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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Northern Exposure - Part 1

God, I love long weekends. I love being able to fill up two full days with activity, mania and enthusiasm, and still have one day up my sleeve for reflection, possibly regret, and sitting on one's arse on the patio with a book and a cuppa.
Suffice to say, I won't be regaling you with tales of arse-sitting, reflection, or tea.

Kyles ran a "let's go to Newcastle" idea past me earlier in the week, as a couple of digital media artists she'd met recently were involved with Electrofringe, part of the This Is Not Art festival in the relatively Northern city. Within ten minutes of the suggestion, we'd checked the train timetable, booked a room at the curiously named Sydney Junction Hotel (SJH) in Hamilton, downloaded the festival guide and formulated a plan.

I met Kyles at Central Station at 7am on Saturday, and we did what everyone does before a trip – had a cup of terrible coffee and a disgustingly delicious ham, tomato and "cheese" toasted sarnie. Eddy Avenue at dawn's crack on a Saturday is a bag-clutchingly entertaining place, filled with the kind of people who either woke up crazy, or have been crazy aaaallll night. After a sip of brown milky dishwater, Kylie elbowed me and said "Here we go – the bros are in town", indicating towards a sideways-baseball-capped, bandanna-ed, pants-rolled up cliché, and his considerably more dapper and sheepish friend, both of whom strutted into the plaza like Ozone and Turbo from Breakdance II: Electric Boogaloo (but without the poppin' or lockin'). Rather than saving the Community Centre from certain destruction, Ozone proceeded to execute the Most Thorough Hammy Stretch In History, utilising at whim every tree, railing, bench and retail outlet to assist him in his quest for bendiness. Then, of course, he started kickboxing an invisible foe, bless 'im.

Our view of these athletic goings-on was briefly interrupted by some amorous attention from a local gent, which we politely declined. I was tempted to help the poor man with a quick workshop, including role-play and self-assessment, on Opening Lines Which Are A Mistake, but there simply wasn't time before our train arrived. Additionally, I'm not sure exactly where one can go with "I like Girls. Girls are fantastic. I reckon they're fantastic. I like girls. I'm not with them much, though". Non? Pourquoi?

After waiting for a few minutes on what turned out to be the wrong platform, taking winsome photographs of ourselves in front of the wrong train, a helpful fluorescently-clad man steered us in the right direction, and we settled into our seats. Kyles busied herself recording some video for her scheduled 'Painting With Light' workshop later in the day, and I made my usual Saturday acquaintance with the Herald Cryptic Crossword, obviously because I'm the most rock n' roll person in the universe. Two silver-haired types behind us appeared to be reading aloud from the Pensioner's Book of Conversational Stereotypes, specifically referring to the chapters on The Virtues Of The Seniors' Card, How Public Transport Works, and I Bet I'm Taking More Pills Than You. A skeletal, possibly clinically-insane boy sat near us and muttered softly to himself, and a bunch of lads, all seemingly with the nickname "Boofhead", got pinched for not buying tickets, but otherwise it was a reasonably pleasant and uneventful journey. At one point Kylie asked "Do you reckon we can name all 50 American states?". I didn't. I was right, but that didn't stop us from becoming utterly, utterly obsessed. Like I said – rock n' roll.

We arrived at Hamilton station just before 11am, and saw our hotel, the SJH, across the tracks and road. Our access was temporarily blocked by an electronic arm which stopped us crossing the tracks to our certain death as a train approached, accompanied by a very stern and eardrum-rupturing alarm. Remember that alarm. It's a significant character in this yarn, and one that makes me want to learn how to use a mattock.

The SJH appears to have been recently updated, showing that the Great Blonde-Wood Pub Makeover Cancer was not solely confined to Sydney. It was inoffensive enough, with a massive central bar, a restaurant at the back, a pool room, a beergarden, the obligatory pokie den, a dance-floor, and some very comfy couches. We were welcomed to our digs by a nice bloke and his missus, neither of whose names were offered, so I'm going to call them Ken and Cheryl. I have a suspicion that, since Kyles and I decided to make the budgetary accommodation decision to share a queen-bedded room, Ken and Cheryl may have suspected we were Hamilton's Newest Lesbians, rather than the certified man-loving straight chicks we actually are, but for $45 dollars a night, whatever. The room was worth every cent, too – and not a single penny more. It had at least two mod-cons, being a kettle and a window, but the share toilet and shower were at the end of the hall, and the only mirror in the whole place (yes, yes, I know that's girly, but a chick likes to look noice on inter-city jaunts) was a tiny rusty bugger in the toilets. I'm not complaining. I'm just letting you know.

Our plan for the day was to have a quick squiz around Hamilton and Newcastle proper, possibly fitting in a brief beach visit, and then making the Painting With Light workshop in time for Kyles to have a play on the computers and interview the attendees for an article she was writing, followed by, as anyone who has ever met us could assume, a bit of food and a bit of drink, before a happy game of pool and some possible cocktail sampling before a good night's sleep. It was a nice plan, concocted by the naïve in a factory staffed by Seventh Day Adventists.

We strolled up Beaumont Street in Hamilton past an inordinate number of themed restaurants, and hopped a 222 bus to Newcastle station, passing a pub called the Duck's Nuts, which I was determined to visit later just so I could say I had (it's kind of an OCD thing), and Australia's longest continuous string of bridal shops. It seems that in Newcastle on weekends, you surf, drink, see a band, and then propose to whoever's standing next to you. We alighted at the station and wandered along the waterfront towards the sound of distant guitars – there seemed to be a yoof rock fing happening, which, with a bit of retrospective Googling, turned out to be the Strikeback Festival. Threatening black clouds mixed with way-hey-hey too many black t-shirts and eyeliner crimes encouraged us to turn back towards shelter and grab some lunch. We spent a gorgeous hour at the Customs House Hotel – a mildly swanky sandstone edifice, with a big umbrella-strewn courtyard and a broad, cane-chaired, mint-juleppy verandah overlooking grassiness, treeness, and waterness. We ingested well-prepared animal parts and bread products, and my favourite wanky accessory – the Personal Pepper Grinder – came out for the fries. I figure if you're in a place that gives you a separate little dish of beetroot jam with your burger, it's okay to bring out the PPG.

Kyles and I commented on the ubiquitous regional blokey chatter (overheard on the train, the bus, and in the pub), which basically consists of grunts, "f*cks", and strings of vowels unbothered by recognisable consonants. Provincial snobbery? Perhaps, but is going an hour without hearing one man instruct another man to insert a dog in his anus really too much to ask? Regardless, we were extremely relaxed after lunch, and Kylie floated the idea that perhaps her actual participation in the afternoon's workshop might not be as useful as stopping by near the end of it and asking attendees what they thought. Somebody said something about shopping, and our fate was decided – we ambled enthusiastically towards Hunter Street Mall, because that sounded like the best of place to spend money on stuff.

We were mistaken. Take Pitt Street Mall (obviously not a good start), get rid of all the blokes wearing actual shirts, close half the shops, keep all the shit ones open and you're about there. The shop we spent the most time in was the chemist. Enough said. Whilst buying fifteen things each that we will never, ever need, Kyles asked the sales assistant where a good place to get coffee was. The girl suggested Gloria Jeans, and then recoiled in horror at our involuntary expressions of disgust. Her horror quickly changed to a serene, backlit kind of recognition, as she realised the truth – we were uppity Sydney hedonists, not convinced we were drinking proper coffee unless it was served by a scruffy gent with genital piercings. Like, she realised we were wankers, and directed us to Derby Street. Bless you, my pastel-clad purveyor of balms and potions. Freakin' BINGO.

I slurped down an excellent coffee served by an unshaven idiot (perfect!), and Kyles and I pounced on shop after shop filled with owner-designed frocks, quirky shoes, ironically-printed t-shirts , skinny, vegetarian, sour-faced staff and dresses which would certainly show way too much of our boobs. Retail Heaven, in other words. Derby Street has a Surry Hills/Glebe kind of vibe, with the associated good places to eat, drink, and spend money. So we did, until Kylie looked at the time and realised that, if we really hustled, we could probably catch the last 15 seconds of the Painting With Light workshop her new mates Kat and Jasper were running, so we hauled arse through some truly gorgeous tree-lined, terrace-house heavy streets to the college, where we walked in the door just as everyone at the workshop was walking out. I was introduced to Kat, an endearingly pigtailed artist, her new husband Jasper, also an artist (but without pigtails), and Jill (although Kyles and I heard "Julie" and proceeded to call her that, un-corrected, for at least two hours), an American visiting artist who had been squeezed into Kat & Jasper's hotel room, literally in a drawer, Japanese-style, by the festival organisers. They didn't seem at all phased by the fact that we were much, much later than we said we'd be, and suggested a drink after dumping their equipment at the hotel. There was something about that afternoon. People kept suggesting good stuff.

We all squeezed into the tiny hotel room (I sat in the drawer) and Kyles and I realised that the American Jill/Julie may be able to help us with our Naming American States obsession, which she did – screwing up her face and dotting her finger around an imaginary map in the air. From rough scrawls and disjointed counting, we assumed we had all fifty, and left the hotel to have a drink at the Duck's Nuts, which to my utter delight was right across the road. Comedy photos taken, we spent a short while in the depressing end of a depressing pub ("Duck's Nuts" obviously not meaning the same as "Dog's Bollocks"), buoyed only by lively conversation and a little bit of beer. We noticed that we were, in fact, one state short, and leapt up joyfully (well, sort of went "ray") when we nailed down the last sucker – MINNESOTA. In honour of Jill/Julie's help, we nicknamed her Minnesota and wrote it on the wall. And now, I shall never speak of naming all fifty states again.

We left the Nuts and wandered the streets investigating some of the Electrofringe installations and happenings – NewShop, a futuristic supermarket which was apparently a direct ripoff of another artist's futuristic supermarket, Unreasonable Adults Gift/Back, a concept-based swapping program which I didn't have the energy to get into or understand, a couple of shopfronts containing artsy sculptural bits, and then what seemed like the hub of the matter – a building with beer-laden tables, chairs, and art students spilling out into the street. I suffered a distinct university flashback at the sight of random clusters of pimples under interesting haircuts swigging beer and scowling, and was thankful when we turned away.

Kyles and I, having been walking around in the same clothes since sun-up, got a cab back to Hamilton to doll up and have something to eat, arranging to meet Kat, Jasper and Minnesota later for drinks. We sat in a place called Thong Thai for about three days waiting to order, ending up with some reasonably decent crisp-skinned chicken with a brilliant ginger dressing. Back at the SJH, I ordered an uncharacteristic soda and lime for my clothes-changing refreshment, whilst Kylie opted for a Lime Splice – an okay-tasting teenager of a cocktail complete with pineapple wedge and bendy straw. When she asked the bargirl to suggest a cocktail, the "Sexual Chocolate" sounded like it wouldn't fit through any straw yet invented, so she opted for the gentler, more tropical thang. It always feels good when you stay at a pub to grab a drink, open an out-of-the-way door with your special key and just waltz upstairs to your room.

At this point, having our conversation interrupted once or twice by the train-crossing alarm across the road and its ability to permeate brick, glass and bone, we wondered with a nervous giggle what time the last train came through tonight. Not the last we've heard from the bugger.

On her way back from changing in the distant bathroom, Kylie apparently clocked one of our neighbours, and she made delicate hand signals and facial expressions to me to indicate that he may have been quite intensely interested in self-gratification, to peals of mirth from me.

Acceptably groomed, and having received a number of texts from the three artists announcing that they were completely smashed after an intense cocktail-drinking session, we cabbed it to a really, really nice bar called Terminal One on the waterfront. Kat, Jasper and Minnesota were indeed at least three sheets to the wind, and poured us champagne whilst summoning the cocktail waiter. No pineapple wedges and suggestive names here, mate – I imbibed a magnificent chunk of the menu, including an apple & sage martini and an apricot & rose margarita. 'Cause I'm all class, like.

Suddenly we were beset by the shrill stylings of a hen's night, the members of which had followed Kat to our table after meeting her in the ladies, not believing that she was 40 and had just married a 24-year-old. The sophisticated buzz provided by the cocktails was somewhat lessened by the appearance of a girl in a blue frock and pink veil pinned all over with cardboard hens, each inscribed with a tops dare like "Feel a guy's arse on the dancefloor", or "Ask three guys how big their manhood is". Two of the hen's posse had parts of themselves wrapped in bandages and Glad Wrap, apparently so they wouldn't spill drinks on their new tattoos. I'd be happy to transcribe some of the hens' conversation here, but I'm pretty sure only Alsatians could hear it. They were harmless enough, but after they left I had a bit of residual humming in my ears.

A lot of the next hour has, in retrospect, lost some of its chronological order, but randomly arranged imagery includes more champagne, lychees, newlyweds having ever-more amorous embraces, the phrase "Frocked Up Large", a couple of broken glasses, a change of table, a dairy queen carved out of butter, and finally a moment of clarity as I ordered what I insisted (erroneously) would be my last drink of the night – a proper salt-crusted margarita.

Let's take a moment to honour the margarita, and also to simplify it a little.

At this point, the conversation became political and quite possibly very, very boring, peppered as it was with phrases we seemed to insert purely to prove that we could still pronounce things. My offering was "That kind of thing just makes academia stagnate", which was completely blown out of the water by Kylie's awe-inspiring "Like a self-actualised biographical novella". It's all just bollocks though, innit?

Kat and Jasper had left at some point, assumedly to have a good snog before Minnesota returned to her drawer, so the three of us jumped in a cab (ignoring, with terror, passers-by asking if "youse were garn to Fanny's"), and decided to introduce Minnesota to the joys of our "loungeroom" at the SJH. We started in the pool room, beating a couple of guys soundly at first, and then doing not so well in subsequent games. I must mention here how sweet everyone in Newcastle is. The girl who accidentally smacked me in the face with a pool cue apologised like, a thousand times. Minnesota developed a dangerous-sounding case of the hiccups, so Kyles and I bundled her into a cab outside, and thought we might try popping into a neighbouring pub, named "Signals" after it's clever, clever proximity to the railway station, and immediately regretted the decision. Main bar: girl singing Meatloaf karaoke. Toilets: drunk pregnant girl calling cab. Beergarden: aggressive fat girl getting the pip with her boyfriend and smashing a glass. In life there's usually only one or two reasons to leave a drink unfinished, and here I was with three!

We practically sprinted back to the relative comfort of the SJH and celebrated our escape by having a quick bum-shake on the old dance floor. You could almost see my batteries running out, so we each grabbed a soft-drink and a packet of chips and dragged our soggy bodies up to our room. Cheese corn chips never tasted so good. Even now I can't believe that sentence came from me. Never mind – at least the dark, velvety chasm of sleep was about to envelop me….

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