sunrise over the ocean

Home making

This is not the first time I’ve used this title on a post – and far from the first time I have put together a new home. It’s enjoyable, but also tiring.

Moving in (two weeks ago) was stressful, even though all we were actually moving was our suitcases and a few other items we’d bought since arriving in Australia (such as a printer/scanner, which we’d needed to get essential paperwork done). We had booked a wagon type car on the premise that this would give us enough cargo space for what we most urgently needed to buy, but would not be too big to park in our new garage.

The car rental place texted me that morning: “The wagon won’t be back in time, so we’re giving you a van.” This turned out to be a huge Toyota Hiace which, had we had a crew of six, would have been ideal – we could have bought everything we could possibly need and brought it home in one day. But there were only the two of us, so the van was mostly just a huge headache to drive and park. Brendan had driven something even bigger than this before, but not often, and Sydney’s streets are not as easy to drive in as American suburbia. (Turns out that the smaller roundabouts are designed for semi trucks to just drive right over – no way they’d be able to negotiate those turns otherwise.)

A further wrinkle, which we discovered when we got to the new apartment, was that one of our neighbors had parked his second car in front of his garage, which made maneuvering anything into our own garage (next to his, with the entrance at a weird angle) very difficult. The van would not have made it regardless, so we left it in a no parking area on the street, with the hazard lights on, while we unloaded our suitcases.

Claire had taken Mitchell to school while we were fetching the van. She met us back at the temp apartment to help load the van, and then took the keys for the temp place back to the real estate agency in time to meet their checkout deadline. Brendan and I took some photos and measurements inside the new apartment, and then set out for Ikea. Claire had found her own place to live, and had actually had access to it two days before, but didn’t yet have a mattress to sleep on – that was one of things we’d be buying at Ikea.

Brendan sitting on a bed at Ikea
a rare quiet moment, testing mattresses at Ikea

Ikea was… Ikea. Overwhelming, but not overcrowded, probably because it was a Monday morning. We tested out a few things that we would not be able to fetch home ourselves, like sofas, so that we could order them later. The items we needed to buy and bring home ourselves that day included mattresses, pillows, desks, a dining table, chairs, silverware, pots and pans, glassware… We got as much as we could physically manage in one trip, considering that we still had to get it home and up one flight of stairs to the apartment.

We had booked the rental car for two days, but realized that it would be difficult-to-impossible to park this enormous van on the streets of Cronulla, where parking even for an ordinary car is at a premium (hence the desirability of a garage). I called the rental agency and arranged that we would bring the van back before they closed at 5:30, and swap it for something more drivable. We no longer needed the cargo space anyway.

Getting the van back on time turned into another huge hassle: the agency wanted it returned with the tank full, though we’d used only about 1/8th of the gas. This meant driving around on crowded streets, many of them one way, at rush hour. As we were waiting at a major intersection to make a turn (we calculated that we would need about three changes of the lights to get through it), the police came and blocked the road exactly where we needed to go. We later learned from traffic radio that a large sign had blown down into the road – it was a very windy day. So it took us another 20 minutes of winding through back streets in heavy traffic, with everyone else trying to do the same, to reach the rental agency, a few minutes after 5:30. To our relief, we were able to discard the van and drive away in a wagon. At home, it took Brendan driving and me watching from outside to maneuver even this mid-sized car into our garage, and we were not inclined to leave again that night.

That was a Monday, which for us is effectively a day off because it’s still Sunday for our US colleagues. We took Tuesday off as well to continue getting the household set up, including a trip to KMart (yes, they still have KMarts here) for an electric kettle and other household essentials, and to an office/electronics store to get an adapter so that our modem (which had arrived by mail the week before) could be plugged into the very old-fashioned phone jack.

We still hadn’t ordered or even looked at a fridge (the next most critical item on the list), but decided we would do it all online – we were just too tired to run around anymore. By the time we both needed to work on Wednesday, we each had a desk and a chair and working Internet, as well as a dining table to eat at and basic pots and pans to cook with. But there was still a lot to do to make the house liveable.

moka espresso pot on the stove
a house is not a home without a moka

To accommodate two adults working from home and one kid who’s always online watching gaming videos or gaming with his friends, we had to deal with an unexpected technical problem: the modem/router connects to the one and only phone jack, which is in the living room area. Between that and the back of the apartment, where the bedrooms are located, is a mirrored wall. It turns out that a mirror can block wifi signal, so we were getting no wifi in the bedrooms. We solved that fairly quickly with a wifi repeater, which arrived overnight from

Yes, we’re still big Amazon customers. Australian Amazon has far less range than the US one (unless you want to pay for shipping from the US), and prices are higher. None of this is surprising – Australia is far away from everywhere, so you’re always going to pay shipping, one way or another, on non-local goods. The country has  a much smaller population with a smaller consumer base, so there’s far less choice in consumer goods. Which is mostly ok with me – I never needed 20 flavors of Oreo or varieties of cornflakes, and fewer choices means I can spend less time cogitating about what to buy. But it does get frustrating when familiar staple items and over the counter medications are impossible to get or ridiculously expensive.

I expended considerable brainpower on buying a fridge and a washing machine. Australia has an equivalent of Consumer Reports, called Choice, but it doesn’t review nearly as many individual items, nor as often, as CR does – again, small consumer base. I ended up buying brands that Choice liked, but not the exact models. I also had to measure and look at specs very carefully to make sure that the models I chose would fit into the spaces available, which are not very large! I also had to make sure that the models I chose were in stock and available for quick delivery. At least the delivery was easy: each time a man arrived with a van, bumped the item up the (carpeted, thankfully) stairs on a dolly, pushed it into position, and hooked it up. The delivery service would have included taking away the old appliances, had we had any.

Getting furniture has been much harder than I would have expected. I started out thinking that it was time to graduate from Ikea furniture to something nicer, but I have rarely in my life bought furniture anywhere BUT Ikea, so I didn’t really know how it worked. Even before we moved into the apartment, we went to some fancier furniture showrooms to see what we might like. That was when I realized that, if you order an expensive sofa, you usually want to customize it with the fabric (or leather) of your choice – and that takes manufacturing time. In Australia, it can also involve long shipping times. One place estimated eight weeks to get a sofa to us, another 17 weeks! Both the dealers we talked to were starting to keep some models in stock for more rapid delivery, but choices were limited. So far, we’ve ended up falling back mostly on Ikea. And even that hasn’t been easy.

We had obtained the bare essentials right away, but there was a lot more we needed. Working while sitting on a folding chair was not good for me (back and neck pain), nor was sleeping on a not-very-thick mattress on the floor. The mattress itself was only part of the problem; the other part is that I am no longer young enough to easily get out of a bed on the floor. I was anxious to have a better desk chair, and to at least get my twin mattress off the floor while we await the arrival of our good mattresses.

I could just get it all from Ikea, right? Not so easy. In recent years in the US, Ikea had somewhat improved its ability to deliver to the home at reasonable prices and timeframes. Not the case here – the assumption is that you have a large vehicle and plenty of time at your disposal. Ikea’s own home delivery, at least to where we live, would take a month. 

The solution is Air Tasker, the Aus equivalent of Task Rabbit. You can either give someone a shopping list and they go buy it for you, or you set up an Ikea “click and collect” order and put your Air Tasker’s name in the “who’s picking up” box. This requires setting up the Air Tasker task and the Ikea order at the same time, and it was in the midst of this process that I discovered another problem: if Ikea is low on an item, they won’t allow a click-and-collect – “Try again later, or come get it yourself.” Finally, in frustration, I set up an order for the desk chair I was desperate to have. I added a desk for Mitchell and a few small items. A nice young man picked up the order, drove it down here in his ute, and brought it up the single flight of stairs to our apartment. 

The nice young man would also have assembled the furniture for me (he’s a certified Ikea assembler – so that’s a thing), but I decided to keep things simple the first time around. That proved to be an error: Mitchell’s desk was not easy to put together, and I made mistakes that we had to take the thing apart to correct. I decided I’ve reached my lifetime limit of assembling Ikea furniture, and hereinafter will pay someone else to do it. The next Ikea order included a bed for Mitchell and a sofa, both of which I paid a different nice Air Tasker man to assemble as well as deliver. (It will take some time to recycle all the cardboard, so in the meantime I’ve set up the huge boxes to emulate where the TV and its stand will go.)

The bed base I had planned to buy from Ikea went out of stock with no indication of when it would be available again (I don’t know if this is normal for Ikea in Australia, or is a symptom of global supply chain disruption, which is certainly a factor for many other companies). Space is limited in all our bedrooms so we needed the smallest possible bed frame, which I ended up getting via Amazon from a flat-pack furniture company called Zinus. It was actually easier to assemble than much of the Ikea stuff, though it did take two of us because it’s a queen-sized bed.

We’re still figuring out the best ways to obtain daily needs. I had already been ordering delivery from Coles supermarket while we were in quarantine, and have now started using it at home – it’s much easier to have heavy, bulky items delivered, especially while we don’t have a car. There are at least four smaller grocery stores, plus two butchers and a fruit shop, within ten minutes’ walk of home, so we will never have a problem getting essentials (I have to get out of my lockdown habit of stocking a lot of everything). The whole family eats a lot of bread, so we were delighted to find a Vietnamese bakery near home which makes good baguettes. I’m still looking for a source of Italian-style crusty bread here – I don’t entirely despair of it, because Cronulla has a largeish Italian immigrant population.

I was delighted to find that Coles also carries lines of Indian groceries, including most of the spices I need at surprisingly low prices. One of the first dinners I made at home was Instant Pot chicken biryani and tawa bhindi. The few items I wasn’t able to find were delivered yesterday by my schoolmate Zafar, who stopped by an Indian grocery store that he frequents on the other end of Sydney.

cockatoo perched on a railing, nibbling a piece of bread held in its talon, backdrop of ocean waves
We get visitors

It’s been an exhausting two weeks (work has been intense as well). But we still had time to feed the birds, take walks, and just enjoy looking at the water.

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