Posted by: asprockett | September 15, 2013

Celebrating My Birthday Down Under

I’m all about extending my birthday celebrations and even made it last from August until October one year, thanks to my brother. (Although I think I “helped” him extend from June until December one year by forgetting to buy a gift…) So, while not a record, I have fully enjoyed the two weeks I got to spend celebrating my birthday this year. And it was a big one: my first birthday abroad, my first winter birthday, and the start of a new decade. I want to sincerely thank everyone across the globe for making it such a wonderful birthday!

Birthday photo outside the Opera House.

Birthday photo outside the Opera House.

Here’s what we did to celebrate:

The weeks of celebration started with dinner at Pancakes on the Rocks, featuring one of my favorite foods: that’s right, pancakes! I love, love, love pancakes. And, although I’m a fairly decent chef (and a modest one, as you can see), I cannot make pancakes properly. That makes me extremely grateful for a husband who makes them really well.

We then went to Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead at the Sydney Theatre Company. The play featured Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz and was one of the best and most hilarious plays I’ve seen. We sat in the front row and were a bit concerned when the Rosencrantz and Gildenstern prepared to spit into the audience but were totally ready to catch Tim when he was about to jump overboard (they were on a ship at that point in the play) and into our laps. Had we been able, I would have returned every night for the rest of the run, I enjoyed it that much. I am now also officially a fan of both Tim and Toby and am actively seeking other opportunities to see them perform.


Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead at the Sydney Theatre Company.

My actual birthday was packed with even more things I enjoy. Dan and I went to breakfast in Rushcutter’s Bay and had delicious frittatas sitting in the warm sunshine. (Yes, a winter birthday, but a Sydney winter birthday. And yes, I’m being a wuss in the picture above wearing a warm coat and gloves. But give me a break — it was probably all the way down to 55F that night…!)

Breakfast in Rushcutter's Bay.

Breakfast in Rushcutter’s Bay.

With a little time to work in the afternoon (hey, I’m still a student with responsibilities!), we then headed to Blue Bar on 36 at the Shangri La. From the 36th floor, it has a stunning view of the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, especially with the setting sun.

For dinner we went to 4Fourteen, Colin Fassnidge’s restaurant in Surry Hills. Colin and the restaurant were featured on “My Kitchen Rules,” the first Australian television show we got hooked on. I was honestly nervous walking in the door, wondering if Collin would be there. Even though we didn’t get to meet him, we did enjoy a tasty dinner and time together.

Dinner at 4Fourteen in Surry Hills.

Dinner at 4Fourteen in Surry Hills.

And to finish the extended celebration, we took a Kangarrific Tour trip to Hunter Valley with friends on a most perfect weather day. It was an excellent tour, and one I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Sydney with a bit of extra time for a day trip out of the city. We started with a stop at the Walkabout Animal Park where I ticked off one of the things I most wanted to do in Australia: pet a koala! (Interesting fact: it is illegal to hold a koala in New South Wales. It actually requires special training in this state.) But not only did I get to pet a koala (a very plush-furred animal), I got to pet a wallaroo, kangaroo and emu. I had to sneak up on the emu, but I was determined to pet both animals on the Australian shield. Being able to pet so many native animals was truly a dream! Had the trip ended there, I would have been perfectly happy.

Making dreams come true (and it only took a bit over 6 months of living in Australia to make it happen!): Wildlife Walkabout Park.

Making dreams come true (and it only took a bit over 6 months of living in Australia to make it happen!): Wildlife Walkabout Park.

At the Walkabout Park we also saw two kangaroos fighting, using their hands and legs to pick back and forth. When they were kicking with their legs, they would stand on their incredible strong tails. (These pictures are mostly for our nephews and nieces who have asked about boxing kangaroos.)

"Boxing" kangaroos.

“Boxing” kangaroos. They actually stand on their tails like a third leg so they can kick with power.

From the Walkabout Park we headed to chocolate tasting. Yeah, you’re seeing more and more why I would recommend this trip, eh? We had a private chocolate tasting and time to browse the chocolate store and bring home a few treats.

Chocolate taste with a photobomber in the background. It's OK. He's part of the group!

Chocolate taste with a photobomber in the background. It’s OK. He’s part of the group!

It was then off to our first wine tasting at the Warraroong Estate Winery, a small boutique winery.

Warrangaroo Winery. The girls and the boys.

Warraroong Winery. The girls and the boys.

Our tour guide, Sam, taught us about the region and wine as we traveled along. At Warraroong Estate Winery, we sampled six different wines before moving on to our next stop, the Smelly Cheese Shop (located at the Tempus Two winery) and cheese tastings. We are a fan of strong and smelly cheese, so from the name we knew we were headed to a happy place. (And you see, yet again, why I so enjoyed this tour!) At the shop, we found the best blue cheese we’ve ever tried: Viking Blue Cheese. Although I would have also happily spent more time devouring many of the fetas mixed with pestos.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch overlooking the vineyard before tasting the Tempus Two wines. Tempus Two is a commercial winery, which means we’ll be looking for their wines when we arrive back home in the United States. Here’s a fun thing to hear when you’re wine tasting: “Come on in – you can try as many as you like!” After 7 or 8 tastings at Tempus Two, we were ready for our next stop: Mount View Winery, another boutique winery. We tasted 15 wines. I can only tell you that, though, because we counted the number of bottles in one of Dan’s photos.

Proof of our marathon tasting at winery #3.

Proof of our marathon tasting at winery #3.

After that marathon tasting, we headed outside to take photos with the beautiful view.

Wonderful friends for a wonderful day in the Hunter Valley.

Wonderful friends for a wonderful day in the Hunter Valley.

The final tour stop was to Potter’s Brewery, with a special 2-for-1 deal for Kangarrific tour guests. Bonus! (Literally!)

How do you follow-up wine tasting? Obviously with beer tasting.

How do you follow-up wine tasting? Obviously with beer tasting.

At Potter’s Brewery, a good friend on the tour yelled to me that there was definitely a very different feeling to a winery tasting versus a brewery tasting. I’ve never thought about it, but she was absolutely right, as I don’t recall any yelling prior in the day. OK. Maybe a little as we enthusiastically told Sam about our favorite wines after tasting at the Warraroong Estate Winery. Needless to say, we had a happy crowd for the drive home.

And, to top it all off, my two of my cousins came out to Sydney to visit in honor of my birthday. OK, so maybe it wasn’t just for my birthday, but in my efforts to extend the celebration that’s how I’m counting it. But that deserves its own post.

It’s been quite a successful birthday – this new year is off to a fantastic start!

Posted by: asprockett | September 12, 2013

Angry Birds: On Location at Cockatoo Island

AKA, the next addition to the Angry Birds gaming family. And no, the birds that were angry were, ironically, not cockatoos. I’ll get to that.

To pay homage to our most recent home (and my supporting Rotary Club in Ohio), we went to the harbor’s north shore to take a few glamor shots.

Love from Ohio (slash Nebraska slash California).

Love from Ohio (slash Nebraska slash California).

Then, as part of our Sydney touring, we visited Cockatoo Island, a formal penal colony. OK, yes, you could describe all of Australia that way, but go with me. Since it’s an island, we took the ferry on a lovely little ride through the harbor. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired or lose the fun of taking a ferry as part of my normal transportation!

Cockatoo Island was off limits to the public for more than 100 years, only opening to the public in 2005. In 2010 it was added to the World Heritage list. I feel like we’ve really hit the timing right to be able to visit the island and see the early stages of its restoration.

Old machinery workshop, currently in the process of being restored.

Old machinery workshop, currently in the process of being restored.

The island became a jail in 1839. By 1850, the prisoners were being “employed” to build ships for, among other customers, for the Royal Navy. Then for a period from 1870 to 1880, the prisoners were moved off the island and it was converted into a reformatory for girls and later also for boys. Interestingly, girls who had “gone bad” were seen as lost causes, while boys could still be reformed. Significant ship building activities (unrelated to the reformatory schools, as far as I can tell!) continued on the island and it even reverted to a jail for a period.

Nowadays you can tour the island for free and even stay (at a low cost) overnight on the island. There are guest houses to rent or you can camp in one of the many tents provided. And I’m not talking roughing it: there are plenty of toilets, showers and even a cot to sleep on at night in what I would consider to be fairly roomy tents.

Tents for overnight stays at Cockatoo Island.

Tents for overnight stays at Cockatoo Island.

We followed an audio tour around the island on a beautiful sunny day.

Touring and learning -- that's how we like to roll!

Touring and learning — that’s how we like to roll!

Part of the tour guides you along the cliffs…and through nesting seagulls. A sign warned us that the seagulls were aggressive, but wow. That is an understatement. I still think of seagulls like the ones in Finding Nemo, a bit unintelligent and pretty easy going. (“Mine? Mine?”)

There had to be at least 20 nests with mama and papa seagulls scattered about on either side of our short little walk. As we passed through the many nests along the cliffs, the nesting seagulls and the male protecting seagulls puffed themselves up and squawked aggressively, taking challenging steps in our direction. I grabbed onto Dan and rushed through (as fast as possible on cliffs in flip flops!). Dan still managed to snap a few pictures while I scuttled off onto the safety of the bridge and away from the seagull nests.

Seagull protecting its nest. It worked.

Seagull protecting its nest. It worked.

From Cockatoo Island we took the ferry to Balmain and had a delicious Thai lunch at the London Hotel. Another great day of exploring!

Posted by: asprockett | September 5, 2013

Hiking a Volcano: Rangitoto Island in Auckland, New Zealand

After all of our adventures, I have concluded that Auckland is a challenging city for Dan and I to actually get to, despite the good vibes I know we’ve been putting out about how much we are lovin’ on New Zealand. We planned to travel from Rotorua to Auckland in the evening so that we could maximize our time in Rotorua. As we pulled out of Rotorua heading to Auckland, our bus driver warned us that if the bus got pulled over by the police, we would get slapped with a $150 fine if we weren’t wearing our seatbelts. And the company would get penalized $1500 (per person), the cost of which they would gladly pass along to the offending un-seatbelted party. Although we were already belted, you better believe we double and triple checked that buckle!

So, inevitably, less than 30 minutes into our drive, we got pulled over. Oh yes, our seatbelt buckles were still holding tight – have no fear! After 30 minutes on the side of the road, it appeared we were pulled over due to a problem with the brake lights on the bus. Now, I’m not quite sure why we continued to drive for another half hour before pulling over and allowing the necessary “fix-it” part to catch up to us from Rotorua, but that’s exactly what we did. While we waited for the part to actually arrive and then the bus to be fixed, we chilled out with our books and some free coffee from Subway. Perks?

When we finally arrived in Auckland, an hour and a half later than expected (which, OK, that’s really not so bad), we hiked the hills up to our hostel and slept in one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept in. The Youth Hostel Association (YHA) has treated us right on this trip, let me tell you!

View of Auckland Central Business District (CBD) from our hostel window.

View of Auckland Central Business District (CBD) from our hostel window.

In the morning we took a ferry to Rangitoto Island in the Hauraki Gulf. The island was formed only 600 years ago from a series of volcanic eruptions. What’s really fascinating, is that it sits right next to, nearly kissing, Motutapu Island, one of the oldest islands in the gulf (dating back to the Jurassic period)! So that’s take a moment to reflect on that: we were hiking on a volcano!

After arriving on the island, we headed straight up to the peak, sitting 260 m above sea level. It’s a pretty solid hour-long hike on fairly steep hills up to the crater and then on to the peak of the island. The view is totally worth it.


Dan hiking Rangitoto Island.


A view from our lunch spot at the top of the volcano.

Views from the top of Rangitoto Island.

View from near the top of Rangitoto Island.

At the summit, we met the most adorable family: two mums and six children, the oldest child couldn’t have been more than nine and the youngest was only a few months old. Let’s put this in context. The hike to the summit took Dan and me a good hour, and that’s setting a pretty quick pace. We passed this family of 8 on our way off the ferry and they arrived only about 15 minutes after us at the top. Color me impressed!

From the summit we followed the family down to the lava flow caves. The signage caused a bit of confusion and resulted in me crawling through some very narrow spaces in a cave to “check it out.” I was more than happy to let the adventurous explorer children squeeze into the other side to see what was going on.

It turns out, these were not the caves we were meant to crawl through. About three minutes further down the path we found two large lava flow caves to pick our way through. So cool! And so unlike anything I’ve experienced!

Dan exploring the lava flow caves.

Dan exploring the lava flow caves.

We took the ferry back to Auckland for dinner before heading to our hotel near the airport for our last night in New Zealand.

Dan waiting for the ferry.

Dan waiting for the ferry.

We tried to stop for dinner along Vulcan Lane, but were denied by the senior citizen dinner times (aka, the restaurants closed by 4:30 pm).

Dan knows the secret of how to get into the buildings on Vulcan Lane, but that still didn't get us dinner there.

Dan knows the secret of how to get into the buildings on Vulcan Lane, but that still didn’t get us dinner there.

Although we’d already eaten at Revive Cafe during our first day in Auckland and would not normally make a repeat in such close time proximity, especially while traveling, we knew the deliciousness it would offer us and bent our rules.

Being budget travelers, I reserved the cheapest room available at a hotel near the airport to accommodate our early morning flight. Our budget hotel, however, is larger than our last apartment in Cleveland. There is a king-sized bed, two twins, a dining table, an equipped kitchen and a bathroom.

Dan in our hotel room that could sleep, oh, probably 24!

Dan in our hotel room that could sleep, oh, probably 24!

This was a complete surprise ending to a very memorable holiday!

It's OK. This guy says to "relax" until our gate is announced for our flight back to Sydney.

It’s OK. This guy says to “relax” until our gate is announced for our flight back to Sydney.

Well, Dan called it. I am officially becoming a hot springs holiday aficionado. When we first started researching all the fun things to do in New Zealand, we were a bit overwhelmed with all the top-notch options. But when Dan found the natural hot springs in Rotorua, that easily moved to the top of the list. For those who know me, they know I don’t like to be cold. So the idea of handing out and enjoying hot springs, especially when we found out they also came with an incredible view (see photos below!), I was sold.

We arrived in Rotorua and checked into our hostel. The Youth Hostel Association (YHA) was far better than I could have possibly imagined: clean, quiet, plenty of showers, recycling, comfortable beds, towels, and an enormous and fully equipped kitchen.

Dan making hamburgers in our gourmet hostel kitchen.

Dan making hamburgers in our gourmet hostel kitchen.

I’ve found the key to hosteling is to think of it like glorified camping and not like staying in a hotel. It goes easier on you that way. But the YHA Rotorua was impressive and is a place I would stay again, regardless of my financial status. So right off the bat, our trip south on the North Island of New Zealand was off to a good start.

Before traveling to New Zealand, I had reached out to some of the local Rotary clubs and was kindly invited to speak at the Rotorua Sunrise Club’s meeting. Now, I’m happy to talk about my journey and my current studies in International Public Health to anyone who will listen, so when you add the serious bonus of the breakfast buffet the Novotel Hotel puts on, you can believe I (and Dan who also came to the meeting) was one happy hosteler.

Posing with Rotary banners representing clubs all around the world after presenting to the Rotorua Sunrise Club.

Posing with Rotary banners representing clubs all around the world after presenting to the Rotorua Sunrise Club.

We took it easy in Rotorua (needing to catch up from the night before’s lack of sleep) and ventured over to the Polynesian Day Spa and it’s hot springs in the mid afternoon for my first experience with natural hot springs. The spa offers several different hot springs choices, so we opted for the seven (yes, seven!) hot spring pools in the Adult & Priest Spas. (The spas were named for a priest who, after sitting in the waters, received much relief from his arthritis.)

The pools have either acidic or alkaline waters, ranging in temperature from 37°C to 42°C (99°F to 107°F). The acidic water does give the whole town a slight sulfur smell, but honestly, you don’t really notice most of the time. And the perk of sitting in these fresh, warm, natural waters completely outweighs everything else in my book! Apparently the acidic pools are supposed to be good for your muscles and the alkaline pools good for your skin. I’ll have to research the science behind that, but for the time-being, I’m happy to just accept that I felt pretty darn good after sitting in both pools.

Our view from the geothermal pools. Yes, we did try out all seven!

Our view from the geothermal pools. Yes, we did try out all seven!

We spent several hours hopping from pool to pool, enjoying the view and the setting sun. I’ve found that 39°C is my ideal hot springs pool temperature. My little crush on New Zealand turned into a full-out love affair after our day in the springs.

The next day we ventured to Te Whakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawahiao. What’s that? Didn’t quite catch the name? It’s Maori for “The gathing place for the war parties of Wahiao” but for tourists like us, you can find information about it under “Te Puia.” Te Puia was designed to preserve, honor and educate others, especially young Maori, about traditional arts, knowledge and culture of the Maori people.

Carved wooden masks of Maori gods.

Wooden carvings of Maori gods.

Selected Maori candidates can apply for 3-year apprenticeship education at the Carving School or the Weaving School. It is uplifting to see the effort that has been put into respecting, honoring and continuing the beauty of the Maori culture. It is encouraging to see the strong role Maori leaders play in New Zealand and the work they do to teach about their history.

To get a feel for that history, we started our day at Te Puia with a cultural performance sharing traditional songs, stories and dances.

Maori cultural performance.

Maori cultural performance.

And yes, we both had the opportunity to participate, but no, we do not have rhythm. Although I must say, Dan did impressively well at the Haka (war) dance.

Giving it our best effort to learn Maori dances. The Poi dance for me and the Haka for Dan.

Giving it our best effort to learn Maori dances. The Poi dance for me and the Haka for Dan.

The Maori would use the dance to psych themselves up before a battle and to try to intimidate their opponents before the fight even started. Believe me, if I were their opponent, I would have r-u-n! The New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, have adapted the haka as part of their pregame ritual.

We then went on a guided tour that took us to the hot springs, Pohutu Geyser (it was going off!), and Ngamokaikoko mudpool. The mud is 90-95°C and boils as you watch it.

Geyser erupting.

Pohutu Geyser erupting.

Near the geyser cement was laid over the ground, creating “hot seats” where the warmth from the geothermal springs warms the concrete. On a chilly day, I found my happy place right there, toasting my buns while enjoying the view.

My happy place.

My happy place.

Our guide also took us through the kiwi house. Kiwis, the endangered national bird of New Zealand, are nocturnal birds and sleep 18-20 hours each day. We felt incredibly fortunate to actually see one of the two birds in the enclosure up and foraging about. Dan and I were both surprised at their size, which is closer to that of a volleyball as opposed to the baseball size we had imagined. Their feathers look more like fur and they use their long beaks to find food in the ground. Fascinating animals!

We also got to see New Zealand’s famous silver fern, featured on the All Black’s jersey and many other places throughout the country. There is even discussion of changing New Zealand’s flag to feature the silver fern.

Dan with the New Zealand silver fern (Cyathea dealbata).

Dan with the New Zealand silver fern (Cyathea dealbata).

We spent a bit more time hiking about the area, making a second stop at the hot seats, and exploring the museum before heading back into Rotorua. We popped in the shops and even found (and made a purchase at) Charity’s, a local store supported by Rotorua Sunrise Rotary and donates all profits to charity.

We also started plotting how we can return to New Zealand, especially since I’ve added “own and frequently visit a vacation home in New Zealand” to my bucket list!

Posted by: asprockett | August 28, 2013

On Holiday: Auckland, New Zealand

We recognize that we’re not spring chickens anymore and a bed at night with a full night of sleep is necessary to our ability to function. However, when our airline canceled our 11:00 am flight and offered us an 11:50 pm overnight flight and no alternatives, we decided to pretend we could still easily pull all-nighters. (Spoiler alert: we could not.)

So, our flight to Auckland, New Zealand didn’t start with the best of circumstances, but the good news is that the flight was so unbelievably terrible that we’re pretty sure we just made an episode of Candid Camera. Friends and family, be on the lookout for us!

Dan and I were seated as the only two in a row of three seats with no one in front of us and no one behind us. With lift-off only minutes away, I was eyeing those empty seats and imagining stretching out and actually getting in a few hours of sleep during our overnight flight. But about 10 seconds before the airplane doors officially closed, a family of five joined our flight.

Now, when I say that this family was unusually large, I’m not taking a crack at their weight. Imagine taking an average person and doubling their size in every dimension. All five of them (three sitting in front of us who promptly leaned their seats all the way back, and two behind us) were absolutely enormous. I felt a bit like Frodo when he stands next to Boromir in Lord of the Rings. (I suppose this was appropriate, since we were heading to New Zealand, where the movie was filmed.) The two men behind us were so tall that their knees stuck into our backs, giving us an unsolicited and rather unpleasant back massage for the duration of the flight.

To make make things even more uncomfortable, they continued to carried on a conversation across our row like we were not even there. This very stimulating 3 1/2 hour conversation was punctuated by “what?” and “hey?” every third sentence as they bantered back and forth across the rows. Yes. I counted. At one point I started to wonder if all my time at Sydney Uni (aka Hogwarts — see my previous posts, if this doesn’t make sense) had turned me into a wizard wearing an invisibility cape. They loudly chatted, sang and passed chocolates dripping with caramel back and forth. When it came time to fill out their customs form, the man sitting behind Dan actually put his thick hands over the top of Dan’s chair so his forarm rested on Dan’s head. Needless to say, we didn’t get much sleep. Or any chocolates. But that’s the price you pay, right? We would gladly have offered to switched seats, but it was such a production for them to get into the seats in the first place (not to mention that they had  sneezed and coughed over everything), that we just didn’t even try.

With a grand total of 2.3 minutes of sleep between us, our first day in Auckland was a bit groggy. And yet, despite my fog, I started crushing pretty hard on New Zealand within hours of landing.

View of downtown Auckland.

View of downtown Auckland on a clear day.

After breakfast by the wharf, we strolled down Quay Street toward the Parnell Rose Gardens in the (literally) foggy morning. We missed our turn (we hadn’t worked out who was in charge of navigation, yet) and ended up strolling quite a distance along Quay Street. At one point, we both looked out at the water and remarked how amazing it was that it was just open ocean out there. On our second day in Auckland we learned that there are actually a lot of islands in the harbor from all of the volcanic activity.

Walking along Quay Street in the fog.

Walking along Quay Street in the fog. It turns out there are heaps of islands behind me.

We didn’t realize that by walking to Parnell we were actually walking into one of Auckland’s oldest suburbs, dating back to 1841. The suburb is named after Samuel Parnell, the man who initiated the 8-hour day, otherwise known as the 40-hour work week. I continue to be impressed by the value both Australia and New Zealand put on work-life balance. What we failed to process in our site-seeing selection was that we were visiting Auckland in winter. Now, I’m not known for my green thumb, but I do know that roses aren’t particularly a strong winter flower. Unfortunately, I did not follow that logic trail before setting a course for the rose gardens. Thankfully the Parnell Rose Gardens were still sporting a one or two unique roses for our enjoyment.

Parnell Rose Garden.

Parnell Rose Garden.

What wasn’t overly obvious on the map was the adjoining park with gently sloping paths. Despite the winter months, the trees still had leaves and the birds were out for our enjoyment. What is really fascinating is that 71% of bird species in New Zealand are native (aka, beat the humans to the island) and are therefore unique to the island. We took a leisurely walk through the park, eventually coming across this monstrosity:

Gem = tree, not person in tree. ;)

The monstrosity is the tree, not the person in the tree. 😉

We then trekked to the University of Auckland, imaging what life would be like if I were studying there. (University of Auckland was another school on my list of potential Rotary placements.) U of A is the largest university in New Zealand with an enrollment of nearly 40,000 students. That makes sense, since nearly 1/3 of New Zealand’s population lives in Auckland.

The University of Auckland.

The University of Auckland.

"Big D" -- with a metal sculpture in his hand.

“Big D” — with a metal sculpture in his hand.

After lunch and some quality time at the Auckland Library following a failed attempt to visit the Auckland Museum of Art, we boarded a bus for Rotorua – our destination for the next two days.

We know how to roll...

Dan had to ask an old woman to move to take this picture. Totally worth it.

Posted by: asprockett | July 31, 2013

Going on Holiday: Marvellous Melbourne

Dan and I decided to take a short holiday before the start of second semester classes. In a week-long trip, we planned to visit Melbourne, Australia and two cities in New Zealand, Auckland and Rotorua.

The first thing you ought to know when traveling to Melbourne is that there are two airports: Avalon (about an hour south of the city and closer to the coast) and Tellamurine (closest to the city). This may or may not factor into your travel plans, depending on how much time and financial flexibility you have. But when you see $35 flights to Melbourne, you jump on them and don’t think twice about which airport you’re flying to.  Hey, we’ll count it as a bonus tour of the Melbourne countryside.

When we arrived from our scenic tour at the Southern Cross Train Station, we  checked into our hostel and set off exploring the city.

An evening view of Southern Cross Station.

An evening view of Southern Cross Station trains and Melbourne.

To get our bearings, we decided to follow a free walking tour I downloaded online. We started our exploration at St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, which is near the center of downtown directly across from Federation Square.

Federation Square.

Federation Square.

Flinders Street Train Station, across from Federation Square, the starting point for our walking tour.

Flinders Street Train Station, across from Federation Square, the starting point for our walking tour.

While it’s a beautiful church, we will return with no pictures, as St. Paul’s charges $5.00 for a “license” to take photos. We were met at the door of the church by a sweet, elderly woman who offered us a pamphlet for a free, self-guided tour of the church.

After our trip from narthex to alter and back, we returned the pamphlet since, let’s face it, we would have thrown it away. She politely asked us where we were from, which is now a question I can no longer properly answer without also offering the asker a cup of coffee and scone as I explain how I now identify home. Dan saved the poor women and answered, “We stay in Sydney, but we’re from the United States.” To which she promptly replied, “Oh, well Melbourne is better.” We must have given her a curious look because she pressed us further, “Melbourne is better than Sydney.” Not knowing what to do with that, we simply offered polite smiles headed to the next stop on the tour.

I found it a bit ironic that the first place we were officially confronted with the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry was in a church – the very place parishioners are instructed not to judge. Sydney and Melbourne each have great things going for them, but after visiting, both Dan and I remain a bit partial to Sydney. Although it is clear that Melbourne blows Sydney out of the water in one aspect: rubbish bin density. No. Seriously. I’m not being sarcastic. Sydney’s CBD seems to feel that one rubbish bin per square 5 km is sufficient. I really don’t know how they manage to keep the city so clean, because several times I’ve found myself having to walk several blocks just to throw something away. Sydney could definitely use more rubbish bins.

Our walking tour took us up Hosier Lane, an ever changing graffiti artist paradise, into the Treasury Gardens (which have a memorial to President John F. Kennedy of all things), and across to the Fitzroy Gardens.

Graffiti in Hosier Lane, one of the many sanctioned graffiti laneways in Melbourne.

Graffiti in Hosier Lane, one of the many sanctioned graffiti laneways in Melbourne.

An artist creating new art in the laneway.

An artist creating new art in the laneway.

Can you find me?

Can you find me?

I enjoyed the cozy plant conservatory (and respite from the wind), the model Tudor village (that even grown-up me wanted to play in), and the carved fairies’ tree (as long as I didn’t look too hard and get scared by the gnomes caught in the spider web).

Model Tudor Village where I would have played, if not for the fence.

Model Tudor Village where I would have played, if not for the fence.

Dan at the fairy tree,

Dan at the fairy tree. Scary spiderweb not pictured.

From the Fitzroy Garden we headed to St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral. It, like St. Paul’s, is beautifully ornate and serene. We met no judgmental seniors at this church. (But man, that would have made a better story!)

St. Paul's Cathedral.

St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The walking tour took us past the Treasury Reserve where we saw a newly married couple emerge. (I guess you get married at the Treasury instead of Town Hall here? Is that a message about marriage?) We trekked back to Federation Square and turned up Swanston Street, where we saw about 72 places we’d like to eat, passing Chinatown and Greektown on our way back to our hostel.

Our second day in Melbourne was rainy and chilly – A.K.A., a perfect museum day. We spent the entire day at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).

Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

I would highly recommend this free museum for anyone travelling to Melbourne! The museum covers moving pictures from shadow puppet productions that are 1000s of years old up to present digital media personas (including film and TV, video games, digital animation, and viral videos). We saw Cate Blanchett’s gown from Elizabeth, as well as her Oscar from The Aviator. My friends will know that I love the Oscars, and even though I’d never seen Oscar or Cate in person before moving to Australia, I feel an affinity for both.

Cate Blanchett's dress from Elizabeth and Oscar from The Aviator.

Cate Blanchett’s dress from Elizabeth and Oscar from The Aviator.

My favorite part of the museum was the sensation section. While the entire museum is highly interactive, this section was flat out playtime. Dan and I made our own flipbook showing off our highly polished dance moves, played with shadow in special effects, laughed at the “Wilhelm scream” (it really comes out quite hilarious when it’s repeated over and over in several types of movies), and watched the zoetrope three times. We also made several Matrix-style 360-degree movie shots.  Andy and Lana Wachowski, you give me a call when you’re ready for Matrix IV.

ACMI also has a movie viewing room with hours and hours of film – documentaries, shorts, animated films, feature films, and many more genres I’m unfamiliar with. We spent some time enjoying the wide variety of films we could watch, and would definitely return to this museum.

Dan in the movie viewing booth,

Dan in the movie viewing booth.

The rainy and cold weather also gave us a good excuse to use the free city circle trolley system. Although it’s a slow ride that stops at each intersection, it provides excellent tourist information…and it keeps you warm and dry. Double bonus.

For our last day in Melbourne, we started out by visiting the Queen Victoria Markets.

Honestly, we probably should have hit these markets on the first day. We were less interested in the cheap clothes and touristy trinkets, but fully taken in by the enormous food markets. We bought enough food for a large lunch, which included generous portions of brie, blue cheese and award-winning cheddar that we bought from a very passionate and persuasive cheesemonger.

Dan with the cheesemonger who sold us some of the most delicious blue, brie and cheddar cheese we've ever had!

Dan with the cheesemonger who sold us some of the most delicious blue, brie and cheddar cheese we’ve ever had!

We then checked out the State Library of Victoria, which is really a dual library and museum.

"No! I love libraries! I will save you!"

“No! I love libraries! I will save you!”

It’s core is an enormous dome, surrounded by several art and historical galleries that span the history of Melbourne, Victoria, and Australia.

Dome of the State Library of Victoria.

Dome of the State Library of Victoria.

State Library of Victoria.

State Library of Victoria.

It described how Melbourne was founded after a colony was moved from Tasmania, and how they formed a separate colony after being fed up with paying taxes to the New South Wales colonial government in far off Sydney. They specifically chose the name “Victoria” for their new colony, in a bid to win Queen Victoria’s approval. Melbourne was at one point the richest city in the world, after experiencing a gold rush in the 1850’s. The library also had a great exhibit about Ned Kelly, an infamous Victorian bushranger (the Aussie version of an outlaw or desperado), who became famous after having a shootout with the police while wearing armor made from the blades of plows.

Ned Kelly's Armor.

Ned Kelly’s Armor.

The weather was still relatively chilly, so we kept warm by wandering through Melbourne’s many famous laneways and ornate arcades before spending time in the National Gallery of Victoria.

One of the beautiful arcades.

One of the beautiful arcades.

We ended the day with coffee and tea at DeGraves Coffee in one of the little laneways where we happened to run into a friend through Rotary. Now, let me stress that I ran into someone I know “out and about” in Cleveland one time. After living there for 2 ½ years. We’ve lived in Sydney for only a few months and yet it happens quite frequently here – and now in Melbourne?! It was a fun coincidence and goes to show the power of connections!

Enjoying coffee and tea at DeGraves Espresso.

Enjoying coffee and tea at DeGraves Espresso.

So our final opinion of Melbourne? For those familiar with Sydney neighborhoods, I equate it to a large Newtown – funky, arty, anything goes-y. (With the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry, I may have just made some enemies by saying that…) Melbourne is an eclectic city filled with interesting places to explore and I’d certainly encourage people to visit.

Posted by: asprockett | July 4, 2013

July Fourth in Sydney

It’s Independence Day (or almost) in the United States. And we are incredibly lucky to have my mom and Aunt Cathy visiting us in Sydney. So what did we four Americans do to celebrate the holiday? Well, you’ll see we packed quite a bit into our day!

We started the day at the local farmer’s market for shopping and breakfast, followed by a ferry ride to Circular Quay.

Crepes from the local market and a ferry ride into Circular Quay.

Crepes from the local market and a ferry ride into Circular Quay.

With the beautiful weather, it was a great day to take some pictures at the Quay.

Obligatory jumping picture. Check out the air these two ladies are getting!

Obligatory jumping picture. Check out the air these two ladies are getting!

We then strolled through the Rocks and up to the Observatory.

Says it all. And for those who can't read the subtitle, it says, "See why we're all made of stardust."

Says it all. And for those who can’t read the subtitle, it says, “See why we’re all made of stardust.”

After a lunch we headed to Bondi Beach to stroll along the beach cliffs and, of course, to test out the winter water.


We shopped a bit then had a delicious tapas dinner at Mojo Tapas. After dinner we star gazed and successfully located the Southern Cross (thanks to the star map we picked up at the Observatory earlier in the day).

We're showing off the day's purchases. I am wearing Dan's new sweatshirt because I was a bit chilly during star gazing. Hey, it got down to 17C (63F). Gotta love Sydney winters!

We’re showing off the day’s purchases. I am wearing Dan’s new sweatshirt because I was a bit chilly during star gazing. Hey, it got down to 17C (63F). Gotta love Sydney winters!

A great end to our first week with wonderful family!

Posted by: asprockett | June 27, 2013

Leadership Spill Leads to a New Australian Prime Minister

These last few days have been very exciting in Australia, and not just because of the second of three State of Origin Rugby League games between the Blues and the Maroons. On Wednesday, June 26, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) held a leadership spill. Here is where I should back up.

In Australia, you don’t vote directly for the prime minister. Rather, you vote for your political party of choice who then votes internally for the leader of their party. If that political party wins the majority in Parliament, the leader of the party becomes the prime minister. Follow that? So when you vote (and voting is mandatory in Australia), you know who is leading your party of choice which generally means you know who you are electing as prime minister. However, you are actually voting for the political party, not the person. And in situations like this Wednesday, the party can decide to change its leadership through what’s called a leadership spill. When the party is the majority in power that leadership change results in a change in Australia’s Prime Minister.

Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister three years ago. She was serving as Deputy Prime Minister to PM Kevin Rudd when Rudd lost the support of the Labor Party. A leadership spill was held, and Gillard was elected head of the majority party, therefore becoming Prime Minister in 2010.

Since that time, she has faced harsh criticism of her political leadership, much of which centered on how she has dealt with Australia’s refugees and the carbon tax. According to news media reports, the Gillard administration is so unpopular that nearly everyone is predicting that the Labor Party will lose the majority of ministerial seats in parliament, and current Opposition Leader Tony Abbott will be elected Australia’s next Prime Minister.

With an election looming this September, there has been serious debate over ALP leadership, with rumblings of a leadership change with a return to former prime minister, Kevin Rudd. Several polls have indicated that the ALP will lose fewer Parliamentary seats with Rudd leading the party instead of Gillard. And although Rudd had previously declared that he would not challenge Gillard in a leadership spill, members of the party began clamoring for change.

So, after weeks of discussion and with only two days remaining in sitting Parliament, Gillard was asked to call for a leadership vote, and so she scheduled it at 7 pm on Wednesday (just an hour before the start of the all-important State of Origin game). The thinking was supposedly that with only 1 hour and 45 minutes to prepare for the vote it would throw the Labor opposition into disarray and would allow Gillard to win the contest. Both Gillard and Rudd agreed that whoever lost the vote would immediately retire from politics. We are talking all or nothing here! After an hour of balloting, returning officer Chris Hayes, announced Rudd was the victor with a 57 to 45 vote in his favor. While the news media had many questions, Hayes didn’t have time to address them, essentially saying, “State of Origin is on. Go Blues!”

There was further speculation that Abbott and the opposition Liberal party would call for a vote of no confidence on Thursday morning, making Rudd the shortest reigning prime minister ever. A vote of no confidence is taken in the lower house of Parliament. If the majority of members vote no confidence in the current government the prime minister is required to resign. The governor-general (the Queen’s representative in Australia) will then call on the opposition leader to form a new government, essentially handing the power to the opposing party (aka, the party who called for the no confidence vote).

However, Abbott has changed his mind and will not call for a vote of no confidence.

To round out the proceedings, Gillard then had to contact Governor-General Quentin Bryce to organize Rudd’s commissioning as the new Prime Minister. He was officially sworn in on Thursday morning.

Trying to understand everything that has happened has required a lot of background reading and question asking, but the gist of it is that Australia has a new prime minister as of last night. It is a little like if, right before the last election, the democratic party got fed up with Barack Obama, and decided to replace him with Hillary Clinton three months before the election because they thought she had a better chance of winning. Or, at the minimum, of helping the Democratic party not lose as badly to the Republicans.

It is a bit mind-blowing that such drastic changes can be made so rapidly in the Australian government, but then again, it also has some advantages over the system in the United States. If leadership is ineffective and nothing is getting done, a vote of no confidence can be used to replace one or both houses of parliament with more competent, cooperative leaders. From what we’ve been reading of American politics, that option is looking more attractive every day!

Posted by: asprockett | June 22, 2013

MIPH Exams or O.W.L.s at Hogwarts?

You decide, Master of International Public Health final exams or sitting for our O.W.L.s at Hogwarts with Harry Potter? As I sat down for my Epidemiology exam I thought, “Wow! This is a beautiful room. Yet again, I feel like I’m at Hogwarts.” And I nearly started laughing out loud during the 10 minute reading period for our Epidemiology exam because one of the questions asked about a gillyweed experiment Harry, Ron and Hermione were conducting in fresh and salt water.

Left: Hogwarts Right: MacLaurin Hall, University of Sydney

Left: Hogwarts
Right: MacLaurin Hall, University of Sydney

It’s hard to believe half of the year is already complete. I certainly have a lot more knowledge and resources than I did in February, but I also recognize how much I have to learn. I am looking forward to learning so much more next semester…and many years after through my career in public health. But after a nice and relaxing winter holiday, of course!

Posted by: asprockett | June 21, 2013

Cate Blanchett on Stage? Yes, please!

University of Sydney finals week. Papers in. One test remaining.

So what did I do to prepare? Had brunch with Dan in The Rocks, a charming and historical neighborhood in Sydney, and then went to see the play, “The Maids,” featuring Cate Blanchett at the Sydney Theatre Company (STC).

STC has developed a scheme to make theatre accessible to all by offering affordable tickets to nearly every show, a long-held ambition of STC co-artistic directors, Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett. (Yes, I will use her name as often as possible because I think it’s so cool that she’s involved with this type of project and is acting at the theatre!)  My very thoughtful husband got up early last Tuesday morning and stood in line at the box office to surprise me with tickets to this highly sought-after production.

Left: Walsh Bay Right: At Sydney Theatre Company

Left: Walsh Bay
Right: At Sydney Theatre Company

Our “cheap seats” were excellent.  We sat in the third row, not more than 15 feet from the stage (…and Cate!). The nearly two hour production was high intensity and  featured only three actresses. It ran straight through with no intermission, which must have made it especially challenging.

The STC interpretation used video cameras and a large video screen above the stage to add another layer of art to the drama. They used the cameras to focus on props or on an actor’s face when their back was turned or the actor had left the main stage. It added a unique level to the play that I’ve never seen before. Being able to attend the play, acted by a famous Hollywood actor, was another unexpected perk of living in Sydney and another absolutely wonderful experience!

The darkly passionate play reminded me how little I actually know about theatre and how much I have to learn. At the same time I was reminded just how much I enjoy the opportunity to attend a play, despite my inexperience.

Now, if I can get someone to help me better understand the nuances and history of “The Maids,” I think my experience will really be complete.

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