Friday, April 18, 2014

Inherited Spices

The other day, my friend A of pop-up dinner party fame sent Partner-in-Crime a message asking him if he'd like to avail himself of the remains of her wine cabinet, as her movers were there and everything must go. This was an offer P-i-C could not turn down, and when he returned from the collection mission, his spoils of the move included the wine, a juicer (lucky me!), and a bag of spices from A's kitchen.

As I was putting the spices away that night, I started wondering just how many spice containers from how many friends I have inherited over the years. Spices are inevitably the thing that are hanging around in the kitchen when you move that you don't want to take with you, but you just can't justify throwing away - that jar of turmeric that you used less than a tablespoon of 1/8 of a teaspoon at a time, the Garam Masala you bought for a recipe that you never got around to making, and the cumin that you just bought three weeks ago, and is still 3/4 full. You need a staying-put friend to take them from you and give them a good home.

Here in Sydney, I've helped to offload the spice racks of two other girlfriends who were moving back to the States. Before that, when I lived in Florida, I was the inheritor of an endless supply of spices (spices and, for some reason, bottles of red wine vinegar) from visiting actors who were going back to their real homes in New York after spending three months or so in actor housing. I did a stint - a horrible, thankless stint - as the "Guest Relations Coordinator," in addition to my regular duties as the Artistic Director's assistant, which meant that I arranged travel and housing for our guest actors. When they left, I was responsible for getting the houses clean again. Mercifully, I was usually allowed to hire cleaners, but all the stuff left over had to either be trashed, donated or - as was often the case with the spices - put into my personal collection because, really, how else was I going to get rid of a half empty jar of cinnamon?

That job lasted, thankfully, only six months or so, even if it felt like many long years, but for a couple of my years at the theatre, I lived in artist housing, namely a 1920s Florida bungalow with built in bookshelves, a screened porch with white wicker furniture, and wood everything that we called The Pink House. I have almost nothing but fond memories of The Pink House and the revolving cast (literally) of actors, directors, designers and other visiting artists that I called roommates for a few weeks or months.

The Pink House
We were on a block with several other artist houses and the big intern house, which I also lived in for a year, was across the street. Most of my memories are from the porch, where many of us would congregate to drink beer and pontificate on life until the wee hours. Maybe someone would bust out a guitar or a joint, though I never partook in the latter. Of course, some folks I clicked with more than others, but it seemed like I was constantly in a new community with fascinating people, some of whom I happily remain in touch with and others who I can just barely remember, but pop into memory from time to time. I don't recall whose spices were whose, except the "excellent" baking powder I ended up with from the roommate who pretentiously told me that my baking powder wasn't good enough and oh-so-generously replaced it so that he could make pancakes for the household. It became a running joke between the other roomie and I, and if I ran into him today, we'd probably still laugh about it. I do clearly remember our kitchen and the thin shelves I claimed as my "pantry," which were always overflowing with my collection of spices and other sundries. I'm not sure who I gave my spices to when I moved out of The Pink House. Maybe I just left them for Emily, the massively talented musician/actress who was living there when I left. Several years later when I'd moved back to Sarasota, to my own place this time, and was leaving for Australia, I gave my spices to my friend/Resident Playwright Sarah, who reluctantly took them. She just so happened to be living in The Pink House at the time, and I imagine her reluctance may have had something to do with her own overflowing pantry from all the random dry goods she'd been collecting, as well.

Porch sitting at The Pink House circa about 2002. This picture is just so, so very The Pink House. 

In addition to spices, wine, and a juicer, I've gotten many more items from transient friends over the years - books, kitchenware, furniture at a friend's discount, a bike, plants, a beta fish (true story), toys for Hushpuppy, and so on. But, on the last day of the move, it always seems to be the spices that find their way home with me. 

Unpacking A's spices, I thought for awhile about all these people whose spices I've inherited over the years. Then, I started to wonder why it is I've set up my life in such a way that people around me always seem to be there just temporarily. I'm not sure that I know the answer. In so many ways, it's such a sad part of my life. If I had my way, I'd have my 15 or 20 closest friends all living on the same block with me and we'd just sit on our porches drinking adult bevvies and contemplating the world every day (maybe we'd venture out to eat at restaurants and see movies sometimes). Instead, they're spread all over the U.S. and the world, very few of them in the spot where I met them, which tells me that I'm not the only one who moves around a fair bit. The positive side, though, is that I'm continually forced out of my shell, always on the lookout for great new friends, and that means that I continue to be surprised by the interesting and kind new people that I meet. My fellow mover arounders have, by nature, an inherent bravery, curiosity, and need to continue pushing their boundaries. That makes for some fascinating friendships that constantly make my life richer, even as my spice rack grows ever fuller, and despite the sadness that the goodbyes always bring.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sydney Harbour Pop-Up Dinner Party

April is proving a hard month for me with too many of my expat friends completing their assignments and going home. I'm happy for them, but sad for the hole left in my life here in Sydney. It's not easy to make friendships as an adult, and being across the world, friends become your family, so I mourn how often we have to say goodbye to the wonderful people we meet for too short a time. My friend L and her husband, whose little daughter and mine played together, and with whom I felt a real kinship went home to the States at the beginning of the month. I'd only known her a few months, and was so sad that we didn't have more time together. My friend A, who I wrote about here, completes her expat assignment this month and heads home, as well.

The Book Club Girls all agreed that A has been such a dear friend, and done so many kind things for all of us that we were going to send her home in proper style. We knew right away how to celebrate, as A had already given us the perfect idea. For some time, she'd been talking up the idea of a "pop-up dinner party," a fancy dinner party in a park. Of course, living in Sydney, it would have to feature our famous Harbour view. It's an amazing idea in theory, but when you get down to it, one that requires a fair amount of work and resources. Thankfully, we had no shortage of hard working, generous, and resourceful ladies amongst the five of us Book Clubbers turned Party Planning Committee.

We agreed on Blues Point Reserve, a park on the north shore which features a stunning Harbour view and is rarely crowded. For theme, we decided to go with an elegant Australian send-off. Our energetic friend G agreed to Project Manage the whole event, and thank goodness, because she's an ace with spreadsheets, and just plain getting things done and she kept all the pieces together.

We always knew that rain was a possibility, and though we had a backup location at someone's house, nothing would be as special as our park on the Harbour, so all we could do was cross our fingers. When the day arrived, it was one of those days where it was blue and gorgeous one moment and grey the next. The weather forecasts were little help, some promising scattered showers and others saying no rain until late that night. The five of us went back and forth all morning until we finally decided to take the chance and go for the park. Hallelujah! The weather gods were looking out for us, as we ended up with perfect weather, and not a drop of rain. We would have been so disappointed had we played it safe and moved it, only to have no rain. There's a life lesson in there, and maybe just a touch of hubris.

The set up was extensive, but thankfully we had lots of hands on board to help move furniture, set places, and put all the fine details in place. We hired a caterer and two servers so that we could all enjoy the party once it got underway.

A knew that a party was being held in her honor, as she picked the date and provided the guest list, and we advised her as to dress code, but she didn't know any more than that. I suspect she may have guessed that we ran with her pop-up dinner party idea, as we did tell her to dress warmly, but certainly she didn't know any more details than that. We greeted her with a champagne toast and a rousing chant of "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!" 

The first hour was mingling, hors d'oeuvres, and bubbly, followed by the sit down dinner, and finally an Aussie dessert of pavlova and macarons. We finished the night with sparklers and lingered over a bit more wine, an incredible view, and great conversation.

A's farewell pop-up dinner party turned out to be one of the most magical events of my time in Sydney, thus far. I know it was a special send-off for A, but it was just as special for all of us who put it together and got to take part. To have dear friends coming together with a postcard view to sit outside sharing good food, a cool breeze, beauty, laughter, and a few tears - I can't think of a better way to honor our friend and remember what a special place we live.

The decorated wine bottles across the table spelled out AUSTRALIA.
Photo by Ivan Stojic.

Jars with candles wrapped in twine on posts decorated with eucalyptus and other Aussie flora made a perimeter around our party.

Candles in jars and some twinkle lights provided our lighting.
Macarons for dessert.
Photo by Ivan Stojic.
Photo by Ivan Stojic.
Aussie flowers decorated the table in the wine bottle vases.
Photo by Ivan Stojic.
Hushpuppy particularly enjoyed the pavlova.
Photo by Ivan Stojic.
Photo by Ivan Stojic.
Photo by Ivan Stojic.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Seasons Change

We've come to another second Wednesday, which means that all of my Expat Blog Challenge cohorts have agreed to once again conspire on a theme post. This month, we have a photo post on the theme "seasons change."

I took this one a few days ago on a morning play in our park.

I snapped this on my iphone because I loved the perspective of tiny Hushpuppy trotting blissfully through the large expanse of grass, shadowed by the tall trees. It wasn't until later that I noticed how autumnal the scene is with that gorgeous red tree in the center. I should have noticed, though, because it was a classic Autumn morning: blazing blue sky and this crisp cool in the air that just bites at your skin, but not so unkindly even that you need to worry about covering up. It was the kind of morning where you want to hold a warm cup of coffee in between your hands to feel the contrast, but you know that by noon it will feel more summer than winter once again. 

I've been dreading the season change with a lingering sadness. We've had a glorious summer. The move to our new place has been a blessing, and we've enjoyed pool days, daily - sometimes twice daily - trips to the park, barbecues and eating meals out on the deck, long plays with the water table, and trips to the zoo. Hushpuppy has taken up walking and loves to wander all over creation. I was thinking recently that this has turned into a magical, easy season in my life, and when we move on from it, it's one I'll miss and look back on with great fondness. 

We'll still haunt the park in Autumn and Winter, but it won't be as effortless. The pool and barbecue will retire for another six or nine months. Our apartment, which is mercifully cool in the summer thanks to being on the ground floor and floored in mostly tile, feels like a cave in the cooler season. We'll run heaters non-stop and I'll be bundled in hoodies and blankets. I hate the cold and I miss our beautiful summer already, even though we're still enjoying the waning moments of it, pretending as if it will never end. 

On a completely unrelated and self-promotional note, a couple weeks ago, I wrote another parenting essay for North Shore Mums, which I never posted about here. It's a personal story I wanted to share, so if you're interested in parenting matters, and you're looking for more reading material, I invite you to pop over. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Reflections on a Month of Yoga

Ever since Hushpuppy was born, I've been inconsistent - to put it kindly - on my exercise routine. It happens when your life gets completely flipped over by a little person who needs constant watching and round the clock attending to. But, Hushpuppy is a toddler now, and I'd started to feel very down about the fact that I have not even begun to look or feel like my old self physically and, in many ways, mentally.

I started practicing yoga about eight years ago, and since then it has always been important to me. During the late stages of pregnancy, I was at the yoga studio sometimes four times a week, and I felt stronger and more mentally centered than I ever had before in my life. So, naturally, I wanted to turn to yoga for the kick in the pants I needed to get myself physically and spiritually back on track, and Yoganic's March Yoga/Pilates Challenge was that push.

There was no requirement with the challenge to practice everyday, but I set that as my goal. I would not be able to make it to a class daily, as there were just some days where childcare availability and class schedules didn't mesh, so on those days I practiced at home and sent in a picture. In addition to daily yoga, I set a few other goals for myself:

  • Set a positive intention for the day every morning. These intentions were always something simple that I could come back to throughout the day. I used "be grateful" a couple of times, as well as "find calmness." My favorite that I came back to on several occasions was "smile." It could make a huge difference in my day, during a moment of frustration with a toddler tantrum or maybe a glass breaking, I could just say "smile" in my head, let a smile come across my face, and my whole attitude changed.
  • Limit myself to one cup of coffee per day, drink a green smoothie every morning, and drink at least two bottles of water per day. I made my nutrition goals fairly modest, as I knew I was taking a lot on and wanted them to be realistic. These three small changes did a lot to give me the energy boost I needed for the month, and I'm working on keeping them up.
One of my favorite things about the challenge was that, with an unlimited pass to the studio, I could take a chance on trying out a range of different styles and classes. When you practice on a sort of catch-as you can-maybe-weekly basis like I do, it's easy to get tied to just a regular Hatha class, and not branch out, as it's tried and true. There's nothing wrong with Hatha, but I had so much fun playing at Yolates, Relaxation & Meditation, Pilates and one of the most interesting ones was Yin Yoga, in which you hold asanas (poses) for up to five minutes. Yin, I found, was hard work, but really more of a mental challenge than a physical one (though, I did feel it the next day!). Near the end of the month, Yoganic's lovely owner Melissa offered a candlelight yoga session for Earth Hour. That was absolutely dreamy. I felt like a human pillow at the end of it.

It wasn't always easy, though I often seemed to find a boost when needed. After the first week, I was exhausted. In my head, I was doubting whether I could go all month without a day off. It was a big change to go from sporadic practice to daily exercise. On that day, I was taking a class I've attended for awhile with the Leisure Centre. It's not affiliated with Yoganic and my instructor didn't know I was doing the challenge. At the end of the class, he said, "you're looking stronger." It was exactly the thing I needed to hear. If there was one thing I wanted out of this challenge, it was to come away stronger, and for him to tell me that propelled me forward. Another day, Hushpuppy woke up at 4:30a.m., and I was so cranky with her and exhausted. I put her in front of the TV for a bit, and I sat there thinking grumpily about how I didn't want to bother with setting an intention - I was just too tired and annoyed. But then I realized that I needed to set that intention today more than any other day. I told myself to find joy in the day. And, once I found my one cup of coffee, I did!

One day a week, I attend Mums and Bubs yoga with Hushpuppy. We've been going since she was about 8 weeks old, and it's a special part of my week. One week during the challenge, the class was cancelled, so needing to find a practice for the day, I decided to gather up Hushpuppy and even Partner-in-Crime and we went to the park for our own Mums (and Dads) and Bubs sessions. It was a magnificent hour, and really special family time. 

By the end of the challenge, I was uplifted. My clothes were feeling a bit looser, I had a lot more energy, I'd learned a lot of wonderful little tips to help my practice from all the different instructors I'd been working with, and I felt strong. I bought a six month pass, and vowed to keep up my practice (maybe not every single day, but far better than I have been doing), now that I've proven that there's always a way to fit it in. It's a gift to myself, and when I'm strong, centered and remembering to smile, a gift to my family, as well.

Friday, March 21, 2014

10 Australian Phrases I Can't Live Without

I love it when I find a word or phrase that fills a need and says something that nothing else in the language does. My appreciation for the Southern phrase "y'all" is well documented. It may be a bit of a joke on Southern dialect to people outside the region, but there's no other word that means what y'all does, so I love it and will continue to use it with no apologies.

Recently, I've noticed that there are a few Australian terms (a lot of them are British/Aussie) that have become essential in my vocabulary. I've been keeping notes when one pops out of my mouth, and this is a list of 10 words I noticed have become an important part of my lexicon.

Hushpuppy was cheeky even at 4 months old.
1. Cheeky - This is such a favorite, especially now that I have a kid. I use it all the time regarding mine and other people's children. It describes something that's a little bit naughty, kind of sly, but in a good natured or funny way. I use it a lot for children, but it can be used in many different scenarios. One I hear a lot is, "do you want to go get a cheeky coffee?," meaning "do you want to slip away for a bit for a coffee and a quick chat, even if there might be other things we should/could be doing."

2. It's a real dog's breakfast - I love this one for how descriptive it is. It means that a situation is a mess. For instance, you might call a project at work "a dog's breakfast" if it goes completely off the rails, maybe due to someone's incompetence or extenuating circumstances. I've also heard it used to refer to something visual like a piece of art that's particularly ugly.

3. Budgie smugglers - ...speaking of things that are descriptive. Maybe it's a little juvenile, but I get such a kick out of this phrase. First thing you need to know, if you aren't familiar with the term, is that "budgies" are a little bird that we in the States would call a parakeet. Budgie smugglers are men's Speedo style swim trunks. I've created a visual, just in case any further explanation is required, with the help of our esteemed Prime Minister.

Also, can I just mention how much I love that this is the first result that comes up when you put in "Tony Abbott b..."
4. Feral children - this is another one that's become useful since having a baby. It's just what it sounds like - wild, untamed kids, particularly yours or those you encounter out and about. "My kid is feral today. I need a drink."

5. Chuffed - This is an awesome way of saying that you're really happy about something. It's almost onomatopoeic, such a round and puffy word, you can't help but get a little grin when you say it.

6. Spit the dummy - I actually never knew what this mean until I had Hushpuppy. A dummy is what we Americans call a pacifier, and during Hushpuppy's short-lived interest in paccies/binkies/dummies, I saw first-hand where the expression came from. If she didn't want it, she'd spit it out in a fit of disgust. So, the expression "spit the dummy" is just that - a fit of anger or annoyance, losing your temper. "I heard Joe spit the dummy when he heard they were thinking about pay cuts."

7. Fortnight - Before moving here, a fortnight was something I'd only encountered in Jane Austen novels, as in "we'll be in the country visiting the Collingsworth estate for a fortnight." Everyone was always going visiting for a fortnight. Turns out that a fortnight is fourteen "nights," or more succinctly, two weeks. It's common here to be billed for something forthnightly or to set up an appointment for a fortnight from now.

8. Just quietly - Between you and me. "Just quietly, I didn't think the wine they served was as good as they kept saying it was."

9. Keen - Keen means that you really want to do something. At first I mostly used it when talking to Aussies, but I find it very useful and notice it slipping in all the time. "Can we invite Marsha to the movie? She's really keen to see it."

10. Losing the plot - I use this phrase all the time. It's so great. It means that you or someone has gone a bit nutty or lost track of what's important in a situation. "Why did he do that? Has he lost the plot?"  The first page of a Google search for "lost the plot" comes up with articles  titled "Has Paula Abdul completely lost the plot?" and the one to the right.

All these phrases have become natural to me, and I find them endlessly useful. American friends, next time we talk, you'll no doubt hear at least one of these gems sneak into our conversation.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Advice: You Can't Go Wrong

Very happy to be reconvening with my fellow expat blog challengers for the first of our monthly writing prompts. For March, the topic is "advice." 

Decision made. Onward!
I have an unproductive habit of sometimes letting my mind wander over the past - What-iffing. It's not a melancholy thing, just a curiosity  to play out imagined outcomes of taking the other fork in the road at pivotal moments in my life. What if I had gone to that big state school instead of the tiny women's college? What if I had majored in Early Childhood Education like I was originally planning? What if I had accepted that full-ride assistantship in St Louis for grad school instead of deciding to pay full tuition to go to Brooklyn? What if I had turned down that Lit Manager job in Florida and stayed in New York, instead? What if I'd not answered Partner-in-Crime's email on an online dating site (I almost didn't!)?

What-iffing always leads me to the same place - if I'd done any of these things differently, I wouldn't have had the adventure of living overseas, I wouldn't be married to the best guy I've ever known, and I wouldn't have my Hushpuppy. So, though I may have faced some occasional hardships with the choices, I'm glad I made them. I'm not a fatalist: I don't believe there's "one person for everyone" or that things are "meant to be," so the exercise of What-iffing is interesting to me knowing that at any one of those forks, my life could be so different - different economic status, different lifestyle, different husband or no husband, a different kid brought into this world.

What-iffing often reminds me of the most important piece of advice I've ever received. Over sub sandwiches and life transition conversation one day, my friend Nick, who has a good 20 years more life experience than me, said something so simple to me, "there are no 'right' choices, there's only what you do with the choices you make."

Through the following years, this advice has been so freeing to me. I don't take it literally that there are no wrong choices. Breaking laws, hurting people, taking up smoking (I presume Hushpuppy will be able to read this blog one day) - those are wrong choices. There are people in this world who habitually make pretty terrible choices. But in the scope of regular life choices - this job or that job, to marry this person or not, to spend a lot of money on a dream vacation or save it for a rainy day, used or new car, oatmeal or toast - within these choices, you do the best you know how and then you move forward with a positive attitude and determination to make it work.

This is pretty solid advice to carry in your head, as an expat. I doubt there are many of us expats who haven't once thought, "why am I here?" or "I've made a huge mistake." What a powerful feeling if your next thought can be, "no, actually, there was no way to mess up the decision to move here or not. And now, I've decided to be here,that is valid, and what can I do with this decision?",

For me, this advice has been the most powerful in the throes of making a decision. Move to Australia or not? There's happiness, and at some point some pain, on either path off that choice. I'm a "go with my gut" person because I believe my gut is actually a pretty evolved part of me, sending its signals based on a lot of prior evidence and experiences. So, I do what my gut says, and release myself into the knowledge that I can't choose incorrectly, and that I'm in charge of doing something grand once I've chosen.

Monday, March 10, 2014

ABC-123 and All the Colors of the Rainbow: A First Birthday Party

I go a little stir crazy without projects. In November, I had Thanksgiving to plan for. In December, of course, there was Christmas and all that goes along with it. February was the blog challenge, and March is yoga. And January? In January, I became consumed with Hushpuppy's first birthday party.

I wasn't even sure if we'd throw her a party, as first birthday parties always seemed a little silly to me. I mean, the kid has no idea what's going on, so why bother, right? But, as we neared ever closer to the milestone, I realized that Partner-in-Crime and I had been through the most exhausting, trying, relentless, surprising, miraculous year of our lives, and it was worth marking with, at minimum, some cake, a champagne toast, and the friends who got us through.

I declared that the only stipulation was that this party was going to cause me no stress. And then, I did what anyone wants to do when setting out to throw a party with no stress or expectations - I got on Pinterest. Oh, Pinterest, the maker and breaker of dreams.  If you were to see my Pinterest board for this party, and then look at the pictures from the party, you'd know that I have not a single creative bone in my body. I'm a fake, but you know what, both thanks to and in spite of Pinterest, we had a lovely, festive, and -yes - stress free party.

In hindsight, I think the keys to throwing this stress-free first birthday party were:

  • I picked a simple theme - Letters and numbers with rainbow colors. So, finding and buying decorations was easy. They only have red tablecloths at KMart? Great! Red is in the rainbow! 
  • Held it in our local park, so no need to get the house extra clean or worry about any rentals (we also lucked out with good weather).
  • Put an end time on the invitation. We, of course, did not plan to send anyone home, but everyone knew the party ended at 5, and naturally drifted out about that time. Two hours was a perfect amount of time for Hushpuppy.
  • Plenty of light refreshments, but no meal (holding the party from 3-5 meant there was no expectation of a meal).
  • Hired a young friend/aspiring photographer to take photos so that we didn't have to worry about it and could be in the photos. Best money we spent, hands down.
  • Accepting help. My friend L offered to come early to help set up, and I thought, "who am I to turn down help?". Her being there meant that Partner-in-Crime could hang out at home with Hushpuppy for the hour before the party, so she was nice and fresh when she arrived. L and I got an early start on the first glass of wine and had a nice hour setting up and chatting.
The only thing that caused me stress was not allowing enough lead time for ordering things. My lovely invitations got lost in the mail, so I had no time to re-order and had to email. And, I missed out on giving super cute alphabet fridge magnets as favors because they didn't arrive on time. 

We didn't have any games or anything like that, seeing as the party was about 95% adult, and 5% people who'd rather eat grass than pin the tail on the donkey, so all of my January prep work was spent on decor and menu planning. My big project (and, I'd like the mention, the one thing I did think of from my very own brain, not nabbed from Pinterest) was the photo bunting with pictures of Hushpuppy from each month of her life. It was a time consuming project, but I loved how it came out.

My food table was full-on Pinterest. 

I spent HOURS cutting those letter/number sugar cookies out by hand because the cookie cutters I ordered turned out to be tiny for cutting fondant (see the cake).
Thought they looked lovely in the glass cookie jar I found at the Salvos, and I wrapped the lid in alphabet washi tape, which also went around the forks and drink glasses.

Actually, these might have been out of my brain, too.
Rainbow cake. So very Pinterest.
In case you're ever in need of a dairy free cake recipe, this is the one I used.
And a dairy free buttercream frosting. Thanks, vegans! You make my dairy free cooking life easier.

Hushpuppy didn't really go all cake-smashy with her birthday cake. I blame baby led weaning for the lack of frosting face pictures.
Outfit was from Etsy. Natch. She wouldn't wear the adorable headband that came with it, so we skipped it. No stress.

Hushpuppy spent most of the party eating ice with her friend, trying to run away, and digging through other people's purses. She did seem to like opening her presents, though.

And, we did do a champagne toast! To our friends who supported our family this year. And to Hushpuppy. And to us!

Oh, there's that headband she wouldn't wear. Ended up on my wrist. High style.

By the end of the party, we had one tired Hushpuppy and Mama.