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The International Writers Magazine: An Australian POV of Europe

UK - Ireland and France
•Ted O'Connor pops in for a visit
I have just romped across France, England, Ireland and Northern Ireland during the past three weeks and yes, I know, it is not that impressive. These days the number of Australians who can explore the globe on a shoestring budget, effortlessly riding the back of a high Aussie dollar, means travelling has lost most of its mystique.

Notre Dame

Unless your last trip was to the moon it can be quite difficult to impress someone with globetrotting tales and foreign anecdotes. But for someone who thought a big trip was a bikes ride up a back road, jumping on a plane will never lose its thrill and neither will the experiences and characters that come with whipping out a passport and entering another domain.

The motivation behind my trip was to visit a group of very festive English and Irishmen who I became mates with while they were studying in Australia. Of course, as an Australian you can’t just catch a bus to Europe – one has to board a plane and combat jetlag, cardboard food, and, in my case with Air China, fairly horrendous and in some cases startlingly religious selection of movies.

But that’s all right. Some people find peace with yoga and rainforest music, but in my view there’s no better form of complete nirvana than watching planes land and take off from an airport boarding lounge.  Call me a simpleton – you would inevitably be correct – but I find it truly amazing that an oversized fridge with enormous wings and tiny wheels can launch into the stratosphere and then glide onto the tarmac without fireballs and the sort of carnage associated with Bruce Willis films.

There is a lot to be said about Paris, but modest isn’t a word I would use. Everything is so ridiculously impressive it almost makes one suspicious. What’s the place hiding? Even the central train station Gare de Norde made my mouth fall open in a yokel-esque manner.After ten minutes in the old city laying the foundations for some serious blisters, I found an enormous church along the Sienne. It had the usual grandstanding of buttresses, stained glass windows, a steeple lapping the clouds above, and I thought ah, Notre Dame - here you are. Except it wasn’t. It was just an ordinary church. Notre Dame interior

When I found the actual Notre Dame a day later I nearly fell over.  Stonemasons were definitely not short of work in the Middle Ages.  Especially the ones who wrote on their resume cover letters ‘Doesn’t mind heights and won’t get bored with anything Jesus-related’.

As an Aussie who is fluent in only one language – Yiddish, how did you guess - I am continually impressed with how easily Europeans jump from one tongue to another. So to return the favour and do my best not to be a bogan abroad, I endeavoured, when dealing with the locals, to use basic French I had acquired from watching the Tour De France.  Unfortunately this turned out to be too difficult. While I knew and heartily used ‘bonjour’ and ‘excusez moi monsieur’ I stupidly thought ‘grazie’ was ‘thank you’ in French, when anyone with a half-worldly brain would know that it’s Italian. ‘merci’ is the correct French word, which I found out weeks later – in London. So while I thought the smiles I was receiving meant I was a top bloke for having a exuberant crack at the native tongue, those smirks must have meant, ‘look at this poor foolhardy Australian, he does his best – I’ll humour him’.

Actually most the time I talked to Parisians was to ask directions, because in Paris one can find themselves in Belgium if they take their eye of the map for more than five minutes. For me, while the Eiffel Tower was a thrill to approach from all angles and wonder at how brown cast iron could look so majestic, the Arc De Triomphe was number one.

Nowadays men in suits buy flash cars and shout buxom blondes Johnny Walker Blue to compensate for their trousered shortfalls. The Arc De Triomphe epitomises an extreme Napoleonic version of that attitude. The arch is enormous and exudes dominance. I almost laughed when I saw it, thinking of a war monument at Warrnambool near where I grew up. It is nicknamed the Dirty Angel, because from side-on, with the angel holding wreath at waist level, it looks like the heavenly figure is having a moment of salacious self-indulgence normally not reserved for the middle of a roundabout. Unless you’re a 90-year-old with a heart condition I fully recommend a Google search. Not to draw a comparison with Warrnambool’s conspicuous angel, the Arc De Triomphe is a glorified wank to all of Napoleon’s conquests. And why not – he did rampage through most of Europe and crown himself Emperor. Not many people can say that these days.

One striking difference between Australia and Europe is the monuments. In Europe they stand for something historical and profoundly inspirational. It is always a statue representing an important figure in history that irrevocably changed the destiny of his of her people. In Australia we have bigger statues, but they’re mostly of giant pineapples, lobsters and koalas. I have seen the way koalas go about life. If you need some advice on eucalyptus and how to sleep in a tree they’re great, but aside from that they’re overweight and very uneducated.

It is not hard to figure out you are in London. I was eager to traipse through the city and soak it in for the first time and when I strolled out of Kings Cross station barely a second passed before I laid eyes on an iconic ‘60s-style black taxi. Then a glance to my left revealed a red phone box (no Doctor Who about unfortunately) and as I started walking down Euston Road (ah yes, I’ve mortgaged you in Monopoly more than once you old rascal) it started drizzling.

London I understand what Londoners mean about how demoralising their weather is. Growing up on a farm during a period of depressingly low rainfall I found, like most around me, a big shower of rain could be quite cathartic, especially when it settled months of dust. Constant drizzle however slowly chips away at your spirit until your default setting is misery.

Nonetheless, London is magnificent. The buildings are a chaotic mix of old, new and breathtakingly ugly with a population full of some of the world’s greatest larrikins.  People say it’s too busy, but to me
the place’s vibrant nature made it appealing. Growing up in country Victoria I detest hearing, ‘Gosh it’s so quiet, peaceful and lovely and the other day I saw a blue wren’. In London there are a thousand
yarns on every street. If London was a person it would be the bloke at the pub who talks too much and at 30 decibels above the average punter but at least he always something interesting to say.

I saw the sights of London intermingled with a casual pub-crawl. It started with St Pauls, and my mate Paddy, a knowledgeable bloke, gave me a detailed history of every room and tomb. I was quite impressed until I realised he was just reading off the plaques – not a bad plan and I’d take it on if I was a tour guide. Tate Modern was memorable because it showed my favourite kind of art. In between unnervingly accurate renaissance portraits and the ridiculously surrealist – you know the ones – there was a box of matches set in concrete next to a gay badger. It was like walking through the Lourve after spending 15 minutes alone in a room with Keith Richards. Every painting was just slightly weird and trippy and had you hooked for a few more moments than you were originally willing to divulge.

Mind you, when I did visit the Lourve, I knew a lot of the statues and paintings represented seminal moments in art history – yet I found often they were simultaneously comically ridiculous. The Mona Lisa does indeed deserve the hype. In room of about 200 people she does single you out with a vicious and seductive eye raping, as if to say, ‘Yes it’s you I’m looking at Ted, not all those fools wearing headphones and waving cameras about’. Speaking of which, I cannot understand why people take pictures of paintings at art galleries. Buy the guidebook. Or Google it when you get home. But anyway, the best painting was of a young man, who, when being pelted with arrows, managed in a strikingly camp way to shake his middle finger at his attackers, while sneakily hiding his gentleman’s area with a bed sheet. It was testament to multi-tasking and it deserves more hype than page 82 of a coffee table art book.

After London I visited another great mate Alex at his hometown of Sandwich on the south-east English coast near Canterbury. His old man was a funny bloke who nailed English dry-wit like the best of them. He did not miss an opportunity for a quip here, pun there, without pulling out anything breathtakingly lame like many a middle-aged Dad. I first met him as I wandered into the living room
and broke the ice with, ‘I like what you’ve done with the place’. To which he responded in a perplexed manner, “When have you seen it before?”

That evening I drank Pimms, played croquet and was one of the top 15 happiest people in the world. Pimms is a deliciously refreshing drink, but as I was reminded later in a pub in Oxford – not the most
masculine. When I asked the bar man, how much for a jug of Pimms, he responded rather gruffly, ‘Two things mate – the weather isn’t right for Pimms (it has to be sunny) and it’s a girl’s drink’.

Sandwich is famous, because the Earl of Sandwich invented the perennial snack of the same name (despite food between two bits of bread being around for thousands of years) about 250 years ago and henceforth the name caught on. But that isn’t important. What’s fantastic is near Sandwich is a town called Ham – and there is a sign on a single-lane back road with the name ‘Ham Sandwich’ written on it. If it were in Australia the tourism tackiness would be evident for miles. If you have ever been to Glenrowan and seen everything from restaurants to rabbit holes dedicated to Ned Kelly you would know what I mean. But here was this brilliant sign modestly sitting on a traffic island that for years has given passers pangs of hunger.

Next was Oxford. Oxford is town of inspirational old buildings offset by some very mediocre and over-priced nightclubs. But that doesn’t matter, because there are enough pubs to prepare for the time of night when one must whip out the chainsaw dance move to Chris Brown. This was something I did multiple times and one girl behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said I should calm down. In response I said, ‘no’. No one can take him or herself seriously to Brown and Co’s overproduced talentless tunes. Oxford

Oxford, as you might be aware, is home to one of the most prestigious universities in the world and despite it being summer break there was a distinct air of academia lofting about the place. Just little things such as spotting a man starting his day with brekkie and a book about quantum physics, probably before he nips over to the Large Hadron Collider for lunch.

Something Oxford should be known for is its large abundance of married couples that have meals in pubs without talking to one another. We all know them and God help you if you are one of them. The
sort where the husband just reads to paper, but every 45 seconds he lowers the broadsheet, nods with a whisker of brief eye contact to his wife, before delving back into an analysis about the price of peppermint tea in south Shanghai - while the wife just sits there and eats.

But Oxford is brilliant. As far as just walking around and grinning like a silly tourist it is superb. And, on a budget, I found walking about could be a thrifty option when faced with paying ten quid walk to see a courtyard full of green grass and pretentiousness.

Oxford is also home to one of the best pubs in existence. Called the Turf Tavern, it was where former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke downed a yard glass of beer in record time while he was an Oxford Scholar. Later he was behind some of the biggest economic reforms in Australian history, but let’s not bother about that. It’s hard to say what makes the tavern such a fun place. There are little things, such as the wall of the beer garden being an old stone wall with battlements that used to protect the old city. Also it is the pub equivalent of Platform Nine and Three Quarters from Harry Potter, when it comes to locating the place – you literally slip though a wall.  Also every cellar temperature ale (as much as I’d like the be an uncultured Australian and call it warm beer - all it is, is beer without condensation on the glass) I tried was flavoursome and thoroughly delicious, which was a first, because every English pub I’d been to had at least one barrel of stagnant pond water – meaning ordering an ale was like playing Russian Roulette.

Liverbird Then came Liverpool. I was only there for about four hours before I flew to Dublin, but the place definitely made an impression. It was a Saturday evening and people from the suburbs were rolling into town with an I’m-after-a-shag-look-out glint in their eyes. I don’t know whether marriage is a hobby in Liverpool, but the amount of buck’s parties and hen’s nights I saw kicking off told me the union between a man and woman was something best enjoyed multiple times.

Then came Liverpool. I was only there for about four hours before I flew to Dublin, but the place definitely made an impression. It was a Saturday evening and people from the suburbs were rolling into town with an I’m-after-a-shag-look-out glint in their eyes. I don’t know whether marriage is a hobby in Liverpool, but the amount of buck’s parties and hen’s nights I saw kicking off told me the union between a man and woman was something best enjoyed multiple times. Most women had the classic Australian bogan look and many were summed up with the even more Australian metaphor, ‘mutton dressed up as lamb’. Fake tan was applied with such gusto that it would have been unsafe to move within ten metres without a Geiger counter. But there is one thing I will not forget. The double denim combination is something we have all seen and wondered at, but when I saw one lady sporting the double leopard skin I had to take a moment and soak in what was overwhelmingly unique.
Before coming to Liverpool I naïvely thought everyone would have a pleasantly warm accent like Ringo Star or indie rockers The Wombats.  In real life it seems most scousers are completely incomprehensible.  Still the city centre is a pleasure to wander and I was disappointed I did not have time to visit the docks, which have quite clearly had a cash injection and the work of a few tasteful architects to spruce them up.

I spent a week in Dublin and Belfast and certain moments I will not forget in a hurry. There also others I could not find even if I searched the house from top to bottom.
It’s hard to sum up Ireland.
A ten-year-old Irish kid from the countryside tried, when my friends and I met him while swimming in the indescribably cold Irish Sea. He asked me, “Are you Australian?” And I said ‘yeah mate’, feeling obliged to put a slice of extra Aussie twang into the phrase just so he could tell his mum and dad he met an Aussie and he sounded just like Crocodile Dundee.
But he frowned at me in absolute disbelief. “You’re Australian? Ireland’s a shithole, what are you doing here?”
He then just shook his head, probably thinking I had got lost on the way to the Bahamas.
As I do with most ten-year-olds and their views I’m going to disagree.

Here’s why Ireland is your typical middle-tier economy that was belted by the Global Financial Crisis. My friends showed me half-finished estates (some very flash) where works had grinded to a halt when the banks abruptly defaulted in 2009. They just sat in hibernation waiting for the good times to return. It was the same story with Belfast’s mighty docks where the Titanic was built. They were frozen in time mid-way into a spruce-up. But despite this Ireland is not now and will never be a shithole. The people are too good. Okay they do like a solid grumble about the weather.

If a flawless day of 25-degree sunshine pops up they stay reserved for most the day – waiting for a spot of drizzle to prove their point that it was going to be dreadful after all. But once the evening rolls around with blues skies until 11pm and said rain has not eventuated, then it’s off to the bottle shop and butcher to grab supplies for a barbecue and everyone is happy.

Dublin Two things stood about Dublin in my eyes, first the gratuitous amount of pubs. Apparently there are more than 1000, which is commendable for a city of just over a million people. The second thing, I encountered while enjoying my first pint of Dublin Guinness, which tasted miles better than what ends up your glass in Australia. It’s just so creamy and satisfying and the taste is still welcome in your mouth the next day. Now I do not know why that is.

Apparently it is the water used in the Dublin Guinness Factory. When I went on the tour the guide did talk it up like it flowed from a Lord of the Rings-esque pool of life.  It may also be the placebo effect of being in Dublin, the home of the ruby red stout (yes it is not black if you hold it up to the sun).  This is something I am not too fussed with. If the placebo effect is working marvels with my taste buds then I am just simply kicking goals.

Anyway back to the second thing. While I was mid-conversation – probably boring my poor Irish mates Diarmuid and Palmer (no one calls him by his first name so I am not about start) about the sheer
tastiness of my Guinness – I heard this tremendous roar behind me. And I turned my head to see a yellow boat driving down the street. Yes, this boat had wheels – otherwise I would be even more impressed with how it was manoeuvring through inner city Dublin. And on-board were a group of people in Viking helmets, young and old with broad rakish grins shouting away like no one’s business. I was speechless. I knew the Vikings used to be a serious handful hundreds of years ago, but I did not know they were back – with wheels. My friends explained to me the sight was common in Dublin and the boat was part of a land-water tour to show people where the Vikings used to cause havoc.

It is fortunate Scandinavians still do not tear around on long boats sacking towns off the coast of Britain and Ireland. If they carried on today like they used to with all the raping, stealing and setting things on fire they would have a serious public relations nightmare to contend with. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be a Viking man. Telling my wife I was off for a couple weeks to wreak unimaginable havoc on my neighbours across the sea. “Well close the door when you leave, it’s freezing.”

Next was Belfast and I was not entirely sure what to expect. I knew the history of the troubles, but it was my belief that any fair-dinkum honourable causes behind fighting had long since disappeared. On my first morning I woke up, as you do, and as I was having a walk around town I ran into Matt, one of four uni students and all round rollicking fellas I was staying with. He told me the street I was standing on used to be a serious hot bed of activity. The sort of place if you were a catholic, you only walked down one side of the bitumen and a protestant the other.
Orange Man

 He also told me there are parts you still do not wander especially during the Orange Marches. These demonstrations happen through the summer months and involve protestant groups celebrating Prince William of Orange’s victory over King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.  Yet when these marches seem to often stray into Catholic areas, to put bluntly, shit-stir. It’s basically saying ‘we’re the majority and don’t you forget it.’ As a result many Catholics clear out of town when this happens. The Irishmen who canvassed the situation to me explained the people who still willingly march where they aren’t wanted are dickheads looking for trouble. And that includes people who go out of the way to provoke the people marching. Young fools who don’t know the history; half the time don’t even care about religion and are just there to pick a fight. Of course I spent three days there so I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I would hope that sort of pettiness would die out just as catholic-protestant tensions died out decades ago in Australia and with my generation simply do not exist.

Anyway if you thought I could go for more than a couple paragraphs without talking about the local pubs you were wrong. The Belfast city centre is delightful and I believe it rivals Dublin’s. The inner-city old pubs did not appear to have beer gardens so everyone spilt onto the cobblestone streets, which had benches and plants and daylight to 11pm in summer. It was a fun set up, because you could bump into all sorts of crowds wandering out to and from neighbouring pubs. Although when I was in one beer garden in Belfast, a rather strange thing happened. The people opposite lit up a massive jay (for those not down with modern parlance a rather sizable rolled cigarettes full of cannabis). Now just to clarify, this I felt wasn’t strange. In a beer garden the smell subtly intermingled with the seemingly
boisterous crowd. The people smoking this naughty concoction soon left and after their departure a bouncer arrived and he had the hurried demeanour of someone on a mission.

He told us someone had complained about the whiff of grass and he was looking for the perpetrators so he could remove them from the premises. I’ve never sat at a table full of so many raised eyebrows.
This lies at the heart of what I see as a massive double standard in society.

It’s quite all right to demolish ten pints every night until you can’t tie your own shoelaces – but no a bit of secondary cannabis smoke is not on. I mean really. The worst that could happen is you might laugh at a joke that is not particularly funny. Or you might crave a kebab.  Good forbid, that would ever happen after a few ales. I admit if the same troupe had of whipped out a similar portion of Danny Green in a hospital waiting room or primary school nativity play it would be a different story.
Anyway I told the bouncer the culprits were stereotypical hippies who looked like they had walked out of Woodstock. He nodded – he knew the types and went on the hunt.

Later that night I tried a meal one of my friends aptly named ‘ethnic fusion.’ It was a green curry, but served with chips instead of rice.  Some might call it multiculturalism at work – see Andrew Bolt, it can be done - but it must have been invented by a seriously unadventurous connoisseur.
“I’ll have a curry, but I don’t understand what these little white things are – they’re freaking me out – I can’t deal with them. You don’t have chips do you? Sarcasm aside it was delicious.

Back to Liverpool, where I slept the night at the airport. Sleeping the night at an airport costs nothing, but you get what you pay for. Still I did encounter one moment of genuine mid-day movie human kindness. It was two in the morning, I was beyond spent and every bench was taken with sleepy travellers. The cold tiled floor was beckoning me, but I was dammed if I was going to lower my sleeping standards. A bloke watching me guessed my dilemma and asked if I needed a place to sleep. I nodded, so he asked three blokes lying next to him to bunch up and give me some room to fit me on the bench. They happily obliged and I managed a few hours of sleep. Whether he was a proper Samaritan or a bit of a creep is irrelevant. It was a kind act when times were tough.

During my last four days in England my financial situation was looking worrisome and London, the week before the Olympics was ready to ambush me and strip my person of cash. So my two English mates decided to whisk me up north to the Peak Districts, south east of Manchester, to go camping.

Firstly I don’t know why it is called the Peak Districts. The area has lovely rambling hills, deep valleys and cool clear streams while peppered with proud Victorian estates. The villages, such as Buxton where we stayed, were chockers full of charm – but no peaks. The place has an awful lot going for it, but the people who named it decided the post card looks were not enough and they would lure visitors in with the false pretence of Swiss-style soaring snow-capped peaks.

Secondly there is the issue of English camping that needs to be rigorously addressed. When I went camping as a kid I quite literally shat in the woods. Or maybe I was too stupid to find a drop toilet.
Besides that if you wanted to shower you swam in the stream or washed your face in a puddle, drinking water was boiled river water and to cook you built a fire so everyone could argue timeframes when turning sausages. You’re not allowed to make a fire when camping in England.  You shower – in showers. And my mates changed their jocks everyday. This was something new to me – especially when camping. And most people were middle-aged old dodders who instead of tents sported
caravans or motorhomes with televisions, radios, gazeboes, eggbeaters and everything else you go camping to get away from. And they all drove Audis or Mercedes. As my friend Alex pointed out with that much money a normal person would be one a Mediterranean island, languishing in a pool, munching on wine and tapas. Not crapping in a box in Buxton.

Rant aside we had a great time. At our second site we had a bit of privacy to talk until three in the morning without disturbing the neighbours with our gin and wine fuelled philosophising. After the first campsite on the outskirts of Buxton was cramped and a little depressing on arriving at the far-superior second location the landlady, seeing we were three blokes in out early 20s laid down the ground rules. Well there was just one – no loud music and dancing after ten. I don’t know what sort of young ravers she had had tear up the fields before us, but they sounded worth getting to know if they had the vision to see Buxton as a place to replicate Glastonbury.

As we found when hitting up Buxton’s nightspots, they would have their work cut out. After visiting several fine establishments during what was a sensational summer evening it reached that time of night when I had inkling the break out a series of Lord of the Ring’s inspired moves (I can cut some pretty left-field shapes after hours) on an unsuspecting dance floor. So I went up to the bar woman, cleared my throat, and she said ‘so you’re an Aussie.” That is all it takes up north before people twig your from the country that just lost the Ashes.

I then asked what place went utterly bananas on a Monday night and she told me the something swan and gave me directions I forgot instantly.  Well if the something swan had a dance-floor the manager was certainly doing his best to hide it. So my friend Pat and I played chess while Alex shook his head – it was a new first for the last pub of the evening. Paddy took my Queen within 30 seconds and then before I blinked it was just my king. But to the big fella’s credit he gave my friends the run around before finding himself in a tight spot.

Not long after I was back in London, then Beijing, before touching down in Melbourne and before I knew it I was back in Horsham being a journalist again. That could be a travel writing record for the most miles covered in a sentence. If you wanted to hear more about the flight back I am sorry, but the movie choice was so horrendous I had to go on a Colin Firth-a-thon, which started promising with the King’s Speech and then went alarmingly downhill with Bridget Jones Diary.  What a horrendous movie. Hugh Grant blinks all the way through and Colin Firth shows the world the secret of seduction is brooding like a draft horse and being as boring as the weather channel.

As a 21 year old I could not have had a better trip. Okay I could have popped over to South American with a million dollars and snorted coke from one end of the continent to the other, but my mum would have been less than impressed and I would have ended up lost in a tinny floating about the Drake Passage.

I became even better mates with blokes I knew before and I found a new bunch of cracking English and Irish lads I promptly added on Facebook. Thank god for Facebook. Dad said when he travelled in the 70s and met a person of high-calibre banter they would exchange addresses and write letters to one another. None of this online nonsense, they did it Casablanca style.
Now I don’t have any money, but they say memories are priceless. They aren’t. I spent about $4000 on mine all up. But it was a bargain and at that exchange rate I hope to buy many more in the future.
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