Thursday, April 28, 2005

The quiet week

A frog

Things have gone a bit quiet since the cake-fuelled euphoria of my final days in the Pensions business. This week is the filler week, a few days to recover from the strains of typing numbers into a database before I jet off to New Zealand. As such, I've been doing various small jobs, buying things I need for my trip, doing research on the net about places to go - that kind of thing. It doesn't make for riveting blogging, but just wait until next week - by crikey I'll be posting like a fiend from over the Tasman. Only a few days until my flight - stand by for excitement! In the meantime, here is a picture of a frog.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Philatelic fun

A stamp featuring fish and chips - genius

Like most of you I imagine, I spent Saturday in an exhibition of stamps. Not just any exhibition mind - this was the 2005 World Stamp Expo no less. Despite having no interest in stamp collecting (apart from a brief phase when I was a boy), I've always been intrigued why people choose to collect odd things, so I paid my $5 and went inside. Firstly, the Expo was huge - there were stamp dealers from Fiji to Lithuania, and the place was full of your typical geeky-looking white males poring over catalogues to add to their collections. There were demonstrations of stamp making and perforating, an awards ceremony for stamp design, and numerous displays of the history of stamps, postage and postmarks.

After wandering around for a while getting as many freebies as I could (although no free stamps sadly) I had a look at the displays - there was every conceivable category of stamp, from every country. My favourite category were the stamps commemorating the link between famous painters and fish - which is a link close to all our hearts. The best individual stamp I saw was the one above, featuring fish and chips. Sadly it wasn't part of a series - no 'steak pie supper' on the 30c or 'mushy peas' on the 15c. Shame.

Predictably the crowd at the Expo consisted of a large number of keen collectors, and a few very bored kids dragged around for the educational value - which aside from the perforating demonstration was fairly minimal. Still, we all collect something, and it was interesting to watch the seriousness of the philatelists as they went about their hobby and handed over their money in exchange for small sticky bits of paper. Did it convert me into the world of stamp collecting? Well, no. But I did buy one - I couldn't leave empty-handed - so a bright blue stamp from Kiribati featuring a lobster was the one I selected. How many do you need for a collection?

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Three months are up

The Harbour Bridge, taken on my walk home from work last night

This Friday is my last day here in the cut and thrust world of pensions, as my allotted three months expires. So far my plan is coming together as I can more or less work up to my NZ trip, and then hopefully start again when I return. Not here though, as another of the visa rules is that I can't work in the same place twice - so I'll be shunted off somewhere else by my agency. I called them the other day, and they were practically begging me to re-sign with them when I get back in June - either it's the 50hr weeks I've been doing, or they just really like me. I think I know which.

The three months here have given me the money to live in Sydney, which was the main reason I came over here after all. There was no way I could have lived here for the full twelve months on my visa without some kind of work. The people here have been good to me, they are fairly flexible towards us humble temps. Admittedly it hasn't filled me with a love of Investments - I can't understand how some people can spend entire careers doing this - there's nothing Super about Superannuation. But I can walk away and immediately forget everything I learned here, which is one of the true joys of temping...

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Halfway gone

Sydney as seen from Taronga Zoo

Is a year a long time? I suppose it is, when you think about it. They tend to go quickly though, the days fly by until before you know it the weather is colder and the Christmas decorations are out in the shops. Holidays, also, go quickly - all too soon you're back at the airport wondering what to buy for people in the office. The more you enjoy something, the faster it goes by. Or so I thought. Today marks the exact mid-way point of my trip, six months to the day since I arrived at Sydney airport and heaved my backpack out into the 37C heat. Yet it feels like I've been here for ages.

I'm not sure why that is - I imagine when I'm back in the UK I'll feel as if the year went by quite fast, but here and now I really don't. That's good of course, even though I'm enjoying my time here I don't feel it's slipping away. I really am enjoying it too - without doubt it's one of the best things I ever did. I'm not going to start spouting rubbish about having grown as a person or discovered a new part of me, but I think it's changed me, certainly. I've definitely been to some great places - and with the upcoming travels the second six months are going to be even more interesting (as will this blog, hopefully).

Of course it goes without saying that I miss things from home - the important stuff like my family, friends, and x-box. But when you look at six months on a calendar it doesn't seem like a long stretch, so I'll be back with all of them reasonably soon. I just hope the time before then will continue to go as slowly, so I can keep enjoying what I'm getting up to over here - and whether I do or not, rest assured you'll be the first to hear about it...

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

An evening visitor

The Huntsman spider

Just the other day on my walk from Manly to the Spit Bridge I was marvelling at the wonders of Australian spiders. When sitting there in their own habitat, at a reasonable distance, I find them fascinating - especially the large ones that live over here. However last night the situation was reversed as one of them came into my habitat to look at me. I turned on the light of my room, and sitting there on the opposite wall was the biggest spider I've ever seen. It was a Huntsman, about the size of my hand, with a grey/brown body and eight splayed legs each the thickness of a pencil. I kid you not.

What is it about spiders? What is it about them that makes people scared? The fangs? The webs? The legs? They do have a sinister quality about them, as if any moment they will spring at you and start biting. Huntsmen are certainly fast and agile - and their characteristic crab-like shape has a latent threat to it. But the one on my wall was content to quietly sit there and watch me whimper as I blundered into the numerous small webs it had been busy hanging from my ceiling.

I wish I could say I conquered my fear - which until I saw my visitor wasn't as big as I had thought - but I didn't. With a broom for protection I quickly took a couple of pictures (thank heavens for zoom lenses) and meekly woke my flatmate Gerard to dispose of it. With the typical Australian attitude of someone used to dealing with massive slavering insects, he cheerfully plonked a large jug over it and scooped it out of the door. Hunstmen are not dangerous to humans - in fact they eat cockroaches and poisonous spiders - but if you get surprised by one at night you certainly know about it. Thankfully they don't hunt in packs, and after checking every corner of my bed (and underneath), I eventually managed to get to sleep...

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A foolproof plan

But will I be celebrating on Thursday?

Casual lunchtime chats can be a dangerous thing sometimes. Today myself, the other temp, and our boss were talking about how we all need money at the moment and we came up with an idea. Obviously with my New Zealand trip less than three weeks away the more cash I can scrape together the better. While we were bemoaning our various financial problems, an obvious solution presented itself - the lottery! So right there and then we formed a syndicate and our money problems are sure to be over soon.

Australians seem to be hooked on playing the Lotto - there is more than one company that runs a draw, so the balls drop almost every day of the week, as it were. Every newsagent has reams of scratchcards for sale by the till - 'scratchies' are vastly popular. The lotto we decided to enter has a weekly Thursday jackpot of $9m, which would certainly come in handy on my trip - imagine all the dangerous sports I could look at and decide not to do with that kind of money. And at only $14 for a whopping 24 lines in the draw - that's 64c (25p) a line - riches are surely only days away...

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Manly to the Spit

Forty Baskets Beach - so called as that was considered a good days fishing

Open a Sydney guidebook and look at a section on harbour walks, and the one most recommended would be the 10km path from Manly to the Spit Bridge. This was the walk I did on Sunday, in dazzling Autmun sunshine. The first parts of the walk are along wide paths, in front of expensive property at Fairlight and Balgowlah. But then you are abruptly thrown into native bushland, protected by an army of volunteers (according to numerous signs - although I didn't see anybody). The trail slowly winds upwards onto the headland, with literally hundreds of spiderwebs billowing in the gum trees on either side of the path. Large, fat orb-web spiders sitting in a star-shape waiting for something to happen.

At the midway point, the path finally exits the scrub and you get great views back to Manly with the thin peninsula of hotels and pine trees, before the downhill section starts and it's back into the canopy and the spiders. There are a number of beaches en route - such as Forty Baskets where the path goes over the rocky shore and is impassable at high tide. The other end of the walk has great beaches at Castle Rock, and on to Clontarf. It was here that a gunman shot the then Duke of Edinburgh in the late 19th Century, but apparently the bullet struck his thick rubber braces and he survived.

Clontarf is named after a suburb of Dublin, but no part of Dublin I saw looked remotely similar. The beach and reserve here were packed with families picnicking on the sunny afternoon - the better off lunching aboard countless yachts and motorboats bobbing around just off the beach. The trail continued around the muddy bay and up again into the trees, climbing upwards to the final destination - the Spit Bridge. Derided in Sydney as a traffic clogger (it opens every hour to let boats out and backs up cars in both directions), it's an old iron swing bridge, and more importantly serves as a stop for buses back to the city.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

1. Auld Reekie

The Meadows

Was there ever a doubt? Edinburgh has been my home for over five years, and I always said that only possibly Sydney could get me to leave. I first moved to the Scottish capital after University, and have been there off and on ever since. It's my favourite city in the world, pure and simple. It even smells great - that unique combination of North Sea air and the brewing industry that gives it a yeasty tang. Last week I opened a jar of Vegemite and the smell reminded me of Edinburgh. Try explaining that to your flatmates.

Admittedly, Edinburgh has it's crowds - especially around Festival time - but as the UK's most popular short break destination I suppose you'd expect that. Besides, I quite like the tourists as they give the place an international feel. Everywhere you go there are historic landmarks - you can't get lost in Edinburgh as you're always able to see the castle or Arthur's Seat - the dormant volcano in the centre of the city.

Edinburgh is small enough to walk around - believe me, I know - and if you know where to look there are great bars and restaurants. Having lived there for a while, the whole twee 'Scottishness' of it washes over me so I don't notice it, but the gawking tourists obviously like it. But they are missing what makes Edinburgh so special - the Meadows in Summer, the Water of Leith footpath, the draught Budvar at Pivos, the view from Salisbury Crags, Yellowcraigs beach, breakfast at Elephant and Bagel, the burritos at the Basement, etc, etc....

2. The Harbour City

Sydney skyline viewed from Watson's Bay

When I decided to move away from the UK for a year, realistically there was only ever one city I was going to choose, and that was Sydney. I made that decision based on a three-day visit here in 2002 - so to make that much of an impression so quickly it must be quite a place. The best feature of Sydney is the location - no coastal city I've been to embraces the sea like Sydney (apart from maybe Venice, but it has no choice). Sydneysiders love their harbour, it dominates all aspects of life here - it really is stunning. The climate means people here can make more use of the outdoor amenities, and as a result recreation is a large part of the lifestyle.

There are the world-famous beaches, gardens and parks galore - and a great network of bush paths along both sides of the harbour. Sydney also has a real creative feel to it, if you like galleries and theatres there are hundreds - with the most famous being the Sydney Opera House, without doubt the most instantly recognisable building in the world. I see it every day, yet still think to myself 'Hey - that's the Opera House'. Sydney's popluation of four million comprises people from all over the world, and the mix of communities is reflected in the food and general culture. I know they say it about New York - but you can really find anything in Sydney. Even me

Friday, April 08, 2005

3. Seine-sational

The Moulin Rouge at night

I first went to Paris on a school trip when I was 12, and hated it. I can't really remember why, but we were marched from one educational attraction to another at a frightening pace and most of it went straight over my head. I do remember eating a lot of chocolate though, so it wasn't all bad. I've been back briefly since, but hadn't really explored the city until I went there for the new year break at the start of 2004. What a difference. Paris is an incredible place, a massive sprawling capital with every possible attraction.

Divided into arrondissiments, it can seem like an amalgamation of various smaller cities as many have distinctive characters and atmospheres. My favourites - the Jewish Quarter, le marais (literally 'the marsh'), and Montmartre are packed full of things to see and great for exploring. Parisians have a reputation of being rude - but they're not, I think it's an intense pride in their city that is often misinterpreted. They certainly have every reason to be proud - they live in a place crammed with great culture, history, shops and restaurants - one of the great cities of the world. Je ne peux pas attendre pour revenir.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

4. Beantown

The Democratic Donkey (and Grant) on Boston's Freedom Trail

Boston is the only North American city in my top five - Montreal would probably be number 6 if the list were extended. For me, Boston has a lot of the good things about America and few of the bad things - it's a sports-obsessed, bustling city with staggeringly cold winters. It has a vaguely European feel, thanks to the colonial history and preserved buildings. The city embraces it's fractured history, and the excellent Freedom Trail links the locations where America first stood up to the British. It also has a statue of a donkey you can sit on.

Boston is a great place to explore the rest of New England, it has a distinctive college-town feel to it, and a cheerfully rattling tram system. There are wild eagles that hunt squirrels in the parks (or pah-ks as the locals call them), it's small enough to explore on foot, and it's the home of Dunkin Donuts and the Fenway Frank. But it's not all good - it can trade too much on the olde times, and the Cheers bars (there are two) are terrible. But these are minor things compared to the Big Dig - the idea of putting all Boston's city centre freeways underground may have been a good one, but the unending building and demolition work has ripped the heart out of the city and made walking almost unpleasant, which is a real shame.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

5. The Pearl of the Danube

Budapest - with the parliament on the banks of the Danube

Technically two cities, the Hungarian capital Budapest is a fantastic place to visit. I went there in May 2004 and spent the best part of a week poking about in one of the most history-packed cities in Europe. You feel like you're definitely in Eastern Europe because of the blackened buildings and trabant-clogged streets, but Hungary is progressing rapidly - it joined the EU a couple of weeks before we arrived.

Divided by the Danube into the craggy, battlement-clad Buda and the flat, residential Pest, the city has seen plenty of action. During WWII the Germans and the Soviets lobbed shells at each other across the river, and the traumatic revolution only a few years later ripped the city apart again - you can see bullet holes in many of the buildings. So if you like history, just take a stroll around, you can almost feel it. When you throw in the great food and drink, bars, restaurants - and the fact that everything is dirt cheap - it's a great place for a break. If we hadn't have been fined for not having a ticket on the metro, it would have been almost perfect. Hungarian transit police show no mercy...

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Cities all the way

The Sydney skyline at night

I had a minor revelation the other day - I've lived my entire life in cities. Admittedly most of those years need to be backdated - my hometown of Preston and my first University town were both given city status only recently. But if you add my time in Hull and, of course, Edinburgh and Sydney it means I've been a city boy all these years. I've also been to a fair few cities around the world on my various travels, although there are plenty more to visit on my list of course.

So at the risk of this turning into an inadvertant homage to High Fidelity (which I hated), I thought I might come up with a list of my top five favourite cities. There is another reason for me doing this - my long and boring hours here are good for getting the money together for the upcoming New Zealand trip, but not exactly good for inspiring an entry on this blog. Although we are getting a new temp next week - so I'll prepare to hold the front page.

Anyway, city number 5 tomorrow. Which will it be? Play along at home - write down five cities you think I might have liked and see how close you get....*

* clue - Hull isn't one of them

Monday, April 04, 2005

Guide for the morning

Manly beach

Airports are a modern necessity - but it doesn't mean they are fun to spend long amounts of time in. Prolonged layovers are a fact of life for long-distance travel these days, and if the chance arises to escape the airport for a few hours if can be a great relief. There's only so many times you can look in the same Tie Rack, after all. So it was this feeling of temporary freedom that caused me to be standing in the arrivals area of Sydney airport at 7am on Saturday, scanning the crowds for a woman I'd never met.

I was looking for Jean, a college lecturer from Blackpool who is a friend of my Dads. Flying back from a trip to New Zealand, she had an 8-hour stop over in Sydney and wanted to explore a bit, so I was hired as a guide for the morning. According to her text message, she'd be standing there 'in a pink jacket, looking confused' - although thanks to my colour-blindness a 'beige jacket, looking confused' was nearer the mark.

Her lightening visit left me with a problem - where do you take someone who only has four hours in Sydney? Well, the Harbour is the obvious answer. So we hopped on a train to Circular Quay and walked around to the Opera House. It was a glorious day, and I deluged poor Jean with facts about Sydney as we walked around the Opera House and back to the Rocks. Being a marine biologist, she wanted to go on the water, so we took the ferry to Manly and admired all the Saturday yachties out for a sail. When we docked at Manly wharf I asked her what she wanted to do in the half-hour we had there - 'Let's go for a beer' was the answer. So we ended up sitting in the beach-side beer garden of the Manly Wharf Hotel looking back across the shimmering harbour, with not a Tie Rack in sight...