Sunday, 13 July 2014

Portsmouth and London - the first week

We are now at the Starbucks in Kuala Lumpur airport, waiting for our connecting flight to Melbourne. I have ordered a Green Tea Latte which is pretty weird tasting - I would not recommend it! Our flight is 15 minutes delayed at this point - desperately hoping that it doesn't get any further delayed. The post-holiday/going-back-to-work stress is starting to set in. We arrive back in Melbourne on Sunday morning at 6am and then are straight back to work on Monday, and I am vaguely starting to remember all the work I left behind. I did a pretty good job of forgetting about work these past three weeks, which was needed as my first 6 months as Head of Maths have not been the easiest, and I was in desperate need of a break. 
I am also feeling quite unfit and unhealthy at the moment, which is a worry as I am running the Sydney Marathon in 10 weeks time. My training was going really well until we went on holiday. The longest run I managed these past 3 weeks was 10k, when really I should be over the 20k mark by now. These next 10 weeks are going to be a good time to refocus on exercise and nutrition after 3 weeks of indulgence!

Ok so back to the trip... We spent our first night in Brixton as mentioned and then headed off to Portsmouth to see Andy's family. We met for lunch at Old Thorns in Liphook, where we got married over 2 years ago. It's always nice to spend some time reminiscing about your wedding day and having lunch brought back some good memories. The next day we headed out to walk along the seafront in Old Porstmouth and have lunch with Andy's high school friends in Gunwharf, and then back to one of their houses for a BBQ that evening. One of the couples just had a baby and the other just got married, so it was a great opportunity to see the baby and to watch a few video highlights from the wedding we missed. It is hard being so far away and missing these important events - this is where we have struggled the most with our move to Oz.
Old Portsmouth

I headed back to London the next day for a spa day with Kristin. We went to the ESPA Life spa at the Corinthia and I could not recommend it more. I usually find hotel spas disappointing as they don't always have the full 'day spa feel' but this one definitely did. A bit pricier than others but it was a pretty special occasion as Kristin and I are rarely in the same country at the moment. We had the City Hideaway Spa Experience (basically the cheapest package available!) and it was bliss. Lunch first in a completely white room (white marble floors and tables, white leather chairs) and everyone in their bathrobes. I don't know what it is about eating lunch in a bathrobe, but to me it feels like such an indulgence. That was followed by a massage, facial, pedicure and then time to relax in the thermal heat area: hot tub, sauna, steam room, along with giant bowl of ice shavings to cool down with. The area is dimly lit and all black so very chilled and relaxing. The only criticism was that this area is open to hotel guests so there were a few kids in the pool, which ruins the mood a little!

Betty met up with us after the spa for a drink, and then her and I went to Gordon's Wine Bar on Embankment for a glass of vino, massive plate of cheese and a catch up. I cannot tell you how much I miss having Betty and Jon in Melbourne to hang out with. It makes such a difference having friends that know you well and I think Jon put it very well when he said our company was 'effortless'. Good friends are effortless company, what a lovely thought!

The next few days consisted of Andy and I frantically trying to find some clothes to wear for the wedding in Spain. I think we both thought it would be easy to shop in London for something to wear, like we would just pop up to Oxford Street and get two whole outfits and be done with it in an hour. I think we somehow forgot how ridiculously busy Oxford Street is. Even in the middle of the day on a weekday. It also didn't help that the sales had just started, so all the stores looked like a jumble sale. Total nightmare! I think all the stressful shopping completely undid any sense of relaxation I had from the spa day.

In the evenings we got together with different groups of friends, including Andy's uni friends and old co-workers from pretty much every school I worked at in London. 

Ok I didn't get a chance to add pictures to this post before boarding the plane, so we are home now as I add this last bit. We are TIRED and had a 3 hour nap when we got home from the airport at 8am. I feel like we may regret this in a few hours when we try to go to bed. Anyway I will finish up the details of our trip this week - am now off to get myself ready for a week back at school.
Portsmouth Harbour

Friday, 11 July 2014

Leaving London... again

We are sitting in Heathrow airport after a fabulous 3 weeks back in England (and Spain), visiting Andy's family and  our friends. It has gone by SO quickly and I'm afraid we are going to have post-holiday blues once we get back to Melbourne. We were very lucky to be able to catch up with so many people that we have missed since moving down under 18 months ago, not to mention the opportunity to attend a wedding of one of Andy's childhood friends in Javea, Spain at the same time. (It would be great if the rest of our friends planning on getting married soon could do so during Australian school holidays... ok? Thanks.)

We left Melbourne the Friday school broke up for the holidays at midnight. This was our first flight with Malaysian Airlines, flying from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur and then direct to London. We arrived at the airport to find a crazy long lineup at Malaysian despite being there 3 hours before our flight was scheduled to take off. We soon found out this was because the check in system was down, so everyone was being manually checked in. Yikes! Even though we had checked in online we still had to wait over an hour to drop our bags and receive a handwritten boarding pass. This also meant they weren't able to issue the boarding passes for our connecting flights in Kuala Lumpur. Our flight took off over an hour late and we were quite stressed we would miss our connecting. On arrival in KL the transfer desk was absolute chaos. We only had about an hour till our next flight, and were convinced we wouldn't make it. (Little did we know there were about 100 people in the same situation as us so they were holding the London flight). Andy somehow went straight up to the front of the desk and get someone to print out boarding passes and we rushed over to the gate and were quickly ushered onto the plane. Relieved, we settled into our seats only to hear the captain come on the loudspeaker informing us we would be delayed while waiting for the rest of the passengers from our flight! We proceeded to sit in the plane for 2 hours before taking off on our 13 hour flight. Needless to say, it was not an enjoyable experience! The food and movie selection were also pretty mediocre. We are not big fans of Malaysian at the moment but I am reserving final judgement until our return journey as the delay may have clouded my judgement.  I was wearing Skins compression leggings which I thought would be a comfortable choice but by the end of the second flight my knees were absolutely killing me. I am not sure if this was due to the  compression element or something else, but I've chosen normal cotton leggings for this flight.

When we finally arrived at Heathrow at 6pm we jumped in a black cab hoping to make it to my friends rooftop party before it got too late. WHAT A HUGE MISTAKE. I am not sure why we did this as I would never take a black cab in London, they are far more expensive than getting a mini-cab and there is a perfectly good underground system that goes from Heathrow to anywhere in London. Anyway I think we were just tired and not thinking straight but we will NEVER do that again, as not only did it take over an hour to get to Brixton, it also cost about £90. Ouch! A very expensive lesson learned.

On a positive note, the weather was absolutely gorgeous when we arrived, and nothing beats warm summer London nights. Especially those spent on a rooftop garden with all of your favourite people. We had arranged to meet my group of friends at Guillaume's infamous flat in Brixton, and everyone was there in good form. Even better, one of my best friends Kristin, who has since moved back to Toronto, was also in London for a visit. Her and her boyfriend, (now fiancee!) Dan, just got engaged so we were able to celebrate with them. We had a fantastic first night and I was just so so happy to be back in London with my friends who I have missed dearly. And I must say Andy and I did well, staying up until 3am before finally succumbing to jet lag.

Our lovely friends!

We are about to board our plan now so I will update the blog once we get back to Melbourne. *Apologies in advance for any spelling and grammar issues, no time to proofread!

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Joys of Moving in Melbourne

We are moving out of our first Melbourne flat today. Exciting, but a bit sad, and shocking to realize we have been in this flat for almost 16 months, which means we've been in Melbourne 16 months. Crazy how fast time flies. In four weeks we will be heading to London and Spain for 3 weeks to see our friends, Andy's family, and to go to the wedding of one of Andy's childhood friends. I am so so so looking forward to the trip. But first things first, we must get through this move.

The pool in our old flat... I will miss this!
The area we are moving to is called Prahran, which is the suburb just south of where we live now (in South Yarra). So, it's not a huge move in terms of location, about 1.5 km south of where we are now. Our main reason for moving is we are tired of not having any outside space. There is a communal area outside our building for residents but it is not the same as having your own private area. We also have absolutely no view, our flat looks onto the roof of the Woolworths at the bottom of our building. We have been missing out on way too many beautiful Melbourne sunrises and sunsets. The third reason is that our landlord is trying to sell our flat so there are people constantly coming around for viewings. That in itself is pretty annoying, but we also didn't know if it would be another investor buying the flat or someone wanting to actually live here, so we might have been kicked out at some point anyway. Interestingly, we have found out our landlord is having a very hard time selling... I'm sure the view onto the roof is not helping things. He bought it about 2 years ago brand new for over $500,000 and we overheard the real estate agent saying he is willing to accept around $460,000. I was surprised to hear that, as it seems the real estate market is pretty healthy here in Melbourne. Just goes to show that real estate is not always a sure investment, especially if you find yourself in a bind to sell. 

Ah, a lovely view of a roof. I will not miss this!

Nice rainbow, crap view. This was taken by Andy, I am not tall enough to see those buildings over the roof!
Our new place is in another new build, I think this complex opened in August 2013, so we are only the second tenants. The rent is cheaper, so we will be saving some money, and we are on the 9th floor with a nice big balcony and uninterrupted views out to the bay (I sound like a real estate agent...). The flat itself is small, although pretty comparable to what we have now. I think we have realised since moving here that we don't actually need that much space or that much stuff (and if you have a lot of space it just compels you to buy more stuff). I constantly shake my head at all the things we shipped here from England only to throw away or give to charity. Having outside space was a priority when looking for a new place, and we also wanted to save some money, so this place ticks those boxes. Oh, we also have WINDOWS in the main bedroom which we don't have right now. I know, bedrooms without windows, how awful. They are surprisingly common in the new builds around here. 

I really really hope we like this place to stay for a few years as moving pretty much sucks. First of all the process of flat hunting here is just ridiculous. I long for the days of flat hunting in London, which I found pretty dire at the time - however I didn't know how good we had it. Oh, to walk into an estate agent, give your budget and specifications, and to be taken around to view flats (sometimes the agents would even drive you there). Sure, you saw some crappy flats, but there was something nice and personal about the service. You felt the estate agent was actually doing something to earn their commission. Ok, maybe I didn't feel that when we were in London, but I do now!

Here in Australia you spend hours on websites like or looking through the rental listings. Don't even bother going into an estate agent as they will just tell you to look online. Each flat will have an 'Open for Inspection' which is a 15 minute time slot where the 'estate agent' will open up the flat so you, and anyone else who is interested, can have a look around. Sometimes there are 40-50 other prospective tenants there for the inspection. I am not sure what the purpose of that estate agent is, except to unlock the door, as they never have any additional information about the flat. Sometimes they don't even turn up or they turn up with the wrong keys, and the whole thing will have been a major waste of time. Usually it will be the first time they have been inside the flat themselves. With older places the flat barely resembles the pictures on the website, as pictures have all been retouched or taken years ago when the flat was in better condition. In one case Andy questioned the estate agent as the flat looked nothing like what was advertised online and she admitted they had used pictures of a different flat. Surely that can't be legal?!

If you like the flat, you then have to fill in a lengthy application form, detailing your salary, current and former places of employment, current and former residences, and a few references. They are a pain to fill in, although some places now use an online form through the website which takes a while to fill in but then can be used for multiple applications. The process is fairly competitive if you are applying for a popular place, and people often say they are willing to pay more than the asking rent in order to secure the place. We have never done that, but we know people who have offered an extra $25 per week for a place they really liked. Other than extra money and secure employment, I'm not sure how the tenants are chosen. Before we found our new flat, we applied for one other place we didn't get, and we felt pretty rejected! For this one, after some prompting from Andy, I called the estate agent a few days after we put our application in. The agent happened to go to the school I teach at now, so we had a nice little chat about that, and he said he thought we'd be good tenants and would phone the landlord to check. Half an hour later, the flat was ours. If we hadn't phoned who knows if we would have got it. So, if you're reading this and flat hunting in Melbourne, it's always good to phone the estate agent after you apply. 

Moving is also ridiculously expensive as you usually have to get the flat professionally cleaned - including steam cleaning the carpets. I don't mind that too much as it also means you move into a nice clean flat. It's also usually necessary to hire movers as most flats are unfurnished and so moving furniture yourself (including fridge and washing machine) is not really doable unless you have super helpful friends who don't work during the day also happen to own large vans. So even though we are saving on rent it will be about 2 months before we start saving if you count all the moving costs.

Ok well I'd better get back to it - the movers will be here in about 4 hours and Andy has had to work for the morning so it's just me doing all the last minute things. I have just finished my coffee so its time to pack up our beloved Nespresso machine. I think I am mostly done but want to be prepared for any last minute jobs. I am looking forward to a nice wine tonight on our balcony (that is, if it stops raining...)

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Le Grande Cirque

About a month ago while I was in India I got a text from Andy reading "Just saw MANU!!!!!" For those who don't know, Manu is a celebrity chef here in Australia, one of the judges on My Kitchen Rules. Yes, ok, so we've been watching the show rather religiously, which is a bit embarrassing to admit, but there is just something that about the show that makes it hard to stop watching. Perhaps it is the sexy French chef, Manu? Who knows...

Anyway turns out he has opened a restaurant about a 3 minute walk from our house with fellow celebrity chef George Calombaris (of Masterchef fame). The location is on the former site of Mama Baba, where we took Alison to eat when she visited last July

So of course we had to book reservations at Le Grande Cirque to check it out for ourselves. Andy has a 'man crush' on Manu that I didn't quite grasp the extent of until we visited his restaurant. We took our friends Alan and Aaron with us, who before going seemed unimpressed with the whole 'Manu' thing, as they aren't as into My Kitchen Rules as we are (probably a good thing!)

We had an amazing table right across from the open kitchen and to our surprise Manu was actually working! He was like, right there, coordinating all the orders, occasionally cutting up bread faster than I've ever seen anyone cut bread before, and at times having a strong word with some of his chefs. (To be fair, from my days of waitressing in fine dining, he seemed pretty calm and relaxed compared to the chefs I have worked with.) Well, if Alan and Aaron were not fussed about eating at Manu's restaurant they certainly changed their tune once they saw him! The three of them were totally embarrassing as they tried to covertly snap pics of him on their phones.

Pretending to take a pic of Alan

The food was 'down-to-earth French food' that was meant for sharing - sort of a tapas style french menu, if that makes sense? The food did not disappoint, it was all amazing, especially the 'Friture de Crevettes' (crispy prawns with aioli) and the 'petites betteraves, carottes & chevres' (baby beetroot, carrot and goat's curd salad). Aaron and Alan were doing a 'detox' so we tried to stay on the healthy side, although Andy and I did order the beef special which came with a blue cheese sauce (not healthy but soooooo good). We also didn't order any dessert, however they looked amazing and so we will definitely need to go back. Good wine list as well, and the prices were pretty average for Melbourne. 

At the end Manu came and took a few photos with us - he was a pretty good sport about it and was taking pictures with lots of customers when he had a chance. He was very funny and chatty and even pretended to kiss Andy in a photo once he heard about the man crush (I was cut out of this photo!) We also got his cookbook which he signed, which was totally an impulse buy but I will enjoy trying out some of his dishes.
Me, Andy and Manu

I was cut out of this one

Friday, 18 April 2014

India Part 2

In the second week of our trip to India we left Daly College to do some sightseeing in Jaipur, Agra and Delhi. We departed Daly at 5am for an 11 hour train ride to Jaipur, meeting up with our guide for the week, Jayant (pronounced Gi-ANT, which Georgia and I giggled at immaturely for the first few days). 

On arrival at the train station we realised that not all the seats were booked together in the same car. I ended up going to a separate train car with 3 of the boys, which I pretended I was fine with but was secretly a bit nervous. Thankfully Jayant managed to get some people to swap seats with us and we rejoined the rest of the group shortly after the train left Indore. 

The train ride was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. India has an extensive train network, and apparently 20 million people ride the trains everyday. We were in a first class car, which was air conditioned, and the berths were comfortable enough. I was lucky enough to have a bottom berth (well, I think it was my privilege as a teacher on the trip!) so I didn't have the trouble of climbing up and down from a top berth, which was pretty close to the ceiling of the train. Everyone tried to sleep for the first few hours, although as soon as you found yourself nodding off either the train would stop at a station or a tea seller would come by calling out 'chai, chai, garam chai' loud enough for the entire train to hear. At one of the stops an Australian family from Melbourne got on; they recognised the name of my school on our T-shirts. The family was travelling with 3 kids around 6-10 years old which I thought was so cool. What a great thing to do with your kids, I hope Andy and I have the courage to take our kids travelling like that someday!

Arriving in Jaipur was the only really stressful time we had with the students as it was just ridiculously busy. Luckily we were all wearing the same bright blue tour T-shirts which helped everyone stick together. We were taken to our hotel which was pretty luxurious, especially after saying in boarding school rooms at Daly. The next morning we didn't have to be ready until 9am, a nice change from our 6am wake-ups at Daly, although I did miss starting the day with yoga and meditation.

Pieces astrological sign at Jantar Mantra

Jantar Mantra
Jantar Mantra

Jaipur is known as the Pink City as most the buildings are an earthy pink colour. Our first stop was Jantar Mantra, the astronomical observatory built over 280 years ago, featuring massive marble and stone instruments used to measure time and position in space. The accuracy of the instruments is astounding, telling time correct within 20 seconds using the shadows made by the sun. We also visited the City Palace (very good) and Albert Hall Museum (not great, but a lovely building designed by the same architects who did Daly College), and the Amber Fort (awesome). You can ride elephants to the Amber Fort which would have been brilliant but as it wasn't in the risk assessment we couldn't let the kids do it. Risk assessments are such a drainer!

City Palace
City Palace

City Palace

Snake Charmer at City Palace

Elephant rides up to the Amber Fort

Amber Fort

Water Palace, Jaipur
After Jaipur we headed to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Wow. I don't even know how to describe in words the awesomeness of this monument. You think you have seen the Taj Mahal in pictures and on TV so you know what to expect, but it completely takes your breath away. Although I will admit that taking a group of 18 teenagers through this did take something out of the experience, as you don't really have the time to yourself to savour the moment. The inside is not as impressive as the outside, I think mainly because there are guards blowing whistles constantly at people trying to take pictures of the inside, which happened a lot. (Why do people do this? If there is a sign saying no pictures, than don't take a picture! People who think that rules don't apply to them actually really annoy me.) So, it's not quite the peaceful, serene atmosphere inside that one would expect.

Our last 2 days were in Delhi and I think at this point everyone was pretty tired, and some of the students started getting sick. Nothing major, but it felt like the trip was just long enough, and it was time to go home. Delhi was interesting, although again visiting with students meant that we avoided Old Delhi just because it wouldn't have been safe or feasible to take a large group though there.

We were mainly in New Delhi, which was quite modern in places, and in fact the area around the Parliament buildings is impressive and modern looking, and probably the only place we went that didn't have piles of rubbish everywhere. However I think that made me feel a bit uncomfortable, as it was such a stark contrast to the poverty we saw in other parts of the country and even in Delhi. In fact I feel that perhaps our students did not quite get enough of a shock in terms of the poverty that the majority of the country live in due to the structure of the trip. I think the teacher that organises it is looking to include a service component for next year, so that the students can start to understand the country a bit more.

The Lotus Temple, Dehli - where all religions are celebrated

Our flight home was pretty uneventful, except for the fact that our bus broke down a few miles from Delhi airport on the morning of our flight, and once at the airport one of our students left their bag with passport in an airport shop and had to run back to get it! Thankfully the bus had just run out of gas and our student's bag was still in the shop, so both crises were averted. Oh, and also on the flight from Delhi to Singapore the guy in front of me had his seat reclined THE WHOLE FLIGHT, including take off and landing. The flight crew even asked him to put his seat up during landing and when they left he put it back down! Ahhhhh! Again, people who just ignore rules really annoy me! Of course this guy also took his seatbelt off and stood up before the seatbelt sign had turned off once we'd landed. The nerve! Anyway, annoying flight passengers aside, I had a wonderful time and would love to go back someday (maybe without students!) to further explore the country. 

Monday, 14 April 2014

India Part 1

This year at school I was given the amazing opportunity to accompany Year 9 students on a two week trip to India. The first week was spent at Daly College in Indore, which is a Round Square school. Round Square is an organization of schools world-wide that share the same goals around learning, called IDEALS: Internationalism, Democracy, Environment, Adventure, Leadership and Service. My school in Mebourne is also a Round Square school.

We left on the morning of Friday 14th March - 18 students and 3 teachers, including myself. We had a fairly horrendous itinerary, a 7 hour flight to Singapore, 4 hour stopover, 6 hour flight to Mumbai, 8 hour stopover, and then an hour flight to Indore. The 8 hour stopover in Mumbai was overnight and prior to landing I was recalling a night spent in an Egyptian airport (Luxor I think?) in 2008 that was probably one of the worst nights of my life: freezing airport, hard metal benches, dusty floor, nothing to eat or drink. Thankfully the terminal we were in at Mumbai was pretty new and clean and there was a small snack bar where we could get tea and pastries, and the night passed without any incidents. We had to take a shuttle bus to another terminal to get our domestic flight to Indore, and then hilariously once we had gone through the gate we boarded another bus to take us to the plane, which was back at the international terminal. Hmmmm, fairly inefficient system I think! I also have never had my bags scanned or my boarding pass checked so many times as in this airport - I suppose since the attacks in Mumbai in 2008 security is extra tight, but man did it feel like overkill!

Once we got to Indore, Vijay, a teacher from Daly college who would be with us for our first week, greeted us and took us to the bus. The first thing I noticed about India is just how noisy it is on the road. I thought people in Melbourne overused their car horns, but they've got nothing on the people in India! However we learned that when people beep their horns in India it means something like "hey, just wanted to let you know I'm here!" rather than the aggressive or annoyed tone it takes on in Western countries. And the longer we were in India the more I was glad that the horn was used in this way, because the driving is insane. It was pretty much how I had pictured it... cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, cows and pedestrians all sharing the same space, all going at different speeds, but miraculously I never once saw an accident the whole time we were there. It was impressive to watch, in a way driving there is an art form.

Daly College, Indore
Finally arriving at Daly College around 8am on Saturday 15th March, about 30 hours after we left Melbourne, we were thrown right into a packed first day. We spent our first 6 days at Daly, where we took classes on Hinduism and other religions in India, Indian festivals, Indian history and Hindu Gods and symbols. As teachers we also sat in on the lessons and had to take tests at the end of each class. I loved being taught again, and learned so many things about Hinduism in particular that I must admit, I was pretty ignorant about before (I supposed my Grade 11 world religions class probably did not feel as interesting or relevant to me at the time!) 

A classroom at Daly College

Yummy Indian food at Daly

We were also there in time for the Holi festival, which is a Hindu festival celebrating love and colours. The eve of the festival starts with a bonfire, and then on Holi people celebrate colours by chasing each other around with coloured powder and water. We celebrated with other students in the school on school grounds so it was pretty tame - unfortunately taking a group of students out into the city to participate in the festival was not in the risk assessment!

Georgia (other teacher) and I after Holi
Bonfire on the eve of Holi

Vijay taught most of our lessons, as he is the religion and Sanskrit teacher at the school, and is also a priest to the royal family in Maheshwar. We went on an overnight trip to Maheshwar and the students were all able to meet Prince Richard Holkar - who turned out to be a pretty down to earth guy! His residence is Ahilya Fort which is also a hotel overlooking the Narmada River, where the students were able to take part in a ceremony to honour the river.

After Maheshwar we went on to Mandu where we stayed the night in a new hotel... so new that it didn't quite look like it was finished! Exposed wires, holes in the walls, and frequent power outages were just a few of the problems we had, however the food was excellent so we can't complain too much! 

Watching the sunrise at Roopmati's Pavillion

We were up at 5:30am so that we could arrive at Roopmati's Pavilion at dawn. The sunrise was beautiful, and totally worth waking up for. In Mandu we also visited the Jahaz Mahal, an impressive palace which included a haram for the 1500 wives of the ruler of the palace!

Jahez Mahel

Once back at Daly College the students also had a chance to do some pottery, art classes and cooking classes. They also learned a traditional Indian dance that they presented at an evening performance where parents of the Daly college students came to watch. The performance was great, a real highlight of the trip, with local newspapers covering the story of Australian students at Daly, and performances from other dance groups including a deaf dance group and the winners of India's Got Talent!

My attempt at Indian art

Temple at Daly College
After our first week at Daly we departed on Friday 21st March to start the sightseeing portion of our trip, starting with a 11 hour train ride to Jaipur. I will write about the second week in part 2...

Garry, one of the other teachers, kept a fantastic blog for the parents which you can read here if you are interested in seeing lots of pictures and details on the trip.
Monkey mom and baby

Who doesn't love a random Monkey shot? This one acted like he was posing for the cameras!

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Another Public Transport Rant

This article by Simon Godfrey in the January edition of the Melbourne Review articulates exactly what annoys me so much about the public transport system in Melbourne. The summary is that Melbourne wants to be a world-class city, and despite the transport issues keeps being voted the most liveable city in the world, however it's rail system is anything but world-class. If you can't be bothered to read the whole article (although its pretty short and much more professionally written than my blog!) here are some of my favourite bits:

"Melbourne's present train network resembles a bicycle wheel, with the City Loop at its centre and the suburban lines feeding into it. The system is fine if your destination is the city and the city alone, or you find yourself in the 1950s and transit to work is your sole transportation concern."

This was exactly my point in this blog post, that you can't easily travel from one suburb to another without having to go into the city and back out again. Godfrey comments that "it's easier to lead an expedition to Mordor than it is to travel from the Northern Suburbs to the Western Suburbs by public transport".

New roads are prioritised before rail expansions, and the author seems baffled as to why this is:

"Metro's inadequate services are universally complained about and anybody who has waited a maddening thirty minutes for a train, probably expecting a steam engine to roll in when it finally arrives, will tell you something needs to be done."

My other recent annoyance with public transport are the fare increases this year. A one-way trip went from $3.50 to $3.58 which is a pretty reasonable 2.3% increase. The weekday cap rate is now $7.16 (from $7), again, a reasonable increase. However the weekend cap rate used to be $3.50, so you could have unlimited travel on weekends for a pretty low price. They have raised that to a whooping $6.00! That is a 71% increase in price - absolutely ridiculous! 

It just seems crazy that in this day and age more isn't being done to promote public transport and cycling - at least as a commuting option. I actually miss Boris Johnson and his love for all things cycling in London. (Hilariously he was caught cycling in Melbourne without a helmet, which is illegal here, while visiting the city in August.) Out of my colleagues at work, I know two others that cycle a few days a week and a handful that take the train, the rest drive despite the school being between 2 train stations and/or living within easy cycling distance of the school. Most think it's crazy that I cycle 11km or, gasp, take the train. I actually met someone the other day that lives about 1km from his work place and drives there everyday! I think this is insane! But this is the norm here. 

Hopefully things will change here. Today we visited the Sustainable Living Festival that is on in Fed Square at the moment, so it's clear that people do want cleaner, greener options. I am happy to report that since going back to school 3 weeks ago I have been cycling more frequently and have had to use the train only a handful of times, so no major train frustrations for me yet this year. But I must admit that if we had 2 cars it would be pretty tempting to drive to school on my non-cycling days, as it would take about half an hour less commuting time each way. So I can see why so many people choose to drive, and until the rail network is dramatically improved this will probably not change. I love so many things about this city, and it is truly a fantastic place to live... better public transport would make it almost perfect!

Dights Falls
Some pics from my cycle to work

Monday, 20 January 2014

Australia's Newest Permanent Residents!

Yesterday we received a very exciting email: Notification that our Permanent Resident (PR) visa was granted! This means we are able to live in Australia indefinitely and have most of the same rights as Australian citizens. We will also be able to apply for citizenship in 3 years time, which is the overall plan at the moment. And, we can sponsor relatives who would like permanent residence here... Hello??? Mom, dad, Mike... anyone want to move out here with us??

The biggest benefit for us at the moment though is that with Andy going back to University to get an Australian teaching qualification in March, it means we don't have to pay international tuition fees. The fees for an international student are around $22,000 (AUD) compared with $6,000 for a resident. We had a deadline of 24th February for paying the first instalment of these uni fees, and so if our PR visa hadn't come through by then we would have had to pay the international fees. This was starting to stress us out as I anxiously checked my email inbox daily looking for something from immigration, so yesterday's news was a huge relief!

For those who are looking at coming to Australia, we got PR through the Employer Nomination Scheme (ENS, Visa Subclass 186). My job as a secondary school teacher is on the Skilled Occupation List (SOL), which means it is an occupation that is in demand. If you have worked in Australia for less than 2 years, you can only get residency if your job is on this list (or a second list, called the Consolidated Skilled Occupation List). You also have to have a nomination from your employer, as the title of the visa suggests. The employer also has to guarantee your job for the next 2 years. I have been extremely lucky as the school I am working for has been super supportive of me through all this. They agreed to sponsor me after only a few months of me joining the school, and also payed for our PR visa. 

The whole process took just over 6 months, with the Nomination submitted to immigration in July and being approved in October. I then applied for the nominated position in October and the approval came in January. The main differences to the 457 Temporary Business visa, which we were on when we first came here, are this:

Skills Assessment
You need to get a positive skills assessment from the assessing authority depending on your occupation. For teachers, it is the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL). This is a whole process in itself, although most of the documents I had to submit were similar to when I applied for registration through the VIT. It took about 3 months to get this, and you can't submit your application without it.

We both had to get a medical assessment, including an eye exam, chest X-Ray, and blood test to check for HIV. This is for the low cost of about $350 each. We got these done in December, and thankfully we are both healthy! (Well, healthy enough to stay in Australia). You have to book this through Medibank if you are in Australia, and they submit your results directly to immigration.

Character Assessment
This is also known as 'Form 80' and is the LONGEST form I have ever filled out. Seriously, you need a good few hours for this 18 page form. The most annoying part is a lot of the information is repeated from your actual visa application. And you have to list every country you have visited in the past 10 years. I know, I know, that is the very definition of a first world problem, however it was pretty hard to remember all those weekend trips though Europe while I was living in London! Luckily we only had to fill one out for me, as the main applicant.

We also had to reapply for all our police record checks as they were older than 12 months by this time, and so had expired. For me, this means checks from Canada, the UK and Australia. The Canadian one is particularly annoying as you have to get fingerprints done at a police station and then send them to the RCMP, where the processing time is 16 weeks if you are out of Canada! Ridiculous!

Other than that most of the documentation was the same as our 457 visa. The nice thing is that as long as you scan and upload colour copies of your documents you don't have to get anything certified. I really don't want to apply for another visa for a very long time now (although I am getting pretty good at it - we have never used a migration agent for any of our applications). However, I have just realised that if we want to move back to Canada eventually the waiting time to sponsor Andy is 2 years, so we might needed to get started on that sometime soon... Sigh...

Celebrating PR with a glass of bubbly!

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Happy Australia Anniversary!

As of the 16th of January we have been in Melbourne one whole year! Wow, it has definitely gone by super fast. It's funny as we are in the middle of a disgustingly hot heat wave (this is the fourth or fifth day of temperatures over 40 degrees), and also the Australian Open is back on, so it kind of feels exactly like last year all over again. The only thing missing is the other half of our 'Olympic Dreams' team, who have moved back to London (sad). 

So to celebrate our one year anniversary I've thought of some things we LOVE about Melbourne, and somethings that can be... a bit annoying.

Things We Love

1. The Cafe Culture
Everywhere you go there are independent cafes that are all completely different to each other, with creative menus and excellent coffee. Going for brunch is one of our favourite things (which we've had to cut back on since deciding to save more) and you are pretty much guaranteed fantastic food. Actually you can extend that generalisation to lunch and dinner as well, the quality of food in restaurants here is consistently well above average and worth the price you pay. Also in cafes and restaurants they always automatically pour you tap water which for some reason really makes me happy! I hate asking for water and then specifying 'TAP water' instead of still or sparkling. Some of our favourite brunch places are:
Two Birds One Stone (South Yarra)
Pillar of Salt (Richmond)
Birdman Eating (Fitzroy)
Beach Cafe (Seaford)

View from the Beach Cafe in Seaford

2. Being outdoors more
We both feel like we spend more time outdoors here than we did in London, whether going to the beach, going for a run or bike ride, or just walking through a nice part of the city. Exercise is more of a way of life here and walking around you are always passing runners, cyclists, or people on their way to the gym. Added to that, it seems acceptable to walk around in your gym gear, which our fashion minded friends probably hate, but I love! It also seems like a great place to bring up children as there is a lot to do outside and it is a relatively safe city. 

Going for a run through the City

Andy and Adriana at The Colour Run

3. People in the service industry are actually friendly
Sometimes in London if you were shopping or eating out and needed help with something, the sales person or waitress could be a bit less than helpful - you almost felt like you were bothering them by asking a question. But not here, everyone is super friendly, helpful and chatty. It reminds me of Canada in that way actually. And even when you have to phone someone, like the bank or an insurance company, the person on the end is always really nice and helpful.

4. Better work/life balance
Both of us work less hours teaching than we did in the UK, which was one reason we moved out here. I still feel like I work hard planning lessons and managing my department, however there are less top-down performance measures than in the UK which frees up time for actual teaching. There are also less behaviour issues here than in London. The students are of course not perfect here, but there is less of the talking back and disruptive behaviour that can be so draining in London.

Things we wish we could change:

1. Renting an Apartment
The rental process is horrendous. You search for properties online and then look at when they are open for inspection. The inspection time will be a 15-minute time-slot that the apartment is open for people to come and have a look. So you have to inspect the property with every other person who is interested in the flat, and sometimes that is like 40 other people. Then you have to fill in an application form and hope that the landlord picks you. How they choose people is anyones guess, but you have to include your salary and occupation so I'm sure that has something to do with it. Sometimes if it seems competitive applicants will say they are willing to pay more rent than the landlord is asking in order to secure the place. Oh and there is a 'real estate agent' present, who probably knows nothing about the flat and whose only purpose seems to be to open the flat with a key. (In fact, this is the only profession that I have found to be extremely unhelpful, which contradicts number 3 on the list of things I love here. But they are the exception, not the rule.)

2. Public Transport 
Ok, this one may be influenced by the fact that we lived in London, which has excellent public transport. My London friends, please don't complain about TfL anymore, you don't know how good you have it! First of all, there is no underground (subway) here, which is always going to slow things down a bit. Second, the train lines are organised in this way: There is a central loop of 5 stations, called the 'City Loop', which goes through the CBD (Central Business District). From each of these stations are train lines that branch off in different directions. The problem is that if you want to get from a station on a train line in the south, and say you want to go somewhere that is north east, you have to go in to the city and then back out again.  They basically need a few outer loops connecting the outer suburbs. 
Melbourne Train Map. We live in South Yarra
Also if your train is cancelled, well, that's it. You just have to wait for the next one. There are usually no alternate routes except maybe to take a bus which will most likely be very sloooooow. Especially if it is after work at peak rush hour. And if it rains the trains are often cancelled. Wait, rains?! Yes, that's right. Melbourne is one of the rainiest cities in Australia (probably) and lots of rain creates chaos on the trains. I remember laughing at London when the trains were cancelled after a few centimetres of snow. That doesn't seem so bad now!
I could probably go on and on about the public transport system here but so as not to bore you too much I will just write one last final gripe. The Myki system. Myki is Melbourne's version of the Oyster. It's the Oyster system's poorer, less efficient cousin. The main frustrations are it is slow to 'touch on' to the card readers at train stations and on trains and buses. Also you have to touch off buses which is annoying and easy to forget. But the main issue is it is just slow, creating lots of lines at train stations when it is not even that busy.
The good thing about public transport though is that it is air-conditioned which on days like today when it is 44 degrees I am very grateful for!

Beautiful Melbourne!
3. Melbourne is SO FAR from everywhere else in the world.
Well, it is close to like Adelaide, but that is not much help to us. We both miss our friends and families in the UK and Canada so much. We feel very far away from everyone and feel like this would be an almost perfect city to live in if it was just a bit closer to everyone. Although for me it's been over 8 years since I actually lived in Canada, being in London never felt that far away. It would be really great if they could invent a super fast and cheap plane to take us back to the northern hemisphere more often. 

And that's it. So here we are, one year on. The new school year starts in less than 2 weeks. Andy is going back to his Catholic school in West Melbourne where he is doing a maternity cover until June. He also starts his Graduate Diploma in Education in March through Deakin University so that he can be fully registered with the VIT. We are anxiously waiting for our Permanent Residence visa to come through so that we will not have to pay international fees for Andy's course. The timeline is pretty tight, it needs to come in by Feb 24th, but we think we have applied for it in time and all our documents are in order. I am going back to my school as Head of Mathematics, with a team of 25 maths teachers to lead. It will be a challenge but I am looking forward to it. 

Andy's parents are arriving tomorrow so we are looking forward to spending some time with family, along with the activities we have planned including a trip down the Great Ocean Road, the Australian Open, and doing some touristy things in Melbourne over the next 10 days.