Sunday, 27 September 2009

Goldfish


Unlike the relatively civilised evening we had this Friday, last Friday we'd arranged a 2 for 1 cocktails night in King's Cross, a far less 'salubrious' part of town! It's all my fault really, as I'd spotted the 2 for 1 offer in my monthly email from Time Out, and as I've been getting a taste for cocktails lately, figured it was worth a go!

So me, K and various work related pals headed along straight from work to "Goldfish", a fairly dark and dingy spot on the main drag in "The Cross" as it's affectionately known round here.

Unfortunately they didn't seem prepared for a deluge of people demanding cheap cocktails as there was only one barman and at least 12 of us, which meant that it took a LONG time for us to get served - especially as he wasn't the quickest cocktail maker in the world. An extra touch of class was added by the plastic glasses that everything was served in - haven't had that experience since living in Glasgow!!

Still, it was all good fun and the cocktails were actually pretty good - a wide selection and at $7 (£3.50) each, you really can't complain. The special offer finished at 9pm at which point we ended up ygoing for a burger, before hitting another bar for possibly one or two drinks too many...

Sailor's Thai

Two unusual things happened this Friday night - 1. I went to the gym after work instead of going straight to the pub 2. by the time I got to the pub at 7ish, the decision had been made to go for a meal instead of carrying on drinking.

That's how we ended up in Sailor's Thai, a fantastic thai restaurant tucked inside The Rocks, one of the main tourist spots in Sydney and not where you'd expect to find such a great place.

The dining format is a long table where people are fitted in where there's room, so not really intimate but very efficient! There were four of us and we shared plates. We had stir fried fish, green papaya salad, spicy rice balls and marinated whole trout, all served with steamed rice and a bottle of pinot noir. Every dish was excellent and far more interesting than the usual green curries and chilli jam stir fries of the average Thai meal here - that's not to denigrate them, as the standard is generally really good, but just to say that Sailor's Thai is a real cut above the norm. I was still remembering the flavours the next morning and will definitely go back - top marks!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Life on Mars


Woke up at 6.45am today wondering what the strange orange glow in our bedroom was. Looked outside and wondered if armageddon had come overnight. This was our Martian landscape this morning - and still like that now at 10.30am here.

A huge dust storm is passing up the east coast of Australia, bringing with it red dust all the way from the Northern Territory and South Australia (thousands of miles away). Ferries are cancelled, I'm working from home as didn't want to get my hair all dusty on the walk in to my office, the air is heavy with dust and even inside my eyes are tickling. Quite surreal.

More pictures here.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Generation Game

A quirky feature of Australian life (compared to the UK) is a slight obsession with the characteristics and trends of different 'generations'. Although I had a slight awareness before coming here that demographers talked about things like baby boomers and generation x, I'd never really taken it particularly seriously and would certainly have struggled to place myself or anyone I know in a generational pigeon hole.

Here, hardly a day goes by without another media article about the unique features & challenges faced by Generation Y or the clash of interests between Baby Boomers and their 'Gen Y' offspring. References to different demographic generations are scattered throughout daily conversation. Everybody happily slots everyone else into their preconceived place.

It's so much of a 'thing' here that I've actually had to find out what the different labels mean and who they're supposed to refer to! I had no idea that I was in Generation X, along with K (we both just scrape in at either end of the 'early 1960s to late 1970s' span of this particular generation. Although it seems I might also be on the cusp of Generation Y but as everyone here seems to strongly dislike Gen Y, I might self-select into X!! Apparently we tend to be economically and politically individualistic, technologically adept, flexible, interested in work-life balance, distrustful of authority and are all in the habit of sleeping together before we get married.

I reckon it's all a bit silly, however it seems we're now onto Generation Z - which begs the question - what comes next?!

Sydney Half Marathon


Up at 6am (yuck) for half marathon, thankfully the start line is only 5 mins from the flat! Didn't get as much sleep last night as I'd have liked (less than 6 hours) and only managed to grab a slice of melon & some water for breakfast, so not as well fuelled as I'd normally like to be before running 13 miles!

Still, the pale early morning sun gave the harbour a beautiful calm and pearly sheen and as I had Muse's new album on my iPod ready for a first listen, I was quite looking forward to the race.

Started ok as we headed over the harbour bridge and into the city. Felt I was going a little too quickly so tried to pull back a bit as the km's passed by. Despite the early start, it was still a warm morning and so I took advantage of every water station, taking on lots of water, sports drink when it was offered and a few cups of water over my head to keep me cool. Got to the 1/3 stage at 7km quite comfortably but the middle stretch was a bit less enjoyable. Started to feel hungry and slightly weak and my old left pelvis-hip injury started to twinge a bit at around 11km, which had me feeling like it was going to be a long run-in.

Thankfully the second half of the course is more downhill than up - not that there were any horror hills anywhere, but still, every little helps. Got to the 2/3 mark at 14km feeling like I was through the hardest bit, the pain in my left leg had eased off a little and I was just about managing to stay on track for my target time of 1h50m.

By the time the last 3 or 4kms came round, I was feeling pretty good and as the course reached its final few kms weaving round the harbour foreshore, I started to put my foot down a little bit, getting to the finish line in 1.49.22 - very pleased with that, especially as at 11km I'd pretty much told myself to forget my time goal!

A special thanks to the Muse boys for both the new album (first two listens = thumbs up) but also for old classic Plug In Baby which gave me a real energy boost at the end!

All in all, not the most comfortable race I've ever done and I think a few more long runs in training and more strength / core training sessions would have helped, especially with the pelvic injury - my whole left leg is hurting quite badly now! But still, not bad to come in 429th of 2811 female racers!

How best to "intervene"?


This post has been updated to rectify some factual inaccuracies pointed out to my by a reader – thank you Bob.

I’ve just read an article from the UK about a comment made by the CEO of Barnardo’s that we should think about taking more children into care when they’re babies, to prevent them being damaged beyond repair by people who don’t want to, or can’t be effective parents. This appears to be at least partially in response to the recent case of torture, assault and sexual abuse of two boys by two other boys aged 10 and 12, who apparently come from a “terminally dysfunctional” family.

The issues this raises are similar to, at least in part, to those raised by a feature of Australian society that doesn’t get talked about much, but is quite startling when you find out about it – “The Intervention”. I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while…

The Intervention was / is an ‘emergency response’ by the Australian government to a report into child abuse in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory (NT). By way of a quick overview, the NT covers a vast area and has a small and scattered population. It’s six times the size of Britain with a population of only 220,000 (about the same as Aberdeen or other small cities). Following European ‘settlement’ 200+ years ago and the resulting dispossession, mass slaughter and general destruction of way of life of the indigenous population that had lived there for the previous 40,000 years, some redress of a kind took place when vast tracts of land were granted back to their traditional communities, and aboriginal townships and settlements now dot the NT. (As a side comment, it’s worth noting that around a third of indigenous Australians live in remote and rural areas, compared to 14% of all Australians, but that almost a third live in urban centres – not relevant to this discussion, but a little known fact…)

Anyway, skipping ahead to a few years ago, and the emergence of major allegations of widespread child sexual abuse, coupled with concerns about levels of welfare dependency and alcoholism, and the breakdown of traditional cultural norms and values in indigenous communities. The resulting report, The Little Children are Sacred, catalogued some very horrible and disturbing stuff, which seemed to indicate that many of the concerns were justified. So the question then was what to do about is? (Which is where I’m reminded of the issue by the Barnardos comments).

The then government’s response has been widely reported as ‘calling in the army’, although what this means in practice has been unclear and has apparently been restricted to logistical support rather than a ‘policing’ function. In addition, anti-discriminiation legislation has been suspended to enable ‘welfare quaranting’ of benefits paid to indigenous people in around 70 proscribed communities’ in the NT. There have also been bans on the of alcohol in indigenous communities, and pornography filters placed on public computers. On a less punitive note, there has been additional investment into, and policy prioritising around increasing school attendance rates and providing new community-based services.

I’d love to say that the Intervention has been controversial in Australia, but in truth, I’ve barely heard an Australian mention it. The outback of the NT might as well be on a different planet to urbanised Sydney and I’ve blogged before on the, at best, amazing levels of indifference to indigenous Australians, and at worst, blatant racism.

The Intervention has, however, been controversial to the indigenous population (numbering nearly 500,000 in total), with some polarised views on both sides. Some indigenous leaders and spokespeople have welcomed aspects of it, mainly it seems because some action is better than nothing, and there has been some extra funding for projects and programs as a result. Female community elders have been quoted talking about the benefits of alcohol bans (although note that many indigenous communities had become ‘dry’ through self-determination anyway), and have welcomed the ‘income management’ policy of quarantining welfare payments for use on food and essential items only. Others, however, including many indigenous people, Amnesty and the UN, have heavily criticised the whole approach, condemning it as racist and as a blunt tool to try to shape new community developments.

It’s a thorny set of issues, but I think the following from Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) sums it up well:
“ANTaR has no problem about governments intervening when children are at risk – indeed they would be negligent not to (and have been ignoring the problems in Indigenous communities for decades) so we want to see the national government stay engaged, commit far more resources to the Northern Territory, and across the nation, to help address the massive problems confronting Indigenous communities, to address the huge backlogs in housing, health programs, education and other community services which other Australians take for granted.

But we want to see this engagement on a different footing: one which respects the human rights of everyone; one which engages Indigenous people in a partnership of equals, not a disrespectful dictatorial situation; we want to see measures which respond to behaviours, not racial categories (so case-by-case income management may be legitimate, but not as a blanket policy); one which builds Indigenous capacity for genuine self-determination and sustainability of better functioning communities.

Governments must work with communities for the long haul, to explore with them the options for their development, opportunities for their young people, and for enabling them to stay on their country with a reasonable range of services and some hope and sustainability for the future.”

Which brings me back to Barnardo’s CEO and his views that removing children from their homes and, presumably either plonking them into nice middle class families or looking after them in one of his charity’s homes, would be a good way to tackle the problems of poor parenting and damaged children.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the kinds of communities I suspect he has in mind when he talks about families that can’t be fixed – this isn’t explicit in his comments, but I think we can all assume he doesn’t see a great problem with child protection and ‘broken families’ in the middle classes. I know first-hand how desolate ‘disadvantaged’ communities can be. Two or three generations of people in families who’ve never had a job, or any expectation of one; no money coming in apart from the dole; drugs everywhere; no shops apart from the chippy, the bookie, the offy and the corner shop, not a bit of fresh food for miles; crap schools and crap housing. Kids being born to people who are still kids themselves and haven’t had any role models to help them be parents.

It isn’t really a surprise that we’ve got dysfunctional families in places like these, but is taking children out of their homes on a bigger scale than we already do, really the answer? Are we just going to write off a whole generation of new parents because they didn’t have the parenting or education or chances that most of us take for granted and are simply repeating patterns they’ve learned? How about we actually get in there and try to do something a bit more useful, like creating new jobs for people living in communities where there’s 50% unemployment, instead of weeping and wailing about the Global Financial Crisis and how much value it’s wiped off our nice pensions and houses? How about we invest in high quality childcare and education, how about we start designing social housing so that we don’t just dump all the poor people in huge, out of sight, out of mind, peripheral housing schemes with no transport, no fresh food, no jobs nearby, no decent schools, no nothing. How about we stop punishing people for being born poor. How about we try to give people some hope, something to aim for, some ambitions?

Of course, children need to be protected and of course, sometime, that means removing them from their parents. But that has to be a last resort and surely, as with the Australian NT Intervention, we need to be getting a lot more inventive about preventing yet another generation being lost to poverty instead of resorting to blunt social control tactics which are just a slippery slope to a nasty, nasty world where we’ve de-humanised whole swathes of the population.

Monday, 7 September 2009

In defence of jaywalking


As any Facebook friends will know, last week I had an encounter with the Australian nanny state that left me pretty pissed off. What happened? Well, I crossed a road, having checked both ways for traffic and making sure it was safe. But oh no, that’s not good enough here:

In Australia it is illegal to start crossing the road at an intersection when a pedestrian light is red or flashing red. If no such pedestrian light exists, the traffic lights are used, making it illegal to proceed on green or orange. Furthermore it is illegal to cross any road within 20 metres of an intersection with pedestrian lights or within 20 meters of any pedestrian crossing (including a zebra crossing, school crossing or any other pedestrian crossing). However laws against jaywalking are rarely enforced, with the exception of the occasional police 'blitz' on jaywalking for a week or so at a time, when the laws are enforced more stringently. Some roads, such as roads with a record of pedestrian accidents, feature fences in their centres to discourage pedestrians, but there is no law against traversing them.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaywalking


Two policemen stopped me and advised me that I’d broken the law and were about to slap a $60 fine on me. Thankfully I managed to plead ignorance – and my accent helped! But it really infuriated me. Apparently the laws are very rarely enforced here, apart from occasional 'crackdowns' which are obviously just a revenue-raising exercise. Talk about a tax on common sense.

I can’t find any evidence anywhere that “jaywalking” leads to increased accidents or injuries to pedestrians or that countries that have anti-jaywalking laws have lower injury or death rates. But intuitively it seems to me that if you take away people’s right to make an informed judgment of speed and distance, then they’re going to lose those skills pretty quickly (or indeed, may never develop them). And if you treat people like idiots, they tend to act like them.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Different sides to Sydney


I’ve been on my travels this week and will be finishing off the week with a trip to Melbourne. The last three days have involved three very different sides to Sydney and its hinterland.

Monday – Campbelltown. A “rough” area to the south west of Sydney, about 90 mins drive from the centre, characterised by high unemployment, lots of public housing and high levels of crime, drug use and so on. The sad moment of the day was when my colleague pointed out the large pub across the road from the court house, which apparently does a roaring trade in people drinking their last beer before going for sentencing and throwing their last few dollars in the ‘pokie’ machines (games machines, which loads of pubs here have huge rooms full of).

It’s several degrees warmer inland there than it is on the coast, which gets pretty suffocating in summer. The breezy glamour of Sydney Harbour seems a world away.

I was there because we’re setting up a new social enterprise to help local people get work in the trades by carrying out repairs and maintenance contracts for the Department of Housing, and I spent the morning in the local civic centre, meeting some of the people we hope to create jobs for. As always, it was good to be ‘on the frontline’ to remind myself why I do what I do. We had a great turnout and the room was full of people who want to work, have lots to offer, need a bit of support, but most of all need to be given a chance – and I’m really glad we’re able to do that.

Tuesday – Nowra. Nowra is a three hour drive from Sydney on the South Coast. It’s in an area of high unemployment, but is itself a pretty little place with beautiful surroundings. It’s a popular destination for ‘sea changers’, people who choose to move from the city for a lifestyle change, and for rich Sydneysiders with weekend homes (which inevitably prices the local population out of the housing market). If Australian culture and social attitudes generally feel like Britain in the 1970s, then Nowra is more like Britain in the 1950s (as I’m led to believe it was anyway!) Old fashioned, socially conservative and claustrophobic. It’s the kind of place where you imagine people still tut about single mothers. Mind you, I realise as I write this that there are plenty of places in Britain where that still happens.

Wednesday – the heart of the CBD. Today I spent my day in the glitzy heart of the CBD (Central Business District), rubbing shoulders with the city slickers that knock around the financial centre here. Suits, ties, lip gloss and spiky heels as far as the eye can see, more skinny double shot cappuccinos than you can shake a stick at, towering glass buildings everywhere and an army of low paid workers servicing the whole shebang.

This post doesn’t really have a point other than as a vague musing on how communities segregate the way they do. The image at the top is a visual representation of this, sourced from the Centre of Full Employment and Equity, which shows the relative vulnerability of different areas to rising unemployment. The dark blue areas are those, like the ones I live and work in, which are populated by people with good qualifications, working in secure jobs. The red and amber areas are those like the ones I visited earlier this week where people have casual, low paid work if they’re lucky, have much lower levels of education and qualifications, and are the first to lose their jobs when recessions hit. I very much doubt this picture will have changed much by the time the next recession comes around. Some might say who cares, but I find it hard to accept that a child born in a ‘red’ area will have significantly fewer opportunities than one born in a ‘blue’ one.

Thoughts and comments welcome as always…

Monday, 31 August 2009

Beer & wine makes you feel fine


Some of you might not believe this, but last week as an unusually alcohol-based week for me.

Mon & Tues I spent pretty much recovering from last weekend's excesses, which combined with a heavy workload, left me feeling pretty sluggish for the early part of the week. But by Wednesday, I'd got back into the swing of things and was very much ready for taking part in the informal book club I've become part of. It's more of a dinner & chat club than a book club, to be honest, but it's great fun and I've picked up a few books from it that I've enjoyed. We were round at my friend E's on Wed night for a lovely roast chicken, veg & potato dinner, followed by a gorgeous chocolate & mandarin cake (all home made). Yum. And obviously a few glasses of wine helped to wash it all down.

On Thurs, K and I joined another couple, L & P, at a 'boutique beer tasting' evening fundraiser for Sydney Children's Hospital. To be honest, I was only there for the beer tasting as I'm not a big fan of fundraising events, and I'm especially not that keen on the whole 'tugging the heart strings' approach for children's medical care, which in my mind shouldn't really be funded through charity in the first place (but that's probably a whole other blog...) This one was particularly toe-curling, especially as for some reason, the organisers thought it would be a GREAT idea to have a) extended speeches and b) an auction right in the middle of the whole thing. Note to fundraisers - either get the formalities over with at the beginning or leave them till the end, but never get between a thirsty crowd and their beers!

After my weekly day 'off' on Fri, which admittedly this week did involve me staying in my pyjamas till about 3pm (although I did also do lots of research into my potential career change...), I went for a run and then met up with K and his work pals in the pub (the Bavarian Beer Cafe, continuing the week's theme really). We grazed on pork crackling, sausages and the like, eventually taxi-ing home some time around 11ish.

Sat was a quiet one - we were supposed to be having dinner with friends but that was cancelled due to illness - and we couldn't even be bothered going to the cinema!

And finally, Sunday rolled around, a beautiful day albeit with a bit of a cool wind. K was up bright and early, induced by a state of anxiety about the Man Utd - Arsenal game and a need to get up and find out the result. They won = K good mood = good day for me! We thought we should probably do something with the day, so we headed over to Watson's Bay, a v pretty spot, and had lunch at Doyle's, a "Sydney institution". We'd not been before and weren't sure if we'd get in without a booking, but we did, and it was very nice, although definitely a premium price paid for the "institution" status and the views out across the harbour. The fish and chips was good, but not sure it was $40 worth of good. I had lots of good intentions about only having one glass of wine with lunch, but K was a bad influence on me (honest guv!) and we ended up splitting a bottle. We strolled around the head for half an hour or so after lunch, then ended up having a few afternoon beers before catching the ferry back to our place. All in all, a lovely Sydney day, and great to feel summer just around the corner.

Have got a fairly full-on week at work this week, lots of travelling and my regular freelancing gig on my 'day off', so suspect there will be far less beer and wine and feeling fine this week!

Monday, 24 August 2009

Manly and many beers


Writing this on Monday after a weekend of excess - I'm definitely too old for this as feel shattered and it's only Monday!

After a busy & active week last week (lots of running, lots of work, some non-work fun), Friday evening rolled around and I was happy to be catching up with some pals from the temp job I did when I first got to Oz. We went to a city centre piano bar, which was very plush and pleasant and all very civilised. Then after a few drinks we met up with K who was on a night out with some work pals, and after a few more drinks (outside, with no heaters on - summer is here!), decided that really we needed some food and found ourselves in Chinatown ordering plateloads of very hot and spicy food at about 10.30 - classy!

Home on the train and in bed by about midnight, but no rest really for the wicked as we were up quite early Saturday to head over to Manly (2 ferry trips away) for a day of decadence with some more friends, starting with champagne brunch, followed by a bit of a pub crawl. In the end, we only made it to one pub and stayed there all afternoon and much of the evening! It was a very good pub though, the Four Pines, with its own microbrewery and some very lovely beers. Some of our party opted for the tasting rack featured above, but I wasn't feeling hardy enough for that!

Rolled onto the ferry about 11pm and although didn't feel too bad yesterday, was just absolutely bushwhacked. Currently debating whether to go for an overdue run - but the couch is looking very tempting!

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Harbourview Hotel

Tip for anyone in Sydney. The Harbourview Hotel in the Rocks does 2 for 1 cocktails all evening on Wednesdays and they're really pretty good! Few of us went there this week, it got busy from about 6ish but was quite easy to get a table. The setting's pretty nice, nestled right at the south foot of the bridge with trains trundling overhead and the water beyond. They do reasonable food and it's only 5 mins walk from Circular Quay...

"Blindsight", Maurice Gee

Also just finished reading this novel by New Zealand author Maurice Gee. The story centres around an elderly 'down and out' and his sister's complicated relationship with him. It's largely told through her experiences and perspective, prompted by a young man appearing in her life looking for his long lost grandfather (the brother).

Although some of the writing in this was excellent, and the sister is well-drawn as a character, I found the rest of it quite weak. There is a 'twist' at the end that I thought was unnecessary and seemed to jar with the rest of the novel and the characters. As a thought-provoker about why some people end up on the streets and cut off from mainstream life, it was okay, but a bit on the simplistic side. 5 out of 10.

"Dreams from my father", Barack Obama

Have just finished reading this book, which is Obama's first book, written before he got into formal politics and just after he finished Harvard Law School. It's an exploration of race issues in America, seen through the prism of several key phases and experiences in Obama's life including growing up as the mixed race son of a white mother and absent black father in Hawaii, living in Indonesia as a child, working as a community organiser in poor black neighbourhoods in Chicago, and finally during a trip to Kenya to meet with his father's family.

I was really pleasantly impressed with this. It's written beautifully and is very, very personal (rather than political). It's a strong insight into Obama's values and where they've come from, and reading it with the benefit of history passing, it's easy to see where his political philosophy has come from and how it's been shaped by a very personal connection with 'the political'. More than anything it gave me a great sense of hope that someone with his level of integrity, deep thinking and willingness to challenge and be challenged, can make it to the position he has. I don't often feel inspired but reading this, I truly did. Recommend it to anyone who wants to feel like that!

Aaargh bureaucracy!


This week's stress has been the nightmarish process that is replacing a UK passport while living in Australia. K and I had holiday planned for mid September - Vanuatu, diving, mmmm! - when I realised that my passport had gone missing from its usual safe place (obviously not so safe after all, yes yes I know!)

For some reason known only to them, the British High Commission in Australia has decided to 'outsource' all of its passport application processing to a 'regional centre' in - wait for it - New Zealand!!! The local consuls refuse to answer any queries about passports, and you can't contact the main embassy in Canberra other than by post or in person. So all you have to go on is website information or information from a helpline that costs $3.50 minute and seems to connect you to a call centre in Inverness (judging by accents of staff I spoke to!)

Then there's the fact you have to get your application and photo signed by someone who's known you for 2 years and is a 'professional' - not that easy when you've only lived somewhere for 1 year! And don't even get me started on the rules for photos...

Anyway, having jumped through various hoops this week, the application is now in progress but will take up to 4 weeks, and could be longer if they decide they need more info, which was cutting it v fine for our holiday. Thankfully the lovely people at Dive Adventures, our travel agent, managed to postpone it for us for not too much extra, so we're now going in November. Fingers crossed for no more hoops!

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Possibly the worst restaurant in Sydney?


Last night K and I had by far the worst meal / eating out experience we've had in Sydney, where generally the standard is pretty high and you usually feel like you've had good value. Not this time.

The culprit - the Coachmen in Surry Hills. It's a Russian restaurant which may not be instantly attractive to everyone, but was the appeal to us as we still have very happy memories of the fantastic Russian place in Glasgow's East End.

Sadly this was a complete letdown on all fronts:

Service - appalling. Slow and totally incompetent. Long wait to ordering, then once we'd ordered, the waiter came back not once, but twice over the next ten minutes to tell us that first one of our starters, and then one of our mains wasn't available. Then he brought the wrong bottle of wine, then he took ages to bring the right one. We had to ask twice for tap water, then we had to stand up and search the place to get our bill at the end of the night (the waiter was found in the bar chatting to his mates).

Food - mediocre at best. 3 out of 4 of our first choices weren't available. K's borscht and beef stroganov was ok apparently. My crepes with caviar were ok, but my cabbage rolls with beef were pretty disgusting and I had to leave half of it. Our selection of pickled vegetables had come straight out of a supermarket jar as far as I could tell.

(Note when waiter came to clear our plates, he asked how my cabbage rolls had been and I said 'hmmm, so so', to which he replied 'oh well, at least you've left some for my dinner' - cementing him in my top 5 bad waiters of all time list!!)

Atmosphere - non existent. The place was cold (the advertised 'roaring log fires' were piles of ash), the music was dodgy, the 'decor' consisted of shelves lined with cheap Russian dolls, the bar / lounge area where you're supposed to relax with a vodka was full of staff loafing around and/or shouting at each other.

Price - shocking. We chose the place partly because it's in the list of places we can use our Sydney Entertainment Book (various discounts & offers), so we got one of the mains free. But by the time the $5 per head charge for the 'floor show' (some dodgy singers that we could hardly hear or see) and the 2.5% credit card surcharge was added, not to mention the pretty exorbitant prices in the first place, we'd paid $120 all up (about £60). For Sydney that's expensive and you'd really expect to get fantastic food and service for that.

Please never, ever, ever go to this dive of a place.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Running diary / blog

Have decided to set up a new blog / running diary, mainly to help me keep track of what I'm doing and give me a bit of motivation!

Anyone who's interested can find it at http://mylifeinmiles.blogspot.com and I'll put a link on the sidebar too.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

August already!

Wow, it's 1st August already...

This week has been busy and eventful, starting with an early start on Monday as I had to fly up to Brisbane for work. Good to pass time at the airport catching up with my brother. Didn't see much of Brisy other than a couple of offices and my hotel room as I clocked up a couple of long days in my last week of juggling 2 jobs...

Weds I was tutoring for the School for Social Entrepreneurs (I do this as a 'spare time activity' - hmm!) and then in the evening took part in my first ever book group meeting - how I love being a thirtysomething cliche! Was a fun evening - group of women who all catch up over dinner once a month and then get round to talking about a couple of books for 10 minutes at the end of the night! Swapped a couple of my books for Barack Obama's first book and a New Zealand book about a homeless guy - a good way to expand my reading I reckon!

Thurs & Fri were pretty hectic finishing up with my job at Mission Australia, possibly not helped by a late night on Thurs where K and I met up after work, ended up going out for dinner then chatting till the wee small hours over one or three glasses of wine - we've not seen much of each other lately so it was good to have some 'quality time' but obviously not for my liver...

Good training though for Fri eve where I had my leaving drinks in the Orbit Bar, which is on level 47 of the Australia Square tower, and which rotates, doing a 360 degree tour of Sydney in 2 hours. The cocktails were good, the views were great, the service was terrible, so we headed off after a couple of drinks and ended up on a bit of a pub crawl of Sydney without having any food - surprisingly I felt ok this morning and we've spent a relaxed day catching up on the papers, eating lots of food and generally chilling out. Bliss.

Photos are of the famous "Sydney sprawl" captured on descent into Sydney airport from recent flight, and of the view from halfway across the Harbour Bridge at night. I finally remembered to take my camera and tripod with me when I walked over it this week! This is what I see on my regular running route - I'm a lucky girl!



Thursday, 30 July 2009

Christmas in July

A few months ago I said to K, ‘why don’t we have a few people round for some mulled wine and nibbles to do the whole “Christmas in July” thing?’ Christmas in July being an Australian tradition which must have been conjured up by European settlers who felt that, frankly, winter in Australia should be marked by some festivities involving lots of food and drink. Quite right too I reckon as Christmas here is completely wasted on summer – who on earth wants to have all that going on when it’s 35 degrees outside!

Anyway, as these things do, our ‘few drinks and nibbles’ turned into a feast fit for kings for 12 people (was meant to be 16 but we lost a few on the day to the ongoing lurgy striking people everywhere which may or may not be swine flu).

So last week I spent most of my evenings (when I wasn’t in Melbourne!) preparing mince pies, cooking a turkey, chopping veg and generally making lists of things we needed to buy (like plates and cutlery!)

Saturday itself was about 5 hours of prepping and cooking and making the flat look presentable, which was all good fun and very much worth it to have our first proper hosting in our flat since we moved in 9 months ago! The mulled wine went down a treat, as did all the grub, including some fab additions brought along by guests. I’m no domestic goddess but I was quite proud of my mince pies I must say!

Good chat, good fun and K did all the washing up – that’s what I call a successful evening! Oh yes and we’ve got more wine left over than we know what to do with thanks to the moderation of Aussies when it comes to drinking (seriously).

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Theatre, magicians & coffee!

This weekend has been packed with lots of lovely things. It began with dinner in the pub and a couple of glasses of red on Friday night, before a play (The Promise) at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Surry Hills. It’s a fairly funky theatre but unfortunately the play wasn’t up to much. Three acts, three people, lots of long, drawn-out script and just not a lot of anything to hold on to. It was set in Russia during & after the war and was all about a love triangle but don’t know what the end was because we gave up after the 2nd act! Bizarrely the female lead was played by the same actress who was the female lead in the last play we saw – I wonder if she’s been on Neighbours!!

After cleaning the flat and doing other Saturday things during the day, we then went out to the Opera House on Saturday evening. It’s a 7 minute ferry trip from our flat to there, which is especially beautiful to do at sunset. We had a pre-event glass of wine sitting outside watching the sun go down over the Harbour Bridge. Moments like that are when I really love living here.

Then it was into the event itself – a magic show!! 90 minutes of brilliant fun and really classic entertainment and I absolutely loved it!! (It was a surprise from K – he really is good to me). Couldn’t figure out how any of the tricks were being done, although after a few hours of post-event dissection, we reckon we’re onto most of them now – very, very good though and would recommend it to anyone (Holy Cow 2, global tour underway!).

As it was an early show and was finished by about 7.30, we then went for dinner at Waterfront, which as you might imagine, is on the waterfront…We used our new Entertainment Card (you pay about $50 and get a card that gives you discounts at hundreds of restaurants) so got one of our mains free; we had seafood and a bottle of verdelho and it was a definite 9 out of10. A few drinks after dinner, accompanied by lots of laughing at very pissed people (we were in The Rocks, the tourist district where every pub has its own bouncer), and then we taxied home.

This morning (Sunday) we were both up fairly bright and early (well, for us that is!) to go for a run as the “City to Surf” race is in 3 weeks and it’s 14km. Unfortunately K seems to have torn or pulled a muscle in his calf and looks to be out of it – he had to hobble home from the run this morning. Apart from the pain I think he may be secretly relieved that he doesn’t have to do any more training!

This afternoon we met up with some friends to sample the delights of the annual Sydney Coffee Festival, which was absolutely packed with thousands of people sampling coffees, teas, hot chocolates and snacks among the crowded streets of The Rocks (yes, we were back there again!).

It was an unseasonably warm day today, reaching 24 degrees at one point, so a very pleasant time was had by all and we pootled back on a ferry about 5pm, just in time to catch another beautiful pink and blue sunset sky.

Snapped this picture of the Opera House with shadows as we waited for ferry back. The apartment block at the left hand side is ours – so lucky!

Monday, 13 July 2009

Masterchef, Australia style


Water cooler TV in Australia at the moment is Masterchef. That probably seems a bit strange to those from the UK who have memories of Sunday evenings with Lloyd ‘cogitating, digesting, regurgitating or whatever’ Grossman. But the Oz series is completely different. It’s even completely different from the "sexy" new Masterchef on the BBC. It’s a 12 week ‘food idol’ type contest which has now reached finals week, with 6 finalists competing each day to avoid elimination and become the winner. This is the first time Australia has done Masterchef, which is odd considering how much of a foodie nation it is, and it’s taken the country by storm. The cynic in me would point out that as the general standard of TV here is utter crap, that it doesn’t take much, but I have to say, even though I’ve come to it late, it’s quite addictive.

Unlike most reality contests, the judges are constructive and helpful (instead of shouty and irritating like the current UK version), there aren’t too many overly prolonged silences at elimination point, the challenges that the amateur chefs have to do are interesting (2 pies in 2 hours today, one sweet and one savoury), and the dishes that people are coming up with are, quite simply, very very impressive and inspiring. And it’s winter here, so it’s proper comfort TV. (Australian version of Strictly Come Dancing just doesn’t cut it!)

The nation is hooked and like everyone else, I’ll be sad to see the series end this weekend

Sunshine Coast


Just back from a really lovely weekend on the Sunshine Coast, about an hour north of Brisbane, or Brisvegas as it’s more commonly referred to by Sydneysiders. Not entirely sure why and according to this from Wiki, it seems no-one else knows either!

For possibly the first time ever, this was a weekend away where we did pretty much nothing – no diving, no bushwalking, no packed programme of cultural activities, zip, nada, nothing. It was bliss! The weather is a good bit warmer in this part of the world than in Sydney and while not quite bikini and shorts, it was good to leave the woollies at home!

We arrived at our boutique resort, themed with buddhas and incense and the gentle lapping of water features, later than we’d hoped on Friday evening, thanks to the horrors of weekend traffic leaving Brisbane. Nearly 3 hours to cover what should be just over 1 hour – yuck. However we were soon revived by a good meal and a few glasses of red at Castro’s in nearby Coolum Beach, before returning to our huge suite, managing another glass of wine and promptly crashing out at about 10.30! K has had my lurgy and I’m still not totally over mine (thinking it maybe was swine flu actually!), so still feeing slightly lethargic and needing lots of sleep to feel half-human. This is our excuse anyway for not waking up for about 11 hours!!

After a late breakfast the next day, we drove up to Noosa which is the main beauty spot around here. It was indeed lovely but a bit over-developed for our liking – too many hotels right on the beach front, too many people chasing parking spaces, too little peace and quiet. I can see why it would be great for families but as we don’t have any ankle biters yet, generally prefer to avoid them!!

So we then drove the 20kms back to our little bit of nirvana and wandered down to the beach near our suite – about a 4 minute walk to emerge onto a deserted expanse of sand stretching out for a good few miles in either direction – much more like it!

Unfortunately the wind was a bit on the nippy side so after an hour or so of picnicking, strolling and watching the huge waves dumping and cross-currenting and generally looking ferocious, we headed back to our place and took advantage of our heated plunge pool, with the obligatory chilled glass of white to top it off – ah, the decadence!

Sat night was a bit like from the sublime to the ridiculous as we ended up having dinner and spending the evening in the local Surf Life Savers Club. If you’ve ever seen Home and Away, just think of Alf and the Surf Club and you’ll pretty much have the right mental image. Not quite the romantic dinner for two that we had in mind but it had the advantage (!) of coming with a free shuttle bus which meant that K could have a few drinks. Nights out in rural Queensland obviously don’t go on too late as we were on the last shuttle of the night at 10pm – along with a gaggle of eighteen year olds all quite a bit the worse for wear – the zoo bus, as the driver chuckled to us. Always good to experience local culture first-hand though!

A leisurely breakfast on Sunday, followed by more beach strolling and a much shorter return drive to the airport. All in all, a very relaxing and much welcome injection of winter sun.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Climbing Uluru (Ayers Rock)


There's a debate going on in Australia at the moment about whether to ban people from climbing Uluru (or Ayers Rock as it is sometimes known). It mirrors a recent debate that took place in my family when I was back home!

I'm not normally one for banning things but in this case I think the benefits in terms of respecting traditional culture and helping Australia move forward from its tainted history of exploitation of indigenous people, far outweigh the costs of reducing people's freedom to do something that is really not that big a deal.

Here's a well balanced article on the debate from the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Original here

"A proposed ban on climbing Uluru in Central Australia has sparked debate between tourists, traditional owners and political leaders.

A draft management plan for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was released today, recommending a ban for cultural and environmental reasons.

The plan could come into effect within 18 months, but must first go through a consultation process and be signed off by Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett.

The Northern Territory's Tourism Minister, Chris Burns, says the Territory Government does not back the proposal.

"We have never supported the full closure of the climb at Uluru and that remains our position," he said.

But a traditional owner of Uluru, Vince Forrester, says he is is relieved a ban on climbing the iconic rock is one step closer to becoming a reality.

He says the rock is sacred to the local Aboriginal people and traditional owners have wanted the climb closed since the park was handed back to them in 1985.

"You can't go climb on top of the Vatican, you can't go climb on top of the Buddhist temples and so on and so forth," he said.

"Obviously you have to respect our religious attachment to the land too, so we're saying please do not climb Uluru - we've said it in all languages."

Mr Forrester says tourism operators should not be concerned about the closure.

"The visitors will get more information by walking around the base of Uluru and getting told the stories which Aboriginal people are available to do," he said.

Mixed response

The 346-metre high rock is visited by about 350,000 people a year, about half of whom are from overseas. More than 100,000 people climb the rock against the wishes of the traditional owners.

More than 35 deaths have been recorded on the climb, which can be steep, slippery and extremely hot.

The draft management plan, which is open to public comment for the next two months, notes that recent surveys show 98 per cent of people would not be put off visiting the area if they were not allowed to climb the rock.

But members of the public writing to ABC News Online have had a mixed reaction to the proposed climbing ban.

"This is a secular country. Dictating access to a popular tourist destination based on religious beliefs is unacceptable," wrote one, called Jim.

"By all means close the rock to climbers in adverse weather conditions, but to permanently close it would a denial of the rights of all Australians," wrote Saint Mike.

"The decision to climb or not to climb should remain with the individual, not the park management (white or black)."

"I understand the opposition to people climbing it. But at this point, it is a pilgrimage to travel to Uluru and climb it. I suggest that it is as important to Australia in general as it is to the traditional owners, and that should be considered," said another, Si.

"It is not as if anyone built it. It was always there. Climb on it if you want. It is like saying you can't swim in Sydney harbour or walk around the Grand Canyon," wrote Ron Rat.

But others were more supportive of the ban.

"About time. We would be horrified if people were allowed to climb all over our churches or sacred sites," wrote Lilly.

"I think a ban would be great. We should all respect others' cultural and sacred areas," agreed Jenny.

"I have climbed the rock, but would never attempt it again out of respect for the owners," said one person, going by the nickname The Owl.

"When I view it now, it is similar, in a spiritual sense, to a church or mosque. Walking around the base is the most respectful method of experiencing the monolith.

"Land rights is not about legal ownership, it's a link with Mother Earth and our appreciation of the land. We can all enjoy it now, without possible desecration."

Tourists

Most of those who had already visited the rock said they had not climbed it, or if they had, they said they would not do so again.

"I have just visited this magnificent region - both Kata Tjuta and Uluru. I loved it! I did not climb Uluru nor did I wish to - it is far more beautiful and mystical from a distance," wrote Anne-Marie.

"I've been there, and the walk around the rock is rewarding, probably just as rewarding as the climb up," agreed another.

"Our family has recently visited Uluru and gained an appreciation of this wonderful icon," wrote John.

"We were delighted to take the walk around the rock and gain some understanding as to why 'the rock' would have such cultural significance to the traditional owners.

"Uluru is far more impressive than I ever imagined. It is an experience every Australian should have and not climbing the rock is part of the experience."

But some who were planning to visit the national park said they would not be deterred from climbing the rock.

"I am a student in a rural area and I am expecting to go to Uluru next year - I want to be able to experience what other people have been allowed to! Nature is beautiful, let us see its beauty!" wrote a student.

"I would love to climb this spectacular part of our country. I would like my children to see the view from the top," wrote Barrie.

Two people said if the ban was imposed, they would not visit the national park."

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Only in Australia?

Sometimes there are news headlines here that I swear you could only get in Australia.

This week's classic, causing me to splutter over my coffee, was "Rugby player defecates in hotel room" - wha-a-a-a-at!?!?!

Anyone seen this in any other country?!

Doing business


One of the big challenges about uprooting yourself to a different country is adapting to differences in culture and what is seen as acceptable / standard / just the way things are.

There are lots of examples of cultural differences between Britain and Australia – even though they’re very similar in many ways, they’re also very different at times. A common way of describing it is that Australia is a bit like Britain of 30 years ago. As I was only a nipper then I can’t really comment on whether that’s true, but I can say that there are aspects of life here that seem stuck in a bit of a time warp to me and one of them is how business is done.

Business here is done almost entirely on the basis of relationships – it’s all about who you know, not what you know. There’s a huge number of private and quasi-private schools that churn out new additions to the old boys (and girls) network every year and it’s perfectly acceptable in Australia to get involved in mutual back-scratching without anyone blinking an eyelid. Huge numbers of jobs get filled based on someone who knows someone, rather than being openly advertised and recruited for.

Now, I don’t think this is all bad – contacts and networks are part of life and I’d hate to live in a world where everything was done through some kind of rigid hierarchy or dry policies and procedures. And I quite clearly have benefited from this myself in terms of my work, not to mention various job offers that I got early on here – all through contacts. But there’s no denying it’s an elitist, exclusivist way of working that doesn’t help to create opportunities for people from all kinds of backgrounds to get ahead – if you’re not in the ‘right’ networks, you’re stuffed basically.

I also find it really difficult that I’m expected to use personal contacts and relationships for my own (or my organisation’s) gain – the concept of ‘conflict of interest’ seems to be missing from the Australian mindset! It’s particularly difficult for me and K because we work in related organisations – I’ve been expected to exploit this on more than one occasion and have been treated with a combination of confusion and dislike when I’ve resisted. Of course all of this is particularly ‘ironic’ given I work in a sector that is supposed to be about breaking down barriers and enabling people from all backgrounds to have a fair chance in life.

Monday, 6 July 2009

NAIDOC week


This week is NAIDOC week, which stands for National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee. It’s an annual week of celebration of culture, history and achievements of Australia’s indigenous population, or First Australians as they are sometimes referred to.

However, it’s quite amazing to see how little awareness of this week exists in the population as a whole – no mention on TV, in newspapers, in general discussions. The indigenous flag has been raised on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and there are some flags flying in the city centre, but you really need to be looking out for those and there’s really just an overwhelming sense of apathy about the whole thing. Maybe that will change as the week goes by, but I doubt it.

It’s particularly strange (disturbing) as there has been a significant amount of news in the last few weeks about indigenous issues – all of it bad. The Productivity Commission, which is a bit Orwellian sounding, but is actually the Government’s independent research and advisory body, released a report last week showing that despite various policy initiatives and a whole heap of rhetoric, the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is growing rather than shrinking on a whole range of economic, social and health indicators.

There has also been a lot of news and discussion about whether or not the Government’s “Intervention” into indigenous communities in remote Australia has been a success or not. The Intervention was, and still is, a military-led campaign to go into a set of communities identified as needing an “emergency response” to their state of social and economic wellbeing. The Intervention was a response to a report (Little Children are Sacred) revealing widespread and alarming levels of child abuse in remote indigenous communities, linked to high levels of drinking and the breakdown of community norms and traditional culture. Measures included legislation exempting indigenous people from the Racial Discrimination Act (in order to quarantine their welfare payments aka “income management” – purely on the basis of their ethnicity), compulsory acquisitions of land, restrictions on alcohol sales, deployment of police to patrol communities and the promise of increased funds for new housing and community services. It was revealed today that no new houses have actually been built in the 2 years since the Intervention began.

The Intervention is controversial and has been both heavily criticized and strongly welcomed by indigenous community leaders. It only applies to a certain number of communities in very remote areas of Australia so to a large extent, it feels like it’s happening in a very different world to the one that most inhabitants of this island live in. What some people don’t realise is that there is a much higher population of indigenous people in urban centres than there is in remote areas – and they tend to have equally poor life chances compared to their non-indigenous counterparts.

I find it disappointing that NAIDOC week seems to be coming and going under the radar with only a few flags being waved, while there is very little interest in having an informed and intelligent debate about how indigenous and non-indigenous Australia can move forward from the current shocking statistics.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Bugging


This week has been a bit of a non-entity, mainly because I’ve been trying to get over a bug. Not a coughing and sneezing bug, but a sucking-all-the-life-force-out-of-me bug. Most annoying.

Anyway, in among the illness, I did manage a work trip to Canberra (kind of dull and also freezing!) so I’ve now only got Tasmania and the Northern Territory to visit and then I’ll have been to every state in Oz – not bad!

Felt quite a bit better by last night, which was good as K and I were invited round to some friends for pizza and Canada Day celebrations (J is Canadian). A lovely evening involving lots of good chat, excellent food and a few beers. It ended somewhat annoyingly with us being locked out of our flat after a breakdown in communication saw us both leave our keys inside (each thinking the other had theirs – oh yes, the comedy!). 40 minutes waiting for a locksmith and $190 later we got inside…grrr!

Today’s picture was taken on a late afternoon stroll yesterday, with the sun setting over Sydney Harbour. The man in the picture was doing stretches as he walked which was slightly bizarre!

Monday, 29 June 2009

Wed 24 June: State of Origin


Tonight K and I, along with a couple of friends from my office, went to an Australian institution – the State of Origin. State of Origin is a rugby league contest, consisting of three matches between New South Wales and Queensland. Normally the states don’t have teams or play each other – there are big rugby leagues but the teams are all cities or areas, rather than state-level. State of Origin is so called because the teams have to be made up of players who were born in the respective states, rather than where they grew up or where they currently play their rugby.

It’s billed as one of the great sporting events in the Australian sports calendar and this evening, we were part of an 80,000 strong crowd who turned up for the 2nd in this year’s series. Which makes it all the stranger that it was, to be honest, like watching it with the sound off – it’s hard to understand how 80,000 people can make so little noise!!! No chanting, no singing, no shouting and cheering, just a lot of people sitting making not much noise…so much for incredible atmosphere!!

Sat 27 June: Birthday paragliding & fireworks!


I celebrated my 31st birthday today in two parts, with another part to follow next weekend (trip to casino with $200 to gamble with from K – should be fun!)

Part 1 saw me paragliding on the South Coast of New South Wales, about an hour’s drive south of Sydney. This was me finally managing to use a ‘red balloon day’ voucher given to me for last year’s birthday by my pals. Although the wind conditions weren’t great, there was enough wind for me to do a short glide from a clifftop down to the beach (and I get to go back for a longer flight some time which is a bonus). There wasn’t much to learn – I was strapped in to a tandem harness with the instructor and told to “run towards that big cloud”, which I did and before I knew it my legs were in the air, the ground was disappearing underneath me and then I was floating out to sea. It was strangely peaceful and relaxing, not at all the adrenaline rush you might expect, and I could have stayed there all day really!

Click here for a link to the paragliding photos.


Part 2 of birthday treats was a meal out in Darling Harbour, the waterfront part of Sydney city centre. I’d chosen Jordon’s, a seafood restaurant. Quite randomly we were treated to a fireworks display on the water, part of the Sydney Winter Festival, which I thought was very nice of them to arrange just for my birthday, ha ha…

The meal was good but the service was very disappointing – we were seated for 20 mins before anyone came to take even a drinks order, and then we practically had to beg for our bill at the end of the meal as what seemed like hundreds of staff were busily buzzing around us while completely ignoring us at the same time. Given that it wasn’t the cheapest of places, it was a definite letdown and we filled our customer feedback form in accordingly! No tip for them…

After the meal we wandered along the harbourside in a pleasantly tipsy manner, and so to bed.

All in all, a lovely day.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Utes R Us



Only in Australia can you have "Utegate" - where the Aussie PM, Kevin Rudd, was given a free ute (that's utility truck to you non-Aussies) by a second hand car dealer to support his election campaign, and has since got into hot water after allegations that his government arranged for said car dealer to get special treatment.

Cue lots of outraged and self righteous denials from the PM, then various allegations that emails are in circulation that prove it all, then allegations that these emails have been made up, and now for some reason the civil servant at the heart of it all is being given police protection because he's so distressed - yikes!

Still, seems to have distracted everyone here from swine flu and impending economic doom. Minor fact of Iranian election protests and associated global ramifications is on page 8 of today's paper...

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Thoughts for Refugee Week - What Home Means

Recently I was contacted by the Scottish Refugee Council who asked if I would like to raise awareness of Refugee Week 2009.

The rules are quite simple:

1. Title your blog “What Does Home Mean to You?”
2. Think about what home means to you. Post three photos which represent “home” to you and write a little about each one.
3. Include a link to the Refugee Week website
4. Tag five others to do the same. That’s it.

Refugee Week runs between 15-21 June throughout the UK and aims to raise awareness of refugees’ contributions to our society through a wide range of cultural and educational programmes.

What does home mean to me?



Although I haven’t lived there for a couple of years (and I spent several years before that wanting to leave), Scotland, and more particularly, Edinburgh is where I really think of as home. I guess that’s because my parents are both there, and it’s where reunions of old friends and family gathering usually happen. It’s full of happy memories for me and it’s the place and the people I know I can always go back to, whatever happens in my life. It represents safety, comfort and warmth – it’s my cave – and while that’s fantastic to have, it’s also why I had to leave…if that makes any sense!



Having moved 15 times in the last 10 years (!) my possessions have ended up scattered in different places and I’m really looking forward to the day when all my books can be reunited in one bookcase! There’s no place I feel more at home than when I’m ensconced in a book, preferably when I’ve got a whole day to spend reading and particularly when I can spend that whole day in bed, only moving to get refills of tea and fresh supplies of toast! I don’t get to indulge in that too often but when I do, wow, it’s great. (The books pictured are not mine by the way!)



Now admittedly this picture was taken on a tropical holiday (which is why we look so happy!) but home wouldn’t be home for me without K around. He’ll probably be surprised to read that, me being the independent type and all that, and it’s true I do like my own space, but there’s no-one else I’d rather share my space with, and I’m really enjoying building my home with him, both here in Oz and wherever we end up after that.

I haven't tagged others here (breaking final rule) but encourage any readers with blogs to post something similar to help raise awareness of refugee week and how home is something so many of us take for granted - and how vulnerable it is for so many others.

More words

Some other recent new words, this time from range of UK sources:

Commentariat - from a report by the Work Foundation (left-leaning think tank), presumably referring to think thanks and the like

Travelista - from the "Spend it" section of the Financial Times (not a left-leaning think tank!), referring to travelling fashionistas

Glamping - from some glossy mag or another, referring to 'glamour camping', the art of paying thousands of pounds for a fluffy pillow and blanket and private portaloos at music festivals.

I know it's not fashionable but I quite like new words like this!

What's in a word?


Language is a funny thing. There are all kinds of odd phrases that I’ve encountered in Australia that I’d never come across before. For example,

“skin in the game” – means you have a real commitment to something because you have put either money or something else into it

“runs on the board” – means you’ve got some results

“the rubber has to hit the road” – means it’s time to stop talking and get some results (runs on the board) – apparently more likely to happen if you’ve got skin in the game!

“I’m over it” – means I’ve had enough!

Kevin Rudd, the Aussie PM, has been getting a bit of a hard time in the press recently for his inappropriate use of Aussie idioms. Most of the time he talks in bureaucratic techno-speak, giving the impression he’s regurgitated a public policy journal (e.g. “what drives our government is one central organising principle blah blah blah) But he peppers this with ‘everyday’ phrases, apparently designed to make him seem like an ordinary Aussie bloke (think Tony Blair clutching his mug of Tetley outside Downing St and dropping his t’s and you’ll get the picture).

On a recent appearance on Sunrise, Australia’s equivalent of GMTV (well, except it makes GMTV look like Newsnight), he said he wanted all Australians to have a “fair shake of the sauce bottle” three times and this has caused much hilarity in the media because (apparently) this is something that hasn’t been in popular speech since the 1970s (I have no idea what it’s supposed to refer to!)

Anyway, just a little flavour of Aussie lingo for you!

Monday, 15 June 2009

Going West

Some notes from our recent travels, to match the pictures posted below.

2 – 4 June, Perth

We had two nights in Perth before flying out early on Thursday morning to Exmouth, our jumping off point for the Ningaloo Reef. Both nights spent at Perth City YHA which was basic, clean but comfortable enough, apart from the unfortunate proximity of our room to the main train line!

Jetlagged and hungry after arrival we dined on a smorgasbord extravaganza at Miss Maud’s Swedish restaurant, the nearest place to the YHA, where we had all-we-could-eat of cold meats, salads, seafood, roast meats, breads, pickles and more, washed down by a beer. Then we promptly crashed out asleep by about 9pm. I slept for about 14 hours and felt much rested by the time I emerged (slept right through the trains!). Unfortunately Perth was cold, wet and a bit miserable so after some breakfast, we headed down to Fremantle, the old port city, hoping it would warm and brighten up. It did, briefly, so we walked around for a bit before it started to rain again. At this point we made our way to the Little Creatures Brewery and Pub, where giant metal vats lined the walls of a massive hall, brewing up a storm while we and others passed away the afternoon sampling their end products. Very good they were too. We emerged some time in the evening, caught the train back to the city and then had a bit of a sleepless night (thanks to oversleeping the previous night) before getting up in the wee small hours to catch the red-eye flight to Exmouth.

4 – 11 June, Ningaloo Reef / Cape Range National Park

Landed at Exmouth after a short flight (90 mins or so) which quickly took us out of Perth’s urban sprawl and over a vast red expanse of desert, wrinkled with humpy ranges of rounded cliffs and hills shaped like upturned Tupperware bowls.

Stepping off the plane was like stepping into a film scene – outback Australia just as you imagine it. Hot, dusty, dry and red.

Exmouth airport is pretty much a shed in the middle of nowhere, so we quickly picked up our hire car for the week, which was sturdy rather than new (10 years old and 145,000 kms on the clock!). Complete with fitted furry dashboard and steering wheel covers! Then it was a 150km drive from the airport to our home for a few days, Coral Bay.

Coral Bay only became a settlement in 1968 following the building of the Coral Bay Hotel – named after the, well, coral bay, that it sits on. It’s a one-street town in the middle of a reef-fringed desert, which takes a whole 5 minutes to walk through. The beach is gorgeous, with a quarter moon of white sand curving round the really calm, sheltered bay where you can simply walk out and go snorkelling whenever you feel like it. We spent a lot of time sitting there, particularly at sunset with a beer and a bag of crisps (oh yes, we know how to party!)

Our time in Coral Bay was mostly spent on the sea, with two full days of diving and snorkelling with manta rays – really fantastic experience – they have a 3 – 4 m wingspan and were within a couple of metres of us on the surface. Alien like but elegant. We also had a day on a whale shark spotting boat but sadly, despite a couple of very close calls, we didn’t actually see a whale shark, which was a disappointment but just one of those things. The ocean’s a big place and whale sharks can dive to depths of 150m which is just a wee bit out of our range!!! Whale sharks, for those not familiar with them, are the biggest fish known to exist, up to 12m and are 100% vegetarian despite the shark bit. They come to the Ningaloo Reef to feed as part of their annual migration and can be as close as 100m off shore. On the plus side, we did see humpback whales, dolphins, sea snakes, big seal-like things called dugongs, and huge loggerhead turtles – fab!

We also ate a LOT of seafood (I keep thinking that as a diver I shouldn’t really eat seafood but it’s just so tasty!!), drank some fine Western Australian wine and, all in all, had a very relaxing time.

After 5 nights of the above, we decided to make our way further north, back to Exmouth, where the delights of the Cape Range National Park awaited us. Exmouth, unfortunately, is a bit of dive so we were glad we only had a couple of nights there, but it was worth it to see the national park which was bleakly beautiful with the reef fringing right round its edges and the Cape Range hills rolling down to the beach. Dead kangaroos every hundred yards or so on the roadside which was a bit sad but other than that, a really awe-inspiring glimpse of the scale of the Aussie outback. Can’t really do it justice here, but the pics may help!

11 – 13 June, Perth again

After our week in the wilds, it was back to Perth for a couple of nights before returning to Sydney. Took a river boat down the Swan River, went up the Perth wheel, walked around a bit, nothing too exciting and to be honest, Perth’s got nothing on Sydney for cityscapes and city living - yes we have turned into proper Sydneysiders looking down on all other Aussie cities!

All in all, a great 10 days and felt like only a tiny taster of the often-neglected and generally forgotten about western half of this huge old place.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Western Australia photos - words to follow

Wow, it's been ages since I posted here, but not for lack of things happening!

Click here for a link to pictures of recent holiday in Western Australia,
which was absolutely fantastic1!

Words on this, and other events, to follow later this week...

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Me and Kevin (Rudd that is)

This week has been a bit nuts. As well as working overtime for both my jobs, I also did my first day of tutoring for the School for Social Entrepreneurs which involved trekking out to western Sydney and spending around 1.5 hours each with 4 people all developing various social enterprise ideas - the idea being that I can use my own experiences etc to help them through various problems - interesting to do but pretty intense, especially in the middle of a week like this...

Still, it's Sunday, I've survived and I've only got a few more hours work to fit in today before starting all over again with an 8am teleconference with my boss tomorrow and a day that will go through till abou 9pm I think - er, didn't I move out here to have a nice stress-free life!?!

Anyway, the reason for all the busy-ness is that the Australian govt have just got on board with the whole concept of social enterprise and on Friday, both K and I, with our respective hats on, were involved in a 'community jobs summit' with various big wigs including the Australian Prime Minister and Deputy PM.

All the Aussies we know were very excited by this but somehow politicians are much less exciting when they're not your own, which was probably quite good as it meant I wasn't in the least bit nervous about doing my 10 minutes. It all seemed to go quite well but it was a long day (flew down to Melbourne on the red-eye so up at 5.30am which is really not me!)

I was meant to be paragliding off some cliffs near here yesterday but it was cancelled because of excessive winds - bit of a shame but meant we had a nice relaxing day of pootling around a national park instead.

I'm not doing very well with my 'photo of the week' efforts, sorry folks, especially when I could've had a picture of Kevin Rudd, the Aussie PM, this week! I did try to take one with my mobile phone but couldn't manage without being really obvious!!! Also walking home yesterday there was a beautiful "Kodak moment" with a rainbow over the Sydney Opera House - but had left the camera at home - oops. Will try harder...

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Anzac day

Saturday was Anzac Day, a national day of remembrance of the Australian & New Zealand soldiers who have fought in various wars.

The Aussies are big on the "Anzac spirit" although I'm not entirely sure what that means exactly. Here's what Wikipedia says it is:

"The Anzac spirit or Anzac legend is a concept which suggests that Australian and New Zealand soldiers possess shared characteristics, specifically the qualities those soldiers are believed to have shown on the battlefield in World War I. These qualities cluster around several ideas, including endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humour, and mateship. According to this concept, the soldiers are perceived to have been innocent and fit, stoical and laconic, irreverent in the face of authority, naturally egalitarian and disdainful of British class differences.

The Anzac spirit also tends to capture the idea of an Australian "national character", with the landing at Anzac Cove often described as being the moment of birth of the nationhood of both Australia and New Zealand."

Hmmm. I'm sceptical about this. I've not seen any evidence that Aussies are particularly into "endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humour and mateship". And from the evidence on display in the bars of Sydney on Sat night, Anzac Day seemed to be more about the values of getting rip-roaring drunk, macho posturing, mild and not-so-mild racism and general obnoxiousness towards women.

But apart from all that, we had an entertaining night out with a group of pals who'd been drinking for 8 hours by the time we met up with them - we got thrown out of the first place we went to before K and I had even ordered a drink (due to one of my pals dancing behind the bar)!!!

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Solo


Watched an incredible documentary last night about Andrew McAuley, an Australian adventurer who, in 2007, attempted the 1500km crossing of the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand in a kayak - alone.

He made it to about 30km off the New Zealand coast after over a month at sea, where he'd survived a huge ocean storm with waves more than 10m high pounding his kayak and capsizing him regularly. He was able to 'batten down the hatches' by lying full-length in his kayak and pulling a 'bubble' over his head - this meant that even if he rolled over, there was enough buoyancy that he immediately came back up. Even so, it looked extremely frightening not to say excruciatingly uncomfortable.

Sadly, with land in site, Andrew ran into trouble - best guess is rough seas which his kayak was too damaged to deal with, leading to him capsizing without his 'bubble', not being able to 'right' the kayak and drowning in the 15 degree water once the hypothermia set in.

The documentary included footage from his own filming on the seas - a memory card with footage was salvaged from the kayak (his body was never discovered) - as well as footage of his wife, 3 year old son, friends and support team, both throughout the journey and then in interviews after his death.

It was an incredibly moving film, all the more so for the incredible understanding and acceptable of Andrew shown by his wife. I'm sure there are many people who would criticise him for undertaking this kind of adventure with a 3 year old son (an argument that is more often trotted out for female adventurers mind you), but I challenge them to watch this film and not feel that, ultimately, anyone would feel privileged and proud to share his gene pool.

Mind you, it didn't make me want to set foot in a sea kayak ever! I don't share the same DNA as adventurers - the sea scares me at the best of times, let alone when it's angry, stormy and whipping up 15m waves.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

You know you're getting used to life in Sydney when...

* You think it’s normal to wear flip-flops at the same time as a woolly scarf and gloves

* Your train takes 2.5 hrs to cover 1hrs driving time, runs 45 minutes late, has no tables or catering – and you don’t think twice about it

* You can tell beaches apart just by glimpsing them on TV

* You become oblivious to massive cruise ships berthed in Sydney Harbour

* You find yourself saying “no worries” and asking people “how are you going?”

* It’s 23 degrees and you think it’s cold!

Easter bunnies in autumn – wrong, wrong, wrong!!

I’ve never had so many people wish me “Happy Easter” as this year in Oz – it’s a really big deal here, far more than I’ve ever been aware of in the UK. All the pubs closed here at 10pm on Good Friday and shops that wanted to open on Easter Sunday had to put in special applications for licences to do so. And there were quite a few Easter decorations around – bunnies and lambs and the like – that I’ve not really noticed before, except in gift card shops! I think it’s a reflection of what seems to be a much more prevalent Christian culture than exists you get in the UK these days. Don’t know what % of people in Oz go to church regularly but it feels pretty high – even accounting for the fact that I work for an organisation with its roots in the missionary movement.

Maybe it’s also a reflection of the quite stark segregation between different faiths and cultures here – although Australia is a veritable ‘melting pot’ of nationalities, religions, cultures, backgrounds etc, interaction seems to be quite limited. But that may be a reflection of our lives and lifestyle here, which is much more firmly ‘affluent middle class’ than I’m used to. Kirribilli, our suburb, is the epitome of the Australian dream (if there is such a thing) – water views, tree-lined streets, the gentle murmur of teenage boys from the local private school chatting away in shorts and long socks, the local deli selling dozens of varieties of olive oil, imported cheeses and meats and so on…If we were living in the inner West, I think we’d have a very different perspective on Sydney & Australia – apparently it’s a common trend for newly arrived ex pats to live on the North Shore (where we are), ensnared by the harbour views (as we were) but then find themselves craving some form of night life / diversity / sense of energy (as we are) and moving to the inner West where the cosmopolitan heart of Sydney apparently beats with a vengeance (as we’re thinking about doing!).

Autumn socialising Aussie-style

Last week K and I were invited round for an evening barbecue to say goodbye to Ali, a colleague from the UK who’s been out here for a couple of months helping to set up the Aussie equivalent of his organisation, the School for Social Entrepreneurs (K and I both involved in School in typical small world way).

About 12 of us gathered in a lovely house near Bondi for a feast of deliciously juicy prawns, a huge and lightly flavoured snapper (about 2 foot long), heaps of salads and, the piece de resistance, a massive pavolva (with 12 eggs apparently!)

It was a clear autumn evening with lots of stars in the sky and it was only at about 10pm that it got cold enough for me to need a jacket, having been t-shirt temperature until that point.

Lots of good conversation (and not all of it about social enterprise!) and a lovely time all in all. The ubiquitous barbecue is one of the best things about this country!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Ku-ring-gai national park & mum's birthday


K and I went bushwalking again this weekend - now that the temperature is cooling down it's really nice to be outside and getting some decent walks in. We went to the Ku-ring-gai national park, 24km north of Sydney, which was really really beautiful. We ended up doing a different walk to the one we'd planned and scaled Mount Ku-ring-gai itself - not really a mountain mind you, more of a slope on a valley and we were up and back in about 2.5 hrs. Then we sat by Cowan's Creek while I cooled my feet in its waters and fed a passing duck bits of my sandwich - simple pleasures!

Today it was an early start to skype into my mum's 50th birthday celebrations, happening thousands of miles away in Scotland. K and I were projected onto a big screen in front of 29 assembled family members - lucky I look so good at 6.30am (oh that's right, I don't!) It was an emotional occasion and for a minute I thought I wasn't going to be able to get my little speech out through the choke in my throat but got there eventually and then very much enjoyed watching everyone else do their bit as webcam relayed it all. Technology is a wonderful thing sometimes. (Love you mum!!!!)

Going back for a visit in 5 weeks and really really looking forward to it. Although having booked our flights months ago, we're a bit peeved that the airlines have all slashed their fares on the "Kangaroo" route to UK so if we'd booked now, we'd be saving over $1000...ah well.....

And so to Sunday evening - much the same as always including ironing, Bones on TV and early to bed after this morning's adventures.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Things you find in the pub...

K took me out for dinner on Wed night (tapas, very nice especially the salt cod croquettes) and then we went to our local pub for a nightcap. The Kirribilli Hotel is a bit of a dive but it's bearable. We found ourselves a corner in the outdoor bit, but as far away from all the smokers as possible. Someone had left a pile of papers on the table near us so we went to move them, when we realised that said pile of papers was an inside report on the state of the Australian market & economy, prepared by one of the main financial services companies here (I won't name them in case I get sued!)

It was fascinating stuff, particularly the assessment of the reality of the economic outlook at the moment. Their main view seemed to be that despite the media doom mongering, actually the worst is probably over, or almost over (or to put it another way, it will be back to 'business as usual' fairly soon. A few choice quotes:

"Nice to see the green starting to sprout in more and more places - and more and more minds. So far most seem to regard this ferocious rally in equities and risky assets as bear market rally, but one or two starting to explore the possibility that it might be for real."

"Among the developed economies, the UK is arguably showing the most sprouting, with many indicators taking a turn for the better, including all the ISM type indicators and now, a number of them from the housing world."

"Though the newsflow around job losses continues to escalate and the unemployment rate is now clearly ratcheting higher, this was offset by a number of positives since the last survey period...While our expectations for the unemployment rate to gap-up rapidly in the coming months will put renewed pressure on confidence, it is worth noting the signal the confidence index is now sending. Should confidence maintain these levels it would imply the beginning of a recovery in spending or at the very least a surge in spending on the back of the stimulus. We continue to favour a gradual recovery in consumption over the remainder of the year."

On housing, "We continue to expect a second half 2009 recovery. Initially a first-home buyer phenomena the increased willingness of individuals to take on more debt is broadening to other owner-occupiers. Residential investors are now the only major category that continue to moderate their exposure to debt (probably reflecting the fact that cashed-up first home buyers are outbidding investors for a largely static housing stock.)"

I find all of this really fascinating, particularly the role that perception plays in confidence - people's job insecurity is palpable at the moment even though, in reality, Australia still relies significantly on inward migration of labour to keep its economy going. Unemployment is rising but as always, the people who are worst hit by that are the people who were already unemployed and were struggling to get into the labour market - the hard core few hundred thousand people in Australia without skills, qualifications, work experience, who have almost zero chance of getting a job without significant support. The housing market may be stagnating but again, the people who are worst hit are those who are homeless or vulnerable to homelessness - as competition for housing stock increases, those on the margins are squeezed even further out. This has been a recession for the middle classes and while I wish no-one any harm, I do find it hard to feel too much sympathy for people who see the value falling on their 4 bedroom, 2 bathroom, 2 car space detached house in the suburbs. Similarly, I've just read that 60,000 people in the City of London have lost their jobs in the last 18 months. How many of those people are now sailing round the Med or using their huge cash windfalls from the good times to do something else, and how many are genuinely facing long-term hardship. I wonder. Meanwhile millions of migrant workers in the Gulf are losing their low-paid, long-hours, menial jobs building temples to greed for rich Westerners visiting Dubai and are arriving back in their poor home countries by the planeload to a life of poverty.

But hey, the green shoots are sprouting - people will soon get back to borrowing to consume in their merry way and we'll all go back to normal.

Our economic system is built on mass exploitation of people at the bottom - always has been and looks like it always will be. What's the alternative - answers on a postcard, or at least on a blog comment please...