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I posted this six years ago, which certainly dates the references in the next paragraph, but not the state sanctioned excuse for enjoying an opportunity to gather the clan together, lay in a slab of beer and put more shrimps on the barbie on a three-day weekend at the end of January.


What with the sad passing of Heath Ledger and the disappearance of close to 10 billion dollars from global investments, you may be excused for not noticing the national holiday down under. In case it does not appear on your calendar, it is called Australia Day. January 26 commemorates the completion of phase one of Captain Arthur Phillip’s orders– lead a fleet of eleven ships halfway around the world to a barely-known continent and set up housekeeping with a population of prisoners and their keepers. To the natives, of course, it was Invasion Day.


Botany Bay had been portrayed by Captain Cook as an attractive place with deep, dark soil and a fine meadow. That was not how Arthur’s party found it, so they sailed north and came across a beautiful, deep harbor with a stunning opera house… No, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Australia Day brings all the pundits out of the woodwork who feel qualified to write about what it means to be “Australian.” There is much blather about the “fair go,” “mateship,” and the bush but our local newspaper suggests with its photo spread and stories that Australia is now a multi-ethnic universe and it may be time to reconsider what it means to be “Australian.”

This year the Sydney Morning Herald commissioned a handful of Australian artists to speak to the questions raised by the idea of Australia Day.  I’m inserting some of their stunning artistic visions below.

Blaze Line by Tim Storrier

Blaze Line by Tim Storrier

Tim Storrier suggests in an interview that Australia Day is comparable to the American Thanksgiving, that it should be treated with reverence even though not all that has happened has been positive.  This year will mark the start of commemorations to recognize one hundred years since Australia’s involvement in the First World War.  This will no doubt trigger some reflection on the state of the nation  and its cultural assumptions.  The ascension of Abbot to the leadership has certainly raised doubt about the country’s view of itself as hospitable to asylum seekers.

With its current population of 21 million, there are 250 ancestries and 400 languages. A fifth of the continent’s residents were born overseas.  San Choy Bow is as important as meat pies in today’s Australia.

Raise a toast of fine wine to this country’s heterogeneous future. Australia has significant issues to address and it will require the best human resources to forge a prosperous future. Cheers!

San Choy Bow

2 tblspn extra light olive oil

400 g cup mushrooms, chopped

1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped

400 g chicken mince

¾ cup chicken stock

5 green onions, thinly sliced

2 tblspn lime juice

1 tblspn fish sauce

1 tspn brown sugar

1 baby cos lettuce

Heat wok over high heat until hot. Add oil, mushrooms and chilli. Stir-fry two minutes. Add chicken mince and stir-fry for 5 minutes, breaking up the lumps as you go. Add stock and ¾ of the green onions. Bring to the boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 minutes or until stock has absorbed. Stir through lime juice, fish sauce and sugar.

Arrange lettuce leaves on plates. Top with chicken mixture. Sprinkle with remaining green onions. Serve immediately.

I am reblogging this post, the only one I’ve written about the Australian Open.  I wrote this up in January, 2008, the summer we arrived in Australia.  That was a hot one, too, but not as hot as it has been during this last week.  With the eyes of all tennis aficionados on Melbourne, the temperature hit the stratosphere. Players wilted and the officials in charge seem to think they should all behave like mad dogs or Englishmen. Some of the Aussies loved it, of course, lording their tolerance for extreme temps over their European competitors.

It’s a little late in the day but I lost my tennis virginity yesterday. At the Open. It took about five hours and was relatively painless, though I did get a bit of a burn. I mentioned in my last post that there was a period years ago when I used to watch tennis on TV even though I never played the game. My son was a toddler and I was housebound for extended periods. I watched game shows that had nothing to do with sports, only the American passion for winning things.

What is different now is that this is one of the Grand Slam tournaments and it takes place right here in our fair city. We have tennis loving friends in Grand Pre, Nova Scotia who are staying up to all hours glued to their sets. So, in honor of the event I purchased a grounds pass and made my way down to Melbourne Park. To see what live, pro tennis is all about.

The Park covers a large area along the banks of the Yarra, dominated by the two main venues– Rod Laver arena and Vodaphone arena. A grounds pass only permits you to watch games played on the periphery, in the Margaret Court arena and the two Show Courts.

On the outside courts I managed to catch Jelena Jankovic with her male practice partner, as well as a tattooed male player I could not identify. Most of the courts were given over to junior player matches. Some of them looked fierce, intense expressions flitting across their faces as if the fate of the world rested on the outcome.

On the stadium courts, there was more intense singles action, doubles matches and some doubles with tennis “legends”, players that I remembered from my TV tennis days back in Iowa. Inside the two main venues, the top seeds were going at it. You could watch it “live” on the giant screen set up in the Garden Square. One of the last American contenders, Venus Williams, was getting beat.

What is it about this sport that exudes such fascination? I think it is the psychological battle of wills, translated into tics, gesture, body language and the powerful blow of the racket striking the ball. The top players are finely honed gladiators, and the tension triggered by the ebb and flow of the game appears to reveal the personality of the athletes.

We humans are animals, and we see it in tennis. The grunts, the pounding of the chest, the barring of teeth, the scratching of the backside. The expressions of ferocity and despair. It is a very personal contest, like acrobatic chess on speed.

My neighbor says that it is not a very popular sport here anymore. The Open is well attended, but then interest drops off. Perhaps because of the paucity of home grown top players. This would seem to be anomaly, considering how sports minded this nation is. Mind you, Aussies do take an interest in a lot of different sports. But how does a country the size of Serbia do it?

Being on site made tennis seem more real, but a grounds pass is a poor relation to a big screen. Maybe next year I’ll spring for some good seats. For now, I’ll settle back and barrack for my favorite players in the lounge room. On TV, just the way I used to.

During one of my grade school years our school board got the idea that we would all be much better off if we knew what the future held, something the experts could tell us. It may have been envisioned as a “Que Sera, sera” sort of thing. Planning for the future, one upping the Soviets, who seemed to be much better at this than the Yanks. One child would be the next Einstein, another the dunce. I knew damn well I wasn’t going to be Einstein, but I wasn’t at the dunce end either.

The aptitude tests took place in the gym, and it was like being back in kindergarten. Guys in lab coats were ready with clipboards and stopwatches. We were encouraged to do puzzles and put square blocks through square holes. We were asked things like: if Mars had air, what color would the sky be? It was fun, about as far from the three R’s as one could get. We didn’t realize that experts like these were still encouraging Americans to smoke for their health.

No doubt the results were sent to the parents and filed away in triplicate. All I remember learning was that I possessed a peculiar combination– fast hands and slow fingers. By the time I thought about asking what that implied about my fate, the experts had packed up and gone home.

I was a short, slightly shy, nearsighted kid. One of the last to be called on a baseball field. At bat, I would stare in amazement at a ball that had just whizzed by and now protruded from the catcher’s mitt. Hopeless at football and basketball.

I was good at only one schoolyard game, the one where you stand facing your adversary and place your palms on his, anticipating the instant he flips his hands over and slaps the back of your hands. I could always pull away before that happened. Then it was my turn.

Later, I discovered table tennis and badminton. They offered me the unmitigated joy of beating the pants off other, more athletic boys. They were not lying about my slow fingers. Typing class was the only one that nearly brought me to tears.

As an adult, I developed fairly strong arms and short, powerful legs. Not much good for sprinting but just fine for outdoor activities I liked– sailing, kayaking, hiking and cycling. Even volleyball.

Every once in awhile I would look longingly at the tall, elegant, athletes in white out on the tennis court. On at least two occasions I picked up a racket, determined to find out if I could master the serve and volley. It did not seem natural to my fast hands, nothing like badminton. I didn’t have the patience or persistence to practice, and no one saw in me a young Jimmy Connors.

As a spectator, it is a mesmerizing sport. I remember watching it on a black and white T.V. for hours when my son was small and we were housebound over long, midwestern winters. Now the giants of the sport are here in Melbourne, strutting their stuff on the new, blue courts. Federer, Henin, Williams, Roddick. Taking the spotlight off cricket for awhile.

Who cares what is happening in the U.S. primaries? This is where the action is. I’ll bet they all have fast hands, fast fingers, fast legs and feet. Powerful biceps and the concentration of Einstein. And not one of them was singled out for stardom by a man in a lab coat and an aptitude test. They just loved the game, and persisted.

Stay tuned, there’s more to come.

We just crossed a milestone, the anniversary of our arrival in Australia. My daughter and I landed here a year ago yesterday, the morning of January 5th. My wife took the long way around and arrived a week later.

It was hot. We took ourselves to University College and began our early efforts to figure the place out. Our poor cat had been sent on ahead, so the our first train trip was to Spotswood Quarantine Center. She was not overjoyed with our visit. Her body language was obvious. “Get me out of here.” She turned her back on us and wouldn’t even meow.

By January 31 we were ensconced in our new digs in Essendon. We had the goods from our shipment to fill the house and a car to decorate the garage. We had met some of the neighbors. We had appliances. We blew a few things up experimenting with the voltage difference. How quickly you forget things like that.

I learned how to drive to the supermarket and where to find cat food. My wife resumed her teaching career and my daughter found work at a coffee shop downtown, in the CBD (central business district).

We got everything insured, of course, including ourselves. It would be several months before we qualified for Medicare coverage, (not to be confused with U.S. Medicare). Medicare provides universal coverage for most everything but dentistry and glasses.

The Howard government managed to convince Australians that universal coverage wasn’t adequate, of course, and what they really needed was the American model of health insurance. It works so well for Americans. Now, the Australian government subsidizes premiums for private health insurance. Figure that out.

I learned how to negotiate roundabouts and parallel parking from the wrong side of the car. I found out the windscreen (not windshield) wipers are located on the left (not right) side of the steering column and the turn signals are where the wipers should be. I found a local recumbent cycling group who adopted me since I was no more peculiar than anyone else in the group.

In short order, we discovered the nearest tram stop to the 59 tram, which goes right by the Royal Victorian Hospital, close to the Law School and directly down to Flinders Street Station. We found our local bottle shop (read liquor store), a gym, the library and the equivalent of Netflix.

We took in some of the endless cultural events on offer through festivals that rotate with breathless intensity. We saw some good plays and ate out in a few fine restaurants. I learned the local names of fish and new names for familiar veggies.

I started writing this blog shortly after arriving on these shores. It began as an attempt to keep our friends and acquaintances in North America up to date on our adventure here. A simple way of eliminating multiple emails of the same information.

It seems to have evolved into a vehicle that asks me to explore my own curiosity about this vast country and its curious customs. I wanted to capture the newness before the strange became familiar. I needn’t have worried.  This is a strange and extraordinary place.

Welcome to my point-of-view. Odd and opinionated, of course, slightly skewed to the left. Comments are welcome. Good books and fine bottles of wine very welcome, indeed.

I am writing this on New Year’s Day, which is New Year’s Eve for those of you in North America. I know, it’s confusing. So is the weather, of course. Since I’m in the southern hemisphere it is high summer here. Yesterday was the hottest day of the hottest year on record. It got up to 106 F during the afternoon and “cooled down” to 90 by midnight.

I do hate to be profligate when it comes to energy use, but we took pity on our Maine Coon Cat and switched on the air conditioner. The high ceilings and lack of windows help keep the house relatively cool, but the aircon definitely helped us cope.

By midnight, I was fast asleep. From this you may reasonably infer that we are not exactly party animals. We were not among the half a million revelers celebrating in the center of the city watching 10,000 explosions going off. One young twenty-something was quoted in today’s paper with the memorable line: “We’re going to get shit faced.” Her resolution for the New Year? “Party harder than last year.” I’m really glad to be past that.

I don’t usually make New Year’s Resolutions but perhaps I can make an exception this year. I will attempt to be more prolific this year with new material on the web log. I will try to take my camera with me often so I can get more pictures. I will attempt to write about issues that intimidate me, like Australian politics, sports and aboriginal issues. I will do some exploring beyond my “comfort zones.”

My wife mentioned to me the other day that I have been remiss in not writing about roses. This is a city full of flowers. Every front yard has a garden, and nearly every garden has roses. They are absolutely fabulous and they are about to be wiped out by the heat. I took all the pics for this particular post this morning on a short walk to return a DVD.

The heatwave we are suffering from will decimate the gardens and the trees, of course. But the roses will return. They are hardy, like the Australians. “That, which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.” That which we call a blog is simply an attempt to communicate, to share the images and ideas that have landed in my lap with a few of you.

Happy New Year! to my faithful readers and anyone who happens across this blog and tunes in to my peculiar point of view. Good on ya!

Flickr Photos


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January 2008

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