Monday, December 25, 2006

“It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas”

...or so the song goes. That was not my experience during my first December in Australia.

How can you tell Christmas is coming without the saturation marketing? In Ireland it is as if products not directly associated with Christmas have no sale value at all. But however kitsch the plastic Santas and neon snowmen might look, they were auguries for the Yule season. And while they may have been unwelcome in and of themselves they were the backdrop to the run-up to Christmas and a sign of happy times to come.

This is not the way of things in Australia. Yes, animatronic carollers and baubled fir trees sprout up in department store windows but Christmas is not absolutely in-your-face at every turn. In addition it is the middle of the summer. Father Christmas tends to look a little overdressed in his winter woollies when it’s 37 degrees outside.

In a sense it is not obvious what function Christmas serves during the summer. In the northern hemisphere Christmas is something to look forward to during the long descent into cold, wet, dark days of winter. When it arrives, it is a sign that the days will finally get longer rather than shorter still. Christmas is a counterbalance to the misery of the year’s end. Frankly it’s not needed in the Southern Hemisphere.

If you ask Australians, there childhood memories of Christmas correspond to lengthy summer holidays from school; barbecues and beaches go hand-in-hand with Christmas. Except for those who grew up with an expatriate European matriarch. These were forced to endure the full gamut of festive food in the middle of the summer heat; turkey, ham, gravy, hot puddings and mince pies on sweltering day at the height of summer. Poor souls.

So when does it feel like Christmas? It would seem this depends very much on your personal experiences growing up; maybe your family had a pine Christmas tree, maybe your Dad lit up the house so it was visible from space, perhaps your family went shopping in the bustle of a city centre on Christmas eve or did you all go to midnight mass.

For many the smell of fir trees indoors is the quintessential Christmas mnemonic. Our family’s commitment to a ‘real’ Christmas tree was intermittent at best. We all loved the smell of pine in the house but a real tree was condemned as generative of too much housekeeping. So more often than not we made do with a rather sterile plastic affair. But there was a tradition of sorts around assembling and dressing the thing.

As a child the first harbinger of Christmas for me was coming home to an open fire in our living room. From November on it would get colder and darker earlier and earlier. And by the start of December a fire would be warming the house from the time I arrived home from school. We’ve long since abandoned having a fire in the hearth in favour of other technologies for dispelling draughts and purveying heat. But I still insist on a big open fire on Christmas day. The smell of the smoke, the crackle of coal – that’s Christmas.

Lighting a coal fire indoors, during December, here will warrant a visit from the fire department and will most likely get you arrested. At the very least you'll be (rightly) regarded as eccentric bordering on the insane. And so it doesn't feel a lot like Christmas at all.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Back in the Rat Race

I fought against it for as long as I could but in the end it was inevitable and I have now returned to workforce. This is, as you would imagine, rather unsettling. For one thing I'm expected to turn up, five days a week at the ridiculously early hour of 9 o'clock in the morning. It's barely human. On top of that they appear to expect me to be productive for the following 8 hours solid. They might as well put me in a thread mill and crack a whip.

Actually, it's not that bad. The offices are modern, bright and airy. Critically, they are air-conditioned. there's nothing quite like stepping in from the blistering Australian Summer into the rather more fashionable temperate climate that pervades The Bank.

The work environment is supplemented by my colleagues who are a congenial bunch. They are both smart and cheerful. This is important because we're all working with third-party code (think "legacy system") that is really poorly written. Some of the code is quite shocking and it's important to remain positive in such circumstances.

There's also signs of a moderate Friday-post-work-drinks culture. My first week there was also the last week before Christmas. So on Friday the whole team (c.30 people) were brought out to dinner and drinks by the offending third-party software vendor. This was a great opportunity to meet and get to know my new workmates. I'm really impressed so far.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Bugger the Frogs!

A few days before Joanne left for New Zealand a set of boxes arrived from Ireland. Contained within their murky depths; my interview suit. I took it as a sign that I should be looking for employment.

I decided that the best course would be to extend my exposure to financial services. I’ve only got two years working alongside a trading floor and I wanted to consolidate that experience. So I located the main investment banks with operations in Sydney and applied directly via their websites.

I applied directly because I felt it would give me an upper hand. If faced with the mythical “identical candidates” it’s cheaper to hire the direct applicant. Also, I abhor middlemen. (Putting to one side the thorny fact that all traders and banks are, in essence, go-betweens). The applications went out on Thursday the response was silence. By the following Wednesday I decided it was time to invoke some middlemen. The phone did not stop ringing for two days.

A week (and seven interviews) later I had two job offers. Both of them were with top-tier investment banks. I selected tho position with the best exposure to the business and this Thursday (3 days after accepting) I start in one of Australia’s premier financial institutions. I’m deliriously happy with this.

Today, after two and a half weeks of hearing no replies to my direct applications, during which I’ve been interviewed and regaled with offers and interest, I finally got one response: Thank you for you interest in BNP Parisbas, unfortunately your application has been unsuccessful… I guess I have to hand it to the middlemen.

Friday, December 08, 2006

I don't mean to bug ye...

Australia has a reputation of being an environment packed with spectacularly dangerous fauna. Step into the water and if the sharks don't get you the jellyfish, Blue Ring Octopus or the crocodiles will have you sooner than you can you can say "Wahhh, arggh , agghh!". Not that the crocodiles care much whether you've taken the (suicidal) step into the water. They're quite happy to snap you up on land too.

On land, apart from sunbathing crocs, there are snakes (select from; Tiger, Broad-headed, Red-bellied Black, Eastern Brown , Golden-crowned, Taipan) and spiders (like these friendly fellows). It probably comes a a surprise to many of you that I've survived the initial months here in Oz.

The spiders, in particular, are viewed by foreigners as presenting a serious mortal risk. These venomous polypeds skulk in letterboxes and toilets, silently waiting, ravenous for human flesh. Then there's the big spiders; the size of dinner plate and capable of swallowing a child whole. Personally, I don't know what the fuss is all about.

The thing that annoys me is not the toothy or poisonous beasties, it's the insects. Specifically the cockroaches. I passed a huntsman spider on the road the other day. (This isn't the run in to a joke, I actually passed it on the pavement). He was going the other way, as happy as you like, not bothered with anyone and minding his own business. Descent skin, I thought. Roaches are a different breed.

You switch on a light and roaches that have been surreptitiously gathering scatter instantly. This is because they're up to no good and they know it. They skulk about and preoccupy themselves with knowing their way around your stuff. They are the opportunist, itinerant criminal of the insect world.

I saw a presentation at the zoo recently suggesting that the most humane way to dispose of them was to catch them and pour boiling water on them. To me it is not at all obvious that humane disposal is the way to go. What kind of message does that send? We need a deterrent. The most effective deterrent I can think of is to hand the little fellows over to a 7-year-old boy and ask no questions. Word will soon get around the cockroach fraternity that you're not to be trifled with.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Rooting for Australia

No one asks you why you’re immigrating to Australia.

The reasons are self-evident; Australia is a biblical paradise of milk, honey, consistent 30 degree weather and pretty, toned, lightly toasted beach girls. The question is not so much; “Why you’re immigrating?” as “Why you haven’t left already?”.

Once here it’s all so familiar (climate and toasting beauties aside). They have tea and drive on the left. Everyone speaks English and unlike the North Americans they’ve left the language largely unmolested.

There are many opportunities to adopt Americanism that they’ve studiously avoided and so you find that they’ve got Lorries and Petrol. The alphabet ends with the letter Zed – not Zee. Though I rather miss the Irish pronunciation of the letter ‘R’ (We say “oar” as if we’d use the little things to move our boats along).

A rubber is an item of stationary not something spotty teenagers are embarrassed to buy in a chemist. Oh and they’re still called ‘chemists’ here – the tiresome trend in Ireland is to adopt the francophone form; ‘pharmacy’. And once in the shop (not store) our furtive stripling will join a queue (not a line). When served, he will eventually buy the latex items he came for, but only because at the last minute he spotted nappies (not diapers) on a shelf behind the counter.

And then the linguistic aspects of the young Australian’s experience begin to diverge from our own. (Steady!) For he will need to remove his daks (not in the chemist – but later for these are his trousers) and pash (rather than kiss) his inamorata and don his apothecary acquisition when he ‘cracks a fat’ (translation withheld – the ladies may swoon). Finally all pretence at romance evaporates when they have a “root”. As this is the tender term selected by Australians to describe the beautiful act of making love. How sweet!

In order to avoid confusion the word route is pronounced according to the American convention. This can pose difficulties for Irish network engineers who constantly talk about fixing their banjaxed router to a room of tittering Aussies.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


I met Joanne in the hostel on my second day in Australia when, as I mentioned, I was suffering from an acute case of food poisoning.
As you know, hostels provide affordable accommodation without troubling their guests with anything resembling privacy. So if you are ill, tired or just wish to be alone you are relying on the sensitivity of the strangers with whom you share a dormitory.

Sadly, it was not to be. Throughout the day at hourly intervals a less than completely sensitive German woman with the bunk over mine erupted into the otherwise empty room to enquire about Joe; Had I seen Joe, can you let Joe know where I am, and so forth. It wasn’t just that she asked questions, but booming voice was like a bomb detonating. I wasn’t very well disposed to the intrusive German and was becoming annoyed with the missing Joe. If he would just turn up, then maybe I’d could suffer in peace.

Joe never appeared. Instead late in the afternoon the explosive Germen thundered in with ‘Jo’ in train. Joe it appeared was in fact Joanne, a pretty backpacker with a curious Celtic accent. At first, I couldn’t place any shibboleths. I had had little to work with as her German friend as doing most of the talking. But Jo politely corrected my Scottish guess, telling me she was Welsh.

Jo and the German made an odd fellowship. They didn’t strike me as being at all suited to one another. Jo was pleasant, thoughtful and accommodating. Not qualities I’d ascribe to the German. But then backpacking around the world often amounts to a series of temporary alliances and friendships of convenience. They were both single, female, travelling alone in Sydney and sleeping in the same dormitory.
In the days that followed I began spending some time with the pair. The three of us went to Julius Caesar in the Opera House. Jo came with me to my new flatmate’s birthday party, we attended museums and toured the Blue Mountains.

Sadly it was all to come to and end the following week when Jo resumed her travels around South Eastern Australia. The good news is that she’ll be in Sydney again for a week or so before heading to New Zealand for 6 months work. After that she’ll disappear to darkest South America on her way home to the wrong South Wales.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Omnia Mutantur

Standing on an arbitrary street corner in Sydney at first glance I could be in downtown San Jose. But look a little closer and the scene begins to resolve to a more familiar one. For one thing there are too many people on foot for this to be an American city. And the local authorities have had the good sense to have the citizenry drive on the left hand side of the road (as intended by the gods).

For an Irishman there is much about Australia that is customary, or at least non-American. Simple things; ‘Colour’, ‘routeing’, ‘harbour’ and ‘aluminium’ are spelled without randomly omitting letters, you can actually purchase tea in coffee shops and people aren’t all tucked up in their beds at midnight on a weekend night.

There are some welcome colonial advantages; they have a warmer, dryer climate that has much more in common with Northern California than Dublin and the infrastructure looks like it has been parachuted in from Boston or New York. On the face of it you would have to say that they appear to have the balance just right.

Much of what is familiar heightens one’s awareness of the little distinctions that remind you that you’re on the other side of the planet - and not just enjoying one of those rare meteorological anomalies that occasionally bring the Mediterranean to the British Isles. Such as the birds and plants. Wander through any of Sydney’s many parks and open spaces and they’re everywhere. Gum and Eucalyptus trees swarming in alien birds; Cockatoos, Kookaburras, Noisy Minors and the bizarre looking Australian White Ibis. The latter are about 40cm tall and promenade around on long, black, stalk-like legs as they forage in leaf litter and litter bins with their preposterously large, curved beaks. They’re not even slightly concerned about being around people either. They’ll walk right up to and look you in the eye as if to say, “you’re not in Dublin any more Darren”.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Qvod cibvs est aliis, aliis est wenenum

For various reasons I have avoided Thai Food for the past decade or so. I’ve always known it was an unfair prejudice, but given the choice I’ve always favoured the anything-but-Thai option.

Sydney is positively brimming over with Thai food. Of course the city’s a cornucopia of regional cuisines and the ubiquity of Thai food does not imply a restriction. However, on the evening of my arrival, in the spirit of new-slates and adventure I decided to cast off my inhibitions and sat down in a restaurant with “Bangkok” in the title. Big Mistake. Huge.

I ordered a pork dish and it tasted fine. I’d go so far as to say I enjoyed it and I do recall leaving a tip. An hour later, in the failing light of my first evening in Sydney the pallor of my face drained like a vanishing sunset. My ruddy, Irish visage faded to grey as my stomach churned. It was to be 36 hours of gastric unpleasantness before I was comfortable being more than 3 minutes from the nearest public convenience.

I’ll give Thai food one last chance - a decade or so from now.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Prima Vista

I arrived in Sydney on Saturday the 23rd of September, 2006. Blinking, I stepped into a bright, clear, sunny day straight from the “Visit Australia” brochure.
I’d spent 36 hours in Kaula Lumpar, en route. The stopover partially alleviated the jetlag of a 9-hour displacement. Exhilaration dispelled any residual effect. After over two years of waiting I had finally arrived in my new home. Excited and energised I walked to Bennelong Point, home of the Opera House.
The building glimmered in the Spring sunshine. The iconic crescents of sail that serve as wall and roof stretched over the sparkling blue of Sydney Harbour. Looking from behind, the structure appeared to be straining against invisible masts, eager to join the melee of vessels crowding the waterway beyond.
Glancing left across Sydney Cove and past The Rocks, the mighty Harbour Bridge rested above the Parramatta river. Raising my new camera, I snapped as a ferry ebbed past. It was a perfect moment.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Ante Bellum

I’m emigrating to Australia and I want to record my thoughts and experiences as the adventure unfolds. That’s the reason for the existence of this blog.

I’ve had my misgivings about blogging as a concept. In particular, I have my doubts about reading the blogs of complete (or relative) strangers. There are a lot of people out there and I’m sure many of them have interesting lives and stories to tell. But there’s scarcely time for your own life these days without trawling through the random ruminations from someone else’s.

Who are all these bloggers anyway? Yes there are otherwise voiceless victims of war and corporate malfeasance, yes there are some genuinely engaging and original writers, but such blogs are rubies in an ocean of dust. The vast majority of blogs must be quite uninteresting. Really, for the most part; who cares about someone else’s children, cats, year-out or noisy neighbours? Basically their closest friends or, more likely, no one at all. Are not all bloggers a bit ego-maniacal?

Well, here I am starting a blog. Would I expect anyone to read this? No. But moving to Oz is a big event and I know I’ll forget or mis-remember the little details over time if I fail to chronicle them. I do keep a pen-and-paper travelogue, but these often amount to scrappy notes hastily scribbled while waiting for a train. Marking them up forces me to give order to events. In essence this blog is for me. To look back on when the dust settles. Here I’ll record events as they happen so that I recall them accurately later. The only advantage a blog has is being accessible as I travel from the now ubiquitous internet cafĂ©.

A blog is a useful vehicle so now I’m an ego-maniacal blogger too.