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…




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.

Music to move to

According to research reported this week, listening to In Da Club by 50 Cent before a job interview can increase your chances of success.

When the Silver Fox was offered the interview that would eventually lead to our move to Australia, music did play a part – although there was no rapping involved.

He had to drive to a venue on the other side of town to be interviewed via video-conference. I knew he’d be nervous and wanted to calm him down. And I also wanted him to get the job.

While we hadn’t actually agreed that we would move if he was offered it, we agreed it would be nice to have the choice.

So the night before, I sneaked out to the car and put a copy of Paul Kelly‘s album Gossip in the CD player. And when the Silver Fox started the engine the following morning, this is what he heard: Kelly’s love song to Melbourne, Leaps and Bounds.

True, we were headed to Perth, not Melbourne. And the job itself was in the Western Australian suburb of Kwinana, known in polite circles as a lower socio-economic area, famed for the industrial plants along its shoreline, rather than one of the world’s most liveable cities with world-class sporting facilities as name-checked in Kelly’s song.

But the sentiment was right, and it did the trick. Two months later we were in Australia, and we did finally make it to Melbourne – without any help from 50 Cent.





The joy of the incidental visitor

Welcome MatWhen you leave one side of the world for the other, you know that you will never see some people again. It’s a harsh reality of expat life: you invite everyone to come and visit you in your new home, and everyone promises they will, but it doesn’t happen. Money, family…LIFE gets in the way.

Close family will come, if you’re lucky, but there is no guarantee. Surely it would be better for you to come here, they say. You can see everyone that way, and you’re used to the long flight, not like us. Wouldn’t you rather come back than put us up for a month? We don’t want to impose.

So while our spare room is the only room in our house that is propery finished, it’s also the least-used. We’ve only had one set of ‘proper’ family visitors in the five years since we migrated, and they’ve made it clear that they have no intention of coming back. If we want to see them again, Mohamed will have to go to the mountain.

But while our nearest and dearest expend their energy on getting us back to Blighty, we’ve discovered that many other people we know do travel to Australia, usually to visit family of their own. And what has been fantastic is that they often take the opportunity to spend a little time with us.

Our first ‘incidental visitor’ – a former work colleague of the Silver Fox – called on us just months after we moved, during a visit to family in Perth. Another making a similar trip followed soon after. And in a couple of months we will meet an old journalist friend (and former boss) of mine for dinner. It’s been 15 years since I left the paper we both worked on, and almost as long since we’ve spoken. But he’s coming out to Australia to visit others, remembered I was in Melbourne and decided to look me up. I’m looking forward to it already.

These brief get-togethers are an opportunity to share a little of our new life, catch up on some gossip and hear a familiar accent. For at least some of the visitors, I’m sure we have provided some respite from family business, and the endless cups of tea which punctuate visits to overseas relatives.

So should you wish to pop in, for an hour, a day or a week, you’ll be very welcome. But beware the risks – one of these incidental visitors is bringing her family back to Melbourne in a few weeks, to stay for good.

Outside my comfort zone

Comfort zoneSince moving to Australia I’ve pledged to accept pretty much every invitation offered, even although this has occasionally gone horribly wrong. This ‘say yes to everything’ policy means I frequently head out on my own – not every invitation is extended to the Silver Fox, and even if it is, he doesn’t always want to join in.

While this has been a fantastic way of getting to know new people and learning about my adopted home, it has aggravated a phobia I’ve had all of my life – a fear of going into a pub on my own.

If I arrange to meet someone for a night out and will be arriving alone, I will go to ridiculous lengths to make sure I don’t have to meet them inside the venue. I’ll query their transport arrangements with the hope of finding a sensible meeting point at a station or tram stop, or turn up at their house an hour early so I can travel with them. I don’t know what I’m actually scared of, but I suspect it’s a mixture of a fear of not being able to find the venue, coupled with a sense that nice girls don’t sit on their own in bars. The former is a rational reaction to a lifetime of not being entirely sure of my location or which direction I should be walking/driving/cycling in; the latter a stupid idea formed by years of watching films where the only girls sitting alone at the bar are prostitutes.

Melbourne is particularly ill-suited to the nervous solo pub-goer. So many bars are hidden away, down alleyways and up stairs, and you’re never quite sure where you’re going to end up. One I visited recently could only be accessed by a lift tucked inside a (totally unrelated) Chinese restaurant. To get to another, you have to go through an anonymous doorway, head up two flights of stairs, and pass through a different club before reaching your destination on the rooftop. It is, of course, these quirks that make Melbourne’s bar scene so famous, but if I don’t know the place, my anxiety rises with every flight of stairs conquered or floor passed in the elevator.

Things have certainly been made easier by the mobile phone. I can now harangue my soon-to-be-companions with texts, updating my progress towards the venue and confirming theirs, with the aim of magically arriving at the same time. If I’m running early and need to delay my arrival, I can pause in the street and amuse myself on Facebook for a while pretending to be checking urgent work emails. And if I – horror of horrors – actually get to the venue first, and successfully find my way in, I can perch at the bar/in a corner/outside the toilets and nonchalantly check Twitter, as if it were the most comfortable place in the world for me to be.

People I know well are used to my insecurities and make the required allowances. With new friends, however, I have little option but to take a deep breath and head into the unknown, lest they think I am anything less than the confident, hilarious and kind-spirited person I spend my days pretending to be.

This act was put to the test last night when I was invited to watch a (new) friend’s son’s band play at a jazz venue in the CBD. The Silver Fox had planned to come with me, but pulled out at the last minute, overcome by exhaustion caused by a month of early starts to watch the football and a fortnight of late nights watching the cycling. Not only would I have to turn up on my own, once I got there I would only know one of the group of eight or so attending.

But of course it was fine. I turned up first, found myself a seat at the bar and ordered a drink. My phone couldn’t get a signal inside so I had no option but to just sit there, people-watching and enjoying the music. It no doubt helped that it was a jazz bar and not a club frequented by drunken 25-year-olds, but still… When the group I was meeting turned up 10 minutes later, I told one of the women about my ‘say yes to everything’ policy, leaving out the detail of the anxiety attacks it causes. She was lovely, praising my positive attitude and congratulating me for stepping out of my comfort zone. And that’s the point. Every time I do something like this I do step out of my comfort zone, and it’s almost invariably worth it. Last night certainly was. If only my heart rate would listen to my head.

Image: Comfort Zone by redfishingboat (Mick O) is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Losing a language

Scots dialect tablematsI read a story on the BBC website recently about people who had lost fluency in their own language. At first the idea seemed ridiculous, particularly as I work with words. Surely I could never forget what they mean, no matter how embedded in another culture I become?

But even although I have spoken English all my life – a few years at night school practising tortured Spanish aside – it did make me wonder if my travels had had an impact on the way I speak.

I grew up in Scotland, but never considered myself to have a particularly strong accent; not did I use a lot of Scots dialect. So the people in my home town might have had accents broad enough to warrant English subtitles on a film set there, but with the naivety of anyone who had never travelled far, I assumed that I’d always be understood. With a mother from the west of Scotland and a father from the east, I’d never developed the intensely localised vocabulary of either community. I was also a bit of a snob, associating true Scots dialect with the working class of which I was most definitely part, but which I was keen to escape. I remember finding a dialect dictionary in the university library and gleefully searching for the words I’d heard my mum use a million times, but which sounded strange on my own, aspiring middle class lips. Continue reading

Catfish – the Australian edition

One of my favourite shows on TV at the moment is Catfish. It’s a documentary series made for MTV about people who met online, but have never met in real life. The show brings them together, which usually involves an interstate road trip, and as you might expect, not everyone is who or what they claim to be online.

On a superficial level I love it because of the handsome and engaging host, Nev Schulman. While other women swoon over rock stars and actors, documentary makers seem to be my thing. You can keep Brad Pitt: I’ll take Louis Theroux any day. But it’s not just Nev’s perfect American teeth and luxuriant chest hair – which seems to make an appearance more often than is strictly necessary for a documentary –  that keep me tuning in. Nor is it his endless optimism and complete lack of cynicism (“Sure! So you told Vanessa that you were a male model with a Lamborghini  and a Calvin Klein contract and you’re actually an 18-year-old girl who lives with her mom in a trailer in Wisconsin. But hey, maybe you can still be friends!”).

Nev Schulman

Nev Schulman, possibly the nicest man on television

No, I watch because I cannot believe that people can build relationships as deep as they claim to have without ever having seen each other. Some talk daily by telephone, all are heavy users of Facebook chat and texting, but despite their love of technology and apparently generous data allowance, none of them have ever had a video chat on Skype. They are prepared to propose marriage, and plan the children they will have together, all on the basis of a voice and some Facebook pictures. Continue reading