Category Archives: stories

Flashback to sophomore year

I haven’t been cooking much lately, but I’m still writing.  Have a look at my article on a recently-discovered album of Australian colonial art.

Funnily enough, my first story at Australian Geographic takes me back to my sophomore year art beat.  I was expecting something more science-driven, somehow, but there’s still time. In the meantime, I’m getting a crash course in Australian history and culture.

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This is a picture of sunrise from the balcony of the apartments in Cronulla we’re temporarily calling home. So far, it’s my favorite part of our stay here – and something I never appreciated before, given that 6 am was once an ungodly hour, a time no civilized person should have to experience. Student life is luxurious, no? But I like my new discovery, and my newly set schedule, free of night shifts and weekend calls and all that my last job entailed.

Moving is still stressful, and our lack of any luck in the apartment hunt has prolonged this stress and made us wonder if we could possibly have a decent job and credit history and still end up homeless. This is probably an exaggeration, and I suspect it’ll only be a matter of time and application, but it has made it difficult to find out much about our new home beyond the sheer volume of legalese involved in renting anything in this country. I have NEVER read so much paperwork in my life, and I find it hilarious that I need more references to apply for an apartment lease than I needed to get a job here, or obtain a visa. You can get in, but you will struggle to establish yourself as a real person with a house and a car and 100 points of identification.

Some of the good things: I really like the Inner West of Sydney, with its eclectic neighborhoods and sheer diversity. This doesn’t exist in the suburb we’re currently staying in – Cronulla is more of a tiny beach town that got engulfed by suburban sprawl. I love that good, cheap Indian food is everywhere, that the beach is every bit as good as you would imagine from all the touristy advertisements for Australia, and that work colleagues and friendly and laid back and not afraid of poking fun at each other. And I’m excited about the possibility of making a home here. I only wish it would happen a bit faster.  I guess this is a good way to learn to be patient.


Filed under Australia, stories

First impressions of Sydney

View of the City

Apologies for the picture quality, and for the pause, everyone, but moving is chaotic (as all of you probably know), and we have yet to buy rechargeable camera batteries. We’ve been in Sydney for a little over two days, and so far, life hasn’t been too bad. But moving countries is nothing like going on a holiday, even if you do have a nice view from the balcony of the place you plan to call home for maybe a week or two. I figured I’d record a few random thoughts about my new surroundings, more for my own amusement than anything else.

  • Clothing-wise, the shiny : non-shiny ratio is much higher here than in the states. Also, hot pants seem to be in? Either that or people just wear them because they can. Excessive temperatures seem to lead to bravery in terms of the amount of skin people are willing to show, but anyone who has been to LA knows that already.
  • You can buy sunscreen in bulk. Correction: I will be buying sunscreen in bulk.
  • Who gives a guy a lap dance in the front window of a fast food place? I mean, seriously – at least find somewhere a little further from the checkout counter if you have the sudden urge to simulate sex in public.
  • Government bureaucracies are a pain in the ass everywhere, particularly if you don’t easily fit into the boxes said bureaucracy must check in order to help you do whatever it is you need to do.
  • Being on a temporary visa means you have two governments to deal with, both of whom will take full advantage of the fact that it’s rather difficult for you to complain when they make you jump through hoops and still tell you it’s impossible to actually give you what you need.
  • Being a citizen doesn’t guarantee that things are any better, at least at first. On that note, how is a 6 month lease and a utility bill more of a guarantee that you’ll stay in your country than the fact that you can no longer legally work anywhere else in the world?
  • Finding peanut butter without Emulsifier #417 (whatever that is) is virtually impossible. We finally discovered that health food stores are the place to look, though you shouldn’t expect that it’ll taste the same as the stuff back in the States. Maybe they grow a different variety of peanut here?
  • Live on a train line in Sydney, and for the sake of your own sanity, pick one that gets frequent train service. I cannot tell you how long I have waited for trains collectively here, mostly because the suburb I’m staying in is at the end of the line. And that’s only in the last two days!
  • I want to live close to the city, but not in it. This may partially be due to the fact that I haven’t yet internalized walking on the left side of the street, and constantly feel like I’m playing chicken with oncoming pedestrian traffic.
  • Malls often involve a wide variety of food stores, including a grocery store that competes with butchers, fruit stores, and bakeries positions just outside of its entrance. Usually, the grocery store stuff is nowhere near as pretty as the stuff in the specialty shops, so prepare to browse.
  • EVERYTHING is expensive here. For some things, the prices are a factor of 3 or 4 times what I’m used to paying. And everyone seems to pay cash or uses debit cards. It’s going to take a little while and some planning before we figure out how to live cheaply here, and discover all the best places to buy whatever food we normally buy.
  • American != Australian.
  • Newspaper-wise, The Australian is like Fox News in print. The Sydney Morning Herald is more my style – it seems like they actually take themselves (and the ethics of journalism) seriously, though that last point will take a little more research.
  • Sports make the front page. Top fold.
  • I cannot wait to have our own apartment. These corporate apartments are nice, but they aren’t home. Of course, I may revisit this when we sign a lease and find ourselves sleeping on camping mats on the floor until we find a bed we can actually afford.
  • Cricket IS sort of like baseball. Though they run back and forth instead of around in circles, bat underhand, and can take anywhere from 4 hours to something like 15 days to finish a game, depending on which game you’re watching. Maybe I’m oversimplifying?
  • People are genuinely nice here. I’m going to have to get used to people actually being friendly, because all this greeting and looking people in the eye for no other reason than to smile and be neighborly is shocking to someone who has been living in the North East for a decade.
  • Nothing is particularly modern or efficient here. It’s like a 1950’s movie version of the US, except with accents and costumes designed by Britney Spears (ok, maybe only in Cronulla).
  • As James said, Australians don’t seem to require the same attention to detail as Americans require. Mostly because we are trained from birth to pull out legalese to get our way, I suppose.
  • I find myself suddenly caring about how my toenails look.  And when did I get so pale? Not that I could ever be considered “tan”… Maybe lobster-like.
  • The artisan bread movement has not yet made serious in-roads in Australia. I can tell we’re going to be doing a lot of baking once we get settled.
  • Customs and immigration were a lot nicer than I expected them to be. I think they’re more suspicious if you’re coming in for a quick visit than if you’re moving to Australia for a while.
  • Why, oh why, do referee reports always come in just after they would have been convenient?

That’s all I have for now. I promise pictures and more once I get a little more settled.


Filed under Australia, challenges, stories


This is what waiting looks like, when you’re hoping your husband will soon be finished enough with his thesis to bind it and submit it to his committee for one final ego bashing before The End of Graduate School.  My lab has one of those complicated hand binder thingies that will inevitably jam at 3 am on the second-to-last stack of papers, so here I am, with Ben & Jerry’s and nuclei, celebrating the last pint of guilt-inducing goodness before leaving this country for who knows how long.

I can’t yet tell you whether I will finish the pint or not.  I guess that depends on how the rest of the night goes.

Tomorrow, I will sell a car for the first time, finish editing my last paper here at the lab, show up at my goodbye party, and maybe find some new homes for more of our stuff.  I will fill out paperwork (moving abroad requires LOTS of paperwork, which you cannot lose or mess up on lest you find yourself completely screwed), make more calls, write more emails, transform a home into an apartment that echoes when you speak.  It’s been a lot of firsts lately, and not many comfortable ones, but we’ll get there.

In the meantime, I’m going to try to learn to be patient.  Or finish the ice cream. Whichever comes first.


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Oh, the places you’ve been

Have a look at the spiciest meal I have ever had. The rabbit (the dish in the foreground) was nothing in comparison to the spicy chicken dish, which was the first food that ever brought tears to my eyes.  It’s amazing what you find in your cupboards when you’re moving: in this case, a CD full of photos a friend from my REU in Beijing put together for all of us after we returned home.

It has been, oh, more than five years since that trip, but as I explained here, it was probably responsible for my current  obsession with food.  Despite my father’s adventurous (and usually experimental) talents in the kitchen, it wasn’t until I traveled all the way to Beijing that I started realizing that I had not yet stepped outside of the boundaries of my comfortable culinary existence.

I guess this is one of the reasons I’m enjoying Fushia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fins and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.  I find familiarity in her initial explorations of Sichuan cuisine, and share her fascination with the unfamiliar flavors and textures that she encounters along the way.  I’m only about halfway through the book, but it already has me googling “Mandarin lessons, Sydney” and wondering if it’ll be easier to find cooking classes that I can actually afford to attend in a bigger city.  Obviously, I should wait to review the book properly, when I’m finished, but for now, all I can say is that her story has me thinking about adventures that I would probably have written off as too expensive, or silly, just a few years ago.  Now? I can’t wait to try something new, learn some new languages, explore a new cuisine… Oh, and plan some trips.

Yes, there will be trips — there is no doubt about that.


Filed under China, stories, travel

The Great Ocean Road

This post is for those of you who have never driven down a stomach-wrenchingly windy road just to have a look.  You really should know what you’re missing.  It’s one of those things you should do as often as possible, if only because the crazier and more indirect the route is, the more insanely gorgeous the view.

Of course, there is an easy route, for those of you who are as terrified as I was of driving on the wrong side of the road in a strange car (or perhaps colliding with a tram on the way out of Melbourne, after trying to pull one of those insane right turns). It’s called a tour bus. Yes, it’s cheesy and touristy and blah, blah, blah, but they can occasionally be useful. I think the Great Ocean Road — a mostly coastal road in South-West Victoria, near Melbourne — is one of those times, provided that you are on a small tour bus (no mega-bus, please), and your driver doesn’t take his job too seriously. You know — something along the lines of: “Folks, there’s something worth seeing just down that trail. I’ll be right here having a smoke.”

We took this trip the day after we arrived in Melbourne. Despite a slight headache involving luggage stuck in a cargo hold (United SUCKS, for the record) and an appreciable lack of clean clothing, the full day trip was worth it.  It is designed to take you through a few diverse set of ecosystems and some photogenic geological formations in Australia in a very short amount of time, which essentially means you spend a lot of time sitting on a bus, staring out a window, with occasional 15 minute walk breaks into well-marked tourist havens.  But in the process, you begin to get a sense of the kind of ecological diversity that existed in Australia even in recent history.

You see a tiny swatch of cold temperate rainforest, preserved only because of the lucky eccentricity of one man, surrounded by acres of pine plantation destined for wood chip factories somewhere in the world.  You also see sandstone, build up layer by layer over millenia, and then carved by ocean currents and wind.

And beaches. Of course you see beaches.  I’m pretty sure this one is in Torquay, but I can’t be sure.

And koalas, which you shouldn’t try to pet. Apparently they’re quite mean over in Victoria, though they just looked a bit sleepy to me:

And of course, there were cheesy photo opportunities for busloads of tourists (This entrance to the Great Ocean Road is, according to our tour driver, the fourth one they’ve built. Others have succumbed to fire, trucks, and one other disaster I can’t quite remember? Maybe another fire… I think I would suck as a tour guide):

You also get some kick ass fast food in middle of nowhere Colac (which I’m sure is actually a pretty big town in comparison to some — I mean, it’s a big dot on the map, right?). Who would have thought?

So that’s that. It was a tour with a lot of pretty sights, which are worth seeing if you have a day to spare.  And yes, I’m glad I didn’t drive myself, even if the road wasn’t nearly as bad as the northern stretch of Route 1 in CA.  I do like actually being able to look at something other than the car in front of me.

Next time: a taste of Melbourne before we head off to Perth.  If you want more pictures of the Great Ocean Road, you can find them here.


Filed under Australia, stories, travel

Spicy red lentil soup

Today, I took a little holiday. I read a book — like I used to do when I was a kid, back when the best thing about our house was the bookshelves brimming with all sorts of wonderful new worlds, ideas, escapes. The book was fantastic; I highly recommend it.  Greg Mortenson’s work made me realize that the one thing I can do with all this education is figure out how to pass it on to those who might not have the opportunities I have had.  How exactly I’m going to do this, I’m not quite sure — I suppose it’s something to think about over the next year, as I finish up my work here.

Dinner was simple and easy — fitting for the laziness of the day. I just threw a couple of chopped and well-rinsed leeks into a pot with a tablespoon or so of oil, sauteed until soft, and then added in 3/4 c. or so of red lentils, a tablespoon or so of berbere (I like it spicy), and sauteed for a bit.  A cup of chicken stock (vegetable stock or water would work, too), a cup of water, a 14 oz. can of spicy cherry tomatoes (regular tomatoes would be fine), a spoonful of labneh (a Turkish yogurt cheese — use greek yogurt as a substitute, or nothing at all; the soup will still be good), a quick stir, and a low simmer for 10 minutes or so was all this soup required.  I didn’t bother garnishing mine, but you can throw a teaspoon of yogurt and some scallions or a bit of chopped parsley on top for a pretty effect.

Now, I’m off to fill detectors. Even on lazy days, work is never complete…


Filed under Ethiopian, leeks, lentils, main, stories, tomatoes, vegetarian-friendly