A Move to Melbourne

I’m currently sitting in Melbourne, Australia where I am spending 3 weeks in the offices of a large engineering company who are carrying out works for us in relation to a major project in Nigeria.  After the 3 weeks I’ll be going to Phuket for 2 weeks holiday and to remind myself what my wife looks like, and then it’ll be back to Lagos for 3-4 weeks for a handover and what ought to be my demobilisation.  The intention is I’ll be coming back to Melbourne in late July or August to live here permanently for the next 12 months or so.

Which isn’t bad.

I flew via Paris where I’d spent the previous week on an excellent and long overdue training course on Interpersonal Skills.  Trust me, I needed it.  I flew via Hong Kong, the 11-hour first leg on Air France where they gave us a crappy old plane with obvious signs of wear and tear.  I was in business class (thank God) and all my kit worked, but the chap next to me couldn’t get his seat to recline properly.  Given what they charge, it’s pretty poor service, especially on what must be a flagship route for them.  Okay, send a crap plane to Lagos, but not to Hong Kong.  The flight was pretty miserable, albeit through no fault of Air France, although they did provide the bottle of Wild Turkey of which I did drink half, fell asleep, awoke an hour later with a thumping headache and remained that way until we landed in the Orient.

The next leg was with Cathay Pacific who were fabulous.  The business class seats are less seats than your own personal den, with a bed that lies completely flat.  It was the best I’ve been on yet, and knocked Air France into a cocked hat.  The stewardesses called me by name and fed me, perhaps sensing that the latter goes a long way to keeping me quiet.  It was 9 hours of complete comfort and relaxation, and I can highly recommend it if you have a few grand to spare or an employer with deep pockets.

Melbourne airport was a breeze, especially compared to Lagos.  I’m sure the Australians think it a grand facility, but by European standards it’s a small regional airport.  Within 20 minutes I’d passed immigration, collected my bags, convinced the quarantine officials I wasn’t carrying seeds, fruit, or timber about my person, and jumped in a taxi which had a meter that worked and was on.  Three minutes out of the airport and we passed Sexy Land, the Adult Entertainment Superstore.  What sort of perverts do they have down here, I wondered?  I hit a snag halfway to the hotel when I discovered I’d left my iPhone on the plane.  I was about to fly into a rage but, remembering my Interpersonal Skills training and trying it out on myself, I resorted to quietly kicking myself instead.

When I got to the hotel I called the Melbourne Airport information desk, and somebody answered who was not a complete fuckwit.  They put me through to the Cathay Pacific lounge (the office was closed for the night) where the phone was too answered and by somebody who was not a complete fuckwit.  That put the score Australia 2 Nigeria 0 so far for each overseas assignment.  The Cathay Pacific girl said she’d check and asked me to call back in 30 mins or so, which I did, but they’d not found anything.  That made me pretty depressed and I stayed that way for the next 5 minutes until she rang me back and said they’d found it after all and I could collect it from their office the next day!  I was pleased as hell, and Cathay Pacific rocketed even further up in my estimation.

I’d never been to Australia before, indeed I’d only briefly stepped over the equator once during a week’s holiday in Bali, so I had much to learn.  Or as things turned out, I didn’t.  Melbourne city centre looks a lot like that of any British city at ground level, only when you look up you see high-rise buildings you barely see outside of London.  The autumn weather was very Manchester-like.  We had rain, wind, overcast skies, cold, sunshine, and blue skies in the space of my first few days.  Manchester even had a tram system, too.  But for all that, the place is obviously foreign – mainly because the shopfronts and adverts are not immediately recognisable, and it just feels different.  And this is where it feels strange for me.  Jokes about Aussie English aside, and bearing in mind I’ve not been to the US in almost a decade, being in a foreign country where English is the native language feels deeply, deeply weird.  I’m a complete stranger – obviously – and hence I need to ask people for help and directions (I did feel particularly stupid asking “Where is the river?”)  I’m used to forming a simplified English sentence in my head before asking, and waiting to decipher the garbled reply which comes back.  Or forming the question in Russian or French, hoping the reply is simple enough for me to understand.  Normally you have to get yourself as close to your goal as possible before asking somebody for help: for instance, make sure you’re in the right shop before asking to buy something.  No such need in Australia, you can just go into a 7-Eleven and ask “Excuse me fella, where do I get one of them there cards you use on the trams and stuff?”  And you’ll be instantly understood and the answer will be in English.  I’m not used to this, and it feels odd.

The other thing I’m not used to is how easy everything is. I call people on the phone, arrange to meet them, and they turn up.  They then proceed to do as I ask and provide the service they are supposed to.  I didn’t see a great deal of this sort of thing in Russia, Thailand, and Nigeria.  Just the array of places to choose from to go to lunch is unusual for me.  For my first two years in Lagos our choice at the staff canteen was either chicken with spaghetti or spaghetti with chicken.  And the chicken got smaller and smaller as my assignment went on until the situation ended up with a Nigerian sitting above an egg with a hammer waiting to whack the hatching chick over the head.

Making the transition from French to Australian wine might take some doing, though.  I normally drink wine which has been approved by my French colleagues or recommended by a French waiter, but last night I had to pick an Australian plonk from a menu.  It tasted like boiled gooseberries, and the glass cost about as much as a bottle in a French supermarket.

I can see I’m going to have a lot of fun here.  I always wanted to come to Australia but didn’t see quite why I should have to fund the trip myself, and now I’ve found somebody else to pick up the tab, here I am.  Some people are saying I am very lucky, which I suppose I am, but given I’ve spent 8 of the last 10 years in Kuwait, Sakhalin Island, and Nigeria I reckon I deserve it!

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12 Responses to A Move to Melbourne

  1. Colin Suttie says:

    You’ll have a great time in Melbourne. I spent a year there on my way back to Australia from Canada (working for your old mates at PSN, who I assume will not be your new employer?). It’s a lot more European in outlook (and weather) than any other city in Australia, and there’s so much more to do there than there is here in Perth.

  2. Phil says:

    Melbourne is great fun, the food is fantastic especially
    .
    Though the biggest shock of moving to Australia for me was teh cost of living. you might not notice it as much on a short trip but when you move here and your groceries are 200 bucks for the week for two of you and a crate of beer is 50 bucks it grabs your attention. Still a great place to be regardless.

    Check out a website called http://www.gourmet-chick.com/ for good places to eat. We’ve used it several times and it has been spot on, in particular : San Telmo, The Commoner and Movida Next Door

  3. Melbourne is definitely a nice assignment – particularly if someone else is paying.

    Melbourne airport would be about the eleventh busiest airport in Europe, if it was in Europe. This would put it just behind Gatwick. The domestic terminals are much busier than the international terminal, for reasons that are obvious if you look at a map. It’s possible that you missed the busier bit of the airport. The other unusual thing about international terminals at Australian airports is that although they are not enormously busy by international standards in terms of the number of flights, virtually all the aircraft that do arrive are very large. This comes from the fact that almost all international flights are long haul and short haul international doesn’t really exist.

    Australia used to regulate its airlines by laws that are weird even by the standards of weird ways of regulating airlines, and one aspect of this was that the same airlines were not permitted to fly both domestic and international routes. The different domestic and international airlines operated from different terminals to each other, and often they were built on opposite sides of the airport, meaning that Australian airports often consist of what are essentially two separate airports, one “domestic” and the other “international”, that operate separately from one another but share runways. Even though airlines the same airlines now can and do operate both internationally and domestically, they still mostly operate their international and domestic flights from different terminals. This silliness will go away, eventually, but it is taking a long time.

    (Australia used to have something called the “Two airline policy” for domestic aviation, which was a law that allowed only two airlines to operate domestic routes, one state owned and the other privately owned. These airlines were required to operate the same aircraft, fly the same routes, charge the same fares, and operate to the same timetable (!). Typically, the 7am flight from Melbourne to Sydney from one airline would land, immediately followed by the 8am flight from Melbourne to Sydney from the other, and they would race one another to the terminal. This was about the only way they were allowed to compete. This situation persisted until the late 1980s).

  4. I’ve never flown Business on Cathay, but they are very good in Economy, too.

  5. dh says:

    Welcome.

    You have an expat “mate” you may enjoy catching up with. His blog is titled The New Australian……http://thenewaustralian.org/
    You seem to be of similar personality, which may make it interesting!!

  6. dh says:

    By the way, how about an update on your mate from Sakhlin !!! when you have time?

  7. dearieme says:

    Boiled goosegog? If that was a sauvignon blanc, serves you right mate. For that variety, stick to Kiwi wines – except for a couple of examples one of which (name escapes me) is from the Mornington Peninsula, close by you. For Oz, you’ll learn to love Clare Valley Rieslings, Barossa Semillons and Shirazes, Coonawarra Cab Sauvs, and so on. For Pinot Noir it’s Kiwi again. Above all, as a new, true Victorian, be sure to try Rutherglen fortified Muscats on any occasion that suits a digestif. Marvellous. See you again mate.

  8. David Duff says:

    ” A training course on Interpersonal Skills”.

    Isn’t that just ‘good manners’, and surely your mum and dad taught you those!

  9. Tim Newman says:

    @Phil: yes, the food is excellent, we’ve all noticed that: even the French! The cost of living has also been noted, but I don’t find it much higher than your normal oil town, or Lagos, Paris, and London. I think a large component of the perceived expense is that Australia was always much cheaper than Europe; now Melbourne has merely caught up with the expense of the major European cities that we have been used to for years. It might be a bit more expensive here, especially for groceries, but not that much for restaurants, bars, etc.

    @Michael: thanks for the insight into Australian airports and airlines. I’m sure this isn’t the only area in Australia in which government meddling has resulted in perverse outcomes. I’m sure Melbourne is a busy enough airport, but given I am used to flying through Lagos, CDG, Dubai, and Bangkok it seemed very quiet in comparison!

    @dh: thanks for the link, I’ll check it out. Yes, I have got news from my “mate” from Sakhalin, one of the chaps on my project knows him. There is a good chance we’ll cross paths before too long. :)

    @dearieme: the problem I have is I don’t know wines at all, I usually rely on a Frenchman to order the right one (and they are rarely wrong). Thanks for your advice!

    @Mr Duff: it is, but when you’re dealing with cultures who ignore you completely after having asked them politely two dozen times, good manners as you or I would understand them go out the window! That’s where the training course comes in. :)

  10. Point taken with respect to CDG, DBX, and BKK – all of which are indeed enormous, but Lagos? Melbourne airport handles over three times as many passengers. It might be that MEL is staffed by competent, rather laid back people who know what they are doing and so seems more serene, or something like that perhaps?

  11. Point taken with respect to CDG, DXB, and BKK – all of which are indeed enormous – but Lagos? Melbourne airport handles over three times as many passengers. It might be that MEL is staffed by competent, rather laid back people who know what they are doing and so seems more serene, or something like that perhaps?

  12. Tim Newman says:

    @Michael,

    Exactly: Lagos airport might not be physically large or even handle many passengers, but it feels busier than Heathrow for the very reasons you suggest!

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