Monday, May 9, 2016

Musings from Mosman

Welcome to the latest update from the Yorkshire Expat, where we will spend some time talking about how the year is progressing so far (very well, since you asked), what is on the horizon (quite a bit actually), and whatever else springs to mind as I'm writing.

If you didn't know, but I will assume you do, it is May already.  We have passed the fourth, so no Stars Wars jokes here.  Or is it Star Trek?  I can never work out the difference between the two. 

Looking in the rear view mirror, at the calendar, it never ceases to surprise me at what is already in the dust behind us.  Where did the previous 4 months go?  A full third of the year over already.  Only 230 days to Christmas.  Did any body else buy some Christmas crackers (bon bons in local parlance.  No, I don't understand either.  They are crackers for gods sake) and cards in the January sales?

The biggest story of the year so far is the recent move to a new apartment.  When I say move, I use the word loosely.  More of a shifting.  Just up the road.  About 500 meters.  Why would you do that you ask?  Well, certain criteria had to be met.  A second bathroom, for the overseas visitors bringing chocolate from the UK each year.  Tick.  A larger balcony to be able to make the most of the weather, allowing for al fresco dining.  Tick.  Still within walking distance of our favourite cafés, restaurants, and bars.  Tick tick tick.

Now, as we weren't moving far, in our wisdom we decided not to hire a van like normal people.  We would use a car we were hiring for a trip to Mudgee (wine country, which was amazing), and just make a few trips.  The hiring of cars is made very simple with the concept of "GoGet", where you join up, receive a magnetic card, check the website for a car parked near you, book for any duration starting from 30 minutes, then turn up, swipe the card on the windshield, get in, and drive.  Simple. 

Driving through Mosman with a mattress hanging precariously out the back of the car, avoiding police cars, and looking a tad ridiculous.  Multiple trips were made either side of Easter weekend, by which time we thought we would be done.  We weren't.  Being only about 500 meters away from the new digs, we figured we could easily move the remaining bits on foot.  And it would be easy.  It wasn't.

We looked at each other on a dark Tuesday night, with the dawning realization we still had lots to carry.  And thus, doing what needed to be done, we traipsed through the streets of Mosman looking like Syrian refugees, carrying gas bottles for BBQs, mops, clothes horse, vacuum cleaner, and lots of other detritus.  What happened to the so called de-cluttering, before moving?  As always happens.  It gets left til it's too late, and all your shit comes with you to the new place.

In the lives we now find ourselves living in, the necessities are somewhat different than they were for our parents generation when they set up home.  Their "wireless" was probably a big, dusty, brown hunk of a thing that sat on the mantlepiece, spitting out weekly episodes of the Archers.  Or stirring speeches by Churchill.  Ours is a little white box with flickering green lights.  When it works.  Which is another story.

We took the opportunity when moving home, to move broadband providers.  This was driven by the fact that the rights to show the live English Premier League games (every single one of them) have been bought by Optus, with Foxtel (the local SKY) losing out.  In readiness, a move to Optus broadband followed.  Quickly followed by nothing but problem after problem with the reliability of the service.  Our wi-if is patchy, at best.  I am going to get very annoyed if the same problems start occurring during live football matches.  At godforsaken hours of the night.  If I was a project manager, oh, I am, I would be flagging this as my biggest risk to Optus being able to satisfy the thousands of subscribers wanting their weekly fix of the beautiful game.

Recently, we had a public holiday (you would call it a bank holiday in the UK), ANZAC day, where we took the opportunity to have a long weekend in the country again.  This time in the Hunter Valley, where, conveniently, there are shit loads of wineries.  This makes me happy.  Also, like Mudgee, we booked somewhere quiet and remote.  This time, very remote.  The weekend involved lots of wine tasting.  Lots of cheese tasting.  Peace.  Quiet.  And a hot tub.

This (not the hot tub) got me thinking what it would be like to have a tree change?  If this is not a term you are familiar with, I would usually call it a sea change.  Up sticks, quit the busy city life, and move somewhere quiet, living a life far removed from the current one.  Maybe make cheese.  Keep animals.  Open a little coffee shop.  Etc, etc.  You get the picture.  One of the challenges is picking the right place.  Getting the balance between social and solitude right.

For example, as much as I like Darwin, a very small place on the northern coast of Australia, I'm not sure I'd want to be ensconced there for any length of time.  Subsisting on a diet of titties and schnitties may not be everybody's cup of tea.   And whilst Gulgong, near Mudgee in central NSW, does the best Rogan Josh in the whole of Australia, could I live in a place that only has one street, and you had to eat curry every day?  Well, thinking about it...

So for now, the sea change remains a pipe dream.  One that I continue to percolate on.

Maybe it will brew into something on my upcoming holiday, or vacation, as they like to say where we will be heading.  A road trip up the west coast of the US ticks some long held boxes personally (Big Sur anyone?), as does finally getting to Canada.  A place I have been threatening to visit since making friends with a Kelowna local, whilst travelling Australia many years ago.  This year I will finally get to Canada.  More specifically, to Vancouver.  This is a trip that fills me with great excitement.

Will there be pics?  You bet.  Will there be a few American cheese burgers involved.  Without doubt the burger spreadsheet will be getting updated.  And will it all be captured in a future blog.  You can count on it.  Just keep reading.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The changing face of travel

Reading an article recently got me reminiscing about the first real trip I did.  Not the week I had in Tunisia riding camels.  Not the week in Ibiza, avoiding San Antonio.  An actual backpacking trip.  Years before flash packing was a glint in an entrepreneurs eye.  There was no "flash" in the travel we were to embark on.  Not even on the camera we had.  No, seriously, it had NO flash.  There are probably people reading this who don't understand that statement.  Does this help?

Example of 110 camera, introduced by Kodak in 1972 
My, oh my.  Taking pics on that old thing.  And wandering to the chemist on Pitt St Mall in Sydney, paying extra to get the 1 hour processing.  The height of excitement.  Then, when the pics came, nervously flicking through to see what of the night out in Kings Cross actually got captured.  I lost count of the times we either exclaimed, who IS that?  Why is that girl sitting on your knee?  Who are those lads drinking schooners with us?  Those halcyon days.

The intention is not to rehash the original article I read, but to give me chance to reflect on times past, and the changes that seem to have happened over the years without me really noticing.  I still feel like that excited 23 year old.  Knowing there is a whole world out there to explore.  I am a little older, and wiser now, but I still have that excitement about the world.

Traveling in 1994 was very different to traveling now.  No email.  Internet?  What was that?  All we had was our trusty guide book of choice.  Mine being then, and still, Lonely Planet.  But what hefty tomes they were.

Booking your next hostel over the actual telephone.  The big ones in the street, that you put coins into.  Not the one in your pocket the size of a small caramel slice.  No kids, those weren't invented at this point.  Mobile phones, not caramel slices. 

Passing on your contact details by getting out a pen, and ripping a piece of paper from your travel journal.  Knowing that you were never going to see, nor contact 99% of the people.  But it felt good to do it anyway.  With your new lifelong "friends".   That is something that never changes, whatever the technology we use as enablers.  Friendships don't need social media. 

And as for writing to let people know what you were up to.  Well.  You had to actually write.  With a real pen.
Poste Restante.  What a quaint idea.  If you wanted a letter to reach you on the road, you told people which city, or town you would be in, and added c/o Poste Restante.  And miraculously, it arrived.  You went and queued up with all the other travellers, and vagabonds, with your identification.  And collected your mail.  I still have a box full of letters from that time, collected from post offices around Australia.

A few years after that seminal trip, I found myself back down under, travelling around New Zealand, tying in a quick visit to the sister, who at this time was living it large in Bondi.  Sans children.

What was this strange phenomenon whereby fellow travellers were jumping straight off the bus upon arrival in Christchurch, and running into the nearest café?  All lined up, clearly visible through the front window of the cafe, each sat at a computer terminal.  Were they taking some kind of online exam?  Playing computer games?  No, the age of the Internet cafe had arrived.  With pay as you go access to email, and allowing you to upload (if you had the time and money for the incredibly frustrating upload and download speeds) photos.  At lot had seemingly changed since 1994.  A brave new world indeed.

I had to join this brave new world, and so, far my next major trip, a round the world (RTW in travel parlance) I found myself travelling all the way to Leeds to hunt down an elusive Internet cafe.  I say ALL the way to Leeds, and those readers from home will know this is not far at all.  But in those days, it just highlights how few and far between these mythical Internet cafes were.

Not that I knew what one of these places of magic and mystery were, but I had read that I could go there and get an email address.  Whatever that was.  A legacy of this remains to this day, the reason I have "99" appending fcormack on my hotmail account. This was the year I set it up.  A poignant, and constant reminder of a marvellous year.

Having an email address was only half the story.  Finding a place down a dusty side street in Delhi that somebody had told you had a computer so you could email...who exactly?  I think I was an early adopter in this email malarkey, which meant the options of who I could write to (electronically) were very limited.

And boy, were these internet connections slow!  You paid by the 5, or 10 mins usually.  And before you had written "wish you were here" you had spent next week's beer and bed budget.  Imagine my relief some years later when Stelios finally got into the game, creating his big orange "EasyInternet" cafes.  Game changers at the time, that I have used in places from Berlin to Barcelona. 

Traveling now is unrecognisable from my early days.  My last real trip was at the end of 2010/start of 2011, all around South America.  Most people I met were carrying expensive bits of kit such as MacBooks, and large expensive SLR cameras.  Not to mention the mini computers, masquerading as phones, in their pockets.  Or it's the ubiquitous tablet, used to capture and share every waking moment of their trip.  Be it the food.  The amazing sunset.  The "undiscovered" beach they have just discovered.  The one first mentioned by Tony and Maureen Wheeler in the very Lonely Planet guide to South East Asia, Across Asia on the Cheap, from 1973.

I have a wry smile to myself, seeing some of the content in today's travel blogs.  From the "digital nomads" currently traveling all four corners of the earth.  They sometimes really believe they are exploring uncharted waters.  Seeing things with human eyes for the very first time.  The reality is that they probably aren't even the first person in their hostel to see it.   But you know what, that is part of the beauty of travelling.  Thinking you are Phileas Fogg.  Educating the masses to the big wide world out there. 

What is true is that the act of travel is no longer a luxury.   Or even a rite of passage as it once was.  It's just something you do.  Because you can.  Because life is short, and it sure beats working.  And because the world has shrunk to the point that any of us can be anywhere we want to be.

You just need to decide where that is, and make it happen.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Melbourne, Open

There is a certain satisfaction in finally doing something that you have wanted for many years.  All through that sultry antipodean summer in 1995, mesmerised by the bright blue courts, and the luminous furry yellow ball darting from one side to the other.  Thousands of heads first looking one way, then in miraculous synchronicity, switching to the other.  All appearing to say "no" with a shake of the head in a seemingly interminable slow motion.

Pete Sampras reigning supreme, as he would again in 1997.  When players are so omnipotent, we think they will hold their crown for ever.  But then another generation come through, and we see the likes of Agassi (4 time winner), and then Federer (4 time winner), and now the machine that is Novak Djokovic, going into the tournament holding a record of 5 Australian Open titles, and exiting it claiming his sixth, in straight sets against Andy Murray.  Djok's 11th grand slam title.

Rod Laver arena, ahead of the battles to come
Some 21 years on from that hostel in Glenelg, Adelaide, I find myself at the famed Rod Laver arena in Melbourne, first for the women's, then one of the men's semi finals.  Finally, I am here.  No more talking about what I would like to do.  No more saying "one day".  One day has a nasty habit of becoming "never", so when I saw Jetstar's "take a mate" flight deal, effectively buy one, get one free, as soon as you could say "hidden charges", I had booked return flights with the "budget" airline. 

Melbourne is a city I had been too a few times before, and greatly enjoyed.  Most of our short trip there would be consumed by the tennis, but we also planned to make the most of the free time we had.  Garnering recommendations from Melbourne "ex pats" we knew, we strategically shaped our agenda around brunch spots, top coffee shops (when we could find them hidden down alleys), and some of the best small bars Melbourne had to offer.

One of Melbourne's finest
Having not been for a few years how would it compare to home, here in Sydney?  Well, that could depend on who you ask!

For people not from this neck of the woods you may not be aware that there is a certain rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney.  Bordering on animosity.  I'm not sure where it started, or even how real the actual rivalry is.  Some they there is a rivalry between Adelaide and Melbourne, although nobody in Melbourne has ever heard of this rivalry, nor cares what anybody in small town Adelaide has to say.

Sydneysiders claim to live in the best place in Australia (maybe the world, some of them espouse), and Melburnians (from the cultural capital of Australia) beg to differ.   Esteemed journalists such as Mosman based Peter FitzSimons even waded into the debate in his weekly column in the Sydney Morning Herald.   Somewhat disparagingly I would say, to our friends in the state of Victoria. 

Sydney is seen as a place to kick back with a cold stubbie, and enjoy the beach life, in your wife beater (vest) and thongs (flip flops).  Melbourne sneer at even considering something so uncouth.  Melbourne dines out, quite literally, on it's foodie scene and sublime coffee culture.  Not forgetting that the small bar revolution currently hitting Sydney in fact started in Melbourne some years ago. 

Lock out laws are currently in the news (for NSW and now Queensland), a subject that deserves a blog all on its own, but it is yet another example quoted by bar flies in Melbourne of the superior approach to creating, and maintaining a world class, 24 hour city.  And I would agree.  Whole heartedly.  There is more than one way to create a more harmonious society, and imposing curfews, and ridiculous laws around the sale of alcohol are not the most effective way.

In the whole of NSW, about 3 and a quarter times the size of the U.K., you can no longer buy a bottle of wine after 10pm.  It is deemed too dangerous, and reduces the risk of you going out after your 7 course degustation dinner, and bottle of Sancerre, and clobbering somebody in the street.  Apparently.  And woebetide you would like a Macallan 15yr old single malt past 12am.  Waaay too dangerous.  This contravenes the "responsible service of alcohol laws", and can only be bought by you if served with a mixer.  I shit you not.  This is the nanny state that Sydney is, no, has become.

Melbourne tried such draconian measures a few years back.  And 3 months later, against massive public revolt, they were repealed.  The result?   Melbourne, and it's nightlife, continues to go from strength to strength.

But I digress.  This blog is not the place for politics.

How did Melbourne compare to Sydney?  Very favourably in my opinion.  It feels like a "real" city compared to Sydney.  A city with logical layout, grid like, as seen in places like New York City.  I often got the eerie feeling of a flashback to previous city breaks, all over the world.  Sydney is based around so much water, the glorious Harbour, and amazing beaches, that it feels more like a holiday location than a city.  This obviously isn't a bad thing.  Just very different to most major cities.

The vibrant Degraves St
The small bar scene is booming, even if it looks as though you only now need the corner of an old car park, some wooden pallets to sit on, and some large old soup containers to hold the DJ's decks, and you have a bar that can legitimately sell $20 cocktails.  Coffee has, and I feel always will be, one of Melbourne's everlasting loves.  A love that I share.  And you don't have to look too hard for damn good coffee. 

Together with a progressive approach to city transport, with a tram system in place for years that Sydney can only hope to replicate the success of, which also includes a heavy emphasis on catering to cycling as a bone fide way of commuting, Melbourne has much to offer, and much to proud of.

Nothing beats rattling around the city on the free tram
I now have one eye on the Jetstar website, so I can once again revel in the wondrous laneway culture made famous by the capital of Victoria.