#nicoledownunder (Part 3)

Is it too late? Am I too old? Can I afford it? Will this make it harder for me to find a job? I asked myself various questions, before I decided to apply for a working holiday visa and set off on my adventure to the land down under. Naturally, I had doubts and concerns, whether or not it was the right thing to do, at the right time.

What was for sure was that after being in school for roughly 22 years and receiving the Master of Arts degree I had been working towards for the past two years, I needed a break. From studying, from the constant pressure produced by deadlines and expected GPA’s, from my living environment, my daily routine, life’s problems. I have had trouble sleeping during recent years and my brain sometimes just felt dead. Empty yet so full of content – content that was forced on me by university curriculums. Do not get me wrong. A lot of the literature I had to “feed” myself as part of seminars and lectures was very interesting, sometimes even entertaining. But it was simply too much. Often, I merely browsed through a book and then ended up reading the synopsis or summary online, hoping it would be a sufficient amount of information to enable me to participate in the next seminar session. Why, you ask? Well, I might still have had several papers waiting to be penned and had to sort out my priorities. The papers were graded, reading the book was not. – Just as a little side note, the ability to sort out your priorities is one of the best soft skills you learn in college and university. It comes in very handy in life! – But the point I want to make here is: my brain was full of content that had to be in there. I did not choose to put it in there. There was no free time left to read the books I wanted to read, which I just happened to discover in the book store or the library and which woke my curiosity. There was no time to write hardly anything except school papers. And while my freelance work for the local newspaper and my gym membership helped give some relief, I was yearning for something else.

The wish to travel to Australia and experience something new and different had been in me for a long time. I had been wanting to realize it right after high school, but gave in to the voices of family members and my own conscience, who urged me to start college right away and not waste any time. In addition, I still lacked the needed confidence to embark on such a big journey all by myself. So during the following ten years (yes, my high school graduation has been THAT long ago!), I received an undergraduate and graduate degree, completed several internships at home and in the United States, studied abroad, and worked in various summer jobs to afford these endeavors. I have made so many good (and bad) experiences, met wonderful people, and made friends that I will hopefully keep for the rest of my life. Many of my dreams have come true and I have grown immensely during this time – not physically of course, as that train seems to have left the station a long time ago! (I am aware this German saying might not translate very well, but it just felt right.) However, ten years later, that wish was still lurking somewhere within me. So when I thought about my post-graduation life, it resurfaced over and over again, and I went for it.

Coming back to those questions from the beginning. I have met many backpackers and au pairs ever since I arrived in Sydney four months ago. Most of them are in their late teens or early twenties. The oldest might have been 25. Approaching 29 with the speed of light, sometimes I feel it would be nice to be around more people my age. It is fine for me to spend time with people younger than myself, but the image of a fun weekend at age 29 just looks a little bit different from that at age 22. I am just not so much into staying out until the early morning at smelly but (considerably) cheap backpacker bars anymore. Waking up to a monster-hangover, because you drank too much cheap tetra-pack wine just does not sound like a good way to start a beautiful Sunday morning. Instead, I prefer spending an evening going out to dinner with good food, good conversation, and a glass of red. (Yes, I recently began preferring red over white wine. I think I’m ready for my thirties now!) An alternative would be a day of “touristing”, followed by a movie and yummy self-cooked food – food is essential, guys! After these activities, I wake up at a reasonable time on Sunday morning, ready to go for a pre-breakfast run, with a full day to spend doing other fun stuff. So it would be nice to be around people who are also past their binge-drinking days. But, essentially, it is not a problem. I can still participate in a pub crawl and leave when I feel like I’m ready to “call it a day” and let the others order their third, fourth, or fifth cheap drink. Sometimes I feel a little bit old doing that, but then, on the next morning, that feeling fades when I run past those terrible looking zombies, on their way home from a rough night involving too much liquor, still in their party outfits and seemingly ready to fall to their death bed.

One of the concerns I heard a lot from other people whom I told about my plans, besides maybe being too old to enjoy being around all those “young kids”, was that it might not look good on my résumé when applying for jobs. It might be better to apply for jobs right away after graduate school, they said. Employers might question why I went away after receiving my degree instead of making myself available to the market right away. Well, all I can say to them is that I simply do not care. Why should I let go of a dream I have had for such a long time, and which I can finally realize, because a potential employer might ask me why? Firstly, I do not have a problem giving my reasons and explaining, why it was the right moment in time to do it. Secondly, I do not think that, after hearing my reasons, an employer would necessarily think of my “gap time” in Australia as something negative that disqualifies me for a position I otherwise would have been considered for. And if, against my solemn belief, that would indeed be the case, I honestly would not want to work for such an employer anyway. I believe that there are many open-minded employers out there, who know about and value the experience one gains and the skills one attains when travelling to, working, and living in another country on another continent. They will know that not only does it take a lot of courage to take that step, but that you also learn to be more open and how to adapt to different cultures and work environments, which in turn makes you a better employee within a global market. So, effectively, my “gap time” should improve my résumé and make me more interesting to potential employers, especially globally operating companies.

So, after roughly four months down under, with two and a half more to go, I do not regret the decision I have made at the end of last year. I look back at the cold, cloudy day in

Nicole South Head

View towards North Head from South Head near Watson’s Bay.

Göttingen last December, when I visited the Christmas market with my sister to eat Nutella crêpes right after booking my flight to Sydney, and remember the mixed feelings I have had. I had taken my courage and spent a whole lot of money on a 22-hour flight that would take me to a country on the other side of the world, which I had never been to. It was exciting and scary all at once, but I trusted my gut feeling. And once again, as with my past decisions to study a semester at the University of Maryland, intern twice in Washington D.C., and return to my first alma mater, the University of Göttingen, to pursue an advanced degree, my gut was right. It certainly was the right decision to make at the right point in time. It may not have been in compliance with the wishes of some members of my family, but it was the right decision to make for ME – and that’s what this adventure is all about, doing the things I want to do when and with whomever I want.

Everything feels right at the moment. I enjoy working as an au pair four days a week, though not all days are equally enjoyable of course. Taking care of toddlers and school children is hard work and I have gained a newfound respect for my mother’s accomplishments. But it is also a great joy to witness the progress young children make every day and to be the recipient of their unconditional love. It will be very hard to part ways with my loving host family once I head off to my next travel destinations. However, I am also very much looking forward to my trip down the East coast, from Cairns to Brisbane, as well as my stops in Singapore and Dubai on the way back to Germany. Until then, I try to live according to the motto of “carpe diem”. I “seize the day”, every day – whether that means bushwalking through a tropical rainforest in Sydney’s backyard, watching the trains go by with the adorable two-year-old, or sipping on a delicious mocha in my favourite café, writing this post. Life is good, as long as you do what you want and love.

#nicoledownunder (Part 2)

More than two months into my Australian adventure, I have settled into my daily routine working as an au pair as well as getting familiar with and accustomed to my surroundings in a Sydney suburb, complete with having a usual spot at my favourite café. (Pure Brew Co. has the best mocha I have tasted down under so far! It is seriously so good!)

I tried not to have any set expectations before I

AUS post 2 16

Working in my favourite spot at Pure Brew Co. café.

came here, but of course I harboured some stereotypical hopes, like seeing koalas and kangaroos hopping along the side of the streets or seeing surfers out and about barefoot everywhere. I can say that I haven’t seen any koalas and ‘roos (Aussie’s love to abbreviate words) outside the zoo and a koala hospital yet. However, I have seen many surfer “dudes” roaming around the beaches I’ve yet been to.

When it comes to typical OZ (common nickname for Australia) life, I can say that there’s some notable differences to life in both other countries I have lived in for a longer period of time so far – Germany, my home country, and the United States, where I have spent a considerable amount of time during the past seven years.

One I was very surprised about was how early cafés and some restaurants close, especially on weekends. While cafés in Germany are usually open at least until 6pm, or even longer depending on whether the menu caters to evening desires like cocktails and dinner, most places here close around 4pm, sometimes even earlier on weekends. But while most stores in Germany are closed on Sundays, they are usually open at least until 5pm in Australia. So while you are usually always able to buy food to prepare at home or take away, places where you can sit down and eat or drink in beautiful surroundings can be more tricky to find, at least if you are on a tight budget.

Which brings me to the next difference compared to Germany – the cost of food. Even when considering the conversion rate between the Aussie Dollar and the Euro, any kind of food items, whether in the form of groceries to take home or restaurant meals and drinks, are more expensive. Here are some examples so you can get an idea of the differences: a regular coffee is usually $3.50 (2,36€), typical lunch and dinner restaurant mains range between $20 (13,49€) and $30 (20,23€), a regular-sized single Snickers chocolate bar is $2 (1,35€), and one scoop of Italian-style ice cream is at least $5 (3,37€). (And no, the scoop isn’t any larger than it would be in Germany.) If you are lucky, you can find lunch specials that usually consist of a decent-sized sandwich and a coffee and range between $12 (8€) and $14 (9,44€).

So living on a tight traveler’s budget down under is tricky, especially when you do not have the advantage of working as a live-in au pair, which includes free food and accommodation. When I arrived in Sydney a little more than two months ago, I met many backpackers at a hostel in the Sydney CBD (Central Business District – another typical Australian abbreviation you need to know if you want to be able to find your way around Aussie cities). Despite the national minimum wage of $17.70, most of them were living on a pretty unhealthy diet of toast and jam for “brekkie” (as the Aussie calls his breakfast) and white pasta and processed Bolognese or tomato basil sauce for dinner, which they tended to eat most days. I suppose that for most of them, lunch consisted of unhealthy but affordable snacks like potato chips or – again – toast. So, understandably, dining out might mostly be a rare experience for the usual backpacker, who also has to pay for his accommodation in a hostel, which in a city like Sydney can also be quite expensive. The hostel I stayed in during my first days in the Sydney CBD cost around $40 a night. Quite expensive for a bunk bed in an 8-person dorm room! If backpackers do dine out, relatively (big emphasis on relatively) cheap American franchise options like Macca’s (Australians never say “McDonalds”), Hungry Jack’s (the Australian name for Burger King), KFC, and Subway are mostly the destinations of choice. The 60 Cent soft serve ice cream cone offered at both Macca’s and Hungry Jack’s has probably satisfied many backpackers’ ice cream cravings for many years.

However, I’ve also found that, if you are lucky and have a little more time in a metropolitan area like Sydney or Melbourne, you can find cheap fresh fruit and vegetables at local food markets, which tend to be a little more on the expensive side in both Germany and the United States. My personal recommendations are Paddy’s Markets in Sydney and – especially – Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne. They are both wonderful destinations if you do not only want to buy fresh food, but also have time to spend a nice morning wandering around and taking in an authentic market experience. For seafood lovers, Sydney Fish Market is highly recommended!

Speaking of experiences: I’ve made many over the past two months. Aside from working and living in Sydney, one of the most desired places in and around Australia, and visiting many of its sights and attractions, I’ve taken trips down to Melbourne, including a day trip to the famous Great Ocean Road, the Blue Mountains in Sydney’s “backyard” (cf. my previous post), the Australian capital Canberra, and up the New South Wales coast to Byron Bay, including stops in Port Macquarie and Coff’s Harbour. Before anyone asks: Yes, I have taken the obligatory picture in front of the “Big Banana” in Coff’s Harbour! Everyone who has been to Australia will know what I’m talking about. And to name only a few more experiences: I have spent Easter Sunday at Bondi Beach, ate fish and chips at Sydney Fish Market, had picnic lunch on the lawn in front of New Parliament House in Canberra, and sand boarded down the Stockton Beach sand dunes in Port Stephens, the largest in the southern hemisphere. And I’m always imagining and planning my next adventure.

Right now, I’m planning to take a little break from travelling to other places and focus on daily life in and around Sydney, because – frankly speaking – constant travel can be quite tiring after a while. I just got back from the mentioned four-day road trip to Byron Bay, during which I have driven roughly 1.700 kilometers. Don’t get me wrong, it was great and exciting! But it is also nice to step back and relax for a little while, before starting the next adventure. So I will use my free time to explore Sydney and its surroundings a little more, an area which is rightfully listed among the most beautiful metropolitan areas in the world. Nowhere have I seen the same combination of urban shopping and entertainment, beautiful weather, and picture-perfect beaches and coastline before. It truly has the best of everything and is the perfect place to live – if you can afford it considering the skyrocketing real estate prices in and around the city! Just to give you a rough idea of how insane house prices here are: in the suburb I live in, which is located about 20 km north of the Sydney CBD, most regular-sized family homes, which aren’t necessarily larger or more luxurious than the ones you would find in a suburb in urban Germany, range somewhere between $1.000.000 and $3.000.000.

There is so much more to tell you about and I will keep you updated on my adventures. For more regular updates, follow me on Instagram or Facebook via the links on the bottom of this page. I truly enjoy my gap time halfway across the world from both places I call home. So far, no regrets!

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#nicoledownunder (Part 1)

IMG_3734Australia – The land down under has always been very high on my travel destination priority list. So it’s not surprising that, when I started making plans for my post-graduation “sabbatical” (very needed!), my decision to finally realize my plan to work in and travel through the fifth continent was made rather quickly. Despite the common doubts and worries, whether it’s the “right thing” to do instead of finding a job in the “real world” right away (overrated right?), my plans had been finalized after I simply walked into a Göttingen travel agency and left about an hour and a half later with my flight reservations in hand, ready to hit the Christmas market and celebrate my decisiveness with a delicious nutella crèpe. After all, finding a job after you graduate is not the easiest thing, especially with a liberal arts background, and, in our globalized wired world, can be done from nearly anywhere in the world. So I packed my bags, stored all my application data on a USB stick, cleared all my SD cards to make room for the thousands of pictures I would most likely take on my journey (yes, I am a picture-taking maniac!), and took of about a month ago.

After an awefully long 22-hour-journey from Frankfurt to Dubai and on to Sydney, I arrived at the centrally located hostel I had booked at about 11:30pm, ready to fall asleep right away and forget about how awful I felt (physically). Don’t get me wrong, flying is amazing and I love it! But there’s just something unnatural about having to sit in an awefully narrow seat for 13 hours, getting up just three times to use the restroom, and watching the sun go up and down within only a couple of hours, because you’re crossing numerous time zones, basically “fast forwarding” half a day in your life. However, I did get to watch “Manchester by the Sea” on the plane and agree that Casey Affleck deserved his Oscar win this year.

Now, almost four weeks later, I have settled into my new life working as an au pair for a lovely family in a quiet Sydney suburb. Despite the sometimes torrential rainfalls during the past three weeks, I love the city and its people. Of course, I am still in “tourist mode”, trying to visit all the must-see sights in and around Sydney during my free time, but I’m also looking forward to getting a better feeling of what’s it’s like to actually live here, as a temporary resident.

The city itself is simply beautiful! I like to describe it as a perfect mixture of wonderful historical Victorian buildings (London-style, just without the bad weather), modern business architecture most likely to be found in Singapore, Shanghai, London, or Frankfurt, beautiful parks and green spaces similar to those in San Francisco, and breathtaking beaches and recreation areas comparable to Santa Monica or Malibu, the beautiful parts of the greater-Los Angeles-area. I could totally imagine living here for a couple of years, even though the horribly-high costs for just about anything, especially food and drinks, definitely make it hard to enjoy yourself. But according to the statements I’ve heard from various people here, that is true for most of Australia – it simply is an expensive country to live in or visit.

Over the next couple of months, I will try to keep you updated regularly with more posts using the hashtag #nicoledownunder (which I use on instagram and facebook as well). There are many – or as we say here in Australia – HEAPS more interesting places I want to visit. But for now, I’ll head out and go for a little “bushwalk”, while you can browse the slideshow. Talk to you later, mate!

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America’s secret treasure: Along the Chesapeake

sunset

The Bay area offers beautiful views year-round. (Photos: Wagner)

What New York, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco are for city-loving tourists, are the beaches of Florida and California for travellers seeking warmth, sunshine and sandy beaches. But these primary destinations for international vacationers visiting the United States are usually overcrowded and often also overrated. What many tourists from overseas tend to overlook is a hidden treasure on the mid-Atlantic coastline that offers not just beautiful traditional sandy beaches, but also historic landmarks, architectural highlights and some of the best seafood in the country – all to be found along the Chesapeake Bay.

 

“Heaven and earth have never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.” – Captain John Smith upon exploring the Chesapeake Bay (approx. 1612)

 When I first visited the United States in the summer of 2003, at age 15, I did not know much about the Chesapeake Bay or the state of Maryland, which covers most of the bay’s territory. I had heard of Baltimore, Maryland’s biggest city, and I knew that it was close to the capital city of Washington, D.C., but that was about it. Throughout the years, I returned several times and continually discovered new places and learned more about its history, landscape and custom food. Here are some of the most important things you need to know about the natural beauty that is the Chesapeake Bay and the two states it covers, Maryland and Virginia:

  • It harbors two architectural masterpieces: The Chesapeake Bay is spanned twice by monumental impressive architectural contructions. In the north, the 6,9 km (4.3 miles) long Chesapeake Bay Bridge connects Maryland’s Western and Eastern Shores. The dual-span bridge offers breathtaking views to the north and south and serves as the main route to holiday destinations on the Maryland and Delaware Atlantic coastline. When its first span opened in 1952, it was the longest over-water steel structure in the world. Further south, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, the monumental Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel construction connects Virginia’s Northampton County with the state’s primary holiday hotspot Virginia Beach. One of only ten bridge-tunnel-systems in the world today, the 37 km (23 miles) long architectural highlight was opened in 1964 and consists of trestle bridges, tunnels, artificial islands, high-level bridges, causeways and approach roads.
  • You get the best crab cake in the country: Growing up in Maryland means eating
    blue crab

    The Atlantic Blue Crab is famous all over the country.

    crabs! At least that’s what I’ve been told from different people in different areas of Maryland. Catching and eating crabs is more than just the absorption of food, it’s a tradition that is an essential part of family gatherings, summer evenings and lazy Sundays on the water. If you’re not furtunate enough to have a pier available from where to catch your own crabs, you should check out one of the many fine restaurants around the Chesapeake Bay that offer the “originial” Maryland crab cake sandwich. What most of us non-Americans only know from Spongebob Squarepants (yes, they call it a crab burger on German television!) is, in my opinion, the most delicious form in which the healthy crab meat is served. Be aware though that there are good restaurants and bad ones. The bad ones use less meat and lots of filling for their crab patties, as crab meat is expensive and you need a lot for one patty. If you want a really good one, try Pusser’s Caribbean Grille in Annapolis. I have been there twice and their crab cake is just plain delicious! Plus, you can sit out on the deck and have an amazing waterfront view of the fancy sailboats and yachts.

  • Annapolis is more than just Maryland’s capital city: Speaking of Annapolis, the capital city of Maryland is a perfect destination for a day visit or a longer stay, depending on your amount of time and schedule. The city that is much smaller than Baltimore or Washington D.C., the two big cities it is closest to, is situated at the mouth of the Severn River and is one of the older cities in the United States. Its first
    pussersview

    The view from the deck of Pusser’s Caribbean Grille in Annapolis.

    settlement was founded in 1649 by puritan exiles from Virginia and grew rapidly during the 18th century. Thus, mainly its city center features many old buildings that date back to the earliest days of American colonization. The most important historical fact you need to know about Annapolis is that it served as the temporary United States capital after the Revolutionary War and Congress held its sessions in todays Maryland State House, one of the most remarkable buildings of the city. Besides the beautiful city center with many historic buildings, excellent restaurants and small unique shops, you should also plan a visit to the beautiful campus of the United States Naval Academy, where all officers for the Navy and the Marine Corps are educated in a four-year program. And if you have some spare time and want to do some fine shopping, Annapolis also has one of the most beautiful malls I have yet been to – Westfield Annapolis Mall.

  • A visit to George Washington’s home on the Potomac River offers new insights: All the landmark sights in Washington D.C. should definitely be mandatory on your list of things to see during a visit to the capital area, but if you want to breathe in some more historic air and see one of the most beautiful estates in the area, you should plan a visit to Mount Vernon, the historic country home of George Washington. Situated directly on the banks of the Potomac River in Fairfax County, Virginia, the Palladian style mansion was constructed by the first President of the United States between 1758 and 1778. The land surrounding it, which had been in possession of the Washington family since 1674, served as a plantation and currently consists of 500 acres (two square kilometers). Visitors to the estate can walk through George Washington’s study, a privilege only given to few people during the 18th century, and see most of the other rooms the Washington family lived in until George Washington’s death in 1799. Additionally, the estate grounds offer picturesque views of the Potomac River and the opportunity to visit George and Martha Washington’s tombs. From my own experience, I can only recommend visiting this beautiful estate. The tour through the house offers interesting insights and information you do not get during a visit to the American History Museum.
  • A secret tip – Solomon’s Island: On the southern tip of Calvert County, right at the mouth of the Patuxent River, where it meets the Chesapeake Bay, you can find a little island that has become very dear to me over the years. Solomons Island, which has been inhabited since colonial times, is a well-known weekend getaway destination for
    solomons

    The beach at the southern tip of Solomons Island, across from the Patuxent Naval Air Station.

    people in the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan area. The island offers many beautiful marinas, a boardwalk, gift shops, a sculpture garden that is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, the Calvert Marine Museum and the famous Tiki Bar, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors during its annual opening weekend. Another highlight are the many excellent restaurants, which offer some of the best seafood in Maryland. If you get the chance to take a trip out onto the water, make sure to watch out for the impressive Governor Thomas Johnson bridge, which connects the island to St. Mary’s County, as well as the military planes, which take off and land at the Patuxent Naval Air Station on the other shore across from the island’s southern tip. If you want to include a visit to a beautiful summer getaway in your vacation itinerary that is largely unknown to international tourists, make the trip down to Southern Maryland! I have been there every time I travelled to the United States and I’ve never been let down by the natural beauty of Solomons Island and its surroundings.