Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Hello everyone.
First, if you have any interest in speaking to me (that probably rules out a majority of you) and you have a high speed internet connection, you should get skype. It's an online (Swedish!!!)* internet telephone service that allows you to talk to other skype members for absolutely free, even in Australia. You sit at your computer to talk, and if your computer is less than 4 years old, it probably has a built-in microphone, so it requires nothing else than that you spend 5 minutes downloading skype. (If your computer doesn't, all you'd need is a cheap set of earphones with a microphone.) The quality is on par with a regular telephone, and it allows freedom of motion because you do not have to be holding something to your ear or attached to a cord. You can even bake muffins and talk if in the vicinity of your computer (see below). My user name is britta.ingebretson.

Second, we're holding a muffin recipe competition in search for the perfect muffin. If you feel strongly about your favorite muffin recipe, e-mail it to me or send it to me through comments. May the best muffin win!!


*now headquartered in Estonia.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Of course

Of course, no discussion of Australian food would be complete without vegemite. Vegemite, a yeast extract, is the unofficial 'official' food of Australia. It's also thoroughly revolting, in my objective opinion. Like lutefisk, it's only palatable with copious amounts of butter, even to most Australians. (It's eaten on toast with a thick layer of butter and very thin layer of vegemite.)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Coffee and Tea

Australia is a land of contradiction, but nowhere is that more apparent than in the realm of food (hey, I know it's a trite, grandiose, and presumptuous statement, but it sounds good.) Seriously though. Australia is a multicultural nation with booming immigrant populations from Asia and the Meditarranean. It's also a former British colony. When good food floods into a nation with a lackluster historical cuisine, you get pretty interesting results. You can't shake a stick without running into a cafe serving espresso and gelati (or the Australian national coffee drink, a 'flat white,' which is basically a no foam latte), but in homes people drink nescafe, if they drink coffee at all. Breakfast, if not weet-bix (a bran cereal that in theory sounds like shredded wheat but isn't), is tea and toast or crumpets. Afternoon calls for another cup of tea, as does post dinner TV watching. Dinner can be meat and three veg (the meat done on the "barbie" and one of the three vegetables invariably being the potato) or it can be green curry, and it's just as likely one or the other. Of course, when Australians eat out, there's a wide range of Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Greek, Lebanese restaurants to choose from, but I've yet to see a British restaurant. (I did, surprisingly enough, see an "Australian" restaurant, with flags tacked up in the windows along with akubra hats (the ones with the corks tied to them) and pictures of Crocodile Dundee. I thought that level of outlandishness was just reserved for America.)
Now, Gyros (or Yiros) and chips is just as common as a 'pie floater' for a greasy late night snack. Of course, if you're not looking for dim sum or shwarma, you can always turn to the innumerable bakeries selling meat pies, pasties, and hot cross buns.
A case in point. Last night I had fair dinkum Aussie fish n' chips from a fish n' chips shop. However, everyone working in the shop appeared to be of Mediternanean ancestry, and besides various combos of fish, chips, and coleslaw, there was an equally long list of Yiros and shwarma sandwiches. And something that was called sausage on a stick. Mmmmm....

Speaking of mmm, South Australia, the state I am in, is famous for two regional dishes. The first one is the Pie floater, which I have yet to try, but consists of a meat pie floating in a bowl of pea soup. If that doesn't sound appetizing, then stop reading, because the next dish (and seriously, if you are easily offended, STOP reading NOW) is even less aptly named. It is called an Abortion, or AB for short (and seriously, that is the name posted up in the shop) because of its unfortunate resemblance. It consists of a plate of fries (or chips) covered with shaved lamb topped with yogurt cucumber sauce and ketchup. It's actually quite tasty in a greasy hangover-remedy sort of way, but the name, and the appearance, are incredibly revolting.

(You can resume reading now)
And speaking of ketchup, or tomato sauce, as it's called here, as someone who normally finds ketchup inedible, I was surprised that Australian 'sauce' is far superior to American ketchup. It's much less sweet and more vinegery, which gives it much more of a tangy tomato-y taste. Not that I'd voluntarily put it on my chips mind you, but in small quantities it's really not bad.
Other pleasant food surprises is the quality of fresh produce and the emphasis on organic foods. A few days ago we bought eggs and milk at a gas station supermarket where milk was bgh free, and the eggs were from free range chickens. (The reason we had to go there was it was after 5 pm on a sunday, and, of course, all the supermarkets were closed. They close at 5 as well on a saturday. I suppose I should be grateful that they're open at all on a sunday though.) I know it shouldn't be that surprising though, I suppose it's an example of my silly American stereotype as Australia as the land of grilled meat.
But anyways, given it's abundance of fresh produce and seafood, Asian and Mediterranean immigrants, and Australia's upwardly mobile aspirations in the cuisine department, it should really be no surprise that there is seriously some tasty food here.

At the beach

Yesterday I went to the beach (about 30 minutes from the city). The police and firefighter international games have been going on, and yesterday was the beach volleyball tournament. The competitors were co-ed teams from around the world. Some of the teams wore a national 'uniform' whereas others just wore bikinis, shorts, or T-shirts. The Finnish teams were easy to identify because the women had a Finnish flag on the butt of their blue and white bikinis. The men more modestly (or perhaps, more sexist-ly, if that can be a word) wore tank tops with "Finnish police force" on them and blue shorts. In contrast, it took me the whole match to figure out that the Canadian team was actually from Canada. The woman wore a very small bikini (I kept wondering how it didn't fall off) and the man wore board shorts. Their French speaking threw me off for awhile, it wasn't not until I saw a Canadian flag stamped on the woman's arm that I figured out they were Canadian and not French. Otherwise, most teams seemed to look the same regardless of nationality: incredibly tan, the women either with brown or bleached blond hair (usually bleached) and the men with brown hair. I guess tanning lotion and hair dye are the great equalizer.
I watched two matches, Finland vs. Canada and Finland vs. South Africa (the South Africans were wearing uniforms with what I assume was the S.A. flag. They were also the only black people I saw at the games. I'm guessing that this "global" event was heavily weighted towards European or North American countries, or at least affluent developed ones. Hong Kong and Japan were represented, which again although Asian are affluent and developed.)
Another interesting note about the games, I was talking to a German exchange student of Dave's friend, who is in Australia doing a medical externship, and she said that in Germany fire fighters are perceived as being right wing reactionaries, whereas police are seen as more mainstream. I feel in the US it's the opposite. The stereotype is that firefighters are hunky heros who save people's lives, while police men are more likely to be trigger happy vigilantes.

But back to the beach. The beach was nice, the day was warm without being too hot, and the water was steamy compared to NW Pacific coast standards. There were also palm trees. Unfortunately I didn't put on enough sunscreen, and managed to sunburn the oddest parts of my body, such as the right side of my left shin, and a small patch under my right knee.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Fourth Estate

So, I haven't written in awhile, mainly because I have been very busy watching TV. I feel it's completely justified because in a foreign country, watching TV is always the best way to learn the language. And besides, Australian TV is insanely better than American TV (though it's not like I really watched TV much in America, so it could just be that I am completely naive and out of it and would be attracted to anything that flickered, but I'd like to think not.) It's kind of ironic that the land that created (well, spawned) Rupert Murdoch should have such high quality television, whereas we are stuck with fox news, but that appears to be the case. There are only 5 channels, 3 are commercial ones and 2 are publicly owned. Australian TV seems to be 1/3 British, 1/3 American, and 1/3 Australian, so as such, they can glean the best programming from England and America, (some american shows are the Jim Leher News Hour, Westwing, and Frontline). Their commercial channels show lots of BBC sitcoms and dramas as well as many American movies (they also have such great shows as "The biggest loser, Australia" and "Bondi beach rescue," which basically consists of showing lots of really really buff tan men in australian flag speedos rescuing surfers from weird marine life). But the best programming is on the public channels. Their public tv stations seem to devote their time to showing interesting documentaries and in-depth news analysis instead of stuck groveling for money and showing reruns of John Denver concerts. They also have a program 'Media Watch,' which moniters and investigates the accuracy of all sorts of media, from regional newspapers, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), to Vogue magazine. It sounds like something we could use in America. Everyone in Dave's family follows politics very closely, so I spend lots of time watching TV and reading the paper about Australian politcs. (Basically, John Howard, PM and George Bush syncophant has been stuck in a series of embarrassing scandals in which lots of people have had to resign, so he's taken to yelling a lot in parliament and visiting Iraq and Afghanistan, and the opposition leader, "Babyface," (okay, Kevin Rudd) just smiles a lot and does really well in the poles).

But aside from Australian TV in general, there seems to be an effort to make America appear as silly as possible. About a week ago, we watched part of a show about morbidly obese people. No wait, they're in a new category, "super-morbidly obese" people, who weigh over 400 kilos (880 lbs). One man was so obese he that when he had to be hospitalized, it took 20 EMTs to lift him, and they had to borrow a stretcher/sling from the local aquarium. He wouldn't fit in the ambulance, and had to be taken in on the back of a flatbed truck. Needless to say all the people were American. Another show chronicled an Australian man traveling accross New Mexico in an RV and sleeping in Wal Marts. And tonight, the Australian news had an in- depth report on the polygamous marriage movement in Utah, interviewing activists claiming that polygamy is a civil right. No wonder people abroad think we're crazy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Grapes of Wrath

This weekend was harvest weekend, so we went up Sunday and Monday to pick grapes. The majority of the vines had already been machine picked several weeks ago and sent to a large winery that Dave's family has a contract with. They get to keep about 5-10% of the grapes for personal consumption, so every year they invite friends and family up for a weekend of merriment to help them pick these grapes. Dave's family is working with a local winery to develop their own label of wine, named Wattle Farm after the farm, which they hope to start exporting into America (soo....anyone interested? wink wink). Dave's parents went up on Saturday, and then Dave, his brother, sister, and I came up Sunday. Soon after, friends and family showed up, and everyone got to work preparing for a large bonfire. The womenfolk sat in the kitchen, drinking tea, chopping vegetables and gossiping, while the menfolk did manly things out doors like using power tools, fiddling with electric outlets, lifting heavy things, and shooting small animals (well, not the shooting small animals part). As an honored guest from America, I got to skip the mother-daughter vacuuming session and take part in an Aussie male bonding ritual, which involved driving a four-wheel drive with a trailer down back-country roads and over a dry creek bed into a small forest of Eucalypts, cutting up dead trees with a chainsaw, loading the wood onto the trailer, and then drinking beer. Australia is in the middle of its worst drought on record, meaning that the country around Adelaide, generally fairly lush, is dry as a bone, and there are lots of dead limbs lying on the ground. Even so, there are also a surprising number of trees that are still thriving, and after 6 months without water look like they could go for another 6 months or year. It's amazing when you think about the resilience of native species adapted to live such harsh conditions. On the drive back I saw a Kookaburra, not in an old gum tree unfortunately, but perched on the ruins of an old stone farmhouse, which was almost as good. When we got back I returned to the kitchen to help gossip and drink tea (I attempted to help with the vegetables, but to no avail.) Then as it got dark, we all went up to a fire pit and drank lots of beer and ate cheese while dinner cooked in coals in the ground. Many hours and many bottles of beer later (well, at least the beer made it feel like many hours), we switched to wine, and then several more hours later, dinner was ready. We had a beef stew with potatoes and chicken stew with dumplings, both of which were delicious. By that time it had grown dark and all the stars came out. I wish I knew more about constellations in the Northern Hemisphere so I could be suitably impressed by the differences. Yet even with my ignorance the stars were still impressive. Orion's belt was visible, as was the Southern Cross, the constellation on Australia's flag. Most impressive was the milky way, spread out across the middle of the sky. Dave's brother set up a telescope and I saw the rings of Saturn so clearly it looked as though someone had painted the image on the lens (and for all I know they had.)

The next morning we got up early (though not nearly as early as we had planned the night before) to pick grapes. This year, Australia's wine crop has been a disaster due to a combination of the drought and severe frosts in October. Dave's family lost about 2/3 of their crop, and many farmers have lost much more. In the Coonawara region, one of Australia's main wine producing areas, there were no fewer than 15 seperate frosts in the span of one month, and farmers there have lost on average 70% of their crop, with many not bothering to pick at all. As such, Dave's father was not optimistic about the quantity of grapes we would pick. Yet after we started, we found that there was a surprising volume of grapes, often in clustered in one area along a long row of vines, whereas other areas contained almost no grapes. The bunches of grapes and the grapes themselves were smaller, which actually meant better wine as the flavor would be more concentrated. Dave's family practices dryland farming, meaning they do not irrigate. Underneath the top layer of red soil (the famed terra rossa) lies a thin crust of sandstone, but if you break through that layer, the soil is quite porous, and will soak up lots of moisture. If you get rainwater to seep in and make sure the vine's rootsystems are deep enough, there is enough water there to nourish the plants in between rains, even in drought conditions. Given that the grapes hadn't been watered in many months, I was surprised at how healthy the fruit and vines looked. With picking grapes, you clip off the bunch as close to the top of the grapes as possible, and then send it to the winery. There they put it all in the wine, grapes, stem, and earwigs. Eventually the nongrape parts float to the top and are skimmed off (I think). We managed to pick almost two tons of grapes in about 5 hours of picking, more than anyone expected. There were even a few more kilos left, but after 5 hours we were all hungry and tired and it was beginning to get hot, so we went back and had a large picnic of cold chicken, meats, cheeses, salads, bread, and something called a custard square, which is custard in between two layers of pastry and then coated in vanilla frosting. (It seemed very British to me). Of course, we also had more wine. We went home not long after, tired and sun dazed, with nothing to do except wait for the wine. (As payment, everyone who picks gets a dozen bottles of wine. I'm hoping there aren't too many earwigs in my bottles : )
p.s. considering I spent all day outdoors in the Australian sun I didn't get too sunburned. I was pretty vigilant about sunscreen and hat, though there was one area I forgot: my lips. They're now a deeper red and beginning to peel. It's kind of an odd sensation.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


Well, I don't have a lot of time to post right now because I am going grape harvesting in about 5 minutes. Dave's family has a vineyard, and as part of their contract with a winery they can pick %5-10 of the grapes for themselves and do whatever they want with them (raisins??) This is an extended family affair, so everyone gets together and spends a day picking grapes, and then we drink lots of wine and eat barbequed meat in fine Aussie tradition.
Yesterday I spent at WOMAdelaide, or WOMade (pronounced wom-add, does not rhyme with 'lemonade' as any American would assume.) The whole thing stands for 'world of music adelaide' and is a huge 3 day international music fest. Unfortunately, the day was 37 degrees (in an effort to go native, I am attempting not to convert celsius to farenheit, but it's sufficient to say that 37 is really really hot. The type of hot skin actually starts melting with direct contact with the sun. And given that there's no ozone layer, you can actually your skin cells mutating under the sun's radiation). But besides the heat, the festival was very interesting. Among other things, I heard some Tuvan throat singers, an Irish band, some Jeff Buckley imitator (only for 5 minutes), a raggae/dance hall/jazz Australian band, a Sephardi-flamenco fusion singer, whose songs were all entitled something like "You broke my heart, I hate you and want to die" or "I have no home or land and want to die" (you get the picture), I Chinese man on a flute who played excellent elevator music....will write more, have to go now

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Everything bites

I have been in Australia for about 9 days and I have a constellation of mosquito bites on my lower back, a few scattered around my elbow and legs, and a large spider bite on my ankle. While I haven't noticed lots of insects, except for a few biting flies in Melbourne, I apparently can't even sit in a chair without getting bitten by some strange insect or another. Since I haven't died yet, and none of my limbs have blackened and fallen off, I apparently haven't been bitten by anything too poisonous. But in a country with the top ten most poisonous snakes in the world, and only slightly less venomous spiders, it's not reassuring to know that I am a flesh-eating-insect-magnet. However, as a kindly woman told me when describing the poisonous Whiteback spider, whose venom permanently kills off the skin and/or muscle at the site of the bite, you don't really need to worry unless you've been bitten.


One thing that's struck me in the week that I've been in Australia is how polite and friendly everyone is. I know that's a major cliche; before I went to Australia everyone kept telling me, "oh, Aussies are so friendly," and I remember thinkng to myself that it was such a trite generalization. However, now that I'm here, I have to add my hat to the pile because it's the one trait that keeps continuously overwhelming me--Australians ARE friendly, and to risk generalization, almost uniformly so. In fact, I couldn't imagine a country where people were friendlier and not have it come off as inhumanly creepy.
A case in point: having two and a half days of time in Melbourne, I decided to check out the University of Melbourne's anthropology graduate school. After several false starts (turns out there are many outdated maps of the campus, all of which place the anthropology school in a different quadrant) and an hour in the boiling sun, I ended up, sweating dripping down my beet-red face (in Australia, make that beetroot-red), wandering the halls of the anthropology and population science building. After about 10 minutes I had failed to find the main office, and finally a professor stuck his head out of a door and asked if I needed any help. I explained that I was an American who happened to be in Melbourne and had heard about their graduate school, and he immediately invited me in. Not only did he spend about 45 minutes talking to me, he took me around the department to meet with some of the anthropologists who specialize in China. They were in the middle of a meeting, but agreed to put it on hold to talk to me. After I protested, they agreed to continue their meeting, but apologized for making me wait 10 minutes to speak with one of the professors. After all, you've come all the way from America, they said. Again, I stopped by another professor's office. She too was extremely apologetic that she was in the middle of grading papers. "I don't really have time to meet today, but since you're only here today, I can of course fit you in," she told me, again apologizing for her lack of availabilty. In comparison, if a hot and sweaty foreigner showed up unannounced in America (or as I did at the UC Berkeley), professors not-so-subtly let you know that you are imposing on their time. After spending about an hour outside of one professor's door, he finally agreed to meet with me, letting me know with a sigh that I should have made an appointment in advance.
And this level of politeness seems to extend to all the areas of Australian society I've encountered in my brief time here. Waitstaff, while generally friendly in the US, cannot come close to rivalling the seemingly genuine friendliness of Australian waiters and waitresses, none of whom work for tips. In my 7 days here, I have yet to encounter one surly or rude person anywhere, not in any shop, bank, restaurant, cafe, hotel, bakery, or office building, or even on the street or the bus. I don't know if that a more laid back attitude to life makes you more tolerant of other people in general, or if it's a giant snowball effect, or if somehow the Aussies managed to maintain British politeness without the reserve or what, but it's been a pleasant element of culture shock. Now if only there wasn't vegemite to contend with...

Sunday, March 4, 2007

g'day from down undah

After a slight delay (6 days) I am now starting my Australia blog. I flew into Melbourne on the 28th of February and then after spending two days there took a three day road trip over the Great Ocean Road, which winds along the southern coast of Australia, and then up to Adelaide. Now that I am in Adelaide, I am getting adjusted and settling into my new life as an Australian (or, considering that no word longer than two syllables is left unabbreviated, an Aussie).
My trip was relatively uneventful, or at least as uneventful as any journey over 25 hours long and that involves 6 hours in the LA aiport can be. I did have quite a shock when the night before I was supposed to leave I received an e-mail flight confirmation listing my flights from Portland to LA and LA to Sydney. Considering I'd bought a ticket to Melbourne, this was kind of a shock (in terms of distance it would be like booking a ticket to LA and instead flying to Seattle). After a frantic phone call or to, I figured out that "nonstop flight to Melbourne" actually meant, "flight to Melbourne with a 1 1/2 hour layover in Sydney" (reason # 24 to fly United). My chagrin at the extra hours added on to the trip were offset by my relief that I would indeed eventually end up in Melbourne at sometime in the near future. The flights were on time enough, though the trip to Sydney took an extra 45 minutes because we were flying against 100 mph headwinds for most of the time. While it slowed down the flight, it did make it extra exciting--it's the only time I've ever felt that if I didn't have my seat belt buckled I actually would have fallen out of my seat, a kind of "6 flags meets airplane travel."
Even though we were taking the same plane to Melbourne, when we got to Sydney we all had to exit and go through security twice, after the first security check, we went to our gate only to find it boarded up and a sign telling us to go through a different gate. When we got to the second gate we found a line about 3 km long consisting of about 300 members of the Australian hockey team, all of whom apparently packed their entire knife collection in their carry on luggage. At the gate there was a line of arthritc old ladies going through everyone's carry-on with a pair of tweezers. As I pointed out to the woman routing through my back pack, I'd just gone through security about 3 minutes before. She looked at me apologetically but told me it was the way the system had been set up. (reason # 31 not to stop over in Sydney). The whole process took so long that I made it back on my flight just as they were announcing the last call for boarding. I boarded the now almost empty plane--we were on an international jet for a commuter flight--and made it safe and sound to Melbourne.