Category Archives: Living abroad

Bally Cotton

In the dark, the car headlights flashed onto a sign: Bally Cotton.  I went back and took a photo of it the next day.

“It was the name of the farm in Ireland Dad’s family came from,” Heidi explained.  Her dad’s family had been in Australia for several generations, while as I wrote before her mother had come as a refugee from Austria after World War II.

Her dad, Des, and her mum, Hedy, had met at work, at Commonwealth Bank.  Hedy had had to quit her job when she got married.  They had lived in a suburb of Sydney while Heidi and her sister Danielle were young, then bought this property and built their dream house. They had had cattle, but then health problems came and most of the land was now leased to a neighboring farmer.

One of the things that binds me with Heidi is that she and I are both supporting aged parents.  After visiting the farm, I will never again complain about having to drive 20 minutes to get to my mother’s assisted living facility, where there are no stairs, she gets three meals a day, someone does her laundry and gives her her medications, and she’s got loads of activities to choose from to keep her occupied.

Heidi makes this drive almost every weekend—it takes her four hours with no stops.  Danielle lives at the farm full time; it’s hard to imagine Des and Hedy being able to stay there otherwise because services just aren’t available—there aren’t enough home care providers and they would spend all day in their cars if there were.

Everything is a long-distance proposition, like getting groceries, going to the doctor, or getting an oil change.  “Blayney’s a dead town,” Heidi said.  “It had a movie theatre and a Chinese restaurant when we were kids, but then everything moved to Orange, another half hour away.”

Heidi pulled the car up into the driveway and we began carrying in our gear.  It was so dark we had to grope along the brick wall to the back door, which led to a gazebo.  Des was eating his supper and Hedy was doing what she had probably always done—cooking, cleaning, washing dishes.  They don’t use a dishwasher because it requires too much water.

I had met Hedy in London years ago and it was nice to now meet Des.  He’s had some serious health challenges uses a walker but his smile lights up the room.  Des and Hedy couldn’t have been more warm and welcoming.

Heidi showed me up to “my” room, which had been hers as a youth.  It was full of photos and mementos from high school and college days.

“But where will you sleep?”

“In with Danielle,” she replied.

“Oh you’re kidding!  Are you sure?  I could happily sleep on the couch. I could never share a bed with my sister—we both have the Restless Legs and we’d be kicking each other over the side all night.”

“Aw, no worries, Annie!  We both sleep like the dead.”

The next day was Heidi’s birthday.  We all went out for breakfast at a café.  When you have a parent who uses a wheelchair, a walker, or just moves slowly, you can’t be impatient or in a hurry.  I know this from transporting my own mother, and in my finer moments I think of the slow-motion process as mindfulness practice.

It was a cold, blustery spring day, but pleasant, sitting near a sunny window and reminiscing about Heidi as a child.

Next up for the birthday girl was wine tasting at Phillip Shaw, just outside of Orange.  We sat near the fireplace and there wasn’t a bad wine in the bunch.  They had a needlessly complicated system of characters and numbers which none of us could make any sense of.  I bought a bottle of champers for Heidi for her birthday, a bottle of red for Des and Hedy, and a bottle for the friends we would stay with in Melbourne.

We topped off the day with homemade stroganoff and a birthday cake, then turned in early.

Tomorrow we would hit the road again for the eight-hour drive to Melbourne.

Sydney to Blayney

Heidi and I would drive Auntie Margaret’s car to Blayney, a three—or five-hour—drive depending on the route.  Well, Heidi did all the driving, and thank goodness.  Someday I will overcome my phobia of driving on the left side of the road.  It’s on my bucket list.

We headed northwest toward the Blue Mountains, passing English-sounding place names like Marsden Park, Liverpool, Londonderry, Windsor, Richmond, and Gros Vale.

Then there were the—presumably—Aboriginal names, like Paramatta, Winmalee, Berambing, Megalong, and Yaramundi.   We stopped in Kurrajong for a cup of coffee, then entered the Blue Mountains.

“If you roll down your window you can hear the Bell birds,” Heidi suggested.  Yes, Auntie Margaret’s car still has crank windows.  The bells echoed near and far in the forest of Blue Gum trees.  I would love to return some day and hike through to hear the bells without wind rushing by.

When I look at the map now, I’m amazed again by the distances.  There were no straight roads, so it didn’t pay to be in a hurry. Our next stop was Katoomba.  The main street was lined with head shops and cafes serving alfalfa sprout sandwiches but most everything was closed because it was late afternoon in the off season.

“Oh, sorry, our toilet is out of order,” said the owner of the one restaurant that was open.  “The public toilet is just down the block,” and he provided complex directions. Thankfully I had not been hydrating.  Heidi braved it, “And it was pretty much as bad as you would expect,” she reported.

There was a church across the street with a tree out front covered in knitting.

I think Katoomba is probably a funky, fun town to visit in the high season.

Just outside of Katoomba was the reason we were there, the Three Sisters overlook.  My first stop was the toilet, and it made me wonder just who my fellow visitors would be.

The Three Sisters is a geological formation overlooking a vast valley.

“Can you imagine?” I commented to Heidi. “The first Europeans crossing that valley?  It reminds me of the great north woods in Minnesota, where the Voyageurs came down through what’s now Canada, portaging their massive canoes, being eaten alive by mosquitoes. And they were just teenagers, basically, from poor farms in France and England and Ireland.”

“Yes,” Heidi replied.  “I think it was pretty much the same story here, except with lots of poisonous snakes and spiders and plants.”

We took a short walk and the lowering sun threw luscious light on the gums and golden rock face.

We checked out another lookout, where a ranger who looked like Rip Van Winkle was being peppered with questions from visitors about the rocks, birds, and animals.  Most of the visitors were teens or 20-somethings from other counties and many were trying to get the perfect Instagram but they were also curious.  I know I will sound condescending when I say I found this heartening.

We drove on and took another scenic hike.  This turned out to be my favorite because the light made it all eerily beautiful.  There were these giant tulip-like flowers.

And these tiny ones.

“And I think these are Scribbly Gums,” Heidi pointed out a funny-looking tree that resembled an old man with scribbles on his skin.

“It’s getting dark,” she said.  “I don’t know how far the lookout is.”

“And it’s cold,” I added.

We turned a corner in the path and came upon a woman sitting on a bench. She was wearing sunglasses, and a parka with the hood pulled up around her face.

“Do you know how far the lookout is?” Heidi inquired.

“Noooot faarrrr,” the woman replied in a zombie voice.

We walked a few more yards, then turned back because it was getting too dark.  The woman was gone, and we never passed her even though we were hoofing it to keep warm.

One more stop in the Blue Mountains: The Hydro Majestic Hotel and Ballroom.

It was … well, deco-majestic.

Next time, I would stay the night.  We were tired and I worried about Heidi driving another two hours in the dark.

Alice to Sydney

“That was weird,” Heidi remarked as we walked on after talking to her student for a few minutes.  He was in the Red Centre for his school holiday, just like Heidi.

“You were just saying you could bump into Mr. Right around the next corner and then BAM, there was Griffin.”

“Next time I’ll specify that when I mention dating younger men I don’t mean teenagers.”

At the airport, we ran into Griffin again with his mum, who was wearing faux eyelashes.  Heidi chatted with them while I hit the gift shops to make sure I wasn’t leaving behind some important souvenir.

Then it was all aboard Flight QF791 to Sydney.  I couldn’t get the scene from the movie Rainman out of my head.  Dustin Hoffman’s character says to Tom Cruise, “Quantas never crashed.”  I couldn’t help it, I had to say it aloud to get it out of my head.  Heidi smiled indulgently.

Heidi queued up a podcast for me on her Aussie phone (as opposed to her UK phone).  I had never listened to a podcast before. I know they’re extremely popular and that the cell phone zombies all around me with earbuds in are probably listening to them.  Heidi, who spends so much time commuting, says they’re a God send.

Lost in Larrimah is a about a town of 11 people in the Outback from which one person goes missing.  It was how I learned the phrase “hooning around,” (hanging out) one of my favorite Aussie slang terms.

Sydney was cold and rainy.  The train was packed; a couple from Melbourne who were touristing in Sydney struck up a conversation with Heidi while I pretended to be extremely interested in a mobile phone advert on the wall to their left.

When Heidi mentioned we’d be driving to Melbourne in a few days, they started rattling off sights we had to see.  “Aww, you have to go see the blah blah blah!” and “You have to go see the blipplity doo doo.”  They even began providing web site addresses and street directions.

Am I the only one who finds this irritating?  Heidi was nodding pleasantly but noncommittally.  Sometimes I think I need to go live in a mountaintop cave with no human contact for a couple months to reset my tolerance for strangers.

I had topped up my Oyster card with $35, but it was minus $2 by the time we reached MacMahon’s Point.  Now it was Heidi’s turn to be irritated. “I know Sydney transport is stupidly expensive, but that just can’t be right!  I’ll call them tomorrow and fight it.  There has to be some mistake.”  She did call them eventually and spent forever being transferred and kept on hold, but got the money back.  Bravo, Heidi!

Auntie Margaret had left a bottle of cab sav for us and we partook of it while Heidi made spag bol.  Then we watched the journos on ABC and went to bed.

In the morning Heidi had to do some very thoughtful packing—she would be here, in Blayney, then Melbourne, then Canberra and possibly back in Blayney, then back to Sydney but she wasn’t sure where she’d be staying for Sydney Part II and she needed clothes for work, home, and traveling—all in the smallest bag that was not a carry on.

“I’ll go for a walk to get out of your hair,” I said, and Heidi showed me something called Wendy’s Secret Garden in nearby Lavender Bay.  She handed me her Aussie phone with the place mapped on it.  “It’s a real jumble around here,” she said.  “It looks close but it’s easy to get lost.”

And I did get delightfully lost in the maze of alleys and dead-end streets below Auntie Margaret’s flat.  If I hadn’t, I would have missed views like this.

There were lots of renos and new construction going on, adding modern houses into gaps between older ones.

I passed a construction worker smoking a hookah.

The garden had been founded by Wendy Whiteley after her husband Brett, a famous artist, died.  It was all maintained by local volunteers.

Had I inhaled?  No, the garden really was magical.

 

 

Convos

Heidi and I watched The Bachelor finale, then looked at each other wordlessly as the credits rolled.

“Right!” she exclaimed as she leaped up.  “Looks like we’re not gonna make it to the laser light show, so it’s time to watch that Aussie slang video I’ve been meaning to show you.”

We watched two Aussie guys rattle off slang, like:

Reno—house renovation

Eggs benny—obvious

Salvo—Salvation Army

Sweet pots—sweet potatoes

Spag bol—spaghetti Bolognese

“I noticed one of your Lebanese coworkers referred to herself as a Leb—would it be okay for you, as a non-Leb, to use that term?” I queried Heidi.

“Hmmm…it could have a negative connotation … I think Leb is worse than Lebo, but personally I would avoid both just to be on the safe side.”

“And do you call Aboriginals Abos?”

“No!” Heidi said emphatically, as if I had used the N word.

“We make up new ones all the time,” she looked at the list of abbreviations I was compiling.  “We call the PM Sco Mo.”  Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

There were other Aussie slang bits I learned later, on my own, like that a squatter is not someone illegally taking over a property, but a property owner, and a bush ranger is not a forest ranger, but an outlaw.

Our convo (see how I did that?) pivoted to some old TV shows that had been on in the UK during our time there.

“I saw Jonah from Tonga in Scotland late one night,” I said.  “It was so shocking—the most politically-incorrect show I’ve ever seen.  I thought maybe I was having a dream.”

Jonah from Tonga—in which 40-year-old white Australian comedian Chris Lilley plays a 14-year-old Tongan boy, in brown face.

I continued. “If you replaced Tongans with Native Americans or African Americans and showed it in the US, the stereotypes would have people rioting in the streets, demanding it be axed.  The F bombs alone would make sure it would never air.

“That said, I thought it was really funny—maybe in a ‘Borat, I’m so shocked I’m having a knee-jerk laugh reaction kind of way.’”

“You should watch his first show, Summer Heights High,” suggested Heidi. “Chris Lilley plays Jonah, and a gay drama teacher, and a posh exchange student from a private girls’ school, and it’s hilarious.”

As it happened, the next show after The Bachelor was Black Comedy, a sketch show written and performed by Australian people of color. It was clever, but not shocking or side-splitting.  Maybe I was too tired to appreciate it.

At brekky the next morning we talked about dating.  We’d both received much unsolicited and often conflicting advice from well-meaning people:

You’re trying too hard.  When you stop looking, He will appear (He, always pronounced as if the “he” in question is God)

You’re not trying hard enough.  You should try (fill in the blank) speed dating, shopping at the most expensive grocery store in town, late at night, in heels; hanging out in coffee shops/libraries/sporting events/hardware stores; trying dating apps/sites, etc.

You’re too picky.

You’re not picky enough.

Don’t try to be funny. Men don’t like women to upstage them.

Men love women who make them laugh, so act cheerful and tell jokes.

Once you resolve all your issues, He will appear!  (Some of the most f-d up people I know are married.)

Find someone who has similar issues to yours so you understand each other.

You travel too much.  You should stay put so you’ll meet someone local.

You should go work in a refugee camp so you can meet a doctor.

You’re young looking and acting, so date younger men.

Men are only interested in younger women, so date older men.

Take up snowmobiling, even though you aren’t into it.

Pursue your own interests so you’ll meet men you have things in common with.

Maybe, unconsciously, you don’t really want to meet someone.

“I hate that one,” I said to Heidi as we got up to leave, “Still, it could happen—you could turn a corner and bump into Mr. Right.”

And just as we turned the corner there stood one of Heidi’s 17-year-old students.

Swimming Holes and Badgers

Heidi and I got on and off the tour bus and walked up and down paths to gaze at ochre pits, gorges, and waterholes.  Lachlan, our guide, talked about the geology, anthropology, paleontology, and other ologies of the area with authority and passion.  We could lob any question at him and he knew the answer, but not in a pompous, lecturing way.

Any question, that is, except ones about the Dreamtime.  Again, we were told that those stories were off limits to non-Aboriginals.

The water holes were what I had been waiting for—I whipped off my clothes, ran barefoot across the blazing hot sand in the searing sunshine and leapt in, then screeched and screamed because the water was, surprisingly, cold as a witch’s tit, as the saying goes.  I ran back to the water’s edge and re-entered slowly.  It was so cold my heart was palpitating, but I did a couple laps around and enjoyed hearing other unsuspecting initiates shrieking as they hit the water.  Heidi sat in the shade and chatted with Lachlan.

I walked to the toilet block to change out of my wet suit, and saw this sign.

They had me at effluent.

As I write this, I am smiling and laughing.  It’s six in the morning; I hope my upstairs neighbor can’t hear me.  It was a wonderful day.  Another wonderful day in Australia.  These are photos of a dry riverbed and a big gum tree that had grown up out of a crack in the rock.

Here is Heidi contemplating another water hole; in the second photo you can almost hear her sighing with contentment.

We pulled into a place called Glen Helen for lunch.  There was a sandwich buffet and it looked beautiful, but it was placed in such a way as to make it very slow going to get through the line.  I thought I’d come back later.  I went outside, kicked off my sandals, and ran down to the water’s edge.

Shoe removal had been a very bad idea.  After cooling my feet in the water and checking out the birdlife, I picked my way back up to the canteen exclaiming, “Ooh aah agh!  Agh argh arrrrgh!” The sand was so hot my feet felt slightly scorched for an hour afterwards.

Back inside, Heidi was sitting at a table with a German guy from our tour who had severely wandering eyes.  He talked nonstop about how he had planned his whole two-week trip by himself.  Well whoop dee doo!  Heidi had planned a whole month. He never asked about our itinerary.  But Heidi isn’t one to one-up, so she simply smiled and nodded.  She is so nice.  Much nicer than me.

There was a tiny gift area and I picked up a book, hoping it would explain the mysteries of the Dreamtime.  However I think the author has been listening to too much digeridoo music, because none of it made sense.  Or maybe I’m just not deep enough to understand.

After lunch, another water hole.  I sat in the shade next to an weathered old man wearing a cowboy hat.  He pointed out a long line of ants and warned me not to get too close or they’d “set ya skin on fi-ah.”

Back in Alice after the tour, we stopped into a supply store so Heidi could find a fly net hat.  We found one, artfully displayed with beer goggles.

We ate some leftover cheese and crackers for dinner and Heidi flipped on the TV while we got ready to go to the laser light show.

We never made it to the light show.  We became riveted to The Bachelor—Australian version, which is exactly like the American version but with Australian accents.

The bachelor in question was called the honey badger.  He was a former rugby player.

I was fascinated and repelled. “What’s with the eighties hair and mustache?  I hope he’s being ironic?”

“I’ve never seen the show,” Heidi whispered, mesmerized and horrified.

“Yep,” I replied.  “They’re not allowed to say god—only gosh.  But then the guy is screwing two women at once on national TV and telling each one, ‘I’ve never felt this way about any woman.’”

History, Great and Grim

I hope I don’t sound critical of Alice.  The place reminded me of another country town where I have spent a lot of time—Lanesboro, Minnesota—where my son Vince lived for years.  It had the same combo of hardy blue-collar local folk, a sizable airy-fairy artist contingency, and a population that lived among but apart at the same time; in Lanesboro it was the Amish and in Alice it was the Aboriginals.  I never spoke to an Aboriginal in my month in Australia.  I never had an opportunity.  I would have loved to hear their perspective on their place in Australian society.  But I’m sure they’re beyond tired of being interviewed and researched by curious white people.  I’ll make a New Year’s resolution here to read two books written by Aboriginal authors in 2019.

We walked along a deserted road under a fierce sun in intense heat.  We had seen a sign that said, “Alice Springs Telegraph Office” but it hadn’t indicated how far.  We’d been walking for 15 minutes and there were no further signs.

“It’s a car culture out here,” I observed.

“But why is there a sidewalk?” Heidi pondered.  “I looked into renting a car but it would have been stupidly expensive.”

Thankfully we had slathered and sprayed on sunscreen and donned our hats and sunnies, or we would have been baked red in minutes.  I was happy to strike this obligatory pose since it was in a bit of shade.

We weren’t so far away from civilization that Heidi couldn’t get a signal and Google the number for the telegraph station.  She called and they assured her we would reach them in a matter of minutes.  And we did

The Alice Springs Telegraph Station is a historic trust site.  We paid a small admission fee and joined the tail end of a walking tour.  This is the eponymous (underground) spring.

The guide explained the difference between Ghost and River Red gums.  I immediately forgot.  There are hundreds of different gum species.  All I know is that they’re all glorious.

One of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th Century, the overland telegraph line ran from Darwin to Adelaide. That’s a long way.  The Alice Springs station was the halfway point and was completed in 1872.

There was a heartbreaking exhibit about a 1930s campaign that forcibly removed children born of Aboriginal mothers and white fathers from their homes and institutionalized them in Alice Springs.  The idea was to expose them to European customs and give them a “proper” education.  Which meant they lost out on education about their maternal culture.

This was a replica of the home for “half caste” children. It would have been freezing at night and scorching during the day.

Some of the children were traumatized for life, while others said being given an English education was the greatest opportunity they could have been given.

We walked around and peered into a  ye olde timey blacksmith’s shop, post office, and stables, which had a plaque telling the story of the camel’s arrival on the continent.  Camels carried a year’s worth of supplies to Alice Springs.  Their arrival must have been an annual highlight in an otherwise solitary and harsh existence.

We had paninis and cappuccinos in the office/gift shop/café, where I bought some wombat hats and a CD with Australian folk music that I have thoroughly enjoyed since, in place of listening to the news in my car.

We asked about walking back, and to our surprise learned there was a straight path into town that would take us no more than 15 minutes.  Hurrah!

“The bus takes a very circular route, so walking is faster,” explained the guy at the desk, who was Canadian.

A few minutes out, some Italian guys yelled “kangaroos!” at us and pointed to nearby rocky hills.

“They’re actually Rock Wallabies,” Heidi said helpfully, but the Italians mansplained no, they were kangaroos.  The critters were so well camouflaged that my photos couldn’t capture them.

There were also plaques inlaid in the walkway that chronicled other sad episodes in Australian history.  This is only about half of them.  I thought “confrontation” and “emergency” were great euphemisms.

A Night on the Town

Heidi and I returned to our motel to rest up before hitting the town for the night.

After working on my swimming skills all summer, I had looked forward to staying here because it had a pool.  But the pool was indoors, next to the parking lot, with no natural light or even a potted plant to make you feel you were in nature, and it was too small to swim a lap.  It was surrounded by concrete topped with artificial grass and two lounge chairs.

When searching for accommodations with a pool, always look at photos of the pool.

Heidi had made all the arrangements for our time in the centre and I was grateful for that.  Not being able to swim was no big deal.  I would have plenty of opportunities on the reef.

Our only plan for the evening was to check out a restaurant, Sportys, that Heidi’s Aboriginal exchange student from Alice had recommended.  Alice is a small town so we found it right away.  There was nothing else, really.  I ordered a steak salad that came with wilted, brown lettuce and “steak” that was really processed beef lunch meat cut into “steak”-shaped strips.  Our server was a young guy from Orlando, Florida who was clearly thrilled to be anywhere but there.

“I’ve got a one-year work permit and I’m hoping I never have to go back!” he effused.

“Do you think he’s gay?” I asked Heidi when he’d skipped away.

“Hmm … yes?” she laughed.

“Do you think he’s The Only Gay in the Village?” I asked her.  This was a reference to a skit from the old politically incorrect comedy show Little Britain, in which comedian Matt Lucas plays the eponymous Only Gay in a tiny Welsh village.

Alice didn’t seem like a place our waiter was likely to meet an Australian to marry so he could stay in the country forever.

It was dark.  We sat on the patio and watched passersby: groups of young people with beer cans in their hands, men who looked like they’d been cleaning out sewers or dumpsters all day, Aboriginal teen moms with strollers and toddlers running free.  The streets weren’t well lighted except for the main pedestrian drag, which had a fantastic art installation involving swirling Aboriginal patterns projected onto the sidewalks and neon sculptures that resembled insects.  This was accompanied by new-age music emanating from nowhere and everywhere.  The streets leading away from the main street receded into darkness.

We wished our waiter good luck, then sauntered out into the night.  All the shops were closed except for Target, which is not the same Target as the US chain but which has the same logo.  “Target sell mainly clothes and small household items,” explained Heidi as we did a walk through.  It was a warehouse-style store, but with red Target logos everywhere.

That was our whoopdeedoo night on the town; there was nothing else to do.  This was okay with me since I can’t stay up past 9pm anyway.

Heidi had an ambitious plan for us the next day.

“We’ll take a bus out to the telegraph station, then we should be able to visit the School of the Air using the same bus route.”

We procured a schedule, enough change to pay the fare, and searched and asked strangers for directions for half an hour until we found a bus stop.  The bus came quickly, and we paid our fares.

“Five more dollars,” demanded the driver, who appeared to be Somali.

Heidi showed him the bus brochure, which stated the fare in black and white.

“No, five more dollars each,” the driver insisted.

We fumbled and coughed up five dollars, then he performed some sleight of hand, insisting we needed to pay two more, then he gave us some change back.

“I think we were just scammed,” I said, “but I’m so confused I don’t think I could argue for our money back.”

Heidi was steaming.  When we got to our stop 20 minutes later, she stood in the bus door to keep him from closing it and calmly argued with him.  He didn’t budge.

“I’m fairly certain that’s the only bus,” she remarked, “So we’ll be walking back to town.”