Sunday, July 23, 2006

Lost in translation

I am sitting in my apartment on my birthday (thanks to everyone that called or sent an email....screw the rest of you) and have taken a moment to reflect on my first month in Australia. I can't believe how quickly its flown by. There are a lot of things that I've learned and a lot of things i wish that i could forget. Nevertheless, its been a good ride thus far. A little walk down memory has motivated me to put together a list of key words and concepts that may help some of you if you ever make it to this part of the world:

1. As a whole, Australians are nice people; however, they think Americans are ridiculous in certain respects. There is a general feeling that we are all morbidly obese, money hungry, uber-patriotic gun-totting Bush supporters. All of this I knew ahead of time, but a surprise was that they think our lexicon is particularly funny. I have been made fun of on several occasions for my speech pattern and my (in their sophomoric opinion) egregious use of superlatives. For instance, in response to a normal question, such as "How was dinner", I might respond "The service was alright but the food was super good". It is the use of "super", "wicked", "really" etc that puts a smile on their face. A smile that in fact tells me that they are laughing at me, not with me (I know because I wear this expression often). I had no idea what was so funny about speaking this way, but my friend Linda broke it down for me: Americans tend to put things in extremes. It won't just be hot, it would be wicked hot (if your from Southern New England) or scorching (if you aren't blessed to be from Southern New England). I'm not just hungry, I'm starving. I'm not tired, I'm about to die. The movie wasn't just good, it changed my life (shout out to Lisa Comrie). I'm not sure hanging out with me will change their opinion of us Yankees.

2. So they think my speech pattern is a bit bizarre. Hey pot how is the kettle? At least I use phrases that, in general and depending upon how many cocktails I've had, make sense based on the dictionary definitions of the words I employ. This is not necessarily the case with Aussies. There is a subtle but distinct trend to use phrases with food in them to imply something completely unrelated to the digestable being cited. Statements like "It's all gone to custard" mean things have gotten all fucked up, and "Up to his elbows in spaghetti" might mean someone is really busy. Trying to tease out the meaning of these phrases is truly an exercise in thinking outside of the box. Trying to use these colloqialisms as an American is an exercise in futility.

3. There is an uncanny role reversal in body consciousness from the US to the land of Oz. I'm not saying that all girls are incredibly body conscious back home and guys just let themself go, but I would say that women tend to be a little more keen on their bodies in the US, while guys seem to care a bit more carefree. It would not be uncommon to see a relatively attractive "ex-athlete" (aka "I used to play football in high school and am now 20 pounds over weight") type of guy with a hot girl. Maybe, she is a gold-digging whore, but she is hot nonetheless. Here you often see a ridiculously ripped guy with a pudgy chick. Pudgy might not be the best word to describe a majority of the girls over here. They just tend to be "soft" or "skinny fat" if you will. You all know what i'm talking about, not sloppy and spilling out of there clothes but just sort of soft all around. All in all, it just seems like there is a bit of role reversal here. Its also funny because they still use the word "metrosexual". It feels like I hadn't heard it in about 4 years but people still find it avant garde down under. So cute, right?

4. Have any of you seen "Closer"?

Well in the opening scene Natalie Portman gets plowed by a car and totally f-s herself up (then, in a hollywood dramatization that prevented me from suspending disbelief, she says "hello stranger" to Jude "I leave E on the table for my toddler to chow down on and cheat on Sienna Miller" Law). Well every time i cross the street that image of poor little Ms. Portman flashes into my head. With cars driving on the opposite side of the street it is really hard to remember to look the right way when you want to cross the street. I generally feel like a bobble head doll standing at the cross walk doing a quick left-right-left-right headturn in an effort to cover all bases. Passerbys must think I am about to have a seizure. Its embarassing.

5. Everyone drinks instant coffee. I think that this entry speaks for itself but in case you've never had instant coffee I've got one thing to say about it: SICK. I brought it up to someone at work and they said, "well if you don't drink instant coffee in the US, what do you drink". Ummmmmm.....WHAT? Regular coffee you moron (said more cordially of course). The response was "how do you make it?"......this started to get really tough on me. IN A COFFEE MAKER! Now this is where the conversation took a completely unexpected turn (a turn that leads to number 6) "Well then if you need a coffee maker what do the poor black people in the ghetto drink?" (note: this was said straight faced without any sort of idea that it is just not OK to say that).

6. People here are racist. Maybe that is being a little bit harsh (like calling a lot of the girls pudgy). I'm not sure if they are racist or that they literally just don't have much exposure to other races. It is a very insular country, full of white people, with a spattering of asian nationalities and of course aboriginals (who are not particularly well liked and are considered rowdy boozehounds.....oh my god, am I an aboriginal?). Why don't they do what we did with native americans and let them build casinos....they're so fun. Anyway, its shocking what comes out of peoples mouths sometimes, but you can't really get all that offended because they don't even know that what they are saying is in poor taste. Its true that Americans are super-sensitized to political correctness and its interesting to be in an area that has yet to go through even an introduction to sensitivity training. In fact, up until 1973 there was a national "White Australia" policy that restricted non-white immigration and promoted white/European immigration for approximately 140 years. Ummmmm, what? Mind you this went on for about 25 years after another group, who shall remain nameless, was undertaking an all white policy (hint: rhymes with Pot-zies and its leader rhymes with Mitler). Ergo, I can't agree with their racism but I can understand where it stems from. The last dicscriminatory immigration policy was not removed until 1982. What is most strange is that although there is a pretty serious problem with racism, the country as a whole (or at least Sydney) is very pro-gay. Mobile phone commercials will show people staying connected with family, friends, a straight couple and a gay couple (with words at the bottom of the screen saying "helping you stay connected with your partner"). Its very strange to see such an embracement of gay and lesbian culture while still perpetuating racial stereotypes. One would think that sexual tolerance and racial tolerance would be like two peas in a pod (a homosexual bi-racial pod)......and one would be wrong.

I'm not sure I've quite figured out this place yet, but its been fun to get my feet wet. Looking forward to learning more in the weeks to come.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Joule of the Nile

In the calorie conscious world that is the US it has become second nature to read nutrition panels and have a sense of what is goings into your body. Without even looking one knows that a serving of cereal has around 120 calories (with 1/2 cup skim milk...) a beer is close to 180 and a big Mac around 1000 for all you sick fochers that still eat that crap (Chessare).

I haven't been living the healthiest of lifestyles since getting down here, mostly grabbing take out and not really cooking much at all (unless you consider cereal and PB&J cooking). So in an effort to get my life on track a bit I went off to the market to stock my fridge. Since Berkeley Bowl and Trader Joe's has not made it over to this little corner of the world, the experience was inherently different and was only made more complicated by the fact that all brands are a little different. No surprises there.

What truly confounded the issue was the absence of caloric debt associated with the items being purchased. Don't get me wrong, the items had a nutrition panel that looked oh so similar to those found state side. It. Was. Just. Different.

So we all know that diamonds are a girls best friends, but what you soon find out is that not all jewels, or should I say Joules, are precious. The "energy" unit printed on packages here is Joules, or should I say kilojoules (kJ). I sort of wish that kJs were used in the states as well. As the SI unit of energy that is pervasive in all of science it was difficult as a student to put the unit into context without having a daily reference for its energy equivalent. The energy associated with a chemical reaction makes far more sense when you know that a king size "Crunchie" has 1600kJ of energy

while a serving of crackers (approximately 5 "biscuits" that is) has 530 kJ of energy. Thats the other thing, they call it "energy".

Wouldn't it have been cool to know that nuclear reaction of 1 gram of Uranium gives off 9*10^7 kJ of energy......or about the same energy as 60,000 king size Crunchies. Makes nuclear fission seem DE-LISH-OUS.

Writing this entry has tuckered me out. Time to sort it out.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Trial by fire....Fueled by booze

After a short week of long hours, Friday rolled around and I was put into a difficult situation: almost everyone from my team was gone and it looked like I might be spending myt first weekend curled up on the couch, being low key and maybe reading a book.....WHAT? I entertained that notion for about 2 seconds and as I was riding the lift to my apartment softly muttered "Sorry For Partying". This was both an apology to the city of Sydney for the antics I was about to partake in as well as an apology to myself for ever considering staying in on my first Friday night in Sydney. Lets be real, the only person I was lying to was myself.

So, I call my friend AJ who is spending 8 weeks here for research and asked her to come into the city and get "one drink" with me. Many of you have gone for "one drink" with me in the past, so you can guess what ensued. For those of you that haven't shared this experience, one drink typically consists of 1 drink every 15 to 20 minutes for a solid 4 to 5 hours.

So we headed out in my neighborhood, a place called "The Rocks". The Rocks came into being when the original settlers of Australia (aka prisoners) were instructed to build up an area of residence where they could easily access and build cheaply. Its got a bunch of buildings from the late 18th century mixed in with modern restaurants and loft spaces. A very yin meets yang of posterity and modernity complete with, you guessed right, a bunch of bars. So AJ and I headed out to see what this city had to offer. We started out around 10 pm, still unable to shake the SF trends I've gotten used to over the past few year and not having the foggiest idea about the subtleties, or even the blaringly obvious details, of Sydney nightlife. We started with some delicious beer at a Belgian beer hall right next to my apartment. Very chill and mellow but we were looking to step it up a notch so went on our way. SFP.

We stumbled into a fairly enormous club/bar that had beats blaring but, to our chagrin, nary a soul in the entire establishment. What they did have, tucked away between the smokers patio and the main bar, was a mini-casino! Video poker and what not could be found both here and at all other establishments, which brings me to my second finding regarding the differences between Aussies and Americans:

The Aussie gambling addiction is so strong that they have placed video gambling machines at the bars.

Video gambling was a nice discovery, but what my inner social beast yearned for was to meet the locals that frequent the bar/club/casino establishments that lined this little street of mine. After dancing to a few 80s and early 90s classics (they definitely live for guilty pleasures over here, but for some reason don't even feign a sheepish smile to indicate an underlying understanding that what they are embracing is, in fact, G-U-I-L-T-Y) we took to the streets again to see if we could finally locate the El Dorado that seemed so very evasive.

Asking some folks on the street for recommendations finally brought us to Jackson's, a 3 story restaurant/bar/club/pool hall with an appropriate mix of patrons to reflect the proprietors inability to settle upon a single genre for the establishment. We were hopeful about this place and hastily took to the pool hall (obviously).

Here is where our Sydney adventure really began. We saw a group of about 10 people that seemed to be the most fun people in the bar. I was interested in interacting, and I turned to AJ and said, "Those are our new friends, now we just have to go meet them". In a preternatural display off gregariousness, cunning and sheer gumption AJ walked up and asked if one of the tall blokes in the group could change the channel on the TV (placed far out of the reach of this 5'9'' guy) from golf to soccer. This immediately ingratiated us to the group and we sat down with our new friends. Cut to about 2 hours later: I've got a bunch of phone numbers and email addresses and invites to show me around the city from a natives perspective. It turns out that once you meet an Aussie they are unbelievably warm and friendly (ie I got a group of the girls to form a circle and do the "lownmower" as well as "shopping cart"....imagine if a stranger tried to do this in the States!).

So it took a while, about 48 hours, for me to start a new social circle over here. I'm sure there will be an ebb and flow in this pattern as the weeks go by, but some friends are better than no friends, right? I also got an invite to sushi, sake and karaoke from the team we are consulting with this upcoming Friday. I accepted the invite and it was all I could do to restrain myself from jumping up and down when I heard about the activity. Clearly there will be more news to report by the end of this week. Until then, stay you, k?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

SF to Sydney

Left SF today to head out to Sydney. One would think the anticipation of a trip across the world would numb my general senses as my mind incessantly raced dreaming up scenarios that involved beaches and cold beers….oh and my new job; however, one would not expect to be sitting next ot the bathroom in a cabin whose temp is pushing 90oF (~34oC). Things could be worse. Much worse. I could be the kid in front of me sitting next to the two honeymooners (or maybe just exhibitionists?) whose unabashed amorous exchanges leave me hoping that the flight attendant ( or as Nick would say stewardess) refrains from bringing them a blanket…if you know what I mean. If not, I mean that the only thing keeping their junk in their drawers is an oh so small amount of fear that further breaking the modes of acceptable decorum will result in some sort of negative ramifications….and possibly a mess. If there is a lot of turbulence I fear she may re-enact the When Harry Met Sally diner scene, but I fear this particular lass would not be faking anything. Poor kid has his nose buried in the SkyMall, I’m sure pinning for the Bose Headset on page 54 that promises to cancel surrounding noise and place you in a state of inaudible. Bliss. Thank god the first leg of this trip is only 50 minutes!

I then arrive in the Qantas terminal at LAX, nicely air conditioned and far from the chemically sanitized aromas of that permeated my space on that little jaunt down from San Francisco. Looking around I can’t help but stare at individuals and play the “American or Australian” game. Some are easy to tell: the cheery portly woman in front of me in the newsstand that, to the horror of a Japanese traveler, tripped over his carry-on and took down an entire free standing candy display. I fear his carry-on may need to be replaced (she went down HARD) and I know a solid portion of that candy is no longer for sale, but her resilience was remarkable: immediately up on her feet, giggling saying I’m ok in a thicker than expected southern accent. Picture Becky falling of f the bar at high-tops only to get up laughing and simply shrug it off (I’m comparing the physical resilience here, not mass or diction). This woman, careening into carry-ons and candy, was American.

But this game of deciding whether someone is American or Australan based on the way on carries oneself, manner of dress, choice in reading material, etrc is proving to be rather challenging. It harkens back to an experience a few months ago with Charis and CCD when we trekked to Vancouver for the Vancouer Marathon. Two conclusions were gleaned from that trip: (1) Candad is just like the UA, onlya little different and (2) never trust a sushi recommendation from a meth head at a dive bar. It is the former that resonates with the particular challenge at hand. Like tryhing to identify Candians based on superficial qualities (ie. Canadians like Roots clothing, a trend recently confounded by Americans thinking it is cool to wear winter berets with the Olympic logo emblazoned across the front), one goal of my trip to to try my best to elucidate those antipodean characteristics that make Austrialians so…well….Australian. Gazing around I think that wearing shorts with dress shoes and dress socks may be on characteristic

I hope this is the case, because I will have a field day with this if it is true.

I didn’t spend the last few years of my life in grad school to perform such a paltry study. You can trust me that the scientific method will be employed, photos will be taken and experiences documented. I will work tirelessly over the course of the next few months to crack this case. People. Need. To. Know.