Filtering Brisbane

The sky seems bigger here in Brisbane. I’ve come from Wellington, where the hills surrounding each suburb have the effect of closing in your view of the space above. I can see why some people feel claustrophobic there. Brisbane, by contrast, is built on a river plain and opens out into the incomprehensible vastness of Australia beyond: that continental expanse, which serves to both magnify and diminish everything around — even the stars.

*

On the Airtrain, the airport-to-city train, jetlagged and slightly strung out. All I see or hear are keywords. A few graffiti tags sneak through the filter: ‘NWO’ on a silo, ‘EAT THE RICH!!’ above a spray tan salon, the sun baking everything into the dust.

*

The fellow tourist with the huge bag and the foreign accent isn’t sure whether he should get off here. After looking him up and down a couple of times, catching the confusion written all over his face, a woman in her sixties asks him where he wants to go and confirms that this is his stop. Then, after a pause: “If you’re ever unsure, never be afraid to ask.” She says it like she’s scolding him, pointing out his folly in not asking. “We love to help.”

*

Public Notice, Brisbane

Public Notice, Brisbane

*

I listen to Australian radio for a living, and the ‘Straya’ of my working life is spoken in clear, lightly accented English. It leans one way politically, then the other, but is unquestionably politically engaged. It veers evenly between the arts, gossip, scandal, activism, bigotry, and sexism. It’s apparent after an hour in the country that this picture is a narrow, blinkered view, not necessarily representative of Straya as a whole.

A group of four young men aged roughly 19-25 walks past me and all I can catch from their conversation is “had about four loaves of garlic bread”.

*

My airbnb host is very upset that Tony Abbott is her new Prime Minister. “He’s going to fuck the Great Barrier Reef!”

*

Brisbane ashtray

Brisbane ashtray

*

The State Library of Queensland is a brilliant building, superbly designed and full of treasures. Along from the Talbot Family Wall, which is covered with pictures of women (and men) from Queensland’s history, groups of teenage girls congregate in study rooms and actually appear to be studying.

Being an outsider, I wasn’t sure if I could enter this wing. Of course I could! But is it okay to take photos? Please do!

*

At a panel discussion on literary magazines, former VoiceWorks editor Tom Doig notes over the last decade an exponential increase in MFA creative writing programs around Australia and the world, in which graduates go on to teach the next batch. “It’s a literary Ponzi scheme,” he jokes, and everyone in the room laughs, including the people who are currently studying towards an MFA in creative writing.

*

I hear bells along the South Bank promenade and move to one side as another cyclist glides gently past. This city seems quite well equipped for bikes with its many cycleways and plenty of signage directing cyclists along a certain path. Later, I hear the father of a family walking in the opposite direction warn his children to be careful because “there’s idiots on bikes”.

*

Just about everyone around South Bank, particularly the beach area, is wearing bugger all on this beautifully sunny, 25-degree day. The South and East Asian men — I presume mostly Indian and Chinese — generally wear collared shirts and pressed trousers. I’m somewhere in the fashion no man’s land between the two, which is exactly where I belong.

South Bank Beach, Brisbane

South Bank Beach, Brisbane

*

An unfamiliar city used to feel like a small, well-lit spot surrounded by an endless dark, invisible expanse. Now I can go into a tourist information centre and ask clearly for the information I need. The darkness is now an unmapped haze to be brought into focus, and I’m growing up. Can I get an aegrotat pass on my twenties?

*

Kathleen takes me to a show where an actor playing the Queen refuses to shake my outstretched hand, having accepted all others, and later a naked crotch is thrust at me. Good times. Before the show, we eat dumplings and talk fitness, travel, and the Queensland government.

She’s sunny and friendly, and when she posts a photo of us to Facebook, a mutual friend neither of us has met comments, ‘Well done, you two!’ Nice moment. I mean to catch up with Kathleen again later in the week but for one reason or another, I don’t get round to it.

*

The IGA supermarket in Kangaroo Point is playing ‘Computer Games’ by Mi-Sex. I thought they were a New Zealand band? And now a kid’s having a tantrum in the next aisle over, and another over by the beans. There’s a correlation between ‘Computer Games’ and tantrums.

*

I’m sitting and reading in that relentless sun at Mowbray Park when a dog barrels up and licks my ear with force, then starts rooting around in my backpack. “Leave it!” cries the owner, and after a few uncomfortable seconds, the dog gambols off to the next hapless sunbather. We came here to relax, he came here for a laugh. “Leave it!” Again and again, person after person. Train your dog!

Mowbray Park, Brisbane

Mowbray Park, Brisbane

*

On the train to the Gold Coast, a bloke in a singlet sits down next to me with a pie and an energy drink. He scoffs the pie loudly and swigs the energy drink in gulps, and I avoid eye contact.

Later, I see several more people drinking energy drinks at Pacific Fair Shopping Mall in Broadbeach, including a woman in her 50s pushing a full-ish Kmart trolley.

New cast member on 'The GC'

New cast member on ‘The GC’

*

Peta is good company, talkative and insightful, not remotely as icy as her measured words on the page might suggest. We used to write for the same website, when I lived in India and she lived in the US, and are meeting for the first time. Our conversation focuses primarily on craziness.

At the restaurant in Broadbeach, I look over to another table and see a young Asian woman wearing a wide hat and blue shirt, talking to herself as she taps away at her phone. Peta’s phone rings and she answers it, absentmindedly holding an edamame pod in the same hand.

*

There’s a frozen yoghurt shop called YO-LO. You only live once, so why not come to the Gold Coast and eat frozen yoghurt?

*

Junk food is my life’s addiction. I used to smoke, but only for a couple of years; on the other hand, lollies, crisps, ice cream, and chocolate have been nearly impossible to resist for close to three decades now. In some ways, you never grow up.

*

Music distorts your perception. ‘Une Année Sans Lumière’ by Arcade Fire in the headphones twists Brisbane into fairytale.

The Wheel of Brisbane and the ABC Building

The Wheel of Brisbane and the ABC Building

*

The haloumi platter at Three Monkeys Cafe in West End is spectacular. Thanks for the tip, Nik. I’m curious, though: what is this older couple next to me talking about?

She: “Nothing is boring. It’s just not.”
He: “[inaudible]“
She: “We don’t have deep conversations!”

Haloumi platter at Three Monkeys Cafe

Haloumi platter at Three Monkeys Cafe

*

Reena, eight months pregnant, can’t even look at TV ads for McDonald’s beef burgers. She couldn’t drink tea for most of her pregnancy, either, until her mother arrived from Maharashtra and made it the old way with lemongrass and other spices.

For me, her mother made utthappam: pancakes made from rice, white flour, and urad dal, with onions, tomatoes, and chillis mixed through. It was like being back in India, like a step back in time. I hadn’t had utthappam for years. Reena hadn’t been able to handle onions for months, having previously wolfed them down raw with her meals. In her mum’s utthappam? No problem.

*

Back at South Bank, again — God, I love it here — a teenager in a group of teenagers spies a turkey. “Oh fuck yeah!” And he’s off sprinting after the poor thing. It gets away, so he makes gobble noises himself as the group walks on down the promenade.

*

Poster in the Botanic Gardens

Poster in the Botanic Gardens

*

In Myer, a huge and essentially faceless department store, ‘Sweet Dreams’ by Eurythmics plays over the PA. It’s September and they’ve already got most of their Christmas displays out. Some of us want to be abused.

*

“I think every boss I’ve had over here has claimed to have bikie gang connections,” says Paul. He slips into a perfect working-class Aussie accent: “’You keep that up, cunt, and I’ll get me bikie mates onto ya, come round your house and fuck you up.’” Paul’s workday Australia, of tradesmen and sleeve tattoos and the mining boom, is one I will likely never touch.

Paul is literally my oldest friend. He still seems so much wiser and more experienced in life than I am, just as he did back when we were five years old.

Paul and I

Paul and I

*

Here’s an old-school bus driver. He announces every street and points out landmarks. “There’s the ‘Gabba!” He has shoulder-length grey hair. “Nicely done, on yellow, woo-hoo! The 235 has arrived!” He wears glasses. “Good morning, young man! Good morning, young lady!” He’d be somewhere between 50 and 65 years old. “10:36, we’re a minute and a half late!” All delivered in exactly the same faux-dramatic tone, almost like a defence shield. “Thank you, have a nice day!”

At my stop, two buses arrived at the same time, and I had to signal to the rear bus — his bus — that it was the one I wanted. The driver was impressed: “You should’ve been a traffic cop!” Well fancy that! Maybe I should’ve!

“Ah, the bus is leaking.”

*

At the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane

At the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Brisbane

*

Time to leave. My airbnb host drives me to Fortitude Valley railway station and we don’t hug goodbye, though we got on reasonably well.

In the station, there are posters advertising New Zealand. Despite the facetious sentiment of ‘100% Pure New Zealand’, and as enjoyable as Brisbane has been, I’m really looking forward to closing in the sky again.

1 Comment

Filed under Australia

One response to “Filtering Brisbane

  1. tonyH

    IGA is a longlost NZ grocery store brand.

    Best post!

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