Posted in Australia, Travel

9 things I miss about Australia

We recently visited Australia and had an absolutely awesome time.  I found out that some friends and family actually read this blog! Hi!

On arrival we immediately noticed three things: how well dressed everyone is, how affluent the country appears, and how much the price of everything has gone up since our last visit a year ago.  Since when did a McDonald’s meal cost over $8?  Since when did an overseas stamp cost $2.55?  And since when did a Cherry Ripe* (see below) cost $2.50+?

That aside, here are some things I realized I really miss about the land down under. Obviously it’s not an exhaustive list…and a worrying number of the points below relate to food.

1. Storms

They have proper storms in Australia. As witnessed by the recent storm-pocalypse of Brisbane. Always good when you go to stay with friends then have 1.5 days without power.

2. Vegemite on Toast

Craved it.  Note, must be proper Australian bread.

3.  Food in general

Everything we ate was awesome (and very expensive).

4. Prawns [shrimp] are the correct size

I.e. Massive.  That’s not a prawn, THIS is a prawn.  Preferably cooked on a BBQ by a blond Australian man holding a beer (not pictured).

5. McDonalds

Edible! Also apparently now called “Macca’s”.

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Melbourne

6. Coffee

So much coffee.  Even in Melbourne airport they have a helpful sign telling you where you can buy it in the terminal.  The man at the lovely Cafe de Aura in Redcliffe, Qld, made a pattern of a phoenix on my flat white.

7. Place names

What’s the name of that creek? So strange.

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8. Sunsets

Ok, so I know LA has awesome sunsets (due to, ahem, smog) but somehow I just prefer the Australian ones.

*9. Cherry Ripes

A wonderful, Australian only, Cadbury’s chocolate.  Savored until the next supply run!

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Questions: What do you miss about ‘home’? | Any thoughts on Vegemite?

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Posted in Life, Travel

Getting an E3 visa

If you’re an Australian applying for an E3 visa, this post is for you. If you’re someone applying for an H1-B visa, this post is probably relevant – it’s a very similar process. If you’re going to a visa appointment at the US embassy in London, this post might be for you. Everyone else: be happy you don’t have this in your life.

This post is partially a whinge, but it is also designed to answer all the questions we had as we were trying to manage the process of Applying for a US Visa. There’s a happy ending, though, I promise.

(Update Feb 2017: here’s a link with a lot of information for Australians applying for this visa: http://ustraveldocs.com/au/au-niv-typee3.asp).

LCA form

Before anything could happen, the first step was for my husband to get his LCA form from his new US employer (LCA = Labor Condition Application for Non-immigrant workers – the same form you need if you are getting an H-1B visa). This wasn’t too difficult – for us, at least. It was emailed to us and we printed it out.

DS-160

Then we had to do a DS-160 each, which is an online form: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/forms/ds-160-online-nonimmigrant-visa-application.html. It’s the usual “put in all of your life history, and tell us if you’re a criminal” kind of form. As a spouse I didn’t get asked as many life-questions (as you’re filling it out you get the impression the spouse is mainly irrelevant, which is a Good Thing when it comes to excessive paperwork).

Once we’d done this form and paid a lot of money (about $280 each), we could choose which embassy we wanted for our visa interview. For our previous visas (J1 and J2) they pretty much insisted it had to be your ‘home’ country (i.e. Australia) but for the E3 we could go anywhere (except Mexico or Canada, of course).

Interview

So we chose London. The website [https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/wait-times.html] assured us that the wait time for a visa appointment in London was a maximum of 1 day. So imagine our surprise when we clicked “give me an appointment” and the first one was more than 10 days away. Luckily it wasn’t the end of the world but it was an unnecessary stress. I note, as I’m writing this, the embassy also seems to post wait times on twitter as well [https://twitter.com/USAinUKConsular] – so who knows what is actually true. We booked the appointment through the website – specifically for non-immigrant visas applying in London [https://ais.usvisa-info.com/en-gb/niv].

Once in London we stayed at the Park Lane Mews, near Hyde Park – and walking distance to the Embassy.

park_lane_mews
Not as expensive as it looks.
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Early morning in Hyde Park.

Our appointment was at 8.30am so we got up early and went for a walk in the park. We were just looping round to Grosvenor Square at about 8.15am to see what was what and noticed the queue outside the embassy was about 50 people long. We panicked immediately (and unnecessarily – a familiar theme) and got in the queue.

Then a man came along the queue and told us to go into a much shorter queue, which we did. This, however, was just the queue to be crossed off the list and to make sure you actually had your appointment letter, passport and DS160 with you. We were then told to go back (to the end) of the long queue.

The long queue was for security but it actually moved pretty fast and we walked in the door at 8.30am, right on time (I guess? The appointment time didn’t seem to be set in stone – I’m sure we could have walked up at 8am and would still have been allowed in). The lady on the desk gave us a number then we went into the waiting hall.

The hall was vast – I guess there were 200-300 seats, as well as a little stall selling tea and coffee and snacks, a photo booth (I didn’t check, but I wonder if it just did American style passport pictures?), a water fountain and bathrooms. There was one giant screen showing the various ticket numbers and what window to go to, and another giant screen showing powerpoint slides with FAQs and other information. There were, I think, 25 service windows in total.

(In contrast, the Melbourne embassy had seats for about 10, 4 windows, and a single TV showing US propaganda on a short loop.)

The hall was three-quarters full and I didn’t notice anyone holding a UK passport.

We were called to our first window (you have to go up twice) at 9.05am, and we talked to a British-accented lady for about 10 minutes. We had to show our LCA form, DS160, and passport. We were asked the name of my husband’s employer, whether we were still using our J visas, and whether we were resident of the UK or just visiting. We had to give 10 fingerprints each too. The lady kept all our documents and we were told to sit down again.

We then waited until 9.50am when we were called to the next window (around the corner, out of sight of the masses in the hall). By this time, due to extreme boredom mixed with nerves, we’d figured out how the window distribution worked, and my husband had calculated what time we’d be called to the second window (he picked it to within 5 minutes!).

The second window was where the interview proper happened. The lady we spoke to here had a US accent and she asked my husband where he was going to be working, his job title and his qualifications. She asked whether he’d worked in the US before. She asked me about my dual citizenship and how long we’d been married – I was so surprised to be asked a question I drew a blank, then she asked to see our marriage certificate (the original, of course). She also asked if we had children. Then she announced our visas had been approved. Done and out the door at 10am.

The embassy kept our passports so they could stick the visa in it and then post it to us later.

Passport delivery

The embassy uses a courier company called DX Group, and you can choose your delivery location from a list of distribution points. Our closest one was near Southampton. For a $60 fee (each) we could have had it posted to an address we chose. We decided that a trip to Southampton would be preferable to paying $120 and fretting about being at home at the right time for the delivery.

We were sent an automated email when the parcels were dispatched from the embassy (on Wednesday – our appointment was on Monday), and we used the tracking number to find they were due on Thursday. So Thursday came and went and the website didn’t update. There was no phone number to call – it’s like they don’t want calls. At any rate, on Friday the website eventually updated to say they had arrived, and despite the embassy saying we would get an email telling us, we didn’t.

So we got a lift with my dad to the place on a horrible industrial estate, rang a bell outside a miscellaneous door, told them the name on the parcel then sat at the bottom of the dusty stairwell waiting for someone to appear. After some confusion about how many parcels we were expecting, both passports (each in a separate parcel) were handed over.

The end result

We were happy to get our passports back within a working week, and to see that a two-year visa was put in both passports, even though my husband’s passport expires in 18 months. However, as I mentioned in my previous post, when we got to the border our stamp and I-94 were for the expiry date of the passport. This has consequences for all other transactions with the US government – length of my work permit, probably the length of our California driving license, and all of my husband’s paperwork at work. We discovered, once it really was too late, that you can apparently show up with a different passport number than the one on your DS-160 [https://ais.usvisa-info.com/en-gb/niv/information/faqs#passport_replacement]

My husband and I have had to do this three times in three years. We’ve spent hours on websites, spent a fortune on plane tickets (though it’s not all bad – we do get holidays (blogged in part 1, part 2, part 3)), and stressed out a lot about timing – will we be able to book an appointment in time, will our passports arrive in time, and so on – all so we could come and live in this crazy country. All I can say with certainty is it’s just about worth it.

In the cactus garden at Huntington.
Getting in the California spirit at the Huntington gardens
Posted in Australia

Happy Australia Day!

As far as I can work out Australia day commemorates the day, in 1788, that the British arrived on the continent occupied by the Aboriginal peoples for thousands of years, and said “we’ll have this, thanks”. However, for the modern Australian it’s more about having a bbq, drinking beer, listening to the Triple J Hottest 100, and eating pavlova and lamingtons (recipe below).

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aussie_cupcakes

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Lamington recipe:

1. Make yellow cake (from packet), freeze

2. melt chocolate over boiling water, then add an equal amount of cream.

3. cut cake into 1-2 inch cubes, dip into chocolate/cream mixture

4. dip dripping cake into flaked coconut

5. leave to set on parchment paper

6. lick fingers.

make cake - I used a packet mix
make cake – I used a packet mix
melt chocolate then add cream
melt chocolate then add cream
prepare coconut - hard to do once you're covered in chocolate
prepare coconut – hard to do once you’re covered in chocolate
dip cake into chocolate then coconut to coat all sides but one
dip cake into chocolate then coconut to coat all sides but one
if you coat the baking paper with coconut then you can use that for the final side
if you coat the baking paper with coconut then you can use that for the final side
Posted in Australia, Running

7 miles in Canberra

On our recent trip down-under I tried to run every other day, but I only ever really had time for short runs, usually about 30 minutes.  This is what happened when I attempted my first long run in over a month.

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In late November we were visiting Canberra, escaping from the Boston winter and visiting my husband’s family. It was Saturday morning and I wanted to go for a 6 mile run/walk, about an hour. I wasn’t that familiar with the area where we were staying, and we had no internet and our phones had no data, so I had to resort to a physical map.  I looked up a route that looked about right and I memorized it as best I could – there weren’t many roads so I figured I wouldn’t get too lost.

I set out at 9.30am and it was cloudy and not too hot.  Garmin tells me it was 60F/15C and 70% humidity – very un-Canberra weather. I started with a lap around the local lake then headed down to the Murrumbidgee River.

Point Hut pond - first stop on my run. Gordon is in the background
Point Hut pond – first stop on my run. Gordon is in the background

The path to the river was obviously an abandoned road but it wasn’t long until I intersected with a sparsely populated car park and a sign showing the nearby walking tracks.  I checked and double checked I was heading on the “cycle path” running along the east of the river and set out. It turned out it was a actually narrow mountain bike track rather than the smooth tarmac I was expecting. The trail was somehow both sandy and rocky and once on it I was out of sight of all civilization.  Running on a trail was a new experience for me and it quite slow going as a tried to avoid rolling my ankles. It was only when I heard rustling at ground level, and  remembered about Australian snakes, did it occur to me how remote I felt.

The 'cycle path'..
The ‘cycle path’..
At the end of the trail - Gordon in the distance.
At the end of the trail – Gordon in the distance.

I was just under halfway through my run when I got to the end of the trail and heard yet another rustle, followed by a black shape disappearing under a bush.  This convinced me not to retrace my steps home, and instead to push on with my original route.  I ran through another deserted car park, up to a road which I assumed would lead me out to the main road.  On the map it had looked like a matter of yards, but it was only after another mile that I started to see buildings.

The endless road to civilization.
The endless road to civilization.

Based on my earlier map reconnaissance I was expecting a no-brainer route home. Unfortunately Canberra has changed a lot since that map was printed.  And also unfortunately I had neglected to memorize the names of the roads I was looking for… So I found myself on a road with a sign to Athllon Drive.  Having previously lived in Canberra for four and a half years I knew that was somewhere in the region of where I needed to be but I didn’t recognize anything so I turned away from the sun and followed the road.

So, which direction do you like?
So, which direction do you like?

This being Canberra on a Saturday morning, however, there was no-one around to ask exactly where I was.  I was starting to flag, I was getting hotter but I knew I was at least 4 miles away from home back the way I had come, so it was just a question of whether it was faster (and less snake-infested) to just keep going.

I decided to keep going and I eventually hit a roundabout and saw a sign to Drakeford Drive. I was pretty sure that was even better than Athllon Drive so I turned onto it.  I still didn’t recognize anything from my 6 mile/hr perspective though. (On a later drive back this way it all was perfectly clear).

Just keep running.
Just keep running.

My feet were hurting and the grey clouds were weighing down on me. I kept going, run 3, walk 1, slowly reeling in long stretches of tarmac, until eventually saw the hill behind the suburb of Calwell in the distance.  I’d climbed that hill one summer with my husband so now I finally knew where I was. A mile after the first roundabout, I arrived at another with the big sign I was hoping for: Gordon.  I figured I was home and dry.

My turn off!
My turn off!

Sadly, because of the unique way Canberra is designed, even though I had reached the outskirts of Gordon, I still had two miles to go before I got home. I had no idea about this at the time, though; all I knew was that I still wasn’t home yet. I took an extra long walk break, then decided it was getting ridiculous.  So I picked up the run, and staggered home 15 minutes late, having done a mile more than I had planned.

Back in Gordon - finally.
Back in Gordon – finally.

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Splits:

  • Mile 1:  9:58
  • Mile 2: 10:40
  • Mile 3: 10:38
  • Mile 4: 10:22
  • Mile 5: 10:24
  • Mile 6: 10.06
  • Mile 7: 10.25
  • Mile 0.29: 9.08
Posted in Writing

Creative writing :: The Meeting

I wrote this in February 2009 while on a creative writing course at the ACT Writers Centre in Canberra, Australia.

She crouched defensively, under shelter, peering out at the intruder.  The intruder contorted his body to get a better look.  He was tall and his joints creaked.  The slightest unconsidered movement from either would break the spell they had created.

The sun was beating down, the air thick with humidity.  Birds were sheltering in the green-leaved trees, and even the baby magpies were silent, too hot pester their parents.

The man was in the sun.  She was in the shade.  She had the advantage.

He carefully shuffled closer, his kneecaps digging into the concrete.  She silently edged backwards.  He held out his hand, but she did not move.  He knew making a grab, or chasing would not work.  She was quicker and had more stamina.

The man was desperate to make contact and started to make soothing noises, friendly greetings that he thought would help. His voice was as sweet as honey to most, but not to her.  She bared her teeth and spat.  He stopped. Clearly this was not going to work.

They had seen each other, glimpses, most days for the past month, but she was always wary.  What did she have to gain from the meeting?  She knew these situations could go one of two ways.  One way was clearly unacceptable, and therefore, so was the risk.

As a last resort he decided to talk to her in her own language.  He held out his hand and said friendly words. These words sounded harsh to him, but they were as smooth as silk to her.

Her eyes widened.  She was interested.  He continued to talk, not moving, but holding out his hand.  She edged closer, and closer.

Now she was in front of him, out in the sun, cautiously getting an impression of his scent.  He continued to talk and moved to stroke her head.  She could no longer resist this creaky man, his voice no longer harsh.

She knew this was going to go her way. As he rubbed her ears and whiskers she purred loudly, and was no longer afraid.

Our neighbourhood cat - we played but he wasn't allowed in!
Our neighborhood cat in Canberra- we played but he wasn’t allowed in!