Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A Little Pea in a Big Town

I grew up in a place where if you didn't have a car, it was like being marooned on a desert island. Only instead of oceans I was surrounded by grass, and instead of palm trees it was cows I watched swaying in the breeze. Well, they were never 'swaying' so much as 'chewing', but they did have milk inside, like coconuts do.

I take pains to point out to people that I didn't grow up on a farm; we just happened to have cows, horses and a small menagerie spread out across acres of paddocks. My neighbour out the back did have chickens at one stage, and a working well, but ours wasn't a farm. Our cows were only there to keep the grass down. If anyone reached for Daisy's udders she probably would have raised an eyebrow and then given you a warning poke in the temple with her horns for being so forward.

I remember sitting in the living room on days when my only companions had been the palm trees mooing in the ocean. I'd keep an eye on the end of the driveway for Dad to pull in with the car, and when it finally happened it was a joyous event. Not only was there going to be a person to look at and talk to, but the car could take me to where lots of other people were; where there were shops and coffee machines and cinemas and things were happening. Of course we had a TV, and sometimes my siblings would be home too, but I can remember being stuck at home alone, watching slugs leave glittery trails in the garden, wandering around the perimeter of the house for no particular reason and putting CDs on as loud as they would go because the neighbours were too far away to complain. In times like that there was the sense of an enormous space I was rattling around in, like a lone pea in a family-sized tupperware container.

Things to do when you're home alone:

  • Stare at your own eyeballs in the bathroom mirror for 15 minutes at a time
  • Clang out new tunes on the piano, trying to utilise those sad sounding E-flats as often as possible
  • Move from the cupboard to the fridge and back again (and again and again) to see whether your eyes may have missed a block of Top Deck or a punnet of juicy raspberries
  • When the above point fails, come up with ideas for fruit and vegetable installation pieces for people's birthdays (see picture A)

Picture A

  • (Picture A has also been 'repackaged' with twigs and flowers, and has subsequently morphed into all sorts of different materials.)

It can be great being home alone, but sometimes, staring at your own eyeballs in the bathroom mirror, you can easily drift into a mindset that says, 'All the fun is happening somewhere else. All those people - out there - are getting on with it, having a whale of a time, without you.' You might even imagine groups of people - laughing as they casually sip their drinks at a bar, sitting in cafes having coffees and saying things like 'George needs to learn to be more independent' or 'Barbara's gone off Mike again' - or just one person crossing at a busy intersection with a stride that says, 'I am late meeting all of my friends for the launch of that big thing.'

The squiggly veins in your eyeballs don't seem nearly as interesting as all that.

Now I have moved to a city, and even though I've been living here for a while I still feel like all of my Christmases have come at once knowing that I am a two-minute walk away from supermarkets, department stores, hairdressers, restaurants, bars and a rather addictive ladies fashion store that shall remain nameless. Buses purr by as regularly as Simpsons re-runs, and there is a neverending story of pedestrians passing my front window.

I'm finally in the midst of things. Things happen all around me, I can see people doing things and rather than feeling like I'm missing out on things, I can look around as I'm walking by a bus-stop and know that I am being seen as doing things too. Even if I'm just going to buy a can of kidney beans, those bus-stop people can see me pass and say to themselves, 'Oh yes, she's got plenty of things to do.'

But (there had to be a 'but' coming, right?) for all of this, sometimes the neverending story of people almost offend me just by being there. The thing about that past sensation of being a lone pea in a tupperware container is that the space around me was all mine. I could roll around and daydream about other vegetables and take as much time staring into my pea-eyes as I wanted. Now, when a train door opens and I see that there is simply no more room in that moving tupperware container for one more little pea (and the peas already onboard do not seem to care about my plight), it feels shocking. What are all these other people doing in my space? Why can't I get onto a train when I want to? I realise in that moment that I'm being selfish, but suddenly I don't have time to perform a probing exploration into my innermost pea-psyche because I have to hurry over to the other platform to make sure I can squeeze onto the next container.

It's hardly a new observation to say that time and space go together, so when there's no space your time dries up too, but it's still something that is difficult to accommodate to when you're used to one or the other.

At least now that I've experienced both sides I can use them against each other to remind myself of certain things. When I'm feeling cramped I can imagine myself in another time, looking for entertainment in palm-tree cows or my own eyeballs. And when I'm feeling like all the fun is happening somewhere else, I'll try to remember that sometimes all people are doing as they stroll determinedly by is going to the shop to buy a can of kidney beans...

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Wouldn't it Be Loverly

I work at a college in central London, where course fees are at a level synonymous with a certain mode of dressing. The idea of 'student discounts' is almost comical when you observe that in this place, the students flounce about in D&G while the staff get by in H&M. Maybe not the staff at the upper echelons of management, who get biscuits in posh individual wrappers rather than a communal platter of Ginger Snaps, but in general, 'the rest of us' do not come from backgrounds that would have allowed us to actually study here.

This month, the students have returned from their summer holidays, so the main quadrangle is again clogged with cigarette smoke emitted by 18 year olds wearing the kind of haute couture you see advertised in Vogue with the guffaw-inducing pricetags. No stumbling out of bed and showing up on campus in pyjama bottoms and a jumper with peanut-butter stains down the front here; these kids stand leaning near the sleek automatic doors in bejewelled jean pockets, massive be-golden-buckled bags, glossy skyscraper heels, suede loafers, silk scarves, cashmere sweaters and blazers made out of the kind of fabric that is too well-heeled to show any inclination towards pilling.

To give an indication of the brand of student that might be found lounging amongst this perfumed platoon, here are two examples:

1. A nineteen year-old Lebanese boy showed up the day before the start of term and said he wanted to enrol. He was told that this was fine but he would have to organise for £13 070 to be paid immediately. He said that that wouldn't be a problem, and casually strolled to the Finance office to arrange it then and there.

2. A girl from India arrived with staff. Her 'people' routinely brought snacks into her during her exams, and when even these banned culinary interjections did not help her to pass, and she was consequently sent packing, her parents pulled out their financial ace-up-the-sleeve and tried to buy her way back in.

Now, when you turn up in the morning and realise that your entire outfit probably cost less than the eyelet on that seventeen year old Italian business student's shoe, it can summon up some pretty visceral reactions. Those of us amongst the 'great unwashed' often huddle together and gossip from the sidelines, our conversations fluctuating between three basic emotions:

1. Disgust. In the fact that we are handcuffed to our desks with only a faux-diamante brooch shaped like a water buffalo and a pocket full of mismatched buttons and paperclips to show for it, when these kids can nip down to Tiffany's and buy a diamond-encrusted buffalo brooch only to discard it the next week for the new trend in bovine accessorising.

2. Envy. That these kids can keep up with trends in bovine accessorising and then pop over to Minsk to pick up some truffles and champagne flutes full of emeralds to distribute to their classmates on a Monday morning. We'd all love to give our friends champagne flutes full of precious stones, too, but through the limitations of our life stations we can usually only offer displays of affection via stick-figure drawings of a guy with his unnaturally long arm around another guy's shoulders, 'me' and 'you' written atop their heads.

3. Pity, or 'poor man's pride'. This usually comes after the 'envy' stage, when we consider the possibility that a stick-figure drawing might actually be more valuable than a glass of gems. Poor man's pride is when you start saying, 'Yes, but they'll never have what we have'; this being a level of street-smarts and common sense that can only be gained through playing fridge-tetris* with your sixteen other flatmates and having fortnightly arguments with the landlord over who should buy a mop.

(*For the uninitiated, fridge-tetris is a fascinating game played in flats where there is one fridge between eight or so people. It is a 'squidgier' and more forceful game than real tetris, and involves a much higher risk of exploding milk cartons and shattered jars of raspberry jam. If you can successfully navigate a little electronic broccoli down the screen and house it snugly between a tower of yoghurts, a pack of cherry tomatoes and a roll of Edam someone brought home from Amsterdam, the fridge bleats out 100 points and then transports you to the next level when you realise you forgot to put in the bouquet of beetroot, the family of kiwifruits and the pack of cumquats you need for your 'beetroot surprise' dessert.)

We twist around between these three emotions, arguing and becoming defensive and angry or serene and philosophical. Some days we simply stand watching in bemused curiousity, eating sunflower seeds and spitting the shells out onto our scuffed Primani boots. But although the dollar signs standing in the quadrangle provide us with daily reminders of our own 'lot', and our conversations about them are as constant as the Russian students' love for test-driving conceptual clothing, I wonder if they ever peer at us through their curtain of cigarette smoke, pondering whether there may be something in these primitive drawings we're always giving to each other.

Books and movies are full of 'fish out of water' scenarios where 'average' people are ushered through secret passageways into sparkling lives full of butlers and their very own fridges, and wealthy people must suddenly come up with new gift-giving ideas (the ol' faithful cup-o-emeralds now out of reach) and find themselves lost in the mire of public transportation systems.

Watching the shimmering society from my sunflower-seeded corner of the quad, I have decided that it is not realistic to wait to be ushered through a secret passageway into caverns of rubies. My workmates and I have employed our fridge-savvy street smarts and come up with a plan. The details are sketchy, but we will steal a few eyelets from Prince Al-Khalifa’s shoes, sell them and then see what it’s like to live the life of a student.

Illustration by Melanie, Fridge-Tetris champion 2008

Monday, 27 July 2009

Falling Chopsticks and Lonely Streetlights: the path to Sark

I've always liked those Rube Goldberg machines. You know the ones. It starts off with someone nudging a chopstick off a shelf which then lands onto a marble which rolls into a matchbox car which falls into a precariously placed bucket of water which spills into a set of scales which lowers and stretches out a slingshot which fires a yellow bouncy ball into a red cabbage and in the end a little wind-up monkey lights a candle or something. Those born in the 80s might remember that Mousetrap game as a good example (along with the way your 8 year-old hands and body had to stay unnaturally still lest you accidentally bump the board and set off the whole plastic sequence of events that took sixteen episodes of Heman to set up).

Even the simplest of endings, like a monkey lighting a candle or a dart piercing a goldfish, had to go through a meticulously constructed set-up for it to happen at all.

Some people think that their whole lives have been designed like this; that there is some old codger who is setting off seven billion Goldberg machines at once, with different 'end points' for each of them: some of us pierced like a goldfish and some of us choking on a chocolate-coated peanut.

Even if you think that that's a load of codswallop, it's still interesting thinking about all the precariously placed buckets and falling chopsticks that had to happen to lead to whatever you're doing right now. I think about it all the time, usually at stupid tiny moments like when I'm chopping cauliflower or eating hummous.

When I was on the Isle of Sark recently - the smallest of the Channel Islands near Guernsey and Jersey - this 'Goldberg Machine' feeling was particularly potent. If my uncle hadn't given me the Gormenghast trilogy when I was 15 years old, I more than likely wouldn't have caught a bus, two tubes, an aeroplane, a taxi and a ferry to end up on this small island with only one street-light and an adherence to feudal laws.

All sorts of other things had to happen too, of course. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that although all my falling chopsticks and slingshotted bouncy balls may be endlessly fascinating to me, others would find them about as thrilling as watching a dormant cheese-grater for six hours.

Let us test this theory now. Here are some of the things that had to happen to lead me to Sark:

I had to move to London, be introduced to Couchsurfing, plan a trip to Brussels, discover the profile of a Couchsurfing host there who listed the little-known Gormenghast trilogy as amongst his favourite books, stay with him, become friends, discover that Mervyn Peake (the author of Gormenghast) had written another book based on the Isle of Sark, be contacted by my friend months later and told of his intention of making a documentary about Sark (and other 'micro-nations') and asked if I would like to tread the ground where Sir Peake once lived with him and his girlfriend.

If your eyes felt weary half-way through that, please draw a picture of a cheese-grater and post it to me. If you found it utterly gripping, please reward yourself with a spoon of peanut-butter and then post me the spoon. I will add them up and give you the definitive result in the next edition of Testing Things Scientifically (a quarterly publication. Readers of the next edition receive a free spoon that smells of peanut-butter).

I made it to Sark continually wondering if I would have gone there at all if my uncle had given me Latour's Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy instead. That would have been a shame, not only because I probably would have crumbled underneath the expectations put on my 15 year-old mind by my family, but because Sark is an eccentric little island.

Some facts about Sark:

- It was the last feudal state left in the world up until 2008. They have a Lord known as a 'Seigneur' who is in charge of upholding some of the ancient feudal laws.
- One of these ancient laws is that cars and 'modern' forms of transportation are banned on the island. Transport is via horse-and-cart, tractor, bicycle or on foot.
- The population is around 600 people. I think I pass this many people on my way to the tube every morning...
- Children born on Sark are encouraged to leave the island once they reach a certain age so that they can experience other things and see whether the 'Sarkese way' is for them. A lot of these children end up returning to Sark.
- Sark only has one street light, which makes getting home from the Dixcart Hotel Bar to your B&B a slow-moving and pothole-filled task.
- Sark is closer to France than England, but nonetheless remains a self-governing British dependency. English is the official language, but all the place-names are French. In 1990, a French nuclear physicist named André Gardes arrived on the island clad in combat gear and carrying a semi-automatic rifle. He tried to singlehandedly reclaim the island for France. According to the Guernsey Evening Press of August 24, 1990, he was fined £200 and sentenced to seven days in prison. A rather light sentence, you could say...
- Everyone knows everyone on Sark, so a couple of Belgian journalists and their Australian colleague are quite easy to spot on the roads.

Most holidays that I have taken involve cathedrals and squares and monuments and pock-marked maps from where I've tried to circle things without leaning the paper on a flat surface first. On Sark we had a map, but since the island is only 5.45 square kilometres, we ditched the map and just walked in the general direction of an 'edge' we hadn't seen yet. This isn't quite as ho-hum as it sounds, when you consider that the paths looked like this:

And the 'edges' looked like this:

Julien & Salomé at Window in the Rock, Sark

As a result of Julien's journalistic efforts we were introduced to a few locals who explained that on Sark the policeman can also run the shop, tend the gardens of the Seigneurie and teach advanced dentistry (or whatever else), and that for this reason they never really feel constrained by the idea that there is a 'career' everyone must actively pursue. I love that idea, mainly because I feel like I could have been an ace badminton player if only I hadn't limited myself by sticking obsessively to the alphorn. I may be able to play Messe für Alphorn und Chor with the world's premier alphornists, but sometimes I imagine feathery shuttlecocks shooting out of the horn's mouth and find myself wishing I had the time to follow some side-interests. Don't tell my colleagues at Alphornbläsergruppe Oberaargau this, though. Ulrich would be very disappointed in me.

Alphorns aside, after various cliff-top walks and talks, pats of local Clydesdales and strolls through the Seigneurie maze, it was plain to see why Sarkese children come back to the island after their enforced periods abroad.

It is easy to romanticise 'island life', forgetting about the boredom, conservatism and gossip, or even to reach the conclusion that because island life is quiet and slow-paced that it must be 'simple'. But after leaving our doors unlocked when we went out and having only one daily concern - how to dodge puddles in the no-streetlights-blindness of night - all three of us agreed it would be a comfortable and open place to live.

It looks possible, though, that Sark's own Goldberg Machine may be leading it to something less open and comfortable. A wind-up monkey has lit a candle, and this candle is sitting perilously close to a microfibre bathrobe. On one of our clifftop walks, we noticed a sleek black helicopter approaching. This helicopter made a beeline for the Sarkese version of Tasmania: Brecqhou (an even smaller island separated from Sark by a narrow channel of water). In particular, it was heading towards this:

This is the mock-Gothic castle on Brecqhou, commissioned by twin British billionaires the Barclay Brothers. These fellows, who also happen to own the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly and the Telegraph Media Group, bought the island of Brecqhou in 1993.

We had of course heard about these men from almost the first second we arrived, and as we sat dunking chocolate Hobnobs into our tea with a local artist, it became apparent that these brothers are generally viewed by islanders as the possible outcome of a liaison between this man and this woman.

You can read the full account of their spoiled billionaire antics here, but to give you a condensed version, after contesting the 'backwards' feudalism of Sark so that they could have free run of their cars and helipads on Brecqhou, and bring the whole of Sark into the 'modern age' by updating the island's hotels, infrastructure and tourism (I have no doubt that the words 'Sark' and 'Rococo interiors' do not fit together), their representatives were voted down by the democracy they themselves had pushed for. Obviously this did not go down well. Billionaires will have their way, after all. They had invested a lot of money into Sark - in hotels, pubs, restaurants and construction companies - and retaliated by closing all of these businesses, leaving at least 100 people (or one-sixth of the population) suddenly unemployed. With Christmas only a fortnight away, I might add.

The children of Mr. Evil (sorry, I mean Doctor Evil. He didn't attend 6 years of Evil Medical School to be called 'Mister', thank you very much) and Ms. DeVil retreated to Brecqhou and have stayed there ever since. Talking to the lady in the tourist office, there seems to be a general feeling that the Barclay Brothers are over in their Brecqhou castle knitting things out of Dalmatians while they plot and scheme their next move. This 'quiet island life' may be the precious last moments of calm before the next storm.

If another billionaire storm ever happens, I am going to do all I can to support Sark, even if all I can offer is a few illustrations of the Barclay Brothers dressed in Dalmatian suits with knives and dead puppies at their feet. And if that day ever comes, I will be able to douse the flaming bathrobe with water from the bowl of a pierced goldfish, and when someone asks me how I came to be drawing such highly detailed pictures of dead puppies at my kitchen table in London, I will put down my pen and explain. It all began when my uncle bought me the Gormenghast trilogy when I was 15 years old...

Friday, 17 July 2009

Punk'd in Portugal

I have just walked into the Baroque Library at Coimbra University, Portugal. It is dark inside, but I can see shelves and shelves of yellowed, fragile-looking books and golden-gilded pillars rising up to the ornate, floral-painted ceilings. There is a faint, insect-like squeaking that continues in a staccato rhythm. After reading on the pamphlet that the books date to 1750 and that the walls of the library are 2.11 metres thick, I see this:

'In their daily fight for preservation, books rely on another ally: inside this temple of books lives a colony of bats, which come out at night and feed on the occasional insects. The presence of these mammals requires special care in the prevention of any possible damage caused to the valuable wood of the tables: every day, before leaving the library, the keeper covers the magnificent tables with leather towels, and the following morning he cleans the library before opening it to the public.'

As with many things on this chequered tablecloth of Europe, as soon as I read about bats cohabitating with 250 year old books in a tiny, gold-encrusted library, crapping all over ancient tables and having a man specially appointed to clean up after their insect-gobbling ardour, I think: 'Toto, we're not in Sydney anymore'.

Roman ruins, crumbling aqueducts, multi-turretted castles built on clifftops by malnourished townsfolk under the rule of a portly, pointy-bearded King known for his love of Rococo interiors and sardines served on silver platters shaped like hollowed-out aubergines... Things here can be so eccentric and mysterious that my mind radar starts bleeping and circling, trying to find anything remotely like the Australia I remember.

I am a bit more used to European weirdness now, having lived here for a little while. The intitial feeling I had when I arrived here is beginning to wear off. You know the feeling: that of having eaten seven too many
Pastéis de Belém in a magical land where the walls are older than anyone's great-great-grandfather, your neighbours an hour's train ride away can only speak to you in sounds that roll and zip and somersault unintelligibly by, and 'coffee' has only one possible meaning, served to you in a cup the volume of an amoeba's sigh. By now, I have seen a lot of old doors, I can order pastries from my Portuguese neighbours, and I have grown to enjoy drinking 5 amoeba's sighs per day (don't worry, I line my stomach with port first...).

But as this library-o-bats will attest to, sometimes things take a turn down such a Bermuda Triangle of crazy, that all I can do is laugh crazily and then think how crazy it is that
Sydney's oldest building only dates to 1811. Of course we've had our share of crazy characters, and Aboriginal presence in Australia has been proven to date back to at least 40 000 years, but in general ours is not a history of gluttonous Kings with a penchant for Rococo.

I spent most of my time in the
Baroque Library trying to locate the bats, rather than fawning over the books. However, after scanning the tops of the bookshelves and peering at the golden crests from every possible angle, I did not see any black leathery friends hanging upside down. I was looking with such childlike intensity that suddenly I felt a pang of being taken-in. The thought to question this highly suspect claim had not occurred to me until long after it should have. Maybe a guy in a bat costume would jump out and mock me and my Australian gullibility.

But no. This wasn't America. I wasn't going to see a film crew spring out from between the leaves of the books, and a man in a bat costume would not tear off his mask to reveal Ashton Kutcher. As far as I know, 'punking' has not spread through Europe the same way it spread through Summer Heights High.

I decided that the bats are there. You just have to know where to look. With this in mind, before leaving the library I walked up to the library/bat keeper and whispered, 'Where are the bats?' He just shrugged, presumably not speaking my somersaulting language, and pulled out a faded golden key from his pocket. He placed it into the massive teak door and, with great care not to let too much light in, motioned me back out into the courtyard.

A courtyard for a university founded in 1290. I should say, founded in 1290 by King Dinis I of Portugal, who also happened to be a troubadour with 137 songs under his belt, including a rather unusual one about
love (rather than religion).

A King penning love songs at the same time as founding universities? In 1290? Toto, my canine friend, come here. I have an announcement to make...

Monday, 22 June 2009

Mushroom tears and bad days

It was only fairly recently that the concept of a 'bad day' really occurred to me. Of course I'd heard of them before, but I guess up until recently if nothing was working or things were overwhelming or the kettle exploded, I assumed it was my fault; it was some error of personality. Things aren't working? You didn't set them up properly. Things are overwhelming? You should have been better prepared. The kettle exploded? It's simply responding to the abominable person you are. It hates you, the same way the toaster and everyone you have ever known hates you.

I'd get home after explosions and unravellings and mistakes and collisions and spillings and all kinds of electronic tauntings and wonder how everyone else seems to retain such high levels of chirpiness and the ability to cook dinner without crying over the mushrooms after all these signs of their ineptitude. Luckily, before I could follow this thought to its painful conclusion - 'maybe it's just that not very many people are as inept as you are' - I realised that a lot of people probably write off a collusion of unforseen, unmanageable, coffee-stained, window-smashed, thumb-slammed-in-the-car-door occurrences as simply the unfortunate workings of a 'bad day'.

After an avalanche of runny pigeon poo into my work email address, a sudden traffic jam of trucks and vans that needed to be somewhere yesterday, and an ant-like stream of phone calls from people who took more and more pieces of me down the ant-hole as if life was a picnic and I was the cheese baguette, I was ready to settle in for a night of weeping over the portobellos when I felt a sudden lightness. It wasn't my ineptitude, it was a BAD DAY. Oh, how glorious! None of this was my fault, it was the day's fault. It's not a personality problem; it's something external I can blame.

And that's not even the best bit! I can call someone up and tell them I've had a 'bad day' and these two magical words will open a window into a treasure-trove of tea and hot meal invitations, sighs and consolations, and 'you poor thing - here, have a cookie. You deserve it'-s. Suddenly I can not only throw away the brick of responsibility, but I can receive tea and hugs and 'awwws' until 'the bad day' floats away like Huckleberry Finn down the sleepy Mississippi.

The only problem with this newfound 'absolving of guilt' device is that, because it's almost like a new toy, I can see myself taking it out of its box more often than I probably should. I love sympathy, and I also love cookies, and after a lifetime of feeling like exploding kettles and organisational car crashes were my fault, I fear that maybe I'll drift towards the opposite extreme. Maybe when things go wrong, even if they are my fault, I'll pull out my two magic words and then reward myself for coping with this malevolent universe by sucking hot chocolate through a TimTam with my understanding friends. 'That really should have been dealt with yesterday, and now there's an angry person on the phone. Oh, I see what the problem is! It's another bad day. Why is the world so cruel to me? I think a nice lasagne followed by chocolate mousse should ease the pain a little.'

I'd soak myself in a mug of peach schnapps and watch DVDs, waiting for all my consoling emails and text messages to come rolling in. I'd imagine myself as a thwarted Queen ant, struggling nobly on when the tunnels are collapsing and my workers only seem to be able to bring me stale ham sandwiches ten hours after I issued the order.

Both extremes seem sad, really. One side for the paranoid and depressed, and the other for the the arrogant and indignant.

As with a lot of things, I guess I'm meant to live somewhere in that boring middle-ground. I wonder how many people actually live there, though. People who accept the blame where it's due, realise when things aren't down to them, never cry on their vegetables or overdo it on the consolatory lasagne. They're probably the same people who never prepare for their public speaking stints, preferring to 'wing it' because they know it all inside out and backwards and don't care if 'people are looking at them'. I don't think I could ever live there, even if I debarked all my dogs and painted my mailbox the required shade of calm.

But at least now before I leap to press the obvious 'You're Inept' button, I'll know that there is an alternative. Sometimes the universe just hates you.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

A Senecan Sort of Day

I have visited a few of the ‘big cities’ in Europe so far – Paris, Barcelona, Venice – so it was inevitable that at some point I would be drawn to the internationally renowned charms and splendour of…


Some of you will no doubt react to that with the same muffled enthusiasm I did when my sister Laura suggested it to me. But for those of you who grew up somewhere on the Persian rug of Europe*, you will probably react the same way the Persian rug-bred fellows of my acquaintance did: by raising an eyebrow, peering at me carefully to see whether I meant to say ‘Casablanca’, and then adding, with a hint of Persian rug schadenfreude, ‘Why?’

For all of my sunblushed Australian tomatoes, apparently if you want to go to Wales – especially South Wales – Cardiff should not be high on your list. Through snippets of conversation and between bow-and-arrow onslaughts of taunting, my Persian ruggian friends led me to expect a concrete jungle where nothing ever happens apart from a thrice monthly ten minute community dance to celebrate breaks in the rain.

So lesson 1 in the Cardiff saga was: don’t go to Cardiff. Lesson 1b, to be learned shortly afterwards, was: if you are going to Cardiff from London, don’t make it a day trip.

In both cases Laura is to blame for not doing her research. And I am even more to blame for saying, ‘A Day trip? To Cardiff? Why not?!’

The bus trip from London to Cardiff takes three hours, so it turned out that we had less time to explore the city than the time it took to get there. We had 1 hour, to be precise. 1 hour to explore the entire city of Cardiff. We spent almost as much time at the rest-stop on the motorway, poking around the Waitrose and looking at squidgy travel pillows shaped like elephants, pigs and frogs.

I don’t know why such a tour exists at all. I can only guess they are cornering the market for that rather large group of people who don’t know what they’re doing, but only have a day to do it in.

And so it was that at 8am on a bright London morning, two girls from the market of people who don’t know what they’re doing (but only have a day to do it in), boarded a bus bound for Cardiff, soon to learn lesson 1a and 1b.

Now, when the curtain of European wisdom is pulled back and you find yourself peering at certain misery in the form of grey buildings and lengthy bus rides with other members of this elite squad of ignorant travellers, you can either:

(a) Turn into a droplet of Welsh rain and be cold and incessant all day, or

2.) Decide that idiocy should be celebrated, and try to find the humour and the joy in each new nail hammered into your travelling coffin.

Luckily it didn’t take too long to put plan 2 into action, as tour buses being tour buses, there were many curious specimens of humanity to keep us chortling the whole way. (Funnily enough, at the time there didn’t seem to be anything ironic in our feeling of superiority…).

First off, there was our British tour guide, who I shall call Pierre (because I like French names, and setting up poseurish alliterations). He quickly earned himself the nickname ‘Pierre of the perplexing pauses’ because he punctuated his pontifications with perplexingly prolonged pauses. When he spoke, it went something like this:

‘When you go to…………………. (a full minute later, which is quite a lot when someone’s talking) Birmingham, you have to………………….. (another full minute) go to the………………… (one minute) unique shopping centre.’

Of course I completely understand nerves and ‘mind blanks’, considering I would rather hold a live tarantula in my mouth for ten minutes than speak in front of a group, but I had never heard pauses like this before. Pierre’s perplexing pauses kept us entertained for at least some of the way, and even without him there were:

The Tourons. Thank you to Marc for introducing me to this term; a mixture between a tourist and a moron. When we reached the tollgate on the motorway entering Wales, some of the people at the front of the bus pulled out their handy-cams and started filming the bus’s progress from behind the tollgate to that mysterious and untouched patch of motorway on the other side. Presumably they were doing this for the benefit of their home-schooled children, who only leave the house to attend quilling classes at the local Plymouth Brethren ministry. “Please Daddy! Play the bit where the gate goes up again!”

Once in Wales, we stopped to pick up our Welsh tour-guide. He was a short, stout little man with a white beard who looked like Thomas Kenneally. Unlike Pierre, he did not pause at any point throughout the day. He chattered about any little thing that we passed, only hesitating to figure out which joke was next in his well-oiled repertoire. I found him immediately likeable. He explained early on that he was ‘Welshman born, Welshman bred, strong in the arm and weak in the head,’ and when we were driving by the Cardiff markets he said that here you could find the ‘Three Fs’: ‘Fruit, Flowers and Vegetables’ (apparently in Welsh the word for ‘vegetable’ starts with an ‘f’). God help us, Laura and I thought this little man was hilarious.

Thomas Kenneally took us around the main sights in Cardiff by bus – the Bay, the Millennium Centre (which is actually quite a striking building), Cardiff Castle, the City Hall and the National Museum. All of this was crammed into about half an hour, and then – just as the rain decided to introduce itself – we were deposited onto the sidewalk and told we had one hour of free time before we had to meet back at the bus to move on to Caerphilly Castle.

A word about Welsh rain (or Cardiffian rain at least). It does not obey the rules of gravity. Bored with ‘conformity’, it turned on the TV one night and now models itself on what it saw there: lotto-ball machines. It goes up and down and all around, floating and swirling and managing to lick your hair even when your umbrella is only one inch from the top of your head.

By the time we’d found a bathroom and I had bought a cup of coffee swill, we had 50 minutes left. The rain was still practicing its lotto-ball machine dance routine, so we decided to head to the National Museum (or Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd), because it was indoors and it was close by.

Perhaps it was because by this point each new nail in our travelling coffin really was hilarious that I decided that there was no use in trying to take the Museum seriously. There was nothing sad about it; I just turned to Laura and proposed the following:

The Speed Museum Tour


1. See every item in every room

2. No stopping allowed

3. Finish in thirty minutes

No time for discussions, no time for clarifications. We trotted from room to room, past paintings and sculptures and stuffed animals and mounted insects and ancient porcelain:

I hate clichés, but in this case I think our whole day was an exercise in stoicism, or ‘accepting the things you cannot change’. People had told us Cardiff was boring. We had to spend six hours on a bus with people who had either speech or brain impediments. We had a ridiculously small time to explore the biggest city in Wales, and when we finally got there it was raining. What can you do?

You can leap around like morons (or Tourons, even), pretending to be Mary Poppins in a town square:

I had a really great day. I would encourage people to do this. Whether it’s Cardiff or another place you know nothing about. Just go there, laugh at any restrictions, see how ridiculous you can be, and go home again.

That said, when I go back to Cardiff, I would like a little more time to see it properly.

That’s right. I just said ‘when’…

* I am aware that Persian rugs are not ‘European’. It was just the first thing that popped into my head when I was trying to think of something beautiful, complicated and ‘plush’ to compare my wiser-than-I-am friends to…

Friday, 20 March 2009

Two Flibbertijibbets in Salzburg

There are two types of people in the world (I hate it when people start things like this – with the ‘two categories’ that always end up with more holes poked in them than a kitchen colander because they forgot about the people who prefer ferrets to cats or dogs, or the people who prefer Samurai Pizza Cats to Tintin or Asterix – but I am using it anyway. The lure of the cliché is pulling me in!):

1. The people who can think of nothing worse than a long car trip with an enforced soundtrack of The Sound of Music.

2. The people who can think of nothing better than an entire weekend of singing The Sound of Music and immediately turn into high-pitched, overzealous bags of pistachio nuts upon seeing the gazebo where Rolf and Liesl danced.

Sadly, on a recent weekend trip to Salzburg, a person of the first variety became irretrievably entangled with two people of the second variety. Well, I should say ‘sadly’ for him, because for us it was fantastic (even if it was cheesier than the Brady Bunch family sitting down for Brie, Gruyère and Double Gloucester sandwiches served on a bed of grated Parmesan).

My lovely boyfriend Marc had, rather short-sightedly (but incredibly generously), decided to book a surprise trip for me and my sister Laura to the land of Mozart, strudels and, most importantly, the snow-topped mountains that tend to sing thousand-year-old songs underneath Julie Andrews’s nimble feet: Austria. When the mystery location was revealed at Stansted Airport, we launched into ‘I Have Confidence’ and literally didn’t stop singing for the next three days. I ate my muesli in the pauses between verses of ‘So Long, Farewell’ and kept everyone up all night with my somnambulant ‘Adelweiss’ (I just wanted an excuse to use the word ‘somnambulant’ there…). The one song we didn’t sing to an early grave was ‘The Lonely Goat Herd’, because no one apart from the good lady herself can pull that one off.

We arrived on a Friday morning, and our Sound of Music tour wasn’t until the Saturday, so that gave us the Friday to wander around Salzburg discovering the Salzburgers’ homage to their musical prodigy in the form of chocolate balls filled with marzipan and nougat (I’m not sure how chocolate immortalisation really connects with musical genius, but gold-wrapped Mozart balls are available in every second store in the city. Apparently the silver ones, which are harder to find, are the ‘originals’), the cute little tunnels with names that have very different meanings in English/Yiddish (see picture below), errant apostrophes aplenty (see other picture below), and plenty a beer-hall serving schnitzels and sachertortes.

If the shoe fits...

The Hot Dog's what?

As a side-note, I have learned from Marc that German is a language where you can smush all the ‘qualifiers’ together into one long word, so you end up with signs like this:

That long word means something like ‘Store that sells Christmas balls and gifts and related paraphernalia’. Most of the cafés we went to assumed that you could do the same thing in English, so you would end up menus boasting ‘applestrudelwhippedcream’ or ‘hotchocolatemarshmallowwhippedcream’.

After laughing at the ‘No Kangaroos in Austria’ t-shirts and clocks and pencil sharpeners and erasers and underwear and thimbles and teapots, and scratching our heads when we learned that Salzburg’s ‘New Town’ area is actually older than colonised Australia, it was time to stop wasting our time with shameless touristy knickknacks and focus on eating our deliciously cheesy Sound of Music sandwich.

If you are a person of the first variety, the following will make perfect sense to you. Everything became a ‘the’. We saw the gazebo, the house, the graveyard, the mountains, the gardens, the bridge, the Abbey and the Church where Maria and Georg were married. With each new sighting of something familiar, me and Laura set off on a long chain of ‘And this is the part where…’ or ‘And she does this then, and then Gretl says that, and oh yeah I forgot about that bit when Rolf is throwing stones at the window! And what was the point in the pink lemonade?’ Marc was doubtless listening to Cannibal Corpse and wondering why in the name of Rodgers and Hammerstein he didn’t arrange a trip to Vladivostok instead.

Of course I know admitting to a fondness for The Sound of Music automatically makes me fall a few rungs on the ladder-of-enviable-coolness-and-flawless-taste (although people who appreciate these guys might disagree), as it is so saccharine it would make a pot of melted jelly babies coated in white chocolate, dusted with icing sugar and served with a side of millefeuille and grape bubble-tape taste bitter in comparison, there is still something interesting about visiting a place whose landscape you have known inside out and backwards since you were six. I hope this doesn’t sound too sentimental, but the movies I watched when I was little seem so much more ‘full’ than the ones I watch now. Not because they were ‘better’, but because I used to watch the same movies so much that I knew the layouts of houses, the patterns on the dresses of the drop-in characters and the exact intonation of the line, ‘Well how about that, Mr Doubting Mustafa?’ I think kids tend to put themselves ‘in’ movies, so seeing the gazebo and the fountain and the house – all completely unchanged from 1965 – was almost like déjà vu.

Two pistachios at the gazebo

I guess Marc, as a person of the first variety, can only really understand how we felt when he becomes a person of the second variety in relation to a different movie. Perhaps when he re-enacts scenes from ‘Anchorman’ in San Diego, while I wonder what’s so exciting about a dog sniffing a wheel of cheese…

Tuesday, 10 February 2009


This morning I got up with the intention of being very nostalgic. I spent the night sleeping next to everything I own packed up in boxes and bags, and after having some toast this morning decided that I would walk to my favourite place from my front door one last time. My sister Laura was still asleep, and I thought it was actually fitting to do this alone.

So I walked out of my front door, past the rubbish the cats had strewn all over our walkway, down the little 'short-cut' alleyway with an unkempt park on one side, past the faded orange 'Gent's Hairdressing' storefront, past the black graffiti and painted slogans on Greatorex Street and up past the first of the curry houses and Indian wedding supplies stores along Hanbury Street.

You know how some days just have that feeling of 'anticipation'? Like the last day of school in summer and everyone has their shirts untucked and water fights break out mid-afternoon and teachers just put on music or movies because they don't care and the air seems full of the wishes of everyone that the day will end quickly and the wait for the last school bus is long and friends wave out of car windows and you know when you come back everything will be a little bit different? That is how I felt. Like a change was coming and all I could do was walk around and pre-emptively reminisce.

I have a favourite coffee shop on Brick Lane that I like to write in. It has a hodge-podge of vintage lounges, colourful table-tops, condiment containers made out of lego, little plastic dolls stuck to the cash register, big windows that look out onto the street, perfect laid-back indie music, a resident black Labrador that comes and goes as he pleases and sometimes comes and looks at you with his big dark eyes while you're writing, and decent (but not mind-blowing) coffee. I planned to go here and write for a bit one last time, but when I got there I discovered that 'my café' wasn't in the mood to comply with my floating, bittersweet nostalgia. It was closed for maintenance. So instead I walked to the end of the street and back down again, noticing little things that I hadn't before: a collection of beer cans wedged between two walls near the school, a broken lamp above a doorway, a tree growing out of a building.

I was a little annoyed that I couldn't do what I wanted, and I knew everyone would think I was silly for being all 'so long, farewell' about a place I can still visit easily enough, but it just felt like the end of something this morning.

Despite the spit on the streets and the chip packets and empty bottles and half-eaten bagels and scrunched-up paper plates stained with brown sauce and oil and the heavy smell of alcohol lurking everywhere on Saturday and Sunday mornings, I have a big squidgy soft spot for Brick Lane. I will miss being able to consider it 'my neighbourhood'.

January 23, 2009.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Spot the difference

Since my last post about my ‘flat-o-curiosities’, my sister has arrived in the country. We had decided before she arrived that we were going to look for a new place together, so I have quickly found myself in the position of having to ‘pitch’ this tiny Whitechapel dive with its wacky wiring, silly shower and barren kitchen (sorry, I couldn’t find a suitable ‘k’ word to make that alliteration aeroplane fly) to the hapless fops on Gumtree.

As if my post below doesn’t make the place sound unbearable enough, I didn’t even mention that the neighbourhood Tom-cats are in continual competition with one another over whose particular interpretation of the infamous ‘eau de cat’ is the most covetable, staging their ‘scent-offs’ near our front door; there is no light in the kitchen apart from a tiny bulb behind the ancient yellow toaster, making it difficult to judge whether that little brown blob on the table is a delicious chocolate-coated peanut or a jaw-breaking, indefinable material that could in no way be interpreted as food; and our ‘backyard’ could be used as an example of what the world would look like six to eight years after humans have been wiped out*. And, to put the half-decomposed banana on top of the colossal compost heap, our next-door neighbours are squatters. Squatters who enjoy a good disco followed by a plate-throwing brawl at 3 in the morning.

Okay. All of these things haven’t really been that bad. I have been able to put up with all of this for 8 months, after all. I have even come to think of my little defective slice of Whitechapel as ‘quaint’ rather than what others might term ‘a hole’. My room also seems to be the most immune to the sounds of squabbling squatters, so usually I sleep right through.

But after I had written my advertisement talking about our ‘two bathrooms (1 shower), combined kitchen and living area and a backyard simply perfect for summer BBQs’, I started wondering whether and when to lie to the people who came knocking. I had to make up my mind quickly, as one of our first visitors – a Canadian girl – almost immediately asked the most difficult question to weasel my way out of: ‘How do you find the neighbours?’

The pause preceding my response should have given her a clear indication of ‘how we find the neighbours’ (‘We usually just knock on their door…’). She didn’t seem to notice my hesitation, however, so I quickly stammered something about how we don’t really know them that well and that they like to party on occasion, but it doesn’t really disturb me.

Before you say, ‘you squawking Lyre-bird, you!’, I actually told the truth to the people I thought were decent. This girl already seemed a little ‘off’, so I figured there was no harm in only sharing the tasty details of our neighbours and our interesting light-switch situation with people who were ‘quirky in a good way’. I thought that these ‘quirky in a good way’ people might look at this flat as I have come to: as a story they will tell for years to come.

At this stage I have found two potential candidates to pray for watery salvation from the moody shower-head and learn how to make-do with cake tins instead of pots, and it is only up to my flat-mates to decide which one they could bear to live with. By now I know that one wrong choice in the flat-mate department can sometimes prove worse than a painfully ineffective shower, lack of cooking utensils, noisy neighbours, dumpy backyard and cat pee combined. But both of these girls seem fine, so hopefully the bubbly Australian or the laid-back Brit won't prove to be as good at omitting off-putting details in their self-advertisements as I am on the 'flats offered' section of Gumtree.

I hope whoever succeeds doesn't retrospectively hate me forever. You see, I didn't tell them about the shower head. And to some, that is much, much worse than the occasional sounds of Italian profanities and shattering crockery at 3am...

*On a related note, my flat-mates tell me that a short walk from our front door there is an area used in the film 28 Days Later. No doctoring or special effects were needed. It already looked like it was torn apart by zombie-humans who had been infected with a potent virus that induces a murderous and destructive rage.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Flat lining

I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as ‘poor’. I have a job that pays above minimum wage, somewhere to live, I can eat out or buy new banana-print tights on occasion and as yet have never found myself in the position of having to ask my landlord whether he would accept charcoal drawings of cheese graters and ‘keep left’ signs in lieu of actual cash.

That said, one of the reasons I can afford to eat out and keep up with new trends in fruit fashion is because my flat is quite affordable (by London standards). And of course, as any real estate agent or flat-hunter will tell you, ‘affordable’ is usually code for ‘riddled with unique and curious problems no one knows how to explain, let alone solve’. Whereas I am now used to having a fridge in the hallway, flipping TV channels manually with a McDonald’s straw and think nothing of the tiny wooden block hammered into the kitchen wall with a picture of a completely-unknown-to-anyone-who-currently-lives-there brunette in a petite love-heart shaped golden frame perched on top, my flat can be an interesting place to newcomers.

A couple of connections:

1. The light in the upstairs bathroom has married the light in the downstairs toilet, and clearly wears the pants in the relationship because whatever it does, the downstairs light emulates like an obedient puppy. The light is on in the downstairs toilet when you walk into it, and you innocently sit down with your copy of Fruit Fashion – Fall 2008. Just as you are sinking your teeth into a fascinating article on the social advantages of a papaya-flavoured scratch-n-sniff cardigan, the light snaps off and you are encased in sudden blackness. This never fails to elicit a little scream, and since the light-switch is too far away to reach from your porcelain perch, you have to forego your riveting read and reach for the paper.

This has startled quite a few visitors, who naturally assume that the bulb just happened to blow out while they were marvelling at your choice of bathroom literature (not that the light above them is the switchy equivalent of a 1950s housewife following her husband’s every whim).

Three flights of stairs separate this light-switch couple, and I have always wondered why it shouldn’t work in reverse: why the comings and goings of the bulb downstairs have no impact on her husband up top. It would be entertaining to re-wire this fault so that she could sit on the bathroom throne barking orders for once. A light going off when you’re in the shower could provide a good two minutes’ entertainment for bored flatmates on a Tuesday evening. Which leads me to my next marriage in the flat, between the:

2. Kitchen tap and the shower. This is not unusual in itself. Practically everyone has experienced the sharp sting of hot water needles when a toilet flushes or an urge to scream ‘stop using the f*%king water, you pillock!’ when you find yourself sprayed with tiny ice-cubes. What may be unusual about this long-distance pipe relationship is that whenever anyone uses the tap in the kitchen, the shower completely ceases to function.

You have worked up a good lather in your hair and suddenly the stream dries up. Since the kitchen is three floors down you can’t really call out, so instead you stand there, hands clasped in front of you (almost in prayer), eyes fixed with a pathetically sad expression upon the tiny holes in the shower-head and mind envisioning soap suds bubbling up through kitchen mugs and luxurious hot watery waves washing over potato-skin encrusted baking trays. ‘They have to be nearly done,’ you think. ‘I’m pretty sure all that’s left is two spoons and the apple peeler.’ And then the real taunting begins.

A ring of water beads appear under the shower head, and they pulse one or two times before spurting out a few lines of watery salvation. Hallelujah! Your eyebrows relax and the stream returns. But then there’s the glass they forgot about in their bedroom, and the vase they just emptied that dead rose out of and wouldn’t it be a perfect time to scrub my bike chain and wash down the vacuum cleaner? And now after all that work I’m pretty thirsty, but what’s this? The kettle’s empty! Ah, easily solved. Drink up, my stainless steel friend. There’s plenty more where that came from. Oh, and would you look at that! The filtered water jug could use a refill too. Come to think of it, my orchid could do with a little splash. What the heck? Why don’t I just leave the tap on and invite the neighbourhood cats around to have a different drinking experience?

After all of this you feel a bit bipolar, a bit confused (that a shower-head could add or detract so much to your day-to-day happiness) and just the slightest bit homicidal. You start making all sorts of showery resolutions: I will always tell people when I’m about to jump in, and I will hang a tea-cosy over the tap so everyone knows that now is not the time to make friends with thirsty felines. You have also planned out exactly what you are going to say to your tap-happy flat-mate, down to the very last expletive.

But instead when you go downstairs you end up sheepishly enquiring about what’s on TV, then shoot a death-stare at the gleaming dishes and smiling orchid (as if they themselves were to blame) and watch Never Mind the Buzzcocks until Simon Amstell makes you forget about the whole debacle.

3. Apart from these two connections, anyone I invite over for dinner may be perplexed by my modified recipe book. A problem that has followed me from flat to London flat has been the dearth of basic kitchen tools. Here in Whitechapel, instead of 1 cup of Arborio rice or 350g butternut pumpkin, my modified recipe calls for ‘That mug with ‘Hoff’ on it about ¾ full of rice’ and ‘about 7/8 of that green plastic bowl full of pumpkin’. 320° becomes Gas Mark 9, and ‘placed into a large pot and covered tightly with lid’ becomes ‘placed in cake tin, covered with foil and fingers crossed the ingredients don’t overflow.’

You may ask why I have not just gone out and bought the muffin trays and mortars and pestles our kitchen so desperately needs, but there are two very good reasons why I have yet to get them:

(a) When I have money left over at the end of the month, I prefer to blow it on mango brooches or coconut-themed gloves (white and soft on the inside, brown and hairy on the outside!), and,

(b) When a previous flat-mate left, he took all of the kitchen implements he had bought with him, and the current flat-mates have resented him for it ever since. Apparently all they were left with was a napkin dispenser and one rusty sieve. Naturally when I move I will want to take my mortars and pestles with me, so I refuse to buy them in the first place to save myself the loud conversations regarding my cheese-gratery greed and odd fascination with fruit fashion that I fear so much after I leave.