Thursday, May 31, 2007

One Hundred Things I Love About Australia: Part 1

I'm often heard saying, when describing something I like about my adopted* and beloved homeland of Australia, something like "This is Number Eight on my list of Things I Love About Australia!". But, I fear, some believe my list is a furphy.**

I must set the record straight: There isn't a list.

Well, I've got that many things to put in the list, but I haven't done it. Until now.

So, in installments, I'll put together my One Hundred Things I Love About Australia. Which is not guaranteed to number one hundred; it could be like Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide series, which turned out to be a four-book trilogy.

Here, then, is my first ten:

1. No tipping. Waiters, hotel staff, and bartenders are paid a living wage. (I don't know about cabbies, but the last time I gave a tip to a cabbie, he said, "You're a yank, aren'tcha?" and handed it back.) I hate tipping; it's an elitist notion, and it's awkward. The idea that US waiters would be taxed on the assumption that they've made 15% in tips is bizarre. (I don't know whether that's true anymore, but a waiter once told me it was.) There are still tip jars, and some places will take tips, but it's not the norm.

2. Dealing with it. When an Aussie has a gripe with you, he'll tell you. Right up front. And he won't mince words. And you'll have it out. But then, when it's done, that's it. No grudges, no skirting the issue and pretending nothing's wrong. It's done, and you're having a beer together. I love it. I reckon I'll live ten years longer just saving the wear and tear on my stomach lining.

3. Footy. Rugby (either code - union or league) is demanding. Same guys on the pitch for offense and defense. No pads -- but the hits are big. No stop-and-huddle; get back up and chase 'em down again. To score a try (equivalent to the American 'touchdown'), you actually have to touch the ball down, or it's no score. None of this right-in-front extra-point stuff; the conversion has to be kicked from a spot in line with where the ball was touched down -- that may be right near the sideline, or it might be right in front. And no specialist kickers; the conversion has to be kicked by one of the players on the pitch. Rugby players (leaguies or rah-rahs) and Aussie Rules players are FIT -- seriously.

4. Coffee. I wouldn't have thought it, but coffee in Australia is excellent. Every cafe, every restaurant, has espresso coffee. They make drinks that are - as far as I know - made only here. Aside from cappuccino, caffe latte, macchiato and the rest, there's the flat white (cappuccino without the froth) and the long black (espresso topped up with hot water -- not too much, or it tastes too much like a filter coffee). Australians are serious about coffee; many Australians have ancestries in Italy and Greece, among other nations. Starbucks, I'm pleased to say, is superfluous here, though it's finding a place.

5. Public Beaches. The waterfront is public -- full stop. It's not a province of the privileged few. The beaches -- which are wonderful -- are all public-access, and they're usually patrolled by volunteers from the iconic Surf Lifesaving Clubs. The same applies for waterways -- rivers and streams. (I'm not sure of the shore access restrictions for streams; I'll check with my father-in-law, the trout-fishing guide.)

6. Lemon squash. I'm not a big soft-drink fan; I don't like the abstract taste, and it just doesn't quench my thirst. But I love lemon squash. It's a lemon-flavoured carbonated drink -- cloudy and yellow, and usually 5% lemon juice or so. It's sour -- jaw-locking sour. It tastes like lemon, don'tcha know. Brilliant.

7. "G'day". Yep -- they really say it here, and regularly. And it doesn't sound contrived... usually (there's always somebody who can manage it). It's either bright and cheery, or it's laconic -- either way, it's a fine greeting.

8. Local fauna. I love having sulphur-crested cockatoos, rainbow lorikeets, black swans, rosellas (like lorikeets, but red with cobalt-blue wings) galahs (like cockatoos, but grey, with a pale red breast and white crest) and ibises fluttering, soaring, screeching and squawking around the place. Driving into the country, seeing kangaroos and wombats along the roadside still cracks me up. Having to chase roos off the fairway before hitting a golf shot is magic, even when it's annoying.

9. Mangoes. A good, fresh, ripe mango, in season, is an impossibly lush eating experience. Slicing off the cheeks, then cross-hatching them and turning them inside-out to get a porcupine of mango cubes, is a daily summer luxury.

10. Lamb. I've always loved lamb. Australian lamb is amazing, and it's affordable. I remember lamb being a rare treat; here, I can have it on a fairly regular basis -- in any number of ways. Sydney's got to be the best place for eating that I've ever been -- more on that in the next installment.

Coming up: Tim Tams, Question Time, cricket, pubs, meat pies, butchers, and much more.

*: After nearly fourteen years, I feel pretty well settled in. But I still cop it for all the typical Yank palaver.

**: Sort of the Aussie equivalent of 'urban myth': A story that's making the rounds but has little or no basis in fact. Supposedly named after some bloke named Furphy (duh), who ran a water wagon around the mining camps or some such, and spread gossip. Of course, that could be a furphy.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Pearls Before Me


I set out to read a collection
Of poems by Rodney McKuen;
I decided, through much introspection,
I haven't a clue what I'm doin'.

Anthology catches attention:
The Poems of M. Angelou!
Disbelief kept in willing suspension,
I’m finished by quarter past you.

The next day I wandered unsteady,
in search of some coffeehouse verse;
I savored some rare Ferlinghetti
in landscapes of living - and worse.

If I had met Dorothy Parker,
She likely would not have been there;
A rose is a carnival barker,
But a fawning acquaintance is air.

I wandered the docks of Venezia
To breathe in the scent of Lord Byron;
But signs of his genius grow hazier,
The glimpse of a shimmering siren.

The Poest of poets is creeping
Away from my somnolent prose;
But he'll nevermore catch me weeping -
I'm off to read palms at Thoreau's.

Walt Whitman and I have a wager
About his barbaric old yawp:
When I write my first twenty-pager,
I'll yawp, and he'll yawp, then we'll stop.

When Shelley comes by for a beverage,
I run out and open the gates;
Together we muster our leverage,
And whip up a cocktail for Yeats.

A bell jar can balance a lily,
But not so Miss Sylvia Plath;
She told me my concept was silly,
preferring an aquavit bath.

And now, in the gloom of the gloamin',
While poems play out in their turns,
I wake up and think, "How at home in
This stanza would be Robbie Burns."

But guilty or innocent are we?
"Hurrah!" or "Go jump in a lake"?
Experience tells me it's sorry
You’ve waited so long, William Blake.