The curse of swearing like a foreigner

WARNING: This post contains swearwords. But so did the most popular blog post I’ve ever written, so either deal with it or move on…

My love of appropriate swearing – no, that’s not an oxymoron – has been documented before. I thought I knew the whole lexicon. So you can imagine how excited I was to discover a whole new swearword: shithouse.

At first I wasn’t actually sure whether it meant good or bad. Was it the Aussie’s sense of irony at play? But a quick scan of the Urban Dictionary revealed that it was far more straightforward than that. It definitely means bad.

But much as I love the word, there is a problem with it. I just sound ridiculous saying it.

Maybe it’s because I’m female. It sounds totally natural when spoken by an Aussie man, which of course is where I first heard it. The example of usage given in the Urban Dictionary is perhaps a giveaway: Fuck me, I lost my right testicle! That is shithouse. Frankly, I can’t see when I’d ever use that combination of words, in that order.

Or maybe it’s my Scottish accent. While my accent has definitely got a bit milder in the two decades that I’ve been away from Scotland, the only people who can’t tell that I’m Scottish are those who assume I’m Irish (‘What part of Ireland are you from?’ ‘Er, the part that’s in Scotland…’). Indeed, there are some who still think I sound like Billy Connolly. An Australian colleague’s wife commented on how broad I sounded when she first met me; I felt like turning into the Scottish linguistic equivalent of Crocodile Dundee and introducing her to my relatives and schoolfriends: ‘That’s not an accent. That’s an accent!’

And as anyone who has ever watched anyone from Scotland depicted in a TV drama, swearing is (apparently) what our accents were designed for…although I fear it only extends to our native words.

I’d never want to change the way I speak permanently. Not only would it mean losing my identity, but it would also not go down well with my Scottish compatriots. Just ask Sheena Easton. But it would be nice to sound a bit less Scottish when it mattered – like in my Spanish oral exam at university, or when I need to use the dialect of where I live, rather than where I’m from. In Bristol, I always sounded like I was taking the mickey when I hopped off a bus with a friendly ‘Cheers Drive!’ in my approximation of a West Country accent and in Australia, I can’t say ‘shithouse’ without sounding like it’s a word I’ve never, ever said before.

And that really is shithouse.






Riding for Albi, and ourselves

There are so many reasons why I ride a bike: fitness; the speed compared to other forms of transport; the sheer joy of feeling the wind on my face and the energy in my legs.

But yesterday I rode for Alberto ‘Albi’ Paulon. Albi, a 25-year-old chef, was killed last week as he rode down Sydney Road in Brunswick with his fiancee. A driver opened her car door onto Albi, propelling him into the path of a passing truck. He didn’t stand a chance.

Every urban cyclist has a story to tell about doorings. If they haven’t been a victim themselves, they know someone who has. Near-misses are alarmingly frequent. Drivers presumably don’t mean to put cyclists at risk, but they do, every day.

Thousands of cyclists turned up to a memorial ride for Albi along Sydney Road last night. We gathered at the top of Royal Parade, a sea of green – Albi’s favourite colour – and headed north. As we passed the spot where Albi died, we rang our bells. It was a beautiful sound.

Albi's Ride

Picture: Moreland Leader

At that time of day, Sydney Road is a clearway, so we filled the two northbound lanes. From the middle of the group, all I could see were bikes. Cars trying to enter Sydney Road from side streets had to wait; any driver caught trying to push in was warned by our police escorts. Traders and local residents lined the road – in support, I hope.

After the ride bikes were locked to anything that looked remotely secure. They formed a mural on the fence by the railway line that runs parallel to Sydney Road. The cyclists headed into Brunswick’s many bars, to raise a glass in memory of the friend most of us never met, but who was one of us.

This tragedy has once again highlighted the need for everyone to share the road safely. And change will come, hopefully in the law as well as behaviour.

Albi, your death will not be in vain. Rest in peace.

Happy new year!

What to wear on Australia Day

What to wear on Australia Day

It’s been a while since I’ve been down this way. Is there anybody there? Or have you all wandered off while I’ve been away? I wouldn’t blame you if you did. In fact, if you’re in Australia, you probably have been away.

For in Australia, not a lot happens between December and February. The country takes a siesta, a snooze, a sojourn. Sure, some people return to work immediately after new year, but they don’t really do very much those first few weeks. At least not anything that involves other people, because most of them are on holiday.

No, the Australian start to the new year actually comes on January 27 – the day after Australia Day. On the 26th, the nation rouses itself from whatever it’s been doing for the previous month and prepares for the start of the new year proper by wrapping itself in the Australian flag, drinking VB and listening to Daryl Braithwaite. Every year there are (in my view, very valid) calls for Australia Day to be moved to another date to avoid the annual tradition of rubbing the Aboriginals’ noses in the fact the Europeans invaded, but somehow the sentiment is lost amid boozed-up beachside barbecues and firework displays strangely reminiscent of the ones staged just three weeks before for New Year.

And then on the 27th, everyone returns to the office and the real work starts.

This month-long hiatus in normal activity is a challenge for the incomer who’s not completely adapted to Australian living. For most Aussies, the combination of summer weather and enforced holidays for Christmas is the perfect excuse to head to the coast or to the country. Camp sites are packed and holiday homes booked out at premium rates.

But for this new Australian, it’s just a bit too much excitement in one go. Used to splitting my leisure time between what what passes for summer in the UK and the cold, dark, Christmassy Christmas break, I can’t seem to get my head round blending the two. I like to separate my summer holiday from my Christmas one by around six months, give or take a week. The upshot is that here, I end up neither fully enjoying Christmas nor a mid-year holiday. Despite trying to maintain some of my northern hemisphere Christmas traditions – gorging on DVD box sets and chocolate – I still struggle to feel festive in Oz. It’s too sunny to see the lights on the tree, goddammit. And taking a holiday in June or July is less fun when you’re faced with the worst weather of the year and you can’t just book a £25 Easyjet flight to Spain to escape.

So I take my allotted 10 days off work, potter about, then go back to work as soon as they’ll let me. Got to earn the cash to get me to the European summer somehow.




The girl in the picture

During October, I had my photograph taken every single day. I was raising money for ovarian cancer research by taking part in Frocktober. The challenge was to wear a different frock every day of the month – and there had to be evidence.

So every weekday morning at 10am I’d gather with my fellow Frockettes in the office for a group shot, and every weekend I’d have a snap taken at home to prove I hadn’t slacked off and slipped into some trousers.

The images taken ranged from the straightforward and classy, like this…

Day 6

or this…

Day 28

to creative tableaux like this…

Day 9

to the downright silly, like this.

Day 23b

Every shot was composed in no more than a few minutes, and snapped on someone’s iPhone, so there wasn’t a lot of time for vanity. I didn’t think that would bother me. I’m not what most people consider high-maintenance. I don’t have a beauty regime beyond regular haircuts and I’ve never had a spray tan or a facial. Beauty salons speak a language I don’t understand and I only ever venture into one once every few years when I have to concede defeat in my own attempts to keep my curly eyebrows under control. I do make an effort to look smart and a little stylish if I can but it’s not the end of the world if I have to leave the house with no make-up on and wearing the clothes I’ve been doing the garden in.

I also don’t have my photo taken that often, and when I do, I am generally on holiday somewhere interesting – so the photograph becomes less about me than the location. I confess to having spent a bit of time thinking about what I would wear before I posed in front of the Taj Mahal (thanks for the pressure, Princess Diana) but generally I slap on a smile and just try not to look too goofy.

But as the month of Frocktober went on I found myself looking more and more critically at each picture. Almost every day, my eye was drawn to some flaw in my appearance: my uneven front teeth, my messy hair with its half-grown-out fringe, my upper arms that have lost a bit of definition since I gave up Pilates. I envied the others’ tanned skin, carefully coiffed hair and ability to smile without showing their gums. I even felt stupid for not being as good at pulling silly faces as some of the others.

My favourite shots of the month became those where I was obscured in some way, by a magazine…

Day 20

or by sunglasses…

Day 30b

I know it’s not just me who thinks like this. A friend once told me she’d been so disappointed when she saw her wedding photographs and realised that despite having spent more time and money on her appearance than any other day of her life, she still didn’t look like a model. Everyone else who saw the photos, of course, saw the reality – a beautiful, happy woman with the glow of someone in love.

Logic tells me that beauty is more than a bone structure, a skin tone, a shapely leg. When I look at photographs of people I love, I just see their brilliant personalities, their kind hearts and loyal friendship. Why can’t we see those things in ourselves?

It’s something I’ll keep working on. And in the meantime, I’ve raised more than $500 towards finding an early detection test for ovarian cancer. Now that is definitely a good look.

Visit the gallery to see all my Frocktober photographs. And it’s not too late to give! Visit my giving site here

Home delivery

Every migrant misses something from their homeland. For Brits, Bisto and Marks and Spencer often top the list.

For me, it’s prawn cocktail crisps – and letterboxes.

Yes, I miss having a slot in my front door through which mail and newspapers can be pushed.

In Australia, if you have a front garden, you don’t have a letterbox in your front door. Instead, like in much of the US, each house has a postbox on the front boundary. It saves the postie a trip up your garden path, a time-saver that was probably quite important when the majority of houses were built on large blocks.

We have a nice black metal mailbox. Like most, it has a handy cylinder attached where large letters and newspapers can be left. Newspapers for delivery come shrink-wrapped in cellophane, a tight tube of newsprint ideally sized for slipping into said cylinder.

Our mailbox

Our mailbox

So why is it that every Saturday and Sunday morning, the newspaper I ordered can never be found in this custom-made receptacle, but instead ends up tucked behind a bush, or rolled under the car? I’ve never actually seen it being delivered but I can only guess it is thrown from a moving vehicle to save time. The missing top of one of my solar garden lights suggests the thrower has the strength, if not the aim, of Mitchell Johnson.

But even if the paper was left in the logical place, the cellophane wrapping causes another problem. The newsprint is so tightly curled that I need to spend 10 minutes trying to flatten it out before I can read it. I’ve mostly given up now, choosing to leave the pages under a heavy book for a few days before catching up on the weekend’s news midweek. I have actually considered cancelling my subscription and walking to the shop to buy a paper when I want one instead, knowing it will be nice and flat.

They say the newspaper industry is dying. Here’s a thought for the executives desperately trying to revive it: maybe it’s not just the fault of the internet…




Reclaiming the night

Last night I joined hundreds of others marching up Sydney Road in Brunswick for Reclaim the Night 2014.

Reclaim the Night is a movement that calls for an end to violence against women, in all its forms.

As I set off to join the crowds at Brunswick Town Hall, I did wonder if I had the right to be there. I’m lucky, I thought. I’ve not had to deal with much in the way of harassment. I don’t know many people that have. I live in an inner north, middle class bubble where everyone votes left, supports asylum seekers and treats each other with respect. Don’t I? A woman at Reclaim the Night actually thanked my husband for turning up (he was one of many men there). The Silver Fox just shrugged his shoulders. Of course he was going to be there. It was the right thing to do.

Sure, when I was at college, there was the student party when, a little worse for wear, I just managed to push a man away as he kissed me, despite my obvious preference – at that precise moment – for going to sleep or throwing up, whichever happened first.

Then there was the time my friend and I were walking home in Perth one evening and a man shouted “Sluts!” at us as he drove past.

And in Melbourne too – Brunswick, in fact – there was the time I was waiting for the Silver Fox to pick me up, after I’d been out with girlfriends, and two men drove past yelling a graphic description of what they would like to do to me out of the window. (Can you imagine how they even planned that little excursion? ‘Hey bro, d’you wanna go out for a beer?’ ‘Nah, mate – let’s just drive round and shout rude stuff at some chicks instead.’)

But I do feel lucky.

I’ve never stayed with a controlling, abusive boyfriend because he convinced me his behaviour was all my fault, like one woman I know.

I’ve never been in the situation of the transgender teacher that my news editor wanted me to write about as if it were a great scandal, rather than a private matter for the woman involved.

And I’ve never told a pal, after going home with a man I met on a night out, that “it wasn’t rape, but…”

And that’s all just within my immediate circle.

Outside of that, the stories are endless, from the “she asked for it” line still so often trotted out about rape victims, to the Courier Mail’s shameful coverage of the murder of Mayang Prasetyo last week, which quite rightly has been slammed by other media. The Everyday Sexism Project website makes for depressing reading.

Something has gone horribly wrong in our society. How did we get to the stage where it is so normal, so acceptable, to disrespect those we share the earth with in such a horrific way? I wasn’t brought up that way, and I would wager that the men driving round Brunswick shouting abuse at middle-aged women waiting on their husbands weren’t either.

I don’t have the answer, but I do know that awareness is the first step in making a change. We all have a responsibility to watch our own behaviour and language, and ask if what we do is in any way contributing to this culture of hate. We all have a responsibility to call out bad behaviour when we see it. And we all have a responsibility to support those affected who, for whatever reason, do not have or cannot find a voice.

That’s why Reclaim the Night matters, and why I was proud to be part of it.

Dressed for success

I won’t be wearing pants for the next month.

But the good/bad news, depending on how you look at it, is that I will be wearing frocks instead. And UK readers, Australia has adopted the annoying Americanism of saying pants to mean trousers, so rest assured, there will be no going commando underneath. Apart from anything else, Melbourne is still bloody freezing.

Anyway, to get back to the real story…I’m taking part in Frocktober, an initiative to raise money for ovarian cancer research. The basic deal is that people sponsor you to wear a dress every day of October. In addition, I have opted to wear a different dress every day. This will a) help me decide once and for all which of my 50+ (yes, you read that right) dresses I actually like and should keep, and b) relieve me of ironing for a whole month, because every one of those frocks is already ironed. What a result.

And of course, most importantly, it will raise much-needed money to increase awareness of ovarian cancer, and develop an early detection test. Ovarian cancer is known as the ‘silent killer’ because symptoms are vague and often strike without warning, and the lack of an early detection test means women are often not diagnosed until it’s too late. Only 20% to 30% of women will survive beyond five years of diagnosis. Pretty scary, huh?

Eight of us from my office have signed up for the challenge (strangely, all women, even although men are more than welcome to participate…). Seven of us were in today for Day One (and I’m sure team member #8 was wearing a frock, wherever she was).

It started out in the classy way one would expect from such a group of articulate, stylish women.

Day 1

A vision of sophistication.

But it wasn’t long before the pressure of the event took its toll.

This is how celebs pose, right?

This is how proper models pose, right?

Despite our limited modelling capabilities, the money has already started coming in. Our team total is sitting at just over $400, which is pretty good for one day’s frock-wearing. The Silver Fox is holding back his cash for now – he has offered to donate varying amounts for each day, depending on how much he likes the dress I am wearing. This approach jars slightly with my feminist principles – I dress for me, not him – but he’s just trying to make it fun, it’s all for a good cause, and in a country where The Bachelor tops the TV ratings, it can feel like feminism never happened.

I’m sure that over the next 30 days I will return to this topic, not least because some of the frocks I don will have a story attached.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Frocktober, or even better, make a donation, visit our team site: Advance the Frocks

The only way is up

When I left my old job in Bristol, England, to move to Australia, one colleague was more envious than most. G and her husband J had been toying with the idea of moving to Oz for a while, but kept putting it off for various (eminently sensible) reasons.

Now, they’ve finally made the leap and joined us in Melbourne. They are making good progress in sorting out their new life, which they are reporting on through G’s excellent blog. But today G is having a bad day. The previous tenants of the rental property she and her family have just moved into turned out to be grubby types, and it’s getting tiring sleeping on camping mattresses. First world problems, maybe, but problems most migrants will identify with. I certainly do.

For the first few weeks after the Silver Fox and I landed in Australia, we moved from holiday let to holiday let, unable to find anything longer term that suited. The first was fine, except for the infestation of millipedes that I would find curled up like tiny, crunchy Cumberland sausages everywhere – including, one evening, in our bed. The second had nicer decor (and a washing machine!) but only a bed to sit on – and you couldn’t see the TV from it. By the time we moved to the third, I had a contract at a university and was working from ‘home’, which meant editing on a netbook on a rusting garden table that we’d moved in from the small balcony.

Millipedes: not my ideal housemates

Millipedes: not my ideal housemates

The Silver Fox had a job to go to the Monday after we landed. I got one too, following an interview the day after we arrived, but it didn’t start until a few weeks later. This meant I was left in charge of setting up the things that make life easy: phones, broadband, health insurance, Medicare… I hate dealing with corporations at the best of times, but after a few days of doing little else I was broken. As yet another call centre worker told me I really should pay the highest health insurance premium “because it’s all about peace of mind”, I cracked. I put the phone down, I wept, and when my eyes dried I rang the Silver Fox and told him he would have to do it. I couldn’t take any more.

But once the basics were taken care of, and we had moved into more permanent accommodation, things did get easier. There were still moments of intense frustration with Australia, as I struggled to live by a set of unwritten rules no-one had ever taught me, and got tired of everything just being so hard. The lowest point was an appointment with a GP at the local health centre, when I needed a repeat prescription for something I’d had in the UK. After a wait of two hours (something I had never even experienced on the NHS, and yet I was paying for this!) I finally saw the doctor, who chastised me for not having made an early morning appointment when I just wanted a repeat prescription, and made me feel like a stupid child for not totally understanding what medicines were available in Australia and exactly how Medicare worked.

Packing it all in and going home wasn’t an option for us, so I focussed on the positive. Despite my naturally pessimistic character, there were many things to be positive about. I now had the opportunity to see Paul Kelly play regularly. I found a great dentist who (admittedly for the price of a medium-sized luxury yacht filled with gold bars and steered by a diamond-studded wheel) sorted out my NHS-ravaged teeth. And at my first proper job, I met some great people with whom I am still friends today. (I also met the most rigid bureaucracy I have ever encountered, a fair amount of bullying by senior staff and a dash of good old-fashioned racism, but that’s another story.)

Five years on, and having moved to the city I should have lived in all along, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I’m still not in a rush to review my health insurance options, but I’ve got an amazing GP and I know where to go for the cheapest prescriptions. I know how to find a Justice of the Peace for those times when a piece of paper just has to be witnessed by someone you’ve never met before for no apparent reason and I understand why you can’t find out how much something costs on certain retail websites without entering your postcode first. And although we’ve now bought our own place, I learned to accept the limitations of our last rental while charming the letting agent into getting the biggest problems fixed.

I feel your pain, G and J, I really do. But you’re going to have to trust me on this one. When you’re at your lowest point, remember there’s only one way you can go.





The Scottish Referendum: a view from an ex-pat

Saltire and union flagI’ve only just become Australian, but in a few days, my ‘other’ nationality will be put to the test when Scotland votes on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom. The idea of Scottish independence has been lurking in the background of Scottish politics for many years, but this is the closest it has ever come to reality.

As a non-resident of Scotland I don’t have a vote, but my accent is enough to prompt discussions about the referendum with almost everyone I meet. Among my friends – Scottish, English and Australian – there are representatives of both sides of the debate. My Facebook feed is filled with photographs of YES posters in suburban windows, balanced by opinions on why Scotland can never be like Norway (and if it was, why Scots would hate having to pay a fortune for beer). It’s clear that while some are making their choice based on the facts as they see them (this is a political campaign, after all, so there has been misinformation and spin on both sides), others are following their hearts.

To vote yes or no to breaking up a union of nations is a huge decision and one that most people outside Scotland, who haven’t been exposed to the growing interest in Scottish nationalism, cannot fathom ever having to make. For Scots, however, the referendum was inevitable and in my view, it represents the greatest opportunity the country has ever had. The fact is that if the Scottish people were truly happy with the status quo, no referendum would have been called. This is a chance to start afresh, to do it our way.

Since the Thatcher years, which saw Scotland’s industries decimated and a series of hugely unpopular policies introduced, the views of the Scottish electorate have diverged sharply from those of their neighbours south of the border. It is easier to spot the Loch Ness Monster than a Scottish Tory. They are so uncommon that when the rare occasions that I meet one, I still find myself doing a double take. In the general election of 1997, not a single Scottish seat was won by the Conservatives. In each of the three elections since then, the Tories have only managed to take one seat. The Conservative share of the vote in the Scottish Parliament – elected by proportional representation – has been dropping steadily for the last few years, and the party currently holds only 15 of 129 seats.

As a result the policies of the Scottish National Party-led Scottish Parliament and its counterpart at Westminster are also wildly different. The powers given to the Scottish Parliament on its formation in 1999 have given the Scots an opportunity to show how they would like things to be, albeit in a limited way. The strong support for the SNP (even prior to the referendum being called) suggests that Scots’ priorities are very different to those of their southern neighbours. University tuition for Scottish students is free; students south of the border pay thousands of pounds for a degree. In Scotland, there is a commitment to free universal healthcare including free prescriptions; in England the National Health Service is being systematically dismantled and a packet of pills will cost you eight pounds. Westminster is happy to have nuclear submarines stationed on the Clyde; the SNP have pledged to remove them. To paraphrase one of the many memes circulating online this week, the yes camp might not be sure of what it’s running towards, but it knows exactly what it’s running away from.

This increasing disparity, combined with a strong sense of patriotism, has undoubtedly added momentum to the yes campaign. There are still many questions about what independence would mean that have not been – and perhaps cannot be – fully answered, but there is undoubtedly a growing sense that Scotland is different, and needs more control over its own destiny. Few in the no camp would be likely to refuse the carrot of additional powers now being dangled by Westminster in the form of ‘devo max’, should independence not be achieved.

And whatever happens, this referendum can only be good for politics. Scotland, a nation which could have been excused for becoming apathetic, having repeatedly voted for one government but received another, thanks to the way British elections are run, has had its interest in politics reignited. Ninety-seven per cent of the adult population have registered to vote in the referendum, some 300,000 more than were registered for the last Westminster election, and turnout is expected to be extremely high. Among the 97 per cent are many 16 and 17-year-olds, given the opportunity to have their say for the first time. The lowering of the voting age was a smart move: it will create a generation of more politically engaged young people, who appreciate the importance of participation in political decisions.

Will Scotland be independent come Friday? Probably not. According to the latest polls, every one of the ‘don’t knows’ need to be converted to yes for that to happen. The natural tendency for many Scots to doubt their own ability may also come into play at the last minute, with some yes voters switching to what they consider the ‘safer’ no. I may not need to replace my UK passport with a Scottish one this year, but a few years from now…who knows. The genie is out of the bottle. It would take a monumental rethink on how the union is governed to lure it back in.

Trams, bikes, rain – sound familiar?

So the other day I went to Amsterdam for a couple of hours. Yes, it’s a long way from Australia, but I have form in this area. I once flew to Benidorm for lunch from Lancashire, but that’s another story.

This time it was a very brief stop on a flight from Melbourne to Glasgow. The Silver Fox and I had four hours to kill and while Schiphol is undoubtedly a fine airport, we thought it would be more fun to jump on a train and go and visit the canals. So we did.

On the basis that any time away from the airport counts as a visit to a country, this was my fourth time in the Netherlands. I’ve explored Amsterdam, of course, but also the other major cities, and even made it to a wedding in Wemeldinge, a small village in Zeeland, where the bride and groom had their photos taken atop a dyke.

Going back for the first time in a decade, albeit briefly, reminded me of how much I love the place. There are so many reasons.

Obviously, there’s the cycling. Getting around on two wheels is the norm for many people, and drivers respect that. The infrastructure for cyclists is great and it’s so safe no-one ever needs a helmet. People ride in their everyday clothes and when it rains, it’s not unusual to see a bicyclist carrying an open umbrella as they pedal along.


There’s the amazing public transport, that can take you from one end of the country to the other in a couple of hours, and that never lets you miss a connection because it’s just so well planned.

Then there’s the people. I am fortunate to have a couple of good Dutch friends in my life who can be relied on to tell me the truth when I need to hear it. That attitude also seems to extend beyond those who have known me for a long time. At the aforementioned wedding, a guy I had literally just been introduced to suggested that I was perhaps a little too pale to wear my chosen summer dress with bare legs. Rude? Possibly, but my legs were threatening to blind the other guests with their whiteness, and he was clearly just keen that I consider tinting my skin the same colour as his – a rather artificial hue in a shade that I can only imagine was a tribute to the Dutch royal family. I wasn’t offended.

And there’s the pragmatic approach taken to social issues that other governments spend years arguing about. Gay rights ceased to be an issue a long time ago, and while there are some critics of the Netherlands’ liberal approach to prostitution and drug use, on the whole the laws seem to work. Equality is everywhere – even the female flight attendants on KLM are able to wear natty blue trouser suits that are far more practical than the tight skirts and high heels of other airlines, should they need to do their most important job of saving your life in an emergency.

For these and so many other reasons, I love the Netherlands. So much, in fact, that I even considered – quite seriously – learning the language. I thought my Scottish accent would give me a head start on many of the guttural noises needed to sound convincing; I changed my mind after I tried leaving a message on a Dutch friend’s answerphone, asking ‘How are you?’ in Dutch, and she asked why I was speaking Japanese. It’s also not the most useful language for the world traveller – something even the Dutch would admit. They know it will never be a lingua franca and while they appreciate any efforts to speak it (even with a Japanese accent), there is no expectation on the visitor to do so. In fact, I’ve found most of the Dutch people I’ve met are embarrassed by their (few) countrymen who can’t speak excellent English.

I probably should have tried to move there for a while when I was young, but I missed my chance, if it ever existed. I had to wait until I was in my 30s to do what was the next best thing – move to Melbourne. It’s not so dissimilar: it has trams, bikes and, at least in the inner city, a liberal (with a small L) attitude. Most Australians also fulfil the plain-speaking requirement quite nicely. Umbrellas on bikes haven’t caught on yet, but given Melbourne’s climate and inherent sense of style, it’s surely just a matter of time.

Image: Amsterdamized, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). If you like it, there is more about Dutch cycling on the Amsterdamize blog