Friday, June 22, 2007

Part 3 - postscript

Er, my comment about 'balance' was more curt than it ought to have been. Poorly considered, in fact. My apologies, abjectly, to my two friends who suggested a balance.

I'm coming around on the idea. I'm indebted to you even for reading. Thank you.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

One Hundred Things I Love About Australia: Part 3

Back again!

First, a couple of people have asked whether I'll do a list of One Hundred Things I Don't Like About Australia - for balance. Answer: I don't know. Balance? *shrug* Meh.

In any case, I'll think about it. But for now, here is the third installment:

21. Fishing. It's all around. Australians love to fish, whether it's perching a rod on the pier, casting out into the waves on the beach, chasing marlin offshore, or -- where I come in -- fly-fishing the streams of the mountains and tablelands. Now, I'm not anything like an avid fisherman. I've caught one fish -- that's right, ONE -- a smallish rainbow trout -- in my thirteen years here. But I appreciate the skill and craft involved, especially of fly fishing. Figuring out what the fish are hungry for, presenting a fly that looks right and delivering it in a convincing manner for the circumstances at that moment, impress me. I always enjoy it when I go. And it's an excellent excuse for a walk in the countryside.

22. Sports News. I remember from The Old Days in the US that the local news gets half an hour, then it's the national news. Here, at least on Channel Ten, it's half an hour of News, then half an hour of sports news. Every night. All the football codes are covered: rugby union and league, Aussie Rules, and football (or TSFKAS - The Sport Formerly Known As Soccer). Then there's cricket, swimming, auto racing, motorcycle racing, horse racing, netball, golf, hockey (if you mean NHL, better say "ice hockey"), basketball, on and on.

The acclimatisation from American sports to others takes some time, but it happens. It's helped by the fact that the commentators are very good; you can actually learn about the sports as you watch. Which is something else; after a lifetime of watching gridiron football, I still don't know what a 'nickel' defense or a nose tackle really is, or why a lineman is more suited to guard than tackle. (I like football well enough, but I don't understand the jargon.)

23. Blundstones. Work boots - ankle-high, brown, clunky but light. A U of elastic on each side, and pull straps front and back. Classic workwear. They're comfortable, and they're uniquely Australian. They work.

24. Roo Bars. I first saw these monsters on the fronts of semi-trailers in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, back in the US in the Eighties. At the time, I figured they'd been invented for the film -- rough-and-ready highway armor. But no -- they're real, and they're here. Big, heavy-gauge metal frames hung on the noses of trucks, utes, and cars, they protect the vehicle from damage caused by hitting a kangaroo at speed.
It's pretty tough on the 'roo as well.

25. Touch Footy. The social version of rugby league -- backward passes, six touches to score, same-sex or coed. It's great fun - a very good game. Also an excellent pretext for Sunday brunch at, say, a cafe on Bondi Beach, or a Tuesday evening 'cleansing ale' before heading home.

26. Crosswalk Signs. Disembodied legs - pants and shoes - almost Mod-looking. Simple, effective, stylish, amusing.

27. Small-time big-time dramas. In real life and in TV, the scale of sensationalism is lower here. It's crept upward, and the difference may no longer be what I imagine. But, well, too bad. This is my list. My impression is this: Things that might not make US local news still manage to make national news here; a robbery in Melbourne might get reported in Sydney. Imagine a holdup in Chicago appearing in the New York news; no chance.

The great afternoon soaps here are Neighbours and Home and Away. When I arrived in 1993, I got a kick out of watching them, because the big event on a day's show might be that, oh, Shane wagged school that day. How novel, how reassuring, that truancy would be the biggest problem!

28. Handmade chocolates. One doesn't usually think of Australia as a leader in chocolates, but, in my corner of Oz, I do. Within, say, ten minutes' drive of where I live, there are perhaps half a dozen shops that make their own, utterly exquisite, chocolates. The flavours are imaginative, and the pieces themselves are beautiful to behold. One of my favorites is Belle Fleur, which was four blocks from our previous house. They always have a large window display, made entirely of chocolate. This one, from Father's Day several years ago, is one of the classics. It's nearly life-size. Love the white chocolate propane tank.

29. Spitting the Dummy. I'm not a fan of the act, mind you, but "spitting the dummy" is one of the greatest idioms I've ever encountered. Dummy is what Australians call a pacifier; that key bit of knowledge tells you exactly why the phrase is an apt description of a tantrum or rant. It's perfect, and I'll admit to a smirk every time I hear the expression... even when I'm the subject in the sentence.

30. Gum Trees. Wonderful, stark, twisted trees are the eucalypts. There are, I'm given to understand, hundreds of varieties of gum tree in Australia. The dusty green of their long, slender, pointed leaves, and the stripes of bleached grey and cedary red on their trunks, and the dangling bark-strips found on some types, typify the muted range of colours in the general Australian landscape. The wild colours of birds - the parrot-green and purple of the rainbow lorikeet, the rosella's blaring scarlet, and even the snowy white of the sulphur-crested cockatoo - are startling in comparison.

But it's the gum-tree's gnarled, contorted shapes and shadows that make it so haunting and beautiful, even in its vast abundance.

Coming up: Place names, the Sydney Opera House, Mambo, Christmas in Summer, Rocket, Tin roofs, and more.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

One Hundred Things I Love About Australia: Part 2

Right. Now, where were we? Ah, yes:

11. Tim Tams. Just another chocolate biscuit? Nah. Not even. Two chocolate wafers - not too wafery - stuck together with a layer of soft, almost vapory chocolate frosting as thick as the wafers (not that lardboard stuff in Oreos, though I'll eat a sleeve of Oreos from time to time). Coated in chocolate. Descriptions, though, are useless. If you haven't tried 'em, DO IT. The legends are true. Some aficionados like to nibble off opposing corners and sip their coffee through a Tim Tam, which then gets melty. I've tried it -- it's not quite for me, but I'll try it again. There really ought to be a Kama Sutra of Tim Tam eating.

12. Question Time. Just as ugly as any reality TV, except that it's the government in action! Parliament Question time is the real stuff -- hideous to watch, embarrassing, and biting. It's the MPs in debate, taking turns on the floor. They have to address all remarks to the Speaker, even though they're clearly directed to various members of the opposite party. The Prime Minister, the cabinet, and the Opposition members are all involved; imagine President Bush having to roll up his sleeves and argue his points in the pits with Congress, while they shout him down. That's the stuff. I can't stand watching this, but at the same time, I love it.

13. Cricket. Sure, a Test match can go five days and result in a draw. But, let me tell you -- as a lifelong baseball fan -- it's great theatre. No "three strikes and you're out"; the batsmen (two at a time) are in until the defending team can get them out. And it's not a sissy's game: you've got to catch the ball - it's much like a baseball - with your bare hands, and bowling at the body is fair game. How the pitch wears over time, and how the ball wears, are all part of the strategy. And sportsmanship rules. Get too stroppy with the umpire, and you might lose your match payment (if you're pro, that is). Sure, it takes getting used to as a spectator, but it's a fine, fine sport. Plus, any sport where the Aussies can wallop the Poms on a regular basis is great fun.

14. Pubs. One of the things I noticed when I first arrived is that everybody goes to pubs. Sure, there are nightclubs and such, but what I like about pubs is that they're inclusive. All ages. My now-fading memory is of bars targeted to age groups -- most everyone in the place would be within five or ten years' age of everyone else. Or that's how it seemed. It doesn't seem that way here; at a pub, you'll see people from eighteen to whatever. And they're more social, in a broader sense: you could take a family to a pub for a meal, although the kids might not be allowed in the bar area. And (this might be a recent development) the food's likely to be decent or better. The footy and the races will always be on the TV, of course. If you find one with a bandstand instead of a roomful of pokies, so much the better!

15. Meat Pies. Fantastic. The standard stadium-fare 'meat' pie may not have much in the way of meat, but otherwise, they're brilliant. Warm, with a flaky crust and savoury filling, with tomato sauce (it's not "ketchup" here) on top, they're a joy. And, to be honest, the hot dogs you find at stands outside the pubs late at night are definitely best avoided. Good hot dogs are as scarce here as good Mexican food; fortunately, they're redundant, thanks to pies and chips (and kebabs -- another story altogether). There's a French bakery across from where I work, and it sells the most wondrous concoctions under the banner of Meat Pies: chicken forestiere, steak and mushroom, boeuf bourguignonne, lamb and black pepper, standard mince. Sounds chi-chi, but you just get here, and I'll take you there for a pie. You'll see.

16. Butchers. We get so used to supermarkets. Everything's all wrapped up in neat packages. But here, in many places, you'll still find the small shops: the fruit-and-veg shop, the bakery, and the butcher. In my suburb -- one main street, less than half a kilometer -- we have four or five butchers, two or three bakers, and a fruit-and-veg shop. That's in addition to the supermarket and the two seafood shops. Getting meat that's been fresh-cut, and recommended by the butcher who cut it -- often to your order -- is fun, and it's vastly superior to the shrink-wrapped supermarket fare.

17. Parks. Cities in Australia have a lot of open space. They protect their parks and invest in them. The playground equipment is modern and innovative, the jogging and bike tracks get used, and the playing fields attract all kinds of activity. Kids, dogs, joggers, touch footy games, ibises and cockatoos. And even in the city, grassy places to have lunch. Sydney's urban planning problems are bad now -- the roads and public transport can't cope with the burgeoning population, and we're running out of water -- but, fortunately, the parks are already there. And the local councils fiercely defend them. Quality of life gets top priority here; Australians know how lucky they are to have what they do.

18. Bluesfest. Every year at Easter, there's this wonderful festival at Byron Bay, in northern New South Wales -- the East Coast Blues & Roots Festival. We've been five times, and when my youngest is older (maybe next year), we'll go again. It's four-and-a-half days. Byron's historically sort of a laid-back, tie-dye and surfing town, but it's become hugely popular. Still, though, it's wonderful. And the Festival is brilliant; the headline acts range from ZZ Top to R.E.M. to James Brown to Parliament/Funkadelic to Dave Matthews to The Wailers, but it's almost always the lesser-known acts that wow me. Lots of blues, and a touch of everything else. I could rattle on for hours. The music starts every day at 1PM and goes to 11PM, with four stages going. So, in the morning, there's the beach -- the place is known for good surfing, and we've seen pods of dolphins on more than one occasion -- and the rest of the day there's food and music. And as big as it's gotten (not Woodstock-big; they limit the ticket sales, and the festival sells out every year), I've never seen or experienced the slightest aggro. People take their kids (we did); kids go on their own. We rent a place on the beach, with friends, and take the week. It's bliss. The only hard part is having to leave.

19. Vegemite. As with Tim Tams, the legends are true. It's dark-brown, salty gunk. It's fermented yeast. Whether it is actually a byproduct of the brewing process, I don't know. But, strangely, it's good on toast, and it's full of Vitamin B (a very good thing to have in the morning when you're 'not feeling the best'; Aussies know a little something about next-day recovery). I have mine on a toasted bagel with Tasty cheese (something like sharp cheddar). Kids grow up with it and actually ask for it; if you try it for the first time as an adult, you won't believe me. But it's true; ask my kids!

20. Seafood. Seriously wonderful. All kinds of fresh fish and seafood -- king prawns, crab, yabbies, scallops, calamari, octopus, mussels, the lot. The restaurant eating is divine, and reasonable. (Remember, no tipping!) If you enjoy wine, Australia does very, very well at that too. But one of the greatest archetypal Australian experiences is fish and chips on the beach. Fresh fish and hot chips, with a lemon squash or a cold beer, with your feet in the sand, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience you can have every weekend. There's always an option to order specific fish -- "John Dory and chips" or "Barramundi and chips" -- and that's great -- but, when I'm taking it out in a cardboard box and sitting in the sand, the regular "fish and chips" (usually flathead or something like it) suits me very well. Fried or grilled. I love it.

Coming up: Fishing, sports news, Blundstones, roo bars, touch footy, crosswalk signs, and more.