THE AUSTRALIAN GOOD-WILL MISSION – PART 2

Alex’s birthday took place in April, and I had been determined to give her a memorable gift. During my initial visit to Vienna, but far enough in that all the feelings had started to bud where Alex was concerned, Alex had mentioned that for her previous birthday her work colleagues had given her a huge helium balloon. The glee in her face indicated to me that balloon + Alex = happy, and I therefore decided to give her the biggest balloon anyone had ever given her.

This I accomplished in the form of a hot-air balloon ride.

Well, truth-be-told, this I accomplished in the much less climatic gift of a home-made voucher for a hot-air ballon ride. Part of the gift was that she could choose the location of the flight, and given that we frequently moved between London and Vienna, with the odd side trip to Greece and Prague, she had her choice of location. At the time of said gift-giving, we had already begun preparations for our Australian sojourn, and so she decided to vote for the city that had helped shaped the person she loved (me).

We both agreed that, given the fickle nature of Melbourne weather, we’d try and take the hot-air balloon ride as soon as possible to avoid the risk of missing out altogether, and so in the week leading up to our departure, I went about finalising the date of the flight. We landed on the Saturday and thought we should have recovered enough from the day-long ordeal by Monday in order to take to the air again.

Unfortunately, the day before leaving for the airport, the coordinators of the flight informed me that the weather for Monday didn’t look good, and that, in fact, the weather for the rest of the week wasn’t looking good either. There was one ray of sunlight, however (metaphorically and literally):  Sunday was clear. Even though we knew we’d be exhausted from our hemispherical commute, we thought fuck it, and booked it in.

So, after touching down at five pm Saturday, jet-lagged and generally fatigued from the energy it takes to cram yourself into airline chairs for twenty-three hours, we woke up at four am Sunday and drove into the fine city of Melbourne to see it from the air.

This was Alex’s first taste of Melbourne, and was rather anti-climatic given the sun was not yet up  and we were we just driving through dimly-lit suburbia. She was polite enough however to ohh and ahh as I pointed out landmarks from my life despite the fact that most of it couldn’t be seen at this time in the morning.

We wove into the heart of the CBD, parked, and walked the final stretch down Flinders Lane to the Grand Hyatt, the meeting point. There we met some of our fellow aviators, a young couple from Sydney, the male of the pair being kind enough to ask if we’d heard about the hot-air balloon crash that morning in Florida. Tactful. It kind of killed the conversation.

Once all had gathered, we were loaded into a van and driven to our take-off site — the park behind the Royal Children’s Hospital. We all assisted in dismounting the balloon and basket from the trailer and unrolling the expanse of nylon that was going to pull us up and above the city. The pilot set up a giant fan and directed air into the material, and quickly followed it with what we’d all come to see: fire.

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This was literally the combination of ingredients that would levitate us into the sky — air and fire — proving that the hot-air balloon truly lives up to its name.

The limp and flaccid stretch of nylon slowly engorged with air and fire, and eventually rose to stiff attention above us to blot out the sky. (If you found an erection metaphor in that previous sentence then that was your doing, not mine. I was just describing the process of inflating a balloon. Shame on you.)

We all piled into the basket, that, while big, felt cramped with the ten of us squeezed in to create the smallest mosh pit ever. The pilot also boarded, released a few eruptions of flame up into the cavernous balloon, and after a few bumps along the grass, the impossible happened and we floated off the ground.

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The first two minutes involved clinging as tightly to the basket edges as my fingers would allow, and trying desperately to keep every muscle in my body perfectly still and balanced in case any movement tipped the basket and had us all tumbling out. My brain avidly pointed out that the ground was going away, and that we liked the ground, and that maybe that was a safer place to be than suspended in wicker underneath gouts of fire and a thin nylon sheet.

Alex was a pro. Despite the near-panic attack induced by looking at photos on the company’s website a month earlier, she calmly pivoted around, capturing the miracle of drifting from the ground and lazily weaving between the tips of skyscrapers. A few “Oh boy!”s were whispered through pursed lips, and the odd chuckle tinged with just the tiniest hit of mania slipped out, but otherwise she was totally calm.

After five minutes of my brain alerting me again and again that the ground had gone, the lack of any actual harm and the apparent lack of threat despite the unusual location we found ourselves in soothed the flight-or-fight in me enough to for it to curl up in the back of my skull and enjoy the view.

And what a view. We headed straight over the heart of the city, and Melbourne was laid out like the most detailed of maps, complete with toy-trains shooting out across tiny rails, minute figures of people strolling the pencil thin footpaths, and the building stretching up to meet us, suspended there above it all. If you are impressed by the satellite feature on google maps, just know you haven’t seen anything yet.

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Eventually the fear disappeared so completely that we leaned over the basket’s edges, looking down on the patchwork of homes, pools, and footballs ovals that made up the suburbia as we drifted away from the city, taking the winds blowing South-East. Someone made the comment that we were lucky to have such a smooth flight, and the pilot remarked that all flights were smooth. We were never stationary, and so never offered resistance to the breeze, and we had no form of propellent of our own to drive us through the air currents and cause turbulence. We were a feather caught in the breeze, a leaf drifting down a river, and being part of the movement made it feel as if we were still while the world scrolled below us. It turns out there’s some perks to going with the flow — there’s probably a lesson in there somewhere.

Eventually we made our way to the Moorabbin airport where, upon descending, out pilot calmly informed us that we were going fast enough that our basket would tip on landing. We absorbed his words, fought down a bubble of panic, and giggled nervously, because what else do you do when someone tells you your hot-air balloon would crash land.

It turns out this is a rather normal occurrence and we adopted the brace position we had been taught, bending our knees and sandwiching ourselves between stands of wicker. The edge of the basket kissed the ground, trundled along for a while, then the whole thing slowly and elegantly tipped until we settled on our backs in the grass. It was nice to lay there next to Alex, grass blades tickling my cheek, safely back on solid ground. The strangers crammed around us I could have done without.

Euphoric from the spectacle we had just partaken in, we helped pack away the balloon, now once again shrivelled and flaccid, its work done for the day and all air ejaculated from its insides (keep it clean, people). We were then driven back to the Grand Hyatt, given glasses of sparkling wine as is customary, and gorged ourselves on the lavish buffet breakfast offered by the hotel.

As we retraced out steps down Flinders Land and back to the car, walking through the city that only an hour before we had floated above,we were greeted with one last sight. Alex, being without her glasses, squinted as we approached the edge of a street, emerging out of buildings to a small park on the opposite street, and asked, “What kind of dog is that?”

It was a ram. In Melbourne. Just chewing grass beside the skyscrapers.

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The worst part was nobody else was acting like it was a weird thing. I could envision Alex’s phone call back home, her family asking her impression of Melbourne and her response, “It’s nice and all, but they just have livestock roaming through the streets.”

I tried to assure her this was completely unusual, and she seemed convinced. Mostly.

So the birthday gift, and Alex’s first experience of Melbourne, had been a success, and we’d only be in the country for nineteen hours.

Luckily, there was plenty more to come.

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JOURNAL EXTRACT #12 (A.K.A THE AUSTRALIAN GOOD-WILL MISSION – PART 1)

I am sitting alone in my London living room, feet sore from a long day of nursing on the streets of Westminster, stomach full of spicy pumpkin soup, and deciding it is long overdue that I wrote another blog entry. My time has been rather absorbed recently with my efforts at learning the German language, visiting my girlfriend in Vienna, and working to fund these two things. But I did take a break from this lifestyle to board another plane and skip across the planet, so it seems only fitting that I add another entry to my travel journal. The trip in question: A return to Australia. Only this time, I didn’t go alone.

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My most recent exploration was one back into my old life, and was prompted by my girlfriend, Alex, who suggested that rather than sun her summer away, relaxing by the absurdly white beaches and blue oceans of the Greek Islands as is her tradition (a perk of living in Austria), we head to the southern continent so that she could meet my family. Not only did she trade a European summer for an Australian winter (and I know what any Europeans reading this are thinking: “An Australian winter. How cute. It might get so cold you need a light jacket.” But screw your condescending tone, it gets cold, damn it!), she also gave up two weeks of perfect idleness so that she could rush around and do the Robb tour. Given that my dad is one of nine children, and that he and his eight siblings are ferocious breeders and averaged at least three offspring a piece, and often more, and that those children and now off making people of their own, it’s a pretty damn big tour. On top of all that, this was also her only break from her own strenuous routine of juggling work and a master’s degree.

If that isn’t true love, I don’t know what is.

Almost exactly a year ago, I headed to Vienna for the first time and caught up with my then-platonic friend Alex who gave me an amazing two-week tour of all that Vienna had to offer, drowning me in delectable foods, sights, and the pleasure of her company. These two weeks went incredibly well, and not just because I won a girlfriend out of it (although that didn’t hurt). She showed me the beauty of her home, and the pride she had in the city she’d grown up in. And here we were, twelve months later heading to my home, and I was desperate to return the favour.

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After months of planning, which mostly involved alerting my family that we’d be visiting, purchasing plane tickets, and then just sitting around getting excited about the whole thing (there’s definitely perks to still having a bedroom in your brother’s house filled with all your crap: instant accommodation), we boarded a plane and begun the twenty-three hour journey to Australia. Alex and  I were probably more excited about the prospect of spending a day cramped inside a metal tube thundering across the lower atmosphere than the average traveller. This was because, despite the fact that our relationship is largely composed of hopping on planes every few weeks to see each other, we had never actually flown together. We were like giddy school kids going away to camp, savouring every aspect of this novel experience. To further reinforce this image, let me confess that we packed plane snacks and travel scrabble. We were ready to tear it up.

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The first five hours went quickly, both of us high on the fact that, rather than the lucky-dip of people we normally sat next to, some with questionable hygiene habits and the impressive ability to encroach on personal space, we were able to enjoy having our favourite person in the chair beside us.

This euphoria dampened slightly when we landed in Doha, and the budding flu that had been invading Alex’s sinuses burst into full form, leaving her feeling drained. We purchased drugs at the airport pharmacy, and I was happy to note that the cold and flu tablets in the United Emirates were full of the good stuff. I told Alex they should dry her up, but that they might also make her a little drowsy. I was not wrong.

By the time we boarded the second and final plane bound for Melbourne, Alex was struggling to keep her eyes open, commenting in an adorably drowsy and mildly anxious voice that her legs felt weird. Once we were up in the air, she groggily commented that her hands felt squishy, concerned that she was unable to make a fist despite the fact that her fingers were curling in and out of fists as she spoke. I reassured her that it was normal, just the medication kicking in, and my soothing nurse-voice must have done the trick because approximately twenty-two seconds later she was deeply asleep. She didn’t wake again for the next eight hours. Thank you United Emirates for your excellent cold and flu drugs.

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We landed in Tullamarine Airport at five pm to be greeted by the majority of my immediate family, my mum and dad, my sister, Angela, and my twin brother, Damian and his girlfriend/my close friend, Holly. The only exception was my brother and sister-in-law, who were taking a well-earned family trip away with their two children. They sent us all pictures of their children being adorable while exploring beautiful bushland, and so were forgiven for this oversight.

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It was more than a little surreal to drive home, to my Australian home, in the back of my brother’s car, catching up with Damo and Holly while familiar streets flicked by, with Alex beside me. My relationship with her had taken place solely in Europe, and except for fleeting encounters with Damo and Holly, my Australian life and my European life had had little crossover, at least in the physical sense (Skype meant that the people who immediately swamped Alex in an avalanche of hugs upon landing were not complete strangers).

The sensation was only further reinforced once we returned to the always-homey Brunswick and I sat in a living room I’ve sat in countless times before with the gang, enjoying a meal of pulled-pork Holly had lovingly prepared. I looked around and saw Alex chatting comfortably with my parents and sister, chowing down on Twisties and agreeing with my mother that they were indeed a delicious chip, as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

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(Photo credit: Susanne Robb a.k.a Mum a.k.a The nominated family paparazzi)

This dual-life vision made me supremely happy as the two halves of my world came into focus. I was sitting in a home with my favourite people around me, eating good food, and not having to achieve this combination through the compromise of Skype.

The trip to my old life was off to a good start.

JOURNAL EXTRACT #10

22nd of January

I am on a plane, again.

My day started at 0120, London-time, when after three-hours sleep my alarm chirped with way too much enthusiasm for such a disgustingly early time of the morning. Although I don’t know if it can rightly be called morning. Late night? Technically I had slept, and it was a different date than when I first closed my eyes…for the purpose of clarity, let’s say it was early morning. But please bear in mind, the term “day” in this context gets very warped and wiggly, and may in fact last longer than the traditional twenty-four hours. International travel refuses to play by the rules of space and time.

So my “day” started in London, at 0120, when I pulled on clothes, splashed water on my face, completed the cursory pocket check of wallet, phone and passport, before grabbing bag and backpack and venturing outside to wait for a bus. It’s a weird thing to stand on a deserted London street in the freezing cold with the moon overhead, pacing back and forth to keep the feeling in your feet, and expecting a bus to show up. It took me back to when I first moved to London and got absurdly lost coming back from Vienna. Ahh, good times. At least in this case, I planned to be standing outside in the middle of the night (sorry, early morning), waiting for a bus. And just like that fun night, eventually headlights broke the darkness, rumbling broke the silence, and the deserted street was suddenly occupied by a red double-decker bus.

It took two changes, two-and-a-half hours, and three buses to get me from Morden to Heathrow airport. I was sustained by chocolate-chip cookies baked by my girlfriend during this trip. My love grew for her with every cookie.

The next leg was a plane that took me from London to Paris, which is a flight that basically gets up in the air only to come down again, albeit in a different country. Damn, but Europe is all smooched so close together. There was, however, enough time to enjoy a chocolate croissant — a perk of flying Air France.

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I arrived in Paris Charles De Gaulle airport at 0900 France-time, which is 0800 London-time, although to my sleep-deprived body felt like 2200 Internal-bodyclock-time. I had been awake for seven-and-a-half hours off of three-hours sleep and the sun had not long been up. Feeling confused? I certainly was.

From France, I boarded another plane at 1135, headed to Guangzhou, China. I forced myself to stay awake long enough for the first meal to come round (beef and mushrooms with rice, for those playing at home) before folding my knees up on the back on the chair in front of me, squishing my body into a weirdly comfortable accordion-style position, and disappearing into sleep for six hours. Six hours, not bad, right? I did wake up with completely dead legs and a back that took about ten minutes of coaxing to straighten, but it was worth it.

China was foggy and cold, and I saw exactly none of it as I paced the terminals looking out the giant glass building at a wall of fog. I killed two hours, breaking the time between watching episodes of Seinfeld on my laptop and watching a cute four-year-old Indian girl wearing a onesie dance up to people singing her ABCs in English. I can’t decide which was more entertaining.

From China, I boarded another plane at 0900 China-time, which was 0200 France-time, and 0100 London-time, this time headed to Melbourne.

I can hear the loyal readers asking, “Melbourne? But don’t aren’t you Australian? How can you put this entry in a travel journal when where you’re travelling to is home?” Firstly, thank you for your loyal readership, and for your astute observations about my origins. I’m honoured that you’ve followed this blog so closely, and glad I have a readership that asks such penetrating and pertinent questions.

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I can justify the title of travel journal because this time, having now established myself in London, I will be a tourist in my homeland. It’s a dislocating sort of feeling to be heading home and knowing it’s only temporary, that this time “going overseas” means travelling to Australia. To be simultaneously both an insider and an outsider. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I’m going to leave it there because I have three percent battery left on my laptop. Right now, the time on my screen says 0509, the time on my watch says 1409, my body would swear is about midday, and truthfully, given where my plane currently is in the world, none of them are probably right.

It’s been a long day.

 

24th of January

I am sitting in my bed writing this. It feels very strange. Not that I’m in bed, that’s a natural state of being for me, but because of the bed I’m in.

Seventy-two hours ago I was rising from my other bed, my London bed, and now I’m back in my Australian bedroom, a room that hasn’t changed since I left it six months ago. The room may not have changed, but the person within it has. (That’s me, by the way).

I landed in Melbourne at 2130, made my way through the ordeal of border security (after now having some experience with airports, I can safely say Australia is the most uptight country when it comes to customs. We’re number one!), and stepped out into a crowd of family. Mum greeted me with tears in her eyes and a hug that felt like home. It was a nice moment.

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Yesterday was the perfect easing-in day. Damian, Holly and I headed to Lygon Street and, after exactly ten seconds of looking, found a cafe for some brunch. Out of all the things I’ve missed about Australia, Melbourne breakfast-food would have to be one I’ve missed the most. (After my loved ones and friends and all that).

After reigniting my love affair with Melbourne’s brunching culture, we made our way to a pub called the Ale House and talked and laughed while enjoying beer, one of which was called peanut-butter-jelly-time and tasted like rocky road. I would highly recommend it.

It was brilliant to sit and talk with two of my favourite people. As incredible as the miracle of Skype is, (and it is a miracle — we are living in the future, people!), it still falls short of the intimacy and communication that comes from sharing a space with a person. I don’t know if it’s in the body language, the minute facial expressions, or some unconscious connection that comes from being physically present, but there was something inherently more satisfying in being able to sit in the same room as Damo and Holly and catch up.

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From the Ale House, we headed to the Edinburgh Castle where we were joined by my sister, Ange, and her boyfriend, Adam, and my friends, Erica and Brian. The latter two are the reason for my Australian vacation, as I’m attending their public and legal binding to one another in a week’s time. It should be a nice affair.

I got back to my brother’s house at around 2100 where, after assuring everyone all day that I was fine and had craftily avoided the effects of jet lag, I promptly fell asleep on the couch, absolutely jet lagged.

It was a good day, and a perfect slice of exactly what I hope to achieve from my brief time being back here.

 

27th of January

I am sitting on the couch I used to sit on as a teenager, looking out the window of my childhood home and breathing in the scent of gum trees. The odour is triggering memories across my cerebrum like wildfire. It’s disconcerting in a pleasant and bitter-sweet sort of way.

Since leaving London, it’s felt like I’ve walked backwards through my old life. Landing in Tullamarine and driving through the suburbs where I worked as a nurse, to arrive at the house I lived in straight out of uni, and now back to the root of it all in Traralgon, where I’ve spent the past half-hour touching items on my old bookshelf and reconnecting with teenage-me, a person I now realise I had almost forgotten.

It was strange and sweet and sad to stand in my old bedroom surrounded by pictures and drawings of a simpler me and look back across this timeline, and to see the way I’ve hopped from a country town, to an Australian city, and now across the ocean to London. Teenage-me never even saw it coming.

Yesterday was Australia Day, a day which has never really had much significance to me other than getting paid double-time when working (both in the supermarket and as a nurse, I was never one to have public holidays off). But this year’s Australia Day was particularly potent as I used it as an opportunity to see the family I’ve been apart from for the past six months, giving the day a whole lot more meaning than celebrating the landing of Europeans on Australian soil. Granted, I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t done that, but I got to meet my nephew for the first time yesterday. Nothing trumps that.

Harris Robb is a chubby little ball of baby that pulls funny faces and bobs his head against my chest when he wants a feed. Sadly, he was pumping at a dry well, but luckily for Harry, my sister-in-law had the goods. I have only just met the little man, but it’s safe to say I love him. He automatically gets the love card due to sharing genetic material with me.

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The day was spent in Trugania Park in Altona, right by the bay, where we indulged in the closest thing Australia has to a cultural meal: the BBQ. I slapped sunscreen across my skin with my niece, cooked snags on the hotplate with my dad, and drank beers with my brothers. It was familiar and special, and recharged the much-depleted family-time batteries.

I also got reacquainted with my niece, Ella, who took about half-an-hour to win over (she was obviously still put-out by my move to the UK), but once we splashed each other with water from a drinking fountain, we were firm friends again. I spent the majority of the day swamping her in hugs and kissing her cheeks, whether she liked it or not. She mostly liked it. I think.

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Afterwards, I drove the two-hour drive to Gippsland with my mum, the drive going in a blink as we shared all the thoughts we’d each been thinking since seeing each other last, to the point that I was mildly surprised to be easing the car into the driveway of my old home after what felt like only twenty minutes.

Being back in a home that evokes a life that no longer exists, but that gave me such an incredible start, is a melancholy and yet inspiring thing. I miss the easier life I used to have where my family was always just in the adjoining room and all I gave much thought to was which book I’d read next, but I’m proud of the complex and fulfilling life I’m living, and the strong ties I still have with every member of my family, even when we’re living in rooms oceans apart.