I distinctly remember the first time I saw the Aussie soap Home and Away. I was on a week long school trip to Glasgow, ostensibly studying Russian at Strathclyde University. Quite why we were there, at the tender age of 15, I have no idea. I suspect our Russian teacher at school – a fiery Scots lady, who put the fear up me every lesson for no discernible reason – probably fancied a trip home to see her family.
You didn’t know I spoke Russian? Well, that’s because I can now only remember how to say ‘I have one brother’ and ‘I don’t like mushrooms in milk sauce’. Both of which are true, but neither are going to get me much more than bemused smiles and a ‘thanks for sharing’ look when I finally make it to Moscow.
I’m pretty sure the whole class must have gone, but I only remember three of us being there – me, North Manchester Joanne and the girl the guys would fall over (knocking my teenage self-esteem a little bit further into the floor every single time), and one of my best friends that year, Sam. Beautiful, sassy, bleached blonde, knee-high-socked, prototype Britney Spears, Sam. It was only years later that I realised people were drawn to her confidence, well that and her short skirt.
We were the rebellious ones, who spent the evenings on Sauchiehall street, trying to con our way into nightclubs with pathetically bad fake ID. You kids nowadays have no idea how many doors were far, far harder to wedge open in the pre-internet, download anything days. We were always the ones in class that winged it on innate language ability, rather than diligent application. The others went on to get first class degrees from Oxford. Us? Not so much.
Ooh – I must remember to tell you some time about my Oxford interview experience. I’m pretty sure a bunch of middle aged men wouldn’t be allowed to quiz an 18 year old girl, in an isolated room, at 9 o’clock at night, about ‘sowing your wild oats’ these days. It was all perfectly acceptable character forming stuff back in the early 90s.
Back to Glasgow, and the common room in which I sat – pretending to be interested and clued up, as my friends watched their favourite new afternoon TV show, Home and Away. It just seemed a bit plastic, all perfect blue skies, perfect golden sand and perfect surfer bodies. And anyway I was a Neighbours girl – this was at Scott and Charlene’s peak after all.
So a trip to Palm Beach, Sydney’s most northern beach, and the filming location for Home and Away’s beach shots, wasn’t particularly high on my must see list.
And yet, here I was, despite that previous indifference.
It’s funny what you’ll say yes to when someone lovely asks you to go. And it was actually a pretty stunning beach – perhaps not quite up there with my Maldivian island stay, but not far off.
The only thing sullying the expanse of golden sand was the seaweed that had been washed in all along the shore. And it was full of these funny blue things.
Some of you will remember that sticky soft plastic that you could stick on the end of a special straw and blow bubbles that didn’t pop when you prodded them. Most often the plastic was a vibrant blue – which in hindsight was probably full of lead colouring (this was the pre health and safety fusspot era). Well these things looked exactly like those little blue plastic bubbles.
So I wasn’t surprised to hear them called bluebottles or blueys (following the Australian obsession of shortening every word over two syllables and sticking an ‘ie’ sound on the end).
Warned not to get too close, when I started nudging one with the arm of my sunglasses, I asked if they were jellyfish. Yes, they were (actually they aren’t really, they are siphonophores I found out afterwards – same kind of idea, but cooler). And they sting quite badly it seems. So best not touch their tentacles.
I looked them up on the internet later, to see what they look like when not squashed into sand.
FRICKING Portuguese Man O’ Wars!! Hundreds and hundreds of the vicious little critters. Why do Australians have to downplay dangerous stuff so much?
Oh yeah, a shark bit my leg off earlier…no worries. And yeah, the waves can be a bit strong. A bit strong! More like guaranteed to pull you out to a horrible watery death, especially if you are from Asia, for some racist reason.
I saw one girl fished out, mere moments before she was claimed forever by the sea, by the incredibly vigilant lifeguards on next door Whale beach.
She spent a very long time in the recovery position, looking very grey, whilst people around me commented that it was good she looked in pain, as that almost certainly meant she wouldn’t die. I think they must see this on a daily basis.
The whole of Australia seems to be suffering from perpetual post-traumatic stress in my opinion – their senses overloaded by the constant onslaught of danger from nature – how else could their chilled reactions be explained? It’s so extreme, I reckon an alien invasion of human-vaporising angry Martians would raise barely an eyebrow.
I realise it sounds like I have a downer on this country, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m in awe of the extremes more than anything, particularly coming from such a meek country (nature-wise) back home. It’s like God had popped a bad LSD tab the day he was making Australian animals, or he’d had an argument with his wife – that he’d lost – and he needed to vent a little.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Palm and Whale beach were almost a week after I landed in the country whose contribution to the world has most notably been the ‘alternative rock‘ band Midnight Oil, the once stunning but increasingly frozen looking actress Nicole Kidman and Marmite copiers Vegemite.
My first day down under couldn’t have been more lovely – well unless someone had come to the airport to meet me and had brought a koala stuffed in a kangaroo’s pouch with them as a welcome present (a girl can dream).
An Aussie BBQ, on the balcony of some special friends made in Central America, really was the best way to feel like I was coming home. And before you heckle about my so-called vegetarianism – they bought in specially the most tasty veggie burgers I have ever eaten. And yay – I was back in the land of yummy wine (sorry Burma, you’ve still got a lot to learn there)!
If you were to ask me what I’ve enjoyed most about this year of travel, it’s without a doubt the new friends I have made. There’s nothing like being thrown into an alien environment to help you cut through the pretense and find the things that connect you with the people around you.
Big hug to Bec and Jez for opening up their home, and their hearts, to me so soon before the craziness of Christmas. You couldn’t have given me a better first impression of the country that may one day become my home too x