Thursday, November 18, 2010

The rain in Spain has nothing on Balmain

I was surprised to read today that, apparently, 31% of Australians claim English descent, compared to 37% who call themselves simply Australian.Actually, what I find truly surprising is not the number itself, but the fact that so many were willing to admit to it: I have noticed on more than a few occasions that when some native Australians ask me “is that an…. English accent I hear?” or “Excuse me, are you from… the UK?” they have done so in the same hesitant, awkward tone of voice one would use if enquiring whether someone has an embarrassing/humourous infectious disease or if it was them who just farted or if they realise that their skirt has been tucked into their knickers for the last three hours. 

The quantity of Anglo-Australians is hardly startling given that (as we just love to remind our Antipodean friends) it was the English who thought, waaay back in 1788, that Terra Australis would make a simply spiffing spot for a penal colony. Indeed, one explanation given for the origin of the word ‘pom’, that most favourite of Aussie idioms, is that it originates from the acronym P.O.M.E., for 'Prisoner of Mother England'. 

However, although approximately 162,000 people were shipped Down Under until the abolition of transportation in 1850, this number pales in comparison to the hordes of people who flocked to Australia after Edward Hargraves discovered gold near Bathurst in 1851. The following year saw the arrival of an estimated 370,000 new immigrants and the fledgling nation’s economy experienced a rapid boom. 

160 years after the goldrush, Australia is the world’s thirteenth largest economy and was recently ranked second in the United Nations Human Development Index, so I guess things have panned out pretty well, pardon the pun.

Mindful of our countries’ shared history, since moving to Australia it has been interesting to note both the numerous differences and abundant similarities that exist between the British and Aussie cultures. For example, I find endearing, but will never fully understand, why Australians are instinctively driven to shorten and affix an ‘o’, ‘y’ or ‘ie’ to every noun they possibly can, or to replace such words entirely with nonsensical slang. I also share Stephen Fry’s irritation at “Australian Question Intonation”- you know, the need to go up at the end of every sentence like this when you are not in fact posing a question. It is also beyond me why Aussies happily join in with the rest of the world in mocking British food and yet continue to venerate the meat-of-questionable-origin pie, life-shorteningly greasy chicken schnitzel and Vegemite… I’m sorry, but Marmite is by far the superior vegetable extract. On the other hand, we also share many common traits: our habitual tacit racism, penchant for snobbery and classism, weakness for binge drinking, love of charring food on barbecues, fondness for Kylie Minogue and, of course, our devotion to sport- or more specifically beating each other at it… ok, I admit that last one was just a blatant excuse to brag- it’s not like the English get to very often. One thing, however, that has shocked me, as a dyed-in-the-wool, bona fide whinging pom, is that Australians also share the oft-maligned British habit of moaning about the weather.
Now, the English, it must be said, are the time-honoured masters of weather-related casual chit-chat. As social anthropologist Kate Fox perceptively observes “English weather-speak is a form of code, evolved to help us overcome our natural reserve and actually talk to each other”. However, what we really excel in is not just conversing about the weather, but complaining about it: If meteorological moaning was an Olympic sport, the English would undoubtedly take gold. In fact, we’re even better at it than we are at rugby. (Oh, sorry, did I already used that link?) 

The reason for this is, I think, pretty straightforward: we have a lot of opportunity to practise because, for the most part, English weather is really, really crap. On average, more than half the year is overcast and summer, if we get one at all, lasts about three days. Would-be visitors take note: if the temperature does manage to rise above about 25°C, half of the country will ring in sick to work and sprint to the nearest park to 'soak up the sun', whilst the other half who did drag themselves into the office won't actually get any work done because they will be too busy complaining about how this terrible 'heatwave' has turned the Tube into a cylindrical commuter pressure cooker. They will then return to their homes and moan to their spouses that this unbearable swelter is ruining the flower beds- which of course they can't water because despite five solid months of flood-inducing storms earlier in the year, the council has initiated a hose-pipe ban, citing the fact that it was the 'wrong type of rain'.

Jeremy Paxman hit the nail on the head when he wrote that "one of the few things you can say about England with absolute certainty is that it has a lot of weather. It may not include tropical cyclones but life at the edge of an ocean and the edge of a continent means you can never be entirely sure what you’re going to get". However, as my time in Sydney has shown me, Australian weather, at least at this time of year, is seemingly just as bi-polar. 

It came as no surprise to learn that Sydney actually receives more rainfall than London does, because I feel like I've been damp for about a month straight. So soggy, in fact, that I've concocted a plan to make millions from a new range of novelty tourist t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "Australia gets me wet" and "I went to Sydney and all I got was soaking/the flu/trenchfoot". Of course, there has been the odd moment of respite from the dismal downpours... Unfortunately this has come via short bursts of oppressive heat and humidity that make it feel like we're living in Satan's arsecrack and turn any item of sleeved clothing into an instrument of torture. 

Thankfully, it seems most Aussies I know are similarly pissed off by the current confusing climate and, moreover, seem to be even better at bitching about it than the Brits! By way of example, let me tell you some people I encountered on a bus journey last week. Let's start with Judy. Now, Judy is most put out by the level of rain falling on Sydney at the moment because the damp is most definitely exacerbating her chronic joint pain and even the most hardcore of her homeopathic remedies isn't providing any relief. Judy's friend and travel companion, Wendy, agrees with her that this excessively wet weather is most unusual and to excuse her French, "a right pain in the bloody bum"- she was nearly fifteen minutes late for her pottery class the other day because the traffic was so bad, obviously due to the rain. Judy knows exactly what she means: her dogwalking group was cancelled altogether, but then maybe that was a blessing in disguse, because her knees really are too sore to attempt anything more than the lightest of exercise.

At the back of the bus, Kirsty is also pretty pissed off about the stormy weather, which, as she descriptively shrieked into her iphone to her presumably hard-of-hearing friend, Claire, has been "heaps crap for ages". What's more, she'll be "like toootally bummed" if there's a downpour on the night of next month's formal because she is "like, so stoked" about the "amaaazing cute shoes" she's bought to wear, but they're suede and "oh my god will be, like, totally f-ed up" if it rains!!!

A few seats forward from Kirsty, Tony (Big T to his friends) was also expressing concerns regarding Sydney's recent inclemency over the phone because, bloody oath mate, he will be spewing if he has to cancel the barbie he's got planned for this Sunday arvo- he's got some blokes coming down especially from Queensland. He's stressed out enough as it is because his son Jarrod has been crook for the past few days and Ange has been giving him a right ear-bashing because he hasn't finished painting their bedroom yet... even though he's been flat out and he didn't even want bloody 'Rustic Terracotta' anyway, but Ange had to put her bloody foot down, didn't she?

Meanwhile, Judy and Wendy (who incidentally painted her kitchen in Rustic Terracotta just last month) are debating the extent to which the rain will be "good for the garden"- Wendy thinks her herbaceous borders are lapping it up, but Judy isn't convinced and remains worried that the excess water will rot her vegetables. Concurrently, whatever words of wisdom Claire uttered from the other end of the phone call have seemingly diffused Kirsty's footwear fiasco fears and the conversation has moved to more pressing matters, such as the finer points of the music of Justin Bieber, the, like, totally retarded history homework they got today and, most importantly, whether or not Katie will come to the beach this weekend when she must know that everyone thinks she's, like, a total skank for kissing Emma's boyfriend... Of course, given Kirsty's intonation I can't be sure if that was a statement or a question and sadly I will probably never know, as at that moment the bus pulled up to my stop.

I realised that the exposure to such first-rate weather whinging was actually inducing a very mild sense of homesickness- strip away the Aussie accents and Down Under dialect and I could easily have been on a bus back in Blighty listening to Wendy from Wembley, Kirsty from Kettering or Tony from Telford experiencing the very same conversations, consultations and considerations. I've come to the conclusion that the reason for our carping comparability must be a genetic one- some sort of English 'weather-whinging gene' that has been transported, transplanted and transmitted through generations over goodnessknowshowmany years and has ended up forming part of the Aussie psyche.

Mercifully, it appears from the current forecast that Tony won't have to cancel his barbecue, that Judy will get to participate in her prized pooch parade and that Kirsty, Claire and numerous other twitty teens will be able to bitch out at the beach this weekend... But I'd be willing to bet money that all of these marvellous moaners not only fall within the 31%, but that when the heat of summer really kicks in, each of them will still find elements of the elements to grumble, gripe and grouse about. In fact, if they don't, I'll eat my hat...

...and I'll eat it with Marmite, not Vegemite, of course.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

You don't have to be mad to work here...

By my reckoning, it is now about 6 weeks since I started doing administration work for a real estate agent in Surry Hills. As someone who has never aspired to work in administration, real estate or for that matter Surry Hills, I simply took this job because, as an FOB British working-holiday visa holder I really needed the cash and this was the first halfway decent thing the recruitment company found me. 

Within five minutes of arriving, I learned that my predecessor, another working-holiday Brit, had lasted only two days... Clearly, the boss was not one to suffer fools gladly. Things went well for the first three weeks and I even turned down a couple of other possible postings because the boss seemed so pleased... although to be honest a (poorly) trained monkey could perform most of the tasks I'm asked to complete. 

I'm not an arrogant person, but I think after 25 years, (17 in education), £16,000+ of student debt, more passport stamps than I can count and a decently varied CV there would be something intrinsically wrong with me if I found myself unable to do basic word-processing, answer a phone and stuff envelopes.

As for Surry Hills? Well, I really like it- even if it did take a few days for me to conquer my Anglocentric desire to spell it with an 'e'. As the most cursory of google sessions will indicate, it's an interesting little Sydney microcosm. First settled by Europeans in the late 1700's, the area became a nesting ground for colonial gentry in the 1820's before later developing an unfortunate "reputation for crime and vices" in the mid nineteenth century. This unpleasant perception of a suburb in deterioration stuck until the postwar years, when an influx of foreign migrants helped fuel its revival. Thanks to these residents and a concerted drive for gentrification which began in the 1960's, today Surry Hills is once again seen as a 'desirable' postcode... But not TOO desirable... What I really like is that despite the clean-up crusade, it’s still a bit rough around the edges. Indeed, whilst some describe the area as a "bohemian Sydney village" and as one of the city's "most artistically-vibrant neighbourhoods" and "hippest suburbs" I find others on the internet are eager to warn me of the "high crime rate" and that this is a "really scary dodgy area at night" with "constant fights and loads of drugs". 
As well as the typical metropolitan Usual Suspects (slick-looking suited-and-booted professionals, symbiotically linked to their Blackberries; painfully skinny Hipster-types in rolled up trousers and beaten-up loafers with permanently affixed disdainful expressions; Yummy Mummies resplendent in designer cashmere, accompanied by their perfect 4-syllable-named offspring and artfully crossbred family dog...) I have encountered an eclectic mix of people since I started coming here- some of whom I think may be certifiably crazy. 

I've been asked for spare change A LOT (once by a woman who kept staring at my hair and angrily declared that I was 'JUST as bad as JULIA" when I didn't give her any money), I witness at least three screaming arguments a week and last week I had to duck out of the way of not one, but two people trying to fight invisible demons. 

This same duality is also present in the very architecture of Surry Hills- A hotchpotch of buildings of all shapes and sizes which, as well as residential properties, now host an eclectic mix of vintage clothing stores, overpriced interior decoration boutiques and an impressive selection of bars, cafes and restaurants, offering a range of cuisines so diverse it reads like a UN delegate attendance list. 

But there, discretely nestled in amongst the fairtrade-organic-soy-chai latte purveyors and post-post-post-modern art galleries you'll also find the NSW Users and AIDS Association, complete with street side needle drop and, a little further along the road the Oasis Youth Support Network for disadvantaged and homeless you people. Both are strak reminders that there are some people in Surry Hills facing more difficult challenges than whether to accessorize with the blue or red Wayfarers today.

But I digress, during the last fortnight my fortunes have changed somewhat dramatically and what started as 'friendly banter' from my boss has basically descended into verbal abuse. I don't know what I did to deserve it, but I have well and truly fallen from grace. From being praised as some sort of administrative golden girl, I am now criticised, belittled and insulted on a daily basis and my patience is wearing extremely thin. I've lost track and lost count of the precise details, but I have been informed, among other things, that I really think I'm "something special", "need to shut up and **** off", "would try the patience of a saint", am "sending him mad", "talk a lot, but don't know how to bloody listen" (which is only half true) and that I must think he's "bloody stupid" if I think he doesn't know what I'm "up to" (also not entirely true- although yes, I do think he's bloody stupid). Oh, and this week he also made a point of mentioning that I was a few minutes late one day, but of course, the fact that I've come in ten minutes early for the last few days has escaped his attention, as has my consistently taking only twenty minutes for lunch. In short, I'm damned if I do and I'm damned if I don't: If I make a tiny error, I'm told I need to stop doing my "own personal shit" and that I think I'm "too clever and need to just slow down and concentrate". If I then spend three times as long proof reading a document, he yells "it's only a bloody draft, what's taking you so long?"

For some reason, after a particularly grueling barrage the other day, I began to picture one of those irritating "You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps!!!" posters. You know the ones I mean- posters which are normally possessed by only the most inexplicably and infuriatingly cheerful of office support staff.  It’s the sort of poster that Elaine from accounts has tacked to the side of her monitor under the watchful gaze of two Trolls and a Beanie Baby. Realistically, despite being a self-described ‘zany lunatic’, the craziest thing Elaine has ever done was to accidentally put four sugars in her tea instead of two. That was in 2001, but she still enjoys recounting the story to unwary office newcomers- a tale like that doesn't age. Brian from IT agrees with her. He still thinks it is hilarious and actively looks forward to joining in with the now customary punchline of "Uhoh... This tastes a bit... funny!" It's developed into a 'thing' they have. Brian has a copy of the "You don't have to be mad..." poster too- Elaine printed it for him; she knows another madcap screwball when she sees one. Brian has been working up the courage to ask Elaine to come live action role-playing with him for three years. He's not quite ready to yet, but he thinks he's getting close. 

Perhaps if Elaine and Brian were real people and worked in my office then they could take a share of my boss's wrath from time to time? After being made to cry for the second time last week, I consulted some friends and asked what to do. Unfortunately, whilst it does give me some comfort to "know, deep down, that he undoubtedly has a tiny penis" and I did laugh when slashing his tires and treating the office toilet to the 'Upper Deck' were mooted as suggestions, it doesn't really help me.

This week, I found myself taking pre-emptive strike action. For example, I no longer ask questions or make conversation (less communication = less opportunity for him to be rude) and instead of making ‘things to do’ lists I’ve been compiling ‘things I’ve done' lists (= irrefutable evidence in case he feels like suggesting I'm not working)... But despite my best efforts, he's still being horrible. 

I rang my recruitment agent on Tuesday and she was about as much use as a chocolate teapot. Obviously, as they are making a tidy sum from me, it's in the company's best interests for me to stay here and, to quote her well-meant platitudes, to "not take it personally" and to "not bother saying anything because he won't take it on board". 
Armed with these pearls of wisdom I returned to the office to be met with a demand as to whether I'd "done these yet?" 'These', were two letters that needing amending. I informed him that, no, I had not, because when I asked him about them earlier in the day he had bitten my head off. Bad move. To that, I was treated to "Oh my god, stop being such a woman! Don't be so stroppy. Christ, the world must be a scary place for you". When I suggested that this was both an unfair and unpleasant manner in which to speak to me, I was rewarded with “I’m the one paying you; I’ll talk to you how I ******* like”. Wow. No covering up this one, cue bursting into tears take three… Three glasses of wine, two more confirmations of his miniature member and a dinner bought by a very kind friend later and I realised I'd REALLY come to the end of my tether and that it is time to be a LOT more proactive on the job-hunting front.  
Luckily, it seems the employment gods are smiling on me today as earlier I got a call offering me another position... The details aren't finalised yet, but I'm already worrying about how I tell my oh-so-empathic employer that I want to quit. When I got off the phone, I went for a quick walk around the block to mull it over a bit and, as per usual, found myself doing a bit of casual window shopping. At one point I was looking at the display in a vomit-inducingly expensive lighting shop and marveling at how anyone could possibly consider paying $900 for a lamp that could well be made of reconstituted tampon applicators. I soon noticed there were two other people approaching the shop front. From my right, a barefooted man with a matted beard obscuring from clear view a grin as wide as the harbour bridge. The other, approaching from the left, was a glamourous (if rather bitchy) looking woman who I imagine smells of Chanel and money. She gave both me and barefoot brief looks before strutting purposefully into the shop, possibly to buy an $8000 styrofoam chandelier. Barefoot shook his head and grinned even wider before gesturing at the shop and declaring "She's crazy! This... shit!" and then of course asking me for change. He didn't seem fussed when I said no, but instead shrugged and and told me “they don’t know I got twelve!” before carrying on up the street, trailing a piece of string behind him. 
And as I looked from him, to the lighting shop to my own reflection, I couldn’t help but ask myself, who’s really the mad one here? The homeless guy taking his invisible dog for a walk? The woman prepared to spend a developing country's GDP on pretentious lighting solutions? Or the girl who has travelled 17,000km from her country of birth to figure life out a bit and ends up doing mind-numbingly boring, isolating work whilst being made to feel like scum that's been scraped off the bottom of a shoe?
You don't have to be mad to work here: You have to be a masochist. Screw you mate, I quit.