Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dan Murphy's

If you're wanting a bottle of bubbly for your New Year's Eve celebration, it's easy to find something here. Wine and liquor stores are everywhere, often situated next to (although separate from) grocery stores. Drive-throughs are popular and seem to do a brisk business, too. It's much like what you'd see in the US - but with one exception: Dan Murphy's.

I remember my first experience with Dan Murphy's. We were having dinner at my mother-in-law's home during my first visit to Australia and Stephen wanted to take some wine, so naturally we went visited the closest outlet. I was absolutely flabbergasted by what I saw.

The average Dan Murphy's is the size of a grocery store - and all they sell is alcohol. Imagine a "Kroger" or "Safeway" where aisle after aisle is strictly wine and beer (with stronger spirits along the back wall and sides). I'd never even dreamed of an alcoholic beverage shop of this magnitude. And they are EVERYWHERE! I know of 3 Dan Murphy's outlets within less than 30-minutes' drive from our house.

The selection is astounding - a little dizzying, really. In the movie "Moscow on the Hudson", Robin Williams plays a Russian immigrant who has a breakdown when he encounters the huge assortment of breakfast cereals in an American supermarket. I think about that scene when I wander the aisles of a Dan Murphy's - laughing internally at my own sense of disorientation when confronted with the huge range on display.

The stores are expertly arranged to provide a satisfying shopping experience for both wine snobs and the casual shopper.

The more "elite" wines (generally $30 and up) are arranged in hip-high timber cases, with the bottles lovingly placed at a slight tilt, with their labels turned upward for easy reading. Prices are printed on neat white cards positioned near each type, with the winery name, vintage year, and cost per bottle. This is the only place in the store where a given winery's offerings are together (elsewhere the wines are grouped by variety, not label). The elite section takes up roughly one fifth of the floor space. On the wall next to it are locked cabinets containing the most expensive bottles.

At the edge of the "elite" section and between the more standard wines are wooden half-barrels filled with "end of the bin" bottles at clearance-sale prices. Generally costing between $6.99 and $12.99, the displays lure you with the possibility of a good wine or two at bargain prices. I've sampled a couple different ones with mixed results. Occasionally there's a real gem, but you're just as likely to end up with undrinkable plonk and I've learned to steer away from labels I'm not familiar with.

The middle of the store has row after row of wines. No fancy wooden display racks here; it's very spartan, almost like a warehouse. Sparkling wine, red, rose and white wines each have their own section. Within the sections, each type is grouped together. All the merlots are together, all the shiraz are together and so on. There are no special displays set aside for specific wineries - the arrangement is purely by type. Bottles of fairly expensive chardonnay sit right next to the cheap stuff. The variety and price range is dizzying.

And then there are the "clean skin" wines - sold in cartons of 6 bottles. Cleanskin labels show only the grape variety, year, alcohol content, volume and so on. The labels don't show the name of the winemaker. What you're buying could be a good quality wine that's been re-labelled, or something that has been specifically made to be sold as a cleanskin. The quality can vary quite a bit, but the low price is always tempting. It's a bit of a gamble, but is usually worth it. I remember getting a truly "poor" cleanskin wine only once.

Hard liquor and "box wine" occupy the back wall, and refrigerated displays line the side wall, with chilled wine and beer ready for those who want something cold and ready to drink (for a slightly higher price).

About half the customers I've observed come in, select one or two bottles, and leave. The other half wander the aisles with grocery carts. You get the feeling that there's some heavy partying going on somewhere.

I've just checked our stash and realized we don't have any bubbly for NYE. Hm.. going to have to fix that! Dan Murphy's, here I come!

Come Saturday night we'll probably dine on the last of the Christmas turkey (which is presently in the freezer) and we'll lift our glasses to toast the outgoing year and welcome the new.

And a very Happy New Year to you!

  • What I’m listening to: "Pub With No Beer" by Slim Dusty
  • What’s for tea: Garlic Prawns with Fettucini (a break from all the turkey leftovers)
  • What I’m reading: Year of Wonders - A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks
  • Wine recommendation: a cleanskin white - probably chardonnay
  • What's the season?: summer in Oz, winter in the U.S.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Aussie Christmas

My father never had any trouble getting in touch with his "inner child"; it happened regularly every December. Dad adored Christmas and each year as the temperatures dropped and the nights grew longer, he'd drag the boxes of decorations and lights from the attic and the fun would begin. Miles of outdoor lights were strung along the roof-line and tacked around the windows. Fresh-cut trees were installed in the living room and decked out with cheap glass ornaments and tiny strips of silver "tinsel" (which in retrospect looked more like silver spider webs than the icicles it was supposed to represent). Christmas, for him, was a time to indulge, a time when restraints were tossed aside and "excess" was the rule of the day. And I am his daughter in every way.

I adore Christmas trees, decorations, nativity scenes, and Nat King Cole on the stereo crooning about chestnuts and "folks dressed up like eskimos."

We don't dress like eskimos in Australia at this time of year, but even so, many decorations and traditions (including what to serve on the day) are connected to and reflect the holidays as experienced in colder climates. I thought that I'd miss chilly December and the possibility of "white Christmases", but I don't . Maybe that's because growing up in central Ohio, my Christmases tended to be cold and muddy, not snowy. Had my childhood been full of Norman Rockwell holidays I might have more trouble adjusting. As it is, I adore Christmas as a summer holiday. The idea of Santa in shorts and flip flops doesn't bother me a bit - and that his sleigh is pulled by eight white boomers (kangaroos) and not reindeer, well... of COURSE!

Here's my top ten favorite things about Australian Christmas (not necessarily in order):
  • The weather is, normally, reliably nice. Yes, it might get hot on Christmas Day, but that's OK. Sunshine and flowers - ahh... the first month of summer. You can have your Christmas tree and still sit out on warm evenings to enjoy the stars and the scent of roses in bloom.
  • People here actually LIKE fruit cake (it's called "Christmas Cake" here), and when they receive one as a gift they show enthusiasm. Of course, fruit cakes you get here were actually baked in the current century and that probably has something to do with it.
  • In the grocery store y'day, the kid ringing up my purchases wished me a Merry Christmas. He looked me straight in the eye, paused a second, and said it in a way that made me understand that he really meant it. When I returned the sentiment, he grinned broadly and lit up. "Thank you!" he beamed. It's the same everywhere. Australians at Christmas never miss a chance to wish their fellow men and women "the very best". And they mean it.
  • The TV channels have a certain amount of "holiday programming", but they aren't clogged with annual re-runs of so-called Christmas classics. Today is Dec. 21, and I just checked the local free-to-air channels for this evening. There isn't a single Christmas-themed program on tonight. How refreshing. Yes - I understand the real meaning of Christmas, yes I grew up loving (and still love) "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and it's like. But it sure is nice NOT to be bombarded with an overload of secular (and often sappy) holiday reruns. Does that mean there are no Christmas specials at ALL? NO! Of course not. Australian TV serves up some goodies every year - but not in a suffocating avalanche.
  • Along the same lines as the TV, I have to say that Christ is more evident in Christmas here. Without so much focus on "Frostie the Snowman" and such, there are fewer competing themes.
  • No Christmas music piped in at the grocery, or in most stores. Yes, there are the performers in the malls - but the retailers here don't drown you in holiday hits as you shop.
  • Australians just don't seem freaked out over Christmas. I don't hear anybody complaining about the "stress of the holidays" - my friends are having too much fun to worry about stress. Didn't get the cards out on time? No worries. Still haven't found the perfect prezzie for that special someone? No worries.
  • Christmas pudding - which I think of as an extra-moist fruitcake. Everybody likes "pud" and I've got a great recipe which yields one that I've been told (by two elderly Australian gentlemen who would never lie or flatter me unduly) is pretty authentic. I adore steaming the "pud" - esp. after a friend told me about putting a coin in the bottom of the pot so that I'd know if the water is boiling off too soon.
  • This year I'm seeing a LOT of cars with those wacky antler-horns that you put in the car windows - and the little "Rudolph red-nose" that is affixed to the front grill. Actually - loved this so much that I got a set for Stephen's car (next year I'll get a set for mine).
  • At parties and functions, private or public, "bonbons" (Christmas "crackers") are very popular. These mini-poppers are paper rolls with a little gunpowder wrapped inside. You and a friend grab an end and pull... and POP! Inside is a tissue paper crown, a trinket of some kind, and a slip of paper with a horrible, tacky joke written on it. No matter where you are - in someone's home or in a 5-star restaurant - most people will put on the crown and then take turns reading the horrible jokes. It's so silly, so fun, and so wonderful - like stepping back in time to a place and day when you were still innocent. I know this isn't something invented here, but I adore watching and participating in the silliness.
Christmas is definitely "felt" and noticed here, but it's relaxed, joyous, and optimistic. It's not about how big or fancy your tree is, it's not about whether or not you have lights hanging outside (very few do), and it's not about the prezzies. It's very warm, very real, and very, very Aussie.

  • What I’m listening to: "Christmas in Australia" - not sure who the performers are
  • What’s for tea: leftovers from last night's homemade pizza
  • What I’m reading: Year of Wonders - A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks
  • Wine recommendation: leftover chardonnay (a clean skin) from last night
  • What's the season?: summer in Oz, winter in the U.S.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Laka Speaks

It never fails. Laka and George will be down in the lounge room just chattering away. I grab the video camera and run down to catch them - but the moment I turn the corner they both clam up!

In desperation, I put the camera on a tripod and left it next to Laka's cage, pointed at the area that she seems to sit in most of the time. I turned it on and let it run for 2 solid hours. For about the first fifty minutes, she just sat there and stared at the lense. Eventually, though, she relaxed a little and seemed to forget about the lense and microphone, and she started talking.

Most of what she said was "practice English" - just yammering and so on. But at least I've finally got a recording of her vocalizing. I clipped out some sample segments and put the short video out in YouTube:

I have never understood the fascination she has for her "potty command", but she repeats it over and over. She's never said "potty" (just "pot"), but there's no mistaking the phrase. "Laka pot" is her own creation, as is "pot-pot-pot" and so on.

I've been asked if she swears. Yes, unfortunately, she does. She's picked up a specific bad word which I almost NEVER use - but which Stephen does (the "f-bomb"). She doesn't repeat it often, thank heavens, but when she does, she says it with MY VOICE!

Parrots love drama and swear words, when uttered, are usually said with a certain amount of drama (and often volume as well). So any talking parrot that is exposed to foul ("fowl"?) language will eventually press "record", and there you are. Once they've got the word or phrase, it's there forever. But I know that the thing to do when they repeat that little special "something" is to refrain from any reaction. Don't laugh, don't scold, don't react at all. Wait for the next (non-profane) utterance and respond to THAT in spades - but never EVER react to a bird's potty-mouthing. If you do, they'll only swear all the more because they'll have learned they can do something that gets a reaction.

OH - and one more note about parrots who swear... Laka and George are going to outlive both Stephen and me. At some point we're going to have to find new homes for them and when that happens, it will be important that they don't have any bad language habits. Parrots who swear like a sailor may amuse some people, but it's cruel to encourage it. A bird who cusses will be welcome in fewer homes - and we want our birds to get the best deal possible when the day comes that we can't care for them anymore. So, please, don't teach your parrot unsavoury language.

  • What I’m listening to: "We No Speak Americano" by Yolanda Be Cool & D Cup
  • What’s for tea: Thai Steak Salad
  • What I’m reading: Justinian's Flea by William Rosen
  • Wine recommendation: Hmm.... don't know... haven't decided....
  • What's the season?: summer in Oz, winter in the U.S.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Welcome Back, Wolfie-the-Spodder!

I have to admit that I was beginning to be a bit concerned. I've seen several huntsmen outside - even a really large one hanging on the outside of the front door. But we got all the way to the end of November, and Wolfgang hadn't shown up. I'd caught several White-Tails and was starting to wonder if they were killing the huntsmen (White-Tails hunt other spiders).

But just this past week, there he was! It was a very rainy day - with temps in the upper 50's (F). I'd been out shopping and started to put away the groceries. I turned and there he was - hanging on the wall next to the refrigerator.

Well, good. With warmer weather (summer has begun here), we'll need him to help clean up the bugs that invariably find a way into the house at night.

Here's a closeup - hairy legs and all:

He didn't much care for the flashing of the camera - and scrambled between the refrigerator and wall after the photo was taken:

Poor Wolfie... no privacy!

  • What I’m listening to: "This is Australia" by GANGgajang
  • What’s for tea: Chicken Enchilada's, refried beans
  • What I’m reading: Justinian's Flea by William Rosen
  • Wine recommendation: Victoria Bitters (beer - really GOOD beer...)
  • What's the season?: summer in Oz, winter in the U.S.