Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The end of work

You'll be seeing more photos like this from now on...

Count the days between today and the 7th of November. That's how long I've got until I'll set foot in an office again. Yes, today was my last day at work. The 'working traveller' part of my visa is over - I'm just a plain old 'traveller' again, or backpacker, if you will. Call me what you like (and I've heard most of them), I'm a free man again for a while (until my scheduled return to the NHS in Edinburgh).

Not that I minded working - far from it. I was fortunate enough to land myself with a great temp agency, and managed to get myself put into two jobs which I enjoyed. Well, maybe enjoyed is too strong a word, but if they were menial they were at least varied, so I was never doing one thing too long. And no data entry, either. I'm certainly not contemplating switching careers to the enigmatic worlds of Superannuation or Human Resources, but they did they job for me (and me them).

On my last day today, the two women I work with took me out to lunch, and then presented me with a bottle of wine (from the Hunter Valley, naturally) and a cartoon of drunken kangaroos (not half as bad at it sounds). I handed over my pass and the key to my office, and that was that - back to civvy street.

So tomorrow I'm off to an accountant - first time for everything - clutching mounds of paperwork and a hopeful expression. I've been told by my agency that this Lithuanian bloke they know is good for getting tax back for us working travellers (again, he's not as bad as he sounds, apparently). They take out a $110 fee and I get the rest back within 10 working days. If that happens, blimey, I'll be well chuffed.

After that, my parents arrive this weekend, so I'll be doing my tourguide impression for a week or so. Then hopefully I'll be jetting off to WA for at least a week, and then it's briefly back to Sydney before I go to Japan. Almost wrote an entire post without mentioning that... ;)

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Please enjoy the image which overflows

There are times when time it cannot modify

Who doesn't love shonky translations of Japanese websites? Google usually takes a pot shot at translating, and the results are always more entertaining than the websites themselves. Take these - from the homepage of the Honda Welcome Plaza in Aoyama, Tokyo. I particularly love the notes on ASIMO (a recently developed high-tech robot). Executions three times a day? Bring the popcorn!

Concerning the exhibition please inquire to HONDA smile of the information counter concerning question and the catalog claim of the four wheel car & bicycle general-purpose product.

The ASIMO it participates as a HONDA welcome plaza Aoyama's role of the guide. Introduction of the program which is televised with multiple vision and the guide et cetera of various events which are done at the plaza, everyday are done. Furthermore in forum and event, chairmanship part of opening! In the ASIMO which participates at the plaza, by all means, please come to meeting.

In the midst of ASIMO demonstration execution!
1 day 3 time schedule
10:30 - 10:35
11:50 - 11:55
15:00 - 15:10
* There are times when it modifies with the circumstances of the event and the like.

Both four wheel car & the bicycle, the new model of topic and model of popularity, in life the general-purpose product and the welfare car et cetera which participate are displayed. Actually you sitting down in the seat, please try atmosphere and handling feeling et cetera, freely. There is also a colourway of the body. Please request the unclear point and question, with ease.

Even from now on with HONDA welcome plaza Aoyama, regardless of the two wheels ・ four wheel the event which you can enjoy to everyone it is in the midst of planning. Concerning future schedule, because it keeps publishing to event news on occasion, don't you think? propriety everyone please check!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

As easy as 123


Last night's Japanese class produced a language rule that completely amazed me - different counting systems are used depending on the shape of the object you're counting. In English we would say 'three bananas', or 'three postcards', but in Japanese the words used to correspond to the number three above would be different. There's the -mai system, which relates to things that are flat (plates, tshirts, slices of pizza etc), and the -hon system for things that are cylindrical in shape (bottles, trees, fingers etc). If you happen to be counting something that's of an indeterminate shape - like potatoes, televisions, lions - you use the more regular hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu (i.e. 123) system. The -mai and -hon systems above are combined with the other 123-system - ichi, ni, san etc. However the hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu system only goes up to ten - after which you swap to the ichi, ni, san system. Confused? As you can imagine this led to a barrage of bewildered questions that verged on the philosophical - How thick does a book have to be before it ceases to be flat? How would you count trees that have fallen over? What if the pizza's deep-pan?

The second half of the lesson was spent looking at Japanese words that have been developed from English. They look almost unrecognisable when written phonetically, but when you see the word 'sanoitchi' next to a picture of a sandwich, you get an idea of the prononciation. Japanese is of course an ancient language, so modern inventions are less likely to have 'original' names - like 'kamera', 'terebi', 'sutereo' - and my personal favourite 'tepu-rekoda'. Try saying them aloud and the meaning becomes clear - if you want to do some baking, you might put on an 'epuron' beforehand. In a department store you'd go down an 'esukareta' between floors - and maybe come back up in an 'erebeta'. And if that special someone bought you a 'purezento' - you might tell them those three little words - "Ai rabu yu".

Monday, August 22, 2005

How to boil rice

Geraldine finishing the obento

My near-total immersion in all things Japanese continues apace - whether its reading about the country, studying the history, learning the language, or defeating her armies on Battlefield 1942 at my local LAN gaming cafe. This weekend I added another string to my Japanese bow by learning how to cook proper Japanese food at a college course. I had noticed the one-off course when I was signing up for the language school, and suggested it to my flatmate Geraldine who is also a fan of raw things on rice.

The course was held in a school in Leichhardt, an area with a large Italian population a short bus ride west of the city centre. There were about 15 people in the class, run by two Japanese ladies. I've never even considered going to a cooking class before, but I've got to say it was pretty good. There was a mix of people there from the older serial mature student types down to working travellers like us. After a quick introduction to Japanese food, we had a traditional elevenses of green tea, rice crackers wrapped in seaweed and a 'healthy snack' - small bags of flaked almonds mixed with tiny dried fish. I do mean tiny, the longest of these dehydrated guys was about the width of my thumbnail. They reminded me of the neon tetras I used to keep as a young lad. Still, they tasted pretty fishy - and went well with the almonds.

We learned to cook chicken teryaki, salmon, bean salad with sesame dressing, egg roll, and rice balls. The method of doing the rice was interesting, as it took ages, but produced amazing sticky rice - the proper stuff. You have to knead the rice under cold water until no more starchy stuff comes out, apparently - then leave it for half an hour before you start cooking it. I just boil it for 20mins and drain the scum off - but no longer! We watched while Sumi-san did a demonstration, and then divided into groups of four and did our own versions. We were paired with a couple of students (the young variety) who enjoyed themselves despite having almost no cooking skills - but the food we made was amazing. At the end each foursome had prepared their very own Japanese obento lunchbox and we all sat down to eat. It really was good stuff, and thanks to the course, I now know how easy most of it is to rustle up.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

On the trail of Billy Blue

Luna Park - Sydney's controversial fairground

Yesterday I took a short hop over the water to North Sydney, and walked back down to the harbour. One of the closest spots you can reach to the other side is at Blues Point Reserve, a small spit dominated by a large tower block. Universally derided since it was built, Blues Point Tower is consistantly voted Sydney's ugliest building, although to me it's no worse than any other concrete tower block. Of course very few concrete tower blocks are built within a few feet of Sydney harbour, and with views back to the bridge/Opera House/etc. If it wasn't there, the site would only be full of swanky condos I imagine.

One of the first people to live on that spot was a colourful character named Billy Blue. A Jamaican, he was transported for stealing a bag of sugar, and after his sentence ended he acquired a rowing boat and became a ferryman. The first to help people across the harbour, Blue was something of an eccentric. By 1807 he was a local legend, seen shouting at people from his boat (he ended up with a small fleet of rowing boats). Awarded the title 'Water Baliff' by the Governer of the colony, Blue preferred to be called the 'Old Commodore' and dressed in full naval uniform. He got so eccentric that eventually he would refuse to do the rowing, and his passengers would have to do it themselves. He demanded people salute him as an officer, and would entertain people with tales of naval adventures. When he became too infirm to take to the boats, he was granted the patch of land where his ferry started, and when he died aged almost 100, it was named after him.

A short jaunt around from Blues Point is the Luna Park fairground - the monstrous gates of which are something of a local landmark. They are illuminated at night, and can be seen from Circular Quay, like some kind of grinning troll sitting under the far end of the bridge. The fairground opened in the sixties, but was closed after a catastrophic fire on the Ghost Train killed about half a dozen children. Eventually it re-opened, but has struggled since to pull in the punters. It always seems reasonably busy, but I guess the lure of fairgrounds has faded for kids these days. The locals over at Milson's Point hate it - they get the screams and banging music from 10am to 11pm every day - it obviously intrudes on their pristine views. Maybe they should move to the Blues Point Tower, which is always said to have the best views in the city - as it's the only view where the Tower isn't in it...

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

13 into 10 doesn't go

Kyo wa ii tenki desu ne

Last night was lesson three in my Japanese course - and the difficulty levels have soared compared to the first two weeks. I'd only just learnt how to count from 1-10 - this week we covered asking the time, telling the time, counting to 100, days of the week and months of the year. Some are relatively easy, like the last category there - January is 'month-one', February 'month-two', March 'month-three', and so on. Telling the time is much harder - for 11:30 we would say 'eleven-thirty' - this translates as 'juichi-ji han desu'. 11:40 is 'juichi-ji yonju-ppun'. It's pretty tough, especially when spoken quickly.

Counting to 100 is reasonable, once you've mastered the premise that Japanese numbers are similar to the French system - 20 is 'two-ten', 30 'three-ten' etc. It just takes a long time to learn. As Nobuko-san said when our faltering voices tried to say 67 'rokuju-shichi' 'Numbers are killing you'. It doesn't help that three of the basic numbers - 4, 7, and 9 - have two alternative sayings. 4 as a number is commonly 'shi', but 4 written as part of a phone number is 'yon'. If you get mixed up, both are understood, but essentially you have to learn 13 numbers to be able to recite the top ten. 'Japanese is a moody language' admitted Nobuko-san, to which we all admitted 'Hai. So desu'...

Monday, August 08, 2005

Birthday feast(s)

How many candles?

Last Wednesday was my birthday, and although the thought occurred to me to take the day off, I decided to work as normal - no such thing as free time off for us temps. It wasn't that bad really, the people at work got me a cake and then the two women I work for in the HR department took me to lunch at a nearby Marriott hotel. It was a gloriously sunny day, so we sat outside on a patio with a few conference delegates and the droning traffic to keep us company.

When I got home the food-related celebrations continued as my flatmate Geraldine cooked an outstanding curry for me, which we ate in true birthday style - in front of the telly. Afterwards she disappeared and came back with the cake from my work (they made me take it home) covered in candles. I'd not had to blow out candles since I was a kid, so gave it one almighty puff - and succeeded in removing the top layer of shaved coconut all over the carpet. Still, I got most of the candles out as well.

My other flatmate was away then, so the three of us went for dinner last night to a French restaurant in Surry Hills. Whenever you read a description of Surry Hills, the word 'bohemian' is usually in there somewhere. Essentially the area is a bit grubby, but down to earth and with a lot of hidden restaurants, bars and galleries. I suppose it all depends on your definition of bohemian - or if you even care. Still, the restaurant we went to was very good - proper French food, very tasty, very little of it, piled in artful towers in the centre of the plate. It was expensive ($50), but good - although I could have eaten everything again - as Gerard said "There's a bowl of Weaties at home with my name on it."

On the way home we stopped in a pub for a couple of drinks, and arrived just before England beat Australia by 2 runs in an incredible finish to the 2nd Ashes Test. The result caused a fair bit of shouting, and predictably a fight broke out - Surry Hills is popular with Brits for the cheap rental prices. The lone doorman did his best to get in the middle, and did a good job of chucking out one side (the Australian) and barring the other (about five English lads - who were getting quite a kicking) from leaving. It spilled out onto the street eventually, but everything had cleared away by the time we left. Still, it gave me something to write about, eh?

Monday, August 01, 2005

Away from Home

Palm Beach (left) and Station Beach from Barranjoey Head

I went on another exploration on Sunday, this time to the far North of the Sydney boundary. Imagine, if you will, getting on a bus in the centre of your city and being driven for 1hr 45minutes. Not a coach, or long-distance vehicle, but a regular city bus. The L90 goes such a distance, from Central Station to Palm Beach. My 40-minute journey to work passes 11 fare stages (i.e. 11 places where the fare increases slightly). The trip to Palm Beach passes 29 - although even then it costs only $5.20 to get there (just over GBP2). It's a long way to Palm Beach.

But is it worth it? Well, sort of. It's a nice beach, the waves were the most impressive I've seen for a while - certainly the loudest. Palm Beach itself lies along one side of Barranjoey Head, a hammer-shaped spur that juts out into the mouth of the Hawkesbury River where it meets the Tasman Sea. I walked up a trail that wound up a forested hill to a lighthouse, with impressive views around. Back down by the beach seaplanes took off regularly, shattering the silence as they battered across the water to gain elevation.

I'm told that nearby Whale Beach is even nicer, but didn't have time to get down to it. I'm also told that they film the outdoors portions of the soap Home and Away around these beaches, although I've never seen it, of course. Ahem. It was certainly a good place for a Sunday afternoon stroll, but in my opinion there are nicer beaches nearer to the city (within 20 fare stages at least).