Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Old Country

It’s been over two years since I’ve been back to the US for a visit, and in that time I’ve made the most of my vacation days traveling all across Australia and even to China.  As much as I’d like to use all of my vacation days going somewhere new (I’ve yet to see Queensland and Southeast Asia is a quick flight from here…), I can’t deny that the time has come for me to venture back to the old country for a visit.

I can’t think of a moment when I’ve been homesick (other than when I’ve had some rancid Mexican food), but getting to spend some quality time with Della & Eric last month got me missing all of my friends and family back home.  I’ve missed out on some important milestones and events that it would have been nice to be around for – either to celebrate or help – like babies being born, couples breaking up, people getting new jobs, weddings (especially John’s which I was super sad that I missed when looking at all of the pictures online but the timing just was heinous for work), and of course, the launch of the Doritos taco shell at Taco Bell.

Just kidding!  I don’t eat at Taco Bell.  Mainly because I’m not poor.  Or that drunk.  Ever.

So, in a valiant attempt to make it up to everyone, I decided that a grand tour around North America was the way to go.  Trying to visit everyone is hard, especially when I have friends scattered about the country, but I’ve locked in visits to cities coast-to-coast and have nearly every day of my 25 days in North America all planned out so that I can maximize my visitation with everyone.

Did I also mention that I’m going to maximize my shopping?  Yeah.  It’s been well over two years since I’ve had a proper shopping expedition because clothes (and most other things) are just so damn expensive here.  I’ll be purchasing a whole new wardrobe at a third of the cost.  And the exchange rate just hit $1 AUD to $1.03 USD today so that takes care of that 3% credit card surcharge they tack on for the foreign currency transaction.  Woohoo!

New York.  Montreal.  Toronto.  Miami/Fort Lauderdale.  Houston.  Dallas/Fort Worth.  Seattle.  Los Angeles.

25 days.  12 airports.  8 cities.  7 states and provinces.  6 airlines.  2 countries.  1 really tired Phill.

And it is going to be FANTASTIC!

Phill’s North American Tour takes off Friday morning.  And I’ll do my best to blog while I’m over there (though really, most of you reading this will be seeing me in person anyway.)


Sunday, July 15, 2012


My top travel buddies – Cade, Michael, and Vince – and I decided to head out for the weekend to explore some new territory.  Our destination:  Newcastle!

Situated 160km north of Sydney, Newcastle is the second largest city in New South Wales.  With a metropolitan area population of approximately 540,000, it is the seventh largest city in all of Australia.  I had received many mixed reviews on Newcastle, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  First settled in 1797, Newcastle’s discovery was somewhat accidental – a ship searching for some escaped convicts wandered up the Hunter River where they stumbled upon a deep port and an abundance of coal.  They set up shop and called for the vilest of criminals from Sydney to help mine the resources.  Those most dangerous of criminals gave Newcastle a rough image.  With the coal industry still going strong (Newcastle currently reigns as the largest coal export port in the world), that rough image remains.

On the flip side, Newcastle is balanced out by a large university with 30,000+ students and all the perks that come with having a large, young, educated population in the city.  Lonely Planet named Newcastle one of the top 10 cities (in the world) for 2011 due to its great surf beaches, subtropical climate, diverse dining, nightlife, and the arts.  Indeed, we found all of these things in Newcastle, though I’m not entirely convinced that Newcastle should be ahead of Sydney in any list.

We started our Newcastle weekend off with a walk down Darby Street – Newcastle’s main drag for funky cafes, restaurants, galleries, and boutiques:

The Archibald Prize – an annual portrait contest sponsored by the Art Galley of New South Wales in Sydney – was on tour at the Newcastle Art Gallery.  Seeing as all four of us had missed it in Sydney this year, we decided to pop in and check it out.

Along the riverfront, the city has been redeveloping to include apartments, offices, and a plethora of restaurants and bars.  There are also a smattering of museums and a few pieces of public art.

The next day, we drove the five minutes over to Newcastle’s famous beaches for brunch and a walk along the coast.

Newcastle’s famous Ocean Baths are massive saltwater pools built along the shore over 100 years ago.

Nobby’s Head sits at the mouth of the Hunter River with its lighthouse on top. 

Originally an island, the small channel between Nobby’s Head and the mainland was perilous for ships.  After a few shipwrecks, and after the realization that the height of Nobby’s Head was obstructing wind for ships’ sails, the government decided to connect the island to the mainland and lower its height by about half.  The result:  a much safer passage for ships going around the other side of the island and views of the city that still look good despite its lower stature.

At the former tip of the mainland where Nobby’s Head is now connected sits Fort Scratchley – opened in 1882 to protect Newcastle from a potential Russian invasion around the time of the Crimean War.

Giant, rotating cannons were aimed at both the sea and the river to protect the city from intruder ships.  Some of these cannons were able to shoot up to 13km away.

The only time that the fort was put to the test was during World War II, when a Japanese submarine started firing on Newcastle.  The fort shot back, missing the submarine (ooops!)  Luckily, nobody in the Australian mainland was injured.

The best part of Newcastle, however, was our Saturday night.  We headed over to trendy Beaumont Street for dinner, drinks, and dancing.  Home to Newcastle’s first arrivals of Italian and Greek immigrants, the neighbourhood largely maintains its strong Mediterranean culinary traditions but throws in some cheapo Thai, Indian, and other options as well.  It’s also home to a lively pub scene and Newcastle’s two gay bars.

Oh yes.  Newcastle has gay bars.  And two of them at that!

After our dismal yet hilarious experience at Flamingo’s in Hobart a few months ago, we were expecting the worst for our night out on the town in this small city.  We started off at “The G” – the Gateway Hotel.  We entered to what I can only describe as something along the lines of the Island of Misfit Toys.  But we kept it classy…

It was karaoke night, so we ponied up to a table and started throwing back a few beers and mixed drinks to cope with the awful singing, the awful hair, the awful clothes, and the awful old (60-something maybe?) straight guy on the dance floor who was very obviously putting his hands under this old woman’s sweater to feel her saggy breasts.   God save us.

We decided that shots were in order, but the semi-cute bartender (surprise!) very politely told us that shots are not available in Newcastle as it is against city ordinance.

Oh my god where are we???

Despite the awfulness around us, everyone seemed to be having a really good time, so we couldn’t help but actually enjoy the atmosphere and sing along to some of the better songs (or sing along loudly to drown out a few of the singers).  It was also awesome because it confirmed for me that, while I may be 99% tone deaf, I am far better than the average person at The G.

After that, we headed over to Unity, Newcastle’s other gay bar.  We entered hesitantly to find thumping music, a crowded dance floor, people actually dressed up nicely, and a drag queen and shirtless dancers on stage (imported from Sydney!)  This actually was… a good gay club.  They even had disco balls, laser lights, and smoke machines!  No scary bogans trying to sing power ballads off key.  No “Body Heat Men” dancing to Grease Lightning like we encountered in Hobart.  And most importantly, no old straight couples getting frisky on the floor. 

Thank god.

After a few more rounds of drinks and a good run of dancing, we decided to retire to our hotel (after a 3am stop for some greasy food to prevent a hangover).  Is it actually possible that I – the one who is always the first to leave and always in bed by midnight – stayed out later in Newcastle than I have over the past few months in happening Sydney?  

Bravo, Newcastle.  Bravo.

All Newcastle needs now is about 2 – 4 million more people and I might consider moving there.  Until that happens, I actually wouldn’t mind going back for another weekend away.

Who knew?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Who Wears Short Shorts?

Aussies love their sports – and they are really good at them too.  Australia consistently wins a disproportionately large number of medals for its population size at the Summer Olympics – putting the US to shame.  League sports are also huge in Australia despite its comparatively meager population.  The funny thing is:  none of the sports really overlap at all with the US.  North America’s big four are (American) football, baseball, basketball, and hockey – and maybe soccer is fifth nowadays.  In Australia, it’s rugby league, Aussie rules football, rugby union, and cricket – with soccer as fifth here too.  There’s also this thing called netball which appears to be just like basketball but without the backboard.  WTF?

If you know me, you know that I’m an avid sports fan.  And by “avid sports fan”, I mean that I generally try to watch the gymnastics and swimming at the Summer Olympics, and the figure skating at the Winter Olympics.  And that’s pretty much it.  But, I have been to a handful of baseball games, and one game each for football, basketball, and soccer.  So, while in Australia, I decided I’d give the local sports a go and attend a game or two.  First stop:  NRL – National Rugby League.

Rugby league is one of two codes of rugby football played internationally.  While it is generally not as popular internationally as the other code – rugby union – it is massively popular here in Australia.  What’s amazing about the leagues here:  they are segregated geographically.  Rugby league is massive in Sydney – 8 of the 16 teams in the league are from the Sydney region – with two other teams in the state, three up in Queensland, and one each from Melbourne, Auckland, and Canberra.  On the flip side, Aussie rules football is insanely popular in Melbourne, and half of that league’s teams hail from that metropolitan area.  Can you imagine if the NFL had half of its teams based in New York?  Each borough and most suburbs would have their own football team with the remainder of the teams scattered about the country in a few select places.  It would be ridiculous.  But it works in Australia.  Who knew?

Also a bit strange:  the term “footy”.  As I have mentioned before, Aussies love the diminutive form of words, and are a bit lazy with pronouncing all syllables.  So, footy is a good shortened form of football, but which type of football?  In Sydney, people say footy when talking about rugby league.  In Melbourne, people say footy when talking about Aussie rules football.  I think some people also use the term footy to refer to rugby union or soccer.  It’s very confusing.

Coming from a culture that is focused on American football, watching a rugby league game was actually a breath of fresh air.  Now, I won’t go into all of the rules of the game, but at first glance, it seems a hell of a lot easier to follow than American football.  The game is 80 minutes long and played in two halves of 40 minutes each.  There are no time-outs and the clock keeps running during each 40 minute half (unless maybe someone gets seriously hurt, but generally, they won’t stop for anything).  So, when the game starts at 3pm, you know exactly what time it will finish.  None of these extended time-outs or commercial breaks.

The field is rectangular and slightly larger than an American football field.  In rugby, you run the ball forward but can only pass it back.  Similar to football, the object is to make it past the competing team’s goal line with the ball and touch it to the ground.  This is their version of a touchdown and is called a “try”.  It is worth 4 points.  A kick for a conversion is worth 2 additional points after a try.  There are also field goals worth 1 point if the team doesn’t think they are going to be able to score a try but they are close enough to the goal to kick it in.

Similar to the concept of downs in American football, rugby league allows six attempts for the attacking (offensive) team to score a try.  If after six tackles, the attacking team hasn’t scored a try, possession of the ball switches sides.  After the fifth tackle, the attacking team usually just kicks the ball far down the field so that the opposing team has farther to run when they get possession of the ball.  There are penalties, but there seem to be fewer of them and none of them are game stopping, so I’ve just ignored them.

Speaking of tackling, the game is rough.  Super rough.  Players wear what look like polo-type shirts and “footy shorts” – which are short shorts which show off footy players’ masculine and powerful legs.  Footy shorts are often a big fantasy for many women and gay men in Australia.  Lacking from the attire:  padding.  They don’t wear padding.  None at all.  Nada.  Zip.  Zilch.  Because wearing protective padding wouldn’t be very masculine, now would it?  Can you imagine NFL players walking out onto the field with no padding on at all?  The field would look VERY different.  Now, the lack of padding leads to some pretty serious injuries.

My first NRL game was last year with my mates David and Glen.  It was the semi-finals and local team the Manly Sea Eagles were playing the Brisbane Broncos.

The Broncos didn’t stand a chance as they were missing their best player because he had broken his face in a previous game.

Let me repeat that.


They don’t wear helmets either, so I reckon your face can get pretty fucked up.  To risk breaking your face just to play rugby – well, it just doesn’t sound worth it.  Which is why I play Scrabble instead.  There is no face-breaking in Scrabble unless something goes horribly, horribly wrong.

For my second NRL experience, I decided to take Della & Eric when they were here from the States in June.  As big football fans, I thought they may appreciate the closest thing to it that Australia has to offer.

This time it was my home team – the Sydney Roosters (go cocks!) vs the Brisbane Broncos (again – meh).  The crowd gathered despite the pouring rain, though nearly everyone huddled together into the covered section higher up in the stands.  But despite the rain, the players were still out sporting their skimpy outfits.  My question to you:  who wears short shorts?

They do!

Aussie rules football players actually wear what appear to be SHORTER shorts and singlets (tank tops).  Also, rugby players are generally really meaty and very muscular (gross) whereas Aussie rules football players are generally more delicious – I mean trim and lean!  Who said that?

I really need to get to an Aussie rules match next.

You know, because I love sport…

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tim Tam Slam

Australia may not be world renowned for its culinary achievements (yet), but there is one delicious food item that Australia has gifted to the world:  the Tim Tam!

The Tim Tam is to Australia what the Oreo is to the USA:  the most popular packaged cookie/biscuit and an iconic brand.  Invented in 1958 by Arnott’s – a large Australian biscuit company – the Tim Tam is actually named after the horse that won the 1958 Kentucky Derby, which in turn was named after a dog.  I shit you not.

The original Tim Tam consists of a layer of chocolate cream filling sandwiched between two chocolate biscuits, then covered with a thin layer of milk chocolate.

Other staple varieties include Classic Dark Chocolate, White Chocolate, Chewy Caramel, and Double Coat (which has extra chocolate around the outside!)  Other varieties come and go, and there’s always a handful of fun flavours to choose from at any time.  Currently, Tim Tam has their “Sweet Wishes” line of flavours which includes Double Chocolate Caramel, Honeycomb, and Turkish Delight, and a separate dark chocolate range including Mint, Rum & Raisin, and another Classic Dark which might be the same as the normal Classic Dark but with different packaging.  I’ll have to buy a pack of each to find out.

Now, I’ve been eating Tim Tams since I arrived in Australia, because, you know, why not?  During the month of June, however, I probably doubled or tripled my lifetime Tim Tam intake.  Why?  Because Della and Eric were here.  And Della and Eric took a liking to the Tim Tams.  So, we bought a bunch of varieties and ate them over the three weekends they were in town.

To be honest (and please don’t hurt me, Aussies!), Tim Tams are good, but they aren’t all that and a bag of pretzels, though I do like them better than Oreos.  Arnott’s has two other cookies that I prefer:  the Mint Slice and the Caramel Crown (two varieties of circular cookies that are also chocolate coated).

But Tim Tams do have one thing that makes them stand out:  the Tim Tam Slam!  The Tim Tam Slam, for me, is the only way to eat a Tim Tam.  It’s done like this:  Prepare a hot beverage of your choice, either tea, coffee, hot chocolate, or whatever you heart desires.

Bite off two opposite corners of the Tim Tam so you can see a little bit of the interior of the cookie.

Then place one end of the cookie into your hot beverage.  Quickly – very quickly – suck the opposite end of the cookie as if it were a straw.  The liquid will come all the way through the cookie.  The heat will collapse the cookie’s internal structure and the outer chocolate coating will also begin to melt, so as soon as you can taste the liquid, shove the whole cookie in your mouth.  If you don’t, it will break apart and fall into your drink.  When complete, your fingers should be all gooey with the melted chocolate coating, so lick them up.  Yummy!

Having a hard time contemplating how this works?  Let us show you!  The first video features Della doing a Tim Tam Slam with me narrating, and second video features yours truly doing a Tim Tam Slam with Eric narrating.

Tim Tams comes in pack of eleven – a random number.

But I suppose that rigorous scientific testing showed that a twelfth cookie might wear out the ladies…

And men!  Don’t forget the men!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Australian Museum

The Australian Museum is the oldest museum in the country, founded in 1827.  The museum is centrally located... right across the street from my apartment.  Amazingly, I hadn’t actually been until Della and Eric came to visit.  It made the perfect rainy day activity.

The museum specializes in natural history and anthropology and focuses on all things Australian, though not exclusively.  So, if you don’t like to nerd out now and again, you might as well quit reading.  If you’re a nerd like me, read on, and then go visit for yourself (though you probably have already, right?)

We started off downstairs with an impressive collection of skeletons, including a sei whale:

And a man riding a horse:

They also had little tiny animal skeletons like mice and all of the Aussie favourites, but most were behind glass so I didn’t grab any photos.

The mineral section looked completely boring at first glance, but as I started reading the captions, I was quickly pulled in.  The minerals section takes you across Australia to showcase all of the minerals that the country has to offer in geographical sequence.  It also throws in some history about mining towns in the outback.  I’m going to need to plan a road trip out there soon.  There was also a separate room which featured one man’s collection of minerals from Australia and all over the world.  Some of the specimens on display were gorgeous, including this crocoite from Tasmania.

There was a room full of birds and insects – a taxidermist’s heaven.  The room started off with owls – the mascot of our university – so Della and Eric had to pose:

But the excitement sort of sputtered out from there as we realized we were getting short on time and a collection of stuffed birds was probably the least exciting thing on offer.

So, we headed to the dinosaur display.  This photo sort of makes it look like these two dinos were doing something dirty.

But I digress.  The dinosaur exhibit gave a good, brief synopsis of the history of the Earth and the events that brought down the dinosaurs.  It also focused more so on Gondwanaland and how Australia split apart from the other continents.  After that was a section called “Surviving Australia” which featured all manner of creature.  Replicas of giant wombats and other prehistoric marsupials dominated the first part of the exhibit, but it later went into urban dwellers, sea creatures, and all of the other species that survive the tough conditions in Australia.  There was also a section devoted to recently extinct, endangered, and vulnerable species like this one:

The quokka is my favourite Aussie animal, and if anybody threatens its survival, they are going to have to deal with my wrath.  And I can be a bitch with some mean wrath.  Don’t mess with me or my quokkas.

Finally, back on the ground level was a section devoted to Indigenous Australians – both mainland Aboriginal people and the Torres Strait Islanders.

I thought the exhibit was well presented – starting with cultural and some historical items, but then mostly focusing on Aboriginal life post-European settlement and all of the problems that have come with it.  Prominent Aboriginal persons were featured throughout the exhibit, and videos featured indigenous persons sharing their stories.  Some of the stories were extremely heartbreaking, bringing us back to a time when Australians of European descent ripped Aboriginal children from their homes at young ages so they could be raised to fit in with white culture.  Artwork told the story of modern day Aboriginal life with blunt force:

We were rushed through the end of the exhibit as the museum was about to close.  Apparently four hours was insufficient, so make sure you allot at least five or six hours – or a full day if there is a special exhibition on.  The gift shop was already closed on our way out.

I was devastated.

I love gift shops.