Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Soft and Strong

Today I happened to be in the household aisle of the supermarket - a cornucopia of domesticity which I visit with alarming frequency. I swept down it with my trolley, confidently plucking my soft and strong, pure white, 2-ply loo roll from the shelf. The woman nearest me must have noticed my omniscient approach to the range of lavatorial goods the supermarket offered because she stopped me in my tracks and asked if I recommended that particular brand. I was momentarily taken aback, not yet fully accustomed to antipodean familiarity, despite having lived in Australia for 18 months. I mumbled something in the affirmative, hoping to move on quickly to the laundry detergent shelf but she pressed me for details. Was it very thick? I stopped. Clearly this was going to take some time.

"Yes", I replied, casting my mind back to the last time I had used it, but reluctant to expand on the subject further with a complete stranger.

"Because I don't want it too thick - my toilet blocks very easily," she added. Reeling slightly from the image that statement conjured up, I hastily assured her that it was just right - being not as thick as the quilted and embossed luxury brand to our right, but thicker and therefore more effective than the thin and papery recycled brand to our left (though less environmentally-friendly, it has to be said).

After a bit more reassurance, I eventually left her looking at them all, stroking her chin in thought. I hope she was happy with her decision.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Shopping centre tragedy

Every so often we are given a very sombre reminder of death. Usually we just see it through the windows of our television screens and another person murdered or killed in a car crash is another headline on the news. Last week, I arrived at our local shopping centre (where I go nearly every day) to find that someone had just committed suicide by jumping off the balcony on the fifth floor). Apparently some poor person had tried to talk him out of it and it was a good twenty minutes before he jumped, which gave police time to erect a tent, but hundreds of people witnessed what happened and no doubt are extremely traumatised as a result. It left me feeling physically sick and cross-examining in my mind how someone could be so desperate to end their life that they would do it in a shopping centre full of people on a Wednesday afternoon. My sympathy turned to anger at what cafe waiters, check out girls and shoppers (not to mention any children) will have to live with for the rest of their lives. I am aware of the sensitivity of such an issue but the selfishness of suicide, especially in such a public place, has left me reeling.
However, these emotions do not even compare with what I felt when I discovered people were filming this desperate act and subsequently posting their footage on You Tube. Gross indecency of the very worst kind - that we have supposedly become so immune to death that it merely serves to provide entertainment of the sickest, most depraved sort. It was not a day I wished to remember.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Red tape

Australia gives off this wonderful attitude of being a really easy country to live in - the people are friendly, the weather is great, everything is pretty relaxed. Not so. When it comes to bureaucracy and red tape they'd give the Swiss a run for their money. Last week I lost my bank card - an inconvenience at the best of times. It was duly replaced but instead of being able to change my PIN at an ATM, I had to go in to the bank to do so, producing at least two forms of identification in the process. The teller had to print off a form for me to sign, confirming this change but the printer wasn't working so I sat there waiting, fury mounting at the precious time being wasted. However, as Australia' financial regulations are some of the strictest in the world and therefore the safest, I was prepared to accept such stringent measures, especially when the teller saw my exasperation and waived the need to sign the form.
Not so at the Post Office. Now, I don't know about you, but I have always found post offices to be the last true outposts of officialdom. The tellers always wield a certain power, smug in the knowledge that you not only have to use them to send your important parcels, but to certify your passport applications, witness documents or transfer money. They are virtually omniscient. When I attempt to send a CD of wedding photos overseas, there is thinly-veiled glee in the teller's voice as she tells me it requires a customs check and I will need to provide -yes you've guessed it - two forms of ID in order to send this potentially subversive material. More form-filling, signatures and an official scrutiny of driving licences, marriage certificates, birth certificates and passports (well, almost) and I am free to post my explosive package.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Supermarket Guilt

In Australia, as in England, I have always found supermarket shopping to be an exhausting and mind-numbing experience, invariably due to the multitude of choice and the ethics of shopping to which one is supposed to subscribe, which do not change from London to Sydney.  This indecisive maze I find myself in usually begins in the fruit and vegetable section – an area particularly fraught with moral dilemmas.  For a start, I know I shouldn’t even be there. I should be waiting serenely at home for my box of organic, crunchy fruit and crooked, earthy vegetables - picked that morning by an apple-cheeked farmer in Kangaroo Valley and delivered by horse-drawn cart (or white van) to my door.  But as usual I’ve not got around to setting this up online and the supermarket’s four-day old lacklustre fare will have to suffice. Though at least in Australia they have a large selection of exotics such as dragon fruit, which adds a temporary frisson to the experience.

Rummaging around the sweet potatoes (low GI, healthier than white), I look for those with a manageable, rounded shape – easier to peel and chop than the wonky ones.  After a momentary pause to reflect on the fact that life has become so busy that one has to pick a vegetable whose ergonomic shape might shave valuable seconds off its preparation time, I move on to the halves of shrink-wrapped butternut squash in order to add some more plastic to the landfill. Small wonder that environmental change cannot be brought about in supermarkets when consumers like me are about.

Staving off this guilt, I move from aisle to aisle, weighing up the sugar content of various breakfast cereals, assessing the positive aspects of wholemeal versus multigrain and ending up in the household aisle, where my conscience is caught in a tussle between eco-green cleaning materials (somewhat ineffective but morally superior) and old-fashioned, bleach-based liquids that will remove anything from biro to blood (invaluable with small children).

Wearily I traipse to the check-out, only to remember that I’ve not brought my own shopping bags and will have to bring home another mound of plastic. This criminal act of environmental recklessness is further exacerbated by the till operator’s insistence on placing solitary items such as milk in their own bags. Apparently they can’t run the risk of placing more than one inside - in case the bag bursts, milk sprays everywhere and they are sued for negligent packing.  Still, at least they pack for you here.

Once I am home, I promise myself that next time I will order my fruit and vegetables online, that I will take my own bags to the shops and that I will set myself a maximum time in which to race round the aisles, making swift, decisive choices.  But it never happens.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Playground Politics

Playgrounds are always playgrounds - and no matter where you are in the world, the politics that prevail are always the same. Living in London meant queuing for the swings, demand always being greater than supply. In true British fashion we stood patiently waiting our turn, trying not to look annoyed when one parent pushed a little longer than was politely acceptable, and shushing impatient children desperate for their turn. This sense of order was rudely disrupted for me one day when, next in the queue and waiting my turn, a child (heaven forbid) shot out of nowhere and grabbed the next available swing before me. I looked round for the parent, expecting them to appear and perform the smiling-through-clenched-teeth "You must wait your turn darling" ritual, but no one came. I was thus faced with the dilemma of ousting the child (not a popular choice, given the determination with which he bore down on the swing) or waiting another ten minutes with my son wriggling in my arms. In the end, swing etiquette prevailed and I deferred to the queue-jumper.

In Australia, as everywhere, mothers and fathers are particularly keen to demonstrate their honed parenting skills and an aptitude for peacekeeping more suited to a United Nations summit. As soon as one child grabs another’s toy, both mothers descend on the warring parties, determined that each should benefit from a moral lesson on the issue of sharing and taking by force what is not one’s own. However, the social and emotional development of a toddler is not advanced enough yet to grasp the concept – which is why they all go round the playground in a state of autonomy, blissfully unaware of any underlying protocol, while their mothers hover like wasps, ready to pounce at the first sign of social injustice.

Rather like the United Nations, come to think of it. Third world government ruled by despotic madman, totally unaware of any democratic imbalance, first world country hovers to see how the situation affects its own and then dives in, moral guns blazing. One would hope that said despotic madman would have enough cognitive awareness by now of right and wrong but history points to the contrary. When it comes down to it, we are all living in one vast global playground.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day Discounts

Today is Mother's Day in Australia. Now, my family have never really acknowledged Mother's Day, Father's Day or any parental celebration of that ilk, but we would be hard-pressed to ignore such a media-fuelled frenzy in Australia.  Weeks before, radio advertisements broadcast suggestions for what to do on the day and of course the ideal Mother's Day present - a gift certificate from Woolworths (ubiquitous "good value" supermarket), the Big W (discount department store, whose motto is "live big for less") and Dick Smith (electronics).  Now, I am not saying it isn't every woman's dream to be given the freedom of choice between grocery supplies, discounted homewares and computer gadgetry, but still...one has to draw the line somewhere. Luckily, my children (husband) know me better than that and after the customary card-giving and, "here's what I (teacher) made at preschool", I was presented with a cup of tea and an English newspaper - heaven!  And then taken out for what Australians really excel at - breakfast.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Sanctimony, hospitals and where is winter?

When did we become so openly self-righteous? Last week I passed a car proudly bearing the bumper sticker, "Drive safely, I'm a blood donor - you might need me", or something equally sanctimonious.  Resisting the urge to ram the car from behind, I marvelled instead at how someone could be so publicly pharisaical about their role in saving lives when, behind the scenes, in neon-strip-lit hospital wards, doctors and nurses are working day and night to save lives, through diligence and hard work. 
Though it must be said, there are times when I wonder if the government's money is not better spent. We took my son into the Emergency department last night after he gashed his forehead on the bath. He was attended to by not one, not two, but three members of the hospital staff, in addition to my husband and me. A doctor, a nurse and a play therapist. Yes, one of those endlessly cheerfully-dispositioned women who waves toys in the child's face to distract him from the administrations of the doctor. 
Whilst I understand entirely the role they play for emergency cases (and more importantly, for children without parental support), I do believe that for minor cuts and bruises, the toy-waver can be relieved and sent to do something more productive, like make the coffee to keep everyone alert. But it seemed rude to suggest this, so we gritted our teeth and laughed as she made acutely perceptive observations about the helicopter on my son's shirt.
Winter is here, and to herald it's arrival Sydneysiders have donned trousers, jumpers and scarves - all this despite the average daily temperature being a balmy 23 degrees.  We must be the only people walking around still in shorts and t-shirts, but they are determined the season has changed and it seems futile to point out that in England this would be like midsummer.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On the Road

A recent road trip up north has exposed some some particularly Australian idiosyncrasies. Though it's not the subtlest of nations, we were nevertheless surprised by some of the more unsavoury characters we encountered on our journey. Stop for petrol at midnight in insalubrious Kempsey and you might have any number of "ocker" Aussies ogling porn magazines over the ice-cream freezer. Bare-footed fisherman smoke cigarettes on the garage forecourt before collecting their bait and journeying on. Drunks weave out in to the road before disappearing off in to the mist. It's not somewhere you want to linger. 
The lack of subtlety in Australia is manifested in its hard-hitting and direct road safety billboards. "Don't Die for a Deadline"and "Drinking Kills Driving Skills" hammer home their message, while gentler signs show you the way down "Bald Knob Road" to "Sandy Beach". When they want to describe something, they don't mince their words.
But they look after you too - there are frequent "driver revivers" where you can stop for free cups of coffee, a welcome relief for long distance lorry drivers (and of course somewhere else they can digest their porn magazines).   And it's not just humans who benefit from this milk of government kindness. There are frequent wildlife crossings on the major freeways, from overhead wire climbing structures - potentially lethal should a koala fall in to the path of a heavy duty truck travelling 120km an hour, but otherwise a useful option if the gum trees on the other side look a little tastier - to properly constructed bridges.  Indeed the Coffs Coast Advocate is pleased to report that, "The Roads and Traffic Authority estimates there have been as many as 250 animal crossings over highway structures on the Mid North Coast." Perhaps they could investigate domestic crossings for chickens next - and kill two birds with one stone.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A nation apart?

There is a sense, in Australia, of being disjointed from the rest of the world. Geographically it's miles apart but one also feels socially and culturally isolated. It's as if the rest of the world - all the big players at least - are having a party, and you're just on the landing listening and picking up snatches of conversation. 
The media here doesn't help. On the whole news is parochial. At best, anything global tends to be gleaned from other papers or feels second-hand. It leaves one feeling marginally unable to take the country seriously. Yet when the global financial crisis hit, Australia was laughing, safe in the knowledge it was relatively protected by stringent regulatory measures.
Indeed it is a nanny state on the border of obsession when it comes to bureaucracy and safety. These rules and regulations juxtapose with a country that in many parts is wild and untamed, host to several of the world's most poisonous species and long-time sufferer of flooding, bush fires and extreme temperatures. Maybe Australians need their rules in order to make themselves feel safe. Or perhaps they just have the tiniest - micro if you will - chip on their shoulders and this is their way of tasting a bit of power?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas thoughts

Sydney is very transient city, despite being at the end of the line, as it were. So many people come here for work, or simply to experience the great Australian lifestyle, at the same time as having every city amenity on one's doorstep. There aren't many cities where you can be on the beach one minute, splashing about in turquoise blue Mediterranean waters, and twenty minutes later be rubbing shoulders with crowds in places like Chinatown or Oxford Street. 
You would expect a city that is so transient to be well-equipped for expats, but unlike the Asian cities of Singapore or Hong Kong, which are geared towards an expatriate lifestyle and have ready-made communities to join, Sydney is has such a wide diaspora of people it is far harder to make like-minded friends and Australians can be quite insular in sticking to their own.
Christmas, on the other hand, appears to be the same the world over. Throngs of people wending their way through shopping malls wearily buying in to today's consumerist religion. It has been said a thousand times before, but it is so easy to lose sight of Christmas and the religious aspect that it represents, when faced with unashamed commercialism. However, even for those who have a secular outlook on the festivities, the key is to remain true to traditions and above all to celebrate family, friends and, ultimately I suppose, love. Happy Christmas.