Nothin’ Says Good Lovin’ Like Somethin’ From the Oven

April 14, 2008 at 1:35 am (Uncategorized)

I love baked goods. It’s not a small matter, it’s one of some urgency and magnitude. Bring on the bread. And the cake. And the pie. And the one thing that’s always been lacking in my neighbourhood is a really terrific bakery. Despite being almost perfect as a place to live, Man Town doesn’t quite deliver on the baked goods front. Plenty of delis get decent stuff in, but it’s so far and away NOT the same thing as knowing everything is baked on the premises, it really does taste different, and what we’re really lacking is a decent Mother.

This is the Mother Dough, the Queen Yeast, the dough from which all decent sourdough springs eternal. Every self-respecting sourdough baker guards their Mother with their life. I’ve heard that one bakery in Balmain keeps theirs in a temperature-controlled safe. Because let’s face it, a perfectly sour sourdough is hard to come by, and once the Mother is good, all bread lovers will follow. I have crossed mountain ranges for a decent loaf of bread, and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

Sadly, Man Town is not the source of my new bakery. Unexpectedly, the CBD is, and Llew deserves full credit for having found it on one of his lunchtime strolls. It’s in a very peculiar spot, a bit of a dead zone, but word is definitely out because we just missed a lunchtime rush on Friday (sorry for not posting, but I had a day of meetings in town). And I daresay they are servicing plenty of businesses around the downtown area.

Anyway, don’t say I don’t always have your best interests at heart. It’s called the Central Baking Depot, and it’s at 37-39 Erskine St, Sydney. If you’d like to call ahead and place your order, you can phone them on +61 2 9290 2229 or email cbdbakery@optusnet.com.au

It was a dream come true in there. All my Christmases at once. Llew and I leaned over the glass cabinets bug-eyed, drooling, and vexed by the weight of our decisions. What would it be? A lamb sausage roll for lunch? Or chilli beef? Perhaps one of those delectable meat pies in a thick gravy? What would we take home for dessert? A sour-cherry flourless chocolate cake or a cheesecake brownie? And what of the bread? Should we try only the sourdough, or branch out and try one of everything over time? Needless to say we settled on the brilliant idea of trying one of everything. It’ll take us a while to get through the full list, but we are resolved to hold firm.

I was practically swearing with excitement. Actually, there was no ‘practically’ about it – my enthusiasm did spill over at least once into a frenzied burst of expletives. The staff laughed and averted their eyes from my pointing and cursing at everything they’d baked with such loving care. How can people not eat bread??? How can they deprive themselves of croissant? And deep glistening pies and delicately glazed strudels? I pity them. I know the war against carbohydrates is still being waged by someone else, elsewhere, but keep that nonsense well away from me.

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The Nerd Gone Native

April 10, 2008 at 2:30 am (Uncategorized)

Don’t panic, she said dryly, I’m alive. Obviously you all know me as well as I know myself, and knew there was no cause for alarm even before I did. I’m fine. The headache went away, the exhaustion cleared, and quite frankly I generally enjoy the health of a prize bull. I think it’s age that’s making me such a baby (ha ha, there’s an irony). Yes, I think that increasing awareness of mortality (oh come on, you all know what I’m talking about – doesn’t flying bug you just a little more these days than it used to?) is keeping my hypochondria on a hair-trigger. But you get that. The main thing is, I now feel perfectly jim-dandy.

But I did want to tell you about the two annoying bastards on my trip. There were only two, and they appeared separately, right at the end. In fact, one of them was bugging the absolute shit out of me in Australia, not Vanuatu. But he’d just come from Vanuatu and boy, didn’t the whole train carriage into town from the airport have to hear about it.

Because he’s a nerd gone native, and now he’s a big man about town.

What is it about that particular breed of man who’s probably never really been so popular with the ladies, never particularly debonair, never entirely comfortable in groups of men, that they move to the tropics or become a permanent backpacker and suddenly think they have the oratory power of Winston Churchill and the charisma of Don Quixote? What is with that?

My first Nerd Gone Native (NGN) ruined my final breakfast in Vanuatu. First, he was sitting in my seat. I was a little dusty, so at first I thought evil black-hearted thoughts about him simply because he was innocently sitting at what was, undeniably, a free table. No, my name wasn’t on it. I had no claim. So after cursing and hissing at him under my telling morning-after breath, I sat at the exact opposite table, so that our backs faced each other across a perfect expanse of space. I sat, and I opened my newspaper.

The chair scraped loudly and this Lilliputian pest verily LEAPT out of his chair and across the room in one frightening movement.
“You’re having breakfast alone?” he said, already on his way.

For a moment I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. I was frozen in horror. And then once I managed to reluctantly whisper “Yes” (as in, that is not an invitation to join me, pal), I found him already pulling up, sitting down, spreading out and saying, somewhat redundantly, “Mind if I join you,” carefully minus the universal inflection that would identify it as a question. No, there was clearly no question in his mind. This is typical of the NGN, because they always know everything there is to know about everything.

I was, in a word, spewing.

I didn’t want to make small talk, I didn’t want to dine with a stranger, I didn’t want to listen to his travelogue monologue. But what I wanted didn’t enter the equation. The NGN was a man with a mission.

He’s a Kiwi. An ex-chartered accountant (oh for Christ’s sake, I thought, aren’t they all??). He’s a do-gooder. And a permanent backpacker. He’s been to South America. He’s on his way to China. He “knows Oz,” having been around and through it I forget how many times. He’s sponsoring a child in Vanuatu (which is admittedly a very cool thing to do, although it wasn’t cool of him to then proceed to lecture me about “You Sydney types” who “spend more on a night out” than it costs to put a Melanesian child through school for a year. For a start, he was in no position to know anything, not one single thing, about the state of either my charitable donations or the price of my nights out. For another thing, people have the right to make up their own mind about these things, especially when they haven’t even had a coffee and who the hell asked you anyway?). He knows all the customs, he’s been coming to Vanuatu for 15 years, he’s part of the old crew, he remembers it before blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

SHUT UP, annoying little man, just SHUT UP!!!!!

A monsoonal downpour actually trapped me there in the breakfast hut with this guy. I was really close to screaming. I’m not great in the morning anyway, but this was the limit. I was tired, hungover, hungry, in need of caffeine, and until that morning my accommodation had been one of the most idyllically silent places I’ve ever been in my life, and his gnat like buzzing in my ear was ruining it for me. His breakfast arrived. There were two mugs on the tray. Dear God, I thought, they think I’m here of my own free will.

As the rain bucketed down and the wind lashed, I looked around wondering if the croissant on his tray was actually that which I had ordered. And then came deliverance. I glanced up at my villa, and an angel stood there, sheltering from the storm. She sang a sweet song down to me, music to my ears, and she said “I brought your tray up here.”

I have never moved so fast in my life. I was out of that chair, round the pool, up the steps and through my door carrying my tray into the blessed quiet before he could say “Jandals.”

He loitered at the bottom looking up at my villa for quite some time, lost and forlorn now his unwilling audience had made good her escape, but I ignored him, and it wasn’t hard. In fact, it was delicious, feeling the silence, the peace and quiet, return.

All was well until I was back in Australia and on the airport train into town. I was reading my book when I heard the unmistakable public service announcement talking style (and volume) of my second irritation of the day. “Hold on tight,” he shouted, “This is the first train I’ve been on in 15 years! FIFTEEN YEARS!! Imagine that! This ought to be WILD. I suppose everything’s changed in FIFTEEN YEARS. I can’t believe I’m back after FIFTEEN YEARS.”

Fuck, I thought, here’s another one! What are the chances?! I glanced over and sure enough he was a prime specimen, all right. It was all over him, right down to his stupid khaki shorts. Just arrived Germans to his left were just then studying the Cityrail map, muttering about “Central” in increasingly troubled tones. Mr Bowl Cut and Long Socks, our second NGN for the day, leaned in, inspected the map and then sagely announced “This train does not stop at Central.” German panic immediately ensued.

There was nothing else for it. I had to get involved. “This train definitely stops at Central,” I interjected. Not rudely, not loudly, super mildly. My very best “Welcome to Sydney” voice, in fact. I even smiled kindly at the Germans. Everyone swung around to look at me, and then over at the NGN. His eyes narrowed, and he marched over to the map and said “Not according to this, it doesn’t.” I won’t bore you with the details of the legend on the map, but I showed him where he was going wrong in reading it, and I was tempted at the same time to suggest where he might put it. I didn’t, though, and once my job was done, I returned to my book and tried to drown out the sound of him shouting about “the village” and “the natives” and “the customs” and what they only sell “to the tourists.” I started gritting my teeth.

Then a lady asked if anyone knew what platform at Central would take her to Wollongong. That small, small, small little man shot me a look and said snippily “Why don’t you ask her, she seems to know everything.” Wow, there’s another symptom of the NGN. Total gob-smacking immaturity and petulance. Ego easily wounded. Does not accept a challenge to their psychotic know-it-all-ness at all well. I wanted to smack him in the head, but instead I fixed that mild look on my face and said “I don’t know everything, but I do know this train stops at Central.”

He smiled a vicious smile at me like he’d won some kind of point in whatever little battle was being fought in his tiny mind. Naturally it involved the natives from the village, and it had been raging for fifteen years.

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‘H’ is for ‘Hypochondriac’

April 8, 2008 at 7:52 am (Uncategorized)

I’m currently wondering if it was really safe to drink the water…I probably should have erred on the side of caution, but I didn’t. I was told the water was safe to drink by a reliable source, so I drank it. Lots of it. Several litres per day of pure tap. And now… well, I’ve been unable to shake this weird frontal lobe headache and general sense of complete exhaustion. When I was in Vanuatu, I put this down to the humidity. It was probably exactly that. But now I’m back and this strange headache refuses to dissipate, I have entered the full blown paranoia stage. What if there was a nasty bug in the water? What if one of my many mosquito bites has given me something foul? I certainly gave them enough opportunity. It only very belatedly occurred to me that I should have asked someone if malaria was a problem.

You see, I had a sort of travel writer lobotomy before leaving. When Llew and I are travelling anywhere on holidays, I am supremely conscientious when it comes to getting all the appropriate jabs and packing all the appropriate medication. I am fanatical about safe drinking water. But I had a meltdown this time round, and I can only assume it was because I was there for work. As in, not a holiday, regardless of how it sounds. And because I was there for work, I blithely assumed I would have been forearmed with pertinent information like “Take malaria pills” and “Don’t drink the water” by the people in charge. Now I’m wondering if perhaps I failed the very first rule of decent reportage: do your research. I thought it would be fun – yes, fun – to arrive absolutely clueless about the place. I liked the idea of just being there all of a sudden, no preparation, no reading up on the plane, no copy of Lonely Planet weighing me down. Just me and my sunscreen.

Well, mission accomplished, genius.

Perhaps I should have been a little more conservative. I am, after all, someone who spent two weeks in hospital with typhoid, and this even after getting every conceivable jab, including typhoid, before leaving for India. Have I learnt nothing? This is one of those times when I’m forced to conclude that when it boils right down to it (boiled… boiled is good… boiled water is good…), I am a bit of a half-wit. Only a half-wit would so unthinkingly do as I have just done.

So now what? Well, I suppose there’s nothing else for it. I’ll have to pop in to see my doctor and explain my headache and odd lethargy and see if she thinks it’s worth giving me a blood test or something to wear around my neck that says I am certifiably mad, a dangerous hypochondriac and an all round pest instead. Either is infinitely possible at this point. Maybe the water really is perfectly fine to drink. Maybe the mosquitoes don’t go around spreading malaria. Maybe I’m just tired. Yes, it’s been a big day and I’ve filed my story at last (I lied – my REAL deadline was today at 3 o’clock), and now I’m feeling very, very sleepy…

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Back in the Saddle

April 7, 2008 at 12:30 am (Uncategorized)

Good morning! It’s very nice to be back – although it was also fabulous being away. Vanuatu was really lovely, and whilst I’m sure you’d like to hear all about the experience, I’m on deadline today to file my story, and strictly speaking the paper has first dibs on anything I have to say… for now you’ll just have to take my word for it: I definitely plan to return with Llew.

Straight off the plane Thursday and straight out for dinner Thursday night celebrating a friend’s birthday at Manly Grill. I was actually exhausted (what is it about transit?) but self-medicated with several restorative glasses of champagne. It was rather fun catching up with all the locals so immediately upon my return – some of them hadn’t known I’d even been away, so Vanuatu was the surprise topic of conversation at table. It was a very jolly night, all told. Did we really need to go to Shore Club afterwards for another round…? No, but we did.

Friday Llew and I were both useless. I spent the day catching up on email and other correspondence and getting my house in order both personally and professionally. Endearingly, Llew clearly hadn’t enjoyed being home alone. I think you could have dusted for fingerprints and only found mine. He told me he didn’t like being here by himself, so he worked late, walked through the apartment and went straight off to bed every night I was away, barely pausing to register what was patently amiss. I think this empty nest syndrome is amplified for us because I work here. Indeed, I received a text message from Llew when I landed in Port Vila: ‘Knowing you’re not at home makes me sad.’ As much as he curses me for my admittedly jammy office, it’s also a source of comfort, I think, that I’m always here when he gets home.

Friday we met up at the wonderful Palisades hotel at the Rocks with a couple of friends. It’s always nice to see a few original pubs left standing, blissfully unadulterated and free of chrome, and the Palisades is one of them. That whole quarter of the Rocks is great because it was always too poor for preening. Look around at anything that’s been left alone in this city and chances are it was once part of a slum. It’s only thanks to areas that were too poor and dodgy to develop that Sydney has any decent historic sites left at all.

We were off to see Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking at the Sydney Theatre Company, as directed by Cate Blanchett and starring the incomparable Robyn Nevin. After a sundowner at the Palisades, we walked down to Hickson St Wharf and had a very tasty pre-theatre meal of tapas at Firefly. It’s a gorgeous spot, and the evening was perfect. I enjoyed Firefly’s food, too, especially the chicken chorizo and veal involtini.

To the play. Well, how gruelling it must be performing night after night in a one woman, one act play. How Nevin remembers all her taut and fraught lines is beyond me. Again with the affected American accent. Why? I don’t think it’s necessary… as I’ve noted somewhere on this blog before, probably after seeing DeLillo’s Love-Lies-Bleeding, also at the STC, no one speaks Chekhov translations in a fake Russian accent, do they? It’s awfully distracting, occasionally grating. Nevin’s fake American accent compromises rather than enhances her otherwise very powerful performance. I understand Didion is a giant of specifically American letters – her Manhattan life and Malibu memories seep through every carefully chosen word of the play – but it’s not Nevin’s fake accent that gives us access to her character. It’s Didion’s words.

There’s a brusque, bristling fierceness to the writing that – tragic and moving as it all undoubtedly is – makes it difficult to fully empathise with her. It’s hardly a character that one is failing to warm to – the play is Didion’s first person account of losing first her husband, then her adult daughter in the space of a year – it’s a real woman, so it’s troubling at the end to feel so outside her heart, which we know is irreparably broken. For such an intensely personal play, it’s also oddly impersonal. There’s never once mention of tears being shed, of sleepless nights, of sudden outbursts and loss of control, all of which so typically accompany grief on this scale. On the contrary, it’s icy in its precision, and it keeps Joan Didion’s heart, though never her razor-sharp wit, deliberately off the stage.

And now I must away… I have a deadline to meet, you know…but I’ll be back tomorrow, and we’ll catch up more then.

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