Friday, June 30, 2006

Diamonds Ball

Thursday night saw me attending one of Melbourne's biggest balls, a women-only event called the Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend ball. It is run every year for the Challenge charity (, an organisation providing services and programs that support children and families living with cancer and other life-threatening blood disorders.

I don't get to wear my saris very often, and this lilac one was a gift from family friend Shara. I hadn't worn it before and I was looking forward to an evening out of the Melbourne uniform of all-black.

Arriving at the Crown Hotel alone, I walked into the 5-storey atrium foyer, a famous Melbourne attraction hosting an award-winning light and sound show. Enormous crystal chandeliers and animated lights move and sway in the cavernous space, accompanied by magical music which keeps children enthralled, especially at Christmas.

Ahead of me lay the Fred-Astaire-and-Ginger-Rogers staircase of black marble with fountains streaming down each side. I lifted my head high and walked as majestically as I could through the tourists, Sugarplum Fairy music in my ears. I picked up my skirts elegantly and glided up the sweeping staircase, concentraing on every step.

One or two Indian members of staff shot me appreciating glances as I arrived. Well, I do take pride in my sari pleats.

Every little girl has imagined herself as Cinderella arriving at the ball, and last night I lived the dream.

Eileen and I have been friends for about 30 years, but living in different countries for so long, the last formal "do" we attended together (apart from her wedding) was our debs dance back in 1983 god help us.

I haven't a photo of that eventful night to hand (but by god I will find one) so here's what we looked like at Eileen's wedding, 15 years ago this month. Happy anniversary, Eileen and Kelvin!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Yes we have no bananas

How ironic it is that, having finally settled in a country with a tropical zone, I find myself in the middle of a banana famine.

Since Cyclone Larry hit northern Queensland and decimated more than 90% of the banana crop, bananas have been like gold dust. The few tiny withered specimens we find in the supermarkets are retailing at around $13 a kg, which is about 10 times the UK price. I just visited a juice bar at lunchtime, and they have a big sign saying they have no bananas in any of their products until the new crop returns sometime at the end of this year.

Why, one asks, can we just not get bananas from Malaysia or India or any of our other tropical neighbours? Because, says the government, the native banana industry is protected by tariffs and other protectionist measures, and it will take so long to get around these that the Australian banana crops will be almost ready to make a return.

So in the meantime we yearn for banana smoothies, banana with porridge, banana sandwiches, banana in our fruit salad.

And wish there was a Tesco nearby.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Melbourne Food & Wine Show

Mena and I spent an extremely enjoyable and wine-sozzled day at the Good Food & Wine Show on Saturday.

We pushed through the thronged aisles, sampling all Australia has to offer in terms of gourmet food: Indian spices, seafood pates, jams and preserves, flavoured olive oils, teas and coffees.

The first cookery demonstration we sat through was wonderful. We learned how to make a winter soup and a delicious home-made rocket pesto. An actual member of the McGuigan family talked us through wine matching and handed out samples to taste. We could have gone home then and felt we'd got our money's worth.

The second demonstration was given by Ben O'Donoghue, an Aussie celebrity chef, but he didn't teach us as much as the previous food editor lady. We cut our losses and headed for the wine tasting.

Two hours and dozens of tastings later, we had made lots of new winery friends and pretended to be able to taste the difference between a pinot noir and a sangiovese. I got lost on the way to the loo and went missing for half an hour. Mena opened her purse next morning and found six comedy store tickets where her cash had been. We stood Orlando up in the casino afterwards: he finally found us in a food court unable to remember how we'd arrived there, and still managed to stay civil to us.

Next year I will do three things differently:
  1. I will bring an old lady's shopping trolley on wheels to save my poor shoulders from all those freebies;
  2. I will have a decent lunch before starting the wine tasting section of the day;
  3. I will not stand Orlando up afterwards, but respect his kind offer of a lift home and try not to be a disastrous drunk!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Sydney Winter Weekend

Australians are fond of looking down their noses on people who choose to settle in Victoria. They smugly announce to us newcomers that Melbourne is the only place in Australia where you actually need an overcoat.

We have just spent a winter weekend in Sydney, and I am here to tell you that this assertion is wrong. Incorrect. Mistaken. False. Living anywhere where a winter weekend in Sydney is even possible is fabulous: we flew in on Friday night in time to catch a great late seafood supper in Chinatown, and spent the next 48 hours enjoying Sydney’s finest (of which more later). But hell, it was cold. Maximum 14C, easily down to 6-7C with wind chill. We brought overcoats, hats, gloves, scarves, and wore them all.

The Vibe Hotel was possibly a booking I made about 15 years too late. A lovely hotel, with funky lilac and black walls, kooky white and spangly lanterns and mirrors above the bed, we were approximately a decade older than the mean resident age. But the location was excellent, somewhere in between Chinatown and the main shopping area.

Sydney is very different to Melbourne. It is more sprawling, more littered, more hectic at night, more bustling by day. It feels like a city. We like it. On a Friday night, Golden Century Seafood Restaurant was a vast Chinese restaurant full of weekend tourists (us), Japanese tourists, local chefs just clocked off, after-work gangs celebrating whatever. The menu was lengthy; the fish tanks almost overflowed with lobster, crayfish, ocean trout, giant crabs, snapper, anything that swam. Waiters caught the fish in nets, weighted them on electronic scales and presented them to the table before whisking them off to the kitchens to be cooked. It is said that the best chefs in Sydney will be found here after hours, taking advantage of the late opening hours and the amazing food.

Saturday morning was spent lying in after a post-supper bottle of champagne. Brunch was a full Irish breakfast in a well-known Irish hotel, the Mercantile, in the Rocks area near the harbour. The rain was beginning to settle in for a “whole wet day” as my mum would say, but we were prepared and didn’t care. The market stalls outside sold chilli chocolate bars and Ned Kelly replica armour (WHO? Who would buy one?) and the restaurants overlooking the Harbour Bridge slowly filled with tourists and local wedding functions.

Even in the persistent drizzle the harbour is spectacular, the bridge and the Opera House eclipsing the grey skies above. We jumped on a local ferry to Manly, a seaside town on the ocean side of the harbour, and walked through the touristy shopping area to Manly Beach, a Pacific Ocean jewel less than half an hour from Sydney city centre. We strolled along, watching a surfing competition and counting the joggers, surfers, walkers and other sundry Sydney-siders intent on keeping their bodies fit throughout the winter months.

We made the trip back as night fell – after all, it is almost mid-winter here in the southern hemisphere. We travelled west past the Sydney Harbour bays – Watson’s Bay, Chowder Bay, Rose Bay, Double Bay. The city skyscrapers were silhouetted against the darkening sky as we passed Bradley’s Head to the north. As we curved towards Fort Denison the view was breathtaking: The Sydney Opera House was lit up against the city skyline, with the unmistakable arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge picked out by street lights and traffic.

I stood outside in the wind and biting rain, taking in the view as the ferry brought us closer to one of the most beautiful city harbours in the world. The Opera House changed shape, its sails shining white in the almost-full moon as we swung round into Circular Quay. The bridge loomed above us, the bright lights of Luna Park sparkling in its shadow on the Kirribilli side. The cold took my breath away and the rain soaked my sensible boat and hat, but my weekend was complete: Sydney Harbour is unforgettable in any weather.

Walking close to the Opera House after our ferry ride, we watched some Beautiful People congregating at Guillaume at Bennelong, one of the best restaurants in Australia - suitably positioned in the Opera House complex. One day, I promised Orlando, we will come for dinner there.

A cocktail or two at the Opera Bar made a suitable end to our Harbour Cruise.

Sunday was even colder, as we met some London friends for brunch at the Bathers’ Pavilion in Balmoral, on the northern coast of Sydney Harbour.

Later, our hosts drove us to the North Head to witness a spectacular view of the city and the harbour entrance, as the winter winds whipped up an ocean swell which battered the cliffs on the Pacific side of the heads. It was a view we would never have managed to see ourselves, and despite the biting cold it was a fitting end to our winter weekend.

Monday, June 05, 2006


It's been a weird week. The work-life balance seems a lot lighter on both sides of the scales. I miss my friends and family, and work is frustrating to say the least. The novelty of living in a new country has more than worn off, and it feels like most of what I care most about in life is half a world away. However, we continue to persevere, and Orlando has been great about keeping my spirits up.

We spent an enjoyable winter afternoon yesterday wandering down Chapel Street (a fashionable shopping area east of the city centre), people-watching from our vantage point at the laminated table of a tiny Greek cafe where we feasted on hearty vegetable soup, home-made cakes and good coffee.

Later, after the cinema, we ate in a long-established "cheap eats" place called Tusk which has been around for years (as evidenced by the genuine 1970s decor including a huge palm-trees-at-sunset mural). Maybe life here isn't so bad after all.