“You Did It!”

Olivia, our 13 year old niece, was greeted by Elijah and I at the airport in Sydney on August 16th with a small home-made sign that read “You Did It”!  Escorted through security and immigration by one of the staff at the airport, Livi and I spotted each other, and proceeded to dissolve into each other’s arms – the sign crumpled between us – both of us relieved that she had made it safely!

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Livi was going to be away from her dad Scott (my brother), her mom Julia, her sister Grace, her friends and other family members, and her soccer teammates (during playoffs I might add!) for a total of 2 weeks!  We were so impressed that she wanted to come visit us and that she was willing to come on her own!  It is not a short journey, nor is it uncomplicated.  But with minimal assistance from the airlines, airport staff, and good friend Caralynne in Vancouver, Liv was able to get herself here and home again safe and sound.

Olivia was the absolute perfect visitor.  Our kids literally sparkled the entire time she was here with us.  Leina stuck to her like glue and tried to spend every waking moment with her special cousin.  While she was here, the kids enjoyed playing charades, and card games, and we went for bike rides around town and walks in the evenings, and hiked in the mountains.  Afternoons were often spent jumping on the trampoline in the backyard and evenings were always capped off with story time.  The kids were so proud to show Liv how well they are reading in English.

Olivia got introduced to their school and their teachers and some of their friends.  She went on a tour of their school, got to read in Cohen’s class, attended one of their weekly assemblies, and even rode home on the school bus with them!  Olivia marveled at their accomplishments and was impressed with their awards and certificates.

Olivia was at the perfect age for this visit.  While she enjoyed sitting and playing with the kids as much as possible, she was equally interested in sitting around with adults to talk about current events and life in Glengarry.  She was responsible enough to make the kids dinner one night and to babysit, so that Matt and I could go out on a date!

She managed to charm the pants off everyone she met and everyone was amazed at how mature and polite and gregarious she is for someone her age.  One woman even mistook Liv for being a university student!  Liv thought that was great!

Liv was able to visit Katoomba and rode the cable car and steep railway into and out of the Grose Valley and rainforest below.  She hiked at Pulpit Rock and picnicked on the side of a cliff, and she was blown away by the views at Govetts Leap, and her favourite lookout, Anvil Rock.  She came with us to celebrate Damien and Amber’s little nephew Ollie’s 4th birthday party at an indoor play place and spent the afternoon crawling and sliding right along with the other kids, much to the delight of Leina, Cohen and Elijah!

The kids introduced Liv to some of their favourite Australian animals at Featherdale Wildlife Park, and she loved seeing the kangaroos randomly out in the fields not unlike seeing deer at home!

Matt introduced Liv to an Australian high school for a day, and matched her with Caitlin, a year 8 student at Lithgow.  Liv had many observations from the day, and came away with an appreciation for life at her little rural high school in Glengarry.  She even got published in the school’s monthly newsletter!  Thankfully she didn’t fall in love with any year 8 boy and decide to stay here!

One of the highlights from our time together was our weekend spent exploring Sydney.  We spent time with friends Amelia and Huw and their children Imogen, Annika and Charlie, at Shelley Beach near Manly and rode the ferry back to Circular Quay at night time with the Opera House and Harbour Bridge sparkling with light.  We introduced her to Sydney’s Chinatown and dined on Chinese food.  We spent time on Cockatoo Island exploring the Biennale art exhibit, bought gelato and souvenirs in the Rocks Market, and watched buskers playing their didgeridoo’s.

We’ve discovered that Liv is an impressive shopper and managed to get some wonderful little gifts to bring home to her family, as well as a few new “back-to-school” wardrobe staples.  She enjoyed shopping at the Factory Outlets down in Sydney, as well as the little shops in the Blue Mountains, and succeeded in buying herself a pair of authentic UGG boots!

Regardless of how brief our time together here in Australia was, we are grateful for the quality of her visit.  We are indebted to all of the generous individuals who made her trip possible, and we are grateful to her parents, Scott and Julia, for giving their daughter firm roots as well as wings.

It was not easy to say good-bye to someone as special a visitor as Livi, but I must say, it was touching to witness the compassionate exchange between very fond cousins – both when she arrived and when she had to leave.

There is no greater gift than the gift of love and family and we are all so proud and lucky to have such a beautiful, brave, and fun-loving gem like Livi in our midst!

And Livi – congratulations – you did it!  You are an amazing young lady.  And may this just be the start of some fantastic worldly travels.  You, and the people you will meet, will be richer for it.

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Mother’s Day in Newcastle

“Each day of our lives we make deposits into the memory banks of our children.” ~ C. Swindoll

Our exchange year is all about filling up Leina, Cohen and Elijah’s memory banks, and Mother’s Day weekend in Newcastle proved to be another opportunity to make some momentous deposits, for all of us.

Newcastle is only a 3 hour drive from the Blue Mountains, on the coast north of Sydney.  Historically it is Australia’s second oldest city, and in the last few years it has undergone revitalization and coincidentally in 2011 it was named one of the top 10 cities in the world by Lonely Planet guide book.

We had a true Novocastrian experience in Australia’s seventh largest city, known for its’ abundance of beaches, surf breaks, and world class Ocean baths.  We started our day with a swim and play on Nobby’s Beach, made famous by the MV Pasha Bulker carrier ship that ran aground in massive storms in June of 2007.  The kids really enjoyed running in the waves while watching these massive carriers pulling in to port right by the beach.  Thankfully none of them crashed while we were there!  It is obvious that the port in Newcastle is the economic lifeline for the city, as the ships were constantly manoeuvering through the harbor.  Moving 90 million tonnes of coal every year makes Newcastle the world’s largest exporter of coal.  It truly was awesome to see.

We strolled past the historic Customs House en route to meet Damien and Amber’s sister-in-law and her daughters.  We were treated to a swim in their pool and refreshments on the terrace before heading out for an early evening walk before dinner.  We could feel the burn in the quads during the uphill climb to King Edward Park, and the kids enjoyed a play on the outdoor structures and a run around the ornate rotunda. On the walk back to the downtown we walked the ‘Bather’s Way’ which is the coastal walk that links 3 of Newcastle’s white-sandy beaches.

Dinner that night was at Blue Water Pizza overlooking the harbor.  The kids enjoyed taking turns on the ‘Power Wing’ on the boardwalk and pier while they waited for their wood-fired pizzas to arrive.  The ‘Power Wing’ is a radical new three-wheeled device that looks like a scooter, but is propelled by moving your body from side to side.  It requires a lot of hip action, and Cohen seemed to have the hardest time shaking his hips – go figure – he’s a lot like his father!!  Some of the kids even rushed through their ice cream dessert just to get back on the ‘Power Wing’!  A big hit needless to say!

Sunday morning, Mother’s Day, was very special!  I was treated to a sleep in, and then presented with breakfast in bed, complete with some fabulous homemade gifts, a new mug that says “If Mums Were Flowers, I’d Pick You” (apparently I almost ended up with two of these as both Leina and Cohen chose the same gift at the Blackheath Public School Mother’s Day Stall!), a travel manicure set, some Australian soap, and a cooking magazine!  The most priceless thing of all was when Elijah came into the bedroom he started singing “Happy Birthday”!

My husband may not have loose enough hips for the Power Wing, but he does know how to keep me happy, because he was the one to suggest that the remainder of the morning be spent browsing the shops at the local mall!

Our Mother’s day picnic lunch was planned for the Blackbutt Nature Reserve with Damien’s brother and sister-in-law and nieces.  James had coordinated the entire lunch and had poured both Beth and I glasses of red wine, before he had us feasting on fresh chicken sandwiches with avocado and coleslaw on crusty rolls – Matts’ new favourite sandwich!  After lunch and turns on the Power Wing, we walked around the Blackbutt Reserve, which is a natural bushland park that provides habitats for a number of native Australian wildlife, including the kangaroo, wombat, wallaby, emu, and koala, among other animals and birds.  The park occupies over 182 hectares and is entirely run by volunteers.  There is no charge for the park and was the perfect setting for a Mother’s Day picnic!

Our drive back down the coast and up the mountain to Blackheath was memorable as the kids tried to attract the attention of the passengers in the cars parked beside us at the stop lights!  Cohen had one young woman winking and flirting with him – which in turn had us all in stitches!

Mother’s Day weekend will go down in history as being memorable for various reasons including exploring a new city, spending quality time on the beach, walking along the water, partaking of wine and good food with new friends, but most of all because it was spent surrounded by 4 of my favourite people – all of whom have made me one very proud and lucky MUM!

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Road Trip with Grandma and Grandpa

Road maps – check.  Time-out vehicle – check.  Electronic games – check.  More snacks than a well-stocked Beckers – check.  Sense of adventure – naturally.

We were setting off on a 10 day, 3000 kilometre excursion south of the Blue Mountains through Australia’s varied and breathtaking countryside.  We would be traveling to the capital Canberra, and the famous Snowy Mountains, out to the beautiful coastal town of Merimbula, onto Cape Liptrap, to the cosmopolitan city of Melbourne, the sleepy southern town of Euroa and the hospitable town of Cootamundra before making our way back to the Blue Mountains.

And apart from getting a horrible case of pink eye and discovering Leina had head lice on our last day, the road trip proved to be incredible!

Once we had established that you cannot rent a van from Sydney, Nova Scotia airport and expect to drive it in Australia, we were well on our way in convoy!

The first two days of the excursion were short, manageable road trip days.  We were easing gracefully into the trip with a nice leisurely 4 hour drive down the Hume highway to Canberra.  Canberra was a teaching exchange possibility for us, and after having spent one day on this road trip touring around the city, complete with a drive down ANZAC Parade, and a visit to the impressive War Memorial, both Matt and I felt reassured that we had made the right decision choosing Blackheath and the Blue Mountains over the conservative capital.  It was a nice place to visit but we wouldn’t want to live there.

We left the capital city and made our way through the charming town of Cooma, in the Snowy Mountains.  A note here about Australian coffee, if I may.  Each cup is brewed individually, and if you have the patience to wait while these quaint little coffee shops brew yours, you will never be disappointed!  Cooma was a great spot to stop for our morning coffee and play in the town centre playground (another awesome feature of small town Australia is the attention they pay to having a community park in the centre of town with public toilets and large play structures for the kids).  It was here that the kids were treated to new footwear courtesy of Grandma and Grandpa!  Leina’s new boots had Grandpa commenting that “now you just need a horse”!

From Cooma we drove through the clouds in the Snowy Mountains, past spectacular scenery – rolling hills and roving belted Galloway and Hereford cattle and large flocks of sheep.  We stopped for our picnic lunch in the town of Bega, the cheese capital of Australia, after driving through one of Australia’s famous mid-day breathalyser tests!  Thankfully we were sober that morning!

A stunning part of the south coast of Australia was a mere 100 kilometres beyond Bega.  The town of Merimbula, on the Sapphire Coast, greeted us with warmth and radiance!  It is not hard to imagine the reason behind it’s designation as a “holiday resort” town, with a total of 5 beaches within its grasp and many other activities and options for young and old alike.  We found one of the beaches and spent time running in and out of the waves and building sandcastles, while Grandma and Grandpa strolled downtown to find us a suitable dinner venue.  Restaurant of choice was a quaint Mexican establishment that had a play structure right outside in the courtyard for the kids to play on while we waited for our meals to arrive!

Leaving the pace and sights of Merimbula in the morning, although difficult, meant we were only one more drive away from Cape Liptrap, the most southern tip of privately owned land in Australia, and holiday home of Blair and Jean’s good friends, Evan and Judy Walker.  Our longest drive of the road trip, took us through Lakes Entrance and Sale, lovely seaside towns, and we arrived at the Cape in time for pre-dinner drinks and very warm greetings!

Cape Liptrap is one of those places that can only be experienced to be believed.  Describing the home as an architectural marvel, and the surroundings as bush land with impressive views across to Wilsons Promontory and if you’re lucky, Tasmania on a clear day, doesn’t even begin to do it an ounce of justice.  The home and the hosts are truly warm and hospitable.  Evan and Blair (Matt’s dad), attended university together in Toronto, and have remained dear friends ever since.  It was an emotional and special reunion between families, as Evan is now stricken with Parkinson’s and Judy has become the brave primary caregiver.  We spent the weekend enjoying each other’s company, as well as good food, lively conversation, and some of the best beach shell searching yet!

One of the highlights for the kids was a special treat before bed one night – a ride in the paddock to search for nocturnal wombats!  Evan and Judy’s daughter Becca took us on an adventure that is carved forever into our memory banks – quite a sight watching these fat, cuddly creatures bound out of the way when the headlights spot them!  Elijah thought it was the best!  During our weekend together, Judy kept Cohen busy by giving him a basin with soapy water so that he could clean a kangaroo bone found on a bush walk, and she had both Leina and Cohen parenting caterpillars in homemade boxes with fresh eucalyptus leaves.

Another Cape Liptrap highlight was taking turns bottle-feeding the baby kitten that Evan and Judy’s son Chris and his wife Sam brought to Cape Liptrap from their home near Ballarat.  Leina was enamoured by this tiny, squealing, bundle of fur and enjoyed every opportunity to give it a cuddle!

We had such a wonderful time with the Walker family and found it difficult to say good-bye to them.  Our weekend together was so rich and rewarding in so many ways, and their hospitality will never be forgotten.

From Cape Liptrap, we traveled just over two hours to the city of Melbourne.  We checked into our spectacular 3 bedroom fully furnished apartment in Southbank and immediately immersed ourselves in this amazing, culturally eclectic metropolis!  We met up with Stuart and his girlfriend Jodi for dinner down on the river our first night in the city.  Stuart is the son of really good friends of Blair and Jeans, originally from Ottawa, and may be seeking permanent residency in Australia now that he’s fallen for an Aussie!  An awesome choice in restaurant on the Yarra River, given that we have children, and an awesome time was had catching up.

Our time in Melbourne was spent exploring by foot, the Botanical Gardens, Federation Square and Flinders Street Station, as well as a walk and tour of the Shrine of Remembrance, another of Australia’s impressive monuments to the men and women who have served during times of war.  Melbourne, although a very large city, is surprisingly easy to get around.  It is walkable, yet public transit is user-friendly, and the city is architecturally stunning and full of green space, parks, and gardens.  Melbourne is also home to 17 professional well-supported sporting teams!  Can you tell it is my new favourite city!?!

While staying in Melbourne for 4 nights, we experienced dinner on Little Bourke in Chinatown, visited the glass-laden beach at St. Kilda, dined on Acland Street in trendy St. Kilda, shopped and bought an Aussie designer label dress as well as great gifts at the Queen Victoria Market, admired the penguins at the Aquarium, and Matt and I even went on a date to the movies (housed in one of the biggest casinos we have ever seen)!  Melbourne far exceeded our expectations as one remarkable city!

A side trip on our way out of Melbourne, was to the town of Healesville to visit the highly recommended Healesville Animal Sanctuary which really impressed us.  It was here that Leina and Cohen said good-bye to their caterpillars, and we enjoyed a walking tour of this oasis full of native Australian animals, including every kind of snake and bird, as well as dingos, wombats, Tasmanian devils, kangaroos, platypus, echidna, bilby, wallaby, and even a koala bear named Hamish!  Elijah learned the hard way that if you don’t hang on tight to your sandwich, the Australian White Ibis will steal it right out of your little hand!

The drive away from Healesville and through the Yarra Valley was absolutely stunning.  Such beautiful countryside – rolling hills with vineyards perched on estates.  Wine country that would be worth stopping for a visit, as I’m sure I heard the grapes on the vines beckoning me to stop and sample, if only this was an “adult-only” road trip!

Our motel stops on the way home were in Euroa and Cootamundra and it was at the motel in Cootamundra, the morning we were set to drive home, that we discovered Leina had head lice!  She rode home with a strong-smelling leave-in lice treatment – we were thankful this was our last day!  We were able to enjoy a lunch and walk in downtown Bathurst before getting home at a reasonable hour.

It was an incredible road trip with beautiful scenery through Australia’s diverse countryside – lush rainforests, rolling hills, and rugged coastline.  We had 10 days of sunshine that allowed us to return with some great photos, and priceless memories.  It was a privilege that we don’t dare take for granted and a road trip that was extra special because the memories and moments were shared with Leina and Cohen and Elijah’s Grandma and Grandpa Williams.

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Australia – Worth the Long Flight

G’day Mates!

We’ve arrived!  It only took 24 hours on a plane, but we are here safe and sound!  The kids were awesome on both flights, and gave us long stretches of sleep.  Elijah amazed us, and only required about 20 trips up and down the aisles.  People actually seemed to enjoy seeing him come because he had big smiles and big ‘Hi’s’ to share!  Our connection in Vancouver was very tight, but we managed to have close to an hour before the long 15 hour flight to Sydney, so the kids were able to run around the airport and expend some pent up energy, even if it was 3 in the morning our old time!  Paying extra for bulk head seats was definitely well worth it, and CAS will be happy to know that Gravol was only used on Elijah for a short nap in the latter half of the long flight from Vancouver to Sydney.  No animals were harmed in the making of this…….never mind!

We arrived in Sydney and blew right through customs.  They barely looked at our passports, stamped them and sent us on our way to pick up our luggage.  We were warmly greeted by Amber and Damien’s parents – Caroline and Colin, and Doug and Jenny.  They brought us Aussie hats and bananas for the kids – Elijah ate 4 before leaving the airport!  Leina and Cohen were dumbfounded by the kangaroo buskers and Chinese dragon performers just outside the airport!  It was a balmy 32 degrees and quite humid.

Caroline, Amber’s mom, drove Al and the kids back to their beautiful home in Glenbrook, at the base of the Blue Mountains.  Colin and Caroline built their home some 30 years ago and it is tucked into the side of a mountain.  Beautifully designed and laid out.  It was fun to explore.  Colin, Ambers’ dad, drove Matt to the car hire place to pick up the rental, and once back at Caroline and Colin’s, we were treated to hot meat pies and more Aussie paraphernalia – like beach towels, flags, mugs, beer cosies, and yes, thongs!!  Matt’s first pair of thongs!  And they fit!  They make them big enough!

It was here that we met Amber’s sister, Amy and her two boys Sash and Oliver.  She had made up a “Welcome to Australia” gift basket complete with Vegemite, Tim Tams, Lamingtons, Tomato Sauce (our ketchup), chocolates, ANZAC biscuits, and sprinkles to make “Fairy Bread” (very popular at birthday parties I am told), and she and the boys had made homemade chocolate cookies and cupcakes, and she also gave us a beautiful bouquet of traditional Australian flowers.  We were overwhelmed!

Around 2:30PM we headed out of Glenbrook, escorted by Colin and Caroline, to our new home in Blackheath.  The drive up from Glenbrook was breathtaking!  The scenery in the Blue Mountains area is so awesome!  The road is winding, and around every corner there is some new vista.  Matt was busy concentrating on driving on the left side of the road, and the kids were so tired they passed out – but Alyson got to enjoy the views!

Blackheath is this quaint little village tucked into the Blue Mountains that seemed to welcome us with open arms!

Stay tuned for our first impressions of our new home and the town and friends that welcomed us!

Australia Bound!

In December of 2010, we submitted an application through the Canadian Education Exchange Foundation for Matt to teach for a year in either Australia or Denmark, and we received word in mid-May that the exchange application had been approved and a suitable match had been found in Australia.

So in January of 2012 we will be heading to Blackheath, New South Wales, a small bush-land village just over an hour west of Sydney, in the famous Blue Mountains.

We will arrive at the beginning of the Australian school year, and also their summer season.  Yippee! Our oldest two will start school in the Aussie school system.  Analeina will be in grade 2 and Cohen will be in kindergarten.  We understand that their school is within walking/biking distance, so we are looking forward to being able to do that.  The school requires them to wear a uniform which will be great!  The less we have to stress about in the morning, the better!

Elijah and I will be looking for things to keep us busy during the day while we are living in Blackheath.  I’ll be looking for playgroups, and libraries and places to volunteer, as well as doing the research on places to visit and travel to during the school breaks.  A difficult job, but someone will have to do it!!

Right now we are in the midst of a tonne of paperwork.  The passport acquisition process seems to have been the easiest part so far, even if the passport Canada employee in Ottawa was a jerk!  Now we have to submit a bunch of documentation to the Department of Education in NSW in order for them to “sponsor” us.  Once they have sponsored us and have given us a sponsorship number, then we can apply for our entrance visas.  All of this paperwork can take months to process, so we are actively pursuing this so we can in fact leave in January!

We have started looking into flights, and I must say that I am a little concerned about flying such a great distance in January with a 7 year old, 4 year old and an 18 month old!  I think our best bet is flying to Vancouver and then flying directly to Sydney from there.  It means over 15 hours on the plane, but provided the kids respond well to Gravol, we should be fine!

It is all very exciting and we are very much looking forward to this adventure!  Both Matt and I feel that this is a very unique opportunity, and one that we hope will be immeasurably rewarding.  We are so grateful for the outpouring of support from our families, friends, neighbours and co-workers as we begin this next chapter and take off on this adventure with the family.