Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Bicycling home

Something I never knew two years ago is that Melbourne has an amazing network of bicycle paths. The city has put a lot of money into connecting trails to avoid roads so that lots of people can ride their bikes to and from work more safely.

I shipped my bike from the US, expecting to live on the edge of one of these trails. But we moved closer into the city centre than I expected. Even so, I stared at the bicycle maps of the city for hours. Google predicted it would take me 96 minutes to ride to work. That seemed like too much. Until a colleague helped me figure out a better way. It would take 96 minutes to ride to work, because that was the uphill direction. It would only take 75 minutes to ride home from work! And bikes could be taken on trains. She explained that she would take her bike on the train to work in the morning, and then ride downhill at a more leisurely pace in the evenings.

And so I tried it. Three times so far. And I'm a believer.

The hardest part of the ride is connecting from the university to the bike paths. There are some suggested neighborhood roads, but I haven't managed to follow those yet. So far, I have ended up on the side of a busy six lane road, trying to find that secret quiet way to the path.

Once on the bike path, however, it's just a straight hour's ride along bike and pedestrian paths basically to my door.

It's so amazing to have that infrastructure! I feel so lucky to live in a place with these trails.

Of course, there are also a gazillion bicycles on the trail, but most of them are going the opposite direction: from the city to the suburbs at the end of the day. I go from the suburbs into the city.

For me, the trail starts along Scotchman's Creek, in a reserve full of tall gum trees. You bike along a busy road, under the freeway, turn left, and suddenly you're alone on your bike in the bush.

Photo credit: Glen Pringle, via Wikipedia
Follow the Scotchman's Creek trail to the west along the creek, into the parks and past the Oakleigh swimming pool, over the bridge over the Warrigal road, along the path lined with trees and grass on one side, huge concrete barriers on the other. The freeway is just on the other side.

Cross the bridge over the freeway at the East Malvern train station. Now you have joined up with the Gardiner's Creek trail.

The Gardiner's Creek trail is even more amazing than the Scotchman's Creek trail. There are several bridges over the creek, and nearly all of the ride is through a string of urban parks. School children play in the grass, families walk their dogs, and thousands of commuters bike along the trail.

Photo credit: Glen Pringle again.
And then, just before the turnoff for Jonathan's school, the trees open up, and you find yourself riding high above the creek.
Photo credit: bicyclenetwork.com.au
A few minutes later, the trail swings to the left, over a bridge, which I just found out was only completed in 2014. And then the trail turns right again, but instead of crossing under the freeway, it hangs, suspended, from the freeway up above! Creek below, toll freeway above, and bicycles, cruising along for free unknown to the traffic above.

Photo credit: ajft.org

At the end of the suspended trail, the path meets the Yarra river. Now it's the Yarra River Trail. This travels along the river banks from the western side of the city all the way north and east to the edges of my knowledge of Melbourne. I only cycle along a short bit between the Gardiner's creek trail and the botanic gardens. Most of the time, the trail is up on the river banks. But at times, when it seems there is not quite enough space for a bike trail and a river and the roads, the trail runs onto pontoons on the river itself!

After going down and up, down and up, onto the river and back, a few times, passing several bridges for cars, and one for trains, the trail meets a bridge just for bicycles and pedestrians. I cross the bridge, ending up just on the far side of the Botanic Gardens, now only a 15 minute walk from home.

Unfortunately, this is a very steep uphill 15-minute walk, and by this time I have been on the bicycle for about an hour. Shift into low gear. Head up the hill. Keep shifting lower and lower and lower.... To the top! And then cruise around the round about, down Park Street, and into the park. Zoom down the park paths to our back gate, and home.

The first time, it took me 90 minutes, even downhill. The second time, only 75 minutes. The third time, only 70 minutes. 70 minutes! That's good enough. We'll stop there.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Commute

Jonathan got a Student Pass for public transit. He can ride any public bus, train, or tram in the entire state of Victoria with his pass, and his student ID card.

There are no yellow school buses here. Children take trams and trains to school. Younger children walk with their parents. Secondary school children go on their own. After two days of riding to and from school with parents, Jonathan asked if he could please try the commute on his own, like the rest of the children in his school.

We had always planned to let Jonathan take the tram to school alone eventually, where eventually was some abstract place in the inconceivable future when he was tall and old. But after just two days?

I had to take some deep breaths, and talk about it with local friends and neighbors over the weekend. The overall response was, "Of course he wants to ride alone." And tales along the lines of, "My oldest has been taking the train alone since year five."

Parents here can hardly understand why anyone would not want an older child to make their own way to school, where "older" apparently means "eleven". After some thought a couple of people sympathized with my position.

"I understand why parents would be afraid to let their child take the tram alone in the US. There are lots of guns in the US."

But we're in Australia. So we let him go.

Tim waits with Jonathan at the tram stop in the mornings. Jonathan takes the tram to school on his own, and catches tram or train home on his own. He has a prepaid phone. He can call if there are problems.

But meanwhile, the child suddenly knows what freedom feels like.

That pass he has, the pass that is good on any public bus, train, or tram in the state of Victoria, has opened up his eyes to options. He mentioned to his dad a few days ago that he could take the train after school to the city centre and buy a snack, then come home. And his dad said yes, he could do that. He had his own pocket money that he could spend. And his mom said, "But call if you are going to be too late!" And the boy and his dad both rolled their eyes and reminded me that I was the last one home, so I would be last to know. But still.

Wednesday, during Jonathan's morning tram ride to school alone, a few train-crossing gates in the city got stuck down, completely blocking traffic -- for 90 minutes. The traffic, I hear, was horrendous. One of those gates was on the road to Jonathan's school, and he got stuck in the tram for almost two hours.

When it was clear he was going to be late for school, Jonathan called Tim, who called the school, who sent out a message saying that they were aware of the train-gate problem, and they wouldn't be handing out any detentions for being late. Tim called Jonathan back to let him know.

Jonathan completely missed his first class, and he reported that he was the last of his classmates to arrive. But everything got sorted out. No worries, as they say here.

Even though some of us do worry.

Sometimes you have to let a child go, when they are responsible and mature. Let them go, be part of the culture in which they have landed.

The trams, Jonathan reports, were running fine, right on time, on Thursday and Friday.

Sunday, February 14, 2016


My brother Bryan was traveling to New Zealand for work, so he and his wife Kristen came to Melbourne for a few days afterwards. We enjoyed having them stay at our place and showing them a little of the city and its environments. And putting them on a tour bus when we didn't show them the city.

Bryan and Kristen arrived Friday morning. Tim met them at the train station and took them to our house to drop off bags, and then went to the Melbourne zoo. Jonathan had a regular day at school, so I took a regular day at work, but we all met up for dinner in the city centre. If you have to choose one restaurant, and you're with us, what do you think you choose?

Yup. Ramen. (Japanese.)

Saturday morning Jonathan had a skating lesson. During the lesson Tim took Bryan and Kristen to the Queen Victoria Market, where they spent $20 on fruit. Cherries, plums, passion fruit, grapes, mangos, apples. And some sausages made of kangaroo.

In the early afternoon, we took a tour bus to Philip Island. We stopped first at an animal sanctuary, and saw live kangaroos and wallabies and wombats.

Bryan with kangaroos.
Kristen with the kangaroos.

Then we stopped in tour bus city: a chocolate factory. We figure that the chocolate factory must pay the tour bus companies some big chunk of money to stop there, because chocolate has nothing to do with Philip Island, or really even much Australian, yet every single tour bus stopped at the chocolate factory on its way in. I found it annoying. Bryan and Kristen were more kind. They said their kids would have loved it!

Next we stopped at the Nobbies, for dinner and a walk with views, followed by lots and lots of wallabies on the sides of the road.
View from the Nobbies.
Finally, we went to the beach for viewing little penguins.

At the penguin beach.
The penguins come out of the ocean just after dark, rush across the beach, and make their way up the hill to their nests. We were standing over a little hill, and soon after sunset a pair of young penguins, who had been left behind, came out of the nest and started squawking. They weren't very small chicks anymore, but still a little too soft and downy for doing their own fishing in the ocean.

Lots of little penguins walked up the beach. We couldn't take pictures, but they were cute. Some were preparing to moult. When they're moulting they can't go fish in the ocean, so they fatten up as much as they can first. The fat penguins waddled up the beach all wobbly, with their heads bobbing back and forth. Kind of funny looking.

And then the bus drove us home, to arrive around midnight.

Sunday morning we went to church. (How boring.)

In the afternoon, we took a walk through the Botanic Gardens and the Shrine of Remembrance. The Shrine has the best views of the city.

And we saw a flock of cockatoos over the Botanic Gardens, way off in the distance.

We had dinner in the park -- we grilled those kangaroo sausages. Yummy. I guess.

Later, Bryan and Kristen and Tim headed to China town in the city centre for the Chinese New Year. Jonathan had school in the morning, so he and I opted for sleep instead. Talk about boring.

But Bryan and Kristen and Tim came back with stories of dragon parades and fire crackers and hoards of people. Melbourne has the oldest China town in the world, outside of China, of course, and San Francisco, I believe.

Monday morning Jonathan went to school. I went to work. Tim made sure that Bryan and Kristen got on their tour bus to see the Great Ocean Road. And then we all had a regular day. They got back near midnight.

Tuesday morning we all said goodbye.

And Wednesday morning, around 30 hours later, we got a note that their plane had landed back in their home state of Tennessee. That's a long journey.

But see how much fun we had? You should come visit, and you will have fun, too.

(A note on the photos: Many more were taken. Just not with my camera. Perhaps I will post more from other cameras later. Perhaps.)

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Heavy breathing in the night

Tuesday morning I had a meeting in the dark, dark, early morning with Pennsylvania and England. I wasn't sleeping, so I got up early to check my email first.

Tim heard the door click shut as I left the bedroom.

A few moments later, Tim, alone in the bedroom, heard someone breathing heavily in the darkness.

"Hhuuuuuuuuuhhhh....... "



Slowly, in a sleepy stupor, Tim raised himself out of the bed to look around the room. Who was in the bedroom with him? Who was taking those heavy, deep breaths?

The room was empty.

The heavy breathing continued, low and threatening.

"Hhuuuuuuuuuhhhh....... "



Carefully, Tim got up, bare feet against the carpet, and stepped towards the closed bedroom door. He stood quietly, and listened. The breathing seemed to be coming from the darkness on the opposite side.

He opened the door slowly, carefully, and looked down the long, empty hall.

"Hhuuuuuuuuuhhhh....... "



The heavy breathing continued, further down, out of sight in the darkness.

He followed the sound past Jonathan's bedroom, where all was quiet.

He followed it past the office, where the only sign of life was a flicker of a computer monitor against the stillness.

Past the kitchen. Single digits on the microwave clock showed the time, silently.

Into the living room.

In the darkness, he saw me standing at the far end of the room, face pressed against the door to the balcony, staring wide eyed out into the blackness of the small hours of the night.

"Hhuuuuuuuuuhhhh....... "



The deep, heavy breathing continued, louder, slow breaths one after another after another.

"Who is making that deep breathing noise?" Tim whispered, his hands trembling.

"Hhuuuuuuuuuhhhh....... "



And I turned to him in the darkness with my pale, white face, and I said:









No, actually I said,

"That's growling! I think there's a possum right outside the window! But I can't see it in the trees in the dark."

And then Tim came to look. And then the noise stopped. And Tim went back to bed. And I looked up "Possum growl" on Google. And found this movie of this cute little guy the size of a cat.

And I read the comments. The language was a little offensive, the but comments were hilarious. Here's a sample (with some spelling and grammar fixes to make it easier to read).

"So that [redacted] demonic sound was a possum! A [redacted] possum! Australia pls no need to be so evil at 2am! Gosh!"

"I'm glad it's just a possum and not some crazed alien!"

"Sounds like a heavy breathing pervert outside your window!"

"All I could hear is a loud breathing noise -- sounded a bit like zombies trying to get in my room."


"OMG I'VE BEEN SEARCHING FOR THE CAUSE OF THIS NOISE FOR MONTHS NOW! I was convinced there was a vampire in my garden. It's been scaring me so much, and my family's been too scared to go outside to further investigate!"

"I actually rang the police last night and they came and said it sounds like a Possum."

And on and on.

Australian problems.