Friday, December 28, 2018

Sydney: Bird is the word

Water taxi at the Darling harbour

Australia is a relatively young country, unknown to the western world until the late 1700s, and only becoming an independent nation in 1901. So, if you're looking for a surfeit of historic sites and castles, you won't really find it here.  However, this isn't to say that the country hasn't been inhabited by indigenous folks before it became a nation. In fact, Australia is said to be the world's oldest landmass. Thanks to my Uber driver during rush hour Sydney traffic, I learned the abbreviated  history and the political issues surrounding the Australian aboriginal people. 

The Pecking Order

Main quadrangle at University of Sydney

Some of my meetings were at the Australian universities, and University of Sydney's New South Wales campus wowed me. It's the oldest University in the country, and the buildings are made primarily of sandstones. The grounds have sitting areas scattered everywhere - people friendly and animal friendly too! I especially enjoyed the roaming ibis with their unique downcurved bill. 

What I enjoyed the most in Sydney is the different street fauna. Walking around the city and seeing all these new animals for the first time reminded me of the first time I saw squirrels in California when I first arrived in the United States. Then the raccoons in Florida during night time. I didn't care that they were ransacking the garbage cans!  They were adorable... from afar! 

A runner I met in Melbourne gave me a Sydney tip - if you want a good view of the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour bridge, take the walk along the Royal Botanic Gardens to Mrs. MacQuarie's Chair point. Boy, was he right! The eucalyptus trees' scent filled the air, the squawking Cockatoos kept me company during my walk. I couldn't believe how common these sulphur-crested Cockatoos were.  I didn't even need my binoculars as they were just a few feet above me. And these weren't the only crested birds I saw. The crested pigeons I nicknamed "rockstar pigeons".  
"Rockstar" pigeon


But of course, nothing screams Sydney than the picturesque Opera house, with more than 8 million people visiting to see it each year. That's insane! I was trying to figure out what the structure reminded me of - wings... lobster claws... my husband's scary guitar nails for finger picking... It turns out I was partly right, the Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, who won the design competition was inspired by nature in general - bird wings, clouds, walnuts, palm trees, shells. I can't see all of those, but I was never good with that ink blot test either. Anyway, the shells design was inspired by peeling an orange back. Oh-kay. I'll take it. By the way, while you can't really get a bad view of the Opera house, but for another great shot, take a ferry ride.  My sister-in-law and I took a ferry to Watson's bay, and it was a short, fun ride! 

How about a bridge climb for a bird's eye view of the Sydney Opera House?
Where are all the birds??

I don't know what it was with birds and me on this trip, but I just saw birds everywhere in Sydney.  Except when I didn't. 

One place I purposely visited after a full day of meeting was the "Forgotten Songs" Sculpture. The sculpture remember and mourns the calls of Sydney's lost birds, 50 of them, lost to Sydney's urbanization.  I especially loved that this sound sculpture is tucked away above Angel Place between busy streets - should be easy to find, yet very easy to miss - it's location profound and makes you contemplate even more how the city's development is closing in.

Now, let's talk briefly about Sydney fashion. I have to say that if Melbourne reminded me of Philly, Sydney is just like mini-New York. The majority walked around the Central Business District (CBD) in dark colors and all shades of black. I felt like a sore thumb in my bright orange dress. In spite of proximity of the city to the beaches here, like Bondi (pronounced Bond-eye as my good friend corrected me), locals don't necessarily wear beach casuals like Californians do. The Strand Arcade, Sydney's shopping epicenter, carries local and international designer labels and specialty stores. 

"Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though.  That's the problem." - A. A. Milne

Not knowing any better and short of time when I made my hotel booking, I was fortunate to pick a hotel somewhere between The Rocks and Darling harbour neighborhood. The wharf was 2 blocks down, leading to the lively darling harbour, where the Sydney zoo is located smack in the middle of shopping and tourism. For my last day in Sydney, I made a reservation for a Breakfast with Koalas at the Wild Life Sydney Zoo. The breakfast itself was blah... but the experience was a memorable one. I'm so happy I decided to go. The breakfast included early entry to the wild life zoo before it opened to the visitors, and koala encounters at the rooftop while you enjoy your breakfast.  

The zoo is bigger than what one would think from the outside, but still small for a zoo. You won't find any tigers here! But a huge ~ 6 meters saltwater croc, you'll see. They definitely have the iconic Australian animals: Kookaburras, wombats, wallabies, platypus, Tazmanian devils, and of course, Kangaroos and adorable Koalas.  


Petting Dot the Kangaroo

Princess, the colorful, flightless cassowary, is actually male
Don't go the way of the Dodo

Last but not least, breakfast with the koalas.  There were about a dozen "not bears" on the rooftop, and all of them were sleeping. One would slip down a foot on his tree, wake up, climb back up, and snooze again. They sleep for 18 hours a day. I wonder if the eucalyptus has anything to do with that. Haha! But before you check for yourself, eucalyptus is actually poisonous.  Koalas are special in that they have an organ that allows them to digest eucalyptus safely.  

These koalas were so adorable, I was really hoping I'd get to touch them like I did Dot, the kangaroo.  But by law, no one in New South Wales (and most Australian states) is actually allowed to hold a koala unless you're a zoo keeper. This law makes sense though as touching would stress these cuties.  While koalas are not on the endangered list yet and they are protected by law, their homes are not; their habitat is shrinking with the housing development. While I was glad to see buddy and his friends at the Wildlife Sydney zoo, I would have loved to see one in the wild.  Want to adopt a koala?

My Buddy in slumber
My first trip down under may be to the cities, but it certainly didn't feel like it. With kangaroo pens, Anzac biscuits, TimTams, and my lappy (laptop) in my backpack, I was packed and ready to fly back to my own coop.  Ta, Sydney!

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Melbourne: Hipster hurray!

"Hell-no" burger
Australia. The land down under. If you believe all the things posted on Facebook, the country is filled with giant animals and other things that can kill you, be it funnel web spiders, salt water crocs, venomous 2-headed snakes, bull sharks, bodybuilding kangaroos, or Hugh Jackman’s deltoids. Or worse - Vegemite

My work trip brought me to Melbourne and Sydney. I never really thought much about visiting the land down under because it seems so far away, and it takes an entire day to travel.  So, I had no clue what it had to offer.  While there were definitely shockers (what?! they eat their beloved kangaroos?!), most of what I saw in Melbourne and Sydney were quite tame. Its not like these cities were crawling with koalas and wombats. Although that would be cute.  

First up, Melbourne. Melbourne was crawling with laidback hipsters, still cute, but less so than koalas. I stayed at an Art Hotel, where my room was adorned with a huge original art piece on the main wall, and everything was tastefully contemporary.  It was a great preview on what Melbourne had in store for me. Here are my top memorable moments in Melbourne:

  • Coffee - I will never call myself a coffee connoisseur ever again. Coffee in Melbourne is a culture on its own.  I've been to Europe and enjoyed cafes aplenty, but have never had consistently Ahhh-mazing coffee than I've experienced in Melbourne. Is it the water? Is it the beans? Is there hidden kale in it? What sorcery is this?! Interestingly enough, I read that the rise of coffee in Australia began as a response to drunkenness. The Temperance movement in the 1890s saw abstinence from alcohol and into more socialization - enter the cafes! And the Melbourne coffee literacy got passed on to present generation. Safe to say, the beans are on their genes! 
Coffee roasting heaven
  • Laneways and arcades - after arriving in Melbourne, I was quickly educated in Melbourne shopping way. Laneways and arcades have completely different meaning than how we use these words in the US. Laneways are narrow streets or tucked away alleys, paved or not with cobblestones, and lined with arrays of cafes, boutiques, shops and restaurants. Think Diagon Alley, if you're a Potterhead.   Arcades, on the other hand, are covered shopping plazas. They are often connected by laneways. These were so cute, and I enjoyed every navigation (translation: getting lost) minute. 
Hebrew happy new year greeting
at the Royal Arcade
Centre Place laneway

  • St. Kilda - I didn't have time to go to the historic 1912 amusement park, Luna Park, and I'm not really sure I tried very hard after seeing the creepy clown entrance. Yikes. But that not-so-good tingling sensation down my spine easily blew away when dusk came and I headed to the pier to watch the sunset.  I was on a mission when I took the public tram ride to St. Kilda: See the little penguins - the smallest species of penguins in the world.  These little nuggets come home to the St. Kilda breakwater at half an hour past sunset.  They swim and waddle back to their nests among the rocks every night. Absolutely adorable!

Luna Park, amusing or disturbing? I'll pass!

  • Queen Victoria Market - 140 years strong, and the largest open-air market in the southern hemisphere, this market is full of life! and souvenirs! and Uggs! and food, so much of it. 
I can guess, but I'd rather not know. :(

Uggs. Uggs. Uggs. Say that 10x,
and you'll sound like hip enough for Melbourne


    3D street art:
    Because 2D graffiti is not trendy enough!
  • Sights - Street art, bridges, buskers, and shoppers.  Melbourne is like a mellower version of Philadelphia, or Philly's quirky cousin. It's quite easy to navigate by foot, bus, tram or Uber.  I tried them all. 

I was fortunate to meet up with Ethel, a friend from grad school who moved to Melbourne. She graciously took me to some places that I wouldn't have known otherwise (cause I had no time to read the Frommers Guide I brought!).  The Coop's Shot Tower was fascinating. I didn't even know such places existed nor what a shot tower was until I visited Melbourne, though I could guess it. Basically, this is the tower were they made small pellets for shotguns. When the factory produces pellets or "shot balls", they send down the molten lead down the tower by free fall down to a water basin at the bottom.  The liquid lead forms spheres and solidify as they fall down the tower.

Ethel also took me to the State Library which is Australia's oldest public library. Thanks Ethel! Since I love looking down from great heights, we went all the way to the top floor treating me to the view of the chess room, which houses books dedicated to... well, chess. How on earth did you guess that? Perhaps because nothing screams hipster like Chess does? ;) They even have game tables with chessboards. 

Saturday, October 6, 2018

My favorite muggle turns 8!

I lived to tell the tale, the magical tale of a Harry Potter-themed birthday celebrating a special girl.  This crazy mom pulled off a birthday party with 25 kids, then caught a 7 am business flight the following morning. I must really love her! And t'was certainly a character-building experience, to say the least. It's true what they say: What doesn't kill you... gives you a great sense of humor!!! 

My daughter turned 8 a few days ago, and we celebrated with a Harry Potter themed birthday party because the girl is obsessed with the Harry Potter books (she's on the 4th).  I remember loving the books while I was reading it as an adult in graduate school, but rereading it with my kids is even more fun as I hear their gasps of awe, and squeaks of fear. I couldn't NOT do a Harry Potter birthday when she requested it. It's almost like turning down an invitation to go to Hogwarts! Seriously, Sirius Black. But... where to begin?

Requesting the presence of Wizards and Witches 

With our busy schedules between work and kid activities, the trick to not be overwhelmed is to have fun, do a small thing at a time, and definitely try to not reinvent the wheel - beginning with the invitations.  There are many templates one can use from the web, or you can design one yourself, or do a mix of both.   It's a great way of just using something that works for you and personalizing it. For ours, I did a mix and downloaded a Harry Potter-inspired font and added my own touch. I printed wand spell motions on the back of the card stock paper. We bought an owl stamp and a gold stamp pad and ink for that "owl post" look.

The Wand Chooses the Wizard 

I was one of those kids who did arts and crafts in grade school and barely got a passing mark.  I remember making a medicine cabinet, a fruit tray, and a picture frame  out of popsicle sticks and they all ended up looking the same.  Hey! at least I was consistent. With the advent of YouTube and Pinterest, my craft skills are not as shameful. Such are the inspirational resources for a DIY beginner!  Armed with a hot glue gun, these chopsticks were no match for me. The kids enjoyed painting them with different shades of brown to get that unique wand look.

Chopsticks + hot glue gun + rainy day = beginning of glorious wand making

Acrylic paint in 3 shades of brown, plus gold for those wands with unicorn core

Ollivanders approve. But no unforgivable curses!

Professor McGonagall would be proud

One of my most favorite personal purchase for my home office is my laminator.  Seriously, whether it's for written speeches, teaching materials, inspirational quotes, or party posters, the laminator does the job when you want to protect that important piece of paper. So, off I went printing different signage on card stock paper.  Et voila! Cheeseballs were 'transfigured' to Hufflepuff, green plant juice to Polyjuice potion.... Magic!

Luckily  Unfortunately, we had to stay indoors one weekend because of the bad weather, which gave us ample time to work on the party crafts.  It was a win-win situation - the girls weren't bored, in fact they were excited to help, and I had my minions! Mwahahaha! Er, I meant Dumbledore's army.  Now that I'm  an ace with the glue gun, we glued clips on ties printed on beige card stock  papers. These ties serves as one activity where the guests can color with their house colors - green and silver if they're in Slytherin, and red and yellow for Gryffindor.  We also made the quidditch hoops, and the girls even helped me bake our 'trial' cauldron cakes. Sorry, I forgot to take pictures after making them. Overall, what a fun indoor weekend it turned out to be! 

Pumpkin cauldron cakes trial

Working on Harry Potter for Pin the Scan on HP

The making of the golden egg for the 1st task. I'm a chemist, I wear gloves for such occasions.

Quidditch hoop made of pool noodle and removable mop handle

In the next few days, we put the finishing touches on the party planning. We gathered the 7 horcrux items for the scavenger hunt, thought up some riddles, and yes, I printed that and laminated it too. The ring, locket, tiara were resurrected toys from the girls' toy bin in the basement;  I took one long forgotten plastic teacup and painted it gold for the goblet. And we're set with the activities!  


But what is Hogwarts without chocolate frogs?  It simply isn't the same! Many thanks to Amazon, frog molds for chocolates were delivered to my door pronto. Amazon prime hopped to it! (sorry). I would also have served butter beer (a.k.a. butterscotch rootbeer float) but my divination ball showed me that Alas! it will be cold on the day of the party, so I can forget about serving ice cream. But what should witches and wizards' swag be? A broomstick, perhaps?  My office floor was littered with "broomsticks" party giveaways holding the goodies inside paper bags that's been cut and frayed to look like brooms, and the handles are actually broomstick pens

Happee Birthdae, Harriett...

Since I wasn't making the cake and cupcakes for 3 dozen kids and grownups at the party, (thank you, Dorothy Ann bakery!)  I surprised Tamar with a homemade Harry Potter cake on her actual birthday.  This was my first foray into fondant cakes, and I must say it's not as difficult as I thought it would be.  The cake I had in mind was Harry Potter catching the golden snitch in his mouth.  I bought a few essentials - white and black fondant, fondant tools, edible glitter in gold, and edible marker. You can easily pick these up from Michaels. I also bought icing glue, but I think I could have done away without it. The pastry mat with the measurement was quite important for measuring the surface area to cover. I think it turned out ok.  There's definitely room for improvement design-wise, especially on the glasses, where I should have rolled the fondant in circles instead of cutting them. Again, art is not my talent. But for someone who once built a leaning tower of bookshelf, the cake is not bad at all.  Still, I'm not planning on making fondant cakes often because fondants are just way too sweet for me. In fact, the best part of this cake is the cake inside.  Since we were going to have a chocolate cake at the birthday party, I made an almond cake for this one. It was just dense enough to hold the weight of the fondant, but still feels light and soft. And it's not sticky sweet!

"It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live" - Albus Dumbledore

The birthday party day finally came, and the inconsistent weather forecast was giving me the whiplash! I couldn't decide whether to text all 25 kids' families and move the party indoors to our house, or brave the possible showers. Thankfully, my super sister was with me to allay my doubts. She flew in from California and the Minnesota 'fall' weather had her in layers, but together we willed the powers-that-be to hold the rain off so the kids can run around outside. I do thank the g-ds that the weather cooperated, because the thought of 25 kids in the house with party games indoors was anxiety-inducing! 

So, the hoops were planted, the owl pinata hanging in the tree branch, and our wands at the ready!  As the kids started arriving, they got sorted to their houses in a sorting hat ceremony. We had them decorating their wands with sticker gems and coloring their ties while they waited for their housemates. I also blew up a couple of balloons so they could practice their wingardium leviosa spell.

"Difficult. Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see... 
So where shall I put you?"

Swish and flick!

Going for gold

Yowza! The teams took the games very seriously, and the 3 hour party flew by! For those wanting to make their own HP party, I hope the activities below inspire you. 

  1. Pin the scar on Harry Potter -  We kicked off the games with Pin the scar on Harry Potter. The scars are just lightning cut-out green or red construction papers, and we used double-sided tape.  The kids were super cute and cheered their housemates on! 
  2. 1st Task - The kids had a blast trying to steal the golden egg from the dragon (my husband), 2 kids at a time within 30 secs.  We tied crepe papers around the kids' waists, and if the dragon pulls it, that means they're incapacitated and their time is up.  Some of the serious fans asked me if 1) they're allowed to use spells, (yes, my dear, just no unforgivable curses) and 2) what kind of dragon it was they were fighting!  AH!  My hubby was a handsome dragon, but I'm not sure if he qualifies as a Swedish short-snout.  
  3. Horcrux Scavenger Hunt -  This involved pre-hiding the 7 horcrux items before the kids came. The ones who have read and seen the movies definitely had an edge in solving the scavenger hunt riddles, but the keen ones followed the leaders and found the objects with their razor-sharp visions. 
  4. Quidditch - I have no pictures because it was crazy!  We did away with the 'beaters' to avoid tackling, and the keepers had to use a broom to swat away the balls from the chasers. The game ended with the first team scoring 50 points.  It was certainly less elegant than the book version, but most of the kids were far too small to follow the complex rules of Quidditch. The kids had a great time anyway!  
  5. Pinata - The games ended, of course, with finding the golden snitch! But there's a twist. The kids had to hit the owl pinata and find it. And guess who the lucky 'seeker' was? None other than the birthday girl! So, what is the snitch exactly?  Nothing fancy! Just a yummy Lindt white chocolate and some gold wings. 

And with the snitch caught, the Slytherins won. I'm not sure that the kids really cared though because in reality, everyone did.  

Riddle me this! Riddle me that! 
Are these kids looking for a rat?


Mischief managed!