To a crackerjack 2015!

Our view of the Opera House at midnight
Our view of the Opera House at midnight

Happy New Year from Sydney! I hope you’ve had a great start to 2015. This was our first Christmas and New Year (or “festive season” as the locals call it) in Sydney and we’ve had a fantastic time.

We decided to embrace the hot weather and spent Christmas Day on the beach this year. We even spent a good chunk of New Year’s Day drinking and hanging out by Bondi. How ‘Strayan is that? My family’s been in town these last few weeks and we’ve had a ton of fun (re)discovering Sydney and spending some quality time together.

I was very impressed with all the Santa hats in 30C weather

This year, instead of drawing up a list of resolutions that I’ll likely never revisit, I decided to pick one word to capture my focus for 2015. I figured a single word would be easy to remember and easy for me to come back to. So, for 2015, my word is “strength”.

My focus is on having the strength to make tough choices, to push myself out of my comfort zone, to be disciplined about pursuing the things I care about and saying no to the things (and people) that detract. I’m also resolving to keep my existing strengths in mind and to draw upon them, hone them and appreciate them. Lastly, I’m committing to staying on my trajectory of getting fitter and healthier and stronger every day. I’ll be pushing myself harder, cooking (even) more and hopefully logging a few personal bests (and firsts) along the way. To 2015… to strength!

Tiger Mottle and a Wander in Paddo

Jacaranda: the gem of Australian summer
Jacaranda: the harbinger of the Aussie summer

Summer is here at last and the season is in full swing — soaring temperatures, sudden thunderstorms, flowers in full bloom. The hubs and I spent the morning wandering around Paddington, a leafy suburb affectionately referred to by locals as “Paddo”. We pass through Paddo every morning on our way from Bondi Beach to Sydney’s CBD, yet in the excitement of exploring some of Sydney’s lesser known neighbourhoods, this gem has managed to fall off our weekend radar.

Breakfast was at Tiger Mottle, a cute, neighbourhood cafe, a few short steps from the heart of Paddo’s Five Ways. Tiger Mottle prides itself on a fresh, simple menu and strong, reliable coffee. They’re well known for their use of the double ristretto method, but the delicious aromas that waft out of their storefront on Glenmore are reason enough to visit.

Photo Nov 15, 10 17 40 AM

We’ve visited Tiger Mottle before but this was our first time sampling their food. In keeping with Sydney café culture, the menu offered up an array of egg and sourdough dishes with a smattering of avocado and seasonal salads. I was excited to also see quite a few innovative options, including Quinoa Bircher. I’ve been wanting to make a quinoa-based breakfast porridge, so this was a quick, no-risk way of taste-tasting the concept.

Everything was delicious! There’s nothing more disappointing than a breakfast that leaves you feeling unsated. Luckily, Tiger Mottle delivers on its mantra (or really the “Mod Oz” mantra) of fresh, flavorful food, done simply and healthily. And to top it all, we got to sit in the cozy garden out back. This one’s a winner.

After brekky, the sun peeked out and gave us some respite from an atypically overcast day. We wandered around and I snapped a few shots of green, leafy Paddo and some of it’s gorgeous summer blooms.

Paddo reminds me a lot of London’s Nottinghill; the quiet streets and narrow, terraced houses make for a quaint, village-like feel. On a sunny day, Paddo’s dappled laneways could pass for something out of a Mediterranean postcard.

Now, the front doors and flowers of Paddo could make for more than a few blog posts all by themselves, but I’ll leave you here with a few favorites. Till next time x

Tiger Mottle on Urbanspoon

Five Things I Love About Sydney: #1

My Bondi Backyard
My Bondi Backyard

We’ve been in Sydney 9 months now.  Nine.Whole.Months.  Holy smokes, where did the time go?

As we approach our 1 year anniversary in this wonderful, crazy town, I thought it appropriate to reflect on some of the Australian things I’d now be hard pressed to live without.  Stay tuned for a series of blog posts with my top 5.  Here’s the first.

No Dramas

Australians have a remarkable tendency to downplay everything. This comes, no doubt, from their British roots. When they say they’re a bit sniffly, they have the flu; when they’re peckish, chances are they havent eaten in 24 hours and if you hear an Aussie say they’re in need of a lie down, it’s probably because they’ve pulled an all nighter at work, gotten caught in a rip while ocean swimming, torn their ACL, narrowly escaped the jaws of a shark or all of the above.

Y U SO COOL

I think this is partly an Australian aversion to complaining (and attention-seeking) and partly that Australians are just plain tougher than most people.  Sydneysiders will traipse through their winters in shorts and a T shirt.  Now, granted it’s doesn’t get as cold as Boston down here, but with these poorly insulated houses it can get pretty darn brisk in that 5-15C band. They’ll also jump off cliffs, brush off stings from blueys (as long as it’s not a box jellyfish), start running ultra marathons when they’re 45 and wake up at 6am on a Saturday so that they can get in a soft sand run or a bike ride before an 830 brekky.

Work Hard, Play Hard
Work Hard, Play Hard: Kiteboarding in Melbourne

While it’s fairly standard in New York to answer the “how’s work?” question with an honest assessment (aka whine) about your hours and stress levels, you’ll be hard pressed in Australia to hear anyone say they worked on the weekend (even if they did). Working on the weekend is an admission of failure in Australia.  It means you failed to finish your work during the week and you suck at time management or simply that you’re so dull that you couldn’t come up with anything else to occupy yourself (or to talk about) on what should have been a two day holiday.

Let’s translate these real quotes:

1. When asked what he thought of the movie:

Aussie: “Yeah, I didn’t mind it”

Translation: “I thought it was pretty good”

2. When asked if there are crocodiles in the water:

Aussie: “Nah, might see a few freshies though

Translation: “You won’t see a saltwater croc but there are heaps of freshwater crocs.  They’ll only attack if you swim directly over one or disturb it.  The chances of that happening are medium to high, but I’m going to go in anyway. ”

3. When asked how the morning was:

Aussie: “Yeah good. Am wide awake after bootcamp.

Translation: “I woke up at 530am and drove to the beach to spend an hour throwing sandbags, squatting with impossible weights and soft sand running with 25 other people before heading home in time to make breakfast for my partner and three children and getting ready for a 45min commute to work.”

Uge
Bondi bootcamp 6.40am

The “no dramas” attitude is one of my favourite things about Aussie culture because it’s a constant reminder that a) life in a developed country really isn’t that hard, and b) the world does not, in fact, revolve around you.  Your woes are but a tiny drop in the vast ocean of humanity and conversations shouldn’t be about getting attention anyway: so brush it off, suck it up and move on to the next adventure.

Unfortunately, this aspect of Australianism rarely makes it across the Pacific intact.  Like a game of telephone, by the time the message reaches the States, the understatedness has usually been reframed as “Australians are laid back”, “they go to work in flip flops” or the all-time favourite “they’re just plain lazy”.

I’ll admit, we’d heard our fair share of Aussie stereotypes when we left New York but it took less than a week in Sydney to have them blown away.  Truth be told, Sydneysiders are hardcore. They’re hard core about getting things done, about dressing up, about drinking, about getting up early and staying out late and, above all, they’re hardcore about the outdoors.

Because there isn’t much of a face time culture in Sydney offices and because there’s so little talking about work outside of work, it isn’t much of a leap for an American to conclude that his Australian cousin is a lazy nine-to-fiver just waiting to pull his next sickie and skive off at the beach.

How Americans imagine Australians to dress

One of my favourite quotes from a colleague in New York: “Well at least you’ll get to kick back.  An Aussie girl’s idea of dressing up is throwing on a pair of Uggs”.

She couldn’t have been more wrong.  Sydney is one of THE most dressed up cities I’ve been in.  Any and every excuse to dress up is seized by the horns, whether work, travel or the Australian favourite: a day at the races.

Melbourne cup
How Australians really dress

Sydneysiders are working harder than ever (and relying on some deliciously healthy food) to stay fit, healthy and beautiful. A short stroll through the CBD, Bondi, Surry Hills or really any central Sydney neighbourhood is all the motivation you’ll need to get back on that treadmill (or soft sand).  Need some inspiration from afar? Check out Uge’s gallery at www.aquabumps.com.  Either way, no dramas bro.

Six foods that are all the rage in Sydney

1. Halloumi. 

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Picture from foodytwoshoes.com

This salty, springy cheese hails from Cyprus and has been popular in the area encompassing Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan since the Byzantine era.  Wikipedia notes “Halloumi has recently become very popular in the United Kingdom.” Yup, an article in the BBC this past September attempts to address how halloumi took over the UK, elevating itself from a niche grocery store product to a staple at summer BBQs.

Add Sydney to the list.  Wherever you go, you’ll delight at spotting this salty, squeaky cheese on Sydney menus — whether in place of meat in burgers and sandwiches, as an ingredient in fresh salads (especially with watermelon) or on its own, as a side, grilled and dripping with flavour. My favourite halloumi in the city is in the form of Bondi Massive’s delectable pesto and halloumi sammy.

2. Muesli

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Picture from thekitchn.com

I’ve written about muesli a couple of times but it bears noting as a staple in Sydney.  Whether you’re in line for your morning cuppa or you’re browsing your local supermarket, muesli jumps out at you from every corner.  As in England, muesli is the king of breakfast here, beating back the efforts of that sugary sweet poster child for American healthy eating, otherwise known as granola.  Just so we’re on the same page, here’s the difference:

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Picture from Livestrong.com
  • Muesli and granola were both developed in the late 1800s in different parts of the world.  Muesli was developed by Swiss-German physician and nutritionist Max Bircher-Benner as a natural, raw food to help his patients during convalescence.  Granola was developed by Dr. James Caleb Jackson at the Jackson Sanitarium in New York.
  • Muesli is unbaked and doesn’t contain sweetener or oil.  Granola on the other hand usually contains one or more of maple syrup, brown sugar or honey as well as vegetable oil or butter.
  • Granola is typically harder than muesli.  The sweeteners in granola cause the oats, seeds and other goodies to clump together and, harden into sugary clusters.  While this gives granola that satisfying crunch and pretty glaze, it also gives it that tendency to get stuck in our teeth.
  • In other words, compared cup for cup as an average of all brands, muesli has 289 calories whereas granola has a whopping 500+ calories. A few interesting reports from Livestrong and Shape.

If that isn’t enough reason to switch, check out this delicious bircher muesli recipe by My New Roots.

3. Chia Seeds

I first came across chia seeds a few blocks from my old New York apartment in the West Village.  There is a deliciously quaint store on Carmine Street called Victory Garden that specializes in locally sourced goats milk, mastic and chia seed products.  They’re better known for their goat’s milk soft serve ice cream (check out their foursquare photo feed) but Victory Garden makes a to-die-for chia seed parfait that I’ve indulged in after many a morning workout, despite lingering doubts about where it falls on the healthy breakfast vs. dessert pudding spectrum.  The parfait is made with cashew milk and sweetened with a hint of agave.

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Victory Garden’s delicious chia seed parfait.  Pic by seriouseats.com

Anyway, I was intrigued to learn that chia seeds have had quite the impact on the Sydney food scene, with a conspicuous presence in breakfast foods, desserts and the ubiquitous grocery aisle.  I’m still figuring out how to reconstruct that delicious parfait, but in the meantime, I’ve incorporated this uber super food into my weekend breakfast drinks.

4. Passionfruit

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Passiflora Edulis: the other worldly flower of the passionfruit

Sydney, or Australia really, has an abundance of passionfruit.  You can buy three fresh passionfruit for $2 at Harris Farms (Sydney’s answer to Whole Foods) and any crunchy grocery store will have its own version of homemade yoghurt with fresh passionfruit. You’ll also encounter passionfruit in Sydney desserts (especially pavlova) and cocktails.

Coming from the US, where passionfruit sits squarely in the exotic category alongside mangoes (also somewhat more common here) it’s been a real treat to indulge in them here.

5. Laksa

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Get the recipe at taste.com.au

The first time I had laksa in New York, I was at Double Crown, sampling, what can only be described with political incorrectness, as their colonial British menu. It was tangy, spicy, smooth and delicious.  I loved it.  Funny then how you can find laksa on every street corner in Sydney’s CBD.  It’s so mainstream that the popular Aussie salad bar chain “Sumo Salad” offers it on their health-conscious menu.  Laksa is popular in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia and comes in a variety of preparations.  The kind I’ve sampled in Sydney is a rich coconut-based soup with thick noodles, prawns and a dollop of sambal.  It’s probably more popular with chicken.

While Laksa is an example of a popular Asian dish here in Sydney that isn’t (or doesn’t seem to have made it) big in the States, I could replace this point with an entire category of Asian food.  Central Sydney is an Asian food lover’s paradise with everything from fresh dumplings, “yum cha” (dim sum) and hand pulled noodles to elaborate duck and seafood preparations.  Thai, Malay, and Singaporean dishes, in particular, have more of a representation here than in New York.

6. Spices

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Dukkah-crusted salmon, recipe at taste.com.au

A bit broad and not technically “a food”, but I’m not sure how to put this other than to say Sydneysiders are the kings of spice.  Harissa, DukkahChermoula and Sambal are all fairly mainstream here and, again, feature prominently on both restaurant menus as well as in supermarket aisles.  Dukkah crusted salmon, in particular, is a popular dish that springs to mind.  I’m not complaining.  Although our small fridge coupled with my husband’s love for collecting condiments may soon lead to some challenges…

Reforming my ways

As anyone who knows me can attest, I get restless after a few days sans workout. Living in New York has made me a total gym rat but I’ve always loved running outdoors so when we moved here, I kept myself happy by running the Opera House loop. As glorious as this was, I was hankering for some HIIT or resistance training.  Fortunately there was a giant Fitness First across the street so I popped over to sign up for a trial.

Fitness First

Screen shot 2013-11-17 at 9.50.36 PM

I’d never encountered a Fitness First before this, so wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Unfortunately the salesperson who delivered my tour was as enthusiastic as a vegetarian at a steak house. The space itself was huge and even though it was slightly casino-like and underground (no natural sunlight boo!) the facilities seemed functional: a couple studios, a large weight zone, plenty of cardio machines and a huge mat area with 10 or so dangling TRX straps.

I’ve been training on the TRX for just over a year.  I love it.  Aside from the gains in core strength, stability and muscle tone (and the fact that there isn’t a dull moment) one of my favourite things about TRX is that the recovery time is short and sweet(er than a circuit).  You can throw in a 30 minute TRX circuit before or after some cardio and wake up the next day hungry for more.  Because it engages the core and spreads the work across a lot of smaller, often unused muscles, it doesn’t leave you sore and weary in the way that reps with weights or on weight machines might.

Photo from the TRX TrainStation in Toronto
Photo from the TRX TrainStation in Toronto

Anyway, back to Fitness First…

The “club”, as they like to call it, I’d walked into turned out to be one of Fitness First’s platinum locations, meaning higher prices, fewer people and the option to upgrade to black label membership — which gets you entry to a subterranean locker room with a mechanical massage table, a makeup area, a permanent locker and free laundry service.  Wait…what?

I used the first of my two free passes on the elliptical and TRX.  Meh.  The TRX bands were so hard to adjust that they were almost not worth it and the cardio area smelled funky.  The unnatural lighting somehow hampered any possible endorphin rush.

Despite the signs, I came back the next day to give their yoga a try and I have to say that it may have been the most unpleasant yoga class I’ve been too :/.  For starters, the yoga mats were half the size they usually are. When a mat can’t contain my 5’4″ downward dog, you know it’s small.  And when you can’t fit both your hands and feet on a mat, you know you’re just waiting for a slip injury. Second, the instructor for some reason had decided to use a mic. drill sergeant orders some how don’t jibe well with the zen of yoga. If that weren’t enough, every five minutes there would be a loud THUMP on the roof of the yoga studio that would reverberate across the floor.  Ahhhhh!

Next stop: Virgin Active

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After abandoning Fitness First, I decided to check out Virgin Active.  I’d heard good things and several colleagues had mentioned going there.  They only have the one club but it’s conveniently located on the top floor of a mall in the CBD, a short walk from work.  I headed over one evening and was given a tour of the brand spanking new facilities, including a pool, a climbing wall (big win) and a room containing “sleep pods” (very cool!).  My tour guide was nice enough until I asked whether they’d waive activation fees for my partner (fairly standard practice in NYC for families or referrals): he then decided to give me an awkward analogy about buying beef at a quality butcher shop vs. 7/11. Uhhh.

Ready to use my trial pass, I found that the club and locker room were packed but civilised.  I walked in to a Hatha yoga class with medium hopes.  I’m not a huge fan of Hatha but at this point, I was willing to do anything for a yoga fix.  The instructor was perched on a platform in a zen-like state.  He welcomed us in with a warm, soothing voice and, as we began our practice, I actually felt a glimmer of hope.  Unfortunately, the class turned out to be a little rudimentary for my taste but the real deal-breaker was when he made us do back-bends and inversions with the lights ON.  If you’ve ever tried to get yourself from a bridge to a wheel with a fluorescent light in your face, you’ll know what yoga nausea feels like.

Elixr: third time’s a charm

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I gave up on Virgin Active and decided to ignore their aggressive salesperson’s calls and voicemails in favour of a trial at Elixr.  The yoga-savvy wife of a colleague had  steered me towards Elixr, a high-end yoga and pilates gym with clubs in Bondi Junction as well as the city.  After a quick glance at their website and their packed agenda of classes, I was excited but cautious.  I headed to their Bondi location and as I stepped out of the lifts, I felt like I’d been whisked away to a luxury spa.  I was given a friendly, un-pushy (finally!) tour of their softly-lit, zen-like facilities, during which a member interrupted the tour to tell me how amazing her experience had been and how I wouldn’t regret the decision to join.

Elixr’s Bondi location comprises two dedicated Pilates reformer studios, a yoga studio and a fourth studio for dance fusion, boxing and other cardio classes.  There is also a massive pool, a large cardio area, a small section with machines and another small mat area with free weights, exercise balls and kettlebells. With its heavy focus on yoga and Pilates and its small weights area, Elixr’s client base looks unsurprisingly to be 80-90% women.  During my free trial, I attended the best yoga class I’d been to in months.  I was sold.  But Elixr was so nice that they extended my free trial so that my husband could come in and check out the gym as well.  I then attended a reformer class and liked it so much that I had to harass them to sign me up.

Elixr's Pilates Studio, picture courtesy of the Secret Diary of a Tall Girl
Elixr’s Pilates Studio, picture courtesy of the Secret Diary of a Tall Girl

It was my first time in a group reformer class.  I’ve done plenty of mat pilates at Equinox, my old New York gym, and experimented on the small reformer that you have to book private sessions at, but I’d never come across an all-you-can-eat group reformer class. I don’t think they’re as big in the States.

Anyway, nearly three months later, I’m going to group reformer classes (or “GRC” as Elixr likes to call it) twice or thrice a week.  I can feel the gains in my core and arm strength, not to mention in other activities including tennis.  Even better, the classes are packed into an intense 45 minutes so I can squeeze in the occasional GRC during lunch or combine it with a bit of cardio before / after.  Unlike yoga, GRC is easy on the wrists and unlike running, it doesn’t strain the knee or ankle joints.  The sky’s the limit.

Have you worked out on a Pilates reformer or found a group reformer class?  I’d love to hear what you thought!