Saturday, July 30, 2005

A-League of their own

Your author (bottom right, in blue and white Rovers kit)

The other week I went along to the first game in the pre-season campaign of Sydney's newest sporting franchise - Sydney FC. As a team, they've been around for a while, but the brand new domestic Australian football league - the A-League - starts this month. One of the Rovers fans in Sydney is a season ticket holder at Sydney FC (and at GBP60 they are considerably cheaper than season tickets of football teams in the UK), so I met up with him and the other hard-core Sydney FC fans.

The game was held at the Aussie Stadium, in front of about 9,000 people - which wasn't bad for a pre-season game against unknown opponents (the New Zealand Knights, anyone?). It was interesting watching a new football team start off - something that you never really get to see as most English teams were founded around 100 years ago. The small group of - let's face it - football nerds that I was with had chosen an area behind one of the goals to stand (yes, standing at football). It had been recently christened 'The Cove' for reasons I'm not too sure about, and was draped with banners for the team, until the fans were told by stadium security to take them down.

The game was enthusiastically dreadful, but Sydney wound out winning 3-1 and have been installed as favourites to win the new A-League. Predicatably they are seen as flash and overconfident (something Sydney is accused of a lot) - and this comes as no surprise when their star player is none other than ex-Rovers makeweight Dwight Yorke - the ultimate footballing playboy and father of a child with the model Jordan. I later read that Yorke was seen drinking in an Oxford Street bar a couple of hours after the match, so some things never change.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Nice and easy, Japanesy

Te o furenaide kudasai!

Last night was the first of the Level 1 Japanese language classes that I signed up for. I decided to learn some basic Japanese to help when I go there in two months, to give me and my 'chichi' a better chance of getting around. I tried to get on a course entitled 'Japanese for Travel' - which would have been ideal - but it was cancelled due to lack of numbers and I was shunted onto the Japanese Level 1 course instead. Still, this course is broader, and looks at some kanji and writing, so it's just as useful.

The course is run at the University of Wollongong (that being a small city to the South of Sydney), but based at their Sydney campus, right next to Central Station. There are about 15 of us in the group, the usual mix of younger travellers and serial mature students who sit at the front and ask questions. Our teacher is an affable motherly type called Nobuko-san, who has a fun way of getting us to repeat sayings - raising her hands and shouting 'Hai!!' (yes) like we're unruly schoolkids. Which I suppose in a way, we were. I was the only one wearing a tie, for a start.

We learned a few phrases of introduction, listened to a bafflingly fast tape (Nobuko-san gamely tried to work the CD player - what is it with teachers and electrical equipment?), and had a rapid-fire Q&A about Japan. During this I learned that the population of Tokyo is 30million (during the day - it goes down at night), Japan would fit 20 times into Australia (NSW is twice the size of Japan), and one of the basics of Shintoism is that every mountain has a God, every river has a God, etc. A Korean student in the front row found this perplexing. 'And that's the main religion in Japan?' he asked, incredulous.

By far the hardest thing for me was sentence structure - not because of the different way Japanese sentences are constructed, but because I realised I haven't a clue how English sentences are constructed. It took me five minutes just to remember what a verb was, and by the time she explained the Japanese equivalent of past form/present form I was hopelessy lost. Still, I'm not trying to become fluent, or to learn how to construct precise sentences. I just need to be able to communicate and ask for things, so we can get by. Next week, we're doing days of the week and telling the time. And we didn't get any homework!

Monday, July 25, 2005

The story so far...

The Harbour Bridge from Circular Quay railway station

Reading over these last few posts it struck me that this is the perfect time to fill you in on my plans, rather than more musings about delivery vans or bus stations. I've now been out here for just over nine months, which to be honest seems like ages - it's not gone by as quickly as I thought it might. I've got basically three months left until I have to return to the UK. So how am I going to spend it?

Firstly, I've got another month left working from my allotted three months - which I'll probably spend here in my current job (unless something unexpected and dramatic happens). So essentially I've got until the end of August to get money together for anything I plan to do before I fly North. Towards the middle of September I'm planning another short trip away - probably to the Outback. I was going to Melbourne for a week or so, but although it's supposed to be nice (and as previously mentioned I do like my cities), the Outback is something entirely unique, so I should make the effort to see it before it's too late.

I'd like to go somewhere remote, so was thinking about flying over to Perth and then going up the coast of Western Australia. That way I can have a base and still see some Outbacky stuff. Plus I've always wanted to visit Shark Bay - the only place in the world where you can see Stromatolites - footstool shaped colonies of coral-type animals so old they were claiming pensions and reminiscing about the good old days long before ancient reptiles even started thinking about flopping out of the seas onto the land.

After that I'll be off to Tokyo on the 25th of September, for two weeks of high-tech excitement and unidentifiable food. Thanks to my ticketing cock-up I'll be coming back two days earlier, but at least I'll be there for a couple of weeks. There then follows a crazy week starting the 10th October when I leave Tokyo, and arrive in the early hours of the 11th in Sydney. That will be my last day in Australia, as my next flight leaves early on the 12th for Seoul, South Korea. There I've got a free overnight stay in a hotel (thank you Korean Airlines), before flying onwards on the 13th, arriving in London on the 14th. So that's four cities and three continents in four days, including Asia twice. That's going to be some week...

Thursday, July 21, 2005

A question of buses

Save Preston Bus Station!

If you come from Preston you inevitably know a thing or two about buses. Home to the longest bus station in Europe (I've waited so long to get that into this blog), I've been travelling about on their blue and white double deckers since it cost 30p to get into town. Apparently it's over one pound now - but you almost always give your (exact) money to a less-than-cheerful driver. Edinburgh too - the maroon buses there are the pride of the city as they drive from one side to the other and try to clog Princes Street as much as possible. Again, in my experience (something I should stress here) the drivers can be pretty grumpy. They do get shot from time to time, so maybe that's it. Or it could be the lack of length of their bus station, who knows.

But come to Sydney - and what a difference! Bus drivers that say hello when you get on, that say goodbye when you get off - I even had one ask me how my day had gone once. On more than one occasion the driver of a different bus has stopped and told me the one I'm waiting for is a few minutes behind him. Just the other week two came at once (they are buses, after all) and due to a mix-up one left a few people behind who wanted to get on. So the driver of my bus told them to get on ours, refused to take their money, then drove up behind the other bus at some traffic lights and ran across to tell him he'd missed some passengers. The other driver apologised and waited for the people to walk over to his bus. And you know what? Sydney doesn't even have a bus station! As my American readers would say - go figure.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Utes alive!

Is it a car? Or is it a van?

The humble white van is something you hardly see on Australian roads - instead workmen drive around in things that look like they were constructed on Scrapheap Challenge. As black cabs are to the UK, and yellow school buses are to the US - Utes are to Australia. You can't flag them down and get a ride though, so come to think of it that analogy was rubbish. You see a lot of them on the roads, at any rate. The basic ones are just a cab bolted to a chassis - called a 'Cab-Chassis' they are popular with workmen and builders (I'm told you can sometime see them in - ahem - Neighbours).

At the other end of the scale are the sporty turbo Utes - massive V8-powered beasts that are only used for testing the 100k speed limit. I don't think there's an equivalent of 'white van man' over here, but all the anti-speeding ads on TV feature men driving Utes coming to grief. Learner drivers (P-platers) are soon to be banned from driving powerful cars like Utes after a number of well-publicised accidents. The newest models have two rows of seats and four-wheel drive - so the move away from a tool-carrier to a family 4x4/SUV isn't far away. Speaking of which, in this country of the Outback and thousands of square kilometres of desert - which part of the country has the highest 4x4 ownership? Cremorne - a leafy suburb of North Sydney.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Little Differences

Striped Orb-Web spider, roughly palm-sized

But Rich what's it really like living in Australia? is a question most of you must have muttered at some point after reading this blog - probably whilst waving your fist at the monitor. Well - apart from the (ahem) weather, there are plenty of small differences that the casual visitor will miss - but yours truly has noted. In the current period of working and no travelling, what better time to reveal some of these unique gems? *cough* filler posts *cough*

1. Spiders
How many times have I talked about spiders? Too many, for all you arachnaphobes, no doubt. Well that proves my point. Back home spiders are a nuisance at worst - they spin webs and go about their spidery business, but that's about it. Most of them are small, dull and brown - and although they fulfill a useful purpose, and without them we'd be knee-deep in flies blah blah - they just aren't that interesting.

So if you like your eight-legged insect overlords on the exciting side (and who doesn't?) then you have to come over here. Whether it's multi-coloured garden spiders, fat glistening orb web spiders, or massive slavering Huntsmen - arachnids here are worth writing about. A large spider in the UK would be...what, the size of your little finger? Large spiders in Australia are the size of your hand - believe me, I know. Check the archives for the post about my evening visitor. Yikes.

The world gave Australia rabbits and cats - Australia gave them back the white-tailed spider (well, New Zealand at least). If you even look at one of these guys funny, it'll go for you. When they bite you, it feels like a mosquito - but soon becomes agonising - essentially the part of you they bite dies, and has to be cut out (or off) to save you. The worst part is these things are small and love hiding indoors. Erm, I'll be checking under the bed tonight then...

Monday, July 11, 2005

Thinking about work

This long-necked turtle is far more stressed than I am

The other night I caught myself doing something no temp should ever do - I thought about work while I was at home. The sheer beauty of temping is that the job you do is so stress-free that as soon as you leave the office (or on some days even when you're still there) you flick an internal switch and log off. Of course when I'm in my office I'm concentrated and productive (ahem), but the instant I turn off the computer I can stop thinking about it. As such, I have the same levels of work stress as a pot plant - and with less watering. I think that's why office temping is the ideal job for working travellers like me, as it gives you decent money but practically no hassle.

The alternative a lot of people I've met go for is fruit picking - but a day in the sun picking apples or whatever is much harder than it sounds. For a start most of those places have quotas to fill, or you get paid by the box/bag/punnet etc. So you need to work hard to earn a decent amount. Plus they are usually located in out of the way places, and involve repetitive work. One girl I met in New Zealand described people turning up in the morning and jumping the fence in the afternoon to escape, such was the stress levels imposed by their bosses.

Maybe in recognition of this - and the fact that if it wasn't for travellers the seasonal picking industry would grind to a halt - the Australian Government recently announced a change in the visa regulations. The one-year working visa I'm on can be extended for another 12 months - but only if you complete three months of seasonal picking. The changes are due to come in at the start of November - two weeks after my visa expires - but even if they applied to me I'm not sure if I'd go for it. Admittedly it's 9 months of extended stay for 3 months of work, but 3 months is a lot of oranges/cabbages/whatever. Maybe if they broaden the regulations to include office temps I'd consider it - but somehow I doubt they'll be doing that any time soon...

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Olympic Spirit

An empty Sydney Olympic Stadium hosts a cricket match

If you saw the news the other day, you'll know that delegates from the IOC voted to award the 2012 Olympic games to London. Like a lot of British people, I think that's a great thing (although I'm sure there are plenty that don't). Staging an Olympic games puts strains on a city unlike any other one-off event, as was made clear in the run-up to the Athens games earlier last year. The issues of funding, taxes, congestion and security are all important while the games are happening - but what happens after all the athletes have left, and the medals, plaudits and drug bans handed out?

Sydney staged arguably the best Olympic games ever - it was certainly a vast improvement on the widely-criticised Atlanta event in 1996. The 2000 games were almost a coming of age for Sydney - people here still talk about them, and the positive effect they had on the image of the city. What legacy did it leave for Sydneysiders? Undoubtably it gave Australians and Australian sport a long-awaited moment in the spotlight, and their successes are remembered fondly by people who witnessed them. It also left the city with a huge complex of sporting venues and the problems of how to utilise them.

Sydney Olympic Park is the collection of stadia from the 2000 games, and even now it feels new when you walk around - it certainly has the shiniest station on the Cityrail network. It still hosts sporting events, to keep the venues paying off their contruction debts. I've been to basketball, football and cricket matches there, and have always been impressed by the facilities (if not the sporting performances). However, as far as I know the site is still losing money - it's difficult to encourage new events to come. Nobody wants to repeat the experience of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, which produced debts of up to C$1 billion that were lumped onto the taxpayer. Certainly Londoners won't want this to happen to them. But maybe the financial debts are eased by the spectacle of the event - this was certainly the case with the 2000 games here. The Olympics live on in the minds of Sydneysiders, like the blue line that marked the route of the marathon which is still visible on the city streets. Hopefully the 2012 games will be as memorable.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The lungs of the city

The art-deco ANZAC Memorial glistens in the sunshine

I read somewhere once that parks are considered to be the lungs of a city. If that's true, then central Sydney's lungs would undoubtedly be Hyde Park, the long rectangular green space that flanks the business district (which would be the brain, I guess). Named after the more famous park in London, the Sydney version quickly became the focal point of the fledgling colony back from it's formation in the late 18th Century. There's no real comparison to London's Hyde Park though - it's far smaller, there's no zoo (although it does have a corner). Back in the old days of settlement it was used as a mustering ground for soldiers from the adjacent barracks - but it has also been used as a cricket pitch, an arena for prize fights, and was the first racecourse in the city - which explains the roughly oval/rectangular shape (or ovtangular as I like to call it).

These days it's used mostly as a place to have lunch, an open-air theatre for drunks or a place to sleep for backpackers if they can't find their way to Kings Cross (for which you can decide your own body part analogy). Divided into two parts by Park Street, much of the greenery is dominated by two rows of huge Fig trees, which to my untrained eyes resemble giant florets of broccoli. In the Northern half is the splendidly OTT Archibald Fountain, completed in 1932 and featuring a typical scene from some legend or other, complete with stags, naked men, and turtles that continually vomit streams of water. If you follow the fig-dominated path to the other half (looking both ways as you cross Park Street, of course), you arrive at the other major feature, the art deco ANZAC Memorial, also built in the 1930's and dedicated to the 120,000 ANZACS who fought in the Great War.

There are other things of interest in Hyde Park too - like a manicured garden and veranda, and statues of Prince Albert and Captain Cook. But the real fun is to be had walking around looking at the people and animals that live or pass through the park - every Friday for instance, numerous Asian wedding parties gather to get photographed with the picturesque backdrop - one evening I counted five groups (and managed to get in a few pictures without even trying). On another walk home I saw bats, cockroaches and rats scampering about. There are large black and white storks that use their foot-long bills to reach into litter bins and remove sandwich wrappers, and possums that occasionally trot from tree to tree looking like grey cats with shrunken heads (trust me on this).