Archive for the ‘shopping’ Category

I’m back in Scotland for a holiday before making the move to Melbourne; my first trip to the motherland since moving to Australia in 2009. I’ve been excited about going ‘home’ for months. But now I am here, I’m not sure ‘home’ is the right word for it.

Everything is so familiar – yet so strange at the same time.

I smiled as I stepped off the plane onto Scottish soil – only to feel intense pain from my suddenly-sensitive front teeth as the cold air hit them. The fleece I had worn to travel in (I’ve given up any hope of ever being upgraded so dress for in-flight comfort, not style) wasn’t enough to keep me warm as I walked to the terminal.

And I haven’t really been warm since. I have been told that had I arrived a week earlier, I would have experienced a heatwave – a 10 day period of warm weather that one friend said would be recorded as the famous ‘long hot summer’ of 2012.

But except for – literally – a couple of hours when it was warm and dry enough to sit outside, all I’ve experienced is miserable weather – in June! The rain has been relentless; the skies grim and grey and the temperatures positively Baltic. A former manager of mine used to complain that all Scots were dour and lugubrious. Well, I would tell him now, you try being anything else in these conditions.

The weather has not been the only surprise.

Everywhere I look I’m overwhelmed by the choice available to consumers, and the low prices. I had what was pretty close to a panic attack as I tried to choose a pair of shoes in a Glasgow department store, so numerous were the options available. I got so distracted by the cheap food and household items in a supermarket that I forgot to buy the milk I went in for. Ayr, the home town of my inlaws, has only 46,000 residents – yet its two main supermarkets are open 24 hours a day. British retail rules mean you need never shop anywhere else – you can get anything you might require, from food and clothes to foreign currency and insurance.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of such a system, it’s the system I’ve been used to for nearly 40 years. But a few years in one of the world’s most isolated cities, with incredibly restrictive trading regulations and a population that’s not big enough for firms to take advantage of the economies of scale, and I’ve simply forgotten what it is like.

The Scots accent is far stronger than I remember too. ‘Do I sound like that?’ I asked my husband, suddenly anxious that my Australian friends might struggle to understand me. More than once I’ve had to ask shop assistants to repeat themselves.

The whole experience has left me unsettled. I didn’t feel at home in Perth, but nor do I feel at home in Scotland. Is this normal for emigrants? And if home is where the heart is, will I be able to give mine to Melbourne?

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Mi Goreng noodles - the staple of the frugal dietI’ve never been a particularly big spender (okay, okay, get your borderline racist jokes about Scottish people out of the way here, then we can move on…) but I’ve been lucky enough to always earn a decent wage. That, combined with a complete ignorance of how much our household actually needs to keep going, and a husband who likes to keep a close eye on the cash, means I’ve never really had to worry about my credit card being rejected at a checkout.

But having known since January that I would be giving up a perfectly good job in June to move to Melbourne, my attitude to money has changed.

You see, despite assurances from everyone that I will find a job over there easily enough, I have been working on the basis that I will be unemployed for a while. At least I have had some warning of this pending joblessness – my manager hasn’t requested I clear my desk by the end of the day.

The fact is that while I still have a husband in work and some assets, our income is likely to be considerably reduced once I move over to Victoria. And unlike the girl in Common People by Pulp, I won’t actually be able to call my Dad to stop it all. I’ll just have to save some money now.

So I have embraced the frugal life.

I haven’t bought meat in months. Vegetables are cheaper, and better for you. I have become inordinately fond of Mi Goreng noodles, which retail for the princely sum of 62c a pack. Chuck in a few mushrooms and it is almost a proper meal.

My clothes shopping has been scaled right back. Apart from what I really would term essentials – a pair of (cheap) boots for work and a pair of fluffy slippers for the freezing Melbourne winter – I have bought just one top since January, $22 in the Target sale.

I get a little thrill when I save $5.70 by riding to work instead of taking the train. Yesterday I almost punched the air when I discovered my health insurance would cover the entire cost of an essential podiatry appointment.

Of course I have still frittered away some cash on ‘extras’. When S first moved to Melbourne, I went out quite a lot to ease my loneliness and boredom. With every sip of overpriced wine I felt a pang of guilt not usually experienced by those who have had an atheist upbringing.

But overall, I’ve managed to keep my spending to a minimum, and coped remarkably well. It feels good to know that when I do spend money, it’s on something I really need. And of course the less I buy here in Perth, the less I have to ship over to Melbourne when I finally go – which will be another saving in excess baggage charges.

I know this tighter financial situation is my choice, and that I’m still lucky compared to many people. S is earning, we have a few bob in the bank for a rainy day, no children to support and I’m pretty confident someone will give me a job in Melbourne at some point. My frugal is no doubt someone else’s extravagance.

But it’s been a useful exercise in reminding myself about what’s important in life – and it isn’t ‘stuff’.

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It’s been a while since I posted on here – almost a year, in fact.

Stopping writing was a conscious decision, albeit one that I didn’t announce. When I got back from China, I decided to really make a go of living in Perth. I didn’t think my whinging about the place on here was helping me settle, so I stopped – simple as that.

I started to try getting more involved in my community. I tried to organise more social events. I made friends with my neighbours. I started volunteering. I missed my online rants but got my writing fix at work and writing comedy reviews.

I was busier – but still something was missing.

A trip to Melbourne to celebrate my birthday in October made the decision for me. I simply felt drawn to the place.

Sitting in a laneway cafe (yes, it’s a cliché , but they are cool), I considered the reasons why.

Some were understandable, and disappointingly predictable:

There are people in the streets of the CBD at night, and they are not all homeless.
It looks a bit like Europe, at least in the centre – there are old buildings, lots of them, and trams.
It’s the cultural capital of Australia, and has an amazing comedy festival.
There’s a wider choice of restaurants than in Perth, and they don’t tend to shut their kitchens at 9pm.

But my other reasons, well…no rational person would move to the other side of Australia for them:

It rains, and gets properly cold.
You mostly have to cycle on the road, rather than on nice, safe, segregated paths – especially if you’re heading to the CBD.
There’s a choice of daily newspapers.
In most restaurants, you don’t have to queue at a till to pay your bill like you are in a school canteen – they’ll let you pay at your table.
It has Aldi, with its twice-weekly special buys, a huge haberdashery shop right in the centre, and it’s fairly safe to assume that if H&M is ever going to open in Australia, it will be in the Bourke Street Mall.

Of course, there’s more to these reasons than meets the eye.

The weather would allow my wardrobe to be more varied (I miss boots and opaque tights, goddammit!). This, when combined with the cultural nature of the city, would mean that on bad fashion days (which I have frequently) I am more likely to get away with pretending I am just being quirky and eclectic in my clothing choices. I’d also get to use the jackets that have been in storage since we brought them from Bristol to Perth.

The relative lack of cycle lanes is countered by the massive number of people who actually use bikes for transport, rather than recreation – and despite the constant risk of doorings, the sheer quantity of people on two wheels makes on-road riding relatively safe. And perhaps because car drivers are used to sharing the road with bikes, they seem to drive less like maniacs than those in Perth.

While I would always choose The Age over the Herald Sun, at least there is a choice. In Perth – at least in terms of actual physical newspapers – there is only The West Australian.

As for the restaurants and the shops, well, I just miss the UK.

So the decision was made to move. My husband knew he would have to find a job first – his job is very specialised, and he doesn’t have a lot of choice in terms of employers. We thought it would take a while, so didn’t get too excited. But within a few weeks he found a job – so the move was on.

His new employers wanted him to start work four weeks later. A plan was hastily formulated to minimise the stress of moving yet again. He would move to Melbourne at the end of January to take up his new position. I would stay in Perth, earning as much as possible and wrapping our old life up, until the beginning of June, when we would fly to Europe for a month’s holiday. I’d find a job in Melbourne when we got back.

And so here we are, in April. Just a couple of months to go until I find out if I really want to be in Melbourne – or just don’t want to be in Perth.

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I’m not known for my sense of style. No-one will ever ask me for fashion tips. I’ll never appear in the Sunday Times Magazine summing up my personal style in two words*.

I do actually adore clothes, just not generally so much that I let what I wear get in the way of more practical considerations. I love funky shoes, true; but I also love to walk everywhere so end up alternating between flat sandals, Converse All-Stars and Merrell walking shoes. I look at my trendy colleagues with envy; but resent spending money on work clothes so tend to choose more classic officewear that will span the seasons.

So why, when fashion isn’t that much of a concern for me, do I spend so much time thinking about it in Perth?

It’s probably just homesickness in another guise, but I have really struggled to get used to clothes shopping in Australia.

In the UK, I was a chain store girl. But what chain stores we had to choose from! Top of the list was H&M, which allowed me to indulge my love of the quirky for minimal cost. Miss Selfridge kept me in casual tops with interesting features (I’m a big fan of unusual sleeves and pockets), and I was enjoying the previously-rather-staid Marks and Spencer and Next, which were beginning to really up their game around the time I left.

There are several Aussie chains that I suspect think they are a kind of down under H&M. Cotton On and (the horrific) Supré spring to mind. But there’s no originality in their goods, and with the hugely inflated prices we suffer in Australia I just can’t bring myself to buy. They would probably claim I’m not their target market, but I missed the memo about having to restrict yourself to Witchery and Country Road‘s oh-so-boring and oh-so-expensive beige creations when you pass 30. Myer and David Jones do their best, but they’re no match for Debenhams.

Locals tell me that city centre chain stores are not the way it’s done here. All the best clothes come from suburban boutiques, they say. That may be true, but when one of the biggest proponents of that theory used to turn up to work in…well, let’s just say outfits that weren’t exactly my style, I began to have my doubts.

Maybe I’m foolish to expect things to be as good as back in Blighty. Our isolation and smaller population must have an impact. In the UK, the sheer quantity of merchandise available meant that with some clever styling, you need never see anyone in an identical outfit – even if it was purchased from a store with a branch in every high street. Here, I spotted others wearing my first Australian purchase – a maxi dress from Just Jeans – numerous times within my first few weeks of owning it.

The weather has an influence too. Is it really any surprise that in summer, the shops are full of denim shorts and vest tops when the temperature doesn’t drop below 40 for weeks at a time? 

But understanding those factors doesn’t help. So while I continue to ask for suggestions for stores I might like in Perth, I shop online, and look for any opportunities to buy European.

I left space in my suitcase when I travelled to Sydney recently, knowing that Gap had recently opened a branch in the city and Top Shop had a concession in trendy store Incu.

Gap was a huge disappointment. Yes, I appreciate that they are known (in the northern hemisphere at least) for their jeans and in a Sydney summer it must be hard to sell heavy denim trousers to shoppers, but only two styles to choose from? A range of candy-hued cotton crew-neck sweaters didn’t have me reaching for my wallet either.

Top Shop was better. Its concession in Incu’s Paddington store is clearly aimed at the fashion-forward crowd. A pair of dogtooth woollen shorts caught my eye, as did a long-sleeved chiffon blouse, but I frankly don’t have the kind of social life that requires such things. And woollen shorts should really be worn with opaque tights and boots, but unless you really crank up the aircon, you can only do that for a few weeks a year.

I’m heading to China in a couple of months, and will be spending the last few days of the trip in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has eight branches of H&M and the same number of Marks and Spencers. Let’s hope there’s also somewhere that sells suitcases, because I think I might need an empty one.

* Although, for the record, they would probably be ‘clean’ and ‘comfortable’.

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Some years ago, my husband and I bought a brand new house on a modern housing estate in Lancashire. He had been transferred to an office in Manchester, more than an hour away in rush-hour traffic; the long daily commute necessitated a low-maintenance home near the motorway.

At first the house seemed great. Yes, we missed the character of our previous home – a turn of the century terrace – but the new one was so much bigger and easier to look after. There were no draughty floorboards to trap the dust or walls covered in 1970s woodchip to strip, then glue back together with Polyfilla. Friends and relatives envied the tranquility of the estate, which was occupied largely by very nice young families.

But after a year, we had had enough of the easy life. The distance from any kind of activity began to grate. Our featureless home was boring, and we felt cut off from the real world. We sold up and ploughed our money into a magnificent but dilapidated sandstone villa in an old and much more lively part of town. Not long after we took our search for the perfect city life to Bristol, a bustling, vibrant cacophony of a place.

I now realise that for me, Perth is the Australian equivalent of that modern housing estate. It’s modern, clean and shiny, safe and unthreatening, and for many people, the ideal place to live.

I’m trying my best to love it, I really am. I take advantage of what it offers. I have bought a kayak. I cycle to work. I go to open air concerts and use public barbeques. I’ve met some truly lovely people who I hope I will be friends with for a long, long time and I love my job. I don’t regret moving here for a second.

But the truth is, I miss the chaos that results when you put too many people into too small a space. I miss old buildings that are a bit shabby round the edges. I love Perth’s climate, but I miss real weather. I miss being able to go out for a meal at 10pm and shop seven days a week, including the evenings, if I want to. I worry that Perth’s isolation increases intolerance and find that my political and ethical frameworks are challenged all the time, be it by newspaper articles like this or the rampant desire for stuff displayed by so many people whose main aspiration seems to be to own a McMansion with multiple cars in the garage and a massive TV in every underused room.

I’ve always felt like this, but I’ve largely managed to suppress it until I visited Sydney last week. I don’t think Sydney is the perfect city by any means, something even the people who already live there seem to acknowledge. Maybe it’s the fact everything in Sydney is a bit older, that there’s less money around to clean it up or that the humidity simply makes the dust stick, but the city is undeniably grimy in places. The public transport system is, frankly, a bit of a mess. The traffic is a nightmare, and I suspect I would abandon the idea of commuting on two wheels if I lived there, despite the council’s efforts to make it a bike-friendly city.

But the trip was enough to start me thinking about whether Perth is the right place for me to be in the long term.

Maybe the car stickers that are all-too-common in Perth are right: I should love it or leave it. Only time will tell which it will be.

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A year ago yesterday, I landed in Perth from the UK to start my new life. I’d only visited Perth once before, and only very briefly as part of a two-month trip through New Zealand and Australia. A surf life saving competition meant every hotel in the city was booked up so my husband and I stayed in a guest house in Quinns Rocks for two nights and just passed through to the centre en route to Fremantle. The city made no real impression on me and if you’d told me then that within six months I’d be packing up my perfectly nice life in Bristol to move here, well, frankly I would have laughed.

While we had often talked about retiring overseas (New Zealand and for some unknown reason Costa Rica being the destinations of choice) my husband and I hadn’t ever really considered Australia, at least while we were still working.

So the speed and the ease with which our emigration from the UK happened was a bit of a surprise. Someone mentioned that an ex-colleague of my husband had moved to Oz. We googled him, his name came up as the contact on a job advert, my husband said: ‘I could do that’, he applied, and got it. Within a few weeks our house was sold, we were getting quotes for shipping containers and flights, and were too busy to really think about what emigrating would actually mean.

It was certainly very different to the experience of many immigrants here. For a lot of people, moving to Australia is a lifelong dream. And while you’ll be hard pushed to hear anything other than a British accent in large swathes of the northern suburbs, not that many Brits actually manage to make the move. For those over 30 who want to live here permanently, Australian visas are a bit like passes to an exclusive nightclub. If your name – or at least your profession – isn’t on the list, you’re not coming in. We were lucky.

For me, the timing was good. I’d recently instigated a review of my section at work that I knew would lead to my own job disappearing, probably to be replaced with a more senior post that I wouldn’t get. I’d become disillusioned with a job that I enjoyed, but that was so stressful at times that it damaged my physical and mental health. The dance group that had been so crucial in helping me settle in Bristol, and which had provided me with a great set of friends, had disbanded and my social life had taken a blow.

I needed a change – and had I stopped to really think about what I was doing, I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to make it.

But the decision was made, however rashly, and now I have survived the first year. I’ve even enjoyed it most of the time. Every day brings a new challenge, whether it’s meeting new people or working out what shoe size I am. I rant a lot (I always did), but in reality the list of issues I’ve faced is pretty pathetic. I had a job I didn’t like for a while and I once went to a party where everybody ignored me. Oh, and I’ve found it really hard to find decent baking potatoes. True, I’ve not made any close friendships yet, but I seem to know an alarming number of people in this big country town already so I am sure that will come in time.

Of course I still get homesick, or more accurately, people-sick and shop-sick. I’d kill for a curry at the Sheesh Mahal with Katie and Marc, and I find myself fantasising about walking through Debenhams in Broadmead: in through the cosmetics section, up the escalator to ladieswear, Red Herring straight ahead, Dorothy Perkins through to the right, Top Shop and Oasis to the left…

But I’ve survived this far, and discovered I’m much braver and much more resilient than I realised. So this weekend I will be raising a glass of Margaret River’s finest SSB to a spur of the moment decision that has (mostly) worked out. Cheers!

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Many relationship experts claim that it’s the little things that cause marriage break-ups – the toilet seat being left up, or the dirty clothes abandoned on the floor…

The same applies to the immigrant’s relationship with their new country. Even when everything seems similar on the surface – language and culture – you quickly discover that your new home is determined to leave the milk out of the fridge every couple of days just to annoy the hell out of you.

Society is oiled by a whole raft of unwritten rules. When you’re growing up, you pick up these rules as you go along. You don’t even know you’re following them. It’s only when you move somewhere else that you realise that the rules you weren’t even aware of aren’t the same everywhere. What’s worse, because no-one in your new country is aware that they’re playing by their rules, no-one will ever explain them to you. Somehow you are just expected to know.

Take, for example, healthcare. Between private health insurance and Medicare, the scope for befuddlement is huge. In the UK, you go to your doctor, get a prescription, take it to the pharmacy, pay your £7.20 and that’s it. Here, you have to pay for your appointment with the doctor, then claim most of it back by visiting a Medicare office, then shop around because pharmacies can charge more or less what they like, then remember to ask for the cheaper generic version, because it would be WAY too helpful for the doctor to have prescribed that in the first place…oh, and don’t forget to present your Medicare card at every stage of the transaction.

Then there’s shopping, which seems just like shopping at home, but which actually has a whole language of its own, which no-one taught you at school. At the checkout in Target, you’re always asked if you have any lay-bys or Fly-buys. I finally plucked up the courage to ask a local, and discovered lay-bys are a throwback to Britain of the 1950s, where you can have an item kept aside for you, to be paid off at a rate of 5 shillings, sorry, dollars a week. Fly-buys is some kind of loyalty scheme, but it’s so ingrained in society that there are never any leaflets or posters explaining what it is. Bra sizes and shoe sizes are different, and I’ve already mentioned the difficulties caused by cheese descriptions.

None of these litle irritants want to make me divorce Australia, but sometimes I do feel like yelling at it for leaving the lid off the toothpaste again.

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