Tag Archives: Canberra

Trains, planes and buses

Some of you have been asking about my trips and I apologise if I’ve not provided enough detail.  I confess that I find listening to the travels of others criminally dull, though I’ve always thought this was a universal feeling and that we pretend to be interested to conform to social etiquette. When I was part of the online dating world I dismissed profiles that included gushing prose about travelling through fear of a boring first date.  I’m not saying travelling itself is dull … but hearing about it is.

I also find writing about travelling tedious, so I’m trying to keep it to a minimum.  In a nutshell, I’ve been trooping all over the country since I arrived, visiting old friends and being introduced to new ones.  In fact, not counting the 10,500 mile flight to get here, I’ve covered 12,000 miles in three months.  My next big trip is to China.  If anything monumental happens I’ll let you know!

Anyway, all that said, I will provide the details of one particular travelling experience in today’s post … (hypocrisy, thy name is Simone).

“Trains, planes and buses”

Jolimont Station, Canberra.  The bus arrives from Sydney and collects the Canberra load to continue through to Melbourne, though I’ll be alighting in Albury.  The driver who’s driven the leg from Sydney hands-over to the next driver, filling him in about the passengers and various stop-off points.  It’s peculiar to see that the new driver’s flustered and confused by the information.  He’s unnervingly jumpy as I hand over my bag.  His eyes dart erratically from his clipboard, to my bag and to the bus as he tells me I’m in seat 13B.

I discover that 13B is at the very back, within touching distance of the toilet which reeks of urine.  As I take my window-seat, a passenger curtly informs me that this seat has already been allocated to her and I’m to take the aisle seat.  It transpires that approximately ten seats have been double-booked by the driver and I begin to doubt his competence.

My faith is further reduced when we stall twice while exiting the bus-bay.  The driver responds to our groans. “Sorry! Sorry everyone! I don’t know what’s going on here. I’ll have it going in a sec”.  Silently we sit while he clumsily turns the engine and jolts the bus forward.  We kangaroo-hop and stall again.  Within fifteen minutes, before we’re even out of Canberra, we’ve stalled eight times – including in the middle of a roundabout and an intersection.  The nervous passengers murmur that the bus didn’t stall once on the journey from Sydney to Canberra which means the problem lies with the new driver, not the vehicle.  There’s a distinct edginess to the atmosphere.

We enter Wagga and stop on a steep hill at a set of traffic lights.  The lights turn green … and the bus stalls.  It stalls again.  And again. It stalls seven times, each time rolling further back down the hill to the nervous gasps from the passengers.  The tension is palpable. The cars behind the bus have to reverse and move out of the way.  Finally someone cracks.

Man (shouting):  Open the doors!

From my position at the back of the bus, I can’t hear the driver’s response.

Man (shouting, more aggressively):  Open the fuckin’ doors, and let me off!!

The doors open and the man leaves, shouting a lot of obscenities on his way.  The remaining passengers (including me) cast worried looks at each other; we’re still on the hill at the traffic lights, though we’ve rolled back quite a distance.  I consider getting a hotel room for the night and another bus tomorrow, but get distracted when I see the driver get a man from the street to start the bus for him!  To understand what’s happening I move to a seat behind the driver who babbles frantically to those near him.  Whenever the bus starts he has to keep moving in third gear as he’s unable to get into first or second.  He’s clearly mentally unstable (drugs?) and refuses to contact his Head Office because he’s only been in the job for three weeks.

The passengers out of earshot have no idea what’s going on and are becoming increasingly irate.  The driver’s so nervous he can barely function and, to my horror, hands me his microphone.

Driver:  Do me a favour and let them know what’s going on, will ya love? I need to concentrate on what I’m doing.

I reject the microphone but stand in the middle of the aisle like a tour guide and, with embarrassment, explain the situation with the gears and that we’ll get help when we reach Albury.  I can’t quite believe this is happening and I’m desperate for the journey to end.

For the remaining stress-filled two hours the driver (“Tony”) asks me which turn-offs to take because I’m “familiar with the route” (I was – seventeen years ago!).  As we finally pull into the bus depot, he compliments me and asks for my phone number – making it one of the strangest bus trips of my life.  I tell Tony that my British mobile doesn’t work here.  Of course he’s seen me texting for the entire journey, but I’m too frazzled to care.


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.