Tuesday
Aug092005

North Heaven

I gotta tell you, auntie at the door.jpgI’m a bit worried. My aunt, who’s ninety something not out, is in a nursing home. She has been for awhile. Used to have her own little self-contained flat there but was moved into care after she nearly burnt the whole place down. She was drying her nylon nickers in front of the electric heater and forgot about them. The fire brigade had to be called to put out the resultant fire. All the other oldies were evacuated so Auntie was not exactly “Geriatric-of-the-Month” after that. Although some of them thought it was quite exciting I believe.

The nursing home is called “North Haven” but mail often turns up addressed “North Heaven”. It’s run by the church and is quite good as nursing homes go. But unfortunately it’s on a noisy major highway as it used to be a motel. I suppose if you were a retired Christian truck-driver you’d feel right at home. And if you’d had enough of the place and wanted to do a runner, you could just stand out the front with your thumb out. (“Where you off to love?”...”The Gold Coast thanks driver”.)

Reception is a kind of portico affair lit up like an R.S.L. Club or a Five Star Hotel. There’s a jolly woman behind the front desk ready to greet you (“Welcome to the rest of your life. No-one gets out of here alive...should you require complimentary oxygen in your room, please don’t hesitate to ask”) Ah...it’s not funny is it.

There’s a restaurant off to one side and a lounge full of sick-looking potted plants on the other. Background Musak is usually playing some selection from Ferrante & Teicher while the guests sit around shooting-the-shit and placing bets on who’s going to pop it next. Well, I wouldn’t call them “guests” – more like wall-to-wall vegies. You know they’re alive because their eyes follow you across the room. No, I’m being cruel. Can’t be much fun for them. But whatdya do? It’s not like Asia where the elderly are revered. Or at least looked after by their rellos at home. Here we just park ‘em and forget ‘em. That’s what worries me.

I don’t want to end up in one of these places. Having some Nurse Ratchett put a bib on me and wheel me from Bingo to “meat & three veg” for dinner. Just let me die. Or better still we’ll go down the casino and I’ll put my last pension check on the blackjack table. Maybe I’ll scull a schooner or two if I can still bend the elbow. Or let me choke on the Kettle Chips. Just keep me away from a Nursing Home. I don’t wanna be nursed. I’m not into Bingo. I’m over jelly & custard. I hate plastic undersheets. And no bastard’s gonna lift me into the bath and run a flannel round my freckle I’m telling you that much.

Auntie says the food is “muck” but we take no notice of her because for years that’s all she’s been used to. She was the “World’s Worst Cook” and when you went to see her she’d serve up leftovers that’d been in the fridge for God-knows-how-long. Her idea of a slap-up dinner was an over-cooked leg of lamb with bullety potatoes, over-boiled vegetables and lumpy gravy. Through experience we learnt to say “uh no thanks Auntie...we’ve just eaten”. Had to be cruel to be kind to yourself. It was either that or stick two fingers down your throat.

At the nursing home, Auntie complained that she was still a bit “peckish” of a night. So after they’d done the medication rounds they’d bring her up a glass of milk, some crackers and a little packet of cheese like you might get on an aeroplane. Or a nursing home. She’d sink the milk, scoff the bickies and stash the cheese in her little bar-fridge “for later”. But somehow “later” never came. My father went to put something in the fridge for her recently and here were all these tiny packets of “Coon” cheese. Hundreds of the bastards. Some of them dated three or four years ago. She had cheese for Africa! When he asked her about it she got a bit stroppy. Said she paid extra for this little nighttime snack so she could do what she bloody-well liked with the cheese. But he could take some home if he liked. She’s very good like that.

When we were kids she never forgot a Birthday or Christmas. We always got a card with a ten-shilling note and “love from Auntie and Grandma & Grandpa”. The Christmas presents became more bizarre the older she got. She tended to shop in bulk so everyone in the family got the same things. Couple of years ago it was a packet of “Sensodyne” toothpaste, a face washer and a bar of cheap soap. Never mind. The thought was there. Something to do with “look after your face and teeth”.

Auntie still talks of leaving “North Heaven” and getting a house. Or starting an olive farm. Or buying a Rolls Royce and learning to drive. She’s got a few quid in the bank from the sale of her flat. It’s in some under-performing term account that pays next-to-zip interest. The bank’s always trying to get her to move her money to a higher-interest account but Aunt’s convinced she’ll have to pay more tax. And she likes to stay liquid just in case an opportunity comes up. Like an olive farm or a Rolls Royce.

My mother looks after Auntie’s “business empire”. She sees this money sitting in the account doing nothing while Auntie slopes around in some ratty gown she bought Circa 1972. And dries herself with patched towels and sleeps on patched sheets. Or she did right up until the nursing home. Patched towels . Who do you know that patches their towels ? And the patched sheets had patches over patches . I ask you...is this a definition of poverty-thinking? Or is it just that she hasn’t got over the Great Depression?

Mum takes her out now and again and tries to buy her clothes. But when the old girl is told the price she jacks up. So she still gets around in these gravy-stained numbers that would do a bag-lady proud. And the money sits in the bank account earning 2% per annum or something. We’re convinced that when she pops it that dosh will go to The North Shore Womens Knitting Group or the Association for Underprivileged African Heads of State or some bloody thing. Fair call. It’s her money.

Auntie goes on about “Divine Retribution”. This theory holds that because our family were once wealthy English sugar-planters and slave-owners in the West Indies, God, in his wisdom, has seen fit to punish subsequent generations for the sins against the slaves 200 years ago. She might have something there. I’ve been struggling for years. Can’t take a bloody trick. And it’s all because of those rum-soaked planters and what they did to their slaves. Bastards!

I think I’ll pop up and see my Aunt now. I fancy a bit of “Coon” and a cup of tea. Maybe I’ll take her some olives and the road test for the new Roller.

Tuesday
Aug092005

My Mate Went FERAL!

feral.gifAre you stuck in a job you detest but can’t leave because you have the mortgage to pay plus the car payments, the gym fees, the dentist bills, the daycare centre, the vet’s bill, the overdraft, the marriage counselling... yada yada yada? Not all of us are caught in this rat-trap.

I’ve got this old mate who went feral in his early twenties. I’ll call him “Gumbie” to protect his privacy. He comes from a leftie, hippieish kind of family so it wasn’t such a radical move sideways. But still. He pissed off out of Sydney before getting sucked into the bullshit like the rest of us and bought a share in a 250 acre “alternative” community out the back of Nimbin – the so-called rainbow region. I think it cost him a grand back then to be a fully paid-up member of a co-operative. It gave him the right to build a dwelling and to use the rest of the land-in-common.

In the very beginning he did it tough. He didn’t have much money. He lived the simple life in an old corrugated-iron chook shed with an earthen floor, a cold-water tap and a hole-in-the-ground outside for a dunny. He couldn’t even afford toilet-paper - well not without giving up the beer and ciggies. But a bloke’s gotta have some vices and ya gotta get your priorities right, right? So he just used the leaves off the nearest wild tobacco plant to wipe his date. Works for me. But not a good look when you invite a sheila home for the night, eh?

Over time he built himself a one-roomed shack, with the luxury of a hot-water system running off a wood-fired fuelstove. The shower was on the exposed timber landing outside but it worked. Well, most of the time anyway - when he wasn’t too out-of-it to remember to chop the wood to feed the furnace.

The shack had no electricity and fuck-all furniture and the dunny was still a hole in the ground outside, albeit with a bamboo screen around it. And toilet-paper was still a luxury although he progressed to using cut-up pages of the “Nimbin News” rather than tobacco-plant leaves. He went up-market - all nouveau riche, you might say. Maybe he was looking to attract a better class of girlfriend.

In the early days he drew the Dole but being a self-confessed Anarchist he hated having anything to do with “the bloody government” and just threw the benefit cheques in a drawer out of contempt for the system. Never did cash them. These days he spurns all forms of assistance – government or otherwise – and struggles to make a living with a small herd of dairy cows, a bit of firewood-collecting and various entrepreneurial ventures like drying fruit and paralysis-tick-collecting.

Seven years ago Gumbie got a $20,000 cheque from his old man before he died. Probably the most amount of money he’d ever seen in his life. He put it in the bank and some time after he got a “please explain” letter from the Tax Department. It must have looked a bit “sus” this relatively large amount of money going into a long-dormant bank account in a notorious marihuana-growing town.

His sister got twenty grand also. She cashed her cheque and took a holiday to Bali. But before leaving she gave Gumbie a $5000 wad of notes for him to safekeep for her just in case she went tropical and spent the lot. He stashed it behind the wall-panelling in the kitchen of his shack. When the sister returned from Bali asking for it some months later they found the rats had been at it and they had to take the remains to the bank to sort out what they had. (“This goes with this...and that’s a corner of that”...)

Gumbie just ignored the letter from the Tax Department and hoped they’d drop off. He’d never put in a real return in his life. Years ago, when working as a brickie’s labourer, he’d filed a return under a bodgie name to avoid tax. A rebate cheque came back written out to the fictional “Larry Pot” - being the name given to the water bucket that brickies use. “Fuck tax” is part of his manifesto.

Gumbie has always been a somewhat “original thinker”. When we were both in our late teens he told me that he was going to have all his teeth pulled out. That way he wouldn’t have to pay the “fucking dentist” any more. It took him another twenty years but sure enough, he had every tooth in his head, or what was left of them, pulled out and eventually got a set of dentures. But he can’t be bothered wearing them and they don’t fit so well anymore. So mostly they just lay amongst the rubbish on the floor of his old handpainted Holden. He only puts them in for special occasions – like when he has to go to the bank or get the $2 counter lunch from the pub in town. He picks them up off the dirty old car-floor, gives them a wipe on his work-shirt and whacks them in his mouth. “No worries!” But mostly he gets around without any teeth and it puts a good twenty years on him. And it’s sometimes hard to understand what he’s saying. It’s not until he takes his shirt off and you see his lean hard frame that you realise he’s a relatively young man still.

He took up surfing again a few years ago and when he’s got the petrol money he’ll chuck his old single-finner in the back of the wagon and make the hour’s drive to the beach. He looks like the “Wild Man of Borneo” or something as he’s nearly two metres tall with long hair down to his waist, hard-muscled and toothless. The grommets don’t know what to make of him when he drops in on their waves. They prone out quick smart, I can tell you. (“Jesus! What the fuck was that!”)

For awhile now Gumbie has been dossing in another of the shacks on the co-operative or “M.O.” (“multiple occupancy”) as these arrangements are more commonly called now. It’s a bigger place than his at the top of the hill they call “Heaven”. Some bikies had been squatting there so Gumbie took it on himself to act as unofficial caretaker. It’s in a worse state than his own shack. But not by much. There are carpet snakes in the ceiling and rodents in the cupboards. The floor is strewn with empty beercans and the fireplace is full of long-cold ashes from the furniture the bikies burnt to keep warm. Gumbie is crashing on a rotten old slab of foam and the bed-sheets are literally black and scattered with snake-shit. Five–Star it’s not. It’s more “Ratz” than “Ritz”.

Most nights you’ll find Gumbie sitting at the kitchen table next to the fuel-stove in the Community House. He’ll be smoking laced “Log Cabin” rollie tobacco and drinking “Chateau Cardboard” out of a screwtop peanut-butter jar, ear-bashing whoever’s silly enough to hang around and loving it.

In the Spring months he spreads an old blanket over the table at night and empties his tick-jar over it to count the days pickings. The Paralysis Ticks (Ioxodes Holocyclus) are bought by the local Vet. They’re put on laboratory dogs that have built up immunity to the poison and after a few days blood is extracted to make anti-venine. The Vet pays an average of a dollar a tick over the season and on a good day Gumbie can collect several hundred by dragging a blanket through the lantana thickets and camphor laurel stands. It’s hot, nasty, unhealthy work that attracts mostly junkies, gamblers and other desperates who need daily cash injections. But this money keeps him going for a few months of frugal living.

The Community House is furnished with everyone’s cast-offs. There’s a couple of ratty sofas, some mouldy rugs and an old television in the corner with an all-green picture that keeps rolling and rolling. Gumbie doesn’t mind.

“At least the fuckin’ junkies won’t steal it” he says.

In another room there’s a thirty year old refrigerator humming away and stuggling to keep a few bottles of Gumbie’s cows milk cold. Some of the milk has gone off but Gumbie says there’s nothing wrong with it and still drinks it – mould and all.

“It’s unpasteurised and unhomogenised so it’s just curds and whey – like yoghurt”.

When the fridge is too full Gumbie puts his milk bottles in the creek that flows past the house.

If the Co-operative ever gets into eco-tourism I can see the brochure copy:

“Get hand-pressed pure unadulterated organic Milk fresh from contented cows and cooled by a mountain stream high in the Nimbin Ranges”

Second thoughts...maybe its too long. How about just:

“High in the Nimbin Ranges”

Sometimes Gumbie will have some extra dough and he’ll splash out on a leg of lamb and maybe some pumpkin and spuds that he’ll bake in the ancient fuelstove. Afterwards he’ll have “pot and pot” for dessert - a pot of tea and a pure-bud joint. Then an old slack-stringed acoustic guitar will come out and he’ll play some Leadbelly and sing to himself.

“Oh the rockiron line is a mighty good line...oh the rockiron line is the road to ride...oh the rockiron line is a mighty good line...walkin’ and a’talkin’ down the rockiron line”.

Last time I saw him, my old mate, I believe most of the $20,000 was still sitting in the bank. While Gumbie often has days when he can’t afford to eat. But one thing’s for sure – he aint going back to the city and the Government can whistle Dixie for a tax return. 

Tuesday
Aug092005

Bandits Strike Paris!

The Big News in Paris this week is that the Frogs have gone ape-shit over Aussie-style pokies. C’est vrai! It started as a joke in an Australian bar in the Latin Quarter (called, I kid you not, “The Dingo Ate My Baby”). Seems the manager imported a couple of machines to add a bit of authentic Down-Under flavour to go with the schooners of Fosters and the didgeridoo ambient music. He didn’t expect the French to get the joke. But they’ve taken to them like ducks to water. And now he’s making more dosh from ‘les pokies’ than bar sales. Fair dinkum! He’s leased the shop next door to his bar, knocked a bloody-great hole through the wall and turned it into a ‘Gaming Room’ - complete with Change Machines, ATM, complimentary coffee and ‘Iced Vo-Vo’ biscuits gratis for the punters.


First it was the foreign students and tourists queuing up to get on a machine and then the Parisian night crowd got hip to the action and the place has gone ballistic. They bang on the doors at ten in the morning and have to be forcibly ejected by a Samoan bouncer at three the next morning when the machines are serviced.


The rest of Paris has seen what’s happening and pokies are popping up everywhere. They’ll even be in the Louvre soon. Yes le Louvre, that bastion of high culture on the banks of the Seine. If you go, look for the signs “machine à sous” (“slot machines”) on the Second Floor. It’s a Triple Bill – you can see where they filmed “The Da Vinci Code”, check out Moaning Lisa and have a flutter on the bandits at the same time. A bloke will be able to say to his Missus ‘I’ll be a bit late home tonight Darl’ – there’s a new exhibition at the Louvre I’ve just gotta see’…………and bang – there goes the housekeeping.


Even the smallest of bars, and believe me some aren’t much bigger than a suburban Australian lounge room, are going for it. Out goes those clickety-clack football machines you see all over Europe and the sixties-style pinballs and in comes ‘Queen of the Nile’, the ‘Penguin’ and ‘Chicken Run’.


I tell ya, we’re “flavour of the month” here. Sales of Fosters, VB and Winnie Blues are going gangbusters. ‘Bonjour’ is fast being replaced by ‘G’day’, ‘No Worries’ and ‘She’ll be right, mate’. No bullshit, they love us!


The “Dingo Ate My Baby” bar has special promotions where you can win Bondi Beach towels, tubes of ‘Pink Zinc’, six-packs of stubbies and rubber thongs. The sheila behind the bar reckons fights break out all the time over the free beer-nuts and Smiths Chips. She can’t keep up with the demand – soon as she fills the bowls the players are into it. They tried Jatz Crackers and cubes of Coon for awhile but the punters used them as missiles and the cleaner went on strike.


The Bandits have only just started to infiltrate the suburbs. But the shit’s hit the fan. They reckon school truancy is at an all-time high and job absenteeism is rife too. Marriages are breaking down – hubby’s hitting the slots straight after work and coming home skint and stinking of VB and Bundy. Pensioners are withdrawing their life-savings and putting them through the machines hoping to win the big one. Even the buses and trains are affected. The Metro was stalled this week for lack of drivers – they were all down the pub trying to get the three pyramids for 20 Free Games. Or the Penguin and money token. Or the three chickens to cross the road to the safety of the ‘Topless Chick’ bar without getting run over by a Mack truck. It’s madness mate!


So this week enough was enough. The Mayor of Gay Paree (who is, as it happens, gay) convened a National Debate on the scourge of Les Pokies Australien. The finest minds of the land sat down in the splendour of Hotel de Ville and pondered the existential question of electronic gaming and its affect on the national psyche. A dozen machines were installed so the delegates could experience firsthand the phenomenon happening out there in the city and ‘burbs. But proceedings had to be abandoned when the learned Professeurs and intelligentsia started brawling over whose turn it was to play.


Anyway….. I’d love to tell you more but I’ve been playing this machine over the road and I reckon it’s about ready to spew the big payout. I nearly got it last week but the third chicken got creamed by a Semi. C’est la vie.


Disclaimer : There are no poker machines in Parisian bars – Australian or otherwise. This has been a lame attempt at humour by the writer. However there are Australian poker machines at Enghien-les-Bains casino in a Northern suburb. You can play all reels/full weight for Ten Euros a pop – about A$16. And if you give me some playing money I’ll gladly escort you there.

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Tuesday
Aug092005

le Fast Food

0ham1.jpgThe Customer is (not)Always Right

It seems like here in France they’ve never heard that old adage ‘The Customer is Always Right’. Service here is a joke. You pretty much work that out from the moment you step off the plane. After clearing the cattle call that’s immigration and customs go to the Information Desk and ask them something and you’ll see what I mean. What with one thing and another you’d think they’d be keen to be at least civil so we’d spend a few more shekels and come again. But no. More often that not you get the famous Gallic distain. But I suppose with 80 million visitors a year they can afford to be a bit blasé. Hell, with those kind of numbers they could safely insult a million visitors and it probably wouldn’t matter.

Here it seems that “customer” is a dirty word. You know, like that sign says - “This would be a great little business if it weren’t for the bloody customers”.

Go into almost any retailer here, big or small, you’re as likely as not to be ignored by the sales staff unless you’re prepared for some serious brown-nosing. Suddenly you’re The Invisible Man. All they see is an ‘etranger’ as it’s known here. This is an old French word which I think means “One who is far from home with no mates and deserves to be severely humiliated”.

God help you if you don’t know the password – ‘Excusez-moi de vous deranger, monsieur(madame)’ – ‘Excuse me for disturbing you, Sir(madam)’ (I know it’s an inconvenience but could you possibly get off your derriére and sell me that overpriced wing-wang you have in the display there?)

I’ve been in Paris five years now and I’m still amazed at their attitude. For instance, this morning I fancied breakfast at a well-known fast-food chain that will remain anonymous because they might sue my arse. Oh O.K. it was McDonalds. Yeah I know, I don’t know what came over me. You’d think this would be easy, right? I mean Paris is full of Seppos. And most of them don’t speak any French. Apart from ‘bonjour’. And they have to eat, right? And McDonalds is an American company, right? An American company that built its success on good ol’ ‘have a nice day’ customer service. ‘You want fries with that?’ Not in Paris buddy.

The 15th Arrondisement, where I’m staying in a Pension,(which I thought was an old people’s home and that’s why it was so cheap but it turned out to be a one-star hotel - saggy single-bed, dunny and douche down the hall, (no food, no phone, no pets, can’t get no cigarettes) is a nice bourgeois kind of neighbourhood (or quartier as they call them here). It’s close to the Seine and about a twenty minute stroll (as the brochure says) to La Tour Eiffel. The bakers and cafés have English menus and cater for English-speaking tourists. As in, if you point at something and gibber like an idiot they’ll sell it to you.

Two streets back from the river there is a bunch of Lebanese restaurants where they welcome foreigners with open arms. They’ll stiff you A$30 for a pretty ordinary “Mixed Plate”. But at least they smile at you while they’re doing it. And you’re none the wiser ‘cause by the time you’ve converted Euros to dollars you’re back at the hotel yelling at Marge “Hey..the Lebos took me for 10 bucks”. But you’re too stuffed with Homous and Felafel to be bothered going back. And by then the guy will have forgotten his English anyway.

Ah foreign travel…..don’t you love it?

I think the locals are getting to know me. Every morning I buy the Pommie ‘Times’ from the newsagent on the corner of Rue St Charles and Rue Linois. Then I cross the street for a couple of ‘pain au chocolat’ from the boulangerie. I speak my crap French to the staff and they reply in their crap English. A fair exchange across the cultural divide. They wish me ‘good day’ when I leave and I bid them a ‘bonne journée’. All nice and civilized. Just don’t mention “Mururoa Atoll” or “Greenpeace” in the same sentence. They’re still not over it - how we boycotted their goods for a year or whatever it was.

Next door to the paper shop is McDonalds. Like I said, this morning something came over me. Some strange masochistic hankering for a good old no-frills filtered Maccas coffee and maybe one of their Danish.

The place was near-deserted except for a couple of Saddams cronies on their way to play channel-crossing at Calais. I stepped up to the counter. There were two women on duty. Two women who’ll never see forty again. Hang on..what’s going on here? Where are the happy, smiling faces of the young oppressed? The $4 an hour child labour that McDonalds uses in the rest of the world? Must be something to do with the French labour laws. No matter. I’m here for coffee not swap banalities with some spotty-faced youth wearing tennis shades and a smiley badge.

The women stare at me like I’ve just dragged dog-shit in on my shoes. Maybe I have. It’s a distinct possibility in this town. I’m a bit disconcerted now. I can overlook the fact they’re not smiling but neither’s said anything. They just glare at me. No ‘Welcome to McDonalds’, no ‘may I take your order Sir?’, no ‘nice hat...where can I get one?’. I charge in where angels fear to tread. ‘Bonjour’ I say with my best Parisien accent. ‘Bonjour’ comes back begrudgingly. I want to say ‘Sorry..I’m having a bad dream..I thought I was in McDonalds’. But I don’t. It would be lost on them anyway. So I say (looking up at the menu of Happy Meals that look nothing like the sad fare served up on the tray – a blatant case of misrepresentation if ever I saw one), I say, I say;

‘Je voudrais un café crème s’il vous plait’  (‘I’d like a white coffee please’)

Now they know I’m un etranger. One look has told them that. Even before I opened my mouth they knew I was an idiot tourist – one of the 80 million that invades their country annually. I’m wearing a T-shirt that says, en Francais, ‘Fuck the French’. I’m not, but I could have been, judging by the reaction I get. They say in French something like:

‘That is not on the menu you idiot...you must choose between the paper cup of dishwater we laughingly call coffee with the two pieces of burnt muffin smothered with poodle puke OR the so-called coffee with what we like to think are pancakes but in reality are re-fried lumps of guano and if you want milk or jam or butter or, God Forbid, maple syrup, you’re going to have to ask twice and Kiss Our Arses at the same time.’ They wave in the direction of the illuminated menu and dare me to reply.

‘O.K.’ I say. Pretty-well every Frog understands ‘O.K.’. ‘D’accord’ is better. But they get ‘O.K’.

‘I’ll take the guano’ I say bravely.

It’s obviously a Big Ask. They mutter profanities under their breath - something about “the dickhead in the shorts and stupid hat” One sheila slaps a tray down and the other goes out the back to scrape some birdshit off the pavement. But ‘merde!’. I’ve only got three Euro and the guano is three Euro twenty centimes. And I really want it now. I go through all my pockets. Shit! A lousy twenty centimes short. Maybe they’ll take a travellers cheque? I tell the lady I’m short. She says she saw that as soon as I came in. No, I don't know what she said. But I know it wasn’t nice. She starts waving her hands around and yelling at me. This is getting out of control. I came in for a cup of coffee for Chrissake. So I did what any other self-respecting etranger would do in the same place. I told her where she could put le café and le pancake. And you know what? I think she understood. Have a nice day.

Disclaimer: All the Food in this story is fictitious and any resemblance to actual Food, living or dead, is purely coincidental.le ratpack
le ratpack

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