Becoming an Australian: a brief summary of an unexpected 14 year odyssey

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How Emu-sing

A few days before I took the pledge and became an Australian citizen, I celebrated my impending ‘Aussie-ness’ in true style by enjoying the spectacle of the AFL Grand Final – Pies v Eagles – in my local pub in country Victoria.

Can there be anything more Aussie then sipping a pot of cold beer, surrounded by dinky-di locals hurling abuse at muscly boofheads on a big screen amid the pungent aroma wafting up from an unwashed carpet?

Perched on a bar stool, holding an ale, there I was offering my limited analysis of the great Australian game (whose rules I still haven’t quite figured out after 14 years of trying), wondering how the hell I ended up here in the first place?

After all, I was the least likely person among my circle of Johannesburg friends to ever contemplate moving Down Under, someone who once famously vowed never to live in the same country as Steve “You’ve dropped the World Cup” Waugh and Shane Whatshisname and all the other Aussies that had, more often than not, thrashed us South Africans on the cricket field and other sporting arenas.

But here I was, a few days out from joining the other 25 million-odd people in this vast and curious land who call themselves ‘Australian’, and feeling rather pleased with myself.

This might have had something to do with the three or four pots of ice-cold beer I’d enjoyed as the game drew to its thrilling climax, creating a warm glow in my belly.

Or perhaps it was the un-expectantly jovial conversation (unexpected, since I’d walked into the pub knowing no one) I’d struck up with Jason, the larrikin bloke sitting next to me at the bar, who it turned out lived on my street and was full of funny tales from his job on the Melbourne docks and his travels with his wife to Nepal and who by the end of the afternoon was slightly rat-arsed and could only make it half way through a story before chuckling to himself, because he’d forgotten the point entirely.

But the feeling was deeper, like maybe, I actually belonged here, that I’d absorbed something of the country’s essence – it’s essential “fair go” good heartiness, it’s fair dinkum spirit and inexplicable cultural oddities and contradictions.

It was as if I’d grown a new layer of  ‘Australian identity’, over my South African roots and the other layers of ‘me’ – my traditional Orthodox Jewish upbringing and my adopted Englishness, courtesy of four cherished years living and working in London.

Sydney

As the evening of the citizenship ceremony at Kyneton Town Hall drew nearer, I became gripped by nostalgia for the past 14 years.

My mind danced back to the day I touched down in Sydney in late September 2004 after a long flight, and feeling the muggy heat of a surprisingly humid Spring day as I exited the airport building. From there I was taken to La Perouse, named after the French navigator who landed there before Captain Cook, to enjoy the view across Botany Bay whilst be warned to watch out for snakes.

The bright sun and deep blue waters were a stark change from the grey, Autumn skies of London, where I’d said goodbye to my  friends a day earlier, before hopping into a mini cab in Golders Green in the metropolis’s northern suburbs for the motorway out to Heathrow.

In suburban Sydney, newly unemployed and work visa-less, Australian pop culture got its early hooks into me courtesy of morning re-runs of The Secret Life of Us a show about a group of twenty-something friends living and loving at Melbourne’s St Kilda Beach, narrated by the philosophical observer and writer, Evan (played brilliantly by Samuel Johnson). I took daily jogs beneath the fig trees of Centennial Park only a short walk away, went on weekend excursions to the Central Coast, visited Canberra and attended the Floriade (an annual flower shower) and was introduced to the music of Cold ChiselThe Whitlams and Powderfinger.

Brisbane

Sydney soon departed, as did my relationship, in a cloud of self-induced misery, giving way to the humidity of tropical Brisbane where I secured a job in PR (writing media releases that no one read) and a cherished 457 work visa. I vividly remember feeling both exhilarating and melancholic waking up on Australia Day 2005 in a shared townhouse in Stafford in Brisbane’s Northern Suburbs realising I was completely on my own.

I also won’t ever forget that scorching hot day wandering aimlessly around the Brisbane Botanical Gardens, Southbank, and the city, the Triple J Hottest 100 playing on the radio, (the number 1 song that year was Wish You Well by Bernard Fanning) wondering just what the bloody hell I was doing here.

Rather then become a recluse, being alone jolted me into a new and surprising phase of gregariousness and adventure. Within a few months, with the help of websites like the Gumtree, I soon gathered around me a motley crew of new friends, most of them local Brisbanites, who had returning from London work stints. They were all lovely, warm and welcoming people who made me feel at home, and I’m sad to think that I’ve since lost contact with all of them.

We’d catch up after work in the city or in Fortitude Valley (Brisbane lively inner city party suburb), drink ourselves silly and rock out to the local band playing cover versions of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Hunters & Collectors, Paul Kelly and the Rolling Stones at the Elephant and Wheelbarrow or Pig & Whistle.  By that time I’d relocated to a shared apartment in leafy New Farm on the banks of the Brisbane River (my previous flatmate, Sharon, with a propensity for having loud, moaning intercourse with her boyfriend, having kicked me out for a few harmless indiscretions including using her expensive goat hair winter blanket without asking).

I would often stumble home down Sydney Road after a night of drinking, dancing and canoodling in the Valley, crawling into bed as the sun was just starting to come up.

I remember a wonderful Christmas spent as the pseudo-adopted son of my delightful new flatmate Jane’s Gold Coast family in their swimming pooled home, a holiday which included a Formula One-like ride in her father’s super-charged Holden Commodore to pick up a relative in Murwillumbah across the border.

There were new discoveries: the gaudy neon delights of Surfers Paradise only an hour away, the beaches and markets of Noosa on the Sunshine Coast, the rather depressing hippyness of Nimbin, a weekend away to taste the bohemian air of Byron Bay, a holiday at Rainbow Beach below Fraser Island with its bleached white sandy beaches -and a string of short-lived romances.

The party stopped soon after that Rainbox Beach Christmas holiday, when I got “boned” from my job (they finally figured out I actually did very little all day) and ended back in Sydney, working as a journalist for a trade publishing outfit on the North Shore on another 457 visa.

(As a side note I should add that Brisbane was where I sat enthralled watching the epic 2005 Grand Final between Sydney Swans and West Coast, a game which was instrumental in developing a surprising  interest in the sport alongside my established passions of rugby, cricket and the English Premier League.)

Back to Sydney: Coogee Beach and Dural

Coogee Beach

Coogee Beach

In Sydney, I made my first home in an Art Deco flatshare overlooking Coogee Beach and then later, after I met the gorgeous Kiwi who was to be my wife (we were introduced by mutual friends at the bar at the Lord Nelson Hotel at The Rocks), to a two-storey apartment in Woolloomooloo that we shared, nestled amid the hipsters, drug addicts and down-and-outs of Kings Cross (as well as Russell Crowe) for two funky years.

With the bustle and hustle of rainbow-flagged Oxford Street only a short walk away Betty’s Soup Kitchen (sadly no longer there) and its homemade damper bread  and cramped Don Don’s with its enormous bowls of Chicken Katzu became favourites as did drinking holes like the Gaslight Inn, Dolphin and Clock Hotel.

I attended my first Mardi Gras parade, ran my first City to Surf run, and took our dogs, two playful silky terriers for morning walks, heading up to the NSW Art Gallery, as trains rattled below, and to the rocky wilds of the Royal Botanical Gardens and sensational views across the harbour.

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Python-esque

When our Woolloomooloo lease ended, inner city Sydney with its buzz, noise and congestion gave way, for a magical six months, to country living as we joined my future wife’s sister and her partner sharing a large house on a couple of acres north of Dural on the rugged and bushy northern outskirts. On the property were half a dozen horses, five dogs, and a couple of Diamond-backed pythons who made a home in the roof above the living room,  feasting on rodents. They could often be seen slithering through vines outside our expansive lounge windows. (It was at this time that I bought my now well-thumbed copy of A Guide to Australian Snakes).

A delightful wedding in historic Clyde, below the snow-capped majestic mountains of Central Otago surrounded by 50 of our closest family and friends (followed by a honeymoon road trip around the New Zealand South Island) gave way to a magical year-long backpacking adventure around the world (read about my BEEG Adventure here) and then a new chapter, Melbourne, when we returned to Australia from our travels in February 2011.

There after I got an online writing job in the city, and soon after, we started a family that has most recently grown to five. It was in Melbourne, that I also landed a cherished role writing for The Australian Financial Review in August 2013 where I recently clocked up five years. Where does the time go?

Return to the country

We spent almost six years in the rather bland Northern Suburbs of Melbourne – Oak Park and then Niddrie – before packing up and heading north on the Calder Freeway for leafy Gisborne with its rolling kangaroo-hopping green hills and country fresh feel.

Which of course brings me right back to the country pub, and the big screen telly, and the Grand Final and the pots of beer in the belly, and the locals laughing and yelling and my new friend forgetting the point of his stories and me feeling rather pleased with myself after my unexpected 14 year odyssey.

So here I am. As Aussie apparently as the next bloke, part of this fabulous, swirling multi-cultural melting pot with an uncle called Bruce (truly), father-in-law who barracks for Collingwood (sadly) and three Australian children, wondering…who the bloody hell I am going to vote for at the next federal election?aussie citizenship

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freshlyworded list of the week: 10 television dramas you have to watch before you die

3533683614_7e4b5741efHaving just watched the final episode of Season 5 of Mad Men – and mourning the long wait I must now endure until Season 6 comes out on DVD, I thought I might jot down the 10 television shows I reckon are among the best to ever grace the small screen.

Plus my wife and sister-in-law are watching Season 3 of The Walking Dead, which I have enjoyed, but there’s only so many gurgling, mindless zombies I can watch chasing the living through an American wasteland.

So these are 10 television shows I reckon are as good as just about anything you could watch at the movies, and in most cases, infinitely better.

(I’d welcome suggestions from other bloggers; yet to watch Boardwalk Empire, Primal Suspect and have a couple of seasons of Inspector Morse on my shelf too as well as The Tudors.)

1. The Sopranos

Apart from the bemusing final episode of Season 6, the Sopranos set a new television benchmark when it hit television screens in 1999. It could be set that it sparked the revival in television entertainment and inspired countless other shows. Who would have thought watching New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano pouring out his family and “business” problems to a sultry psychologist played by Lorraine Bracco would set the stage for the great gangster drama since The Godfather trilogy and Goodfellas. Plus there’s all the other great characters: power-hungry Junior, stupid but scary Paulie and Tony’s drug-addicted nephew Christopher Moltasanti to name just three.

2. The Wire

Many people argue The Wire – the story about Baltimore police officers and the criminals they pursue – is the greatest television show every created. It’s certainly the greatest show never to win any major awards. Each of the five series looks at a different aspect of Baltimore society: the drug scene, the docks, local politics, the school system and the media. It features the first gay gangster-turned-robin-hood (Omar), arguably the finest portrayal of a police-officer on the small screen (Dominic West as Jimmy McNulty) but the real stars are the dialogue, which captures the language of the street perfectly and the carefully woven plot lines. Personally, my favourite character is Bubbles, the heroin addict turned police informer and in many ways the moral compass of the show.

3. Six Feet Under

The story of a dysfunctional Californian family running a funeral home. Each episode begins with a death and the body being prepared for burial by the Fisher Family. There is never a dull episode. It features great performance from Michael C Hall as David a gay man struggling with his sexuality and his virile brother Nate, caught up in a twisted relationship with Brenda, brilliantly played by Australian actress of Muriel’s Wedding fame Rachel Griffiths. And its darkly funny.

4. Breaking Bad

The story of family man Walter White (Bryan Cranston) a poorly paid high school chemistry teacher who upon being diagnosed with lung cancer, turns to cooking crystal meth with former pupil and local low-life Jessie (Aaron Paul) to build a nest egg for his family.  The pair get mixed up with organised crime and one of the scariest, suavest villains in the form of Gus Fring, the proprieter of ‘Pollos Hermanos’. Yet to see Season 5, but can’t wait.

5. Mad Men

Was there ever a cooler show on the television? The story of the lives of Manhattan advertising executives in the 1960s. Every shot is a period piece, the dialogue meticulous; you can sit back and just enjoy the decor and clothes, never mind the characters. Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Pete Cambpell and of course Joan Harris – the most voluptuos woman ever to grace the small screen – are creations that would sit comfortably alongside any in the Great Gatsby.

6. Luther

John Luther (Idris Elba) is the toughest and most brilliant police officer you will ever meet. He operates by his own set of rules and code of ethics as he brings down the sickest criminals on the streets of London.  I’ve watched the first two seasons, and believe a third season will air this year. Also a chance to see Paul McGann of Withnail and I fame in a great role.

7. Law & Order: SVU

One of the longest running televisions shows of all time, the Special Victims Unit (SVU) spin-off has generated 14 seasons. The episodes featuring Benson and Stabler as the lead detectives are the best. Very well written, with believable characters and stories, all filmed on location in New York. Plus there’s that bad-ass motherf*cker Ice-T and the freaky, sardonic Munch to entertain you as well.

8. Secret Life of Us

An Australian series about the lives, loves and heartaches of twenty-something Melburnians living in St Kilda. Does not sound like much, but lots of great themes explored. Narrated by the philandering writer-in-training Evan (Samuel Johnson) with career-making performances from Joel Edgerton (now a Hollywood star) Deborah Mailmen and Claudia Karvan to name just a few. The first three seasons are the ones to watch. From Season 4, all the good characters have left the show (I’ve not watched it).

9. Midsomer Murders

Each episode in the 15 seasons set in quaint Midsomer county with its hedges, afternoon teas, quiet woods, grand old mansions and quintessential English villages (the deadliest county in England) is a feature-length whoddunit featuring the unshakeable Inspector Barnaby (John Nettles) and a number of different young side-kicks. The corpses pile up faster than freshly baked scones at a fete but you’ll never guess who the murderer is.

10. Downton Abbey

A period drama about masters and servants who live in palatial Downton Abbey in a changing Britain in the years leading up to World War One and beyond. Headed by the sweet-natured but strong-willed Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his somewhat annoying American wife (Elizabeth McGovern, it features a brilliant performance by an ancient-looking Maggie Smith as Grantham’s mother, the towering Dowager Countess of Grantham.  And of course there’s the dour Mr Bates and impeachable Mr Carter, the butler of Downton Abbey.