“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.

Touring Around Town with Grandpa and Grandma!

They came.  They sewed.  They played.  They cooked.  They babysat.  They chopped.  They walked.  They gardened.  They read.  A lot!

Through the eyes of the three kids, Grandma and Grandpa’s visit was all about the parks and picnics and the card games and story times.  For Matt and I, their visit was about adult company on those walks and at meal times, and even a couple of date nights!  It was about quality time with two special visitors.  It was great welcoming Matts’ parents to our exchange home.

Blair and Jean spent over two weeks in the Blue Mountains broken up by a 10 day road trip together south of the mountains to the state of Victoria.  During their time in the Blue Mountains we hosted some of our new friends over lunch in the sunshine on our back deck and at everyone’s recommendation, we visited the Mount Tomah Botanical Gardens for a picnic lunch and walk.  Mount Tomah is this fantastic garden less than an hours drive from Blackheath.  It is a cool climate garden with wonderful walking trails, and plenty of grass for picnics.  We toured through the gardens and admired the variety of trees and plants that seem to thrive 1000 metres above sea level in the mountain air.  We especially liked the different pines, and my new favorite – the Wollemi Pine.

Easter Sunday, the kids were delighted to learn that the Easter Bilby had made an appearance!  He even left Easter eggs outside on the deck!  Jeannie and I sported lovely hand-made Easter bonnets at church Sunday morning, made by the church ladies, and we hosted Amber’s family for Easter dinner that evening, complete with Pavlova for dessert!

Another highlight was a daytrip to Sydney.  We rode the train to Parramatta, and because Blair and Jean are of a certain age, they got to travel for $2.50 for the entire day!  From Parramatta, we walked to the Parramatta Wharf and caught the River Cat ferry down to the Sydney harbour.  What a beautiful way to travel to the heart of the city.  Parramatta River winds its way past smaller harbours and shoreline executive homes.  And since the sun was shining, the trip down the river and under the Harbour Bridge was just perfect!

We spent the day walking around the Opera House and picnicked in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens before taking another ferry over to Manly.  The kids had a blast splashing in the waves and playing in the sand for the afternoon while the adults visited!  After ice cream on The Corso, we ventured back on the ferry and headed for Circular Quay to pick up the rental car.  The group split in two – the men and Leina took the rental car, and Jeannie, and I and the boys took the train back to Blackheath.

Blair and Jean got to experience some of our favourite lookouts and hikes, including the local Fairfax Heritage Track, as well as Wentworth Falls.  Cohen lead us to the Wentworth Falls Lake, a spot he had been to with his class, for some playtime on the pirate ship structure, and we enjoyed a picnic by the lake.

A highlight for Matt and I was a gift from Blair and Jean, a double date to Sydney to the Playhouse.  Our friend Kim looked after the kids for the afternoon and evening, and we ventured down on the train, enjoyed shopping in The Rocks market, and pre-show drinks and a visit with Preston and Sandra Manning.  The show we were treated to was a tribute show to the late Johnny Cash – ‘The Man in Black’ – performed by Australian singer and songwriter, Tex Perkins.  The Playhouse is a small, intimate theatre in the lower level of the Opera House.  Tex does a stellar Johnny Cash impersonation, and wove the story of Johnny Cash between songs.  After the show we enjoyed oysters and dinner right on the harbour.  The train ride back up to Blackheath meant that no one had to worry about staying awake!  It was a grande date and a real treat to be out without lugging a diaper bag, stroller, or snacks through downtown Sydney!

A couple of days before they were leaving for home, on ANZAC Day, we explored the Jenolan Caves, which is about an hour away from Blackheath.  This adventure is deserving of its’ own post, so stay tuned!

Also deserving of its’ own post is the entire road trip we did together to Melbourne and area, so stay tuned for that as well!

It was incredibly difficult to say good-bye to Blair and Jean when they left on April 27th.  There were flood warnings in Blackheath from all of the tears!  They brought a little piece of home, and knowing we wouldn’t see them for another 8 and a half months, made their departure all the more difficult.  They were wonderful guests – relaxed and easy-going company – who spoiled their grandchildren with games, and story time, and treats and cuddles.  We are so grateful that they made the trip to visit us and we will all cherish the memories forever.  Even Elijah, who appeared to be handling the morning of their departure best, reacted as their car drove away down the road by pointing and crying out “Ganpa and Gamma, Ijah wanna go too”!

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The Arrival of Grandparents!

Our first visitors to our new home in Australia were about to arrive! The spare bedroom was ready and waiting, and 3 very spirited grandchildren were bursting with excitement! Matt’s parents, Blair and Jean were set to arrive into Sydney at 8:30AM on April 4th. They were arriving just in time for the Easter weekend and the first term two-week break.

Elijah and I made the two hour trek to the airport in Sydney, with an Aussie flag ready to be waved frantically at our guests! Elijah had been talking non-stop about “Ganpa and Gamma” and “aipane” for the weeks leading up to their arrival. The whole journey to Kingsford-Smith Airport was consumed with talk about two of his favourite people on earth!  Little did I know his reaction upon actually seeing them would be one of pure disbelief and skepticism!

The flight was on time and their journey was comfortable as they had been upgraded to business class!  There were big hugs, and they were thankfully greeted with warm Australian weather, as well as a disbelieving and muted grandson!  It wasn’t until after lunch in Springwood, en route to Blackheath that Elijah finally came out of his shell and held his “Ganpa’s” hand as they walked the streets of this quaint village!

After a quick catnap and more cuddles at home, we all walked up to the school to collect the other two excited grandchildren.

While waiting patiently in the school courtyard for the final bell to ring, Blair and Jean were able to meet some of the other Blackheath parents and new friends.  As soon as the bell rang, Leina came running into her grandparents arms and what a special reunion it was!  Blair went around to the Kindergarten courtyard to greet a very ecstatic grandson – Cohen held on tight to Grandpa long after the hug was initiated!  And then it was Grandma’s turn for a Cohen bear hug, and she too was not left disappointed!

The first stop after the grande reunion and introductions to their teachers, was the bakery on the way home for a classic grandparent treat – chocolate infused croissant and a hot chocolate!  Check out the happy grin!

The kids were so eager to show Grandpa and Grandma the route home from school, which was made much more interesting by the sugar rush!

It wasn’t long after the school pick up and bakery treats that Matt got home from work and was warmly and lovingly greeted by his parents.  And this was the start of what was going to be fantastic quality bonding time with such special visitors!

Scenes from Sydney

The New South Wales Department of Education and Training invited exchange teachers to Sydney Friday, February 17th for a one-day workshop, so we booked a hotel room and decided to stay the weekend and explore the city!  Everyone was pumped!

Our day started off with a bang, as the alarm clock did not go off as planned!  I awoke with a start at 5:55PM – our train to Sydney was leaving at 6:30AM!  That meant a mad rush to get everyone dressed, teeth brushed and out the door by 6:20AM to drive to the train station in Blackheath.  Luckily the bags and breakfast had been packed the night before!

The quick start was rewarded with a slow, leisurely train trip into the downtown.  We enjoyed our breakfast and the view from the upper level of the train.  Train travel in Australia is so civilized!  Trains depart regularly, even from the top of the Blue Mountains!  And for less than $8.00 we can travel to downtown Sydney in roughly 2 hours.

Once downtown, we found the location of the workshop and left Matt with his fellow exchange participants, and the kids and I hooked up with Wilma and Robyn (former Australian exchange participants) for a guided walking tour of the city.  We started at the Customs House and walked “on top” of Sydney!  They have a full-scale model of the city under glass on the floor, so you can literally walk on top of the city!

Our tour continued into the famous Rocks area near the harbour, and after a quick stop at a souvenir shop, we were at the base of the steps to climb up and walk along the Harbour Bridge.  The day was perfect for walking, and we were amazed at the awesome views from the bridge.  Cohen loved the water taxis and boats below!  We walked the full length of the bridge and back again with only minor whinging and lots of snacks.  We meandered back through the Rocks and then had lunch at Circular Quay.

Following lunch, we walked over to the Opera House in the harbour and then enjoyed a leisurely afternoon in the Botanical Gardens in downtown Sydney, where we saw flying foxes (massive bats), eels in the ponds, a photo art exhibit on Lake Eyre, a succulent garden, climbed a few trees, and had an ice cream before heading back to meet Matt at 3:30.

Matt enjoyed meeting fellow exchange participants and the opportunity to talk about the rewards and challenges of teaching in another country.  It’s always refreshing to know that you are not alone and that your experiences can be similar to others.

We stayed the weekend at a great little hotel in Surry Hills, a block away from Oxford Street where there is some great shopping and eateries, and great scenery!  The hotel had 1 bedroom and a pool – always a pre-requisite with kids!

On Saturday the kids were awake at 5:30!  Go figure!  They’re never up this early at home, but alas, it made for an early departure from the hotel room and meant we could pack more into the very hot and sunny day!

First stop – Circular Quay to catch the ferry to the world-famous Taronga Zoo!  We could have spent the whole day on the ferry and the boys would have been happy – what a highlight that was!  We got to the wharf at the base of the zoo and the next highlight was the cable car that takes you to the top of the zoo!  The zoo is on the side of a hill in Sydney opposite the Opera House which means the animals have the best views in all of Sydney.  And the zoo is designed such that you take the “Sky Safari” to the top and then make your way down the hill to the base of the zoo and the wharf.

What a fantastic zoo!  This was my second visit and it was much more spectacular going with kids!  The highlights were the snakes, baby elephants, the tigers, the ½ hour seal show, and the Tasmanian devils!  We spent 4 ½ hours meandering through the zoo and the displays and had a picnic lunch right in the middle of the zoo and by the time we got to the bottom, everyone was exhausted!

But not too exhausted to take the ferry back and the bus down to Bondi Beach!  The kids were amazed at the waves and spent close to 2 hours running in and out of the waves!  Both Leina and Cohen got mouths full of salty water and Elijah spent most of the time running away from the water creeping up onto the beach.  And Matt and I just enjoyed the eye candy!

 

We had a Thai dinner down on Campbell Parade before heading back on the bus to our hotel.  And after a quick dip in the hotel pool to rinse off the last of the salt and sand, we all crashed as soon as our heads hit the pillow!

Sunday morning we checked out of the hotel and walked down to Darling Harbour for some play time in Tumbalong Park (a very large outdoor playground), and a walk through China Town, and Paddy’s Markets.  We were meeting at Merril’s place for lunch in the Glebe, so we caught the bus up to that area of town just before noon.

Merril is the woman who I was a nanny for 15 years ago.  She has moved from her sprawling home in Woollarha and now lives in another beautiful area of Sydney.  We were welcomed into her stunning home for a scrumptious lunch of homemade salads, and bread and cheese and fruit platters.  Merril’s oldest daughter Miranda came with her daughter Asha, and Miranda’s friend Liz.  Merril had also invited her convivial neighbors Matt and Nicky and their two children.  The wine and conversation flowed all afternoon and if it wasn’t for our 5:18 train back to Blackheath, we would have stayed all evening!

Sunday is ‘Family Funday’ in Sydney and surrounds, which means that for $2.50 per person an entire family can enjoy a fun day out with unlimited travel on Sydney’s buses, trains and ferries!  It was a “Family Fun Weekend” for us, and the kids are already asking “when can we go back?!”

Emotional Reunion

14 years ago, I was here in Australia with two girlfriends, Amanda and Kathleen, and it was an experience of a lifetime.  I worked in Sydney as a nanny for a single mom who at the time, was bravely raising her 3 beautiful children – Miranda, Arabella, and Oliver.  As the nanny, I was mainly responsible for Ollie.  He was 7 years old, and had the most fabulous blond curls I’d ever seen.  Ollie was also autistic and so my main responsibilities included getting him dressed and ready for school in the morning, getting his breakfast, making his lunch, after school lessons, and helping with his evening routine.

The 4 months that I spent with this family changed me forever and I look back on that experience as one of the most valuable and enriching ones to date.  Although non-communicative and aggressive at times, Oliver taught me more than I could have ever taught him in those 4 months.

Oliver’s mom Merril and I have kept in touch over the years and in fact the frequency of our communication has increased over the last few months since we found out we were being matched for this teaching exchange in Australia.

2 days after Matt and I and the kids arrived in Australia, we drove to the town of Katoomba about 10 minutes from here, for some shopping and lunch.

I was standing at the counter at the Fish n’ Chips restaurant on the main street ordering lunch for the family, and the girl at the counter asked if I wanted “chicken salt or regular salt” on the chips.  I was unfamiliar with the chicken salt option presented to me, so I asked “what is chicken salt?”  As the girl was explaining the difference between the two, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and my immediate thought was there is only one other person in this country who knows me – could it be?  I turned around to find Merril standing there behind me!  The chance of her being in Katoomba  – an hour and a half drive from the city – on a Monday – at the same fish n’ chips spot – at the same time, is the most wonderful omen possible!!

It was an emotional reunion to say the least and I am so looking forward to visiting with her again, and to meeting up with her grown children, and to her getting to know Matt and the kids.  Oliver is 21 now and I look forward to seeing him again after all of these years.

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!