Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Reflections on Month 2


As I near the two-month mark in Australia, I realize that a lot has happened over the past month. We went on our first great adventure to the Australian "Bush", our furniture arrived, we experienced what it was like to buy a new (used) car, and we got to know our neighbors.

To "The Bush" We Go: We started our second month off by going to "the bush." According to Wikipedia, "The Bush" is a term used for rural, undeveloped land. In other words, not in the city! Our dear friends booked us in adjoined cottages at the Yerring Gorge Cottages (http://www.yarravalleycottages.com.au/) in the Yarra Valley area. Yarra Valley is about 1 hour (or less) outside of downtown Melbourne but the change in scenery is amazing. For the first 45 minutes of our drive, we were in civilization with strip malls and houses everywhere. Then, we literally crossed a road and suddenly we were in a different world. A world full of rolling green hills, lush Eucalyptus trees of every variety you can imagine, sheep and livestock as far as you can see and a quietness that is so different from being in the city. We drove in just after dusk and as we pulled in to the long, winding gravel road that led to our cottages, kangaroos could be seen hopping through the fields, grazing on grass and socializing with each other. It was an amazing thing to see a kangaroo hopping at the speed of the car in the wild. Nothing like seeing one in the zoo. I definitely felt like I was in another world, very different from my home in the U.S.

The next morning, we woke to kangaroos still grazing in front of our cabin, the sounds of birds that I have only heard on discovery channel documentaries and gorgeous scenery everywhere we looked. I truly felt like I was living in one of those animal documentaries I had seen on TV. We took a long walk in the woods after breakfast. I hesitated for a moment after reading the warning sign about entering the woods at my own risk given that there are "venomous snakes" and other "native" creatures out there. Then I thought, "What the heck" and walked on with Evan, the kids and our friends who are native to Australia. That is the Aussie way. They don't dwell on what can kill you. They just embrace life and enjoy it. As we walked, I heard kookaburras laughing in the trees, found a nice big wombat cave, and thanks to Carson, saw many interesting bugs and sticks along the way. Unfortunately (or fortunately), wombats are nocturnal so we never got to see the wombat while there. I guess I can just visit them at the zoo as I have NO intention of walking in those woods at night! A funny aside about wombats though. Apparently they have been known to create intricate boroughs right under people's houses that eventually cause the foundation to collapse. I guess as cute as they are, you don't really want one as your neighbor.

Our little friend the Echidna.
After spending the rest of the afternoon visiting local vineyards, we came back to the cabins for a nice dinner on the "barbie" with our friends. We relaxed on the porch and enjoyed the late afternoon sun. Suddenly, I noticed an odd little creature waddling through the grass, heading in our direction. My friend assumed it was a rabbit, but I knew better. Rabbits are much more graceful than this silly little creature was moving. We all got up and walked over to take a look, and there, right in front of us was an echidna. What is an echidna you ask? Well, I will tell you because I had read about them in a book by Bill Bryson called "Down Under." Great read by the way.... An echidna is an odd little creature, similar to a hedgehog, however it has evolved in some very unique ways. Aside from the Platypus, also unique to Australia, it is the only other mammal that lays eggs and then suckles their young once they hatch. It has sharp spines covering it's back and a beak-like snout, which it kept burying in the dirt when we moved. He was not in any particular hurry to get away or go anywhere in particular. I image few animals bother with him given all of these prickly spines. We all enjoyed watching this cute little guy bury his head in the dirt each time he realized we were near him.

We spent the rest of the evening enjoying good food and great conversation with friends. The stars were AMAZINGLY bright in the sky. Did you know that I look at different stars here than you do in the Northern hemisphere? In fact, if you look at the Australian flag, you will see five stars that make up the Southern Cross, which can only be seen in the Southern Hemisphere. It is so wild to know I am looking at stars that I have never seen before in my life! It makes me realize just how far I am from home.

A New Perspective: For the first two months that we were here, we slept on foam mattresses purchased at Ikea, we ate at a tiny, rickety table, also purchased at Ikea and we squeezed on to a $200 two-seater couch. We walked, took the bus or trammed everywhere. Going grocery shopping was quite an ordeal. I had to drag two rickety rolling bags and buy no more than what could fit in those two bags. I looked like a homeless bag lady, with the exception that I was carrying my LV purse, as I dragged overloaded reusable bags home to feed the family! On one occasion, I was carrying new cleaning supplies (mop and broom) and was propositioned to go clean someone's house.

I was always turned off by people who would brag on their blogs about "living with less" as if it is such a brave and heroic thing to do. It seemed so blow-hardy to me. However, I will digress and admit that there is 'something' to actually doing so. I cannot brag that I chose this for myself as it was sort of forced on me in choosing to move and I cannot brag that I was positive at all times about it - I complained plenty of times.  As much as I hate to admit it, it did put some things in to perspective. Don't get me wrong - I still like nice things. However, living in a place where people spend less, don't put such emphasis on expensive brands and in many ways, brag about how much they "saved" vs. spent, I was able to look at my former spending habits and priorities and realize what really mattered and what was just a waste of money. Things I did not really need: luxury cars (moving money pits), a six bedroom home (aka more rooms in which to make messes and store "stuff"), a swimming pool (aka leaky money pit), and tons of crap that I have already fogotten to fill the empty spots in my already filled with too much stuff home.  In order to downsize from 3700 square feet to 1700 sqare feet, I sold and gave away much more than I brought with me.  I whittled it down to only the things I loved the most.  And I do not say this to brag - it was not an easy process for me and I had to whittle down in phases.  People close to me can attest that at times it was not pretty.  The one thing I clung to was my luxury car.  I insisted that this go with so that I could keep my one real peice of bling.  More about that later!

As for living without my other things, forget that! I was in HEAVEN the day our boxes and furniture arrived. After two months of waking up sore from sleeping on a cheapo mattress on the floor with scratchy polyester sheets, I could not WAIT to sleep in my egyptian cotton sheets, under my down comforter on my king sized bed surrounded by my comfy pillows. Who cares that the bed takes up 90% of the living space in my bedroom!! I now know that I NEED a good bed with quality bedding. If that makes me materialistic, then call me guilty! I am a bed and bedding snob and proud of it. The other thing that I could not live without...my esspresso maker. In fact, I did not even put that baby on the ship. I packed it up in a box and hauled it across the world with me from Seattle to Los Angeles to Melbourne. And while the coffee here is amazing and can be found inside nearly EVERY shop you pass, it is incredibly convenient, as well as cost saving, to have an espresso machine in your home. Giving up latte's was pushing the ticket WAY too far and is where I set my foot down on this move! Yes, this is a first-world problem, but so be it. Giving up my latte machine was and continues to be out of the question. The things that I miss most, after living without, are my family, my friends and my sweet little dog Sachi. It is hard at times to be so far from everyone and to know what an ordeal it would be to get back to the states quickly, should I need to. Thankfully, the people I surrounded myself with at home continue to be my support system abroad.

Importing, Buying and Driving Cars: After our wonderful trip to "the bush" we realized that we can no longer live without a car. The initial plan was to bring both of our cars over from the states, have them converted from left to right driving and then sell the Porsche and keep the Mercedes until we move back (if we move back). You may find yourself asking, "why not just buy a car there?" and if so, you are asking a good question. One that many others along the way have asked us, and we have ignored, until reality hit.

During our initial visit to Australia, we looked in to car prices and could not BELIEVE what they sell for here. I am amazed that ANYONE can afford or would want to buy a luxury car here.  In the US, so long as you have good credit, it really is not as expensive as you would initially think to drive a luxury car.  Because they maintain their value and because the interest rates for buying cars is close to 0%, we have been able to drive our cars, after selling them, for roughly what it costs to lease a Honda Accord.  Those are not at ALL the dynamics in Australia.  In the U.S. Evan's 911 sells for about $65K used.  In Australia, the same exact used car sells for $180K AUD, which is a little more than the US Dollar. Additionally, the interest rates are MUCH higher here (7%+) so buying a $180K car here will cost an Aussie almost $200K.  Definitely WAY, WAY out of our reach.

The plan was to take advantage of a one-time opportunity that was allowed to us upon moving here from the States.  We were each allowed to import ONE car without paying any of the taxes or pentalties that dealers pay when importing luxury cars.  This meant that we could essentially bring them over for what we bought them for in the US but then resell them, if we want to, for the going rate here.  The cost of converting each car was around $30K leaving room for up to $95K in profits per car. Even if we sold the cars for much lower than market price, we stood to make enough money to help pay for our move over and to replenish our dwindling savings account. And, it would help us to justify buying those cars in the first place.  After all, both Evan and I come from comfortable but middle class families who did not spend money so frivolously nor did they ever encourage us to.  Buying luxury cars was sort of a big deal for us - until we had them and realized they are just cars after all.

We were discouraged by many friends here not to import our cars as we were told it is too painful but we chose not to listen.  The hope of justifying our impulse buys was too strong!  There are all kinds of rules and conditions tied to the opportunity to import cars here as a "personal item" that will not be taxed. First, you have to have owned the car for one full year PRIOR to moving and be able to prove that it was in your posession and driven by you for that entire period. That was not a problem - it just took some time to get the right paperwork in.  Next, you have to fill out a MOUNTAIN of paperwork and wait months and months for a response from the government. OK, we did that and impatiently waited.  Next, the part we did not anticipate, we had to pay off our car loans in FULL, before they could be shipped over. DRAT!  OK, there is more than one way to skin a cat...no worries, we thought.  We tried transferring the loans within Mercedes and Porsche financial - no go. We tried working with our dealer in the US and tried to get them to work with the dealers here in Melbourne - no go.  We asked the banks to loan us the money knowing we would be able to pay it all back plus deposit a bunch of money.  While the banks all said they would loan us the money, they all seemed to avoid returning our calls and moving things forward. I wonder if they are in cahoots with the local car manufacturers also??!! Lastly, if you are wealthy enough to cough up all of that loan money to get the cars over (which we are NOT), you have to wait 3+ months to have the car converted and tested to meet stringent "safety" standards. In other words...you CAN bring them over, but they make sure it is so incredibly painful that at some point you give up and buy a local car thereby feeding the local economy after all.  But it was so polite of them to offer!  :)

And so....we gave in and bought a reliable used Mitsubishi with many of the same amenities we enjoyed in our Mercedes but none of the glamour. The process of buying and getting a car loan was quite interesting. First, I spent time online researching what was available here. I wanted to look at affordable cars only. There are two manufacturers here in Australia, Ford and Holden but then there is also a wide variety of reasonably priced Japanese cars to choose from as well. I decided on a Mitsubishi Outlander VR-X (7 seater SUV). I called several dealers who had used ones on their lot and after explaining to them that I had no car to come see the car, they all offered to bring the cars to my home for a test drive. I spent the next two days having dealers personally bring cars by for me to drive. I was really amazed by this as it seemed to be something they were used to doing. I picked the one with the least amount of miles that had GPS, DVD, leather seats and sunroof to take some of the sting out of giving up my new GL back home.

I called the bank after finding the car that I wanted. It took them only minutes to let me know that they would be happy to loan me the money. Great! I figured I would have the car by the end of the day, or the next morning at the latest given my past experience with buying cars in the U.S. Next time you are waiting an hour or two on the lot to get your new car in the states, realize that you really do have it good. The process of getting approved takes no time here in AUS. However, the process of actually getting the money transferred to the dealer took nearly a week and a whole bunch of pomp and circumstance to make it "feel" official. The bank had no real way to know what my financial situation is as they asked for no social security or Tax ID number, they could only see the small amount of money in my local bank account and had no history on me to know if I would actually pay my bills. So...to make it seem more "professional" they put a bunch of meaningless red tape and silly exercises in futility in the way to make me "feel" like they were doing their due diligence. I guess the one thing they can count on is that while Australia is a MASSIVE continent, the vast majority of the land in uninhabitable and if they want to repossess the car, it should not be too hard to find me.

Driving on the wrong side of the road is mostly easy. Turning right took some getting used to and I keep forgetting that I can turn left so easily. The biggest issue I keep having is that every time I go to my car, I jump in on the passenger side ready to drive away and then realize, I am not in the driver’s seat. After two weeks, I still do it EVERY time! People look at me funny and I try to pretend that I "meant" to do that by rummaging around before getting out and walking over to the right side of the car. At least when Evan and the kids are with me I can pretend that I meant to sit in the passenger seat and let Evan drive! The other issue I keep having is that the controls are all reversed. Each time I go to turn on my signal at a turn, instead I turn on my windshield wipers. I look like a total dork of course given that the weather has been sunny and warm lately. So to cover up, I turn on the washer fluid and pretend that I needed to clean my windshield in order to see where I am turning. Er....umm...yeah.

School, Friends and Life in General: The kids continue to do well in school and are making friends. Zoe seems to know the name of every kid in her classroom already, has started speaking more with an Aussie accent than an American one and was invited to her first birthday party here. She seems to be fitting in quite well. Unfortunately, with her growing confidence comes her growing attitude! She takes after her mamma and sasses us every chance she gets. She is in that wonderful phase of yelling "NO" at everything, teasing her brother relentlessly and pushing buttons every which way she can. I am very, very afraid of what the teenage years will bring. I am proud of her strong will and strong sense of self - I just look forward to a slightly more mellow time with her before the teens kick in!

Carson is adjusting very well, especially...for Carson. He tends to like predictability and routines and moving here has thrown a lot of that off kilter. Everything in his world has changed, even the way people speak to him. I am so proud of how well he has adapted and continues to adapt. I don't think he has found a particular friend or two that he connects with yet, but it took him a while in preschool in the states. By the end of the school year, he was part of a boy pack that really liked him. Kids happily call out, "Carson" when he enters the classroom so I know he is liked. It just takes Carson longer to bond with new kids and he is perfectly happy playing by himself as well. He does not have the same need to be liked by others or to fit in quickly that most of us are born with. It must be nice not to put that kind of pressure on yourself!  I met with the principle of the primary school where he will start this February and they are working to ensure that he gets a very experienced teacher accustomed to working with Asperger's kids. The unfortunate thing here in Australia is that the school systems have not really done much in the way of formal training or requirements to help children with Asperger's. They are quite behind the U.S. in that matter - not that there is not a lot of room for improvement in the states. The research community is ahead here but the schools are behind and don't have the funding to do the necessary interventions and provide the right level of support to ensure that the Bill Gates' and Einstein's of the world do not fall through the cracks because they are so "different."  However, the principle of Carson's new school has two sons with Asperger's and places an emphasis on doing whatever they can to work around some of the quirks of Autism and play up the gifts and extraordinary talents that Aspies can bring to the classroom. I am quite sure that the entire class will know everything they need to know about bugs by the end of the school year with Carson! Maybe my calling here is to help transform the school system to better integrate these kids in to the system vs. expecting them to be "normal" and learn like everyone else.  Something for me to think about...

Now that the sun is out we are enjoying our back patio and while doing so, I learned something new!  It turns out that for the past two months, we have literally been living across the way from four families with kids in Zoe's classroom! We are very excited to have all of these new friends at once and are very much looking forward to summer bbq's with the neighbors while the kids ride their bikes and run in and out of all of the houses. We bought Carson a cool new "big boy" bike and Zoe is SUPER FAST on her little red Radio Flyer trike. We feel so lucky to have moved into the perfect neighborhood after living so much more remotely in Redmond. Part of the vision of moving here was to have neighbors to hang out with and kids for our kids to play with.  This could not possibly have been any more perfect! I am sure I will have more to share about this new part of our lives as the weather improves.

So...life is good. It is starting to be "normal" and we have what we need. I am glad that I lived with less so I can appreciate havinga little more and reset my sights on what I "need."  And I am very, very optimistic about our future here. I hope everyone back home enjoyed their summer as I am heading towards mine. If you are up for a visit, we will be having Christmas margaritas on the patio and will be happy to make some for you too!