24 Tips for Australians visiting the USA

So, the first time I visited the US, I had a fabulous time but came home complaining about the terrible food, and most especially, the weird orange cheese.  To help you avoid this experience, here are my tips!

1. Don’t drink soft drink! There is no sugar in soft drink in the US. Yes! No sugar.  The sweetener is high fructose corn syrup which tastes weird (to me), makes me feel a little ill, and is decried by many as being very very bad for you!

2. Tipping.  Tipping is so tricky when you come from Australia as we just don’t do it. When you live in the US, the only times you tip are when you are eating at a sit-down restaurant/cafe (20% on the pre-tax amount, remember this is largely paying your waiter’s wage), and in taxis. Generally, if you’re sitting down in a venue, you should tip when you leave. You don’t tip a take-away coffee at Starbucks.  You don’t tip a ticket for anything.  At hotels you need to tip bell boys etc, which is why I generally take my bags myself. Oh and if you’re travelling as a fairly large party, check your bill carefully as sometimes with groups of 6 or more they add gratuity (the tip!) to the bill and it would be very very easy to tip on top of the tip.

3. Restaurants have a funny hierarchy here.  Often you will get sat at your table by one person, offered drinks by another, and you order with another person again.  If you ask the drinks person for a menu item they will usually tell you they will send your server over to you. Just go with it.

4. At fancy restaurants, there is often a bathroom-attendant.  Pop a dollar note in your pocket when you use the loo so you don’t feel like a jerk when the attendant hands you a towel to dry your hands after washing!

5. While on loo’s, American’s never call the room you visit the “toilet”.  They think that’s kinda gross because to them it is just the thing you sit on to do your business.  It’s the bathroom, restroom or washroom! And they don’t say loo.  But they think it’s funny.

6. Americans LOVE Australians and Australia.  They will share with you where they went and when.  Be gracious, when someone tells you they visited a couple of years ago and drove from Cairns to Melbourne, it’s best not to say that Australia is pretty much the same size as continental USA as they will think you are an asshole who is implying they are ignorant. I know this because it happened to me today.  Oops.

7.  Need a doctor?  Firstly, if you don’t travel to the US with travel insurance you’re a bloody idiot.  If you’ve got a minor ailment, look for “Immediate Care” in your vicinity, these are walk-in clinics.  Really minor things can often be dealt with at chemist chains such as Walgreens/Duane Reade and CVS. You can buy antibiotic cream (Neosporin is a brand) off the shelf at chemists in the US.  It’s also worth noting that paracetamol is called Acetaminophen if you need to find it!

8. There are lots and lots of healthy food options in the USA.  Chains like Native Foods (vegan), Freshii, Protein Bar, Pret-A-Manger (all over the world) are everywhere.  To help you find good options, it’s a great idea to download Yelp when you visit the US and search for restaurants/food near you.  Michelin has guides for many US cities too if you are serious about your food (you might need to book before you leave home).  Whole Foods is also amazing, it’s a supermarket that sells awesome organic fruit and veggies.  It also has takeaway food and often good coffee.

9. Coffee.  So the problem for us is that Americans generally drink drip-style coffee which we don’t understand or appreciate since we’re in the Italian-style coffee fan club.  For me, I find it hard to find a good coffee unless I’m in NYC. In Chicago, Intelligentsia is pretty good. Generally you’re best asking for a latte.

10. Bread.  Unfortunately most places put sugar in their bread in the USA (yuck!).  Sourdoughs or “Italian style” bread tend to be your best bet if you’re buying a loaf to take back to your hotel room.

11. Bad food is so so good in the US.  So while you’re in the US, you have to eat some barbecue (ribs etc), oh and Mexican food which is generally so woeful in Australia is, unsurprisingly, totally amazing in the US.

12. Starbucks and McDonalds have free wi-fi.  Buy a cuppa and figure out where you are, upload those photos to Facebook!

13. When are you shopping in the US, the price on the tag is not the price you pay.  I’ve been here for a year and a half and I still get tripped up.  The sales tax you pay depends on where you live but can be up to 10% on top of the ticketed price.

14. Americans seem to think that toilet stalls should have huge gaps on each side of the door so you have zero privacy.  It’s weird.

15. Most American clothing chains have great sales online so sign up for their emails before you leave and see if you can get deliveries to a place you’re staying just before you get there!  My kids like brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch and you can get prices online that never seem to happen in the stores.

16. If you can’t shop before you arrive, visit the Outlet Mall in the city you’re visiting.  In my experience they are really great.

17. If you can’t get to an Outlet Mall and want to bargain shop, find a Nordstrom Rack (outlet stores for the department store Nordstrom), TJ Maxx or Marshalls.  All sell great quality brands at bargain prices, they’re often located in the city too which makes it easy when you’re travelling.

18. If you are of the female variety, I highly recommend visiting Anthropologie stores.  Not cheap but beautiful clothes and homewares. I love love love this store.

19. Uber is huge in the US and gives you a cheap way to get around. Get the app! Although taxis are much cheaper here anyway.

20. This may be my Chicago experience talking, but research the neighbourhoods in the cities you’re visiting.  There’s likely to be great areas with really interesting boutique shopping, eating and cultural experiences – see a bit of the real city.

21. Despite all the press about the security getting into America, it’s pretty straightforward.  Customs officials generally barely gaze at the ESTA visa (get an ESTA visa before you go, it takes two seconds online!), and if they ask what you’re doing in the US, I generally find they’re interested in a chat rather than anything ominous! Getting through customs at Dallas or LA can take an age though if they’re busy, just deal with it, you’ll get there eventually…

22. If you have frequent flyer points, use them on domestic US flights because the taxes are just so little you won’t believe it.  Our family of five flew on points from Chicago to New York and back, and the taxes for all our flights totalled $40!

23.  Go and see a big sporting event in the US.  The NBA, NFL, NHL, whatever your flavour, Americans love their sport like nothing else and often the half-time entertainment is worth it alone!  Living in Chicago, you simply cannot help but become involved with their sports teams (Go the Cubs! Blackhawks! Bulls! Bears!). For any Chicagoans who stumble upon this, I live down the road from the Cubs so it was never going to be the White Sox.

24. Check what concerts are on in the cities you’re visiting while you’ll be there.  You may be in for a treat.  Websites such as Time Out in each city are helpful. While you are in town, check Hottix, Halftix or whatever it’s called in the city you’re visiting (Google it!) to get discounted tickets for the days you are there.

Oh and the orange cheese is called American cheese.  Ask for swiss, cheddar, anything else!

A Sydney-sider in Chicago

4 months ago, my family flew into Chicago, arriving on a hot and steamy evening. It was a big day for my little family as we had just tied up a hundred loose ends in Sydney and were now en route to our new home in the grand old dame of the midwest for two years.

Chicago was a lush green sight, the trees lining our street almost creating a canopy and complemented by thick green grass underfoot. Three days after we arrived it was our street’s annual block party, an event where if Big Bird had wandered over to say hello, I would not have been surprised (much). Our girls spent 12 hours out playing on the street, the culmination being a talent quest and movie projected onto a sheet hung between two branches. A magical day, only slightly tarnished by the continual warnings of our neighbours, as we sat cradling beers in our t-shirts and jeans: “Winter is coming” they warned, “enjoy this while it lasts, it won’t be long.”

“Bah” we thought, cold weather being impossible to imagine when you’re sitting outside in the evening with bare arms. But, not so strangely enough, our neighbours were correct. It was only a couple of weeks before short sleeves were abandoned, seemingly forever.

We fell into a blurred time of furnishing a house and starting school and work and finding a doctor and where to buy food and finding friends and having a look around and working out how to get understood… and it was exhausting. Homesickness was similar to a grieving process, you’d be fine and marching along and then then, UGH, it would hit you in the guts and you’d be washed over in a wave of “I miss my friends, my family, my house, everything”. And then you’d be OK again. The tricky thing being that we all went through this process simultaneously, it was a delicate time.

So now 4 months on, where are we at? The girls have settled into school and have made friends. They are happy. Our house is set up and work is heading where it needs to, and we’ve met some great people. So all is well.

Yesterday I flicked through my Facebook account from the last 4 months to see what I’ve been posting. There are a few sightseeing pics, but the majority document the weather because, boy, does Chicago have weather. Coming from Sydney where we really have only two distinct seasons, hotter and cooler, the Chicago seasons are incredible.

From our balmy introduction, we flew into Fall. And Fall can only be called Fall over here, because it does indeed fall, and it is so beautiful. The landscape transforms completely from the green lushness into a blaze of colour. Red, orange, yellow and brown leaves, and at its peak, there are leaves everywhere. The ground is blanketed and if you drive your car down a street as a breeze picks up, the sight is breathtaking.

Fall segued quickly into Winter with the early arrival of snow. Now I may be slightly obsessed with snow. Snow in a big city is almost inconceivable to a Sydney-sider and again totally transforms a landscape in seconds. With the trees bare of leaves and white snow on every surface, the landscape becomes stark. The trees however have a delicacy I didn’t expect, the small twigs creating an outline, a defined halo of fine filaments above the trunk of every tree. They still look beautiful.

Chicago skyline &copy D Oxley

There are many types of snow: there’s my favourite, the fat fluffy powder snow which dances around you in the air and lands gently on your arm; wet sleety snow, cold and most unwelcome; and large pellet snow which feel like little hailstones on the hood of your jacket. It’s amazing. And once it’s on the ground, it’s like walking on white soft sand, although it can turn within days to patches of super slippery ice.

And then there was the Polar Vortex. And Polar it was. You’ve probably read about it so I won’t harp on it other than saying that it was inhumanly cold. The powdery soft snow on the ground turned into blocks of impervious ice and walking outside was unbearable. But it was only a day and a half and then we fell back into Chicago’s normal winter of subzero temperatures. Which is totally bearable once you’ve invested in the right coat and gloves and hat and scarf. And you get snow, which is a bonus!

And other than the weather?! Well that’s another post in itself but to summarise, I’m loving: The architecture – Frank Lloyd Wright’s work is stunning, as is the Chicago CBD, rebuilt after the fire in 1871; the Midwestern hospitality where people who don’t have to help you do and gladly; the enormous and with colours ever changing Lake Michigan; my favourite Museum ever, the Museum of Science and Industry; restaurants and cafes and bars for days; the devotion to their sporting teams including the Chicago Cubs who haven’t won since 1908; ice skating and sledding outside; the music scene though I haven’t had a lot of time to enjoy it just yet; and the fact that you can walk into a bank, open an account and walk out with a new bankcard with your name on it in minutes! Oh and the Target stores where there’s a separate escalator for your trolley. Ha!

Things I’m not loving? Well this is love/hate but the Americans do bad bad food that is so damn good, such as Creme Brulee Doughnuts and succulent barbecued meats. Then there’s the never ending pharmaceutical drug ads on TV; coaxing children into the requisite coats and gloves and hats every day; and the far more serious issues like the large homeless population and the cycle of poverty and gun violence in many communities.

There’s so much more to say however this little post has turned into more of an essay!

So perhaps I end it here and come back with another postcard soon.

Bye y’all! x

The Perfect Pavlova

Today I am in a good mood, considering the freezing weather here in Sydney.  Because of this good mood, I am going to share with you my tips on making the perfect pavlova.  Before you think I’m some domestic goddess or something, I am, like, tooooootally not, but I do think I cook a pretty good pav 🙂

Firstly, the recipe.  My favourite one is Bill Granger’s recipe, here’s a link to it http://www.abc.net.au/local/recipes/2009/08/14/2655854.htm/.  Don’t worry about the yoghurt cream bit, just the main pav recipe bit.

OK, so here’s the important tips:

  1. Get the eggs out of the fridge a little while before you’re going to cook with them so they’re not too cold.  Easy!
  2. Make sure your mixing bowl is scrupulously clean, dry and oil free before you start putting any egg whites in.
  3. This is the most important one, ready? If you get any egg yolk mixed with your egg whites it won’t work.  You will not get a perfect pav!
  4. Which brings me to Tip 4.  I always, always, use two glasses when separating my egg whites from my egg yolks.  One at a time I crack an egg over one glass, pouring the white into that glass, plopping the yolk into the other, and then pouring the individual egg white in my mixing bowl.  Then repeat! Voila! That way one stuffed up egg white can be chucked into your yolks (perhaps to make a delectable lemon tart later if you’re really keen) and you don’t mess up all your egg whites and have to start again.
  5. Beat your egg whites until they’ve got soft peaks and then add your sugar very gradually.  I find that if I add sugar gradually right to the end of the sugar, I get a more crunchy, chewy pav on the outside which I love!
  6. Then mix your cornflour, vinegar etc in with a metal spoon, and spread this delicious mixture onto a piece of baking paper in a circle, not too thick.
  7. Cook for the minimum time and then turn your oven off and let your pav cool down in there.
  8. Top with lashings of whipped cream and your favourite berries.
  9. Share with your favourite people!

Oh and here’s one I created earlier for some of my favourite people 🙂