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.