The birds are chirping in the orchard as they feast on slowly fermenting stone fruit. The weather is a little humid, but a great deal more bearable than the past week’s seemingly endless heatwave. It’ll probably rain again soon. On the other end of the room, a four-month-old puppy is chewing contentedly on the head of a stuffed lion. Somewhere, a song called Lumen Lake is playing.
I’m sitting at the dinner table of an old, rambling red-brick house a few minutes’ walk from the centre of Albury, and a few minutes’ drive from the New South Wales-Victoria border. Lucy and I have been living here for a little over a month. It’s been six months since we arrived back in the area after our honeymoon, and it’s been a year – practically to the day – since I last wrote an entry in this blog.
My mother was right: the time, inevitably, flew.
When I last wrote, I was a fortnight away from getting married, and a month away from the trip. It’s been a pretty big year, so I should probably do this in sections:
What can I say? It was perfect. No, seriously: it was perfect. For example, the weather. We’d been surrounded by days of forty degrees and over, then suddenly the rain came, washing away the dust and giving us a sunny, breezy day of twenty-seven degrees, before falling back on old habits pretty much immediately and returning us to intense heat in the following days. We got lucky. The food, the music, the speeches, the camaraderie and support of the bridal party and my groomsmen, the family and friends around us, and of course the bride herself… it’s been said the bride and groom shouldn’t expect to have a lot of fun at their own wedding, but I’ll say with great confidence that it was, by a wide margin, the best wedding I’ve ever been to. (Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so.)
Our first stop, apart from a brief stopover at LAX, was San Francisco, where we battled our jetlag by braving the famously steep hills on foot, wandered through the Beat Museum and City Lights Bookstore, and explored the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood, visiting the former homes of such legends as Janis Joplin, Hunter S Thompson, Sid Vicious, Jimi Hendrix and even a house where Graham Nash and Bobby McFerrin once resided (not at the same time, although that would’ve made a great sitcom). We were also lucky enough to catch up with my cousin Alice, formerly of Sydney and Melbourne and now a confirmed San Franciscan. (Oh, and we saw the house from Full House.)
We then flew to Chicago, which was in the middle of what has already gone down in Midwestern meteorological history as the ‘polar vortex’ – record-breaking low temperatures and snowfalls – and as we emerged from Lincoln Park Station, I saw, for the first time in my thirty-one years on Earth, snow. I became an instant fan. We spent Valentine’s Day wandering through a snow-covered Lincoln Park Zoo, which was almost completely devoid of visitors, and spent the night propping up a sports bar and trying (and mostly failing) to politely decline the constant offers of whisky shots from jovial Midwesterners. Turns out a couple of Aussies on their honeymoon is a bit of a novelty in their end of town.
We were joined the next day by Lucy’s friend Alison, who’d driven down from Michigan, and at my insistence found a genuine blues bar to spend the evening. The bar has the easy-to-remember name of B.L.U.E.S, and we were lucky enough to catch a set by Big Time Sarah and the BTS Express, which is one of the best blues names I’ve ever heard. Their set wasn’t bad either. The next day we drove to Michigan, via a pilgrimage to the Billy Goat Tavern, made somewhat famous by a mid-Seventies sketch on Saturday Night Live, and ended up in Alison’s home town of Decatur (population: approx. 1782), where we were to spend the next couple of weeks. There’s a lot of farmland in Decatur, and this was the middle of Winter, so whenever I looked out the window all I could see was white. Just… white. It blew my mind. I stood on the frozen Lake Michigan. Stood on it. I even got to build a snowman. Don’t worry, I had help: Lucy and I made fast friends with Alison’s five-year-old son Will, who was nothing short of devastated when he eventually learned we had to move on.
And move on we did, to New York City and its associated clichés: Times Square, Central Park, the Dakota, the Museum of Modern Art, Greenwich Village, the Staten Island Ferry, Rockefeller Centre… but my most memorable moments were ever so slightly off the beaten path. A tour of Columbia University, courtesy of Lucy’s friend Brian. Getting my toes wet on Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, where Neil Simon had spent his Summers. Watching the Oscars on a Sunday night (not a Monday morning!) with the ubiquitous Ruth. Marvelling at the Chelsea, the haunting, foreboding hotel where Arthur C Clarke had written 2001: A Space Odyssey, where Kerouac had written On the Road, and where such random luminaries as Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, Tom Waits, Jean-Paul Sartre and Iggy Pop had resided at one time or another. And finally, in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park, I pulled off my shoes and socks and walked through the freezing, muddy grass barefoot… just as Neil Simon and his wife had done when they lived around the block, inspiring the title of the play that changed my life (and in turn inspired the title of this blog). Speaking of theatre: yes, we went to a couple of shows. Inevitably, we saw The Lion King, and yes, it was excellent; we also saw Matilda, with a great score written by our countryman Tim Minchin.
As February morphed into March, we said goodbye to the States and flew to London. More clichés: Trafalgar Square, the Portobello Road Market, the crossing at Abbey Road, Big Ben and the Embankment… but once again, we managed to dig up some more obscure experiences. For instance, we spent an entire day at the Harry Potter Museum. (It was awesome.) We also caught up with our friend Cara – it really pays to have friends scattered across the globe – and saw the West End production of Once, which was based on one of my favourite films. I never thought I’d say it, but I actually prefer the stage show. It was a truly unforgettable experience, and I must make particular mention of the live band, always visible, always playing, and always filled with exuberant energy. There wasn’t one dull moment. Also: I got to go up onstage and have a drink at a real bar. Directorial genius. (The show is currently playing in Melbourne, but it closes on the first of February, so hurry.)
We hired a car in London and drove west for a whistle-stop tour of significant towns, starting with a morning in Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare. We then drove into Wales, first stopping in Cardiff, the current home of Doctor Who, where we visited several filming locations from the past few years (and also found the childhood home of Roald Dahl). Then I dragged us to Hay-on-Wye, a handsome and odd little town on the English-Welsh border that also happens to be the secondhand-bookshop capital of the globe. I’d last visited there in 2005, and was delighted to show Lucy what I’d been raving about for all this time. But our best moment there wasn’t book-related at all: it came when we dropped in on an open-mic night in a pub called the Globe and were treated to the music of a couple of eccentric characters: a singer-songwriter who went by the colourful moniker of Dirty Ray, and his fiddler accompanist, Al Cooper. They played together on one of Ray’s songs, ‘The Rain Song’, which was one of the finest pieces of music I’d heard in a long while; but then Al managed to blow us away all over again when he improvised a fiddle solo just for us. (Once again: a couple of Aussie honeymooners in a random bar. It opens doors, I tell you.)
Barely a week after arriving in the UK, we pulled into Liverpool, and after an evening at the Cavern Club (not the original, sadly), we treated ourselves to a black-cab tour of the city – well, specifically the parts of the city that had a specific connection to The Beatles. (Yeah, don’t act surprised.) It was a great way to explore the outer areas of the city, and our driver gave us plenty of obscure info, plenty of which I’d never even heard. She even provided a full soundtrack of Beatles songs. It was far more intimate than the Magical Mystery Tour, a seemingly money-grabbing enterprise of a crowded double-decker bus tour that followed us all through town. It was all amusingly surreal.
From Liverpool, we flew to Paris (via Manchester and London, but that’s hardly important). We were privileged enough to spend a fortnight in the apartment of Lucy’s cousin Josh and his fiancée Winnie, and got to spend plenty of time with our friend (and Lucy’s bridesmaid) Kate, who’d recently moved to the city. More clichés (mostly misspelled a little): Versailles, the Louvre, the Champs-Elysees, Musee d’Orsay, Pere-Lachaise, Montmartre. More not-quite-clichés: we found the homes of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald; we wandered the subterranean, skull-filled Catacombs; we spent a weekend with Kate in the Champagne region, where we toured a champagne winery; and we had a memorable trivia night during which we apparently met Steve Coogan’s best friend, who was also once the producer of Blind Date. (I did say apparently.)
After Paris, we took the train to Amsterdam, and spent a lovely (if brief) couple of days there, wandering through Anne Frank’s annexe and getting lost among the myriad of canals and bicycles, before making our way into Germany – specifically, the northern city of Bremen, where my brother Nick lives with his wife Kirsten and their two adorable daughters, Amelie and Ella. We’d made sure in the planning stages to spend as much time with them as possible, so we hung out with them for over a fortnight, and were treated to a lot of utterly fantastic live music.
From Bremen we had a brief stay in Berlin, where – despite a bad cold – I fell completely in love with the city and its fascinating and multifaceted twentieth century history, ranging from the cabaret-filled Depression years to the Weimar era, and onto twenty-five years of Communist oppression. We even brought back a few little chunks of the Berlin Wall with us.
Wow, over eighteen hundred words in and I’ve only covered the first quarter of 2014 so far. This is a tougher assignment than I thought. Allow me to give you a bit of a breather before we venture into the sublime insanity that is Russia…