Posts Tagged ‘expat’

I love the smell of aerosols in the morning

I love the smell of aerosols in the morning

You gotta love Smith Street. Bruce’s aunt and uncle are in town for 48 hours; the first visit by any of his parents’ siblings or friends. In the absence of Fran, who can usually be counted on to make up for his indiscretions in the company of people who require impressing, he’s walking the tightrope well (the tightrope being the need to have good reports sent home to his still-in-mourning mother, but not so good she thinks he may never return to the UK).

They’ve enjoyed a delicious Thai meal, the house is spotless, the dining table laid for breakfast with piping hot tea and coffee when they rise, his behaviour impeccable. Then it’s time to take them into town to meet friends via a brief guided tour of Collingwood and its colourful inhabitants before the 86 pulls up – their first Melbourne tram journey.

As it does, Bruce spies a particularly colourful inhabitant lurching hurriedly down the pavement, eyes darting maniacally, cheeks sunken like he’s permanently sucking on lemons, clothes flaunting their stains on the wind, trainers begging to be allowed to rest in peace. All of which is fine. It’s the blue plastic bag / aerosol combo in his hand that’s of most concern.

“This is the one,” he says, indicating towards the door of the tram. “This will take you right outside the GPO to meet your friends.”

Glancing north, the chromer appears undecided about whether to get on board, before snatching Bruce’s sigh of relief away from him at the last second and squeezing through the closing doors.

He lasts no longer than Gertrude Street.

fsssst… fsssssssssst… fssssssssst… and inhale

Bruce’s attempts to distract the relos from the man – now sat squatting in the aisle at the rear of tram with his bag fixed to his face – are futile; their eyes are transfixed.

“Oh no, it’s fine,” they say. “You get all sorts in Edinburgh, too.”

“Not all trams are like this, you know,” he says, ignoring the fact these public transport experiences are the ones he usually finds most enjoyable.

Not content with abusing his spraycan, the chromer spots a couple of barely teenage girls sat a few seats away and begins hurling abuse at them. They (bravely or foolishly) return fire. Two stops later they disembark. After a brief, vocal debate with his own mind, their abuser follows, but loses them as another tram cuts off his path.

“So, what time did you want me to come and meet you later?” asks Bruce.

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A typically happy Melburnian

A typically happy Melburnian

Barely had Bruce and Fran settled into their seats at the Hilton on the Park when they dropped the bombshell:

“The people in Sydney were so much friendlier than here in Melbourne,” said Fran’s visiting schoolfriend.

“Yeah,” seconded her boyfriend. “I’d noticed that too.”

Aghast, Bruce and Fran sprayed their guests with metaphorically spluttered toast. This was a most unforeseen turn of events.

“But… But… What… Why… I don’t get it,” they said, going into mental and physical meltdown.

Only six months in and, by some sort of social osmosis, they’d been consumed by the tired Aussie big city rivalry.

“That can’t be right. Tell us, what’s happened?” they pleaded, their wonderful Melburnian world disintegrating. ‘What can we do to convince them they’re wrong,’ they thought, secretly.


Eighteen hours later, Fran began to well up on a tram as it headed into town past the Domain Interchange. Although the after effects of the drugged up week in hospital and the previous evening’s third bottle of cabernet sauvignon probably had something to do with her rushing emotions, it was the activity on the tram that was the spark.

A gent and his young Asian bride had just asked the driver how they could buy a ticket and been told that, without change, they couldn’t. Then a voice piped up from the rear.

A love of shoes, hey?

A love of shoes, hey?

It was an extravagantly dressed Filipino lady who had already brought forth smiles with a loud and generous appreciation of the boots being worn by a girl across the aisle from her.

“You need change?” she asked. “I got change. How much you need?”

“How much do we need?” asked the startled would be passengers before turning and walking to their saviour.

Five dollars and a crash course in how to use the ticketing machine later and they were in their seats, beaming excitedly. In one moment of generosity, their mood – and probably the remainder of their day – had been turned from miserable and angry to one of joy and relief at the goodness of humankind.

And it didn’t stop there. Inspired by the Filipino lady, people shifted seats and made their way down the aisle to chat to the couple, explaining the vagaries of the ticketing system and inquiring politely into their background. (Looking for refelected glory, perhaps? Or caught up in the spirit of kindness?)

“Oh,” said Fran, overwhelmed, “I could cry.”

“No more red wine for you,” said Bruce.

“How could they say the people here aren’t friendly?” added Fran.

By the end of their visit, her friends had changed their tune without any great effort on the part of their hosts. The city itself, experienced through a hectic weekend of socialising, sporting and wandering, won them over in the end.

Great food, loopy bar staff, stunning winter sunsets at the beach, drunken Sunday evening covers bands, the “G”, Buddy Franklin’s pitch invasion, suburbs that look like the Wild West minus only the horse and carriage, a brush with a mass murderer and the worst Ghost Train ride in the known universe did the trick.

“It’s great,” said Fran’s departing friend, grinning wildly. “I’m planning my return trip already!”

‘Perhaps it’s just that Aussies are generally more friendly than people in the UK,’ pondered Bruce later.

Then he came to his senses: Sydney can git facked.

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Returning to the UK for a mere seven days was always going to involve a gruelling schedule. Bruce was well aware of that.

Two 24-hour flights in the space of a week, friends clumped into suitable groups dictated by location and allocated hour-long audiences with El Prodigal, the need to remain outwardly joyous in front of parents despite the effects of jetlag, a shopping list of goodies to bring back for Fran – and the small matter of his sister’s wedding.

By laughing in the face of sleep, jetlag was overcome pretty quickly (although extreme fatigue meant three pints was enough to leave him paralytic). Friends seemed understanding about the all-too-brief catch up sessions. The shops at Heathrow Airport got him out of trouble with the shopping list.

Planning ahead

But, if there was one thing he wished he’d thought of beforehand, it would have been to take the lead of the various speech-makers on the wedding day. Namely, have some pre-printed cards to hand.

There’s only so many times one can face answering the same questions over and over again. Instead, one should return prepared with a pocket full of cards saying things such as:

“Yes, we’re enjoying it.”

“No. We don’t spend much time at the beach because it’s the middle of winter.’

“Yes. We’ve made friends.”

“We don’t know how long we’ll stay. Maybe forever, maybe a few years.”

“It’s an easy place to have a good life.” (By day five, the standard response, followed by a swift attempt to walk away)

“Not really. The only time I’ve missed the UK was during Glastonbury. Bastards had sunshine this year.”

Perhaps print all the standard responses on one card and leave them in a tray on the table wherever you are. That way:

  1. You’ll save a lot of breath
  2. People will be forced to think of something original to ask
  3. You won’t reach breaking point and snap in the face of an aunt of whom you’re actually very fond

Alternatively, save even more time and effort and just have one card printed:

Maybe a please wouldn't go amiss...


and be done with it.

The wedding was lovely, mind you.

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I'll have a seat at the rear, thanks

I'll have a seat at the rear, thanks

Six months after he boarded the already-defunct Oasis airline’s flight from Gatwick for Hong Kong, Bruce’s overwraught mother has just about got a hold on her separation anxieties. Her daughter’s impending marriage has focused attention enough elsewhere that the frequency with which tears are shed over Bruce and Fran’s Antipodean adventure has dropped to fewer than every 24 hours.

However, as his brief return for said marriage has drawn closer, emotions have been running high again, not so much over Bruce’s visit as the thought of him leaving again…

Furthermore, Fran – normally able to control her waterworks unless her buttons are being pushed by a particularly awful straight-to-DVD / middle-of-the-afternoon-TV-schedule drama about a child with cancer / family going through divorce / cute animals dying – has been suffering post-traumatic disorder since her hospital experience.

Post-op is never an easy time

Post-op is never an easy time

If the smells, noises and sights on the ward weren’t enough, the day her legs started swelling up to a size that would have had Nora Batty and Bella Emberg turning green with envy certainly pushed her over the edge.

Convinced it was a deep vein thrombosis, rather than the fluid pumped into her for her keyhole surgery rushing to her legs thanks to gravity, she spent that night in drug-abetted horror waiting to die and convinced she would never see Bruce again.

It’s not funny – quite the opposite – and, having confronted her own mortality for the first time and come away from the experience a changed person, Fran remains emotionally fragile.

So, as she prepared to say goodbye to Bruce for nine days for the first time in years, the last thing she – or his mother – needed was for a Qantas jumbo jet to fall apart in midair.

As fans of Rainman will know, the airline’s got a good safety record. But when Bruce is a few days away from boarding QF30 from London to Melbourne, the last thing they need is QF30 falling from the sky.

Oh well, at least lightning never strikes twice. Just ask Roy Sullivan.

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Another Bayside junkie

Bruce and Fran were locked in conversation with one of St Kilda Pier’s dwindling community of fairy penguins. It wasn’t much of a conversation, admittedly, more a series of clicks, coos and gurgles usually associated with very small children and blind drunks.

As for the penguin, he was saying nothing.

Bruce’s attention was distracted by a unwittingly ironic plaque notifying visitors that the area is a nature reserve partly funded by St Kilda’s partner city of Ube, in Japan.

“This cooperation to preserve the wildlife on the reserve shows that the desire to protect nature crosses international boundaries.”

Except when it comes to whales, I guess.

Carried away

Fran, already overcome by the wonder of the moment with the penguin (“Can you believe this is our home?”), had her attention distracted too, this time by a couple stood at the very tip of the rocks.

They’d been staring out to sea, but were now gazing into each others’ eyes. Suddenly, the woman leapt forward and grabbed the man.

“He’s just proposed!” exclaimed Fran.

So he had. And she appeared to have said yes.

“I want to go and congratulate them,” said Fran and duly did as they walked past, fiancee with mobile clamped to her ear.

Twenty minutes after witnessing the wonders of nature and the joy of love being realised, Bruce and Fran were stood in a phone box calling friends in New Zealand, one of whom was celebrating her birthday.

At the moment the connection was made, a heavily-tanned woman in pink velour jogging pants and scuffed white sandals appeared at the adjacent phone, having left her post at one of Grey Street’s busy corners.

Her reverse charge call to her dealer made for a birthday greeting that was nothing if not unique.

Happy birthday to you!”

“David? Are you there?”

Happy birthday to you!

“Can you hear me? Where the fuck are YOU?”

Happy birthday, dear Jodes.”

“Ah fack’s sake. Move from where you are. Can’t you hear me? FAAACK!”

Happy birthday to you!

“Ah, get faaacked, ya useless CAAAAAANNNT!”

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Done it!

We can see ourselves!

After lying trapped under a rock for five days, climber Aron Ralston hacked his way through his arm with a pocket knife and walked back to civilisation.

Scottish king Robert the Bruce, his spirit broken by defeat to the marauding English forces, retreated to a cave where he hid for months in a state of abject despair. There he watched a spider successfully build a web – despite repeated failures – and found within himself the will to rise again and lead the Scots to a famous victory in the Battle of Bannockburn.

Faced with the shame of telling his parents he had been put on a report card for a consistently slack attitude, this Bruce (aged nine) discovered previously unearthed acting talents and persuaded his deputy head teacher that he had actually asked to go on report – a far lesser shame to take home.

Throughout history, seminal moments such as these have proven mankind’s ability to find hidden strengths at times of need.

Continuing that tradition, Fran’s parents have – at a combined age of 138 – become computer literate because of the need to keep in touch with their daughter. They won’t fly to Australia (it takes a quart of Captain Morgans Dark Rum and a industrial dosage of Valium to get them on a plane to Ireland from London) so Skype video calls have become the next best thing.

Six months ago they wouldn’t have dared touch a computer – even mobile phones were something to be feared – now they’re on the bloody thing all the time; Fran’s even set up a Facebook account for them (Bruce is less hopeful of success here).

"Start my video? FOUND IT!"

"What? Start my video? Ah...FOUND IT!"

Patience is key

It’s free (as long as you’ve got the internet and a webcam), takes you into your friends’ and families’ homes and, in the case of Mr and Mrs Fran Senior, leads to some entertaining, if frustrating, comedy routines.

*booooop* *booooop* *booooop*

“Hello darling. Can you hear us?” say the seniors.

“Hello. Yes, we can hear you. Turn on your video,” says Fran.

“How do we do that?”

“Click on Start My Video. Like you have done every other time.”

“Where is it, dear? Ooh! We can see you.” Giggling commences from the seniors at seeing their daughter on screen for the first time in, oh, at least 48 hours.

“It’s in the same place it was last time. Look for the blue bar in the middle of the screen. See it?”

“Yes dear.”

“Click on it. You know – move the mouse over it. Your cursor. You know – the arrow.”

“OK dear. Oh, something’s happening. Ah, there we are. Hooray!”

Cue joyous jig around the seniors’ computer desk, a la Sir Alex Ferguson celebrating a late Utd goal. With hindsight, perhaps they’ve started on the downers / rum cocktail already.

Either way, for us expats, it’s a wondrous piece of technology; just ensure you remind your parents, especially when they’re in their 70s, to get dressed before calling…

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The heroin hotline

“Hello, this is the heroin hotline. Please dial 1 if you need more smack, 2 if you’re out of syringes or 3 if you’ve missed a vein and need medical attention. Thank you!”

We live in the heart of Melbourne’s red light district (albeit one lacking in red lights). On one 20 minute walk home from Acland Street just after 11pm, Bruce spotted:

  • A guy in the front of his white Ute on Robe Street asking for $30 change off a girl in his passenger seat. Her boyfriend / pimp / ponce / dealer was crouched, as he usually is, in a doorway about six houses away
  • Another girl negotiating a price with a driver on the opposite corner across Grey Street
  • A young, long-haired blond man inviting another prostitute into his blue, sports model Falcon. By the time Bruce reached his home, the car was parked outside and the driver was pulling down his trousers.

On top of this, dozens of bars, cafes, nightclubs – some open until 5am or later and attracting inebriated kids and tossers with attitude – and halfway houses for junkies and alcoholics are located within a few minutes’ walk of our front door. Even the phone boxes are little more than the local dealers’ equivalent of Bruce Wayne’s Batphone.

In England, we lived in one of Nottingham’s “better” suburbs, on a street inhabited mostly by families and pensioners. There were no clubs or halfway houses nearby, just a few pubs and restaurants. The red light district was miles away. The worst you got was a few kids hanging around on the street, occasionally running riot when the mood took them.


Yet we used to hear sirens – police, ambulance, fire engines attending arsons – every day and night, especially in summer when we’d leave the windows open at night in the heat (yes, we do sometimes get heat in the UK). The worst thing about leaving Glastonbury Festival every year (apart from the come down) was knowing that as soon as we hit Nottingham, a police car – lights flashing, siren blaring – would fly past us. It always did, without fail: “Welcome back to reality,” it said.

Since moving to Australia and St Kilda in particular, we’ve seen police in action just twice on Fitzroy Street and only heard sirens once: fire trucks responding to a call. Sure, there are regular outbursts of “Get facked, you facking cant” followed by “Sorry, you’re me best maaate” from the hysterical junkies living nearby.

But no overbearing police presence. No climate of fear. No sirens.

Go figure.

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