A ‘latte’ good times

Enjoying the last days of summer in Ballarat

After months of life on the road and living from a backpack, my time in Ballarat has almost been like a holiday away from the travelling circuit.

It has given me some time to develop a sense of normality and routine, a town I can call home for a while, and new friends I can develop lasting bonds with.

A few people have asked me why I seem to have got stuck in one place in Australia. While it was always my intention to stay around the Melbourne area for when Matt and Siobhan arrived, the simple fact is I had to seriously sort out my financial situation thanks to an errant lodger back home. I was owed months of rent, and it had left a huge hole in my finances. I came within a whisker of returning home.

Earning my keep

However, that side of travelling is hopefully sorting itself out, and in the meantime I was lucky to have friends in Ballarat who were happy for me to stay for free. Besides, I had fitted in really well with Nat’s group of friends, especially with Jess, her daughter Liv and friend James, who all know each other through their paramedic course at the university in the city. From the moment we all first met, we’ve been bantering and laughing together – its like I have known them for years.

Paramedic practice: "Er, Phil, you've got to lay off the Tim Tams"

So, what else have I been up to? Well, Ive been getting to know the locals, learning how to make ‘proper’ coffee, washed an ambulance, pulled a few pints and even squeezed in a game of squash.

Washing an ambulance, something I wasn't expecting on my travel 'done' list

Its certainly been a busy few months, a huge chunk of it I spent at one of the leading bar and restaurants in the town, The Lake View. Overlooking the huge lake Wendouree, it’s a great location and seen as a cool place to hang out by students from the nearby university, workers from the city and many of the locals who take leisurely walks or jogs around the lake.

The Lake View hotel

I ended up helping out at the Lake View, and got to know the owner Nathan really well, as well as a great bunch of staff who became friends. I was soon affectionately christened as Pom Pom by Nathan and Lachy, one of the supervisors, and the name stuck. Another supervisor, Mitch, showed me the ropes and where everything was in the restaurant, as well as taking me through my first coffee using the proper espresso coffee machine.

With boss Nathan (left) and Glen behind the bar at the 'Lakey'

Coffee is a huge deal in Australia these days, probably on a par with America, but there isn’t much of a reliance on the huge chains like the Starbucks and the Costas like over there. Instead, there is much more of a café culture, with many private and independent coffee shops, where the quality is excellent. And its taken seriously too – those who serve coffee, or baristas as they’re known, have often completed special courses to learn the trade.

It’s a far cry from back in my own hospitality days, working at Pizza Hut and catering agencies to fund myself through college and university, where people were happy with button-pressed, machine-made coffee and cappuccino. Nowadays, standards are so high, coffee shops have to make sure their drinks are the best around. Its for that reason I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the coffee machine when it comes to making drinks for customers. It also gave me a newfound appreciation of the art of coffee making. Trust me, its not as easy as they make it look.

With Mitch and my first ever latte!

And so, during a quiet afternoon, Mitch showed me the ropes, starting with perhaps the hardest part of coffee making – frothing the milk. This is the bit that makes all the noise in the coffee shops, the distinctive bubbly, hissing, whooshing noise as a powerful jet of steam stretches out a jug of common, everyday milk. To an onlooker, it looks really easy to do – just stick the steam wand in, turn it on and let it do its stuff.

Wrong.

Four jugs of wasted milk later, and with a hand from Mitch, I managed to get something that resembled properly frothed milk. It’s a fine art, using your hands to judge the temperature of the milk, while simultaneously getting the milk to rotate in the jug, and at the same time lowering the milk so that the steam works its way through, ‘stretching’ it out and giving it a lovely silky texture. It only takes a few seconds, but it can quite easily result in a milk explosion as it whizzes around inside the jug, up the sides, goes all out of control and rockets out of the top. It makes for a fair bit of cleaning up.

Next up was the actual coffee part – getting the ground beans into the group handle. There’s a lot to be done right here, from making sure the handle part is clean and dry before you put the coffee in, to making sure the outer part of the head is free from grounds, and of course making sure you put the right amount into it in the first place. Two to three pulls on the grinder handle deposits enough to fill it, and with a tap and a press down with a tamper, it’s good to go onto the espresso machine.

I won't be putting Starbucks out of business anytime soon! My first latte!

It’s a process that takes just seconds for the pros, but with so much technique to try to remember, it takes me substantially longer. It doesn’t always go quite right either – too little in the way of coffee, and it’ll be too weak coming out of the machine. Pack in too much, and the machine will struggle to push the water through, burning the coffee. If there are any grounds around the connector, it will also impair the flavour.

With it all connected up, speed is crucial to avoid ruining the coffee. With a latte glass positioned under the spout, I press the one cup button and the dark brown liquid begins to pour out. While its doing its stuff, there’s enough time to tap the jug a little, to get rid of some of the bigger bubbles, before removing the freshly brewed coffee from the machine.

Its then a simple case of pouring the milk into the coffee.

Wrong again.

Trying to make a latte proved to be tricky. I found it hard to give the coffee a good head (behave yourselves), but in my mind it still tasted ok. In the end, I was shown a number of different ways to do it, all of which involved various tricks of keeping the milk pouring, hitting the side of the glass with the pour, shaking it as I poured, using a spoon to hold froth back or just going a bit more gung ho and dumping the milk in, somehow leaving it perfect. I usually ended up pouring it in two parts and hoping for the best.

I made that!

I did, however, start to knock out  a few decent cappuccinos having got my head around the milk-making technique, even getting a “Not bad Pom Pom” from Mitch. I was never going to start threatening Starbucks with my skills, but it was enough to make myself a cuppa from time to time!

It was Nathan, one of the owners, that perhaps gave me the greatest piece of advice however.

“Pom Pom, never forget to wipe your wand. Always remember to wipe your wand when you’ve used it,” he smiled while making yet more milk, putting a few cheeky smiles on everyone else’s face who was stood nearby. A priceless bit of advice – it stops milk burning and sticking itself onto the metal rod!

Lachy at the Lakey

Its been a brilliant few months getting to know everyone at the Lake View, both the staff and its many regular customers. One of them, Margie, would be waiting at the doors for us to open at 7am some mornings, but without fail she would put a smile on mine and everyone else’s face. She’s retired, always smartly dressed, loves a latte (but not too hot!) and does a mean crossword. She would always be asking me about my travels, my life back home and where I was heading next, and she had a wicked Aussie sense of humour too.

I’ve got to know many of the locals, often intrigued by what brought an Englishman so far off the beaten backpacker track to Ballarat, and I’d spend a lot of time explaining my overland journey to Australia to ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the wide-eyed customers, who would often give me invaluable travel tips for their country. The staff too would be intrigued about my situation, especially when word started getting out that I was ‘on the telly’ back home.

“So, the rumour is that you’re a television reporter back home, and now you’re here doing our dishes. How did that happen?” was one particularly great line from Danny, one of the chefs, as I was running countless plates and pans through the potwash one day.

It made me laugh. I’d not really talked about my career back home, mainly as it seems so far away right now, but I could totally see his point. As I was scraping yet more nachos from a bowl, I thought about what Danny had said. This time last year I was covering top stories on the BBC news, and now I’m scraping food scraps off plates and getting covered in baked bean juice. But perhaps contrary to what some must have thought, I didn’t feel the work was ‘beneath me’. Infact, it was quite the opposite – I was happy, its something completely different, and it reminded me of my times through college and uni when I’d spend hours pushing plates through a Pizza Hut dishwasher and serving customers.

A cheeky wave from a regular at the Lake View!

The fact is, while I have got a fantastic job back home that I’ve worked so hard for, I was just so happy to be meeting an entirely different set of people and serving the public. It was great, just for a while, to be having a laugh and some banter with customers again, just like what I used to do before my journalism days, without a tight deadline hanging over me. It’s a lot of fun, and exactly what this trip was all about, meeting new people, new environments and finding new ways to spend my time.

When I wasn’t serving in the bar or restaurant, I’d often be in there with Jess and James, who have become very close friends during my time in the city.

Taken just before Cleo deleted a whol

I’m currently staying at Jess’s house with her and her 12-year-old daughter Liv, and their little Taco Terrier Cleo, who is an adorable three year old Chihuahua cross. She’s an affectionate little thing, always bounding up to me as I walk into the house and following everyone around. She’ll usually sleep on (or in!) your bed at night, with a particularly good technique for hogging the mattress, and is constantly looking for hugs and cuddles. As I’m writing this post, she’s snoozing on my lap, only waking for an occasional glance up at me or my netbook screen.

Out for a walk. Cleo came too

Nat, Liv and I all went for a walk around Lake Wendouree on one particularly sunny Sunday, a good 6km meander around the water. We took Cleo for the walk, who particularly enjoyed a quick jog alongside me. It also gave me the opportunity to take some photos of the beautiful setting that I have been fortunate to look out over most days that I have been in the city.

Black swans on Lake Wendouree

There was also a chance to have a look at the Olympics commemorative area, close to the rowing finishing line on the lake. It had been used in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics for the rowing events, and as such a little garden has been set up, complete with a statue of the Olympic flame.

Olympics finish line

There was also a great feature that had been set in place during a visit by many of the medal winners from the games, which included hand and feet imprints in stone left by the Olympians. It gave us a few laughs putting all of our hands into the huge imprints left by some, obviously big hands help out with the oars!

Olympics? Woof.

I also had a day trip into Melbourne to keep me busy, thanks to the saga of Matt and Siobhans clothes that got left in the campervan before they flew out to New Zealand. It involved a train ride into the suburbs from Ballarat, changing at the delightfully named town of Sunshine. It’s a shame that particularly high levels of crime in the area have earned it the nickname of Scumshine, but every time I pass through I can’t help but smile at the thought of giving people your address as living in Sunshine.

Clothes recovery exercise for Matt and Siobhan. Mission Accomplished!

Having recovered the clothes, I decided to catch up with a few friends in the city, both of whom I had met during my travels. First was Rosie, a graphic designer who was my dive buddy during my Padi diving course in Thailand. I made my way to Balaclava, another smile-provoking named area of the city, where I grabbed a coffee and sat in the sun before Rosie arrived, bounding down the street with a hug and laughs.

We caught up over drinks, reminiscing about our time on Koh Tao as we learned how to dive in January. She laughed about how it was strange for her to be meeting up with me in her home city, her own travelling days over for now. She took me to the beautifully manicured botanical gardens, and we laid in the sun chatting, laughing and talking about our respective travels and experiences since we’d said goodbye on a dusty Thai street a few months ago.

Chilling with Rosie

“Its funny being with someone who is still backpacking in my own city,” she remarked as we made our way through the lovely streets of St Kilda towards the beach, stopping off at a bottleshop for a six pack of cider. They were crucial ingredients for the next activity.

Bryce on St Kilda beach

We were on our way to meet another friend of mine, Bryce, the Canadian guy who I spend a lot of time with in Thailand. We first met in Chiang Mai, spending time together on a trip to the zoo, and ended up hiring motorbikes and making the ill-fated scooter road trip to Pai together. We also met up again over the New Year period, and having thought we’d parted ways for good on Koh Phangan, now he had just arrived in Melbourne for his own Australian adventure.

Introducing Rosie to Beersbie

As usual, there was a game of Beersbie on offer, the self-styled game that Bryce has invented and promotes on his website beersbie.com. I wrote about it here from when we played it in Koh Phangan on New Years Eve, and while the teams were somewhat smaller here, it was just as much fun.

I taught Rosie the rules, and we played as the sun began to set. Considering Rosie and Bryce had never met before, everyone hit it off, fuelled by a few errant Frisbee throws and catches that results in the inevitable punishment of a swig from the cider bottle. It’s a cracking drinking game with friends, all taking it in turns to knock the opposite team’s can off its post.

Taking aim

We were also blessed with a fantastic sunset over the water, by far the best sunset I had seen since leaving Thailand. The sky changed through almost every colour of pink, red and purple before the huge orange sun disappeared over the horizon. All along the beach, people could be seen armed with cameras and mobile phones, capturing the moment. It was obviously one to remember, even for the locals.

The sun goes down on the game

Wow!

Rosie and I said goodbye to Bryce as we made our way back into the city, feeling the effects of three stubbies of cider each. Rosie had been invited to the opening night of an art exhibition at the University of Melbourne. We went along, partly for the offer of free food and wine.

If I’m honest, I didn’t think much to the art. Its probably because I just don’t ‘get it’. I appreciate a nice painting, and the masters such as Van Gogh and Picasso admittedly knocked out a couple of nice pieces, but I’m not one of those who can stare at pictures and ‘see’ the meanings of it all. Especially when one of the ‘pieces of art’ was a picnic that had been laid out on the floor. I wasn’t allowed to take photographs of the masterpiece, and somehow I resisted the temptation just to tidy it all away.

There was some particularly good cheese on offer that I gorged on, along with a glass of red, and while everyone was smartly dressed with the odd suit here and there, I flip-flopped around in my shorts and beach t-shirt looking every bit the freeloader that I was. But I didn’t care – I wasn’t the one marvelling at a picnic as if it had life-changing significance.

Thankfully, Rosie and I both had the same thoughts about the exhibition, and we both had a few giggles at having to behave and talk to others in the gallery as if I knew exactly what I was on about. I didn’t have a clue, of course, but then art is down to individual taste. Unfortunately, the only taste I developed during our half hour stay was that for a good Danish Blue.

After another beer at a nearby pub, I left Rosie with some of her friends and came within a whisker of missing the last train back to Ballarat, but it had been an excellent day out. With Matt and Siobhan’s clothes safely in hand, I snoozed my way back to the ‘Rat’ and looked forward to more times in Melbourne.

I’ll be back again soon enough – it wont be long now before I hit the road again and make my way around Australia.

St Kilda, and the end of a great day

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Fingers,Thumbs and a Festival for Free

Rocking out and keeping the punters happy at Soundwave Australia

I learnt something today – opening hundreds of drinks cans really messes up your thumb and forefinger!

I have blood underneath my thumb nail, which has been bleeding on and off since around can 200 of the day. My index finger did have a blister on the knuckle bit near its nail, but then that was rubbed off.  Its now just a pink mess. And I have countless little cuts and nicks all over my hands.

Naturally, I’m going to man up at this point and say it doesn’t hurt – and besides, its been a great day which takes my mind off it.

For today, I have just worked at the Soundwave Music Festival in Melbourne, one of the largest summer festivals in Australia, and featuring top name acts from around the world. It’s a little on the heavy side for my liking – Slipknot, Marilyn Manson, System of a Down and Limp Bizkit don’t feature too much on my iPod – but I was offered the chance of free entry in return for working on a bar, with some pocket money thrown in for good measure.

Spotted from the train on the way to Melbourne - Aussies take their scarecrow festivals seriously!!

The opportunity came thanks to completing my RSA course in Melbourne, something anyone who works in any role in hospitality in Oz has to complete before they can serve alcohol. After the course I got talking to a girl called Esther, who mentioned about how she was working the festival. I thought it sounded fun, she took my details and suddenly I found myself in contact with some of the organisers. They were still looking for qualified bar staff…so I threw my name into the hat.

I admit, my bar work experience probably extends to a few shifts covering quiet bars at functions while working for a catering agency in Surrey with my then girlfriend ten years ago. This was a whole new ball game – helping to keep beer flowing for tens of thousands of rock music fans might just be a little more than I can chew, but what the hell. It’s a new experience, and exactly what this trip is all about.

Arriving in Melbourne's main Southern Cross station

I caught an early morning train from Ballarat to Melbourne, arriving at the city’s Southern Cross station three hours before my 1pm start time. I made full use of some decent internet at a coffee shop for a while, catching up with the parents on Skype and getting a blog post online. Before long, I was on the local train to the city Showground and making my way to the staff sign-in. After three days of non-stop rain out in the sticks, the bright sunshine was welcome, although it made me look drastically overdressed in my hoodie and raincoat as I made my way through the shorts and t-shirt-wearing masses.

The Hard Bar area

I was allocated the Hard Bar, a name which instantly filled me with dread. It’ll either be right next to the headbangiest of headbanging music, or its just so renowned for being so busy, its known as the hard bar for staff. Either way, myself and another guy called Sam joked about the prospect.

I was issued with a Jim Beam staff t-shirt and led through the crowds, past the huge stages and into one of the drinks enclosures, where a bloke wearing dark glasses and with his hair slicked back introduced himself as the bar supervisor.

“No more than four drinks per person until 6pm, when it’ll come down to two. Rip the drinks tickets in half first before issuing the cans, and go out and have fun,” he said.

And that was it – I walked into the bar and was met with a crowd of people looking in my direction and waving shiny red tickets around.

“Two JB and drys please,” came one cry.

“A Vic B and CC and Coke please,” came another.

“Can I get a Jimmy please mate,” asks another tattoed guy with huge long dreadlocks.

Now, when you work on a bar, you’re pretty much expected to know the lingo for the local bevvies. While I’ve been in Oz a month now, an expert on the drinks here I’m not. It took most of the first hour not only to get my head around what on earth everyone was asking for, but also how much each drink cost in the pre-bought tokens.

(If you’re wondering, JB and Jimmy is a Jim Beam whiskey mixed drink with ginger, a Vic B is Victoria Bitter, while CC is Canadian Club whiskey and coke or ginger!)

The Hard Bar...and hundreds of punters wanting a drink!

Perhaps the highlight of my Australian drinks knowledge – or lack thereof – came after about half an hour, when a fairly well built guy came up to the bar and ordered two Jim Beams and a Solo.

I had no idea what a Solo was, so I bought myself some time by grabbing the Jim Beam cans and desperately thinking what a Solo could be. It sounds like some sort of cocktail or a long drink, yet it wasn’t listed on the drinks boards behind me. There was nothing for it, I might have misheard him, so i’ll ask again.

“Two Jim Beams and what else was it mate?” I asked

“A Solo,” came the short reply.

I clearly had a confused look on my face now. I looked back at the rows of tubs containing all the different cans, then back at the guy making mixed drinks at the back.

“A Solo?” I muttered back to the punter, hoping he’d give me an idea on how to make it.

“Yeah, a Solo,” came the reply, clearly getting a bit annoyed.

“What’s in it?” I asked back.

“Errrr. Lemons.” came the sarcastic reply.

At this point, I started to dig myself a hole by stating that I didn’t think we had any.

“Yes you have. I can see them. They’re over there in the yellow cans with the Pepsi.”

And so we did. It turns out that Solo is one of the most popular and common canned soft drinks in Australia. To give you an idea of just how dumb I must have looked, its about the equivalent of saying to someone “What’s in a Coca Cola.”

No wonder there were a few rolled eyes as I sheepishly traipsed back to the bar with said can of Solo in my hand.

I also quickly learnt about another quirk with music festivals in Oz. Whereas at the Leeds Festival back home, that I’ve been lucky to work at in a far different capacity over the years, all the drinks are draught, here it comes in cans. Thousands of them. And someone has to open them.

That duty falls down to the bar staff, and after a few with my fingers, I soon twigged those using spoons had the right idea. It was definitely the way forward, and I was soon totting up tokens, grabbing icey cold cans and popping open the ring pulls in no time at all.

Then I broke a nail…and yes, I do realise how that sounds.

Problem was, I’d caught it on one of the ring pulls and it pulled right down to that really sore bit beyond the white nail. There was nothing for it but to grit my teeth, pull it off and hope it didn’t hurt too much. Thankfully, I got away with it, but a few minutes later I noticed some blood. This time it was my thumb – the constant pressing down on the drink hole ‘flap’ bit of the can to fully open it had worn away at the side of the digit.

I battled on.

Grabbing yet more cans of Jim Beam. Pass me a spoon!

It was actually a lot of fun – everyone was in a great mood, there was some banter with many of the punters, some of whom noticed my English accent (including one bloke who asked for his Jagerbomb shaken and not stirred, just how ‘my pal Mr Bond would like it’) and once I’d got into full swing, it was actually really straightforward, if a little tough on the hands.

Two stages side-by-side, reducing the turnaround between bands

Soon I was sent on a break, so took the opportunity to have a wander around and see some of the festival. Its spread over a huge area, but one huge difference to the UK festivals is the tight control on alcohol. I’d not realised, but all the alcohol is contained within a few set areas, quite a way from the stages. It means you can’t take beers with you to watch the bands, which seems a little odd when I’m so used to having a pint with me while watching live music.

Swedish band In Flames entertaining the crowds

Marilyn Manson on stage at Soundwave

Marilyn Manson wrecking some stuff on stage!

I opened a few hundred more cans in the evening. I’d probably estimate that during the course of the day, I opened well over 1,000, but it was just great to be part of such a huge event. I think my enthusiasm was noticed too – a tall guy with long blonde hair, who I’d served twice earlier in the day, was back for another couple of Jim Beams. He’d heard me helping two others decide what to have, along with a laugh and a joke here and there, and when I turned round to get the drinks, I heard him the tall guy speak to the others.

“This guy has been cheerful and happy all day, even now he’s still smiling. Fair play to you buddy.”

It meant a lot – but then I was just happy to be at somewhere with such a great atmosphere and in the sun!

Sticking out like a sore thumb...although the picture doesn't do it justice!

I got signed off at 9.15pm, my thumb and index finger now red raw, but off I went to see a couple of bands.

Whats better than being at a gig? Being at a gig for free!

I managed to see most of the Angels and Airwaves set, a band which I’d heard of and recognised a few of their tracks. Where our stages back home are often held in huge circus style tents, at the Melbourne Showground there’s a few purpose built buildings that resemble sheds. Its not great for the acoustics if I’m honest, but it was a good atmosphere inside, even without the alcohol in everyones hands.

Angels and Airwaves during their set

The headliners on the main stage were System of a Down, which I knew I’d probably not like. I was right, and its not because I’m just getting old. It was just screaming and shouting on the track I heard, so made my way back to Angels and Airwaves to watch the rest of their gig.

System of a Down..cool stage, but music didn't go 'down' well with me

I signed off in the staff area and was told to grab a beer from a bucket, which I gulped down. It was nice to finally relax, and so I got a Southern Comfort and Coke mixed can from the bucket too. I said goodbye to the great bunch of people I’d been working on the bar with, finished off the drink, took another ‘for the road’ and headed to the adjacent railway station.

There was a huge crowd of people still waiting. I had to be at Southern Cross station to catch the last train to Ballarat at 11.24pm, but by my reckoning there were about 5,000 people in front of me waiting for the same trains. I did a bit of nifty manouvering along the inside of the crowd by a railing, which probably got me a few trains ahead of where I would have been, but time was ticking. If I missed the last train, I’d be stuck in Melbourne for the night, and would have to go find a hostel somewhere, an expense I could really do without.

Thankfully, I was squeezed onto the 11pm train, and 10 minutes later I was at Southern Cross with time to spare. I got onto the train ‘home’ and watched as the city disappeared behind me once again.

Heading home, along with thousands of festival goers

My legs are killing me, my hands are sore and I’m shattered, but its been a fantastic day out, a day I know I wont forget. I arrived back into Ballarat just before 1am, stepped off the train and began the walk home. But after seeing off thousands of ringpulls in the past 12 hours, there was one more can I had left to open. I had a friend to accompany me on the walk back to Nat’s house in Ballarat.

His name was Jim Beam.

The last can of the day...and it was mine!