Category Archives: January 2012 Posts

Foreign

26 January, 2004, Ealing.  At a formal ceremony in the Town Hall, I shake hands with the mayor as he presents me with a Certificate of Naturalisation – I’m now technically British, though I understand I’ll always be foreign.  

26 January, 2012, Canberra.  In a hire car I tackle the city’s countless roundabouts and visit its political and patriotic landmarks – I’m now a tourist in a place I once knew intimately. 

Through sheer coincidence, the day I officially became a British Citizen was the 26th January … Australia Day.  Precisely eight years later I’m in Canberra.  Nicknamed Legoland, the much maligned national capital has a reputation for being boring and sterile.  It’s populated almost entirely by civil service employees and university students.  Here, in the nineties – before wifi, google or even email – I completed my undergrad degree.

My week has been spent visiting friends and Canberra’s hotspots.  Yesterday, in a contemplative mood, I went to the Australian War Memorial.  A group of Japanese tourists noisily took photographs and were sternly shooshed by the tour guide.  The War Memorial is recognised as a place to be quiet, in acknowledgment and appreciation of the history of the nation, and to reflect on those whose lives were sacrificed to protect it.  The building itself impressively balances grandeur and reverence.

My friend Simon went to the toilet, enabling me to look quietly at the remembrance plaques.  A man next to me struck up a conversation and we briefly chatted about World War II.  After letting me know he was from Queensland, he asked where I was from and a perplexing conversation took place.

Me:  A town called Shepparton, in Victoria.

Him (loudly):  Oh Jeez, I thought you were a bloody Pom!

Me (smiling):  I’ve lived in England for 13 years, but I’m definitely Australian.

Him:  Being Victorian’s bad enough, but ya sound like a bloody Pom!  Ya’ve got one of those fuckin’ annoying accents.

Me (smiling light-heartedly, despite the blatant insult and offensive language)Well I can guarantee you my friends in England definitely think I sound entirely Australian.  Very much so.

Him:  Ya sound like ya’ve got a pole up ya arse.

Hmm.  I know he doesn’t want my opinion of what he sounds like … I say I have to go to the toilet and walk away.

The State of Queensland is in the north of Australia, while the State of Victoria is in the south.  There’s a supposed rivalry between the two; Queenslanders view Victorians as intellectual and pretentious, Victorians view Queenslanders as boorish and parochial.  After all these years, I’ve forgotten these inane perceptions and I’m shocked by the sudden assault.  Poor Simon had to hear my astonished account of the conversation all the way home (presumably in my “fuckin’ annoying accent” ….).

The attack leaves me feeling negative about Australia, but then I remember an incident in London last year.  As I walked along the street in Chiswick, a man stopped his car to ask me for directions.  When I failed to help him, he drove off snarling, “Fucking foreigner”!  Inexplicable hostility happens everywhere.

I wish I wasn’t now also foreign in my native country but, as I sit here in the beautifully imposing National Library of Australia, I’m grateful that during my absence many things have positively changed.  Sixteen years ago I was in this quiet reading room, receiving pitying looks from onlookers as my tempestuous boyfriend screamed at me.  Frantically photocopying books and articles, he had (again) exploded with the stress of an assignment deadline – his mood wasn’t improved when he was physically escorted from the building for disruptive behaviour.  Today, after a lunch I could not have afforded during my university years, I’m here contentedly sipping coffee and using the wifi on my laptop to email friends.  I may not belong in either my adopted or birth country, but my little life is unquestionably better.

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Sweat

A hot summer afternoon, Bendigo.  Sweat drips from my forehead into my right eye, causing it to sting.  The sun beats down, increasing my dizziness.  My lungs burn, my calves ache and I have a stitch.  I’ll permit myself to stop running after one more lap of the block, just one more lap.  I feel faint and I’m angered by my weakness; my pathetic stamina will be punished by an extra two laps.  At a set of traffic lights I allow myself to stop and select some music to spur me on.  In the moment of silence between songs, I hear a man yell, “Good on ya, love”!  He’s leaning with his elbow out of his open car window.  I smile and wave.  I’ve become accustomed to the local cheer squad.

Whenever I jog, people constantly wave and shout words of encouragement.  Each time (and to be fair, it’s not very often) I venture out in my lycra and trainers, cars toot and I hear an array of cheers.

“Keep goin’ love, you can do it”!

“You’re brave in this heat”!

“Good on ya”!

“Keep it up”!

One man even ran a block with me as support (no, no humiliation in that).  As well intentioned as it is, I could do without their enthusiasm.  To enable me to hear and appropriately respond I have to pull out my earphones and my rhythm is interrupted.  The only alternative is to nod, wave and smile … oblivious to what’s actually being said.  No one in London has ever spoken to me when I’ve been running and I’m comfortable with the English practice of avoiding eye contact; with a decidedly un-athletic figure, I prefer to be ignored when I’m bright red, sweating like a bullfrog and extracting a wedgie.

Classes at the local gym are also curiously social.  The women arrive an hour early to chat and then, after an hour’s class, have coffee together.  At the commencement of each class the instructor hands everyone a jelly baby (a “sugar shot for energy”), and often participants bring in surplus home-grown vegetables (today it was cucumbers and tomatoes) so that people can take them home.  However their relaxed approach is not to be mistaken for any lack of determination.  Like a ballerina smiling through a performance while her battle-worn feet are bleeding, their affable front covers a tough (and slightly insane) core.

Australians have a reputation for being easy-going, friendly and encouraging … but they take their exercise seriously.  It hasn’t taken me long to remember why I never quite fitted in here.  Five minutes into each class I’m ‘glowing’ with perspiration.  I don’t know how everyone continues jumping when I can barely breathe.  Thirty minutes into each vigorous workout, the instructor repeats the same tiresome questions.  Smiling, as though her non-stop bouncing is effortless, she shouts, “It’s a bit warm today, isn’t it?  Do you want air?  Do you need air? Nah … I think you can all work a bit harder to deserve air.  The air con can stay off”!  For Christ’s sake, it’s 37 degrees.

On Wednesday I decided to give myself a break from the cheering street people and mad gym crew, and go to the aquatic centre.  I figured lolling about in a swimming pool was marginally better than sitting on the sofa eating party pies and pringles.

I discovered that, in addition to a giant water slide, the aquatic centre has a baby pool, an intermediate pool, and a normal 50metre pool.  My plan was to swim a few laps and then treat myself with a Bubble O’Bill ice-cream at the little café.  I looked at the people in the 50metre pool with sudden dismay; equipped with goggles and professional swimming costumes they were completing laps with an Olympic level of speed and proficiency.  I marched past them in my leopard print ensemble and purple flip flops, as though my intended destination had always been the intermediate pool.  Here a group of special needs children enjoyed a game of water volley ball and I spent a pleasant afternoon splashing about with dozens of elderly people who were supervising their grandchildren.  Finally I’d found my sporting equals – the cast of Cocoon.

Ode to Damian

A chubby eleven-year-old boy sits on a bench at lunchtime in a playground.  The school bully, eight-year-old Danny Adams, approaches and the older boy looks up with dread.  Freckly-faced Danny scares him and Danny thrives on his fear.  Grinning maliciously, Danny punches the boy directly in the face, giving him a bloody nose.  The older boy silently gets up and walks to his bag to get some tissues.  It’s 1986 and Damian’s decade of persecution has begun. 

Overweight and with severe acne, Damian’s teenage years were unenviable.  A sci-fi aficionado who eventually studied computing, he was a stereotypical nerd who could have been the inspiration for The Simpsons’ Comic-Book-Guy.  A close family friend and a few years younger than him, I witnessed his unpopularity; distressed by the persecution he experienced, but there was little I could do to help.  Relentlessly bullied and ostracised, he battled through.

At the bottom of the teen popularity ladder, he couldn’t fall any further.   Interestingly, instead of this social leprosy crippling him, he decided to view it as a freedom.  Though the constant ridicule was deeply upsetting, he was already condemned as an untouchable and therefore had no peers to impress.  Liberated by this, he threw himself into pursuits he enjoyed (drama and other unconventional interests) with fervour, knowing he would be bullied no matter what he did.

In early adulthood Damian’s victimisation continued through a series of poor relationships, as emotionally unstable girls leant on his trustworthy, gentle and open-hearted nature.  Frustratingly, each time he endured the relationship well past the reasonable point of tolerance.  Abandoning eloquence for honesty, he was treated like crap and it pissed me off.

I’ve had a (platonic) soft spot for Damian for thirty years, however recently I’ve developed a real admiration for him.  Through every difficult phase of his life, his attitude was remarkable; he didn’t just grit his teeth and bear the suffering – he smiled and radiated positive warmth.  His kindness is ceaseless and his passion for, well everything, is truly inspiring.  In 2011 he stayed with me in London.  Already exhausted from a European tour, he didn’t stop for a second, pursuing his hobbies with awesome ferocity.

In London for four days, he:

  • Went on the London Eye
  • Visited Shakespeare’s Globe, where he tried desperately (& unsuccessfully) to be allowed on stage
  • Underwent The Doctor Who Experience, where he flew the TARDIS
  • Was strapped to a chair, had a hole drilled in his head and was bled from the wrists at the London Dungeon
  • Wandered around the city searching for Monopoly board places
  • Went to 221B Baker Street (the home of Sherlock Holmes) which he established is actually around 239 …
  • Had his photo taken at King’s Cross station where the Harry Potter trolley is positioned at Platform 9 and ¾ (it was an oversight of JK Rowling’s that Paddington’s platforms 9 and 10 actually have train tracks between them …)
  • Went to two musicals
  • Eyed off a Dalek at the London Film museum
  • Spent a fortune at Forbidden Planet, purchasing Doctor Who memorabilia, signed books, and a Dead Parrot (Monty Python, obviously …)
  • Saw Big Ben, the changing of the guard, and fireworks on Guy Fawkes night

I’m ashamed to say that’s possibly more than I’ve done in the past year.

Damian’s addiction to sci-fi probably best illustrates his inherent nerdiness.  He loves fantasy (preferably urban) and comedy by the likes of Terry Pratchett, Robert Rankin and Neil Gaiman.  He plays World of Warcraft, has a Murloc on his bookshelf , a DeLorean in his bedroom, owns 2000 DVDs and two 2-terabyte drives crammed with TV shows and movies.

From a caterpillar, Damian has become a brilliant butterfly.  He says yes to anything and doesn’t waste a second of life.  He loves acting and has been on the board of three different theatre companies.  One of his life’s highs was directing a Terry Pratchett adaptation of Mort.  His favourite performance role was Orin Scrivello (the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors).  He’s written a novel and has been drawing comics since he was twelve.  Oh and, having lived in Japan, he speaks Japanese.

Approaching forty, Damian’s soon to be married to a lovely, intelligent and attractive woman and I know it’s a cliché to say, but he really does deserve it.  I’m grateful for him and proud to be his friend.  The world needs more Damians.

Afterword

It seems fitting to post this entry on Friday 13th, not only because Damian shares his name with the Antichrist from The Omen (albeit spelt differently), but because the timing of when I wrote it was peculiar.  On Boxing Day, I stopped my dinner midway through because of an irresistible desire to write about Damian.  It’s not uncommon for me to feel compelled to write, but it is uncommon to sacrifice food for it!  An hour later this entry was complete and ready for public viewing later in the year – when Damian was actually engaged and after I’d obtained his permission for publishing (which, incidentally, I have).  Damian phoned me from Melbourne on December 30th (I was in Fiji) to tell me his “big news”!  He had got engaged at 9pm on Boxing Day … half an hour after I wrote this.  I’m not a superstitious person, but I did find that quite a coincidence!

Going native

38 degrees.  10pm.  Humidity 91%.   As I walk up the stairs from the beach to the bar in my sweat-drenched sarong, something lands on my right foot.  I yelp, loudly and embarrassingly, attracting a chorus of laughter.  The resort staff know what’s happened and find it very amusing; a large, ugly frog has hopped onto my foot.  I unstylishly kick it off, lurching it into the air.  From this point I become the butt of jokes, mostly about frog princes.

Okay, so my last post may not have been entirely honest about how perfect my stay in Fiji has been …

When opting for a mountain view room (rather than a beachfront one), I hadn’t anticipated having to climb halfway up the mountain to go to bed, urged on by the locals enthusiastically yelling, “Bula!!  Good exercise, hey”?!  My responding smile and breathless nod betray the “sod off” that my heaving lungs won’t permit me to reply.

In the evening, with limited vision and bare feet, it’s unsettlingly easy to stand on one of the many frogs – a repulsive possibility.  However the frogs are outnumbered by insects and large slimy centipedes (picture worms with legs), and one of the four lizards who cohabit with me got a fright and dropped its tail when I shut the door.  I promptly scooped it up with a tissue and threw it over the balcony (the tail, not the lizard).

But the monstrosity of the tropical creatures pales in comparison to me.  For the first time since I was about twelve, I’ve been growing my body hair to its natural length – legs, eyebrows, underarms … all of it.  To enhance this Amazonian look, I’ve gone without shoes, makeup or washing my (head) hair since setting foot in Fiji; I go native with alarming ease.  As a result of receiving 23 mosquito bites in 48 hours, my perfume is Aerogard, Tropical Strength.  The Islanders will mythologise me as a hideous beast – with luminous white skin, red circle markings and matted hair; its smell repelling all living things.

I’m unquestionably perceived as a Lone-Wolf-Weirdo.  Breakfast is served from 7am – 10am and I spend the entire three hours there, with pineapple, coffee, and my laptop; it’s the only place to receive internet coverage and the only time to be blissfully alone.  People are constantly trying to chat at to me, having identified me as a solo traveller.  I’m external stimuli for holidaying couples (having exhausted their own conversations), an additional friend for groups, and company for other singletons.

The staff have also adopted me.  As I approached the bar last night, the barman briskly walked towards me (running would be an exaggeration, and I’m not one to exaggerate ….) and high-fived me.  I had to clumsily transfer my drink from my right to my left hand to enable it.  He repeated this tonight, but added (no word of a lie), “Smack me baby”!  I am not the sort of person who high-fives and I have no idea of the correct response to, “Smack me baby”!

All that aside, I have had a great time.  In my room I’m naked with reckless abandon (hell, at dusk I stand exposed on my balcony with a glass of wine and watch the rain … fear not, no one can see me).  My ipod’s hooked to a sound dock which means it’s a constant dance party in room 103.  The pool bar’s my home (delaying the evening mountain hike for as long as possible).  For fourteen hours a day I swim, read, sleep, drink and eat.  Live music starts in the evening and I don my rumba and salsa hat (those dance classes finally useful).  I’m hopefully at least slightly more graceful than when I’m kicking frogs off my feet.