Nobody told me there’d be days like this.
– John Lennon, 1984

Are there strange things afoot at a Yass cafe?

On a flying road trip to Melbourne to see the paternal factor, Bald Man and I paused for an early morning coffee hit at Cafe Dolcetto in Comur St.

The coffee was, well, warm and brown, and there was bookshelf with an remarkable selection of second-hand agricultural titles for sale, but that’s not the point. The point is that I left my handbag hanging on the back of my chair when we left.

And didn’t realise until I went to pay for petrol at Albury, three hours down the road.

Thankfully a quick call established the cafe staff had the bag, and would hold it until we drove back through on Monday. So apart from the minor inconvenience of being separated for four days from my purse with all cards and two phones, and the humiliation of having been so stupid (I’ve only ever left a bag behind once before, more than 20 years ago) all was well. A happy ending in the making.

Now here’s the odd postscript.

We pulled into Yass late this afternoon, I introduced myself to the cafe staff, and asked for my handbag.

The girl reached into a draw beneath the counter and, smiling, produced a very ugly brown vinyl clutch. My heart sank.

“Um, that’s not my bag,” I said.

She reached up to a shelf above her head and drew out a small, nasty gold-cloth handbag.

“Is it this one?” she asked.

“Er, no…” I began.

The lady making the coffee said, “No, no, it’s not that one…” while a man from the kitchen came out, rummaged on another shelf and pulled out a third handbag and handed it to me – which I refused, because it wasn’t mine, either. What the?

“Exactly how many handbags do people leave at this cafe?” I asked.

The man shook his head, and the coffee-lady said, “Don’t ask. You’ve no idea.”

A bit more shuffling, and they eventually produced mine. Phew.

So what’s with the handbags at Cafe Dolcetto? Bald Man reckons it’s a ghost who hides handbags. Well, it’s no less likely than a minor wormhole in the space-time continuum.

Whatever the cause – stop at Cafe Dolcetto and enjoy their coffee with impunity, but make sure you take all your things when you leave.

“I could hardly believe my eyes
As a big limousine rolled up into Alice’s drive”
– New World 1972, Smokie 1976, Gompie 1995

We have something that looks like this outside our humble home:

That’s because it’s seller’s season in the Berra.

There’s nothing more hateful for a tenant than to let a bunch of strangers troop through your home twice a week, examining your most private spaces without even taking their goddamned shoes off. Looking at your home as a mere commodity. No-one likes waiting to see if the new owners will take away the roof over your head.

But there’s doubtless a lot of tenants like us around the Berra tonight, because property is hot and everyone’s selling up.

Housing affordability in the Berra is the lowest it’s been in more than 20 years, making the Berra the third most expensive city in Australia. And prices are predicted to rise by as much as 14 percent in the next two years. Consequently a lot of running-dog landowners are keen to cash in – including ours.

The little weatherboard cottage next door sold for a king’s ransom late last year, making an absolute bomb for our old neighbours.

The new neighbours haven’t been very forthcoming. We had good over-the-fence relations with the previous neighbours, who told us their house and all furnishings were bought by a film production company from Melbourne.

We thought about this for a while. Who makes films in the Berra? What films would require a fully-furnished house, and a new shed out the back? … and,

Why do we always have to think the worst of people?

We put our unsavoury, unworthy thoughts aside.

The real estate agent dealing with our house, aside from being a little too tanned and a little too blonde, has been pretty decent. On the phone last week, settling the details of the next open house, he was keen to talk about other things.

“Have you met the people next door yet? Do you know what they do?” he asked. He sold next door too, and clearly knows our neighbourhood quite well.

“We haven’t met them yet. They keep to themselves,” I said.

“But there’s a lot of loud door slamming at night, and there’s been a few large trucks moving furniture in and out lately.”

Real Estate could hardly contain himself.

“I’ve found out,” he squeaked. “They’re making porn!”

[sound of crickets]

The Bald Man and I had joked about it, of course. But it’s one thing to make a joke, another to find out that you really are living next door to Alice XXX.

“It’s tasteful porn, not the bad stuff,” Real Estate added quickly.

I googled their site as we talked. The front page is very wordy and sepia toned, with some very un-porn-like vintage pics.The large block of text includes comforting assertions like,

[We] ensure all contributors … have a positive experience, engage the mind in the sphere of erotic experience, [and] make erotica which is culturally valuable and equally appealing to both women and men.

[more crickets]

Flabbergasted, I went round to see my colleague and friend Caro in her office.

“We’re living next to porn stars!” I shrieked. Don’t suppose she hears that every day.

When the Bald Man got home we had a bit of a look in the website – just to see if we could spot next door in any pictures, you understand. All we did see was a lot more text, and (a very few) artistically cryptic photos. No familiar lounge suites.

I’m not sure what to make of the business, let alone the new neighbours.

But thankfully we’ll have time to find out. Real Estate just called – the house has sold to investors, and they want to talk about a new lease. Looks like we still have a home.

“When the leaves burn, summer ends”
– Buffalo Tom, 1994

Leaves are falling around Canberra, a reminder that all things, good or otherwise, must come to an end.

Strange things were afoot in Dickson last Monday night.

Walking from the autoteller next to Woolies around to Canberra’s mini-SouthEastAsiaTown to meet the Bald Man for a cheap & cheerful dinner, the first thing I noticed was that MacDonalds was shut. More precisely, I noticed dozens of bewildered would-be customers loitering about, peering through the windows at the deserted dining room, wondering why a 24-hour junk joint would be closed.

Not to worry; the notice on the door said it was just a temporary closure for Drive-Thru renovations. Tough luck loiterers, wog food for you then.

Just down the street there was an almighty racket. Outside the Dickson Tradies, another era was passing under big spotlights, to the sounds of shouting workers and the straining of a giant red crane.

The old tram, long a feature of the Tradies’ dining room, was being extracted from a maw knocked into the club wall.

For years children climbed over its wooden seats and swung from its lights while their parents tucked into the schnitzel with salad, chips and a beer, grateful for a Friday night break.

Early into our Berra residency, Bald Man and I had dinner in that very tram. The steak was quite forgettable, but as I stood in the street last Monday with a gathering crowd of locals, I was glad to have spent that $12. Never guessed I could say I’d experienced a special bit of suburban Berra.

It’s ANZAC Day this Sunday. According to local wisdom, the day to turn on your heater. In my view, most locals must be hypocrites; everyone I know turned their heater about two weeks ago with the first light frost. But this week just gone has been a glorious balmy autumn, the kind of thing that makes living inland attractive. The rain forecast for ANZAC Day will bring a smart end to that.

I don’t understand but I won’t make a scene.
Boomtown Rats, 1982

Fresh eyes and ears see (and hear) what flies under local radar.

One of the quiet joys of a mobile life is observing little local eccentricities, especially in vernacular. Australia as we know it is but a young country and culturally pretty homogenous. But even though we don’t have those charming little local dialects celebrated in other countries, we’re not all the same.

The Berra has its own special expressions, and my visiting friend and colleague James gleefully pointed out his two favourites this week.

The Shops
Usually teamed with a locality, we can’t think of another place in Australia that uses this phrase in quite the same way. Sentences like “I’ll meet you at the Ainslie Shops”, or “There’s a great new restaurant at the Griffith Shops” are standard in the Berra, but make out-of-towners giggle. They’d never say, “Meet you at the Redfern Shops”, and not just because they don’t have adequate body armour to undertake the excursion.

The Flats
Much like ‘The Shops’, ‘The Flats’ need a locality. They’re often housing commission, but can be govvie (see below) or even private. “I live across from the Lyneham Flats” sounds quite fine to a Berran ear, in a way that a Slurry Hills resident would think comic if he were to say, “I live at the Nickson St Flats”. (Though you might get away with it in Melbourne where one can refer to [housing] ‘commission flats’ this way.)

Those are James’s observations. I reckon there are some other very local Berran phrases, the use of which can render you almost instantly local(ish).

Northside and Southside.
Everyone in the Berra lives in one of these two locations, determined by your relation to Lake Burley Griffin. Not ‘north’, nor ‘south’; these are words for general directions, or incomplete descriptions used by stupid out-of-towners.

Govvie [GUV-ee]
Short for ‘government’, and used especially to describe the origins of one’s housing. When the Berra was under construction, the government apparently built a lot of little cottages to house the newly arriving public servants, and these form a lot of the housing stock in the Berra’s older suburbs today. You’ll hear young, newly-propertied couples at cafes discussing their shiny new mortgages by saying, “Yes, we’ve just bought in Bruce; it’s a little ex-govvie”.

This is a single word, used to describe the universal holiday destination for Berrans. It refers to any coastal locale south of Wollongong (mostly south of Nowra) and north of the Victorian border. Preferably your version of Downthecoast includes a shack purchased by your parents in the 70s and to which you take your spouse and children, usually arranged by argument with other siblings and inlaws. “I’ll be spending Christmas Downthecoast, because thankfully my sister and her idiot husband don’t get back from Adelaide until after New Year.”

At just over 18 months on the ground, I’m still far from local. Any suggestions for further Berran phrases I could learn will be gratefully received.

We’re the last to leave the party
The first to ask for more
– The Choirboys, 1987

It was at Woolies in Dickson that I first realised Summernats 23 was here.

Wednesday afternoon and more than the usual quota of feral children were being dragged through the vegetable section by hatchet-faced women. The deli was three-deep with blokes in thongs, shorts, tats and stubble. At the checkouts, Woolies staff were actually working as traffic control, waving customers towards the least lengthy lines. In the carpark there were a lot of 80s-model Commodores with mags.

Summernats has undergone a makeover in the last 12 months according to organisers. Founder and roughnut raconteur Chic Henry sold the festival to Australia Day Concert producer Andy Lopez, who this week pledged to make the festival more “family friendly” (though he stopped short of making it an actual family event, saying “It’s not meant to be like a day out with Humphrey B Bear”). In addition to the usual burnout competitions and street machine parades, the program offered highlights including fireworks and the Choirboys. The ACT Government offered free chlamydia tests.

Thursday evening and green lights on Northbourne Avenue were met with squeals as clutches dropped. Arms dangled out windows, holding stubbies. The Bald Man and I were driving across town when a bunch of blue lights caught our attention. A group several hundred strong were converged on a servo in Braddon, along with several dozen police. It was unclear what was going on, but there didn’t seem to be much action so we rolled on. What was clear was that for those who didn’t fancy heading out to EPIC showgrounds and paying a fat fee to get through the gates, a kind of mini-Summernats parade was happening downtown.

So Friday evening we made a special trip back to see it for ourselves. Although it was still light when we arrived at Braddon, hundreds of spectators were already lined up on the footpaths to watch the passing parade of cars. Many had folding chairs and eskies to ensure comfort. And surprisingly, it was a family event. Along with the many (bearded and bellied) blokes, there were a lot of children (with extraordinary mullets), women (with hard, hard faces) and teenagers (with tattoos and muffintops). We stationed ourselves diagonally opposite the Debacle and breathed deeply of the petrol fumes.

Bald Man is an unreconstructed petrolhead, so he had quite a good time looking at the cars and crowds. Frankly the informal parade was pretty motley, but there were a few gems amongst both cars and drivers. The highlight was Roger, a genial local bloke with a genuine GTHO which he bought from the original owner right here in The Berra a decade ago for a tenth of what it’s worth now.

I soaked up the atmosphere, of which there was plenty. For a start, the landmark Mandalay was actually open for business, the first time I’ve ever seen it so since moving here. It was so remarkable I felt we had to buy and eat something from it, which turned out to be a Canberra Dog for Bald Man and a Dagwood dog for me, and no, I am not ashamed. It was all part of the experience. Walking down Lonsdale St one admired cars parked in little family groups: XYs, Celicas, Toranas, Monaros, Mustangs and so on.

At some point in the evening a roar went up from the servo across from us. A meathead decked out in white trackpants and bling had pulled up in a hotted up Mazda RX3 and was revving the engine when some rozzers snuck up behind him and ordered him and his mates out of the vehicle. The police then wheeled out an RTA inspector, who started to go over the car, and then it began to escalate. A crowd gathered, first dozens and then hundreds. More police arrived, and then more – no less than eight cars and more than 30 uniformed bods.

It was a very long half hour while the car owner argued aggressively, various cops stared back at him impassively and the crowd hooted and jeered. Finally they let him go without a canary, but looking at the width of those tyres it was probably a close thing. Had they been the fashion police though, this bloke and his mates would have got life.

Perhaps what’s so fascinating about the Summernats is the side of Canberra it brings out. Most of the cars doing laps of Braddon were local. A friend commented over dinner on Saturday night that a bogan car show wasn’t the kind of thing you’d expect to see in the Berra, which did take me aback. Summernats shouldn’t be a surprise at all, for like every other Australian city the Berra has plenty of outer suburbs where bogan culture thrives, and the layout of this town actively supports a strong car focus. But there is definitely a so-called-cultured and affluent middle class here that has no idea or interest in what goes on beyond the Parliamentary triangle and inner suburbs, and that’s not healthy. Boganism may not be in good taste, but willful ignorance is inexcusable.

Finally after a few hours we had had enough. We attracted only a few jibes as we hopped on our bicycles and rode away.

Be running up that road,
Be running up that hill,
With no problems…
Kate Bush, 1985


Now, where was I?

Oh yes. The hole that is winter, mid-year, mid-contract, mid-life terror-inertia, just opened up and swallowed me whole a little while ago. It was either write rubbish… or take a short break. So we ran away to a foreign land for a few weeks, then came home and I turned my brain off and slept in for a few more weeks, and now here we are and it’s spring.

The Berra seems determined to put on a proper spring, too, showering us with warm days and thunderstorms, lush overgrown lawns, rogue oak seedlings infesting naturestrips and battalions of magpies. 2009 is a great deal more fecund than last year.

Melbourne Cup Day, marked in the Berra as the universally reviled Family & Community Day public holiday (it’s in fact a day when families and the rest of the community just go down-the-coast) saw the Bald Man and me achieve a little local milestone: we finally climbed Mount Ainslie.

If you’re local, you won’t be fooled by the disingenuous use of “climb”. It’s actually a brisk walk up a hill that’s 842m high. Some people reputedly jog to the summit each morning, using the paved track from the rear of the War Memorial. But we started round the back end at the site of the old tip in North Ainslie, went up the fire trail, came down the more usual path and then walked back around to our starting point.

On the way up there were regular pauses because it was pretty warm, and steep. But on the way down the path was so tame, I actually jogged for short periods, maybe up to a km total. That’s the fastest I’ve moved my legs (and fat ol’ arse) in several years, so you’ll forgive me for being so pleased with myself over such a little thing.

The other milestone from this period is a d’ohmestic goddess one. You may have noticed that the pizza reviews have petered out; the taste tests and reviews were fun at first, but the exercise quickly became depressing. Thanks for your suggestions, but after a passable but pricey pizza at Il Covo, one average and two rubbish pizzas at Firestone, and a truly horrible experience at Pizza Arte*, I’ve given up and started to make my own.

A domestic oven and little kitchen notwithstanding, after about five attempts I’m making headway. Less is truly more with toppings – I recommend seasonal vegetable matter and smallgoods sourced from from the EPIC Farmers Market or your own garden.

But the base is definitely the key. I’m now working from a very old recipe that comes from a Good Weekend about a hundred years ago that I tore out, tucked away and fortuitously found again. Like toppings, less is probably more – this ace base uses little more than flour, olive oil and yeast. It works better now after a little modification, a result of trial and error. If you’re interested, the recipe’s on the other, sporadically updated blog i made you this. If you try it, give yourself at least three goes to get a feel for the dough (so to speak) – and let me know how it goes.

* I think we got Pizza Arte on a bad day – Victorians now call that day Black Saturday, and it felt at least 60 degrees in their kitchen – but really, the pizza was terrible. Burned and undercooked patches on one pizza, overcooked base and dry toppings that just fell off the other one. I don’t have words to describe how disgusting it was.

Since I found out about it
I’m gonna make my point and shout it
– Mince Meat / Spencer P. Jones, 1994

couchI noticed this couch out on the naturestrip recently. Gorgeous vintage vinyl, I was quite prepared to install it in my loungeroom in place of the ageing beast lurking in the corner (the present couch, not the Bald Man). Sadly, closer inspection showed why it was abandoned – the timber and horsehair insides were literally rotting, the legs snapped off, the stitching unravelling. It was beyond my rudimentary furniture repair skills to save.

As well as tragic neglect of a marvelous bit of vinyl history, the couch represents an informal disposal/recycling phenomenon unique to the Berra. If one has an item that’s no longer wanted but which could reasonably be appreciated by someone else, one leaves it out on the naturestrip. Passers-by are free to take the item, gratis. In my immediate neighbourhood in the past 12 months I’ve seen office chairs, lounge suites, prams, desks, and electonic equipment of indeterminate age and dubious functionality all offered up this way. All of them eventually disappeared, presumably to good homes.

It took me a while to cotton on to this silent swap system. At different times I thought I was observing a) an early start to hard rubbish collection; b) untidy neighbours; c) people moving house; or d) white trash extending their living area. The silent swap is a lovely example of people acting to fill a gap, but the more I think about it the more it emphasises this gap we have in the Berra. Everywhere else I’ve lived offers local residents either an annual hard rubbish collection, or else reasonable tip access for disposing of large items (ie. one or two tip tokens for free disposal per annum). Here in the Berra there’s no collection, and when I asked the real estate agent for tip tokens she looked at me like I’d asked for a month’s free rent. I’m not sure where Berran residents’ rates go, but it isn’t into hard waste management (nor footpaths or potholes, arguably). It’s no wonder an informal recycling system has started up.

Mind you, it makes it very easy for the Berran Government to trot out a very green line. They’re proud to be the first Australian Government to set a goal of sending no waste to landfill, by 2010 no less. That could be possible, given how hard they make it for residents to throw things out.

You’ll excuse my sceptical tone, but refusing to take people’s rubbish isn’t actually reducing waste, it’s just ignoring it and hoping it will go away. Waste, like emotional conflict or things in the fridge, does not improve by refusing to deal with it. I was amazed, and envious, to discover how much better they have it up the road.

Queanbeyan is a town just that side of the ACT border; local Berrans typically look down their noses at Queanbeyan, and of course it’s governed by the basket case government of NSW and a local council. Yet on a recent visit there I learned that Queanbeyan Council works a lot harder to deal with rubbish, recycle and minimise landfill, use water resources more wisely, and really encourages locals to do the same. Things Queanbeyan residents get for their rates that we Berrans don’t, include:
* a three-bin system that includes a bin for green waste, as well as one each for recyclables and rubbish;
* up to two large/hard rubbish collections per year, which you book according to need;
* an annual hazardous waste collection;
* a plain-looking website with straightforward and useful information about how the systems work.
Queanbeyan residents are also entitled to a range of benefits under Council’s Waterwise program, including:
* a free dual flush toilet;
* a free AAA-rated shower rose;
* various subsidies for rainwater tanks, washing machines and other water-saving devices.

Things Berran residents get for their rates that Queanbeyan residents don’t, include:
* a nice-looking website that’s chock-full of a lot of words, fact sheets and some ‘useful’ hints, including how to donate unwanted goods to charity (in case this is a new concept to you), and a number to call if your ‘no junk mail’ sign is being ignored. (I did try to find some more good things to say here but the TAMS website kept timing out.)

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see who’s getting the better deal. The Queanbeyan system certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s much more hands-on and practical. It’s not a load of rubbish.