Brisbane: the soft city?

Posted: January 31, 2013 in Uncategorized
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Every six months or so when I remember the existence of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Sunscreen’, I listen to it and smile at the lyrics: ‘Live in New York City once but leave before it makes you hard; live in Northern Carolina once but leave before i makes you soft’.  I’ve lived in neither New York City nor Northern Carolina.  But I have lived in London and I have lived in Devon.  I’ve also visited a number of other places most of which I’ve been able, at least loosely, to place into one of these two categories.  Brisbane, however, has me stumped! 

Before coming here, I might have assumed that a city which does not threaten to instil ice in your heart and hatred in your eyes would be a blessing.  But somehow this city manages to evade all a city’s usual rudeness, pollution and cynicism and yet has replaced in with a sort of indescriminate void. 

I’ve been challenged a number of times over the past weeks to offer my opinion of my new temporary home.  Try though I have to spare the feelings of these rather friendly individuals, and indeed maintain at least a sheen of credibility in the ‘decent sociable human being’ ranks, I’m afraid I’ve invariably answered with phrases such as ‘it’s a bit soft’; ‘it’s lacking something’ and on one particularly downtrodden day, ‘I just look around and think…really?!!’.  I hear myself saying these things and generally attempt some form of back-peddle, offering either placatory anecdotes such as ‘but one woman did smile at me yesterday’ or else aim to even the scoreboard by insulting my own country, ‘If only England didn’t have such god awful rain’ (not even true). 

But most remarkably, most people at least partially agree with my somewhat underwhelming assessment of this city, adding such things as ‘yeah, it doesn’t look that great does it’ and ‘yeah, you need to get away from here quite often’.

Now, I say ‘you need to get away sometimes’ about my town of Dartmouth in the UK – an infinitely smaller (three-streets-big smaller) and, in my opinion, infinitely more beautiful and charismatic place.  I can cope with the insularity, occasional gossip-mongering and limited entertainment options because it means I get to live by the beautiful River Dart, a short country-lane walk away from the beach ad surrounded by luscious green countryside and woodlands.  Most importantly, it’s crammed with charismatic people waving and shouting greetings across the road and welcoming you with a pint in the pub. That’s why I ‘sacrifice’ to live in a place you ‘need to get away from now and then’.  What on earth possesses people to do the same for Brisbane.


Trust me to find the negative as I embark on an eighteen month sabbatical adventure, beginning in Sydney, Australia.  But seriously…what in the world is this country thinking when it comes to price! I’m all too familiar with Australia’s reputation as being an expensive place to visit but somehow being faced with a $30 bag of muesli in the local corner shop really brings home how absurd things here are.

 I am particularly disgruntled with the price of two favourites of mine: a hearty pint of beer and a generous mug of steaming coffee.  With a miniature replica of a coffee costing around $4 (£3 ish) and a ‘schooner’ (somewhere between a half pint and a pint) of lager costing around $7 (£5 ish), I have resorted to staring glumly at other – evidently more wealthy – people merrily consuming these over-priced beverages.  Either that or, on the rare occasion I fork out for such luxury, sipping tentatively in a bid to make this rarest of treats last a sociable amount of time along with absent-mindedly sliding a hand up alongside these tiny drink containers and muttering under my breath something along the lines of ‘absurd country’ or ‘what were they thinking’…something I probably need to curb if I intend to make any friends at all.

I suppose I shouldn’t be remotely surprised when venues as world-renowned as Bondi make every attempt to flog a shoddy pairs of plastic flip flops for over twenty quid.  Or when a gaudy Australian-animal-print apron costs £40 at the famous Sunday market at The Rocks, central Sydney.  But it took every ounce of restraint not to execute a drama-queen flounce out of the local newsagents when I saw a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bar (smallest size available) going for a princely £2! Come on. 

In Sydney’s defence, I have spent my first days here in Australia in Clovelly – renowned sought-after family-based suburb on the outskirts of Sydney costing a mere £1.5 – £2 million for three bedroom semi-detached akin to a pretty bog-standard affair in England costing no more than £300,000.  It is, of course, right next to the sea (though right next to still means a fifteen minute walk) and it appears safe and reasonably friendly.  But cheap it is not.  Tomorrow, I head to Brisbane.  Maybe the river city will offer a more appealing pricing situation.  In the meantime, far from grabbing a sumptuous mug of Costa’s best coffee-bean extravaganza… I’ll put the kettle on.

It’s taken me over a week to decide whether writing about my current situation for my blog is the right thing to do.  My grandma is dying.  I am 27 and have not yet lost anyone this significant to me, something I’ve always felt very lucky about.  But here it is.  And I’ve just realised exactly how much this situation links with my decisions next year – my big year of travel and adventure – which first prompted this blog:

I am currently sitting in a chair at the nursing home where Grandma was taken just over a week ago.  Her decline has been gradual over the past six months or so: first with the discovery of cancer, then the decision not to operate then the gentle loss of independence culminating in full-time carers and, eventually, a respite period in a nursing home when things really became too difficult at home.  Only this respite isn’t a respite.  Although no-one is allowed/encouraged to give exact prognoses, we think it’s days, perhaps a week.  And as Grandma’s vision dims, her speech slurs and she spends less and less time awake, the family have rallied around to spend these precious few days together with her and to keep at least one of us with her at all times.  Tonight is my first night vigil.  It’s actually rather lovely to be with Grandma alone.  I’ve found things difficult the past two days as she seems to recognise me less and less.  But now, alone, I feel perhaps she does know who I am and that I’m here for her.

I could of course continue to explore my own feelings on this sad process or about how wonderful my Grandma is and all the beautiful things I’ve learned from her but I think that belongs elsewhere.  Here, really, there is space to consider what these days have done for the family.  Grandma is my mum’s mum and mum has one brother, Martin – my uncle.  He has two children – my cousins – who despite featuring in a few memories of growing up really haven’t been the extended family that some experience.  In fact, I really grew up wondering why my parents appeared to have such an aversion to their siblings and hoping that’d never happen to me and mine.

But now things are starting to change.  For a couple of months now, Mum has said how Grandma’s illness has allowed her brother and her to talk more than they ever had as adults before.  And now my sister and I too have had the chance to spend time with him and my cousin, Tom.  And it’s really bloody good.  A few days ago, my Grandma was rather distressed and despite muddling and delirium, was repeating several messages about how we must all build houses of love and love each other and take care of each other.  I really hope it is true that the final sense to go is hearing because if Grandma can hear us all together around her bed, getting to know each other, supporting each other, everyone rallying round…well, she would be (in her words) as happy as Larry!

Now, all this brings me to what I’m feeling about next year’s travels.  Yes, it is exciting and I have a lot to be grateful for and proud of and excited about.  But part of these travels are to go and find out whether I, like my brother, want to move to Australia (where my boyfriend is currently living).  I’ve been uncertain about this since he ‘got a head start’ and moved back to Brisbane last April but now…even more so.  I’ve always known family is important and the guilt I feel about being the second child to potentially head off southward and never return has caused more than one sleepless night.  But now more than ever: surely family – and being close to them – is more important than anything else.  Sure, have an adventure, see more, meet people, learn new things…but to never return? To have an annual week with the people that are most important to me rather than being a short drive away and seeing them once every few weeks?!

So, I think Grandma’s passing is timed quite well.  It’s not that it’s made my mind up (that’ll be the day!) but it has given me one hell of a reminder about the power and strength of family and the importance of closeness and shared experience.  I guess it’s just another piece of understanding to add as I meander through 2013 and make some decisions.  And hopefully, when Grandma is finally released from this body, she can be with me too.  Only a few days ago, she was able to communicate with me and she said ‘I think we’ll always be together, won’t we’.  I’m looking forward to it.

(Back dated Friday 30th Nov-Sat 1st Dec)


I have a tendency to enjoy (that’s a little strong but it’ll do) intense work for short periods of time.  So there is some perverse inner excitement when I get 200 essays to mark all in the same fortnight.  Perhaps it’s the anticipation of the feeling of satisfaction I get when it’s done.  But it’s still perverse.  And more than a little sad.  However, this approach has allowed me to get on fairly well in my job as a teacher.  I get things done.

But as of Christmas Eve, I’m off on a sabbatical that I’m desperately hoping will claw me from my current over-worked regime and allow me to see other ways of being.  So when I caught myself thinking ‘Oh, I’ll just work really hard through January (the CELTA – English Language Teaching – course) and then I’ll take a break and see some of Australia (I’m flying to Australia and taking the course in Brisbane),’ alarm bells started to ring.  When, three days ago, I found myself thinking ‘Well, I’ll just get through the six months in Australia and then I’ll relax and do something I want to do,’ I felt the brakes well and truly clamp on and I took one almighty step back.

I’d come to thinking this way after resigning myself to the fact I don’t have enough money to just ‘do what I want’ and I’d better make the most of my new (hopefully) CELTA qualification and get a job! But I’ve been assuming the contracts (if you’re lucky enough to secure one) are a substantial length and, given the complexity of the some of the grammar work I’ve started to dip into, the preparation for each class is going to be substantial too.  So I’m left back where I am: doing nothing but teaching, preparing, teaching, go to the gym, marking, teaching, preparing…work, work, work.  And I’m fairly keen to avoid this mere displacement of workload from the UK to Australia.

What I’d love to know is whether anyone has had any experience of CELTA teaching, especially in Australia and/or other ways people have found of making money in Australia.  At the moment, although I love teaching (for the long-term!), I’d rather work a city bar than just find myself doing a very similar job just in a slightly more tropical climate.  Suggestions well and truly welcome…

One of the chief motivations for not indulging in Friday night debauchery yester eve was the lure of awakening free from the gradual crescendo of an alcohol-induced headache.  After a week including two experiments with this fasting diet malarkey and two new gym regimes, I was severely tempted by the prospect of not having to apologise repeatedly to my body for trying to annihilate it with ale and cigarettes.

I awoke half an hour ago with a smile on my face.  I mean, I was actually smiling.  I had just roused from a long and dream-filled slumber naturally: without the affronting clamour of my phone alarm rudely dragging me into the 6am darkness.  Today, it was 7.45am and a dull but evident November sunshine was at least trying to creep through my pale curtains.

The morning is now my oyster! I have a few ‘got-to-do-as-these-things-can’t-be-done-during-the-busy-week’ items on the list to get done but then it’s over to my lovely town of Dartmouth to sooth and entertain my weekend self.

Only it’s this lovely town of Dartmouth that so confuses me.  I have now 37 days until I leave to go travelling, complete with the nagging pit-of-the-stomach burn that this is the place I’ve been the happiest since I left school: it’s woods, river and sea are beautiful and it’s locals, albeit mostly alcoholic, say hello when you pass them by and are always pleased to see you when you walk in the pub.  All the things that had me move here from London four years ago.

My feelings about the place have always peaked and troughed: peaking typically in the summer with the sun-filled beer-garden days of the music festival, ale-sipping on the grass in the park, running to the beach for the afternoon and long daylight hours.  The winter months, although I often prefer the dirth of tourists cluttering our small town, come with an often unwelcome reality-check that it is just you and a handful of 40 or 50-something drunks sitting around the bar and last time you mentioned anything of interest (books, films, art, travel, food, education, society, the list goes on), the nearest person slurred a derogatory discouragement from entering into any conversation ‘so intelligent’.  Better still, if that person happens to be the famous ‘Daggers’, I’d be informed, in no uncertain terms, I had an ‘attitude problem’ and asked why I think I’m so intelligent.  Put that way, I’ve made it hard to see the charm of the place!

There is charm.  There definitely is.  I’ve have acquired a smile-inducing plethora of unforgettable experiences here! Far more fondly remembered than anything I ever took from three years at university.  Age and drinking-habits aside, there are some real gems in this town: people who themselves have travelled, who tell stories and who look after each other.

But perhaps you just outgrow a place? Previous visits to London and Bristol (over the last five or six years) have always had be clamouring to return to my lovely Dartmouth.  I’d wake up on the Saturday morning and wonder where my river was and what I was doing in this unfriendly smoke-filled urban hell.  I visited London four weeks ago and Bristol last weekend.  I had the usual feeling.  But far less evident.  And what really got me was how much I loved being in both cities.  How exciting the endless possibilities to soak up and revel in culture, to speak to people who might be excited as I am about a book or a film or travel or art or anything!

Naturally, I’ve always known this is supposed to be one of the lures of the city. But never felt it before.  There’s one thing for sure: I owe Dartmouth a lot.  I came here from London quite depleted after three years in a university I disliked and two years in London which I liked but on first-year-teacher wages simply couldn’t enjoy.  My first year in Dartmouth was by far the best year I have had so far.  Dartmouth gave me back my confidence, sense of adventure and creativity.  But perhaps you do just outgrow a place.

I’m three hours into my second 24 hour fast of the week and I’m desperately trying to create distractions from the fact that it is clearly dinner time; it is all too mind-preoccupyingly (nope, not a word but I’m having it) evident that what I should be doing is preparing something scrumptious and looking forward to my stable pudding of raspberry yoghurt, peppered with crunched up cereal and chocolate drops.

So I’ve taken to doing a bit of writing: I leave my town in five weeks and I’m keen to finish a little ‘livealogue’ (can’t be a travelogue as I’m not travelling anywhere so figured…) about this town as I think it’s pretty interesting – in as much as it’s filled to the brim with eccentrics.  In doing so, I’ve stumbled across an old diary of the time I first arrived here and a second diary of my travels last summer to Kyrgyzstan.

It was in Kyrgyzstan, trekking up glacial mountains with a translator/trek guide named Vlad (actually Vadim but that only transpired two weeks after everyone had been calling him so Vlad so Vlad it was) that I began to question the ‘wisdom’ I’d be consuming from dietary and exercise books back in the West since an early age.

It was one blue-skied, dewy morning camping at a hot springs in the foothills of the Ala Archa National Park that I managed to grab an hour – and crucially a coffee (albeit packet) – with Vlad as he lay in his one-man tent, boiling water on his camping stove.  I spotted an old Fanta bottle filled with what looked like little stones and questioned Vlad as to what it was.  I was particularly intrigued as people had started to notice how little Vlad appeared to eat…and yet how impressively strong he appeared to be.

As an example, one day when crossing a shallow but reasonably fast-moving river, I was the first in the line and, looking what I imagine to be somewhat dubious, Vlad had reached out his hand.  Not wanting to fall too heavily into the bracket of ‘pathetic female’ but having a similar distaste for becoming a drowned rat, I reached out my hand to gain the balance-support I assumed Vlad was offering.  Only he wasn’t offering merely support. No.  Instead, he whisked me (all 167k of me) and my bag (pushing 17k) onto his shoulder, balancing this entire load with just one hand and trotted across the river, depositing me effortlessly on the other bank before returning to do the same with those behind me.  It’d be fair to say, there was somewhat of an aura of mystical wonder about this character.

So I’d asked Vlad what was in the bottle and he’d told me it was buckwheat – the only food he consumed on his average hiking day, bar a couple of bush/tree picked fruits and flowers and an orange drink at lunchtime.  I was frankly horrified.  How on earth could this embodiment of strength and fitness be the way he was without following the precise protein-carbohydrate-fat-fitness regime I’d come to measure out my daily log by? Unbelievable.

And so slowly (probably a little late at aged 27), I started to realise not everything I’ve been told and read to date is necessarily the best advice.  Not to say it’s all to be dismissed but there are clearly other ways of achieving similar (or even better) effects.  This tiny seed continued to blossom throughout the summer and ever since and has lead to all sorts of new discoveries.  But for now, I’m fasting and thinking of Vlad – if he could essentially fast whilst rocketing up 5000 metre mountains in flip-flops, surely I can battle through another hour or two of lolling on my bed reading plus a couple of lessons teaching before 4pm tomorrow arrives… and I EAT.

When I first overheard a colleague telling the canteen staff he couldn’t have any more than the measly cup of luke warm soup nestled in his palm because it was a ‘fast day’ and he was restricted to 600 calories, I looked aghast at his 6 foot 6, cyclist frame and told him in no uncertain terms that he’d lost the plot and that I ate more than that just walking past the fridge.

At precisely 3.45pm this afternoon, I finished the first of what may or may not become regular 24 hour fasts as part of my initial experimentations with the world of intermittent fasting.  No sooner had I informed my colleague that he needed to have a serious word with himself, he was delivering – eager and bright-eyed as always – a surprisingly convincing collection of reasons why this wasn’t so absurd after all.

I went away mildly intrigued by the idea, chiefly as I’ve been looking for something to adapt in my diet in an attempt to stop the sugar-purges of late evening.  I’m by no means a serial dieter; in fact, my approach to food and exercise is always that I won’t start something that I do not believe sustainable.  No crash diets here.  And I tend to do quite a bit of reading before trying anything new.  And so, the more I read about intermittent/alternate/5:2 fasting, the more fascinated I became…which culminated in watching BBC Horizon’s August 2012 documentary ‘Eat, Fast and Live Longer’ in which Dr. Michael Mosley researches various people who incorporate fasting into their diets – whether voluntarily or not – and indeed tries it himself.  And the really interesting part is that weight loss, though a welcome addition to the host of potential benefits (though still very much under-evidenced in human subjects), is not the primary motivation, with a lessened risk to diseases such as diabetes and cancer being more marked possibilities.

Anyhow, after a excellent slice of carrot cake and a strawberry and cream flavoured tea at Bristol’s Cox and Baloney’s tea shop yesterday at around 3.30pm, I figured that was that.  I just wouldn’t eat until 3.45pm the following day.  I got on the train back to Devon, admittedly had to shelter from view of my chocolate stacked fridge by getting a very early (but much needed) sleep and did a day’s teaching with no food.  And I was fine.  Needless to say, we don’t fall down and collapse if we fail to receive the traditional three square meals a day.  Not at all.  A mild headache crept in about an hour before I finished but all-in-all, not at all bad.  And I felt less like I’d spent the day cramming whatever food came my way in between writing reports, marking books and trying to entertain rooms of teenagers – a feeling I usually have and generally am not so fond of.

I finished the fast with a fair-sized bowl of my favourite cereal, a banana, some grapes and a cake.  Not the best choice really, given that’s a fair chunk of sugar right there and one of the key hopes I have for this new way of eating is to reduce the sugar cravings that plague my every evening.  But still.  It’s early days.  Dinner was a very large pile of fish, quinoa and greens (and I’m just about to have a little chocolatey night cap!)  Tomorrow, importantly (and much emphasised in the literature I’ve started to read) is a normal eating day.  Then on Thursday, I think I’ll have another stab at it.  Not planning to necessarily pursue total fasts long-term, possibly the reduced 500 calories day (600 for men) but just going to see how it goes.

Is anyone else dabbling with fasting and has had any major success/tips?