ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


the return to OZ

Was a fully saturated, action packed, emotional rollercoaster whirlwind of a visit – powered by vegemite, sunscreen and sushi.

Being at home again, after over two years away, was always going to be a bit of a surreal experience. The strangest part however, was that so much felt completely normal. My parents seemed unchanged, my little brothers still towered over me, even my brother’s fiancée (whom I’d never met before) was exactly as I expected, a natural addition to the scene awaiting me at the airport.

After a 36 hour journey with virtually no sleep (there was too much food and entertainment to indulge in during the flight), meeting and greeting the family, and ‘checking in’ to my parent’s place (again, unchanged), I had a shower and a quick siesta, and then went straight to a friend’s 30th birthday in Princess Park.

Prinny was my old stomping (and running) ground, just around the corner from Melbourne Uni. I arrived late to the picnic/BBQ to find my ‘north side’ friends clustered around a bunch of eskies and a fold out table laden with dips and mostly eaten birthday cake. They were sipping cider and bubbles and wearing summery clothes, as though that’s what they’d been doing ever since I left. Obviously that’s not the case – many of them have been busy being lawyers and having babies and doing PhDs in disciplines I can’t pronounce the names of. But this Sunday afternoon was super casual, yet picture perfect, and it instantly made me feel as though I hadn’t missed a beat.

Anyway, ‘off the plane and to a party’ pretty much set the pace of my entire stay. Except for when I was at a music festival, hiking, or on the road to visit rellies interstate, I was busy in Melbourne catching up with groups and individuals over breakfast, brunch, lunch, coffee, walks and dinner. Unfortunately for me, in early December almost everybody was still at work in the real world, so there was a fair bit of visiting people on their lunch breaks. It was actually quite nice to see where they worked – mostly in impressive looking glass high-rises. One morning I even begrudgingly met up with my brother at 7.30am, ‘the only time his schedule would allow’, which was a shock to my system and a telling reminder of the differences in our lives. Fortunately, despite the career disparity, we still got along as well as we always have, and fortunately this was the case with just about everyone. I’ve invested a lot a of time and effort into keeping in touch with people while away, and it was a relief to realise it’s paid off. Not once did I feel like a stranger.

Meredith, my favourite festival in the bush

So what were the highlights? Well there were too many to mention, and it wouldn’t be fair to single out one over others. Besides, this was a purely social holiday, and I doubt my personal life has anything new to offer the blogosphere.

Instead, to summarise my trip without having to write properly, I’m going to be very Gen Y and put my observations into lists; of things that surprised me, things that I’d missed, and things that I learnt from my visit to home.

Things about Melbourne that surprised me (or that I’d forgotten about)

  • Increased prevalence of beards – notably the full-blown Ned Kelly ginger bush variety, which I’m not particularly sold on, but is now ubiquitous in the northern suburbs and at hipster music festivals. (I don’t mind a bit of respectably trimmed scruffle though, and it was nice to see a lot of that around too).
  • Prices – despite having free accommodation, being cooked for, shouted, taken out, and chauffeured around, this was still one of the most expensive holidays I’ve ever had. I’d forgotten just how pricey Melbourne was. Ten dollars for a pint of cider? That’s a three course meal in Spain!
  • Internet and phone app dating – seems to now be the norm. I suppose that makes sense in such a modern, proactive society, where people know what they want, are ruthless in looking for it, and time is at a premium. However seeing this change (and meeting all the new +1s) made me realise not only how old fashioned I am, but just how incredibly passive my attitude is toward the whole question of finding a partner is.
  • The Australian sun – how it burns! I’d forgotten about the ‘no ozone’ thing, oops.
  • Trendy hipster trendiness (bluntly described by a friend as a ‘big w*** fest’, which is definitely one way of looking at it) – everything seemed so fancy, so designer, so elaborate. Especially what comes on your plate. I used to work in hospitality and I thought I knew all the food words. But things have changed. It’s been taken to another level, damn master chef and everyone wanting to be a ‘foodie’.
  • Urban sprawl – Melbourne apparently now spans over 100km. You can drive and drive and the city never ends.
  • My mum has become a cricket fan – Now this was a shock. She was always a kindred ‘non-cricket’ person, but now she leaves the TV on all day when the cricket’s on, and speaks cricket language (all fractions and innings and names of people I don’t know). I feel betrayed.
  • Public transport – a tardy, lumbering embarrassment. It’s hard for me to believe I used to spend up to 3 hours a day on trams (to get from one ‘inner city’ suburb to another), and never thought much of it. Compared to the metro of, for example Madrid (also 4 million people), Melbourne is light years behind. I’m not sure what the criteria are for ‘world’s most liveable city’, but given that Melbourne has won it, public transport clearly isn’t one of them.
  • Meat – at almost every meal. Seemed like a lot, in comparison to my usual passive-semi-vegetarian diet. I eat meat in Spain if it’s served to me as a tapa, or occasionally in a menú del día, but these are tiny portions compared to the quanity of meat served in an Australian main (at home or dining out).
  • Bigger people. Just sayin’
  • Strange new words like ‘totes’ (totally) and ‘fomo’ (fear of missing out).

Nice stuff that I’d missed, and some new pleasant surprises

  • Home-style Aussie food – all those yummy things that sound weird when you try to explain them to foreigners, like curried eggs, curried sausages, cucumber dip, yo-yos, Pavlova, and chicken Parma. Even Vita Wheats got me excited.
  • Lemon lime and bitters
  • Real milk – none of that UHT nonsense
  • Asian food – is so much better in Australia than in Spain. Or maybe it’s just about what you’re used to. I must be specifically hooked on ‘Australian style Asian food’, cos I’m sure it’s different in Asia. Anyway, I did my best to eat my fill of sushi, Bombay By Night’s ‘Chicken Makhanwalla’, and every kind of stir-fry, dumpling, mooncake noodle goreng I could get my hands on. New Year’s Day involved an epic Yum Cha feast…I think I’ve now had enough chicken’s feet and Shanghai pork buns to last me until 2015.
  • Variety, variety, variety – Segovia is a hot spot for ‘traditional Spanish food’, so that is what 99% of bars and restaurants serve. But Melbourne offers food from every continent (well maybe not Antarctica). It was refreshing to be able to choose what type of cuisine I felt like eating. Bless multiculturalism!!!
  • Jobs – In Melbourne it seems like every one has one, and most students even work part time – something unheard of in Spain, where about 50% of my age group is unemployed.  I know that my Australian peers work incredibly hard, and not all of them have ended up in their chosen fields, but I really hope they understand how lucky they are.
  • Gardens – I’ve missed back yards!
  • The music – Aside from friends and family, good music in bars is probably the single biggest thing I’ve missed about Australia, and the terrible music in bars (as in ‘discotecas’, the places you go after 3am cos you want to dance) has been the single biggest disappointment of Spain*.
    *at least the Spain I’ve lived in. I know there’re plenty of famous Spanish clubs that are renowned for their top notch DJs, but in your everyday venues where the normal people go, it’s latin Top 40 plus Rhiannon, at deafening volume, with nobody dancing… so it was really nice to sit around and listen to ambient electronica, at a volume that still permitted conversation, and realise it was so beautiful I never wanted to leave
  • Cider – As much as I loved my Asturian experience, I’ve got to say, I prefer cider the Australian way: on tap, with the bubbles already in it.
  • Coffee – I know I’ve already complained about Melbourne’s overly expensive and overly trendy bar and cafe scene, and coffee is one of the biggest culprits in regards to this. But the endless cupfulls of creamy swirly works of art were really quite delightful, and possibly even worth the price.
  • Nice looking bars – awesome decor and design. With mood lighting, great music and hypnotic coffee swirls, you can disappear into another world. Cool.
  • Beaches – I went for a morning run along a beautiful beach near my Great Aunt and Uncle’s place on the east coast, and I was the only person there, bliss! Even though I’ve never been a surfer/swimmer/beach babe type, I’ve missed living by the sea. Two years inland is making me feel a bit, dunno, claustrophobic.

Things I learnt (or think I learnt)

  • That I can still finish a whole chicken Parma, even when topped with kangaroo fillet. (Thanks Pub Club and the Napier Hotel)
  • That as much as I like bushwalking and I like camping… bushwalking and camping at the same time is not for me. Even when the boys are carrying the tents.
  • That eating “scroggin” (fruit and nut trail mix with MMs) whilst hiking is a sure fire way to not lose weight whilst hiking.
  • That inflatable mattresses need to be inflated, if you want them to adequately serve their purpose as a mattress.
  • That it’s impossible to spot koalas when you’re looking at your feet.
  • That Melbourne has it’s own special variety of cold, that gets into your bones and makes it feel at least 15° colder than it actually is. Why else would I be shivering myself to sleep on a 20° Melbourne summer evening, and, upon my return, finding a 10° Segovian winter night “balmy”.
  • That Emirates are overrated.
  • That I’m a lot more materialistic than I thought I was. Many of my peers in Melbourne have nice stuff (cars, houses, iPhones), and I began to notice envy creeping in, something I hadn’t felt in a while. And when my suitcase was delayed for 3 days on the way home, I started to overthink and worry about what would happen if I lost all my things. Perhaps I’m not such a free spirit after all.
  • That at home I feel much more susceptible and reactive to…everything. It’s not just jealousy. The terrible public transport stresses me out. Elevated prices disgust me. The new government’s policies revolt me, make me angry and ashamed for my country. On the flip side, the positive aspects (such as good music, art and produce, beautiful gardens, and friends and family doing inspiring things), make me swell with pride and joy and optimism. When I’m overseas, it’s much easier to detatch. I don’t feel subject to pressures (not that anyone pressures me at home) or responsible for shit governments (not that I’m responsible at home). I just take things for how they are and then choose if or how much I want to engage or react emotionally. Perhaps an attitude I should work on maintaining next time I’m in Australia.
  • That seeing people one-on-one, and catching up with large groups of people in which you want to talk to everyone at the same time, are both very exhausting, but in different ways.
  • That being ‘on holidays’ at home, with all your family and friends, is awesome. Ex-pat or not, I recommend it to anyone! (stage your own disappearance for a few months, come back, and everyone will buy you beers!)
  • Most of all, I learnt that I had been denying to myself the extent to which I missed everyone. I tried to convert it in my head to “missing situations or moments”, such as watching QI on Tuesday nights at my parents’ house, playing scrabble with friends in winter, or getting Thalia Thai or fish ‘n chips on hangover days. Wrong. I missed people – my parents, my brothers, and my friends. With or without QI and Thaila Thai. But I guess that’s a good thing, and I’m lucky to have people to miss. Very lucky.

a pretty nice view to brush your teeth to, at Wilson's Promontory National Park


Reflections of a conflicted omnivore… and a bit about Segovian suckling pig

   “If you’re going to kill an animal for food, you may as well use the whole animal.” Said someone, once, I think on Master Chef.

Another time, a vegetarian friend scolded me for leaving half a schnitzel on my plate. “An animal died for your meal” she said, “so you can’t throw it out now, you have to finish it”.

For quite some time, I’ve been umming and ah-ing about whether or not to eat meat.

Environmentally (and politically, I suppose?), I belong to the camp of people who believe the planet would be better off if we were all vegetarians. Livestock consume too much fodder (energy), destroy too much land, and fart too much methane, to really justify the unnecessary quantities of meat enjoyed by a lucky handful of first-world people. As for animal conditions and cruelty, like most people, I try to live and eat in blissful ignorance. I know there’s a good reason why I don’t want to know too much about where my meat comes from. If I did, I’d probably have to bite the bullet and go seriously green. Obviously there’s a lot more regulation these days; you can opt to buy fair trade and organic and what not… but I’ve heard (not quite from the horse’s mouth, but close enough), that these ticks, trademarks and certificates are not to be trusted. At least in Spain.

On the other hand, I’m a firm believer in the natural cycle of things. Animals eat other animals, and our ancestors have hunted, stabbed, beat, bludgeoned and skinned their dinners for millennia. Who are we to turn our noses up at what evolution (and our tastebuds) dictates to be nothing but a good thing? Damn vegetarians. Think they’re smarter than Darwin. (And they’re so bloody difficult at dinner parties.)

Over the years, my actual meat consumption has oscillated radically, though not always in relation to the ideological tug-of-war that’s being played out upstairs.

As a kid, I ate a regular Australian omnivorous diet. This consisted of (burnt black) sausage sizzlesat at all school/community events, roasts on special family occasions, fish theoretically once a week but more like once a month, and a constant intake of the world’s best (I’m really not biased) spaghetti bolognaise.

As a teenager, I worked at Maccas. Not only did I eat a lot of the de/re-constituted/frozen/hydrated ‘meat’, but I actually inhaled the fatty gases and absorbed the meaty greasiness through my skin as well.

As a uni student, I became an economic near-vegetarian. This didn’t bother me, as I had a really swanky sandwich press. A cheese-and-tomato* toasty has protein, carbs and vegetable. For under 50c per meal, what better nutrition could you ask for?
* ie tomato sauce/ketchup

Towards the end of uni, I remember I had a few short stints without meat, mostly for health reasons. It was part of a semi-permanent ‘detoxification’ process (obsession). Live on nuts and berries for a week, and then everything else (all ‘bad’) every other week. Smart.

Then I had a steak* in Argentina, and that idea went out the window. How could meat be bad, when it makes you feel this good? Argentinean steak literally had a Popeye effect on me, and I resolved to start eating meat regularly when I got back to Melbourne.
*with a nice glass of Malbec**, of course.
**an incredibly heavy red wine, that makes Australian shiraz seem like fruit juice

I guess part of growing up* has been the (incredible!) realisation that how you feel on a daily basis has a direct correlation with what you do or don’t eat. Good stuff makes you feel good, and rubbish makes you feel rubbish. Brilliant!
* yes, I consider myself partially grown up

And so for a while, I had a very healthy, very regular diet, with everything safely balanced and controlled. I ate wholemeal grains, free range eggs and organic chicken (though still not quite enough fish). I got seriously into Kangaroo meat, which was a cheaper, healthier option to other red meats in Australia. (It’s also more environmentally friendly. Kangaroos don’t hurt the land, and they don’t produce methane.)

As for a good hearty beef steak, that was for special occasions at my parents’ place, as they have connections with an incredible butcher. I still remember the eye-fillet (medium rare) that dad cooked me for my going away dinner. I don’t think I’ve had a beef steak since. It’s been a year and a half, not that I’m counting.

When I came to Spain, all planning and moderation went out the window. Meal ‘times’ were shifted about four hours later, the bakeries in my village only had fluffy white bread, all cooked food seemed to be fried, all fresh food was soaked in olive oil, and the people seemed to eat so much god damn pig.

But when you don’t know the language, you can’t protest. All you can really do, is let go.

On more than one occasion I found myself in situations where the only food was meat (dripping with fat), and bread, without so much as a cherry tomato in sight. That’s not to say that all Spanish food is unhealthy and that the people don’t eat greens, it’s just that they do eat a startling quantity of pork products, and fried potatoes are often considered to satisfy the vegetable component of a meal. Such a shame, when the fruit and veg here is so cheap and delicious.

But anyway, I’ve gotten used to it. I’m a lot more flexible about meal times, generally eating whenever the siesta rolls round, and/or whatever the barman decides to dish out for tapas. Funnily enough, I’ve neither starved to death, nor accidentally gained ten kilos in this time. To offset the amount of meat served when I go out, I’m practically vegetarian at home. (If I don’t eat out in a while, I can pass periods where 90% of my protein intake comes from cheese. Some things don’t change.)

One thing that I’ve been trying to embrace (or at least accept) is the amount and variety of pork products here. The pig, as much as the bull, is practically a national icon. To have a leg of jamon (cured Spanish ham) in your kitchen is a sign of affluence. If you see meat on a menu and it doesn’t specify what kind, that’s because it’s pork.

All credit to the Spaniards, they’ve certainly been resourceful and creative in the development of pig meat cuisine. Not a bit goes to waste. The ears can be stewed (until they’re soft and slippery) or fried into crunchy garlic ‘cartilage crisps’. The trotters are boiled into gelatinous god-knows-whats. The skin can be processed into curly little bar snacks that look deceptively like popcorn.

When I was working in a primary school last year, I had the pleasure of accompanying a group of 6-8 year olds to the ‘Museum of the Mantanza’. The mantanza is the ritual of killing a pig, gutting it, cleaning it, and preparing all the different foods that come out of it. It’s traditionally a family event; every member has their role, from cleaning the intestines to make sausage casing, to collecting the blood to make morcilla (Spanish black pudding). In the museum, we saw the ancient apparatus from times when the mantanza could take a week from start to finish. With modern technology, it takes about a day to get everything done. The mantanza takes place in winter (in summer the meat deteriorates too quickly), and begins before daybreak with the killing of the pig. The people breakfast on migas (stew of oily breadcrumbs) and a strong herbal liquor, to fortify themselves not only against the cold, but the stench of the open animal. At the museum, we had the pleasure of watching a video of a mantanza, from start to finish. The kids, mostly from the country, were nonplussed. For me it was an eye-opener.

Being a city girl, I was glad to have seen it (and even more glad not to have smelt it). It was a timely and not-so-subtle reminder of exactly where (and from which bits) my food comes from.

The region of Segovia (where I live now) is famous for cochinillo, roast suckling pig. It literally consists of the whole baby animal splayed on a plate and roasted in a giant wood-fire oven. People come from all over Spain to eat it. Ever since I’ve arrived here I’ve been meaning to order it, just the once. I suppose I liked the idea that it’s a whole, un-processed animal. There’d be absolutely no doubt about what you’re eating. But as it’s kinda expensive, and it’s best to have a big group of people to share with, my friends and I had been waiting for a special occasion in order to try it.

As February is the month of birthdays (wherever I go), last weekend we got a group together for a big Saturday lunch of cochinillo.

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We were served at the ratio of one pig to every three people. My first impression was that the little darlings looked so small on the plates, with their tiny trotters and curly tails and their sleepy squinting eyes. Then try trying to eat one. I can admit that the meat was good, from a critic’s perspective. It was juicy and tender, and surprisingly not very fatty. The skin was crispy and much thinner than pork crackling from a full-size pig. The clear broth that was served as ‘gravy’ was absolutely delicious. But in the end, the meal defeated me. As much as I’m glad to have tried it, the fact is, cuteness and ideology and everything else aside, I simply don’t like the flavour of pig meat. Unlike spiced chorizo and cured jamon, chochinillo tastes of nothing but pure roast pork.

A pretty embarrassing amount of food was left being after the meal. My vegetarian friends would be appalled. I was appalled. Hours later, I still felt full, and really quite unwell, despite not actually eating that much (quantity wise). Days later, it’s snowing outside and I find myself craving fresh garden salads and watermelon. The richness of the meat has lingered well past its welcome.

I guess it’s great to be open to new things, but in the end, each to their own. The cochinillo experience has definitely reminded me of my limits, and re-awoken my internal (now external) debate…