Some more on Melbourne

It was with some interest that I read this BBC article on Melbourne, having recently just quit the place:

With its grand Victorian architecture, and famous network of 190 lanes, Melbourne is regarded as one of Australia’s big tourist attractions. But city fathers have been selling some of the alleys to property developers – and Melburnians have an uneasy feeling that vital heritage could soon be lost.

Okay, Melbourne’s lanes are nice.  I had fun in my first few weeks there ducking and diving through the back alleys of the CBD stumbling across cool, independent bars with precisely nobody in them outside the hours of 17:00-20:00 on Fridays.  I particularly liked this one.  But I think a rather large point is being missed here, which I’ll get back to later.  Meanwhile:

But for three years running, Australia’s second city has topped the world for liveability, last year scoring 97.5% for stability, healthcare, culture, environment, education and infrastructure.

Yes, and it’s easy to see why it scores highly on those criteria.  Sounds like the perfect place to live a nice, easy, untroubled existence as a nuclear family, commuting from an overpriced home in sprawling, nondescript suburbia to a monotonous job while the kids receive a third-rate education which is more than enough to follow in their father’s professional footsteps.  Which sounds like heaven if you’re from overpopulated India, war-ravaged Sri Lanka, disaster-prone Bangladesh, or unpredictable China.  Or if you like that exact same kind of living in the UK but want some sunshine.  But to me, judging a place on those criteria alone is simply an exercise in identifying the most dull cities on earth:

CaptureHang on a minute!  “Culture” is one of the criterion, yet Calgary, Adelaide, Perth, Sydney, and Auckland make it into the top 10?  Adelaide?  Seriously? Okay, so these places are stable, but so is London and New York, which rank at 55 and 56 respectively.  True, the environments are better, except for Calgary where it’s clean but minus forty for half the year.  From my brief visit to Sydney I’m not sure their infrastructure is so far ahead of London’s, and the gap will be closing fast.  I’ve been to both Vienna and Helsinki, nice places the both of them, but hardly the most happening places in the world.  And from what I’ve seen of the Australian education system, and heard about the health system, it’s hardly world class (sure, better than Britain’s, but that’s not saying much).

No, this seems more like a list of cities where British families like to be expatriated than a measure of which cities are the best to live in generally.  Note that there are only two cities in the top 10 which are non-English speaking, and English is widely spoken in Helsinki leaving just Vienna which would pose a challenge for an Anglophone.  I find it hard to believe that Perth or Calgary (both based around oil/mining) are considered more desirable cities to live than Berlin, unless the respondents to the survey were British housewives living in Aberdeen or London wishing hubby would get a job in a place where the houses are bigger, there aren’t so many swarthy foreign-types, and they don’t need to go to all that trouble of learning a new language or even, really, a new culture.

It is my opinion that life in these cities would be “good” in one sense, but interminably dull in another.  I’ve found living in rougher, readier places is an awful lot more fun.  Which brings me back to the article:

The Economist Intelligence Unit judges left out a few essential elements of Melbourne’s good life – like food and wine, beaches and forests, and vineyards an hour’s drive from the city centre.

The author thinks this is a good thing, whereas I expect Paris or any other major French city would have knocked Melbourne into a cocked-hat had these criteria been considered.  Take the food and wine, starting with the wine.  Yes it’s good in Australia, but fucking expensive.  If you know where to look, and shop around, and stumble on a decent offer, you’re looking at $15 for a reasonable bottle.  In central Paris you can pick up a bottle of equal or better quality from any random shop on your way home from work for €7, or two-thirds of the price you’d pay in Australia with a fraction of the effort.  Things aren’t much better in the vineyards.  A trip to a vineyard in France will gain you buckets of wine at giveaway prices, whereas in Australia you might as well buy it from Cole’s as far as price goes.

The food in Melbourne wasn’t bad, by Anglo-Saxon standards, but I have no idea how the city gained a reputation as a gastronomic centre.  The food that was excellent came at eye-watering prices, and the cheaper stuff was no better in quality than that which could be found in Manchester city centre.  The lunchtime selection in the CBD was superb, but you pay a considerable premium over the same stuff in Paris.  And the lunchtime selection in London is also superb, and you pay through the nose there, too.  I think that for years Australia was so devoid of a decent selection of food that when the Italian, Middle Eastern, and Asian immigrants arrived and dragged the standard of food up, Australians went bananas and thought they’d created something unique (examples abound of Australians reinventing what exists elsewhere and claiming it as unique or their own).  I am quite prepared to believe that the standard of food in Melbourne at some point in the last 20-30 years surpassed that of many other cities around the globe, but with the sharp increase in prices and the unarguable improvement in food quality and availability elsewhere (particularly in the UK) in the intervening years I really don’t see where Melbourne’s edge is supposed to come from.  Compared to Paris it falls well short, in my opinion.

And beaches?  Forests?  Well, yeah.  Melbourne’s beaches are nothing to get too excited about, at least compared to Sydney’s.  I didn’t see much by way of forests, and I’m sure they’re all very nice, but I’ve yet to hear somebody tell me Melbourne is an awesome place to live because of the forests an hour’s drive away.  Whereas the Ardennes region is not only beautifully picturesque but it is also handy cover for invading Germans.

The other thing which is not considered – and I found this to be a serious issue in Melbourne, and I’ve heard others say the same of Calgary – is how damned isolated those cities are.  Perth, Auckland, Vancouver, Adelaide – great places to live if your entire life is there and nowhere else, but not so good if you have to visit family or like to visit a different culture every now and again.  Long weekends in another country aren’t viable, especially taking into consideration the price of international flights out of Australia, leaving you pretty stranded.  One of the best things about living in Dubai was the presence of a decent airport and its location slap in the middle of Europe and Asia and 6-7 hours from each.  Even living in Lagos had the advantage of being 6 hours flying time from Europe and in the same time zone.  I find it hard to believe that living at the arse-end of the world, whole continents away from everywhere else, shouldn’t get factored into the quality of life equation somehow.

Back to the article:

Melbourne is a leader in fields like biotechnology and financial services, also music, theatre, film, and festivals.

Hmm.  That would a local leader.  Melbourne is hardly a global centre of financial services, is it?  I think even Sydney packs more of a clout on a regional basis.  I don’t see how Melbourne outscores Manchester on any of these criteria.

The city was laid out in 1837 on the Hoddle Grid, designed by surveyor Robert Hoddle.

Yes, and as a result it is rather dull.  This is the first time I’ve heard somebody describe the grid pattern of a regional city as adding character.

Following the gold rush of the 1850s and 60s, the lanes led Melbourne’s trajectory downwards, with many becoming no-go zones and haunts for criminals, and buildings becoming brothels, opium dens and speakeasy gaming houses.

As suburbia flourished, the city centre slowly died and right into the 1980s the lanes were dark and dirty. Many disappeared beneath faceless office blocks.

With the urban renewal of the 1990s, the spirit of Melbourne’s lanes revived.

These days, they are not only a colourful reminder of the city’s past, but an integral part of its present – bijoux benchmarks of constant change, with Japanese tea houses and Chinese dim sum diners, fine dining and trendy bars and fashion boutiques, bespoke jewellers, art galleries, coffee grinders, hidden jazz clubs, and secret restaurants like the Italian Waiters’ Club, which opened on Meyers Place in 1947 and only recently put a sign over its door.

Now I have no doubt that Melbourne’s lanes were once as notorious, and later vibrant, as the back streets of London once were, but having walked up and down an awful lot of them, and visited a hefty sample of the venues therein, I think the author is guilty of bigging-up his hometown somewhat.  Like the food, it sounds to me as though Melbourne is trading on its past somewhat in this regard, as the nanny state which is so prevalent across Australia, and especially Victoria, is everywhere.  Rather than being a hotch-potch of genuinely avant-garde establishments, they are regulated into places far more sterile than the author is making out.  Walk into any bar and you’ll see enormous signs warning people about drinking too much, detailing hefty fines for various alcohol related offences.  At some point in the evening a squad of police in high-viz vests may well come walking through the joint, and you can be sure none stays open beyond the permitted time (or opens if there are no office workers around).

I think what summed Melbourne up for me was when a colleague of mine, who grew up in Venezuela, went to a Latin American street party in Melbourne.  They had all the food on the tables outside, the music, dancing, the lot.  Except drinking on the streets is banned, so if you wanted a drink you had to go inside and consume if there.  Only Australia could come up with a Latin American street party where drinking outside is forbidden.  If the author is concerned that Melbourne will lose its character if the laneways get sold to developers, he might like to consider what his state and federal governments are doing to it.

From my point of view, I’d take a bit of groaning infrastructure over sterility any day.

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An Observation on Australian Sporting Culture

The other day I caught an interview between one of the presenters of the Australian cricket show and the former Australian bowler Glenn McGrath.  McGrath said something which would have passed unnoticed by most viewers, but for me it spoke volumes about the difference between sports in Australia and sports in the UK.

The presenter asked McGrath if he thought the on-field sledging of the English batsmen by the Australian players had gone over the top.  McGrath’s response was along the lines of:

“No, not really.  We kopped it when we played over there, with the Barmy Army singing all their songs, so we’re just dishing it back out now.”

I doubt most Australians would consider this answer remarkable, but for this Brit it was.  McGrath is effectively equating Australian players getting stick from an English crowd with English players getting stick from Australian players on the field.

In England, the players and the crowd at sports matches are very much separate.  What the crowd says or does is in no way representative of the players, and there is a large psychological divide between the two.  The players are not an extension of the crowd, or “one of us”.  And the behaviour of the two is expected, rightly, to be quite different.  Were Alistair Cook to start behaving like the Barmy Army it would be frowned upon by all, including the Barmy Army.

But I’ve noticed in Australia that the psychological dividing line between the crowd and the players is much less clear.  A television advertisement that ran throughout the Ashes series – I think one for Cricket Australia – showed the players in a stadium crowd with the voiceover saying “they are not taking on a team, but a nation”, implying that the players were inseparable from the supporters.

It’s interesting, because just watching the coverage of the Ashes here shows that the fortunes of the national cricket team takes a far greater precedence in societal affairs than in England, and more so than even the English football team.  I don’t think anything short of a World Cup win would put a sports event on the front page of a newspaper to the exclusion of anything else in the UK., and maybe not even then.  The Melbourne papers put the retention of the Ashes following the Perth test as an exclusive front-page story, with a full-page colour photo.

This might explain the reaction of many Australians to English objections to the behaviour of the Australian players at times throughout this series.  Most Australians interpreted Michael Clarke’s threat to have his fast bowlers break James Anderson’s arm, an exchanged picked up by the stump microphone, as fair game and many justified it by referring to taunts made by the English supporters.  By contrast, had Alistair Cook made such remarks the majority of English supporters would be utterly ashamed, myself included.  Taunting Shane Watson about reviewing an obvious LBW is about as harsh as was dished out by the English players in the previous series, but in this Ashes the Australians took it to another level of in-your-face aggression of which they seemed proud, players and supporters alike.

For Australians, it’s not just the case that sport features heavily in society, but societal behaviour appears to feature heavily in sport.  I’m not sure that’s altogether a good thing, even if it does occasionally produce results.

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A Trip to Adelaide

Given I shall soon be leaving Australia and unlikely to return for some time, I decided to do a bit of local tourism, with my first destination being Adelaide.  Other than it being the scene of an unimaginable slaughter a few weeks back, I didn’t know much about it and half the people I spoke to said it was lovely and the other half said it was full of inbreds.

I flew down on Virgin Australia, a flight of an hour or so, and as I found when I went to Sydney the domestic airports at each end were models of efficiency and organisation.  I have to hand it to the Australians, when it comes to making domestic air travel as painless as possible they have it nailed down, at least insofar as the airports are concerned.  With an absolute minimum of fuss I was checked in and at the departure gate within minutes.

I caught a taxi to my hotel which was situated bang in the middle of town on Hindley Street.  For the price it wasn’t bad (a fraction of the cost in Melbourne), but it was a bit dated and I didn’t bother eating there: hotel breakfasts in Australia, like everywhere, are a bit of a fleecing and so I made use of the McDonald’s over the road more times than was probably good for me.  I had arrived on the last Friday before Christmas Day, and there was much revelry in the air of the office Christmas party kind.  The bars in Leigh Street near my hotel were mobbed, music was pumping out of one of them, and so after a quick kip I went out to join the fun.  But first I needed some food, and I went up and down Hindley Street at least twice looking for somewhere to eat.  In doing so, I discovered that Adelaide’s busiest street (aside from Rundle Mall) consists almost entirely of:

  1. Strip clubs
  2. Asian massage parlours
  3. Adult video stores
  4. Hookah cafes
  5. Dodgy bars and clubs
  6. Dodgy takeaways

I couldn’t find anywhere that looked suitable to eat, so I went into one of the bars and ate a hotdog.  Coming out, I wandered about some more.  The streets were beginning to fill up with Adelaide’s youngsters, the girls of which were often slim and pretty (they wouldn’t stay that way long) and wearing next to nothing (like they do in Liverpool) and speaking in godawful accents (like they do in Liverpool).  At least half of them had tattoos.

The main attraction in several of the bars, according to the signage, seemed to be 24-hour poker machines (or pokies, as they are called in the excruciating local vernacular).  Clearly the gambling addiction in Australia isn’t confined to Melbourne.  For sure, you’ll find fruit machines in most English pubs, but they’re not advertised on enormous banners outside to the exclusion of anything else.  Half of these places were less bars than gambling dens which served alcohol.  I also saw Aborigines for the first time in Australia, and they didn’t appear to be doing too well.  They were a couple of old men and an old woman, all barefoot, and seemingly drunk in the middle of the street (more so than the rest of the locals).  One of the men had a bandage on his bleeding head.  The woman was dancing drunkenly in front of an elderly busker who was playing an electric guitar which had been smashed up.  It wasn’t a pretty sight.

I went into a packed bar on Leigh Street where I sat at the counter drinking something or other, before going to the next street where there was a Russian-themed bar.  I walked in and discovered the barman was from Nigeria, Port Harcourt to be precise.  The Russian theme didn’t amount to much, and so I talked to the barman about Lagos instead.  Shortly afterwards two young fellows came in and sat nearby and we got talking.  Turned out they were natives of Adelaide and once the inevitable ribbing about the cricket had finished, we got stuck into a fair bit of alcohol.  At some point some Nigerian mates of the barman came in and we had a jolly good laugh about Lagos (I forget what they were doing in Adelaide, but I think one of them might have been running a backpacker hostel, or something).  As the night moved on, an Australian girl joined the two lads and in with the general festivities.  After an hour or so, one of the lads and the girl went home and the other lad, Adam, and I went a-bar hunting.  We wandered into three or four packed bars, drinking and bullshitting in each one, and then at some point after midnight went into the Adelaide casino to prop up the bars there.  Whereas the Crown casino in Melbourne is impressive in size and probably style also, the same can’t be said for Adelaide’s.  It looked like a pretty seedy joint, half full of middle aged married or divorced men coming from the office parties and drunkenly trying it on with their middle aged married female colleagues.  It was painful to watch, but by this time I was getting pretty drunk and really wasn’t so bothered by my surroundings.

It got to a point, sometime around 2 or 3am, and the streets were an utter carnage of drunken revellers, when we decided to go to a bar I’d passed several times on Hinkley Street called the Woolshed.  We went in and I found myself in the biggest shithole since my days of drinking in Manchester.  The first thing that hit me was the smell.  Since the smoking ban, bars have gone from smelling of smoke to smelling of BO, stale beer, farts, and backed-up toilets.  It was honking.  The carpet was sticky, which is a sure sign of a certain type of establishment, and the music absolutely bloody awful.  There was a mechanical rodeo bull set up in one corner with drunk girls dressed in tiny dresses trying to ride it without any success, but attracting a sizeable audience nonetheless.  I poked my head in the toilet and found a proper, British club style arrangement: cubicle doors hanging off, graffiti everywhere, the seat ripped off, the porcelain cracked, both toilets blocked with bog roll, a pint glass in the urinal, and the whole floor covered in piss.  The whole place sent a wave of nostalgia over me for the many dives I have patronised, and I loved it!  I felt right at home.

And so Adam and I were off, drinking ourselves into oblivion, watching plastered, sweating halfwits trying it on with anything vaguely female, and who they outnumbered by eight to one.  Somehow I got talking briefly with some girl who looked about 20 who had two strange words tattooed on her inner wrists, which turned out to be the names of her daughters.  The music got worse, but the dancing – if you could possibly call it that – had no greater depths to which it could sink.  I stayed on the edges, guzzling bourbon by the tumbler, watching Adam try his luck with anything which passed his threshold of interest.  He was one hell of a drinking buddy, and I was mighty grateful for his company.  We went to the first floor level, up a ludicrously steep flight of stairs given the state of the customers at that point, which was packed full of people of all ages, shapes, and sizes.  One thing I like about these shithole clubs is they are egalitarian places with no pretentiousness.  I detest pretentious bars and clubs – Melbourne has them by the dozen – pretending to be as hip and trendy as Manhattan’s newest gay bar, when in fact they’re just your standard, boring dump with a lick of paint applied.  The Woolshed by contrast didn’t pretend to be anything other than an absolute, end-of-the-night dive and as a result everyone was there only to get hammered and, for a lot of them, to pick something up. Everyone was clearly enjoying themselves at any rate, and I didn’t see a sniff of trouble.

I saw lots of things which I really wanted to remember so I could blog about them, but alas my memory failed me in most instances.  I blundered into one group who had a teenage French girl with them, who had been sent from Paris to stay with her cousin and learn English.  Quite what sort of English her parents thought she’d learn in Adelaide, and quite what words and phrases she’d learn in the Woolshed at 4am is anyone’s guess, but I was able to speak French with her for a while.  My French language abilities are rudimentary in the extreme, but compared to everyone else in the joint I might easily have passed for Gerard Depardieu.  Eventually she cleared off to smoke outside with her friends, and it was pushing towards about 5am when I realised that the place was now half empty and I’d lost Adam.  At this point, or somewhere around it, I stumbled the short distance back to my hotel and went to bed.

The next day I thought I’d better do something productive to justify my coming to Adelaide, but unfortunately I looked around and realised it was already mid-afternoon.  That’s the problem with going out until dawn and getting up after lunch.  So I took a stroll up to Rundle Mall, the main shopping precinct, in spitting rain which was not what I’d expected: Adelaide had experienced one of its hottest days on record two days previously.  There wasn’t much to see, although I did stop to watch this guy play his guitar in the street, which was very impressive and his method was something I’d never seen before.  Australian shopping areas aren’t much to visit, and I was feeling pretty rough, so I decided to spend what was left of the afternoon in the cinema, watching American Hustle which, after a slow start, I quite enjoyed.  I went out that evening to get something to eat, again struggling to find a proper restaurant just by wandering about and looking, settling for a burrito at a Mexican-themed takeaway joint.  I tried to go back to the Russian-themed bar for a quick drink but found it closed for the staff Christmas party, and I really couldn’t be bothered to look anywhere else and so went back to the hotel and watched test match cricket between South Africa and India.

I got up a lot earlier the next day and looked at the range of brochures on display in the hotel advertising things to do in Adelaide.  The problem was, none of them advertised things to do in Adelaide: everything involved travelling outside for anywhere between 20 and 100km.  The things people recommended I do – mainly winery tours – were outside the city, and when I looked at the things for which you can book a day trip I wasn’t overly excited.  Most of them seemed to involve travelling an hour or so to a place where there really wasn’t very much, and none of them interested me.  Even the winery tours didn’t appeal for two reasons.  Firstly, wine in wineries is no cheaper in Australia than it is in a supermarket, which defeats the primary purpose of going on a winery tour: to get pissed cheaply on good wine.  And secondly, I’m moving to Paris in a few weeks where I will be drinking good wine until it comes out of my ears at a fraction of Australian prices, and likely doing plenty of winery tours over the course of the next couple of years where the wine is practically free.  So it wasn’t something I felt a real urge to undertake when in Adelaide.

Just to ensure that my trip didn’t just consist of me getting totally pissed and going to the cinema, I took a stroll down to the river, opposite the Adelaide oval which is undergoing renovations.  I was tempted to hire a pedal boat in the absence of anything else to do, but they were sorry looking things and customers were not allowed to take them out of sight of the hire point.  Then I looked at doing what was advertised as a river cruise, but when I enquired what there was to look at the best I could hope for was “grassy banks”.  Not even a kangaroo or a bunch of convicts.  The park area along the river was quite nice though, and I took a few photos mainly to justify having lugged the camera with me from Melbourne.

IMG_2621IMG_2626IMG_2627IMG_2628 I suppose it was a Sunday afternoon, but there really didn’t seem to be much going on.  My walk back to the city centre took me through the university campus where there were flyers advertising some Marxist snoozefest of the type which has been a stock feature of university campuses across the western world for about 5 generations now.  IMG_2629A Marxism conference promising “ideas to challenge the system”.  Really?  New ideas these, are they?  You’ve got to hand it to these lefties, they don’t give up.  A resilient bunch, and each generation seems to put forward enough numbers to pick up where the last lot left off.

I briefly went into the Museum of South Australia which, from what I could tell, was a museum of whale bones and Pacific Island cultures, before giving up on finding anything else of interest and going home.  Aside from a passable Indian curry that evening and the flight back to Melbourne, that was pretty much Adelaide for me.  Not really worth the trip on the face of it, but I did need to get out of Melbourne and get my mind off some serious work issues, and the night on the piss with my new friend in the Woolshed adequately served that purpose.  So I’m glad I went.

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Last Month in Australia

At some point in January I will be leaving Melbourne and moving to a new assignment in Paris, where I expect to be for the next 2-3 years.  It was always expected that my assignment to Melbourne would be short-term, with the work here due to finish in early 2014, although I would have liked to have stayed another 6 months or so to enjoy the warm weather (which has finally arrived) and a bit more sailing.  Apparently you can sail on the Seine, but you need to tack an awful lot.

With the exception of the sailing, which has been brilliant, I’ll not be too sorry to leave Melbourne.  I suspect my view of the place was tainted with difficulties I had at work, to put it mildly, and this is quite often the case: my view of somewhere largely depends on how happy I am in general, and on international work assignments this is inseparable from the situation at work.  For this reason, and for the fact that I arrived in winter when it was cold and wet, I am probably judging Melbourne a little harshly and I advise readers not to listen to my views on the city too closely, but I generally found it overrated, ridiculously expensive, geographically isolated, and quite dull.  I’ve previously gone into detail about what I liked and didn’t like about Melbourne and I’ll not bother to repeat it here, but it’s not a city I’d make any effort to come back to – even if it wasn’t 22 hours from Europe.  I’m not even sure I’d come back to Australia, to be honest.  If I was based in Thailand or Singapore then there’s a good chance I’d fly down for a week or two to see some people or maybe dive the Great Barrier Reef, but I’d not be flying long-haul for a holiday here, and I’ve got no interest in looking for work in Perth, Brisbane, or any of the other oil and gas centres.  Australia, despite the insistence of practically everyone I’ve ever met that things would be to the contrary, just didn’t really do it for me.

However, I enjoyed my visit to Sydney and I have decided to make the most of what time I have left here to do weekend trips to Adelaide and Hobart.  The latter I will be visiting between 27th and 31st December, the flights for which I booked completely forgetting that Hobart is the (fairly obvious) finishing point of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, which takes place between Boxing Day and about 28th-29th December.  For a member of the Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron to forget this is pretty damned slack, and I was punished accordingly when I found a solitary hotel room left available in Hobart for the period of my stay, which is going to cost me just shy of $1,500 for 4 nights.  The good news is I ought to be able to access the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania thanks to the reciprocal rights I enjoy through my own club, so expect to see me propping up the bar listening to stories of the race from salty old sea dogs.  Then it’ll be back to Melbourne for New Year’s Eve.

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Why Competition is Good

Today I went into HSBC bank in Melbourne to open a bank account of the most basic kind on offer.  I didn’t expect much, having tried two or three times before to do the same thing in the UK, without success.  On those previous occasions, they raised objections within a minute or two of my saying what I wanted, and proceeded to reel off a load of bureaucratic hoops I’d need to jump through before they’d make any effort themselves.

Sure enough, the bullshit started quickly on this occasion.  They asked for my passport, then my UK driving license.  They said they needed the latter to confirm my address in the UK, even through I am resident in Australia (with a proper visa).  They asked for proof of address in Australia, which I gave them in the form of an invoice from the serviced apartments company from which I rent my flat (which is all inclusive, so I have no utility bills).  At this, the assistant pulled her face and asked if I could get somebody from my company to confirm this address.  I said I could, but the letter would come from me as I am the local representative of the company, and I set up the accommodation myself.  She pulled her face a bit more and went off to speak to her manager.  After a few minutes she came back with the expected “I’m sorry, but we can’t…” and invited me to write a letter to “HR” – who in my case live in Perth, have never met me, and could no more vouch for my residential address as they could the contents of my pocket.  I in turn invited them to call up the serviced apartments company and verify I was living there, but was met with another, wholly expected, “I’m sorry, but we can’t…”.  Even grudgingly accepting that there is a requirement to go through bureaucratic bullshit to open a bank account, it really grates that certain banks – HSBC being one of them – expect their customers to be the ones to negotiate it, instead of them.  Who the fuck is the customer, here?  So with that, I gathered up my documents and announced that I’d passed six or seven banks on the short walk from the office to HSBC, and I’ll try one of them.

So I did, and entered the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. I chose them because their merchant terminals generally accept my Credit Suisse Maestro card, whereas most others don’t (but that’s a subject for another post).  After a brief wait for somebody to see me, I was sat in a room opposite a helpful young lady on a computer and within 20 minutes I had a bank account number and details of how to access it online, with the password sent via SMS to my mobile phone.  Nobody asked to see my UK driving license, and I wasn’t asked to write letters to mythical HR departments a continent away to verify I hadn’t forged the invoice and was lying about where I lived.  Simply my passport, visa information, and contact details and away we went.  I was impressed.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why competition is good.  If one provider is shite, chances are a better one will exist nearby.  In a country where competition is badly missing in a lot of areas, its presence in the banking sector cheered me up considerably.

Incidentally, the reason I tried HSBC first was just to verify if they were as petty and shite as the other occasions I’d try to open an account with them, largely for the purposes of providing blogging material (bank-bashing never gets old around these parts).

And also incidentally, I noticed that all the people I dealt with in both banks were Chinese, and I don’t mean second generation.  The only “Australians” I saw were showing the customers which Chinese girl to go and speak to.  Read into that what you will.

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Tim the Sailor

It would be a better story if I started this post saying I’d always wanted to sail, but sadly it wouldn’t be true.  Despite growing up by the sea and having dozens of opportunities to learn, the pastime held no interest for me whatsoever until recently.

I got into boats by walking the marina at St. Katherine’s docks in London, near where my Dad lives.

St_katharine_docks_2004

I always thought the huge luxury power boats looked nice, with their white sofas, sun decks, and kick-ass levers.  Just for fun I decided to see how much one of these things would cost, and quickly realised that unless I am suddenly approached by a Premiership football club wishing to obtain my services for the next decade, I’ll never own one.  And it occurred to me that the sailboats looked awfully nice too, and it turned out they were a bit cheaper.  True, they were not exactly cheap, but they were at least within reach of the ordinary citizen (or engineer).  So I spent a couple of years just looking at sailing yachts, thinking it would be nice to get out on one some day.

Most of this time was spent in Nigeria, where there was a yacht club, but when I went down there a very pissed bloke who represented the club told me they were hopelessly in debt and they would need me to cough up my membership fees ASAP.  I’d not been on the premises more than 10 minutes at this point, and when I asked him about sailing courses he looked confused and then laughed.  So I decided this probably wasn’t the best place to learn to sail.  Plus, I took one look in the water of Lagos harbour…

When I came back to Melbourne for my second trip in July, I got online and found the Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron at St. Kilda was offering all sorts of training courses, and so I got myself signed up for the most basic one.  The course consisted of 3 sessions of 4-5 hours, held on Sunday mornings.  I had no idea what to expect, and so was a bit surprised to find myself and 3 other students chucked into a small sailboat with a wild and enthusiastic instructor and expected to perform the basic tasks expected of a crew member.  It was pretty confusing, as there was all sorts of stuff going on and not much room to do it in.  We spent 4 hours on the water sailing the boat around, being bombarded with instructions and information, until by the end we were all pretty disorientated and not quite sure how we managed to get out and back again.  But it was an excellent introduction, as by the time the second lesson came around we knew what it was really like to be on a yacht under sail.  No hours of theory in the classroom before being allowed near a boat on this course!  This was as hands-on as it gets, and you learn quickly.

The main thing I learned was that Melbourne in winter, especially early in the morning, is bloody freezing and I was hopelessly under dressed.  All my wet-weather and warm gear was (and still is!) all in Lagos, and I’ve only got with me that which I could fit into a few suitcases.  I got a bit wet, and the wind was bitingly cold.  By the time I did the second lesson I had bought wet-weather gear, knee-pads, gloves, and was wearing several extra layers underneath.  It was much more comfortable.

The other thing I learned was that sailing yachts cannot generally be sailed by one person.  Well they can, but usually you need a crew.  For some reason I’d assumed a bloke on his own could just climb aboard and happily sail any random yacht about all by himself, but in fact ideally you need a crew of about 4-5 people.  There are people who sail by themselves, but they are familiar with the yacht and have it rigged up specifically for this purpose, and are working their arses off for most of the time.  The idea that a guy can just take off in a yacht, point it where it needs to go, and sit back and enjoy a pink gin is a bit fanciful.

The reason being, as I learned, is there is one hell of a lot to do when keeping a yacht sailing on course.  There are a hundred different adjustments that need doing: you need to man the tiller, control the mainsail, control the headsail, and tack or jibe when required.  And you then need to make the continuous fine adjustments necessary to keep the boat moving at maximum efficiency given all the conditions such as wind direction, wind strength, course, sea state, etc.  These controls and adjustments generally involve pulling or releasing one of several dozen ropes at any given time, using winches where additional force is necessary, and moving yourself from one end of the boat to the other as well as from side to side.  If you’re not familiar with it all, it is one hell of a lot to think about and quite hard work.  The problems come when one adjustment is forgotten or done wrongly, and the boat starts doing something you don’t want it to.  At best it will head off in the wrong direction, at worst it starts to lean over to an alarming degree with the sails flapping all over the place.  First time this happened I had a momentary panic as I thought we were going to capsize, but I soon learned that keelboats are designed to be able to heel right over at silly angles without flipping over completely. Once I’d realised this, heeling over became good fun.

It can all seem a bit chaotic on a sailing boat, when you’re doing something but not entirely sure what the rest of the crew are doing, but if everyone does their job, it all somehow comes together.  I found it pretty important to concentrate on what you’re doing: there are ample opportunities for a rope to be caught on the wrong side of something, and when that happens the results are usually obvious and often quite difficult to rectify.  The power of the wind is immense, and if a sail is full of wind and a rope is attached to the sail, you’re not going to be able to do very much with it unless you depower the boat.  By the time I finished the course I knew how to tie basic knots (including the bowline, without which you’re seriously stuck) and the basic role of each crew member, such that I would not be completely useless on a boat.  At this point, I learned another important thing about sailing yachts: you don’t need to own a yacht.

I had originally assumed that anyone who wanted to sail on a yacht had to either own a yacht, or have a mate who owns a yacht.  Time for a joke:

Q. What’s the only thing better than having a yacht?

A. Having a mate with a yacht.

Where was I?  Yes, that’s right.  Turns out you don’t need your own yacht, or even a mate with a yacht, to be able to sail.  As I said earlier, each yacht needs a crew, therefore for each yacht owner there needs to be 4-5 people who are willing to crew for him.  As a result, you have more skippers looking for crew than you do crew looking for a spot on a yacht.  Once the course finished, we were encouraged to go down to the Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron before a race (there is one most Wednesdays and Saturdays) and make yourself known that you are available to crew, and you’ll be guaranteed a sail.  So this I did, and got picked up by a likeable chap who owns a very nice racing yacht, and has an established crew of 5 others who I joined for the afternoon.  There wasn’t much wind and the going was slow, which gave me time to get myself orientated on board and to figure out each task I was assigned.  Naturally I was given the donkey-work to do, and my height made me useful when positioned at the mast, but given it was all new I learned a lot.  And I didn’t fall overboard.  The racing environment is good for learning as a lot of the tasks are repeated in a short space of time, and it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it.

I gave a good enough account of myself to be asked back the next weekend, and since then I’ve been a regular crew member of the same yacht, and a member of the Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron.  The club is situated in a prime location right on the St. Kilda beach, and from the description conjures up images of hooray-Henrys in blazers braying at each other as they drink gin.  It’s not like that at all, it is very egalitarian and much less formal than would be expected.  In fact, the stereotypical image of a yacht club is something they work hard to dispel, with the result that it is a very friendly and welcoming club.  I enjoy myself there at any rate.

Sailing 1

Sailing 2

Sailing 3I’m here until at least January, and I’ll be sailing most weekends until I leave.  I don’t know where I’ll be posted next or whether I’ll be able to sail when I’m there, but I’ll keep doing this wherever and whenever I can.  So far, I’m really enjoying it.

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On Unreasonable Expectations

There is a reoccurring theme which you come across in expat life whereby one is expected to refrain from saying anything negative about the country you’re living in.  It is worth looking at this in more detail.

It strikes me as odd the idea that a condition of entry into a country is adopting a positive opinion of it.  I think the argument runs along the lines of “you have come here out of choice and for your own benefit, and therefore you should be grateful”.  But this applies equally to people working anywhere.  Are you forced to come to the office every day?  No.  You have the option of posting videos of you singing “Little Red Caboose” on the internet and trying to live on the ad revenue, but instead you’ve chosen to come to the office.  Is coming to the office for your own benefit?  Most surely, or you wouldn’t come, would you?

So should all office workers be expected to adopt a positive opinion of the workplace?  What about factory workers?  What about factory workers in China or Bangladesh?  Can their employers demand their workers only hold positive opinions about the conditions of work on the grounds that if they don’t like it they can f*ck off elsewhere?

Let’s expand it a little.  If a bloke from Twickenham takes a job in Mile End, is he thereafter expected to express no negative opinions about London’s East End?  Does he forfeit that right by virtue of his taking a job there, when he had the option of working locally?

Let’s expand it a little more.  If our chap from Twickenham takes a job in Liverpool, does he have to like it?  Or does a Scouser working in London have to like the place?

I know dozens of people who don’t like London, but that’s where the work is and so that’s where they stay.  They get out when they can, and they look forward to the day they leave.  Is this an insult to Londoners?  Should such people be banned from working in London, if they have the temerity to opine that London is a bit of an overpriced shithole?

Of course not.  But cross a national border, and all of a sudden one is expected to like it or leave.  Well, the world is a bit more complicated than that.  Where you live is just one factor in one’s overall happiness: family, future, health, wealth, job satisfaction, friendships all contribute too.  It doesn’t take much imagination to understand that being happy with your overall lot does not in itself mean you have to like where you’re living right now.  It helps if you do, but it’s not a precondition.

It is interesting to note that some people think that you should be positive about a country if you are paid to be there, and the more you are paid the more you should be grateful.  Which is an interesting concept.  I generally find the more I am paid to be somewhere, the less I like it.  Nobody paid me to go to Thailand, Germany, or Lithuania.  I have friends who were paid to fight in Afghanistan with the Royal Marines.  They said it was a shithole.  Should they have consulted their pay-packets and said it wasn’t?  I can understand if somebody has moved somewhere permanently to live, independent of work, and then complains he doesn’t like it.  At the very least, you could question why they went there.  But paying somebody to go somewhere or do something and then demanding they enjoy it?  I hope these people don’t ever visit a prostitute.

The thing is, in my line of work the pay increases in line with the hardship or difficulty of the location (in theory, anyway).  So the happiness/compensation ratio remains roughly the same wherever you are.  People in a nice place will complain about their meagre salary, people paid well will complain about the place being a dump.  If the former is acceptable, why not the latter?

Yes, people who go to hardship locations go for the money.  I presume you don’t go to the office simply because daytime TV is crap?  But in most hardship locations it’s less a case of going there because the money is good than being persuaded to go there because that’s where somebody (supposedly) needs you, and here’s a load of money to make you say yes.  Chances are, if foreigners are paid a lot of money to work in your country, few of them really want to be there.  If they did, you wouldn’t need to pay them so much.

Then there’s the “When in Rome…” argument, which is valid – to a point.  Firstly, foreigners are often employed in Rome for the precise reason they are not Romans.  If I was expected to adopt wholesale the working practices of Kuwaitis, Russians, and Nigerians in my respective overseas postings, then my employers neglected to tell me.  I rather suspect I wasn’t.  Secondly, beyond complying with the law, being reasonably well-mannered to individuals in a face-to-face situation, and not causing embarrassment or awkwardness on the part of the locals you meet in person, I don’t see foreigners as having any obligation to behave in any particular manner.

Wherever I am in the world, I generally try not to embarrass people or make them feel awkward by breaching etiquette, trampling roughshod over cultures and customs, and broaching taboo subjects.  But there is a world of difference between avoiding upsetting somebody in your immediate vicinity – who often has a situation thrust upon him – and avoiding making remarks in a general context where there is no individual present who doesn’t have the option of ignoring you.  For example, I don’t criticise religion in front of Nigerians, I’d not discuss the concept of hereditary monarchy with a Thai, I go along with the superstitions of the Russians, and I’d not bring up politics with an American work colleague.  Unless the individual has made it known that he’s up for some robust discussion, then I avoid making them feel awkward or that they need to defend themselves, their country, or their culture.

But on a blog?  Sorry, it’s fair game.  If you feel awkward, then close the browser.  You feel offended?  Tough shit.  Read something else.  Argue your case in the comments or elsewhere to your heart’s content, but nobody has any right to demand I adjust my opinions in order to make strangers in an altogether different location feel less uncomfortable.  Respect is something earned, not demanded, and it certainly isn’t earned by making somebody jump through umpteen bureaucratic hoops at great expense before grudgingly issuing him a visa.

Robust discussion.  I mentioned it before.  Some nationalities have thicker skins than others, and it’s interesting to see who has what in this regard.  There are some nationalities who tolerate almost no criticism of any aspect of their country from foreigners, even if they happen to be in agreement.  It is an interesting measure of how comfortable a nation is with themselves, and the results aren’t always what you’d expect.  Take France, for example.  Fiercely patriotic, see themselves as an alternative to the hegemonic Anglo-Saxons, convinced France is the best country on earth.  But.  As a Brit, I can complain to any Frenchman about the shoddy state of Air France, and he’ll nod in agreement and respond with an anecdote of his own.  I can roll my eyes at the bureaucracy you encounter trying to carry out simple tasks in France – such as open a bank account – and a Frenchman will agree completely.  You can make jokes about the strikes on SNCF and the RER, and they will laugh.  There’s no spluttering outrage and screams of “f*ck off home”.  They accept certain aspects of France are worthy of criticism, and don’t feel the need to defend them.  But what’s more interesting is when you criticise something closer to the heart of a Frenchman: the wine or the food.  Even then, you’re more likely to get a dismissive wave of the hand and a “Pah!  He eez Breeteesh, what would he know about food and wine, furking feesh and cheeps!” than a foaming-at-the-mouth xenophobic rant.  The French are comfortable enough with themselves and their culture that, on an individual level, they don’t feel the need to defend it when some ignorant foreigner comes along.  Who the hell cares what he thinks?

There are few countries like this, and most are large, old, and have an established identity going back centuries.  For all of Australia’s rough-and-ready “harden the f*ck up” stance, they often don’t seem comfortable in their own skin.  The Aussies love to call us Whinging Poms, but its overuse speaks volumes.  Okay, if a Brit moves here to seek a better life and spends the whole time complaining about how shit it is, then the term is apt (and I suspect this is where it originated).  But I see it used more often to avoid acknowledging that this foreigner might actually have a point.  Somebody called me a Whinging Pom when I complained that the internet in the hotel cost A$27.50 for 24hrs (which was capped, and they take care not to advertise the rate on their website), again when I pointed out that supermarket wine is 4 times the price it is in Paris, and once more for not showing sufficient enthusiasm for the notion that Melbourne is a fantastic city.  Now if the Aussies are happy being fleeced at every point and turn and genuinely think that everyone should fall in love with their cities then fair enough.  But an Aussie complaining about London’s parking charges, the cost of petrol, and declaring Manchester to fall somewhat short of fantastic wouldn’t find himself accused by Brits of being…well, anything.  They’d probably agree.

Indeed, the Whinging Pom epithet thing seems have turned into a parody of Australians more than a criticism of Brits.  This post – which was quite obviously a joke – was seized upon in the comments by a semi-literate Australian whose first remark was that he and his countrymen would be happy to see me on the boat back home.  Can you see the French saying that?  Or the Germans?  Me neither.

(Incidentally, one day somebody will write a book on how a nation made up almost entirely of immigrants managed within a few generations to create a society where “fuck off back on the boat you came in on” was considered acceptable mainstream opinion.  In the UK it’s thankfully confined to knuckle-dragging skinheads wearing swastikas.)

So here’s the thing.  Life is complicated folks, and opinions vary.  Some people think cricket – which I love – is a boring, waste of time, and I think they are ignorant fools.  But it doesn’t bother me, and I would not expect a waitress serving the gins at Lords to refrain from saying that it’s a silly game and anyway Cook can’t bat for shit since he assumed the captaincy when she’s posting on Facebook in the evening.  Not everything need be taken as a personal insult, you know.

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An Update on Melbourne

As you can see, I’ve not posted much recently.  I’m still in Melbourne, keeping myself reasonably busy.  I’ve taken a basic sailing course, which means I am qualified to look at a yacht and opine on whether the hull is the bit on the bottom or not.  This was a lot of fun, as it meant spending several hours out on the water of Port Phillip Bay.  First time I went, I didn’t bring the right gear with me and vastly underestimated how damned cold the wind would be.  The second time, following a visit to a chandler’s, I was togged up in waterproof dungarees and a jacket which looked like something off Deadliest Catch.  It was much more enjoyable.

I’ve also embarked on a Russian course, mainly to give me something to do, but also to make sure I don’t start forgetting stuff and in the hope that I might improve.  I’m about 8 years ahead of the rest of the class, but the teacher is giving me some pretty difficult stuff to do and for now it’s worthwhile.

But other than that, I’ve not got a lot to say about Melbourne.  The problem I have is that Melbourne is a dumbed-down version of the UK with better weather and worse accents.  Don’t get me wrong, I like being here.  Given that 8 years of the past decade have seen me in Kuwait, Sakhalin Island, and Lagos, being somewhere normal again is great.  I am enjoying decent internet, proper shops, and having a variety of places to eat and drink.  Also, it’s nice to know that when your shoes fall apart you can go and buy a new pair that afternoon, instead of planning it into your next holiday or business trip.  And being able to do proper grocery shopping in a well-stocked, functioning supermarket is a new-found pleasure.  I came across a new, exotic fruit the other day, called tangerines.

Now I’m sure there are some great places to visit around Melbourne, and elsewhere in Australia.  The Great Ocean Road for one, something we intended to do last weekend but my colleague got sick.  But as a city in itself, Melbourne is okay but no more than that.  I can see why Australians go all giddy over it – their scope of experience is generally so narrow that anything merely above average is “sensational”.  (Apparently Japan is the best place in the world to go skiing.  I’ve been to Niseko, and I’ve been to Les Trois Vallées in the French Alps, and the two just don’t compare).  And I can see why immigrants fleeing wars in Africa, poverty in the Indian sub-continent, or democracy in South Africa love it, because on a global scale it does rank pretty high.  Only for me, it doesn’t have anything particularly unique or interesting about it.  I spent 7 years in a city where everyone speaks English, drinks a lot, has a multitude of well-attended sports fixtures, a redeveloped docklands area and a tram network, hosted a Commonwealth Games, and prides itself on its music venues.  It was called Manchester.  True, the weather in Melbourne is better and they have a beach (then again, as my colleague from Queensland said: “You call that a beach?”).  But you can escape from Manchester and be in Paris or Barcelona in 2 hours, whereas Melbourne is in the arse-end of nowhere and 2 hours will see you in Sydney or Hobart.  And Melbourne is f*cking expensive.  Had I not been coming off a string of hardship locations, on a temporary assignment, and excited about exploring this corner of the globe for the first time, I’m not sure I’d be too happy here.  In itself, I don’t see Melbourne as being a place I’d want to live full time (then again, I’m yet to find anywhere like that, so perhaps it’s just me?)  If given a straight choice, I think I’d rather live in the UK and travel occasionally to find better weather.

But clearly a lot of people like it.  The Aussies do, for reasons of simply liking their home (nothing wrong with that) or those I mentioned earlier.  Some Kiwis like it, but from what I hear about New Zealand, subtract the natural beauty and the rugby and you’re left with very little.  No wonder they invented bungee jumping and other mental sports.  One group who like it are Brits, and the place is full of them.  But I’ve noticed something about a lot of them (not all of them mind, so don’t jump down my throat, any Melbourne-based Brits who are reading this).  A lot of them are pretty second-rate.  I get the impression Australia is a place which attracts Brits who aren’t exactly setting the world on fire back home so want to chance their arm in a country where the standards are perceived to be a bit lower, without having to bother learning a new culture.  I’ve not met a single person who came to Australia for a challenge, all of them came for “the lifestyle”, by which I take to mean a life which is more laid-back and easy than the one they left behind.  Which is fine, but some of them laughably try to pass this off as “international experience” in the professional sense, which is bollocks even if strictly true.  Moving from the UK to Australia is probably the most effortless transition to make: the culture is almost identical, relative to any other country.  There is no need to trouble yourself with a new language, or cuisine, or music, or customs, or indeed anything else other than climate, and in the case of Melbourne that’s pretty much the same for half the year.  Anyone who thinks he’s gaining vital international experience by moving from the UK to Melbourne is kidding themselves, but it doesn’t stop them trying it on.

For these reasons I’m a bit suspicious of Brits who say how amazing Melbourne is.  What, exactly, is amazing?  The fact you don’t need to wear ironed clothes to work?  That you get to call your customers “mate”?  It reminds me of the Brits I met in Baku and Abu Dhabi who thought those places were great, by virtue of there being no professional standards and a ready supply of cheap hookers.  Okay, I’m slapping everyone with a pretty wide brush here (and if this comes as a surprise, you must be new to this blog).

A lot of them might like the laid-back, matey culture.  I think it has its good points, mainly the way that Australians are as friendly as hell.  I’ve got chatting to guys asking for directions, people sat on trams, in the gym, in bars.  You can launch into a friendly conversation with anyone nearby, regardless of the venue, and that’s pretty good.  Nobody is stand-offish or uncomfortable talking with a complete stranger.  Which is great on a personal level, but not so good when adopted by companies and officialdom.  Insurance companies advertise products as if they were your mate trying to shift a second-hand lawnmower.  Advertisements for retail outlets have managed to be even dumber than those of the UK, sinking to something resembling teenage slang or text message English.  Even the Federal Government puts out adverts about “Giving the Aussie Tradie a Fair Go”, whilst at the same time managing to ignore economic reality.  It might work, I don’t know, but the impression it gives – to me anyway – is somebody who up until last week was smoking weed and watching big-wave surfing documentaries has now been put in charge of a bank’s public relations department.  It doesn’t instill confidence, and I contrast it with the French who unfailingly begin every encounter with “Bonjour, m’sieur…” and address you as vous until such time you actually are pals.  If somebody in an Australian shop wanders up to you and says “G’day mate” he could be anyone, because there’s no way he’ll have a uniform on, and his name tag is hidden lest he looks uncool.

That said.  I badly misjudged one chap in an acoustic guitar shop who kept me waiting for half an hour while he chatted up some blonde piece with stories of his own musical prowess.  She was buying a guitar, so he did need to attend to her, but I took the laid back look, unkempt hair, and matey manners to mean he didn’t know his stuff.  Then he turned to me and spent the next hour giving me an impressive education on the development of the acoustic guitar from the 1920s through the depression up to WWII, which woods they used and why, the bracing configurations, and the characteristics of each model.  His efforts were rewarded by my walking out the door with a ludicrously expensive (but incredibly nice) guitar which I’d never have bought had he not been so knowledgeable and good at his job.

So I can understand why people like Melbourne, I’m just not sure that I do particularly.  I don’t dislike it by any means, I’m just neutral.  Interestingly, my French colleagues are a bit “meh” about it, too.  True, they’re tougher to please than the Brits, but are probably a better yardstick of how nice your city is.  No doubt there’s a Brit living under a pile of rubble in Mogadishu enthusiastically telling everyone how great the place is.

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Crèche Australia

For a country that prides itself on being rough and ready, and defines itself in contrast to the prim and proper UK, visitors to Australia might find themselves surprised by the hand-wringing and nannying that goes on here.

You cannot set foot in a bar without being assaulted by enormous, conspicuous posters warning you not to drink too much, not to try to purchase alcohol if you are already drunk, and the seriousness with which any attempt to get hammered is taken by the Victorian government.  As far as its stance on alcohol consumption goes, it is an authority which is aptly named.

One of the first things I noticed in Melbourne’s bars was the presence of jugs of tepid water and empty glasses plonked at random places.  I can only assume this is done in compliance with some law enacted to address worries that somebody who wants alcohol might find himself more in need of water, which is presumably hard to come by in Melbourne.

If you thought the bullying, cajoling, nanny-state was bad in the UK – and it is – consider that in Australia wearing a helmet while cycling is compulsory.  This is a country which sends its males of fighting age overseas to stand in bars telling everyone how tough they are back home.

This might be a bit unfair to the average Australian.  If Australia is anything like the UK, the political class is made up of a minority of wankers who are barely representative of any demographic other than their counterparts in other countries, from whom they are virtually indistinguishable.  And voting these wankers in are people who, lacking any discernible talent or skill, like nothing more than to feel the respect and recognition that escaped them in the playground by telling other people what they can and can’t do.  In this regard, Australia has imported the very worst aspect of the UK: the whining jobsworth.

I saw a depressing example of this when I flew back into Melbourne two days ago.  A middle-aged woman, whose job was unclear but sported the all-important ID badge, was berating a passenger in Tullamarine airport for using his mobile phone in the baggage collection hall.  She referred to signs – which were there, but generally lost among the million others telling people what they should and shouldn’t do – which said mobile phone usage was banned and that to do otherwise attracts a fine of several thousand dollars.  For a laugh, I asked her why.  She said that the baggage hall was a “restricted area”, as if from that statement the underlying reason was self-evident.  A Melbourne tram is a “restricted area” too, as is the entrance lobby to my apartment building.  Given neither Amsterdam Schiphol or Paris Charles de Gaulle sees the reason to impose such restrictions, it is hard to determine what threats the management of Melbourne Tullamarine think they’re neutralising by banning people from phoning their friends and family in the half-hour they are standing waiting for their bags with nothing else to do.

Actually, I do know what they’re neutralising: the nagging self-doubt that beyond the cheap nylon jumper, the hi-viz vest, and the ID badge they are nothing but the school loser who had no friends and craved the day they would be in charge so they could make people sorry.  Because really, that’s what this is all about.  A sad fact about western society – particularly the English-speaking countries – is that a solid minority desire nothing more than to tell other people what to do, getting an almost sexual satisfaction by exerting even minuscule authority over others.  No rational risk analysis would proscribe mobile phone usage in a baggage collection hall, but a gaggle of poorly educated, inadequate losers would drool at the idea.  Which is why I got the utterly nonsensical “restricted area” response from the SS private on duty.

I didn’t reply to her directly, but I did loudly remark that although Australia is a very nice country, I do miss the personal freedoms I enjoyed in Russia and Kuwait.

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Early Observations

1. The service in Melbourne bars is miles better than in the the UK.  Last Friday night I went to meet a friend in a city centre bar after work and found it absolutely packed – outside.  But inside was merely very busy.  My heart sank, thinking I’d be waiting 20 mins to get served at an understaffed bar, but there I was in under a minute holding a drink.  I found a similar pattern in the (many) other bars we visited that night.  Even when packed, you get served.  I think the difference is Australian bars are staffed properly, i.e. they have enough people working.  In the UK, they try to keep costs down by employing 2 people to cover 20m of bar space with 1 other person operating the dishwasher, leaving customers in a ruck 3 people deep and very thirsty.  Australians appear to have figured out the best way to get customers’ money out of their pockets and into the till is to serve them drinks as quickly as possible.  This is good.

2. Aussies are a friendly bunch.  Everyone you encounter seems to be happy to see you, or at least say hello.  A cheerful lot, Australians.

3. The food in Melbourne is brilliant, at least in terms of variety.  I’m the wrong bloke to judge food quality, but it’s good enough for me and you can get whatever you want within 5 minutes of the hotel.

4. There are a lot of Asians in Melbourne, and it comes as an initial surprise to hear them speaking with thick Australian accents (obviously being second or third generation).  I’m guessing hearing London’s Indians speaking in cockney accents for the first time sounds odd at first, too.

5. They are absolutely bananas about Australian rules football in Melbourne, with either the players or the games dominating the back half of the papers.  To be fair, I did know this before I came, but did not appreciate the extent to which it is true.

6. Speaking of Aussie rules, not a day goes by without a player having to apologise over some incident or other in a bar or club the previous weekend.

7. What’s with the pimped up, lowered ‘utes?  They look seriously naff.

8. Melbourne is very nice, but parts of it aren’t. King Street on a Saturday night resembles Glasgow at much the same time.

9. Wild Turkey is very popular here, being a lot of people’s bourbon of choice.  I’ve even seen advertisements for it, which I’ve not seen elsewhere.

10. Bourbon is not the same as whiskey in Australia.

11. The main casino in Melbourne (and I believe they have similar ones in the other Australian cities) is enormous.  You don’t see casinos of this size in the UK, and unlike the one in Manchester, Melbourne’s wasn’t filled with Chinese men in shell suits.

12. The Tan running track is fantastic!!  It’s a gravel track in a 3.8km circuit around the botanical gardens made especially for running and walking.  I ran it last weekend for what I’m sure will be the first of many times, it was great.

13. I appear to know more about the Australian cricket team than most Australians.  Three years of being in Nigeria glued to Supersports TV can explain that one.

14. The internet is seriously crap by European or Asian standards.  It is slow and expensive, and free wi-fi is very hard to find (in Tallinn they have free wi-fi in the parks).  I have heard different explanations for this, ranging from the geographic isolation of Australia (only 1 connection in and out) to the lack of competition between providers.

15. A year living here will be one hell of a lot of fun!

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