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Buying a car has been on our to-do list ever since we moved to Australia, superseded only by finding an apartment and setting up a bank account.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...


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
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
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

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

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Spring Has Arrived

Today is the first official day of Spring in Australia. In my head, it still feels like I should be getting ready for fall.  I wonder how it will feel to have my birthday in the middle of spring instead of in the middle of fall, how strange it will be to have a summertime Christmas.  I do know that I am looking forward to spring and summer.  And more daylight.

Here are some pictures of flowers in bloom here in Canberra.  Hope you enjoy them!

Golden Wattle Tree, official floral symbol of Australia.  Sadly, Andrew seems to be allergic to them.
The common name for the yellow flower is Birthday Candle.

This picture doesn't do this brilliant indigo-hued flower justice.  This flowering creeper is Hardenbergia, more commonly known as Australian Lilac.

I'm pretty sure this is a cherry tree which is not native to Australia.

Flowers of the grocery store variety.  :-)