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Australia Days 11.5-14 (Wed 19th-Sat 22nd)

And after all the structured travel, Melbourne was just for dicking around. We saw a lot of Jen's friends there - Shiona took us to a noodles and a horrific hipster bar* on the 19th, and Helen to a mad scientist 'themed' cocktail bar** on the 20th. In both cases they provided what I remembered as an authentic Melbourne experience - our guide got lost trying to find our destination down the impressive back-alleys of central Melbourne.

On the Friday we had lunch with the wedding couple - it was lovely to meet them in more relaxed circumstances, and the lunch ran on a bit longer partly because the weather turned to heavy rain. We went out that night anyway - not far, just to a place that had caught Jen's eye called Hercules Morse, the name of a dog from a kid's book she used to love. It was a lovely restaurant, and we'd dressed up a bit as this was the last proper night out. Food and drink and cocktails were all excellent, and it's left a lovely memory.

I'd been feeling a little unwell over some of the holiday - the familiar pain in my left side that suggests that I've been overeating and my liver is paying the price. I'd tried not to overindulge, but it kept nagging.

We were staying in a lovely Airbnb for this last part, a converted warehouse with underfloor heating. There was an occasional ant but generally it was lovely.

Which both lead to Saturday, when the first thing we noticed on waking was a long line of ants from the bathroom across the wooden floor to a locked cupboard (or rather two lines, as there was traffic in both directions). We got the owner who cleared them out and pointed out that their source and destination wasn't as important as the fact that they were attracted to two small pools of red near the sink.

Which is the point that I realised that the lovely dilute drink that I'd been keeping myself hydrated with wasn't, as all of them are in the UK, sugar-free. Which explains both problems.

Anyway, we stayed in that evening and canoodled in front of Clash of the Titans (the newer, terrible one with Mads Mikkelsen as Rio Ferdinand) and then it was up and back to England, where someone had turned the sun down in our absence.

Cultural differences of Terra Australis:
  • Top sheets - these were a thing when I was growing up in Ireland, but I've entirely done away with them since coming over here, and it was nice to be back in their genteel embrace. In the UK they seem to be not just not a thing, but not any kind of thing - in conversation with ultraruby yesterday she seemed confused about what one was (okay, I didn't help by just calling it a sheet) until she remembered that they happened in a bed herself and Iain had seen on the US roadtrip. There's an article in GQ making the case for them, I won't press it, I'll just quote "Not only do top sheets separate us from our duvets, they separate us from the animals."
  • Shiny money - I know the UK has recently got on board, but Australia had it, with it's see-through panel, when I was there first at the turn of the millennium - and it still looks sharp.
  • Swearing on the radio - specifically on Triple J, which is basically BBC Radio 1 with a commitment to play a lot of Australian artists (which does tend towards the 90s indie rawk, it must be said) and no language constraints of the sort that the commercial radio stations still apparently labour under: Jen noticed it on a rap track that was definitely not the radio version, I didn't cop on until "So here's Sherri, and you build shitty robots is that right? Sure do!"
  • No tipping - I am still not convinced that being told this wasn't just the wedding couple trying to get us lynched on our last few days in the country. But we were the best tourists ever for 12 days then!


* We were admittedly one of only two tables there, but the other featured, between 8 people, two denim jackets and one appalling mustache.

** The theming was mostly just cocktail names and being able to get them in a 'syringe' or a beaker - we had regular martini glasses and thought that was the end of it - until Jen went to the loo and reported on her return that there was a hospital bed chained up Silent Hill-still next to the cubicles.
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Australia Days 8-11.5 (Sun 16th-Wed 19th)

The next three and a half days share a certain structure: get up a bit late and check out and get in the car and go to the next place via taking photos of very large things, and go to bed early, with spare time to Do One Thing somewhere in there. It was still lovely as a framework to hang out with Jen.

On the Sunday we stopped off at the first small town for breakfast and a wander - literally the first person we saw on getting out of the car was wearing a T-shirt that said "Born to fish - forced to work", it was that sort of place. Also the puzzling possibly-geese that were sitting sleeping on the bollards on the pier turned out to be pelicans!

The main selling points of the first two stops were that they were 1/3 and 2/3 of the way from the wedding to Melbourne - Eden was more of a big street than a town but it did have whale-watching trips the next day. We decided we probably wouldn't add that much hassle - and driving back from the sight of the sea, we spotted another beach, we went to look out. The sun setting behind us on the other side of the peninsula gave the clouds the impression of being painted, and a couple of minutes after that photo, we saw some whales anyway.

The next day, after passing by a Big Fish, the big thing for the day was a trip to the Buchan Caves - after that we went on to find out that the Airbnb of the evening was in essentially a shipping container converted to a barn, with parakeets outside. The wifi wasn't working so we played Trivial Pursuit - frontier spirit there. We also played it using blankets as shawls - we had driven basically as far as London to Edinburgh, so we should probably have not been so surprised by how cold it was getting.

The couple providing the B&B were lovely though, and had been to Ireland and Scotland - they were off again in the morning or we'd have loved to talk to them.

The last full day's driving saw us pass by the Big Cigar in Churchill and the Big Pint of Beer in Mirboo North - somewhere in here the GPS threw us its only wobbly, sending us down what was Not A Road (though it did connect two roads, which is presumably what the GPS was thinking of). This fortunately wasn't the bit of the day where it was raining, or we would have struggled to get the tiny car up the slight slope at the end.

And then to Philip Island, and the Tiny Penguins! This is the bit where it was raining though, and we sat and watched them come in to the shore and freak out about whether they'd be able to make it across the beach for about half an hour, before heading back ahead of the serious incoming clouds.

The Airbnb couple here were lovely as well - a tale of love found in later life after "his wife passed on, and my husband passed on with another woman!" which now features two mad terriers. This was the one where we remained confined to the room though - when you see Other's People's Stuff in the bathroom, it changes things.

And then up in the morning for the last drive and a tonne of Big things - a Tap, a Koala (by the Koala Conservation Centre, which we went for a wander through), Chocolate Cows, a Wave (with a surfboard inside if you want to pose), a Worm, a Shark, and finally the thing that made this slight preoccupation all worthwhile, the enormous shiny Garden Gnome. I don't know if you've been clicking through to Instagram for any of these, but trust me, click that link.

And then on to Melbourne, where we immediately got caught in traffic and spent 40 minutes on the last 5k.
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Australia Days 6-7 (Fri 14th-Sat 15th)

And then up on the Friday, check out and off to pick up the car. The dates had gotten a little confused back when everything was getting booked, so instead of a nice leisurely trip down and stay overnight, we were travelling the same day as the wedding. And by travelling I mean that I was in charge of driver support (sweets, tutting at the GPS), while Jen was in charge of actually driving.

We largely kept our heads down and rocked up in plenty of time - it was a small holiday resort, and the 'villas' were three-room/two-bed affairs. We found out that the person we were sharing the villa with had already turned up and taken the one key, but there was no sign of her at the locked villa. It turned out in the end that she, the bride's slightly daffy cousin, had simply set up in the villa next door, which hadn't been locked for some reason. We found that out at the wedding though, so before that I had to go back and wheedle another key out of front desk. I mention this largely because those of us who have attended ATP or similar civilised festivals will recognise the illicit thrill of having an extra key that you're not supposed to.

The wedding was on the beach, and was lovely - when we got there, the Scottish groom was standing about in his kilt, bareheaded under the sun - he apparently managed to avoid burning his head off to the amazement of many. Him and the Australian bride had met when they were both working in the same Edinburgh branch of Blackwells as Jen, about a dozen years ago. I ended up hanging around with the contingent from that shop then, Scots and another Ozzie, for the night, which as you might imagine I had no problem with.

Three sweet parts of the dinner go:

  • The tables all had books instead of place settings - you were officially asked to sit where your heart takes you, but swapping around to sit where you wanted was also expected. I ended up in front of Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog - less because it did mean anything to me than because a table of booksellers advised me it was great (and of course we got to take the books home with us)
  • There was a projector up, after from a video message from the best man it spent most of the night cycling through photos of the couple over the last 12 years, mugging for the camera in various different holidays around the world. Apart from anything else it was good for me as a stranger to appreciate the groom's many facial hair choices as context for the soul patch he currently sports.
  • Just before and to the side of the main dining area, a small table displaying the various cultural offerings of the two countries: Tunnocks Tea Cakes/Caramel bars, Irn Bru and Tablet on one side, Timtams, Liquorice Bullets and Jaffas on the other.
  • Bonus extra sweet thing - the bride had rented out a photo booth and a table full of prop hats - you'll see the four we took in time, I promise.


The next day was very quiet as expected - there was the aforementioned barbecue sprawling over most of the afternoon, then we went for a wander around the rocks on the eastern end of the beach - around on the furthest point there was a patch where massive waves would roll up, the blazing sun and the colour of the ocean meant that the vertical sides of the waves shone the most perfect turquoise. We wandered back along the beach, had a meal later, and went out for another nighttime beach stroll, seeing the bright clear unfamiliar stars. It was about this point, a week in, that the trip tipped over to "this is bliss".
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Australia Days 3-5 (Tue 11th-Thu 13th)

On the Tuesday we didn't do much except go out to Manly Beach. Well, we went to see Big Things first - Jen had found a few online maps detailing the various aspects of Oz's love of the large, so we saw the Big Bullets that she'd spotted on her way back from her pizza the night before. Anyway, saw those and some Big Matchsticks (not hard to find from that photo), then went out to Manly, wandered over to a smaller beach, went on a walk up and around the head of that peninsula. Home and bed - still not feeling great.

I woke up on Wednesday feeling revived (and this was basically the end of jet-lag), and told Jen that I felt like I'd slept soundly. She grumpily confirmed that I had, but that very sound sleep had unlocked a level of snoring that she'd never experienced before. We'd planned to head out to the Blue Mountains, but we returned after getting halfway there due to a medical scare (but only a scare - it's a long and icky story but it presented as very very serious and wasn't any serious at all). This was probably for the best as the last of Jen's jetlag plus the monster she'd slept next to means that she was pretty snoozy for the rest of the day. So we did the things we'd hoped to do on Thursday - laundry, buy new shoes for me (my walking shoes were a little too bust), pick up portobello mushrooms and halloumi for the post-wedding barbecue. In the evening we went over to see my old colleague Donncha, who's been living here for 17 years now, having returned very shortly after work sent both of us over together in 1999.

And then on Thursday back out to the Blue Mountains - stopped off in Katoomba, went on a walk down 900 steps into a tree-filled gorge (only half-way down, it turned out), then along a path for a few hours and the world's steepest railway back up (we both reckoned that going up was just about alright, but going down would have been a Very Different Matter). We missed a train back by about 5 minutes, so sat around for an hour in the station pub checking out the names of the various local bands - a regular night at the pub was DJed by a Flava Dave. And then back and very definitely sleep.
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Australia Days 1-2 (Sun 9th-Mon 10th)

The first day didn't start great - I'd caught the very start of some form of head cold on the plane and that combined with the jetlag to make me pretty punchdrunk.

We rose late and wandered the area we were staying (King's Cross, as seedy as its London namesake), then up northwards towards Mrs Macquarie's point. It's a noted place for a view of Sydney, but the to be honest it's not difficult to get good views on a good day (which it was) from any approach. We wandered through the Royal Botanical Gardens, home of many excellent trees (including an amazing array of different palms) and over to the Opera House, which was hosting a festival of First Nations art. We got to see some of the traditional dance competition, but I was fading fast. Home then, via a local Thai takeaway.

The night wasn't a lot of fun - between the cold coming on, my lower back (which has been giving me a bit more trouble recently), my shoulder (which has been on and off sore since I fell off my bike - which I've done twice since my last non-holiday update, remind me to tell you about it sometime) and the jet lag, it was a carnival of grim. About 4am I Googled the NHS exercises for lower back pain, and grunted my way through them on the floor of the hotel room, phone just out of sight of Jen's attempts to sleep herself. It did a little good and then I got back to bed - obviously the catch 22 is that sleep would have helped with any of them but they combined (together with a Jen that was both jet lagged and trapped in a bed with this horror show) to fend off sleep.

And so a slow start to the day, which was bizarrely warm for the trip, 10 degrees hotter than either side. We hid inside until way past midday then headed into Sydney Central and walked over to Darling Harbour to see the Aquarium, on the basis that if you have to be out, surround yourself with as much water as possible.

You'd probably guess that Sydney Aquarium would be good, and you'd be entirely right - squid and sharks and dugong and jellyfish and mantas and blue tang / clownfish or, as they are officially known now to pre-teens, Dories and Nemos.

We got the ferry back around to Circular Quay, to new views of the Opera House and the bridge, but my clock was ticking down, so while Jen went to a restaurant for pizza, I headed home to get a head start on a night's sleep.
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Australia Day 0

Day 0 started properly on Day -2, last Wednesday, when Jen mailed me to say "So it turns out that you need a visa to go to Australia, they're easy to get on their Immigration website". I duly filled in my details and got my receipt of application.

The next day, I checked with her whether she'd received an indication of when the visa should arrive, and she said she'd got it within minutes. When I got home after work I rang the Australian Immigration people, and found out on the first instance that if they can't take your call, they'll just dump you off.

The second time I got the warning I had been fearing - can take up to 10 days, do not travel without it. I rang back a few hours later and reached the same lady, which was both embarrassing and suggestive of questions about staffing levels for what must be a fairly crucial service.

Anyway, she couldn't answer my main question - was there an active problem with the application or was it just in the (statistically small) pile that were selected for further examination - but she sent me the email of the expediting requests office, which I emailed feeling a little guilty. Reading what I do in the papers about Australian Immigration, I know that "my girlfriend may have to start her holiday without me" is unlikely to be in the top half of the most abject pleas they receive.

And then I woke on Friday and there was no mail, and I rang Jen and let her know. I came out at the appointed time with all my luggage, knowing that the chance of a reprieve was quite low (as it was into the Australian night by then).

And so I waited with her through the long long line, both pictures in misery. If someone got to look at the application on Monday in Australia, I could wake to a confirming email, and then go buy another ticket out and join her on Tuesday evening in Sydney - that was pretty much the best case.

And then we got to the top of the line and I left her to check in, and she called me back, as the puzzled agent had asked why I hadn't just bought a visa at the ticket service desk. It turns out one of the factors that can shield your application from the sight of whatever claw had plucked mine from the virtual mailbag, is "here is a receipt that this guy definitely paid us £40".

And then there was a rush for the delayed plane, and when we got to KL another rush for the next plane (which was also delayed as half its passengers were with us) and then we were in Sydney for Saturday evening and the very long Day 0 and its emotional rollercoaster was over.

I only slowly unwound over the course of the day as more steps confirming that this might actually work came through - the first then the second boarding card, the electronic machine at Sydney that scans your passport and gives you a slim printed slip to hand in with your customs declaration. As we were waiting to pick up luggage, just before handing those in to the agent who dropped them unread into a basket, my phone went ping and I got an email confirming the success of my visa application.
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Distractions

Hiya folks,

I have the same views as mostly everyone you know about the current state of the world - the last week's been largely been a nightmare on that front, comedy Macbeth from the Tories aside. The options are disaster now or disaster later, hate crimes are on the rise, the Labour party is engaging in startlingly ill-timed convulsions that can't end anywhere good, and a cloud is spreading over pretty much everywhere.

So, here's some stuff I've been doing to distract myself:

[Jen]
Hanging out with Jen has been been a regular thing for a while now of course, but we're in the middle of an interesting week - her parents came into London last week (having come down from Perth to babysit her niblings in Kent while her brother and his wife went off on holiday) and we went out for a meal, and to meet each other for the first time. And this evening I'm getting a train to Gatwick (okay, two trains as the direct one has been cancelled), meeting her there, and then we're to Dublin to meet my sister Brenda and her partner, and on to Navan tomorrow to meet Josephine, her family, and Mum. I'll be a little calmer once the weekend's over, for sure. But I'm a little calmer around her anyway. We've been hit differently by Brexit - her post-doc is paid-up for the next two and a half years, but everything after that is ????, whereas I'm securely paid in a company that may just fade away if the word "passporting" appears in future EU-UK negotiations. Plan C (or D) is "go to Edinburgh, wait a few years, maybe don't even leave the EU" - it's a big step but these look like big times. The weekend will be the first time we've shared a bed two days in a row - all practice for the Big Trip this October, a wedding of a friend of hers which we'll expand to a Sydney->Melbourne road trip.


[Trinity Buoy Wharf / Longplayer]
And then on Sunday, we had some time to spare, so we went on a trip, by train to London Fields and on by bus to the area between the Isle of Dogs and the Excel centre, where the roads belie the original use of the land (Oregano Drive! Saffron Avenue! Nutmeg Lane! Clove Crescent! All just south of East India Dock Road). There's a lump of land there, where the final contortions of the River Lea (now containing the souldead 'New Manhattan', London City Island) meet the Thames. And on that lump is London's only (ex-training) Lighthouse, and a lot of art, and several buildings made of shipping containers.

And up in that lighthouse, is Longplayer, a music experience intended to run for 1000 years. It's a 20-minute piece by Jem Finer, played on Tibetan Singing Bowls, and a series of rules on how to modulate the piece which will guarantee it doesn't repeat over the duration. It's a little conceptual - it can be played anywhere, there are computers you can listen to it on, you can probably find out "what will be playing on 21st May 2135" - but it's also a lovely soothing sound.

The sound is best heard in the listening gallery, which is a small room at the top of the lighthouse (where the bulb would have been), with two nice chairs in it. And so we sat there for a bit, and took it in. The view is interesting - the cable-car over the Thames to the left, the Dome in the centre, Canary Wharf etc to the right - all potent signifiers of evil if you're that way inclined. But also all part of London by now, drawn into the city. I spent some time just watching a cable car crawl up and across the river, which with the chiming score reminded me of Koyaanisqatsi, which we'd tried to watch a few weeks before (but you need to be in the right mood). There was a sky with every different type of cloud in it, and the occasional roar of a jet overhead, and I felt something profound but (as you can tell) difficult to communicate.


[Sexy KC]
And then on Monday, the mighty Karaoke Circus made a return. I wrote a little while ago about the revival of this live-band night of Karaoke for comedians and punters, which had been brought back specifically to mark the death of David Bowie. They unwisely ended that one with "See you all when Prince dies" - so here we were.

I was a little concerned - David Bowie has a lot of songs that are a good singalong, while Prince's stuff is frankly fiddly - but all involved did well (except the girl whose schtick was being terrible and screechy). Two of my friends got up - toriar for Little Red Corvette and operacat for Starfish and Coffee. The comedians did okay, a certain amount of over-egging is probably understandable under the circumstances (though I'd have felt better about it if there was a single non-white person on stage apart from possibly the violin player who came on for two songs) - the surprise was "Tall Prince" aka Tim effing Vine, who did a perfect rendition of Sign of the Times, sans lyrics sheets, while dressed as a slightly-modded Elvis. The modification was adding a third lens to a pair of purple sunglasses, in the style of Twitter Prince, and worked quite well.

And then there was Lisa, who apparently walked up during the first interval and asked to sing, who may well have been there by herself (she had to park her backpack on the stage), and who nailed Kiss. I don't think there was anything exceptional about her voice (though I'm no expert), but she rode the rails of the song expertly and brought us with her. And then when she was acclaimed as the (punter-only) winner, she was just as suited to Purple Rain, which was inevitable as the last, sing-along, track. I like the idea that she had a train on to Amsterdam later on, a great and implausible story to take with her.
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Update update

Some things for the next 17 minutes:

I've been emerging from hibernation a bit - back on the bike more, out contacting people and being social. I went back to Ireland at Easter and took a few extra days just to see friends in Dublin - by pleasant co-incidence caught up with all three of my ex-flatmates from 20 years ago - gentle good-humoured sharp Eamonn (at whose house for lunch I met leedy and her mob), cynical warm pacifist leftie Micheal, and Keith, expansive in house and collection of dogs and cats and just in Keithiness. It was gooood.

The drama with my house is all sorted out now, the taps mechanically can't overflow, and a surveyor has come and looked at the damage to downstairs, my regular handyman has come to make an estimate, and that amount of money has been paid to the downstairs neighbour-man, who will probably get his mates to do it cheaper but that's his business. For now, all things are calm and I've stopped being frozen with fear at random times on thinking that maybe I've left the gas water running.

I'm going to go on a cycle around the city, I've seen some films (useless recommendation for Civil War), my PC is buggered again, myself & Jen went to Leeds and had a lovely time with glitzfrau and biascut, myself & Jen are still having a lovely time together, the sun is out okay now we are CAUGHT UP.
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Reasons why I should not be mistaken for a grown-up, part 300.

My washer/dryer has been off its food for a while - the fabric softener hasn't been lessening with each load. The tray that is the only easily-removable part of the machine has bent a little, and there's a knack for getting it back in, so I've spent some time foostering at that, wondering if the bend is creating a seal (or breaking one?) that is stopping the water getting at the lovely softener. It's not the settings, as I never change the settings.

And without softener, my clothes have been getting harder, sometimes transforming t-shirts into canvas - it's not good, and so I've been carrying around the same "Maybe it'll get better" / "I know that it won't" feeling that I had for the pain in my side a few years ago.

Today, though, I got to the clothes just as they were ready to be taken out, and realised that something was very wrong - the clothes were actually painfully hot to the touch, some of the plastic buttons had melted on the duvet cover (one which is due to be replaced soon, though), and I actually burned my hand a bit touching the inside of the drum.

A quick Google of 'Indesit washer dryer too hot' indicates that they have in fact been bursting into flames, and a link to a page which will tell you if yours is due for the recall / repair. The waiting period is expected to be March at this rate, the link warns - but my make isn't apparently affected?

Anyway, I ring the number, confirm that I'm not in warantee (There's a sticker on it for 'Ring to start your 5 years spare parts guarantee' - it would probably be a bit cheeky to try to start that now rather than five and a half years ago). They put me through to someone, we start to discuss when it would be possible for someone to come out, and then I start swearing, including calling myself a fucking muppet, on the phone to a stranger.

The machine has a dial on the right, with all the possible things you can do on there, and in the centre of that dial is the knob you turn it round by - it's symmetrical but there's a little raised bit with a smudge by it.

Except what I've just spotted, on the phone to the support organiser, is that the smudge isn't on that side, it's on the other side, and the machine's not set to the regular wash and dry, but to 'Dry (Cotton)'. For the last few weeks, I haven't actually been washing my clothes at all - I've just been really really really drying them.