Spots of Time

January 28, 2003

Food Glorious Food

The department store shelf display included Jiff peanut butter, Honey Smacks cereal, Dream Whip topping, Jiffy corn bread mix, and cans of Spagettios. The sign read "American Food." Walking past the display, I couldn't help but laugh at what the Australians considered to be the staples of the American diet.

In truth, the American and Australian diets are not shockingly different. Both are young, English-founded nations with a large population of immigrants, and the food is a reflection of the diversity. From Italian to Greek, from Chinese to Indian, from Thai to the ubiquitous American institution that is McDonalds, they have it all. You certainly won't go hungry in Australia, even if you are the pickiest of eaters.

Admittedly, my exposure to Australian "cuisine" has been limited at best. On a backpacker budget, I don't exactly have a regular table at any of the respectable establishments in Melbourne. However, I have been exposed to some interesting Aussie edibles and offer you the highlights. Disclaimer: Since I have only been in Australia for two months, and most all of that time has been in the two largest and most multicultural cities, lets consider this to be part one in a two part instalment. Part two will come once I've spent some time in the Outback and the bush. :)

Coffee. Nearly all coffee is espresso. When I first arrived, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. A "regular" coffee for Aussies is a latte, a cappuccino, a flat white (a cappuccino without the foam), or any other espresso-based drink. I asked around about regular coffee and was frequently given blank stares until I learned they called it "filter coffee" here. As far as I can tell, the only places in Melbourne you can get filter coffee is Starbucks (yes, they are here too) and at the Opera during intermission.

Lamb. After a couple of confused experiences with "beef" burgers in restaurants, I am now convinced the Australian government has been poaching sheep from New Zealand and passing it off as ground beef for so many years that no Australian knows the difference. My American friend Lindsay and I have yet to eat an "all beef patty" that doesn't taste like lamb. Its not that I don't like lamb - I do, but not when I ordered beef. :)

Kangaroo. Though initially it seems equivalent to eating the American bald eagle, kangaroo is actually a very environmentally friendly choice with respect to meat. Unlike beef and pork, kangaroos are native to the land and therefore less damaging to it - not to mention they are everywhere. In addition, the meat is very healthy and low in fat. My first experience with Roo was over Christmas, and I must admit to being a fan. And no, it does not taste like chicken.

Meat pies. They are as plentiful here as hot dogs are in the US and the quality is about the same (that is, it varies greatly). Coated with ketchup, I've seen many a late night clubber kid munching on one as a snack from the local convenience store. My one experience with a meat pie was rather memorable, but I'll save that for another story.

Desserts. Two Australian desserts have gained international recognition and both were named after famous performers in the arts. The first, Peach Melba, was named after Helen Porter Mitchell, a famous 19th century opera singer whose stage name was derived from her hometown of Melbourne, Australia. The second, the Pavlova, was created in Perth in 1935 by Chef Bert Sachse. It was named in honor of ballerina Anna Pavlova (some say because it was as light in texture as she was in on her feet). According to the Research Center for the History of Food and Drink at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, the Pavlova is widely considered to be the "national dish of Australia." (Oh how I love Google!)

Tim Tams. Another in the dessert category, but deserving of its own paragraph. The formula consists of a chocolate creme filling sandwiched between two rectangular chocolate wafers and covered in chocolate. Since my first bite I have become a total convert. You see, Tim Tams are meant to be eaten a certain way, and that way combines two of my loves - chocolate and coffee. First, bit both ends off the Tim Tam. Second, dip one end in a cup of coffee. Third, put your lips around the other end and suck until the coffee comes through (kind of like a wide, chocolate straw). Once you can feel the coffee, pop the Tim Tam in your mouth and feel it disintegrate within seconds. Yummy!

Finally, we'll end with the most Australian of Australian foods - Vegemite! No column about food would be complete without commentary on the incredibly popularity of this salty, sticky, black substance that has been part of the Australian diet since 1923. Vegemite, made from yeast extract, is as Australian as it gets (though, interestingly enough it is made by Kraft Foods). Similar to the American cult following for Oscar Mayer Weiners, though without a Vegemitemobile, Vegemite has its own song ("Happy Little Vegemites") and more than one fan site. Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, the offical web site is great and worth visiting:

Click on Sing-A-Long and you two can print out the sheet music to "Happy Little Vegemite!" It is times like this that I just LOVE Australia. :) My own experiences with Vegemite have lead me to agree with Felicity Robinson, a Pom (English person living in Australia), who wrote an article on Vegemite in Sunday's paper. She ends the article by saying: "I'd argue it's a triumph of marketing over taste..."

Makes sense to me. Otherwise, how can you explain America's love of bologna?

January 20, 2003

The Australian Open

A Strange Display of Multiculturalism

"Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!"
"Oy! Oy! Oy!"
"Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!"
"Oy! Oy! Oy!"
"Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!"
"Oy! Oy! Oy!"

The Australian national cheer sucked the silence from the air. I cringed inside, certain we'd be kicked out of the stadium within minutes. While Australian fans are known for vocal support of their sports teams, this was not a cricket match or a day at the footy (Australian Rules Football). We were sitting in the stands of The 2003 Australian Open and a serious game of tennis was in progress.

Our group numbered close to 200 people and ranged in age from 14 to 30 years old. We were all wearing the Australian colors (green and yellow) in the form of bright yellow T-shirts, green and yellow face (and sometimes body) paint and colorful pointed Asian-styled bamboo hats. Wimbleton this was not.

My neighbors in Melbourne had invited me to join their church youth group on an outing to the Open. It wasn't until we arrived at the gate at 8 a.m. that I had any clue to what I was getting into. The majority of the group had arrived at 7:30 am - the gates didn’t open until 9 am - and were first in line across all 10 of the entry gates. They weren't kidding when they said we wouldn't miss them!

Once the gates opened we took our positions on Court Three, ready to cheer on the first of two Aussies playing that day (Jaymon Crabb). For such a large group, we were amazingly organized - the cheers were funny, silly and unique - but always coordinated and well done. Many of the group had spent the night at the church, learning and practicing the cheers. I was particularly impressed with a synchronized musical mobile phone interlude. The other spectators were equally impressed - our cheers were frequently applauded, and at any one time at least 25% of the audience eyes were on us instead of the players. Audience participation was also high – from hand clapping at appropriate times to the singing of the National Anthem to doing the wave (in fast and slow motion).

Admiration of the group's enthusiastic support of the Aussie players also extended to the media. EuroSport asked Matt Cutler, our fearless leader and the group’s coordinator, to do a brief commercial break for the station – followed by loud group cheering. And, the next morning pictures of our group were in THREE separate papers - including a large picture in the front section of The Age, Melbourne's main newspaper. The caption read: "Australians come out in mass to support their players. Here the fans wear Vietnamese-styled painted hats in a strange display of multiculturalism." Matt was also interviewed and quoted in several articles that showed up in the days after our appearance at the Open. This was his sixth year coordinating the group, and the numbers had swelled from 6 the first year to close to 200 this year. In a post-Open email he sent out recently, he said he has high hopes for group tickets to Center Court next year. I have no doubt he can get it done and am a little sad I won't be part of the crew in 2004.

At noon our group decided to move stadiums to cheer on the other Aussie player - Joseph Siriani. This was no small feat for 200 people who all needed to sit together. It was decided we would infiltrate and surround a large group of Dutch fans that were already in the stadium. Once the Dutch player finished, it was likely the fans would leave and the space would be ours for the taking.

We arrived midway through the match, and slowly made our way into the packed stadium, filtering in around the Dutchies in groups of two and three. Once most of our group was settled, we joined the Dutch in cheering on their fellow countryman. Though none of us spoke Dutch, a few did their best to imitate the Dutch cheers - usually to a disastrously humorous end. Toward the end of the match, in appreciation for our added support, one of the Dutchies yelled out: "Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!" Our group responded enthusiastically and appropriately, and the union of forces was cemented. Finally, at the end of the match, the Dutch fans stood up to leave. Our temporary alliance was about to be dissolved, but what to say? We looked at each other quietly as the group began to filter up the stairs. Then, all of a sudden, one of the Aussies stood up and cried out: "Dutchie! Dutchie! Dutchie!" The Dutch fans broke out into huge smiles, and without missing a beat answered the call:

"Oy! Oy! Oy!"

January 14, 2003

Nature Calls

I was drunk. I couldn't walk in a straight line, giggles escaped the dopy grin on my face, and I'd taken to spinning - just because. The thing was, I hadn't had a drop of alcohol all day - or the day before either. I was drunk on nature. Standing on the beach at the base of the Twelve Apostles on the Great Ocean Road in Southern Victoria, I was intoxicated by majestic cliffs, crashing waves and a slowly setting sun.

My inspiration for this particular adventure was Alain de Botton, the author of "The Art of Travel." Not a guidebook, nor a travel narrative, "The Art of Travel" focuses on concepts of why we travel - what compells us to pack our bags, say goodbye to loved ones and leave what we know behind. Whether it be desire for the exotic, simple curiosity, or a quest for the sublime, Botton, using a variety of poets, philosophers and artists as "guides" - digs deep to determine what brings us there in the first place. Earlier in the week I'd come upon a section of his book touting the benefits of nature as the elixir for the stresses of city life. The chapter was founded on the philosophy and writings of the poet William Wordsworth. Wordsworth felt that cities were corrupting forces - not just on man's body, but on his soul, inspiring feelings of envy, greed, desire and status. He believed that sufficient time in the country could help man to fight these destructive forces. Though his poetry was initially rejected as fluff, his popularity slowly grew with fans eventually reciting his poems of flowers and meadows by heart.

Though I had never read Wordsworth, this section struck a cord with me, and repeatedly flashed through my head throughout the next few days. Desperately in need of some kind of change and realizing I'd spent all my time in Australia in cities, I booked a upcoming "Great Ocean Road" day trip. The tour promised rainforests, exotic animals, sandy beaches, towering cliffs and an escape from city life. It was just what Wordsworth (and I) thought I needed.

By mid-afternoon we arrived at the Twelve Apostles, a series of towering rock formations that time and the elements had separated from the mainland. Earlier in the day we'd seen koalas and kangaroos, hiked through a rainforest and generally let the weight of the city slip from our shoulders. Looking out from the mainland at the sublime beauty before me, I felt my stress vanish. The problems I had been experiencing didn't seem so difficult anymore. In fact, I was having trouble remembering exactly what had been troubling me in the first place. Not that I spent time trying - I was too busy breathing in the ocean air, taking pictures of rock formations with names like The Razorback and Lock Arc Gorge, and later, skipping and dancing in the waves on Gibson Beach as the sun slowly settled in for the night.

On the ride home I stared out the window and replayed the day in my head, a smile creeping up on my lips. Though de Botton questioned the benefits that limited contact with nature would have on ones psychological outlook, Wordsworth argued that exposure to these scenes of natural beauty could be cemented in memory as "spots of time" we could recall at future necessary moments - putting things back into perspective. De Botton later admitted his own experience with one of these "spots of time" - a tranquil scene of oak tress appearing to him in a moment of stress and anxiety on the streets of London, and calming him, at least temporarily.

The day after arriving back to Melbourne, the stress of the city was again catching up to me. Though I was mostly able to recall memories of my trip, I worried that I hadn't retained a specific spot of time - one that would stay with me for when I really needed it. But then, cleaning the sand out of my backpack, I found two rolls of film I'd snapped during the trip. Modern technology offered me a leg up on Wordsworth - the ability to capture the visual aspect of my spots of time. Instead of relying solely on my mind, whose credibility was frequently in question, I would have a tool to jog my memory. Then, when the stresses of city life got to me, I could flip through my photo album and put things into perspective. I get the pictures back tomorrow - I can't wait to get back to nature.

January 06, 2003

The "Ugly" American

It comes as a shock to many Americans that venture overseas, particularly those that spend significant time with locals or non-Americans, that we as a nation do not have the best reputation as travelers - or as people, for that matter. While the "ugly American" sentiment may initially appear as nothing more than rival country government propaganda (Fidel Castro's thoughts on Americans, Ossama bin Laden’s video messages), the truth is, even in modern, western nations, the stereotype is firmly entrenched – and not without reason. For those of you who are still unaware, picture this: a loud, demanding, obnoxious, xenophobic, fanny pack wearing, yell-louder-if-they-don't-understand-English American. I know what you are thinking – those people are few and far between – most American’s aren’t like that. That may be true. But, it doesn’t take all those traits to create an ugly American – they can pop up when – and from whom – you would least expect.

My New Years 2002/2003 was spent with Aussie friends in Sydney. It was my first New Years outside the US and I really wanted to watch the fireworks explode at Sydney Harbor. Happily, my friends loved the idea, especially when I volunteered my travel companion, Alex, and myself to stake out a good spot early in the day. They dropped me off at Milson's Point, perfectly situated on the north side of the Sydney Harbor, to one side of the Harbor Bridge, and with a postcard view of downtown Sydney and the Opera House. It was 12 noon.

Alex and I spent most of the day doing nothing but staring lazily ahead at the view, eating Tim Tams and reapplying sunscreen. By 6 p.m., my friends had returned, bringing fresh picnic supplies and two more Americans. D and S were friends of friends, and nearing the end of a three-week vacation in Australia. They seemed like fun guys, and we were thrilled when they bought some wine and champagne to add to the picnic spread.

Two sets of fireworks were scheduled - one at 9 p.m. and the grander finale at 12 midnight. As 9 p.m. came and went, we were informed that the fireworks were cancelled due to high winds. The crowd’s disappointment was audible. Those with small children began to pack up and leave, and our group looked to each other for revisions to the night’s plan. This is when the ugly American came out to play. The majority of the group wanted to stay for the midnight session. However, D did not. "This sucks - I want to go party! Lets get out of here and go to a party!" he said repeatedly. Alex and I explained that we had been waiting since 12 noon and had been imagining midnight at the Harbor since we first realized we'd be in Australia for New Years. He was not moved. "This is lame - I want to go somewhere, drink and get fucked up - that is what New Years is all about." Oh right - I forgot.

Multiple tactics were tried. His friend tried reasoning with him, Alex tried humor (“Sorry D, the tribe has spoken and you’ve been kicked off the island”), and I appealed to his nostalgic side. I pointed out that this experience could be once in a lifetime, while going to a pub and getting wasted would eventually blur with all his other New Year's memories. He began to get louder and more belligerent, at which point I realized the alcohol that had seemed to be such a great idea in the beginning now seemed like a big mistake. "I just met you guys, and I'm not going to have my New Years ruined sitting here - what if the fireworks are cancelled again? Fuck that!" he said. While he had a point about the uncertainty of the fireworks, his behavior, tone and language were totally inappropriate. His friend tried to talk to him again while our hosts threw each other uncomfortable looks.

During D’s tantrum, I looked around the crowd and noticed that some of those sitting around us could hear what he was saying. I cringed inside, knowing that this experience was one of those that would add to the stereotype of the ugly American - pouting and yelling when he doesn't get what he wants. Even though this was a minor occurrence, and in truth D was soon quieted, it only takes a couple of instances of ugly American exposure to keep the stereotype fires burning brightly.

The really sad part about the ugly American stereotype is that any one of us can be – and probably have been – the ugly American. When traveling somewhere exotic, especially on hard-earned vacation dollars with limited vacation time, the pressure is on to experience the “perfect” holiday. Too often we forget that the “perfect” holiday – just like the “perfect” anything – rarely exists outside of travel brochures and tourist videos. The reality of the matter is that shit happens – buses don’t show up, sails are cancelled due to inclement weather, tours are overbooked – something almost always go awry that can make our blood boil. If we let it. While we can’t control Mother Nature or overbooked tours, we can control how we respond to disappointing news. And, when we consider that each of us is, in some way, an ambassador for our country, do we really want our mark to be that of a red-faced, squinty-eyed, yelling tourist?

Later in the week, our group reunited for drinks at Bridge Bar in Circular Quay (pronounced “key”), an area of docks and cafes on the south side of the Sydney Harbor. I was not thrilled with seeing D again, especially in a drinking environment. However, as the night progressed, Alex leaned over to me and whispered that D was actually a pretty nice, ok kind of guy – even interesting. He had apologized for his behavior the previous night and was entertaining the group with stories. Alex, a bigger person than I, had given him the benefit of the doubt and been pleasantly surprised. It is unfortunate that none of the people from New Years night would be able to give D another chance. It only takes a few seconds to make a first impression, but once formed, trying to undo a negative one is exponentially harder than maintaining a positive one from the start.