Friday, November 28, 2008

Weekly Video Post

This week, we drove out of Perth to the nearby wine region of Swan Valley. We weren't sure what we'd do there beyond a nice lunch at one of the many wineries, but a quick stop at the Visitor Centre tipped us off to the Swan Valley Cuddly Animal Farm. If you know Ellie's track record around animals, you'll know this could have gone either way. Our little animal lover has been known to have a complete meltdown at an animal's approach, even seconds after she was coaxing it closer. We parked the car and approached the gate with a hint of trepidation. Either she would love it...or she would be in peril. Would be we brave enough to find out? Before we could change our minds and flee to the safety of the carpark, Farmer Lyn spotted us and gave us the overview. We had to forge ahead...and we are so happy we did! The Cuddly Animal Farm has baby farm animals, and (as the name suggests) most of them are happy to be handled. There is an indoor section where the animals can be fed. Ellie couldn't get enough of feeding the bunnies. She fed them and fed them and fed them until those little bunnies couldn't eat anymore. And Ellie woke up the next morning asking if she could go back and feed them again. The experience was so sweet and adorable, and we are happy we can share it with you as this week's video post.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Other Differences

I've changed the title of the last post to "Big Differences", because it was more about large cultural changes than "Life Down Under" per se. Also, I don't want to give the impression that we think Australia is like the States, because it's not. It is "New World" (like the States), as opposed to "Old World" (like Europe), which makes transitioning much easier for someone familiar with the New World system. It's hard to put a finger on where this place is like, especially as I'm told by many that Perth (and WA) is not representative of Australia as a whole. We've lived in similar places, so we often make comparisons. It's like the UK...but it's not. It's like Cape Town...but it's not. If there's one word to describe this place, it's "isolated." Isolation has many effects, and you can see them here. It's not wise to judge as an outsider (particularly as an outsider with a public blog; the spot on Perth is large and I don't know who's reading!). People here are VERY sensitive and protective of their corner of paradise, and who am I to question? One thing I will comment on is the closed attitude here, and it stems from this protectiveness. WA is naturally beautiful (as you've heard me go on about already), and Perth is relatively small. There is a small town feel to the area (particularly the western suburbs where we live) that makes it a great place for young families and of course outdoorsy enthusiasts. The boom in mining and oil and gas have brought a HUGE influx of people to Perth, but there is a bit of local backlash against the influx. People are not as relaxed as you'd expect in an outdoorsy place, and not as friendly as you'd expect in a small city/town either. British influence is heavy, but the politeness (even cold politeness) of the British is often absent. It's not that people are rude or difficult. It's just that they seem to be just as happy to interact with you as not. The welcome mat (if it was ever out) has been taken back inside.

The boom has had a big impact on local life, and not just in terms of population. You've already heard my rant about schooling and the sizable waiting lists (which have to be equally frustrating to locals who can't get their kids into certain schools either). Housing prices are insane. Starting prices in our area are above AU$1million, and those are "bargains". With the global economic downturn, the sellers' market here has dropped off significantly, but prices have remained steady. The rental market is still through the roof (around $1000/wk for a nice house isn't unusual). Prices on just about everything (food, clothes, etc.) are more than we saw in The Hague (which is itself high for Europe) and double (or more) what the same item would cost in the States. Cost of living is on par with Sydney, which has the 3rd highest cost of living in the world. Only this isn't Sydney; it's isolated WA. Think of paying the same to live on the US Gulf Coast as you do for New York City and you'll get an idea of why this seems crazy.

It will be interesting to observe life here over the next few years. Natural resource booms come and go. This one seems to be going, and it often takes its people with it. Many of the smaller companies have already stopped bringing in new people. Some are already sending people on to other places. Who knows how long we will stay, though we know we'll enjoy it while we do. Despite the intense sun, the weather is amazing. The place is awesome for my three kids (the oldest one is windsurfing as I type). Ellie loves running around the backyard in the buff, and she certainly couldn't do that in The Netherlands...nor would she have been able to in Sakhalin, had we gone there instead. And we finally got a school! We were told by insiders to stress my Montessori background on applications, and that paid off big-style. Three schools pushed us through the waiting lists and gave us offers. Ellie will start at the one closest to our home next term (Feb 2009). She was supposed to start this week and that didn't happen, but I won't go there. Plans change on us all the time here, and the best plan is to go with the flow as much as possible. Look at the pretty ocean, meditate...and try not to go mad. As the locals say, "No dramas." With a three-year-old in the house, we have enough of those anyway.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Big Differences

In the past three years, we have lived in three different countries--Qatar, The Netherlands, and Australia--with occasional visits to the States and Germany mixed in with small vacations in France and Italy (and Dubai and the Seychelles...and Singapore on the way here...). Whew. I feel jetlagged just looking at that list, but that's not why I bring it up. The point is that we've been living away from the States for a while now, and after initial settling in time, we adjust to where we are. The culture, the lifestyle, the language (if necessary), the people, the style of dress, etc. When I first arrived in Doha, I couldn't stop staring at the local dress. I had never been in a Muslim country before, and I'd only seen abayas and dishdashas on TV or movies. Seeing men in white and women in black from head to toe (finished off with huge designer sunglasses in either case) was a very new experience for me, and it felt DIFFERENT. But then I adjusted and didn't notice anymore. I didn't wear shorts or tanktops (too revealing and disrespectful), but I'm not really a shorts-and-tank-top-wearing kinda girl anyway. Jeans or skirts, short-sleeved tops or blouses were fine, and though I never stopped noticing the sunglasses or the massive flashy watches that are so requisite for the local men and on display in every jewelry shop window, I did stop noticing how differently we were dressed. I even learned some Arabic, though it wasn't particularly necessary. With so many foreigners, English was the rule. I also got away with English in The Hague. Although the Dutch are fiercely protective of their language (all printed material is in Dutch, though you get an occasional Turkish or Arabic translation), almost everyone speaks English in the major cities. My height and blondish hair often led to assumptions that I was Dutch and some communication confusion, but on the whole, English got me through (though my basic shoppers' Dutch was well-received). Of course, there were other adjustments to be made. European grocery shopping, for example, in which it takes visits to several shops often over several days to complete your list. And the fridge is so tiny that we bought milk every other day. Same deal with the washing machine. I was perpetually grocery shopping and doing laundry...but you get used to it.
Now we're in Australia, and there aren't these big adjustments to be made. There are hardly any adjustments at all, actually. It's amazing. The settling in process was so streamlined that we were settled here faster than we were able to do in New Orleans. We had a house, a car, and a scooter in no time flat. We are close to the big chain grocery store, which looks just like big chain grocery stores back in the States and has almost the same type of selection. There are subtle reminders like this...

but otherwise we could be somewhere in the States.
Yes, there's an Aussie tilt to it, but the language is English. Burger King is called "Hungry Jack's" and breakfast is "brekky", but most other differences are British-English (as opposed to American-English) that we learned in the UK years ago (cookies are "biscuits", diapers are "nappies", strollers are "prams", and most importantly pants are "trousers"--because here and in the UK, "pants" are underpants). Like the States and most unlike The Netherlands, it's a car culture here and people drive EVERYWHERE. Even short distances that seem so inviting to cycling or walking are most often tackled by car. Which finally brings me to the biggest difference we get on a daily basis: DRIVING ON THE LEFT.

When we first arrived, I was a bit afraid to drive. Markus spent a few years driving on the left in the UK, but I did it about 4 times and only then to get to Safeway and back, shaky the whole time in his little manual diesel car with my automatic transmission, drive-on-the-right brain. Once we were here, I was not eager to get behind the wheel when the wheel was on the wrong side of the car! But ya know what? It's not that bad. At all. I was surprised at how quickly I adjusted, and I think it's mostly because the roads (and parking spaces) are large and open here (not like in Holland where I cringed entering the underground garage in our big car). In Qatar, nearly everyone drove a white SUV and in The Netherlands, cars are far smaller on average and most are European brands, but here I see about the same mix I'd see at home, though with LOTS of Holdens (an Aussie brand) mixed in. Driving on the left isn't hard or nearly as confusing as trying to figure out which part of the road was for cars as opposed to trams, cyclists, pedestsrians or even horses in The Hague. I have yet to find myself on the wrong side (which ironically is the right side) of the road. The only adaptation I had to make was for using turn-signals. Yes, I actually use them, but for several weeks I kept turning on the windshield wipers every time I wanted to turn or change lanes because the switch is on the other side of the steering wheel. Now the difference I notice is when my mind is on auto-pilot when I walk out to the car, I unlock and climb in to drive away...on the passenger side (front left). Oops.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Life Down Under

Last week, the Pioneer Woman was espousing the virtues of a point-and-shoot camera and its ability to take great macro shots of flowers. When she wrote "Not that any flowers are growing anywhere right now except southern California and Australia…", I just KNEW it was because she has been reading my blog and has been hoping for an update on life Down Under. Just in case I'm wrong about that, perhaps YOU might be interested? If not, move on, buddy, because that's what I'm all about today. This will probably be the start of a series of posts on this subject, because you know I tend to be long-winded. I'll begin with the weather, since most of my readers are in the fall-winter transition and are far less likely to plot my demise now than if I were to do this when they are in the depths of dark cold misery (sorry, Europeans, but we haven't forgotten Dutch winters yet!).

It's full spring here in WA (pronounced "dubba-you-aye"; that's local-speak for where we live in Western Australia)! The weather is absolutely heavenly! Sunshine nearly all the time. Cool temperatures, but not cold. Sometimes we still need to turn on the heater in the baby's room at night, but that's because there's no insulation in these houses. Almost every day starts out with still air, and the wind kicks up in the early afternoon. Sometimes it's just breezy; other times, we get quite a wind. The kite surfers and windsurfers (Markus included!) could not be happier about these conditions.

The big (and by big, I mean HUGE) concern here is the sun. I have always tried to be sun-conscious, but now that I'm here, I realize I am nowhere near where I need to be in that department. The daily wearing of moisturizer on the face with 30 SPF that felt so smart back home and even over-prepared in sun-deprived Netherlands is soooo just a baby step here. The sun is INTENSE! It will fry you through your hat if you aren't careful. Forget sunburn, baby. I am convinced the sun here can cook the marrow in your bones. The home rule of stay indoors during peak hours from 10-2 just aren't the same here. For starters, no one stays indoors (though maybe they will once summer hits), but those hours just aren't enough to help you. We eat most of our meals outside these days (al fresco dining to some, "camping" to our friend Tony), and we can feel the sun strongly even as it's close to setting after dinner. All-over sunscreen with at least 30 SPF is mandatory. Reapplication is necessary. Hats are required. Shade is best, though that's still "partial-sun" and should be treated as such. I've been trying out a sunscreen called "Invisible Zinc" lately, and it seems quite good. I have to scrub extra hard in the shower to get it off my skin, so I'm hoping the sun will be equally repelled.

Anyway, the sunshine is beautiful, as long as you respect it. And speaking of beautiful, I cannot generate the words to describe the Indian Ocean. Oooo. Ooooo. Ooooooooooo!!!!!! This weekend, we stumbled onto an empty beach south of Fremantle, and the beauty was overwhelming. My camera didn't catch the color correctly, but you might still be able to judge the clarity. Crystal clear water, greenish turquoise-ish splendor! Each time I see it, I can't stop thinking about how much people pay to get to beaches like this...and we live here! There are many people here who start every day with a morning swim in the Indian Ocean, regardless of temperature or weather. Not gonna happen for me with two little ones, but I would love to be one of those people! It must be so good for the soul.

As I've mentioned before, outdoor living is the way to go here. The beach is for surfers and sun-worshippers (yes, those fools are here too, keeping dermatologists employed), and the river is for water play. The kite surfers and windsurfers gather at bends in the river where the winds are strongest. Paddlers (kayaks, canoes...even rowers) weave around sailboats, motorboats and yachts in the harbors. Picnicking is practically a sport here. People take it very seriously and have chairs and blankets ready to go. The top of King's Park provides a particularly lovely view of the city and the Swan River, though any spot directly on the river can be fabulous too. We eat most often at a plastic table we set up right outside our back door where the roof extends to give us some good shade, though we'll probably start shifting dinners to the side porch in the summer when the sun is too strong for us in the evenings.

I started this post with flowers, so flowers is where I will end it. Your Australia vocabulary word for today is JACARANDA. This is a tree that bursts into brilliant purple flowers where most trees are covered in green leaves. We have one in our backyard. It drops a purple carpet all over the grass and patio every day, but the beauty is worth the pain of sweeping up.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

International Babywearing Week

In honor of International Babywearing Week, we've made a slideshow of some of our family's babywearing moments. We have two girls who love to be held close, and each of them has preferred different things. There are the practical carriers, like the standard Baby Bjorn (don't even bother if it doesn't have back support!) and the oh-so-useful hiking backpack (ours is by Deuter). Ellie couldn't get enough of the hotslings sling as an infant, and Stephanie couldn't stand it. She needed the vertical position of the Baby Bjorn (which we didn't love) and other carriers like the Beco Butterfly and the Kozy (which we do love and appreciate for their versatility and comfort). Although we don't have any photos of it, we can even wear 3 year old Ellie on our backs with the last two mentioned carriers, and she is crazy about that when baby sister jealousy kicks in (though thankfully this is rare)! Ellie has watched us babywearing her sister, and she has extended the love on to her baby Lolo, who has her own sling and "baby-yorn" though she is most often wedged under Ellie's shirt with her head sticking out of the neck-hole. We are told this keeps her very warm and happy.

If you are a parent or grandparent or carer of a new bundle, we highly recommend babywearing for all the benefits you've ever read in those highly researched, mass produced parenting manuals...and for the personal reasons we've experienced, because it's just so sweet to be close to your wee one, especially when he or she is so small.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Stay tuned

If you're a regular, thanks for checking in! I know we have a (relatively big) time lag here on a blog that I try to update quite regularly. This week is a hectic, manic, and more-than-slightly-full week following last week's unusual 5-straight-evenings-of-chaos, and the blog has had to give. That being said, we're nearly to the mid-point of the week, so it will start to slow down again. Before you know it, we will be back to your regularly scheduled programming, so to speak. For you MacGyver types, here's a bit of Down Under trivia to tide you over:

Thursday, November 06, 2008

It's political.

I'm sorry. I try not to get political here. I created this blog for friends and family to keep up with us, and given our distance, they pretty much want to see the I try to stick to kiddo content, family life, etc. But this election was momentous, and it deserves recognition. I am so proud of my country! I am so proud of the American people who were so motivated to vote. I am so impressed with the movement that was the Obama campaign. Whether or not you share his vision or believe in his words, the way he drew in America and made people believe in something that goes beyond mere politics was incredible. Today I found this video, and I have to share. It's a beautiful sentiment and a good reminder to the international community that America is not all guns and God, all red and blue, all egotism and force. We are a nation of proud and hopeful people who can and do reinvent ourselves. This Tuesday, we began again.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Weekly Video Post

In the past two weeks, Ellie has suddenly become quite conversant on the phone. She has always enjoyed "talking on the phone", but it always had to be in quotes before because she mostly listened and smiled without saying much beyond the occasional "Hunh!" Then, quite spontaneously she became just as much the chatterbox on the phone as she is in person. Any call will start out with the inevitable discussion of airplanes and helicopters (very popular topics!) and move on as her eyes rest on items of interest in the immediate surroundings. I caught a morning conversation with Mary on video and cut it down so you can get the enjoyment without the lulls and repeated descriptions of things Mary obviously cannot see or reference. And Mary, now you'll know what she was trying to show you!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


image from The Library of Congress

Today is Election Day in the United States, and no matter how you feel about the current election, I urge you to please VOTE! Make your voice be heard! Every vote matters, if for no other reason than the cynical truth that it earns you the right to complain when things don't go your way. I speak particularly to my female readers. Less than 100 years ago, women were fighting hard for the right too many women now take for granted. We are blessed not to know what they went through so we can have the rights we enjoy today. Don't let them down. I know you have busy lives. I know your schedules are full. I know there are long lines at polling stations. But I also know that this election is important, and voting is a privilege. To all my American readers, please go vote today.

Note: I just received confirmation that my absentee ballot has been received. I voted from Australia! Surely you can vote too!