Posted by: megaschwez | July 31, 2012

Central Station’s Got Talent

In Sydney, there is a really long tunnel that stretches underneath Central station, taking you from the West to the East. Obviously, it is 92% less interesting than any tunnel that took you from, say, West to East Berlin circa 1980. Nevertheless, on most days, it provides a kilometre of pure entertainment on my twice daily walk to and from work.

During the morning and afternoon peak hours, however, the tunnel is unpleasantly crowded. This makes me edgy, mostly because if there was a fire, there could be a stampede, and if there were a stampede, I might be trampled underfoot. And I have in no way planned an inglorious death in a tunnel lined with murals of construction workers.

At night, it is deserted and slightly creepy. If you were being chased, you would have to run a long way, in a straight line, underneath fluorescent lights. These are sub-optimal conditions for anyone, except if you are the attacker, in which case I would highly recommend it.

It is, however, the perfect venue for busking, because it channels a large number of pedestrians for a long distance and offers no opportunity for them to avoid you. In the six months that I have walked through there twice a day, I have witnessed musicians, performers, puppeteers, Christians, Hari Krishnas, Seventh Day Adventists, bracelet weavers, beggars, a pregnant woman and a ‘palm reader and face reader’.

As far as I can tell, all of them would like some money. Some go about their quest passively, sitting behind a cardboard sign or holding a cup (beggars, pregnant woman), or displaying goods and services for sale (Seventh Day Adventists, Christians, palm-and-face-reader).

Many people with the carefully-lettered signs sport sunglasses, and are quite specific about the fact that they would like to go to Liverpool or Gosford. This is no doubt because they are beautiful places and is in no way related to the flourishing trade in illegal substances there.

However, it is the active methods of encouraging donations that I find most fascinating, which as far as I am concerned all come under the umbrella term ‘busking’. There are a surprising number of regular minstrels, and I am dying to interview almost all of them. Had I a more journalistic bent, I would do exactly that, instead of what I am about to do, which is wildly speculate.

I would start my interview series with the most committed duo, who appear almost every day. He plays guitar and looks about ten years older than his companion, who is herself solidly middle-aged. She plays the electric keyboard and sometimes sings. Unfortunately she does both of these things with no sense of rhythm whatsoever. Nevertheless, she is clearly the star of the show, despite the fact that he has more musical talent. This makes them very similar to Roxette.

The most committed buskers in the Devonshire St Tunnel

I wonder a lot about them. Are they a couple? Or are they friends? Are they doing it for the money? Or does she just want to practice? Every morning, I wonder how I could best make a gold coin donation say, ‘I marvel at your lack of musical talent whilst applauding your commitment.’

These two, however, are certainly the most traditional of the lot – the dwindling old guard of busking. They are the Turners to the Damian Hirsts and Tracey Emins of street performance (NB I stopped paying attention to the art world in 2001, please replace with your favourite contemporary bleeding edge artist).

It’s difficult to pick favourites from such an embarrassment of riches, but I have to admit that it’s the avant garde that really gets me in. In true guerrilla style, my favourite act, who I like to call ‘Pensioner Bouncing A Tennis Ball’ has only performed once, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

His formula for success: Take a tennis ball and bounce it. That’s it. That is his whole shtick.

In a market already saturated with instrumental entertainment, he has clearly decided to wow his audience with performance art. What especially appealed to me was his astounding natural lack of coordination.  To wit: He bounced the ball and then couldn’t actually catch it again. And not even in a deadpan, slapstick Federer-meets-Charlie-Chaplin kind of way – he was always slightly embarrassed to have to go chasing after the ball.

Coming a close second is a double act featuring an oriental marionette and a custom-made mobile puppet theatre on wheels. When I first saw this act through the crowds, I could have sworn that the puppet had a Fu-Manchu moustache. As you will note from the location shot, however, the marionette is in fact a woman with a selection of instruments at her disposal. She is accompanied by mournful, minor-key muzak eminating from a cheap amp on the floor.

Marionette Busker Central Station Sydney

The icing on the cake, though, or rather the coconut on the lamington, is the Australian flag that waves proudly atop the puppet theatre. I desperately want to know the story behind that flag, and it is certainly the first thing I would ask the owner-performer about in the interview. I assume that what he wants to say with the flag is ‘I am a proud Asian-Australian and want to share my culture with you, passerby, while embracing my new homeland’.

However, it could mean any number of things. He may have calculated that the average level of xenophobia is offset by a flag measuring exactly 20x30cm. Or, for all I know, the streets of China are knee-deep in flute-and-liuqin-playing marionettes, and the flag is a point of difference to get the attention of the Asian Diaspora in Sydney.

It may even be an attempt to appease nationalist Anglo goons wearing ‘we grew here you flew here’ wifebeaters, making racist remarks on the way past on the well-trodden path between Cronulla station and Sydney Central Backpackers.

We’ll never know unless I actually conduct an interview with him. It’s pretty far down on an extensive list of things I’m currently procrastinating on, however, so it’s safe to say it will remain a mystery for a while yet.

A few weeks ago, a new guy in town appeared – the Backwards Busker. He faces the wall and lets his country yodels reflect off the tiles. His guitar case is halfheartedly opened in front of him – which is actually behind him – but he clearly ain’t doin’ it for the cash.

The Backwards Busker Central Station Sydney

My suspicion is that he is actually either undergoing therapy, or is a member of Toastmasters, and that his foray into busking has nothing to do with money or practice, but is a way to build up his confidence and prove to himself that he can do something scary. It could be that he is an introvert who just wants to get up the courage to ask out the forty-something divorcée at the bar who has been serving him every Friday for the last 20 years. We don’t know.

Another regular has a little kick-drum, a good sense of rhythm, and a repertoire of a few decent chords on the guitar. Unfortunately, I am forced to deduct points for the god-awful caterwaul that comes out of his mouth. I look forward to such time as when he gets a producer who can encourage him to explore instrumental tracks. Someone who can gently but firmly tell him to make like Holly Hunter in The Piano and zip it.

The real future of busking, however, lies with the children. There is a little girl who sometimes plays the violin after school, sitting on a milk crate diametrically opposite her terrifying mother. The only reason I haven’t yet put money in the hat is that I keep forgetting to bring a stopwatch, so that I can time how long it takes for mum to cross the tunnel and snatch the coin, still warm from my hand, for herself.

At other times, there is a little boy who plays what looks to me like a school recorder that has contracted an iodine deficiency and developed a goitre. A reliable source informs me that this is in fact called a hulusi, and has been played since ancient times, even before the soundtrack to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

I can’t quite shake the feeling that, should the gods will it, these two will perform at the same time. Catching sight of one another across the crowded tunnel, they will fall in love, á la Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake in the Mickey Mouse Club. NB: This is not to suggest that the girl will subsequently marry in a velour tracksuit, pash on with Madonna and then shave her head; nor that the boy will write a hit song about their breakup and then become a slashie singer/actor.

It can only be a matter of time before Channel 7 sends some desperate X-Factor producers out to mine this rich source of raw talent. I will magnanimously accept a token cut of 95% of all profits for lifting the lid on this pot of gold.

Full financial disclosure: It is a fine line between investigative journalism and ‘cash for comment’. I solemnly declare that a total of $3 was spent in the writing of this article, as compensation for photographs only. Cheapskate, sure. What of it?

Posted by: megaschwez | February 22, 2012

Hard to get good help these days

The Removalists

Two weeks ago, an enormous shipping container arrived at our apartment complex, containing about 85% of our combined worldly possessions. It had survived six weeks on the ocean, during which time we had visions of it going the way of the Costa Concordia, spewing our personal belongings into the ungrateful ocean, or being pillaged by Somalian pirates on the specific hunt for cheap western guitars, cookbooks and ikea crockery. For two frustrating weeks, after arriving the same way as my convict ancestors, it sat in a port 25km away, while the company put up its collective feet and took a break over Christmas. Meanwhile, we spent the festive season the same way we had spent the rest of November and December, wearing the same three outfits, eating with someone else’s cutlery and sleeping on borrowed mattresses.

So, we were more excited than a bogan on Australia Day when the truck pulled up in the clearway, and three suitably burly removalists began carting our 75 boxes up to the third floor. I stood officiously in our hallway, checking off each box as it arrived, as if my vigilance was important to stop them running off with box #31, ‘outdoor shoes’. After ineptly assembling the bed, making sure that eight structurally-important-looking bolts were left out, and unwrapping selected furniture items with the enthusiasm of an emo teenager at a great-aunt’s christmas party, they disappeared to be burly at their next destination.

Paper Tigers

When we had finished unwrapping our goods, we were knee-deep in between eight and ten football fields’ worth of endangered rainforest, which had been pulped, pressed into slightly woofy paper and utilised for the globally beneficial task of protecting our crockery. Clearly, the company’s insurance firm had terrorised them, as they had separately wrapped anything that could be pulled apart into components. The removable part of the garlic press was swathed in three separate sheets of paper, for instance, and each of our twenty-seven shot glasses was the size of a small balloon.

Inevitably, we came across a number of items that had, by mistake or miracle, avoided our first round of ruthless sorting and disposal. We marvelled at our past selves, who, when presented with the task of ‘packing essentials for overseas’ had apparently sanctioned the shipping of a glass cake platter (complete with dome), and a crushed ice maker.

Upon initially finding out that we would not be paying for the container that was to ship our goods, we did what any sensible misers would do and pointed at the largest item of furniture we owned, demanding that it go with us. And so it was that an enormous wall unit arrived in six pieces, which we were quite keen to get  mounted so that it could do what it does best, which is house our liquor cabinet.

The Two Ronnies

not mike delfinoWhen the glorious day of assembly arrived and there was a knock at the door, I was expecting a couple of chippies decked out with tool pouches and polo shirts covered in wood shavings. Somewhat resembling Mike Delfino from Desperate Housewives. They, in turn, most likely expected me to look like Teri Hatcher.

We were all woefully disappointed. I opened the door to Ma and Pa Kettle carrying a black and decker. ‘Nick’ was a stocky, white-haired guy in his 50s, I guess. I would like to say that his carpentry training had taken place at the school of hard knocks. Unfortunately, it does not appear to have taken place at all. He was accompanied by a polite, wizened woman with stringy hair who looked like she had just stepped out of a vegetable dehydrator. My suspicion that this was a result of cigarette consumption was confirmed when she came back up after a break smelling like there was a tobacco field on fire inside her skull. Her husband explained that she had just been made redundant, and he had taken her on as an apprentice.

What that actually meant, it emerged, was that she had lost her job at the school canteen, and now she followed him around every day like a desiccated greyhound. She was, at any rate, the only apprentice ever to avoid an arse-kicking after being asked her to go downstairs for a chisel and bringing back a file.

I figured that, even allowing for an incompetence buffer, I should be seeing the back of tweedledum and tweedledee in about 2 hours. Even though my fitting and joining expertise comes from watching Better Homes and Gardens with a rude hangover, I knew that this job basically just involved measuring up, screwing some wood to the wall, hanging the unit on the wood, and drinking a cold beer. After all, it had only taken about an hour for the initial installation, in between cups of tea and bikkies.

Ma and Pa Kettle, on the other hand, saw things differently. Astonishingly, they felt no need for such rank amateur steps as measuring the length of the wall. The chief just asked ‘which side’ll we start from then?’ In retrospect, I should have felt less awe and more foreboding at his ability to measure up the space with his naked eye.

Now, you can do a lot of things in six hours. It is the approximate length of a school day. A leisurely round of golf might take that long, if you stretched out your time at the nineteenth hole. A neurosurgeon might get through a couple of biopsies and lunch. You could watch Braveheart twice back-to-back and still get change from six hours, including toilet and popcorn breaks.

Turns out, amateur handypersons can also spend this same amount of time making our rented walls look like swiss cheese. Finally, at 7pm, stoically missing out on the Biggest Loser weekly weigh-in, I was admiring the way our newly-installed furniture tilted at a slight angle, clinging precariously to the gyprock.

Nick gave me his card, if anyone is interested in his services. Apparently he does all kinds of odd jobs, and his unique selling proposition appears to be that you get to enjoy his company for four times as long as it would take any other tradesperson. I personally have filed his contact details in a manila folder labelled ‘complaint letters’. I will get around to drafting a recommendation to the removalist company to never again use his esteemed services, right after I send off the ones to an internet provider, the building manager and Kyle Sandilands.

Posted by: megaschwez | December 4, 2010


8. Blokey surnames

Rugby playing surnames for allI don’t know much about Australian private boys’ schools, but I do know that people who have spent any time in them form a lifelong habit of call each other solely by their surnames as a sign of manliness, sporting prowess and, I guess, not being homosexual or something.

Thus, I spent a lot of time when I first moved here wondering why 100% of the Austrian population of both genders appeared to have attended one of these elite boys’ schools. Until I realised that, independent of age, class, gender, creed or social status, everyone refers to everyone else with last name first.

So, when girls here are referred to as, for example ‘Aniston’ or ‘Jolie’, I just imagine them all as tough rugby players with it emblazoned across their jersey. It makes the world a happier, butcher place.

Posted by: megaschwez | December 3, 2010

Part VII

7. Title porn

drinking before graduationI spent twelve thousand bucks on my university degree (or, I have a never-to-be-repaid debt of 12K, whichever way you want to look at it), and received, for my money, a bunch of letters and parentheses  that I will probably never use in an official capacity, to wit: (BA)(Lang)(Hons).

Luckily for me, our friends the Austrians love a good title, and throw them around with wilful abandon. They have a title called ‘Magister’ which, though your English-speaking brain files it alongside ‘magic’ and ‘register’, actually refers to a university degree somewhere between a Bachelor and a Masters.

l decided that it obviously correlates to my honours degree, and have been titling myself ‘Mag.’ at every possible opportunity. Application for an apartment? Magazine subscription? Competition entry form? Chuck it in there! Why? Because, sad but true, you actually get preferential treatment when you whack on a prefix.

At the doctor’s surgery, I am called up as ‘Frau Magister’, and I suspect the respect on the faces of my fellow patients betrays the fact that they are unaware that 90% of my study career was spent sprawled somewhere with a hangover.

Posted by: megaschwez | December 2, 2010

Part VI

cockroach duz not speek german6. Bugs begone!

One of the images burned into my retinas is that of the time that I, living in a shitty share house in an unnamed Sydney suburb, took my cornflakes out of the kitchen cupboard and sleepily poured them into my breakfast bowl, ALONG WITH A COLONY OF BROWN COCKROACHES.

It pretty much still rates as my #1 hideous roach experience, winning by a nose against the day I witnessed a fat, black, suburban cockroach whir past me in the kitchen with a thick buzzing of wings, and realised that they can fly.

Tellingly, there is no word in German for ‘cockroach bait’. Here, you can leave food out on the kitchen bench overnight, and in the morning it will be marvellously intact, unmunched by any vermin! You don’t have to check under toilet seats or inside your shoes for spiders. One can walk with giddy abandon through long grass without fearing snakebite! If this is not Edenesque, I don’t know what is*.

Mosquitos are about the only pesky creature around, and let’s be honest, they’re practically the liquid-eyed puppies of the creepy-crawly world, if you look what they’re up against.

The flip-side, of course, is that all the Europeans I’ve encountered are pretty certain that we live in bug-infested terraces not so dissimilar to that cockroach cave in Indiana Jones. Which, if you take Sydney houses as being representative, isn’t so far from the truth.

*An astute editor has pointed out that there was, in fact, a snake in Eden. This merely proves my point, as if it had more closely resembled Austria, none of the resulting nonsense would have happened.

Posted by: megaschwez | December 1, 2010

Part V

sexy executives

5. Equal opportunity employment for the good-looking

Writing/fixing/pimping your CV routinely comes at or near the top in surveys of most horrific computer-related experiences, trumped only by 1. skyping with relatives who still use a dial-up modem and 2. chatroulette.

As those of us without a trust fund know, compiling a CV is a horrid process in which you must:

1. Remember what you’ve actually been employed to do in the dark mists of the past

2. Remember not to list the dodgy cash-in-hand numbers that could earn your uncle a bit of heat from the tax office

3. Countenance the prospect of contacting ex-employers to act as referees, selecting from

  • the ones that sexually harassed you,
  • the ones that you sexually harassed, or
  • the ones that refused to pay you your wages after you gave notice.

What could possibly make this process worse for you, the employee? How about if you had to attach a photo of your ugly mug to the CV?

In Austria (among many other countries, apparently) you, the job applicant, must paperclip, glue or scan a headshot of yourself that manages to simultaneously convey your professionalism and individuality, and hide the fact that you’re so desperate for a job you had to borrow the business shirt you’re wearing in the photo.

Thus, Austria is a CV-sorter’s dream. Looking for a new staff member? Just sift through the pile of résumés until you come across the most aesthetically pleasing specimens. The pockmarked, dorky, greasy-haired ones are eliminated before you even go to the trouble of reading about their C++ hobby.

Then, to satisfy your boss and/or those pesky equal opportunity regulations, make a cursory check that the halfway-decent-looking ones have at least one of the requirements you’re actually looking for.

Voila! You’ve got your first-round interview group! All that remains is to call them up, invite them to an interview and flirt a little with the hotter ones. Then you can kick back and enjoy the glow of a job efficiently done, secure in the knowledge that your counterparts in more politically correct countries need to waste much more of their and everyone else’s time.

Posted by: megaschwez | November 30, 2010

Part IV

Happy staff waiting to fulfil my every need

4. Competent shop staff

I once found myself in a large chain sports store in Linz, looking for, I don’t know, probably a bike pump, and not finding it. At my wits’ end, I resolved to craftily waylay a staff member, possibly brandish a wad of cash, plead with them to lead me to their bike pump aisle, and try and get a question in before they slithered off in the direction of the lunch room.

What actually occurred was a metaphorical shovel hook to the jaw. Firstly, a remarkably serene-looking staff member actually approached me to ask if I needed help. This is the point at which I usually get suspicious of overmotivated department store staff members, and start looking around for a camera or their boss. However, she proceeded to not only lead me to the relevant section, she actually pointed out the differences between the models, demonstrated how to use a couple, and gave me a recommendation. In short, she ACTUALLY KNEW WHAT SHE WAS TALKING ABOUT. Stop the press.

O Austrian retail stores, where art thy incompetent staff members? Why doth thy employees appear to like their jobs? Whither dost thou send thy slack-jawed, slouching, casually-employed students? Doth there exist a grotto, from whose depths they emerge to stack shelves or something?

Alternatively, the usual casual worker suspects may all still be blissfully unemployed here, chillaxing on the weekends at hotel mama, enjoying dumplings and sauerkraut while their Australian cousins are slogging it out in shitty minimum wage department store jobs. I guess being incompetent is the best revenge for that.

Posted by: megaschwez | November 29, 2010

Part III

Deli deca

3. Deca mecca

Why does no one ever order 210g of sun-dried tomatoes from the deli counter in Australian supermarkets? Because you feel like a dick, that’s why. You order in round figures, 100g or half a kilo. How come? Because we don’t have DECA.

One deca is a magical unit of measurement equivalent to 10g. For reasons no-one knows, only Austrians use it. At deli counters from Vienna to the alps, you can order 5 or 7 or 60 deca of artichoke hearts or animal product of your choice. In recipe books, your strudel requires not 2 cups of flour but 40 deca. I have yet to confirm the appropriate unit of measurement for class-A drugs, but asking for 1 deca of crack would presumably be both an interesting experiment and a prelude to a relatively heavy night.

Another mystifying aspect: it’s abbreviated ‘dag.’. Which is probably the primary reason that it’s never been taken up in Australia, where the term simultaneously means something like a nerd, and a piece of shit hanging off a sheep’s arse.

Posted by: megaschwez | November 27, 2010

Part II

Aperol spritzer

2. Aperol Spritzers

Let’s take apart this concept and reduce it to its constituent parts. Firstly, uniting wine and mineral water was an idea vastly superior, I would argue, to even the uniting of horse and carriage, loaves and fishes, and Adam and Eve. As, let’s be honest, none of those really turned out so well.

Most bar staff in ye olde English-speaking landes are not so familiar with the wine + mineral water = spritzer equation. Which explains why, in an Australian bar, one can get inebriated faster than one can say ‘two chardonnays thanks’, since every trip to the bar yields at least one glass of undiluted alcohol. Our European cousins, by championing the lighter, more economical spritzer, have invented a way to  drink more and pay less. I can’t think of anything less unAustralian.

Secondly, allow me introduce, to the uninitiated, the marvellous, ruby orange substance known as Aperol. A little bit like Campari, but with less grapefruit aftertaste, and with the added bonus that you do not have to wear your collar up to drink it.

Add to aforementioned spritzer, and you have a drink that

a)     originated in Italy, so, like Ferrari, the mafia, and making out in a gondola, it must be intriguing

b)    allows you to delay the point of complete inebriation by at least three or four glasses

by which time you’ve hopefully realised that your drinking companions are, as you suspected before you were tipsy, not that interesting. In turn prompting a quick, gracious exit, unmarred by leaving either your keys or your virginity in the taxi cab.

good times on the balcony in linz

photo amazingness by carina


Posted by: megaschwez | November 26, 2010

A Few of my Favourite Things™: Part I

The first in a series of my own personal top eight entries on the list of awesome things about the alpine republic. Since Mozart, Almdudler, Jägermeister, Manner and Reinhard Fendrich all refused to sponsor me, none of them appear in the top eight*.

*If they were to reconsider my generous cash-for-comment offer, I may consider extending the list. Just saying. Wolfgang Amadeus. If that is your real name.

Giant outdoor freezer

1. Having access to a 83,872 km2 freezer

It is a little-known fact that if you live far enough away from either the Tropic of Cancer or Capricorn, the entire outdoors can be used as a giant, state-of-the-art fridge/freezer combination for at least 6 months of the year.

This glorious fact was first illuminated during my heady days  in Vienna on student exchange, when I began to wonder why, in winter, my fellow dorm colleagues would open the window to get the orange juice.

I caught on to this revolutionary windowsill-as-refrigeration shelf idea pretty quick, and soon experimented with placing everything from vodka (relatively hip) to leftover pasta bake (less hip) outside, in the process thwarting the twin fiends of a tiny communal refrigerator and hungry and unscrupulous study colleagues.

Take a moment, if you will, to consider the possibilities of living with permafrost ready to knock on the door any minute. Firstly, and clearly most vital, no need to fill up the bath with ice for those frat/fratess parties! Crate upon crate of beer and mineral water can be kept frosty on the balcony till, say, about the end of November, beyond which you are risking heineken slushies.

This point, in turn, marks the beginning of frozen goods season, when you can stack an unlimited number of ice-cream containers outside till the end of winter, meaning you can get as fat as you like despite only having a freezer the size of a shoebox.

All of this is an enormous novelty for someone who grew up in Sydney, where the ambient temperature for 9 months of the year is high enough to curdle dairy products on the way home from the corner store.

Here in Österreich, from about October to March, you can shop for the frozen groceries of your choice and drop by a friend’s house for coffee , secure in the knowledge that you will never experience that moment of panic where you sit bolt upright and have to translate ‘Shit! The groceries are still in the car! Everything’ll be fucken melted!’

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