Tasmania. The name itself is enough to conjure up images of vast wilderness, ravaging devils and untamed cavemen. Tasmania has held mystique in my mind ever since I was introduced to the Tasmania Devil cartoon character as a kinderbop. In all rights, who wouldn’t be fascinated with a place that homes whirling dervish marsupials called devils? 

The flight from Melbourne is an hour long puddle jump and costs a mere $50. I wondered why more Melbournians didn’t take advantage of this and jet off on Tasmanian holidays every other weekend. 

I don’t have a good answer to that question. My theory is that Melbournians are afraid of Tasmanians and their mysterious land. “Oh Tassie…that’s a special place,” was the only reply I got when telling friends of my upcoming travel plans. 

To put it nicely, Tasmania falls at the bottom of Australia’s socioeconomic totem pole. To put it not so nicely, as my father quoted from an Australian man on his flight to Melbourne, “ask a Tasmanian to see the scar on their neck…the one where their second head was removed at birth.” Ooh Burn. Australians have quite a cynical sense of humour. 

With a population of just over 500,000 confined to a small island, I can see where the mating options may have been limited.  

Now, it was time to put the rumours to the test and see if Tassie truly lived up to its reputation. The flight into Launceston (the northernmost city) landed, and Dad and I were off, after getting an unsolicited (and well appreciated) “massive rental car upgrade” from Budget. 

Armed with a few road maps and absolutely no plan, we settled on a highway that meandered through some foothills to the East Coast seaport town of St. Helens. Whoever coined the term open road must have been inspired by Tasmania. The drive was exhilarating sprawling through harvested hayfields, picturesque two-shop towns and musty forests of gum trees, all the while only seeing another car every five miles or so. 

By the end of our first day, I was thoroughly impressed with Tasmania. We had made it to the coastal town of St. Helens, stumbled upon possibly the tallest waterfall in Tasmania (as the sign read, they clearly don’t want to commit to anything controversial), made small talk with a general store owner, and encountered an echidna (think marsupial porcupine) crossing the road!

The vast openness of this land intrigued me and I couldn’t ignore the constant draw of the rugged wilderness. 

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Driving in Tasmania - wide open roads.
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Mr. Echidna hiding in the grass. Every time I got close, he curled up in a ball like a hedgehog!
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St Columbia Falls - the possible tallest waterfall in Tasmania. My Dad being a totally nerdy Asian & taking pics with the iPad!
 
 
It’s not as bad as it sounds. I mean, I didn’t single handedly get my dear friend kicked onto the streets, it was more of a joint effort; a combination of misunderstanding, a fierce game of B.S. and my ridiculous laugh that led to the demise of G’s lease.

Guillaume (aka G) and I go all the way back to my first week in Melbourne. We met during my online friend hunting spree (at the gym, of course), instantly hit it off, bonded at a bar over $5 pints and our North American-ness. He is a die hard Quebecan and an all things Canadian enthusiast (hockey and poutine top the list). He told me his name was Guillaume and I instantly nicknamed him G.

Just like me, G had a hell of a time when he first arrived in Melbourne. As I scrubbed away behind a dishwasher at a Lebanese restaurant, G woke up at 4 AM each morning to sweep floors at the local supermarket. We both fell from corporate glory into the world to mindless minimum wage jobs, but lucky for me G was a few months ahead of me. By the time I was struggling through the world of job listing websites and arduous applications, G had already found a job working back in his career. And double lucky for me, G’s career happens to be as a recruiter.

“Just stay persistent and you’ll eventually find something,” resounded in my mind as I was furiously pounding away at the keyboard every afternoon sending off resumes. Thanks to G’s advice and constant encouragement, I eventually found my way back to marketing glory.

Anyway, G’s job history is not what I’m here to talk about. There is a better, more entertaining issue at hand; the eviction.

G, Hannah, Francesco and I liked to hang out at G’s apartment and play cards some afternoons. We would have some snacks, drink some wine and have a rip rollin’ time shelling out accusations of B.S! during our favorite card game, bullshit.

G had a modern apartment close to the city, which he shared with a middle aged Chinese man. This particular roommate happened to be an extremely introverted neat freak. Like, YOU CANT LEAVE A PLATE IN THE SINK obsessive neat freak.

He didn’t strike me as the social type, so we always tried to stay out of his way when we visited. One evening we were playing an exciting game of B.S. and got a bit rowdy…well, as rowdy as four people playing a card game at 6 PM can get. I admit, we were laughing a bit and joking around, but noting out of the ordinary, and we surely weren’t disturbing anyone as it was only 6 PM, or so we thought.

After a few minutes the mysterious roommate emerged from his locked up room at the end of the apartment. He seemed flustered and avoided eye contact, as we looked up from our hands of cards puzzled at the sight of him.

He ignored all three of us and approached G directly, scolding; “I’m studying. Guillaume, you need to get this under control, you know we’re not allowed to have parties here! The neighbors will hear you and report us.”

We exchanged baffled looks, wondering how our so called four person party was so out of hand that it could possibly disturb this man in a closed room at the opposite end of the apartment, let alone neighbors who might report us! Ok, maybe we were a little excited about the game, but how much noise can four people at 6 PM make? Surely not enough to get a noise violation from the neighbors. We decided to take the man’s word as G apologized and vowed to be quiet.

We contined the game making a conscience effort to keep the tone down. This time, we were sure the roommate or neighbors would not be able to hear a peep!

The game B.S. is based on lying about the cards you have in order to win. If you’ve ever played, you know how funny it can be trying to guess who’s honest and who’s bluffing. As quiet as we were trying to be, there was one particular lie by Francesco that was too comical and caused us to burst into laughter simultaneously. No sooner than we had finished raving about his comedic move, the party-crasher roommate emerged.

This time, the scolding was intense. He distinctly reiterated his previous accusation and repeatedly pointed his finger at G as if he were a disobedient child. I had to turn away to stop myself from bursting into laughter at the ridiculous scene.  

We exchanged giggles at how outrageous the encounter was, knowing that our laughter and noise level was nothing out of the ordinary for a Sunday evening. “Maybe he was just having a bad day,” we thought as we packed up the card game and departed the apartment.

The next morning, I received an email in my inbox:

Hi Friends,

Believe or not, I have been evicted from my place for having 3 people over playing cards, and need to move out in a week. It took me 90 minutes to explain to my roommate that hanging out with friends is something normal people do once in a while. So, needless to say, I’m looking for a new place if anyone knows of anything!

-G

We all replied dumbfounded. A warning could have been suitable, but eviction? You’ve got to be kidding! This man is out of his mind!

Anyway, it all worked out for the better. G moved out, got a new apartment, and we now lounge around on his balcony overlooking the city screaming out B.S.! at the top of our lungs in memory of his once crazy roommate!
 
 
Let’s face it, Australian English ≠ American English. Many words have different meanings and others simply just don’t exist. Yes, we can understand each other but their slang is strange and my slang is strange and it quite honestly makes for some awkward moments. Like the time I was trekking up a mountain side and exclaimed, “I wish I had a fanny pack right now!” I got a gaggle of chuckles and embrassed looks from my Aus buddies. Fanny does not exactly mean fanny here, far from it. I’ll leave the meaning for you to figure out…

In my spree of honesty I am going to admit that I still occasionally have trouble understanding Australian. I’m in the middle of a conversation and someone randomly throws arvo or brekky into the middle of a sentence and my racing mind comes to a halt…what? Oh and then there’s the whole pronunciation thing pawn sounds like porn, filet is fil-et and HR is hay-ch R. Weird, I know. 
 
Despite the many hilarious and not so hilarious more embarrassing miscommunication moments I’ve had, the real issue at hand is one near and dear to my heart, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 

Yes, the glorious and somewhat nostalgic lunch wrapped in brown paper packed with love by mom that I spent the better part of my childhood chomping on. For us Americans peanut butter jelly time is a symbol of childhood, long awaited recesses and trading lunches with our elementary besties.
 
Australians just laugh when I speak of the beloved PB&J. They think I am so peculiar for combining these two abstract ingredients between two slices of bread, rolling their eyes in disgust and shock as I bask in the glory of PB&J memories. And
I can’t believe that there is a whole continent completely oblivious to this childhood specialty. But, it didn’t take too long to figure out why. 
 
In Australia, jelly is gelatine, JELL-O, gel whatever you may call it and they have absolutely no idea why any sane human would make a sandwich with peanut butter and slimy JELL-O slipping out of the sides. I have Australian friends who have actually tried (a la American television inspiration) to squish JELL-O smeared with chunky peanut butter between two slices of bread. It makes me chuckle.

The moral of the story? Ladies and gentlemen, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches fall into the realms of flaming catapult machines and forklift drag racing, don’t try this at home…unless under strict supervision from yours truly.

 
 
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All the Americans at our Independence Day extravaganza! Photo credit: Theresa Winters
Celebrating the 4th of July Aussie style. I didn't realize what American food was until we had a USA themed potluck. I always considered it to be diverse and a mix of everything from all cultures, but there are a few distinctive classics that are strictly American: 
  • Mac 'n Cheese
  • Nachos
  • Hot dogs
  • Burgers
  • Krispy Kreme
  • Cornbread
  • Brownies



For the foreigners, the potluck was American FAQ time. With a room full of yanks, when better to ask your burning questions about America?

Common FAQs about the US:
  • Is it true meatloaf is a combination of like 15 meats smashed up and cooked together?
  • Why would you ever consider grilling a hotdog? I thought they were only meant to be boiled...
  • Aren't rootbeer floats alcoholic?

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Tasting Wine with Italians. That's right, I went on a little day trip to a vineyard in er, the middle of nowhere! It ended up being me, my newly found British friend, Adrian and a slew of Italians! 

Luckily, we got the VIP treatment, sipped wines galore and finished off the evening with a delicious homemade pasta carbonara from the locals!

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Making lots of cupcakes...and Dylan eats them. Dylan is my latest Melbourne vegan BFF. We do random things like play guitar, make dinosaur shaped cupcakes and have frequent potlucks at his house! Thanks to Dylan, I'm getting quite good at cooking vegan food.

These are my banana almond vegan cupcakes with fudge frosting. Amazing!

 
 
Sometimes I forget that I live in the middle of Australia. Well, not the middle perse, but I do reside on the edge of a massive desert continent floating in an ocean somewhere in the furthermost corner of the earth. I perform periodic reality checks where I jolt out of bed and rip the curtains open just to make sure the cars are actually driving on the left side. Strange, I know, but Melbourne seems so much like any city in the U.S. that I often forget. That is, until (on the rare occasion) I happen to venture outside of the city, and I’m unmistakably in the middle of nowhere, Australia.

It wasn’t long ago that I went Melbourne crazy and set off on a weekend road trip. Not only was I in for a massive wrong side of the road driving adventure, but I also got a big mouthful of Aussie culture. People often ask what the biggest difference is between living in Australia and America, and I whimsically respond, “it’s all the same, just change the accent and drive on the opposite side of the road.” In retrospect, I would like to add in—just take away all signs of civilization and you’ve got Australia.

With a landmass nearly the size of the continental US and only 1/7th  of our population, you can expect sparse dribbles of human settlement here and there. I though parts of the Midwest were rural, but Australia takes the cake. There’s a distinct dividing line where it goes from big city suburbs to rolling hills nothingness for hundreds of miles.  Country? Yes. Creepy? Little bit. Bogan? Oh yeah! [Refer to Lesson in Boganism for cultural refrences]

My Kiwi bud, Chris and I set off for Mt. Beauty, a town three hours northeast of Melbourne. Along the way we popped into a few towns just to get a feel for rural Australia. I was expecting quaint Sunday brunch then stroll down the main street for shopping type of country town. You know, the kind of place you would take a day trip to in upstate New York? It was more of like a THERE IS ABSOULETLY NOTHING HERE except a grocery store and gas station and oh wait…where are all the people and houses?! type of town. Country? Yes. Creepy? Little bit. Bogan? Oh yeah!

Bottom line? Apart from kangaroo watching and gumtree gazing (and yes, there are plenty) the Australian countryside does not have much to offer in the way of entertainment. The perks of having no civilization in sight? It was the perfect place to practice my left side driving skills and not have to worry about hitting anyone! And, I did get to see snow in Australia, so I’d say the weekend was a success!

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Road through the middle of nowhere, Australia
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Chris & Me in Mt. Beauty
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Playing in the leaves!
 
 
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I can't believe I went 19 years of my life without tasting a single drop of coffee. "Disgusting!" was my sentiment. Then, I suddenly went from  coffeephobe to coffee snob in what seemed like overnight. This is a chronicle of my dramatic turnaround and time spent in two of the most respected coffee cities in the world. 

I LOVE coffee, and Seattle is my favorite city in the United States. See a connection? I know, it's obvious, but we are talking pre-coffee snob era Ember. My love for the Emerald City extends far deeper than the mere jumble of coffee joints on every street corner and caffeine-loaded locals. The gorgeous scenery, colonial houses, better-than-Photoshop green grass and quaint neighborhoods are what did me in. But I'm not here to gaze on Seattle's beauty, I want to talk about coffee!

During my ten months as a Seattleite, I became hooked on white mochas...that is with half a shot of espresso. Call me weaksauce, but you could spot me every morning work-bound, white mocha in hand. With an endless supply of coffee shops, I became conditioned to only study in the best looking coffeehouses (white mocha in hand, of course) and jumped head first into the world of coffee culture.

Enter California era, I would spend every Sunday, all day, at the Coffee Bean sipping black coffees, pumping out research papers and marketing reports. Yes, I did just take a giant step up the coffee ladder from half shot white mochas to straight up black coffees, and I eventually invested in a French press and some coffee beans so I could make the stuff at home. 

It could be argued that coffee is somewhere at the center of our culture. We catch up with friends over coffee, the coffee maker is quite possibly the most important appliance in the office, and to carry a paper Starbucks branded coffee cup down the street is to be high status.  

As I made my way through Europe, my hypothesis proved true for almost every culture. Giant black coffees in Sweden, mini espressos in Portugal, coffee with a cookie in Holland, Arabic coffee in Israel, everyone seemed to be obsessed with the stuff and I was in coffee heaven. 

Then I went to Southeast Asia and it all went a bit beany. One Nespresso too many and I became a full fledged coffee snob. From that moment on I vowed to never lay hands on rubbish instant coffee again, and made it a game to find the best coffee shop in whichever town I was passing through. I even went on what turned into a tedious full day trek through the entirety of Bangkok in search a single-very well hidden-coffeehouse.

Now, as luck would have it, I have landed in arguably the best coffee city in the world; Melbourne. With over 400 cafes in the downtown area alone and an entire magazine dedicated to caffeine lovers like me, it isn't hard to find a decent brew. There aren't as many chain coffeehouses (like Starbucks), most of the cafes are locally owned, and forget all those fancy syrups, Melbourne is strictly cappuccino, latte, espresso. Seattle still trumps Melbourne for best coffeehouses and character, but when it comes down to the frothing, foaming, steaming hot mug of deliciousness, I've gotta give it to you Melbourne, you've out-coffeed Seattle!

 
 
I can't tell you how many times I've gotten a head tilting, baffled, inquisitive looking response from telling someone I hail from the States (or the U.S.) It has become clear that a vast majority of non-Americans don't understand our English slang. Respond with America, and they know exactly what you're talking about. Respond with California and you get some witty comment about the Governator (they all seem pretty proud to spout that fact off). 

I very rarely meet a fellow American who says they hail from America. Every time that happens, I get this weird image of a hillbilly, and feel like I should switch to my best redneck accent and thrown in something about 'Merica and our shotguns and hoedowns. 

Why is it that no one knows where the U.S. is? And why is it that we are Americans but not from America persay? I've got a few theories. I'd like to give a quick shout out to Amerigo Vespucci for discovering the entirety of North and South America, a bundle of 22 countries and people who could all subsequently claim to be from America. In Spanish I was taught to say I'm Estadounidense instead of Americana because the other Americana Latin cultures could take offense at me claiming the land as mine. So, I began referring to my home as the United States. Luckily, the Mexicans haven't become disgruntled, because they too are from the United States (of Mexico). That could result in an american nightmare, sparking reason for us to rename our country, or in typical american fashion, sue Mexico for copyright infringement on the United States.  

Regardless, it seems that the rest of the world was not taught the America/Estadounidense fact, and to them there is only one America. The Aussies ask me questions about life in America and introduce me as their friend from America, and I just chuckle. I have even learned to say I'm from America, although I have effectively suppressed the twang and shotgun banter. Just give me some time, and it may come through. 
 
 
The title pretty much sums it up. This is the story of how I went from corporate ladder climbing to world traveling to intimately knowing the inner workings of a dishwasher at a sketchy cafe run by a Lebanese family. And I assure you my days were packed with a daily dose of self-aimed criticism in Arabic, family quarrels and making terrible jokes with the dreadlocked, pierced and tattooed punk-emo chef who could really care less about his job (oh you know the type of person I'm talking about). At least we could relate on one level-our jobs were treacherous and everyone else at the joint was a bit, how do I put it nicely, "off."

I can't help but think of the poor Mexicans, Cubans, Chinese, etc who are respected doctors, businessmen in their countries and magically turn into taxi drivers and checkout clerks once stepping foot into the land of the free. There's something about wanting to make it so badly in a country that you are willing to sacrifice all self-respect and stoop to a new low just to survive. And there I was, lamenting over my downfall, covered in dishmuck watching business people chattering over lattes, experiencing life firsthand as an immigrant. 

I felt shameful. No one could know my true identity as a dishwasher. "Actually, maybe I should tell the truth," I thought, "what if I exposed life as an immigrant, from corporate to cafe, and the battle to make it in a foreign country almost identical to my own." I didn't have a language barrier to worry about, no one could tell I was foreign just by looking at me, I was here legally and still stuck in a rut. Once I explained the situation to my friends, I realized that all immigrants had to pay their dues and it's not uncommon to start somewhere ridiculously low. One of my American friends started out as a fellow dishwasher before he scored a job at the Apple Store, and another Canadian friend swept floors at Safeway from 5-8 A.M. just so he could scrape by before getting a position as a head hunter in Melbourne. Finding a good professional job as a foreigner was anything but easy. 

"Ember, you just have to hang in there a few weeks. At least you have something in the meantime, be patient and you will land a good job," was the general consensus from my friends. I started to accept my life elbows deep in dishes and actually thought I could manage for a max of about two weeks-at least that would get me another month of rent. That was, until I got promoted to Sandwich Maker. 

I consequently received a dramatic cut in my hours and an endless stream of criticism for my terrible sandwich making skills and lethargic cash register operation. How is an amateur focaccia artist to cope? By the end of my first day, my boss threatened to fire me. I countered saying we could probably agree that cafe life wasn't for me and subsequently walked out, never to return again. And yes, I did get paid for my four days of work, and yes, I did just score a job as Campaign Manager for a creative marketing agency. Take that dishwashing job!
 
 
1. Abbreviate, abbreviate, abbreviate.

When in doubt just cut the last few syllables out from a word and you will sound unforgettably Aus. Here are a few of the key abreves you need to learn:

university=uni
mosquitoes=mossies
vegetables=veg
breakfast=brekky

Even city and tram signs for Melbourne's Queen Victoria Market read Queen Vic Market. If the government approves, your new Australian friends surely will too!

2. Don't forget, walk on the left.

Nuff said. Try walking on the right side of the sidewalk and the Aussies burst out into a funky chicken dance sort of move trying to figure out which side you are passing them on, and they barely avoid running into you at the last minute. It seriously freaks them out. But then again, maybe you should try walking on the left side of the sidewalk in the U.S. and see what happens! 

3. You don't have friends, you have mates.

4. Voice your enthusiasm for Vegemite. 

Vege-what?! It's a sodium-loaded black paste used as a pastry filling and toast spread. It was invented by Kraft as a means for recycling the otherwise useless yeast extract. It's an Aussie staple and repulse to the rest of the world. Here's what President Obama has to say about it: 

"It's like a quasi-vegetable by-product, that you smear on your toast," going on to exclaim that it's horrible! I agree.

5. Forget your thank you's. It has now become ta and cheers. While the Aussies still use thank you, ta and cheers have so much more character and will prove your true inner Australian even if they don't sound very Australian coming from your mouth. It's easy to work on the accent once you've got the lingo down!

Start practicing these five steps on a daily basis and you will be rolling with sheilas and blokes down under in no time! Australian slang lesson coming soon...
 
 
Of all the ways to introduce someone, “this is my new internet friend, Joe,” is possibly the worst. No one ever has anything good to say about Internet friends. I personally used to have a huge problem with online dating, thinking, “seriously, you couldn't just get off the computer for ten minutes, go for a walk and meet someone? For the sake of the social world, put those kindergarten interpersonal skills to use!” But then I realized friend finding isn't quite that simple and I've fallen culprit to the headline. It wasn't until I met some fabulous roommates on Craigslist a year ago that I became a believer in online friendships (I'm not quite ready to venture into the online dating world...yet). 

Still, with what seems like an entire world full of Craigslist Killers plastered in the newspapers and Internet mingling scardeycats, it isn't easy defending my online friends. (Come one people, you just gotta be smart about who you meet. Thanks to Google and Facebook it is relatively easy to do a little background check. Now you can't do that with someone you just meet at the grocery store or your local book club, can you?). Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about the subject-you're either pro-Internet or anti-Internet-there is no middle ground. And for all those pro-Internet people, should the dreaded how did you meet question arise (and you know it will) mutual friends or the gym are always good covers. So, for the sake of my reputation and to prevent you from judging me, I am going to tell you about all the lovely people I've been meeting at the gym lately.  

Making friends as a newbie in Australia requires a certain level of social creativity and craftiness. The old fashioned making friends at work, school or through old friends doesn't work too well when you are job-less, school-less and friend-less, so I resorted to my old fallback; the gym.

I’ve met a slew of friends at the gym and discovered some otherwise hidden gems of Melbourne thanks to my new workout buddies Facebook, Couchsurfing and Meet-Up, to name a few. I must say Couchsurfing is proving to be a top runner. The social networking site for travellers is bursting with enough local events to overwhelm any traveler's schedule. From Capture the Flag by Moonlight to Tango Illegal to penguin watching, he is consistently diverse and keeps me on my toes. I even scored two days of free beer tasting at a craft beer festival compliments of fellow beer loving travelers I met at the gym.

Facebook took me out one night to a Spanish/English conversation group which proved hilariously entertaining, I've met a few promising friend prospects on my 30 minute train commute into the city, and there’s still Meet-Up dot-com who I’ve been meaning to, er, meet-up with. 

Here I am caught in my whirlwind of melbournian social nights, coffee shop catchups and crowd of fellow gym enthusiasts. Melbourne is proving to be quite a cultural, entertaining and charming city with a great sense of humor and I didn't expect to become this smitten with the place so quickly. I am ready to make it Facebook official, I am in love with this city! Go ahead, tell the whole world...just don't forget to mention we met at the gym.