Packing for two different seasons in a month with a toddler

Packing for this trip was stressful. Repacking for this trip the day before we left from Melbourne to Tokyo was even more stressful. There were things we needed, things we left behind, gifts for Kaia, necessities we both bought that we wanted to bring back. Then, as Chris’s parents reminded us, there was a slow but sure accumulation of gifts that people had given us over the last 10+ years that have been taking up valuable space in their closets that they wondered if we would cart them back. The majority of the things we just had no space for in our luggage, which was why we never took them back. And to be frank, I wonder if a lot of these items were re-gifted because they seemed completely impractical or silly to take from Australia to the U.S. with our limited luggage space. For example, why would someone gift us a massive salad mixing bowl with salad serving bowls with tongs? Or a tea pot that was not particularly interesting, but was meant to serve six people? Do they think these things don’t exist in the U.S. or that we have unlimited luggage space?

Anyway, the bigger household/kitchen items we ended up creating a pile with for Chris’s brother, who is still in the process of furnishing his new home and kitchen. I figured it would be an easy way for him to get his place set up and save money, and we could help empty out the closet space at their parents’ house. But then what I also did, which I wasn’t anticipating, was keep a few of my summer items at his parents’ place, like sandals, and either keep them there or have them bring them on their spring trip to visit us. They’ve even set aside a drawer for all of Kaia’s things, which has already been filled up with clothes that have been purchased/gifted and are sized up, toys and stuffed animals, and other things for her.

It’s amazing how quickly “stuff” accumulates, and scary. Every time I come back here or to my parents’ house, I just feel a stronger need when I go home to start culling even more things.

Laundry: who does it in your house?

When I first started coming to Australia with Chris, I found it both loving and odd that his mom did all the laundry for everyone in the house. In the home where I grew up, we all did our separate laundry: dad had his hamper, Ed had his own, our mom and I shared one, and when my grandma was around, she had her own laundry. Chris and his brother insisted my family was weird that we separated it. But when I started asking other families what they did, it seemed pretty split 50/50 from an anecdotal standpoint: many families did what my family did and split up laundry, while other families shared and one person owned it. For the latter, it seems like a burden on the person who does the laundry for everyone; in almost all those cases, it’s the mother/wife of the house who does it, and it seemed a bit unfair and sexist to me.

So whenever we are in Australia, we always have the perk of having Chris’s mom do all our laundry. While it’s nice to have someone else do my laundry (Chris’s mom) while I’m at his parents’ place, sometimes, it still feels a bit weird knowing someone else is handling things like my underwear and bras. But she seems to enjoy doing the laundry and finds it relaxing. I always thank her profusely for her laundry services. I get the feeling that she’s not used to being thanked by her husband, who clearly has all his laundry done by her. Things like laundry and household chores are always thankless jobs, so I hope she knows I appreciate her doing this for me while I am there.

Time in Australia comes and goes

Each year we’ve gone to Australia for Christmas, when we tell people how long we’ll be in town, it always seems like it’s such a long time. Three weeks! Wow! Especially when I tell my American friends and colleagues, they always make it seem as though I’ll be away forever. But alas, “forever” is quite fleeting when you’re working East Coast US hours part of that time, taking some time officially off to travel to places outside of Melbourne, and having fun exploring new areas and foods and also catching up with people you care about. Each year, we get excited to come, and each time this period is about to end, we talk about how quickly it all flew by, and we’re already packing up to leave to go back home. It’s almost like you want to freeze time just to savor the moment just a little more. But then, little things that are fine in the short term start becoming a little annoying: not having your own, totally private space; cooking in someone else’s kitchen where you don’t know where everything is (and some things may not even work…), feeling a bit stranded without a car because the house you’re staying in is in the true suburbs, and you need a car to get literally everywhere, plus listening to the bickering between Chris and his mother, which was cute during week 1, but by week 3, is so tiresome that you are happy this banter is coming to an end.

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to have this home away from home, in another country, continent, time zone, and hemisphere. But I wonder about a time in the future, hopefully far far away, when Chris’s parents will either decide to downgrade their home, or what is inevitable, when they will eventually pass on: what will that experience of coming “back” to Australia be like? What’s it like when the place you (or in this case, your spouse) calls home, no longer has a “home” to return to, or people to welcome you with the same open arms? I’m sure it will not feel the same, nor will it be as nice. But I suppose that is more reason for us to enjoy the current times and what we have now, for all the bickering and everything else that may be involved.

Museum of Play and Art (MoPA) in Sandringham

A few months back, a friend who lives in the Melbourne area posted on Instagram that she brought her son to the Museum of Play and Art (MoPA) in Sandringham. We ended up meeting there for a play date on Boxing Day for both our kids, who are within 6 months of age of each other. MoPA is a big children’s museum that has two locations in the Melbourne area, in Sandringham and Geelong, and when you book your ticket, you pay for a session play period, usually 2-2.5 hours depending on the day. Unlike the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, though, there’s both structured and unstructured play. The museum is spaciously laid out with areas designated by both theme (science, math, reading, motion, etc.), and appropriate age range. I was shocked to see how modern and fun some of the areas were. The whole place was extremely colorful and eye-catching; I could totally see how parents would buy annual memberships to a place like this. They had actual mini buildings you could climb into and on top of, huge slides, bouncy areas, and even a real car that kids could paint (with supervision from their staff). For structured activities, such as painting, dance club, and arts & crafts, they not only had dedicated staff members get each child ready for the activity and supervise, but they would also provide children all the necessary tools needed to participate.

I think the biggest value in going to a place like this is that there’s both structured and unstructured play. The kids can learn and explore on their own, and also be taught to; some of the activities mimic what they would get in a school or daycare center. There are some parts that are meant for self exploration, as well as areas where it would be helpful for them to be guided along by a caretaker. Given we had only two hours, it definitely did not feel like enough to explore the whole place. But at least we always have next year to explore and have Kaia return (the appropriate age range for the museum is between 1-7 years).

I was also impressed by the food offerings and the price points at the cafe in the museum. They had properly brewed coffee (we enjoyed flat whites), a delicious, not-too-sweet chia seed pudding (which I ended up enjoying more than Pookster, who only took about two bites before deciding she was all done), and a very gourmet sausage roll, which had roughly cut beef mince along with a number of different veggies inside. And for the three items I got, it all came to just $12 USD. The only thing I thought was extremely marked up were the baby/toddler fruit/veggie pouches, which were probably about 5-7x what you’d see at a local Cole’s or Wooly’s.

Pumpkin pie bars for Christmas 2023

This year, like last year, I couldn’t be bothered making anything too elaborate for our Christmas time meals. In previous years, I’d done time-intensive, painstaking dishes like dumplings, Argentinian style (baked) empanadas, and Cook’s Illustrated’s silky smooth pumpkin pie (which had strained my neck on multiple occasions with how exacting it was). So this time around, I kept it simple and made just two desserts: pumpkin bread (simple but delicious and seemingly loved by all) and pumpkin pie bars. I found the idea of pumpkin pie bars while sifting through seasonal recipes in the New York Times cooking section. A recipe for this came up as being easier both in process vs. a pie and to cut up and serve for a crowd; that made sense both for me in terms of time, and for the family regarding ease of cutting and serving. But I wasn’t that enthused by the pumpkin custard base: the recipe just called for mixing the spices, cream, milk, sugar, eggs together in a bowl and adding it to the par-baked ginger snap crust and baking. That seemed too one-dimensional for flavor based on my prior pumpkin pie baking experiences. The best way to infuse the flavor of the spices would be to simmer the pumpkin mixture (sans eggs) over the stove. This would allow the flavors to properly meld and give a true autumnal/winter pumpkin pie flavor. So I made this change for the custard, baked the pumpkin pie “base” using crushed Arnott’s Ginger Nuts (an amazing rendition of ginger snaps!) and Malt-o-Milk biscuits, and added a little more heavy cream. I also made homemade whipped cream and added some sugar, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger to the cream. I let the pie sit overnight and cut it up right before serving on Christmas day. In the end, I was very pleased with the result: the pie not only released easily from the pan (with parchment lining it), but it was easy, neat, and clean to cut, which I always fear with any custard pie. Plus, the flavor of the pumpkin really came out well! With my tweaks, it’s the perfect pumpkin pie to make for a crowd with minimal fussiness. And almost all of it got eaten on day 1!

After a few months of using the New York Times recipes app, I’m really not impressed, as I’ve had to make a lot of tweaks to their recipes to get them either to a passing stage, or a really good stage like these pumpkin pie bars. With all the amazing cookbooks and blogs out there, I would never pay for the NYT standalone recipes app. It’s too many misses and bland recipes for the cost.

The paint spill on Boxing Day 2023

A couple weeks ago, Chris’s dad had told us that he was doing some minor paint touch ups around the house. I had noticed the cans of paint at the sides of the garage when coming and going from the house, but never thought much of it. Chris’s parents’ house has a two car garage that when you add a lot of paint and gardening supplies, plus just household tools and files, feels crowded and borderline cluttered. Once the two cars are in the garage, it’s a tight squeeze to get in between the vehicles, and often when coming in with the second car, passengers in the backseat (as in, Pookster and I) will need to get out of the car before it’s fully pulled in and parked.

Well, despite Pookster being an active toddler running around everywhere, grabbing and ripping things, and causing mischief galore, we luckily have not had anything in the house break or get misplaced in our 2.5 weeks here. So when we were about to leave the house today to head over to Chris’s uncle’s house for Boxing Day family festivities, an accident finally occurred. With Pookster in my arms and her fat, stuffed diaper bag on my back, I was squeezing between the second car and multiple cans of paint and supplies when suddenly I felt the diaper bag knock something heavy and… BAM! A can of paint fell over, the lid fell off, and white paint oozed out all over the garage floor and into the driveway.

“Shit! Shit! SHIT!” I yelled, as I saw the white paint flow down the slight incline. Chris peered over from where he was by the car and had a frustrated look on his face. I went to tell his parents and asked if they had any paint thinner, and we all had to spring into action, and quickly. We sopped up as much paint as possible with throwaway rags, random paper bags and paper towels lying around, and plastic bags. We took out a bottle of turpentine to remove the paint residue as best as possible. We used the hose to spray and loosen the paint. We had to use the turpentine on our own hands to remove the paint we got on ourselves. All the while as we’re scrambling to ensure nothing gets permanently damaged, Kaia is sitting in her car seat in the car with a door open, singing endless different songs and babbling away as though everything was merry and bright.

Chris, Pookster, and I left to go to Chris’s uncle’s first, while Chris’s parents and his brother took the second car to go, but stopped by a hardware store to see if they had more turpentine. They told a worker there what happened, and they advised to not let the paint dry and to address the matter as soon as possible. So in the end, Chris’s dad stayed behind to clean and hose down the excess paint, and just Chris’s mom and brother came to the family gathering. I felt pretty terrible knowing that I had not only delayed getting to the family gathering for us, but also created extra work and stress for everyone, and potentially the worst thing was making Chris’s dad feel compelled to stay behind and clean the remaining residue. But after it was all done, we just talked about how lucky we were that a) Kaia and I didn’t fall and get covered in paint, and b) the car closest to the paint didn’t get damaged or have any paint on it.

And really, the moral of this paint story is…. declutter, declutter, declutter. Ugh.

Christmas time: an acknowledgment of families in all shapes and forms

While many people, like Chris, look forward to the Christmas season as a time to escape everyday reality and catch up and enjoy time with family and close friends, not everyone sees the festive season this way. For many, Christmas is a reminder of the pain and anguish that family members have shared in the past. For some, it’s a reminder of who is no longer with us, whether it’s due to severed ties, death, or distance. For others, it’s a reckoning of what one’s family could potentially be, but will never be.

In the beginning of our relationship when we’d come down to Melbourne every year for Christmas, I think I was a bit shocked at how close and how much detailed information and conversation Chris would have with his relatives. None of my conversations or interactions with my own family were like this. Though I did partake in all those conversations, I felt a bit envious that I couldn’t have the same with my own blood relatives. But he reminded me that I was part of his family now, and thus they were my family. I think we all know that it’s never quite the same, even if we do enjoy the time together. But as the years went by, I realized that I had idealized his family, and they actually weren’t as perfect and functional as I’d originally made up in my head. I suppose in my own mind, they actually did seem perfect relative to my own family. But with each passing year, I’d notice little passive aggressions, strange exchanges and comments, factoids shared of previous events, and secrets shared by family members to me in confidence. And I realized that they were just as dysfunctional as any other family, but that at Christmas time, everyone let things go to have a semblance of family, togetherness, and love. And that was totally fine and was good for everyone. Their level of dysfunction was never as toxic or unhealthy as my own family’s, and so it still all worked. Relatively speaking, I’d take his family, immediate and extended, over my own blood family any day, always.

I’ve referenced this line on my blog before, as it’s a quote that comes to my mind every holiday season: “All happy families are alike: each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s the first sentence in the famous Leo Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina. But each time I think about this line, its meaning changes a little bit. I used to think about this when my uncle would try to tell me to forgive my dad for what he had done to Ed and me growing up, as “He didn’t know any better because that was how he himself was raised.” I thought about this when Ed had died, and my parents screamed at me and told me I had no right to tell my aunts, uncle, and cousins he had died. I’ve thought about this when hearing about the double standards that people in Chris’s family have for some people versus others, and the blind eyes turned to this. I have also thought about this when learning of the dysfunctions of Chris’s family and extended family, about those who choose not to be in contact, of those who make excuses not to see each other, and about how many in the family like to sweep issues under the rug instead of openly discussing them as problems. Every family has problems and challenges, some larger and more critical than others.

But at the end of the day, we cannot change other people, especially when it’s already so challenging to change ourselves. We just have to set our boundaries, try our best to put a stop to our own unhealthy patterns, and be our authentic selves as much as possible. No family unit is perfect. How we choose to accept that family unit is probably the outstanding question that will last our entire lifetime. I feel that struggle pretty much every day, and every time I have any interaction with my parents. In the back of my mind, I am fully aware that time with them on this earth is limited; they are, after all, at the latter end of their lives, and we have no idea how much time they have. I feel a little guilt when it comes to how I’ve lessened contact with them. I call my mom now at most once every two weeks; it’s a far cry from calling her every day once upon a time about 10 years ago. I realize it probably angers both of them that I chose not to come home (and let them see Kaia) this past year. But that’s what growing up is about: setting boundaries, even if it means when after their lives end that I may always wonder if setting those boundaries really was the best thing for all of us.

Christmas in Australia: Santa comes around the airport, too!

The attack on and demonization of Christmas has been going on in the U.S. for decades now, if not longer. You can’t say “Merry Christmas” without someone looking at you strange in the U.S. and someone on the far left insinuating you’re not being inclusive. The far right demonizes this and makes the entire situation worse. Since I’ve spent my entire full-time working life employed by digital marketing or technology companies, saying “merry Christmas” is not something that is acceptable in a group setting, and everyone feels forced to say a generic “happy holidays” message when it is Christmas time. This is supposedly to be sensitive to those who are Jewish, Muslim, or just don’t celebrate Christmas. This is ridiculous since any Jew you know will tell you that Hanukkah, while a holiday in Jewish culture, is not a big deal at all, with no real decorations or associated gift giving (the gift giving, from what I’ve been told, only really started because of the gift giving around Christmas and that influence). In addition, even in many non-Christian majority countries or majority Muslim countries, people celebrate Christmas in a secular way, meaning they embrace the Christmas trees and decorations, Rudolph the red-nose reindeer, and Santa, but they don’t really celebrate it as the birthday of Jesus Christ (and well, any real Christian can tell you that it’s not REALLY Jesus’s actual birthday, anyway!). The majority of my friends who celebrate Christmas celebrate in a secular way and are in no sense Christian, yet even most of them feel compelled to say “happy holidays” to each other. It’s annoying and exhausting.

I had to exercise a lot of restraint and keep silent while on a work call a few days ago when someone on Zoom said, “Hope you all have a happy holiday if you celebrate this weekend (um, there’s only ONE known holiday this weekend, and it’s CHRISTMAS). And if you do not, hope you all have a restful time off.” Why couldn’t she just have replaced the word “holiday” with “Christmas?” Is “Christmas” really such an evil word? N

So you can probably imagine that when I tell friends and colleagues in the U.S. how easily and readily and often people wish each other a “happy Christmas” or “merry Christmas” in Australia that they are pretty surprised. People don’t get offended by it. My general response or thought back would be, if someone wished me a happy Kwanzaa or happy Rosh Hashanah, why the hell would I get offended? And you know Christmas is embraced by all here, even if you don’t celebrate it or identify as Christian, when there is an actual Santa Claus who walks around the major airports here with an elf and a big sack of gifts to pass out to young children in transit; this would be very hard to imagine happening in any U.S. airport, ever.

Kaia met Santa twice going to and from Bundaberg at the domestic airports here. At the Melbourne airport, Santa walked up to her at our gate and presented her with a stuffed kangaroo with a little joey in her pouch. And on our way back to Melbourne at the Brisbane airport between our connecting flights, Santa appeared again at the entrance of the Qantas lounge, where she was given a set of special edition Qantas 3-5-year old-size pajamas with the kangaroo logo redone so that the kangaroo had a glittery red nose, sparkling gold antlers, and a name on the front of the pajama top reading: Roodolph. It was so sweet and special, yet I have a feeling that Chris, Chris’s dad, and I were going to enjoy and appreciate this far more than Kaia ever would for a long, long time.

So the TL;DR of this is really: Christmas is better in Australia than in the U.S. And I can walk around with dancing Santas or blaring red and green Christmas baubles on my head here, and no one will do a double take because I will blend right in.

The dancing and singing Santa in front of the barber shop

Today, we met up with Chris’s friend, husband, and their two daughters for brunch at a fun, kid-friendly brunch spot called Eastwood. Next door to Eastwood was a little barber shop that had a life-sized dancing Santa in front of the store. When you click a button by the Santa’s feet, it starts singing all different Christmas songs and dancing, moving both its arms and legs. As you’d imagine, the three kids were completely enchanted by this Santa. Kaia has just been getting acquainted with Santa in the last week, having seen him walking around the Melbourne and Brisbane airports and lounges twice already. Our friends’ younger daughter, who can be a little feisty, was a bit rough with the Santa. The owner of the shop popped out once to let her lightly know that the kids could get hurt if they were too aggressive with the Santa. He was so gentle and warm with the kids that it seemed like he was more worried about their safety rather than whether the kids would break his dancing Santa. Eventually, he took the Santa back into the shop, but I thought he exercised a high amount of patience and restraint given what the youngest kid was doing with his Santa.

I imagined the same thing happening in the U.S., and I imagined it would have been more of a scold to the parents rather than the shop owner addressing the kids nicely. In the U.S., kids are seen as a nuisance and a liability, whereas here, they seem to blend into society more and be accepted as actual tiny humans. It was actually sweet to see the exchange between the shop owner and the kids.

Wineries and cellar doors in the Mornington Peninsula

Today, the whole family went down to the Mornington Peninsula for wine and liquor tasting, lunch, and fresh local produce. The thing I always love about visiting wineries in Australia is how relaxed and casual they are. There’s no stuffiness or pretense. There’s no air of arrogance that they know far more about wine than you do (even if they do since they work at and/or own the winery). The tasting pours are usually generous (unlike the sad, tiny drops you get at the snotty and overrated wineries in Napa). They talk about the wine, the tastes, the flavors, and scents as though we’re all just everyday people looking to share something delicious together.

We visited one winery, one distillery room, a cherry farm, and in the middle of that, we shared a bottle of red and enjoyed lunch on the sunny patio at Abelli Estate Winery, which had a semi-outdoor kitchen setup and cooked up a delicious Greek-inspired feast for us. Another thing I’ve noticed that is common in Australia: a lot of the wineries here are not only beautifully constructed with large floor to ceiling windows that allow you to see all the vineyards, but they are also known for their gourmet, multi-course meals. Reservations are often required weeks if not months in advance for some of the most popular ones. Oftentimes, individuals and couples will have their special birthday or anniversary celebrations at a winery and share a bottle and a multi-course lunch or dinner. You rarely see that in wine regions in the U.S.: people go to wineries to taste and buy wine, then leave to go elsewhere to eat.

Wine doesn’t have to be an elitist interest or drink. It can be for everyone if wineries in the U.S. treated wine and wine drinkers the way Australians do.