Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Into the abyss

Thus far tmafaopie has been more or less a 'what I did on my holidays' travelogue, with the occasional rant or review thrown in. Nothing too personal revealed... this is the interweb after all and who knows who could be reading!

Well I do know, and you all (ok, both) know me well enough that if I start using this as a cheap version of therapy then I won't exactly be telling you anything you don't already know - I can't really imagine the FLC fan club popping back to check the blog, even if they did enjoy the review.
But just to warn you, the mafaopie is about to get a whole lot darker. And I don't mean the layout colours, it's to reduce eyestrain Emma! not because I'm evil - we can't all live in pink and white fairy land!

So, let's stretch out on the couch and see what dark creatures lurk in the abyss...

So, why don't you tell me where it all began?

What? the blog? Well it started off as just a few emails sent to friends back home during a trip around Europe when I was learning French a few years back... here's an example

(insert hazy memory sequence fade out)

Bonjour tout le monde! ca va? quoi de neuf? moi? pas grand chose. je me debrouille bien a l'institut de francais, le temps fait beau (euh, bien,il faisait beau jusqu'au ajourdhui...)

As you can see, the first week of the french course has greatly improved my ability to talk about nothing at all in French. Vous voulez savoir cequi s'est passe? euh alors..

Finally escaped the family, which had improved towards the end of my stay with them, but plumbed new depths of misery with the last few days together in Nice. Needless to say, I was bloody relieved to escape to the Institut. Even 8 hours a day of trying to speak in a foreign language was better than that!

The school is an eclectic bunch of rich Americans who have retired or semi retired with a house in France, people who have a yacht on the Mediterranean, and 2 Australian uni students. As you can imagine, we fit right in. It's actually not bad, but it leads to very strange situations, such as today when I had to make a presentation about Australian history, in French, to a room full of Americans and Scandinavians. As you are no doubt aware, I know practically nothing about Australian history, so I don't know what they got out of it, but if you ever meet someone who asks you about the 20 years of bloody civil war in Australia, play along. Tell them the 2 sides were known as the kangaroos and koalas, because they used their skins as uniforms. I'm sure that's what I said.

The highlight so far was last weekend, watching the derby between les Marseillais and les Nicois in the local pub. We got there quite early,and thought we'd be the only ones there to watch the match. By kick-off time, the place was packed to the rafters with OM supporters, with a small pocket of resistance in black and red. This meant that all the second hand smoke couldn't rise to said rafters, but had to escape into eyeballs instead. The whites of my eyes are now stained yellow with nicotine. The
atmosphere, while unbreathable, was very lively - including one guy with no shirt (which is something at 9pm in a European winter, even on the cote d'azur). He made up for the lack of shirt, by which one can normally tell which team he supports, with a loud hailer,and constantly chanting the OM chant, which goes something along the
lines of:

"Allez allez allez marseillais marseillas allez" (repeat).

Which, you can no doubt imagine, after a few Pernods degenerates to:

"Ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay" (repeat).

Such a sophisticated culture.

Maintenant, je vous laisse. Il faut que je m'en aille.
a bientot,Pat

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Coast-to-(almost)coast along Hadrian's wall. Sort of.

The plan was to follow Cycle Route 72 from Maryport on the West coast to Newcastle-upon-Tyne hopefully making it out to the East coast. A motley band of 8 riders signed up. None had any previous cycle touring experience. One knew how to make road repairs. Somehow, I ended up with the maps. Not a good start...

Day 1 am (Maryport - Newton Arlosh)

The sea was angry that day my friends... our band of intrepid cyclists set off from Maryport, having woken to hear severe weather warnings on the morning news. Thankfully the wind was at our backs along the coast, and the waterproof clothing was in fact waterproof. Riding along country back roads with deep puddles of watery mud and cowpats led to bewildered looks from the locals and inspired the theme song of the day: "Smell like poo on route 72."

Day 1 pm (Newton Arlosh - Carlisle):

After a well-deserved hot pub lunch we set off again, and although the rain had eased, we had to turn in to the wind. Not nice. We rode through Bowness, the Western extremity of the wall but nothing remains to be seen. The weather closed in and all were glad to get back to the Cornerways B&B in Carlisle, and then a typical English night out: Indian followed by a few drinks at the Walkabout. Less typically, there was a flame-eating woman in her knickers outside the walkie. Women in Carlisle are proper 'ard.

Day 2 am (Carlisle - Low Row):

Fortunately the rain had stopped and the sun had appeared. Unfortunately the baggage transport company ruined our plans to leave early, by nicking off with one of the bags we needed for the ride. Eventually we got on the road and enjoyed cycling away in the crisp morning sunshine. All was going well until the first bit of hill caused a broken chain... an hour or so later we were back on the road, and all was going well until a slightly ambiguous cycle route sign and my impetuousness led to the group splitting in two and getting lost. Yes, I had chosen the wrong way to go. Eventually we all reunited at Lanercost Priory, but being behind schedule and hungry we had to cut away from the cycle route and head to Low Row for lunch. I don't know why they have Low in the name of the town, after the hill we had to climb to get there.

Day 2 pm: (Low Row - Twice Brewed)
For fear of losing the light after all the morning's disasters we ignored the scenic cycle route and made straight for Twice Brewed, with only a whistle-stop halt in Haltwhistle, the geographic centre of Britain apparently. With dusk closing in we eventually found the Twice Brewed Inn (after quite a few more steep climbs) and were amply rewarded with one of the greatest pubs I've ever had the pleasure of playing trivial pursuit in.

Day 3 am: (Twice Brewed - Chesters)
Again, our hopes of an early start were dashed when a flat tyre was spotted in the morning. Andy kindly acted as super mechanic while the rest of us went up another hill for a spot of sightseeing and finally got to see a good chunk of the wall up close. To make up time we decided to just head east on the Stanegate (built over the old nice and straight Roman road), which allowed us to cycle along and gaze at the wall while lorries whizzed past us. A quick stop at the Mithraeum to have one of the best coffees I've had in the UK made by a chap with a coffee cart in the middle of nowhere, and to point at a dead sheep. Then on to Chesters for some proper classical nerdery, wandering among the ruins of the cavalry fort and the small museum.

Day 3 pm: (Chesters - Newcastle)
No rest for the wicked, we push on after lunch to get back on route 72, and hopefully make it to Newcastle in time for our trains back to London. With the clock racing against us, there was no time to idle at sites of interest, but zipping down the country lanes and along the banks of the Tyne was one of the most pleasant parts of the whole ride. Apart from the bugs in the hedgerows, stinging against your cheeks or sticking in your throat as you ride past. With some weary legs in the group we made it to Newcastle with plenty of time to make the train. Not with plenty of time to ride out to the coast and back, but Simon was determined to do it and no-one was going to stop him. The rest of us finally managed to pick up our bags at the YHA and settled in for a nice hot meal at the pub before getting on the train... well, that was the plan, but Jo and Andy discovered that everything they ordered wasn't available that day, since the chef was new.

Friday, 10 October 2008

More much needed updates

Like so many fat people with unused gym memberships, my resolution to write more has been a failure. Sure, it left me with a lingering sense of guilt, especially since people (okay, two, but that's still plural) in Sydney had been asking for more entries, but I just couldn't find the motivation. I needed a reason bigger than self-fulfillment or maintaining friendships. What I needed was competition... And then Emma started "feeling fuzzy?", and suddenly I had purpose!

So, here's my metaphorical blitzkrieg in the war of the words: updates on all the travels and goings-on since the start of 2008. Since this blog is more or less a personal diary to one day help me remember what I did and when, I've back-dated and archived the entries.

So that you can find them, here they are, in more or less reverse order:

More links will be added once I write the posts - there's a lot to catch up on!

I hope you enjoy reading them. Both of you. P

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Getting old: another birthday

So, 90% of the way to 30. This time last year, I was enjoying my mid-twenties watching world cup rugby in Paris. This year I was meant to be sunning myself on a weekend trip to the Italian coast, but due to an unplanned change in personal circumstances, I ended up sunning myself in London. Yes people, the sun actually came out on a day that begins with S. Twice.

The celebrations kicked off with a fashionably disastrous bowling night. Only in North London (or perhaps South London) would you be frisked upon entering a bowling alley. Still, the unexpected grope was well worth it for the cheese factor of Rowans bowling emporium and leisure centre, complete with DJ and a dance floor that really fired up after midnight. Congrats must go to Mel - winner of the bowling comp, proving that wii is no substitute for the real thing, Mark - air hockey champion, proving that even a child's game can be turned violent and foul-mouthed, and Nick - for the fruit tingle drink, proving that 3 wrongs can make a right.

The big day itself was spent making the most of the sun: american football in the park with some mates in the morning, followed by riding around the one-day-only cycle friendly streets of London, and capped off by sneaking in to (sort of) one of the corporate schmooze tents and enjoying their free booze and cheese cake. Oh, and I saw Boris Johnson (he looks even more ridiculous in person). Thanks also to my flatmate for cooking up a healthy dinner to make up for all the junk eaten while bowling.

After such a pleasant weekend, it's been a bit of a come-down. I'm now waking up to my 'late-twenties' status, and figure I should start making and checking off some sort of 'before I'm 30' list. I imagine these lists tend to have things like:
  • get a degree: check. Twice. and a bit. Don't mention a PhD though.
  • learn a second language: check. Although I'm finding that courses on French linguistics aren't that useful in everyday conversation. I should have taken "FRNC4601: How to console someone after a break-up."
  • represent Australia at sport: check. It counts!
  • move to a different city: check. Although after a year in Canberra I came scurrying back.
  • move to a different country: check. Although the jury's out on whether it was a good idea - scurrying is still an option.
  • find love and settle down: yeah, well, see the point above.
  • find a job that you love: Baaahahahahahaha!
  • buy a house: stop it, I'm laughing too hard!
  • save the world: not likely, although my mother keeps telling me I should. I'm not sure it's worth saving.
  • kill a man: check. sort of.

Anyone out there got suggestions for the list?

Thursday, 18 September 2008

And I thought I was having a bad week...

In a rare nod to current events, I'd like to draw everyone's attention to this particular vignette from the Lehman Brothers collapse (it was reported in the Standard stable of papers, so it must be true):
Frenchman Edouard d'Archimbaud, 24, was due to begin his first day as a £45,000-a-year trader at Lehman Brothers today. He said: "I had trouble getting here because of the Eurostar fire. When I finally made it I found out I was fired. We are all fired."

I can't help but laugh. But to be honest, he seems to be taking it all in stride with a gallic shrug of insouciance.

Since I'm talking current events I'd also like to pick up some great writing on contests for the two most important political positions in the Western world: premier of NSW, and the less important post of US president. The first is from a blog-post from the BBC's Sydney correspondent on Iemma's 'retirement':

Soap opera does not even begin to describe what happened in New South Wales politics last week, as the unpopular Premier Morris Iemma stepped down in an orgy of factionalism, blood-letting and tears. It had shades of the The Borgias, The Sopranos, Monty Python, and now, with the elevation of Nathan Rees, the rag and bone of Steptoe and Son.

The rest of the post (entitled "the west-wing-isation of politics") is well worth a read.

The second tidbit, on the US contest is also in blog form - you MUST check out Sarah Palin's own blog Palindrome (the name alone should win an award). In particular have a look at the post with her preparation notes for an interview.

OK, it's not really Sarah Palin writing it. But you had to check didn't you? As an added bonus, google Palindrome blog (ok I've done it for you) and check out the site's by line. Had me in tears. But not in the same way that the thought of her leading the Western world does (and she will - McCain can't live another 4 years... can he?)

Thursday, 11 September 2008

The future of music is... silence?

... and if it is I don't like it.

Thanks to Londonist (my favourite source for all things London) I scored a pair of tickets to see the Fun Lovin' Criminals playing at Koko. But this was no ordinary gig - it was a gimmicky 'silent disco' sponsored by Smirnoff. Basically, instead of plugging the instruments and mics into amps, they're all fed directly to the mix desk and then broadcast to the headphones you're wearing. And the drummer is locked away in a soundproof box... so now you get the idea.

Given only a few hours notice that I had in fact received tickets, I called on Mad Mark - music punter and critic extraordinaire - to join me on for this surreal concept in live music. It didn't take long for us to make up our minds that the old ways are still the best. The headphones weren't exactly top notch and gave a tinny sound experience, the mixing was either poor or couldn't cope with the fact that the instruments and vocals weren't being sung properly (not that Huey was messing it up, but amping up someone singing under their breath doesn't produce the same sound as someone singing properly). So, the 'silent' part of the gig definitely hampered the sound. The one saving grace of the headphones was that we could take them off to ignore the utterly atrocious Dutch DJ (perhaps I missed the joke, as others thought he was great). What would have been a great gig was sadly ruined by the gimmick.

Sound quality aside, the headphone gig also destroys one of the quintessentially valuable aspects of seeing music live - the sense of community and collective experience. Instead of feeling like you've shared a musical moment and thereby connected with the masses around you, everyone is at the same place, listening to the same band, but isolated in their own little 'ipod bubble'. Instead of stumbling out the doors overjoyed after a collective aural orgy, you hand back the headphones and leave feeling slightly dirty after a session of mass musical masturbation.

Friday, 5 September 2008

These people have well-paid jobs

Working for a faceless multinational with it's seat in the US, I've been privy to a number of company-wide announcements from top brass so riddled with jargon and buzz-speak that they become meaningless. This one is so special I thought it should be shared:

We are working with an external consultant to conduct a review of the working environment at the London office. The aim is to develop ideas on how we can optimise the way we work and utilise our office space. The review will focus on the following key areas:
* Flexibility – using modern working practices and leveraging technology to improve fluidity in the workplace
* Mobility and space usage – usage of desks, meeting rooms, break out areas, and how the space can best serve our working patterns

The mind boggles. I've cut off the rest of the mail to preserve your sanity. The second bullet point has a smattering of the bleeding obvious to it (desks? people sit at them; meeting rooms? people meet in them...), but the first point has led to the following possible interpretations of "leveraging technology to improve fluidity..."
  • using your laptop as a crowbar to burst the emergency water pipes
  • knocking over a full cup of coffee with your keyboard
  • throwing your PC tower through the window on a rainy day (which is any day in London)

Any other suggestions out there?

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Getting Old: the 10 year reunion

While I may bemoan the bad weather and high cost of living associated with life in London, it did mean I didn't have to wrestle with the dilemma of whether or not to attend the 10 year reunion of my high school class.
Realising that it has been a full decade since the halcyon days of high school was still a rude shock, and I haven't achieved anything (I still maintain that arts degree was the best 6 years of my life!), at least I didn't have to be subjected to witnessing first hand the literally mind-boggling success stories of those I used to watch throwing food at each other, in truly sub-simian lunch time displays.
While I wasn't there in person, I did have my spies on the ground, and thought it would be worth noting some of the reactions and comments that made me chuckle, and made me wonder if perhaps it wouldn't have been such a bad idea to go along and catch up with some of them... I'm sure most people have similar reactions to such events and seeing people for the first time after a long break. The sources of the quotes, and persons named in them, have been suppressed to prevent reprisals.
On how people have changed, or not

Some of the gronks have actually developed normal personalities. Check out thephotos on Facebook. Based on the photos, you will have to tell me who the two people are you think won my "Who ate all the pies" Awards


...the funniest thing was that 95% of people looked exactly the same as at highschool (even if you couldn't remember their names), 2.5% are just stupidly fatter / balder, and 2.5% I couldn't recognise at all.
Ahh, reunion - that must have been.... revealing. I still prefer to think that those who were c-nts at school are still, and will always be, c-nts. Except that obviously X is now a fat c-nt.
On not recognising people

Also, what was pudding's real name? I forgot, but overheard everyone else calling him pudding so called him pudding also.


I don't know how to describe him. weedyish looking guy, I think I sat next to him in year 11 science or something

On funny ways to report a class-mates death
(this actually happened*)
[Interior. Lounge room. T, J and P variously seated on the couch or floor]

P: T, tell him about Person X

J: Person X... man, I'd forgotten that guy even existed

T: Well he doesn't any more!

[General laughter, followed by a brief sense of guilt, followed by even more laughter]
*It's ok, we didn't like him anyway.
If anyone else attended the event and has something to share, or has similar anecdotes about their own reunions, get in touch.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

What? You mean there's stuff beyond London?

London, the physical and moral black hole that it is, makes it very hard to escape to other parts of the UK. Sure, you can hop on a crap-o-jet flight to the continent for the loose change you found in the washing machine, but getting out to the lesser-known parts of the UK is another story altogether. Train timetables and fares that are designed to reduce your mind to mush and motorways that are more or less long, straight car parks make it feel like trying to escape from a lower pit of hell.

Thankfully, Mark played Virgil to my Dante and led me to the purgatory of Devon for one mad June weekend of Morris dancing mayhem and teenage munters. Yes, there was a morris dancing festival, and it is as ridiculous as it sounds (who 'wields' a handkerchief anyway?). It can get quite serious when the lads really go at each other with the sticks. We watched for a while hoping one of them would forget a step and cop a well timed stick to the face, but without luck.

So, like everyone else in the town, we settled in to a local pub to drink, listen to folk music, and eat strips of pork pulled from the still spinning carcass of some impressive swine. Why does food taste better when you can still see its face? The village was quaint (a word I'm sure that is only used to describe English villages), with a friendly, morris-style atmosphere... until sundown at least, when the teen townies came out and started boozing away in the town square, drinking from tesco bags. Although, when all the local youth can look forward to is a once-a-year morris festival, you can't really blame them.

July saw me ascending to the lofty heights of Edinburgh to compete in another rat-race. Having loved the inaugural race in London, I thought running in the place where it all started would be a good excuse to see the city too. Yes, I ate a fried mars bar (and a snickers bar). I also partook in various touristy things like wandering along the royal mile (although we couldn't go into the castle because the Proclaimers were setting up for a concert there - seriously), getting lost in the history museum, drinking at Ian Rankin's local, and drinking in general. The rate-race itself took us out to parts of Edinburgh normally unseen by the weekend tourist, forcing teams out to see the Firth of Forth and local stadia. Unfortunately a knee injury to the team forced us to slow to a walking pace, and we ended up coming-in just before the cut off but still somehow not finishing last. After a Sunday afternoon listening to a Scottish ska band doing a decent cover/mash up of Ice Ice Baby, the overnight train trip back to a London Monday morning was like a descent to hell.

Nevertheless, I did finally make it to the UK equivalent of paradise, spending the August long weekend in Exmoor National Park. Having spent so much time in cities, I'd forgotten what a simple joy it is to get away from the city and breathe in some fresh air (read: smelling of sea salt or animal dung). Staying in a hostel located in the middle of the moor with absolutely no mobile coverage was an added bonus. The national park lived up to the long, rambling descriptive pieces Thomas Hardy used to flesh out his otherwise terrible writing, and we made the most of it by being stupidly energetic and active: fell running and hiking on the moor, mountain biking along the coast near Minehead, and surfing at Croyde Bay. Thanks to the 8th day adventure sports people for making it a great weekend, and Alex in particular for introducing me to Devonshire cream tea.

Friday, 4 July 2008

I like the old stuff better than the new stuff

One thing I have to admit is good about London is the quality and range of live acts that come through town, and perhaps because there's so much going on, getting your hands on tickets is generally pretty easy. As an example, the past week saw me take in two very different gigs, and I think I'm showing my age when I admit that I loved one, and would have gladly missed the other.

Jack Johnson and friends (namely G-Love, Special Sauce, and Ben Harper) came to London to do their bit for (or should that be against?) global warming and injustice in the world by putting on a one day 'festival' in Hyde Park. I dunno about you, but in my mind, 2 support acts and a headline on one stage does not a festival make... normally that's called a gig. Outdoor gig, I'll grant you, but gig nonetheless. Despite the fact that the sun made an appearance, and the fact that I normally enjoy a bit of harmless surfer/slacker guitar based music, the gigteval left me cold. In fact, the longer it went, the less I enjoyed it: G-Love was pretty damn good as an opener, Harper started to drag on a bit, and by the time John Jackson got on stage I was ready to go. I have to admit I arrived in a foul mood, but normally the first blast from the speakers is enough to make me forget my cares... I guess paying to watch a bunch of guys who travel the world surfing and playing music to legions of adoring female fans just wasn't going to cheer me up that day.

A few days later, still feeling mighty pissed off at the world, I dragged myself out to see another band: The Hoodoo Gurus. (Other Aussie bands of yesteryear to tour through London recently include Weddings, Parties, Anything, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, although they never really went away). No self-aggrandising, save-the-world, outdoor festival for the gurus, just a simple ol' fashioned rocking out gig at The Forum. Faulkner and co still had the moves, if not the hair, and definitely still had the energy to blast out the crowd faves (which was, well, all of them) and blow away the cobwebs of a horror week stuck in the office.

Sure, I'm showing my age, but I think rock improves with the passing of the years. Or at least you can appreciate it more as you get older: you can afford to go to the gig for a start, you can enjoy it with fellow fans, not just band-wagon hopping chart followers, and you get to see the band in a much more intimate venue than you could have in their hey-day. Sure, I can hear a few of you saying: "I'm glad I spent a fortune to go see a stadium gig when I was a kid - it's an experience that can never be repeated because the band doesn't exist any more," but that just shows you had bad taste in music if your favourite band couldn't last a few measly decades.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Fun for the whole family

June saw my mother finally give up on her decades-long, one-woman embargo on the UK when she came to visit me in London for a week. Amazingly, I think London was trying to make up for the treatment she received on her last visit (being described as 'bristling with prejudice' if you must know - I don't know what she's complaining about)... the sun shone all week, there were no major tube disasters to speak of, and most impressively their accommodation turned out to be a top floor apartment complete with balcony so close to the dome of St Paul's you could almost touch it.

Being forced to play tour guide in my new 'home town' made me realise how little I'd actually done or seen in London. Thankfully I could fall back on the tourist classics: a cruise along the Thames to Greenwich, a 'flight' on the London eye, a trip to the theatre, and packing them off to Oxford when I'd run out of things to do. The highlight for everyone was definitely the musical "Dickens: Unplugged" - a Shakespeare abridged take on the works of London's greatest novelist, fistula and all. Unfortunately it closed a few nights after we saw it so I wasn't able to force anyone else to enjoy it.

Being my family, a lot of time was spent in the Bacchanalian pursuits of eating and drinking. Unfortunately taking them out to my favourite restaurant-cum-foreign-correspondents' club The Frontline Club for my Dad's birthday proved a disappointing evening since the menu and atmosphere had changed since my last visit. Thankfully various Indian restaurants made up for it. Of course, not everything went entirely smoothly, but I managed to get to the end of the week without being berated for wasting my life, so perhaps it's true - absence does make the heart grow fonder...

Sunday, 18 May 2008

The 6th 'D' of dodgeball...

is apparently 'Drinking'.
As is my wont, I heard about a stupid quasi-sport taking place, and immediately signed up. Unlike the swamp soccer (ASS is going to have to give the comp a miss this year) finding players keen to join in was no trouble at all. So it was that the 'Rambo Academy of Dodgeball' was born (you had to play in fancy dress, and a set of camouflage t-shirts was the easiest costume we could come up with).
For those who don't know how Dodgeball works, watch the movie. It's basically the same, apart from the fact that you can't get eliminated by a head-shot. The madness was held in an indoor sports centre in Canary Wharf, and featured teams of cheerleaders, smurfs, crab people, movie heroes, and even a team dressed as members of the scooby gang. From game number one, everyone's sides were splitting with laughter. Dodgeball truly is the greatest sport on earth...
After a few hours and several pints, Team Rambo found themselves in the final, but had the popularity of the GloboGym Purple Cobras. In a best of 5 show-down, we beat the movie heroes (although John Travolta put up a decent fight) to universal booing. I don't care if they hate us, as long as they fear us.
This was honestly one of the funniest days I'd spent in a long long time. The simple joy of throwing things at people, and watching people get hit by things, is one that cannot be denied (I'm sure Freud would have had a field day with Dodgeball if he'd been around). If you ever get the chance to play, do it. And if you're a natural, who knows? Perhaps you could turn pro?

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Final stop on the cold war tour

I'd seen Vietnam and it's nominally communist society. I'd been to Moscow and taken tourist shots of the KGB headquarters (the tallest building in Moscow, as the joke goes... you can see all the way to Siberia from its basement). Now it was time for the real thing: Castro-led, government-controlled, US-embargoed Cuba. I actually booked this holiday just a matter of weeks before news broke of the Fidel-to-Raul handover, so I wasn't sure what I would see by the time I got there. Fortunately all the doomsayers predicting and immediate McDonald's and WalMart invasion were wrong, and the only difference was the appearance of "Viva Raul" graffiti alongside fading "Viva Fidel" slogans.

A week in Havana still didn't seem like enough. Sure, we stayed in the made-for-tourists Habana Vieja, but trips to the outer suburbs and other towns showed the marked contrast with the life of locals. Although the sight of people living in over-crowded and crumbling apartments was a shock, you soon realise that you're the only person that seems to mind. Kids play baseball or football in the streets, adults sit by their door listening to music, having a drink and chatting to anyone passing by... just goes to show that the corollary of "money can't buy happiness" is that poverty doesn't force you into misery. Compared with the constant stream of downcast, frowning faces you see on your daily commute, you have to start wondering if 'our system' is so vastly superior.

The trip to Cuba also gave me reason, and time, to get in some reading. Apart from reading up on the history of the island, I also thought I should get acquainted with Cuba's literary connections. Hemingway is of course one of Havana's major draw cards, and we stayed in the hotel used as a setting for Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana", so I thought I should give them both a read on the trip. "Our Man in Havana" is a fantastic novel set up with a farcical plot of 1950's espionage, which presciently foreshadows the Cuban missile crisis. As for Hemingway, having somehow gone through life up to this point without ever reading any of his work, I opted for "The Old Man and the Sea" and it absolutely absolutely blew my mind. I still can't believe that educators will insist on destroying literature for teenage boys by forcing Thomas Hardy onto the curriculum when they could be reading this. Both books are fantastic and worth reading to get a picture of a Cuba and Havana that unfortunately no longer exist.

I won't bore you with details of the trip itself, because I could rave about it at length. I'll just say that if you ever get the chance to go, you should. And if you do, you should definitely stop off in the Museo Del Chocolate.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Home, Bitter-Sweet Home

April saw me back in Australia for one whole week! I don't recommend spending over 2 days in transit for less than 10 days at the destination... the cost-benefit just isn't worth it. But when Nath tells you, er I mean, invites you to be best man at his wedding, you can't really say no.

The week back home was one of the most hectic of my life: I managed to squeeze in a road trip to Canberra to get my shiny new HSMP visa (haha! take that British Immigration Authority!), a visit to Mackeral to discover some new form of middle class low life had stolen the rigging from the hobie (lousy yachting bum! or hobie hobo, if you will), a horror visit to the RTA where I finally got my full licence (look out road users!), an ANZAC day pub crawl (hello sailor!) and long enough with my family to have a huge falling out. Oh, and a I think there was a wedding in there somewhere.

Apart from the bad bits, it was great being back in Sydney. I didn't really suffer the reverse culture shock that people had warned me about, I didn't pay enough attention to my receipts to notice if things were much more expensive than I remembered them, and I didn't get ridiculed for having a pommie accent (okay, once). There was actually a part of me wishing I'd been refused the visa so that I could stay... On the other hand, it was good getting back to London where I have a bed and can just veg out.

Anyway I just want to say a huge thanks to Nath and Dyalan for helping me out during the week, an even huger congratulations to Nath and Emma, and a massive thanks to everyone who came out at such short notice to drinks on the Sunday - I'm sorry I didn't get to sit and chat with everyone in full, but it was great to drink some good beer in good company. I'll be around longer next time, I promise.

Mark's telegram for Nath and Emma - UNCENSORED

For those who know Mark, they would have been able to tell that the telegram from him I read had been censored for public consumption. Here it is in its full glory...

Hello Nathan and Emma, congratulations. From the first moment I saw you two together, although I was busy throwing Oporto chips at cars, I could tell it was love. You complement eachother so well, Emma is bright, full of life and has great taste in music, Nathan has... well.. (Pause) great friends like me! Although I can't be there today I feel like the spirit of the occasion is inside of me, much like Nathan was inside of me many times before you met.

And no thanks to Jono for finding this xkcd gem of a wedding toast after the event. I would have used it, I swear.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Much needed updates

I'm finally getting around to documenting my travels from the end of 2007, and will post them with historic dates, so scroll down if you want to see why I now love the rat race, and hear about my attempts at surfing.

I promise to write more often from now on. No, really...

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Kevin 07 at LSE

So it seems my conversion to political nerd and hack continues... I heard Kevin Rudd was giving a lecture at LSE and decided I just had to go. Sad, I know. Not that easy it turns out, since over 1000 people applied for tickets within minutes of it opening, which puts Kevin up there with major rock bands in terms of ticket interest! At least he's a celebrity for being successful in the political arena, rather than vice versa.

Anyway, thanks to Rach I was able to attend and actually see the man whose name I wore in XXL pride last year, and who made so many people in a dodgy Wetherspoon pub deliriously happy one Sunday morning. The speech itself was as expected: talking about his policy agenda and how it ties in with the UK's, interspersed with some occasional Pom bashing (which was lapped up by the adoring 99% Aussie audience).

The themes of the speech that I found interesting were his acceptance of globalisation, and plan for 'middle-power democracy'. Clearly, governments can no longer ignore the global climate (whether it be in the arena of security, economics, or the environment, which he did note are not distinct areas any more), but it sounds like he may be biting off a bit more than little ol' Australia can handle. Solving climate change, fixing Afghanistan, combating terrorism... all worthy goals, but it sounds like Kim Beazley might be right (Rudd's pace can't be maintained: Beazley SMH 8 Apr 2008) - Kevin seems to be spreading himself too thin, and it might lead to mistakes (he did refer to the United Kingdom as the United States at least once during the lecture). On the other hand, it's good to see a leader who has aims and ambitions go beyond keeping the electorate happy until the next election.

The idea of Australia exerting 'middle power diplomacy' is an interesting idea. Without a roaring economy or rampaging defence force, it's hard to imagine people taking notice of what Australia has to say. But as Rudd points out, Australia is well placed to act as a 'knowledge broker' between the waning powers of the west, and the rising powers of the orient. There should be someone to provide advice on the growing pains of development, and perhaps a non-threatening voice with no real power agenda of its own is more likely to be appreciated than the 'bullying voice of western powers trying to cling to their position.' Whether or not Australia has the skills or people to manage such a relationship is another matter.

It looks like Rudd, and the Australia he now leads, are signing up for some Herculean tasks. It's good to have worthy goals, but I hope he, and Australia, haven't bitten off more than they can chew.

Thursday, 14 February 2008


There have been two moments recently that have made me feel more homesick than ever before: the change of government late last year, and the new government's historic apology just the other day.

I've been lapping up the online coverage from London, and the story even made it to the London Metro (a free trash rag given out so you have something to do on the tube). Radio-callers and Liberal voters can scream til they're blue in the face, and die-hard hippies can whinge that 'sorry day' is a mere symbolic panacea to assuage our collective guilt and doesn't go far enough. The fact of the matter is, even from the other side of the world, that speech and the events of Feb 13 showed an Australia more united and more hopeful than I can ever recall. I wish I had been there to be a part of it.

The other moment I would have loved to have been home for was the election. Years of political cynicism disappeared in a flash when Kevin07 rolled into town and onto facebook. I signed up to leaflet at Australia House, and more surprisingly, actually went along and got involved. As token as my effort was, when it came to watching the results at 8am in a dodgy Wetherspoon pub with other ALP supporters, I couldn't have been more excited. The atmosphere was electric, the pink champagne was flowing (we actually drank the bar dry!), and everyone was in a fantastic mood, knowing that back home, things were getting better.

To all you folks back home, keep up the good work!

p.s. Kevin, I read the speech online before I heard your reading of it... I'm sad to say it sounded better in my head. Emphasise the tricolon!

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Not the sort of powder you get in Sydney...

The one area in which Europe far surpasses good ol' Oz, we must admit, is ski fields. Once New Zealand becomes the next 2 states of Australia this will be debatable, but for the moment it is sadly true.

Although not a snow bunny by nature, having a week off between jobs in January I decided to book a package trip to go snow-boarding in Chamonix. I made the booking with a company by the name of 'SpeedBreaks'. Harmless enough I thought, but it turns out to be a subsidiary of another company called SpeedDater, and apparently I'd booked myself onto a singles skiing holiday... Many will now be thinking wistfully of snow trips with university ski clubs and the associated shenanigans. Think again. Remember, I'm travelling with brits here, and most were single for good reason. Fortunately, a few others had made the same mistake, so we were spared any painful 'getting to know you' games.

Embarrassment aside, the week on the snow was absolutely astounding ('gnarly' in the parlance of serious snowboarders I believe). Having not been on a board since a few day trips from Canberra, I was grateful for the fact we were staying at a UCPA centre - as usual, the French know how to do things, with their network of non-profit centres making elitist sports accessible to the masses - with free tuition. By the end of the week I was cutting turns off-piste and playing in natural half pipes and loving it... I'd tell you about the apres-ski goings-on, but alcohol-amnesia prevents it.

Having been so impressed by the UCPA in January, a group of us decided to get in another cheeky long-weekend of snow (organised by ourselves rather than joining another singles trip) over Easter staying at the UCPA centre in Flaine. While it may be an abomination of a building, it is right at the foot of the slope, and covered in a foot of powder (as everything was while we were there) I'm prepared to forgive them. Again, the Alps delivered. Fresh snowfall every night and another flurry most days made for perfect boarding conditions. The highlight of the evening activities was without a doubt the snowboard instructor singing Nirvana's 'Rape Me' on karaoke night. A very modern serenade...

Sadly the weekend, and the season, ended. There were more than a few moments on the slopes spent considering ditching everything and becoming a snow-field worker so I could do this all year round... but the risk of turning something so magical into just a mundane job wouldn't be worth it.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Beetrootin' across the USSR

Moscow NYE
Originally uploaded by patfoz.

During a tumultuous period where I was constantly tossing up whether or not to quit the UK , I decided that I definitely needed to have done some more travelling before heading home with my tail between my legs. One of the results was a more or less spontaneous decision to sign up for a trip across Russia over Christmas and New Years with some buddies from the ABS.

Choosing a destination on a whim like this can be extremely liberating - you have no overblown expectations, you have no real preconceptions about how good it should or will be, but on the flip side, you have absolutely no idea of what you're getting in to. It wasn't until I'd already handed over my massive wad of savings that I found out Russian winters often dip below -30C, and that there is still a major issue with tourists being ripped off by corrupt police. Nevertheless, a little research (any guidebook) and preparation (new thermals and snow gear) had me excited about peering through the rusty iron curtain.

The trip kicked off in St Petersburg, which completely lived up to everyone's reviews as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The Hermitage was even more extensive than I was expecting, and after half-a-day staggering between the halls crammed with art, I was very much ready to have a culture detox by checking out the freaks in the Kuntskamera. Sublime to the ridiculous.

In a similar vein, following one night spent at the ballet seeing a modern interpretation of Giselle (which no-one could follow - I blame the suitcase of babies and the fact the duke and the dancer looked alike), we saw 'Feel Yourself Russian!', a cheesy show of folk music and dance. Despite the cheese factor, it was a fun night out and the Cossack dancing is mighty impressive. That was followed by a night on the turps in an underground bar. By the time we surfaced, the mild winter had turned to blizzard and no one could remember how to get back to the hotel. Luckily the vodka fairies were looking out for us.

Next stop on our Russian odyssey was Novgorod, birthplace of the Russian nation. Legend has it that the town came to prominence when a local fisherman named Sadko caught a magic fish that taught him to become a percentage-taking middle-man... Sadko is honoured in the highest possible fashion in Russia - there's a vodka named after him.

For me, our brief stay in Novgorod was the highlight of the trip. Unlike St Petes and Moscow, it is a proper Russian country town, surrounded by bleak fields and buffeted by ice-cold winds roaring across the plains. It's also where we saw a Russian man so drunk he couldn't defend himself when his wife started beating his head against the wall. Yes, Novgorod showed us the real Russia!

Moscow was something else again. A huge metropolis that could be any other, except that everything isn't quite right. Public transport that runs efficiently and on time. Huge mega-clubs where the men are more interested in actually dancing than watching the topless dancing girls. Mullets in fashion. We braved the crowds and military cordons to get into Red Square for the NYE fireworks, and for the first time in a long time, I didn't find it disappointing. Just being in such an iconic place, with such a huge crowd made it all worthwhile. And we weren't even drinking vodka!

Like the trip in Spain, this trip was made all the better by the people sharing the journey. Thanks to Cass and Craig for letting me tag along, and to all the other Beetrooters for making it a great week. Funnily enough, as soon as I touched down in London, I started feeling completely miserable again...