Category Archives: May 2012 Posts

Fire alarm

BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!  The high-pitched smoke detector screeches loudly and I rush from the bathroom to the kitchenette of my hotel room.  The building will be evacuated if I don’t quickly stop the cause of the noise and I simply cannot have that happen.  Urgently I switch the toaster off, grab a chair and stand on it to reach the alarm.  With a towel wrapped around me I stretch up and press the silent button.  With my arms extended to the ceiling my towel falls to the floor.  At that exact moment the door to my room opens. 

Me:  Jesus! Shit!  (I drop to a crouch on the chair, in a sort of naked Terminator pose).

The hotel manager:  Christ, I’m sorry!  (He pauses for a moment, clearly searching for the words to justify his intrusion).  I’m just here to investigate a fire.

I look at him over my bare shoulder in a room now so quiet you could hear a pin drop.  His eyes are bolted steadfastly on my face as he slowly processes the situation.     

It’s Tuesday morning at the Four-Trees Apartments in St Kilda Road, Melbourne.  Minutes earlier I’d showered and carved a piece of the delicious fruit loaf I’d purchased at Prahran Market the previous day.  I’d popped the toaster down and returned to the bathroom to comb my wet hair; I was really looking forward to a thick piece of buttery toast with apricots and dates coated in sesame seeds.  Now I’m frozen to the chair as cold water from my hair trickles down my back:  a plump and self-conscious drenched albino rat.

The young hotel manager finally overcomes his stunned embarrassment and looks away.  I unsuccessfully try to break the uneasy silence by desperately babbling.

Me:  It’s okay, it was just some toast.  It didn’t even burn.  The smoke detector must be overly sensitive.  I’ve stopped it now.  There’s no fire.

The hotel manager:  Oh good.  Okay.  Um, I still need to check the area and re-set the alarm …. Sorry.  I just can’t leave the area without making sure.

Jesus Christ, seriously?

The awkward atmosphere continues as he turns and faces the door to give me much overdue privacy.  I get off the chair with as much self-assurance as I can muster, pick up the towel and wrap it back around me.  In a weak attempt to reduce the discomfort I switch the TV on, purely for some noise, and head to the bathroom to dress.

I hear him bustle around the room making the necessary checks and he leaves with an excessively loud, “Okay that’s all sorted!  Let me know if you need anything else”!  I call out thanks, knowing that I’ll be avoiding him for the remainder of my stay.  The air conditioning doesn’t work, the safe doesn’t lock and the Wifi keeps cutting out, all unacceptable in a five-star hotel, but I’ll put up with the flaws for the next two days.  Certain he’ll tell his staff about this incident, I’ll do my best to keep a low profile until I check-out.  Sigh.  Causing an evacuation would have been less embarrassing.  Admittedly, supervising the toasting bread in the first instance would have been the best approach … well my lesson has been sharply learnt through good old-fashioned humiliation.

Dancing with Dan

Thursday, 5:30am, Harold Mair Hill, Albury.  The stars are still glittering as I’m skipping like a five-year-old to Chiddy Bang’s Remix of “Ray Charles”, throwing in a few flamboyant moves when the music calls for it.  The song ends as I reach the top of the hill and I accompany the finale with what’s best described as a right-hip-thrust with a pivot-turn.  Thinking I’m alone in the pre-dawn dark, I look up to see that a man my age is almost directly in front of me and smiling.  I know I’m supposed to be embarrassed by my ridiculous bopping, but I’m not; I can’t be embarrassed when I’m enveloped in my iPod cocoon.  I return the smile but as we make eye-contact I quickly look away in panic; I know this man and I don’t want him to recognise me. 

I have just seen Dan Firth for the first time since I was fifteen.  Dan contacted me last year through Facebook – I’d not heard from him in almost twenty years.  He lives in Albury so there was a reasonable chance I was going to see him, but there’s a distinct irony that it happened as I was immersed in a theatrical dance.

Me looking overly dramatic for my Year 10 Formal (in my defence, Mum asked me not to smile and look straight ahead so she could “just get a photo of your hair”).

Dan was a boy at school I’d never noticed until we started compulsory dance lessons for our Year 10 Formal.  Over a hundred of us had to learn a variety of dances from the waltz to the quickstep every week for months before the event.  I’ve never enjoyed dancing as much with a partner as I did with Dan.  His dancing skills were incredible, and especially so when you realise how appallingly sixteen-year-old boys tend to dance.  I spent every two-hour class excitedly anticipating my turn with Dan.  He wore a slightly different maroon jumper to the other boys, so from the corner of my eye, I could always see where he was in the outer circle of boys fox-trotting my way.

After what felt like ages, Dan’s right hand was around my waist and he was gripping me tightly, pressing me against him with force.  Relief flooded over me, now I was dancing.  For about ten minutes we moved fluidly in time to the music before we moved to our next partners and my toes were stepped on as I was jostled about awkwardly by boy after boy.  The ten minutes with Dan were easily worth any bruised toes.

One afternoon our dance instructor, Mr Anderson, gathered us for an announcement.

Mr Anderson:  Today I want you all to continue practicing the dances you’ve learnt with Mrs Brunton before we move onto something else.  Dan and Simone will you please come with me.

Slightly confused, I looked at Dan but his face looked as clueless as mine as we followed Mr Anderson to the corner of the school hall.

Mr Anderson:  Okay from now on I’m going to get you to demonstrate the dances for the others, and today I’m going to teach you a basic tango.   

I was elated – we were to be permanent dancing partners!  That definitely offset the embarrassment of performing in front of the other students.  Dan pulled me in as close to him as always, his posture straight and his grip firm; I followed his perfect physical commands unquestioningly.  Man, could he lead.  For the next few weeks we danced together.  Although we never really spoke, I cherished those hours.  A week before the Year 10 Formal he didn’t come to school – rumours surrounded his disappearance.  Was he expelled?  Had his parents divorced and he’d suddenly moved?  It turned out he’d joined the military.  A fact I only discovered last year.

I’m hoping I looked away quickly enough yesterday and won’t be receiving a Facebook message from Dan in the next few days.  I still love dancing as much as I ever did, but I don’t think the thirty-five year-old-dancing Simone can match up to the fifteen-year-old one.


“When you’re in China, you’ll see a lot of poo.  You’ll see poo everywhere.  You will hear people say poo and you will see sooo much poo –and most of the poo will be here in Shanghai!”    

The Great Wall of China (& me!)

I struggle to contain my smile at the enthusiastic first words we hear from our tour guide “Jessica” following her initial greeting.  She quickly reveals her real name is Ting Ting which instantly reminds me of the Little Britain character “Ting Tong”.   My smile widens; I’ve clearly not matured during this sabbatical. 

After two flights and sixteen hours, we’ve arrived in Shanghai, the first city in our itinerary.   Jessica, holding her “Wendy Wu” flag, meets all thirteen tour participants and swiftly shepherds us onto our bus.

Chinese toilet

A Chinese toilet (& there was something distinctly wrong about taking a photo of it)

We eye each other curiously, but there’s no time for introductions as she launches into a well-rehearsed lesson concerning the history of her country.  I listen for a minute but tune out for the following hour, a pattern I’ll follow for the duration of the trip.

My anxieties about the Chinese toilets are foremost in my mind so my ears prick up at the mention of poo.   I’ve heard the horror stories and I’m nervous.  Thankfully it turns out I can squat like a monkey, though that doesn’t compensate for seeing and smelling things in cubicles that I hope time will erase (and no, these sights and smells were not of my doing).

Jessica was of course referring to Pu which means river.  Huangpu is the river in Shanghai, and there’s Pudong, and Yangpu and Lu-Pu and Nanpu …. (“so much pu in China!”).  Her intense excitement towards the Chinese language and its connection to locations is entirely serious – she clearly has no idea what poo/pu can mean in English and I think about letting her know but stay silent; the group don’t know me yet and I’ve plenty of time to get myself a reputation as the annoying one.

A friendly local

China’s toilets were not the only thing that toyed with my emotions.  My ego was frequently flattered and swiftly insulted by the people.  I was grabbed, literally, for photos of my “beautiful” eyes – despite them being permanently gritty and red from the incredible pollution.  When it rained a layer of dust landed on my jacket and my nose was always blocked with dirt and blood; it was impossible to forget that I was in the world’s factory.

“Jessica/Ting Ting”, Mum, David & a panda

These compliments were balanced by every shopping trip; walking down bazaars, market sellers yelled out, “We have big size for you! Come, you look, we fit you!” Sigh.

Jessica tells us of the “demure and shy local Chinese girls” while next to her a group loudly and aggressively screech at each other about the best price for a dress.  With an overwhelming population and a constant fight to make money, modern China isn’t a tactful or polite place.  People shout and push through daily life.  As with many places, the way to be enchanted by a country is to focus on its past; the history rather than the current reality.

China’s appeal is in the astonishing palaces built by the dynasties and the beautiful art created thousands of years ago.  I was fleetingly thrilled at the temples and statues that reminded me so much of the dubbed seventies tv programme, Monkey (Pigsy, Sandy, Tripitaka – you’re not forgotten).  Granted it’s not ancient Chinese history, but modern pop culture is not to be sniffed at – see which earns you more points at your next pub quiz.

So I dealt with the toilets, the pollution and the relentless aggression that comes with a giant population.  However the biggest obstacle was coping with the intimacy of the tour group, specifically eating lunch, and dinner, every single day with the same people for twenty-one days.

One of many English-challenged (& challenging) signs

That’s forty-two meals and approximately sixty hours; the equivalent of sitting round a table with the same people for an entire working week.  Was I the annoying one in the group?  It was difficult to tell, though they say that if you don’t know who it was then it was probably you …

The gruelling lunches and dinners were interspersed with our travels.

China’s a huge country and we covered it, travelling by planes, overnight trains, buses and boats.  We journeyed from Shanghai to Beijing, Xian, Guilin, Kunming, and Lijiang.

The Terracotta Warriors (& me, again)

We saw the natural beauty of the mountains, rivers and gorges.  We experienced the cultural differences of the fifty-six ethnic groups in the North, South, East and West.   We witnessed the monumental history of Tiananmen Square,the Terracotta Warriors and of course the Great Wall of China (you’re allegedly a man when you’ve walked on the Great Wall of China so I may be growing chest hair soon).

China’s history is impressive, its environment imposing and its population mind-boggling.  It kept me interested and intrigued during my time there, but I’m more than happy to be back on Australian soil.