Archive for May, 2007

Make your home sound like a busy office

Monday, May 28th, 2007

Thriving Office CDThis is such a good idea, it’s a wonder no-one’s thought of it before.

If you work from home – as I do – and want to impress your clients, this could be just the thing you need. Thriving Office lets you give clients the impression of a hectic office environment in the background while talking on the phone. It’s a CD with two long tracks: “Busy” and “Very Busy”. Stick it on repeat when the clients call, and lull them into a sense of security as they imagine how successful you’ve become.

You’ll probably want to pause it once you’re off the phone, of course. (Although who knows – maybe industrious office sounds will make you more productive, too? I know it would drive me insane.)

[Via TechCrunch]

Book review: Almost French

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007

Almost French book coverI recently finished reading Almost French by Sarah Turnbull. It’s an Australian’s account of living in Paris for seven years.

I found it fascinating, for a few reasons. Firstly, its (sometimes terrifying) insight into the French – and, particularly, Parisian – mentality was somewhat of an eye-opener for me. Secondly, as it was written from the perspective of an Aussie – and one who hails from the very area I live in, at that – it gave me a fresh outlook on my adopted country. Thirdly, it was good to read about the feelings of a fellow expat, as she battles with the somewhat shaky concept of “home”.

Naturally, most of the book talks about the French, and Sarah’s life in France. To start with, her impressions are mainly negative. Being treated as a rival and a threat by Parisian women. Being ostracised by snobby Parisians in general. (She learns from a book that it’s best to pretend you’re a chair at social events. That way, “when no-one smiles at you or talks to you … you won’t be surprised.”) Rats scurrying around outside her apartment. (”Voilà le vrai Paris!” exclaims her French boyfriend.) Having to dress up in posh togs just to go to the bakery, in order to avoid being frowned upon by the fashion-conscious French. The drab village where her boyfriend grew up – loved by him, detested by her.

However, as the book progresses, her outlook on her new home changes. She comes to accept – love, even – the Parisian way of life. She gets the hang of the complex etiquette that is often necessary for even the most casual French dinner party. Along the way, she learns just how serious the French are about their food and wine, and has a spectacular feast at Alain Ducasse’s restaurant. She buys a little West Highland terrier, which helps her blend right in with the locals in her district. In the end, she even falls in love with her boyfriend’s village.

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Australia: A tough country for vegetarians

Thursday, May 17th, 2007

Chicken saltI’m not vegetarian, but my wife Cat is. She finds it hard going in this country.

She’s not vegetarian for any moral “think of the furry-wurry animals” reason – she just hates the taste (and texture) of meat. The thought of eating meat or its various products makes her sick. So it’s not like she can have chicken “just this once”. It’s no meat, or no food at all.

Trouble is, the Aussie definition of “vegetarian” seems to be “pretends not to like meat, but likes it really”. Cat’s had this conversation in more than one restaurant:

“Here’s our menu, madam.”

“I’m vegetarian. What dishes can you offer for me?”

“You’re vegetarian? Do you eat chicken and fish?”

“Er, no. I’m vegetarian.”

You wouldn’t have thought it a hard concept to grasp.

Quite often we’ll go out for a meal on holiday, to find that only one restaurant in town has anything veggie on the menu. And that will be “stir-fried vegetables” (which Cat is understandably sick of by now). Often restaurants will have a veggie entrée, then the mains will all be meat. (As if vegetarians somehow have smaller stomachs or something.)

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Need a hand? Ask an Aussie!

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

No worries! speech bubbleAussies are, on the whole, a helpful and cheery bunch – at least compared to the inhabitants of southern England. (They’re friendlier oop north, so northerners constantly remind me.) The moment I get into London it seems like everyone’s walking around wearing a worried frown, doing their utmost to avoid you. Then, when I get off the plane in Sydney, I see smiling faces and helpful people again. (Provided Australia hasn’t just lost a test match.)

For example, when we first arrived in Australia back in 2002 we wandered around Bondi, and promptly got lost. So we got our map book out. Within seconds we had locals coming up to us, asking if we were lost and needed a hand. There was a connection there immediately. It seems to happen all the time; whenever you need help, a friendly local pops out of nowhere. Total strangers think nothing of coming up to you and starting a conversation. That just doesn’t seem to happen in London.

Shop assistants are generally helpful, too. They’ll often come up and ask if you need a hand – not in a pushy Dixons salesperson kind of way, but in a genuinely interested way. (Cat still hates this – she prefers to do her shopping unassisted – but I quite like it.) Even while you’re handing over your money they’ll happily chat away with you, often mentioning what a good choice you’ve made. Sure, a lot of it is probably good sales training, but they seem quite genuine about it.

In fact, we’ve had a couple of shop assistants that were so helpful they didn’t even care about losing a sale. We went to one department store to buy a washing machine. The guy was wonderfully helpful and explained everything, even getting out the manual for us. Then he said, “Don’t buy it here, though, mate – it’s 50 bucks cheaper down the road!”

Now that’s helpful.

Happy Mother’s Day

Sunday, May 13th, 2007

Cat with IsaacIt’s Cat’s first Mother’s Day as a Mum today.

It seems that the traditional Aussie thing to do on Mother’s Day is to head off down the beach for a family picnic, or maybe book a table at a posh restaurant. However, Cat has been working really hard looking after Isaac these past three months, so we decided the best Mother’s Day treat for her would be to have the whole day off! That’s right – a whole day of baby-free (not to mention hubby-free) time.

So I’ve packed her off on a bus to the city, armed with mobile phone and breast pump, so that she can relax and enjoy herself – do some clothes shopping, hang out in the botanic gardens, maybe catch a movie. Meanwhile I’m experiencing my first whole day alone with Isaac. We have plenty of breast milk in the fridge to keep him going. Right now he’s sleeping like an angel, everything’s going swimmingly, and I’m even finding time to blog!

Right – better go and hang his nappies out to dry, then get him up for a feed…

The high cost of living in Australia

Saturday, May 12th, 2007

Dollars in a shopping cartFor some reason, when I lived in the UK I was always under the mistaken impression that Australia is a cheap place to live. I suppose it is cheaper living in Sydney than, say, London, but it’s by no means “cheap”. In fact, in some areas, Australia seems more expensive than the UK.

For one thing, electronics goods tend to be pricier here – presumably because of the cost of shipping stuff to this remote island. (I’m really hoping an amazon.com.au will open here soon, and create some decent competition on pricing.)

Even foodstuffs are often more expensive than in the UK. For example, Tesco in the UK sells pretty decent own-brand wholemeal sliced bread for around 55p, or AUD $1.35. That’s for an 800g loaf. Try finding an 800g wholemeal loaf in an Australian supermarket for under $3. Other basics such as potatoes and tomatoes are pricey here, though they fluctuate wildly according to season. (Not much chance of Tesco influencing prices here now, either.)

Then again, it’s not surprising food is expensive, seeing as the supermarkets import half their goods from the other side of the world. You’d have thought with Australia’s climate that the shelves would be packed with Australian olives, but 90% of them are from Greece or Spain. I have a Woolworths own-brand jar of strawberry jam in the fridge that was made in Poland.

I suspect a lot of this is down to the supermarkets; there’s not really much competition amongst supermarkets here, with Woolworths and Coles pretty much sewing up the “supermarket market”. If you shop in small local shops, such as bakers and greengrocers, you often get better quality food – I guess that’s a given – but they’re often cheaper than the supermarkets, and you get a bigger range too. The opposite of the UK, basically.

It also doesn’t help that the government happily slaps 10% GST – the equivalent of VAT – on anything considered a “luxury item” in a supermarket – and this includes things like coffee, biscuits, and toilet rolls.

To be fair, some things, such as milk and tins of beans, seem to be roughly the same price in both Australian and UK supermarkets, and of course the exchange rate has a big effect on these comparisons too. So maybe there’s not a lot in it overall.

However, books are ridiculously expensive – often up to double the price of books in the UK – and to add insult to injury that 10% GST applies to books too. Doesn’t the government want its citizens to read?! On the plus side, this makes second-hand bookstores very popular here.

Electricity has traditionally been relatively inexpensive – compared to the UK – but thanks to the major drought going on here at the moment, that looks set to change.

It must be said, though – compared to the UK, Australian public transport is a bargain. And the beer’s cheap too! :)

Culture shock for Brits

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

Culturally speaking, Australia is pretty similar to the UK, so if you’re a Brit moving over here then things will mostly be plain sailing. However there are a few oddities that’ll catch you out when you first arrive:

  • Saying “Alright” to someone doesn’t mean “hello”, it means “are you OK?”. So you’ll get some strange looks if you go up to someone and say “Alright mate!”
  • A “hotel” is sometimes an actual hotel, but more often than not, it’s a pub. (Aussies also use the word “pub” for the same thing, just to add to the confusion.)
  • Manchester isn’t a city over here – it means bedding and linen. So don’t be surprised when you see shops selling Manchester.
  • Woolworths isn’t a cut-price department store flogging music and pick & mix – it’s a supermarket like Tesco.
  • Speaking of supermarkets, you can’t buy alcohol in supermarkets here. You have to go into the bottle shop, or “bottle-o” – otherwise known as an off-licence – next door and make a separate purchase. (Crazy, but them’s the rules.)
  • Most banks charge you for the privilege of banking your money with them. The concept of “free banking” is relatively novel here, despite existing in the UK for over 20 years now. HSBC’s online accounts were some of the first to abolish charges, and other Aussie banks are slowly starting to follow suit.
  • And speaking of banks, Aussies call a current account a “savings” account, just to confuse the foreigners. Sometimes they call them “check” accounts too, just for fun. When you pay via a bank card in a shop, you have to press either the “cheque” or the “savings” button, depending on your account type.
  • 9/532 Sydney Street is the Aussie way of writing “Flat 9, 532 Sydney Street”. Except they don’t call them flats either – they call them units. (Not quite so romantic sounding, is it?)
  • Contrary to appearances, “Sydney” isn’t, strictly speaking, the whole city, but just a small suburb in the middle. (Much like Kensington isn’t London.) So if you’re addressing a letter to someone in the central-ish Sydney suburb of Newtown, you must write “Newtown, NSW” on the envelope, not “Sydney, NSW”. Assuming you want your letter to get delivered of course.
  • You’ll find that locals will call you a Pom quite a lot. This is quite normal and they’re not trying to be offensive.
  • Automatic transmissions are much more common here. In fact, most cars are automatics. If you hire a car, you’ll probably be given an automatic by default. (Suits me – one less pedal to worry about.)
  • In the UK, a B&B (bed & breakfast) is often cheaper than a hotel, and often consists of a mouldy old room in a ramshackle terrace house with a deaf host. In Australia, a B&B tends to be more of a luxury option when compared to a standard hotel or motel. (Although we have stayed in a couple of fairly grotty B&Bs here too.)

These are just off the top of my head. If you’re British then no doubt you will encounter (or have encountered) many more!

Do Not Call register – at last!

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

Finally, the Australian government has launched the national Do Not Call register. This might just save my sanity; we currently get plagued by telemarketers at least once every other day. It’s reached the point where we often don’t even bother answering the phone.

Signing up is, thankfully, fairly straightforward. I’ve added both my home and mobile numbers to the register today, so in 30 days’ time that should mean the end of all these nuisance calls. In theory.

Apparently so many people tried to sign up when it was launched that the system crashed. Gives you some idea of how annoying telemarketers are!

Bad spelling

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

I admit that I’m a bit of a spelling and grammar nazi (and that my own standard of English is far from perfect). I just like to see decent English, that’s all; blatant spelling and grammar errors make me cringe. It’s bad enough when you see the odd greengrocer writing “apples” as “apple’s”, but really, there’s no excuse for this:

allergys (sic)

This is taken from a large (half-page) advert on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, a large, national Australian newspaper. You would have thought that a company that has created, and spends large sums of money marketing, an anti-allergy treatment would at least make sure they were spelling “allergies” correctly. Particularly when the word in question stands two inches high on the page. Failing that, you’d think that someone in the newspaper’s advertising department would pick up on such a blatant cock-up. It’s not as though Photoshop, InDesign et al don’t have built-in spell checkers.

This is only one of countless blatant errors that I frequently see here. There’s even an apartment block nearby whose name – lovingly created in wrought iron on the side of the building, so it’s not like they haven’t had time to think about it – is spelled “The Oak’s”. (Maybe the building belongs to a person called “The Oak”, I dunno.)

Is the standard of spelling and grammar worse here than in the UK? It seems so, to me. But then it’s been five years since I’ve lived in the UK; maybe standards have dropped there too. Or maybe I’m just becoming more sensitive to these things over time. Or maybe I’m just a whinging Pom. ;)

Cheap eats: Eating out in Australia

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

Plate, knife, fork and spoonOne of the things I love about Australia is that you can have a really good meal out without breaking the bank, even in big cities such as Sydney. You can easily get a decent meal for AUD $30 (£12) a head, including wine, and superb meals are available for AUD $100 a head should you feel like splashing out.

This is in marked contrast to the UK, where eating out can set you back a week’s wages. Well OK, I exaggerate, although there is a place in Reading, my old hometown in the UK, that costs over £100 (AUD $250) a head. Fantastic food, mind. And there was the time I spent 20 quid (AUD $50) for the worst meal of my life in the Beefeater outside Paddington Station in London. (The best bit was the waiter cleaning the table next to mine, flicking bits of cabbage off the table onto my plate as he went. I guess that’ll teach me to eat in a restaurant next to Paddington Station. But I digress.)

I’m not sure why eating out in Australia is relatively cheap, but I guess it’s a combination of lower rents and cheaper sales tax than the UK – 10% GST vs. 17.5% VAT. Actually it’s more expensive now than it was when I first visited Australia in 1999, as Australia had no GST back then. Those were the days.

Maybe raw ingredients are cheaper here. Maybe business taxes are lower. Or maybe Australians simply demand affordable eating out as their birthright. (If so, good for them I say.)

BYO (bring your own) alcohol licences probably help a lot. They’re a great idea. Basically, a BYO restaurant carries a BYO licence instead of a full licence to serve alcohol, and you just bring along your own wine or beer. The licence is cheaper for them – which translates to cheaper food for you – and also means you can choose from the much wider (and often cheaper) range of booze from your local bottle shop (off-licence if you’re a Pom), rather than relying on the range that the restaurant has to offer.

Whatever the reasons are, such affordable dining out makes me glad – and proud – to live in Australia. We definitely eat out more than we did in the UK, although less so these days thanks to little Isaac! Having said that, we had a fantastic meal at Emilia’s, our local veggie restaurant, last Thursday; one of Cat’s mates generously offered to babysit the little’un. If you’re ever looking for somewhere to eat out on the Northern Beaches, I can heartily recommend them. (Cheap, too!)