Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Desert Island Disc Diva

My snapshot of the day is the man who was probably in his mid twenties who paddled into the beach on his kayak at 6.30 a.m. this morning. Watched with fascination by my fitness group he proceeded to towel himself down, change into his suit, put on his cufflinks, comb his hair using the wing mirror, jauntily stick on his sunglasses and drive off in his BMW, kayak strapped on top. I am ashamed to say we all looked at each other and went as one “Real Estate agent”.

It really dates me that I can talk about being an expat before email, Skype and the Internet shrank the world. When we lived in Hong Kong in the early 1990s the mother of one of my great friends, used to tape the BBC Radio 4 soap “The Archers” and send it out to her, which seemed to me the height of maternal devotion.

Nowadays I stream Radio 4 through the Internet and pick and mix my way through programmes. My current addiction is a Radio 4 Desert Island Discs programme that I have been listening, and relistening to, that focuses on Jimmy Mulville, the UK comic and writer. (
Such is my grip on popular culture I have to confess I had never heard of him before, but I have to now admit to a major long distance radio crush on the man and want him as a friend as he sounds such an interesting and entertaining person. Family and friends are obviously very important to him and one of the most moving bits of the interview was when he talked about his group of friends who all get together once a week. Another great point in his favour was that he chose David Bowie’s ‘The Jean Genie’ as one of his records which was enough to have me bopping round the kitchen with enthusiasm – try not to visualize this scene. I was actually supposed to be on a breakfast banana pancake production line at the time, fortunately the smoke alarm was enough to rouse me from a re-enactment of the dance moves that cleared the floor quite literally during my teenage years. The house has been reverberating to Bowie ever since, causing groans of despair from the Drama Queens.

Being a complete egotist, I have now been amusing myself considering what to include on Desert Island Discs when I am invited on – Dire Straits ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and Lou Reed ‘Perfect Day’ would be up there, along with “Flower of Scotland’ as roared out by the crowd at Murrayfield as the Scottish Rugby team run on. Sibelius’ ‘Finlandia’ would bring back memories of studying for ‘A’ levels, whilst Chris De Burgh’s ‘Patricia the Stripper’ would immediately conjure up late night student parties during my first year at university.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Swinging from the chandelier

Divorce may be on the cards. I am eyeing the phone with a fair amount of nervousness, waiting for the moment when Husband, who has just arrived at his parents in the UK after a flight from Asia and a three hour drive from Heathrow, discovers the ‘small’ package that I am hoping he will bring back to Sydney.

I fear I may have fallen prey to my greatest sin, over ambition on the luggage front. I am not sure I have much confidence in Husband’s ability to hold back on the bad language when the man from Tesco Direct staggers up his parental driveway later on today clutching the supposedly miniscule package. It actually contains a glass chandelier – or more accurately a chandelier made out of 37 wine glasses. Hopefully this should provide a link to a picture of it in all its glory:

The product notes re. the chandelier, which by the by, I think will be a thing of beauty and jolly useful when we run out of glasses, say it requires self assembly but even in my most optimistic mood I can’t somehow see how 31 glasses can be flatpacked. I have a sneaking suspicion that even if Husband nobly lugs the large box round London and onto the plane, by the time it reaches Sydney there may be a certain chipping and tinkling sound more characteristic of a traditional cut glass chandelier.

I have in fact caved and sent Husband an apologetic email suggesting that if he feels he and Qantas will be unequal to the transport operation that he sends it seamail – in which case if we are lucky it might get to us for Christmas and lead to a new party game for all the family involving industrial quantities of glue.

I am aware of the insanity of my actions (thought I’d better get that bit in before the phone goes) – my only excuse is that I think I have fallen prey to that expat malaise where you suddenly feel cheated that you can’t access normal parts of your home country’s life and you irrationally long for a delivery from Pottery Barn or Tesco both of whom remain resolutely domestically minded in their delivery policy– so let’s hear it for the companies like Marks & Spencer, Boden, Land’s End and LL Bean that deliver internationally – you’ve made many an expat very happy!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Catch me a Ranga and other great Aussie slang

I love the way language and slang is a constantly evolving art form. When we first came to Sydney in 1991, the two bits of language that took my fancy, though they both now seem to have fallen out of common usage, were “Buckley’s” meaning no chance and short for “You’ve two chances, Buckley’s or none” and a “Furphy” which is a nonsense story or rumour.

When we moved to New York I was puzzled by what a “click” could be, in the sense of “those girls, they’re a real click” until I realised we were talking the same language but with a completely different spin on the pronunciation front, and from then on ‘my clique = your click’. ‘Schlep” was another NY word that I added to my vocabulary with glee, somehow “It’s a schlep across town” sounds more glamorous than “It’s a trek”, though in an example of how words rotate through age groups, ‘Trek’ is now a completely overused word in Drama Queen No.1’s 15 year old vocabulary with any journey involving her feet and a distance of more than 100m being labelled ‘a complete trek’ and immediate vehicular assistance demanded.

My current favourite bit of Aussie slang is “Ranga” – I think it combines all the attributes of great slang, it rolls off the tongue, is irreverent and as soon as you hear it in context, “See that girl over there, the Ranga” you immediately know what it means. Two of my brothers are Rangas, and I always hoped one of my children would be – but to no avail, they are all a load of blondes with nary a red tinge amongst them. (Hopefully I’ve given any linguistically challenged readers a big clue as to what a Ranga is.) I’m not sure where the term started but it gained extra prominence when Chris Lilley, an Australian comedian, used it in Summer Heights High – NB if you are ever looking for a very funny, very non p.c. view of high school – this is one for you.

I am having a complete, not to mention very expensive, week of medical experts, having started with the orthodontist, we have now graduated to the vet. On Sunday, the dog hurled himself off a stone wall onto the beach with such enthusiasm that he ripped a dew claw. As part of the trip to the vet to have it removed we also discovered that he has a major ear infection, step forward negligent owner of the year – as with the Drama Queens, in this situation of obvious neglect, my stock defence is a bleated “well he/she looked okay to me.” I am wondering at this point whether there is a label for parents/dog owners like me – perhaps the opposite of a hovering helicopter parent, more of a submarine disappearing into the depths, oblivious to my children spluttering in the shallows.

The dog has been placed on the canine equivalent of bed rest for the week, which means sedate walks on the lead. Bouncing off the walls as a description does not do credit to the resulting surges of energy and he has been amusing himself doing four legged handsprings around the room. Just as well Husband is in Europe – otherwise I’d say the black, furry ping pong ball had Buckley’s chance of making it into next week.

As for me, it’s Friday evening, and we’ve survived the week complete with orthodontist, vet and a school project where I was co-opted as a mobile clamp. I’m off for a bath, partly to wash off the glue and wooden splinters from the Tech Design house of the future. Mental note if DQ No. 2 becomes an architect, I must check if over reliance on blu tak as construction material of last resort has serious implications for building stability. The good news is I’m shutting down the hatches and moving back into the accustomed maternal submarine mode.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Brace yourself

Despite all my forebodings re the fancy dress fundraiser, I had a fabulous time dressed as a teenager. Mutter on about fancy dress as I do, but it has to be admitted there is something very liberating about prancing around in a ridiculous outfit. I did have a nasty moment on the way to the dinner though where we shot through some traffic lights at speed and I had a momentary vision of myself being carted off in an ambulance. Never mind the clean underwear syndrome, can you imagine the humiliation of arriving at A&E dressed for dentention? In actual fact I would have probably fitted right in with the inevitable hen night casualties on a Friday night.

On Monday I took Drama Queen No. 2 to the orthodontist for that great rite of passage, the fitting of braces. Before you have children it never occurs to you that one of the closest relationships you are going to have through their adolescence is the family orthodontist. As the mother of three girls I find I am always greeted with enthusiasm by dental practitioners, to the extent that the paediatric orthodontist in America took to sending me Mother’s Day cards, a practice that alarmed me somewhat. DQ no.2 eyes this particular orthodontist with some suspicion based on the debonair way he announced last year that he wanted her to have four teeth out over the next week. I have a vivid memory of her eyes bulging with horror during that particular pronouncement – like all good dental wonks he waited until her mouth was filled with implements before breaking the good news.

We arrived early for this instalment of the ongoing orthodontic reality show, provisionally entitled, ‘This is going to hurt you, and your parents' bank balance far more than it hurts me.’ It was actually a world first for me as I am the woman who generally gallops into dental appointments with 30 seconds to spare, however true to form I had got it wrong and we were in fact over an hour early – so we retired to the Lindt Chocolate CafĂ© for some soothing carbohydrates. With hindsight it transpires that this visit to the temple of Willy Wonka where just sniffing the chocolate aroma is enough to put a good few inches on the waistline, was a good thing as DQ No. 2 in her new incarnation of metal mouth can’t swallow or chew for a bit which makes even soup a challenging meal.

She is not unnaturally miserable at the moment and I am feeling wracked with guilt that I am putting her through it. The only comfort is that I am pretty certain that a) the discomfort will pass pretty quickly and b) when she hits her 20’s, whilst she may not have forgiven me for this particular episode, she will at least not be facing years of adult orthodontics to cover a misaligned jaw. It has however made me ponder things like foot binding and genital mutilation and given me a glimmering into the thinking where a culture is created that in order for a female to be accepted, successful, fit into society she has to undergo painful change and mothers encourage daughters into things for what the mothers perceive as the daughter’s own good.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Naughtiest Girl in the School

The most beautiful morning in Sydney, I took the foul fiend (the dog, in case of pardonable confusion as to which member of the family I am referring), down for a walk along the beach at 6am. A heavy fog was banked up across the harbour with the Manly ferry and a few brave kayakers emerging atmospherically from the mist. The early morning sun was shining down on my side of the fog bank, there was a smell of blossom in the air and the dog was behaving himself – what more could one wish for?

Just as well I am feeling positive about life – the day of the dreaded Trivia Evening School Fundraiser has arrived. Dreaded on two counts, not only do I think the conclusive answer to “Are you smarter than a 5th Grader?” is going to be proved to be a resounding “No”, but even more terrifying is the merry thought that to get us in the mood we are all dressing the part. As it is in aid of Drama Queen No. 3’s primary school there is the small, or more accurately far too large, problem about dressing up in her uniform. I would be entering into the realms of la la land if I even thought there was a chance of getting into one of her dresses and frankly I am not prepared to try. I investigated DQ no 1 and 2’s school wardrobe with hope in my heart, after all they are both taller than me – however they are built like racing snakes and have thus avoided the maternal gene pool offering of short and stocky. The good, and frankly surprising news is that I have at least found a dress that fits. The bad news is that the DQs have always complained that their school summer dresses are in essence sacks, and deeply unflattering. Whilst I have always maintained they look ‘sweet’ in them, (and is there ever an adjective a teenage girl hates more), on this one they have right on their side. Surveying myself in the mirror the effect is less St Trinians/Red blooded male fantasy and more “The Fat Owl of the Remove”, for those of you who read Billy Bunter. I am thinking I might have to spice it up with some long boots and fishnets. To ensure the authentic look I will obviously be painting my fingernails black and then gnawing bits off, covering my arms with biro designs and cryptic messages, wearing a black bra and leaving the regulation top button brazenly undone.

Having now cheered myself up by imagining the limitless possibilities for embellishing my ‘uniform’ I am trying to push to the back of my mind my mother’s dictum for fancy dress, “Always a good idea to look attractive”, and I am feeling proud of myself for entering into the spirit of the whole thing – and I can tell you spirits in the form of a large gin will be the first thing I will be looking for as I make my entrance - after all I am wearing the outfit of a delinquent teenager. Actually with that in mind make mine a vodka.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Vintage school dinners - name your favourite

In a feat of amazing organisation, I managed to escape scenes of domestic carnage by 6pm on Friday night – in the wild this is known as abandonment of young, and went to the Sydney Theatre Company to see the American company, Steppenwolf ‘s production of ‘August: Osage County’. This is the second play I have seen with this particular group of female friends over the last six months, (the first was a British play, ‘That Face’), and I have to say we seem to be somewhat hooked on a theme of matriarchs with addiction problems. Drink in the case of ‘That Face’ – which could have been accurately subtitled ‘Off her face’ whilst in ‘Osage County’ the mother fairly rattled with prescription pills. I thought ‘Osage County’ was a stunning piece of theatre – I am just in awe of the writing and acting that can hold an audience for three hours, with dialogue so sharp that it provokes horrified laughter from the most emotionally charged situations. Like good books, I think good plays resonate on and you keep thinking about them and I am sure lines from ‘Osage County’ will keep reappearing in my head for years to come. Apart from anything else the woman with the pill popping propensities had three daughters – anyone else spotting the similarities here? However I think after all this maternal anguish treading the boards, my female gaggle of playgoers may be in the market for a bit of light froth a la Noel Coward for our next outing.

Before we went to the production we had dinner at Fratelli Fresh, which is a fabulous Italian providores, and restaurant that has recently opened up down the road from Sydney Theatre Company. We galloped through a glass of wine and a salad as time was short – salads are one of the things that Australian restaurants do absolutely brilliantly. One of the main salads had a beetroot base but I must confess I always find it hard to get enthused by beetroot – I have vivid memories of primary school lunches with mounds of purple mush leaking across the plate, but Australians love the stuff, to the extent that a true Aussie beefburger definitely includes a beetroot layer.

My beetroot aversion made me think about how a whole generation of UK adults was scarred by school dinners – this is not a concept that exists in Australia where although schools might have an onsite canteen they definitely don’t go in for dining halls and full scale sit down lunches. Consequently Australian adults of my age have missed out on the delights of British school food such as liver, brussel sprouts, custard and bread and butter pudding (the last being Husband’s particular pet hate and which he describes as invariably ‘slimy’). I have vivid memories of haggis appearing at least once a week at my Scottish boarding school and if I am not mistaken any leftovers used to be resurrected in the particularly delightful form of squashed haggis slabs for breakfast. Fortunately I was quite fond of the stuff and I also have to confess a weakness for the chocolate custard that appeared over a rectangular slab of ice cream and which no doubt accounted for my braw, brawny teenage outline on the hockey field.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

It's 4 a.m. and time for toast

Okay, I am happy to hold my hand up. Last week’s wet and windy weather in the UK was purely my fault. As I surveyed Drama Queen No. 3’s packing, designed to cope with all eventualities of a UK summer, e.g. shorts (unworn in the event), insulated waterproof jacket (worn most days) swimsuit (are you kidding me?), I decided the wellies she had packed were a step too far and recklessly threw them out of the suitcase. Guess what the first purchase we had to make in Orkney was? Correct, there we were straight down the farmers’ general store seeking good, strong, practical wellies. To put the weather in context, when we arrived at Kirkwall airport in the very small plane – talk about sublime to ridiculous, over the 33 hours of travel we moved from the A380 down to a 20 seater, the weather was so bad that the pilot warned we might have to circle or divert. As I anxiously peered through the cloud to spot land, my first intimation that we were about to hit the tarmac, was a sheep peering in at me.

Orkney lived up to its historical and mystical reputation, helped by the driving rain that gave everything a veiled look. No matter what the weather, it is impossible to be unmoved by Skara Brae, a Neolithic village and the Ring of Brodgar, a stone circle in the most magical scenery of hill and loch, that predates Stonehenge in terms of a spine tingling reminder of the past 5000 years.

Edinburgh was in full festival swing with a crush of nationalities and every type of performance imaginable. My father had managed to get tickets for the Tattoo which despite being the biggest tourist draw known to man, was incredibly atmospheric to the extent that Drama Queen No.3 having previously muttered about the anticipated excitement level of watching marching bands, was completely transfixed and has subsequently voted it the highlight of her UK visit.

We also managed a typical expat day of 24 hours in the south of England where we scooted across London and met a ridiculous number of friends, relatives, godparents and godchildren. I do occasionally whip myself that I have deprived my offspring of all their adult mentors so I love it when we can touch base – and I think it will be sometime before DQ no.3 forgets guzzling her way through a chocolate fondue at Selfridges with her Godfather or wandering through the dinosaurs at the Science Museum with one of her Godmothers – I think the post chocolate haze gave the moving, giant dinosaur the final, realistic touch. I met up with two of my godsons in the 24 hours and got a quick fix of them as they hover on that cusp of adolescence, so I am left with tantalising glimpses of both the child they were that I knew (though being honest as it is 8 years since I last lived in the UK they were pretty much toddlers) but also the even more exhilarating flash of the adults they will be. Perhaps this is the answer with my own particular band of merry teenagers – focus on the big picture and ignore the daily discussions about location of TV remote, house phone, tweezers and nail clippers, number of pink razors in shower, mysterious disappearance of my pair of black stilettos (don’t know whether to be flattered or not that they got the teenage tick of approval) and adult (read ancient and boring here) lack of understanding about curfews, phone bills, pocket money, and parties.

All the excitement aside the highlight for me was time with my parents – perhaps it is old age, and let’s face it, I am sensitive about the approaching 45th birthday celebration, but as I get older I realise everything else comes and goes but time with the people that you love is the only thing that really matters.

I do hate the jet lag coming this way. It is 4.15am and I am wide awake, the dog is watching me in a somewhat jaundiced way that indicates that my wandering around eating toast and drinking hot milk in the hope that the carbohydrates will have a pole axing effect on my wakeful hormones, is not normal behaviour in his canine eyes.

Somewhat to my chagrin Husband had household running like a military machine when I got home, and I am reluctantly forced to concede that I may be the source of the element of chaos that normally so characterises our life. The upside is that in the 10 days that DQ no. 3 and I were away, Sydney has suddenly hit Spring. The blossom is coming out on the trees in the road and in the evening you are suddenly hit with wafts of jasmine – and best of all I haven’t had to wear the wellies once since I got home and I have taken off the scarf that was a permanent fixture round my neck during the Sydney Winter and my UK week of Summer.