Around the World With a Vagabond

Party Like a Geriatric April 30, 2011

Filed under: What Happened in Australia — christynichols @ 10:07 am
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An alarming incident occurred on my tram ride home from the city today.

As I entered the house, thinking about this incident, I was greeted by my roommate.  She was on her way out to a geriatric-themed house party.  She was wearing purple with blue eye-shadow and horrible gold shoes.

“How do I look?” she asked and applied lipstick to her teeth.

A geriatric party?!  I had just witnessed the raging antics of a geriatric on my tram ride home. He didn’t seem much of a party animal.

At a tram stop outside a supermarket, the tram doors shuttered and closed only to be frantically beat upon from someone on the outside. Muffled shouting could be heard, and as I peered out my window, I could see the balding head of a frail old man.

The tram driver re-opened the door.Slowly, and agedly, a scrawny man with a cane boarded the tram.

“What is the meaning of this?” he shouted, rather loudly considering his slight frame.  He was upset because the tram doors had shut before his feeble footsteps could carry him all the way to the tram doors. I felt a little bad for him, but he kept shouting at the driver.

“What is the meaning of this?” he repeated, and shook his cane at the driver. I’ve never actually seen an old man shake his cane before.  It’s actually more threatening than you might think.

“This is an outrage!” he continued his rant, “I’m an old man! I can hardly walk!”

The tram driver, safe behind the plexi-glass, seemed to just ignore him.  The tram lurched forward and I watched the old man in his high-waisted trousers wobble to a seat, half-expecting him to lose his balance and collapse on the floor.

“This is bullshit!” he shouted again.  He took the seat next to me, glaring at the other passengers through his thick, black-framed glasses.  “This is the problem with transportation today!” he told us all.

Only 1 minute later he stood back up, hobbled over to the tram driver, and began to berate her again.

“I need off at the next stop!” he raised his cane and smacked the plexi-glass.  “Can you let me off at the next stop? I need to get off at the next stop.  Can you hear me?? The next stop!” and held on as the tram lurched again.

At the next stop, the tram doors opened.  To his credit, the old crotchety man was as vocal about his gratitude as he was his vexation.

“Thank you! Thank you for stopping the tram.  Thank you.”  Then myself and the other passengers, half-alarmed, half-sympathetic, and half-amused, watched as he very slowly exited the tram.

He put one foot down one step.  Then another step.  He moved his cane forward.

Then stepped his right foot down again to the second step.  Then his left.  A little more cane action.

Again, his right.

. . .

Again, his left.

Then he baby-stepped and cane-tapped his way across the street into the twilight, and continued on his meandering way.

Perhaps he had a party to get to.

 

Chinese Proverbs and Songs with Strangers March 17, 2011

 

I realized it was going to be another unpredictable and crazed night in the city when a man boarded the tram wearing no pants.

 

For the 10 minutes I remained seated, the man with no pants firmly gripped the handle bars piped along the tram’s ceiling.  He had with him a small, seemingly well-kept suitcase, which I could only assume packed no pants.  The man seemed a little agitated, but wasn’t bothering anyone.  He was clean-shaven, odorless (or not offensively unhygienic), so I don’t think he was homeless. Deranged? Possibly.  But he wasn’t very old.  Although he seemed a little too old to have been a user of any kind of drug – at least presently.

 

It’s possible he was victim of a very unkind prank, it being about 4 in the afternoon of a weekday teeming with commuters.

 

What the man’s circumstances actually were, I’ll never know. The crowded tram rolled along the rails, leaving me behind on the corner of Chinatown, amidst street chatter and red glowing lights.

 

Melbourne has been an incredible place to explore. But after nine months, I feel I have only circled the city, with a few sneak-peaks and toe-dips into some of the cafés, gigs, and showcasing promenades that make this city so vibrant.

 

A few days earlier, Chris and I had been wandering aimlessly down Swanston Street when we came across a few marquis set up for the Food and Wine Festival.  An “edible garden” was on display: baskets of vine-ripened tomatoes, jungles of chili peppers, and even a rustic old car from the 50’s or 60’s, its back seat piled high with gourds of all kinds, and its doors open and spilling leafy pumpkins and squash out onto the pavement in a beautiful display of autumn harvest.

 

Courtesy of Peter Lim

We sat for a bit, flipping through the guidebook to find out where the wine part of the festival was being held.

 

As we did, an older Chinese man sat next to us and asked Chris if he wouldn’t mind taking his picture. Chris, always obliging, set about adjusting the lens.  This simple gesture of politeness unleashed a whirlybird of unexpected conversation.

 

Peter Lim was a 71 year old Chinese man with quite a bit to say. For the next 20 minutes or so, Peter, laughing and eyes all a-twinkle, explained to us his wife’s three loves (her sister, roses, and thirdly, Peter himself). He told us about his life growing up in Malaya and how he had practiced playing violin since he was 5.

 

As we nodded and listened, Peter interrupted himself to tell Chris how very good looking Chris was, and that he should go to Hollywood and be a movie star.  Peter continued on again, and told us that he raised his children to understand that life is full of disappointments, and that it is very, very important to be positive.

 

To demonstrate to us just how important being positive is, Peter suddenly burst into song. The Italian opera poured out of his open mouth – Puccini – and Peter sang the verses, briefly, but with gusto, as the emotion rippled across his face with each crescendo. Peter explained that it was the last song Puccini sang on the day Puccini knew he was about to die.  Puccini had been an exceedingly positive person.

 

Away and away Peter chatted to us there, among the quiet vegetables and clamorous city street, and told us we seemed like very happy people.

 

He insisted on having a picture with us, and called over to a nearby child to snap the photo for us (“You, boy! Come here boy! Boy!”). The kid was gorgeous, and as Peter handed over his camera, he told the young boy how good looking the kid was, and that he should go to Hollywood and be a movie star.

 

In the Edible Garden with Peter Lim, courtesy of Peter Lim

Peter was lovely and charismatic, and pleasantly offered to send us his poetry and links to his songs.  I am glad he did, because I am sure my memory would eventually blur and I would forget bits of our conversation.  Meeting Peter reminded me of how alive a person could be, how quirky and funny, and serious all at once, for absolutely no reason, with perfect strangers.

 

But Peter isn’t the first stranger in Melbourne to burst into song without warning.

 

One Saturday morning I was weaving in and out of market-goers at Queen Victoria Market, heading towards the food court to meet a friend. As I entered the covered eating area, my ears were greeted with a rising hum.  Over the sea of heads, the hum became more of an “ahhh” – such as the “A” sound of a choir singing “A-men”, only this “ahhh” was being held a very long time.

 

The food hall was very busy, but nearly everyone was either sitting, or standing still, facing something just above to my left and singing “ahhhhh” and then louder “AHHHHHH”.

 

What. was. going. on?

 

The entire lunching crowd were being lead by what looked like “Gandolf” in casual surf wear.  Or perhaps it was Einstein.  Either way, the conductor had the whole long white-shaggy-hair-and-beard look going on and he pulled it off quite well.

 

His voice was the loudest, and no doubt he was the leader of this spontaneous choir.  He lifted the “ahhhHHHHH”s, and then dropped the “AHHHhhhhhhhhhh”s deeply with his smile, his voice and his gestures, and the people’s voices followed like happy puppies.

 

Their vocals echoed in unison as rising and dropping “ahhhhs” filled the hall, lifted to the rafters, and floated out onto the market square, where an un-singing crowd was quickly drawing closer.

 

“What’s this about?” I asked my bemused friend as I sat down at his table. Cameras flashed around us.

 

“I don’t know. He just started singing,” nodding at Gandolf, “and then everyone else started to sing too.”

 

I looked around at the smiling, surprised, spontaneous singers at the Saturday morning market, who were “ahhh-ing” still, and glancing grins at each other as they sang.

 

The lunch hall, usually a din of chatter, had transformed into song. Something about it was soulfully uplifting.  It made my day.

 

In fact, Gandolf (whose real name also happens to be Peter) has made the days of quite a few people. This clip isn’t quite the same as my experience at Victoria Market, but if you replace the trees with roofed market stalls, and the hand-holding hippies with families carrying bags of produce, then you’ll get the idea. Gandolf is in the rainbow jumper.

 

Back in Chinatown, the man on the tram without pants had escaped my thoughts. I was now with friends and unpredictably erupting with our own songs. We moved through the evening, the last of the summer nights, dining (gorging) on dumplings and singing (shouting) the lyrics to “Eternal Flame” and karaoke-ing way past our abilities and our bedtime.

 

Ironically, this same night ended hours later with my friends and I stumbling home, still singing, and parading an extra pair of pants that had inexplicably found its way amongst our bags.

 

I remember briefly thinking back to earlier that day and the awkwardly undressed man on the tram who certainly needed pants.  He wouldn’t have fit into the tiny women’s pair of Hurley’s now draped over my friend’s shoulders, but it was still a strange coincidence.

 

Such has life been in Melbourne; people flittering across my path unexpectedly in the most remarkable and memorable ways. Whether singing over dumplings in Chinatown, or being sung to in street-side gardens by  Chinese men, or as an audience for Gandolf leading crowds into chorus, this city has me captivated.

 

The Other Side of the Stars March 1, 2011

Filed under: The Other Side of the Stars,What Happened in Australia — christynichols @ 12:35 pm
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One of my earliest little-kid memories is looking out the window from my strawberry shortcake bed to a night sky full of stars. This was when I lived in Nashville, and a bright and glittery sky was not uncommon.  I knew nothing of the stars then, except for maybe that “Twinkle Twinkle Little” song . .  . .what were the words?

 

On California nights, I could see Orion beaming through clusters of blinking stars that crowded out the Heavens.  The best was during camping trips, when the desert sky was so alight that it took some time to find Orion hidden amongst them.

 

When I moved to London, half a world away, I could still find Orion. Whenever I was homesick, I would think about how my family back in California, camping without me, could also see that same constellation, even if their nighttime was different from mine.

Maybe it’s silly; the same could be said of the moon as of the stars, but still. Orion made me feel better.

 

Moving to Australia, I realized the sky would be a differently lit sky. Down here, the celestial view glimmers with a new cast of stars.  One dark Melbourne night I watched as the hunter and his belt crept over the horizon. It’s a good feeling to have a familiar in a foreign place, but I was surprised and didn’t quite understand how this could be.  I thought I had moved too far away this time.

 

Then a friend, who is far more knowledgeable about the astronomical lighting than I, pointed out that, yes, Orion is visible in the Southern Hemisphere, only it’s inverted and appears tipped on its side.

All those nights of stargazing, and I hadn’t noticed this difference.

 

I had never before thought about looking at the stars from the other side of them. This is pretty darn cool, and it makes me feel a little better on those days when I miss my people. They’re out there .  . . . . just on the other side of the stars.

 

 

Things That Come Alive in the Night January 11, 2011

Filed under: Things That Come Alive in the Night — christynichols @ 2:37 am
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The nighttime has always been where scary things happen and take over.  Still, as much of a chicken as I can be, I love a good ghost story. I beg to hear the really good ones, the really true ones. I don’t know why I do this to myself, knowing how really scared I get all the time of things like the dark and dolls, but I want to hear the stories anyway.

 

A few weekends ago I went on a camping trip with about 10 other people, minus the boyfriend.  He had to work, but I was game to spend a weekend in a tent by the beach, so I joined the caravan and headed to the coast.

 

I am truly struck by how gorgeous the Australian coastline is.  The water is such a deep shade of blue, spiffed up with black craggy rocks along the shore, and cozied up against lush greens and forest. I love it here.

 

We arrived just after sunset.  It was windy and a little chilly, but we were able to set up our tents alongside a hill, just off the shore.  This time, we were well out of reach of the tide.  Headlamps on, pegs in the ground, we set up camp, then hit the BBQ.

 

After a few mishaps with the coin-operated BBQ, we filled our bellies with cheeseburgers and chips and chocolate and beer.  Then circled around a lantern for campfire chat without the campfire.

 

The circle joked, huddled against the wind, played a few games . . . and then the ghost stories started.

 

Now, anyone who knows me very well, knows what a chicken shit I can be. Any former roommates will also vouch for my unnerving freak-outs when I scream awake because there is a ghost hovering in my room, or a person in dark shrouds, or if one of the ghoulish rogues in my dreams become real. One of my worst fears is of dolls or puppets because these tend to come to life mostly in the night.  Mostly.

 

Anyway, the point is, I freak myself out beyond reason.  What I cannot explain is that I know I am like this, but I will still egg others on for a good ghost story.  I want to hear every frightening detail.

 

I once lived in a 15th century castle in a village in England. I buried myself in ghost stories surrounding the place. I walked through the graveyard and snooped in the dungeon.  I slept with the light on probably 60% of the time.  (Scary things hate the light, you see).

 

Back to the campfire/lantern light circle, a few of us exchanged some stories, including myself.  As it got later, I found myself getting a little creeped out, and began sneaking quick peaks over my shoulder into the dark night.  The beach was gorgeous, but at night I couldn’t see it. The hills were picnic-at-the-park lovely, but at midnight the hills in the wind had become one undulating shadow.

 

As I stared at the little bugs crawling across the face of the lantern, I remembered a ghost story from my childhood involving lanterns and goblins hiding in the dark flickers of fire.

 

I put it out of my mind (almost) and tuned in to the conversations circling the lantern instead.  I told my castle stories, including the story about the ghost of the shepherd that was seen every few years sitting at the edge of someone’s bed. Someone else told a scary story. Then another.

 

And then someone told a story that I will never be able to forget as long as I live.

 

The storyteller had a friend who once hiked and camped the Appalachian Trail on his own for a week.  It was a simple trip, and he’d taken only his one-man tent, a sleeping bag, a few provisions, and a camera.  It was a coming-of-age, man-in-the-wild experience, I guess.

 

The Appalachian Trail is said to be one of the most haunted hiking trails in the world.  This I can believe.  There were many wars that took place on that land, and between the Native Americans, the British, the French, the Americans, and the Africans, so much blood was shed.  The stories go that slave cities stayed hidden in the forest, as hundreds of slaves took refuge in the mountains and lived amongst the trees.  It was a place for souls that didn’t rest.

 

As the story continued, we were told that the hiker camped for six or seven days, cooking their own food, sleeping in their tent alone, hiking and taking photos during the day.  The entire trip they were on their own and saw few other hikers.

 

At the end of the trip, he went to develop the film from his camera. (This was pre-digital camera era). This is where this story gets scary.  Amongst the pictures of scenic mountain sides, of babbling brooks, of tall, tall trees was a photo of himself alone in his tent . . . . . . and sound asleep. . . . . . . . . .  . .

 

?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

 

Think about that!!! Just stop and think about that for one moment.

 

It is terrifying.

 

This was not an urban legend, but happened to someone the storyteller knew. It really happened, and there was absolutely no explanation.

 

With that story, it being near 2am or so in the morning, everyone began to move away from the lantern and towards their tents for the night.

 

Oh no, I thought. All day I had been super-excited and all gung-ho about camping. Now, as I walked in the dark towards my big four-man tent, I realized this was the first time I would be tent-camping by myself.

 

It’s okay, I told myself, you are a grown woman.  There is nothing but a scenic beach and a protective hill.  The picture taken of the hiker while they slept alone is a story that happened to someone else in some other place long ago.  Things are fine. Your tent is next to six other tents. Some of the tents have strong guys in them who will surely come to the rescue when they hear you scream.

Okay.  I crawled into my big dark tent all alone with my thoughts.  I curled up in my bag and listened to my fellow camping buddies as they rummaged around and had a few whispered conversations.  I felt my sleeping bag was too far away, so instead of positioning myself comfortably on the ground, I wriggled over to the side of my tent that was nearest the other tents so I could be as close to the other human beings as was possible.  I tucked into a fetal position, cozied into the corner, and covered my head with the sleeping bag.

 

I thought about the picture taken of the hiker while they slept alone in their tent.

 

I thought about the freaky scene from Paranormal Activity where the girl gets dragged by the ankle off of her bed while she’s sleeping.

 

I thought about the picture taken of the hiker while they slept and the creepy, haunted woods.

 

I thought about the goblins, staring unblinking at the lantern.  I remembered the shepherd that sat on my bed in the night. I thought about the darkness outside.

 

I thought about the picture. I thought about my camera in my bag by my feet.

 

Then I texted Chris.   I got no reply.

 

An hour later, the muffled conversations from the others had long turned to snores.  The wind beat at the sides of my tent.

 

It was four in the morning.  4:30. 5:00. Sometime after 5am, I think I finally slept.  About 6am, the rising sun shone a warm glow on my tent.

 

7am. 8am.  Everyone’s awake.  Time to crawl out and make breakfast.

 

Blinking into the morning sun, I wandered to the breakfast food, achy and very tired.

 

The others seemed amused when I told them how I had slept tucked in the corner of my tent as close to real people as was possible.   I told them I was up all night, not afraid, just thinking.  That’s it. I was up all night because I was thinking.

 

What I didn’t tell them was that I had my cell phone in one hand, and a flashlight in the other, and ready to crash-land into any one of their tents as I quietly waited for my camera to flash.

 

 

 

Oprah Sightings, Attempted Smuggling, & Too Many Boobies December 12, 2010

 

The plotting began the night before the Christmas party.

 

Chris had found out at the last minute that his company’s Christmas party was to be an employee-only Christmas party. Strictly no partners, guests, or plus-ones allowed.

 

I had been looking forward to going and was bummed out to find out I’d been banned. What kind of Christmas-spirit-crap was that? Chris was disappointed too. “Don’t worry, “ he told me. “ We’ll smuggle you in.  Who gives a shit? It’s Christmas.”

 

Yay!

 

And so we schemed how I would get past the strict bouncers, claim someone else’s employee ID, avoid eye-contact with the Boss Man and enjoy the festivities without being escorted out or getting Chris fired.

 

We concocted an elaborate plan on whose identity I was to take if questioned, and worked with someone on the inside who would slip me an employee wristband.  I memorized the names and descriptions of people I was to avoid. Easy.

 

With the same thoroughness and forward thinking I planned my Christmas party outfit.  I would wear a pretty red dress, heels, and bring flip-flops for the end of the night for when my feet hurt too much from dancing.

 

I was doing well to plan ahead with both fancy Christmas outfit and the Operation Christmas Party Smuggle. What I failed to do was tie these ideas together.

 

Once slipping past stocky security and snapping the blue band that had passed through many cooperative hands to get to my ineligible wrist, I should have kept a low profile and not:

 

  • Called attention to myself by wearing a sexy red dress at a casual dress party.
  • Forgotten that my American accent stands out in a room of Aussies.
  • Overload on champagne and partake in audible antics of joy.

 

(Whoops.)

 

Not only was no one else wearing anything much dressier than khakis and tie-less shirts, most of the clothing was neutral toned down blacks and grays. The only black I was wearing were my 5 inch heels.  My red dress was a short and strappy silky number that didn’t necessitate a bra. Simple and Christmassy in my mind, but fair to say it stood out amongst the overall attire of employees at this particular work function.

 

Stealthy and a little scared, I found my way inside the pub and upstairs to the rooftop bar  – we entered the function room and walked smack into the Big Boss.  I fake-smiled confidently and hurried off to hide in the ladies room for a few minutes just in case.

 

But . . . nothing happened!!! Yay! Chris handed me glass of champagne number 1, and we proceeded through the crowd, him smiling, me smiling and avoiding eye contact and chatting with a few of his friends who knew what we were up to, but glad to have us!

 

The longer I was there, the more comfortable I felt.  I mingled! I met people! I helped myself to sushi and tempura!  I was handed champagne glass number 2 and began to tell stories to a few of Chris’s work mates. And I had a GOOD story!

 

En route to the Christmas party, Chris and I had an encounter with none other than the Prime Minister of Australia and Oprah Winfrey!  As our tram trundled over the Yarra River into downtown, I noticed how crowded the road was with cops. Looking again, I noticed the TV cameras and giant fuzzy microphones extending over a gathering crowd when Chris shouted, “Hey! It’s the Prime Minister!  . . . . . . .And Oprah!”

 

We rang the bell to stop the tram and jumped out.  Like a couple of star-struck teenyboppers, we hurried to join the growing crowd.

 

Julia Gillard (the PM) was walking along the riverbank having a conversation with Oprah.  A film crew was walking ahead along the roped off path.  Two helicopters hovered overhead, a police boat putted along the river, several MIB patrolled the crowd and followed the pair closely as cops wearing sunglasses scampered around with their phones and their guns.

 

It was so EXCITING!! The crowd was buzzing and shouting out declarations of adoration at Oprah.  We somehow managed to get right up to the rope, and Chris caught the whole thing on his camera. It was 5 minutes of glory.  We were about three feet away, and close enough to see the make-up creases on the women’s faces.

 

As if royalty, they strolled past, we smiled and waved.  We couldn’t stop staring. It was awesome!

 

After a few more minutes, the women were ushered into black tinted SUVs and drove away, leaving a trail of reporters and photographers and a dispersing chattering crowd behind.

 

By the time I finished telling this story, I was on champagne number 3, and my audience had grown by another employee or two, and maybe a manager.

 

Deciding to check out the balcony, Chris and I maneuvered our way to the other side of the rooftop and take in the twilight horizon and sprawling city lights of Melbourne and the tucked away suburbs.  It was a pretty cool view. . . . and then:

 

“Is that a fat lady getting naked down there?” asked Chris.

 

I looked and, sure enough, on the second floor of nearby housing was framed a fat lady directly in front of her window and in plain sight of the busy pub balcony.

 

“Is she really getting naked?”

 

We, again, couldn’t stop staring. We were shameless. But then, so was she.

 

The fat lady, very obviously seeking her own audience, proceeded to remove her shirt. Her back was to us as she undid her bra, and then . . BOOM!!  Full frontal naked fat lady boobies.  She had spun around and was looking straight up at the pub balcony.  This must be a regular thing for her, so practiced was her unsnapping and spinning.

 

I think the crowd on the balcony was too engaged in their own conversations to notice, and Chris and I, hysterical and snorting, were the only appreciative viewers.  Fat Booby Lady’s window light flicked off, and Chris and I headed to the dance floor.

 

And dance we did.  Spinning around and making up line dances, we had a blast.  But somehow, between Oprah and the champagne and the Fat Booby Lady, I’d forgotten that I wasn’t actually supposed to be at the party and should still try to stay undercover.

 

Smiles and eye contact I now openly exchanged with everyone.  Dancing was not in the dark corner of the pub, but smack dab in the middle of the dance floor.  Spinning round and round and round, I’d also forgotten that my dress was a no-bra dress, as Chris twirled me in and then twirled me out, and then twirled me in, I looked down to see booby-on-the-right had made an escape.

 

Shrieking, I adjusted my dress. I have no idea if it had just then peeped out, or if when Chris flung in me in an outward twirl towards other employees and managers, booby-on-the-right was making a grand appearance.  I also have no idea if the professional photographer who had been circling the room was still on the prowl.

 

Well, a boob’s a boob.  We just kept dancing.

 

Now, if my fancy red dress, the celebrity stories accentuated with gestures and an American accent, or quick-booby-flashes didn’t draw any attention to this smuggled-in party-crasher, the piggy back ride across the center of the dance floor surely did.

 

It was during a favorite line of an overplayed track that my shameful dance moves suddenly and desperately called for a swift front kick. My black heels that had kept me vertical all night suddenly had a strap snap, and my right high heel went flying.

 

No one was hurt, and I was happy to dance barefoot until the song finished. However, there had been several incidents involving broken glass, and Chris didn’t want me to cut open my bare feet.  He, a few beers down himself, insisted on carrying me on his back across the room, and across the dance floor, where I could retrieve my back-up flip-flops and also get champagne number 9ish or 11th-ish.

 

Up I hopped onto Chris’s back, red dress swishing, one arm loosely around his neck, and the other arm pumping the air while I shouted, “Forward, ho!” and “Giddy-up Cowboy!”  Chris did his best to weave his way straight through the middle of the dance floor with his belligerent shoe-less girlfriend on his back, who was shouting down orders, high-fiving the crowd, and still dancing all at once. I think Chris may have busted a move on the dance floor too.  All I know for sure is that I definitely made eye contact with the Boss Man at this exact moment. In fact, I think I shouted a Black Eyed Pea lyric at him as we stumbled forward and passed by laughing.

 

I don’t know what the repercussions of this will be for Chris when he goes to work on Monday. Maybe nothing.  Maybe a reprimand. Or maybe possibly he’ll be more popular.

 

All I know is that I’m awesome at smuggling in, but with blending in, I failed spectacularly.

 

Another Thanksgiving Abroad December 8, 2010

Filed under: Another Thanksgiving Abroad,What Happened in Australia — christynichols @ 6:30 am
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I don’t know exactly when, or how it happened, but it turns out I’ve become a heathen. Perhaps I always have been, and it only takes attending a Charity Thanksgiving Sunday dinner for me to realize this.

 

Thanksgiving isn’t celebrated Down Under.  Why would Aussies celebrate a holiday that came about because a group of musket-bearing Quakers diseased the natives, pillaged their land, and ate their turkeys? That’s what I used to tell my British students anyway, much to my mother’s chagrin.  (It’s closer to the truth than anything I was ever told as a kid.)

 

Nevertheless, a charitable cause is a charitable cause, so off I went to the Thanksgiving dinner. I had ventured out on my own, seeking what I assumed would be some nothing-special venue, springing along to whatever folky-happy music my ipod chose. But the place where the dinner was held was so fancy, that I almost missed it.

 

Walking from the station, I came upon a columned building somewhat set back from the main street. Brightly bopping balloons tied to pillars decorated the curved driveway as ladies in heels and men in suits and sunnies mingled in the open double doors.   The International was luxuriously scripted across the front of a large slate grey stone.

 

“This can’t be it,” I thought, and sauntered past in my flip-flops, sure my destination was the crumbling-down building on the next corner.

 

Moments later, having walked too far, I turned around and was again in front of The International. This was it.

 

I walked up the steps of the building and into the lobby, already feeling a little out of place.  It was a very nice lobby, walls bedecked with large paintings and hollowed corners filled with sparkly Christmas trees, all being admired by people dressed in their Sunday best.  I looked down at my plaid yellow country button-up shirt, my flair jeans, and my flip-flopped feet with chipped toenail polish.

 

I’ve been told that it’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed. But I just can’t always be bothered to make that kind of effort. So if I am underdressed, it’s better to at least be with other underdressers.   When alone, I scan the crowd for people even more embarrassingly underdressed than me.  I can almost always find someone of this description, but it’s usually a small dirty child. Today, even the children looked better.

 

I tucked my ipod away, and went to search for my name on the lists of table assignments posted on a nearby board.

 

The tables were listed by number. There I was, listed under the very last table at the very bottom of the board, and not only was my table numbered Table 25, but, making me feel more out of place, this particular listing also pointed out the unfortunate location of my table: Table 25 – back of room. See:

 

 

None of the other tables had that snubbing addition.

 

I wandered over to where I was told to go, to a very nicely set, but very empty table and sat down.  I looked around the room at the other tables filling up with laughing children and smiling families and chirpy conversation. Some shitty Thanksgiving Day parade was playing on a big screen at the front of the room.

 

This wasn’t doing too much for my homesickness so far.

 

Nevermind, I started to pour myself a glass of water from a glass pitcher into the stemmed water glass. My aim was off, and I poured the water straight onto my plate, all splashy and cold.  No one was paying attention to the cowgirl in flip-flops at the “back of room”, so I just swapped plates with one on the far side of the table.

 

I sat for about ten minutes, then, out of boredom, I scanned the menu/agenda.   Then I noticed that during the “prayer” time the bar would be temporarily closed.  Bar?  Where bar?!

 

A brimming glass of Shiraz later, I sat back down at my empty table.

 

Then, finally, an old woman and her partner circled towards my table at the back.  The old woman was balding. She looked at the chair next to me and politely asked, “Is anyone sitting here?”

 

“Nope!” I said.

 

Except, it wasn’t a simple “nope”, but a drawn-out, especially plosive “nope”. Hold the “p” down, and let it go . . . . .  like the girls do with “lollipop” in that one song.

 

“Nooo-PAH!”

 

I don’t know why I did this, having had only a slurp or two of wine. It was the first conversation I had had with anyone in 45 minutes, and I nearly ruined it.  I should have said, “Hey! Yeah, please sit! Go right ahead!” And smiled in my normally bright and friendly way.

 

But all I had was, “No-pahh!” And then I stared at her.

 

It seems I stopped trying before the dinner even formally started.

 

I watched as the old bald lady sat down and started to pour herself a glass of water.  Her aim was bad, and cold splashy water puddled up her plate and napkin.

 

Here was my chance to redeem the “No-pahh”.  I handed her a dry napkin from someone else’s seat and told her I had spilled all over too. She smiled.

 

And then the dinner was served.  Turkey. Stuffing. Cornbread. (CORNBREAD!!) Cranberry sauce.  It was alright!  As I dug in, I realized why I had thought it was perfectly normal to rock up to a Sunday Thanksgiving dinner in jeans and flip-flops and a cowboy shirt.

 

Not only had I not been home for a decade’s worth of this particular holiday, but my family has always celebrated it differently:  off-road style!  We (usually a caravan of 4 or 5 families) drive hours out to the desert towing trailers, fifth wheels, jeeps, bajas, quads, dirt bikes, RZRs, and sometimes shotguns to shoot up leftover Halloween pumpkins (not natives).  We bring food for Thanksgiving, but we cook it in the ground.

 

A big ol’ hole is dug in the ground, the bottom lined with stones that usually the kids are sent out to find, and a fire is started.  The fire is manned through the night, with campers taking shifts to add the wood and get the fire and the stones oven-hot.  Then the turkey is seasoned and wrapped and encased in a pot or something (I am usually playing in the dirt or getting people and myself beers at this point, so I don’t really know what happens between the digging of the hole, and the digging up of the turkey) but the turkey is buried and left to cook in the heat of the stones. Then we ride around on bikes and in jeeps all the next day. Once someone remembers where the turkey was buried, we dig it up and dig in.

 

And. It. Is. AWESOME. But yeah, we are dirty, sitting in lawn chairs around a fire, beer in hand, turkey on paper plate, and we all sit around feeling fat and grateful like the heathens we are.  This is what I remember when I think of a family Thanksgiving.

 

Those memories are a far cry from the situation I found myself in this year. No family. No off-road bikes. The turkey had been cooked in an oven. And any dirt in the place I am sure was brought in by me. But I felt a little more comfortable than I had when I first arrived.  Food and wine will do that.

 

Feeling conversational, I began to chat with the bald woman. Turns out, she was lovely.  And from LA.  Thirty years ago, she told me, she was traveling Europe when a rugged Aussie struck up a conversation with her over a cold beer in some 17th century building.  She followed him to Melbourne and never looked back.  She told a few stories and I, enchanted, listened to every word.

 

I took another bite of turkey, and then it occurred to me that I too had met an Aussie, who, over a beer in a 17th century building in Colombia, I realized I would be following to Melbourne.

 

Then I remembered how I had splashed the water all over my plate, as had she. We had both been sent to sit at the “back of room” table. In forty years, I thought, it could be me who was the bald lady sitting at the table telling travel stories to strangers.

 

I think I will be okay with that.

 

I just hope there’s a flip-flopped heathen sitting next to me then too.

 

Marty McFly Made Me Cool October 28, 2010

I can never tell whether or not I’m a victim of fashion. Last week, I went to a 70’s themed house party, and wore my flare jeans, silver heels and roller girl t-shirt because it had “Since 1970” scrawled across the front of it.  I already owned and regularly wear all of these things.  My hair is long and straight and parted down the middle every day. Does that make me cool?  I don’t know.

 

And I don’t really care, but recently that almost changed. I have been living in Melbourne for nearly five months now, and I had no idea that I was a walking victim of fashion.

 

It began as I was happily trawling through facebook status updates when I was notified of a comment a New Zealand “friend” of mine had posted on one of my recent pictures.

 

It wasn’t actually a comment. It was a barrage of accusations and outrage and horror of me having committed the SNEAN crime.

 

I was completely clueless. What’s a SNEAN? I posted back. I added a ha ha ha, but it was a nervously added ha ha ha; like someone laughing at a joke they don’t get.

 

Minutes later another frenzy of SNEAN accusations were posted from the Kiwi, with comments even more reactionary this time because not only had I SNEANED, I was also unaware that I had SNEANED.

 

Turns out, in New Zealand and Australia, jeans and sneakers worn together are the worst ever fashion crime.  Jeans + Sneakers = SNEANS.

 

What the heck, man?  They’re jeans and sneakers! What else am I supposed to wear? I replied to the comments on my SNEAN picture that I still didn’t really get why that was bad.

 

Ha ha ha I added to my posted reply.  (Nervous, frowny face in real life, waiting for the next comment on my picture.)

 

Next thing I knew, the offended Kiwi had enlisted an army of fellow Kiwis and Aussies who, within minutes, all took their turn laughing and scoffing and commenting all over my SNEAN picture. It was horrible.  I was a SNEAN offender being circled and attacked, and I still didn’t really understand why.

 

The Kiwis were the worst. Their comments were mostly in capital letters, and they were clearly in hysterics, screeching and laughing like spoiled bully schoolgirls.

 

FINE. Whatever, man.

 

I logged off and went about my day.  Later that afternoon, the unfriendly episode forgotten, I was walking to the grocery store. I was thinking of yummy food to buy.  I was probably humming along to my iPod.

 

Then suddenly, as I crossed the street, I looked down, and noticed what I was wearing. SNEANS.

 

Dear God.

 

For the first time ever, I felt shame in my shoes. It was a very bad feeling. Like a little kid who is getting scolded for doing something they didn’t know was wrong.

 

I looked around quickly. I was still in the middle of the street, and cars had stopped at the red light so that this SNEANED pedestrian could cross. I felt like they were laughing at me.  If my head hadn’t then been hung in shame, I am sure I would have seen them pointing while they laughed at my SNEANS.

 

This has bothered me ever since.  I feel like SNEANS are just a normal part of everyday wear, but now, thanks to that unkind incident, I feel really foolish and awkward.  I don’t like those feelings.  I like my jeans and sneakers.

 

But yesterday, I finally found redemption for my SNEANS in the form of a used, half-crumbled newspaper that commuters get free at train stations. Chris had left it lying on the kitchen table.

 

Plastered across page 17 was none other than the “Back to the Future” cast, and MJF’s face smiling up at me.

 

OF COURSE!!!

 

Marty McFly.

 

He SNEANED his way through the past, the future, and the wild, Wild West.  He saved the day and the town and his girlfriend. He must have five generations of fans by now.

 

And he did it all in SNEANS.

 

This is why Americans fail to see a problem with SNEANS. It’s in our culture.  And it’s cool.

 

Marty McFly made SNEANS cool.  Forever. Therefore, I am cool in SNEANS.

 

The Kiwis and Aussies can eat their hearts out.