26 February 2008

Ticket to Townsville

There was a famous person waiting to board my flight to Townsville last Friday.

“Who?” You might reasonably ask..

I have no idea. Even if this person weren’t famous, I would have spent every spare moment stealing glances at his amazing physique: shoulders wide enough to land a jet, arms that could launch rockets, and skin so dark you could see through time. I only gathered that he was famous because every other bloke in the waiting area was also staring at him. Or maybe we all just had similar taste in men. But when the entire starting line-up of the Brisbane Broncos exited through the gate and came up to shake his hand, I reckoned that he must be a big shot rugby player and not a junior member of parliament. However, by then, I was more distracted by the notion that the plane I was about to board had just been vacated by 32 testosterone laden athletes who had probably left the cabin smelling like a gym locker AND drunk all the beer.

I’m no particular fan of Sir Richard Branson (is being rich the only criteria for knighthood these days? Don’t you have to save a damsel in distress, slay a dragon, or take down a windmill with a toothbrush or something?), but I do like the cheeky attitude of Virgin Airlines – nay, of all the subsidiaries of the Virgin empire. If the cocky drawl of the recorded operators servicing their mobile phone, credit cards, or flight reservations desk isn’t enough to win my heart, the d├ęcor of their airplanes certainly is:

I especially like how in Australia, they don't tell you to 'fasten your seatbelt' they tell you to make sure it is 'done up'...

My poor quizzical readers, by now you must be asking “But wait, didn’t you just go to Townsville the weekend before last?”

Yes. I did.

However, the astute reader will recall that Kevin was in Townsville during my last post. He is currently servicing a major zinc-mining operation that grosses over 600 million dollars per year and is owned by one (Korean) man. Being wealthy and impatient, this client wants Kevin’s undivided attention for several weeks at a time. Kevin had the imagination and forethought to agree to extended travel time with the proviso that the client pay for my airfare to come up for the weekend. I like to imagine that the client liked to imagine that he was flying in entertainment for the benefit of his contracted guest. AND, I was perfectly happy to vacate the apartment for several days in the firm belief that my unwanted house guest would get bored without me and fly out the window in search of other entertainment.

I so want to regale you with all of the wonderful details of this most recent trip – of stories about our glorious hike through the rainforest near Paluma, of swimming beneath a roaring waterfall at Little Crystal Creek, of our visit to The Frosty Mango, of the way the sunlight danced on the receding tide at Balgal Beach, of the taste of Jack Fruit, Dragon Fruit, and some other fruit whose name I cannot remember, of the unusual number of children with birth defects at Hungry Jack’s and the Supa IGA, of the noise that seagulls make when they are fighting over soggy chips, of the smell that wafts out of bar room doors at 8 pm before they are packed out with young livers and how that is different to the smell that wafts out of bar room doors at 8 am when they are packed out with old livers, of the urgent flight of the swallows above the Ross River as the setting sun back lights Castle Crag, of the price of socks, and of the flavour of red spot prawns, of the sound of prop-job cargo planes vanishing into dark puffy cloud banks across a grey bay, of children laughing in public fountains along The Strand, of smiling puppies and sea eagles that watch you back with equal fascination, of heat, and humidity, and drought, and rain, and worry, and hope, and fear, and resolution, and doubt, and wearing a bikini at forty…

But, it is late. I am tired. And my Korean noodles are getting cold on the stove.

(Note to self: write a blog entry about the inadequacies of Top Ramen compared to the glories of instant Korean noodles.)

21 February 2008

Eeeze No Mouse

One of my favourite childhood anecdotes occurred during a trip to Nassau with my mother. We were out for dinner at some tropical restaurant, and I needed to go to the bathroom. Being the fiercely independent child that I was, I insisted on going alone. I returned with the force of a recently fired cannon ball, shrieking at having seen a gigantic mouse atop the toilet. The waiter, in an attempt to both calm me and to assure the other guests of the cleanliness of his establishment came over and said, “Oh no leetle girl. Eeeze no mouse. Eeeze cock-A-roach!”

Now, it might sound odd, that a grown woman (and a biologist at that) who is fascinated by animal carcasses smeared across road beds and likewise charmed by even the most putrid of slithering animals should be so unreasonably mortified by the existence of cockroaches - but I am. Perhaps my intense phobia stems from the traumatic events of that otherwise blissful island vacation. Or maybe it developed during those long nights spent on the roach-riddled couch at my now-father’s wretched little apartment in Toledo (which, by the way, was the scene of another of my favourite childhood anecdotes which I will save for the occasion when I need to introduce a topic regarding exploding bottles of liquid Styrofoam and the ensuing haircuts required as a result thereof.) I won’t dismiss the possibility that my rigid disregard for the frightful insects matured that night I ate mushrooms at Mike Griffin’s house. Well, a phobia is, by definition, an irrational fear, thus I will squander no further effort on a justification for my emotions. Regardless of the root causes, the fact remains that I am extremely unsettled by the sudden and unexpected sight of a cockroach.

Now, one might make a good argument for the case that seeing a cockroach in Sydney in the summer should not be an unexpected event. Indeed, I myself have made public statements regarding the fact that cockroaches are an undeniable part of the native fauna of Australia, and that they are not necessarily an indicator of squalid poverty or poor domestic hygiene. Nonetheless, whenever I chance upon some shiny brown carapace with wriggly antenna waving at me in eager defiance as it scuttles across the halls of the Blackburn Building and vanishes beneath some misplaced piece of equipment, I cannot resist the impulse to pull my elbows close to my body and flap my hands at the wrists whilst high-stepping through the corridors in a spastic ballet accompanied by some rather unpleasant vocalizations.

Thus, with that background information, I invite you to imagine the turmoil that ensued when I, in a state of gentle repose, relaxing upon my sofa, drinking a cold beer, and watching illegally obtained episodes of South Park, observed a small dark form scurry into my peripheral vision. As my frontal cortex rapidly sorted through possible explanations for this brown blur (lizard, mouse, cock…) the wretched creature crawled across MY FOOT, at which moment my reptilian brainstem reclaimed control over my body with the vengeance of a postal worker that has been passed over for promotion for forty years. With an agility I’d never imagined possible outside of a French circus, my puny muscles launched my awkward frame across the room in a spray of golden bubbles and imaginative curses. It took a full forty-five seconds of sputtering in circles before my cortex regained control of my corpuscles and suggested to my reluctant hands to collect a shoe, but of course, by this time the little bastard had wriggled out of sight.

The situation might not have been so traumatic if Kevin were here to laugh at me, or better yet, to hunt down and kill the beast himself (a duty that I distinctly recall being stated in our wedding vows explicitly), but he is over 2,000 kilometers away in Townsville. So I am left alone, to prance gingerly through the apartment, rounding corners on tip-toe, and jumping at every little shadow that shimmies in the corner of my eye. I will change the sheets and shake out the doona (aka comforter), but I doubt that sleep will fall easily upon my worried mind. I already pity myself for the unavoidable occasion when I am awakened in the middle of the night by the pitter-patter of six sticky feet across my face.

That just may be the day I buy my ticket home.

14 February 2008


“Some amazing things just happened to my mouth.” Said Kevin.

Wait, I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

Did you know that 23% of all men suffer from excessive wind? I know that because there was a framed sign in the bathroom at the pub that said so. That was all it said. There was no further information nor suggestions for products to relieve such an affliction nor a number for a government hotline. Just a simple statement of fact. A fact with which, by the way, I take serious umbrage. For one thing, I have no doubt the statistic approaches 110%, and secondly, I disagree that they are the ones who suffer. Indeed, I think they rather enjoy it.

But that was before the amazing things happened to Kevin’s mouth. And my mouth. These amazing things came courtesy of the food artisans at the Spicy Sichuan Restaurant. It’s the type of restaurant I might have been reluctant to try on my own, because I would not have had a clue what to order, even though each menu item featured colourful photographs. Fortunately, we were there at the urging of the graduate students in my lab, who deftly, and enthusiastically, ploughed through the menu in an animated exchange with the waiter that involved much nodding and gesturing.

I’m still not quite sure what I ate, but it was amazing. There was some fish stuff. And some pork stuff with garlic – or was it garlic stuff with pork? I believe that is more accurate. There was my favourite dish of green beans with more pork stuff. There were stuffed dumplings and more fish stuff. And there was eggplant, which I generally dislike with an intensity reserved for purveyors of genocide, but which on this occasion tempted me to lick my bowl. The magical blend of garlic, spice, and peppers transported us all to a higher plane of existence, where vocabulary became obsolete and conversation limited to the making of yummy sounds.

However, my favourite part of the restaurant experience was the little shrine in the women’s toilet burning fragrant incense. No doubt because 23% of all women…

12 February 2008

Never Ready

This morning, I dismissed the little voice in side my head that said I should carry my camera with me today. So I don’t have a picture of the inexplicable crowd that swarmed the St Leonards train station.

Or of the incredibly helpful marquee on the front of the #435 bus that read “TERMINATES – All Stops”.

Or of the amazingly filthy man sitting on the marble steps of Energy Australia telling an animated story to a constable. He looked like he had been dragged beneath the under carriage of a train…or maybe like a cat that had been sleeping on a greasy engine block.

I don’t have a picture of the burned out car with smashed windows that has been sitting in the gravel lot in front of the brick wall painted with a mural of a giant smirking skull, but was today filled with colourful balloons.

I don’t have a picture of the fire at the Broadway shops or the massive traffic back up along the main artery leading from the heart of the city into the Western suburbs.

I don’t have a picture of the torrential downpour that soaked me to the skin the minute I stepped out of the door of the Blackburn Building (which, by the way, had a fire alarm today.)

But I especially don’t have a picture of the wonderful little boy stomping happily through puddles, who reminded me that it is fun to walk in the rain.

09 February 2008

Ode to the Lane Cove Library

One of the advantages of commuting by public transport is that I have an extra 7.5 hours per week to dedicate to reading, Thus I am averaging about a book a week. Not exactly ravenous, but not too shabby, considering the number of people who don’t read at all – or who will no longer read now that the Harry Potter adventures are all wrapped up.

Despite having been raised by a devout Librarian, I somehow picked up the naughty habit of buying books. Mostly, because I enjoy writing in them and giving them to people, but also because since I moved away from home, Mom can no longer erase my overdue fines. Aside from the occasional find at St Vincent dePaul’s, buying books in Australia is preposterous. Books here are outrageously expensive. Outrageously. Even used books are excessive. I had myself a little rant at Dymock’s where the clerk calmly explained that the reason books were so expensive is that Australia had to pay exorbitant fees to the bloody American Publishing houses. How does that explain the 128 page paperback, written by Australian authors and published in Sydney that just cost me $30?? (Editor's Note: Derogatory comment regarding Australia's convict heritage has been thoughtfully deleted.)

And so, I have developed a very close relationship with the Lane Cove Library. Although their collection is typically lacking any book I am actively seeking (hence the aggravation at Dymock’s), I can always find something amusing to read. And they have an exquisite collection of DVD’s, including old classics, heaps of Aussie movies, and the entire 182 seasons of M*A*S*H. (Mind you, M*A*S*H was a great show, but I am still a little baffled by its lingering popularity here. I suspect they like it because every once in a while a brave and stalwart digger makes an appearance on the show, always in a favourable light.)

The Lane Cove Library is run by a prototypical library staff: 30% genuinely helpful professional bibliophiles, 30% crotchety old farts with fat ankles, 20% social misfits without people skills who are very annoyed that you are disturbing their perfectly ordered world by moving their books around and asking questions. Since we moved to St Leonards from the Village of Lane Cove, visiting the library has become a bit of an event for us. Lately, we have been walking the hilly 2.5 Km, then stopping in at the butcher’s to collect something for dinner, or having lunch at my favourite place for Portuguese chicken burgers.

But my favourite time to visit the library is when it is pissing down rain – which it has done for about 25 out of the last 30 days. This is not because the prospect of curling up with a good book or an old movie on a rainy afternoon is so appealing…nor is it because the library is located in a cozy brick building. It is because when it rains, the roof leaks like a sprinkler. I find this infinitely amusing for some reason that can only be a defect in my moral character. (Editor's Note: A derogatory comment regarding Australian building standards has been deleted.) The floor becomes a maze of buckets catching small waterfalls. The carpet beneath the rear wall has sprouted a thick shag of white fungus. The stacks are draped with large plastic sheets. I think it is very fun to climb under the tarps and browse through the fiction titles in solitude. It's like being in a dark smelly tent with all my favourite authors telling me bed time stories.

Yesterday, upon check out, I was handed a slip of paper explaining the relocation of half the collection to temporary quarters during construction of a new library. What is odd is that the new library is going to be in an entirely different location from the current one, so I cannot comprehend why half the collection is being temporarily relocated elsewhere and half will remain where it is. My questions were answered by an angry stare from an employee clearly in the 20th percentile, so I collected my books and departed in a state of mild bewilderment that has become all too familiar to me since moving to Australia.

06 February 2008

Burn Blackburn, Burn

Without fail, the fire alarm in the building where I work goes off every week, except for the time when there really was a fire on the sixth floor. Then it never went off. I am forever optimistic that, maybe this time, it will actually burn to the ground, and then the University could build a proper research building with functional plumbing, proper ventilation, and adequate electrical outlets. But it is always a boring old false alarm.

Except for today. Today, the building got hit by lightning. It was the loudest sound I ever felt, and of course, the fire alarm went off immediately. Eyewitnesses outside reported seeing a large yellow fireball in the vicinity of the roof. Unfortunately, the building is adequately grounded, thus it did not burn to the ground. We didn't even lose power. There was a minor explosion in a flourescent light fixture, which has filled the hallways with the dramatic smell of ozone.

The best part about fire alarms, aside from the fresh air, is the firemen. I like to sit on the brick wall across from the main entrance and wait for the firemen to pull up in their cute little miniature firetrucks. Perhaps "cosmopolitan" is a better term, but compared to the American behemoths, they look like little toy firetrucks. I don't know how the firmen can muster such enthusiasm on a weekly basis, hopping out of the cabs in all earnestness, full of gusto. Maybe like me, they are eternal optimists and belive that this will be the week when the building is really, truly on fire.

Which is ridiculous, because if it were, there wouldn't be any alarms.

05 February 2008

Super Bowl in the Tropics

I stepped out of the dry sterile air of the plane and into the wet heat of Townsville in summer, like walking into a French whore’s g-string, except it smelled like frangipani and sea water and only cost ninety-nine dollars to get there.

Logistical difficulties with Kevin’s work travel schedule forced us to spend Super Bowl Monday in the tropics. BooHoo. Sydney’s weather has been total shithouse for the last few weeks, and I welcomed the sweltering seaside humidity. It’s not like the exhaust stained humidity of the city that clings to your eyeballs and pools in the bottom of your lungs. It’s fresh and cleansing, like being in a pretty bathtub for three days, except for the drunk aboriginals.

Townsville seems to be falling down and building up at the same time. The skyline is dotted with several cranes constructing large hotels and giant warehouses along the port, yet every other storefront along the main drag is gutted and boarded up. The parklands of The Strand are maintained with meticulous splendour, the massive fig and macadamia nut trees filled with black cockatoos and honey eaters. The brick walkways of The Flinders Street Mall are dusty and jumbled, the benches filled with black men with skinny legs and shaggy white manes drinking beer.

Castle Crag looms majestically above Townsville, staring out across the bay at Magnetic Island, perhaps longingly. After World War II, an American Corps of Army Engineers offered to dismantle the giant rock cliff to build a bridge to the island. I think they were just looking for a good excuse to stay. Townsville wisely declined. And so Maggie maintains an aura of remote mystique, even though it is only 25 minutes away by ferry and infested with luxury vacation homes and dirty back-packers.

I do not feel there is any reason for me to recap the play-by-play drama of the main event, since I am reasonably sure that most of my reading audience was among the 140 million people that tuned into the Super Bowl at some point, and if you weren’t watching the gripping second half, then you obviously don’t care about it anyway and wouldn’t want to suffer through my bombastic narrative. As per usual, I came very close to getting kicked out of the Cowboy’s League Club. What can I say, I got excited. And I had been drinking beer since 9 am. Swearing in public is frowned upon with an amazing intolerance here. But Christ, it was the Fucking Super Bowl and I was in a Rugby League Club! I pulled myself together and managed to direct my angst inward during the last few minutes of the game:

I took advantage of the occasion to revel in the glory of the anniversary of the most exciting sport’s bet I have ever made, retelling the tale to anyone who would listen. Our gains were appreciably more modest this year, though we did double our money and cover our drinks with a Giant’s win and Eli’s nomination to MVP, and if Plaxico Burress hadn’t been triple covered on the first drive, we would have paid for dinner too.

01 February 2008

The Doctrine of Fashionism

Sydney certainly believes itself to be a city steeped in high fashion. Except for the occasional freak coincidence, my own wardrobe has consistently been at odds with the fashion industry throughout my entire life. Therefore, I am not really in a position to judge whether or not Sydneysiders dress in the height of modern fashion. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that Australia’s geographical isolation from the rest of civilization, coupled with their unique self image, has resulted in some very regrettable wardrobe decisions among Sydney’s clothes conscious.

The current trend for women is all about baby doll dresses. Loose flowing gowns cinched tight across the nipple line and cropped as close to the bottom of the buttocks as a breezeless day will allow. The result is a complete obliteration of any hint of the female form. Breasts look flattened and all other curves become invisible. This look does however place an extraordinary emphasis on the lower extremities. Many Australian women have a distinct body-type: long lean bodies and short strong legs (I am curious to know what set of genetic crossbreeds gave rise to this particular shape.) Thus the baby doll dress helps balance out their proportions. However, the overall effect is that Saturday night in the city resembles a giant pyjama party in high heels.

Note: This look is not truly complete unless you are pigeon toed.

The fashion for men is slightly less ridiculous, except for the shoes and quite possibly the hair, oh and the sunglasses. When walking through the central business district, I often get the feeling I have stumbled into a Tyler Durden look-alike convention. I actually find this look rather attractive, if not only because of the menatal associations to Brad Pitt. I don’t particularly mind the just-rolled-out-of-bed look for men’s hair, except I know that in fact they had it professionally styled and spent more than a few minutes in the mirror with some products making sure the left side was smooshed just so. But this look falls apart for me when it comes to the shoes. Most popular are ridiculously long, square-toed Italian loafers – preferably so long that the toes actually curl up, giving the effect of a pair of Persian Ali Baba slippers. This gives the Australian male a peculiar gait in order to avoid tripping, and narrow stair cases necessitate a slightly angled ascent in order to ensure the balls of the foot actually hit the risers.

When it comes to sunglasses, I am fairly certain that this unfortunate trend has indeed swept the globe, but I am hopeful that it is already dying out elsewhere. Now mind you, there was a time when I was quite smitten with Jackie-O sunglasses, but as usual, it was more for the comic relief factor than for style or practicality. Designers have taken the Jackie-O concept to new extremes, but the key to this fashion accessory is to sport a sincere expression of disaffected boredom and impatience. The overall effect is an entire city of indolent insects travelling by public transport.

One last note about footwear: I know that flip-flops (aka thongs) have risen to new heights of acceptable fashion throughout the United States and are probably here to stay because of their complete functionality and affordability. I support this trend fully and thank the powers of the universe that this trend did not persist during the seventies when the thick-soled rainbow striped version briefly made the scene. Still, I cannot visualize any major city in the US where flip-flops are such an integral part of daily business wear. Again, I suspect this has much to do with Australia’s unique self-image and also with Sydney’s close association with the beach, such that everyone like to constantly give the impression that, at any moment, they might just bugger off to go surfing.

So tell me dear readers, is the rest of the world really dressing like this?