Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Early Riser

London at 5:00 on Saturday mornings seems like a more contented place. Long lazy shadows stretch out across the empty streets and the stores are all still sleeping: their eyelid shutters down and their chairs all nicely tucked in. The bus doors yawn to let a lone pair of feet step inside, and the pigeons sit all plump and puffed out on window ledges: even the crumbs haven’t arrived yet. The tubes zip along like athletes in their prime, unweighed down by the oversized, fidgety human meals they usually lug along inside their bellies. You can hear every clunk and squeak the train makes along its way: the little noises aren’t muffled by newspaper pages turning or the tinny sound of music in countless white earphones. Even the two people you pass on the street give you a knowing smile as you walk by, like you’re sharing a secret: that sometimes the best time to be out is after the nights and the beers and the high heels and the leering looks and the chandeliers and the sushi trains and the pub peanuts and the rambling conversations and the sprigs of mint in mojitos and the yellow lights on black taxis and the swaying queues and the kebab shops are all over.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

A Llandilo by any other name...

Last weekend I went to a place completely new and yet familiar to me. It was a town I grew up in, and yet I had never been there before. All of the houses and the shops and the signs filled me with nostalgia, yet the memories they brought back were based somewhere entirely different. Confused? Let me wash away the incredible shroud of mystery that is certainly encircling your mind after these Sherlock-stumping sentences and tell you: I visited Llandeilo in South Wales, and I grew up in Llandilo, New South Wales.

Much as I love unique tongue-twistery Australian towns like Woolloomooloo, Coonabarabran and Murwillumbah, I spent the first 20 odd years of my life in a tiny Welsh-named suburb best known for being on the way to somewhere else. People in neighbouring Penrith and Windsor, perhaps with a whiff of English derision, claim never to have heard of the place. I guess you’d call it a ‘one horse town’, but for the fact that horses probably outnumber people in Llandilo.

All we have is a fruit and vegetable shop, a post office, a school, a volunteer fire brigade, a fish and chip shop and a Christmas tree farm. There’s also a little church and a little hall which you can rent for your next square dance (call Maud on 7774 3287 to book (but not at 4 o’clock because she’ll be out feeding the horses then)). This sounds like rather a lot, but when you consider that footpaths in Llandilo are rarer than caterpillars wearing gumboots, and that the entire population of Llandilo can probably fit into the hall and still have room to practice their latest hula-hooping routines, that should give you a clearer indication of its size.

It’s hard to say whether it’s because Llandilo is so ‘inconsequential’ that I found this trip so thrilling, or whether I would have been excited even if my hometown was a bustling metropolis, but when I made it to Llandeilo I was grinning like a Cheshire cat who had just discovered a bowl full of mice doused in double-cream. Of course I’ve made comparisons between places I’ve visited before, but nothing like this. Absolutely everything my eyes fell upon sparkled with twin-citied enchantment: the flowers on the street became flowers I was seeing in Llandeilo, the car parked on the side of the road became a car parked in Llandeilo, the delicious wild blackberry I ate off of a bush carried far more meaning that it would have anywhere else: ‘I am eating a blackberry that grew in Llandeilo!’

Before arriving, I had already learned that, just as ‘Wales’ is pronounced differently by Welsh people (they give it two sing-songy syllables so it comes out as ‘Way-yels’), ‘Llandeilo’ is not the smooth-sounding Aussie-fied ‘Landilo’, but is pronounced with a generous injection of phlegm: ‘phllllegm-andilo’. Llandeilo in Wales is still semi-rural, but it actually has far more to its name than its Australian offspring. This meant that apart from smiling at the flowers, cars and blackberries, I could delight myself even further by noticing: Llandeilo has a bank! Llandeilo has cafés! Llandeilo has a town hall! And, bizarrely, Llandeilo has a luxurious boutique hotel?

I’m never usually one for touristy knick-knackery, but here I wanted to buy anything and everything with ‘Llandeilo’ emblazoned onto it. We went into a cookwares store (Llandeilo has a cookwares store!) and explained to the shopkeepers that I was looking for something ‘made in Llandeilo’ because I’d come all the way from the other Llandilo in New South Wales, Australia. And, would you believe it, not only had the two shopkeepers been to Llandilo in NSW, they actually got engaged there. They were British, but lived for a time in Richmond, which is just up the road from Llandilo. Unfortunately they didn’t have anything made in Llandeilo, but they did give me a bag with ‘Llandeilo’ written on it, which I filled with postcards (Llandeilo has postcards! Alright, alright. I’ll stop that now) and some other mystery gifts which will be weaving their way home very soon.

It’s a well-known fact that when British settlers arrived in Australia they deemed the place ‘terra nullius’ (empty land). They then pulled out their giant cattle-branders and stamped the newly conquered landscape with names from home: Newcastle, Liverpool, Cardiff, Blackheath, Stanmore, Ipswich, Salisbury, Stratford, Warwick, Sheffield, Penrith, Swansea, Lland(e)ilo. I’m not sure whether they chose the names because they saw an actual resemblance to the equivalent town back home, or whether it was just to quash homesickness by surrounding themselves with familiar words*. Maybe it was a mixture of both. If we take the ‘familiar words’ angle, though, I can see from my trip to Llandeilo that there is some comfort to be derived from seeing a word that you know embedded deeply into a patch of land that is not home. The view may be different, the weather may be different, there may be hotels instead of Christmas tree farms, but there is still this glorious name touching everything, and you feel strangely possessive of it and tied to it whether it is really ‘yours’ or not.

I wonder if the early settlers ever thought about the full-circle impact this ‘naming’ would have on future generations. To them, they’d always know the original town first, and its dryer, browner, less-densely-populated equivalent second. To us, the children who grew up in the dry, brown, empty namesakes, it could only ever be the other way around. Looking at the map of Australia in comparison to the map of Britain, we might even wonder why on Earth they decided to stick Swansea just down the road a bit from Newcastle…

I left Llandeilo with a little bag of stuff and enough photos to fill a bathtub. The next stop will have to be Penrith, which is where I tell everyone I’m from since no one ever knows Llandilo. I’m pretty sure the Penrith in Cumbria will have some stark differences to the Penrith in Western Sydney. When you tell someone in England you’re from Penrith they beam at you, angling to score an invite to your quaint little cottage near the Lakes District. When you tell someone from Australia you’re from Penrith, their face drops and they make all sorts of unfair assumptions about you. All those from The Riff, am I right?

*Although the politics behind this process of renaming a so-called ‘empty’ land is something that makes my heart hurt, writing about it would be another blog in itself, so I will leave it be. I will, however, remind everyone that the original inhabitants of the Australian region that became Llandilo were the Dharug people.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Acropolis Now

Earlier this month, I picked up another country to add to my European card collection. I chewed on the powdery pink bubble-gum and stuck ‘Greece’ into my collector’s album, in its proper place before Slovenia and after Andorra.

In card-collecting terms, I guess ‘Greece’ would be sort of like getting Robin in a set of Batman cards. He’s essential, he’s always been there, and his expressions are known throughout the world: ‘Holy smokes, Batman, a sense is what has the power of receiving into itself the sensible forms of things without the matter, in the way in which a piece of wax takes on the impress of a signet-ring without the iron or gold’. What? That’s a well-known ancient Greek saying, isn’t it? No? Okay, okay. Let’s replace it with: ‘Jiminy Crickets, Batman, the unexamined life is not worth living’.

Athens is slightly more refined than Robin, of course. It’s been wearing the same outfit for centuries, for a start, not experimenting with oversized codpieces in the 90s. Its monuments are peppered across the city map within easy walking distance of one another, and while you plan your route for the day you get that strange, humbling sensation of heading somewhere where eminently more important people than yourself once went. Surely Socrates decided quite frequently, as I did while I was there, to head up to the Acropolis after he’d finished his breakfast. He licked his finger and collected the last few flakes of his croissant from his plate the way I did, put on sandals the way I did, and strolled up through Monastiraki the way I did. Of course when he got there he had slightly weightier matters to discuss than me. I’m also fairly certain he was never asked by someone with a deep Southern American drawl where they might find the restrooms. No, apart from potentially walking the same path that the bearded man himself once walked, the only other connection I can make between myself and Socrates is that I know that I know nothing, too. The croissant for breakfast in ancient Greece comment proves that much…

I wandered from ancient monument to ancient monument, and once again thought about the stark difference between daily life in Australia and Europe. I examined a Corinthian column that had collapsed in the neat way that sliced bread does when you let go of it, and willed someone back home to phone me so that I might say, ‘Oh yes, I’m just poking around the Temple of Olympian Zeus right now. You? What’s that? At Coles buying potatoes?’ (Part of the point in collecting cards in the first place is to brag about it, right?). I also witnessed a slice of Athenian tradition that would never in a million years develop in Australia: that is, the changing of the guard at the National Parliament. In Australia you can actually climb up onto the grassed roof of the Parliament building in Canberra and roll down it. Outside the Parliament of Athens there are guards dressed in red velvet caps and shoes with massive black pompoms on them who perform an intricate, slow-moving dance every couple of hours. This dance consists mainly of two men moving in perfect synchronicity, balancing on one leg, scuffing the floor with their feet like horses do, and generally providing what seems to have been the inspiration for Sir Cleese’s rather famous sketch. You’d almost laugh if it wasn’t for the guns in their arms.

Of course this seriousness and precision is not necessarily the way that modern-day Athenians lives their day-to-day lives. Aris, our couchsurfing host, explained that most Greek people don’t have much respect for law and order, or – at the least – that they ignore it because they know it won’t be enforced. Everyday life can therefore be quite chaotic. Marc and I noticed this ourselves on the boat trip we took from Piraeus to the Greek island of Aegina. When the boat arrived, there seemed to be no disembarking policy of any kind. If there was such a policy, as Aris had pointed out, it definitely wasn’t enforced. Instead, as soon as the ropes were tied it was as if someone picked up the boat like a packet of muesli and shook it violently over the port: cars, grannies, children, motorbikes, dogs, bicycles, caged birds and women carrying bags of pistachios all toppled out at once. They bumped into each other and honked their horns and barked and zig-zagged their way to wherever it was they were in such a hurry to get to. It was enough to make Australia seem like the most orderly and straight-laced place in the world. We may roll down the roof of our Parliament building, but we take turns to do it.

So there’s a bit of a paradox in Athens. The Parthenon is lit up at night and broods over the city like a stately grandfather, while down below the people shout and bustle and protest. Of course it’s not as crazy as all that, but with the social situation in Greece being what it is right now (I would try to summarise this situation for all those who do not know about it, but I fear it would come out as fuzzy as Effie Stephanidis’s bouffant), it is not as staid as its silent relics might suggest.

After throwing my sandals frosted with Acropolis dust back into my London closet, I blow a bubble and flick through the pages of my card collectors’ album. I’m not sure I’ll ever get the whole set, or which country Batman would be in this analogy, but for now I’m happy with this ancient new addition. As Robin would say: life must be lived as play.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Slovenia and the Fear of Squished Mitsubishis

Marc and I went to Slovenia a few weekends ago, and I drove on the wrong side of the road for the first time in my life. By the wrong side I mean the right side, of course, although there are probably a fair few people who would protest at that comment, claiming that the right side is the right side. To me, left is right and right is wrong. For anyone who doesn’t drive, I guess it could be described as like playing a game of poker through a mirror. Not a normal mirror though; a mirror like those theme park ones that are all warped and make you look like you have a really skinny forehead and really fat knees. You remember the rules, but everything is backwards and the cards seem a different size and shape than usual. What’s worst is that you seem to be competing against people who are highly skilled at this mirror card game. They slap down a royal flush in seconds and scowl at you for taking so long to make a move.

We rented the car at a hotel in central Ljubljana, and there was no opportunity to practice in a parking lot first. Nope, it was a hill-start off of a ramp into the middle of city traffic. The first thing I did was reach for my seatbelt over the wrong shoulder, and shortly afterwards – through the warped mirror that made me believe that the right hand side of the road was as far away from me as milk is from the front of supermarkets – I clipped a curb and scratched the hubcaps. I could already feel my heartbeat in my fingers, but then we made it onto the motorway and I somehow sidled my way straight into the fast lane. An instant traffic jam swelled behind me as I puttered along at 60kmph in a 130kmph zone. Lights flashed, horns honked.

Now, there are times when you can talk yourself out of panic, reasoning to yourself that you’re just overreacting and it’s not really as bad as all that. But when it feels like you’re driving something the size of a blimp down a space the size of a fingernail clipping, and you’ve got an angry stream of Slovenians overtaking you at 130kmph, shaking their fists and saying things that cause their small children to peer out of the back windows at you as they pass, it’s slightly more difficult to quash the feeling that you’re either about to die and take everyone with you, or that you’re soon to have a squished Mitsubishi, a hefty bill and post-traumatic stress disorder on your hands.

I eventually snailed my way into the outside lane, trying to act as if I wasn’t embarrassed about how panic-stricken I felt. After a few kilometres of motorway, the fireworks stopped exploding in my veins, and the thoughts ‘get out of here!’ and ‘zgvqkjzl zzzvvv’ stopped skipping across my brain. Marc, my non-driving navigator, and Tina, an American Couchsurfer along for the ride to Piran, did their best to calm me down by letting me know that I didn’t need to make any turns or fear any roundabouts for at least half an hour. There was nothing but straight road in front of me, and the Slovenian sun was pounding down on a day that had been forecast to rain. I sped up and made my way through the easy curves in the road, and the fear of squishing our Mitsubishi began to subside. My stomach still felt like I’d eaten something a little out of date, and I kept glancing at the gear stick on my right with what some might call an unwarranted amount of trepidation, but I carried on.

On the way to the coast, we stopped at a massive castle built into the side of a cliff: 

Predjama Castle, Slovenia

and went on a tour of the UNESCO-listed Škocjan caves. I don’t have a picture of the caves, but they were absolutely gobsmacking. Bulbous yellow stalagmites were hunched around the cave floor like giants embarrassed about the state of their skin, and dagger-like stalactites poured menacingly down from the ceiling the way they do in particularly difficult Super Nintendo games. After weaving our way through the silent drippy bits we made it to perhaps the most impressive part of all: a cavern the size of a football stadium with a rampaging river fizzing away thousands of feet below. Actually, my skills of guesstimating when it comes to distance are pretty inaccurate, and the whole cavern was only lit by these tiny little lamps perched on the edges of the safety rails, so it could have been anywhere between eight feet and three thousand, but however far down it was, it made me feel very small.

I’m happy to report that we made it to both the castle and the cave without further hubcap scratches or panic attacks. I realised at some point that I wasn’t using the rear-view mirror at all, but by the time we parked the car for the last time that day, I felt like I was beginning to get used to this mirror poker game. A tiny seed of confidence was sprouting inside of me.

The next morning, however, as we clambered back into the car and Marc showed me the map of our route to Lake Bohinj, my little seed of confidence began to quiver. Apparently I’d agreed to compete in the 2010 Slovenian Mirror Driving Championships: driving up and over the rather daunting Julian Alps.

I forget sometimes that driving can be a psychological experience almost as much as a physical one. Once you know how to drive you don’t think about it anymore, but any learner driver in a manual car will tell you that you have to psych yourself up before you can face a red traffic light balanced on top of a hill. When it came to mirror driving through the Alps, I found myself wishing I had been more emotionally prepared. Driving on the wrong side of the road up a mountain was worse than that first motorway experience. There were hairpin turns, pot-holed roads, no lane markings, snow, steep inclines, old men hobbling along making their way to the next town, and yellow warning signs depicting cars leaning over a precipices with rocks crumbling underneath their tyres. All that might have been manageable if it didn’t seem like there was only room for one car along those two-way mountain passes, and if all the locals weren’t blazing through there as if they were high school bullies who’d seen my ridiculous sprout of confidence and decided it was time to try out their new weed killer. I’d tried to work my way up into the pros too fast, and these guys reminded me that I was still an amateur, shaking in my boots as the masters zoomed on by. I literally flinched whenever another car approached, and pulled over again and again to let tail-gaters pass. My driving was fine (if a little slow): it was mainly my mind that was letting me down.

I gathered from Marc’s appreciative outbursts that the scenery we were driving through was spectacular, but I was too busy clenching my teeth and fearing each bend in the road lest it reveal a speeding truck or a group of adventurous children on bicycles to spare a glance at the snow-topped peaks and sprawling valleys. To his credit, Marc was very patient throughout all of this, offering support and encouragement over the 3 hours it took to make it to our next destination. I was probably overreacting by coming to a dead stop when cars approached from the opposite direction, but as a non-driver, he kept his mouth shut.

In the end we made it to Lake Bohinj and then all the way through to Lake Bled with both the car and my nerves intact. Getting back onto a motorway was actually a relief after far too many sightings of those ominous yellow signs with cars falling over cliff edges.

I don’t think I could say that I achieved a gold medal in the 2010 Slovenian Mirror Driving Championships, but at the least I should get a dinky trophy for participating. I’m probably the mirror driving equivalent of Eric Moussambani at the 2000 Sydney Olympics: just giving it a go even though we don’t really have the right equipment for this sort of thing where I’m from.

In a strange way it did sort of feel like I’d succeeded; that I’d actually accomplished something. I had crossed the Alps without toppling over the edge or decimating any groups of cycling children. By the time we returned the car to the hotel in Ljubljana I could change gears using my right hand as if I’d been doing it for at least two days. We weren’t even charged for the hubcap scratches.

The only issue with this re-sprouting of my seed of confidence is that Marc has cottoned onto it. He is already scouring maps of Europe looking for higher mountains, dodgier roads and the largest populations of retirees who enjoy ambling along cliff tops after lunch. If the end destination is anything like Lake Bled, though, I think I might be tempted to try my amateurish hand at this poker game again:

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A path in London

Sometimes, in London, after crowded train rides and broken escalators with people clambering up them and briefcases swinging and the clomp of heels and the black backs of men in suits in front of you and tinny announcements and school kids’ laughter and newspapers left on seats and shifting queues of people at bus stops and the tight buzzy sensation of static behind your eyes, you unexpectedly find yourself down a little path with a clearing to one side and you realise you’re all alone in this place. It’s a melancholic, refreshing feeling.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

'Episodes': Return to Australia Part III (of a still yet to be disclosed number of parts. This might be the last one)

Woolies, the Helpful Supermarket
One thing any Australian who comes to London is surprised by is that check-out chicks (or blokes) never pack your bags for you in supermarkets. Even if you’ve got two trolleys full of supplies to re-stock your bomb shelter, you’re on your own when it comes to stuffing it all into bags on the ‘other side’. Before the ‘self-checkout’ machines were installed, a regular trip to the supermarket ran a little something like this:


I place all of my things onto the conveyor belt, making sure to keep the jar of basil and tomato passata at the front and the melba toast at the back. Once I’m satisfied that I’ve placed the bananas in an optimal position within the line-up, I tap my fingernails on the silver edges of the conveyor belt, and watch the prophetic scene of the person in front of me unfold. This unfortunate soul, who for all I know might have a PhD in Aeronautical Engineering, is trying frantically to keep up with the merciless check-out chick, who is wearing a badge that says, ‘WINNER: fastest scan-rate in the UK. They call me Lightning Fingers.’ His groceries topple and jostle down the slide to where his reusable bags are waiting, and the concentration on his face is intense as he shoves in celery stalks, frozen pizzas, garlic bread batons and packets of chocolate-coated almonds.

I can’t help but make judgments about his ordering system (or lack thereof) as he goes along. ‘I would never have placed the lettuce there,’ I think. ‘Who puts lettuce in front of ten cans of chick-peas?’

Lightning Fingers has finished long before he’s had a chance to make a dent in the hodge-podge of items that have accumulated around him, and she leans back in her chair and raises an eyebrow at me to show that she’s sympathetic to my plight: being stuck behind this tortoise who doesn’t even know that bread is always the last thing you should put on the conveyor. I notice her raised brow but keep my eyes forward: it would be foolish to feign kinship now when we both know that in a couple of minutes we’re going to be on opposite sides of the grocery battle.

The man finally finishes, and fumbles around in his backpack looking for his card. Lightning Fingers sighs loudly, and I can almost see him scribbling a mental note to keep his card in a more convenient location next time. In fact, I can see that he’s learned a lot of things for next time. He inserts his card into the machine, with a defeated yet determined look. ‘Next time, Lightning Fingers. I’ll get you next time…’

He makes apologetic eye-contact with me as he loads the bags up onto his arms, but all I can do is bite my lip and grimace. It’s my turn.


When I went home, I had become so accustomed to treating each supermarket trip like a military operation, that I was stunned when the Woolies check-out bloke smiled at me and said, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and then proceeded to quickly and efficiently pack all of my things into bags (even putting crushables over to one side so that they might be placed on top at the end). He wasn’t working against me! He wasn’t even working with me. He was working FOR me.

How marvellous.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

'Episodes': Return to Australia Part II (of a yet to be disclosed number of parts)

I went home to Australia for a month in December. Rather than trying to squeeze everything that happened into one blog, which would be as difficult and time-consuming as tipping two similar 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles out onto a table and then putting them back together again using only the toes of my left foot, I thought I'd write a few 'episodes' blogs instead: bits and pieces of events, thoughts and whatnots that transpired while I was there. Taken together, hopefully they'll create a bigger picture anyway. (I'm just praying that that picture doesn't end up looking like this.)

The Porridge Incident

Asiana Airlines Flight OZ601 from Seoul to Sydney. About two hours before landing, I made the somewhat catastrophic mistake of selecting porridge over an omelette for breakfast, believing that eating eggs on a plane is never going to be pleasant for anyone concerned. But, after the tinfoil-covered dish was placed in front of me, the flight attendant leanded over to drop an unexpected condiment on top: a small plastic fish filled with what was apparently a perfect accompaniment for this meal: soy sauce.

After 20 hours on planes, my mind cogs could only muster up the energy to think, 'Soy sauce is to porridge as she must be is to joking' (which, I'm sure you'll agree, fails the basic rule of analytical comparison). That little fish casually tossed onto the tinfoil lid was an immediate and unsettling omen of the horror that lay beneath. With timid fingers, I slowly peeled up the edges of the foil, letting the fish reveal his purpose. He was there to muddle and mix in with that delightful breakfast food sure to whet even the fussiest appetite: prawn and broccoli studded porridge. 'Studded' isn't even the right word, as that implies that there was a little 'spring' or 'substance' to the porridge that a prawn or a broccolo might get lodged in. No, these prawns and broccoli were submerged in a transclucent white gunge. It looked like a sad combination of fake snow and tepid water, and it slopped around as the plane hit turbulence.

I didn't taste it, but I'm fairly certain that this porridge wouldn't be described as 'sweet' in the same way the gloriously goldeny-syrupy porridge I was looking forward to might be. Instead I folded the foil back down over the dish, turning away like a child whose innocence has just been shattered.

Lesson learned: When ordering meals on an Asian airline, you can save yourself a traumatic culinary experience by asking, 'what's in it?' before making your selection. This holds no matter how confident you may be in your knowledge of the ingredients of basic dishes.

The City that Never Sleeps

When you live somewhere for a fair amount of time, you get used to the sounds that swirl around outside your door. In London, I'm now accustomed to hearing the squeaking of bus brakes, the whoosh of cars, the whirl of sirens and the growl of motorbikes as they tear up Putney Hill. They're all mechanical noises, and they drown out whatever else might be around.

On my second morning back in Sydney, I was staying at my friend Kim's place, and a forgotten noise woke me up at 5am. In a tree outside her window, what sounded like hundreds of birds were squabbling, flapping, chirping and talking like overexcited women after a Hugh Grant sighting. I felt like I'd woken up in the middle of a jungle, but it was actually just a flat near the beach in Coogee.

I remembered that Sydney is a city that never sleeps, mainly because of the wide range of animals that keep you up all night. In Summer it's fruit-bats bickering and warbling as they gobble the nectar from Silky Oaks, cicadas humming and screeching in a strangely synchronised rhythm, or a lone mozzie who thinks of himself as an intrepid treasure hunter and your ear as a cave of rubies. In Winter it's usually a collection of little birds who plink out quick three-note tunes to one another every couple of minutes, dogs barking in the distance, or another ruby-hungry mozzie who'd heard a rumour of this hidden cave and has come to investigate.

The animals carry on all day and all night. But I guess their efforts would only really stunt the sleep of newcomers to Australia, because after a couple of days back home, I could sleep through all of those noises again. Well, apart from the mozzies. No one can sleep through a sound like that.

Old Doors, Old Houses

On the trips I've taken in Europe, I'm always teased when I am suddenly overcome by the sight of a really old door. A grand, intricate door that dates back to the 1400s or something ridiculous like that. I react this way because, growing up in Australia, my perception of 'oldness' is slightly skewed. Suburbs in Australia look 'old' to me when they have faded fibro houses built in the 70s. That's the 1970s...

More episodes to come.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Water Drops and Hills Hoists: Return to Australia (Part 1)

My Dad's family moved to Australia from England in 1959. One day my sibings and I were trying to work out what might have prompted such a move, so we asked our Grandad for the back-story. With a glint in his eye and a smile on his lips, he said he would tell us why he chose Australia over anywhere else in the world.

When the kids were young and they lived in Liverpool, he said, he and Nana used to have to hang the washing up in the kitchen. It was hung up high, and when he got up in the mornings to make some Ribena for the little ones, water drops from the washing would fall down the back of his neck. He hated that sensation, and dreaded it, but there wasn't anywhere else the washing could go, so he just had to put up with it. One day he was complaining about the water drops falling down the back of his neck to a friend, and his friend said, 'You know, in Australia, you can hang your washing up outside, and it's so hot that by the time you hang up the last thing, the first thing you put up is already dry!' Grandad jumped up and exlaimed, 'That's the place for me!'

Now, my Grandad had a tendency to tell a funny story over sad facts, so needless to say there were other reasons for the move, but I still like the idea that water droplets from washing could provoke someone to move their whole family to the other side of the world.

Water drops do suggest slightly larger miseries, of course. England's weather is one of the reasons why so many of my Australian friends and family looked at me with complete and honest incredulity when I told them I was moving to London. Why would you leave the luxury of being able to hang up your bed-sheets on the arms of a glorious Hills Hoist in your own back yard, watching contentedly as they ripple and billow in the warm breeze, absorbing the light of the sun? Why would you exchange that for a mouldy little line off of a city balcony, a rickety drying rack clogging up a living room, or a dingy Laundromat where your sheets flail around in a horrible black space, injected with artificial air and deprived of every sheet's dream: sweet sunshine?

I explained to the incredulous that I wasn't moving to London for the weather. (To be on the safe side, I also clarified that feeling pre-emptively sorry for my potential future bed-sheets would not stop me from moving there, as I assumed most British sheets are born knowing that they will not be able to aspire to a life in the sun. Instead they must limit themselves to a more modest hope: perhaps a lucky day when they might stretch out within a massive tumble-drier all alone, not having socks or underwear bashing them in the face and guts.)

No, I moved to London for other reasons. But now that I have lived here for nearly two years I will admit that the clothes-drying solutions I have had to come up with have taken some getting used to. I can see why Grandad must have reached the end of his rope. In my Whitechapel flat I started drying my towels in an inexplicably hot storage closet. I could only wash one towel in any load, and then I'd hang it over the clothes-rail inside the roasting cupboard, returning to rescue it from an advanced stage of rigor mortis the next day. It seemed... unnatural.

After all sorts of imaginative responses to 'The English Laundry Predicament', I returned to Australia for a visit last month, stepping out of Sydney airport into one of those impossibly heavy 43-degree days. I had a thick black coat with me, and my suitcase was packed with clothes that had been dried in a Putney Laundromat. When we finally pulled up to the house, the first thing I saw was a fitting surprise organised by my Dad. There, strung up on our giant Hills Hoist, bearing the spray-painted inscription 'Welcome Home Sarah!', was a white bed-sheet waving and fluttering in the sunshine.

A sight like that must have been Grandad's dream.

NB: I guess I should point out that it is quite possible to hang things up outside in the UK Summer. Provided that you own an 'outside' to hang things up in, that is. I've come to the conclusion that British bed-sheet oppression has as much to do with living conditions as the vagaries of the weather. Of course that's not doing much to 'sell' London to my Australian nay-sayers. I've just pointed out that not only is the weather bad over here, a lot of people don't even have their own outside area from which to scowl at it.