Notes on a plane

Soooo I went on my trip. Like, four months ago. It was amazing and ridiculous and exhausting. Everything I wanted it to be, basically. And I fully intended — correction, intend — to include a couple of highlights of the adventure in this little blog. But life, as it does, swept me along and here we are. In December. Woah.

Anyway, the other day I came across some scrawlings I’d made in a notebook whilst up in the air, going slowly mental from lack of sleep and aircabin claustrophobia, and jotting down random thoughts — stream of consciousness style — collected from various flights. They are deeply profound. Here, as a way of easing myself back into writing, I share them with you.

  • Compression socks: are just really, really tight socks.
  • Compression socks: are impossible to put on whilst wearing skinny jeans. This requires an extremely awkward undressing manoeuvre in the plane toilet, which is probably more complicated to pull off than having sex in a plane toilet.
  • The dad in the front row has ordered his fourth JD and coke and is now past pretending not to notice his toddler leaning over the seats and poking the faces of the passengers behind, and is blatantly, boozedly, not noticing.
  • The 20-somethings in the exit row are also getting wasted. I thought one of them was doing that thing where you say something rude and disguise it as a cough, till I realised he just has a tourettes-style tic that involves coughing every fourth word. My bad.
  • I cannot get past $16,000 on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, my inflight entertainment of choice. It’s so frustrating. But probably more frustrating for the people behind me who can see my screen and watch me consistently bomb out over obscure general knowledge questions. Once, on a flight, I swear I got to $64,000. You don’t believe me. I should have taken a photo.

    Little_Dragon

    It’s just me and Little Dragon. Blah blah ‘cabin crew prepare for takeoff’ shhhhh.

  •  I’ve come up with my departure jam. I literally have it on repeat as soon as I’m seated and play it to zone out during the annoying period where you wait for everyone to get settled and the plane to take off. And, best part, it’s provided by the airline. Inflight entertainment wins again. Except when they rudely interrupt with various ‘important’ announcements. I promise to keep my seatbelt buckled like a good citizen as long as you wind this thing up in the next five seconds.
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Countdown to down south: roadtrippin’ USA

Is the best part of a holiday before you even leave? I don’t mean to put a damper on the actual going-away bit, but how great is taking three minutes out from your painful work day to daydream about that glorious upcoming vacation? Imagining the moment you step out of the office on your last day, forgetting all about the stack of to-dos scribbled on post-it-notes that have piled up on your desk. Knowing that soon you’ll be saying a sweet “Later y’all” to your jealous coworkers and the tedious dramas of the everyday grind. I like to help along that little fantasy with a visual aid. Behold:

countdown-calendar

Staring at this baby really helps me through the particularly trying workday period of 9am-5pm

Seventeen work days and counting, people. That’s when I’m saying a fond farewell to the wet and windy Melbourne winter and heading to the gorgeous paradise you see in the above pic — Key West. Yeah, I’ve been there seven times before but this time I’m bringing a posse of hot ladies with me. Look out KW, four Aussies, a Kazakh and a Kiwi will soon be descending on your fair shores, ready for cocktails, cuban food and all the goodness that the Conch Republic has to offer.

But the fun doesn’t end at Mile Zero. As a sort of sequel to our 2010 Euro Trip Extraordinaire, Sandra and I are also embarking on a three-week road trip around the southern US states. Four years older, absolutely none the wiser, we have no idea what’s in store for us but it should be pretty hilarious. We’ve got a rough itinerary, with plenty of room for spur-of-the-moment changes, which is a sensible way to do it, don’t you think? I mean, if the ruggedly handsome ranch hand/bartender we’ve recently befriended in a Tennessee back-country bar has an amazing insider tip on where we should detour to, who are we to ignore him? Yep, we’re leaving a lot to chance. But there are a few things I’m fairly sure will occur on this wee adventure, including the following:

  • We’re going to get   s  w  e  a  t  y.  We’ve chosen the peak of summer to head right down to the dirty, steamy south. I remember visiting Savannah, Georgia in May, and having to divide daily sightseeing duties into two parts, to allow for the requisite midday shower and change. So yeah, August? Moist. Thank Christ for American cars with jacked-up AC.
  • We’re going to see Elvis. Or, more accurately, many Elvises. Elvii? Our three-day stop in Memphis just happens to coincide with Elvis Week. I kid you not. A time when, apparently, thousands of die-hard Elvis fans including Elvis impersonators hit the city for an assortment of festivities. I don’t have any particular interest in Elvis, but dudes in bad wigs and tight white jumpsuits en masse is something I really, really need to see.
elvii

I wonder if there is a hierarchy of rhinestone bedazzlement …

  •  We will wait in long, long, long queues. But at least we’ll get to live out our witch/wizard fantasies. That’s right, our first stop after Key West is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and no, I feel no shame in admitting I am super stoked about it. I’m definitely buying a wand, and drinking a butterbeer, and riding the Hogwarts Express. And I will squash any irritating small child that gets in the way of any of those goals.
  • We will suffer many bad hangovers in New Orleans. I mean, it’s inevitable, right? We’re only there for four days, but I’m pretty sure that’s more than enough time to try our first Hurricanes, drink far too many Hurricanes, and then regret ever touching a Hurricane. Let the good times roll.
hurricane

My liver just cringed in advance

  •  We will get lost while driving. I should admit at this point that while we are taking a road trip, only one of us will actually be driving. And that will be Sandra. Due to my inability to operate any vehicles whatsoever, I will take on the very important responsibility of being the designated map reader. It’s an unfortunate situation — that the person with zero sense of direction will be in charge of directing us everywhere, but that’s why we’re smart and have added on GPS to our car hire. I am perfectly happy to be backup map-reader to a computer. Between the machine and me, I’m hoping to get lost only an average of four to five times.

 

 

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Alf, Murray and the Australian dream

I’ve thought a lot about Alf recently. Alf Stewart, that is, the Home and Away living legend.

Enjoying a pretty true blue Aussie experience, a couple of weeks ago I got to visit the lovely town of Echuca, on the banks of the Murray River. I stayed in an actual caravan park (so Home and Away), and even saw my first ever Gallas. You’d know what a Galla is if you watched Home and Away (or if you’re Australian). Previously, I’d only ever heard of them when uttered in the classic Alf expression “Flamin’ Gallah!” which Alf likes to throw around when confronted with Summer Bay idiots.

Back to Echuca, the town’s tourism website would like you to know that it’s home to the largest riverboat fleet in the world, and yes, I can confirm there were numerous paddlesteamers based at Echuca’s port. It also refers to the area as Echuca Moama — ‘twin towns’ on either side of the river, which I guess don’t individually warrant their own websites. Sorry about that E&M. The beautiful paddleboats conjure up images of ye-olde-yesteryear, and appropriately enough the historic port is bursting full of tourist-enticing attractions, including a blacksmith, woodturner, and even a giant log. No, seriously, it’s a really big log. Check it out:

Giant logIf you think that’s special, wait till you see the Thong Tree.

Thong tree

I don’t know how a thong tree comes into existence, but now that I’ve seen one in all its glory, I feel my life is a little more complete.

After we wandered around the port, we headed to what would be the main event of the day — watching the footy at the local pub. It was the first time I’d ever watched a game, so I had the enthusiasm of the uninitiated, helped along by a few beers, naturally. Most of the time I had no idea what was going on, but the players were pretty and I cheered along when appropriate. Except that time I realised I’d been backing the wrong team. Sang was a little unimpressed with that one. I also had to have her explain what ‘carn’ meant, as in, “Carn the Bombers!” (Come on, apparently.) Australia, you have much to teach me.

Something I’ve definitely learned to appreciate is the Aussie obsession with parmas. It’s basically a national dish, on every pub menu and served in an assortment of tasty options. At the American Hotel in Echuca (delightfully Australian despite its name), you can order the parma half-size, which is perfect for those that don’t want a coronary alongside their crumbed chicken and chips. Most parmas tend towards the size of a dinner plate, and that’s without sides.

Parma

With the footy and an hours-long spell at the pub checked off the list, it seemed time to enjoy some of Echuca’s other attractions, perhaps even get off my arse and maybe get close to nature. A stroll along the river reminded me that we were in ‘the country’, and that reminded me that I was in Australian country, and therefore dangerously close to all the potentially life-threatening creatures that inhabit said country. I’ll admit I’m kind of disappointed I didn’t see any whopping great spiders, but I did see a seriously oversized ant. It might not sound that impressive, but woah mama, I swear I nearly tripped over that beast.

We did see some of these, however.

Carp corpses

European Carp, strewn all over the sand along the river. It was freaky, they were EVERYWHERE. Many were still alive, little gills fruitlessly expanding and contracting. Some had no eyes — pecked out by birds, we guessed in moderate repulsion. Turns out these carp are considered serious pests, so much so that if you catch one you’re officially not allowed to return it to the water, or you face being fined. Bummer. For you and the carp.

On a happier note, Echuca really is beautiful. It’s a statement of the extremely obvious, but wow, Australia’s landscape is unique.

Echuca tree

It’s all dry and dusty, all muted tones of silver, orange and dull green. It’s an exciting feeling, being somewhere new, in new surroundings. Echuca was my first real taste of Australia outside of Melbourne, and I liked it. Yesterday I received my Medicare card, now I can say I’ve stayed in a caravan park. I’m crossing things off the Aussie checklist, and I think Alf would be proud.

 

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I live here now for now

I’ve been in Melbourne for three months. Am I fully assimilated? Pfft, hardly. I can’t imagine a haitch ever passing my lips intentionally and sometimes I have no idea what Australians around me are saying. I just nod and smile. But I have found it surprisingly straightforward, slipping into a new life. Melbourne, it turns out, is a very easy city in which to live.

Being a recent arrival, naturally I still find everything a bit weird and wonderful. And because I know that you value my insightful observations and social commentary highly, I will share some of my thoughts on life here in Melbourneo. Enjoy.

 

FLIESflies

Would I look weird if I started wearing one of those cork hats? Because I can really appreciate the logic in them now. Australian flies are persistent. They do laps around your skull as you walk down the street, and no amount of awkward arm flailing deters them. Just when you think you’ve lost the bastard, you stop at the street lights and bingo, he’s back, uncomfortably close to your nostrils. Does this fly actually just want to burrow into my head, I wonder, as I attempt to not look bothered that I’m feeling like a walking pile of fly-attracting shit. If I just resisted, would he buzz straight into my ear and make a cosy home in the soft tissue of my brain? And so on. I’ve yet to find an answer to any of these pressing matters.

 

TV MOVIES

But not just any old TV movies. TV movies about real Australians. Aussie semi-celebs, I guess. I don’t know what’s up, but when I first moved here two networks were head to head in an epic TV movie battle. The contenders? INXS vs Schapelle Corby, the latter of whom will probably mean little to anyone outside of Aus or NZ. But trust me, her story is juicy. Both were scheduled to air on the same night. What to do? How to choose?? I went with Schapelle, because I do love a good drug-smuggler scandal. Plus, points for being topical as this was timed to screen just before her release from Bali jail. If I’m honest I only watched the first 15 minutes and it was SO, SO BAD. But in a hilarious way. So, to sum up, Australian TV is fairly abysmal but I probably needed to spend less time in front of the box anyway, so it’s all good.

 

pasty

TANNED PEOPLE

Right, so I am super pasty basically all of the time. And I guess I’m okay with that (I’m not really, I have lately become dangerously fond of spray tans). But considering I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy what’s been essentially three summers in a row, I’m still an annoyingly unexciting shade of freckly off-white. And this is probably the most tanned I’ve been all my life. I look at myself in the mirror and think, ‘yeah, not bad. Go forth, bronzed one’. And then I step outside. There are lots of people of Mediterranean descent here in Melbourne, who, at their palest, will always be seven shades darker than me. I give up.

 

HEATWAVES

How boring is it to talk about the weather? Let’s find out. I thought Toronto got pretty steamy. I recall a day a couple of years ago when it reached 51 degrees (with the all-important humidex, that is. Humidex sounds so nerdy, I love it). That was … interesting. But I have to say Melbourne’s recent record-breaking four-day spell of 40+ degree temps was a whole new, terrifying experience. At first it was a novelty. By day three I was set up five inches from the fan, with a bag of frozen peas on each foot and splashing myself from my glass of iced water every 2.5 minutes. Day four, by which point my blood had reached boiling point, saw me cab it over to Sandra’s where I camped out on the couch in her living room — the only room in the house that had AC — in order to get some sleep for a job interview the next day. That night came the ‘cool change’, a phenomenon I remember my sister telling me about when she lived over here, and which I always thought sounded pretty hilarious and typically colloquial. Now, I’m the cool change’s number-one fan. I felt it literally drop ten degrees in about half an hour, and that was the best half-hour of my life, no lie.

 

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The year of unexpected travels

In 2013 I went on 26 individual flights. That might add up to a sizeable carbon footprint, I guess, but I’m no frequent flying corporate executive, so I figure it doesn’t really count.

2013_graphic

I love to travel as much as I can (most of us do, after all), but after my big NZ trip in March, I thought I was pretty much done for the rest of the year. Just shows how you never know what’s waiting for you round the corner. My way of dealing with a major life change? Make a large dent in the savings account and go on a ‘journey of self-discovery’. Or, more accurately, a journey of eating, drinking, merriment and serious distraction. It worked. I lived. I may now be a wee bit further away from any grownup life goals like a deposit on a house, but that’s a reality I’m okay with.

Now, eight months on, I’m ready to sort-of, maybe, almost plant my feet down for a spell. I picked an entirely new place to live, and I’m here, in a new flat, with new roommates, on a new, shitty Ikea mattress on the floor (just me, not the roommates). I think I’ll like Melbourne. I hope it likes me.

I — and my savings plan — never dreamed 2013 would be a year of so much travel, but I can only look back and be grateful I had the chance to go at all. It was a pretty spesh journey all up, and, while I might not have achieved as much as that crazy dude who just got back from visiting every country in the world WITHOUT using planes, I had me some times.

Things I won’t forget in a hurry:

  • Learning to shoot a gun! (And immediately prior to that, learning how to hold a gun, and prior to that, be in the same room as a gun without having a panic attack.)
  • Late-night truck rides across the country roads of Middle America, music a-blaring.
  • Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede
  • Getting my first (and last?) tick bite.
  • Look, basically everything about Missouri.
  • Pulling an all-nighter on my first night in London, after already involuntarily pulling an all-nighter on the plane ride over from Toronto. That’s a double-all-nighter. Or an all-double-nighter. You decide.
  • Winning the top-secret Hint Hunt challenge in London with mere seconds to spare.
  • The most amazing panna cotta I’ve ever eaten in Umbria.
  • Sampling tasty deep-fried zucchini flowers courtesy of Miss Elektra.
  • Look, basically all the food in Italy.
  • Losing my wallet, my camera, and possibly my mind in Barcelona.

2014, you’ve got some big shoes to fill.

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Beauty, beaches and bastard burglars. Welcome to Barcelona.

barca

Barcelona provides the perfect combo of old-school charm and tropical party town

Call me a statistic. I have joined the ranks of the unlucky thousands (millions, maybe?) who’ve fallen prey to the uber-talented street thieves of Barcelona. I’m actually in awe of them. They are that good. Not that I presented much of a challenge, of course. I was probably Level One Training Exercise material. With my zipper-less handbag. Trying to carry too much stuff. Attempting to read a map on the train in from the airport. Ding ding ding, come and get me!

It was still a shock, though. Fresh off the plane from London, we were deeply engrossed in our map reading, trying to figure out which subway route to take to our apartment. And along came ‘Mr Helpful Spanish Gentleman’, who we now know to be ‘Mr Sneaky Conniving Thief’. As he generously suggested new routes to take, his two cohorts, standing obviously, uncomfortably close to me, did their bit. Not that I knew it was happening at the time, although as I did mention to Caroline, mere seconds after they disembarked, “Those guys were standing weirdly close. Strange, right?” and I’d even moved my handbag closer to my body, away from them. Of course, by that stage, they’d already taken the goods. Bastards! Fast-moving, professional bastards! I didn’t feel a thing. Applause.

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Catalonia represent

Barcelona was an … interesting trip. It almost felt from the get-go like something was a little off. I mean, even before the wallet-stealing incident, we nearly didn’t make our departing flight. The train we were due to take in London was delayed, so we had to grab a taxi. And, as anyone who knows London traffic will attest, taking a cab is no guarantee of any kind of arrival. It definitely got a bit hairy. We caned it from the cab to the train which would take us to the airport, and, during our power-sprint, I lost my Oyster card which I’d haphazardly shoved in my pocket instead of packing away properly in my wallet. Oh well, no huge loss, right? Yeah, especially not, seeing as I’d be due to lose my wallet anyway in about three hours’ time.

The wallet, though — not that much of a big deal. I had about five quid in there (enjoy, assholes) but I did have a lot of keepsakes, which I’ve now learned are best kept safely at home. And the wallet itself was a treasured 30th birthday gift from a friend. But in the grand scheme of things, it was something I was prepared to get over.

Two days later, however, and my camera? Well, that was a different story. This little blue Canon point-and-shoot, that had accompanied me on so, so many journeys, lost on the streets of Barcelona. That was a real blow. I felt it. I mourned that camera. My heart ached, knowing it was out there, abandoned, alone. It was fucking ridiculous. I knew this, and I really, really tried. But after this shitty year and the wallet … and now this? This was a struggle.

Poor Caroline. She worked her hardest to drag me out of my pathetic, hungover state. I was irrationally upset. I did cry, I’ll admit. I yelled out, to no one but the thin walls of our apartment. Then, I got over it. We had a beach to see. And no ordinary beach — this was Sitges, a glorious paradise one half-hour train trip out of the city that promised white sand and turquoise sea and the decadent freedom that only a southern European coastal city can.

sitges

Aaah, Sitges. You make everything better.

There were many topless ladies. And speedo-wearing, fat-bellied men. It was glorious. We splurged and paid for two deck chairs and an umbrella. It was that kind of day. We felt reckless. We deserved it. It was amazing. The sea, I’ve learned, will cure not only any hangover, but any depressive state, too. Dunk your head in and let go. Swim out to the horizon. Then turn back, squint into the sun, trying to figure out where to swim back to. You’ll be about 50 metres off, guaranteed. That’s okay.

The Barcelona madness didn’t end there. Our last night out we wandered the streets by our apartment trying to find a decent tapas bar. We hadn’t even had good tapas yet, you see. Tapas in Barcelona! Mandatory. And as a pre-dinner show, have you ever heard the sound of a person being hit by a car? We did, that night. A very loud, sudden smack, in case you were wondering. Smack probably doesn’t do it justice. A bloody great bang, is more appropriate. One that causes everyone in the vicinity to stop suddenly.

Passersby rushed towards the accident, myself included, though Caroline yelled for me to stop. “You don’t want to see it!” she warned, pulling me back. She’d been traumatised by a recent viewing of a cyclist killed in London traffic. But I think you can’t control these things. Not the first time. It was the adrenaline. I had to see. Even if I didn’t really want to. It was a guy on a motorbike, who’d been hit by a taxi as it pulled out suddenly. I saw him sit up, and heard the sirens of the ambulance draw near. And that was enough. I don’t know if he made it, but I left before finding out. I’d gathered my senses by that point to realise it was probably best not to know.

Continuing our hunt for tapas — because shock needs feeding after all, and we’d basically learned to ‘Surrender All’ to the mysterious forces of Barcelona — where did we end up? Some dodgy, back alley venue which served up a friendly waiter but some seriously sub-standard tapas. I’m talking deep fried, stodgy, packet-type fare. Patatas bravas with a squeezy sauce. But that wasn’t even the highlight. Turns out we had arrived just in time for a lovers’-quarrel-turned-punch-up. And one that involved not just the starring roles but anyone who happened to be in a one-metre radius.

Chairs were knocked over, fists were flying. We hid inside, and went out again once the drama passed. Then, it happened again. And again. We asked our waiter in a panic, as we abandoned our food and huddled by the bar, what the hell was going on. He tried to explain that this was, in fact, a regular occurrence. This woman, well, her girlfriend left her for a man, and the man happened to frequent this part of town. Like, most nights. And every night she would turn up and cause trouble. It was a sort of tragic melodrama, repeated frequently and for which the locals barely blinked an eye. We, however, were undeniably rattled. We tried to tell the waiter what a weird night we’d already had. “A man, we just saw a man get hit by a car!” He didn’t understand. Lost in translation. It seemed appropriate, actually. The crazy shitshow that Barcelona had put on was apparently just for us. What a treat.

It must be said, however, that I’d return in a heartbeat. Never have I had such an unexpected, eventful four days. Never have I had to surrender myself completely to the whims of the universe and chance and just plain bad luck. There’s something freeing about saying, “Fuck it. Bring it on. Show me your weirdness in all its glory” and living to tell the tale.

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Another perfect sunset over beautiful Barcelona rooftops

None of this put me off this city. In fact, quite the opposite. I’m dying to get back and accept the challenge of not being ripped off. I’ll remember all these crazy things, but also the beautiful towering palm trees that intersperse the grand, ancient buildings. The winding alleyways that lead to cobbled plazas. The scorching, late September heat. The stunning beaches. The midnight mojitos.

Oh yes, Barcelona. I’ll be back. Maybe with a money belt, strapped under my t-shirt, like a full-on paranoid travel nerd. And my camera cord wrapped tightly round my wrist. Maybe I won’t drink so much that I don’t even remember where I put my camera at all, let alone how I got home. Yeah, that’s my plan. Be ready for me.

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Wine pumps: best idea ever? Yes. The answer is yes.

Further proof that Italians own it when it comes to la dolce vita: you can buy cheap — and more importantly, good — wine from an establishment that is essentially a gas station. That’s right, people, grab a 20-litre drum and form an orderly queue. This is what I’m talking about:

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Fill ‘er up, kind winery attendant

It may be petrol-yellow in tint but that right there is sweet, sweet wine. A grechetto, in fact, at the ridiculously wallet-friendly rate of €1.30 per litre. As long as you can get past the less-than-glamourous aspect of hauling your wine home in a giant plastic container, you’re set to have a very good time at a very good rate.

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Behold the giant vats

Cantina Tudernum, located just at the base of Todi along the famous Tiber Road, is a cooperative winery that’s been around since 1958. Grapes from 350 associated cultivators from the surrounding area are used to create numerous types of wine, including four classics of Umbria: Orvieto Classico DOC, Grechetto di Todi DOC, Rosso di Montefalco DOC and Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCG.

Of course, wine is sold in the traditional manner, ie. glass bottles, too, but what can beat watching this kind of action while simultaneously getting a fantastic bargain:

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I’m liking that prezzo

Frankly, it’s a bit of a show. And it’s awesome.

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Wine pumps in all their stainless steel glory

Once you get home, you’ll probably want to bottle it up anyway, but that just adds to the whole DIY wino experience. Maybe make it a real party and create your own labels, too.

It’s these kind of life-changing experiences that cause you to re-examine certain things. Like, why do I have to settle for paying $15-$20 per bottle for a decent wine back home, in the ‘real world’? Why am I not developing biceps from constantly lugging plastic drums to and from my car? And what other exciting uses could I find for such incredibly cheap booze? Bathe in the stuff? Water the plants?

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Until next time, Tudernum

Probably just as well I don’t have easy access to this service. I’m sure my liver is thanking me. In the meantime, big shout-out to Tudernum for keeping the locals well-liquored in such a novel way.

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