The One is here on holiday! We have been houseminding in a delightfully forgotten corner of Sydney, which despite owning a perfect little beach has up until recently remained unmolested by property developers. For the last 100 years half of the suburb was a hospital, originally for infectious diseases, due again to the end-of-the-line geography of the place.
Now, the hospital has been developed, but this isn’t such a bad thing. It’s quite a groovy piece of urban planning. Many old hospital buildings have been kept, and although there are more than a few new multistorey apartment buildings, most of the development is freestanding houses which have been built, it appears, under a very strict architectural code.
It’s hard to say what era the place belongs to. Some houses have a whiff of Frank Lloyd Wright, others suggest Japan or Jacques Tati. It’s all a kind of post-vintage, neo-Truman Show mid-century modern-modern.
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You can take your snow and pretty lights, your Glühwein and hot puddings and you can stick it. Really, I’ve tried your northern hemisphere christmas and I’m not convinced.
Australian Christmas rules.
After all, it is an insufferable season wherever you are. Obscene commercialism, nonsensical symbolism and forced frivolity all wrapped up in the vapid myth of a little baby jesus who apparently brings a little hope, peace and love – except that the location for his story is one of the sorriest and hateful places on the planet.
So if you’ve gotta do this Christmas thing, let it at least be sunny.
In Sydney, Christmas starts on December 1, the first day of summer, or whenever the temperature reaches 28 degrees and the sun beats down so hard that you have to wear a hat or otherwise your nose will melt off your face.
At this early part of The Silly Season (as it is known in scientific circles) all the folk start lighting up their barbeques, rush the bottle shop for cases of beer and invite the mates around. Office Christmas parties also erupt in a frenzy of regretful boozing and wearing of embarrassing hats. Suddenly it’s ok to wear thongs (flip flops, dear, the undies are called g-strings), shorts and dirty little dresses to the office because it’s too bloody hot and too bloody busy and no one could give a stuff anyway because of the way the boss behaved at the aforementioned firm’s function.
Around this time beer and wine sales are reported as a news item. Sales go particularly ballistic sparkling wine/champagne sector. You will not attend any gathering between December and January without the frothy gear unless it’s an AA meeting.
And there’s no better cure for a hangover than blobbing on the beach and splashing in the sea. While average air temperatures are around 25, which for us is a bit average, the sea makes its way from 17 (bit chilly) to 21 or 22 (lovely). In Sydney the water never gets too warm, unlike Northern Queensland where it’s nothing more than a warm bath seething with lethal marine life. No, not here. At the right beaches in Sydney there are dolphins, a penguin or two, and whales within sight from shore, not forgetting swimming labradors and kelpies on longboards. Get yourself a snorkel and you can visit the blue gropers and a million other smaller fish in the optimum visibility that is Sydney’s coastline.
Christmas proper starts with the friends’ backyard lunch, a convivial and culinary affair where the French champagne and the freshly shucked oysters are a irrefutable sign that everything is right in the universe. Kiddlies frolic in fancy dress and someone always passes out.
Next we have the family festivities. My family is enormous and despite 40 years of experience I can never seem to stay out of the mayhem of it (unless I’m 10 thousand miles away, that is). It always takes 20 emails, a few squabbles, a bit of hassle and a day or two of cooking. And then the day itself, which can only be approached with a glass of champagne and a valium. Anyway, this year was a bit special. It’s the first time the family have been all together for 6 years and it was a very cheerful and relaxing day. Of course, it was outside. Kids went swimming in the lake. It was hot. We had to wear hats.
If there is a traditional Australian Christmas menu (and in my experience the tradition is to be non-traditional) it goes something like this. Prawns. Tiger Prawns. More prawns. Oysters; mangoes; cold ham & turkey; salads; green, asian and italian. Avocados. Fish. Beer. Champagne. Prawns.
Oh, and in my family we always have a home-made, hand-made ice cream, of multiple flavours.
On Christmas day itself a few family leftovers came over to our place. We had oysters: sydney rock and boffin bay. Sashimi; salmon and kingfish. Garlic prawns. Turkey leftovers. Rocket, bocconcini and grape tomatoes. Pavlova, passionfruit. And there was a bolo de bolacha but we were too stuffed by then. It was raining; we played Cluedo and Trivial Pursuit. The sun came out; we went to the beach. Gloat.
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I feel like my spaceship is broken and I can’t get back to my planet.
This isn’t the first time during this go-build-a-house-in-portugal-folly that I’ve thought what a absurdly huge mistake it has been.
Perhaps the first time was when I was trying to extract a building project, a visa and a house sale from a country whose language and mentality bewildered me. Next was when the Global Financial Crisis broke in and stole a third of my life’s savings. Then there was the dog episode and the physical collapse from vertigo, that was quite a problem. The ongoing migraine thing also made me think twice.
I’ve tried to do the right thing. I persevered with the stupid embassy and the stupid builder. I worked hard to start a new way of earning a living. I trusted, I forgave and I turned the other cheek to the backward philosophies of small-town Portugal. And in solidarity with my peasant brethren I left my home to find work to save the farm and so that the children might have new shoes one day. I should be lined up for a sainthood, but no…
Now I’ve fucked up my back.
It’s ridiculous. For the last 5 years I’ve been hurling stones, shovelling sand, carting bags of cement, heaving trays of mortar, loading timber, climbing, hammering, drilling, digging, chopping and lifting.
And I’ve done my back in standing still.
The prognosis is no longer completely dismal, praise to little baby jesus, and it seems I may not have to be cut up after all. The pain has reduced somewhat and I can now walk properly. But now that I’m not preoccupied with the prospect of being paralysed, I’m seeing this latest mortal confrontation in context of The Golden Wet Dream of chucking in a sensible life to go and bottle fruits and fawn over baby goats in an economically non-viable, confused little backwater on the edge of civilisation.
What was wrong with what I had? I’d just put in a new kitchen. The car was hot. I was earning a relative fortune, drank a lot of champagne, threw a lot of parties, had expensive haircuts and I was getting laid. WHAT THE FUCK WAS I THINKING?
While a few of my friends and colleagues also took a left turn, those who kept on the highway have made it through the slippery pass, put the chains on the tyres and are well on their way up the mountain now. And they don’t seem too miserable, or corrupt or even jaded. Unlike me, they seem happy and healthy and very, very fit. Indeed, they generously pay for the exquisite lunch we’ve just had before taking an early weekend to drive the family down to the holiday house on the coast. And I say bravo to that. And no, they are not stupid enough to wonder about, much less envy, my idyllic rustic country lifestyle amongst the olive groves and grape vines. And the next door neighbour’s dog shit.
Yeah. So. Back to the spaceship. Here I am stuck in the antipodes, not working, not earning, not even moving really and spending a week’s groceries on 30 minutes’ worth of back treatment. In the New Year (that brave new world) I’ll be back in the job queues (oh can’t wait to do all that again) and starting this bail-out-package-plan all over again. How long will it take? It’s an known unknown, as Donald Rumsfeld would say.
I’m afraid I will never see home again.
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Inspired by a rubbish article I just read on Hello! I’m going to say something about Lisbon. The main point of difference will be that I have been to Lisbon.
When I say rubbish, I don’t just mean the spelling and bad writing, or the regurgitation of suggestions made in most guidebooks with embellishments like “discover” and “savour” as though the visitor will be overcome by rapture and stupidity from the moment they set foot off the plane. It’s rubbish as in nonsense, bullshit, fantasy. Take the …“endless white sands and unspoiled beaches in Cascais”. Sorry, nope. They end. Quickly. And they are crowded and grubby. Anyway, does anyone visit Lisbon to go to the beach?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great town. It’s bad travel writing I have a problem with.
When you live here you get spoiled. It’s hard taking guests around places you’ve been to several million times before and still maintain some enthusiasm and pride.
So this is my guide:
Don’t take people anywhere you won’t enjoy yourself. This means nothing you’ve done before unless it’s really worth doing again. No “must-dos” or “quintessentially Lisbon” just for the sake of it.
Eat a lot, relax a lot and remember you’re on holiday.
Don’t try to walk everywhere.
Torre de Belém
Fortunately Lisbon does have a lot of quality stuff to see. I can keep going back to the Gulbenkian and the Berardo in Belém because they are world class museums. The Gulbenkian is not trying to represent a nation’s cultural identity, and yet it does. This originally private collection shows you what one person can do in a lifetime. If that’s too serious then there’s the ridiculously camp Museu dos Coches or for a Portugal-specific experience there’s the Museu do Azulejo. I recognise that these museums are commonly recommended, but I’m happy to put my neck out to say that it’s because they are good, relevant, interesting and/or… fun.
Architecture is my thing and Lisbon is full of really remarkable buildings, new and old. It’s one of the things that drew me here. Oriente and Rossio stations exemplify the contrasts of Lisbon but also the boldness of this seemingly shy country. I can’t drag every guest around to my favourite buildings but most will happily take in a palace. Palácio da Fronteira (more like a private house, not like Mafra) doesn’t make it onto top 10 lists, give thanks, but it is a beautiful and memorable sight and very typically Portuguese.
But I always start a tour of Lisbon with a massive scoff at Confeitaria Nacional. If there is one single thing that defines Portugal in my mind it is pastry, and Lisbon has the best cafes in the country. The Nacional and Versailles are the pinnacle in show-off grandeur but there are less audacious shrines to the art of sweetness all over town. I challenge you to find better cakes and coffee anywhere in the world.
Lalique at the Gulbenkian
Public transport can be more than simply useful if you buy tickets for everyone before they arrive. I keep a stash of old cards which I fill up for the sole purpose of a tram to Belém, a ride on one of the three funiculares and for the ferry. Either very early or late in the afternoon get down to the docks and take a ferry from Cais do Sodré to Cacilhas, if only for the views of the city from the water. Gorgeous.
Lisbon is certainly not fashion Mecca, but if you do your research you can find some excellent small boutiques of designers lesser known and more original. Custo Barcelona is a favourite with us, but there are other stores in the Chiado-Bairro Alto-Principe Real area that are home grown and representative of the small but lively creative industry in Portugal. Fabrico Infinito sells homewares, jewellery and miscellany. Less a souvenir, more a piece of art.
While restaurants serve food and hotels are places to sleep, in Lisbon they can be worth selecting for their historic value and interior design alone. You don’t necessarily go to Galeto or Casa do Alentejo for the food, but for the decor. Both high grandeur and cool can be found in Lisbon’s hotels, from the over the top baroque Pestana Palace, to the art deco Britania, über stylish Fontana Park and the very funky Florida or grass on the walls at Living Lounge Hostel. Just go for a drink at the bar if you’re not going to stay.
Overrated Lisbon: a strictly personal list
Castelo São Jorge
The Expo site: Parque de Naçoes, The Pavilhão and all that stuff
Cascais & Estoril – there’s nothing left of the 1930’s glamour
Vasco da Gama bridge – yes, it’s very long indeed, but there’s nothing on the other side and Ponte 25 Avril looks better.
Praça do Comercio – nice arch. The end.
Things I can do again
Jerónimos, Belém Tower
Taking pictures in the crooked lanes of Alfama & Graça
Eating with the povos: Casa da India and a hundred other tasquinas
Hunting fabrico próprio pastelaria, claro.
The Wallpaper guide
Museu do Azulejo
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Thank you to all of you out there who have asked, yes! A job has found me.
Surprisingly I find myself not sucking the corporate carpet despite applying with gusto to some horrendous positions advertised with such phrases as “will offer your career strong penetration”, “end to end delivery outcomes” and “strategic client facing exposure with hugh opportunities”. Hugh who, huh?
I’d made a spreadsheet of my financial objectives and consulted with whom you might when you need debt advice, gone over the wireframes of the projections and the forecasted expenditure on the capital, extrapolated the time differential with the necessitudes and the fortifumegation and decided I just want to get home soon and sane.
It’s not what you know, it’s who, everybody said, and indeed, through a friend of a friend I met up with with someone I already knew who, when I explained straight up that I had no professional experience whatsoever, said “it’s just about personality actually”. Like, they were looking for someone they liked.
No bullshit necessary. Just bring your human.
And in spite of The One feeding my darkest dread with the remark “that’s not what you’re there for” I am simultaneously enjoying myself and being paid for it. It is indeed a remarkable thing to look at your modest paycheck and gloat in its riches, knowing full well that once upon a time you earned 10 times that and it never felt like enough.
Let’s look at that in a chart
Furthermore, I do not have a regrettable answer when I’m asked what I did at work today. Today I did not cajole people to eat soup from a can that looks and smells like vomit, no, today I made a spring gazpacho that will be served in a glass with a champagne chaser. Yesterday I made 150 arancini; the day before 300 goats cheese tartlets; tiny, prosciutto wrapped bocconcini each with a basil leaf feather, korma balls, prawn cocktails, chicken satays, egg finger sandwiches. I make fun food. It’s fun.
As real work is, the kitchen is thoroughly exhausting. I have instantaneously become one in the throng of the tired, the comatose commuter. The precise monotony of peak hour public transport takes on a Truman Show charm that apparently I’m alone in appreciating. It’s Groundhog Day and I can’t resist messing with the routine by waving back to the woman with the theatrical calisthenics that I pass in the park each morning at 8:06. There’s a jolly faced chinese man who makes me laugh when he gets his backpack caught in the closing doors of the 7:54 at Sydenham Station, for the second day in a row. And the guy with the perfect shoes and ipod who gets on at the university and taps his foot melodiously… to who? Is it Thelonious Monk or Se7en I’d like to know?
As I acclimatise to this other reality I’ll eventually find some time to make myself a stranger in my own city. I’m yet to see the beach again, to eat Japanese and go out for breakfast with friends. Summertime officially starts this weekend. As The One lights his first evening fire, I’ll be eating my first oysters. Oh! The sacrifice. Sigh.
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