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.

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.

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


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

Footy fever

HawksNow that I’m Australian, I have to do Australian things. And that means going to the footy.

AFL is as much a part of life in Melbourne as trams and hipster baristas. If you meet someone new, you can be pretty sure they will ask you who you barrack for (note: never support, always barrack for) early in the conversation. If you don’t have a team you’re considered a bit odd.

So I got myself a team pretty sharpish: Hawthorn FC. Contrary to popular belief, this wasn’t because they win a lot. Nor was it because I find their brown and gold strip particularly attractive (I much prefer Port Adelaide’s black and teal ensemble). No, it was a practical decision. The Silver Fox had sworn allegiance to Hawthorn more than 20 years ago when he saw them play on his first visit to Oz. While he would argue that I am not inclined to follow his advice on much else, he knows his football, so I decided it would be simplest to tell people that I, too, barrack for the Hawks. Continue reading

Welcome to Australia?

Not taken at my ceremony. Picture Glenelg Shire Council.

Not taken at my ceremony. If only I’d lived in Glenelg Shire, I’d have got a plant.

In the four years while I waited to qualify for Australian citizenship, I’d occasionally imagine what my ceremony would be like. I’d read about them – jolly events where the latest batch of immigrants celebrated their newly-earned Aussieness amongst family and friends. I’d heard tales of sausage sizzles and gifts of trees, of handshakes from Mayors and enthusiastic flag-waving.

And even although I told everyone I was really only upgrading my permanent residency to citizenship so that I could vote and choose the appropriate passport for the shortest queue at the airport, I was still a little bit excited about taking the pledge. Continue reading

What’s in a name?

As a British migrant raised on Neighbours, I didn’t anticipate many language issues in Australia. Sure, there would be Aussie slang to deal with and I would have to learn to drop the final two letters from programme, but I reckoned there would be no struggles with pronunciation. Everyone speaks English, right?

Right – except an increasing number of those English speakers have come from somewhere else, and brought with them a fantastic array of names. Prior to my move here, my only real experience of Asian names was the branch of my extended family with the surname Ng. The trouble was, no-one ever said it out loud, so I grew up having no idea how it was pronounced. In the end I learned from US alternative band They Might Be Giants. Continue reading

Becoming Australian

Australian flagIn less than a week the Silver Fox and I will become Australian citizens.

Our Aussie citizenship has been almost five years in the making. First there was the 457 visa that got us to Perth, swiftly followed by an application for permanent residency. A few months, one excruciating English test for the (native English-speaking) Silver Fox and a quick trip to Sri Lanka for activation purposes later and we had PR. Then, just like with Australian health insurance, there was a waiting period: four years before we could apply for citizenship.

Four years is plenty of time to fret about the next stage in the process – the exam.

The citizenship test has almost mythical status among ex-pats here. Rumours abound as to its content. Don Bradman’s batting average features heavily in these rumours, as does an encyclopaedic knowledge of AFL teams. In reality, the knowledge you need to pass is probably far less useful in everyday life. You are quizzed on the various Australian flags, on the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the way government works. More than one Australian friend has told me they would struggle to pass. Continue reading