You vill comply!

SATURDAY

The aqua sky’s cloudless and the chirps of the birds are carried by the gentle breeze.  I casually cycle past a man watering his front lawn, my skin and spirits feel pleasantly warm.  My yellow bike reflects my mood.

Me:  Perfect day for a ride!

Him:  Mmm.  It’d be even more perfect if you were wearing a helmet.

Ugh.  The sun’s gone behind a metaphoric grey cloud.

MONDAY

I cross the road to go for a walk in the park beside the creek.  A car drives past.

Jaywalker”!

I spontaneously laugh.  It feels like a 5-year-old just called me “poo-face”.

Are there people out there who genuinely think jaywalking is a crime so severe that it needs to be policed by civilians?  Really?

Yes must be the answer, since three separate jaywalking vigilantes have reprimanded me in the past year.

WEDNESDAY

I stand at a pedestrian crossing with six others.  There are no cars in sight, and we can see the road for miles.  I want to cross, but I know the rules here.  I can also do without the crime of “jaywalker” being yelled at me twice in a week.

No one moves.  We all stand still, dead still, waiting for the green robot man to tell us we can walk.  Minutes pass in silence, the vacant road glaring in front of us.   Finally the green robot man blinks on, instructing the humanoids who obediently step forward.

FRIDAY

I open a small bottle of wine and cross the road to the creek.

“Excuse me”?

“Yes”?

“Um, you know you’re not allowed to drink on the street”?

Sigh.  Of course you aren’t.

Bike helmets are compulsory in Australia, jaywalking is illegal (and the law is actively enforced), drinking in public is banned, and you cross the street when you’re told to cross the street.

Last year it was proposed that Melbourne becomes a smoke-free city.  No smoking in the entire CBD.  Prohibition in 2014.  Oh and voting’s also compulsory – not voting incurs a $74 fine.

This is a land of laws.

Compliance is everything.

It’s tiring, it’s absurd, and it’s a constant challenge to those who have lived anywhere else.  It’s not the snakes, or the spiders, or the bushfires, or the sharks that’ll get you in Australia.  It’s the rules, the laws, and the cultural mindset.

Like a stint in prison, you have to brace yourself to live here – and the final sentence in this note from one American to another about living in Australia reads like the end of a custodial sentence:   “Those of us from the American south know an unbridled, exceptional amount of freedom and (aside from missing our loved ones), the rules and general rigidity of Australia can seem oppressive.  It wasn’t until my Aussie hubby came here and experienced our freedoms, that he understood why I found it so difficult to adjust in Sydney.  Living in Australia was extremely challenging for me, and it was an experience that made me a stronger, more resilient person.” 

Australia’s refreshingly wide and open land contradicts the human oppression and indoctrination.  A friend who visited Australia last year sent me an email which captured how it’s strikingly restrictive to those who have spent years in more relaxed countries.

“I never thought of the UK as free until I visited Australia. Whenever people have asked about my trip, the dismaying nanny-state rigidity of Australian society is all I’ve been able to talk about.  I couldn’t believe the constant, on-going presumption that various public authorities know best!  The rules and ever-present rigidity of Australia is genuinely amazing.  I’ve never experienced anything like it in any other country”.

Of course, there’s a positive side to the compliance.  The rules mean that we have high quality standards, cleanliness, “good” behaviour and civic order.  These are good things … though they also describe Germany.  I guess it’s a matter of whether you consider the price of those things to be worth it.  I’m not sure I do. I’m okay with a few cycling fatalities if it means all of us can have the wind in our hair.  I’m okay with the occasional smell of smoke if it means we can have the freedom to make our own choices.  I’m okay with a few drunks in the street, if it means I can enjoy a cold glass of wine by the creek on a warm summer evening.  Hell, with any luck, I’ll get a little tipsy and be one of those drunks! (And yes, I realise the risks of drinking by a river.  Yawn).

18 months ago, I had a word approved by the urban dictionary; Convictistan.  It’s used by non-Australians (often New Zealanders) when referring to Australia.  I meant it as a nod to our convict history.  Perhaps it’s not history.  Perhaps we’re all currently inmates in an open prison.

Afterword

In October last year Jeremy Clarkson wrote about Australia in “The Times” …

So I was in a helicopter.  The doors were off, I had a rifle and the pilot was hovering 100ft from the ground so I could shoot a wild pig.  Later we butchered it and over a few beers fed it to his pet crocodile.  This is the all-male, rough-and-tumble image we have of life in Australia.  But it’s wrong …

The following morning, all I wanted was a cigarette and a cup of coffee in the morning sunshine, but down under, this is no longer really possible.

I made the short 300-yard walk from the restaurant to what was billed as the smoking terrace. But a waiter sprinted over to say that the actual smoking terrace was even further away, in a cave by the bins.

And that, yes, he could bring me a coffee, but only in a paper cup.

This is because he’d have to walk past the swimming pool.  Never mind that it was completely fenced off, and accessible through a gate so complicated that only a child could possibly work the latch, there was a chance that he would trip over one of the signs advising visitors that it was 0.2 metres deep, that diving was banned, that no lifeguard was on duty and that the water may contain traces of diarrhoea.

I’m not sure there’s a county on earth where the global perception is as far removed from the reality as Australia.  We see it as a land of spiders and snakes, where you are born drunk and with an ability to barbecue yourself. But it’s not like that at all.

Today the unholy alliance of the nanny state and the trade union movement has created a culture of health and safety so all-consuming that no one is allowed to die, or even fall over. Cigarettes are sold in packets made from the diseased lungs of dead babies, drinking outside is not allowed and there are speed limits on roads where there is literally nothing to hit.  You could have a crash lasting two hours and you’d still be fine.

The last fatality from a spider bite was in 1979, and every single river in the outback is garnished with floats … Australia can keep its ludicrous attitude to health and safety …”

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Cheers

A beautiful sunny afternoon in London.  Standing at the Starbucks counter, I order a black Americano.  The young olive-skinned girl asks my name.

Me: Simone

Her: Shamone?

Me (slowly): Simone

Her: Shemona?

Me (slowly, loudly, clearly): Simone.  S. I. M. O. N. E.

Smiling and nodding, she takes my money and I move forward to wait for my coffee.

In a few minutes the tall male barista passes me my drink.  I look at my name written in black marker on the side of the cup.  “Semen”.

Ugh.  Not once in the past year has my name been spelt correctly on a coffee cup.  And this is the third time I’ve been called Semen.  Seriously, Semen.

Tomorrow I leave London.  A new home and a new job await me in Australia.

My marriage to England has lasted fifteen years.  We’re separating, but I’m not yet filing for divorce.  I’m returning to my mistress, but England will always be in my blood.

I love and loathe both.

London has Monsoon, H&M, M&S food, pubs, quality TV.  And, crucially, my friends.  But it also has the tube, queues, hard water, bad customer service, crowds, and an ingrained culture of inefficiency.

Australia has space, great food, quality cinemas, soft water, open roads, comfort.  And, crucially, my family.  But it also has an obsession with Aussie Rules, upward inflexions, giant spiders, and an absurd preoccupation with both politics and political correctness.

Both nations delight me.  Both nations infuriate me.

One of them knows me as a child, a teenager, a student.  The other as an adult, an employee, a professional.

For now I’ve chosen Australia.  Because sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.  I can’t be sure that they’ll always be glad I came.  But as I sit with my coffee typing this, I’m looking forward to my name being familiar.  I don’t want to drink another cup of hot semen.

Afterword

My last month has been a wondrous whirlwind.  I saw two impressive musicals; “The Book of Mormon” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, and two incredible films; Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” and “This is the End”.

I went to some great restaurants including Sketch where the toilets are giant egg-shaped pods, and Scott’s where Nigella Lawson was choked by her husband (no choking occurred when I visited).

I frequented familiar bars all over the city, as well as a few new ones – including the fantastical Mr Fogg’s in Mayfair where the toilets have a soothingly refined voice reading “Around the World in Eighty Days” (Sketch’s toilets may be striking but Mr Fogg’s gets top toilet marks … and I don’t dish out that loo-rating willy-nilly).

I had a great date with a young city banker (I never thought I’d entertain a toy-boy), and experienced the best sex I’ve had in years (that delicious indulgence was with someone more age-appropriate, and my sincere thanks to him for that particular memory).

I saw my favourite comedian, Daniel Kitson, perform his sagacious show “After the beginning. Before the end”.  And I experienced the hottest summer I’ve ever known in London.  In fact I even spent a sweltering afternoon in a park in Brixton … and can now admit that I quite like the place.  West will always be Best, but I can occasionally dip my toes in the seedier side of town :).

In summary, I had a great finale.

But most importantly, I said my goodbyes. Whether it was breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, afternoon tea, drinks, an email, a text, a whatsapp, a tweet, a movie, a show, a date … or even sex, I said goodbye to everyone.  And I thank all of you for listening to me over the years (my poor, poor colleagues had to listen to so much!). And thanks for making me laugh. I’ll miss you and I’ll see you next summer (yours, not mine … mine starts again in three months: I’ll be a giant freckle by the time you next see me).

Cheers to those I’m saying goodbye to, and those I’m about to greet :).

The elephant in the room – Part 2

My kitchen and bathroom have been re-tiled by a tradesman who was recommended by a neighbour.  He’s a tall, good-looking Polish man and has done an impeccable job; the recommendation was valid. I pay him and go to work.  An hour later I emerge from the tube and my phone beeps with a text message.

It’s Maciek, the guy I’ve just paid. There’s clearly a problem with either the payment or my flat, and I’m anxious as I open the message.

“I think you’re very attractive and was wondering if you would like to go for a drink sometime?”

I smile at the pleasant surprise – there’s nothing wrong with my flat and my attraction to Maciek is mutual.  I happily agree to a date and three days later we meet for a drink.   We have a pleasant evening together, but I decide I don’t want to see him again.

That date was in 2007.

Maciek and I didn’t go out again but he’s continued to contact me every three months … for the past SIX YEARS.  His last message was (verbatim) “Simone, let me know if I should bugger off for good and delete your phone number as I don’t want to be charged with stalking 🙂 I didn’t reply and haven’t heard from him since.

Wednesday 31st July. It’s my final day at work and I open an email from the estate agent dealing with leasing my flat.

“Hi Simone – I visited your flat last Tuesday with Maciek (MW Contracted Building) who said he’s done some tiling and other work for you before. He quoted £1,300 for painting. I also asked him to include replacement of silicone in the kitchen and bathroom. Please let me know if you would like to go ahead.”

The blood drains from my face as three things simultaneously dawn on me.

  1. This is the Maciek who I went out with six years ago who still contacts me
  2. He was IN my flat last Tuesday
  3. When he was in my flat there was a hot pink vibrator perched barefaced in the middle of my bed

Shock turns to amusement. I smile as I email the estate agent asking them to get a second quote.  I don’t want him coming again (no pun intended).

Afterword

Thursday 1st August, 6pm (the day after the email from the estate agent and 10 days since Maciek was in my home). I exit my flat to go to a comedy gig in Battersea.  When I get to the end of the street a car pulls over and the driver winds down his window.  I walk over to him as he clearly wants directions.

In the seconds that I’m talking to this stranger, a van drives past and slows down.  I glance at the licence place.  It’s Maciek’s van.  Ugh.  Between seeing the vibrator on my bed and me leaning over to talk to a guy in a car, I can’t imagine Maciek’s opinion of me is improving.  I just hope my luck soon does.

The elephant in the room – Part 1

“Simone, we have two potential tenants who would like to view your flat today. Is that okay?”

It’s Tuesday 23rd July. I’m at my desk when I receive this email from the estate agent dealing with leasing my flat.  I’ve been out past midnight for four nights in a row, and will be out again tonight.  In exactly two weeks I depart permanently for Australia to start my new job and I’m exhausted. Physically and emotionally.  My farewell tour has been bittersweet, and has taken its toll.

My flat’s cluttered with twenty boxes. Ninety cubic feet of my possessions will be collected on Friday to commence a twelve week journey across the seas.  In addition to the waiting cargo, my uncharacteristically frantic social life has prevented me from maintaining my housekeeping.  It’s all I can do to be showered, dressed and turn up to work or my next leaving do.

I’ve been keeping myself clean and presentable (just), but my home’s suffering.  My neglected flat isn’t ready for unveiling, but I need tenants so I reply.

 “The place is a complete mess, but you’re welcome to let them in while I’m at work.”

I scan my brain for anything of particular embarrassment. My dirty clothes (inclusive of knickers) are safely in the washing machine, so aside from some scattered (clean) clothes, and some dirty dishes in the sink, I’m pretty sure I’ve nothing of which to be ashamed.  Either way, I’ve given them the green-light so it’s too late to worry.

The work day finishes and I enjoy dinner on the South Bank with a friend and ex-colleague. It’s a hot summer evening and the atmosphere along the Thames is buzzing.  Nostalgia and sentimentality flood me.  I’ll miss the familiar silhouettes of St Paul’s, Big Ben and the London Eye.  I’ll miss my friend.

The tube’s crammed and alive with chatter when I complete yet another goodbye and head home at just after 11pm.

With red eyes and a tired head I unlock my front door and enter my bedroom.  I’d made my bed this morning, as I do every day (no matter how busy I am).  As I take off my heels I look at the clean white linen duvet and gasp.

Sitting right in the centre of the bed: my hot pink vibrator.

No way that wasn’t seen . . .

I laugh as I picture the estate agent and prospective tenants entering the room, locking eyes on the brazen phallus but desperately babbling about anything else “ … So plenty of wardrobe space, nice big window …” and moving rapidly to the next room.

They say you should never leave home without clean underwear. You should also never leave home without putting your sex toys back in the bedside drawer.  Lesson learned.

Virus

A warm April evening, Albury.   I lie in bed, my stomach churning.  I need to throw up, but I’m next to Mum and David’s room and I’ll wake them if I rise.  For half an hour I fight the nausea but it’s a futile battle.  I head to the toilet.  I’ve never used this bathroom, and I can’t find the light switch.  In the dark, I kneel over the bowl and vomit, sweating and shaking.   Mum quietly emerges, switching on the light “Can I do anything for you?” I look up from the floor “Could you please just bring a bucket to my room?”

My mother has visitors so that afternoon I’d moved my belongings from the guest room to the room her grandchildren (my nieces) sleep in when they stay.   The last time I was this sick was when I was visiting last year.  For three days I hibernated in the guest room – where I thankfully had a large bed and an ensuite.  Tonight I crawl under Dora the Explorer sheets on a single trundle bed on the floor.  I reach for my iPhone to check the time, and my hand hits a large plastic fairy castle.  The street light shines through the Tinker Bell curtains.  In stark contrast to my sickness, cheerful toys fill the room.

The virus children with their germ-infested hands all over me ...

The virus children with their germ-infested hands all over me …

An hour passes.  I heave into the rectangular yellow bucket.  I should get up and empty it, but I don’t.  I can’t.  Another hour passes and I fill the bucket further.  My hair hangs down, covered in vomit.  Two hours later I wake; this time I need the toilet.  Diarrhoea is joining the party.

If I was in my usual room, the guest room, I could stumble to the ensuite.  Groan and heave privately in all my naked glory.  But tonight I have to cross the hallway and use the main bathroom.  Clothes are needed.  My mother will be spared the visual battering of me giving up on dignity, and giving in to the power of a viral assault.  Her guests will certainly be spared.

I put some clothes on my sticky body.  The items are possibly on backwards and probably inside out.  With bra-less glamour I greet the toilet.  Eventually I return to my room …

The stench I’d left the toilet in is rivalled by the smell that hits me when I open the bedroom door; the bucket of vomit has its own life-force.  Unbeknown to me, my ninja-quiet mother is in the doorway right behind me.  I have no doubt she heard the recent toilet activity.  She wants to help “Can I get you anything?” “No, but could you please empty my bucket?” (Somehow throwing up in it so often has suddenly made it “my” bucket).

Without saying anything she takes the offensive bucket, and I hear her rinsing and washing it repeatedly.  She places it next to me and leaves, closing the door.  She knows I need to fight this battle alone.

My drug-pushing father, demanding my company

My drug-pushing father, demanding my company

Morning comes and I hear sounds from the kitchen.  I call to my mother.

Me:  Have Audrey and Phil gone? (I’m not emerging unless they have).

Mum:  Yes, they left an hour ago.  How are you feeling?

Me:  I’ve been better.  Can you please ring Penny and let her know that I won’t be able to make it to Emily’s school assembly today?  Tell her I’m really sorry, but I just can’t.

Emily gave me this virus, Eliza gave me the one last year.   Ordinarily I could eat a rotten ferret without getting sick, but my nieces have the ability to infect me with unearthly illness.  I’ve recently realised why sweet little girls are always so creepy in horror movies: they carry invisible plagues.

Afterword

That same day, my father was driving to see me for the first time since my arrival.  He was first turned away, as I was sleeping, so he visited my sister for a few hours until he was informed I was awake.

When he arrived, he entered my room, laughed and threw a plastic bag at me “I don’t care if you’re dying! It’s bloody typical of you to ruin my trip! Anyway, I’ve been to the chemist and got you stuff.  Take them all so we can go out for lunch tomorrow.  I don’t want you being sick and boring the whole time I’m here”.

It’s fair to say my mother and father have very different nursing styles.