What I did on my Australian vacation.
Fighting the clock
- Half the hotel-room power won’t work unless you plug your keycard into a wall reader. I got two keycards and Dave Shea didn’t, even though he was staying with his Missus. April would later earn significant props at the final piss-up for turning my way and blurting out, unprompted: “So how long have you been straightedge?”
- Mother of God, Australian TV is terrible. And I never did get to see Kath & Kim! I keep getting up at ungodly hours and have nothing to watch but U.S. Christian-fundamentalist televangelists with overlaid Australian numbers for prayer lines and Good Morning America with almost-perfectly-transcoded real-time captions, proving that the Australian way of real-time captioning is not the only one.
The perennial morning fight to find a good espresso
- Nonsense, you say, in a coffee-mad country? Well, try doing that around Central Railway. The closest shop was a Gloria Jean’s (owned by the Canadians who also run the Suction Cup) with a door wide-open to fantastically loud traffic, a J waitress who quickly learned that I also want a glass of water, and a below-working-class regular (also identifiable in Oz) who fidgeted edemically while waiting for the coffee she’d later empty sugars into. I never saw a Starbucks at all. The shop in the old hotel in that same hood refused to serve two people: An ancient aboriginal woman (with classical appearance) and me. A hole-in-the-wall near UTS in Haymarket was great, but I only got there once.
And then there’s the shop in the Valhalla Cinema.
- It was a great Saturday, actually: After shitting bricks about getting into Lindsay’s place a couple of days early, of course it was no problem, so I wandered up the Glebe Point Rd., in the “suburb” named Glebe. I remembered it from ’95. —
- Please don’t do what every Aussie did and recommend Badde Manors on the Glebe Point Rd.; apart from the “charming” olde-worlde décor (with its oppressively confining built-in tables), their coffee is atrocious. —
- Wandering further, I hit one of Australia’s comically inept and atrocious payphones to ring my esteemed colleague back home, thinking all the while of phoning the space station by toll-free number in Catherine Bush’s Minus Time. I shot typography and architecture photos. (Why photograph people? Seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.) —
- A minor mist fell. —
- I found a library branch locked up tight on a Saturday; this perhaps is one way Sydney should not try to be like New York City. —
- I marveled at the tiny, wonky bungalows with their brightly-painted wrought-iron fences and gates, and almost laughed out loud when I passed an estate agent’s window and found similar properties listed at $585,000 to $650,000. —
- And then, at long last and almost at no surprise at all, as though we were fated to meet again, was the Valhalla, where, in 1995, I spent $13 to sit alone and watch Spanking the Monkey. I can go to movies by myself less expensively at home, thank you very much. It’s reminiscent of the Fox in the Beaches here, actually. —
- I was able to sit out on the sidewalk, read the papers (to the extent their oldschool typography let me), and drink, again at long last, a proper double espresso. —
- You’ve got to be rich to have anything but a beer budget in Sydney, but maybe I have champagne tastes, since Glebe was just like being at home withi a few details twiddled.
- Here is an example of the comically outdated, almost Soviet payphones these poor sods are stuck with:
How to be on vacation
- I kept getting these telepathic invitations to events like barbecues (“Toss another foil-wrapped tofu lump on the—”) and piss-ups. They handed me a used shoephone for part of my stay; apparently I should have bought a SIM card and loaded it up.
For the last half of my visit, I couch-surfed at Lindsay Evans’s notably Modernist apartment in Chippendale. (Days later, I would bump into a befuddled senior citizen in dire need of grooming who floundered around with a map trying to get to the actual Chippen St. He was, strangely enough, from Toronto!) It was a curiously womb-like environment; the high-speed net access essentially made me as reachable as if I were at home, minus the time difference. (So mail me when you want me at the barbecue!)
- Here is the evaluation of my stay from my esteemed colleague at home: “I just can’t help thinking about you living with the guy there in his little tiny studio, misanthropic but a little verklempt by the end at your humour.” Word, as they no longer say.
- After the conference, I was on vacation, right? So why was I worried I wasn’t “doing enough” in the gayest city in the Southern Hemisphere? (Because I always worry about not “doing enough”?) Was there something wrong with me because I didn’t take any of the storied, romantic, and quite possibly oversold ferry rides, as Bowman did? I suppose if you take the ferry to PEI enough times growing up it gets a tad old. (Then again, their ferries aren’t icebreakers.) I have absolutely never been to the Toronto Islands, either, so my record of consistency is unsullied.
- I think I disappointed my Welshman, by the way. But he came all that way; he had to know I was due to go home a longer ways. I don’t know what he was expecting; the first thing I said was “I’m down from Canada.”
- When not dodging Alfa Romeos and Holdens (and PT Cruisers, Jeeps, Caravans, and a single Taurus, all right-hand drive) on the speedways that pass for streets in Sydney, I noted that handy the Glebe Point Rd. and the Broadway was Victoria Park, populated at all hours I passed by and equipped with yet another outdoor pool. Every pool I saw was in use. I am reliably told that only pussies swim during nice warm daylight hours, while the tough kids amble back from their tattooing appointments and do laps at 0400 hours. Was I the only man in Australia who couldn’t swim? (I was certainly the only one acting like the sun was shining. What’s this business we keep hearing about Aussies and skin cancer? I was the only one wearing a hat ever.)
- Taxis are so appalling in Sydney there’s an entire class of upmarket cabs that would barely be low-end here. I had exactly one native-English-speaking driver; even self-documenting instructions to drive me to major landmarks (“the Hoyts Cinema on George St., please”) elicited a request that I tell him how to get there. The Ford Falcons commonly used are simply too small.
The Bondi Icebergs Club (op. cit.) offers an amazing saltwater pool that, through well-wrought optical illusion, appears nearly boundless with the sea.
- Now, why the hell don’t I have a photo of this? Sydney crosswalks chirp and boop to let blind people know the light has changed,and they do it right, unlike here. You’re never unsure what the hell that random sound effect means, again unlike here. I found there was rather less jaywalking than expected, perhaps because you could never tell which direction traffic might be coming from. Sydney is replete with one-way streets, you see, and right turns are difficult to make; you could get plowed down by a ute coming from your right or left.
It’s ethnocentric to call another land’s trees and birds alien, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.
I assume Florida has similar trees, but do they have ibises with prehistoric-looking long hooked beaks? And are they completely ignored by the locals the way we ignore seagulls?
- I saw a total of two dogs and no cats whatsoever.
- Midnight Oil lied: The sky in Australia didn’t look any different from the one we have. Neither did the quality of light differ. Perhaps it’s different up north.
- Our Indian food is better. So’s our vegetarian Chinese: Lachlan Hardy and Andrew Stevens and I chose food over drink after the first day of the conference and ended up at a restaurant that seemed to serve duct tape, mucilage, and twigs. Do these people not have a friend in seitan? (Lachlan could not quite figure out why I found him so funny. I travel all that way and only find one fella who fulfils the Aussie stereotype of taking the piss.)
They do trials in Oz. At first the lad denied it: “We’re just out trail-riding.” “There aren’t any trails anywhere.” “Well, we were just mucking about.” “Then you are doing trials.”
- From my hotel window, I was repeatedly startled to witness, in the distance, giant jet planes flying in for a landing orthogonal to my line of sight, sometimes at 90-second intervals. And on every single occasion, I thought of the Aussies’ dependency on air travel. It is at least possible for us to take a train or a bus to a foreign country; you need a plane ride to get anywhere out of Australia. And, like only a very few countries on earth, Australia is a place so vast you need a 747 to travel between certain cities.
- I still can’t do any variation whatsoever of the Australian accent (and there are many, even among the conference organizers).
- Could someone explain why all the sugar dispensers I saw in that country save one were filled with turbinado sugar? Do Australians even notice that, as a result, none of their sugar dispensers actually dispenses those giant rocks of sugar? When you ask for water, though, they hand you a ready-made stoppered bottle and some glasses.
At the conference
- At the Icebergs Club, there was some discussion of the insane and inexplicable finale of the conference, the Web Standards Smackdown. None of us could figure this out, except of course Dean Jackson, who, if I may paraphrase Prince, smoked us all with an intellect and a savoir-faire. John’s question was: What music to use to introduce the pasty, out-of-shape, occasionally-homosexualist combatants in the Smackdown? “Eye of the Tiger” or suchlike? My answer was the kind of perfect choice that actually kills the joke: “The Distance” by Cake. The whole thing’s a blur and, apart from gaining a friend in Satan, I have next to no recollection of what transpired, let alone what music they played.
- We did a technical run-through the day before the conference to make sure everybody’s PowerBooks would work. I brought two three-quarters-full Ziploc® bags of connectors and cables with me yet managed to carry the video adapter for the wrong PowerBook. (Russ later saved the day.) I seem to have put a vegan fly substitute in the ointment by refusing to load my presentations onto a single common machine. (Well, they weren’t done yet! None of ours was! You should have seen Dave Shea beavering away. But he turned a vegan sow’s-ear subtitute into a vegan silk-purse substitute: In one of his presentations, he wrote HTML from scratch right there in BBEdit up on the big screen! In any event, my presentations are all PDFs, and I need thefull Acrobat.) We were also allowed to use the single Internet connection in the entire room. In fact, what follows is the complete list of my complaints about the conference: Not enough Internet access.
- At any rate, I had an interesting question for Bowman: “Doug, what’s that ‘Gay.com’ doing in your Dock?”
- Actually, the much-beloved Doug Bowman proved himself to be even more of that new kind of soft, quasi-gay mostly-heterosexualist than he had seemed at South by Southwest. There was some discussion in a taxicab about Doug’s absence from the red-hot San Francisco swing-dancing circuit. Something to do with striking out in love, he told us haltingly. I allowed a respectful pause and then bellowed “Get back on the damned horse, for God’s sake!” Swing dancing is too important to be impeded by heartbreak.
Maxine took all the presenters out for dinner at a Spring Rolls–like “Oriental” joint for white people down in Darling Harbour. (I can enunciate that phrase in perfect Strine.) I was well taken care of, let me tell you. En route, we passed the Imax theatre, and lo and behold there was a banner for the movie whose description track I wrote and coproduced. Sadly, it wasn’t playing with description in Oz. That would have been something, though I fear the something it would have been would be evidence of outsourcing and the reach of American culture (Canadian-made descriptions for U.S. infomercial seen in Australia).
- Wherever were the inverts? I got looked at on the street once. And I have no alternative but to report that our dear Australian friends have a certain range of looks, none of which is particularly memorable. Due largely to the different immigration history (to which I shall return shortly), our guys look better. Theirs at least will talk to you.
- Is there a reason, exactly, why I should have gone to Sleaze™? I don’t attend any of the overpriced circuit parties here. (Actually, with its vowels and abundant postvocalic Rs, that’s a useful sentence to test the range of Aussie accents.) Did I in fact really want to spend $125 to be the only fellow in the hangar (for it was held at Fox Studios) who was (a) hirsute, (b) out of shape, and (c) actually wearing a shirt?
The gang had a delicious dinner at a Thai joint right on rue Oxford. (Their secret is coconut-milk reductions.)
- I had the pleasure of sitting across from John and Sara’s friend Patrick, an arts administrator of some import who demonstrated his years of experience at making almost-content-free chitchat with people who do not particularly interest him. He showed tremendous grace, good nature, and facility.
- The last time I got that feeling was with my old friend who graduated first in physics at Queen’s and first at Queen’s. My old friend is smarter than everybody on the subway car put together, and can, at certain times, bat you around like a mouse. Patrick was, of course, more benign.
- It’s a redoubtable skill, but whenever I try it, people pick up on what they believe are indicative vocal intonations and think I’m constantly taking the piss. In truth, I am only sometimes taking the piss.
- One was almost completely unable to chat up Patrick’s bf unit Yanni. They don’t make Greeks like that here, lemmetellya.
- I will disclose that among my free-floating book ideas is one that would have legitimately required me to interview Alex Dimitriades (op. cit.). However, without an actual contract, I felt I could not actually hit up his agent. So I’m 0 for 2 for the Greek-Australians, I guess.
- I have another thing to say. I travelled around the world from one country with a population largely of British origin to another. Can somebody tell me why I saw a grand total of three redheads, only one of them good-looking? I’d get more ginger in Jamaica.