Friday, February 21, 2014


I haven't kept up with all the places we've been and all the things we've seen.

Several weeks ago -- mid January, in fact, extrapolating from the date on the photos -- Tim and Jonathan made a trip to Melbourne's Science Works museum on a weekday afternoon.  This was before Jonathan's school had started.  The following weekend, they took me.  The museum was interesting and enjoyable.  The highlight was a lightning show, involving lots of electricity.  We took a couple of pictures from their exhibit on the science of carnivals.  Here is one where Jonathan's head was chopped and resting on a platter.

And here is my face merged with Tim's.  Kind of.  It was cooler if you were there.  Kind of.

Out in the back you could tour through an old pump factory, where they used to pump all the sewage from the city of Melbourne off to a treatment plant somewhere farther away.  They haven't used the pumps for decades, I believe.  Visiting reminded me a lot, though, of visiting my dad's work place back when I was a kid.  Pumps all smell the same -- that rubbed steel kind of smell.

That's all I have to say on the Science Works. 

A couple of weeks ago, we spent a couple of hours on a Saturday at the National Gallery of Victoria, which is a major art museum up the road from us -- the oldest public art museum in all of Australia, in fact, says Wikipedia.  Jonathan and Tim are not that excited about the visual arts, and so visiting it was a low priority.  But when we were looking for something to do on a hot day, and remembered all the fountains around the building -- and then finally realized there was no entrance fee -- why not try it out?  Here's a photo of one of those fountains.

You enter the museum by walking past a huge glass wall with water flowing down its side.  Jonathan put his hand against the wall with some other children and let the water flow around him.  That was a highlight. 

Inside, there were a couple of ping pong tables set up near the cafeteria, with table tops designed by artists.  Playing ping pong was another highlight.  And the art we saw, from a rotating, modern collection, was kind of interesting, kind of funny, or kind of boring depending on the piece. Standard art museum stuff.  And that's all I have to say (for now) about the National Gallery of Victoria.  But surely we will have to go again to see more. 

We haven't really gone far from Melbourne, in spite of the fact that we've been here for about six weeks.  Last weekend, we took a train as far as we've been yet, out to a town called Werribee to the west.  I think Werribee is still classified as a suburb of Melbourne.  It was only a 40 minute train ride from the city center.  But the train did go through a couple of fields in addition to high rise buildings and houses.  It seemed far.

On the edge of Werribee is a zoo, this one with a safari ride, where you drive around in a huge bus-thing and watch the zebras and giraffes and a couple of rhinos in their large enclosure, like a safari.  Here's a picture of Jonathan with the giraffes.

They also had an Australian enclosure, with a couple of kangaroos and emus.  The kangaroos were out, but we only saw one emu hiding in the distance. 

Actually, Tim and I thought that the native animals were much more interesting than the zoo animals.  Out past the Australian enclosure was a river walk.  Tim had his Australian birds and animals app in his back pocket, and he identified the native birds hanging around the watering holes as we walked along.  And it was fun!  We saw a couple of Australian little birds:  a willie wagtail and a superb fairy wren. 

Who wouldn't want to spot a willie wagtail in the wild?  Or a fairy wren?  Just those names alone make you want to search them out. 

We also saw our first cockatoos in the wild.  In the park outside the zoo, there were a few gray cockatoos with pink heads and a pink crest, just digging in the dry dirt under a tree.  From Tim's app, we believe they were called gang gang cockatoos.  It's kind of strange to see these birds that are pets elsewhere just doing their thing in the wild.  And their thing seems to be digging in the dirt. 

As for our family, our thing is to go on excursions.  We have a couple more planned with other people, for this weekend and next.  Ooo!  Stay tuned for more exciting adventures!

Sunday, February 16, 2014


It feels like I'm behind in writing, although I have been writing at least weekly.  We've been here more than six weeks now, and everything is finally settling into routine.  Those routines are what I want to write about.

Tim has settled into work.  Most workdays, he is awake and up for the first of his remote meetings at 4am.  Starting at 4am is not ideal.  However, on the bright side, his workday is over at noon!  The other downside to his work schedule is the fact that we're a day ahead of his colleagues in California, which means he works Saturday mornings, too.  But the bright side to that is he gets Mondays free!  It's like getting an extra day tacked onto the weekend every week!  And if I write with lots of these exclamation marks, I may be able to convince him how lucky he really is to have this great work schedule!  4am every Saturday every week!  Lucky!  Lucky work schedule!  No, we don't need marriage counseling!  Lucky!

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Tim takes the tram into the central business district just after noon for a Japanese lesson.  He is in a class with two other professionals, taught by Japanese natives.  Tim has been learning Japanese on his own for a couple of years.  It's nice to be living in a city with a large Japanese population, so he can study the language more officially.

Every afternoon, Tim picks up Jonathan from school.  Jonathan has been in school now for two weeks and two days, and he likes it.  He is starting to make a couple of friends and to settle in.  I asked Jonathan to tell me some of the differences between his school in the US and school in Australia.  First difference:  his school here is celebrating its 160th birthday.  In the US, his school was built in the late 1950s.  So here, a little more age and history.  Also, here, the school is much smaller.  The principal informed us that the school is overcrowded.  But Jonathan's class has only 20 students in it.  A couple of years ago, his class in the US had over 30 students. 

Jonathan says the students in his class in Australia are quieter, and more respectful of the teacher.  In the US, some students would interrupt the teacher, but that isn't done here.  Here, kids play cricket at recess.  They don't do that in the US.  I asked, and Jonathan says he hasn't joined in the cricket games.  Presumably, it's partly because he doesn't know the rules.  I asked if he had played cricket yet in P.E. in school, to learn the rules, and he said no.  They played lacrosse.  Lacrosse?  How was that?  Really fun!  Really?  Did you know there is a lacrosse club back near home in the US?  Eye roll.  So what else is different?  Larger eye roll. 

I guess that's all we're getting, folks, from the boy.

On Friday afternoons, Jonathan and Tim take the tram to St Kilda for Jonathan's French class.  Jonathan has been in a French immersion elementary school for five years in the US.  At his school here, they learn French for one hour every week.  Needless to say, that one hour won't help him maintain his skill.  The Alliance Francaise de Melbourne is a few tram stops south, near the beach, so we head there for extra lessons.  After five years of immersion, Jonathan placed into their francophone class -- for kids who are native French speakers.  And he is doing quite well there and seems to enjoy it. 

(Jonathan, do you like French? ... Yes.  Why are you asking me random questions?)

As for me, I wake up early.  But not at 4am.  I set up 6am remote meetings with collaborators and students in the US and UK.  After meetings, I run breakfast, and then walk Jonathan and Tim through the park over to school.  Back home, I either take the tram or ride a borrowed bike through the central business district and up to the University of Melbourne, where I work diligently the rest of the day.  (Busy busy busy.  See, Department Chair in the US, how productive I am?  Accomplishing a lot, here.  Please continue to fund us.)

The borrowed bike I inherited from an Italian woman who just moved away from Australia.  It is fun to ride it during commute hours past the traffic and the trams through the center of the city.  Unfortunately, the sister of the Italian is moving to Melbourne in March, and so I may have to give the bike up again then.  Meanwhile, I'll enjoy it while I have it. 

I think that's about it for routines, aside from various chores.  Life is good.  We are happy.  And lucky to be here.  Lucky!  Lucky lucky lucky!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Flying foxes

One creature that I've wanted to see since before arriving in Australia is a flying fox.  These are huge fruit bats native to Australia.  After our arrival, I mentioned my interest, and someone told us there was a large colony that lived in the Botanic Gardens.  Right near us!  But then someone else said no, they had been moved to a suburban park further north, because of the rabies risk.  Tim and I mapped out routes to get to this northern park, but not earnestly.  The bats come out after dusk, and we go to bed then -- a consequence of Tim working California hours while we are here. 

In any case, it hasn't seemed reasonable to travel 40+ minutes to a park in the suburbs in the hopes of seeing giant bats later in the evening, and then to travel 40+ minutes back an hour or so later, when bedtime is 8pm.  (In time to wake up for that 4am meeting.)  So we haven't been.

Of course, we live by our own park, which means there are nocturnal animals that come out at dusk in our own backyard.  Different animals. We had seen a couple of possums when returning home from other events.  Not opossums.  Here they are possums.  Yesterday morning, there was a possum crawling around near a large tree as we walked Jonathan to school.  The possum showed us his big red-brown eyes and tiny delicate paws and twisty white-tipped tail, as he snuffled through the bark.  Around him, parents and school children, bicycle commuters, and well dressed workers walked through the urban park on their way to a day in the city. 

Common ringtail possum -- they guy we saw yesterday morning -- photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

We lived with opossums in Texas, and there they looked like giant mangy rats.  R.O.U.S.'s, we called them, from the Princess Bride.  But the possum in the park yesterday was sweet looking and delicate. 

But even with the park in the back yard, we still haven't taken the time to go out after dusk.  8pm bedtime and all that.  We could hear animals squeaking out there, making their night shift noises, but we hadn't gone to investigate.

Last night there was a party for the adults in Jonathan's school.  I stayed home with a couple of kids (anti-social) and Tim went to the party, staying out late and late and later.  My eyes were pretty heavy by 10:30pm when he finally came home.  But then instead of going to bed, we all headed back out into the park. 


Because those squeaking noises?  The nocturnal animals we had heard regularly each night, and never bothered to investigate, assuming they were possums?  Those noises were flying foxes!  Flying foxes!  For days (nights?), giant bats have been swooping through the trees just out our back door!

We watched them fly through the clear areas, dark black against a paler gray sky.  They landed in the tall fig trees up above the lights over the path.  High above, they crawled around eating the fruit and squealing at each other.  Noisy animals. 

Flying fox, photo courtesy of Wikipedia. 
And so now the question becomes, what else are we missing, just by failing to look?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Watching winter Olympics from Australia

On the TV, they wear heavy coats and slide in the ice and snow.  The scenery is white and gray and cold.  And somehow surreal.  The steep slopes, denuded trees, look like home.  Like winter.  We sit on the living room sofa, too hot in our shorts and t-shirts, and give thanks for Summer!

The Australian announcers say the snow is too soft, and we know why it melts.  We are melting ourselves. 

Who decided which month would hold the winter Olympics?  Some Northern-centric International Olympic Committee. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Going shopping

It can be fun to go shopping in a different country, even an English speaking one.  Most of the products are different from those you find at home, even those with the same names, like "mayonnaise" or "mustard".  It's kind of fun to stare at the array of new things on the shelves, unfamiliar brands, wondering what is in each jar and which new things you should try this week.  A little surprise lies in every package!

Here, you can go shopping in large urban supermarkets or quaint outdoor markets.  The Queen Victoria Market is a huge outdoor market spanning multiple blocks in the central business district.  The Prahran market is a smaller market just a short walk from our apartment.  You go and stare at the array of fruits and vegetables, all grown in Australia, and wonder what the price tags mean in the language you are familiar with.

Is that a good deal on nectarines?  The tag says they are on sale for $3.50 per kilogram.  But what is a kilogram?  And what, for that matter, is a dollar?  The Australian dollar has a little less buying power than the US dollar.  So does that mean $3.50/kilogram is a better deal than the US equivalent?  Or worse? Do I need a calculator?  In the bin next to the nectarines, the apples cost $5.00 per kilogram.  So whatever a kilogram is, and whatever a dollar is, the nectarines are at least a better deal than the apples.  And the tag is yellow.  On sale!  So forget the calculator.  We're buying anyway.  And grab some apples while you're at it, because we need those, too.

After about an hour, when your legs are starting to hurt, you look at your watch and realize that you've actually been gone for two and a half hours.  The hand cart you are carrying is heavy.  It costs a dollar coin to rent a push cart, but you don't have any change with you, because in your own country, change is completely worthless, so you haven't gotten into the habit of bringing along a coin purse.  And now, weighed down by a container of milk, two large cartons of yogurt, those nectarines and the apples, you still have to pick out some mayonnaise from the large array of brands, sizes, flavors.  As you stare at the entire block of shelves devoted to mayonnaise, eyes glazing over, you tell Tim he should just pick whatever.  And then you grow frustrated when he reads over each jar, size, contents, brands, all unfamiliar.  Is "whole egg" a better idea than "extra creamy"?  A surprise in each package! 

Who cares?

Ten minutes later, back breaking, you lug the hand cart to the front of the store, to use the automatic checkout machines.  The checkout guy takes one look at your over-filled hand cart, hears you arguing with your child in an American accent, and knows to hover close by.  At least five times during your grocery scanning session he has to override something -- no, stack the fruit back on the scale, put the box down.  No up!  Put it up! 

Jonathan is angry.  Tim is frustrated.  And I'm exhausted.

And now we get to lug all this stuff home by tram. 

Shopping.  Where is the fun in that?

Sunday, February 2, 2014


Today is Groundhog Day in the United States.  I don't think groundhogs live in Australia.  There are definitely opossums.  They live in the park and come out at night.  We have seen a couple of them.  But there is no designated animal to tell me if I get six winter weeks here in the middle of summer.  I guess there is no point in having a Groundhog day in mid summer. 

Yesterday the weather was not too hot, and not too cold, so we finally went to the beach, this time dressed in our swimming suits.  It took about half an hour to put on sunscreen when we decided we were ready to go.  Then it took about another half an hour from our door to catch the tram and ride to the St Kilda beach and spread our towels on the sand.  As you would suspect, most of that second half hour was spent on the tram, not spreading the towels (but you never know). 

The beach was clean, the sand smooth and warm, the water a little cool but not cold and a nice shade of blue-green. 

The above photo makes it look like we had the beach to ourselves, which we definitely did not, but it was surprisingly un-crowded for one of the nearest beaches to center city Melbourne on a warm summer day -- at least at 11:00 in the morning.  I'm guessing more people came in the afternoon, but we had our fun and left before 2pm. 

There were a lot of families at the beach, including families with very small children, because the water was shallow for a long ways and there were only very small waves when boats went by further out.  We didn't see any jelly fish -- you have to worry about jelly fish in Australia -- but not today.  There were a few cute little fishes that occasionally darted past our toes in the shallow water.  And clams in the sand.  Those are the only aquatic animals that I identified.  After wading around in the water, Jonathan dug in the sand, Tim walked along the shore, and I lay in the sun (heavily sunscreened) and smelled the sea air and thought to myself, "Ah.  This is February." 

February is truly lovely as a summer month.

And according to Tim, my skin was easily the brightest shade of white in the whole ocean.  Easily.  That is a family trait I inherited from my father.  Luckily I didn't also get his matching black chest hair.

But that, my friends, among other reasons, is why the only photos you get of the beach do not include me in a swim suit. 

Is that a currawong?

I am not a bird watcher.  I have siblings who are bird watchers, but I have never gotten into that.  I do like borrowing their binoculars and looking around in the trees.  But it's more the binoculars-are-cool thing than the birds-are-interesting thing.  Whatever. 

In any case, although I am not a bird watcher, Tim and I have been plagued by a terrible, terrible dilemma. 

Every evening for about a month, we have heard a loud bird call out our window, and we have wondered what bird makes that noise.  First, we wondered silently.  Then we voiced our wonder, and found that we were both wondering.  And then the wonder became a quest. 

Sometimes we hear the call during the day in the park, and then we stop and stare into the tops of the trees, seeing nothing.  And then the bird calls again, and we think it must be in the next tree over.  To the left, we see a movement, and we both turn our heads -- to watch a leaf flutter to the ground.  The bird is invisible.

It could be anything, in this country. 

The magpies, big beefy black birds with capes of white and long beaks, look like big stupid squawky birds.  But Australian magpies don't squawk or screech.  They sing!  They warble and trill and sing!  I have heard the song of a magpie, and it is lovely!

Australian magpie, courtesy of Wikipedia

But the bird call we wonder about is not that of a magpie.

I turned to Google for help.  I typed the call into the search engine:  "Dewey Dewey Dweep!" 

Google was not helpful.  And do you have any idea how many stupid song lyrics have the nonsense words "dewey" and "dweep" in them? 

Yesterday, we were outside chatting with a neighbor when we heard the call just over our heads.

"What is that bird?" asked Tim.

"It's a currawong," the neighbor said confidently.  "They look a little like crows or ravens, but their call is different."  And then we talked about birds for 20 minutes. 

A couple of hours later, walking back through the park with a load of groceries, we realized that the big black bird sitting on top of the park bench, staring at us with yellow eyes and a slash of white at the bottom of its wings, that bird was a currawong.  Not a raven or crow. 

Pied currawong, courtesy of Wikipedia.

But although it was only a few meters away, it just stared at us.  It did not call or sing or peep or chirp.   Nothing. 

At home, Tim played electronic recordings of currawong calls.  Unfortunately, none sounded quite like our bird call.  There are some deweys, maybe.  But not the pattern of three distinctive sounds.  That doesn't mean the call is not that of a currawong, of course.  It just means that our quest has not yet reached a satisfactory ending.

Maybe its a platypus.