A place to call my own

Two weeks of silence… but with good reason – the all-consuming process of flat hunting. It’s been in equal parts frustrating, exhausting and stressful, but I think has eventually has come to a good conclusion! I haven’t looked for a rental place in seven years and knew it wouldn’t be fun, but I wasn’t really prepared for the emotional rollercoaster.

The first step was deciding where to look, because all of Sydney, or all of Sydney within a sensible commute of work, was really too large an area to be able to cover! A classic place for British people to live is Bondi, but it just didn’t appeal. It might have done had I been 5 or 10 years younger. I’m currently temporarily in Darlinghurst, just south of the CBD. It’s great for many reasons, mostly it being walking distance from work and the fantastic bar and coffee scene, but it’s also a bit noisy (especially on a Saturday night!) and rather expensive – and I decided for the same money I’d rather have more space than trendiness on the doorstep! With family and family friends north and north west of the city, and the appeal of a harbour view every morning on the way to work, I settled on the north shore, a short bus or train ride across the harbour from the office. I spent a few days and evenings pottering about a few suburbs to narrow it down, deciding I liked Crows Nest best, especially the feel of the high street which was off rather than along the main highway, with lots of cafes, restaurant, bars and local shops. One of my biggest mistakes was not settling on that once and for all; instead trying to view across a wider area across to and including Neutral Bay, a couple of miles further east.

Working out what I can afford and was willing to spend wasn’t easy either. I know what the tax bands are and had been advised by friends about relative costs of utilities and so on (and experienced first-hand what seem like astronomical supermarket food prices!), but I haven’t had a pay packet yet, or even a month of normal expenditure, so there’s definitely some guesswork going into the “what can I afford?” question. I set out with an ambition of two bedrooms, to mirror my London arrangement of having a guest room/study, and realised pretty quickly that to achieve that in Crows Nest or anywhere else decent within a half-hour commute, I had to be prepared to part with at least $600 (350 pounds) per week. Suffice to say that’s a lot more than my London mortgage payments! But that was my starting point, but I wanted to see what that much or less could get me on a one-bed.

I’m told I’ve chosen the worst time of year to house hunt, and my experience is certainly that it’s a seller’s (landlord’s) market right now. Quite the opposite of how I found it in South London before Christmas when trying to let my flat out – another painful process with an eventual successful resolution! Back home, private viewings are the norm – the prospective renter usually arranges a time with the agent and is shown around on their own, and the existing tenants have to suck up potentially many viewings. Here, unless a property is vacant, and even in some cases when it is, it’s an open home approach with a very narrow window. A 15-minute time slot, usually on a Saturday morning but sometimes during the week, is advertised, and in that short time you can expect 10 or more other people or couples to be there with you and the agent. And then you scuttle off to the next one, and unless you take detailed notes, by the end of the day all the flats blend into one.

My Saturday viewing experience, a week ago, was deeply frustrating. It didn’t help that I was still holding out a little bit of hope for an utterly perfect place I had seen three days earlier (along with about 30 other people), offered well above asking price and not heard anything since. I tried to see too many properties over too wide a geographical area, taking three cabs between Crows Nest and Neutral Bay and missing a couple of viewing windows while waiting around and in transit. Turns out, if you’re 5 minutes late for a slot then no can do. Those I did see didn’t quite hit the mark, though some were close. All those under $600/week, whether one-bed or two, were in awkward locations or simply not very nice, but I came close to offering on one of a couple with a slightly higher price tag. Both were very new and ticked all the boxes in theory; one of them only had one bedroom, but in return I would have got a huge living room and balcony. One of them also had an incredible view over Sydney. But neither felt right; after my sometimes troublesome but beautifully characterful Victorian terrace conversion in London, I found the uber-modern very open-plan square box style quite soulless. And there wasn’t nearly enough kitchen surface space, which might have driven me spare.

It was an anxious couple of days that followed, as I berated myself for being so fussy, wondered whether I should crack and apply for one of them and got a bit stressy about what I’d do when I got kicked out of current place on the 10th. But glad I held out, because (via another viewing, application and rejection on Tuesday), I secured a Wednesday morning viewing on a flat I’d just failed to spot before Saturday and, by some miracle, wasn’t taken after the weekend’s viewings. It took me all of about 30 seconds to think “yes, this is it.” Larger and cheaper than both of the two I’d ummed and ahhed about over the weekend, and than the latest place that didn’t want me, older (which I prefer, and will suit my furniture better) but with a modern kitchen and bathroom, and in a block of only four. I was desperate not to let this become rejection number three.

Statistically, I should have expected to get turned down at least a couple of times, given the number of people at almost all the viewings. And not having an Australian rental history or any form of landlord reference may have put me in the “too complicated” bracket in the eyes of a landlord faced with his or her pick of professional applicants. But the lack of feedback really cheesed me off. I work in a business where we have to bid competitively for most of our work, it takes a lot of time and effort, but at least if you’re not successful you at least get some indication of why not. Applying for a flat – no way. I tried, and was given nothing: “We had several applications and the landlord had to choose one of them. There was nothing wrong with yours.” Gah!

One good thing about the Aussie system, or the Sydney one at least, is that applications with most agents are done via the same online form which you can store your details and scanned ID copies on. Hence, a little scarred by the rejections and having seen about 15 other people at this latest viewing, I did my application on the bus back to work, and texted the agent (with whom I’d already done the full charm offensive) to say if I needed to offer more money then I’d be happy to consider it. 24 hours later, I was told it was mine at asking price, if I paid a week’s rent within another 24 hours. Phew.

So, I move in on the 17th (via a week of sofa surfing with friends and family) and my stuff shipped from the UK will arrive on the 19th. It’s all falling into place.

Trains, planes and automobiles

It was a matter of time before I wrote a transport post, and I’m sure there will be more to come. But here are some initial observations on how people get around over here, and how the experience differs from back home.

Trains

Trains in and around Sydney are operated, by the imaginatively-named Sydney Trains, a division of Transport for New South Wales. Most transport in Australia is controlled at the state level and the modus operandi varies – for example both the trains and trams in Melbourne are privately run on a franchised basis similar to in the UK. But enough of that – I’m just getting my work brain going after my first week!

The Sydney rail network isn’t nearly as wide as the London tube or suburban rail (it has 178 stations) due, I’m sure, to much lower population density. A lot of investment has recently been committed though, including a new metro service to the north west and, later, the south west, and various light rail lines. But there are huge areas of commuterville which are, and will remain, nowhere near a rail service. Nationwide, there is no material passenger service other than around Sydney and Melbourne, though you can also (infrequently) get between them and to Canberra and Brisbane, and on tourist-focussed weekly services between Adelaide and Darwin and between Sydney and Perth. To illustrate this, turn on the public transport layer on Google Maps and zoom out until all of Australia is on screen. There aren’t many lines on the map!

In Sydney and around, most of the trains themselves are ugly on the outside but comfy on the inside (the one in the photo is one of the newer and more attractive sets) and, and this always seems to amaze many Britons, double-decker, with a mezzanine level where you get on and off. It’s weird to sit on the bottom deck and be below platform level! The direction of the seats is reversible, so you can choose to sit in a group of four, or not, and to always face forward if you wish. The regional services aren’t speedy (a 54km journey last week took an hour) but they are cheap outside the peak (the same journey cost a remarkable $4.60). I must add though, that I then had to take three buses to get a further 30km to my cousin’s house, making a total of three hours travelling, when in a car it would have taken just over an hour end-to-end. And I had a battle with a rail replacement bus in amongst that too.

The hub of Sydney’s rail network is Central station, which is of mammoth size – 27 platforms – but isn’t really in the centre of the city, though many trains do serve the CBD further north too. According to Wikipedia, annual patronage at Central is about 11 million, compared to nearly 100 million at London Waterloo. Even if like isn’t quite being compared with like in terms of the data, that’s quite a difference!

Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland all have their equivalents of London’s Oyster card: Opal, Myki and AT Hop respectively. They work very much like Oyster does, though you need to tap off as well as onto buses, which takes some getting used to (and I paid an idiot tax when I forgot in Auckland!). The Opal offers a $2 discount for journeys involving more than one mode, and once eight journeys have been made in a week, the remaining ones that week are half-price. The other great thing about Opal is it’s not constrained to the Sydney urban area but works throughout NSW, unlike Oyster where it can be annoying to realise you’ve touched on but where you’re going is outside the Oyster zone.

Planes

Air is the main way to get between cities here, given the distance between them. It’s also surprisingly popular in NZ , where distances are much smaller. Sydney to Melbourne takes 90 minutes in the air and there are over 50 per day. On popular routes like this, there’s strong competition between four airlines (Qantas, Jetstar, Virgin, Tiger), meaning there’s usually an opportunity to bag a pretty low fare.

I took three internal flights with Jetstar and Virgin on my trip, and am writing this from Sydney airport as I’m about to board a Tiger plane. Jetstar I see as the equivalent of easyJet, while Virgin gives you tea and a checked-in bag in the base fare. Qantas gave me lunch and a glass of wine on a trans-Tasman flight, but then I took AirNZ back to Melbourne and failed to remember that food wasn’t in their basic package. I succumbed to an overpriced toasted sandwich as I wasn’t going to last three and a half hours without!

Common to all my domestic flights was a very different (and more relaxed) approach to security than I’m used to. Pleasingly, there’s no liquids restriction on domestic flights, so I didn’t have to faff with clear plastic bags and burying my toothpaste in my checked bag. More surprisingly, at no stage of the process on any of the three domestic flights did anyone ask for me to identify myself. I could have sold the ticket to anyone (probably anyone female, realistically)! Non-passengers can go to the gate if they are prepared to have their bags x-rayed, and you can walk in off the street to the baggage carousel. I always wonder how common baggage theft is, but have never heard of it being an issue.

Automobiles

I don’t know the stats, but it feels like car ownership is high here, and certainly higher in Sydney than London. After three years car-free, I think I’m as likely as not to buy one before very long, even though I’ll live quite centrally. Motorways and multi-lane highways run very close to and through the city, tolls are widespread, and peak hour traffic is hideous. I have no idea where these people park near their offices!

Driving itself isn’t far removed from the experience back home, though there are some subtle differences. There are more larger cars and more automatic cars – good luck if you want to hire a manual! But the biggest differences I’ve noticed is that there’s no obligation on dual carriageways to keep left unless overtaking, and so passing on the left is commonplace, and cars with a green light to turn have to give way to pedestrians crossing the road they are turning into, who will have a green man on the crossing – so they turn part way and then wait by the crossing. These both take some getting used to, especially seeing a car turn towards you when you’re a pedestrian crossing on a green man.

A note on the rest

Sydney appears to have a pretty good bus network. I’ve only really used the buses to get to and from my cousin’s place in Castle Hill, but they’ve been frequent and reliable, even in the peak. The express buses to the city run on the motorway where there are dedicated bus lanes and a couple of stops in the central reservation accessed via bridges. I haven’t experienced the inner city buses in the peak yet, but that may end up being how I commute. Ferry is another commuting option, depending on where I live. It’s pricier than the bus or train, but there’s something very pleasant-seeming about getting to work that way. The ferry network operates from Circular Quay, which is about five minutes from the office and is also served by a rail station.

In Melbourne, tram is the main way to get around, and around the CBD there’s a zone where journeys are free, which is great for tourists like me, though I do wonder how many trips would otherwise be made on foot.

The hard work starts tomorrow

My word, 11 weeks have gone quickly! But tomorrow, 80 days after leaving my job in London and 55 days after leaving the UK, I finally start my new job in the EY building you can see in the photo (to the right of the squarish turquoise one). Nice location, huh?

I’m feeling a mixture of excitement, apprehension and disbelief! Moving here hasn’t really felt real throughout the whole process, and I still don’t think I’ve processed the idea of going to work in a new place, or indeed going to work at all after getting so used to being on holiday! But I’m very happy not to be living out of a suitcase any more (I’ve moved into an Airbnb flat for 4 weeks), a routine will be good, my body will be thankful for fewer calories and units of alcohol and my bank balance for a salary.

I’m sure I’ll get into the swing of things, but I’ll need to turn the brain on to learn about new market, new colleagues, new company… must keep telling myself a new challenge is a good thing!

The Ashes – the last rites

So that’s that then. England outgunned and outclassed, and defeated 4-0. I’ll leave the post-mortem to the many excellent cricket journalists of the world (Mike Atherton being my personal favourite – you can read many of his Ashes columns without the Times paywall on The Australian website), but I had to share the fabulous photo from my seat close to the back of the Victor Trumper stand!

I went to Days 2, 3 and 5. The former two I had tickets for thanks to my cousin, had family days out with her, her husband and my aunt / her mum, and enjoyed superb (if very expensive) seats up high behind the bowler’s arm. And, critically given the recent heatwave, in the shade all day. I enjoyed being there for Jane McGrath day, where spectators are encouraged to wear pink and donate to the breast cancer charity set up in memory of the late wife of the great Australian bowler, Glenn. The sight of swathes of the ground wearing pink (and the commentary teams in hideous pink suits) was quite a spectacle, some advertisers had special pink boards, and the Ladies’ Pavilion was renamed the Jane McGrath pavilion with a bright pink sign. Most importantly, over $1.3 million was raised during the game for a cause close to my heart.

I skipped Day 4 on the basis that the match position, weather forecast (43 degrees!!) and ticket price ($149 for a seat in the shade) and distance I was staying from central Sydney didn’t add up. But Day 5 was a case of “why not?”. I had a day with no concrete plans, admission was by “gold coin donation” ($1/$2) to sit anywhere, a recently-made friend was going, and, having seen ten of the previous 24 days of the series, it felt apt to be there for the last rites. England lasted well past lunch, which beat my expectations, and I had a very pleasant half day chatting with a backdrop of cricket. And ten minutes after close of play they let us onto the pitch, which was rather fun too.

I’ve been to the SCG before, but not not for eleven years. Glenn McGrath is clearly biased when he says it’s the best ground in the world, but I can see the case. It’s a big stadium – capacity of around 50,000 after its most recent redevelopment – but retains a far more traditional cricket ground feel than Melbourne, especially as the old pavilion has been left largely unchanged. And that view is hard to beat…

Resolutions for a new year and new country

A few days late, I know, but happy new year! I saw in 2018 in a park in Melbourne and enjoyed the very impressive fireworks set off from rooftops in the CBD. A bit weird to do so on my own (well, with hundreds of others around, but nobody I knew…) but perhaps an apt end to a year when I remembered how to make time and decisions for myself and enjoy my own company.

The new year means my extended holiday is drawing to a close, and it’s time to turn my mind to a new job and – as some of my friends have put it – a new life. I’m not sure I’d express it that way because I don’t intend to let go of a lot of the things I enjoyed in my “old life”, but settling in a new place and being over 10,000 miles from my closest family and most of my friends does mean a certain amount of beginning again. And the period of time off has given me a chance to think about what I want from that. So, despite the fact that I’m not normally one for resolutions, here are mine for the new year and “new life”:

1. Make time for myself

This is first, front and centre of my resolutions. Back home, I led a pretty manic life – working pretty hard (at various times, too hard), maintaining a very active social life and being a bit of a sucker for committees and responsibility. I can’t (and don’t want to) change my nature and of course I want to make friends in a new place, but the opportunity to do just a little bit less and have a few more evenings and weekend days to myself is one I know I need to take. Work is where that will be particularly challenging, since I know my instinct will be to prove myself in a new company, and work as hard as it takes to do that as soon as possible.

2. Get some exercise!

Despite quite a lot of walking, there’s no escaping the fact that an 11-week holiday isn’t a ticket to a healthy lifestyle unless you’re FAR more disciplined than I am! But, to be honest, the damage to my previous exercise regime (such as it was) was done before I left London. It turns out that announcing you’re leaving the country makes you quite in-demand for social occasions and (see 1 above) I don’t really need an excuse to rack these up. Cue many, many evenings out on the beer which, not only led to high-calorie food and drink consumption but also kiboshed my three-to-four times per week cycling to work habit. No wonder many of my clothes no longer fit. My bike will arrive in Sydney in mid-February, but I’ve resolved to get back into running (slow jogging) and sign up for a local parkrun. Two 5k-ish runs down and I’ve been shattered both times, but I remember it gets better…

3. Reduce consumption of single-use plastic stuff

This one isn’t for me, but plastic waste is something I feel quite strongly about without always putting my money where my mouth is. However, recently I’ve imposed a “no disposable coffee cup” rule on myself – if I forget my keep cup and won’t drink in, I don’t deserve the coffee, and if a coffee shop or stand won’t take/use it then they don’t deserve my money. Once it’s became routine to toss the keep cup in my handbag (I have had a lot of flat whites in the last 11 weeks), it’s not been hard – and it helps that proffering a cup when ordering a coffee is much more normal here than back home. I compare my experience at the very busy coffee stands at the Adelaide Oval and MCG here to that at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton, where the grumpy vendor (I refuse to call him a barista – the coffee was terrible) looked at me like I had three heads when I asked him to put my drink in my cup.

The challenge now is to always remember the reusable shopping bags, ignore the plastic veg bags in the supermarket, refuse straws and get hold of some beeswax wraps so I can remove cling film from my life. Plastic bags are still free here and therefore pretty widespread, but the two biggest supermarket chains are phasing them out by June this year.

4. Don’t spend NYE 2018-2019 alone!

Much as it was fun and I have zero regrets about doing the solo new year’s, some company would have been pleasant. Despite resolving to make time for myself in 2018, I’d like to make some new friends too!

Food, glorious food!

I can’t come to the foodie paradise that is Melbourne without writing a blog post about food and eating out!

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me what the best meal was I’d had all trip. I ummed and ahhed and could only think of one worthy of consideration. I hadn’t eaten badly, indeed I’d say well, but nothing had really wowed me. Now, things have changed, not only because I’ve spent the last few days in Melbourne, but it helps! After four days at the MCG, today I wandered into town from North Fitzroy and back again and passed hundreds of places that made my mouth water!

Eating out here has a couple of differences from back home. It’s a more efficient experience, because (other than in the poshest joints) it’s normal to pay at the bar or a cashier rather than waiting for the bill. In cafés, ordering at the bar is also much more common than in the UK, especially in NZ, though restaurants all offer table service. Secondly, there’s no compunction to tip and it’s unusual to have service charges added on. Living in London, I got used to 12.5% service charges, which made meals a lot more expensive than the menu suggested, so I find this amazingly refreshing! In NZ, some places charge a public holiday surcharge to cover their additional staff costs, and I’ve seen it on Sundays in a few places, but I’m yet to spot either it in Aus. Tipping is reserved for exceptional service rather than the norm, a model I much prefer to the UK (where I’ve only refused to pay it when service has been awful) or, worse, the US tipping culture.

In chronological order, these are my seven favourite meals on my trip so far…

The Rockpool Café, Stokes Bay, Kangaroo Island.

This was the one that was winning when my friend posed the question. The food – a seafood platter with chips and a flat white – were excellent, but probably not in the culinary league of the later entrants. But the waterfront setting, it coming straight after a delightful swim in the sea, and the fact I’d frugally solely eaten meals cooked in the back of my campervan for the preceding three days, made this meal memorable.

Campervan leftover omelette, Kangaroo Island

I was particularly smug about this gas stove creation, which I enjoyed in a seafront campsite in Penneshaw, Kangaroo Island, at the end of a wonderful few days of total freedom. It wasn’t fancy, but made perfect use of all my leftovers – eggs, tomatoes, ham and two granary tortilla wraps, which I lightly toasted and managed wedge the omelette between (no mean feat in the dark!). All washed down with a couple of glasses of Wirra Wirra Shiraz bought at the cellar door in McLaren Vale. Somehow this summed up my little campervan trip.

Depot, Auckland, New Zealand

If I were ranking these meals by deliciousness, this one would probably be at the top. A menu of small plates and large plates designed for sharing was perfect for me and a friend, both of whom enjoy variety and flavour. Everything was incredible, but the winner definitely hapuka belly with eggplant kasundi. The waiter made the mistake of telling us we could order extra kasundi, so of course we did, and noshed it all. We also loved sitting at the bar and getting recommendations from the bar staff. My only regret is being too full to order pudding, though the espresso/short black I had in lieu was excellent. I’ll be back.

Hone’s Garden, Russell, New Zealand

This excellent spot provided lunch on the middle day of three in the beautiful Bay of Islands. My aunt and uncle report that when they were last here, several years ago, it was a ramshackle garden bar where a small BBQ was fired up if food was ordered. Now it’s smartened up rather, with comfy seats, a craft beer bar and excellent pizzas. The only low point of our meal there was me chucking a glass of beer everywhere, including on my aunt’s skirt, but I can’t blame Hone for that!

Grain Store, Melbourne

This was excellent Melbourne breakfast venue number 1, and is where the photo above was taken. I decided to go there before play on Day Four of the test match on the basis of a number of online recommendations, and the fact they had a sweetcorn fritter on the menu. I’m a sucker for a good sweetcorn fritter, and thankfully this one was definitely up to standard! I didn’t need to eat at the cricket until well into the afternoon session.

Supernormal, Melbourne

A close-run second on the deliciousness ranking, and discovered entirely by accident. After the cricket ended yesterday, I hoped to have a quick dinner at my previously-favourite Melbourne eatery, Chin Chin. The queue was out of the door and round the corner (at 6pm! Seriously, that’s how good it is!) so I took to Google to find the nearest Asian restaurant. The result was Supernormal, a Japanese restaurant a block further east on Flinders Lane. It was heavier on my wallet than intended, but wow, it was sensational! All the savoury dishes – Kingfish sashimi, pork loin with wombok and chilli, and the best prawn and chicken dumplings I’ve ever eaten – were fabulous, and I enjoyed soaking up all the flavoursome sauce with rice. I didn’t need a dessert, but, once I saw peanut butter parfait with salted caramel and soft chocolate on the menu, there was no way I wasn’t having one. And that was another good decision! I loved sitting at the bar and watching the raw dishes being prepared – artists at work!

Babajan, Melbourne

My friend’s favourite local café in North Fitzroy, so it would have been rude not to give it a whirl. Another place where I could have happily eaten everything on the menu, but I opted for crab and halloumi omelette and wasn’t disappointed. And the coffee was excellent, and staff lovely.

Sydney is, so far, conspicuous by its absence, but only because I haven’t spent enough time there. I look forward to putting that right!

No such thing as too much cricket!

The Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (the MCG, or indeed just the “G” to Melburnians) is on many cricket fans’ bucket lists. I’m extremely fortunate in that this was the second time I’ve attended the game in an Ashes series. Despite a lifeless pitch, suffice to say that this year’s experience has been infinitely superior to its 2006 equivalent.

In both cases, England entered the series 3-0 down. In 2006, England were rolled by an innings and 99 runs within three days, and I spent what would have been Day Four getting hideously sunburnt on St Kilda Beach. This time, however, England gave us plenty to cheer about. Indeed, until the middle of today’s afternoon session, we had a decent chance of winning the game. However, in the end, a combination of rain, the dead pitch and Australia’s extraordinary, immovable captain, Steve Smith, conspired to give the Aussies a draw. I’ve also enjoyed staying in a friend’s house, not a hostel, and being able to afford to partake in Melbourne’s excellent foodie scene and coffee culture.

I skipped Day One of the test, as I was in transit from Auckland, and it doesn’t sound like I missed much after David Warner got out for an eventful 103. On the second morning, things got interesting, with Australia collapsing from 244/3 to 327 all out, thanks in no small part to Stuart Broad rediscovering his bowling mojo. Finally the Barmy Army’s chant of “He’s big, he’s bad, he’s better than his dad” was believable again! Then it was the turn of another senior player in the spotlight, Alastair Cook, to do his thing. Over the course of the following ten-and-a-half hours of play, he took his series runs from 83 to 327, and career tally to a stonking 11,956, by racking up his 32nd century and fifth double-century. Quite a turnaround, and remarkably (and this says a lot about the rest of our batting line-up…) he now topping the series list for England. Class is permanent and all that. When the match petered out to a draw this afternoon, nobody can have been surprised at the man of the match selection, and it was a privilege to have been in the ground for every ball of a great innings.

So what’s special about the “G”? It isn’t an easy question, though hard to look beyond the sheer size of the place. The view from the fourth tier is quite something! There were nearly 90,000 in on Boxing Day and not far shy of 70,000 the following day, approximately twice what I’ve ever seen at any other ground. With that comes atmosphere, of course. I remember finding it quite an intimidating place to watch cricket during a 2007 one-dayer with anti-Pom abuse flying, but this time I found the locals knowledgeable about their cricket, and respectful. The Ritchies (around a hundred blokes dressed as Ritchie Benaud, sitting in the sun in 36-degree heat) provided some entertainment on Day Two, complete with three-part trumpet harmony, no doubt an attempt to trump the English Barmy Army. But the whole crowd rose to applaud Alastair Cook’s hundred and then the double-ton the following day. It’s not a cricket ground in the purist sense, but it’s one hell of a stadium. That said, it felt pretty empty today on Day Five when there were “only” 14,000 people in!

Of those, I reckon the vast majority were English, mostly sitting together at the Great Southern Stand End. I chose a seat today at that end, right above the Barmy Army – a safe distance, but close enough to feel part of the atmosphere. Love them or loathe them, they are part of touring with England, and were in full voice for much of the last four days, often garnering applause and encouragement from the team. Indeed, after the presentation this afternoon, all eleven players ran across from the other side of the ground to show their appreciation, and then Jonny Bairstow came back to give his pads to a young fan in the front row.

To provide a comparison, and because I don’t believe there’s such thing as too much cricket, last night I went to my first Big Bash League (BBL) Twenty20 game at the Etihad Stadium across town. Definitely an occasion to leave the “cricket purist” hat at home, but a lot of fun. And, on a rainy evening, a great joy (and surprise) to discover the stadium has a roof so my concerns about losing the game to the weather were unfounded! Much to the disappointment of the partisan home crowd, the Perth Scorchers were too good for the Melbourne Renegades, thanks largely to Mitchell Johnson, and I find it hard to see past the Scorchers as potential winners of the tournament. The BBL is doing a lot right – I’ll post more on it once I’ve seen another game in Sydney in a couple of weeks.

The England team now moves on to Sydney, and so do I – after two more nights in Melbourne. I’ve heard very good things about the New Year’s Eve fireworks here and so will certainly head into town late-ish in the evening, but don’t plan to rush around seeing things earlier in the day – one of the joys of revisiting a place I’ve been to a few times before is feeling no compunction to do the touristy stuff!

Happy (sunny) Christmas!

After my second ever summer Christmas Day, it’s now Boxing Day here and I’m on my way to Melbourne to watch more Ashes action. Skipping day one, and as I’m currently on a plane I can’t even check up on how it’s going. Perhaps for the best…?

Summer Christmas was delightful, if somewhat odd. I missed being with my parents and brother, of course. However, this was reduced by being able to FaceTime – technology is a LOT better than when I last did overseas Christmas 11 years ago. But my homesickness was confined pretty much to missing people since my aunt does a very similar Christmas lunch to what I’m used to at home – turkey with all the trimmings, followed by Christmas pud and brandy butter – but since it was 25 degrees and sunny in Auckland, we ate it in the garden under big parasols. Eating a big, heavy, hot meal that isn’t a BBQ outside around a relocated indoor dining table did feel slightly strange, but of course I gladly tucked in, and enjoyed a few glasses of NZ wine too!

It isn’t just the roast dinner that I’m not sure is perfectly suited to the antipodean climate at this time of year. Father Christmas still wears his woolly red suit (including the huge one on the Farmers department store in Auckland), and many Christmas cards and wrapping paper designs feature snow and wintry scenes that most Aussies and many kiwis will never experience, let alone at Christmas. I guess with the first foreign settlers here being British, it’s no surprise that they brought their Christmas customs with them, and more recently I guess winter Christmas has been perpetuated by US and UK television being dominant. With my English born and bred aunt being the main cook in her family, she brought her own family traditions when it comes to the food, including our slight quirks like crispy bacon with white wine before the main event. An Australian Facebook group (with a loose theme of books and baking, centred around the excellent podcast Chat 10 Looks 3) that I’m a member of has displayed a lot of photos of and recipes for pavlovas and salads for barbecues over the last few days, and I think my Australian family does things quite differently from the Anglo-Kiwi side, so I may need to give that a whirl next year! I’m very lucky that, although I now live on the other side of the world, I have a choice of family to spend Christmas with!

I survived my first ever Christmas without a stocking (yes, yes, I’m thirty-four years old…) but was delighted that my parents sent a couple of presents over with my aunt (after she was in the UK for Granny’s funeral) to open with those received from family over here. They also gave me a voucher for a BBQ cooking school, just to make sure I fully ingratiate myself in Aus! The weight removed from my bag by giving Australian alcohol to NZ family has been well and truly replaced by lots of chocolate presents (especially feijoa chocolate, since I love feijoas and they are hard to get outside NZ), not to mention the two bottles I bought in duty free to restart my spirits collection after I had to get rid of my collection back home by a combination of drinking, giving away and storing in my parents’ house. More on the joy of Australian customs restrictions to come in the future I’m sure…

In the meantime, raising a glass (cup of Air New Zealand tea) to my family and friends at Christmas, wherever in the world they are!

I ❤️ NZ

I’ve been pretty silent for the last ten days, but in that time I’m mostly been visiting people rather than places – so, for those of you who don’t know my extended family, that might not make such interesting blog posts.

But what I can say is that I still love New Zealand. It has pretty much always been top of my favourite countries list, even before I spent a year living here in 2006-2007. I decided that, in transport industry terms, NZ might be a bit small-town after London so decided against settling here for now at least, but I’m delighted to be much, much nearer for holidays!

This time I haven’t travelled too far from my base of Auckland, where my aunt and uncle live. (This is my dad’s sister, as opposed to my mum’s family who are all in Sydney). However I have made it to Hamilton to spend a weekend with my cousin Matt, his wife Julia and their gorgeous baby Madeleine, and am writing this from Paihia on the beautiful Bay of Islands, a few hours’ drive north of Auckland. I’ve also enjoyed my aunt’s choir performing the Messiah, and two dinners out with friends. It will be a while before I forget the hapuku with aubergine kasundi that I enjoyed with Jane in Depot, central Auckland!

Paihia has been delightful. Combine glorious sunshine, stunning coastal scenery and a bit of walking and you get a happy Sarah (as discussed in parts one and two of my campervan travels). Add in a dolphin-seeking boat trip, some interesting historical sites, good company, and some super food and drink (I’m being rather less parsimonious than on my South Aussie trip), and it gets better. I’ve been here before, with my cousin Matt on a road-trip in 2006, which also included Cape Reinga (far north of the country). But that was September and it rained, and I doubt we collectively had the funds for the dolphin trip, so I’ve been very happy to return! This part of the world is very significant in NZ history, with the first European settlers being here, the Treaty of Waitangi signed about a mile away, and there being various religious missions, and battles between Maori and westerners. It’s made for fascinating visiting and reminded me of some of the national history that I probably knew ten years ago.

For some time, I’ve considered myself an honorary New Zealander. But why do I feel so at home here? I guess it’s got a lot in common with home (language, culture, etc.), but with a much more laid- back pace of life, far fewer people (most of whom are super friendly) and, if anything, a better array of fabulous scenery. It’s not that NZ has the most spectacular coastline, mountains or forest in the world, but the combination of natural features in relatively close proximity is what sets it apart. For example, from where I used to live in Christchurch, within two hours I could get to the top of a ski slope, most of the way to the west coast glaciers, into the Mackenzie Country with its lovely lakes and mountains, or to Kaikoura with lovely coastline and whale watching/ dolphin opportunities.

I’ve come to love the North Island too, having got to know many of its scenic spots, and appreciate Auckland for what I now reckon it is – a mid-size waterfront city with a fantastic food scene. It may not have the charm of Wellington, the traffic (and drivers) may be bad and public transport isn’t what it could be, but I adore the amount of water you can see from any vantage point, the place has a multicultural and cosmopolitan feel, and I’ve not had many meals ever better than the one last week including the hapuka!

Now I know I can come back more frequently, I’m already compiling a mental list of things I want to do here: re-visit Wellington (one of my favourite cities in the world but I’ve neglected it since 2010); ski in some of the South Island ski fields that I haven’t done before; go to Dunedin, the Catlins and Moeraki Boulders; go back to the Coromandel for more stunning coastal scenery; skydive in Taupo; visit the volcanic Rangitoto Island off the coast by Auckland; walk the Milford and Routeburn tracks. But my first trip back will be at the end of March, to see two NZ v England test matches in successive weekends, in Auckland and Christchurch. The Christchurch game I’m particularly excited about, given the Hagley Oval’s development from club ground in the park into an international venue following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, and its proximity to where I used to live. But it will surprise nobody to read that cricket is the reason for my first planned holiday from a job I haven’t even started yet!

What’s the time, Mr Wolf?

Well, that depends where in the country you are!

After a few posts of the travelogue nature, I thought it was time for my first post on observations of this country I now call home.

Growing up in the UK with family members in Sydney and Auckland, I’m no stranger to time differences. Adding and subtracting 9 (Sydney in Antipodean winter), 11 (Sydney summer or Auckland winter) or 13 (Auckland summer) hours is second nature. However, only in the last couple of weeks have I fully appreciated the chaos that is internal Australian timezones, especially in the summer.

In the winter, it’s relatively straightforward – the whole Eastern side is on the same timezone, WA is two hours behind, NZ two ahead. As for the middle (SA and NT), well, there’s always something awkward…. And here’s my gripe number one about Aussie timezones – central (winter) time is half an hour behind Eastern. Yes, half an hour. Which lends the question, why bother? Or why not one whole hour? Half an hour is just a hassle, and if your brain works like mine you forget whether to add or subtract the half hour after adding/subtracting the hours for the east. I’m sad to have left South Australia today, but the half hour faff I really won’t miss!

In the summer, with daylight savings thrown in; it gets even more fun. The southern states (NSW, Victoria, SA, ACT and Tasmania) as well as all of NZ put their clocks forward an hour like we do in the UK. On the other hand, Queensland, WA and NT don’t. That gives five timezones in Australia in summer – I know it’s a pretty big country, but really?!

What strikes me as especially odd is the two-and-a-half-hour time difference as you cross the border from SA to WA. Now admittedly *really* not many people live in that particular bit of Australia – the closest settlements I could find on google maps either side of the border are Eucla, WA (population 86) and Yalata, SA (population 100), 278km apart – but that the clock is 150 minutes later at sunset in Yalata than Eucla is bizarre, no?

A little Wikipedia research suggests that daylight saving time is a somewhat controversial topics in some parts. Queensland and WA have opted in and out over the years and between them, have held five referenda on the topic since 1975. There have been proposals to introduce daylight saving time in southern, but not northern, parts of Queensland. If they did that in WA that would add a SIXTH summer timezone to a country of 25 million people. Argh!