Friday, June 29, 2012

Winter Flowers

Even thought winter is in full swing here in the Sydney area, there are some beautiful flowers in full bloom. Here are some photos I took of some of the flowering plants in our neighborhood.

There are towering poinsettia plants in several yards around our neighborhood.

Bushes of different varieties of mums are also popular.

Not sure what these are, but they come in various colors: white, pink, and purple.

The stunning Birds of Paradise are in many front gardens in our neighborhood.

And, yes, we also have dandelions here - even in winter!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Winter in Sydney

Since the Winter Solstice occurred earlier this week, I thought it might be time for a post about what winter is like in Sydney - at least what it is like this year!

Winter in Sydney is very mild - especially when compared to winter in Minnesota! In fact, Vincent frequently asks me which season we are in. When I tell him winter, he looks at me and says, "No, Mama. This isn't winter. There is no snow on the ground!"

Parts of New South Wales do get snow. It will occasionally snow in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. And there are plenty of ski fields in the aptly named Snowy Mountains in southern New South Wales. The local television stations frequently iclude snow reports in their broadcasts on Friday. But you have to get a long way from the ocean and be at a high elevation to see snow. Many Australians have never seen it snow - including my mother-in-law. Although she has seen snow on the ground, she has never seen it fall from the sky (not even on her trips to visit us in Minnesota).

The position of the city as a harbor (or harbour) city helps to moderate the climate. Weather patterns tend to stick around for several days - so if it starts to rain, we get rain for several days. But if it is mild and sunny, then we can count on blue skies for many days in a row.

In general, winter here is cool, damp, and windy, with highs in the low 50s during the day. When the rain moves in, it seems like it rains and rains and rains and rains for days and days on end. This cool dampness is exacerbated by the fact that many houses (like the house we are currently renting) are not built to withstand the chilly temperatures - little/no insulation, no central heating, single pane windows, etc. Some newer houses have what is know as "ducted reverse-cycle air conditioning," which is sort of like central heating. But most homes have a collection of various space heaters of different shapes, sizes, and purposes. We have four in our house - three oil heaters (two large and one small) and one oscillating radiant heater.

But winter days in Sydney can also be warm and sunny. The temperatures over the last week have been in the upper 60s with clear blue skies and a bright, warm sun. This is great weather for going to the park, drying clothes outside (I have done at least one load of washing per day over the last seven days), playing at the beach, etc. In fact, a warm winter day here in Sydney feels a lot like a cool summer day in Minnesota.

No matter what the weather is like during the day, the nights here are very cool. This morning we woke up and it was in the high 30s! We sleep with flannel sheets and lots of warm blankets and comforters/duvets (Australians call them doonas) on our beds. And occasionally we do get a bit of frost. But even on the coldest days, I rarely need to bundle up more than wearing a fleece jacket, the occasional scarf and hat, and a lightweight pair of gloves - and on most days, I can get by with a couple lightweight layers and no jacket. By Midwestern standards, the coldest day here feels like a brisk late fall day in Iowa or Minnesota.

Frost on the ground at the park near our house.

When we lived in Sydney several years ago, I do not remember seeing the leaves on the trees change color like they do in the Northern US in the fall (maybe it was because we were experiencing a crippling drought?). But around our neighborhood this winter, I have seen several beautiful trees with brightly colored leaves.

One of the things I miss most about not living in the Midwestern United States is the four distinct seasons. Here, we get hot (usually dry) summer and cool (usually damp) winter. But I have to admit that on warm winter days - like those we have experienced over the past week - I do not miss the sub-zero wind chills so common to Minnesota winters!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dual citizenship

Yesterday, when we collected our mail from the little post box in front of our house after a morning out running errands, we had a postcard stating that there was a package waiting for us at our local post office that required a signature. This could only mean one thing - the boys' citizenship paperwork had been approved! So after lunch and nap, we drove up to the post office to collect the envelope. Our hunch was correct - it was an envelope from the citizenship office in Tasmania. Vincent was very excited as we opened up the envelope just outside the post office. I pulled out the certificate to show him. However, I don't think he was all that impressed by the slip of paper - I think he was hoping that it meant that he got a train or a dinosaur or something!

"Now you and Desmond are Australians," I told him. "You are just like daddy."

That made him happy - he always loves to be compared to his dad. "Yay!" He grinned from ear to ear and went jumping and skipping down the sidewalk.

A lady walking towards us looked at him and smiled. "Must have been something exciting from the post office," she said.

"Their citizenship paperwork was just approved," I replied.

She smiled. "Congratulations! Yay!"

I sort of felt like we should wave a mini-Australian flag or sing the national anthem - or at least "Waltzing Matilda."

The boys qualified for Australian citizenship by decent because their dad was an Australian citizen at the time of their births. We could have applied for their Australian citizenship at any time after their birth. We probably would have done so eventually while living in the US, but the move happened so quickly that it was just easier to take care of it once we arrived in Sydney.

Both Paul and I were quite surprised at the speed at which this process happened. After finally assembling all the paperwork that we needed (birth certificates, proof of Paul's citizenship, proof of address, and the application form), I put the envelope in the mail on Tuesday. The date on the citizenship certificates was Thursday - 2 days after I mailed it. And it had to go all the way to Tasmania to be processed.

So, what does this mean for our boys? Well, they now have dual citizenship with the US and Australia. Once we get them Australian passports, it will make travelling in and out of either country much easier. They are now eligible for Medicare (the universal healthcare system in place in Australia...a future blog post) as well as any other benefits afforded to citizens of Australia. And they will be required to vote when they reach voting age (voting in Australia is compulsory...I think that will be another good topic for a future blog post).

According to both US and Australian laws, dual citizenship is legal in both countries (prior to 2002, if an Australian citizen became a citizen of another country, they automatically lost their Australian citizenship). So the boys will be able to retain both citizenships for life. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Desmond's new sweater

Before we decided to move back to Sydney, I started working on a sweater for Desmond. It is a pretty straightforward pattern by Elizabeth Smith at The Brown Stitch - a little cardigan with raglan sleeves and a truck on the back. I had made the same one for the baby of a friend of ours a few months earlier, so I knew that it would be cute and functional.

Then we decided to move, Paul left for Sydney, and I suddenly ran out of time to knit. I was about three-quarters of the way through the pattern.

Now that we have settled in a bit in Sydney, I have finally had a chance to finish this sweater! I was a little worried that it might not fit Desmond any more (he is kind of a big and chunky guy), but it fits perfectly and is the ideal sweater for the cool Sydney winter days we have been experiencing lately.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Happy Queen's Birthday!

Today (Monday) is the Queen's Birthday holiday in most of Australia (but not in Western Australia or Queensland - they pick a different day to celebrate the Queen's Birthday. I don't know why). This is the one day of the year when all Australians are proud to call themselves monarchists because it means a day off from work and school.

But wait...the Queen's birthday is April 21st... (the same day as my mom's birthday - maybe we should celebrate her birthday today too!). Why celebrate it now? The reason, I suspect, is twofold.

First, the countries of the British Empire/Commonwealth have celebrated their monarch's birthday as a public holiday since 1748. In Australia, the Monarch's Birthday was celebrated as a holiday during the first year the British arrived in Sydney (1788). (I'm glad they kept their priorities straight. Maybe it helped to keep the spirits up of the newest inhabitants of the Empire's new penal colony.) This became an annual tradition with the date of the actual holiday moving to coincide with the actual birth date of the monarch. However, following the death of King George in 1936, whose birthday was June 3rd, the date of the public holiday in Australia (except for Queensland and Western Australia) has hovered around the beginning of June.

Second, April is already a busy month for holidays - Australia observes Good Friday and Easter Monday (both of which often fall in April) and ANZAC Day (April 25). And there are no other public holidays observed in June. Might as well spread 'em out!

As a result, in New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and the Northern Territories, the Queen's (or, presumably one day, King's) Birthday holiday is always celebrated on the 2nd Monday in June. And we might as well enjoy this holiday for all it's worth - the next day off from work/school in New South Wales is not until Labour Day in October!

So, raise a cup of tea, drop a curtsey (or a bow), and toast the birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. Happy Birthday, Your Majesty! And thanks for the day off from work!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Our house is ... quirky

As I posted on my blog several weeks ago, Paul was successful in finding us a house to rent. The house has some positive features, but our overall assessment of it is that it is quirky. Let me explain.

First, it is important to understand that Paul was responsible for finding us a place to live and a car to drive (he found us a great little 2007 Toyota Corolla). He spent a couple of Saturdays going to open houses and meeting up with real estate agents. He put an application in for one house, but we didn't get it. There was another house that he really liked, but it was just out of our price range. Then on one Saturday, he looked at 8 different places - both apartments and houses. Sure, the 2-bedroom apartments in our price range were newer and the rent was a bit less, but we really wanted 3-bedrooms and room to spread out. We've done the apartment thing and we are over it. Especially with two (very) vocal (and not always happy) boys. The he came across this 3-bedroom house in the North Shore suburb of Asquith. The rent was in our range. Great. He put in an application, and we were notified a few days later that it was ours.

The only catch was that it was not available until May 20th. Paul was flying to Minnesota for Laura's wedding - he was leaving Sydney on May 17th and we were all flying back into Sydney on May 22nd. The last thing we wanted was to have to move into an empty house the moment we arrived in Sydney. Luckily for us, Paul's parents, sister, brother-in-law, and our friends quickly came to our assistance. They picked up the keys, cleaned the house, and all donated/loaned furniture and housewares. When we walked through the door on the morning of May 22nd, our house looked like - and felt like - a home. We had a sofa, TV, dining table and chairs, beds, a crib, a chest of drawers, a wardrobe, bookshelves, dishes, glasses, pots, linens, a desk, space heaters and a high chair. And lots of "new" toys. Both Paul and I were overwhelmed with the generosity of everybody. Vincent was thrilled with the toys :)

But then we started to notice the quirky characteristics of the house. First, it is an older house - probably built in the early 1950s. As such, it has high ceilings and original windows and doors. So, it is drafty - quite drafty. And houses in Sydney tend to not be insulated. And most houses do not have any sort of centralized heating - usually it doesn't get cold enough to need it on a regular basis. So this house is cool and drafty in the winter (now) - but will be cool in the summer.

Second, there is one bathroom, but three toilets. It is not unusual for houses in Australia to have a toilet separate from the bathroom - usually in a smaller room right next to the bathroom. In my opinion, this is quite a nice feature. When Paul looked at the house (on that day when he looked at 8 different places), he didn't notice the toilet situtation. He just assumed that there was one in the bathroom along with the sink, tub, and shower (which is separate from the tub). When we arrived and noticed that the toilet was not in the bathroom, we weren't all that surprised. But there was not little "toilet room" next to the bath room. So where was the toilet??

As I mentioned above, it turns out that the house has three toilets. Two are outside the house. I believe the home's original toilet is in an "outhouse" style room with a flush toilet outside the house near the back of the garage. To be honest, I haven't actually been in there yet. Then, it looks like at some point after the house was built, they added on an enclosed breeze way and put in two toilets - one "inside" the house (accessible via this enclosed breeze way - it is truly breezy with just a screen door linking the breeze way to the patio) and the other outside the house (the idea being that if you were entertaining and having a party outside and didn't want your guests tramping through your house to use the loo, they could use this outside toilet). Suffice it to say - it is quite cool going to the loo during the night and/or first thing in the morning. And almost without fail Vincent will comment that the potty is cold in the mornings.

The potty is through the breeze way!

Ok - enough potty talk.

The rest of the house is pretty much what you would expect from an older, rented house. The carpet is so-so. The closets smell musty. Fortunately, we have only seen one cockroach - and it was already dead.

But there are lots of good things about the house. The location is fantastic - we are a 10 minute-walk to the local train station and less than a 10-minute drive to where the express trains stop. The local elementary school (for when the boys start kindergarten) is a block away. Paul's sister and her family live 5 minutes away  by car. The shops and mall are nearby. It is a sleepy street close to parks.

And the yard is great - there is a large front yard and a large back yard. There is a huge clothes line in a very sunny spot (it is worth mentioning that most homes don't have a clothes dryer and those that do don't use them as their primary source of drying clothes. We don't have a dryer - yet.) There is room for a veggie garden. There is also a great covered front porch and a large covered patio.

Here you can see the large washing line to the left. The caution tape stretching across most of the photo is because there are very large dead branches dangling from a large tree as a result of a bad storm on Easter weekend. Our landlord assures us that it will be taken care of soon...

The backyard is terraced.

To the left is the back of the garage and the laundry room. The part of the house in the middle of the photo is the breeze way extension that houses the two toilets.
The covered patio. The garage and laundry is to the left.

The front porch. It is a warm and sunny spot this time of year!

The rooms are pretty decent as well. The bedrooms are fine and the kitchen is pretty good - lots of cupboard space. There is a combined living and dining area. It works - but the eating area is carpeted. Not really the best option with two kids who seem to spill half of their food on the floor.

So although it is not our ideal home, it will work for now. We just keep repeating the mantra - our house is quirky and this isn't forever.

In the meanwhile, our Nisse is keeping a watchful eye on our new home.

Friday, June 1, 2012

An afternoon at the park

Yesterday afternoon, the boys and I found a great park a short drive from our house. Vincent and Desmond had a blast! Here are some pictures I took with the camera on my phone.