Monday, 19 August 2013

Of Doonas and Tigers

The cab was humming its way along the highway, palm trees bowing in the wind as if pledging fealty to the dominance of the traffic. Light clouds skimpily covered the bright blue sky, a low sun hanging by a thread on the horizon as if it couldn’t quite make its mind to get up: I knew how it felt. I wound down the window to take a lungful of the clean warm air hoping to wake myself up.
“Y’know it’s nearly winter here, that’s a bit cold.”
I smiled, “Sorry. It’s like a summer day to me. How cold does it get here?”
“About 12 centigrade during the winter. Of course it’s colder at night. And it gets down to freezing in the mountains.”
“Right, so no need for a winter coat for me just yet!”
“Yeah, you’ll probably do fine for the first one,” Tom smiled, flashing that luminescent smile again.
I reached over to squeeze his hand, “I’m really glad to be here.”
“It’s good to see you.” He pulled his hand away and reached into his bag, “So I gotchya this guidebook of the city. This map here shows you the Inner East, that’s where your studio is, see – Potts Point, that’s you. You see how close you are to the city? You could walk it, easy.”
“That’s good; I could do with the exercise apparently.” I gave him a smile, and he bashfully smiled back.
I laughed, “You’re a cheeky bugger Mr Forest.”
“So anyway, our first stop is the letting agent. Basically Phillip was happy to rent to you on my recommendation, but we have to go sign a contract at the letting agent's, pick up keys, etc. and then we can go drop of your bags and stuff.”
“Righto. Sounds easy enough. I take it I just need my Passport?”
“Yeah that should be fine. Then I thought we could go downtown and get your bank account sorted and your Tax File Number. That’s really all you need before you can start work.”
“Tax File number?”
“Yeah, it’s like a social security number in the states, says you’re legit, that you can work. Employers use it to pay your taxes…”
“Oh, so like your National Insurance number back home.”
He shrugged, looking blank, “If you say so.”
I flicked his shoulder with the back of my hand, “Trust me, you goof, it is.”

Paperwork signed and keys in hand, I pushed open the door to my new home.
I was looking diagonally from the corner into a large room, simply but tastefully furnished with a small sofa, round dining table, chairs and next to me at the entrance, a tall wardrobe against the wall to my left and a much larger version on the wall to my right. In the opposite corner was a doorway leading to a semi open kitchen – the wall between the two rooms having been partially removed - with microwave, stove, fridge and oven. The bathroom was through an adjacent doorway next to the Kitchen. The whole thing was light and open giving the allusion of greater space, caused by the best thing of all; the floor to ceiling window across the entire wall of the main room. This looked out onto the street below and showed a fairly decent sized glimpse of the part of Sydney Harbour I would soon know as Elizabeth Bay.
“Tom this rocks, I can even see the water!”
“When I saw that, I knew you had to have it. People would pay serious money for that kinda view.”
I turned around looking for another doorway and then faced Tom quizzically, “Where’s the bed?”
Tom threw my suitcase onto the sofa and exclaimed “Aaah this is the beauty,” crossed the open space in the middle of the room and reached for the doors of the larger wardrobe. "It’s like those beds in New York hotels!”
“Never been,” I shrugged.
The doors ajar, he grabbed the frame and pulled down a large Queen sized bed from the wall.
Throwing himself down onto his back, “And I tested it; the mattress is really comfortable too.”
“Tested it?” I bounced down next to him onto my stomach.
Tom sat up again grinning, “Not that kind of testing,”
He turned to face me, “Doona.”
“What?”
“Doona. You don’t have a Doona.”
“I don’t have a clue what you’re on about, let alone a… Doona?”
“Sorry, a quilt. Bedding. Sheets and stuff.”
“A Doona is all of that?”
“No. A Doona is just the quilt part. But you don’t have the rest of it either,’ He pulled himself up and walked over into the kitchen, pulling open drawers and cupboards, before walking back into the living room. “Or plates. Cutlery. Pans. All of that. Looks like we have another mission for today. Come on lazy arse stop lounging around in bed, if we head out now the stores'll just be opening and we can get it all out of the way.”
“Where to?”
“The Junction.”
“Where’s that?”
“Bondi.” He grabbed his jacket and turned to see the question on my face, “It’s a large shopping mall, in Bondi.”
“At the beach?”
“No silly, Bondi Junction.”
“Oh right. Of course. I should’ve known that”
Tom pulled me up, grabbed the keys from the table and dragged me out of the front door. “No stopping now, there’s no time for jet lag to kick in if we keep you moving.”

The mall was like any other shopping complex in the world, large, concrete and grey with trees dotted around trying desperately to add a little colour and nature into an artificial environment. It was packed with people zipping everywhere. The major differences of course were the names of the stores and the products themselves. Nothing as dramatically different as Narita airport, but still a change and a culture shock of sorts, if a cultural tremor rather than a tsunami.

Tom dragged me along as I gawked at all the differences; a ye olde worlde style sweet shop called Darryl Lea, all brown wooden façade and plate glass windows showing shelf upon shelf of chocolate, marzipan, glace fruits, and other variations of sugary goodness, (although I was soon informed that sweets were called lollies here and lollies were lollipops and not to get them confused - not that I could see the danger in it, what was the worst that could happen, I get a soft, chocolatey, caramel treat instead of a hard, round, sugary one?); a trendy, jeans and t-shirt, skateboard style shop which would be Urban Outfitters were it in London, but here in Sydney was called General Pants, kitted out with a factory floor assembly line pulley, running through the top of the window and constantly rotating pairs of jeans, t-shirts and jackets in a never ending merchandised fashion parade; banks such as Westpac, Commonwealth and ANZ with their bright red, yellow or blue liveries advertising cheap loans for cars, houses and holidays; Bunning’s the hardware store, its very name sounding quirkily Australian and down to earth and row upon row of shop fronts enticing me in to discover their Australiana. So where did we end up going? Target.

Admittedly, it was a good call, they had everything I needed, bedding, crockery, pans, cutlery, towels, a vacuum, mop, all the basic essentials and it was relatively cheap, which was good because I hadn’t budgeted for laying a month’s deposit and a month’s rent down on a studio, let alone kitting it out. The other more Australian stores would have to wait and as it would soon turn out, I’d get paid to see my fair share of their insides soon enough. Instead, we bundled my new home into the back of a large white cab and headed back to the studio.

With the bed made and folded away, the kitchen cupboards stocked and towels hanging over bathroom rails, it was time for the second part of the day’s projects. Making me employable.
“Basically, we’ll just head down into the city and get you signed up for your Tax File Number and then we’ll get you your bank account sorted, easy," Paul nodded confidently. "Any preference?”
“For banks? God no, I wouldn’t know where to start!”
“Well they’re all pretty much the same; I’m with Commonwealth and St. George, so you might as well go with either of those.”
“Any chance food is on the itinerary? I’m bloody starving and knackered and if I don’t eat soon I’m gonna die.”
“Ok, food, Tax File, Bank. Gotchya.”

We decided to walk down into the harbour, heading west towards the city, first heading out of my building and turning the corner onto Challis Avenue. Trees ran down the centre of the street with cafes lining the sides for the first half of the street before turning into large three and four storied houses. The patrons were decked in designer threads, large sunglasses perched on their heads, ladies who lunched and gay couples who clearly didn’t work on a Monday.
“They can’t all be hairdressers, these people have cash.”
“The boys? Yeah you’re in a nice part of town.”
“Gay?”
“Yeah, so-so. Pretty Gay, but very trendy.”
“You don’t say.”
“See this house here? That’s where Paul Keating lives.”
Tom saw the vacant look on my face.
“Our ex-prime minister? I thought you liked history?”
“I do. Fourteenth and Fifteenth century European mostly. I’m just getting to grips with yours”
“Aaah yeah, probably a bit early for us.”
“So is he Gay?”
Tom made quotation marks with his fingers, “Allegedly so.”
“That explains it.”

We reached the end of the street as it met a small drop overlooking a park.
“It’s built on the roof of a car park. As beats go around here, it's very popular with the locals at night, but a bit dangerous, so watch yourself.” Tom informed me.
"Beats?"
"Yeah, this here's a beat. Y'know - a cruising ground. Think Hampstead Heath, y'know that one?"
“Oh right, yeah," I smiled as the light bulb pinged into life over my head.
I soon found out that Aussies loved their open air nigh time proclivities and that give two Aussie guys a patch of grass bigger than two meters squared and they'd turn it into a 'beat'.
"Not my style anyway,” I shrugged, "I prefer my creature comforts. That and the fact that mozzies love me way too much for it to be worthwhile."
"They go for ya do they?"
"Like kids in a sweetshop! And I swell up like crazy when they get me too."
"So no outdoor fun for you then, eh?" he pouted.
"That'll be a no from me, thanks".

To the side of the park leading down from the street into the harbour proper was a set of steep stairs, about 60 or 70 in total, rickety and lit at night by Victorian style street lamps. The lighting combined with the condition of the stairs to make for a cutesy Dickensian scene, if you could block out the definitely Australian gum tress blocking out the parking garage itself.
Once at the bottom we started the walk around the harbour edge towards the Botanical gardens.
“Aaah, dunno why I didn’t think of it before, your first day in Australia, you should have an Australian lunch.”
“Really? Please tell me it’s not Kangaroo or Alligator?”
“Nah, a meat pie from Harry’s!” he said, pointing down the road.
Coming up on the right hand side on the harbour front, was a cabin about twenty by ten feet. Open on three sides, it proudly displayed the name 'Harry’s Café de Wheels' over the large awning in red and yellow, neon lit script. The walls were lined with larger than life fifties style images of soldiers and their girls and around the hatches themselves were black and white photographs of celebrity guests who had eaten there, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Brooke Shields and Keanu Reeves among others.
The man behind the counter nodded at me, “What can I getchya mate?”
“Err, Tom?” I raised an eyebrow his way.
“Pie or hotdog?” he asked me.
“Pie.”
“Two Tigers please, oh and if you’ve something to put ‘em in, we’re gonna walk round to the other side of the wharf.”
Tom handed over a bright blue ten dollar bill, took his change and was passed  an empty Kleenex box with a layer of greaseproof paper over the top of it.
“Come on, let’s go round the other side.”
“We walked round to the other side of the large blue roofed wharf building into the sunshine and a dock which held roughly forty or so privately owned sailboats and motorboats belonging to the locals in the apartments on the other side of the dock.
Tom sat down on the edge of the dock, legs dangling over the side and feet six inches above the gently lapping water. He patted the ground next to him for me to join him and then reached into the Kleenex box he'd placed on the floor next to him.
“Here’s your first Harry’s pie,” he said, passing it to me, “they’re legendary and not just here. You ask anyone who’s visited Sydney and they’ll know all about ‘em”
“How come we didn’t do them last time?” I dunno, I must’ve forgotten they were here, I haven’t had one myself in ages.”
I looked down at the brown and green, steaming parcel in my hands, “So what exactly do I have here?”
“Beef pie, mashed potato, mushy peas, you should love those they’re from your neck of the woods, and topped with a little gravy. Oh here, you’ll need this and one of these,” he said, handing over a plastic fork and a napkin.
It was sensational: Two of my favourite foods, mushy peas and mashed potato on top of one of the best pies I’d ever eaten and topped off with a delicious beefy gravy. While it might not sound like much, ask anyone who’s had one and they’ll tell you the same thing; phenomenal!
We sat there on the edge of the wharf for a good half an hour after we’d finished, just soaking up the atmosphere. The light was making silverfish on the surface ripples in the water, the gentle constant slapping of the water against the rocks was lulling me, rocking me back and forth and with the sun on my face, arms and hands the two conspired to send me to sleep.

“Right sleepy head; let’s kick on, before I have to carry you back to bed.”
'If only', I thought.