Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Perceptions are changing

Living in the Middle East meant that, in general, people were really excited by the fact that we were Americans. Saudis and Kuwaitis associated America with the shopping and often abaya-free days they enjoyed on vacations. Disney, Hollywood, and all designer stores were what came to mind when they thought of our country. Outside of the locals, we often came into contact with the nannies, drivers, or migrant workers employed by the families we taught or the schools where we worked. They associated America with opportunity, civil rights, and religious freedom they didn't find in their current situation, as well as public education.

What I'm getting at is that we rarely ran into someone who had a disparaging comment about our home country while we were living in the Sandbox. It happened, but not frequently, and usually the negative impression was based on YouTube videos about the Illuminati or some other conspiracy theory and it was easy for us to correct them.

That has changed here.

As a result of the catering job I've gotten, I take a lot of Ubers home when my shifts end after the public transit has made its last run out to my neck of the woods. That means I've got about 20 minutes of conversation with a local or an immigrant to Australia and they usually have an opinion about the good ol' US of A. For the first time since we've moved overseas, most of those opinions have been negative and, with the way things are going back home, it is hard to refute them.

Here's what I'm hearing most often:

1. "What's going on with Donald Trump?"  

The world is afraid of the lunacy that this election cycle has stirred up. Like people are legitimately scared of Donald Trump and the media is giving the world the impression that all Americans are bigoted, homophobic, racist narcissists like he is and they have lost the desire to visit our country. While I genuinely hope that I show them an example of an open-minded American, most of the people I come into contact with (especially the non-caucasian ones) are genuinely afraid of America and no longer view it as a country worth their time or money.

I fear it's a foreboding indication of the nosedive our economy would take among other horrible things that would happen to our country if Trump were elected.

2. "Your police are really bad guys over there."  

Granted, this was uttered to me by a group of extremely intoxicated young men as we all waited for a tram in the wee hours of the morning on New Years Day. I was heading home after a long shift at work, and they had been struggling to find their car (mercifully without success) for at least 3 hours when they'd given up and decided to head home.

Just the same, considering all the news about police brutality and the #blacklivesmatter movement that had been in the news for so many months, it was hard for me to come up with evidence to the contrary. I realize that not all of America's police are "bad guys," but the fact that these young men who were Australian citizens but of Pakistani decent declared that they thought our cops would "take one look at our skin" and arrest them was a chilling reality of how the conversation about corruption of power in my home country has changed around the world.

3. "America isn't as multi-cultural as Australia." 

This one really took me aback because I am a proud product of the melting pot of America and our multi-culturalism has always been a point of pride for me. I loved surprising students in the Middle East with the truth bombs that there is no official language in the US and that anyone can openly practice any religion they want in the States (a fact that would immediately and shamefully change should Trump come into power).

I was told that my country is not as diverse as Australia by an Afghani Uber driver that had only been living in Australia for 5 years and had never been to the States, so I was happy to correct him, but he had made his decision to come to Australia based on his impression that America was unwelcoming to other cultures and that he would not find "friendly people who would like him" there. I didn't ask him how he had reached this conclusion, I was too saddened by the fact that my home, "the land of opportunity" seemed like a daunting, exclusionary, unfriendly country to someone who had previously lived UNDER THE TALIBAN. I quickly corrected him and told him all about how our major cities and even some of our smaller cities were very diverse, including large pockets of Muslim immigrants and refugees.

4. "What's the deal with Americans and guns?"

The most frequently cited source of information regarding gun control reform that Australians quote is the Jim Jefferies bit from his Netlfix special (warning: lots of choice words in this one)

It's fun for me to follow this comment up with the fact that I have never held nor fired a gun in my entire life. That fact also surprises a lot of Americans (including my non-gun-fanatic, boy scout, military brat of a husband who loves firing guns), but it's a point of pride for me and I don't plan to change it any time soon. (actual quote after Tyler read this sentence: "You really don't want to fire a gun? I feel like you should try it at least once. It's pretty fun." #America)

Yes, it's true that a lot of Americans get real fired up (pun TOTALLY intended) about guns and there is no easy solution to the gun problem in our country. I generally remind Australians that things aren't as easy as a sweeping ban on guns like what followed the Port Arthur massacre because America's population is dramatically larger than Australia's (over 380 million in America versus just over 26 million here) and, despite what my Afghani Uber driver friend thinks, an exponentially more diverse population of very opinionated citizens that are not easily pleased or willing to part with what they feel they have every right to own. I end things by saying I am happy to no longer live in a place where I have to consider how I will throw myself between a bullet and my students like I did when I was teaching at home, but all the guns in the world can't prevent me from being crazy homesick on a regular basis.

Vicariously yours,

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Sydney: Meh

Months ago, while our friend Marisol was visiting for her Christmas vacation, we took a short trip over to Sydney. I haven't written about this trip because all three of us were less than impressed with what is probably Australia's most iconic city. We had big expectations for Sydney. When you google "Australia," photos of the Sydney harbor bridge and opera house are unavoidable. If you ask most Americans to name a city in Australia, Sydney's usually the first and only one that comes to fact if you ask most Americans what the capital of Australia is they are shocked to learn it's NOT Sydney.

Anyway, despite all the warnings from our Melburnian friends that Sydney would be less cool than our latest home, we boarded the thrifty regional flight expecting Travel Channel worthy fun times.


To be clear, I'm 100% sure there are tons of tourists every day that have the opposite impression of Sydney, but those tourists are likely travelling on a cruise ship excursion, visiting friends with cars and a local knowledge of where to go, or have limitless money to pay for ubers or tour companies to cart them around. They also probably don't spend a whole lot of time in the city itself, choosing instead to catch some sun at one of the surrounding beaches.

We found Sydney to be infuriating, confusing, and WAY over hyped. Here's why:

The public transit was incomprehensible and a huge waste of time. Before we left I found the official app for Opal, Sydney's public transit system. The Melbourne equivalent of this app is clutch for our survival here so I figured the Opal app would be similarly useful to our enjoyment of Sydney.


I should have known it was strange when we landed, I opened the Opal app, plugged in the airport as our starting point and the address of our airbnb as the destination and there were ZERO POSSIBLE ROUTES. What?! Like there isn't even a route to get us sort of close to the address? I knew for a fact there was a public transit route since I chose the apartment because of its doorstep proximity to a public ferry port...why was that port not showing up on this search?

It took forever to find a route that got us sort of close to the apartment and over an hour and a half to actually make the journey that we came to find out should have only taken 45 minutes. The bus stops in the city are confusingly marked, and when we asked a bus driver for information on his route, he barked that we just needed to check the timetable on the bus stop...but there was no timetable on the stop, that's why we were asking!! After we got out of the city center, the bus stops were marked with a yellow sign that did not have the name of the stop, the routes that stopped there, or the timetable for any of those routes. You just had to intuit that the yellow sign was a bus stop and hope the route you wanted would stop there.

That's me on my phone trying to navigate us to...ANYWHERE! I had to constantly switch between my phone's web browser and my google maps app to triangulate our location and try to guess when to get off the bus. 
 It took us about 2 days to fully understand public transit in Melbourne, but even with super basic knowledge and the PTV app we were able to navigate ourselves without issue on our very first day here. We were in Sydney for 3 days and never got the hang of the public transit. It got to the point that it stressed me out so much that I didn't want to leave the apartment because it meant at least an hour of trying to make sense of the bus/ferry/train schedules and routes.

I'm not sure what we will do for our next trip to Sydney. We both have driven on the wrong side of the road, but neither of us have experience driving in a big city and do NOT want to be the trope of American tourists that find themselves facing on-coming traffic in the middle of rush hour. Now that I've got a better handle on the layout of the city and what is actually worth seeing, we would probably stay somewhere suburban or close to one of the beaches rather than in the city itself. Maybe we'll just convince future out-of-town guests that Sydney is best visited through Google searches...

Anyway, the ferry ride to our apartment ended up being my favorite part of our trip. I love being on the water and our ferry route took us straight through the harbor with close up views of the bridge and the opera house. The nice part about not being able to access some of the cooler parts of the city was that we got a lot of quality time with Marisol and enjoyed some nice meals together before she had to leave us to return to the sandbox. I'm glad it was Marisol that joined us for our first out-of-Melbourne excursion in Australia.

Vicariously yours,

Editor's note: After reading this post Tyler said, "I think you should be nicer to Sydney. There were some things we saw that were really cool."

"Like what?" I said.

"....the ferry ride was really neat."

"Yeah, I said that."

"....well...yeah that's about it."

Sorry, Sydney. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

White Night

It's been a stressful summer for the Mister and me thanks to all work coming to a screeching halt for a few weeks and us having to decide between groceries and paying the power bill at one point. We count ourselves among the lucky that the financial tough times were short lived and we are both back to working more hours and have picked up a couple more odd jobs to supplement, too. Our days of living paycheck to paycheck are hopefully numbered because our FBI checks, the final pieces of our registering-to-teach-in-Australia puzzles, are FINALLY arriving in the mail so hopefully we'll be back in a classroom soon.

Anyway, a few weeks back after a very long day of working two jobs, I dragged myself out to the streets of Melbourne at midnight to see what all the hype about something called White Night was all about. It sounded like a thinly veiled Trump rally, but in fact it has been an annual all-night celebration of art in Melbourne for a few years. Main streets in the core downtown area were closed and became one massive, pedestrian-friendly, music and art drenched public party from 7pm till 7am.

As previously mentioned, I had worked two jobs that day, so I had been standing for at least 13 hours and I was TIRED, but almost as soon as I stepped off the tram, my energy was fed by the excitement on the street. I wasn't sure what to expect but I had gotten the impression that there would be lots of public art displays and maybe some late night museum strolling. I was partially right. White Night did not involve any indoor displays and almost no displays that were predominately the color white, instead it meant there were tons of street performers of all types, light displays projected on iconic buildings, and public "sculptures" stuck to buildings or roving the crowds.

The street performers ranged from really awesome musicians to...this.

The crowd quickly swelled around him, perplexed by what he was going to do with the flame and the balloon...

Deep throat it, apparently. The whole display was oddly interesting and yet off putting at the same time. I moved on. Other street performers were really great. Most of them were musicians and it was the closest to Nashville I have felt in a long time. The streets were alive with music, you just had to stroll down the road and listen to the genres, songs, and instrumental styles change. I always tell people that my favorite thing about Nashville is that the streets sing, and on White Night the streets of Melbourne sang.

The other really cool thing about White Night was the light displays. My feet could only handle seeing one or two of them, and from what I could tell the ones I saw weren't even the best ones, but I was so grateful for the chance to sit and be mesmerized by the undulating colors and sounds.

This is the State Library of Victoria, a major hang out spot outside Melbourne Central Station, but on White Night is was transformed into a public dance party. Before I arrived there had been some internationally known DJ, but by the time I got there the music was just a recording, but the dance party was in full force.

There was another light display like this one, but better from what I've been told, about half a mile down the street at the Melbourne Museum. I couldn't manage that walk. There were other smaller light displays that were hidden away on other buildings and it was really fun to find them as I strolled along Swanston Street.

The public sculptures were also pretty cool. There was this giant inflatable golden monkey attached to Melbourne Town Hall

I don't know the significance of the monkey or if there was any symbolism going on there. I got the impression that monkeys are a theme for this particular artist and she has created primate-themed exhibits for White Night for a couple years.

There were also these roving sculptures that worked their way through the city all night, and one of them was this very small school of "jellyfish."

All of the exhibits were profiled on the White Night website, and I really wanted to see these jellyfish but I was not willing to wander the city for hours in hopes of running into them. Thankfully they crossed my path as I was making my way to the train station to head home for the night.

They were a little anticlimactic, but I could only imagine that the artists that were giving the jellyfish "life" were feeling pretty low on energy after roaming the crowded streets for 6 hours at that point. They probably were a little more convincing when the night started at 7pm.

Even though other people complained that this year's White Night was really disappointing, I was thoroughly entertained with my first experience. I definitely want to make a night of it next year, planning to take the night off from work, get dressed up, and grab a trendy dinner downtown before joining the party. All the art displays were free, the crowd was very well behaved, and I really wished I'd had the energy to hunt down all the cool sights before the party ended at 7am.

If y'all are feeling up for a late summer night in Melbourne, come visit us next mid-February!

Vicariously yours,