Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Aussie Aussie Aussie!

On February 21, 2012 Martin and I landed on the golden shores of Australia for what we thought would be a 2 year stint Down Under.  Four and a half years later, here we are:

Well, here I am.

Martin, citizen of Norway, is shackled by the archaic (and let's not forget idiotic) laws of his fatherland and isn't allowed to gain another citizenship.  So he remains singularly Norwegian while I have ascended to the ranks of Ameri-stralian.

Upon naturalization everybody gets a native tree or plant.  Don't you just love that symbolism?  I sent my Westringia Zena shrub off to live on a friend's family farm.  Here's what it'll look like when it's all grown up:

I'll be visiting it in a few weeks.  I hope it's growing up big and strong!

Before officially becoming an Australian citizen all people (who are becoming naturalized, not native born of course) have to attend a ceremony to take an oath.  It goes like this:

From this time forward [under God]
I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people,
whose democratic beliefs I share,
whose rights and liberties I respect, and
whose laws I will uphold and obey

Once you say those words you're in!  It just takes a minimum four years and a couple of thousand dollars to make it happen first.  Minor details.

Even the Queen stopped by to welcome her new loyal subjects!

I think they said there were 492 people becoming citizens at my ceremony, which sounds huge!  I know for a fact they hold ceremonies pretty much monthly.  That is a lot of new Aussies!

Australia really goes out of its way to integrate new immigrants and make them citizens as soon possible.  If I'm not mistaken in the USA you have to live there seven years before you become a citizen; in Australia it's four (assuming everything happens right on schedule, for me it took 4.5 years).  In Norway I don't even know, because nobody from the first world would ever consider becoming Norwegian and have to give up their original citizenship.

Attention, Norway:

Suck.  It.  Who's rejecting who now?

Being Australian comes with rights and privileges, but it also comes with responsibilities.  The main thing that will change in my life is that I am now required to vote.  Voting is mandatory!  Before moving here I had never even heard of the concept of compulsory voting, but it is now my reality.  The American in me in scandalized by this, "That's not freedom; I shouldn't have to do do anything I don't want to do!"  but the brand new Aussie in me thinks, "fair dinkum".  With this new passport comes a whole new language!

Because this is pretty much the biggest thing that's ever happened to me I says to myself I says, "let's throw a frickin' party".  So I did just that.

I invited everybody I know in Australia.  Most of them came!

In true Queensland fashion it pissed down rain and ruined all my plans, but after 4.5 living here I'm used to that by now.  Instead of decking out my pool and courtyard with balloons, streamers and bunting I decorated...my fridge.  No joke.

I even went all out and got a cake in the shape of my fab new flag!

Which damn near ended in disaster when we went to take a group photo.

That thing slid right off my lap, but thankfully stayed on the base, so there was minimal cake-to-floor contact or damage caused.  Thank goodness it didn't flip, it just slid gracefully onto the floor.  The photo op was salvaged!

And tasty cake was enjoyed by all.  I got the biggest, most Commonwealth-y piece:

Which I did not eat because I was too busy pounding champagne (as I do).

I'm very proud to be a new Australian, and really, truly love this place and its people.  I don't know where on earth this life will take me, but I sleep better at night knowing if I ever leave I can always come back.

Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

USA Part 3: The Flight From Hell

Apologies in advance, but this starts off really wordy, but I promise it'll be worth it.  Assuming you find joy in watching other people suffer horribly.

I'll pick up where we left off.  I had just filled my belly with delicious Shake Shack and was bound for LA for a brief stopover, then home to Brisbane.  A mere 22.5 hour journey.  Easy peasy.

Just as I boarded the airplane at JFK rain descended upon the entire east coast, so the captain cheerily told us there'd be a slight delay in taking off.  Should pass quickly, nothing to worry about.

So we didn't worry, and waited for the rain to subside for one hour.  We waited two hours.  At that point we started to worry.

Then we waited three hours.

At which point federal law requires the airline to give passengers the option to disembark the plane.  After much confusion and misinformation we learned that if you choose to get off the plane now you won't be getting back on tonight, which means you'll be flying standby tomorrow (or who knows when) to get yourself to Los Angeles.  As far as I could tell nobody took their federally mandated right to get the hell out of that sweat box.

I've alluded to the high temperatures in New York, right?  Conveniently the business class cabin had frosty air conditioning while us back in steerage were peeling off layer after layer in an attempt to not overheat.  No A/C for the proletariat.

We waited four hours.

At which point people around me started getting text messages from loved ones, "You at JFK today? Are you OK?"  They were responding to news reports of an [alleged] active gunman shooting people at the airport.

Madman with a gun, at the airport.  Inside the terminal building we were parked right outside of, like sitting ducks.  Is it a crazy person?  Is it a terrorist?  In the USA you never can tell.  Not that it matters much, anyway.

Therefore our federally mandated right to leave the aircraft was revoked; nobody was going anywhere.  We could see the lights of cop cars flashing in the distance.

What I'm about to say next sounds 110% bat shit crazy, but I am dead serious here.  It was at this stage in the...whatever it was, I can't say flight...that I actually thought I had died in the cab on my way to the airport, and didn't know it, and was now in Purgatory, where I would languish for all of eternity.  I legit thought I was dead because it felt surreal that one thing after the other was going wrong, and there was no end in sight to this soul crushing and possibly life ending experience.

I had been sitting on a hot, sweaty, grounded airplane for over 4 hours and had a not-zero-percent chance of dying a violent death sometime in the near future.

This is flying domestically in the United States, people!

I had to laugh to keep from crying.  I clung to my precious store of water, because it was only a matter of time before it started running out.  Everybody made friends with their neighbors and explained just how screwed they were with their connecting flight or work in California the next morning.  Can you imagine the rumors flying around the cabin of overheated, sweaty, hungry, frustrated passengers who think there's a blood bath happening right outside our door?  Can you even imagine?!

I can.  Because this was my limbo for the past, by now, four and a half hours.  All the while this son of a bitch stared in my face:

We were fortunate that the entertainment system worked, and there were USB phone chargers at every seat.  Unlucky for me airplane wifi only works in the air, so I was without any means of communication with the outside world, with god knows what happening in the terminal building 100 feet away.  Should I ask to borrow someone's phone and text my parents to tell them I'm not dead?  At least not dead...yet.  Who knows what media frenzy is going on out there, and what my family and friends were seeing?

I should have mentioned earlier: there never actually was a shooter.  Anywhere.  Someone thought they heard shots, which triggered this whole mess.  Later they attributed the whole thing to somebody hearing cheers for the Olympics and mistaking it for gunshots.

Oh, America.  Never change!

I hadn't actually seen footage of what was going on inside, until just now 6 weeks later.  Holy crap I can safely say I'm glad I was where I was, and not living this nightmare!  I would take countless hours of Purgatory over minutes of pandemonium and panic any day!

As you may know, flight crews can only work a certain number of hours per day.  Sitting on the tarmac doing nothing counts as work towards their maximum limit.  At hour 5 we were one hour out from them hitting their max, and having to start the whole miserable process over again with a new crew.  A new crew that would have to get to the airport on closed roads, thanks to the non-existent shooter.

At this point, the heavens opened up, both literally and figuratively.  The ground crews were back in action, travelers seeking refuge from the terminals out on tarmacs were herded back inside.  We had to wait, briefly in the grand scheme of things, for a refueling truck to come juice us back up after 5 and a half hours of sitting idle.

After 5 hours and 45 minutes, with 15 minutes to go until we had to taxi back to the gate and wait for a fresh crew to materialize out of nowhere, we were taking off.  Finally we were taking off!

Taking off...on a 5.5 hour flight.

Yes, folks, we waited on the tarmac longer than the cross-country flight itself.

We took off and flew for five and a half hours without incident, and landed safely at LAX a mere six hours behind scheduled (3 a.m. vs. 9 p.m.).

Needless to say my flight to Brisbane, which left around midnight, was long gone.  So...more waiting to rebook.  But at least they gave me, without me having to ask or fight for, this:

Check-in time: 4 a.m.

Pro travel tip: Always fly with a change of clothes (underwear especially) in your hand luggage, along with the usual toothbrush and mini tube of toothpaste.  I have always followed this rule, and never needed it.  Until now!  After my 12+ hour ordeal in a literal sweat box I have never in my life been happier to shower and put on a clean pair of drawers.

My flight wasn't leaving until midnight that night, so I had all day in LA to entertain myself.  After sleeping nice and late I consulted a few former residents about where to spend my bonus vacation day.  The answer to that was Venice Beach:

Venice, Californ-i-a has a seedy past.  It was ground zero of the crack trade back in the gang banging 90's.  In case you were wondering, it was Crip territory.

But today it's lovely!

With only a slight resemblance to its shabby past.

I even saw 3 dudes get arrested!  Good times.

If I had gotten up at a decent hour (not happening with a 5 a.m. bed time) I would've also hit up Santa Monica, which isn't far down the road.  But alas I had other big, BIG plans to attend to!

I have lusted after what is considered to be the finest fast food on the planet for years.  In-n-Out Burger is strictly a west coast phenomenon, so I've never had the chance to indulge myself.  Until now!

It is only by sheer luck - or cruel twist of fate, more accurately - that I got to experience two culinary masterpieces less than 24 hours apart!

I must admit I can't compare apples to apples.  In-n-Out doesn't serve chicken burgers; they have a very basic menu.  I couldn't bring myself to drink two strawberry milkshakes two days in a row, so lowly Diet Coke had to accompany this meal.  

Final verdict?  The burger was nothing short of phenomenal, absolutely A+, which I attribute to the liberal use of cheese.  But the fries were awful, awful cardboard.  I don't know if I just got an old, dry batch but they were far and away the worst fast food French fries I've ever experienced.  Boo.

Also fun about the In-n-Out location near the airport: It's right under the flight path, so you can spot some gnarly huge planes really close up:

All up I'm going to have to put Shake Shack and In-n-Out in a dead tie.  Either one is a great fast food choice, it just depends on which coast you find yourself on.  But I will forever hold Shake Shack in my heart for keeping me perfectly satiated throughout my eternal infernal cross-country journey.

Miraculously I got out of LAX and into Brisbane on time and with no dramas.  I feel like I've earned a lifetime of drama-free travel after my [rounded up to] six hour ordeal.

I will say this about my traumatic experience: Not once was anybody, passenger or crew, remotely close to losing their shit.  The pilot kept reminding us that they were just as frustrated as we were, and weren't getting any more information than was passed on to us.  The flight attendants did what they could to keep everyone calm.  Even the kids on board had an impressive lack of meltdowns.  Everybody was patient, everybody was kind.  We all suffered through together, as a team, and helped each other out where we could.

This is the America and Americans I know.

We don't need to be great "again", because damn it we have been all along.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

USA Part 2: The Big Apple

I like living in Brisbane.  At least I did, until literally every single person we ever knew here moved away.  There must be some fatal flaw about this place that Martin and I don't see, that everybody else does, which causes them to flee at the first chance.

This is the reason I decided to visit New York City after my trip home.  If I want to see my friends I need to travel to see them, because they sure don't live where I do [anymore].

L-R: Olena, Caecilie, Pia, Allie
Working woman not pictured: Laura
Olena flew in from Toronto, Pia and Allie Amtrak'd in from Pennsylvania, just to visit little 'ol me.  Here we are loitering in an icy cold bar, seeking refuge from the ("feels like") 108 degree heat outside.  Oh my sweet baby Jesus it was hot in NYC.  Way too hot!

Caecilie isn't a Brisbane refugee like the rest of them; she was a classmate of Martin's in Edinburgh and we went to her wedding last summer in Germany.  In fact, she had to cut our weekend together short because she was going away for her first wedding anniversary.

After arriving to her place at 3 a.m. (thanks, Delta!) we got up bright and early the next morning and made the obligatory first stop in NYC:

My god the amount of cream cheese they slather on these things is shocking!  There is really no need to go that overboard, though make no mistake, it was definitely delicious.

I wanted to see the 9/11 site/memorial, so once we were properly caffeinated and carbo loaded Caecilie suggested we rent Citibikes and take the scenic route along the Hudson River.

I didn't go into the museum, but I intend to one day when I have more time.  We just walked around the public memorial.

Caecilie said that on the birthday of the deceased they stick a flower into their name on the memorial.  I had to look up the guy in the photo there, to see if it's true.  Yep, it is.  I was there on August 11, and that was the birthday of Ronald D. Milam.  He was 33 when he died.  I was 18 at the time but am 33 now, same as he was.  He was a major in the Army working in the Pentagon, and his wife worked for the Air Force in another part of the Pentagon.  They had a kid and she was 5 months pregnant at the time, and that kid is now 14.  This article about them was published just 2 days ago, small world!  A knife to the gut, yes, but I wanted to pay a little respect to the person behind the one legible name I randomly got in a picture.

Did you know there is a tree right at Ground Zero that survived that day?  They call it The Survivor Tree:

I didn't know this until I noticed it had a security guard and tourist information guide dedicated just for it.  It's so close, probably 50 feet (15 meters).

One World Trade Center
a.k.a. Freedom Tower
My first and only other trip to NYC was in 1999 as part of a youth pilgrimage to the United Nations.  I was 16 years old, just a baby!  In our infinite stupidity we had the opportunity to go up to the top of one of the World Trade Center towers but declined because we couldn't be bothered.  So it goes.

Caecilie lives in Chelsea, so we took a stroll through the Chelsea High Line, an "aerial greenway", which is an elevated train track that was turned into a garden when the trains were decommissioned.

You can even see the Statue of Liberty at one point!

But that's as close as I got to Lady Liberty on this trip.  I went to Liberty Island (but not up the statue) on my first trip to New York and don't expect to ever go there again.  Too many tourists!

We also went to the Chelsea Market, which is blessedly indoors and offers slight refuge from the heat.

Olena and I shared a super delish lobster roll:

We shared because 1) we weren't all that hungry and 2) that sucker was $18 which is like $24 Australian, and that's just a ridiculous sum to pay for a small sandwich.  But it was awesome!

For lunch that day we went to an iconic (read: touristy) restaurant made famous by the movie When Harry Met Sally, Katz's Deli:

They've even pinpointed exactly which table they were sitting at during the infamous "I'll have what she's having" scene.

It's tourist priced, yes, but the amount of food is nothing short of obscene.  One sandwich can feed two, if not three, people:

This being a Jewish deli in NYC, I went for a pastrami sandwich (with cheese and sauerkraut, no mustard or pickle):

I shared it and it was more than enough food!  Because it was almost a pound of solid meat it kept us full for the whole day.  Literally, we didn't even bother with dinner!

I love musical theater, so as soon as my trip was confirmed months prior, I immediately booked tickets to this:

It was hilarious!  I highly recommend it if you ever get the chance to see it.  If I lived in New York I'd demand to go to a show minimum once per month.  Broadway is the one and only reason I'd ever care to live in New York!

Despite being a foodie (by which I just mean fat ass) I'd never in my life eaten chicken & waffles before.  My #1 priority for this trip was to remedy that situation, so we hauled ass from Manhattan to the hipster mecca Brooklyn to get a taste of the sweet stuff at a place called Pies 'n Thighs.

I added a side of grits to my chicken 'n waffles, because why not go whole hog when pretending we're in the south?

It did not disappoint!  Really, though, it was too damn hot to enjoy any food 100%.  The real winner of our brunch was a Toaster Strudel doughnut, which we split 4 ways.

I could eat 2 of these myself, easily and without guilt.  The heat did not hinder my enjoyment of this one bit.

Allie used to work at the Brooklyn Museum, so wanted to return to her old stomping grounds and got us in for free.  Was I interested in visiting the Brooklyn Museum, particularly in place of legends like The Met or Guggenheim?  No I was not.  But was I interested in being in well air conditioned indoors?  Hell yes I was!

This being hipster central it was...interesting...to say the least.  For example, these were 50 table place settings, each one different and an artistic rendition of...a vagina:

I stupidly didn't get any up close and personal pictures, but just imagine a vagina.  Now think of something that looks completely opposite of one, and that's what the table settings looked like.  It's "art".

The most intriguing art installation was not within the exhibits but out in the foyer at a kiosk selling snacks and drinks:

This drinks fridge included: V8, Red Bull, mayonaise, peanut butter, marshmallow fluff, two types of beer, Alpo dog food, cream of celery soup and canned peas.  And the Safeway sign was defaced to say Satan.

What the hell?!  The mayonnaise is what shocked and horrified me the most.  Seriously, these hipsters are too much!  Who needs mayonnaise from the lobby of an art museum?  It makes no sense!

We spent the afternoon at Nordstrom Rack, which is amazing and an absolute zoo.  Nordstrom Rack is like TJ Maxx, but way bigger and way better.  I loooove TJ Maxx and besides chicken & waffles was my other NYC bucket list item.  I wish I could do all my shopping there!

Finally the weekend arrived and Laura, recent new resident of Astoria, Queens was able to join us for the festivities.

We keep it classy in Little Italy!  We enjoyed the evening eating pasta, enjoying all being back together and getting drunk.

To cure our hangover the next day we tried, and ultimately failed, to be super local and enjoy a gigantic New York slice for lunch.

Except we probably should've split one slice between all five of us.  It was so big!  And the heat of the pizza ovens made it near impossible to breathe, much less eat.

So much wasted pizza that day.  RIP.

Pia and Allie had to get to their Amtrak so this is where we parted ways.  They were very, very pleased to be getting the hell away from New York heat, but I'd like to think sad to be leaving me and our big city exploits!

My Old Man is an old car fanatic, and he really wanted some shots of the Chrysler building, so we Uber'd downtown to get there and check it out.

Pro tip: If you want to get pictures of a building it's best not to be directly at the base of that building.  But I got enough shots keep my pops happy, I think.

Our next stop was Central Park, but since we were in the 'hood we saved ourselves a few blocks of walking and went to Grand Central station to hop on the metro.

It's really ornate and beautiful in there!  I recommend you swing by even if you don't plan to transit anywhere.

We got about 100 yards into Central Park.

And lasted all of 20 minutes.  Too damn hot!  Luckily Laura & BJ have central air back in Queens.  Which is exactly the type of thing that made them chose to live in Queens instead of Manhattan (the two other places I stayed in Manhattan had no air conditioning or in-unit laundry - no way to live).

We spent my last evening enjoying the NYC skyline from their awesome rooftop.

Enjoying a few free Budweisers, or "America" as they are temporarily now called, since Laura works for the company that makes them, what you would know as Anheuser-Busch (but is now more complicated than that).

When the sun goes down it's like a fog of misery clears and you can actually start to breathe again.  Breathe and eat!

For dinner we went to Eataly, which is similar to the Chelsea Market in that there are lots of different things under one roof, but the options are limited to Italian food.  Not that I'm complaining!

The next morning, in the time before Olena and I flew out (from different airports) we took a stroll through Astoria to see what the borough of Queens had to offer.

It's really lovely!  And exceedingly livable.  The commute to Manhattan isn't bad, either.  BJ picked up a handy new item (from the sidewalk, of course, this being BJ):

Another handy new item, I should say, since they already have one.  These carts are used by all New Yorkers, it seems, since car ownership is non-existent and sometimes you just have to buy heavy stuff and haul it home.  They even make trips to Costco with this thing!  That impressed me.  Owning two will no doubt double their purchasing capacity.

Sadly, it was time to leave New York.  Well, I was sad to leave my friends, not sad to leave the blazing inferno that is a crowded city.  I was longing to return to the delightful winter weather of Brisbane.  By that point I would have been happy to fly directly to Antarctica and dive headfirst naked into a snowbank.  Jesus Christ it was miserably hot.  The entire time.  No respite.  I cannot stress that enough, or reiterate that I will never, ever be returning in summer.  I'd love to go again in winter, or better yet, fall.  But never again in summer!  The cruel irony is that it's only really hot for one or two weeks each summer, and I hit the jackpot with my visit.  But still, never again [in summer].  Never.

I was super excited to get to the airport and spend some quality eating time at this famed place:

Shake Shack is an east coast institution, which I'd never been to before so had to seize the opportunity.  I had studied the airport map beforehand so knew exactly where to find it, and made a bee line there after using my fabulous TSA Pre-Check to get through security in 5 minutes.  I am evangelical about TSA Pre-Check after using it for two domestic flights.  There is literally no other way to fly if you must suffer the indignity of flying domestically in the USA.  Five minute security at JFK airport in the middle of August?  P-R-I-C-E-L-E-S-S.

But I'm here to talk about delicious, high quality fast food, not the horrors of air travel in America (at least not yet).  The chicken burger, rather than traditional beef, was recommended to me so that's what I went for, with fries and a strawberry shake (to my sister who thinks chocolate shakes are better than strawberry: bite me).

It was delicious!  Airport prices made it more expensive than is acceptable for fast food, but I will definitely be hitting up this local favorite the next time I am on the east coast.  I wasn't particularly hungry when I sat down to my 1,000 calorie meal but Shake Shack has absolutely earned their reputation.

Time to board the airplane!  Off to Los Angeles I go, about a six hour flight, then onto Australia, which is double that.

Or not.  None of that was happening for a very, very, very long time.  Very long time.

But I'll save that terrifying tale for another post.

For now I will bid farewell to New York, biggest city in the US of A, hottest place outside the center of the sun, home of two friends.  It's been 16 years since my last visit and if I stay on my current timeline I'll see you in 2032, when I'm 49.

Just not in summer!