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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!

 
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.
 
Oh the joys of job hunting. I'm scouring the Internet, revising cover letters and glued to my email 24/7 for any slight glimmer of hope, response, inquiry...? in search of the perfect job. I am not a lazy person, but when it comes to job searching I get this really queasy feeling in my stomach and simply wish I could call in sick for the rest of my life. And, contrary to previous conceptions, trying to find a job in Australia as an American is proving to be quite a toil. The employment industry in the United States is quite a mysterious and unique creature, which the rest of the world rarely experiences, so I’m here to shed light on why foreigners should be stoked (or think twice) about hiring Americans.

Well Known Facts about the Average American (which make us exceptional employees):

·         Never take vacation (because we are so committed to our jobs)

·         Addicted to smartphone (so we’re at the beckoning call of our boss 24/7, of course)

·         Constantly sacrificing personal time ie: relationships, family dinners, etc for corporate time (we love the office so much)

Yes, we can all laugh these off, but they’re kind of true in retrospect. How did we get this way? Behind our corporate ladder loving nation is a set of social factors that have been at work shaping the lifestyles, personalities and motivations of almost every American for the past several decades.

Take our decrepit economy, outsourcing of labor, newly overeducated generation and massive debt and you’ve got a tragedy better than Shakespeare himself could have written. We pride ourselves on freedom and the American Dream, but is it possible to achieve that dream under these circumstances?

Making it in America is a game; part survival of the fittest, part luck and a whole lot of hard work. Compared to the rest of the developed world, many would argue that we are severely lagging in social services such as health care, public transport and welfare programs. Instead, we're left to our own devices to put it simply, figure it out.

Take college for example. The majority of Australians attend university on a loan from the government which they only start paying back when they make over $55,000 annually. Some of my Aussie friends even get PAID by the GOVERNMENT to go to school! I would happily take up a career as a college student!

This is happening while American students are shelling out upwards of $40,000 a year in tuition, living off Top Ramen and drowning themselves in a pool of debt they will most likely spend a good part of their lives paying off. Job or not, the loan bills keep coming. And of course, it is pounded into our American brains from the age of toddlers that if we don't get an education, we will never amount to anything, so every mother, child, sister, brother and dog attend a four year institution. With a national minimum wage of $7.25 it is almost impossible to make it without working two jobs or achieving some form of specialized training or higher education.

In Australia the waters are calmer. Yes, they have their corporate circle, but many Aussies can live happily earning somewhere in the $20 an hour range working at a café or in retail (their minimum wage is $15.51, but I’ve never met anyone making that little). With a non-dilapidated economy, finding a professional career is anything but cutthroat. Here, the wages are decent, the pace of life is slower and people can spend their lives leisurely waltzing down career lane rather than racing to the top.

Americans, on the other hand, have been conditioned by the policies of our country, job shortages and economic state to become a bunch of 60 hour a week working, sleep deprived, corporate ladder climbing enthusiasts all in the hopes of achieving our coveted American Dream. And that is precisely why foreigners should be dying to hire people like us. We're crazy! We are willing to compete for what we want until the bitter end. If we can make it in America, we can surely make it anywhere!
 
Traveling is my destiny. Ever since I was a toddler I dreamt of far off lands. From time to time I would become obsessed with random countries and check out every library book I could find about them. I still have a poster I made in second grade with facts about Greece and common Greek words. I even memorized the entire Greek alphabet! For me, traveling the world was about as likely to happen as life's two guarantees; death and paying taxes. It just came sooner rather than later. 

I like to think I lead a life of grand wagers. I am absurdly addicted to freedom and possibly too independent for my own good. I have been known to close my eyes and leap into the unknown just for the thrill of what could be waiting on the other side.

Four years ago my dream was to live in California. When I set my mind to something it is damn well going to happen, and soon enough I was thriving in the Golden State. I woke up every morning in disbelief that I was actually living in California, and that it was through my determination and hard work that I called this beautiful place home. Eventually, I knew that if I wanted to realize my dream of traveling the world I would have to give up my beautiful life in California; my friends, a job in the midst of a recession and my savings account; everything that made me comfortable. Giving up a good life for the possibility of one that could be better was exhilaratingly terrifying. But, as I always seem to do, I accepted the challenge, closed my eyes and leapt into the unknown. 

Here I am today, 21 countries and a million miles later. I sit overlooking the Bangkok skyline as I write this, gazing upon this beautiful masterpiece that has become the past seven months. Of course the journey has had its ups and downs and almost nothing has turned out the way I planned. I've been scammed to the high heavens, lost out of my mind, scared of the unknown and there have been days I wanted to give it all up and go home. But that is all part of the travel experience. On the other hand, I have experienced bottomless undeserved kindness from locals, laid eyes upon some of the most beautiful places in the world and been greeted with thousands of smiles along the way. It has been an amazingly challenging, exhilarating and rewarding adventure that I wouldn't change for the world.

I look back on all the gracious people I've met--the ones who gave me a ride, shared a meal with me, or simply sent me words of encouragement from far away--and thank them for shaping my world. Not only am I more open minded, compassionate and knowledgeable now, I have a new view of the world--one I can carry with me to places where the world seems so small and to people who can't know the world. I travel with the purpose to leave each place I visit knowing it's now better because I have been there. A bold statement and I acknowledge that I have many shortcomings, but I feel I have done my little part for this world I am madly in love with. I will continue giving, giving, and giving until grace falls from the skies like rain. 

My journey has come to a turning point, this season is over, but this is no means the end. In typical Ember fashion--constantly searching for a new adventure--I'm beginning a new chapter that I'm sure will be just as rewarding. I've got a work visa in one hand and a one way ticket to Melbourne in the other...I'm moving to Australia!

A part of me is sad that this chapter of my journey is over, but a part of me knows it's time to move on. This is it; my wager is placed, I am closing my eyes and embracing the freedom of the unknown. 

Now it's just me and the Red Dirt Continent in for some fine times together. 
 
Here are some of my favorite misspellings I've encountered in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Really, how hard is it to open Microsoft Word and hit spell check? Apparently a lot harder than I thought...
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This was a giant poster hanging at the Thai-Laos border crossing. Come on Laos Government, if anyone can produce a gramatically correct list of rules it should be you. I like #7...looks like I can cross Laos husband off the list.
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If the English is any indication of the safety "yous fun come with your safe" I'd say its killer fun. Well, at lease insuranc is included. That is life insuranc, right?
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I don't know about the Europecan shop, but I'd sure be keen on trying a Europecan pie! I've found that the Vietnamese really like to break their words into syllables ie: Viet Nam, Sai Gon, or more like Stan drd, whatever that means.
 
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Victims of Pol Pot's regime
Forty years ago, over one quarter of Cambodia's population was slaughtered in a mass genocide under the communist dictator, Pol Pot. Cambodians where shuffled out of the cities and into jails and labor camps where they would be tortured and ultimately killed. Are you educated? You get murdered. Do you have a physical or mental deformity? You get murdered. Do you disagree with the communist government? You get murdered. Between 1975-1979 over two million innocent people were slaughtered and many parts of Cambodia became known as killing fields.

This was during the midst of the Vietnam War, and even after the genocide ended, Pol Pot's regime received financial support from the U.S., England, Australia and France and held a seat in the United Nations for many years after. It wasn't until 1997 that Pol Pot was finally put under house arrest, and not until the ripe age of 82 did he finally die.  

Today, the Cambodians are better than ever and have many reasons to smile. They are a vivacious culture, happily mingling in street markets, dancing in the streets and flaunting their surprisingly Westernized lifestyle. The countryside is sprinkled with temples and the cities have gorgeous parks and swanky eateries. The locals are very curious about tourists and will yell at you from the sidewalk to say hi or stop you in the street to talk. The always leave with a, "good luck to you." Here are just a few reasons why I have fallen in love with these beautifully resilient people:

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Hanging out with locals at my hotel
5. Hello Lady and good luck to you, two of Cambodia's favorite phrases and oh so sweet. Wouldn't you rather be bade farewell with a good luck than a goodbye?

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4. Cambodian New Year. We danced the night away at a local bar and cheered with the locals at midnight. I got to test my groove skills with a few of the locals' favorite line dances!

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Shopping at a local market
3. Currency. Did you ever think you'd get handed a wad of U.S. Dollars from an ATM in one of the poorest Asian countries? That's right! The currency is the dollar, with a mixture of Cambodia's own Reel thrown in just for fun. Prices are in Dollars and change is an eclectic mixture of Reel and Dollars depending on the item price. Complicated, but all the while entertaining.

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2. Temples, temples, temples galore! Cambodia is home to Angkor Wat, an ancient city containing over 1,000 temples. It is said to be the largest pre-industrial city in the world. Today, tourists hire a tuk-tuk for the day and visit the dilapidated structures wrapped in jungle foliage. 

1. Locals outside line dancing in the streets. Think Slumdog Millionaire status...remember the dance at the end? That's Cambodia! Every night the locals gather outside blasting Cambodian music and doing specifically crafted dance routines to each song. I personally can't think of a better way to celebrate, exercise, or just spend a Saturday night. I definitely couldn't take my eyes off the happy dancin' locals!