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Moving home... hitting home

Just under a week until the Australian chapter of our lives will be officially ended and the amount of change it is rapidly hitting home.  The stuff has been leaving our Sydney house at a furious pace.  The furniture is nearly gone, our shipment of toys, books, games and the other stuff we couldn't live without is packed and headed back to Boston.  The cars are gone (it was especially hard saying good-bye to our Kluger, "Australian Julie" was such a good car).  In six days the EwingFive will follow and leave Australia on Australia day (like the Fourth of July).  A bit fitting that we're leaving the country on the day they celebrate discovery and independence, read into that what you will.

Next week I'll say goodbye to Vistaprint's awesome Sydney office, which will be hard; and, the family will say goodbye to Sydney, which we've loved.  One thing is certain, if our Australian chapter is any indication of how lucy we are and how incredible life can be, we're all very excited about the next chapters.  

God’s brochure for earth…

I imagine at some point God’s marketing director was thinking about creating a new brochure to show off the best that earth has to offer.  Being a good marketer she wanted the very best pictures possible, at which point, God likely said, “leave it to me, I’ll just create the South Island of New Zealand.”  It is that incredible.  From the rolling agricultural hills around Christchurch, to the mountains and glacial lakes around Queenstown, our 2,000 km drive around the island generated more “wows” from the backseat than I’ve heard in any other place around the world.
Our adventure began in Christchurch, a lovely colonial town that has been absolutely devastated by two huge earthquakes in the past year (more on that below).  After our flight in we only spent about 12 hours before we headed out to Queenstown.  Before we left, we vowed to return, and we visited the Antarctic expedition center.  In addition to the being the second largest city in New Zealand, Christchurch is the forward base for nearly all Antarctic expeditions, so the airport is home to the US Air Force’s operation deep freeze – appropriately named.  At the Antarctic Expedition Center we visited with friendly penguins, we went into the ice-room with sub-zero temperatures and a simulated storm – tons of fun in shorts – and we took a ride in a Hagglund tracked vehicle (self-explanatory picture above) to really get the full idea of what a trip to Antarctica would be like.
The drive from ChCh (what the locals call Christchurch) to Queenstown was just an appetizer of things to come.  Our first stop was a glacial lake called Lake Tekapo.  The color of the water here is so blue, almost Tiffany blue, it’s hard to believe.  I kept looking around thinking I was actually living in a postcard.  From Lake Tekapo it’s another couple hours through the mountains to Queenstown.  And, when I say through the mountains, it’s hard to explain exactly how steep, wonderful and amazing the roads through the passes are.  And this was just the first of many… the road to Milford Sound was even more amazing!
Queenstown is accurately described as the adventure capital of the world – and it lives up to that reputation.  This is where bungee-jumping originated, in the winter it’s a ski-town, in the summer it’s adventure central.  There are jet-boats, para-gliding, hard-core mountain biking, giant mountain swings, mountain and rock climbing, kayaking… pretty much anything you can imagine.  If you can dream it up, someone will take your money and help you do it in Queenstown.  Wendy threatened to bungee jump at one point, but I think the threat wasn’t that real (although she is quite accomplished at the mountain luge).  The one can’t miss attraction in Queenstown is the shot-over jet.  I won’t even try to explain it, just go to this website and watch the video.  We have our own video of Alex nearly falling out of the boat, but you’ll have to come visit us in Boston to see that one.
The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is remote, beautiful and breathtaking.  Especially amazing is the last 10km as the road winds through a 1km tunnel with a 15% slope, drops 1,000 meters down the side of the mountain through countless switchbacks in a clear attempt to test the upper limit on my blood-pressure.  The four-hour drive culminates in a rain forest glacial fiord so picturesque we had to sign a waiver before our boat-cruise up the sound in case we ended up in a magazine photo shoot (not really, but it was that amazing).  Milford Sound gets so much rain in the course of the year, that there is a 20 foot layer of fresh water on top of the salt-water in the sound.  The seals and seabirds seem to enjoy the sound's beauty as well.  Absolutely breathtaking.
No trip to the Fiordland national forest would be complete without a visit to the glow-worms at Te Anu.  I couldn’t find a picture that really does this place justice; imagine you’re in a cave, it’s pitch black and the roof of the cave has so many glowing worms on it that it looks like the night sky on the clearest night you’ve ever seen.  The glow worms really don’t do much, but they are remarkable, unique and downright bizarre. 
Franz Josef glacier and Fox glacier sit in what is the wettest place in the world (at least that I’ve experienced), and it is an absolute exercise in contrasts.  The two small coastal villages are in the heart of the rain forest, BUT, just a couple minutes walking up the mountain and you come to incredible, massive, ancient glaciers.  Weird, right.  I never would have thought that there would be glaciers near a rain forest, but in this case, the glaciers are actually IN the rain forest.  And in less than 30 minutes you’re at the beach.  Unfortunately our time in Franz Josef was defined by rain, rain and more rain… it is after all a rain forest.  So, we didn’t get a chance to helicopter up to the top if the glacier, but we donned our duck-like rain gear and trudged up the mountain to the face of the glacier.  Pretty amazing stuff.
Leaving the wet of Franz Josef behind us it was time to finish our clockwise circle of the South Island and head back to ChCh.  On our way we stopped to view the wild and unpredictable Tasman Sea.  The boys figured if they started swimming West from that beach, they’d hit Australia eventually… they didn’t try.  We had a little more time on our second visit Christchurch and we made sure to stop and look at the South Pacific (two oceans on opposite sides of the island in the course of about three hours).  We spent time exploring Christchurch’s beautiful botanical garden including a short cruise (on a Venice style gondola) on the Avon river.  It was easy to see why the people are so attached to their city, why they have been so devastated by the earthquakes that have destroyed much of the city in the past year – and why they’re committed to rebuilding better than before.  We were able to get close to the “red zone” which is the central part of the city surrounding the cathedral that is cordoned off and remains unstable, but we didn’t go in.  Right at the edge of the red zone there is a restaurant where you can look through the window and see the tables set for an elegant lunch, some tables with half-eaten meals and half-full glasses of wine on them, as it was abandoned and never touched again at the time the earthquake hit nearly a year ago – it was pretty eerie, and a bit heartbreaking. 
On the last night of our amazing New Zealand adventure we went to sleep in our hotel not knowing that we would learn first-hand how much earthquake activity Christchurch has seen in the past 18 months.  In fact since the first major quake in September 2010 there have been 9,907 measurable earthquakes in the Christchurch area (learn more here).  In the middle of the night we were shaken awake by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale.  As perspective, that’s not nearly as powerful as the 7.1 quake from September 2010 or the 9.0 Fukushima quake, but it was among the 50 +/- most powerful quakes experienced in Christchurch, it was enough to wake us up, and certainly enough to make us all happy we’re back safely on solid Sydney ground with the US in our sights in just under a week. 
With the exception of our rumbling exit, New Zealand was a 10/10.  Queenstown lives up to all the hype, the mountains are breathtaking, the people are fantastic and it is like nowhere else on earth. 
I feel so lucky to have seen God’s brochure.

Umbrella Arms Race

I met a nice Dutch family this weekend who have been in Sydney for about six months.  We met standing under an awning at a beer garden hiding from the rain, which as context might explain their comments.  When asked about their first six months in this beautiful city they first gushed as we all do, because it really is a remarkable place.  They talked about the beaches and the wonderful people.  They were so thrilled that their kids (who spoke no English before arriving) were rapidly picking up the language and had been welcomed into the school and community.  When they finished lavishing their praise they shifted gears a bit and complained that Sydney wasn’t exactly as advertised.  They pointed out the buckets of rain and unseasonably cold weather and said, “it rains here… a lot!”
“I know,” I said.  “…I can prove it statistically.”
I’m not sure why, but the rain here seems to come from weather systems that last for weeks at a time.  Parts of November were really nice this year… but the past three or four weeks (and probably half of our time in Australia) have been absolutely water-logged.  This latest weather system has brought out the ugly in the Sydneysiders too… and it’s made me aware of the fact that we are smack in the middle of an arms race. 
The arms dealers in this race are the banks, auditors and the consulting firms. 
Most people who spend any time in Sydney have a couple different umbrellas.  A woman in my office has a collection of five or six next to her desk just in case.  Me, I’ve collected a set of umbrellas that is a bit like my golf bag.  I have the little one that’s good for a light shower or a very short walk – let’s call that the nine-iron.  I also have a huge one, capable of carrying long distances and keeping a small family dry – let’s call that one the driver.  It was raining so hard the other day that I knew the nine-iron just wouldn’t do, so I pull out the driver.  This thing is absolutely huge.  It has the logo of the boy’s school on it, and it could probably provide shelter for an entire class.  As I was trying to navigate the sidewalk with my uber-umbrella I was struck by how many super-sized umbrellas I passed.  Apparently in the rain protection game, bigger is better.  I was also amazed by the various logos on these umbrellas – and nearly every umbrella I passed carried one logo or another.  I did a quick informal (that is to say not statistically significant) survey of my findings and can safely say that the big five audit and consulting firms print a lot of umbrellas, but, the banks are the biggest offenders in the super-sizing of Sydney’s umbrellas.  Commonwealth bank, the NAB, even the small local banks, they all give away the biggest umbrellas of them all. 
Perhaps the umbrella is the modern day equivalent of the toaster… or it just rains a lot in Sydney.    
For the sake of Southern hemisphere Christmas revelers everywhere, I just hope the rain ends soon, I can only imagine there is nothing worse than a soggy Christmas at the beach… then again, it’s at the beach.

One of the best restaurants in the world!

I had lunch today at one of the top 50 restaurants in the world.  It's called Quay (that's "key" for those of you new to this whole Australian / American translation thing), and it was very, very good. 
The food was remarkable, creative, interesting and my main was this wagu beef dish that absolutely melted in my mouth.  Mine was good, but the pick of the table was the pig jowl... based on the description I couldn't go there, but the guy who ordered it didn't speak for the rest of the meal and had little tears in his eyes it was so good.  He wasn't sharing.  I'm no foodie, and there is a bit of the emperors new clothes syndrome going on with the best restaurant in the world competition, but I enjoyed myself immensely over this four-course lunch.   
If you're interested in the restaurant, and it's place as #26 on the list of top restaurants in the world, you can find the information here.
I've been to one of the top 50... 49 more to go... I'm just sayin' 

Light beer -- lost in translation

I landed in Australia for the first time in February of 2009 – coming up on three years ago now.  In the three years since, I’ve crossed the Pacific Ocean between the US and Australia another 28 times; that’s a month of days lost to travel (don’t worry I got half of them back on the return trip).  On the best of those trips Wendy and the boys were with me as we were on our way to adventure in Australia, or we were returning home to our treasured friends and family in the states.  The worst of those trips were the times I was leaving the family in one place or the other for weeks at a time.  All those miles in a plane definitely illustrate exactly how many miles (1 mile = 1.61 kilometers) separate Sydney and Boston.
On the frequent flyer front there’s good news and bad news.  The bad news, we’re about to lose status with Qantas, and now that they kids have been spoiled with status, it’ll be hard to go back.  The good news, we’re going to lose our status because we’re coming home to the states permanently! 
It may (or may not) go without saying that leaving Australia is bittersweet for us.  We’ve enjoyed our time here, seen much of this incredibly beautiful country, made tremendous friends, enjoyed the temperate climate and access to beautiful beaches.  It’s been an incredible professional opportunity and even in my middle-age I’ve learned more in the past three years than I did in the first ten years of my professional career.  The boys have thrived in school and have a good group of friends that we hope they maintain for years to come. 
And we’ve learned other important lessons too.  For me the most important lesson I can take away from our experience in Australia is that the world is becoming flatter and flatter every day.  Kids here in Australia may chose to play different sports and wear uniforms to school, but they are not that different from kids in the US; or the kids in China, Japan, Brazil, Uzbekistan or anywhere else in the world for that matter.  Today’s kids will live in a world where borders will eventually mean very little, today distance can be bridged as fast as you can log-on to facebook.  In the future, education, jobs, commerce and perhaps even romance will be completely global.  Imagine that world.  Regardless of the language they speak, kids born after the PC became ubiquitous all want the same access to blisteringly fast technology and open dialogue.  They expect choice and want to make a difference.  For us older-folks it’s hard to visualize that future through the filter developed during a youth spent listening to cold war rhetoric – but it’s true.  It’s happening. Get onboard or get run-over.
The economy is also flatter and more interconnected than ever.  Twenty years ago can you imagine even knowing what was going on in Greece, let alone worrying about what impact a Greek referendum might have on your retirement portfolio?  It’s amazing the speed at which change is occurring and I for one am excited about it (and terrified at the same time).  The lesson here, don’t buy Greek debt, but boy do the Greeks know coffee.
So how does all this relate to my many, many frequent flier miles?  And what’s this about light beer?  Let me tell you a story… In my many trips back and forth across the pacific, I’ve developed a bit of a routine.  Get comfortable on the plane, have a little dinner when it’s served, maybe drink a light beer and then try to get some sleep because it’s an ugly long flight.  So early in my exposure to Australia I developed the habit of drinking light beer, smart, right… I don’t need all the calories.  It wasn’t until last week, that one of my Australian friends pointed out that light beer “doesn’t mean what you think it means.” 
“What?” I said.  “Other than lower calorie, what could it possibly mean?”
“Light beer is where they remove most of the alcohol.  If you want low calorie beer, you want a Blond beer.”
Really, no one could have told me that three years ago?  I’ve seen blond beers in the store and in plenty of restaurants, but I always thought a “blond” beer was for, well, blonds…  I guess I’m no worse for wear, but I would like, before I leave Australia to be truly confident that I can speak the language – unfortunately the likelihood of that happening is going a bit pear-shaped… like a frog in a sock. 
No worries, before too long we’ll be back in Boston where Peabody is pronounced pee-b’dy, some words mysteriously lose “r’s” and other words gain them.  Even in this flat world, something things are best explained as, well, unexplainable.  
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