Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Making of an Expat

It would have been impossible for me to know on that fateful night 12 years ago when I first met the Handsome Australian, that one day I would not only be his wife, but would make my home in a strange land far away from all that, up to that point, was comfortable and familiar. The future ramifications of our love affair never really played on my twenty-something mind. I was swept up in the excitement and open to the adventure. Come to think of it, I've never really been much of a planner. I've never had a 5 year or 10 year plan. I'm not a goal setter. I'm a "let's ride this wave and see where it takes us" kind of girl. And that's precisely how I approached my relationship with the Handsome Australian.

When we first met in Buenos Aires, I had no expectations for our blossoming relationship. He was a great guy and we had fun together. The reality was that he was Australian and I was American and we were both in Argentina for a finite amount of time. At the end of which, we both had intentions of returning to our home countries which may have well been opposite sides of the earth--oh wait, they are. It seemed perfectly reasonable to treat the whole thing as a holiday romance and just enjoy the fun while it lasted. So this is exactly what we did. We never talked about the relationship or about a future or about anything particularly serious. We just had a really, really great time.

At the end of the Handsome Australian's time in Argentina, he booked a trip to the Southern region of the country to visit Lago Argentino and Glaciar National Park. Saddened by the thought of him traveling alone during his final week in the country and finding myself a bit more attached to him that I wanted to admit, I spontaneously contacted his travel agent and booked myself a seat next to his. I wasn't sure how the Handsome Australian would take the news, but it was very well received. He was glad to have a travel companion and happy to spend one last week with me.

Our time in the remote town of Calafate on the periphery of Lago Argentino was magical. Our days were filled with sight seeing tours and our nights were spent sampling the local cuisine. The glaciars were mind boggling and beautiful. Each night the food we ate was amazing. Everything was perfect. I remember wishing it never had to end. It occurred to me during this *final* week of our holiday romance, that I might just be on to a good thing. I might have just found something worth holding on to. Only problem was that this something, or someone rather, was about to get on a flight to the other side of the earth and I was meant to head back to Buenos Aires solo. What was a girl to do?

With about 4 hours left before my flight was set to depart the Rio Gallegos airport and I was due to say goodbye to the Handsome Australian, we sat together having lunch at a hodgepodge Asian buffet--in the heart of Patagonia. The food was an unexpected and bizarre mix of Argentine standards and Chinese favourites. The concept of the restaurant was almost as crazy as the ideas that were running through my head. So with this mixed up meal as my preface, I floated the idea of me possibly coming to Australia after my time in Argentina was finished. And then I waited.

The Handsome Australian began to sweat profusely. His normally calm and relaxed face took on an anxious and confused look. Perhaps he was even frightened. Then came the questions. How? When? Why? I did my best to answer his queries, but I was shy on details because well, I'm not a planner. This was just something I knew I needed to pursue and the how and the when would have to come later. The 'why' was obvious. I'd come to the realisation that this was more than a holiday romance and that if I didn't follow my heart, and take this chance then I'd always be left wondering 'what if'...

The clock ticked on and it was time to catch a cab to the airport. It was during this cab ride, that the Handsome Australian slowly returned to his former self. He had started to consider what neither of us had considered up until 2 hours before...a future together. The more we discussed the possibility, the more relaxed he became. Still, he proceeded with caution and warned me that life in Australia would not be like the life we'd known together in Buenos Aires. I told him I understood, but I still wanted to ride this wave and see where it took me.

By the time we reached the airport, the shock had worn off and he'd agreed to think about the proposition and was speaking more and more positively about the idea. Our time had finally run out. We said our goodbyes and I walked out on to the tarmac and up the stairs of my waiting plane, not wanting to look back I marched up the stairs, but then suddenly turned around to see the Handsome Australian standing inside the glass with a smile on his face. I gave him one last wave and moved into the plane.

For the next three hours, I sat in a window seat looking down on the vast and sparsely populated Patagonian landscape below and I felt, for the first time in my life, completely and utterly at peace. I'd said what I'd needed to say. I'd put it all out there. I'd ridden the wave. No regrets. What happened next wasn't for me to decide. The ball was in destiny's court and I'd just have to wait to see what came my way.

Monday, August 23, 2010


In one of those remarkable cosmic moments, I found an American penny on the streets of suburban Melbourne a few months ago. I was most excited by this unusual find and henceforth deemed the penny "my lucky penny". I brought it home and put it in a very safe place...the top of my chest of drawers. I wasn't sure what I was going to do with it, but I knew that I needed to hang on to it.

Several weeks later, the Handsome Australian and I were out in the City for dinner. He'd booked us a table at 2010's Pizzeria of the Year, +39. The Handsome Australian had dined there before and promised me charming Italian waiters, fine wine and simple but tasty pizza. The occasion? We were marking 12 years since the day we met back at the Embassy in Buenos Aires.

When we arrived at +39, our table wasn't ready so the host sent us to the casual bar across the road. We had a few drinks and then headed back across the street to claim our table. We were seated in the very back of the cozy little restaurant...somewhere between the pizza oven and the toilets. True to his description, the waiter arrived and began to explain the menu in the most beautiful broken English with a very heavy Italian accent. The Handsome Australian became "Bello" and I became "Bella". We ordered some wine and an antipasto platter to start and some pizzas to come later. "Perfetto," ordained the waiter as he disappeared to organise our wine.

The Handsome Australian then slowly reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a little box which he placed in front of me on the table. Taken by surprise, I looked searchingly at the little blue box with the white ribbon and wondered what could possibly be inside. After all, this was really more of an informal anniversary. It wasn't our wedding anniversary, just the day that we'd met all those years ago.

The waiter returned with our wines, saw the little blue box sitting in front of me and his eyes grew very wide. He placed the glasses down very quickly and rushed off waving his hands apologetically and repeating, "Scusi, scusi, scusi." Poor guy. I think he thought he'd interrupted a wedding proposal.

Keen to find out what was inside the box, I untied the ribbon and opened the lid. Inside I found this:

It was a beautiful sterling silver locket in the shape of a heart. The Handsome Australian indicated I should open it up to see what was inside. Intrigued, I did just that.

Inside the locket, I found a photograph of the two of us that had been taken in Hawaii earlier this year. While we were there, we'd celebrated our 10th year of marriage with a vow renewal ceremony. The photo was one of the two of us during the ceremony. It was such a lovely sentiment, but then the Handsome Australian told me to lift the photo out of the locket.

Why? I wondered. What else could possibly be in this locket? So as not to disappoint my dear husband and to cure my increasing curiosity, I did just as he instructed and lifted the photo gently out of the locket...

and there, sitting secretly behind our photo was my lucky penny. The Handsome Australian had realised how significant the finding of this penny had been for me and said he wanted me to have a safe place to keep it (hmm...I guess the top of the chest of drawers just wasn't cutting it). This way, according to him, I'll always have my lucky penny (and the USA) close to my heart.

The antipasto arrived. It was lackluster. Then there was pizza of some description and several glasses of wine followed by some sort of nuttella dessert pizza. All, truthfully, not that memorable. Or perhaps just eclipsed by the Handsome Australian himself.

Handsome and thoughtful. What a combination. I'm a lucky more ways than one.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

One night in Buenos date with destiny.

On a winter's evening in the leafy Buenos Aires suburb of Belgrano, music could be heard bubbling over the fence of a well manicured garden belonging to one of the many stately mansions that lined this particular Calle. Amongst the music, a bevy of accents and languages mingled with the sounds of clinking glassware. A garden party? In the middle of winter? Why yes, nothing's impossible in Buenos Aires. Peeking through the gate you'd expect to see fancy cocktail dresses and fine suits, but that wasn't the case. Just inside the fence, on the lush abundant lawns, were dozens of people, young and old, in all make and manner of fashion. A first impression from the footpath may have been misleading. This was not a fancy soiree. No, in fact, it seemed more like a casual barbecue amongst friends. Yes, there was a waft of sausages a sizzle about the night air. A glance at a very official sign posted just on the wall near the gate and it was obvious who was hosting this delightful gathering...a very serious looking Kangaroo and his partner, an Emu with a wry smile. This was the Australian Consulate after all, who else did you think might host such an unusual party?

It was July of 1998 and I found my twenty something self wandering through the gates and into the middle of this eclectic little cocktail party searching for a familiar face. Very much as Alice tumbled down into the strange and stunning world of Wonderland, I reluctantly traipsed through the sea of faces and into the beginning of my fairy tale. It wasn't long before an acquaintance caught my eye. An Economist of sorts and a fellow countryman, he struck up a conversation the details of which I can no longer recall. I'm sure we exchanged pleasantries and remarked about the lovely setting in which we found ourselves, but all the while I was scanning the lawns looking for someone else. Finally, I spotted her, the girl I'd come to meet. I politely excused myself and made my way over to the bar where she stood.

She had an unmistakable laugh that made you happy just to hear it. On this evening amidst all of these strange new faces, I was thrilled to hear her laughter. It was after all, the laughter of a friend. As I approached, I noticed she was holding court with a very odd couple. One was a very short and mildly handsome man with a friendly smile who spoke both English and Spanish with a very heavy Italian accent. As it turned out, he also spoke Italian with a very heavy Italian accent. The other half of this odd couple towered over both my friend and the Italian. With his dark eyes and charming good looks, he could have been a citizen of a dozen different countries, but when he spoke, his accent exposed him. Unlike his Italian mate, he didn't struggle with English, but instead spoke it confidently and softly albeit with a subtle but charming Australian accent. I wanted to hear more...

Introductions were made immediately and this mysterious Australian and I began to exchange tales of what had brought each of us here to this enchanted city, to these generous gardens, to this very moment. His was a tale of a capitalist well on his way up the corporate ladder. His firm had brought him to Argentina to work on a important project. He spoke little or no Spanish upon his arrival, but now three months in, he could get by. He'd come along this particular evening because his fellow compatriots had made a tradition out of attending these gatherings on a monthly basis. Who was he to argue? Besides, as he explained, where there are drinks, Australians will never be far away. Curious and curiouser indeed. Mine was the tale of a young student on a scholarship with a love of languages and a greater love of travel. My wanderlust had brought me to Argentina where I'd already spent 6 months absorbing the language, the culture, the food. I'd met other Expats along the way and many had become good friends, including my American roommate who had first told me about this party on this night. It was because of her and my lovely laughing British friend who'd been chatting to this Handsome Australian when I arrived that I found myself at this party. In this moment. Talking to him.

The evening slipped slowly away as we discussed a great many things. From the corner of my eye, I noticed my British friend had finally escaped the well meaning Italian and moved on to a more lively group of Germans. Yes, there were some truly fascinating people at this party, but none so fascinating to me as this Handsome Australian. There was something about him and his gentle manner that made me happy to spend my evening in conversation with him, and him alone.

In the wee hours of the morning, the drinks had stopped flowing and friends and acquaintances alike were bidding one another farewell. It was time to say goodbye to this Handsome Australian. We'd chatted effortlessly through the evening, but when it came to goodbye, we didn't quite know what to say. With an assist from an inebriated Englishman who had interrupted the final moments of our conversation, the Handsome Australian found the courage to ask for my number.

It was in that moment, that my life's trajectory was irrevocably changed. Although it was impossible to appreciate at the time, my path had been completely reset.

And that my friends, is how *this* Alice came to live in the Wonderland of Australia.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A bit of luck...

A few weeks ago, our children spent the day with their grandparents and the Handsome Australian and I managed to duck out for a lovely lunch together. We hadn't planned on going to lunch necessarily, but when we realised our day's errands would take us past Carrington Road, Box Hill we couldn't resist. We both love a bit of Vietnamese food and Box Hill is one of a few Melbourne hot spots for Vietnamese cuisine. Carrington Road is home to quite a few tasty Vietnamese restaurants. Our favourite amongst the bunch is Indochine, but on this particular day, we thought we'd try something new. So we took at table upstairs at Tien Dat.

We spent the next little while in the sunlit dining room amongst families of all different sizes and cultures enjoying a lovely Sunday lunch. There were mixed spring rolls to start. A warm pot of tea to take off the chill of a winter's day. Then we stuffed ourselves with a lovely Chicken salad and Bun with Lemongrass Beef. With our tummies contented, we made our way downstairs to pay the bill and continue on our merry way.

As I stepped outside the doors of Tien Dat and began to make my way down the footpath along Carrington Rd, I looked down and saw this:

A coin lying on the footpath. I didn't think too much about it, but then I looked again.

To my surprise, on the ground in front of me lay not just any coin, but an American penny (1 cent piece). Immediately, my mind was transported back to my childhood and this little rhyme began playing in my head, "See a penny, pick it up. Then all day you'll have good luck." So I reached down and picked up this little penny and gleefully showed it to the Handsome Australian. "Look! Look what I've found here. It's an American penny! A real American penny! That's amazing! What is an American penny doing lying on the footpath in the middle of Box Hill?" Then I proceeded to sing the rhyme to the Handsome Australian. After which, I deemed this penny my "lucky penny". I read the date on the penny--1988. "Was 1988 a good year?" I asked the Handsome Australian. He seemed to think '88 was a decent year. Honestly, I thought to myself, what are the chances of me, an American, walking along this particular footpath at this particular time and finding this particular coin? It definitely seemed like destiny to me.

I tucked the penny in my pocket and when we picked our children up later in the day, I told them all about Mommy's new lucky penny. They were very impressed and wanted lucky pennies of their own. I told them sagely, "One day, your lucky penny will find you somewhere when you least expect it." After all, that's exactly what happened to me.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy 4th of July

There were no fireworks in Melbourne for the 4th of July today. There was no parade or barbecue, or watermelon or children running around waving bright sparklers in the setting sun. In fact, it was hard to tell it was 4th of July at all. So the little people and I decided to whip up a little something patriotic to mark the day in our own quiet way...

Happy 4th of July to all the Americans out there...wherever you may be.

*BTW, you're looking at AUD$9.00 worth of blueberries there. This is what happens when you celebrate a Summer holiday in the middle of Winter. Yikes!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Expat issues a: Please Explain

Wow what a day in Australian history. Last night we went to bed wondering if Australia would be in or out of the World Cup and whether Kevin Rudd would be in or out of Australia's top job. Turns out both scenarios ended disappointingly for the players in question. The Socceroos fought the good fight and came away with a hard earned win, but alas it wasn't enough to keep them in the tournament. The end of Kevin Rudd's term as Australia's Prime Minister became fait acompli in the wee small hours of the morning and he gracefully stepped aside in the caucus room later in the day, handing the reigns to his deputy, Julia Gillard.

In a sporting mad country like Australia, you would have expected such a valiant effort by the national soccer team to have been all over the media. It would have been if it weren't for the political upheaval that was happening simultaneously. So needless to say, soccer took the back seat to politics and all day the media ran around telling us about Australia's first female Prime Minister. An exciting story, certainly, but curiously, the biggest thing I took from today's proceedings was this: there is some stigma attached to being a Redhead in Australia. As an expat, my understanding of Aussie culture is constantly evolving and even after 10 years of living in the thick of it, quirky little things like this pop us and make me question if I even know go from whoa.

So to the Aussies out there, can someone please explain to me why terms such as "Ranga" (short for orangutan as I understand it), "Ginga Ninja", and "Bloodnut" are being tossed around to describe the newly minted Aussie PM. Why is it such a crime to be a redhead in Australia? Isn't it just a hair colour?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Big USA Pilgrimage: Traveling with Preschoolers

I recently wrote a post about traveling between the USA and Australia with an infant in tow. As I said then and will repeat now, making these transpacific journeys with children adds a whole other dimension and as children age, their requirements change. So in this post, I'd like to talk a little bit about making the journey with preschool aged children.

The good news is, I think as my children have aged, the journey has gotten a bit easier. Firstly, the hard work I've put in in the past has started to pay off. The journeys I made with them as babies gave them an introduction to the trip itself and to the goodness that waits for them on the other side: grandparents, cousins, get the idea. My kids never complain about the length of the journey to the USA as they've been enough times to understand that the pain is worth the gain in the long run. Of course they get bored and sometimes frustrated during the trip, but the fact that they've been so many times now means that they well and truly have an understanding of how long it will take and as such have reasonable expectations as to what will happen and when. This understanding of the journey itself is priceless. So put that in the column of reasons to take them and take them often.

Once my kids were beyond the baby stage, I had to transition my thinking from how will I keep them fed, changed and well rested on the flight to how will I keep them entertained (and fed, and well rested and worst case scenario...changed)? So I began researching ideas on how to entertain young children on such a long journey. I spoke to other Expats about it, I read articles online and I tried to take away ideas that I thought would work the best for my kids.

The first thing I did was decide that the children were going to have to share the load a little bit. My children were still young enough to require some nappies and a few changes of clothes, add to that snacks, travel documents, cameras, wipes, medicines, and on and on and on and my carry on luggage was well and truly full. So I got each of them their own little backpacks. They both have a special blanket and a small stuffed animal they sleep with. I packed their blankets and stuffed animals in their bags so they would have those special comforts on the plane.

Then for about a month or so before the flight, I scoured the $2 shops for things to entertain them on the plane. Something I read online said you should take a mix of old and new things for the kids. A few old and loved toys that you know they will enjoy having along, but then something new to surprise them and distract them once their old favourites have lost their luster (ie the remaining 13.5 hours of the flight). Here's a few ideas of the sorts of things I've included in their backpacks over the last several trips (I've got a girl and a boy, so hopefully the list covers ideas for both genders):

*Small notebooks or drawing paper
*Coloured pencils/pens/crayons/textas (or markers)
*Stickers (pages of stickers)
*Colouring/Activity books
*Crayola Recoloritz (reusable themed pages that can be wiped clean and coloured in again and again)
*Story books (paperback is the way to go, even though board books are sturdier--they are heavy)
*Paper dolls
*Play doh w/a few small cookie cutter shapes
*Polly Pocket dolls & accessories or similar (small, light weight, but easily lost so beware)
*Hot wheels cars (or in my son's case the cars from the Disney Pixar Cars movie)
*Fold up play mat for the cars
*Small plastic animals
*Barbie dolls with a few accessories (again, accessories can go missing so beware)
*Magnetic Dress Up Dolls/Robots/Pirates
*Magnetic Playbooks by Tiger Tribe
*Playing cards
*Flash cards
*Figurines (choose your poison: Batman, Superman, the Wiggles, Ben 10, etc, etc)

There you go. A few ideas of the kinds of things we've packed during our past several trips. It sounds like a lot of items to fit into small backpacks, but we don't take very many of any one thing and we don't necessarily take everything on the list. For instance, this year my son was very heavily into the cars from the Cars movie. He has a small collection here at home so I got him to choose 5 that he wanted to take with him and we put them into a zippered pencil case to keep them together in his backpack. (A Ziploc would do the same trick, but a pencil case is sturdy and will last the whole trip.) Then before we departed, I got him 2 new cars for his collection which I put in his backpack. So when we are on the plane, he opens it to find the cars he packed and loves plus a surprise two new ones. He's happy. I'm happy. We're all happy and these cars keep him busy for ages. With my daughter, she was very keen on her Barbies. So I got her to choose two Barbies and a few changes of clothes that she wanted to take along. She stored her things in a pencil case inside her backpack as well. Then I found some mini-Barbie figures that were tiny and could be used as siblings or babies of the bigger Barbies and I put them in her backpack. On the plane she opens her pack to find her old Barbies plus a couple of new mini ones. She's happy. I'm happy. We're all happy.

At some stage, I began to question the number of things I was purchasing to put in their backpacks for these trips. Between the few new toys and the crayons, colouring books, etc. I was spending anywhere between $30-$60. Then in the middle of one of our trips, I realised something. These items in their backpacks weren't just for the plane. They were for the car rides once we got there. They were for the days at people's homes who don't have children or toys. They were for the fun of sharing with their cousins and the knowledge that even though my children were away from their homes, they still had a few things with them that were truly theirs. These items weren't just for 14 hours of entertainment, they were for 6-8 weeks of entertainment. When I thought of it that way, it seemed like money well spent.

What we don't take is a portable DVD player or DVDs of any kind. I often see people lugging these on the flights and I'm not sure why. Qantas has on demand movies and TV shows on individual screens in each seat. My kids can watch their choice of shows and I don't have to carry the DVD player. When we get to the USA, there is so much to do and so many people to visit that we don't usually have time to watch DVDs. So what would be the point of having it? Others might find it necessary or useful, but we've survived without it.

Hopefully this post is useful to those of you making this long haul journey with your preschool aged children. Do you have any useful tips of your own? Please feel free to add them in the comments section as we can all learn from one another.