Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cold enough to freeze the snakes in Sydney

Yesterday was the coldest June morning in Sydney since 1949, with dawn temperatures of 4 oC (39 oF) and it was certainly the first time I have seen frost on the ground down by the beach. Undeterred, the usual elderly gentleman swimmer was still pounding up and down parallel to the sand. The one saving grace on the temperature front was there was no wind. The water was gunmetal grey with mist swirling round the surface like a witches’ brew which is not a look I associate with Sydney Harbour – more of a North Sea vista.

Before the plane touched down in Sydney for the first time I held most of the common preconceptions about Sydney to the extent that when we arrived at our apartment hotel and I discovered the see -through loo seat I assumed this must be the norm in Sydney households to guard against the potentially deadly red-back spiders that I was convinced lurked under every loo seat.

It was unfortunate my preconception about the prevalence of snakes in Australia was reinforced by meeting one at Palm Beach on my second day in the country. To put this in perspective this was about as rare as meeting a sheep in Knightsbridge. My first year in Sydney was in fact a cracker in snake terms – I think I notched up seven in the year including a large black snake which I spotted slithering into the communal wood pile during a camping trip – I decided I’d rather freeze to death than start pulling bits of wood and a possibly enraged snake out of the pile. I have to point out in the interests of being rational that most of the snake sighting frenzy was due to the fact that in the first flush of love and marriage we did a lot of exploring of the national parks around Sydney and that none of the snakes were remotely interested in meeting me and slithered off with commendable aplomb.

It had never occurred to me before arrival that Australia was anything other than the ‘sun-baked’ country. Bondi Rescue does not show people muffled up to the eyebrows and I had assumed Ugg boots were an Australian fashion quirk rather than a weather induced necessity. It was quite a shock to discover that whilst winter in Sydney often consists of gloriously clear days with cloudless blue skies glittering with sunlight, the temperature does drop overnight. Given it is only truly cold for a couple of months in Sydney it is quite common not to have any form of central heating in houses and apartments. The first flat we lived in in Sydney, had enormous glass windows down one side of the apartment framing huge spectacular views of bridge and city but ensuring it was absolutely freezing during winter. We swiftly discovered that when it is 10oC outside that’s fine, but 10oC is not comfortable television couch lounging weather and we took to huddling beneath duvets like a couple of Eskimo Nells staring morosely at a small fan heater.

During our second stint in Sydney we bought a house. I was carried away by the excitement of becoming property owners and the fact it was a stinking hot February and failed to pay close attention to heating situation. The house in fact was a step up in that it did have a working fireplace and as we moved into winter and the temperature dropped I began to look longingly at the furniture as potential fuel. The man at the garage who sold cut wood swiftly became my new best friend.

Third time lucky – this time when we got back to Sydney one of my main criteria for a house was it had to have some form of heating and joy of joys it does. It’s a fairly rudimentary system compared to the US models – though just to put things in perspective we lived in such a poorly insulated house in the US that my olive oil used to freeze solid and the dishwasher had to be defrosted with a hair dryer on occasion. But there is nothing nicer than waking up to the creaky puff of hot air being forced out of vents in the ground as the heating cranks into action on a cold Sydney morning.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Knock out of a World Cup night

I have been in a state akin to suspended animation all day. I look back to the days of small babies and what seemed like years of permanent sleep deprivation and wonder how I, and indeed the entire family, survived. I used to define my physical and mental state at that point in my life where I had three children under five, by the fact that if anyone had offered me a bed, or even a flat surface, in a darkened room, I would have been asleep in less than a minute. I remember the moment of falling asleep as a blissful sensation where I could feel myself hovering on the edge of a deep well shaft and then just spiralling into blackness.

The reason for the all the sleep deprivation reminiscences is because last night was like a scene from a horror movie that could have been entitled “Carry On Family Life”

We had had a relaxed Sunday complete with a walk along one of the paths that wend their way round the many indentations of Sydney Harbour, through a bush setting dominated by gums and sandstone outcrops, so I went to bed comparatively early relaxed in mind and and body – and then the evening programme kicked off.

9.30 -10p.m. Visits from various Drama Queens demanding I make sure their father wake them for the England/Germany world cup match that was due to start at midnight Sydney time. The sad demise of Australia as a contender has meant a swift switch in football allegiances in the household.

12.01 a.m. Eruption of household to watch match. I cravenly stuff my head under pillow having limited interest in football, but major interest in sleep.

12.30 a.m. The DQs retreat back to bed but husband kindly provides a shouted running commentary to ensure they don’t miss a moment of excitement.

1.00 a.m. Husband gives up on game and comes to bed.

2.30 a.m. Drama Queen throws up – fortunately into sick bowl she has thoughtfully provided herself with – one of my major child rearing milestones is when your children are old enough to anticipate need for a sick bowl and even more importantly, to actually be sick into it, rather than all over the bed/carpet/you.

4.00 a.m. Drama Queen no 1. appears in parental bedroom to say someone is tapping at her bedroom window. At this stage in the morning I am no mood for the Cathy/Heathcliff type of mysterious rapping at windows and indeed there is less of a “Cathy, come home” type note in my voice and a more of a “Nonsense, go back to bed” groan.

5.00 a.m. Door flung open yet again and a Drama Queen enters and settles herself down for the remainder of the night. This manoeuvre causes a fair amount of din, owing to the fact she mistakenly flings her duvet over the pile of approximately 100 metal coat hangers that I have been hoarding in a pile under my dressing table.

6.00 a.m. Crawl out of bed in Pavlovian response to the alarm clock, only to stand on a metal coat hanger and then subsequently hop onto sleeping Drama Queen. I exit the bedroom at a rapid hop, still cursing and examining flesh wound on foot, the thuds of my progress up the wooden hall floor echoed by the squawks of rudely awakened child.

However the good news story that emerges from all this is;
a) the occasional sleepless night reminds me there are major benefits to being a parent of teenagers rather than toddlers
b) I have survived today – despite meeting a friend this evening who looked at me with some concern and enquired if I was feeling all right – by which I deduce I must be looking wild eyed and woolly – damn, knew I should have kept those dark glasses on, but would I fear have looked somewhat strange in brightly lit supermarket. How did Jackie Onassis manage to get away with it full time?
c) Best of all – term finished for me as a teacher today and I now have glorious three weeks of holiday. I am making a mental note to schedule in some gratuitous, indulgent lying in bath or on bed with a book, to recalibrate the sleep scales.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Whose turn is it to be Australian Prime Minister today?

There I was on Tuesday making flippant comments about the revolving door nature of politics in Australia with reference to the leader of the Opposition and lo and behold I wake up this morning, Thursday, to discover we are about to get a new Prime Minister. A news flash that came as a complete surprise to me and the rest of Australia (and also presumably to the old Prime Minister Kevin Rudd). By mid morning his successor, Julia Gillard was receiving calls from foreign dignitaries congratulating her on being the first female Prime Minister of Australia.

Those living in democracies that follow the American presidential system where voters elect a President rather than a party must be baffled by the British and Australian method where the voters in effect elect a party which is then at liberty to play musical chairs with the leadership.

The same merry leadership dance goes on at State level as well. In New South Wales, the Labour party that is the current majority party in the State Government is now onto its third leader since it was elected and the cabinet gives reshuffle a bad name as it reacts to incidents such as stories of the Police Minister dancing in his underwear. Becoming Premier of New South Wales these days is actually less like winning at musical chairs and more like being given a ticking time bomb as the music stops, given the current low levels of popular support for the party.

Things are so woeful at State level that you can understand the frantic shuffling of leader but what is puzzling me about today’s leadership change at national level is that a) though Labour was wobbling in the polls, it didn't appear to be a catastrophic position and b) to the ordinary person in the street (ok, I mean me here) Kevin Rudd wasn’t actually doing anything too wrong and c)it wasn’t as if there had been an enormous amount of discussion about a possible leadership challenge.

If Gordon Brown, who benefited himself from having the leadership passed from hand to hand without a public vote, reads the Australian papers he must be thanking his lucky stars he was a member of the British Labour party rather than the Australian equivalent. Based on today’s events, had he been an Australian Labour Prime Minister the party fixers would have had him out overnight as soon as Labour’s rating in the polls started to dive.

I do find it quite irritating that in essence what has happened is a group of political back room boys/power brokers, (and I have a nasty sneaky suspicion that these characters would be predominantly male) have decided to get rid of one leader and substitute another without any form of public consultation at all. As the next Australian national election must be held before April 2011, the public will have the chance to express their view at the polls – particularly as voting is compulsory, but it still sets my teeth on edge to have been a spectator at this fairly brutal political assassination. If Latin tags were still in fashion I am quite sure Kevin Rudd would have been muttering “Et Tu, Brute?” as his formerly loyal deputy stuck the knife in and nipped past him to glory in being the first woman Prime Minister.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It's a sad state of affairs in Sydney

Part of what I love about Australians is the plain speaking – which when it translates into adverts often makes them very funny – the “Don’t be a tosser” signs that you get on litter bins strike me as inspired and never fail to lift my mood.

There is a giant billboard outside the entrance to Sydney Airport that is often used for the bursting upon the unsuspecting public, making a splash, type of giant adverts. In March this year, the billboard featured a huge image of Tony Abbott, the Australian leader of the Opposition, emerging from the ocean clad in tight speedos – budgy smugglers as they are known here in another instance of plain speaking. A picture that definitely veered on the side of the offensive if you prefer your politicians fully clothed. By the way, don’t worry if you didn’t immediately know who the leader of the Australian Opposition was, it has been a bit of a revolving door job recently.

I realise I am getting old and fogeyish but I do however really object to the current advert gracing the giant Sydney Airport billboard. It is a picture of an alluring, naked female model with the words “Life is Short. Have an Affair. While in Sydney” emblazoned across her enticing curves. It is apparently an advert for an online dating site for married people – an electronic version of car keys in the pot I guess. This particular US company is obviously targeting the Australian market – what a load of sad swingers we are, and aired an advert on television last week before the level of complaints forced it off air – go people power on that one.

I accept people have affairs and it is a reality of life but I find it offensive to have adultery promoted as a fun activity that every inhabitant of, and visitor to, Sydney could/should indulge in, in order to lead life to the full. I am tempted to take a large black paint pot and alter the bill board in a personal message to my nearest and dearest so that it reads, “Your life WILL BE short. IF you have an affair. While in Sydney OR ANYWHERE ELSE. Love and Kisses The Wife”

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Keeping up to scratch

An awful feeling has come upon me, a horrible, itching, scratching feeling. I am trying hard to ignore it but there is no denying the almost overpowering urge to scratch like the famed Mexican bandit. Just to clarify the situation, it’s my head that is doing the itching which is leading me to consider a horrifying scenario. Is it possible I have got nits?

I have been attempting to dismiss the itching as dry skin and the change in the weather, but I have my suspicions that this may call for more than shampoo for sensitive scalps. Such is the level of my paranoia that I am even willing to invest in bulk purchase of Head and Shoulders just in case this is a full on attack of dandruff. Things have got to a pretty low level when I would be pleased to discover I just had a bad attack of middle aged male scurf shoulders rather than the follicularly mobile alternative.

Being a primary school teacher, exposure to childhood infections and infestations is par for the course. Despite the added risk factor of having three children of my own I have managed to avoid nits up to this point, and have been secretly proud of the fact – oh how are the mighty fallen.

Fortunately, I have relatively short hair, which is useful when tackling nit infestations. Unfortunately it is also extremely thick, ‘yak-like’ is one of the more descriptive phrases coined by husband. The biggest problem in this scratchy situation is, to paraphrase Bill Murphy in Ghostbusters, “Who you gonna call?”. Hairdresser is obviously out of the question as I wish to maintain a cordial and mutually respectful relationship rather than start a mass fumigation of saloon. Husband if provided with comb will make a couple of half hearted pokes at my head and then shudderingly retreat saying it all looks fine to him. Imploring the teenage Drama Queen daughters to explore my head with a nit comb will shift the balance of power in the household. There are many things I ask my friends to do – but search and destroy missions on my head are beyond the call of duty.

Having read Alpha Mummy’s blog about Hairforce, the lice busting London operation I am strongly tempted to set up the Sydney equivalent. A friend and I have discussed a fleet of black vans that would draw up discreetly outside nit infected households and for a small price will get rid of the hair invaders – actually that should read small fortune for after all the truly desperate will pay anything for a delouse – and I should know.

It may be there is actually nothing foraging around in the tangled forest of hair – it’s one of those things that the more you think about it, the worse it gets. But I’m not willing to take the chance. There’s nothing for it but a chemical compound. If you should pop round our neck of the woods tonight you will find me gloomily sitting in the bathroom clad in fetching bath hat ticking off the minutes as disgusting green gloop does its work. To add insult to injury, according to an article in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, infestations of lice in sheep in New South Wales are at an all time high. I feel a fellow sympathy reading of ‘matted fleece’ - perhaps I should be investigating the sheep dip option or lousicide to give it its technical name.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Food, glorious food

There are many things that I credit with keeping me sane through this period of motherhood and wifedom; copious amounts of chocolate, caffeine and alcohol would rank highly as would the company of like minded friends, a husband who can still make me laugh, and the joys of a book in the bath at night with the bathroom door firmly locked against teenage incursions. However one of things that definitely keeps me on the straight and narrow is my exercise group. It is run every morning and evening down at the beach and I try and go three mornings a week. It starts at 6am and so at this time of year in Sydney, the initial half hour is generally spent running round a car park illuminated by a solitary street light until dawn breaks and there is enough light to see what we are doing without the help of Narnia type props on the lamp post front. Needless to say exercising in the dark and cold - and 5 oC strikes me as jolly chilly, gives an extra glow to my virtuous halo as I bounce back to the household ready to tackle the horrors of missing school shirts and nothing deemed edible for packed lunches.

As part of the exercise group I get a free consultation with a nutritionist - I had been putting off this meeting rather as one does the dental teeth cleaning appointment - you know it is going to do you good but it is not something I skip off to with joy in my step.

Fortunately the nutritionist when I do finally manage to front up is delightful, understanding and kind. She is just the type of sympathetic person to whom I feel I could confess all kinds of dietary bad habits – or at least some of them. She asked me to walk her through my average day’s food consumption and I did try very hard to be as honest as possible. It is a bit like when the GP asks you to estimate your alcohol consumption – I act on the assumption that they will automatically double anything I say so I immediately halve my intake. Having started my recitation off with porridge for breakfast I felt I was playing a winning hand although things fell off a bit by the time I reached 5 o’clock in the daily recount, which is the witching hour when I get home from my teaching job and despite good intentions on the rice cake and carrot stick front, in reality raid every cupboard in the house in search of some stodge. I finished up by mentioning the fact that I always eat an apple in the bath – with a good book – as if literature has an impact on calorie intake, before I go to bed. Having given her a reasonable idea of what I eat on a daily basis with only a few excesses in the chocolate Freddo line, mentally airbrushed out of the picture, I sat back ready to be congratulated on my healthy regime.

It became rapidly apparent I had been deluding myself on the health front. Her first considered remark was that it was pretty clear that I was eating too much. As one of my male university friends, Benny, used to say at moments of extreme shock, “I jolly nearly had a baby”. I certainly sank cravenly down in my chair and resisted the urge to clutch at my stomach.

One of the ways she suggested of getting an accurate picture of the situation was that I could keep a food diary. My initial feeling was that this could be quite dangerous as writing fiction is one of my strong points. However I have given it a go and I am now at the end of week 1 of new regime and finding it quite interesting in that I am certainly more conscious of what I am eating and I am making a real effort to eat a lot more vegetables, drink a lot more water and imbibe slightly less alcohol – I did say very firmly that a glass of wine with a meal five nights a week was a bit of a non negotiable.

The family, who are indirectly benefitting from the regime, on the grounds that it would be good for them to be healthy too, are in a state of revolt. Things on the food front were made worse by husband unsuspectingly cooking up some dodgy sausages that have been in the fridge rather too long. By the time I had finished shoveling food round on my plate to check I had the ordained half vegetable, quarter protein and quarter carbohydrate ration and realized that the protein portion was definitely verging on the very unhealthy if not deadly category, half the family had already wolfed the sausages. I am now mentally bracing myself for the onslaught of food poisoning. However the food diary for that particular meal rather smugly records lots of tomatoes and a potato as the botulism alert had gone out before a sausage touched my lips.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Small mind, small behind (some hope)

Have just waved Drama Queen no.3 off on the school bus for the week long camp that is a key feature of Australian primary school life for the older years. I did spot that the bus driver, obviously an old hand at the transportation of small children, had his ipod earphones all ready to shove in his ears to drown out the noise, which seemed a sensible precaution judging by the noise level at the farewell to parents stage. They are going by bus and then a ferry to get to the Outward Bound type campsite. It was a chilly 9oC this morning as they set off, but heavens be praised, at least it wasn’t raining – though true to form they are still gloomily predicting the dreaded catch all on the rain front, 'showers’.

Taking advantage of the temporary freedom of only having two teenagers in the house I have planned a week of riotous activity, riotous that is by the standards of a Mosman housewife, including a trip to see Sex and the City on Thursday as part of a school fund raiser. I saw a review of the film by Lucy Baird in the Sydney Morning Herald who quoted Eleanor Roosevelt, with the following fabulous, female, cutting remark.

“Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people”

I gave a guilty start when I read this quote and thought how banal most of my conversation is – definitely in the small minded end of the conversational swimming pool. It is a bit like my reading habits – I read all the time and always have at least two books on the go. My greatest fear is being without something to read so like all addicts I make sure I always have a supply of my particular drug stashed around the house; by my bed, in the kitchen (always useful to have something to read when cooking or washing up) and in the bathroom (tend to brush teeth whilst absent mindedly turning pages). I would love to say that I working my way through War and Peace or discovering obscure Patagonian authors but I have to admit I am just as likely to be reading Agatha Christie or revisiting one of the Drama Queens’ teenage books, (hope DQ no.3 hasn’t take “Six Ponies” to camp with her). Perhaps there is a similar mantra to Eleanor’s observation in terms of reading habits, Great minds read Tolstoy, George Elliot and Proust, average minds read Margaret Drabble, Jane Austen, Ann Patchett, Susan Hill, Penelope Lively, Margaret Forster, Tim Winton and Kate Atkinson and small minds read Agatha Christie, Jodie Picoult, Jilly Cooper and Mary Higgins Clark.

When I was trying to work out which author fitted into which category in my mental filing system, I decided things I find a real effort go into Great Mind category, with the exception of Middlemarch, which was a pure pleasure. Books/authors that I love reading and that create situations/characters/dialogue that resonate and stay with me, changing the way I think or see things, go into the average minds category – though I would actually never call them average, and then books I read for pure enjoyment and escapism go into the small mind category.

I have to say if Eleanor fell purely into the great mind category, she must have been quite a difficult person to know. There are days where I do read as an escape and then I want the literary equivalent of a warm bath, all froth and bubbles and brain in neutral. Likewise although my day is bereft if I haven’t read the paper, I also have days where I don’t want an intellectual conversation, I just want a large skimmed latte and a giggle and gossip with my friends and yes, we are far more likely to be talking about who is doing what to whom on the local stage, than events in the global arena and that's not because we are small minded dim women, I have fabulous smart sassy friends - Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha don't even come close - it's because it is an easy way to relax.

Resolution for rest of 2010 – balance is everything – make sure I hit some great minds points in my day, but remember it’s the small minds bits that help keep me relatively sane.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Do labels stick in the rain?

Words almost fail me. The forecast yesterday in Sydney was for ‘showers’. Now I don’t know what particular picture ‘showers’ conjures up in your mind, but in my head I had images of light sprinklings of rain, sudden quick downpours, and then the sun magically creating rainbows and diamond sparkles everywhere. Nowhere in my imagination does ‘showers’ encompass tropical monsoonal deluges of such volume that they close roads and create a spectacular waterfall effect over the sandstone escarpments that line the main road north out of Sydney. Forget my petty dithering over relative price attractiveness of various brands of wellies, given that 66mm of rain fell in some parts of Sydney over the last 24 hours, what was needed was an all in one wet suit.

I have been having a good week in terms of finding quotes I like – this one comes from Noel Coward in The Times, courtesy of ‘The Week’;

“I believe we should all behave quite differently if we lived in a warm, sunny climate all the time.”

I am sure part of my normal happy mood is related to the fact the default setting in Sydney is sunshine. And to carry on Noel’s point I have come to the conclusion, that if you live in a normally blissful climate with more of a drought problem than a flood issue, you feel abnormally aggrieved and bad tempered when the weather turns nasty.

My laundry cum scullery is particularly depressing me at the moment. It is never really a thing of beauty, being the general family dumping ground and washing in transit lounge. Incessant rain has meant however that it is now filled with wet and damp washing draped everywhere and the whole place looks like an illustration of the squalor in which the people the Victorians labelled the ‘undeserving’ poor, used to live.

I was introduced to the concept of ‘labelling’ people at a conference recently – in the context of dealing with difficult people. The idea being that when confronted with the Attila the Hun type chap, you say, “As a calm and reasonable man, I am sure you would want to share your thinking/pause before you shout at me/invade my country etc.” and Attila stops in his tracks and goes, “Well, yes of course I am a calm and reasonable man and so therefore I will behave in the way suggested”. I initially dismissed this idea as the normal conference guff but then realised I am highly susceptible to labelling myself – all anyone needs to say to me is “As an obviously caring and responsible parent ….”, and I would be putty in their hands. Likewise the male friend who hailed me with the words, “Hello sexy wife”, which merely proved there is no better instrument for flattery than a large trowel, but did ensure I will be smiling particularly kindly upon him for the rest of time. I have come to the conclusion ‘labelling’ is in fact a form of rank flattery, and as such, works remarkably well and I shall be practising it on my nearest and dearest which may alarm them somewhat. I have had to point out to husband the dangers of reverse labelling though, together with the strong suggestion that the words "well you do tend to blow out like a balloon" should never cross his lips again, no matter how absent minded the utterance.

As there is a pause in the weather, I am off to walk the dog (label: loyal, obedient and trustworthy) before the next deluge requiring two by two evacuation to the ark starts.