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Hops, malt, beer... lovely

9.45am: Hops, malt, beer... lovely

Trusting in the innate goodness of their fellow man, Bruce and Fran hadn’t given any thought to the prospect of a woman attending a tour of micro-breweries.

It’s bad enough in the UK where, despite the best efforts of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), the image of the real ale drinker remains that of the barrel-gutted, grey-bearded pie-scoffer (and anyone who’s attended a beer fest or CAMRA event will know that the image is not without foundation in reality).

So what of Oz? The answer wasn’t long in coming.

“Aaah, shit. We’ve already broken the first rule of the day,” said one of the men to whom we’d just been introduced. “No Sheilas.”

Four hours and several salacious comments later (on Fran’s part as much as the eight-strong party from a Bendigo running group called “The Beer Club”), the tasters were mounting up on the table in front of the token Sheila. The lager was gone, but the seasonal special Spring lager and deliciously toffee-laced bitter were now joined by a sample of the Coldstream brewery’s 7% cider.

One of the men – a former copper – walked over from an adjacent table and placed a sheet of A4 in front of her:

“FINE – TRIPLE PARKED – PENALTY FIVE TOKENS”

There would be no allowances made for the fairer sex on this tour. And why should there be. After all, it wasn’t Fran’s horse that let them down in the second of the trifectas placed on the minibus between breweries and Bruce was as much in need of a sleep as her before heading into the city later that evening. What’s more, if the “runners” had held back from their abuse, the Poms would have missed out an a full day’s exposure to the joys of Aussie country humour.

As for the beers…

Not exactly Carlton United Brewers...

Not exactly Carlton and United Beverages...

Well, putting away your first sample at 9.45am may not be what the doctor ordered, but the quality of the range at 3 Ravens, in Thornbury, was worth risking his wrath over. Their German-style Ale, Blond, may be their award-winner and most popular tipple, but Bruce, with his love of overpowering aromatic hops, preferred the 55, introduced last year to mark the breweries fifth birthday and incorporating five different hops. The Uber Bock, a one-off hardcore version of their stout, would certainly have the doctor questioning your dedication to a long life. The only downside (although not for Bruce and Fran who live right in the middle of it) is that their distribution is focused almost entirely in a two km wide corridor from the brewery to Melbourne CBD.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Coldstream Brewery, at the gateway to the Yarra Valley, is that it has only been brewing for a few months. Under the stewardship of Englishman Rod and his Scottish wife Moira the bitter, as mentioned above, is a real treat, and the cider hides its strength so well it could cause a few unexpected mishaps. The tiny brewery is attached to the back of a pub serving high quality, hearty food too if anyone needs help maintaining their stamina.

The final call was Buckley’s, in Healesville, housed in a ramshackle shed that brought to mind Deliverance. Now the sole preserve of John and his son, the enterprise is a living embodiment of dedication and passion, its production is limited but its products, particularly the ale and bitter are well worth a quaff if you can find them.

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While Fran’s appendix was rupturing in Sydney to an accompaniment of oysters, scallops, mussels, wine, beer and vodka, Bruce was enjoying a first taste of St Kilda institution Claypots.

That he was throwing down $5 glasses of cabernet sauvignon and wittering away to a cast of misfits rather than rushing to be by his stricken wife’s side was a situation entirely of Fran’s own making. After all, if you’re in terrible pain, don’t attempt to convey the message by quoting lines from popular music. Send texts saying: “I’m in excruciating agony and think I may die” rather than:

“I’ve got a bowling ball in my stomach”

because as anyone who is familiar with Tori Amos’ debut album and career highpoint Little Earthquakes will know, that’s a line from Crucify and therefore could never expect a response other than:

“I’ve got a desert in my mouth”

which, funnily enough, Bruce awoke to when learning the following morning of Fran’s panicked dash to hospital…

Still, back in Claypots and aided by the wine (and a glass of the lovely German pilsner on offer), Bruce was delighted to have found somewhere in the Acland Street area with genuine charm.

The rough hewn wooden bar with animatronic cat and dangling rubber man, French music, greasy spiced nuts, promise of $5 seafood paella and Sunday swap shops (with oysters) transported him somewhere far away – a nebulous place somewhere near the Mediterranean, perhaps.

Something very fishy

Fran would love the outdoor area with its stone fountain bath and fairy lights; Bruce enjoyed it for its inhabitants: in particular an elderly chap called Tony in feathered hat and scarf who would later be seen losing at chess to a young dandy in a three-piece tweed suit who turned out to be a playwright with a dark comedy starting at the Trades Hall in the coming weeks. Geoffrey would even pop up there on a later visit to continue an earlier conversation from Cacao.

Certainly, there was more than enough of interest for Bruce to resist his companion’s increasingly pained pleas to head to the dour horrors of the Doulton Bar across the road. And that was before the pianist-in-suit turned up to croon (admittedly somewhat atonally) on the piano for an hour or so.

Subsequent visits to the adjoining fish restaurant (the bar is a fairly recent addition) have produced some of the finest meals Bruce and Fran have enjoyed since moving to Australia. The Cajun flathead is the tastiest bit of fish the former can recall in recent memory, while the latter’s friends fell wholeheartedly for the whopping $120 Red Emperor they destroyed some weeks later, their happy memory of the night enriched by the female Eastern European accordion and fiddle duo who chased them from the bar and down Barkly Street afterwards.

There appears to be a sister venture – Gilgamesh, in Gertrude Street – that will hopefully atone for the fact they can no longer walk to Claypots in ten minutes since relocating to the north. And, fingers crossed, this venue will attract rather less of the peroxide blonde, Botox-ed to the hilt old-enough-to-know-betters and their smarmy other halves than the St Kilda establishment.

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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...

(Please?)

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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A passport to friendship

A friend of Fran’s who had lived in Melbourne for a number of years warned her in the months before our departure that she found making Australian friends tough. She said they could be cliquey, tight with their old friends and slow to let newcomers in.

A few weeks after moving to Australia we’d made no real inroads; admittedly our only points of contact tended to be shopkeepers, bar staff, estate agents, lunatics on trams and Fran’s one-day-at-a-time emergency teaching colleagues.

It was strange as we’re sociable types who enjoy the company of others (because, according to Fran, it means we don’t have to talk to each other). Fran, left alone in the flat for hours on end with the escape route of a call to friends scuppered by the time difference with the UK, was close to climbing the walls. Bruce was considering becoming a lunatic on the trams – at least they thought the people they were yelling at were their friends.

Three months in – and without recourse to drumming classes, speed dating events or escort agencies – things are looking up, with the pair at the heart of efforts to coordinate a large expedition party drawn from across Australia, Europe, North Africa and the Orient to watch the upcoming Crows – Pies game at the MCG.

Lessons learnt

Yet, while some friendships appear to be blossoming, others have fallen by the wayside, nipped in the bud. To avoid the latter, here are Bruce and Fran’s simple tips on making friends in Australia.

DO:

  • Have a beard*. North of the river it means you fit in; south you stand out and get invited to parties by fellow beardies in need of moral support
  • Talk to wierdos. They appreciate the conversation and sometimes turn out not to be that wierd after all
  • Agree to attend house parties thrown by people you met falling-over-drunk at 3.30am. Their friends will appreciate your daring / stupidity and invite you to their hen nights and house warmings
  • Have a lighter in your pocket

DON’T

  • Snog anyone’s pet dog**. At least, not until they know you very well
  • Get locked in the fire escape at the flats of someone you’ve only met that day
  • Make plans with new acquaintances only to forget you ever made them
  • Understand “Come to the party between 8 and 9pm” as “Arrive at 12.30am blind drunk with an even drunker man in a tight-fitting AFL top and sweatband, drink what booze remains, then borrow the keys to our apartment block, forget you borrowed them, insist to the hostess you have never had them even when she is screaming the house down and has turned off the music only to find them in your pocket an hour and a half later”
  • Seriously, do not do the previous one. The repercussions can last for weeks and cross oceans

* This does not always apply for women

** Especially when the owners have already told you about the time they had to milk said dog’s glands using gloves and petroleum jelly

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Winter starts here

Today is the first day of winter, which in the UK heralds months of going to work in the dark, heavier rain, thick ice on early morning windscreens, miserable faces and leaving work in the dark. Escaping these is often a reason for Brits packing their bags and moving to Australia or other warmer climes.

It was part of Bruce and Fran’s thinking too, even though they expected Melbourne – what with its “four seasons in one day” reputation and southerly location – to be only a little better than the UK. Despite landing at the start of an Autumn heatwave that peaked at 40C mid March, the warnings of Melburnians and, for that matter, a handful of expats, ensured we made the most of it.

“Oh, it’s great now, but you just wait for winter,” they’d say. “Winter’s really bad. It’s so cold and darkand dreadful and…” They painted a picture so bleak it made the Russian weather that defeated both Hitler and Napoleon seem like a mere bagatelle, a gentle snow flurry.

So we’ve been waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

And today winter arrived. Blue skies. 18C. No wind. Kids playing on the beach. People in shirtsleeves sipping wine and coffee in roadside cafes. Sun so bright its rays are reflected off city centre skyscrapers like a giant flashlight.

Perhaps Melburnians need to grow a spine and a sense of perspective. Spring is now three months away. Can this really be called a hardship? Well, yes, if you listen to the locals, nestled in umpteen layers of warm clothing and scurrying into cafes and restaurants proclaiming the need to thaw out. Or the article in Saturday’s Age warning that this would be the coldest Melbourne winter in ten years with temperatures returning to the average daily high of just 14.3C.

Listen up: that is not cold.

What is cold?

Cold is smoking two cigarettes to the nub while receiving a phone bollocking from Fran while stood outside a bar in Boston, Massachusetts, during a February cold snap – day time top temperature: minus 26C.

Cold is swimming in a heated outdoor pool in Moscow on January 2 with air temperatures of minus 20C that form a steam cloud over the water so thick you can’t see the floating turd some comedian has deposited until it’s too late to take evasive action.

It is not jogging alongside the palm-lined waters of Albert Park with the 2pm sun beating on your back. It is not enjoying a long brunch on Acland Street wearing just a t-shirt.

It is not cold.

Mind you, Bruce does have one. A really rotten one too. So rotten he’s lost his voice. Best wrap up warm, I guess.

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Don\'t believe the tripe

Don’t believe the tripe

If you’ve had the misfortune to watch any of the TV programmes about families moving from the UK to Australia, you may have concluded, quite logically, that the producers had deliberately selected the most ill-prepared morons for the show in the hope they would make good car crash television. They clearly missed out on some potential Z-list superstars, however, if the some of the folk populating internet expat forums are anything to go by.

While Bruce and Fran wouldn’t deny these forums have their uses and some contributors provide essential information, more often they seem to be designed to put the fear of God into readers or to act as breeding grounds for xenophobia.

With the latter, the number of people signing up for an “Expat meet” or “BBQ with fellow Brits” in their new home before they’ve even passed through the scanners at Heathrow indicates a lack of courage and also strange reasons for migrating: “Ooh, let’s move to the other side of the world, but surround ourselves with other British people.” What’s the point? You’re only going to fail to integrate and become lonely, isolationist and homesick.

Have faith

Far worse is the fear factor. If we’d believed what we read online about teaching in Australia, Fran would only have found work teaching AIDS-infected, one-legged dingo-Aboriginal cross breeds in a pit of snakes in the middle of the Simpson desert and would have to pay for the pleasure. One woman moaned that in 55 months – and having tried several states – she had failed to find any work as a teacher and was heading home bitter. Fran had her first day’s casual work within three days of landing at Tullamarine and a full time contract within six weeks; it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.

But, taking the biscuit are the imbeciles who quite clearly should never be allowed out of their front room without an escort and tag, let alone be permitted to even consider crossing the globe.

Take this genius weighing up the pros and cons of a move on ExpatForum.com:

“God dont know what to do now. Originally when we started looking at Oz we looked into Victoria as a girl from our area moved out there, but she commutes 3hours for work. Is Victoria near to Brisbane? How far away are the two? Could I work in Queensland and commute to Victoria?”

No, you can’t. Grab a map of the world and try to locate your brain.

Map

So, if you’re going to use forums, just be warned: idiots lurk within.

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