Category Archives: travel

Ten Things I Hate About Australia (In No Particular Order)

1. Beer Does Not Come in Pints.
The Pint unarguably is the proper and correct serving size. It’s impossible to feel cool ordering a schooner and having a tiny little girly glass.

2. Assigned Seats in Movie Theaters.
I can see no earthly reason for this, aside from pissing me off by slowing down the lines.

3. Book Prices are Ridiculously Jacked-up.
Prices in general seem high even for a San Franciscan, but books seem disproportionately pricey. The latest fluctuations of the dollar and Australian dollar have helped somewhat, but this poor reader is still out of luck. First stop when I get stateside: Powell’s.

4. High Hippie Density.
Maybe its something to do with the prevalence of surfers and backpackers who populate Bondi, but it seems like there are quite a few unnecessarily dreadlocked individuals. I can barely walk down the street some days without wanting to retch a little from the patchouli stink.

5. Coffee is more complex than it needs to be.

6. High Douchebag Density.
This is actually a much bigger problem than the hippies. I see alot of bling and hat-tilts in the male population. Others have written more extensively on the geopolitical ramifications of this topic, to which I have to add only: Amen, brother.

7. High Deadly Animal Density.
Sydney is an urban area, and encroachments from angry mother nature are rae. But I can never forget about all the thousands of animals and plants out there who are plotting my death.

8. They Only Speak English in the Loosest Sense of the Word.
Australia’s unique linguistic heritage has created a hodge-podge of unlikely names and words that just sound weird to my American ears. Coupled with a racial incliniation to shorten/infantilize every word they come across, it can become inscrutable. For example: breakfast is often “shortened” to breakie. But you’ll notice that they both have the same number of syllables (2) and are therefore the same length. Same for “football/footy” An Australian friend introduced himself as “John, but you can call me John-Oh for short.” He lengthened his name for short.

9. Disappointing Scarcity of Kangaroos.
Despite having signs like this:
dsc02483There weren’t that many kangaroos hopping around. I expected the people to ride them to work in the morning and store their valuables in the safety of their pouches. Imagine my dismay when I learned that not only was this not true, they don’t box or rap either. And upon my return to the United States and the inevitable debriefing of my family and friends I find that they tend to be more disappointed with the things I didn’t see (Kangaroos and the Outback) than the awesome things I did see.

10. It’s Too Big and Too Beautiful.
And I had to leave it.

 

Adventures Out of Sydney Part V: Melbournian Death Match

Previously: I went to the Blue Mountains, Hunter Valley, and Newcastle. Then, I dicked around in Melbourne.

The morning started when I wandered into some heathen drinking ritual in the common room of the hostel. It was early yet for a Sunday morning so while I can’t be completely certain do to the language barrier and their heavily slurred speech, I think that the four young men gathered on the third floor were still on their Saturday night. They hailed from some Pacific Island but the scene spread out before me on the way back from the shower looked like the Nepalese bar where Marion Ravenwood drank the sherpa into unconsciousness in Raiders of the Lost Ark. These guys had an unlabelled bottle of some viscous fluid that looked like the leavings from an overdue oil change. They would pour shots for their opponent who would slam the shot and then get up to perform some manner of outlandish jig before repeating the whole process for the other guy. The point seemed to be to see who could maintain the dance while on the brink of unconsciousness. The rules were arcane but their hospitality was outstanding and they kindly offered me a slot in the game. I had some sightseeing to do, but far be it from me to turn down a potentially lethal shot of an unknown liquor. I even attempted the dance, and if I may say so my awkward flailing wasn’t far off the mark from whatever it was supposed to look like. The liquor was horrible, like a blend of liquorish schnapps, sambucca, and distilled ass-water. I politely declined to continue after one round, partially because of the foulness of the drink and partially because I could see the end of the road they were on and it probably involved a stomach pump.

Once I was done not really learning anything about a culture I could not even identify, I set back out into Melbourne. I ambled about the city center ogling the Parliament House and various chapels.

Then I bought a Sunday Saver all day Metcard and took the Poor Bastard’s Tour, criss-crossing the city on several different routes and vehicles. My trip took me deep into several suburbs.

I took a stroll through Beacon Cove and dodged the numerous piles of dog crap on the sidewalk to enjoy a view of the beach. I required sustenance so I paid far too much money for far too much Fish and far too many Chips. I could have drawn a nice bath from the amount of grease that congealed in the bottom of the box, were I inclined to reheat it. (I was not).

I got back on the tram and went for a ride. One of things I love about cities is the feeling that they are living organisms, and that by riding their transport I am injecting myself into their bloodstream. You also get to see locals in their natural environment. I did some people-watching until I passed by the awesomely-named Batman Park, on Batman Avenue.

Upon visiting, I have to say that the execution is lacking a bit. Batman is just the name of the area and the park is just a regular park with no connection to the comic book character.

When I got over my disappointment I headed back to the city center and hung around Speaker’s Corner in front of the State Library and listened to the different madmen give speeches of varying levels of coherence. Much of the discourse was about religion. Australia seems very Catholic to me, and there frequent exchanges between Catholic speakers and Protestants in the crowd, and vice versa. No one was rioting or marching or anything, but somewhere between calling Kevin Rudd a tool of the apocalypse and Augustine a pervert, I had to wonder if any of these speakers ever expected to convince the crowd of anything or just liked to hear themselves blather. I was content to sip my coffee and enjoy the madness for a bit.

I moved on to Chinatown, which is more of a street than a neighborhood.

There were a bunch of restaurants but it lacked the expanse and grandeur of some of the bigger ones like New York or San Francisco. There were lanterns, though. I like lanterns.

Later that night I had a few schooners at the Imperial before wandering through Southgate on the far side of the Yarra River. There were more eateries crowded together in one place than I have ever seen, but I wasn’t hungry. I walked a meandering path that had me crossing and recrossing the neon-lit pathways that run down the bank and across the several pedestrian bridges. I was slowly hypnotizing myself with the reflection of the city lights on the river water and I started to feel like this was the true face of the city. Every time I start to get tired of city life, I look at the buildings at night and change my mind.

My reverie didn’t last long. I came across a nice, old-fashioned brouhaha. It seems that the Australian inter-collegiate Games were in town. Students in their school colors from across the country were taking to the streets after the opening ceremonies. Several of them showed their school spirit with a vigorous brawl that involved several small-ish looking felllas wailing on a (less) several small(er)-ish looking fellas. My eyes began to well up from the touching display of sportsmanship and camaraderie, so I hopped on a train to the North end of town and walked in circles for a while until I made myself tired enough to go to sleep. If there is a sadder or more perfect metaphor for my life thus far, I am afraid to know what it is.

Next: Mussels, Industry, and the Lord’s Nuggets.

Adventures out of Sydney Part IV: Melbourne-ing Down the House

Previously: I met Three Sisters, made navigational errors, and angered lifeguards.

I spent some time after the New South Wales exploration recovering in Sydney. (I mostly got distracted with petty annoyances like school and all its classes and papers and studying). But it wasn’t long before I shook off the stillness and hit the open road again. This time, I pointed myself south. First stop: Melbourne, the crown jewel of the state of Victoria.

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I came in on the overnight Greyhound. I left Sydney at 8:00 p.m. and rode all night.  I effectively combined the transport with one night’s accommodation, a move which my wallet applauded but my back greeted with sharp, stabbing pain. On the plus side, I learned a little something about the demographics of bus travel in Australia. It seems to attract a disproportionate number of mullets and Germans. My seatmate was about 5’0 and he ate at least 15 oranges on the 12 hour trip. It was uncanny. The man was some sort of pint-sized citrus vampire. I asked him about it, and all he said was that he enjoyed the smell. He was also something of a history buff, and we had a nice little chat about de Tocqueville as we rounded Canberra (he was reading a Penguin edition of Democracy in America). After exhausting our conversational middle ground, I tried to catch what sleep I could wedged into the narrow confines of a barely-reclining bus seat.

Boots hit Melbourne pavement at 8:00 a.m. with the whole day ahead of me. I did a few laps around the bus station and after my initial recon I slipped into the crowded shade of Degraves Street. It is a Parisian enclave of cafes and restaurants stuffed into a small alley and crowded with hungry tourists. I ordered a coffee and eggs florentine at the funkiest cafe I could find. Doc Martens and colored hair were de riguer for the waitstaff, and I watched as the elderly tourists at other tables commented to each other about the kids today.

After breakfast I found my hostel. Since I was flying solo on this little excursion, I could return to my cheap-ass roots without taking the sensibilities of the Visiting Girlfriend into consideration. I stayed at a place on Elizabeth St., which approached the Platonic ideal of the hostel. It was neither the most dirty nor the cleanest. It was so middle of the road in terms of cleanliness, comfort, decor and everything else that it seemed to be the distillation of “hostel-ness” in physical form. It was also a wretched hive of scum and villainy, its halls brimming with the all the unsavory hippies and drunk-at-11:00 a.m. roustabouts I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with.

After settling in and coming to grips with the fact that I would have to sleep on the top bunk (despite the danger this posed to the poor soul who would be stuck below me in the rickety contraption) I set out for Federation Square.

This tourist destination is a gleaming modern nightmare of a waterfront complex. It is usually touristy I am sure, but on this day it was taken over by teeming throngs of face-painted Aussie-Rules Football fans who had swarmed into Melbourne for the Grand Final.

I picked my way through the sea of brown jerseys on my way to south across the Prince’s Bridge. It was here on the far side of the Yarra River that I really noticed the European flavor of Melbourne. I had started to see it with the alley-side cafes. But as I spent more time in Melbourne the general classicality of the architecture combined with the river and the ubiquitous trains, trams, and street cars to make me see the city as some kind of mash-up of Portland and every European city I have ever visited.

As I walked through the Botanical Gardens, I pondered the fact that comparing everything I saw to something else I have seen was not a useful mindset to have when traveling but I wasn’t sure how to overcome it. I kept thinking about this as I emerged in Prahana Market, a bustling suburban shrine to retail. I bought nothing, so I kept walking until my feet were tired and I needed a rest.

I settled down at a bar called Mother’s Milk and watched the heavily coiffed and over-dressed clientele filter in and out as they took to the streetfront to smoke. Most people were still watching the grand final and the bar did not have televisions, so this little patch of Melbourne was sparsely populated for a few hours. I sat with a jug of beer and enjoyed the barely-hidden contempt in which the bartender held most of his customers. He knew them all and wasn’t above talking shit when they left earshot. We talked about the lack of tipping in the country and whether or not he felt he was well-paid. (He felt he was not).

I got a little drunker than I originally intended, and so of course I left him a generous tip as I soldiered on to catch a double feature at The Astor, which is my new favorite movie theatre. It is beautiful and massive, an art deco return to the heyday of cinema when there were lush velvet curtains everywhere and balconies and the ushers all wore bowties. The retro feel was awesome and for $12 AUD I got to take in two movies (The Savages and The Orphanage) with a bottle of James Boag’s in hand. There was even an intermission between the films when everyone went out to the foyer and talked about the what they had just seen.

After the double feature, I had enough time to check out another bar before catching the late train back to my hostel. But the crowd was full of angry supporters of whichever team had lost the football match that afternoon and I felt a little too much drunken hostility in the air to really enjoy myself so I cut it short. I had more time in Melbourne, after all…

Adventures Out of Sydney Part III: Among the Novacastronians

Previously: I made a rapid descent and several wrong turns as I tried to get out of Sydney for a few days.

On the third and final day of my New South Wales odyssey, I left the soothing landscapes of the Hunter Valley for the seaside charms of Newcastle. But not before eating breakfast at a place called Oscar’s, where I had the single greatest french toast experience of my life. It was nigh-transcendental, and like all experiences that transform one’s spirit it is difficult for me to verbalize exactly what went on when that waitress set down the plate in front of me. Suffice it to say, there was cream and strawberries and a small pond of maple syrup but my mere words can’t do justice to the near-orgasmic quality of their combination.

The Visiting Girlfriend and I drank coffee and enjoyed the surroundings as my breakfast excitement subsided. Afterwards, we left the Hunter Valley in the rearview and made haste to Newcastle which is much less industrial and metal-focused than its British counterpart but didn’t have its own brand of beer. I spent most of the day dicking around various beaches and parks. I would have done more exploring of the rock formations on the beach but for the annoying reprimands that kept coming over the staticky loudspeakers from the lifeguards (or as I like to call them “Haters Who Are Threatened by My Awesome High-Tide Jagged Rock Climbing Skills”).

They also took some timeout from chastising me to yell at a bunch of goods who engaged in some seriosuly perilous grab-assing on the edge of a rocky pool. There were also a bunch of dudes playing rugby nearby, and at least half of them were wearing speedos. This sartorial choice created a homoeritic undercurrent that juxtaposed nicely with the masculinity of their sport.

Nobby’s Head struck me as appropriately named and simultaneously unique and exactly like every other jetty I have ever seen.

It was sticking out in the middle of the bay, and was breaking some serious waves on the ocean side. There was a desolate looking lighthouse, which reignited my childhood fantasy of living in one. The idea of having a perfectly circular room has always been a source of delight for me. I am also continually impressed with the defensibility of lighthouses. I think a tower would be harder for invaders to breach than a regular house. Alas, my suggestion of setting up residence in a lighthouse was never seriously taken into consideration by my parents. No doubt this had something to do with the dearth of good lighthouses in central Florida.

Satisfied that we had seen the requisite sights, we checked into our well-appointed if curiously modular hotel. It was like being on a cruise ship, small but cozy. From the outside, though, it looked like it was made out of legos. Perfectly constructed of blocks resting on top of other blocks with a porthole set into each room.

A quick change of clothes later I found myself at Queen’s Wharf, a smallish dining and drinking complex on the harbor that bore a fairly strong resemblance to Port Canaveral in Florida, the land where I was born and raised before becoming the peripatetic vagabond I am today.

It was here that I discovered the common Australian practice of giving people a little card with your number when they open their tabs at the bar. It is a practice I wholeheartedly approve of, as it cuts out the uncertainty of having to mouth your last name to a distracted bartender over the din of the band/jukebox/general murmur.

After beer, we went for dinner at a place called Scratchley’s. The dining room extended over the water and after I was done eating the continuous lapping of the waves inspired me to capture the experience in a haiku:

Expensive seafood

Irish coffee with desert

brings contented smile

Having satisfied my inner poet, I began to reflect on my experiences so far. I haven’t been traveling like this in a few years. Sure I take weekend trips from here to there and I get to cover more ground than many people but I have been largely stationary for some time. An extended journey like this brings with it any number of logistical headaches and requires a certain ability to adjust on the fly. I don’t think I’m quite as adventurous as I once was, when I waded into every back alley and small town I heard of unsure where or if I would have a bed for the night. These days I prefer a bit more stability. I can’t say I’ve outgrown my thirst for adventure, but there is a definite urge to be more in control of my fate as I go. The idea of not having all my flights, hotel, and car rental sorted out well-ahead of time scares the hell outta me. This is a development that 20 year old Sean would have laughed at as he slept in a train station with his backpack for a pillow and a half-empty bottle of Aberlour cradled in his arms like a beloved stuffed animal.

I’m still hungry for the nomad experience, but the doubt that I am up to the task would only continue over time as I became more and more alone on the open road

Adventures Out of Sydney Part II: The Hunter Valley, Briefly

Previously on my Australian adventures in New South Wales: I saw some mountains.

It wasn’t long before the short trip to the Hunter Valley region took a turn for the adventurous (provided you find getting totally lost to be an adventure). It seems I am too trusting of modern technology as well as being kind of an idiot, so I can’t be too surprised. Google Maps soon proved to be an unreliable aid to navigation. Our first clue that something was screwy came when the written directions commanded us to drive into a river. Despite our lives almost turning into a bad episode of the Office, we did get to ride on an awesome raft/ferry/moving bridge hybrid.

We kept driving through the most picturesque and desolate valleys I have seen this side of the Scottish Highlands. Too bad that none of them were our destination of Hunter Valley.

The road went from fully paved to significantly less so and back again several times before becoming more of a trail than a road in the traditional sense of the word. At first we had seen farms and the occasional field with sheep and other suitably rustic sights but even they fell away to be replaced with empty fields and muddy holes with the occasional copse of trees.

In a move that will surely stack up favorably against other examples of man’s hubris, I was navigating without a map. I relied instead on Google’s written directions, which it turns out bear only a glancing resemblance to the reality of the Australian backroads. But we had crossed a mental Rubicon, whereby my intuition told me that Hunter Valley had to be closer in the direction we were heading than it would be if we doubled back. Despite the clear wrong-headedness of this assertion, we pressed on.

Eventually we stumbled back into some (barely) populated outpost of civilization where, after his shock had subsided and his laughter died down to the point where he could speak, a kindly soul pointed us in the right direction for the highway. On the other side, I came across the first of many signs promising the possibility of seeing the Australian totem animal.

My imagination danced with images of the hoppy little bastards jumping back and forth over the highway. A classmate, my reliable source for Aussie Intel had assured me that the countryside was rotten with them and that I was all but guaranteed to see one but went out of his way to disabuse me of the notion that they usually wear boxing gloves and/or sweatshirts filled with cash. He is a damn liar. I didn’t see any. I realize that New South Wales isn’t exactly the untamed outback, and that Hunter Valley is all very civilized but I don’t think one lousy ‘roo is too much for a traveller to ask.

The end result was slightly less time in the Hunter Valley than I originally had on the itinerary, but since I am not a true oenophile this didn’t disappoint me as much as it could have. Suffice it to say that we had a fair sampling of what this winemaking region has to offer and spent the slowly dying afternoon enjoying some tastings, usually on a wooden deck and frequently overlooking lakes.

I have been to the Napa Valley and therefore have some familiarity with vineyard-dense areas, of which Hunter Valley is an enjoyable example. I am not a huge fan of wine to start with, so that might have dampened some of my initial enthusiasm. It also precludes me giving a winery-by-winery breakdown of what I drank and what I thought of it. I can’t really say why that is. I have often lived just outside some areas seriously known for the skill at turning grapes into tasty beverages, including Stellenbosch just outside Cape Town and the Napa and Sonoma valleys close to San Francisco. Perhaps its because I feel that my knowledge of and appreciation for single malt scotches and microbrew beers has made me pretentious enough without becoming a wine snob on top of that.

I find that red wine gives me a headache despite the fact that many people have told me that is an old wive’s tale. I prefer a dry white, Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy sticking my nose into a glass and swirling it around. I don’t even mind the taste, but even then I would much rather have a nice, foamy wheat beer. I was therefore happy to find my way to the Bluetongue Brewery where I could no longer ignore the Siren’s Song of the beer tasting paddle.

I had a ginger beer which was much less disgusting than I thought it would be, although I hope never to taste it again.

I ended the night with a Guinness Pie at the expansive Irish Pub/Restaurant Harrigan’s, and it was a delicious way to fortify my strength for the next day’s adventures

Adventures Out of Sydney Part I: The Blue Mountains

Downtown Sydney

Sydney is an interesting city to in which to live, I am aware that there’s more to Australia than the harbor bridge and Bondi Beach. But before coming here, I can’t say I was prepared for the vastness of the place and the expense and logistical difficulties that go into exploring it. I had hopes on the flight over of doing some camping in the bush and making a circuit that included all four coasts and even took me to Ulluru in the center. Alas, it was not meant to be. Australia is a continent as well as a country after all. I have to content myself with a restrained itinerary, trading the “gotta see ’em all” mindset for a more thoughtful exploration that prioritizes quality above quantity.

With that in mind, I resolved to get out and see what New South Wales has to offer aside from Sydney. Visiting Girlfriend in tow, I set forth in a rented car on a quest to see some regional hotspots. First up, we drove to the Blue Mountains. The trip would have been much shorter than it was, but it took a little while to suss out the highway toll system. The toll checkpoints were all automated, and you couldn’t pay with cash or credit and we couldn’t find any place to buy one of the e-tags. The option that numerous gas station attendants offered was to text the toll authority and pay over the phone. It was a capital idea, although we had no Aussie-compatible cellphones and there was a dearth of phonebooths. We drove in worried circles until we realized that we could call after we went through. There is an apparent 3 day window.

The Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains

The Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains

In any case, we soon reached the Three Sisters rock formation and took the requisite pictures. The best vantage was from Echo Point, but you could see the mountains everywhere you looked. Echo point did offer some serious wide open views of Jamison Valley, but my digital camera proved a poor medium for capturing the grandeur of the vast rolling shadow the clouds cast as it passed over the lush greenery of the valley below. So I stopped trying and just enjoyed the show. My words clearly don’t do such a hot job either, but we work with the tools we have.

Moving on to Katoomba, we entered the aptly named “Scenic World” and soon found ourselves on a rollercoaster-like cart descending into the Jamison valley almost vertically while a sound system pumped the theme from Indiana Jones. It wasn’t a fast descent, but the unsettling nonetheless. At the bottom, there was a raised nature trail of wooden planks. Walking on these things never fails to make me imagine myself as an Ewok, and this usually leads to me mumbling to myself with Ewok noises.

Ewok Fantasy Central

Ewok Fantasy Central

The whole time we were down there, the Blue Mountains surrounded us like a jagged fence off in the distance. After I had my fill of nature-fueled nostalgia, we took a large glass-bottomed gondola up out of the valley and back to Scenic World. There was also an option to go horizontally across the valley from one Blue Mountain to another, but by this point we had a relatively good idea of what the Blue Mountains were all about and there is only so much natural majesty one can gaze at meaningfully before they need a beer.

The Gondola

The sun was going down, so we left the actual Blue Mountains off in the distance and returned to Katoomba for dinner and drinks. There were more restaurants in the downtown strip than I would have thought. The one we chose offered pumpkin lasagna on the menu and I had to know what that tasted like. The answer: not great. Fortunately I had some James Squire Pale Ale to wash it down. Overall, Australian beer has been hit and miss with me, but this was quite good. It was enough to replenish my strength. While we never did any serious hiking, we did cover some ground.

We spent the night at motel in Richmond, a town about which I have very little to say save that it is very small and it is between Katoomba and Hunter Valley. There was a nice little coffee shop where a kindly server clued me in to Australian coffee designations. I am a daily drinker if not an avid coffee connoseur, so had I quickly noticed that they don’t have “just plain drip” like we do in America. No, the Aussies eschew our pedestrian coffee for a variety of espresso drinks (the meaning of most of which was opaque to me before this Richmond-based barrista set me straight). Cappucino is the same, as is latte. But they also have flat white (cappucino sans foam), long black (espresso w/water), and short black (plain espresso). Not to mention Woollamochakaroomgajingo (I made that one up, but it wouldn’t suprise me). Since I usually stick to cappucino anyway, I was already drinking my first choice as she gamely explained it to me.

Properly caffeinated, we began the trip to Hunter Valley. It was a fateful journey that would change our lives forever

The Vagabond Cinephile’s Lament

I am a movie guy, which should come as no shock to anyone that’s known me for more than five minutes. I like almost every genre, and I like previews, I like popcorn, and I like that delightfully squicky feeling you get when the rubber sole of your sneakers gets more traction than it should on the coke-splattered floor. I normally get to the theater at least once a week.

At least when I’m home in the U.S. and can rely on at least a few options rolling out every week.  But alas, I also like travel and that can clash with my cinephilia. On short jaunts abroad it’s not really a problem because I’m so busy trying to squeeze in the sights and sounds of a foreign place that I don’t need the familiar experience of a theater (although I do kind of like to see movies in strange places too). But when I’m in someplace for a longer period, I start to miss the trickle of watchable films that give me something to do every lazy Sunday afternoon.

Say what you will about the Hollywood machine, it is consistent. And while the vast majority of films that find wide release in the U.S. are vapid and culturally bankrupt at best (Hello, Disaster Movie!), at least they are part of a wide enough sample that awesome films slip through. And though my body is abroad, I still read all the same film blogs and review sites that I did back home, so I am well aware of the pace of American releases.

Here in Sydney, it seems like the big blockbusters come out not too long after their U.S. release (thanks to the time zone difference, I actually got to see The Dark Knight earlier than I would have backhome. Greetings from the Future.) which was a pleasant surprise, but otherwise it seems like they trickle out anywhere from a few weeks to a few months after their initial American release. This is not as bad as when I used to live in Cape Town and it seemed like only the most juvenile and family-friendly of films made the trip across the Atlantic, and only then at a glacial pace. The usual turnaround time was about 5 months, which wasn’t so bad after I had been there long enough for the lag to catch up. Sydney is quicker, but I still find myself wanting to see all the real new releases.

I have tried to fill in the gaps by watching more Australian films, but the pace of the Aussie film industry seems much more subdued than its American counterpart. There just aren’t as many Australian films coming out in Australian theaters. I have (mostly) liked the ones I did manage to see. I only wish there were more of them. At all the Sydney theaters the fare is almost entirely American films. This true of even the more indy ones, although there is also a healthy sprinkling of foreign (meaning neither American nor Australian) films. But every week, the opening of new films is a trickle compared to the American gush. The output of South African film-makers, which I thought was sparse makes Australia’s seem like slackers.

Another thing that bothers and confounds is me is the insistence of assigning seat numbers when you buy movie tickets. Why? What purpose does this serve, other than to slow up the lines at the ticket counter? I don’t need to pick my seat out before I walk into the theater. My seat choice is a calculus based on a complex range of factors, including but not limited to: number of people in theater, proximity to screen, proximity to children/likely talkers, not sitting next to a stranger if I can help it, etc. By making choose beforehand, I am pretty much guranteed to end up with a seat wedged in between two families of garrulous bathroom users with collicky babies. And God help you if try to sit somehwere other than your assigned seat. If someone shows up with that other seat, they act like you are trying to steal their car and I end up bouncing around before the ushers come in and force me to my hastily chosen seat.

It’s one of the little, intensely personal alienating effects of living abroad. In the long run, the rewards far outweigh the costs. Don’t get me wrong, I would much rather have the adventure of being here than the comfort of trotting out to the local AMC. But still…

Exile in Bondi: Australia’s Hard Drinking Manly Men (and Women)

Aussies like to drink. They take it seriously, and they don’t mess about with those that can’t hang. They seem to have something of an obsession with the cause of (and solution to) all life’s problems: alcohol. How do I know? I’ve been in Sydney for nearly two months and I’ve experienced all of the following.

No fewer than three people have told me that Americans need to drink more, and that perhaps this perceived lack of drinking has lead to us being more uptight than we could be. It happened in three disparate settings: a raucous sports bar, a table outside a coffee stand, and inside a class room. The speakers were varying ages, genders, and occupations. I’m not sure exactly where this repuation for being lightwieghts started, but clearly these Sydneysiders have never experienced a Tallahassee Thursday, smelled the putrid aftermath of an 8th Jaeger Bomb gone awry at a Brevard country Ladies Night, or seen an episode of Intervention. If they had, they would know that any problems the American people have with drink tend to flow more toward over- than under-consumption. So wither this reputation? Perhaps its a vestigial outgrowth of our Puritan heritage, or history of prohibition. Either way, I’m not convinced that we really are that prudish.

They do seem generally more tolerant of drinking to excess here. At the orientation for my exchange program, all the speaker’s jokes kept circling around to the liquor-fueled debauchery that awaited us as temporary UNSW students. It was kind of funny, but I can hardly imagine an official school function at any university in the U.S. where the speaker referred to Spring Break as “one week of being constantly drunk” and promise non-stop chugging. Granted, American universities as are currently pushing for a re-examination of the way deal with alcohol consumption by the 16-21 set. This is a long way from the Operation: Quiet Storm attempt during my undergrad days at Florida State, where roving task forces took to the streets in concerted effort to stamp out keg parties and downplay the status of FSU as a party school. But even so, I think fear of potential civil liability would keep them from mentioning the joys of inebriation in their addresses to incoming students. Mind you, I’m not offended and not complaining. I’m just noticing the differences. It seems to me that a lowered drinking age and at least some social acceptance of it would lead to less hypocrisy if nothing else. Though I’m long past the age at which it affected me, I have never been convinced that the 21st birthday magically confers a sense of maturity and responsibility. Aside from the whole “I can join the army and go to war, vote on the future of my country and smoke but I can’t order a beer?” argument, I think a younger age limit would allow people to get the more knucklehead stuff out of their systems earlier and lose their minds doing kegstands after they hit the big Two-One.

And at the same time, the Aussie’s don’t approach drunk driving with kid gloves, either. How hardcore are they? The other day I was walking through Paddington and came across a DUI checkpoint where they were randomly breathalyzing the stops. Nothing too unusual, except for the fact that this was going on in broad daylight. It was 11:00 on a sunny Tuesday morning and the Aussie po-pos were cracking down on the unwary. Not only does thism speak to the intensity of Australian police response to getting behind the wheel with too many shots under your belt, but is also indicitave of the verve with which the people embrace drinking. In the U.S., these checkpoints are usually set up on Friday and Saturday nights, a net for the unwary who crawl through the parking lot after last call. That’s when poeple tend to get drunk. Here: just before lunchtime at the beginning of the week.

I think this international culture clash requires further research. I will also do my part to uphold America’s reputation, trying to set these people straight one pint at a time.

Or schooner, I guess.

Exile in Bondi: First Impressions of Sydney

So I’m living in Sydney for a while. Been here a couple weeks and am starting to get a feel for the city, its contours and crannies. The city is only now getting back to normal I’m told. My arrival coincided with World Youth Day 2008, a gathering of young Catholics and their guitar-playing, slightly goateed youth group directors. Apparently there were over 200,000 attendees. My first glimpse of the Harbour Bridge was spoiled by the fact that it was covered with an endless line of them, marching in procession. They styled themselves Pilgrims and they swarmed the city for a few weeks.

A woman and several teens were looking around like they were lost and asked me if the bus I was waiting for went to Oxford Street. This was my second day there, and I didn’t have a clue where the place was, so I shrugged and apologized.

“I’m a stranger here myself. Sorry.” Hearing my American accent, she naturally assumed I was part of her group.

“Oh, are you a pilgrim, too?” she asked.

“Yes. Yes I am. Would you like me to tell you a story about a singing rooster while we wait for the bus?” I replied.

Judging by her horrified expression and the manner in which she gathered her charges up and moved on the next bus stop, I take it she wasn’t a Chaucer fan. Sadly, this is not the first time in my life a Canterbury Tales joke has fallen flat and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

The Pilgrims that were here for World Youth Day did an awful lot of singing, and marching while they were here. Things are a little quieter now that they’ve gone and it’s given me more of a chance to explore the city. So far, so good. The people are uniformly warm and friendly and the city is picturesque. I’m living in Bondi Beach, which looks about like this:

photo by betta design

It’s a happening place, with lots of young people and backpackers and whatnot. Outside the downtown CBD area, it has a relaxed sort of pace. There are many surfers, despite the testicle-shriveling combination of weather and water temperatures we’ve had lately. I would sooner sit on the couch and watch Endless Summer (I and II) than actually get in the water and try to surf myself. I’ve never been much a surfer, which is slightly odd because I have usually lived near a beach and I really like surfing movies. Point Break, In God’s Hands, North Shore, hell even Blue Crush. Yet I have only tried it once, and I somehow managed to get a jellyfish between the board and my stomach and it did what jellyfish do. I don’t even like to swim. Or lay out and get a tan.

And yet, I look being near beaches. Walking on them sometimes. Maybe. I am a complex man.

Sydney is expensive. The exchange rate isn’t doing me any favors and the price of everything seems to be slightly jacked up compared to what I’m used to paying in the U.S. (even in California). I’ve still managed to head out a few times. The level of joviality seems high, generally. People tend to sing and chant. Then again, the recent victory of the Wallabies over the hated Allblacks may have artifically inlfated the good cheer quotient. Rugby wins have that effect.

Single beers come in some amount less than a pint, which is disappointing. I was able to counsel one of my roommates against ordering a giant can of Foster’s, which they don’t even seem to have here. I went for a Cowaramup IPA which stood up admirably against my current favorite Sierra Nevada, and nicely demonstrated the Aussie knack for improbable combinations of letters acting as proper names.

Classes just started at UNSW, where I am studying for the semester. Like any nerd, I’ve been looking forward to the start of a new session. Having gone out of my way to avoid Australia-centric classes that won’t help out my overall law school goals (whatever they might end up being, I’m pretty sure Australian criminal litigator isn’t on the list of possible careers), I find myself faced with mostly International Affairs type classes. I am currently re-acquainting myself with the WTO and the other Bretton Woods organizations. It is just as much fun as it sounds.

300,000 Drunken Southerners in the Dark: Does Savannah Have the Best St. Patricks Day in the World?

My Spring Break was last week. After skipping around the southeast for a little while visiting family, I began what will likely be the most heroic undertaking of my life. I set myself upon a quest for truth, a journey into the seedy underworld where Catholicism, public intoxication, mutated plant life, centuries of oppression, green plastic derby hats, slavery, Flogging Molly, and bare boobies blend with gallons of Guinness to create the heady spectacle we know as St. Patrick’s Day.

As I’ve stated before, a propensity towards all things celtic was probably hardwired into my DNA and reinforced with a Catholic school education administered by a gaggle of Irish nuns. Some of my earliest memories are of The Sisters Joan (Grace and Cahill, respectively) leading the entire school in the ballad of Molly Mallone. I like a good party, and even the prevalence of swarms of green beer drinking amateurs doesn’t spoil my good time on that most glorious day. Last year I spent it here in San Francisco, a first. I had a good time but the city’s celebration was underwhelming.

A few friends and I got into the discussion of where to find the best St. Patrick’s day party in the country. Based on experience, we quickly discarded Orlando and San Francisco. One faction (consisting of myself and O-lover), based only on pure supposition and Dropkick Murphys lyrics, decided it had to be in Boston. The dissenting opinion (from my friend The Chef), based on the coloration of the river on March 17th, decided it had to be Chicago. Also considered were New York, and Savannah. At every opportunity, we ask someone from one of these cities how their St. Patrick’s day measures up to the others. We got conflicting and biased reports every time, and no clear winner emerged so we took it upon ourselves to do some field research.

Thus began our highly scientific Five Year Quest for the Greatest Saint Patrick’s Day Celebration in the World.

Year 1: Savannah

Year 2: New York

Year 3: Chicago

Year 4: Boston

Year 5: Dublin

At the end of our travels, we will compile the data and finally solve the puzzle that has plagued mankind since the invention of the shamrock-shaped novelty glasses: where is the best St. Patrick’s Day party.

This year, we headed for the Hostess City, of the South, Savannah, Ga. I was not aware of just how seriously this city takes St. Patrick’s Day, but they do not mess around. Unfortunately Holy Week threw things out of whack and I ended up missing the parade on Friday. But I was there for the continuing celebration that took up the rest of the weekend. We got there early and started drinking a little early in the day. This would prove to be a mistake that haunt me later, as I wandered around in a drunken haze nearly killing myself on the uneven cobblestones of River street. But it did put me in a festive frame of mind.

The crowds were slightly smaller than I expected, and no water supplies were died green but the foot traffic flowed swiftly and I was able to secure a perch on the Hyatt deck from which to observe the street below.  As the day wore on, we changed location a number of times and it didn’t really get too crowded to move until well after dark. There were some beads being thrown around, but the level of revelry was far below Mardis Gras thresholds.  There were surprising few fights on the waterfront.

The real fun came later in the evening when nearby tornadoes knocked out power and the entire area plunged into darkness. I was well ensconced in a local watering hole by then and they lit candles to let the carousing continue. No credit cards, and nothing from the soda guns, but the shots kept coming. (That would also prove to be a mistake).

As things were winding down, we found ourselves wandering the darkened streets of the downtown area until we eventually stumbled upon an oasis of power, with an outdoor street concert. Things wound back up again, but our steps were unsteady and our gazes were beginning to rove. In truth, I was probably a little more affected than my companions. At the end of the night, we had to take the “shuttle” back to our digs and the operators gouged the prices horribly. That is where things went off the rails a bit.

It seems that without power, the hotel was unable to imprint the keycards that would let us in to our room. I took this in stride.

Me: YOU HAVE TO LET US IN!

Desk Clerk: I can’t let you in. The machine isn’t working. I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.

Me: I HAVE A RESERVATION!!

Desk Clerk: I understand, but there’s nothing I can do.

Me: (pulling reservation confirmation from back pocket) IT’S RIGHT HERE!!!

Desk Clerk: I understand, sir, but the machine needs power to function. We just have to wait. I’m sorry.

Me: I HAVE TO PEE!!!! (leaves lobby, presumably to pee)

Fortunately, while I recovered my friends were able to talk her into letting us into the room with the Maid’s Key, though it turns out we weren’t exactly staying at the Ritz (or any other hotel that doesn’t come equipped with standing water and huge patches of black mold)and might have been better off sleeping in the lobby.

It was a good first start to the quest, since although I had fun and the atmosphere was festive, I’m sure bigger and better things are waiting for next year’s leg. Chicago, here I come (in 361 days).