Monday, August 16, 2010

The MCG -- Melbourne

Football is big in Melbourne.  Australian Rules football, called “Footy”, is nothing like American football which Aussies refer to as “gridiron”.  (What?...oh, right.)  Its roots are in Melbourne where 10 of the 18 teams are based.  Originally the Victorian Football League (VFL), it only recently (1990) expanded beyond Melbourne and became the Australian Football League (AFL). 

 The Melbourne teams take their names from local neighborhoods, St. Kilda Saints, Carlton Blues, North Melbourne Kangaroos etc.  Sydney has only one team, the Sydney Swans (which is somewhat confusing as the Swan River flows through Perth).  Allegiance to teams is strong and attendance at the games is high.

We “barrack” for Carlton.  Max and Riley’s uncle Andrew is a “member” and got us 4 seats at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for a Carlton vs Richmond match on our last Saturday in Australia.  We four, Max, Riley, Will (age 6) and I sat in great seats in the huge stadium which seats over 100,000.  Andrew was there too, but had to attend to clients in his firm’s box.

Like soccer, play never stops and the players, 18 per team, wear no protective helmets or pads.  From the first bounce of the ball to the final horn there is continuous action, in fact, if one player holds the ball for more than a few seconds the fans jeer at him to kick it away.  The playing field is a huge oval about 150 meters long.  The ball is ovoid and slightly larger than an American football.

The ball is moved around the oval by kicking or hand-passing (hitting the ball off your hand) to a teammate.  If you have the ball you can be tackled which often causes a pile up and the referee then determines (mysteriously) who get possession of the ball.  Points are scored by kicking the ball through the 4 posts at either end of the oval. 

A game is four 30-minute quarters long and the stadium clock doesn’t stop during the quarter. However after a goal is scored the officials stop their clock briefly until play resumes.  This creates an interesting and sometimes very exciting tension at the end of the game. In a high scoring game, after the last quarter expires, there can be several more minutes of play until the horn blows announcing the end of the game.  Only the officials know exactly how much time that is.

The match we saw was high scoring with Carlton winning 156 to 67.  After the game all of the players shook hands in a wonderful display of good-sportsmanship, especially since they had been beating up on each other for the last 2 hours!

The boys lasted the duration with proper administration of drinks, “chips” and trips to the gift store.  Andrew met us afterwards at our seats and walked us out to where he had parked his car.  There is no parking lot per se; cars are parked in a semi-coherent way on the uneven grassy grounds around the MCG.  It looks a little crazy but seems to work just fine.

The next day we made a trip to Rebel Sport on Chapel St. in Prahran to buy some Footy balls for Max and Riley.  Miranda said, “We’re not taking those home, are we?”  Since we’ve been back we’ve practiced our kicking and hand-passing several times in Central Park!

Thanks Uncle Andrew for giving us a great day and a new experience! 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sydney Harbor Sailing

Neither Miranda nor I had been to Sydney during the winter months of June, July or August. The ballet stints there are November/December and March/April, and once during the 2000 Olympics we were there for the month of September. It was in the low 60s for our visit which was fine though we didn’t get a chance to swim at Bondi Beach!

We met Dave Clarence, timpanist for the Opera Orchestra, at the Opera House stage door before their performance of La Somnambula that evening. He signed us in and we showed the boys the Green Room, our former dressing rooms (definitely the best view of any dressing room I’ve ever had!) and the stages of the various halls. It was also fun to see some of the orchestra members as they came in for work.

We didn’t stay for the Bellini but met Robert and Libby Albert, Sydney’s greatest art supporters, at a restaurant on the Quay and had a grand time catching up with them. In years past they would take us out Sundays sailing in Sydney Harbor on their lovely 38ft sloop, experiences I’ll never forget. They hadn’t changed a bit, Libby as lovely as ever and Robert still championing plain speak.

In the morning we hopped on the ferry for a trip to Manly. I was explaining to the boys how in 1788 Captain Cook had sailed into Botany Bay which is about 20 miles south of Sydney Harbor and staked claim to Australia. When he continued north he sailed right past this perfect harbor because it’s invisible from sea. The harbor opening between the two Heads is only about a mile wide and then the harbor turns immediately south, then back west finally opening out onto the glorious harbor. So from sea the harbor it looks like a small bay. About 10 years after Cook, the First Fleet did sail into the harbor and came ashore near Circular Quay.

The Manly ferry ride is about 30 minutes and you don’t even see the Heads until about the last 7 minutes of the trip. The wind was at our backs for the trip over and the boat was empty so we had a fun time sitting outside in the front row watching the harbor go by.

We spent about an hour walking along the Corso and sitting on the beach watching the surfers practice their art. After a windy trip back to Circular Quay we met Vicki and Jayne, two former ballerinas, for a quick coffee and headed back to the airport for our Tiger Air flight to Melbourne.

Flying Foxes -- Sydney Botanic Gardens

Sydney is known first and foremost for the magnificent Opera House, Jørn Utzon’s architectural masterpiece, which extends out into Sydney Harbor like a magical sailing ship. Miranda and I both worked there for years back in the 90s. The Australian Ballet has two seasons per year in Sydney for a total of about 4-5 months. Unfortunately, the Opera House is as unworkable inside as it is beautiful outside; but that’s old news.

Just south of Bennelong Point where the Opera House is located are the Botanic Gardens. What was once a string of dilapidated fisheries is now a spectacular garden filled with great and glorious indigenous flora and fauna. We quickly deviated from the main path up to a giant Morton Bay Fig tree. Having just come from Sequoia National Park seeing huge trees was not an uncommon sight for us. The external root structure of this tree extended outward from the trunk like giant concrete road dividers. The boys had a great time walking up the roots and climbing all over the tree.

Our main purpose for entering the gardens was to see the flying foxes. We had told the boys so often of these bats that they no longer believed us. We didn’t have much further to go to see these weird black and brown pod-like creatures hanging upside down in the tops of the trees. While we were gawking, several bats took flight showing us their huge wingspan. I used to see them flying around my Sydney apartment at dusk gobbling up insects. They are ugly and frightening close up but extremely graceful and beautiful in flight
Several times over the years the city has tried to rid the gardens of the bats. They did this by playing some ghastly loud “music” during the day waking the bats and causing them to circle overhead screeching. This served only to annoy the bats and those humans walking through the gardens at the time! Ultimately, they didn’t leave; after all, this area has been their home for centuries. That’s one point for the bats!

We walked on and sat on a bench for a “chokkie” break. We heard some cockatoos screeching and Riley and I walked over to see what they were up to. They were quite friendly and one even tried to land on Riley’s head!

The iron bars around the thought to be extinct Wollemi Pine had been removed and tree was growing well. We finished our afternoon in Sydney at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. We didn’t see too much art but had a great time in their gift shop.

From Riley:  After seeing the Sydney Opera House we went along the harbor through the Botanic Gardens.  Once we saw the flying foxes/bats me and dad saw some cockatoos.  We decided to walk over to them and we took some pictures. One of them walked sort of like a tank (toed-in) and he was very loud. We saw two cockatoos digging holes and then the cockatoo walking like a tank came waddling over to me, stared at me for a second, flapped its wings, and tried to land on my head!   But I ducked!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Healesville Sanctuary

Max, Riley and I took a trip up to the Healesville Sanctuary about 80 miles northeast of Melbourne.  The devastating bushfires in February 2009 had burned within a few miles of Healesville. Luckily the fire didn’t go down the hillside into the Sanctuary.

The day was overcast and a little too cool for our liking but it was a good opportunity for us to see the Australian wildlife as Miranda had flown up to the Gold Coast for a couple of days to visit her friend Michele. 
We had been to Healesville 3 years ago when Riley was 5 and Max was 2.  Riley said he remembered some of it, Max, nothing.  Despite the cool temperatures we had a fun time with the emus, kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, wombats, Tasmanian devils (they say “Tazzy” devils!), blue-tongued lizards, etc.  One of the koalas was awake and looking around.  Last visit they were all sound asleep.

They have a raptor show in a small outdoor arena which is fun.  Falconers with heavy gauntlets bring out eagles, owls, buzzards (a Black Breasted Buzzard named Beatrice to be exact) and hawks.  They fly right over the heads of the audience close enough that Max said, “His wing touched my cheek!”  None of my photos of the birds turned out as my shutter speed was set way too slow.  Every photo was a blur of feathers!
On the way out we stopped in the gift shop to see if there were stuffed animals that we DIDN’T have, and sure enough we came home with a kookaburra and platypus.

Miranda came in that evening and had insisted on taking the bus into the city from the airport, then catching a tram back home.  Several hours later she arrived a little frazzled.   Public transport is good in Melbourne but you need a little patience.  

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road

We arrived in Melbourne (flew on a new A-380 -- nice!) on time (those flights don’t have much room for error!), cleared customs quickly and picked up our rental car.  I asked Miranda to keep an eye on me for a while as it had been 3 years since I’d driven in Australia.   I do have an Aussie Driver Licence (their spelling!) but every time I come back it still feels like I’m “driving on the wrong side of the road”!   The boys fell asleep in the car on the way in to Genna’s (Miranda’s sister) house.  We took our time because I wanted to stop at a store in the “CBD” to get some of my favorite coffee –“midnight oil” is its name.  Alas, the store was gone, NO COFFEE! 
We arrived home and the boys woke, they were now officially on the new time zone.  They are perfect travelers.  No one was home so we unpacked leisurely.  Ron called on his iPhone 4 from New York and we stood our  iPhone up on the desk and FaceTimed with him for 30 minutes as we were putting things away; excellent smooth picture, simultaneous audio, to someone 10,000 miles away – amazing technology, oh yeah, and free, too!

Melbourne is mild in the winter.  It usually goes just above 60 in the mid-afternoon and drops to 40 at night.   “Four seasons in every day” is one way weather is described in Melbourne, for instance, right now it’s hailing but I can see lots of blue sky!  Everything is still very green as there is daily rain (thought not much) and the Aussie trees keep their leaves but lose their bark!
We went to the store and stocked up on TimTams, Vegemite, Magnums, VitaWheats, and other Aussie fare that we can’t get in New York.  It’s always fun exploring a grocery store in a different country.
Miranda had a great reunion with her family when they all arrived home later that evening.

William Chambers, Riley & Max’s cousin, had his 6th birthday party the following day.  It was an Aussie-rules footie party with lots of running, kicking, passing and goal scoring.  We all were barracking for Carlton – Go Blues! The weather was beautiful that afternoon.  Miranda and Gen had made a footie cake that was delicious, even more so because we forgot to bring a knife with us to cut the cake so it had to be scooped out with a plastic spoon.