add a half a cup of oats to this recipe.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Birds of Our Backyard

One of my favorite things so far about Australia is the beautiful birds.  I noticed it when we first arrived and, as the seasons are changing, we've seen several more varieties.  Parrots have been on my mind a lot lately as they seem to be migrating this way.  I also read an article in Australia Geographic about pet parrots escaping and teaching English to wild parrots.  I haven't heard any parrots say hello to me yet but I swear that there is one living next to the crosswalk in our neighborhood who knows how to mimic the Walk sound.

Luckily, we don't have to go far to see amazing birds.  The entire east wall of our living room is made up of glass windows which look out towards several large Eucalyptus trees. The trees are home to ravens and magpie larks, both of which are fairly common all over the city.  The special thing about our trees, though, is that every morning, just about the time that I sit down with my tea, flocks of parrots perch on the branches and start flitting around.

So far, I've recorded three types of parrots in our backyard. The most common variety is the Crimson Rosella.  They are year-round residents of Canberra and I see them almost every morning.

Crimson Rosella parrot
Photo courtesy of canberrabirds.org.au
Last week, I was sitting in the living room and saw a flock of bright green parrots in the trees.  They were very active, flying from branch to branch and chattering away.  These Superb parrots (yes, that is their name and their colors really are superb!) are rare in Canberra and only visit us in spring and summer. 

Superb parrot
Photo courtesy of canberrabirds.org.au
My most recent parrot sighting was on Friday when I saw several Australian King-Parrots.  It's the largest of the parrots in Canberra and we have also seen flocks of them at the Botanic Gardens near Drew's office.

Australian King-parrot
Photo courtesy of canberrabirds.org.au

Now you can see why I have an inordinate fondness for the birds here.  They are so big and colorful!  I love the fact that I am able to see so many varieties just by sitting in my living room.  Here's one last little guy...

He's a Red-rumped Parrot and he was foraging by the lake one day when I went for a walk.  The females of the species are a dull brown color and both sexes are very tiny compared to the other species of parrots.  They may very well visit the trees behind our house, but I probably wouldn't be able to spot them without binoculars.

Now if I could just spot a Rainbow Lorikeet...

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Visit to the Chemist


It's no fun being sick.  Especially when you are in a foreign country, miles and miles away from your mom.  In the two short months that we've been in Australia, both Andrew and I have been sick.  I caught a head cold from Andrew's boss' kids shortly after we arrived when we had a welcome-to-Australia dinner at their house.  Now Andrew has a cold, probably passed along to him by his office mate who also has school-age kids.  (I see a theme here...)

So where does one go to buy medicine in Australia?  The answer is a chemist.  It's pretty much the same thing as a pharmacy in the States, but with a few differences.  For most of the usual cold and first aid medicines, you don't need a prescription; however, you do have to ask the chemist for help as they keep these items behind the counter.  At first, this seems like it would be a pain.  Can't I just look at the medicines myself and decide which brand I want?  

For Andrew, it would be a bit of a bother.  He was a pharmacist's assistant for 6 months after graduating college and so he has a good idea of what drugs interact with each other and what the best type of medicine is for each ailment.  I, on the other hand, am grateful for the guidance provided by the chemists. 

Today, I stopped by our local chemist to pick up a few items.  On my list were cough drops, Sudafed, contact solution, toothpaste, and a pain-killer that was available over-the-counter in the States.  I had to ask the chemist for the cough drops though these are kept on the regular shelves in the grocery store.  Sudafed with pseudoephedrine is a controlled substance here just like it is in the States so I had to show my driver's license to buy that.  The contact solution was also held behind the counter which I found odd.  I haven't been able to find it in any grocery store—perhaps it is a controlled substance here, too?  The toothpastes were on the regular shelves so I was able to browse and compare prices at my leisure.  The pain-killer that I bought regularly in the States was not available at all.  The chemist informed me that I would need a prescription for it. 

All in all, it was a successful trip and now we have enough medicine to make Andrew comfortable for the weekend.  I also learned a little more about our adopted country.  Going to the doctor, though, is a whole other thing that we haven't figured out and I'm hoping that a trip isn't necessary for awhile. 

Time to go make another pot of tea for Andrew.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Calculating the Day Away

This speed limit sign in our neighborhood is for 60 kilometers/hour which is roughly 37 miles per hour.
One of the things that I didn't dwell too much on before our move was the fact that Australia operates on the metric system.  The thought crossed my mind that I would have to do some converting but it was more of an "oh, neat" kind of thought.  Now that we are two months in to our Australian adventure, I am beginning to realize just how much math I am required to do on a daily basis.  Why, oh why, does the U.S. not use the International System of Units?  Let me share some of the various conversions that I have done in the last couple of days.
Package of Sultanas (raisins).  293kJ = 57 calories per serving
  1. Calories to Kilojoules. 1 calorie is equal to a little over 4 kilojoules.  I just like saying kilojoule. It sounds so pretty and friendly.  
  2. Fahrenheit to Celsuis.  I know the basics.  O Celsius is the point at which water freezes.  100 Celsius is the point at which water boils.  Everything in between?  I'm getting there.  Right now, it's 14° which is 57° F.
  3. Miles to kilometers (or kilometres as it is spelled here).  This one should be the easiest for me to convert since I have a prior frame of reference.  I know from running cross country that 5 kilometers is 3.2 miles. However, this is the one that comes up most frequently in conversation and, therefore, the biggest pain to convert.  For example, I was trying to explain the Colorado 14ers to some friends here.  (For those of you who don't know, that refers to a group of mountain peaks in Colorado that rise about 14,000 feet which is high and makes some of them pretty treacherous to hike/climb.)  Try converting feet to miles to meters in your head, not so easy.  Luckily, Andrew piped in and explained that is was over 4,000 meters.  Scientist husband who uses the metric system = life story saver.
  4. Cups to Cups.  This one is the most bizarre.  Apparently, the American standard cooking cup size is not the same as the one in Australia. I had an inkling that this was the case and looked it up before making a batch of cookies for a dinner party earlier this week.  (We bought measuring cups here in Australia but the recipe was one of my mom's.) A quick Wikipedia search showed me that cups are all kinds of quirky.  In Australia, a cup is equal to 250 milliliters. In the States, the standard cup is 237 milliliters but the legal cup is 240 milliliters.  However, in England, the imperial cup is 284 milliliters.  
  5. Gallons to liters.  Gas, or petrol as it's called here, is sold by the liter.  Gas is currently hovering around $1.50/liter which translates into roughly $5.70/gallon.  (I'm using American dollars for this conversion.)
  6. US dollars to Australian dollars.  Actually, I don't really convert this one except for just now when I tried to convert the price of gas to US dollars.  Currency exchange rates were something that we followed obsessively when we first arrived since we needed to transfer money from our US bank account.  The Australian dollar has been doing pretty well and has traded stronger than the American dollar ever since we got here.  Not so great for our money transfer but good for the economy here and good for Andrew's job.
Price of gas when we arrived in Australia, measured in cents per liter
I'm sure that in a year (...or two...please, not three) I will be rather blasé about the metric system and will not feel the need to convert everything.  Hopefully, these kilometers and litres and degrees Celsuis will become second nature.  But for now, I have a handy iPhone app that does all these conversions for me.

p.s.  Did you know that only three countries in the world have yet to adopt the International System of Units?  They are the United States, Myanmar/Burma, and Liberia.

p.p.s.  Husband didn't think this post was very interesting.  :-p