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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Made in Missouri

Hey ladies (and fellas), I’ve got the best remedy for heartbreak/any kind of life crisis/a general sense of unrelenting boredom from your everyday existence. It’s called Missouri, and you want to go to there. Trust me.

When I was planning my Toronto escape route, I’d tell people about my impending trip to Missouri and would most often be met with a look of puzzlement and the inevitable question of “Missouri? Really? But why?”

I can’t pretend it’s a destination that’s always been on my must-see list. The truth is, a very good friend had recently relocated there from NZ to live with her US army boyfriend, and had yet to receive any visitors — despite brilliantly selling her new home with various facebook pics of guns, pickups and the wide-open roads of middle America.

It was certainly enough to lure me. With a blank slate and time on my hands, Missouri offered just the right amount of new, daring and exciting experiences — which partnered well with my freshly adopted attitude of ‘Fuck it, things can’t exactly get worse’.

So off I went, with very few expectations other than the prospect of getting to shoot a gun for the first time, ride on the back of a motorbike, and perv at a few muscly military men in the process.

Right from the start, it was apparent that I was entering foreign territory.

Crewcuts, camos, Cape Air and … me

When I originally booked my flight, I wasn’t aware that I’d be flying directly onto Fort Leonard Wood army base — but I soon figured it out when I saw both the size of the plane and the fact that all my fellow passengers were kitted out in uniform (I’m smart like that). Sure enough, just under an hour later I had been picked up and driven off the base, first having to show my ID at the gate (you have to be accompanied by someone from the army to be allowed access to the base) and getting a bewildered look when handing over my Ontario health card, which happened pretty much every time we crossed in or out. Sorry for puzzling you army dudes with wacky Canadian locales.

And so began my Missouri adventure. Day two saw a trip to Waffle House, home to everything good and greasy, including their famed hashbrowns (choose from smothered, covered, chunked, diced, peppered, capped, topped or country … just don’t ask me to explain what any of that means).

I can’t remember which version I chose, but I think it’s safe to say it was definitely ‘smothered’ in orange cheese.

And later, a visit to Walmart — which needs no introduction, except to add that I’m fairly sure having an entire section devoted to weaponry and ammo isn’t something you’re likely to find at a Canadian Walmart.

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Just some light reading on concealed weapons, tactical rifles and so on.

They also have multiple racks devoted solely to Duck Dynasty memorabilia, including lots of pink camo ladies’ hats. Meanwhile, over at another of Missouri’s top attractions, The World’s Largest Gift Store (their claim, not mine), aisle upon aisle of tacktastic products await the eager buyer. I’d been warned about the amazing selection of goodies, in particular the lineup of dazzling wolf tees (choosing which to buy was an especially tough decision), but the home decor section had to be seen to be believed. And yes, I am now a believer — that no home is complete without an Armadillo Wine Bottle Holder.

He knows how to unwind after a hard day’s work as an … armadillo cowboy?

When the excitement of Walmart and armadillos eventually wore off, it was decided a trip to Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede was in order. Because, after all, who doesn’t want to experience “The Most Fun Place to Eat!”? (Missouri loves its superlatives, apparently.) Plus, anything even loosely connected to Dolly has got my attention. Though the buxom blonde herself didn’t technically make an appearance in person, she did pop up on the big screen at the grand finale, belting out some patriotic tune that got the audience riled up.

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Um, only in America, I guess?

It’s hard to accurately describe the magic that is the Stampede, suffice to say a telling of the ‘birth of America’ and the Civil War through song, dance, trained buffalo and — wait for it — ostrich racing, plus a cutlery-free wild west-style dinner, makes for one very weird evening out. Weird, but definitely memorable.

Really, though, the highlight of my Missouri trip had to be the chance to get up close and (somewhat) comfortable with firearms. That was a pretty big deal, for someone generally terrified of everything that guns represent, and the indisputable fact that my holding one was putting the lives of everyone in my near vicinity in danger.

But once I’d gotten over the sheer strangeness of holding a gun, and once I’d managed to work out the best stance considering just how incredibly heavy they are (leaned up on a surface seemed to work best for me and my weakling arms), it was a real thrill to fire the thing. I was a pretty poor shot, initially. And I don’t think I ever successfully pulled the trigger without jumping with fright once it went. But at some point I managed to work out a good position to allow me to hit the target — sometimes even actually close to the centre.

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I wouldn’t normally advocate drinking and shooting, but among consenting adults in a fenced-off backyard, well that’s a fun Friday night if you ask me.

It must be said, firing off a round at a target that you may or may not be imagining is some particular person’s face is a really great way to unleash some pent-up rage. I highly recommend it.

So, Missouri shall remain a treasured memory, and I’ll be the first to sing its praises to anyone who’ll listen. But the truth is, what made the trip so fantastic was my amazing hosts — who spared no effort in showing me a bloody good time in the ‘Show Me’ state. Maybe it could have been some other slice of America in which I experienced so many firsts, but I know it wouldn’t have been quite the same. It’ll always be Missouri that helped unleash my inner redneck.

Stars ‘n’ stripes and Cracker Barrel. Does it get any better than this?

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The sound of silence: well worth the fifteen bucks

I think the gods may have finally heard my plea. “Please, powers above, let me not be seated next to any more screaming babies with a case of whooping cough; kids that haven’t yet grasped the concept of personal space and flail their bony arms about as they whine for attention; bratty boys that mindlessly yet repeatedly kick the back of my chair as they zone out to cartoons …”

I’m talking about the joys of flying with children, of course. Not my children (of which I have none) — just everyone else’s. I can’t tell you how many times in recent weeks I’ve uttered that silent prayer as I make the journey from the airport gate to my seat on the plane. And how many times my heart has sunk as the empty seats next to me are eventually taken by a parent and their child, or worse — two children in a row.

“Mummy, change the channel. I want to watch that show. No, the other one. The other one. Mummy, what are you doing? I don’t speak Icelandic! I want it in English!”

I’ve readily admitted that I would be happy to pay a little extra if it meant I could be seated a safe distance from the young and the restless.

Image: flyscoot.com

Do you like what they did there? I think these are my kind of people. (Image: flyscoot.com)

Well, now, it appears, I can. Scoot Airlines, the low-cost arm of Singapore Airlines, has introduced a ‘quiet zone’ — 41 seats at the front of the economy cabin where under-12s are not allowed. The aptly named ScootinSilence service comes at a price, of course, but at S$18 extra (£9, $15 CAD), it’s not too steep to put me off, plus comes with the bonus of an additional four inches of seat recline. I may not like paying more for checked luggage or onboard food, but to retain my sanity on a long-haul flight, I’m sold.

Apparently, Scoot isn’t even the first airline to go the child-free route. Other airlines including Malaysia and AirAsia X have been doing so for a while. Big ups Asia.

And let me just be clear: I don’t hate children. I understand that everyone’s got to get from A to B, including families with small kids. Hell, I appreciate that the real people that suffer are the parents themselves. It can’t be an easy task managing one or multiple offspring in a confined space for hours on end, and with the likes of grumpy old me giving them dirty looks and sighing heavily every time one of their kids squeals. So really, seating us apart is a win-win situation, right?

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Homie needs a home, yo

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I suppose this could work as a home …

Late nights and early mornings. To-do lists. Cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, sharpies. Packing tape. So much packing tape. Shitty packing tape that splits and tears and you can’t find the edge and it never sticks straight. DO NOT cheap out on packing tape. Take it from one who has, and lives to regret it.

This is my reality at the moment, tying up the loose ends on one life and making plans to start another. But in between Lani 1.0 and Lani 2.0 is a strange transit lounge of decision making, wandering and wondering. The truth is, I basically have no idea what I’m doing.

One thing I’m quite clear on is the fact that I’m about to be homeless. Soon I will hand over my keys to my landlord, close the door to my apartment, and officially have nowhere to live. It’ll just be me and my suitcase, constant companions for the next few months, sleeping on couches here and there and generally being a freeloader.

And though there’s a certain element of excitement that comes from that kind of freedom, I also can’t help but feel a bit uneasy with it all. I am connected to nothing and no one. I belong nowhere. I am like a little leaf, blown about directionless in a breeze. Or a bedraggled traveller, plodding aimlessly about an airport terminal. With too much time to kill till the next flight. Trying to decide to get food here or check out the offerings at LaGuardia. Which may or may not end up being a giant mistake but what the hell, airport food is pretty much universally terrible so maybe I’ll just wing it and see.

Update: Surprisingly decent mozzarella and tomato sandwich at LaGuardia. No ill effects felt. Unlike this unlucky dude who discovered a wee surprise inside his Atlanta airport sandwich.

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