Saturday, August 31, 2013

House hunting in Melbourne

Front of our house
I wont keep you in suspense and will just cut to the chase … WE FOUND A HOUSE!  I love everything about it. But I wanted to say a little bit about renting a house in Melbourne for others who may be considering it.
As part of my relocation package (and I expect this is not uncommon with relocations) I got to work with a relocation agent for two days. You can add days if you need to, but this is on an exception basis. The first day is considered your neighborhood overview day, and you drive around a get a feel for the vibe of a neighborhood, what the schools are like, and if there are  restaurants and shopping nearby.

I had of course been looking at things online before going out with the agent, as well as asking friends and colleagues about neighborhoods. Everyone will have his/her own set of criteria for picking a neighborhood, and in many cases it will depend on schools. For us this was not an issue since only my younger son traveled to Australia and he is already in college. I had given it some thought and decided that we did not need to live by the ocean (technically it is a bay, but it is so large that it feels like being by the ocean). My thinking was that it would be pricier and would get crowded with beach-goers in the summer. When we wanted to go to the beach, we would just get in our car and drive there. 
Bay at Brighton
  Well, all this thinking went out the window the first morning of my house-hunting trip. After driving through a couple of neighborhoods just outside CBD (e.g. Albert Park, Middle Park) we got to the Brighton area. We pretty much just drove through St. Kilda, which was described to me by a person at work as the “former red light district” and by my relocation agent as an area that is most likely enjoyed by people younger than my husband and I. Yes there are prostitutes and drug dealers there, but there are also night clubs and bars and fun places if you have more energy than we tend to on weekends. 

I was completely smitten by the quality of light and the air in Brighton. We stopped by the beach area (and saw the famous Brighton bathing boxes) and the water is beautiful and clear, more reminiscent of the waters near an island than a bay that supports a large port and major metropolis. Between the beach and the Beach Road (a significant road with two lanes in each direction) are large parks for riding bikes, playing with your dog or just strolling along. We did continue on to visit other neighborhoods such as the suburbs to the East of Melbourne (e.g. Malvern, Toorak) and I looked at some listing in Northern Melbourne. But once a heart is captured, there can be no turning back. This was in many ways a good thing, since it allowed us to focus our search down to just the south-east neighborhoods. 

We stopped in to view a few houses on the first day of the search. In Melbourne (and probably in all of Australia) you are required by law to actually place feet in the house (or apartment) before you can rent it. The practical way to accommodate this is to have the equivalent of ‘open houses’ where the agent is on the premises for a small window of time (usually 15 minutes) and people can register their interest. Fortunately, one can also arrange private viewings, which my relocation agent helped with. I started to get very discouraged.
As alluded to in an earlier blog post, houses in Melbourne are in general smaller than what we are used to in the U.S. and more expensive. Since our move was very rushed and I wasn’t even in the country anymore when the packers showed up, we ended up shipping about 90% of our furniture here. We have a house that is greater than 3.5k sq ft in the US, so that translates to a fair amount of belongings. Interestingly, they don’t list or even measure the size of houses here. While of course it would be in square meters if it did show up anyplace, they just don’t do it. They list instead the number of bedrooms, bathrooms and parking spaces. This leaves a big range for other things, like whether there is a formal and an informal lounge (what we would refer to as the living room and den or family room), whether there is a dining room, a study (i.e. office), etc. etc. If it has a closet, (referred to a B.I.R. for built-in-robe) it is a bedroom. Sadly, I saw houses where rooms without BIRs where included in the number of bedrooms listed. You can imagine what those look like, with clothes hanging on a portable bar and stuffed into plastic boxes. Mind you, these were not inexpensive houses either. 
The prices are listed here by the week. To get the monthly rent, you don’t simply multiply by 4. This is because in Australia they like to charge you for every day of the year and not all months have the same number of days. (So to get the monthly, you have to divide by 7 multiply by 365 and then divide by 12 ….) We were looking in the 950 a week to 1200 a week. Quite a range, I agree. And not inexpensive. But to get a house (rather than an apartment) in walking distance to a train line and that does not require a very long commute, this is what it costs. You would think that for this price all the places I looked at would be terrific. Not so.
Some were tiny, some were on noisy roads, some had virtually no heat (electric portable units). Many had been partially refurbished. In most cases I liked some thing about the house but there were things that I thought might be difficult for us to live with. In the more modern houses, the rooms are smaller. In this way they can list it as a 3 bedroom 2 bath, but often the square footage of the house is probably close to 1200 sq ft. Something I saw a lot and really didn’t like, is the fact that the master bedroom (and you know it is the master because it has the largest closest space and the ensuite bathroom) is the first door off the left (or the right) as you walk into the house. To me this seems like a funny location, plus it has the significant disadvantage of facing the road and/or the parking area. When I commented on this to one of the real-estate agents, she replied: “this is how we do it here in Australia. You’ll get used it”. My relocation agent wasn’t too pleased with this cavalier attitude and my thinking was that I was definitely not going to get ‘used to it’. 
 In the end we found this property. It is a wonderful old house built in the 1930s with two floors, which I decided was important to me. It also has more rooms/space than we really need but the good news is that all our furniture will fit. 

 It is a somewhat formal house, considering our current home is very modern but it has a lot of charm and feels bright and airy.

 The back yard is not large by many standards but for Melbourne it is on the large size and it is filled with birds - in particular turtle doves. The lady who lived here before it was sold was here for 27 years. She didn't have internet and she didn't have cable TV (we have had to install both) but she loved her garden and flowers. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Melbourne Zoo

I haven’t been to a zoo since the boys were fairly young. This may explain why about 97% of the people at Melbourne Zoo were pushing a stroller, or holding a little one by the hand.
I had gone in hopes of being immersed in local flora and fauna, but this was not quite the ticket.  Frankly I found the zoo a little sad. To their credit, they have done a lot with a relatively small amount of land. Also, I expect they are underfunded, which is why there are so many signs around the zoo requesting donations to save animals "from extinction”. If you are in CBD you can take the tram right there, or there is also a train stop.

I started with the Elephant Walk, which may have been a mistake, since elephants and relatively small spaces don’t mix well. They borrowed a page from Disney in an attempt to recreate a ‘village’ around the elephant enclosures, but it didn’t quite come off right (it probably looks a lot better to a 7-year-old) and just looked a little decrepit. There is a very large male with long (broken) tusks who is by himself in a sort of depressing space, and he has a long tubular object hanging on a rope that he can roll back and forth on his trunk, which will eventually cause a treat to fall out. Once it does, he scoops it up off the dirt with end of his trunk and starts all over again. Unfortunately he just seemed really bored and a little neurotic. Other adult elephants were in another enclosure with multiple young ones. I couldn’t help thinking of the happy elephants up in northern Thailand, who work with their trainers all day (with said trainers being completed devoted to the big beasts) and can seen painting paintings or kicking a soccer ball into a goal.

Moving on to some of the exhibits I liked better, it seemed that the orangutans got relatively large spaces (just a family of 3 in a very big enclosure) but they are sort of a cornerstone of the zoo’s save-animals-from-extinction campaign so that may be why they have a nicer space.  

I tried my first pie at the zoo. I guess that was a mistake since the chicken was dry and the crust heavy. Pies are sort of big here, and I am sure they come in a range from terrible to really terrific. Basically a pie has some type of meat (or chicken) filling and something that needs to strive to be a flaky crisp crust.

The aviary is nice. I guess I like spaces where you can walk in near the animals and you don’t notice the enclosures as much. There is a butterfly house, but it is tiny and was mobbed with people as well as very heated.
Overall, unless you have one or more little ones that you are looking to get outside in a sort of ‘structured’ outing, I would probably take a pass on the Melbourne Zoo.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Trams and Museums

Lest anyone get the impression that I spend my time overwhelmed by the move and/or tired from jet-lag, I want to dedicate a couple of paragraphs to the wonders of Melbourne.
Getting around is very easy, due in no small part to the tram system. I find trams so much nicer than subways. Sure they are often crowded like subways, and like subways - when you jam that many people into a small space invariably there is somebody who smells like mothballs, or doesn’t have a dryer at home and their clothes smell sour. But unlike subways, they are of course above ground, so you can watch the world go by outside your window. I find there are enough trams, that if a ton of people are waiting and smash into the first tram that comes along, usually if you look down the road you can see another one coming, and that one is often mostly empty.

My son points out that he likes trams better than subways because the seats are nicer … bigger and more comfortable. There is also the wonderful iPhone app called Tram Tracker. Put in your tram number and it will tell you how many minutes until your train arrives. Bring up the app while walking down any street and it will tell you where the closest tram stop is in relation to your current location.  Truly a great invention and just another one of the many things that makes Melbourne such a livable city. And if you don't have an iPhone (no the app does not work on Android) at many tram stops in CBD you can just look up at the display (pictured above) which shows the same live information on arrivals.

Finding myself with a few hours to spare on a rainy Sunday, I took the tram over to the Melbourne Museum. I am not much of a museum person. It is actually a bit of joke in the family, since my parents and siblings are very much museum-people. When I travel to Europe with my sisters, they can put up being around me because of the rules:  “churches are not museums” and “only one museum”. Thus we can enjoy walking around the city and visiting all the old beautiful churches, and take in (no more than : ) one museum. I was drawn to the Melbourne Museum because of their Forest Walk exhibit (wonderful outdoor space full of tress and birds) and a couple of exhibits on australian wildlife and aboriginal art.
live bird in Forest Exhibit

Much to my surprise, when I walked up to the ticket counter, I found myself buying a one-year membership. I plan to return again and again.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Settling-in is not easy …

--> good thing for lovely coffee breaks! 
(this cup of coffee was on par with the best I've had in Florence, and it was just a little cafe I wandered into to escape the cold wind)

Wow – so many things, that we take for granted as ‘part of life’ need to be done over, when moving. Leaving aside for now the myriad of new things that need to be set up in my personal life, one would think that at work I could slide right in since I am after all just transferring from one location to the next. But no, I am now an employee of our Australian entity, so as a ‘new’ employee, I have to create my work environment all over.  This means new accounts that must be set up, ordering and installing software, getting used to a PC all over again (I had moved to a MAC years ago, and going back to Windows … Windows7 mind you,  not Windows XP … is not for the faint of heart), getting a new conference bridge account, a new corporate credit card account, new tunneling account … the list goes on.
Not fun  : ( 
Oh well. I see it as an investment towards the payoff, which is the reward of being here for two years.
It had not occurred to me to set up voicemail on my new cell phone, since Apple kindly did a restore from the cloud of everything that was on my US phone and so the phone and acted looked the same. Except … no voicemail … I was wondering why these numbers that I did not recognize (and of course I would not recognize them, they are Australian numbers) kept calling me and not leaving voicemail. So now that is set up as well.
The big nut is finding a place to live. The houses in Melbourne are smaller than what we are used in the US and more expensive. Because we did not have the luxury of time to go on a house-hunting trip before we packed up and left, about 90% of our furniture has been sealed into a shipping container and delivered to the dock, awaiting its ship. I joke with my husband that maybe we can rent that shipping container and set it up on the sidewalk in front of our new house. That way when we want to use one of our many sofas or armchairs, we can just go out and sit in the container.  More on houses soon …