Hello Again, Sydney

One Sydney-sider's experiences moving back to Sydney after a long absence overseas.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


News from Bogota this week was that one of our friends, Irma, was taken on the paseo millonario, or millionaire’s joyride. Now, before visions of leer jets and complimentary martinis become too vivid in your mind, allow me to explain that this joyride occurs when you get into a dodgy taxi and get robbed. Usually they switch you into another vehicle at gunpoint, and then take you to an ATM so you can withdraw all your money and give it to them. The 'millionaire' part makes more sense when you consider that a million Colombian pesos is about A$500, so it’s not that hard to make (or lose) that much money.

Our friend lost about 600,000 pesos, (about A$300). Of course, far worse than losing the money is the trauma of the thing. I never got taken on a paseo, but I did get robbed and it’s a horrible feeling – that constant replay going on in your head and the ‘what if?' What if I’d caught a bus? What if I’d been five minutes earlier, or later? What if I’d been a black belt karate expert and beaten several shades of bejesus out of that hijueputa who stole my money (whose face you’ve completely forgotten btw)? One of the things that doesn’t cross your mind is, ‘where were the police?’ In Sydney we still have the idea that crime doesn’t pay, but there it so obviously does, it’s up to you to reduce the risks. Do not carry large amounts of cash around, or your credit/debit cards. If you need a taxi, call one of the taxi companies. Don’t leave yourself exposed, or as the locals say, no des papaya.

And in case any Colombians are reading this, and want to slam me for painting a negative picture of their country, I’m talking specifically about Bogota here, which is a big city and the same kind of stuff happens in massive cities all over the world. But Sydney for the most part is very different; the cab drivers still take all your money, but it’s completely legal. And the dangers are different here. In a broader sense, living in a ‘safer’ city was one of the things I was really looking forward to coming back here. Now I'm not sure how much of an impact it makes. Nothing more to say about it for now, except that I'm thinking about it. A lot.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

In the Red with Whitegoods

Forget about the face paints, thongs and the oath of allegiance (oops, I mean the affirmation of loyalty), the only things you need to be an Australian are a decent car and some debts. I'm convinced that one of the reasons I've been feeling so un-dinkum since I got back is that I had neither. But now, at least part of that has changed.

My search for whitegoods took me to Harvey Norman Auburn, which I heartily recommend if you ever want to disabuse yourself of the notion that you like shopping. Here you are surrounded by sad objects that no one loves, staff that do not care, and shoppers that seem to be fading, wraith-like into a subhuman dimension. Why do people come here?

The answer is finance -- three years interest free. So you can buy stuff and not pay any interest until 2010, or if you want to say it another way (go on, it sounds impressive) until next decade. And the more you spend the better terms they give you -- spend over $1440 and you get the full three-year term. As you can probably imagine, a lot of people come in for a clock radio and a broom and leave with a home cinema system and a bagless vacuum cleaner. All you do is walk around the different parts of the store, choosing the things you want, and then when they tally it all up you go off to one of the back rooms to get your credit rating checked and processed.

Although the rest of the experience is below par, that's the truly dreadful bit, and I fear I will not be able to successfully describe the room where I was 'approved'. I could tell you about the exhausted, grimy grey walls and ceiling tiles, or the surprising lack of contrast these made with the wall calendar of a beach at sunrise. I could describe the piped music -- hip-hop at slightly louder than background level -- or the guy who helped me, with his cocktail-frankfurt fingers and the expression on his face which suggested that the size of his digits was the least of his problems. And although all of this will give you an idea of how drab it was, it won't convey the terrible sordidness of it all. When I walked out, far from feeling empowered, I felt strangely violated.

But now we have a mattress (granted, important), a click-clack lounge, a vacuum cleaner, a kettle and a blender -- and a green GO credit card with a few grand still to spend. Shame Harvey Norman don't do cars, eh?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Whitegoods and Black Moods

Given that so many politically sensitive words have been expunged from the English language recently, surely it’s only a matter of time till ‘whitegoods’ disappears, particularly since most of them are now finished in stainless steel. I consider myself a bit of an expert on household products at the moment, as I’ve been trawling through the various retailers, looking for the best deal.

My first stop was, surprise surprise, Auburn, where a number of home-maker supercentres have sprung up close to my office. Though out here, where the M4 meets Silverwater Road (and the 14-wheeler and the articulated lorry play etc etc), ‘close’ is a relative term, especially when you’re walking.

That’s right, walking. The blocks look much bigger on the ground than they do in the street directory, and when you finally reach the humungous Bunnings warehouse, sweaty and knackered, you experience a strange epiphany. You know when you stand in front of a snow-capped mountain, or stare up at a clear night sky? You know that feeling of being dwarfed by the cosmos, when you finally comprehend I am nothing, and everything? Well standing in front of Bunnings is not like that at all. In fact, in a karmic sense, it is the exact opposite. If a person breaks down and sobs in the Bunnings carpark and no one is parked close enough to hear, does it make a sound? The answer – and I can vouch for this – is “yes”.

What you find also is that very few of the supercentres have marked pedestrian entrances. In one of them I asked a cleaner if he knew where 2nds World was. “Where is your car?” was his immediate reply. So I said, “Dude, where is my car?” Actually I didn’t. I said "I'm walking," and he looked at me like a piece of refuse that he'd missed with his squidgy broom.

I finally got the whitegoods I needed, but more of that in another entry.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Cream, bone, white, off-white, ivory or beige

Is there a greater Australian living than Richie Benaud? Last night I saw him on the Alan Border medals – sort of like Aussie cricket’s Oscar night, except with Simone Warne instead of Scarlett Johansson – when he and Charlie Macartney were inducted into the Hall of Fame. As Macartney died in 1958, his biographer accepted the award with a few polite words. Then it was Richie’s turn to take the stage. He gave a ten-minute talk which, I don’t mind saying, affected me.

He represents so many qualities that we would aspire to: he’s erudite and witty under pressure, has a collection of anecdotes that would fill volumes (and they’d be volumes you would like to read), he was a great sportsman and leader. He’s also been the voice of cricket here for decades – almost like a member of the family. There are at least two generations who will not be able to separate him from their memories of waking up on a Sunday with nothing to do, then turning on the TV just in time to see the nine golden balls of the Channel 9 logo swinging into place, and that music. “Good morning viewers, and welcome to the MCG.”

There was a nice letter in the SMH yesterday about how we don’t see statues in the street of our public figures any more because all of them so obviously have clay feet. Not Richie Benaud; you could put a statue up of him, and very few people would have a problem with it. And he’s still head and shoulders above the other commentators. Just compare him to the grotesque, reptilian Ian Chappel, or genial boofheads like Tubby Taylor and Slats. He proves that you can be athletic and articulate. Mark my words, the day Richie Benaud dies, grown men will weep in this country.

Richie Benaud = Class.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Tuning in

How do you hear new music? Do you listen to the radio in your car? Do you listen to the radio at all? Are you super-realised technologically, hand-picking the podcasts that you want from all over the world? Or are you more of an 'old favourites' type?

A few rows of partitions behind me at work, someone has the radio on constantly, just loud enough for me to get snatches of songs, but not loud enough to actually follow them. You know at trivia nights, how they have those bits where they play five seconds of a track and you have to guess what it is? Well, I'm quite good at that, and this means I get woken out of my desk stupour at regular intervals when I recognise something: there's that one with the electronic hook, the one with the male vocal singing something in a kind of happy, resigned way, there's the na-na-na-nah-nah one (female vocalist) and the one where the guy sings a dramatic descending arpeggio. I don't actually know who the artists are, or the other bits of the songs, so it's kind of a rarefied listening experience.

None of that back in Colombia. The bus drivers put the tunes on loud, and too bad if you didn't like vallenato. Or sometimes on a Friday afternoon, the classroom would be overrun by the music, blasting out from the picos at the student bars nearby. If you looked out the window you could see the kids in there swaying -- with the beat or the drinks you could never be sure. They had beers in their hands and aguardiente on the table and ocassionally you saw one or two of the students who were supposed to be in your class. And no, these were not circumstances conducive to focussing the class's energies on learning.

When I was on holidays at Lesly's parents' place, you could stay abreast of the top 50 without even leaving the house -- music wafted down the street from the nearby tavernas. 'Hey, they're playing this one again.' I miss the desorden, sure, but mainly I miss the music! Wonder what's ringing out these days?