Sunday, August 3, 2014

And so, into year 3...

Yeah, I had to read that twice as well.  I am actually in year 3 already of my move from sunny Yorkshire, down under to the sun kissed shores of Australia.  To Sydney, to be more specific.

If you have been reading the travails of the Yorkshire Expat from the very beginning, from the embryonic outset of And we are off (a blog from exactly 2 years ago today), you will see that it has been quite a journey so far.

One of the very first pics, August 2012
And this is perhaps not a blog that you, let alone me, maybe envisaged me writing maybe 12 months ago.  The move from familiar surroundings, ones that have cossetted you for the first 40 years of your life, to a land down under, some 11,000kms away, is not one without its ups and downs.

Give it at least 12 months people said.  More seasoned observers advised making that 18 months.  Here I am, 24 months in, and I have to say that they are right.  Not until you have lived through certain milestones, celebrated at least 2 of an annual event, do you really get a sense of “being”.

Having a secure(ish), enjoyable job helps.  I work, and have worked, with some great people, and have made some good friends.  I am settled in my apartment and have been here almost 2 years, in a great suburb, with everything I could ask for.  An amazing beach on my doorstep, great cafes and restaurants, and a choice of commute into the city by bus or ferry.

One of the many friends I have made
I have now gone through 2 winters here, and know how much I appreciate summer.  Readers in the northern hemisphere may scoff when I say this, but in a country where properties don’t have heating, including my apartment, this place feels bloody cold some days, and most nights through winter.

It is now spring and how I yearn for the long summer days of November and December.  Days when I can reacquaint myself with sunscreen, flip flops, and my, currently cast aside like an old lover, BBQ.  Where I can sit on my balcony, with a cold sauvignon blanc, watching the planes fly overhead, piercing the azure sky, on their way to destinations near and far.

The esky needs dusting down and I again start my, now annual, hope that this year is third time lucky.  In that I get sun on my birthday, Christmas Day.  The gods have been against me the last two occasions and I am determined to be quaffing champagne on the beach, with the seas lapping against my feet, come December 25th.

If life is about chapters, I have read of few over the last couple of years.  Chapters about change, and transition.  Chapters about dealing with grief, from a distance, across the lonely seas, as the circle of life marches inexorably on.  People have been taken from me.  And new people have come into the world to replace them.

Xmas 2013, not on the beach

As an expat, it is as though you watch these scenes unfold from behind a pane of glass.  You can see, and hear all that happens, but the main characters are heart breakingly out of reach. 

As I turn yet another page, a new chapter is about to start.  Year 3 brings new beginnings, in economic parlance, “green shoots of recovery”.  An exciting chapter, that in a sense feels like the start of a new book.  A book I don’t know the end of yet.  I don’t even know the next chapter, but I know how the plot goes.  I’m writing that part myself.

A friend once asked me, over a year ago, what the chances were of me remaining in Australia for a full 2 years.  I think I replied “17%”, without skipping a heartbeat.  Obviously a totally arbitrary figure, but one that gave a sense where my head was.  If that same friend was to ask me know, I would need a moments reflection.  However, after that short contemplation, I would say that the chances are considerably greater.

We don’t know where life will take us.  And although we are in charge of our own destinies, life happens whilst you are making plans.  A John Lennon quote that I know I’ve used before.  But it is so true. 

A lot of life’s journey relies on timing.  And sometimes that timing is just not right.  But then, every once in a while, the stars align and the world intervenes.  And this is when you know you have to grab your moment.

So all we can do for now, is keep making those plans, and hope life is kind to us.  And with that in mind, I see no reason why I won’t be writing a similar blog in 2 years time, as a citizen of this great country.  Four years being the qualifying criteria for an Australian passport, something I thought would be out of reach this time last year.

But right now, I may only have a 17% chance of still being here in 2 years.  It could be a 77% chance. 

All I can do is take it one chapter at a time.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Vegas revisited

Conventional wisdom dictates that "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas".  Right?  However, I’m not often accused of being conventional.  Plus, this would be a very dull blog.  Yes some of you are shouting, even more dull than usual.

So this blog is more along the lines of "almost all of what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas".

If last month was an ode to how much I love my mum, this month is an ode to how much I love my friends. And I mean my REAL friends. Not the Facebook variety. And by that I don't mean I don't have real friends on Facebook. I do. Lots of you.

But I mean real, get drunk with, argue with, fight with, joust with pool cues with, tell ALL your secrets to, play wing-man with, type of friends.  The ones you fall out over football with.  The ones you sit up with through the night drinking and putting the world to rights with.  The ones you watch grow, get married, have families.  And through all the changes life throws at us, we remain friends. These type of friends are my best friends.

I went to Vegas recently with 3 of these very same type of friends, and as we always find, before we have even finished our first pint, the banter is flowing like we have never been apart.  Dissecting previous years trips, and the absurdity of our discussions.  Who has ever heard of playing a guitar upside down?  And had discussions about there "being winners and losers in this life"?  I'm laughing just at the recollection.  Greg Wallace has a lot to answer for.  

Totally sober...honest

Our annual tradition, for the last few years at least, has been to catch up somewhere in the world.  The first agenda item on this year's Annual General Meeting was where we will go next year.  Previous trips have seen us have quiet, cultural visits to Prague, the home of Kafka.  And Munich, Germany's third largest city, and home many lederhosen clad gentlemen.

This year we revisited an old haunt.  The same venue for my 40th birthday celebrations. Back to the very famous Las Vegas, Nevada.  Named by a Mexican in 1829, Las Vegas (The Meadows when translated from the Spanish), has a very long and illustrious history.

Initially used as a water stop on trips between Los Angeles and eastern outposts, many of us are more familiar with Vegas's sin city reputation.  The building of the Hoover Dam, which started in 1931, saw the population of Las Vegas swell and to entertain the mainly male working population, the casinos and show girls were born into Vegas history.

Organised crime wasn't far behind, and financed by the infamous Meyer Lansky (incidentally portrayed as Hyman Roth in the Godfather movie), Bugsy Siegel built the Flamingo hotel and casino.  Still proudly standing pride of place on the Strip opposite our home for 4 nights, Caesar’s Palace.

I travelled from Sydney and took a very circuitous route, with a 2 hour delay in Sydney, and then an unscheduled stop in Honolulu, before travelling through San Francisco, changing planes, and culminating in a short hop to McCarran airport, Las Vegas. 

I should probably be grateful I got there at all as when I checked in I was greeted by a very furrowed brow on the face of the check in assistant.  "You don't seem to have a visa for entry into the United States sir".  Oh yes I do.  And I dug out the email to confirm it.  

The email which states "approval to travel".  

I was told "They don't mean anything.  If there is a subsequent issue that confirmation is useless".  It seems the "subsequent issue" was some problem with the actual processing of my visa.  Oh dear.  However, as you know, we eventually resolved this, and I did get to travel.

Having arrived more than 7 hours later than planned, my friends were already well on their way to their 2nd, or 3rd pint.  I lost count, and evidentally so did they.  By about 3pm it seems.  I had managed to avail myself of numerous complimentary alcoholic beverages in the business class lounge at Sydney, and managed to keep suitably topped up en route.  I hadn't planned to imbibe quite so much in the lounge, but the kind hostess kept bringing me beers.  And I felt obliged to accept.  I have read that declining such generous hospitality is seen as a slight in some cultures.  Right?

Much of my travails of actually getting there faded away as we made our decent into the desert.  Is there a better sight than flying into Las Vegas at night, with all the flashing neon lights looking resplendent?

The result of all of the proceeding hospitality (thanks Singapore Airlines for my gold card allowing business class lounge access) being that I was soon talking as much nonsense as they were not long after my arrival at Caesar's Palace.  Not, I hasten to add, where the actual Caesar used to live.  Just in case anybody was wondering.

Our quiet first night, turned into a quiet early morning.  As is wont to happen in Vegas, where there are no clocks in the casinos, the early hours of the morning soon creep up on you.  As we turned in slightly later than planned, we all agreed to a small adjustment to the itinerary.  A little lie in in the morning, and reluctantly cross off library and museum visits planned for the following day, due to time constraints.

The following day was the England v Uruguay match, and by the 12pm kick off we were settled in front of a large TV screen in Gordon Ramsey's "Pub and Grill", with large burgers, and exceptional pints of Guinness.  Hoping that Luis Suarez was not going to take a large bite out of England’s ambitions of progressing through the group stages.  Alas.

Whisky and cokes...with a ladyboy chaser

The less said about the football the better.  But the afternoon drinking set the tone for the rest of the trip.  Maybe except for one of our travelling party.  Know as “the bambino” for his predilection to warm milky drinks, and pineapple with every meal, at times I thought I was with Alan Partridge, and was going to have to order a “lady boy chaser”, also known as a Baileys.  Indeed, at one point I did.  The look on the waitresses face was a picture as she waited for the punchline from the Bambino.  There wasn’t one.  He simply wanted to enjoy a Baileys.

Things didn’t improve in Jimmy Buffet’s.  Whilst we sampled what looked like the world’s largest margarita, the bambino plumped for a nice milkshake.  I had to draw the line at him ordering a snowball.  Things were crazy enough.

The days, and nights rolled on and we had a great time laughing and catching up.  Probably more “Last Vegas”, than “The Hangover”, but we are very sensible chaps, what did you expect?

Our time together came to an end all too soon, and with sadness we parted on a hot and sultry Sunday afternoon.  Already the conversation turned to our next trip, and possible venue.  Reykjavík was mooted, as were the German hedonistic hotspots of Berlin and Hamburg.

Auf wiedersehen!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Mary in Mosman (dedicated to my amazing mum)

As regular readers of my blog will know, I have a long, and lasting, relationship with Australia.  Having done my rite of passage backpacking trip in ’94, I seemed to spend a month here every second year.  Not always with the same person, but I like to think I was doing my bit for tourism, and the local economy.

I’m now on first name terms with the local Hunter Valley wine testing tour guide.  And if I go on one more Captain Cruise tour of the Harbour I think I will be offered shares.

Mothers' Day cruise

I digress. 

All the trips here, the developing love affair, all led to me becoming a permanent resident of this glorious country, and hence the inception of this blog, documenting my travels and travails along the way.

In this time, if I had a dollar for each occasion mum said “I will come out one day and see Australia”, I would have more money already than my sister seems to be managing to save in her tin for a trip here.

So, on a long scooter ride last year, wind buffeting me and the Besbi, with time to think and with thoughts racing through my head, I made a decision.  I went home that night, and booked a return flight home.  And a flight back with me for mum.  This was the only way it was going to happen.  I had to take charge.  If you were reading this blog last year, you would be forgiven for thinking I may not have even still been here right now.  In Australia I mean.  Not anything more sinister.

I decided that mum was coming to Australia.  Before life took over.  She was coming.  All I had to do now was break the news to her.  That was an emotional Skype call, but in a good way.  Once mum had run off outside for some fresh air, and returned to my little glowing computer screen, it had become a reality.

Not having flown further than Europe before, I did wonder if I had bitten off more than I could chew.  This could prove to be an ordeal.  Twenty four hours, with a couple of stops in Munich and Singapore along the way, cooped up in a glorified tin can.

But it has to be said, it was “too easy, no dramas”.   I think all the food served on the plane took mum’s mind of the actual flying.  At one point I thought I’d fallen asleep and woken up in the middle of an episode of Man (or mum) versus Food!
Surely, she didn’t have room for a Magnum ice cream after ALL th……..oh wait……

Mary versus food

In no time at all we had touched down on Australian soil, were in a cab, zooming across the city, and Mary was in Mosman.
What followed was a fantastic 3 weeks of showing mum around the back yard.  Where I have chosen to currently call home.  Show her what keeps me here. 

One thing I had resolved to do was get mum being a bit more adventurous when eating out.  Go to any pub / café / restaurant with mum, hand her the world’s largest menu, and I can predict with eerie accuracy what she will order.  “Scampi and chips please son.”

Well, we were having none of that on this holiday.  Although she did try. 

I’m not sure she was too impressed when on one of her first days here, I took her for seafood.  With NO scampi.  Her face was a picture when I offered her some octopus tentacles.  And prawns that required the heads pulling off, and peeling were not what she was used to from Wetherspoon’s.

Another first was a wine tasting trip.  Being Sydney’s most loyal customer, Sam the owner provided my trip at half price, with a promise that my next visit would be complimentary.  I am already checking the calendar for when I will be taking him up on this offer. 

I had purposefully chosen this particular trip, as on the way to the Hunter, we have morning coffee at a wildlife centre.  Giving you the opportunity to get up and close with all your Australian favourites, although I think this little fella is everyone’s fave!

I think the wine was less of a hit with mum, but I benefited from this, having double tastings.  Now this was MY kind of trip J

Can't see any shrimps on that barbie!

Other highlights included the Mother’s Day lunch trip around the Harbour, a trip to Summer Bay (aka Palm Beach), an amazing high tea at Boronia House, a visit to Bondi beach (everybody has to on their first trip, despite what the locals say), and the numerous BBQs we had. 

A particular highlight for me was mum frequenting the many stores in Mosman.  Could I keep her out of the haberdashery?  How much knitting can one granny do?  And who would call a homeware store “Bird bath and Table”?  Nobody but mum it seems…

Mum, we had a great time.  You were a fantastic house guest.  I miss you every day.  And I look forward to seeing you again on these shores next year.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Yorkshire Revisited

You may have noticed it has been a while since my last post.  You may even have been worried I had come to some harm.  But fear not, I think I just had a case of writer's block.  Or more literally, blogger's block.  I seem to have now gone the other way and have written what is perhaps my longest blog ever.

In truth, it has been a very busy few weeks, much of what I'll cover in the next couple of posts.  Those of you tuning in, eagerly hoping to hear of the exploits of Ma Cormack on her antipodean adventure will be disappointed.  This blog will be to recap on my trip back to the UK and thus, the "Mary in Mosman" blog will follow in a few weeks.

So the end of February saw me jetting back to the homeland.  The primary objective being to escort mum back to Sydney with me.  An expat's life and location can be very precarious and I figured that if mum was ever gonna see the land down under, I would have to go and literally bring her.  I once worked in Dublin for 18 months, a 40-minute flight away, and she never got across the water.  So I was determined to get her Australia passport stamp!

The timing couldn't have been better, with my 1-year contract at work expiring at the end of February, and me flying to England the next day.  With luck (scratches head and wonders if this is the right word), and maybe a smidgen of hard work, I had secured a further 1-year contract at the same bank, on the proviso that my current trip stood and I could have a month unpaid leave.  A well documented hand-over to my hard working team (just in case they are reading) and I was off, knowing everything was in safe hands 'til I returned in April-ish.

Leaving Sydney did feel very strange.  A much different feeling to when I went home last year.  I suppose I was mentally in a very different place last year and wasn't sure if it was the start of the end of my Australian odyssey.  A year on and things are very different.  I felt like I was leaving home, to go home.  As a good friend reminded me at the time, "we are lucky now, we have two beautiful homes".  And he is right.

Returning to Yorkshire again reminded me of why it is one of the most beautiful places I have been to in the world.  And I have been to a few.  I'm not sure there are many places that compare.  Where folk actually talk proper.  And without getting too sentimental, although it seems to be happening more as I get older, I have the best group of friends and family a person could wish for.  Maybe an eclectic, diverse set of friends.  And a hectic, on the edge of crazy, family.  But I wouldn't change any of them for the world.  You guys are what make my trips.

Every day I was reminded of the importance of keeping your special friends in your life.  And how those bonds grow stronger despite the distance between us.  It may sound ironic coming from me, the guy who upped and left, all alone, as far away as he could possibly go, yet I have never lost touch with people.  A phone call here, postcard there.  And what we would do without FaceTime and Skype these days?  My Easter got off to the best possible start with a call from home this morning.

I only had a couple of weeks at home, not really long enough to do everything I would like, but long enough to do many of the things I like.  Need I mention the food?  Those with a keen eye for detail will already know I have an obsession with fish & chips.  And not the very inferior version I can get here in Australia.  But I mean real, proper fish & chips, wi’ bits and curry sauce.  A pot of tea and slice of bread on the side.  Fellow diners in Blakeley’s of Brighouse may have thought I had just been released from a long stint in prison, at the rate I devoured my plate.  Now THAT is what I am talking about.

Of course curries featured highly in my “diet”, as did Yorkshire puddings, and the now annual lamb dinner.  Thanks sis, what a great day that was, even though I did end up driving and chauffeuring the more inebriated amongst us home.

Service at some of the eating establishments did baffle me, at times leaving me creased over laughing at the sheer absurdity of it.  On one very memorable morning I thought we had wandered into Fawlty Towers, and I kept waiting for Manuel to pop out.  Breakfasts were ordered, and arrived, upon which I thought, “hmm, quite an expensive breakfast to only receive 1 slice of toast”.  The waiter then proceeded to tell us that more toast was on the way, it was in the toaster! 

Now, I have not spent much time in the hospitality industry, but wouldn’t you wait until ALL the toast was ready, and THEN bring out the breakfasts? 

It got better.  I asked for some brown sauce, and he promptly returned with some, in a coffee cup!!!!  Have you ever seen the like?  The morning’s shenanigans didn’t end there.  Half way through munching my toast, another young chap who worked there, approached me at the table, with a half eaten cake in a box, and said, “before you forget sir, your cake”.  By this point I had fallen off my chair laughing.  Just WHO did he think I was?  And why would I have a half eaten cake in his restaurant?  Good grief, I said take me home.  There is only so much fun somebody can have in one morning.

One morning I definitely was not laughing was following a fantastic night out in Leeds.  One in which catching the last train home was the target.  The last train was at 11.20pm.  It didn’t happen.  Even with the female contingent bringing their posh handbags (which supposedly means they couldn’t POSSIBLY stay out late). 

Cue a very funny night, finished by drinking England’s supply of champagne, coupled with some bizarre concoction that my sister insisted on adding to each drink.  I think it may have been slightly off, maybe out of date, as I think that is why I was so ill the following day.  Then again, getting a lift home off my sister, who took a speed bump so fast I thought we wouldn’t land until we hit Sydney, could have precipitated my downfall.

I was so green I could have hidden in a bowl of peas.  And once getting in my own car, my attempt at the same said speed bump was hilarious.  Trying to protect my delicate head, I rolled up to the bump so slowly that I didn’t get over it.  I just hit it, and the car rolled backwards.  It was going to be a VERY long day.

There are many other memories from that trip, way too many to cover in what has now become a very long post.  I hope you are still with me.  But needless to say, I had an amazing time, even saw a beautiful part of Yorkshire I hadn’t been to before, and had some amazing food.  Thank you.  Even if I won’t be adding Ripon to my list of “must see” places next time.

The usual heartfelt goodbyes signalled the end of this trip, not really knowing when I will next be in the country.  So there is nothing else for it, it's time to come the other way, to me.  Get planning.  Sydney awaits.

Well, once more, like my brief trip home, it is now time to wrap it up folks.  I have to dash.  I have a Pannini football World Cup sticker album to try and find.  

Anyone for swapsies?