Monday, March 31, 2014

Ghost tour!

Emily and Kris found a brochure for a ghost tour through Central Melbourne.  We took a family poll, and the guided walk sounded fun for everyone.  So we booked it.  The tour met at 8:30pm at Federation Square on a Saturday night in March. 

Our guide identified himself as a ghost agnostic: maybe they're real, and maybe they aren't.  But ghosts or not, he entertained us with lots of stories of the history of Melbourne.

Federation Square is right on the Yarra River.  We began the tour on the steps of the church across the street, and we were told to ignore the lights and high rises and traffic, and to imagine a quiet fishing village. 

I won't repeat the ghost tales, but it was fun to look around the city and imagine times gone by.  In the 1830s, the Europeans displaced the natives, who had been living in the area for tens of thousands of years, and brought with them sheep and farms and disease -- especially disease, devastating to the native people.

And then the sheep herders and farmers, early settlers, whose names read as a who's who in street and park names around the city, were in turn upheaved by the gold rush.  Gold was discovered in the state of Victoria in 1851.  In 1852, the town's population doubled.  (Jonathan's primary school is 160 years old this year, so it would have been built with the gold rush in 1854.)  And then the city continued to grow and grow until about the 1890s.  Single young Englishmen heard that there were riches available for anyone who could just make their way to Melbourne, Australia.  Step off the boat and grab a chunk of gold and you have made it!

The reality was a little different, as reality sometimes is.  Soon Melbourne again was full of disease -- no sewage system until around the 1890s -- 1890s!  (At least that's the date of construction on the sewage pumping plant we toured at the Science Works museum.)  (And of course I am just writing this all on hearsay, without giving any historical references.  Go read original sources for the real truth.) 

And of course, if there was a gold rush, there was a fair amount of crime.  With the words of our guide, we all pictured a wild city, guns and alcohol and prostitution.  Although reading a little more, it sounds like the reality was more complex.  High birth rate requires families, too.  And - ooh -- Wikipedia says that Melbourne was known as the "working man's paradise" in the 1860's and 1870's, and that the Stoneworker's Union won an eight-hour workday in 1856.  No wonder people moved here!  I would too!  Except for the sewage thing.  (Really.  1890s!)

Anyway, back to the ghost tour, envisioning gold rush and crime, we followed our guide east and north, into this alley:

Apparently this alley is very famous for its ever changing street art.  And in three months of shuttling back and forth almost daily on the tram, I had not known of its existence.  So thanks, ghost tour!  The art was very good, but it was difficult to take pictures in the dark.  And plus, we were supposed to be listening for the sound of high heels late at night, and the scent of lavender perfume, as the ghost of a murdered woman walked by.  This can be a creepy place for the artist painting all alone, in the dark....

What else?  We learned about grave robbing.  Murders for medical research.  We paused in an alley to talk about death by motorcar in the early 1900s.  And in another alley, we heard the tragic tale of a man only recently pardoned, when it was learned many many years too late that the police had planted evidence against him, just so the public could finally be appeased by a hanging! 

There is an old hotel near the Parliament House where we were told Dame Nellie Melba used to live.  Nellie Melba was Melbourne's most famous soprano, and among other things, the dessert Peach Melba was named to honor her.  She was actually born Nellie Mitchell, but changed her last name to remind her listeners of her exotic upbringing here in Melbourne.

And the Parliament House itself had a little ghost story.  It's a grand-looking building, especially all lit up at night.  Their website says you can sign up for free architectural tours.  Allow 90 minutes.  Perhaps we should go!

The tour ended in the middle of China Town.  We walked a couple of blocks to catch a tram home.  I would say we walked through the darkened, spooky streets, for mood, you know.  But although it was well past sunset -- around 10:30pm -- it was still pretty crowded out on the well-lit streets of the Central Business District.  And our tram was pretty full, too.  What do you do with your Saturday nights? 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Eureka tower

Over the past couple of weeks, Tim's mother and sister were visiting us in Melbourne, and we had a very lovely time doing some touring with them.

One place we visited early during their stay was the Eureka Skydeck. The Skydeck website advertises that this is the highest viewing platform in the Southern Hemisphere, and that "nothing you have ever experienced will prepare you for the awe inspiring view of Melbourne."

Since there was no way to be prepared for the view, we didn't prepare.  Except to look up the address.  And admission cost.  And to make sure we brought the admission money.  But that was it.  No 72 hour kit or anything. 

Here I am in front of the Eureka tower, totally unprepared. 

The tower is near the Yarra River, which cuts through central Melbourne.  Below is what the Yarra looks like from the 88th floor.  You can see the stadium in the center of the picture.  It's the park just to the north of the stadium where they shot off fireworks on the 4th of July.  Off in the distance you can see the Dandenong Mountains, where the Healesville zoo is located. 

And here is a picture of the central business district.  The bright orange building with the green round roof at the very bottom in the center of the picture is the Flinders Street train station, the main station.

Wrapping around, here's a view straight north.  Just past the tallest of the buildings is where the University of Melbourne is located, where I work.  Unfortunately, there was glare on the window, so it's hard to see anything.  Nestled in the tall buildings is the place Tim took Japanese lessons. 

Looking towards the west, you see the Yarra again, winding towards the Docklands. 

To the south is Port Phillip Bay.  And beyond that, Tasmania (not visible). And beyond that, Antarctica.

To the southeast is our house.  Do you see it?  Find the large water in the top right of the picture.  That's the bay.  The beach there is St Kilda.  Come inland a bit to the lake.  That's Albert Park, where the racing was held.  Cross through Albert park, through the glare in the center of the picture, and there is a large park again.  That's Fawkner Park.  And we live adjacent to Fawkner park right smack in the glare part.  Cool, eh?

So there you have it.  An aerial tour of the entire city of Melbourne.  I bet you were totally unprepared for those views, weren't you?  And you didn't even go up the tower.

Here's one last photo.

Look how tall I am!  Even without going up 88 floors in an elevator. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

March in Melbourne

The nights are definitely getting longer.  When we first moved in, the beginnings of daylight would show through the windows by 6am.  Now it's still dark at 7am.  And sunset comes earlier, too.  A few trees have specks of yellow in them.  Fall term began at the university.  The trams are crowded with students and other faculty, and I can't always get a seat, even coming home, when I get on at the first stop.  And the equinox passed.  It is definitely autumn. 

One thing that hasn't become less strange in these last three months are the inverted seasons in the southern hemisphere.  The church program advertised an "Autumn Easter Dance" for singles.  Easter and Autumn don't seem to fit together.  Rather than bunnies with spring grass, bunnies with orange leaves?  My head doesn't like it. 

So far, aside from less daylight and yellow-speckled trees, fall isn't much different than summer.  Of course, we're only about a day into it.  Temperatures have hovered in the 20s Celsius, which runs from 68 degrees to the mid 80s.  Pleasant. 

In school today, Jonathan's class was in charge of Assembly.  Every class in the school takes a turn.  They spend the last 30 minutes on Friday reading announcements, presenting awards, and showing the other students in the school what their class has been doing all term.  Jonathan was chosen to tell the school about the film they saw on a field trip to the French film festival last week.  He gave his entire summary ... in French!  Because of his five years in a French immersion school, he is quite advanced in his French language.  He is still attending a weekly French class for native speakers.  We're proud of him. 

We were also surprised to find that he had earned the school's weekly P.E. award.  It wasn't for his skills in sport, but for the fact that he got a very high score on a nutrition quiz.  That's my boy. 

He is still well ahead in math, but depending on the question it can still be a challenge.  Last week he told us about a math word problem in which he was told that a certain train was going a certain distance at a certain speed ... and so how long did they spend in New South Wales?  Although he thought he could do the calculation, he needed to know where the state of New South Wales began and ended to answer the question.  So the teacher sent him on a geography lesson instead.  You see?  He is learning. 

One other story about Jonathan's school, and then I will stop.  While practicing his spelling words last week, Jonathan told me that his teacher hadn't let him put "debauchery" on his spelling list.  My eyebrows rose a little.  Your spelling list?  Apparently the boy has done well enough on previous spelling tests that the teacher lets him pick his own spelling words now.  He goes in search of ten letter words in the dictionary, like "balustrade", "deviation", and "catafalque".  Catafalque?  "A raised structure on which the body of a deceased person lies or is carried in state."  We are all learning. 

Happy autumn to all of you.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Grand Prix

Apparently in March, in Albert Park, in Melbourne, the golf course is closed, the lake is roped in, and race cars move in.  For the Grand Prix! 

This weekend is the Formula One race weekend.  And the entire event takes place in the park just to the west of us, an easy walk from our apartment. 

Thursday was community day -- free admission.  We walked over from Jonathan's school to see what the racing was about.  We found seats on a bleacher (they don't actually call them bleachers here -- on a stand) and watched ... cars. 

Race cars.  Kind of like Lightning McQueen.  Only not driving in circles.  Driving around a twisty track around the lake. 

Soon after we arrived, there was a demonstration involving a regular Mercedes, one of the V8 engine race cars -- I think it was a Porsche -- and a Formula One race car -- one of the small, one person cars with the funny pointy noses that rides low to the ground and looks like a go-kart.  They gave the Mercedes a 45 second head start, then let the Porsche begin, and 20 seconds later the Formula One race car took off. 

We were seated about 3/4 of the way around the track.  By the time they reached us, twisting around the lake and sliding like in Mario Kart, the three cars were pretty close together, but still in their original order. 

First the Mercedes drove by.  "So what?" asked Jonathan.  The Porsche was clearly a little faster.  But we knew what everyone had come to see when the others in the bleachers (er, stand) stood up with their cameras pointed at the track after the Porsche, waiting with fingers hovering on the shutter button.  We could hear it long before we saw it.  And then --


And the Formula One car was gone, leaving a funny smell behind, part burning rubber, part exhaust fumes.  On the big screen, we watched it zip up to the other two and cross the finish line first.  And then we got to see it drive by once more on its victory lap. 


Ok cool.  Whatever. 

After that we watched some of the v8 cars roll around for a qualifying run, until we were cold and bored.  So we wandered around a little, and found the place where we could get our pictures taken with Lightning McQueen ...

... and his big truck transporter friend.  (Who was that guy?)

And then we went home.

It's loud, by the way.  The Grand Prix is loud.  The cars are very loud.  They sell ear protection at the gate, right there across from the ticket booth where you buy your $80 tickets.  We can easily hear the cars from our apartment.  They zoom around during the daylight hours, making a lot of noise. 

This afternoon, there was no free entry into the park, but as we waited to take the tram to Jonathan's French class, a military jet flew over a few times -- at supersonic speeds.  It sounded like a bomb had hit the street.  The noise was amazing.  People lined the streets staring into the sky, trying to see the machine that had made all that noise.  We saw it a few times as it flew over, but it was too fast, too tight between the buildings, to get a good view.  But we heard it.  Everybody in Melbourne surely heard it. 

And that, my friends, is what the Grand Prix is really about.  Noise, machines, and speed.  Machines moving fast, making a lot of noise.  And paying $80 per ticket to go see it.  Oh.  Sunday the cheapest ticket is $99.

As I'm writing, I'm kind of thinking I might want one of those tickets. 

Phillip Island

Some people we met at church own a house on Phillip Island, an island to the southeast of Melbourne.  They invited us to drive down with them and spend the Labour Day weekend.  Lucky for us, Labour Day is the second Monday in March in Victoria.  We agreed, and enjoyed a lovely weekend.

Although we arrived Friday night, it was dark and late when we pulled in.  Saturday we spent a lazy morning, then headed off to the town of San Remo to watch the pelican feeding.  Every day of the year, the local fish and chips shop gives a crowd of Australian pelicans a free snack of left over fish heads. 

The pelicans were huge, magnificent birds.  But equally huge and magnificent were the large sting rays just a few yards away, swimming around the beach and harbor.  We walked out onto the docks, where we could see them swim under and around us.  Incredible animals.

The pelican and sting ray encounter was followed by a trip to the beach, to see the remains of a ship that sank off the coast of Phillip Island over 100 years ago.  We were out at low tide, so we could walk up to the ship and touch it. 

And then walk further, out toward where the waves crashed against the rocks. 

Jonathan liked mocking at the waves, walking back and forth over the rocks until one too many large waves splashed him.  Meanwhile, our host Ann found shark eggs in the rocks closer to the high tide line.

After the shipwreck, we walked around the "Nobbies", headland overlooking rocks and islands where seals make their homes.  We didn't see any seals -- then.  We saw one later at the penguin beach.  But at that time, we did see one snake in the grass (poisonous) and several little penguins hiding out from the sun. 

(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

For dinner, we went for a barbecue near the "Safety beach".  The tide was coming in now, and Jonathan again challenged the waves with a large stick.  The waves won.  His shoes, socks, and jeans were drenched.  And that was our last pair of socks.

We dressed him in shorts and Tim's windbreaker pants after dinner, and headed out to see penguins.  We purchased the tickets for penguin viewing online several days in advance.  At sunset, the little penguins, who have been fishing solo all day out in the ocean waters to the south of Australia, gather in groups and run up the beach to their nests and waiting chicks.  For 25 AUD, you can get a seat on a stand, crammed in with the Asian tourists from their tour busses, and watch the little birds run up the beach.  After you've watched for a little while, and the people in front of you won't sit down, and the child in your party needs to use the facilities, you can walk out to the boardwalks around the beach and see the penguins waddle up the hill toward their nests. 

(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

While watching the little penguins in the huge crowds of tourists -- we weren't the only ones who thought Labour Day weekend would be a good time for penguins -- we also spotted several wallabies.  We also saw a couple of rabbits -- pests!  Rabbits and foxes are invasive species that are not appreciated here. 

After a late night of penguins, we slept in on Sunday.  Except I was awake and wanted to explore!  Jonathan was reading on the couch.  I convinced him to get dressed and go on a walk with me.  Just a few minutes walk down the street we came upon the Safety Beach again.  Jonathan retrieved his stick.  I made him take his shoes off to play in the water. 

We were back within an hour, and after breakfast we all went on a walk out in the bush.  It was hot and dry, and the eucalyptus trees were dripping.  We had heard that sometimes koalas could be seen on this walk.  But they weren't out today.  Still, we enjoyed the walk, until it got a little too warm.

Back at the house, we rested from the heat.  Until Jonathan got a little too warm.  I offered to walk him back to the Safety Beach to cool off, and he accepted.  Tim and Jonathan and I headed out for a swim.  It's called the Safety Beach because it's protected from the heavy waves.  The sea weed seemed to appreciate the relative calm.  We had to climb over that as we waded out to swim. 

Last stop for Sunday, the Surfing Beach.  This beach, just a short walk from the Safety Beach, lies on the opposite side of the island.  We all wore swimsuits, and our hosts brought along their boogie board.  The waves at the Surfing Beach were very powerful.  And cold.  I believe the water comes straight from the ice bergs of Antarctica.  Well, maybe not straight from there. 

No one wanted to play with the boogie board.  The water was too cold, or too rough.  I jumped over a couple of waves, getting a little wet and a little cold, and then I was in!  I had the board to myself for some of the fastest boogie boarding of my life.  It was great!  Just out a little further, the surfers were also having a grand time.  And everyone was happy, until Jonathan looked the wrong way and got tumbled by one of the powerful waves. 

Time to go home.

Clean up for bed.

Monday morning we slept in again.  Unfortunately, one of our hosts had to return to work by noon.  Not the holiday he had been hoping for.  But Ann took the rest of us back to the Surfing Beach.  In the car, Tim talked about how he would try the boogie board today.  And then we arrived, and the water was too cold on little Timmy's tootsie toes.  And Jonathan, after getting tumbled by the wave the day before, was afraid to try.  So I had the board to myself again.

The tide was on its way out Monday morning, rather than coming in as it had been Sunday night.  The waves were much less powerful.  I had to go out further to catch any waves, and then they lost their power before they flung me up onto the beach.  It was a much more calm experience, and my sand scraped knees appreciated it. 

After I could no longer fight my way back into the waves, I came up on shore where Jonathan was building a sandcastle.

I created a sand dragon to attack his castle. 

And then we were tired, so we went back to the house. 

We ate.  Cleaned.  Went back to see the sting rays, and took a walk to a playground, then ate dinner at the fish and chips shop in San Remo.  We left as the Labour Day traffic was dying out, and drove back to Melbourne. 

What a lovely weekend!  Thanks to our friends for taking us!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Walzing Matilda

When Jonathan was about two, we had a CD of kids' songs that he demanded to hear every time we got in the car.  Since I was driving him to and from the Texas child development center then, 30 minutes each way each day, I learned every single word of every single song on that collection.  Every. Single. One.

One of the songs was "Waltzing Matilda". 

"Once a jolly swagman, stopped beside a billabong, under the shade of a koo-lee-bah tree..."

I thought the song was nonsense, like Lewis Carol's poem "Jabberwocky".  It has enough real English words in it for you to get a rough idea of what it's about, but lots and lots of nonsense words in between. 

"And he sang as he sat and waited while his billy boiled: Who'll come a waltzing Matilda with me?"

I mean, what's a billabong?  Or a koo-lee-bah tree?  And who boils billy? 

"Down came a jumbuck to drink beside the billabong.  Up jumped the swagman and seized him with glee!"

So, walking through the Melbourne aquarium soon after landing here, I was shocked.  Shocked! I tell you, to spot a sign that changed my whole world!  It read:  "Billabong exhibit." 

What?  A billabong is a thing? 

Turns out that a billabong is a swampy area where a river makes a wide bend.  An oxbow lake.

"And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag, You'll come a waltzing Matilda with me."

So the aquarium was my first indication that "Waltzing Matilda" might use real words, not nonsense ones, but Australian real words.  Like billabong. 

"Up came the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred.  Down came the troopers one, two, three."

My next indication that "Waltzing Matilda" was an Australian thing was the fact that the bands dressed in Australian flag attire on Australia day walked around alternating between playing the Australian national anthem and "Waltzing Matilda". 

"Where's that jolly jumbuck, you've got in your tucker bag?  You'll come a waltzing Matilda with me!"

So I did what any curious scholar would do.  I asked Google.  Turns out that a coolibah tree (note the spelling) is a type of -- you guessed it -- eucalyptus.  And a swagman is an itinerant worker.  And the song concerns a conflict between sheep owners and the workers that sheared them back in the 1890s. 

"Up jumped the swagman, and jumped into the billabong.  You'll never catch me alive! said he."

To go "waltzing Matilda" apparently means to travel around as a worker with a bag, affectionately known as a "Matilda", but more precisely called a swag.  So a swagman is a bagman.  What, then is the tucker bag?  It carries food.  Like a jumbuck.  Which is a sheep.  What?  And billy is a can, where you would boil tea, or something, I suppose. 

"And his ghost may be heard as you pass beside the billabong.  'Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?'"

But why a squatter?  The sheep owner was likely just a squatter on the land.  But for some reason the government respected his rights over that of the worker, and he got rich off of that.  Hence he rode the thoroughbred.  And the troopers, who are policemen, were with the squatter, not the swagman.  And the poor swagman got in trouble for poaching the sheep.  And died.  Tragically.  But you can hear his ghost.  I guess.

"Waltzing Matilda.  Waltzing Matilda.  Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?  And his ghost may be heard as you pass beside the billabong.  Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?"

So totally nonsense, yes.  But historical nonsense.  And Australian nonsense.  With words that, at one time, even had Australian meaning. 

What a crazy world we live in!


Last Saturday, a kind colleague invited our family to go for a drive to Healesville, where there is an animal sanctuary and a reservoir.  The drive there took about an hour.  We bought lunch at a bakery, and ate it in a picnic spot up in the mountains.

The word "mountain" means different things to different people.  Coming from the mountains of the western United States, I would have called these "larger hills".  But when these are the largest hills you have, I understand the desire to call them mountains.  Anyway, that's just me being all snobby. 

One thing I have learned from living in Australia is that there are about a billion different types of eucalyptus trees.  I lived in Northern California for several years, in housing surrounded by eucalyptus trees.  There was just one kind of eucalyptus, and we called it "eucalyptus".  It was tall, with drippy bark, strong smell, and dry narrow leaves. 

Here, there are a bazillion eucalyptus trees, all with their own names and features.  Some are wide, some are narrow.  Some have white bark, and some have shaggy bark.  There are short eucalyptus trees, gigantic eucalyptus trees, trees with red flowers, trees with yellow flowers, and trees with white flowers.  Those that exude lots of sap from broken bark are called gum trees (where the kookaburra sits).  The others are called all sorts of other names.

We drove up into the hills near the Maroondah reservoir, and our friends pointed out all the "mountain ash" trees.  The mountain ash are another kind of eucalyptus -- the tallest flowering trees in the world.  But all eucalyptus.  Who knew?  (The other trees in the forest were fern trees.  Mountain drive through the forest wasn't that unusual, except all the trees were totally different.)

So now knowing that there are billions (ok, hundreds) of eucalyptus trees, I guess I can appreciate more the animals that eat only eucalyptus for their entire lives.

Isn't that koala just adorable?  We took the above photo of the koala after lunch -- we headed from the Maroondah reservoir to the Healesville Sanctuary, a zoo specializing in Australian animals. 

I loved the Healesville Sanctuary.  And who knew that live koalas were so cute?  I don't think I've ever seen such large koalas as I saw there -- my only koalas so far have been sleeping lumps in zoos.  Although koalas typically sleep about 23 hours per day, these were just getting fresh food when we arrived, so they were awake and crawling around.  They were too cute to be real.  I suspected animatronics.  Until the one started pooping.  It was cute poop, but animatronics don't poop.  Purely adorable.

We saw a bird show after the koalas.  And after that, Jonathan and Tim were really excited about feeding the parrots.  Another thing I didn't know is that parrots, lorikeets, cockatoos are all classified as parrots.  They range in size from tiny budgies (which are native to Australia, but we haven't seen in the wild) to huge sulphur-crested cockatoos (which we have seen in the wild -- a flock flew over our own park!).  The zoo had tons of parrots, many of which you could feed.
The above picture is Jonathan feeding a red-tailed black cockatoo.  Fancy name, eh?  And the picture below involves the hands of Jonathan and Tim and some sort of green parrot.  I don't know what it was.  But it was in the zoo.

For Nathan's benefit, we have now seen even more birds in the wild!  In addition to the sulphur-crested cockatoos, we've seen gray galah cockatoos with pink heads, crimson rosella parrots, and once a kookaburra hanging out on a low branch in the park as we walked to school. 
I digress.
The other super-cutest-ever Australian animal is the wombat.  Here's one with the zookeeper.
Wombats are like giant cuddly looking guinea pigs.  They're nocturnal, so when you see them in the zoo they're typically curled up asleep.  This one, however, named Lucy, woke up for an evening snack (that's sweet potato).  She crawled out of her den where she had been sleeping and snuggled her way into the zoo keeper's lap.  Jonathan saw that and was completely enchanted.  He came away truly longing for his very own wombat to snuggle with in return for sweet potatoes. 
Poor Jonathan.  I don't think it's going to work out.