Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Melbourne, via the Snowy Mountains

It's been a fast and almost completely offline 4 days from Sydney to Melbourne, via Canberra, Threadbo and Rutherglen. But we're in Melbourne now for a few days - enough to collect our thoughts about the stay in Sydney and the trip from there to here.

Canberrra was surreal. It's name means Meeting Place in some unspecified Aboriginal language, and it was build out of nowhere when the newly federated states of Australia, in search of a capital, couldn't chose between Sydney and Melbourne. Our first impression of the place was 'where is it!?'. We were approaching the city, about 7km out according to our map, and all we could see was bush. Then, when we rounded a corner, we say the Telstra tower on Black Mountain poking from over a hilltop. Five minutes late we were in downtown Canberra. It's not a particularly small place (300,000 residents) - it's just, well, sudden. The city is a motorist's dream and a pedestrian's nightmare. I'm not surprised it wore out Bill Bryson. There are arterial avenues spreading into every district (in fact the borders of the districts are very clearly delineated by those avenues) from which then spread neat and, where possible orthogonal streets, all lined with houses or occasionally businesses. We booked two nights in a quarter of the city called Kingston - apparently one of the livelier ones with a good cafe scene. We found the block of cafes and restaurants not far from our B&B, but it really was nothing special. Windswept, predictable and without any atmosphere.

After checking in, we went to see the truly wonderful National Museum of Australia, where my favourite section was the one entitled Nation. One corner was dedicated to the way Aussies speak English. Letizia has already blogged on some of her favourite items of Australian vocabulary, and here was a museum exhibit that showed, in interactive and multimedia formats, many of these items, and even their etymology (I learned that the famous 'Sheila', meaning 'woman' came from the Irish name Sile). The building itself, its layout, design and interior made it a pleasure just to be there.

On day two in Canberra - a Sunday - we started with a visit to another excellent museum, this time the Questacon. It's a science museum, the kind that Nina and Sara claim to like the most. It was very good indeed, and we passed 3 hours in there with ease, but in the end, the best museum of it's kind that I've ever brought the kids to is Edinburgh's Our Dynamic Earth (though I haven't been to London's much acclaimed science museum.

While I'm on this subject, I'm reminded of our trip to Shanghai's equivalent, which was a terrible disappointment. Much of the content was given over to manned space flight, now that China has entered this exclusive club, but all the interesting related exhibits were closed. What remained felt like propaganda. There was an exhibit on pollution, which caught our attention. I was interested to see what official China had to say about the matter. I was shocked - the section on air pollution talked about the poor quality of air in London and Los Angeles. We had just spluttered in from Chengdu where visibility was down to 5 blocks for the duration of our 4-day stay. The only mention of Chinese pollution was the issue of the Suzhou Creek, and even that exhibit was all about the great strides that had been made to reclaim it.

Anyway, for the rest of Sunday we wandered around the Australian Commonwealth's capital looking for all the people (cue Madacascar: 'We bozos got the people, but they're not a very lively bunch'). We found them eventually, split over two groups. About 40 of the them spread around 4 cafe's in the corner of the central pedestrian zone. Mostly students, probably half of them visitors. At this point, Canberra reminded us of Stuttgart after 5pm before they liberalized the shopping laws. Concrete, empty, clean, and with a few well-hidden corners with some life stubbornly clinging on. The rest of Canberra was visiting the Sunday market in the Old Bus Depot right on the edge of Kingston. It was clear from the faces of those perusing the stalls (containing the largest variety of materials and styles for toilet roll holders that I have ever seen) that they were there not to be amused, but to be consoled. Consoled that neither Sydney nor Melbourne had been chosen to be the capital of Australia.


Threadbo. This isn't so much a town as a resort. Nestled at 1300m in the Snowy Mountains, it's a ski resort during Winter and a bush-walking centre in the Summer. We took a skilift, and then walked for 2km to reach a height of 2000m from where we could see the highest point in Australia - Mount Kosciuszko (2200m approx). Another 4km walking would have taken us to the summit, but most likely to the hospital as well, so we admired it from a distance. My Polish neighbours (hi Pavel and Gosia!) will recognize the name - it's a Polish hero general. The mountain was given its name by a Polish explorer as he felt the peak resembled the tomb of the general. As peaks go, it's not terribly high, but this is an indication of how ancient this continent is - how geologically stable it's been. The peaks would have soared much higher after their birth, but eons of wind and rain have worn them away. A similar erosion of your budget and patience will take place if you hang round in Threadbo too long. We had one meal there, put paid as if we had three. My pizza both tasted and cost as if I had scraped the contents of my wallet onto a pizza base. Other choices were similarly unhappy. Try as we might to rearrange our plates between the four of us, we could find no configuration that would satisfy more than one person around the table (i.e. whoever ended up with the Chicken Schnitzel).

The scenery around Threadbo and on the road from Threadbo to our next stop, Rutherglen, was out of this world. Almost literally. We moved from deep eucalyptus forest, with the occasional roo or wallaby peering through the treeline, to red earth and bare trunks (and the strange view of Lake Hume, very low, dotted with tree trunks, similar to a lake on the road between Cork and Guganbarra) and then eventually vineyards and pasture land. We pulled into Rutherglen 3 hours after departing Threadbo, looking forward to slowly sampling some of the local wines. And that's exactly what we did. We picked a motel (which turned out to be the cleanest, most comfortable and best value accommodation of the 4 days, Motel Woongarra) and went to two local wineries (there are about 20 to choose from). After a quick splash in the pool, we headed into town for a simple but filling meal in the Poacher's Paradise, and had even more wine.

So we're in Melbourne, looking forward to converting another abstract name into a real place, and building up a mental model of life here. After this, we'll return to Sydney by the coastal route, for one night, before taking a flight to Cairns. I hope to blog once more on the Sydney experience soon.

PS: In order to spread the pain of this blog even further, I've started writing a once-fortnightly article for the Carrigdhoun - a local newspaper that covers a lot of south county Cork. The first one, on Beijing, came out on Tuesday.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Annnnnd cut!

After 5 weeks of a stability of sorts, this morning we move on from Sydney. We're heading for Melbourne, but stopping off in Canberra, the Snowy Mountains, and Rutherglen along the way.

Sydney is a terrific city that we leave with regret - especially for our friends here. I'll write a post later on to try to cover our experience of the place - not an easy thing to do given the many different Sydneys there are.

Nina and Sara are excited about the fact that we have our own car (AUS$500 for 2 weeks from Apollo Car Rentals) - me too a little, though I really enjoyed using a reliable bus service while we were here. Nina, when she saw her mother packing our bags again, asked what was going on, forgetting that we were on a bigger trip. She and her sister really do take things one day at a time (when Gary asked her last night what she was looking forward to, she relied 'having a swim in the pool' - the one here at our Randwick apartment).

Yesterday evening we drove through the city, listening to the CDs that Ludi lent us for the road. There was something odd about watching Sydney pass by, all dressed up for Friday night, with our music as a backing track. Odd, but familiar. The it clicked: it felt like the closing credits of a film.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Blackfella, Whitefella

James Cook was chosen to captain the Endeavour in large part due to his famous abilities as a cartographer. The resulting charts of New Zealand for example, were in use right up to the 1990s. But he incorrectly reported the east coast of what is now Australia to be almost uninhabited, and only then by nomadic tribes with no fixed towns. This allowed the legal pretense of terra nullius - uninhabited land - which formed the basis of subsequent English colonization. Nowadays, the estimate for the aboriginal population of 1788 is something in the order of 750,000. Today it stands at about 400,000, or 2% of the Australian population. In Sydney, however, that population is almost nowhere to be seen. On Circular Quay, you will find a didgeridoo busker, sitting cross-legged in the shade, creating hypnotic sounds that dance tracks in the background. At Central Station I saw a grey-bearded busker, folded in two over a battered guitar, giving a soulful rendition of Neil Young's Hey Hey, My My. "It's better to burn out, than to fade away". It seems that in Sydney at least, the Aboriginal is doing both. If you want to see his disintegration in progress, it's a matter of getting the train to Redfern to see The Block - an aboriginal ghetto of inner Sydney that I have never seen, and with the children in tow, never will. The rampant alcoholism and unemployment among the First Australians (or First Owners as they are also now called) only serves to further isolate them from mainstream society.

But if Aborigines are almost invisible on the streets, these days they never seem to be far away from the headlines. The new Labor government under Kevid Rudd has just dragged a reluctant opposition into a bi-partisan apology on behalf of goverments gone by, to those Aborigines known as the Stolen Generation. From the 1920s, and for a period of about 50 years, children of Aboriginal mother but white fathers were taken away from their mothers and placed into foster care, or into state institutions (see the film Rabbit Proof Fence for a taste of the damage done). There are still those who argue today that many of these kids were done a great service. But to my mind this misses the point entirely. Any modern state reserves the right to protect children from bad parents by making them wards of the state. But in the Australia of the early and mid 20th century, every Aborigine was already a ward of the state - not a citizen - and decisions like taking an Aboriginal child out of its natural family could be made at a local administrative level rather than a legal one. This led to institutionalized racism where the grounds for breaking up a family were based only on the race of the children and not to the quality of the parenting. The thinking of the time was that the Aborigines were doomed to extinction - the same type of social Darwinism had infected many minds the world over - and it was a case of breeding them out.

The official apology was the latest in a line of symbolic gestures that began in 1967 when white Australian voted overwhelmingly in favour of granting full citizenship on every Australian Aboriginal. I watched Rudd live on TV - every channel carried the scenes from the parliament in Canberra. All the preconceptions I held of testosterone-fuelled, macho Australian politics fell to pieces at the sight of the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition take turns in delivering deeply emotional speeches describing instances of past wrongs and saying Sorry, Sorry, Sorry. And meaning it, I'll swear. On the day, any building with a flagpole made space for the Aboriginal flag. Anyone with a public noticeboard seemed to use it to apologise. On my bus route I could see an untidily diagonal 'sorry' slotted into place, letter by plastic letter, on a board where scriptural quotes would normally appear (Surry Hills Presbytarian Church, whose admirably modest ambition is "Christian Hope for Every Resident of Surry Hills"). Gestures like this have come and gone. Marches over the Harbour Bridge, "Freedom Rides" through New South Wales. Billions have been spent, but the returning numbers show that little has changed. Aboriginal lifespans are 15-20 years less than other Australians. Although only 2% of the national population, make 20% of the prison population. The infant mortality rate is three times the national average. 'Sorry' is a good place to start, but if it doesn't lead somewhere, it will make things worse: it will trivialize the emotions so clearly on display in these days, it will make the word 'sorry' seem almost camp in its absurdity when compared to the reality, and it will make it harder to pick up the pieces of another failed initiative and start again.

How did it all go wrong for the Blackfella? In simple terms it was Cook, or the sealed orders of the British Admiralty that sent him in search of new lands after the public business of scientific study (the transit of Venus) was done. Or perhaps is was Arthur Phillip, captain of the first fleet and first governor of New South Wales, or more precisely the Home Office that sent him with instructions to establish a prison settlement in Cook's Botany Bay. And it was the subsequent masses, who quite literally ate the Blackfella out of house and home.

Ironically, these two first Whitefellas were men of the world who made no assumptions about the inferiority of any native - quite the contrary. But yet both of them oversaw the illegal dispossesion of the First Owners. They did what they did to further their careers and ambitions, but if it hadn't been them, it would have been somebody else. At least they were both, especially Phillip, able to cushion the blow of the British foreign policy of the time. But the logic of empire is simple, and in the long run, a series of imperfect but relentless implementations of that logic will eventually see it through almost perfectly. Those who formulated that policy, and the officers who executed it, must share the lion's share of the blame for bringing the Aboriginal and European into conflict. Everything that's happened since then has been a direct consequence of this first step.

Most of the first Whitefellas were, famously, prisoners - many Irish amongst them - whose conditions both before and after transportation were more wretched than any Eora. Like the modern Aborigine driven into the city and disconnected from his heritage, many on board the prison ships were country folk who were driven into English cities by changes in the laws governing use of 'commons' land. There they fell into crime - mostly petty - it didn't take much to be earn a hanging or transportation in those days. Subsequent waves of immigrants (perhaps excluding those drawn by the gold rushes) were themselves fleeing persecution or poverty brought about by warring . A trip to the Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour will make this clear. While it was the sheer mass of new bodies to be fed from the land that pushed the Aboriginals to the margins - from where they have not returned - it was the policies that put the Whitefella here that are to blame.

British imperialism is long since dead (I don't what to hear it - the British conceded that they have no strategic interests in Northern Ireland more than 15 years ago) and thanks to a successful transplantation of some of the more postive aspects of European economic and political thought, there's room and food enough on this continent for everyone. In principal there is no remaining point of conflict between the Blackfella and the Whitefella. The latter is now at pains to make amends, and to change the sense of what it means to be Australian (and this has the added bonus of laying the blame, much as I've just done, at the door of the Poms). The policy changes that follow the apology will have to make it possible for the Blackfella to come back in from the margins and live easily alongside the former conqueror.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Guess who came to dinner...

Especially for the folks in DSI. Two prodigals join up in Sydney:

"Mr. Goulding I presume?"

(We only realised when it was too late that it was Valentine's Day.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Cinderella and the Didgeridoo

In keeping with lessons learned in China, we ddi a lot of shopping around before making a decision on where to buy a didgeridoo for Letizia's birthday. In the process, we learned a number of interesting things:

Didgeridoos are tree trunks hollowed out by the action of termites, but then sealed by the artisan to make them less susceptible to rotting when the players' saliva runs through them (a feature of wind instruments I learned the hard way by sitting in front of the brass section in a band a long time ago).

They possibly originate in the North of Australia - Arnhemland - but nowadays each region has its own distinctive style of decoration.

Although they produce single clear notes, the art of playing the didgeridoo lies in the timbre that you can extract, the rhythms you produce, and the variety of special noises, animal imitations for example, that you can create.

The deeper the note, the softer the wood, or the straighter the instrument, then the harder it is to play - in other words the more air you have to physically push through. A higer-pitched, harder didgeridoo, with a bit of a bell at the end is a good one to get started on.

There's no bloody point in trying to haggle down prices here. I'm gutted. After 3 weeks of China, I have to hold myself back from arguing over the price of a pint of milk in the supermarket, so I find the deadpan "No mate - that's the price" reaction in an outdoor market very hard to accept. Oh well - there's always South America.

The didgeridoo was for Letizia, and her requirements were purely aesthetic. I wanted the salesmen to demonstrate the musicality of their goods, something they all did happily (note the different kinds of requirements: one Italian, one Irish).

Getting a sound from a didgeridoo is as easy as getting a promise of lifelong friendship from a drunk. It's a simple matter of blowing in such a way as to let your lips flap (I know I know). But actually playing properly requires a technique used by bagpipe players, and other sadists, called circular breathing. This involves filling your cheeks with a reserve of air, to keep the instrument going for the split second it takes you to refill your lungs through your nose. This can be practiced without any instrument, and in public, and results in long unending farting noises - the kind which your daughters find hilarious when they make them in bed an hour after they are supposed to be asleep, but which they find embarassing coming from their Dad while walking along Elisabeth street. Odd. The fact is that I can't even do it properly. Getting air into or out of my lungs quickly through my nose is not easy. My nose curves with aerodynamic sleekness to the right, and as a result, partially closes off one airway. The same trait makes swimming difficult - not just for the breathing, but also because it tends to pull me slightly to starboard.

I digress.

From the point of view of pitch, the didgeridoo is less musical than a kazoo. Aboriginal music is all about timbre and rhythm. Interestingly, given the huge variety of chords, notes, scales cadences and keys available to the Western musician, pop rock and especially dance music is also, relatively speaking, mostly about timbre and rhythm. Last week, we went to Sydney Opera House to see Rossini's Cenerentola (Cinderella). I haven't been to very many operas, and this was the girls' first. It was a fantastic experience, especially given the venue. The production was very funny, with a lot of physical and choreographical comedy. And the music - well that was at a level of musical conplexity that made most rock sound primitive, never mind aboriginal music. But the structure of the opera was formulaic and the timbre was precisely what any orchestra and chorus could be expected to produce (my ignorant ear heard nothing particularly different or special in the soloists' voices). I was entertained, impressed, but only very occasionally moved.

It's polically incorrect to use the work 'primitive' when talking about other cultures, but there's little choice in the matter when comparing the musical scope of the Chinese or Europeans, with that of the Australian aboriginals. This is where the comparison between language and music (see earlier blog entry) falls apart. There's no such thing as a primitive language, but there is such thing as a primitive culture and its music. You cannot compare the beating of sticks to the nuances of a jazz drumkit, nor the hypnotic pulse of the didgeridoo with the voice of the erhu. At least not in sophistication. But in terms of emotional impact, there's no distance between them. All you have to do is know the code.

The code? What code? I bought a book the other day: The Flamingo's Smile by Stephen Jay Gould (my first book by this author despite reading about him for years). My decision to buy was based almost entirely on the following line that I found while browsing the book: "The jolt is direct and emotional - as powerful a feeling as anything I know. Yet the impetus is purely intellectual - a visceral disproof of the romantic nonsense that abstract knowledge cannot engender deep emotion". He wasn't talking about music, but he might just as well have been - the principle holds. We react emotionally to music, at least in part, based on our intellectual expectations of it (after being brought up listening to standard patterns belonging to our culture). I found Cenerentola unmoving because it presented nothing new to my ear - either because I didn't understand what I was hearing or because the work wasn't particularly musically surprising. Similarly, I couldn't tell the difference between one didgeridoo 'song' and another, when played in the New South Wales Gallery last week by Adam Hill, because they were using rhythmic codes that regular listeners and players are familiar with, but which mean nothing to me. Years of playing bad guitar means that I know the rock code, and I can tell when some band goes off the beaten track (npi) in an interesting or imaginative way. The ability to react emotionallyto music can probably be learned.

Much the same as circular farting.

(My 100th post, by the way)

Friday, February 8, 2008

Wardrobe Malfunction

In the spirit of adventure inspired by the Australian way of life and my distance from home, I decided to try something new. I decided to embrace the thong.

A lot of people wear them and think nothing of it. They enjoy the freedom, the extra ventilation, the chance to extend their tan even further. But it was with some amount of trepidation that I first slipped into a pair in Clothes Encounter, Belmore Road, Randwick. The staff there were very understanding of my concerns, very supportive. They explained that the brand I had chosen - top quality apparently - was Brazilian. I was convinced. I decided to wear them out of the store.

I have to say that the novelty began to wear off before I was even halfway up Belmore Road. Put simply, I just wasn't used to have anything rubbing along, well, there, and it was beginning to have an effect on the way I was walking. I asked the girls to slow down at first, but then, to run ahead to hold the bus - I just wasn't up for it. Later, as we neared our apartment, I even considered taking them off there and then. But decorum prevailed and I made it back inside before frantically wriggling out of them and sighing with relief. But, as the Germans say 'Einmal ist keinmal', once doesn't count. before I could give up on 'Brendan the thong-wearer' I had to give it one more go. I decided to wear them the next day for a walk with Gary and Ludi between Bronte and Bondi.

Letizia had the excellent idea of putting preventitive bandaids on strategic friction points, and I have to say that the ploy seemed to be working, as Gary and I set a blistering pace, manfully striding ahead of the girls. But as the plasters came undone in the early afternoon heat and humidity, I found myself in trouble again. Of course, I could hardly complain to our hosts about my predicament. Real Australians open beer bottles with their eye sockets for God's sake. I could hardly stop every two minutes in order to adjust myself to relieve the thong-enduced weals that I could feel rising. The experiment was clearly over - I was not ever, ever going to be so foolish again. But we had another good hour to go before I finally conceded defeat and applied the necessary balms in the privacy of our apartment.

The wounds have almost healed now, and in any case I would never post anything so graphic as an image of the abrasions and blisterings that I suffered. I will, however, add a picture of the offending pair:

Scroll down...

Well what did you think I meant?!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Like two ships passing in the, er, early afternoon

"Is this the right way to put in the ticket?"

The question came from a tall thin gentleman in his late fifties, on the 373 bus. He was holding up his ticket and looking directly at me. The tickets here have big red arrows on them, indicating which way they should be inserted into the stamping machine. And I had a big red face on me, that should have indicated that I'm not from around these here parts, and so shouldn't be relied on for local information (or much else, for that matter).

I was confused by the question. I knew the answer alright, but I was still having trouble dealing with the fact that he had decided that I was the authority on that subject. In fact given the bloody great red arrow, I was having trouble dealing with the fact that the question was posed at all.

When I nodded in the affirmative (though in a wrinkle-browed, open-mouthed kind of way - I must have looked like a Barrystown pony boy) my new ticket-wielding friend looked very pleased with himself and went off to stamp it. When he came back, he saaid "Not bad eh? It's been 6 weeks since I rode a Sydney bus. The ol' memory hasn't let me down eh?"

Now when it comes to poor memory, I'm in no position to be casting first stones. But I have yet to find myself getting excited about remembering how buses work, or which way arrows point. There's time of course - as I mentioned, the gentleman had a good 20-year lead on me. But in the meantime, I reserve the right to be confused and slightly disturbed by this kind of misplaced triumhalism.

I just couldn't get my head around this conversation and it must have shown. I think at this point, the veil of stupidity that I sometime wear must have fallen suddenly and heavily over my features, and prompted the gentleman to explain further.

"I'm from the Bush", he said and sat back smiling, as if everything should now be clear.

It wasn't of course. I was now moving from general confusion on the content of this conversation, and how I might appropriately respond, to the more specific question about why anyone would describe themselves - much less excuse themselves - in these terms. "The Bush", as I understand it, means pretty much anywhere that isn't city, and correlates pretty closely with "down the country" - a phrase that Dubliners use when referring to any place in Ireland, at whatever compass bearing, that isn't Dublin. I can't imagine apologising for example, for not having exact change on a Dublin Bus by pleading "Sorry boy - mucksavage. Only up for the day."

As I sat there, teetering on the brink of this new confusion and unable to reply, he struck again.

"Canberra" he said.

I didn't know if he was elaborating on the previous answer, offering me an alternative one, or starting a whole new conversation. But I knew one thing for sure. If I didn't say something quick, he'd just keep going, and I'd have to do something that I'd never done before - ignore a perfect stranger attempting to strike up a conversation on a bus. If my mother ever found out, I wouldn't be able to come back home. I had to act.

"Canberra!" I shouted, with completely inappropriate enthusiasm. "We're thinking of going there!"

This, as it happens, is true. But I was in verbal defense mode, desperately aiming for a draw, and keeping one eye on the clock. I was capable of saying anything. Canberra - my uncle played silly mid quarterback half stop for the local cricket team between the wars. Or Canberra! Great town. I was born there - no no not in this life of course. But I resisted the rising panic.

"You must drop in!" he parried, without adding any further useful detail like an address, or for that matter, a motive.

I fumbled terrbily now. My bus stop was approaching. I gathered together my grocery bags, mumbled "Er, right" and headed for the exit. I may, or may not, have waved and shouted back "See you there" just before getting off the bus.

Sorry Mam - I tried.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Randwick Residents, Part 2

The weather has turned bad - really bad - and will remain so for the rest of the week. This is Jesus and the saints' way of keeping pale Irishmen out of the midday sun. It will have the unhappy effect, for readers of this blog, of increasing my output while at the same time reducing my sources of inspiration. Welcome to silly season.

Sydney is a city of villages, each with its own style, reputation and demographic. Randwick, where we are based, is half way between Coogee Beach and the Central Business District. We're on Alison Road, pinned between the racecourse in front of us, and Centennial Parklands behind. Three bus stops away is Belmore Road, and further away again is The Spot - two shopping areas of Randwick.

The pace here is laid back, and the buildings vary from the gently crumbling but well-do-do houses, to the more recent characterless apartment blocks - but nothing too big.

The shopping streets are higgeldy-piggeldy lowrise, with the occasional supermarket but mostly specialist shops and a disproportionate number of cafes, eateries and realtors/estate agents. The eateries are all small and cover everything from The Lebanon, Thailand, China, Vietnam, Italy, England, India and more. The prices are low enough that eating out does not require you to consult the monthly budget, and I think that 's why the local economy can support so many small restaurant businesses.

Neither the cars that file past in orderly fashion, nor the locals who traffic the footpaths show any obvious signs of wealth. This makes an enormous - and welcome - change from Ireland. This is a prosperous area, a much sought after address, it just doesn't care to shout about it. How can I describe the locals? There is such variety that it's hard to talk about a typical look. But let's give it a go, hey?

There is, it would appear, a Dame Edna Everage lookalike contest running in perpetuity on Randwick's thoroughfares, and it's organised alongside permanent auditions for the next Ang Lee movie. (If I don't get my damn hair cut soon, I could end up winning the former).

Oh - there's another architype that Letizia has just reminded me about. Let's call him Thor. He has the body of a Nordic myth, and the conversational repertoire of a street-bred tweenie (50% of which is either printed on his t-shirt or tattooed on his shoulder - presumably as an aide-memoire for awkward silences, or perhaps as a substitute for conversation entirely. Mind you I have to remind you, as I have again been reminded by Letizia, that conversation is not what you got to Thor for).

I'm knackered after that long parenthetic effort. (I tend to hold my breath when I open a bracket, and keep holding it until I close again, just to stop me from overdoing what Katharine has correctly diagnosed as flashbacks from Lisp programming in college, taught, as it happens by an Australian with both the appearance and menace of Nosferatu, oh dear god I'm going to faint...

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Adrift in Australia

My sense of place is floating.

When the blinds are closed in the Randwick apartment I hear a noise that my instinct insists is the wind slamming the side gate to the garden of my home in Cork, until my reason intervenes and dismisses the notion with a sneer. Later on, the sound of an aircon fan on the balcony becomes the ticking over of the ferry engines on Circular Quay (or is it the Victoria Star - are we back on the Yangtze?)

Sydney floats.

Pontoons, boats, ferries: We move between them so often that even when on solid ground I sometimes have the impression that I'm afloat and I almost need to stamp my foot to prove to myself that it isn't so.

Time floats.

Last night, we watched Bee Movie in the open air, in a section of the centennial parklands off the Woollahra end of Oxford street. Duncan got there before us and picked a great 'posie' (position). Duncan hasn't changed since Letizia and I first got to know him in Paris, back in the day when we were still getting to know each other. Last night's picnic in the park could have been a trip to the Champs de Mars 13 years ago.

As the light began to fade, I realised that the stretch of water I could see in the distance was Botany Bay. Botany Bay! If you're Irish, you do not associate Botany Bay with beanbags, beers, or cartoon bees voiced by Jerry Seinfeld. Australia seems to live right up alongside its own history, and its todays and yesterdays don't always make sense when seen together.

Or maybe after a month on the road, and despite the normality of our Sydney routine, I've finally come unstuck. In exactly the way I had hoped. The certainty that our current routine will be uprooted in weeks, that the scenery and the people will be swapped, that we will have to say some goodbyes, that we will make some re-aquaintences - the certainty that things will keep changing, is exactly what I wanted. I hope it's what I need.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

China and Australia: Budgeting Accomodation and Transport with Kids

if you plan to travel to either China or Australia with children, you'll find both places very accomodating, but in different ways. It's worth understanding these differences up front, to help with your budget.

In China, the only places where we each of us got a bed to ourselves was the train to Xi'an and the boat on the Yangtze. In very other case, if you have more than one child, and don't want two rooms, you'll end up putting one of them in the extra bed (for which you'll pay something like 20% on top of the room rate) and the other (or others!) into the double bed with you. Very romantic. The alternative of two rooms means moving up the price bracket. For us it wasn't an option.

Very many attractions in China have a reduced rate, or no fee at all, for children under 1.2 meters. It's odd, and seems arbitrary, but it's almost universally applied. Universally, but not rigourously. Although Sara is a shade over 1.2 meters, she always got whatever discount was on offer. On one occasions she was going to be charged full price but when I pushed, even a little, the cashier conceded. All these rebates add up, expecially when you consider that over 1.2 meters pays the full adult price.

One place this height policy did not apply was in the underground/subway trains. In Beijing we all paid the 2 RMB and in Shanghai we had to pay 4 each. So for many trips, with four of us, it made more economic sense to take a taxi, where the minimum fare was 11 RMB but for most central destinations didn't rise much beyond that. But be aware that if you have more than 2 kids, you and your luggage will not fit into most taxis. There were a lot of scalpers trying to sell us van trips to our hotel at Shanghai's Hongqiao airport, and they tried to convince us that we would not fit into a taxi. By ignoring them, we saved ourselves a bill that would have been 4 times the taxi fare. if you don't want to separate into two taxis, and you don't want to line the pockets of those van operators working the airports, organize a pickup with your hotel. The price will be more reasonable than anything you can get in situ.

In Sydney so far, the experience has been in line with European expectations. Based on age, you will get a discount on admission to many attractions and museums. Family tickets typically cover parents and 2 kids, so if you have more, you're going to have to dig a little deeper.

Again, public transport is the exception to the rule, but in this case, a positive one. If you are travelling with your children by Sydney bus, train or ferry, you pay half for your first child, and nothing at all for any others (you hear that Tim!?) We pay for weekly travel tickets that cover everything we need - and the bus coverage in particular is excellent - at a cost of AU$87.50 (about 50 euro).