Its my first night out in Ballarat. I’m with a friend who I have known for years. I could be about to spend a month or so in the city, and i’m meeting her friends for the first time. I’m conscious of first impressions. And I’m dressed as Batman.
I’ve arrived in Ballarat, a city around 110km northwest of Melbourne, site of a huge gold rush in the 1800s, famous for the Eureka stockade, the only armed civilian uprising in Australia’s history, and for being the home of Steve Moneghetti, the nation’s most famous Olympic marathon runner. It’s also where Nat lives, a friend who I worked with for a summer on a childrens’ camp in the States back in 2002.
I actually visited Nat in 2005 on my first visit to Oz, but since then we’ve only had sporadic messages on Facebook, much like many other friends who live overseas. Nevertheless, she was still looking forward to meeting up, as was I, and my visit had suddenly come earlier than planned after being let down by the roadhouse.
“Great,” she’d written.
“There’s a friend’s 30th birthday party I’m heading to on Saturday night, and you’re invited. Its fancy dress – creatures of the night – I can get you an outfit,” she added.
“Do your worst,” I wrote back, basically giving the all clear to make me look as daft as possible.
Sure enough, it was kept as a surprise until I reached Ballarat. Nat met me in the Bean Barn, a coffee shop I’d taken refuge in next to the town hall after arriving on the train. She walked in, smartly dressed and straight from work, but she hadn’t changed a bit. It might be seven years since we last saw each other, but we immediately began chatting and laughing as if I’d been away for just a few days.
We had a lot of catching up to do, mainly as we knew very little about each others’ lives over the last few years. Nat laughed about how she suddenly noticed my blogs from places like Russia and wondered what on Earth I was up to. I had no idea Nat had bought her own house, a gorgeous one at that, had changed jobs, and had also recently had a break up from a long relationship. It’s the kind of stuff that close friends know all about each other, yet we had no idea, but somehow we remain the close friends we had become as we watched kids race around a go-cart track 10 years ago.To explain, we both ended up as specialist counsellors at Camp Na Sho Pa, a summer camp in upstate New York, in 2002. I was taking part in something called Camp America, straight after finishing my journalism degree in Southampton. I bagged a place after being interviewed at a recruitment fair in London, where I was asked if I could fix a lawnmower. Thinking of my dad’s electric mower back home, where the biggest problem is a lump of mud getting stuck in the blades, I said yes, and somehow got offered a place running the go-cart and quads activity.
Fine, I thought, but it all got a bit sketchy on the bus when I arrived and the boss of the camp asked me if I was any good with the Honda something or other engine. I nodded, hoping it wouldn’t see me heading straight back home across the Atlantic before I’d even arrived properly. It didn’t, thankfully, and I found myself teaching kids how to ride go-carts safely around a track, and taking groups on quad trails through some fantastic woodland in the Catskill mountains. I was also expected to strip down and repair the machines when things went wrong…but thankfully there was another guy called Mark who actually knew what he was doing with a spanner.And then there was Nat, someone who I spent a full eight weeks with laughing, joking, teasing and getting to know so well, you’d have thought we’d known each other for years rather than living on opposite sides of the world. Nat also had no idea how to repair go-carts, for she’s clearly as good at blagging as me, but we made a great team together. It might have meant us dragging Nat out of bed on a few occasions, but then she also turned a blind eye to my ‘sunbathing’ sessions on grass in the middle of the track. They were actually naps. Moving on 10 years, and here I am meeting all her friends dressed up as Gotham City’s finest crime fighter. It was a joint celebration for her friends Jess and Merran, who both turn 30 within a few weeks of each other, and it promised to be a great night. Nat’s friend Koa was also staying over, and before we actually got out the ice had been firmly shattered thanks to a few beers and whisky.
We ordered a taxi to the venue, and within just a few minutes of arriving, one of the birthday girls approaches with a question.
“Does anyone round here know how to use a mixing desk?”
There were a few blank faces, but back home I use a mixing desk every day. It might only be to push a couple of faders up and down while editing a story, but I guess it counts. I offered to have a look.
It was a loose connection. After a few minutes of twiddling everything, moving faders around and rebooting the computer, we worked out a bright green wire was playing up. A bit of sellotape later, and it was working perfectly. I might make a BBC engineer yet. Merran and Jess hugged me – it meant they could play their own carefully crafted playlist on a USB stick, and I was christened ‘Lucky Phil’.
I was introduced to a few more of Nat’s friends – there’s Paul who lives around the corner,
who for the night was Freddy Kruger and took a lot of pleasure from sticking his pointy fingers up people’s noses and across their faces, and there was Jess’s friend James, originally from Northampton back home but who has been in Australia for four years and is now training to be a paramedic at the university in Ballarat. Tonight, he’s Beetlejuice.
Then there’s Jane, a police officer, who was Wonderwoman for the night, there was a Catwoman, various vampires and even an evil fairy. But that was Nat, so we all knew she wasn’t too evil – at least until she decided to drop kick a mini pie across the dance floor.
Infact, the night got quite messy, and we moved on to the Karova Lounge, one of Ballarat’s busiest nightspots. Paul, who by day is a builder and labourer, decided it would be great fun to lift each and every one of us onto his shoulder and spin us round for a while, which not only left you dizzy, but also fearing a broken neck as we got dangerously close to being dropped on our heads. Nat managed to find drinks from somewhere despite running out of money, her fairy wings getting more and more featherless as the night went on. Paul tried to pull my PVC ears off. Countless strangers tried their hand at the Batman theme tune, usually accompanied by someone shouting ‘Batman’ and shaking my gloved hand.
The whole ‘Batman’ thing actually provided one of the funniest moments of my trip so far, when outside the Gravy Spot, the local late night drunken food shop, yet another stranger staggered up to me and proceeded with the ‘dinner dinner dinner dinner, dinner dinner dinner…’ theme tune, complete with a few bits of half chewed chips spat in my direction for good measure. Suddenly, Nat appeared from nowhere, scrunched up her face and launched probably one of the strangest, funniest noises towards the guy that I and everyone around has ever heard. It was a cross between Tarzan’s call and a whale’s mating cry. Weird, but memorable.
It was a brilliant night, and a great way of meeting Nat’s friends. And by the end of it, as we headed back at 4am, very few of them still actually knew what I properly looked like thanks to the costume, while for the next few weeks, I had an easy way of knowing who was who.
“We’re just popping round to Jane’s house,” I’d be told.
Cue my blank expression. Who’s Jane?
“You know, Wonderwoman.”
Ah, it all made sense, I know exactly who Jane is.
Over the next few days, I spent a lot of time with Nat, Jess, James and Jess’s daughter Liv. We all hit it off straight away, and it was as if we had all known each other for years. We’d meet for coffee, have dinner together at each others’ houses and laugh at the same things.
The following weekend, we were invited to the Funky February music festival in Linton, where I was able to meet most people again without my big pointy ears and yellow belt. I’d suddenly made a great group of new friends, and one where I felt at home. At the same time, Nat was enjoying my company, and said I could stay as long as I wanted as it meant she wouldn’t be at home on her own.
“I’m sure you could find things to do to or a bit of work here and there to pass the time,” she said.
It was a brilliant offer, and one that would mean I could stay in this part of Australia at least until my friends Matt and Siobhan arrive in Melbourne at the end of March. In the meantime, and in full appreciation of Nat’s generosity, it was my duty to earn my keep around the house – and so I got my domesticated head on for the first time in quite few months.
Nat has got a lovely house, with three bedrooms, a large garden, views across to a creek at the front and a nature reserve full of hills and trees at the back. Its also decorated in the same way as my house back home, with the same colour schemes, same furniture, similar sofas and chairs, even the same beds. Its probably an example of just why we get on so well – we’re similar in so many ways that we find it quite strange. Even down to how we both leave absolutely everything to the last minute, and are usually running late…
With that in mind, I introduced Nat to a few things from home, namely Peter Kay, The Inbetweeners, Yorkshire pudding and a couple of my desserts I’ve now perfected. They have all gone down well, especially the Yorkshire pudding and strawberry and vanilla pana cotta. I’m yet to make a cheesecake, to go along with a certain comedian’s catchphrase I have now managed to get caught on Down Under.
In return, I was introduced to a few Aussie staples – Nat’s homemade chicken parmagiana is incredible, being a whole chicken breast, beaten flat, crumbed and then covered in a special tomato, bacon and onion sauce, and finished off with a good helping of cheese. I’m not a salad fan either, but I could eat hers, scattered with snow peas, roasted pumpkin and beetroot, until the cows come home.
Then there’s lemon, lime and bitters – a drink that has suddenly knocked the usual Coke off my favourites top spot. I’ve never had it before, and infact, never heard of it before back home. Over here, its almost a way of life, with a bit of lime cordial, filled with cloudy lemonade and then a few dashes of Angostura Bitters. As a certain Peter Kay would say, it’s a taste sensation, and one that I found myself hooked on. Refreshing, summery, almost alcoholic tasting, its definitely a drink I’ll be stocking up on back home. I’m assured it’s not even a girly drink. Time will tell.
Then there’s a couple of combinations I was introduced to – aside from sweet chilli and sour cream together, a big Australian dip combo (at the same time – try it!) I was given a piece of toast with both peanut butter and honey on. At first, the whole idea of both on a piece of toast just seemed a bit odd, but then I tasted it. It shouldn’t, but it actually works!
There was also the usual Vegemite / Marmite argument, as to which was better. Naturally, Marmite wins hands down for me. Aussies claim not and defend Vegemite every time. It might taste similar, but the consistency is all wrong for my British tastebuds. These Aussies just don’t know how good yeast extract really can be! In any case, it’s the nearest thing I can get to it, so there’s been plenty of Vegemite and cheese sarnies to keep me going.
And I’ve needed them to keep me going – I have been doing plenty around Nat’s house in return for the roof above my head. Mountains of washing up have been disappearing for her, there’s been a fair bit of cleaning up around the house, and on one hot sunny day, I got busy with a pick axe and shovel in the back garden to dig out a flower bed and vegetable patch that she’s been wanting to get sorted out.
It was hard work, thanks to a similar clay soil we have at home, but I was fuelled by a few lemon lime and bitters (of course, a proper working man’s drink!) and a day of ferrying barrowload after barrowload of heavy soil to the nearby creek left a huge hole in the ground.
With sweat pouring off my brow as I hacked my way through the clay, I found myself with a puzzling question. Back home, some smart alec would probably have said at some point “Are you digging to Australia,” with it being on the opposite side of the world.
But where on earth would I dig to if I carried on going?
Sometimes I worry about how my mind works. Or maybe its a Bitters overdose?