We have decamped to the Tuscan hillside after a frantic Florentine fiasco – just too many people pushing, shoving and queuing their guts out to make it a particularly holiday-like experience. I know it’s time to leave when I start to feel like pushing back, hard, walking stick or no walking stick. Out of my way, biddy, I am getting into that museum at all costs. Actually it was a French woman of uncertain age who made me realise I was not long for the city. We got to the Uffizi at 8:30 yesterday morning hoping to cut the crowds off at the pass. Sadly we were not the first to hatch this cunning plan. Standing in line nursing a rather vicious hangover from the opening night of ‘The Festival of Llew’s Birthday,’ I was jostled from behind by said Frog. The people ahead of us were talking in French, and so she charged past me, insinuating herself into the space ahead of me by starting a conversation with her compatriots. I know they didn’t know each other because even I, with my appalling Year 8 language skills, can recognise ‘Excuse me, please.’ Strangers, but immediate bosom chums. She refused to make eye contact with me, preferring to engage in animated chatter and cosy-making laughter with her new friends. Whenever the line surged, she verily clung to their coat tails. By the time Llew returned bearing coffee and panini, I was dreaming up all sorts of inventive ways to kill her and get away with it in time to still see the Birth of Venus. Die, queue-jumping bitch, die.
Luckily for her, we were all let in at once, otherwise I might have been compelled to reach forward beyond the barrier and forcefully pull her back by grabbing a fistful of her hair. Once I knew she wasn’t gaining any particular entry advantage by her deceit (how close is the descent into savagery…), I became almost benevolent in my attitude (“No, no, after you, I insist…”), but resolved to flee Firenze and get some peace and quiet back. Well. Mission accomplished.
We are now in the best place I have ever been in my life. It is an 11th century monastery that is now a vineyard, hotel, and restaurant set on its own hillside. We seem to have struck travel gold, because it’s the start of the off-season, evidently, and we have been rewarded with an enormous, palatial suite at tiny pig sty prices. We enjoyed the superb degustation menu with matching home wines in the restaurant last night for Llew’s birthday, we’ve sat around in the genteel living quarters reading books about artist Jeffrey Smart this morning (whose work I have long admired – he seems to know the owners, a family who have held the property now for something like 180 years) and now we’re leaving to enjoy the brilliant afternoon sunshine with a walk to the village. This joint – Badia a Coltibouno – has to be seen to be believed.
I just had to get that off my chest, just in case there was any doubt about how bloody GOOD it is to be in Italy. Soooooo good, sooooo much better than NOT being here. We are in Firenze, and being very, very bad. There has been so much hardening of the arteries going on I can basically go three days without needing a bathroom with a door.
A few quick facts about travelling in Italy: there don’t seem to be any poor people in any of the major towns (except the gypsies, and even they look fairly well turned out). There is so much luxe retail here it’s like being in permanent duty free territory. What I can’t figure out for the life of me is how they are managing to buy anything when so many people have really Asian-style, made up jobs that wouldn’t last two minutes in Australia, where we are nothing if not efficient about culling those pesky blue collar positions. There’s a guy whose job it is at Pompei to take your ticket and feed it into the automated turnstile. He’d be lonely, except that there’s someone else at every other entrance similarly highly skilled in the confounding practice of the ticket feed. How is that a job? Today we saw staff in every room of the Palazzo quite shamelessly setting themselves up for another day in a comfortable corner with a good book. Essentially a less sophisticated form of ticket feeding, whereby they look at yours as you go through different sections. Oh, and they are occasionally called upon to stamp out uprisings of photographic activity. For a people responsible for some of the most sophisticated industry in history, this seems to me a little on the lazy side. I’d like to know how much these ticket talents get paid, because they all dress like pop stars.
Rome was not built in a day, but it would sure take a lot longer now… Romans are basically too civilised and well-dressed to ever be in a serious hurry. To move out of the way of cars, trucks, buses and vespas, to stamp your passport at immigration (the newspaper calls, after all), to make the coffee, take your money, or to even open their own shops. I love it. There is just no need for urgency here – it does not mean anything.
Just a small correction: the Col (we are on first name terms now) was NOT called the Col because of its own size, but because of the nearby, whopping, look-at-me statue of…Flavio (I think). It did not survive, but when it was still looming large, Nero, the freak, moved it from its original position near the Col to his house. Selfish emperor-type move, really, but then Nero was a bit of a sociopath. It took 24 elephants to relocate it (“Just a little to the right….no, no, back a little…”).
Roma is one of the best cities on the planet, but we were not joining that queue at St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum today for anything or any deity. No thanks. The latter line snaked around the walls of the Vatican City for literally a couple of kilometres and ten people deep. Not the thing at all. I went the last time I was here, but Llew’s still hoping to see the interior one very, very early morning before the rush – which as I have already said is a completely anti-Roman concept and therefore unlikely to actually ever result in one. The good news is a few hundred metres away they were filming an Italian version of Hair, and there were lots of nude extras slapping their cheeks in time to the music in full view of St Peter’s. Now that’s a kind of reverence money just can’t buy.
Oh yes, it’s that time at last. I can’t believe we are really, finally going, but in a few short hours, Llew and I will be winging our way to the seat of the ancient Roman Empire. Is there anything cooler than the fact that you can still see the colosseum, so named because it is so colossal? I doubt it. I remember the moment I arrived in Rome for the first time. I was on a train with Sarah, and I looked at her and said “Now it will always be true of me that I have been to Rome.” I’ve seen it, and now I am going to see it again, something I have been DESPERATE to do since the moment the train pulled out again a few days later. It’s Rome. As in the Romans. THE ROMANS. I mean, it’s just too cool. So we’re off for three whole awesome, viva Italia weeks, and I’ll try and blog from Italy, because I think I’ll quite enjoy saying “I’m in Italy” to anyone who will listen, but it certainly won’t be every day or anything like it. I’ll be too busy having fun with Llew in our own private and scary to watch eating contest.
Just pull them up, boys. Joke’s over. There’s nothing to see here, or at least there shouldn’t be. Please pull them up now. Yes, you, and you, and you, and every other half-arsed (pun intended) fashion tragic out there who thinks it’s cool to walk around with your pants down.
It’s not sexy, it’s not clever. It’s stupid. Why oh WHY haven’t common sense and good taste prevailed by now?? Why is there still so much ABSURD arse crack on display, and why do they bother wearing belts when they’ve patently got no interest in keeping anything up past the cheeks?
There are so many pressing and worrying questions about this phenomenon. Why did it take off in the first place? Why didn’t it pass quickly and then follow the trail blazed by the fluorescent sock? Why don’t they trip more often since they’re walking around with their pants around their ankles? Why bother putting pants on at all? Why do they think the chicks will dig it? Why do their friends agree to be seen in public with them? Why haven’t we turned it into a game called ‘Slot the Aussie’? Why aren’t they concerned about the flies getting in? Why do they deliberately, affectedly push their pants down a notch when half their underpants are already exposed? Why does something so absolutely self-conscious, uncomfortable and idiotic resonate with so many Australian man-boys? Why does anyone think this “look” is an act of rebellion when it is so (albeit most regrettably) mainstream? Why haven’t its exponents tired of exposing their arses to the world? It’s so done. It’s so over. It’s so silly. Please make it stop.
What’s your worst service industry experience? Was it a special occasion, where you booked 2 months ahead and were rewarded with the worst seat in the house? Was it a customer service representative hanging up on you when you called to query a charge? Was it a waiter telling you it’s not their problem that you never got your main? Was it, and I think this still takes out my own ‘lowest ebb’ prize, a Coles supermarket checkout boy screaming “FAAAAAAAAARK!!!!!” at you, because you and your purchases had the temerity to appear at his register? Because despite Sydney’s reputation as a – so we keep telling ourselves – “friendly” city, I think we all have a list of injustices simmering just below the surface. And the list just stews in its own juices, getting longer and longer, because for some reason, we take it. We just roll over, and we take it.
Llew always looks at me as if he’s my 10 year old son, and I’ve turned up for parent’s tuck-shop duty dressed as Little Bo Peep. Total and utter social mortification is emblazoned across his face. “Don’t say anything,” he’ll plead. “Please don’t worry about it.” “But… but,” I’ll stammer, “we’ve been waiting here for over an hour. It’s a fruit plate with yoghurt, what’s so hard?” And why shouldn’t I say “Something has gone awry here. I am paying for a service I am not receiving, and I am dissatisfied”?
At Vini last Thursday, at 9:50 pm, upon paying our large bill, Sarah, Sheena, and I were unceremoniously informed by our efficacious and snooty little waiter that he needed the table – something that should not E-V-E-R happen – but we didn’t wither him with a collective stare as we should have done. We also should have said “Hospitality 1:01, boy. That’s a big no-no.” But we didn’t say that, either. We said a mock “Oh, well, sorr-ee,” and we left. But instead of talking about our beautiful food and the lovely time we’d had, we left miffed and indignant that this little upstart had kicked us off our table when we were far from the last patrons there. What did he need the table for? Staffies?
The thing is, I love good service. In my undergraduate years as a waitress, I even loved providing good service. I genuinely appreciate, remember, and, in the case of hospitality, reward it. But sometimes when I am leaving a tip, when the experience was mediocre and when I am in Australia, where award wages are adequate, I do wonder exactly why I am expected to pay extra for receiving only what staff is employed and paid to provide. As for poor service..well, it just shouldn’t exist, except perhaps as a quaint little oxymoron.
Ah, the drop-by-dash. This is a core Sydney strategy for socialising. It is now so popular it boasts numbers that aren’t seen at any time other than Election Day, when it’s compulsory to take part.
The drop-by-dash is, simply put, a sure-fire way to annoy everyone and please no one. It could be called ‘How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.’ You totally over-commit yourself across every hard-won weekend minute, and then, like a champion athlete in professional competition, you spend those precious hours zooming at warp speed around the monster circuit that is Sydney.
Every transit point becomes a potential opportunity to squeeze another person in, and because you haven’t seen even your best friend in months, this starts to seem like a mighty fine idea, the best you’ve ever had. “I’m coming through town on my way to dinner in Bondi on Thursday. How about we catch up for a quick drink on my way through?” It sounds so innocent, so simple. But it never is. It’s always verging on pathetic, like the mean servings that pass for a cheese “platter” in most eateries these days. Imagine you’re the wheel of cheese. What you’re basically offering your friend is a tiny sliver of you, with the added insult of rind on three sides. It’s so MEASLY, so inadequate, so borderline offensive it almost demands to be sent back. Except everyone’s doing it, it would be the same miniscule offering anywhere else, so the friend takes the offer of a drink in good faith and tells themselves it’s a good thing you can only stay for one because they’re trying to be good this week anyway. Just like the rorted diner says “I don’t need more cheese. I’m on the no fun diet. This is the perfect amount, thanks.”
Well, I hate the drop-by-dash, even though I am one of the worst offenders. I do it all the time, and I am developing a serious loathing for my own cramming, ramming, and running tendencies. Slow the hell down, I tell myself. Don’t think that having 20 minutes spare before you’re due somewhere means you should phone a friend. Transit is not the same thing as time. It’s actually used time, because it’s always in the middle of a journey that is already underway. So when I met a friend for a drink on Thursday, as I went through town from Manly to Surry Hills, what I was offering her was in fact the equivalent of a line change on a train trip. Come stand on the platform with me, Bron. Won’t that be fun?
Bron and I had our drink – we squeezed in two – and we told ourselves it was better than nothing, and at least we’d seen each other, and we’d do better next time and meet for longer. And we meant it. But because I went from the drop-by-dash with Bron on Thursday to a lovely long leisurely meal at Vini with Sarah and Sheena, I can’t help feeling – knowing – Bron was pretty short-changed in the catch-up department. I was like a McDonald’s Meal Deal thrown out the window of the drive-thru, without the super-sizing.
It’s the comparison that gets me. Dinner at Vini brought it all into sharp relief. The drop-by-dash must stop. But like the repeat offender I am, I did it again on Saturday. Llew and I dropped by a party, and then we dashed to another commitment. We couldn’t help but think ahead of time that we could pull it off, we could do it all. Well, it turns out we can’t, and we shouldn’t try, because we end up half-arsed and harried for everyone, and fully present and engaged for no one.
I’ll tell you one thing that I enjoy about heading back to the eastern suburbs for a cameo appearance, and that’s the return of the brunette. It’s totally valid to be a brunette in the east. Blondes can even seem a little gauche, a little brazen, when you’re sitting in some dimly lit little hole in the wall like Vini in Surry Hills, which is where I had a loooong overdue dinner with two friends last night. They’re both brunettes. I’m a brunette. Just about every other person in this intimate 25 seater had dark tresses of one description or another. I felt an almost spiritual sense of belonging. There was one blonde there, and I contented myself after several glasses of wine with the idea that she looked flashy and out of place.
For some reason, everyone on the northern beaches is blonde. I get it, I get it, sun-bleached, Home and Away, surfer culture, yeah sure, but seriously, how did everyone end up blonde?? They’re all blonde, everyone, everywhere, constantly. I’m surrounded by blondes. I keep half expecting to be served with some kind of fine for disobeying local grooming standards by having the rank audacity to sport dark hair. “Yes, it’s shameful, I see that now, officer..”.
One night we were at the Manly Wharf Hotel, which is the only semi-decent pub here in a disappointing truth about the area (the pubs are utter crap), and even it’s no great shakes (although it has one of the best outdoor bars in Sydney, and has recently improved its dining area out of sight). Anyway, I went to the toilet, and when I emerged from the cubicle and was waiting to get to a sink to wash my hands and check the lipstick, I looked around the crush of female bodies and realised literally every other woman in there was blonde. Some of them – quite a lot, I’m sure – were “blonde” blonde, but the fact is they outnumbered me in that crowded bathroom by 20 to 1. Eventually, I got a sink, and, as I looked in the mirror, I thought I caught a glimpse, in the far right corner…Could it be…? Yes, yes, I think it is…It is! Another brunette! My heart surged with a sense of profound solidarity, and I heard myself shout out to my sister, my own kind, fist raised in defiance, “Oh thank GOD – another brunette!”
She glanced nervously around, her blonde friends tittered, and then she flicked a lock nonchalantly over one shoulder and said “Sorry, it’s fake.”
Last night at Vini, being surrounded by all those eastern suburbs brunettes felt like a warm embrace. It was good to be home.
I was on my morning jog down to Shelley Beach and back earlier today, when I saw something disturbing. It was funny timing, actually, because I had just been thinking to myself (seriously for the millionth time, it’s like some kind of mental tick) how lucky we are to live by the beach. I think people who live by the ocean – I have absolutely zero evidence to back this up, by the way – tend to be more active because the environment encourages it. Everything is set up for fitness, including all the really trim people, everywhere you look, who – just by being there, semi-naked on their towels – make you very aware when you’re letting the side down.
So as some totally cut, uber-fit freak bounced past me this morning, I thought “It’s a good thing. If everyone lived by the beach, maybe this country wouldn’t be in the fleshy, adult diabetes grip of the worst obesity epidemic in its history.”
Then I rounded a little bend in the path, and, sitting in front of me squeezed into an outdoor chair at The Bower restaurant, impatiently awaiting her breakfast like Augustus Gloop, was the fat princess. She was maybe nine years old, and she was wearing a t shirt that said:
And your point is…?
Well, sugar dumpling, my point is you’re being killed with kindness. You’re obese, my little pork bun. In the rush to spoil you, because you’re their little girl, their little princess, your parents seem to have overloaded the goodie bag. And now, you’re not so much the apple of their eye as the double cream pie.
Friends know this is something of a sore point with me. I have a pathological problem with fat kids. Or to be more accurate, and fair, I have a serious problem with their parents. For all my own food indiscretions, ultimately I am a terrible fatist. Yes, I did eat a box of BBQ Shapes on Sunday all to myself. Yes, last week I did stand at the stove top roasting marshmallows one idle afternoon. But yes, I also exercise in some form just about every day, and generally I observe pretty healthy eating habits. And you know, I’m also an adult, so it’s my responsibility to balance all my naughtiness and complete lack of discipline with some goodness, whole foods, and endless laps of the beach.
What I CAN’T STAND is seeing a kid whose parents have over-indulged them to the extent that the child now looks like Sumo Suzy. It’s THEIR responsibility to look after their child and give them their best chance at a long and healthy life. It’s THEIR responsibility to teach their child about responsible eating and the absolutely non-negotiable importance of regular exercise. Little Miss I’m Spoilt So Pass the Pastries is on a fast track to heart disease, diabetes, and a shortened life span, not to mention the negative cognitive affects like reduced concentration and recall. I think – yes, this is officially a rant – that encouraging your child to become obese through the decisions YOU make about what they eat and how they spend their time is a form of child abuse. If I was in charge – and everyone can breathe a huge sigh of relief that I’m not, and never will be – there would be laws against it in the same way there are laws against other forms of abuse.
Because it takes some doing on the part of the parents, make no mistake about that. Some kids are genetically predisposed and will always struggle against weight gain, but for the most part, kids simply aren’t designed to be obese. Parents have to be wilfully blind to it, and that kind of complicity in your child’s guaranteed and rapid degeneration just ain’t right. So that’s my point, spoilt princess, but I’m sure it won’t ruin your breakfast.
Our Treasurer, Peter Costello, has tried to single-handedly reverse the alarming fall in Australia’s birth rate by imploring Australians to procreate thrice: one for the mum, one for the dad, and one for the country. Llew and I are lagging a little behind, given we haven’t had one for anyone, and it’s only a matter of time before being childless is ruled a treasonable offence, and we are mistakenly thrown in a concentration-style detention centre for illegal immigrants. So much to look forward to.
Anyway, as I was enjoying my soon-to-be-restricted freedom a little earlier, walking home from my local shops along the beachfront, I realised I was ambling along behind a model citizen. This woman was pushing a pram that ran almost the entire width of the boardwalk; in it, her three kids (twins and a loose third, by my calculations) variously slept, lolled and looked about, all in a row. Three kids. All at once. In the one pram. And I wasn’t the only one who was riveted. Everyone we passed (I was trailing her by only several feet by this time, so it felt cosy enough for the royal ‘we’) stared after her contraption like it was flying. There was a long line of little old ladies sitting along the beach wall eating icecream, and their dentures nearly landed in their waffle cones their mouths were opened so wide. Seeing them all turn their heads at precisely the same moment to stare after Peter Costello’s dream girl made me realise I wasn’t the only one who was gob-smacked by this spectacle of three under three.
Teens – who are SO JADED about absolutely everything these days, in Australia, anyway – were also rooted to the spot, agape, and after the mum was safely past, the animated baby chatter started in earnest. “Did you see that?” (hard not to) “Oh my god!!” (indeed).
In the interest of research for this blog, I power walked past her just before I arrived home so I could get a gander at all that reproduction sitting up front. Of course, I looked strange overtaking her simply to turn around and stare, so I said in what I hoped was both a kindly and duly impressed manner “Wow, that looks like a handful!” She smiled a tired smile like it was the most unoriginal thing anyone has ever said to her (I know, I know, I bet she gets it all the time, but I only had a few seconds, give me a break!), and said “They’re pretty good, actually.”
And with that, I knew I’d found one. It’s a new breed I only heard of for the first time at lunch on Monday. Whilst we were at Young Alfred’s eating pizza, Soph relayed a story of someone talking to her about a mother of three, and at the end of the tale, this person had sighed and said “Yep, she’s a total over-achiever.” I was struck, as Soph had been at the time, by the fact that you never hear that about women who give birth multiple times. It makes my paternal grandmother, who SOMEHOW pumped out ten kids, suddenly look like an over-achiever par excellence. We normally associate the term ‘over-achiever’ with academic or professional or sporting success, but never before had I heard it in relation to someone who successfully breeds. And for my money, it’s not just the number of children, but the manner in which the mother manages them. My mother on the beachfront didn’t concede a point. She didn’t make a joke like, say, “Do you want ’em?” She didn’t roll her eyes and say “What I wouldn’t give for an uninterrupted night’s sleep.” She didn’t burst into tears and say “You’re the first adult to speak to me in nine days.” No, she didn’t say any of those things. She just took those three under three kids of hers totally in her stride – she was clean, they were clean, she looked healthy, the kids looked healthy, everyone looked well-fed, well-rested, and all up pretty content and together – now THAT’S what I call an achievement.