This week brought us a little unexpected avian adventure. We returned home the other day to find an injured pigeon sitting in the drive to our apartment. The front-facing neighbors had kindly put out birdseed and a water dish for him, so I returned him to their stoop, but I was filled with worry....
I thought it probably wasn't healthy for him to just be eating bird seed - it didn't seem like a sufficiently varied or natural diet, so I looked for some supplements around our apartment. I was wondering aloud whether blueberries would be good for him when Pickle noted that since "he isn't going to last long anyway - the best you can do is give him some good tasting food". This was an attempt to ease my concern about the appropriateness of his dietary supplements and to make me feel better about making the best of his doomed little life, but unfortunately, the message did not have the uplifting impact Pickle had anticipated. Now I was distraught. Of course his little wing wasn't going to heal itself! And even if he did make it for quite awhile, there's no quality of life being confined to a little stoop, no matter what you get to eat! This was not an adequate solution. I suggested the idea of calling a vet or an animal rescue...Pickle noted, unenthusiastically, that we would probably have to pay for this option, as "it's not like there's Medicare for pigeons". This quip was not well received, and Pickle, being the good guy that he is, immediately offered to call a local vet who, lo and behold, DID offer to provide free care to our friend in need and send him on to an animal rescue center. (Score one for Australia for public healthcare for birds.) So I gently coaxed him onto our pigeon platform, transferred to the passenger vessel (Pickle's laundry basket) and loaded him into the car. We arrived just 10 minutes later to the Kogarah Veterinary Hospital, where he was admitted for care.
I would like to thank Pickle for his time, effort and support (and for the use of his laundry basket, which our nervous little friend pooped in...twice). He actually had a lot of work to do that evening, and this was not part of his plan. I appreciate having a partner who is willing to go to so much trouble to ease my mind about a pigeon. He's truly a good one ♡
February 28, 2016 I woke up around 4:30am, prepped and headed off to campus for my 7am dissertation defense. Via the wonders of modern technology, I was able to successfully defend my dissertation research to my committee, who were attending in their time on February 27. My advisor was in Texas, my methodologist was in Indiana and the remaining two committee members were in Ohio in their respective homes. It seemed pretty apropos given my PhD is in Instructional Technology. Aside from one member whose camera pooped out on him, it was a technological win. It was nice to see everyone again. They asked great questions and indicated a genuine interest in the research, and in the end I was welcomed to "the community of scholars", which was funny because I thought I'd been a part of that for the past few years while working in academia...now I suppose I'm legit. I asked about a secret handshake, but apparently we don't have one. Overall, it was a gratifying experience, a relief and a pretty good time :)
In celebration, Pickle surprised me with a gift and yummy Japanese food! He custom-ordered a new bag for me on Etsy. My cheap, IKEA laptop bag recently broke, and Pickle came in and saved the day with the perfect thoughtful gift! He picked out the material, the yarn and the wooden buttons for my super cute new backpack, and a lovely woman from Israel handmade it and shipped it to us.
We were thinking of trying out a Korean BBQ place in Haymarket, but I found a little shop called Miso at World Square that was supposed to have great bentos, so we went there for lunch. By the time we made it through our bentos, we knew there was no chance we'd be hungry for dinner. They were sizable and delicious! We both got a milk tea; I had the Hokkaido Bento featuring ikura (salmon roe), and Pickle ordered the Miso Bento, featuring tonkatsu (fried pork). Each had an array of Japanese sides, including various tempura (Pickle's first soft shell crab experience), Japanese potato salad (I'm not a huge fan of American potato salad and had never had Japanese style - it's delicious!), salmon sashimi, mini spring rolls, tamagoyaki (little rolled omlette), fried tofu, kamaboko (a processed seafood product...like "krab"), tsukune (Japanese chicken meatball) and miso soup. The little shop was packed when we arrived, but we were the last ones left at the end of the lunch hours. We actually planned to try the Korean BBQ place again this past weekend, but decided to hit up Miso a second time (I may be developing a habit). This time, I had the sushimi and unaju (broiled eel over rice) set and Pickle had the chirashi sushi (salmon sashimi over sushi rice) and Wagyu beef set. It was equally as tasty and filling! This weekend, after shopping around awhile, we finished up the day with some dessert at Meet Fresh. I had the King Mango Shave Ice and Pickle had a salted caramel waffle with ice cream.
After stuffing ourselves to the gills last weekend, we headed out to walk off our lunch with some shopping. We'd planned to go to Paddy's Market, but Pickle tapped Paddington Market on his phone, so we ended up there. It was a fortunate error though, as on the way, we came across a T2 shop and stopped in. I'd been trying to track down a particular teacup and saucer that is no longer available on their website. We found one at this shop, and Pickle picked out a cute one as well. This past weekend, we shopped around a bit at The Galeries, where Pickle bought an awesome wallet at Monsterthreads before making our way to Paddy's Markets this time. The last photos are of the bamboo Pickle bought for me a couple weeks ago (as poor Wilson, our yucca plant, is not faring well) and the adorable keychain he sneakily purchased for me while I was wandering around the Glebe Market.
We'd visited some bookstores in Glebe a couple of weekends ago (we also found a vibrant little Mexican joint called Baja Cantina with some serious nacho goodness). I picked up a copy of Ruth Ozeki's novel A Tale for the Time Being, read it over the next week and loved it. The book flips between Nao and Ruth. Nao, a 16-year old girl who was uprooted from her life in California when her father lost his job and her family moved back to Japan, is bullied terribly at school. Her father has attempted (and failed at) suicide multiple times, and she intends to end her life as well. First, she decides, she wants to write about the life of her great-grandmother, old Jiko, who is a Buddhist nun. We follow Nao's story through Ruth, an author who has stalled out in writing her own memoires, living in a remote Canadian town. She found Nao's diary washed up on the shore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox sealed in plastic bags along with letters written in formal Japanese, a diary written in French and a watch, all of which we discover belonged to Nao's uncle, a kamikaze pilot (though not by choice) in WWII. In addition to the fact that I was looking for an approachable novel based in Japan, I was sold on the intertwining of Zen Buddhism and quantum physics in the description on Goodreads: "...deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home."
After our initial Miso trip, we decided to look for a book store in the area and found a HUGE one at The Galeries called Kinokuniya. Kinokuniya is the largest bookstore chain in Japan and this is currently the only one in Australia. I'd finished A Tale for the Time Being the week prior, and wanted to check out a Murakami novel. I was on the fence between Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore. To be honest, the latter was last on my list, as I was leaning toward The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but when I got to the Murakami section, there was a note recommending the other two. When I opened Kafka on the Shore to the first page and read the opening conversation with the boy named Crow and "...the time being" in italics, I figured I'd better go with Kafka, as a Jungle Crow played a role in A Tale for the Time Being, and it all seemed a little too coincidental. This was definitely a different read: a teenage runaway, Oedipus-like premonitions, a villain named Johnny Walker who kills cats, freezing their heads and eating their still-beating hearts in order to collect their souls to fashion a magic flute, a childlike old man who converses with cats after never having recovered from a mysterious incident in which 16 school children lost consciousness simultaneously on a mountainside during the war, WWII soldiers standing guard at the threshold of purgatory, sexually active living ghosts - even an appearance from a Japanese Colonel Sanders (that's right - the fried chicken guy) who shows up as a pimp. While the book was an easy read (it took less than a week to get through the 500+ pages), it didn't exactly leave you with an assurance that you "got it". I didn't sweat it too much, as from what I've read, I don't know that Murakami "got it" all either, but it didn't leave me ready to sign up for another Murakami right away. Still, I might check outThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle after a bit of a hiatus. If you're interested in finding out more, here's John Updike's review in The New Yorker.
Between the food (though this is nothing out of the ordinary!) and the reading lists (totally new, thanks to the free time gained after completing my dissertation!), it's been a very Japanese-inspired couple of weeks. This is no coincidence - Pickle and I are heading to Japan at the end of March, and I couldn't be more psyched! We'll have 10 full days, and I've been busy researching places to stay, things to see (and eat), cultural insights and travel strategies. In fact, I'd probably better get back to work on this...I'll keep you posted!
After cruising around for a couple of hours, we hit up a market just past the bridge. We actually stumbled upon some Hawaiian ice, which was a welcome refreshment on a hot, Sydney summer day! We piddled around a bit at the markets and walked down by Circular Quay before heading out to Pyrmont for the Lunar Markets. The Sydney Morning Herald hosted the lunar new year event again this year, so we stopped in for a yummy bao trifecta. We chose 1) Tawainese fried chicken with red sugar chili jam, carrot, spring onion and chili mayo; 2) peking duck, cucumber, spring onion and peking sauce; and 3) fried tofu, coriander and pickled mustard greens with a peanut miso sauce and crushed peanuts. They had little booths set up this year where you could pick a little bamboo steamer basket to see if you won a prize. Pickle won a coupon for a free scoop of Messina gelato (which we immediately cashed in at The Star) and I got the traditional red envelop with gold chocolate coins for luck and prosperity in the new year.
At the end of the day, I surprised Pickle with his Valentine, which included tickets to An Evening With Brian Greene (see my geeky Valentine below). It's not until mid-March, but I figured the night of theoretical physics awesomeness was worth the tradeoff in the lack of immediacy. It was such a timely event though, as we'd just been discussing the new research findings regarding gravitational waves the day before as Pickle watched his video explanation of the discovery. We're both pretty stoked to attend the talk!
It was a LOVE-ly Valentine's Day!
Last week was an eventful one. Pickle and I had our birthday to celebrate on the 23rd and Australia's birthday on the 26th. We exchanged a couple little b-day surprises before heading out for the day. Pickle bought me three birthday cards. He tends to find more than one card for every occasion that he likes...well, more accurately, one he thinks is funny and one or two he thinks I might like - this year the one he thought was laugh-til-you-tear-up hilarious made a series of farting noises when you opened it...sigh. :P I got more of a kick out of him cracking up at the card himself! As a gift to Pickle, I designed a Twinings "Tea Shirt" for him...he discovered sometime last year how much he loves Twinings Early Grey Tea after I suggested trying Bigelow and he didn't like it as much. This caused him to go all in on being a hardcore Twinings fan, and he's always said he (seriously) wished he could find a t-shirt, so I made him this one as a joke...it went over well :)
We started our day off by visiting a newly developed area near the CBD called Barangaroo. The event we were searching for was at the Reserve and was part of Sydney Fest. It was a large-scale, participatory art installation called The Ephemeral City. The brainchild of artist Olivier Grossetête, The Ephemeral City is a three-week, community-constructed building effort made entirely of cardboard boxes. The people of Sydney came together to carry out the plans for the temporary structures, which came crashing to the end of their temporary existence on Australia Day. There was also a project specifically for children called BoxWars, in which kids could create their own unique cardboard contributions to add to a miniature cardboard city. We had fun wandering around the Cutaway and the Barangaroo Reserve area and touring the blossoming cityscape...we even left our (temporary) mark on the project...
After exploring the fleeting cardboard world, we hoofed our way all the way to Haymarket in Chinatown to checkout a new (to us) dumpling place called Dainty Dumplings. We had the xiao long bao and steamed pork buns. We made sure to save room for dessert because (since it was birthday weekend) we were finally going to try out the Emperor's Puffs! There is a ridiculously long queue in Chinatown for a little window outside of Emperor's Bakery as people wait to purchase the steaming hot, custard-filled puffs. The bite-sized delicacies are dirt cheap, but the wait time is always too steep a price for Pickle, and I had yet to convince him of the payoff. Today was the day! AND - bonus for Pickle - since it was too late for lunch and too early for dinner, there was the shortest queue we'd ever seen...happy birthday to both of us!
After that, it was on to one of our favorite places we've been so far for what is now our official Australia Day weekend tradition - Featherdale Wildlife Park! I didn't take as many pics this time, since we'd been before and captured all of the animals, but I did shoot a few video clips that I pieced together quickly here. If I'd thought of it, I would have brought my GoPro instead of my Canon - it would have been a better format, and I might not have panicked as much when a curious roo tried to grab it from me!
We looked for some Yum Cha, but missed our time window and ended up in Campsie at a Japanese joint called Ishiyama...SUCH an awesome find! (We actually already went back this week - not only for the amazing sushi at Ishiyama, but for some tasty sesame balls served up at a bakery nearby!) Our first trip in, we opted for the Wagyu beef carpaccio, duck roll and salmon avocado roll, and we finished it off with green tea ice cream for Pickle and black sesame for me, both topped with adzuki beans - yum!
The following evening was the main event - our first performance at the Sydney Opera House! We elected to see La Bohéme. The experience as a whole was pretty great - getting dressed up and actually attending an opera at THE Sydney Opera House would be one for the bucket list if I did that sort of thing. If I'm being honest, though, I have to say we proooobably should have picked a different opera. There are no widely recognizable pieces, aside from Musetta's Waltz (which, I have to say, made a far better electric guitar solo in Rent). The story is certainly not difficult to follow, but the libretto seriously lacks subtlety and the depth. Now, I am by no means an opera aficionado (I'm not even a connoisseur), so this is my disclaimer - the following is my tongue-in-cheek synopsis for newbies:
Act 1 - Rudolfo hangs behind as his friends head out to the bar to celebrate a recent windfall. Mimi wanders into the flat, drops to the floor hacking and then sings for 10 minutes about how she arranges fake flowers and how people call her Mimi but she doesn't know why (neither do we). This seems to be right up Rudolfo's alley - the bar is set low, and they're both professing their undying love for one another faster than the kids on an episode of a teen mom show.
Act 2 - Rudolfo and Mimi join the group at the bar, where Musetta, the self-adoring ex of Marcello (and every other man in town) is vying for his attention. She manages to enrage him with the rich old coot that she's with, but ends up going home with him in the end and leaving her sugar daddy to foot the bill.
Act 3 - Just as quickly as a hormone-fueled, drama-driven pre-teen romance, the two new power couples, Midolfo and Musello, find their relationships crumbling. Jealously sees the men transform into abusive jerks. We find that, more honestly, Rudolfo is distancing himself from Mimi under the pretense of jealousy because he fears she is dying (he's a real stand-up guy). Marcello, on the other hand, is just jealous (because, to be fair, Musetta is a psycho floozy). Mimi overhears her diagnosis and decides she's going to leave Rudolfo (who was pretty weepy after having his bluff called). But, they're wishy-washy messes and decide they'll just go ahead and stay together until spring...because winter's a real drag anyway and it's just a tough time to take the hit. Is there hope for Marcello and Musetta.............?...uh, no, they're for sure over.
Act 4: Mimi's more than half dead. Musetta goes to sell her earrings to buy her a muff because it's her last request - turns out Musetta's not the wretched devil woman Marcello thought (plus, you know...she's hot), so he hops back on board. Mimi and Rudolfo are left alone to recount every single interaction we've already seen: remember how I came to the apartment and told you about how I arrange flowers and how they call me Mimi and I don't know why (and we still don't either) and let's tell the whole story of the first act again...recounting, recounting, recounting...think I'll take a nap, aaaaand Mimi's dead. ...finally. The curtain drops on Rudolfo wailing over her body, and your husband turns to you and says (sarcastically) "Alright! I feel good!"
I'm sure it wasn't the worst opera we could have picked (I was saved by the fact that I mentally substituted most of it with the corresponding performances from Rent), but if I'm being honest, I'd have to say the cheese plate at intermission was probably the highlight (in all fairness to Puccini, it was a really good cheese plate). Still, the evening was quite an event, and while the specific show wasn't a total hit, the experience, in sum, was a great one. We would definitely go back for another opera performance. We took quite a few photos, though you obviously can't take any during the performance, so get ready for a boatload of selfies in 3.....2...
This past weekend started out with dreary weather that rained us out of our outdoor cinema Friday night date and ended with a beautiful, sunny Sunday visit across the street to the beach. It's been uncharacteristically cool lately, so we haven't actually suited up and gone in the water (which is ok with me, because I did the holidays full-on American-style, only to come back to swimsuit season here...not ideal for my sense of beach-readiness). We've gone a few times this week though, just to sit out and enjoy the sunshine and people watching. You'll see people dressed everything from a budgie smuggler to full formal attire and anything in between. (Budgerigars, also known as the common parakeet, are called budgies here - men's Speedos are called budgie smugglers...that's probably enough insight for you to work it out.) But I digress.... in the middle of our weekend, we transitioned from a drizzly morning to a sunny afternoon, ending in a cool, crisp Saturday evening, which we enjoyed at the Domain watching the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. This is the ruby anniversary - 40 years! - for the Sydney Festival. It's in full swing, and this was one of our favorite free events last year, so we made sure to mark our calendars and hit it up again. They did not disappoint! This year's program opened with Dvorák's overture Othello, followed by an astonishing performance of Mendelssohn's violin concerto in E minor by soloist Grace Clifford. She.was.ridiculous. If you haven't heard the piece, you might imagine that obviously a violin concerto is pretty demanding on the soloist - this was no exception. It's roughly a half hour piece (played from memory) and there's a LOT of black on the page if you look at the part (see it here), including double stops as the soloist accompanies herself in the second movement, lightning speed runs, and endless eighth note tremolos building to the conclusion. Beyond the technicality of the piece, it is musically demanding, and the soloist showed great sophistication in her phrasing. We were amazed at how young she looked on the monitors - "she must be in her twenties", Pickle noted, impressed with the accomplished young performer. After Googling her later, we found that she is actually 17 years old! She has earned various accolades, including winning Australia's Young Performer of the Year award last year. ABC did a nice little story on her here...
After an interval, the SSO was back with Dvorák's New World Symphony and concluded again this year with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, complete with canons and fireworks. It was a great night for symphony under the stars :)
But not before we enjoyed a strategically placed layover in Honolulu! It was a great idea in theory, but in practice, we will definitely need to stay overnight next time. The Hawai'i lover in me wanted to maximize our time in my favorite place on Earth, but the penny-pincher in me didn't want to spring for a pricey hotel room only to lose time with our families, so I proposed a 14-hour layover. To be fair, Pickle was skeptical, but, ever the supportive partner, he got on board...to his detriment. Pickle has a terrible time sleeping on planes - like, just miserable. To plan ahead, he always tries to get as much sleep as possible before flying. Well, there was obviously no way we were going to be able to make it through a full day in Sydney, leaving around 6pm, flying 9.5 hours to Honolulu, galavanting around the island for 14 hours before hopping on a 7.5-hour flight to Dallas, adding a 2-hour layover before another 1.5 hour flight to Kansas City...if we wake up around 8:30am the day we leave, that's a total of 44 hours. SO, I proposed a sure-fire way to set Pickle up for sleep success on the plane. We stayed up late the night before our departure and woke up early, ensuring we were really tired by the time we got on the plane. Then, we took (mild, over-the-counter) sleeping pills. Also, we bought the adorable neck pillow and sleeping mask (pictured above), but mostly because they were cute. Luckily, we received little comfort packs from Jetstar with items like socks, a sleeping mask, lip balm, hand cream, blankets, etc. My favorite item was the earplugs - I've never used them before, but between those and my sleeping mask, I shut out the world and was out like a light. Poor Pickle wasn't so lucky. He ended up drugged, exhausted and awake as his head bobbled around most of the flight :( He was a trooper though, and he managed to sneak in several naps as we travelled around Oahu.
We got a cute little, red Fiat to cruise around the island. Our first stop (after Wal-Mart for beach towels and sunscreen) was Leonard's Malasadamobile, the food truck that brings Leonard's Bakery's famous malasadas to the masses. We tracked it down and ordered an Original, Li Hing (sweet and sour sugar), Dobash (chocolate filling) and Haupia (light coconut filling). We received another haupia instead of the chocolate by mistake, but they were all delicious. We scarfed them down with an American Starbucks coffee in the red holiday cup. Just to consolidate all of the food finds for the day, we (of course) hit up Foodland for lunch for poke bowls (which, per tradition, we ate in the parking lot), and we stopped by my favorite shave ice place, Waiola, for some sweet treats. Pickle had a sundae with milk ice and chocolate syrup, and I had the azuki bowl with milk ice, azuki beans and mochi balls.
Our main goal was to head up to North Shore to catch the last day of the Billabong Pipe Masters at Banzai Pipeline. We just happened to land on Oahu for the final day of this competition, which is the last of the Vans Triple Crown and the end of the WSL Men's World Tour. Because of the sharp reef, pipeline is one of the most dangerous waves on the planet. It's known as the Holy Grail of waves, and it was so cool to be able to watch professionals take it on. I've never been to Hawai'i in the winter before, which is when the waves are high, so I was stoked to get to witness this event. My photos don't do it justice at all - you can see, there were professionals out with HUGE telescopic lenses to catch the action. We made in time for the final heat, where Adriano De Souza took the win. Pickle enjoyed the surfing too, for a little while, and then slathered on the sunscreen and caught some Zzzzz's for a bit ;)
After Pipeline, we stuffed ourselves silly with poke at Foodland and then drove down to the Valley of the Temples. The drive into the Ko'olau Mountains is awe-inspiring. You travel quickly from a bright, sunshiney, happy island paradise to a misty, ominous drive back to a time that seems to pre-date humankind's rule of the planet . It's a very cool experience. The Valley of the Temples was uncrowded and serene. We drove up through various memorial sites and burial markers, passing a gang of cats who seemed to be the only (living) inhabitants of the area, and on to the Byodo-In Temple. This was nap time #2 for Pickle, where he reclined his seat for 20 minutes and caught up on some sleep while I looked through the photos I'd taken on my camera and kept watch for security. The temple is a non-practicing Buddhist temple and is a smaller-scale replica of the over 950-year-old Byodo-in Temple, a United Nations World Heritage Site in Uji, Japan. It was a beautiful site at the foot of the lush, green mountains and looked like some ancient structure that had been re-discovered.
After our visit to the temple, we swung by the original Waiola Shave ice, and headed back to the airport so Pickle could take nap #3 before boarding our next flight. Just 11 hours later, we landed in Kansas City! Tasks 1 and 2 were an extended nap (for Pickle) and a shower! We spent the evening catching up with Pickle's brother, Jason, our sis-in-law, Heather, and niece, Lillian. The following day, we grabbed lunch and headed over to Pickle's parents house for a great afternoon visit before hitting the Plaza to celebrate my father-in-law's birthday. The Plaza was beautiful, sparkling with lights for the holiday season. We had dinner at Houston's restaurant for the occasion, and it was amazing! My mother-in-law made one of her unique, cut-and-paste photo cards (she makes these custom cards with scanned photos and goofy images from the WWW that she prints, cuts out, and pastes together - they are seriously collectors items and are usually hilarious!) This was one of my favorites, as she found old photo strip pictures of herself and my father-in-law and used them for the front of the card - so cool. She'd asked me to create a photo collage mug for him so she could give it to him for a b-day present (we share an obsession with photos). It was a really nice evening to celebrate a wonderful person!
The next day was the big Hanukkah bash! Jason and Lillian spent the day prepping the kugel (the whole house smelled like you wanted to take a bite out of it!) while Pickle and I hit up some Target stores (yes, several Target stores, because you just can't get enough Target). Hanukkah is always at Pickle's aunt Laurie and uncle Vic's house, and it's always a blast! This year, there was an augmented theme, as Diane, my mother-in-law, had created a Hawai'i/Hanukkah hybrid! She went all out for Hawaiian Hanukkah, buying leis, table decorations, floral banners and even bought different types of Hawaiian macadamia nuts for the party...and when I say she bought Hawaiian mac nuts, I don't mean she went to the local grocery and bought Mauna Loa nuts...she actually ordered them and had them shipped from the ABC stores in Hawai'i! She is the sweetest - and the queen of online shopping! We even had an augmented playlist for our traditional sing-along this year, as Pickle's aunt Pam has been learning the ukulele...
The food was crazy good, as always. Pickle's uncle Vic makes a magical brisket and latkes with applesauce (and sour cream, for those who swing that way). The presents were abundant (thanks to my mother-in-law, who I believe is the patron saint of Hanukkah), and the gift exchange was a blast. We play the game where everyone draws a number and when it's your turn, you can either open a new gift or steal one from someone else. This year I stole a hoodie, Hanukkah socks, a beanie and candle from Pickle (who wouldn't have lost it if he'd been more willing to share the hoodie!) ;) Pickle was pretty pleased to capture a Pentatonix CD though that came with a pair of bluetooth headphones. Pickle's parents bought us a our first menorah since we got married this year - the shamash (middle candle that is used to light the others) is a table and umbrella and the 8 candle holders are beach chairs - so perfect! Diane also bought us the most unique and beautiful handmade wedding gift - a bowl with our names and wedding date stamped onto it with two little love birds perched on the rim. I love them! My father-in-law, Warren, who would surely medal in bargain hunting in any shopping Olympics, hunts deals all year to accumulate a Bag-o-Bargains for both of his sons and daughters-in-law...this is such an awesome tradition. He leaves the tags on so we can see what a steal he got on the merchandise and how many times it's been marked down - and it is seriously impressive. It's always so much fun unpacking our loot from the plastic shopping bags and reaping the rewards of Warren's retail victories!
While we have lots of lovely family photos from Hanukkah, I am a big fan of the silliness :) Here are some highlights in pics from this year's gathering...
My Kansas City visit ended the day after Hanukkah, as we wrapped up our Bag-o-Bargains fun and I said my goodbyes before departing for the airport. Since we had such limited time, we decided that in addition to visiting both families together, we would each spend some extended time with our respective fams. We had Hanukkah with the Sickels, spent Christmas apart, and celebrated New Year's Eve with the Smiths. Pickel got in a lot of quality time during his stay in K.C., and managed to tick a lot of items off of his American To-Do list as well. Here's his list along with photographic evidence of achievements...
In the meantime, I was psyched to finally see my sis and brother-in-laws' house (which was, by the way, AMAZING!!!!) They just had it built this past year, moved in about 3 months ago, and have done a TON of work decorating and customizing their new digs. And It. Is. Beautiful!! I'm SO happy for them - and I'm pretty pumped for myself that I get to visit ;) Not only had they furnished and decorated all of the rooms, but they even decked it out for Christmas, including two full-size trees, one for their downstairs living room and another for their upstairs! They've been working their bums off the past few months, and it was SO apparent when we walked in! I wish I'd taken photos with my camera while I was there, but my sis sent me these from her phone...
Once of the first places we went was to Gruene in New Braunfels, Texas. It was such a cute and quaint area! They had this entire neighborhood of dwarf-sized Southern mansions. It was so crazy. We thought maybe it was a high-end retirement community, but we were told there were no age restrictions on who could live there. I wish I had photos - it was pretty cool. I did take some shots around the shopping village though. There were lots of very bedazzle-y hats, boots, jewelry, etc. and some fun vintage stuff and Texas goodies at the General Store. I snagged some Mexican cola and spicy ginger beer at a gelato and soup shop, and we ate out on an expansive deck overlooking the Guadalupe river at a beautiful restaurant called the Gristmill.
Before our visit, I noted that I REALLY wanted a Cuban sandwich when I came back to the states. My sis and I both separately found Ocho and their acclaimed Cubano. We went, we saw, and we ate it up! The restaurant itself was one of my favorites that we went to - I loved the style and the colors and the view was great!
Another culinary find was Lüke's, where we were served free beignets before our meal. These beignets were legit - better than Cafe Du Monde, no contest! My sis ordered some stone fruit compote (which was delish), but I couldn't wait and just sopped up the warm local honey with mine. I just drooled on my keyboard a little... We were there for the brunch. Not really the whole menu, but one specific dish that Kerry and Brad had already trialed - the chicken friend Bandera quail with Belgian waffles, Texas pecan butter and local honey. The quail was definitely the best part, only because after those beignets, even the most amazing waffle is going to be a distance runner-up.
Christmas morning came and began with morning selfies for some reason :) With all of the traveling costs (and all that Kerry and Brad bought in preparation for our arrival...new pillows, linens, towels, etc.; we basically all received gift baskets with every luxury toiletry item you could think of, including adorable fuzzy animal socks for my mom and I, and they bought heaps of groceries for our stay, including endless Pirate Booty cheesy poofs for me), we didn't do gifts. My mom has always bought Clinique makeup though, and, since we were kids, she's always given us the free makeup bags filled with samples at the holidays. It's turned into a fun tradition, and she didn't skip it this year. We had our traditional orange-glazed cinnamon rolls for Christmas breakfast. My sis and I made her mind-blowing monkey bread recipe. We spent the day chilling and watched Christmas movies in our jammies. We called Mimi and Skyped with my dad's side of the family, who were gathered at my Uncle Chris and Aunt Christine's house.
Pickle arrived after some drama with the weather (he was delayed at K.C. because the power went out, then his flight to Houston was diverted to San Antonio due to storms. They were supposed to refuel and fly back to Houston (so he could then fly back to San Antonio), but, luckily, they sat on the runway for so long, they eventually just had everyone de-board the plane. Pickle and I provided Christmas pudding from Oz, which we had to save until Pickle arrived because he "wanted to see everyone's reaction" (he is not a fan and is baffled that anyone could truly like, and not simply, tolerate, the dessert). It's supposedly "40% fruit and a dash of brandy", but by our analysis, it's 70% fruit, 28% brandy and 2% unknown binding ingredient. No one liked it - not even my dad, who will eat pretty much anything. Once Pickle arrived, I gave him his Christmas present. I had brought our marriage license and all of my necessary documents and officially changed my last name once got to Texas (not something you can do easily from Australia), so I surprised him with a copy of my new Social Security Card receipt in his Christmas card, and I made him his favorite cake. He always told me about his favorite cake that his grandma Sickel used to make for him, so I made it once as a birthday surprise when we were living in Ohio. I can't make it in Australia, unfortunately because we don't have all the ingredients, but the Texas version turned out to be pretty successful! After Pickle arrived, we also received our "First Married Christmas" ornaments from my parents too - they are great keepsakes! Pickle and I also received a "World Traveller" ornament and Ohio ornament, and Kerry and Brad got a Texas boot and new house ornament to start our collections.
One day, we decided to head out to Fredericksburg wine country. Kerry picked out a winery (there were SO many!) for us to check out. We went to Grape Creek Vineyards. The grounds were really pretty. Pickle and I know next to nothing about wine, but we went for the "sweet" list. Pickle had Cabernet Blanc, for which it was noted that "the nuances of wild berries, loganberries, strawberries and hints of honeysuckle are unmistakable". I had Muscat Canelli, a "dessert-style" wine (all I needed to see). It was noted that "this sensual and exotic wine exhibits strong aromas of lemon grass and orange zest and pairs well with fresh fruits, fruit sorbets and lemon tarts". I don't know about all that, but I didn't have breakfast and my little glass of wine left my extremities a little tingly and my eyelids pretty heavy! After our winery experience, we went in to town for lunch and to check out the shops. They had all kinds of trinket shops and boutiques, including some candy stores, and my mom was tickled to find a chocolate covered frozen banana at one of the fudge shops that brought her back to her childhood.
Another very cool place we visited was Pearl Brewery. It's not just one brewery, but an entire area of shops and restaurants. We put our name in for lunch at Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery and then hit up Bakery Lorraine for a box of macaron appetizers to share. The brewing company where we ate was a stunning building with a beautiful hotel attached to it. We wandered around awhile after eating just looking at all of the interesting nooks. After browsing around the shops a bit, we ended our day at Lick, a fun and funky ice cream shop. I've tried some out-of-the-orindary ice cream flavors before - some hits and some misses. All the flavors we ordered at Lick were hits! Pickle had the coconut peppermint patty and plum jam and gin cake, and orange chocolate. I had the roasted beets and fresh mint, goat cheese, thyme and honey, and the dark chocolate with olive oil and sea salt.
One of my favorite places we visited was El Mercado. The historic market square was bright and colorful and full of interesting things to look at and eat. The first time we went, they had singers performing, caricature artists and vendors outside selling their wares. We went back so Pickle could experience it too and visited the indoor shops. They sell everything from piñatas, Christmas ornaments and lawn decorations to jewelry, pottery and accordions. My very favorite items were the calacas - the skeleton figures used to celebrate Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico. I bought an awesome shadow box with calacas and an alter as a souvenir from our trip.
One of my other favorite places was the Riverwalk. We went down in the evening and it was such a cool vibe with the colorful umbrellas and the Christmas lights reflecting in the river from the trees and the tour boats. We went to take my mom out for her celebratory retirement dinner, as she just completed 27 years with the government!! We went for Italian at Zocca at the Westin and had them surprise her with a special dessert of tiramisu and chocolate covered strawberries. Afterwards, we took my parents to Howl at the Moon piano bar. They really enjoyed it, and they even took their Jell-O shots we bought them ;)
We rang in the New Year with...you guessed it...food and family! It was great :) Kerry and Brad provided fun photo props, so we had a good time with those. Then we prepared and destroyed a smorgasbord of shrimp cups, spinach rolls (both my requests), strawberry pretzel salad and meatballs (both Pickle's requests...well, the meatballs were supposed to be my mom's meatloaf, but he missed dinner the night he arrived when we'd planned to have his special meatloaf night, so his meal was repurposed a bit), guacamole, and buffalo chicken dip. My mom made her homemade hot fudge (not too sweet and super thick) for ice cream sundaes too! We had a typically hilarious and inappropriate Smith family game night, playing the Game of Things in which one person draws a card with a prompt like "Things you should never text", everyone writes and answer, and you go around trying to guess who wrote what. We all dragged my sweet mom down to our level, making her say horrible things when she was the reader (though eventually she started writing them of her own volition) and laughed until we cried.
All week long, we'd passed stand after stand of Fireworks in every neighborhood, and at midnight, we walked outside and watched them all explode. It was amazing - like the every house in the city was hosting a professional fireworks display...things went on for over a half hour at this pace!
It was a memorable trip home and had a fantastic time with our families. 2015 has been a pretty amazing year for us. We celebrated the new year in Sydney, Australia after having just moved across the world to become residents of a foreign country. We started new jobs and found a new car and apartment across from the beach. We've been all over Sydney, exploring different cultures through food and art (and encountering interesting animals). We travelled to Mexico for Kerry and Brad's beautiful resort wedding and made lasting memories with new family. We planned an amazing adventure in Hawai'i to celebrate our own marriage and then stayed for an action-packed honeymoon of our dreams. We wrapped up the year with family at the holidays, and we're starting 2016 out as The Sickels! 2015 has been a whirlwind of a year, and I am SO grateful for all that we've experienced. Wishing you a bright and optimistic start to 2016 and much happiness on your upcoming adventures!
peanut butter chips, mint chips, cream cheese icing, etc.) or I don't have the equipment (stand mixer, electric beaters) to make my own, so...this is what we ended up with. We heated it up and ate it with vanilla ice cream - it was tasty, but it was preeeeeeetty rich...definitely richer than what our Aussie friends are accustomed to. I brought chocolate peanut butter pie to our last get-together...I never give the impression that Americans take dessert "lightly".
Last week was also our School of Education "retreat". (It's called a retreat, but it's really a day-long school meeting...it's sort of like being "invited" to a (compulsory inservice) "party"). This one did end with Christmas festivities though! We were asked to sign up for teams prior to the day, so we joined up with a reindeer gang. We thought we'd lead the pack at representing our theme, as one of our teammates bought gold and silver antlers for us and I made up some name badges, but people brought some serious Christmas A-game to the event. We were beat out by the "tinsels" for best representation of theme, but there was also a tree decorating contest in which each team dressed up a member as their Christmas tree. Afterward (I think this was a last-minute mandate by the MC), the tree had to sing a song for everyone prior to the vote. Pickle sang the dreidel song...unfortunately, the joke didn't really land, as no one knew the song, nor did they seem to recognize what the heck the American was singing about...until he paused and finished with "I'm Jewish"...that got quite the laugh! Our little Jewish Christmas tree stole the show and won us the contest! ;)
This week, we headed out to the CBD to check out the holiday happenings. Our first stop was Santa Fest at Darling Harbour. We went on Saturday evening in order to catch a flick at the Open Air Cinema - "The Year Without A Santa Claus". If you're not familiar with this one, it's one of the good old fashioned stop motion animation pics (like Rudolph and Jack Frost). The stars of the movie is by far the two Miser brothers,
We've actually had a little (welcome) cold snap this weekend - after hovering in the 90's a few days, we had to don our jumpers (hoodies) last night...we didn't complain. It was a little grey in the evening, which reminded us of Ohio, but once the sun set, it didn't matter.
Besides the Open Air Christmas-themed Cinema, Santa Fest boasted a seven-metre-high crate Santa...
A statue of Joan Rivers dressed as Santa...
...a Santa Maze...
...and a pretty spectacular fireworks show over Cockle Bay at the end of the night.
The next day, we hopped the train to the CBD to check out the holiday happenings there. The Queen Victoria Building is beautiful on any day, with its stained glass, ornate railings, beautiful clocks and grand arches, but it's particularly stunning this Christmas season. Thousands of lights adorn the railings and a huge rose-covered dome covers the dramatic fairy-guarded Santa house. The highlight of the decor is the three-story Swarovski Christmas tree. It weighs 6.5 tonnes and boasts 65,150 lights and 82,000 Swarovski crystals!
After our visit to the QVB, we scored some pork dumplings, noodles with spicy peanut sauce, and a lychee mint freeze at Din Tai Fung for dinner and walked around sight seeing a bit before heading to Martin Place to see the huge tree. We hit up Max Brenner's Chocolate Bar for chocolate souflé and ice cream before coming back to catch the illuminations.
The Martin place tree is interactive: you can text or tweet your holiday greeting to have it displayed on the ribbon...
There are digital light projections on the Martin Place buildings as well. We watched the on the Sydney General Post Office (clock tower building) before heading through the Boulevard of Light and on to St. Mary's Cathedral.
We took some video so you can see the projections in motion. This is the General Post Office...
...and here is St. Mary's Cathedral...
We've had a good time getting geared up for the holidays here in Sydney, but we're counting down to some serious family fun this week, as we head back to the States Thursday for a day-long layover in Honolulu, Hanukkah in Kansas City, and Christmas & New Years Eve in San Antonio. We're so pumped to be headed back home for a couple weeks. Wishing you happy holidays!
This past week was Thanksgiving back home. While Australia obviously doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving, Pickle and I thought we should observe the holiday ourselves (read: we identified a reason to splurge on amazing food and eat (arguably) too much of it). We decided to hit up one of our favorite local places, The Grounds (we've been there a few times - once at Easter...they have the fun and tasty deconstructed coffee drinks). Instead of The Café, we chose to check out The Potting Shed this time. This place has seriously whimsical ambiance...
For dessert, I doubled down on the Aussie theme and ordered pavlova, which is a traditional Aussie dessert consisting of a giant meringue puff, fresh fruit (in this case, poached pear and berries), and cream - no Cool Whip here...they have this amazing thickened cream that's like 35% fat and doubly amazing double cream, which is 48-60% fat...so you can feel super healthy for avoiding all those chemicals and preservatives ;) Pickle ended his meal with an American-esque concoction of salted caramel popcorn and peanut butter ice cream in a waffle cone with chocolate brownie and jam served in a little pale. It was an an amazing, coma-inducing meal...just like home (but not at all like home).
I'm glad for all this year has brought us in terms of learning to focus on the positives and better appreciate things we took for granted back home. It's easy to get caught up with work and daily stresses sometimes, and it's important to stop and recognize just how fortunate we've been. Pickle shot this little video the other day just coming back from getting a haircut so he could show our families where our apartment is located...
Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. I used to have a massive haul of Halloween decorations which I would use to decorate my bedroom - I had major lighting effects ( a strobe, black light, lava lamp, plasma lightning ball), a full scale glow in the dark skeletons and a very cool blacklight sensitive skull, tombstones, spiderwebs, eyeballs - I even had a fog machine. I cut out paper ghosts and string them to the blades of my ceiling fan and set it on low so they'd fly around the room. When I went away to college, I decked out my dorm room for the holiday - and then my hallway when I worked as an RA. When I was a band director, I threw a Halloween party for my HS band kids at the school one year and used all the same decor. I LOVE Halloween. I love the haunted houses, the costumes, the scary stories and local legends. It is the most creative holiday - you can be whatever you want to be, and the whole thing is like a pass from reality.
Pickle was never the biggest Halloween lover (not much into costumes or being scared...though he is a big fan of the candy!), but he has definitely gotten on board with more of the holiday since we've been together. One of the first activities we actually did when we started dating was carve jack-o-lanterns, and we've held up the tradition every year since. Though Halloween is not NEARLY as big a deal here in Australia as it is in the US, we managed to call around and locate 2 "Halloween" pumpkins from a Woolies near our campus. They reserved them for us, as they were the only ones they had, and when we picked them up, they garnered a lot of attention. The sweet old man behind me in line noted that I could make a LOT of pumpkin soup with my purchase. We didn't have pumpkin soup, but we had the only jack-o-lanters I've seen this entire season...
Since we bought a pack of tea lights and a lighter, we also grabbed some marshmallows (we couldn't find plain ones, so we just picked them out of a mixed bag with raspberry flavored mallows), chocolate (no Hershey here, so we had to go fancy), and, since we don't have graham crackers in Australia, we picked up some not-too-sweet-but-not-savory (i.e., cookie-ish) biscuits. (This is our dilemma every time we try to cook/bake anything here, by the way.) We made ourselves a little table-top "bonfire", put our takeaway chopstick stash to good use and had some s'mores.
Luna Park was having a two-night Hallowscream event, so we bought tickets and went all in with the face painting. Pickle was a trooper, and he actually ended up really digging our costumes. I didn't let him see his face until I was finished, and when he looked in the mirror, he was pretty stunned....he kept going back to the bedroom to stare at himself! The Hallowscream event itself was more of a spectacle to see than anything. The entrance to Luna Park - a gigantic looming clown face - is horrifying enough during the day, let alone at night with special lighting, fog and demented carnival music. The park was constructed in 1935 and is located on the water down by the Harbour bridge. This is no big corporate theme park - in fact, it looks like not much has been updated since 1935, which is not so thrilling in terms of rides and attractions, but is awesome when you're going for the whole haunted carnival effect. (Picture an entire theme park built around the Zoltar machine from the movie "Big".) The place has quite the history, as it's been shut down and reopened numerous times. In 1979, a ride called the Ghost Train caught fire and the bodies of 6 children and 1 adult were found in the rubble. In 1980, everything that couldn't be sold at auction (besides the Face at the entrance and the two oldest sections built in 1935, Crystal Palace and Coney Island), were bulldozed and burnt to the ground in order to rebuild. These still remain in the park today. It's one of two amusement parks in the world to be protected by government legislation. The venue's history definitely lent an aire of authenticity to the haunted old amusement park vibe!
The pics from the park aren't all the greatest, as we had to use the Pickle's iPhone and it doesn't always fare well in low light situations. We took some at home in costume though, and I had some fun with photo editing...
It was a certainly a Happy Halloween here in Sydney!
It's been awhile...we've been in flat out work mode lately, and there's not been much time to update (and, to be honest, not much to update about - I actually took 2 flex days off of work last week just to stay home and work all day in my PJs instead of getting dressed and going to the office!). We're trying to squeeze some fun in this week though, so as not to let Halloween pass us by, so I thought I'd get caught up a bit with a post now...
Before all the work set in, we made it out to Sydney's first ever Food Truck Jam. It was a caravan of deliciousness in the Entertainment Quarter! They had the best food trucks from all over Sydney and the place was packed. Luckily, we went somewhat early - the lines were dramatic, and when we left, there were hordes of people waiting just to get into the event...only to then wait in long lines for food once they were granted entry. There was a great vibe though. They had a live DJ and a great variety of scrumptious snacking options for any craving.
Pickle had eaten a bit before we left in order to boost his stamina for the wait time. (He has learned from experience that when he's hungry and forced to wait in line for food, his patience runs low. Coupling that with the fact that I always want to try whatever is at the end of the longest lines - because that's obviously the best food - can yield a perfect storm for a hangry meltdown.) He was armed for success this time, but I have to admit that I found the longest lines a bit daunting myself, so we devised a plan to divide an conquer. I procured a place in line for Knafeh; he snagged a spot for Tella Ball (the two most acclaimed stands and clearly the longest lines at the park), and we met what seemed like an hour later to share our fare. The Knafeh stand was hoppin' and the "bearded bakers" were in full swing, jammin' out as they served up their Jerusalem street food. They created such a fun atmosphere that you really didn't mind the wait - in fact, you were a little sad to leave the party once you got your order! Knafeh is a mobile bakery that operates out of a shipping container adorned with street art. The siblings were serving just two items: Moroccan tea and their mamma's knafeh recipe - just the knafeh was enough to generate the longest queue in a park full of food trucks offering countless dishes! Knafeh is a Middle Eastern sweet cheese dessert, topped with crushed pistachios and soaked in sugar syrup. This particular version is lighter and creamier than most and is topped with a crunchy crust of semolina before the pistachios and sugar syrup top it off.
We just couldn't get on board with another line for savory stuff, so we headed back to our neighborhood and hit up the sushi train instead! This was our last weekend out for a little while, as a wave of work swept in, but we made it out again this past weekend for a graduation party for our friend and colleague, Karin.
Karin's grad party was so her...it was at her house, which was like some sort of "Mad Hatter's Tea Party" (to use her words) - this mystical, shabby-chic fairyland in the Blue Mountains, there was a separate art studio down by the uniquely natural looking pool, antique furniture set all around the yard, chandeliers in the trees, and a trampoline (which I was only able to sneak off and play on for a quick minute before the kids came back for it again). This grad party came complete with several different musical talents, including the Sydney New Orleans Jazz Band, belly dancers and an Egyptian feast of whole lamb and rice, hummus, pita and tabouleh.
Here's a little taste of the amazing Sydney New Orleans Jazz Band...
It was a great reason to push pause on all the work and enjoy the afternoon!