Saturday, February 28, 2009

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oy! Oy! Oy!


We can call the rest of my time in Australia my YPO vacation. Young Presidents Organization is an organization of company presidents and CEOs with chapters around the world. My dad, president of the third generation family business Alpert & Alpert Iron and Metal, has been a member of YPO for about a decade. In Melbourne, before and after my week at the French Island, I stayed with a YPO member my dad and my sister Karin had met on a YPO trip to Cambodia.

A hilarious, divorced father of four, he seemed to cherish his newfound bachelordom. His favorite among his series of one-liners seemed to be “a bachelor is a man who never makes the same mistake once.” His two older kids are in boarding school so I only got to meet them once, but his two elementary-aged girls were there for my last few days.

And then there was his housekeeper Joan. Within minutes of meeting her, during the car ride from the airport, the 68 year-old grandmother spilled to me (completely unsolicited on my part) almost all the secrets of her employer’s divorce and every off-color comment she could remember him making, interspersed of course with bits about Melbourne. She also seemed to be practically deaf and could drone on forever on any topic from the intimate details of the personal lives of every member in her large family to the wildfires in the 1890s. But talking to her made for some good entertainment, and she was very warm, even going so far as to give me a tour of the 19th century house she was staying in and personally renovating.

I wasn’t very productive during my few weeks in Melbourne. I slept in, took the tram (Melbourne has an extensive network of trams like San Fran’s trolleys), and just wandered around the city. I did make it to the Shrine of Remembrance commemorating Australia’s war dead in World War I, which was pretty moving.

My social life in Melbourne was also buoyed by YPO. I spent one night at the gargantuan Crown Casino for a YPO event with 2005 World Series of Poker winner Joe Hachem. I spent another night on a yacht for a dinner cruise of the Yarra River with kids of YPOers, and spent a weekend with another YPO family down the Great Ocean Road (the Aussie equivalent of PCH) in a small beach town named Fair Haven. I also hung out with the Australian sisters from my Russia program a few times.

Melbourne was hot, hot, hot during my two weeks there with temperatures reaching a scorching 47 degrees Celsius (around 116 Fahrenheit). I was there during the terrible Victorian brushfires (little taste of home), but was in no way affected. I was surprised to learn about how severe the effects of an 8 year drought were on Melbourne. Melbournians were supposed to limit themselves to 155 liters of water per day, meaning showers of three minutes or less and washing encouraged during non-peak hours.

Traveling alone was not nearly as hard as I anticipated it being. Before I left I dreamed up worst case scenarios where I’d feel so bone-crushingly lonely and starved for meaningful human interaction that I’d ambush the stranger sitting next to me on the tram with a big bear hug. Not only did it never get that bad, I actually felt happy and content almost all the time.

I chatted up strangers because I wanted to, not because I felt like I had to. And it led to a pretty strange existence. The most interesting parts of my days generally were the little five minute snippets of conversations with strangers that I would never see again.

There was Curtis who stood behind me in line while I was buying my favorite breath enhancer, mint Mentos. He was wearing a red Washington Nationals hat, so I asked him if he was from DC. He told me that he was actually from NYC and that he had been playing basketball as one of the two imports for one of Melbourne’s teams for the last 8 years. We talked basketball, the NBA and the Lakers until he was finished buying and then we went our separate ways.

There was the German girl who sat across from me on the tram with a fresh bouquet of flowers. I asked her if she was giving or getting them, and she raved about her abroad experience studying tourism at one of the universities until I got off the tram.


A week of Melbourne before and after the French Island seemed to be enough, so I headed north. I got to Sydney right in time for some more bad weather, this time five straight days of rain. In Sydney, I spent a week with a friend named Lachlan I had met a few summers back on a YPO trip for teens in Switzerland. I lazed around, sleeping until noon most days and then getting up and watching TV. Lachlan’s also taking a gap year and will be spending five months living and working in Europe with friends this fall. I went out to the major nightlife district in Sydney, King’s Cross, with a few of his friends. We also went snorkeling on a beach when the weather got better on my last day.

Earlier in the week, I went up to Lachlan’s family’s farm about an hour away with him and his girlfriend. It was a ton nicer than the McLeod Eco Farm at the French Island. And I quickly found out that I may not be cut out for country living. Lachlan and I were with the horses, feeding them and petting them, when I got too close to the new baby foal. Its mother apparently felt threatened, and I was too slow to react when I saw it wheel around. Before I could think to move out of the way, it landed a decent blow to my upper left thigh.

I followed up getting kicked by a horse by crashing an ATV. I didn’t give it enough gas going up a big hill, and suddenly was rolling down a hill. I bailed out safely, and the ATV was stopped by a barbed wire fence. We decided it’d be best to have Lachlan take it up the hill after that.

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. We tried our hand at fishing in one of the lakes, I successfully hit a can of Fanta on my first try with an air rifle, and we collected crickets by flashlight for bait. And in the morning I tried an old Aussie favorite, spaghetti on toast. It was the canned variety of spaghetti, tasting a lot like Spaghetti-Os, and despite what the name might have you believe, it’s eaten with a fork and knife and not like a sandwich.

While in Sydney, I did a few more tourist-y things. I climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Well, to call it climbing would be a stretch. It was more walking up ramps and ladders as we made our way slowly up to the summit of the bridge at sunset. But I had a lot of fun and really appreciated that the rain that had been pouring down all day paused for the 3 hour climb.

And of course, I also made it to the Sydney Opera House. It was good to see that I wasn’t jaded by traveling. As the ferry pulled up in front of the Opera House, I was snapping away with my camera like any shameless tourist. I felt a wonderful mix of awe and excitement at being so close to such a global icon and was drawn to go back again and again. After I had taken enough pictures of the Opera House, I started watching the other tourists taking their pictures. And then I decided it’d be a cool series to have pictures of other people taking pictures. So I have a few pictures of random strangers taking pictures, some of them with the Opera House in them, others not. And the pictures are coming to the blog, I promise, as soon as I can figure out how to get my memory card in my computer.

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