Perhaps all my musings on the psychology of living abroad have left the impression that it’s a bigger challenge than it really is most of the time. Let’s face it, I am living the dream. I live on the ocean in a “lucky country” with golden light and temperate weather. I have an almost unlimited amount of hours in the week to spend as I please. I’ve made lovely friends and along my daily and weekly route of errands, people know me by face and name and I know them the same (I am aggressively American that way, we need to be on a first name basis). Life in a fairly laid-back beach town off-season is a charmed life. Winter is easing and on sunny Sundays the ferries are full and we jostle for position on the busy sidewalks to keep pace until we can climb up and away from the crowds. We started as tourists and piled off the Manly ferry too, we understand. My favorite thing is hauling home toilet paper along the Esplanade with all the people spending their day along the ocean. You can’t get any more local than carrying a 24-pack of toilet paper home (the smallest rolls ever, by the way).
Ferries never get old. I love to get about on the water and still ride mainly on the outside, but now generally stay seated and take just a photo or two because like I said, ferries never get old for me. They are such a lovely way to get about. Bobbing a bit in the water, moving mostly gently along the harbor. Mind you, I generally stay off the ferries in rough seas. That’s the beauty of a very unstructured life. Whitecaps out there? Looks like a fine day to stay on this side of the bridge. Possibly a nice day to read or bake. Or binge watch Parks and Rec on Netflix. Whatever, just a good day to appreciate not having to go anywhere and avoid the perils of high seas. But some days I (or we) go into the CBD on the ferry mainly just for the nice ride. The destination can be a very secondary consideration. And it’s far easier to use public transport than to drive. We have one bridge to cross over the Middle Harbor which is actually a draw bridge and that stretch of road, bridge up or down is always a challenge. Crossing the Sydney Harbor via the iconic bridge or the far less enchanting tunnel can be slow going (but at least Greg has the lanes mastered which GPS is absolutely no help at all) and then there is city parking which is ridiculously cost prohibitive or street parking which took us a bit to figure out the signage: 1P,2P, 4P and all variations of the theme. We now have a parking pass for our neighborhood so that some day when I finally learn to drive on the other side sitting on the other side I will not also have to negotiate the very tight underground parking at home. Not sure when that day will be. I have two pannier baskets now for my tank of an American hybrid bike and two perfectly good (well, never mind the arthritis in one) feet to get me here and there. But I should learn. Just in case.
We have downsized, but still have three bedrooms and two baths. But they are not ours. It’s mostly freeing to have almost nothing you can do around the house. Yes, I still clean bathrooms, vacuum floors (no carpet), dust and pick up but there are no big projects to do. I have a few potted things to tend to on our balcony and porches, but the lawn is shared and maintained by a service. Sure, I don’t have a disposal (virtually no one does) which is unpleasant and yes, I hang most of the laundry instead of using the dryer (most people do, but I draw the line with towels and jeans that have to be dried at least for a bit in the dryer at whatever cost). If it’s a gorgeous sunny day it’s also a fantastic laundry day. The trick is to bring the laundry in before the late afternoon, because there’s a (dew)point window where if you miss it, your laundry will become damp again. And then there is the always vexing question, is it damp or cold? Both? As an added bonus, if you get it all just right and remember to start your wash in the morning for maximum drying time, the sun is remarkably good at bleaching whites. Lord knows my washer and whatever combinations of Australian laundry powders and potions I’ve tried are not. I’ve settled on a nice eco brand scented with orange and geranium and the delicates cycle after determining the washer just is not that effective at cleaning, regardless. But it can be extremely effective at destroying clothes and towels. The spin cycle could be mistaken for an airbus on take-off, which really can’t be good. This is not a universal Australian problem and I’m almost tempted to mark it with an * for fear the washer will die and I will have to replace it (not covered in our lease agreement just like the refrigerator- both things that you usually bring to your rental property and I am happy to have been provided in whatever dubious state of appearance and level of performance).
Australian bathrooms are generally open arrangements with floor drains in the showers and floor drains in the middle of the room. I was warned about this by a dear friend who keenly misses her expat years in Australia and gleefully shared all the quirky things that might trip up an American. Showers are almost never fully enclosed. Our Marriott showers and our corporate rental showers in the CBD (Central Business District, aka downtown) had doors, but they were not completely sealed so they also had drains in the middle of the floor. Our showers at the beach house have glass walls with no door where you might expect one to be. So it’s a particularly effective way to get most of the bathroom floor wet especially when the water bounces off a head around 6 feet from the ground (i.e. my husband and my younger daughter). It’s extra special now in winter when not only is the tile floor cold, but it’s still wet in the middle of the night when you slip in (sometimes literally) to use the facilities. Neighbors have heated floors and that would be Nirvana. We do have heated towel racks which are a lovely, lovely thing. Your towels are toasty warm and they actually dry before the next shower. If you’re one of those fresh towels with every shower people, Australia can reform you. No one is terribly worried about using water, but electricity is clearly only cheap in the states. You’ll think twice here for your budget and the planet. And really, you’re at the beach with better things to do than laundry. Even in winter.
But still, it’s nothing to keep a small house for one or two people and a minimum amount of stuff. Rental property is even more liberating. It takes a little mind shift to be comfortable with things just as they are, especially if they are crying out for updating. I’ve always been fairly accomplished at looking past things I couldn’t change (generally as a homeowner that would mean things just not in the budget for now) and that talent is useful with rental property. I will admit to a little reluctance to hosting new friends for dinner when it’s too cold to eat outside. There’s still a little pride of place holding me back and that’s all about the outdated and a bit shabby kitchen, cabinetry and floors. Plus, who wants to eat dinner in your down vest or winter coat? Just seems a little off-putting. But our view. Worth whatever bit of shabbiness. And really, that shabbiness is in the eye of the beholder (and that look past things you can’t change, well I still have to dust and clean it so you know I still see it). Sara walked right past it all and out to the lawn over the ocean and told me I had described it all wrong. She said she had no idea her parents were Beyonce and Jay Z. That’s how good the view is here. It’s Malibu good. Even better. And who knows if our lease will be renewed this summer (Australian summer when you seriously do not want to try to find something else because nothing is up for rental and again, you are at the beach with much better things to do than move), so I’ll be quiet about the little stuff.
Housing is prohibitively expensive here with young couples routinely buying first homes in the low one millions. You read that right. Australians make a living wage and compensation just goes up from there (food service $26 AUD per hour, for example hence no tipping in case you visit). The housing market has been growing at rates of over 20% per year for a few years now with almost no signs of that bubble bursting despite the almost constant chatter that it will. Home ownership (primary and investment residences are equally awarded tax breaks) is incentivized favorably and the market is so strong that it seems everyone owns rental property. The returns on investment are obscene and as Americans we just have to say “for now”. And of course property where we live on the ocean is at a pretty premium. We live in a “free hold” apartment, meaning the land on which it was built it titled to the homeowners. A few doors up the street all the way to “the castle” on the hill aka St. Patrick’s Seminary (which is now a school of hospitality management but was the location for Keith and Nicole’s wedding and the exteriors for Leo’s house in “The Great Gatsby”) the land is owned by the Catholic Church and leased at a handsome sum to the homeowner’s through lease contracts of varying lengths. But say your’s is a 10-year lease, then every 10 years the church must be paid 10% of the market value of your home (lease terms vary, but it seems a fairly large recurring expense). It’s all very interesting. If you’d like to invest, there are lots of rules for foreign buyers (some very bluntly aimed at prohibiting Chinese from buying all the finest old homes on the best land, very bluntly, right out there). But if you’d just like to see the properties, opens (known as inspections) generally last 10-20 minutes so queue up with other potential buyers (or renters, the rental market is intense too) and march on through at the designated time. Quickly. No time to waste. No three-hour Sunday afternoon open houses here. And then many properties are sold at auction which is just what it sounds like. You stand around outside and bid with an auctioneer running the show. You’ll be paying well over the guidance price and then you have to come up with stamp duty and finance some kind of mortgage which is generally not a fixed rate, or not fixed for very long. Greg and I are slightly obsessed with a television show “Selling Houses Australia” where the clearance rate (Australian for the rate of homes on auction that sell over a weekend) is shockingly low. The SHA team takes on some fantastically poorly kept/outdated/ugly properties, so there’s that. But you watch the whole show, the transformation (always into something that I am sure the sellers wish had been that way all along) only to find that no offer meets the reserve (guidance, list price). It’s reality tv without the neat and tidy ending. Very Australian.
As I come back and do some editing here, I am watching The Bachelor Australia for giggles and because pretty much everyone watches it. Not that I need water cooler talk, because, um; there are no water coolers in my life. My big observation from tonight’s episode, the girls are all “frocked up” (a very funny Australian way of saying dressed up) and while they are otherwise indisposed sitting around, they have blankets across their laps. Because, apparently there is no heat in the Bachelor mansion either. Greg and I have another favorite show, “Have You Been Paying Attention” in which a panel of 6 celebrities (radio personalities, actors, comedians and the like) compete in a hilarious game of current events. Ridiculously funny and very helpful in keeping us up to date on news, politics, sports and popular culture. It’s on the same network as The Bachelor so you had best been paying attention to the show. As with all media here, no punches are pulled and the PC police just do not seem to be patrolling the area. Just a little side bar there on why we love Australia.
If I could teleport them, I’d love to have our cats but the quarantine, the travel and most importantly the no screens and the wide open doors mean I’m unusually enthusiastic about the water dragons starting to come out of hibernation (here they actually run PSA’s helpfully suggesting you feed your cats really enticing food so the cats don’t hunt the water dragons, birds and all the other rare species). So with the family cats lovingly under the care of my in-laws, I’ve bought a bird book to sort all the exotic creatures. The birds are up at first light and even after 6 months in this apartment, I can’t get the least bit upset with them. I even have little conversations with the lorikeets and kookaburras. That bit would not surprise any of my family, particularly not my children who painfully know the ridiculous degree to which I love small animals. But really, the the birds sound as if they want me to talk. And the same ones come every day. There’s little difference: empty nester with a big empty house and 2 cats in the states or empty nester with a smaller apartment in Australia. You need some interaction. It’s a little one-sided with the birds, but I fully embrace my kind of Dr. Doolittle crazy.
Apparently, spring arrives on September 1st. It’s always the 1st of the month for seasonal changes, absolutely nothing to do with a solstice. Who’s going to notice if Australia does the whole season thing differently? No one. It’s practical, I’ll give you that. The longer days are magical regardless of how mild your winter wherever you might be. The nights have stayed warmer, and the space heaters get very little use now. August and September winds are notorious and they’ve kept me mostly getting about on my feet. My tank of a bike, gusty winds and hills is not nearly as fun right now. That gorgeous BMW X1 is right below me, but for now it’s safe from me.
I think it’s pretty funny that I’ve decided to take on the super scary challenge of open-water swimming, but I won’t take on the challenge of driving on the other side of the road on the other side of the car. Mind you I did not drive in the states until I was 20 years-old. The next summer I got married. (All that sounds like I am way older than I am, everyone else drove at 16 but it’s just a long story with the central theme being I was ridiculously hard to teach and slow to learn how to go backwards in a car). Plus, I have a healthy respect for big motorized machines and other people’s property and lives. But I have always been a good swimmer and I’ve always loved water. I am a Pisces, after all. I have never been a lap swimmer since it was required for summer swim team and lifeguarding. I just never liked freestyle. Backstroke with it’s free-breathing or breast stroke where you can easily see where you are going are much better. I’m old enough that alternate side breathing was not a thing but if all the waves are crashing to your right, you better learn to breathe left. So, I have a swim coach and I’ve got that breathing thing down. And I’ve learned all kinds of technique-y things that make my stroke more powerful. Swim lessons for the swim instructor, I’m okay with that. Now I just need it to warm up a bit in the water. My one and only swim this winter out there in that gorgeous ocean was very very intimidating, cold and ugly. But you have to start somewhere. The new full length wetsuit arrived this week, so now there are no excuses. Well, there are a few. I’m looking for some success, so a really swishy day is out. So are days after big rains, since I’d prefer to avoid another go round with an ear infection and muffled hearing. And if I dive under and get brain freeze (which totally happened the first time, the water is that cold), that’s not the start of my next swim either (that’s the end, I’m not completely crazy). Something tells me there are a few more ugly swims on their way, but I’ll be headed out in a social group and we’ll test their support and encouragement. This week after one of their swims they were enjoying cake and bubbles for a birthday. I can do that. Of course, they swam in just their cossies (swimsuits) no wet suits, let alone the full ones. Good on them. Aussies are crazy. C-R-A-Z-Y, crazy. It’s all just not a big deal. Alrighty then, I’ll give it a go and be sure to tell you all about it. Greg knows where all the papers and passwords are now. He thought we should go through that before my first swim, he was also kidding, but I was FREAKING out. It’s a big deal to me, but I’m going to crush it.
Because I’m lucky enough to live in a lucky country, on the most gorgeous stretch of ocean between two stunning beaches and a marine reserve in Australia. How cool is that? It’s very cool.