Last fall I decided to do the thing I’ve been vowing to do for well over 20 years: go to Australia and New Zealand, an area of the world that’s home of some of my favorite music. So, using my stockpile of airline miles largely earned from business travel at a previous employer, I booked round trip tickets for my myself and my boyfriend, Mike.
Here begins my attempt to capture as much of our show-going, record shopping, flat white-drinking and other adventures over three and a half weeks.
Day 1 : Takeoff
Our journey actually started a day earlier, when we flew from Seattle to San Francisco, from which we’d catch our flight to Sydney. (We chose to do a 24-hour layover in SF in order to catch an amazing set by Protomartyr the previous night.) But once we make our way back to the airport after a rainy, lazy day of hanging around the city… That’s when the realization hits hard: we’re going to Australia!
Settling in to our window and aisle seats, we wait to see if anyone will show up to take the middle seat and… amazingly, no one does and we get the whole row to ourselves for the almost 15-hour flight to Sydney. After watching some shows on my iPad and a meal service followed by green tea ice cream (yum!) we manage to sleep most of the rest of the way.
Day 2: Sydney
We’d originally planned to be in Sydney for more than a day, but this ends up being another 24-hour layover as we need to fly to Wellington the next day. Why? Oh, just going to see THE GODDAMN CHILLS AND VERLAINES – two of my favorite bands who coincidentally decided to play gigs when we’d be in that part of the world.
After going through customs, we get the all-important SIM cards so we can rejoin civilization–uh, the internet. Except Mike’s internet isn’t working on his phone for some reason. Mine is, so I try not to be the jerk with her face glued to her phone exulting in a reunion with Twitter, email and the video-captured exploits of my cats (thanks, security cam!). Thankfully there’s wifi in the airport and, as we find, our hotel and plenty of other places in town.
The train from the airport deposits us further from the hotel than anticipated, thanks to a lot of construction along Darling Harbour. Each of us has a heavy backpack and a long, sweaty walk in very sunny, mid-80s weather, trying to follow Google Maps as it leads us to cut through a mall, then a parking garage, until we finally spy our hotel. We check in, collapse on a sofa in the lobby to regroup, and hand off our bags for storage as it’s still morning and our room isn’t yet ready.
My next mission: find and drink a flat white. It’s a coffee drink that isn’t quite a latte (supposedly less foam? or lighter foam?), but is nonetheless the Australian version of a latte. The flat white had made its way to the U.S. in recent years — even Starbucks has them now — but I waited until now to try one.
We walk over to a nearby cafe for second breakfast (not the first time on this trip we’ll be hobbits), and I order my flat white. It is… kind of like a cafe au lait? Not a lot of foam, but still tasty. Good thing I’ll have another 3+ weeks to try many more!
Messaging with a local Sydneysider friend to make plans to meet up later, I take note of his advice to get sunscreen. My pale Seattlite self is already flinching at the onslaught of solar rays, so next stop is the drugstore and two bottles of SPF 50+.
Time to check in, flop out on the bed, and eat some of the free minibar snacks. (And time to make myself another flat white using the automatic espresso machine in the lobby.)
And, after much slathering of sunscreen, time to roam around Sydney for a bit before meeting up with our friend Kit. At his suggestion, we head over to the ferry terminal to take a boat to Watson’s Bay, but we end up buying tickets for a ferry that is just pulling away from the dock as we arrive. Boo.
But the famed Sydney Opera House is right nearby, so we walk along the waterfront and gaze up at its pointy, tiled beauty from all sides.
On finishing our lap around the opera house, we see what looks like a park and decide to check that out. Turns out it’s the Royal Botanic Garden, though at the moment it’s more interesting as a grassy spot to sit, in the shade, and guzzle down some water.
Our path towards the part of town where we’re meeting up with Kit takes us through the gardens, so we get to see many new and strange species of birds, flowers and trees along the way. The mangroves and some of the other tropical plants remind me a bit of Florida, but there are so many more that are completely unique.
It may not be evening yet, but our bodies say it’s dinner time. So, with the help of the Foursquare app, we look for some place well-rated near our meeting spot. The best pick is a hole-in-the-wall sushi joint which doesn’t open for another 15 minutes, but the wait is worth it for fresh, yummy plates of sushi.
Fueled by the power of fish, we head off to meet Kit for drinks. And since we (strangely) don’t seem to be feeling the effects of jet lag, we decide to join him for some local stand-up comedy afterwards.
After sussing out our bar preference (quiet and dark, please!), Kit leads us down an alleyway to an unmarked door. We open it into… a full-on western saloon experience, with decor including lots of empty bottles, old-timey lanterns and taxidermy a-go-go. It’s still pretty early, so we have the place mostly to ourselves and down some cold beers. Mine is a tasty Australian Pilsner, and Mike goes for an “American-style” pale ale, which, Kit explains, means it’s supposed to be hoppier. Mike’s verdict: not all that hoppy, really.
Next stop is a comedy club that takes its decor just as seriously, though this one is college dorm-meets-Margaritaville on the way to the cantina. We are unfortunately seated in the front row: optimal crowd work bait. But across three different “brackets” of 3-4 comedians each, Mike and I escape mostly unscathed. Kit helpfully whispers in my ear translations or explanations of regional bits that appear in routines. [Random person name]? Liquor store magnate. Libra? Feminine protection. I am, however, able to translate “jug” to “pitcher” as Kit brings such a vessel filled with a tequila cocktail to our table.
An empty jug and some time later, it’s 10pm and the idea of sleep suddenly has enormous appeal. Comedy over, we head outside where it’s finally cooler. On our walk towards our hotel, we get a mini tour from Kit of various places of note, such as the ghosts of rock clubs past.
Reaching a point where our paths diverge, we say our goodbyes and follow the direction Kit pointed to to finish our walk to the hotel. And it’s through the same damn construction, which is apparently inescapable. And what if the mall is closed? Or the parking garage? Will we be trapped on the wrong side of the harbor?
Thankfully both are still open and we manage not to make the wrong turns we did last time. The hotel sign comes into view as if an oasis and we retreat to our room to do e minimum prep needed to get up at — ugh! — 5:30am for our morning flight to Wellington.
Day 3: Wellington
Our day begins too goddamn early, because some idiot (me) did not realize until well after booking that check-in for our flight closes a whole two hours prior. And we can’t check in online because they need to see proof of our departure from NZ since we only booked a one-way flight on that airline.
We grab a hasty first breakfast of makeshift sandwiches from the fixings that have just been placed put in the lobby as we check out and wait for our cab. Then it’s off to the airport — bye Sydney! See you again in a week.
Because we get to the airport so early, we need a place to chill before our flight. Since I do a lot of traveling, I have a credit card with airline lounge access that gets us into the Air New Zealand lounge. And my, how fancy!
I use a tablet interface to place an order for a flat white, which a barista hands to me a few minutes later. Meanwhile Mike is getting a waffle and yogurt with raspberries and muesli. I head to the chef station for a poached egg, grab some yogurt and fruit. Not a bad second breakfast.
The flight is uneventful, though we do get a third (!) breakfast, which I mostly eat anyway. (Hey, my body is still confused as to what time it is.)
Stepping out of the airport, I immediately regret wearing a short skirt with bare legs. Wellington is fairly chilly: 66 degrees with a strong wind and ominous clouds overhead.
A short bus ride later, we’re in town and walking to our Airbnb at a small, modern apartment building at the edge of her central business district. Because it’s two hours later in Wellington than Sydney, we have just enough time to catch our breath before heading out for dinner, then our first concert of the trip: The Chills!
But first, dinner. Plus an education about local fish. Because the fish and chips shop we went to had a long list, mostly unfamiliar, but with descriptions of each fish on their online menu. We ended up choosing the Tarakihi. Even though it was dinner time we we offered it as part of the lunch special, which was an amazing deal: fish, a massive mound of fries, a side salad and homemade aioli for NZ$10 (US$7). Thank you, strong U.S. dollar.
Walking over to the venue, I am getting excited, I am kind of freaking out inside. Because, along with the Go-Betweens, I’d have to say the Chills are my favorite band. And I haven’t seen them in 20 years. And I’m about to see them in their home country and get to hear old favorites along with new songs from the latest (excellent!) album. And, oh yeah: we have front-row seats!
We get to the venue, Shed 6, a little early — early enough to see the merch table and the Chills t-shirt and Martin Phillips/Graeme Downes signed lyric songbook that I want to purchase. Except I need more cash.
Off to find an ATM, the first which doesn’t work but the second — pointed out to us by a friendly local who overheard my dilemma and jumped in — thankfully did.
We hustle back to the merch table where I buy the last small-sized shirt they have and the songbook. Then time for a drink before the show.
The bars immediately around the venue all seem to suck in one way or another: bad music, cheesy theming, too huge. We’re able to Google an acceptable one a short walk away, and just as we are about to reach it, I look over to the side, by an alley and see… a chalkboard with two anthropomorphic avocados on it. Huh?
I walk over to take a closer look, and Mike notices that it seems to be part of a bar. Probably cooler than the one we’d picked… yup! The place is called Cuckoo and is stuffed with well-worn mid century modern furniture and decor. I get a sidecar (expertly made!) and Mike goes for a local beer. And we drink on a red velvet chaise lounge. And wait.
The time has come for transcendent pop, and we make our way to Shed 6. I have two extra tickets due to an ordering error, but no one appears to be seeking any near the entrance, even though the show is sold out. Mike makes the excellent suggestion to just leave them with the ticketing counter to give to some lucky folks. So I do just that, even if the person to whom I hand them/try to explain seems confused.
We take our seats (first row!) and settle in for the show. Loud applause for Martin & Co. as they take the stage, and a huge fucking grin on my face as they launch right into “Night of Chill Blue.”
Really, I can do little other than sit rapt, and grinning, as the band launches one after another soft bomb (though not “Soft Bomb”) into the auditorium. Perhaps in deference to the “Dunedin Double” billing of this and the following night’s Verlaines show, Martin chose to play a slew of older songs I’d never heard them perform and hardly imaged I ever would. Hearing love versions of their first and second singles (“Rolling Moon” and “Doledrums”) was thrilling enough. But upon hearing Martin begin an intro with a note that they’d never played this one before (except maybe partly at a party), I held my breath and… the first jangling chords of “Kaleidoscope World” filled the room. Pure bliss.
At a certain point in the set, a few people got up from their seats and started dancing in he side aisles near the front of the stage. So it took very little — an exhortation from the bassist that now was the time to get on your feet — to get the rest of the crowd up for the second and last song of their encore: “Heavenly Pop Hit.” I joined in the dance party, now at the front of the stage, til the very last note.
Not one to miss an opportunity to grab a souvenir, I noticed no one grabbing for the set lists still taped to the stage. I got the attention of the sound guy in the wings and motioned to the list closest to me, with a “May I?” look. He simply bent down and grabbed a sheet from somewhere to the side and handed it to me without a word. The cherry on the sundae.
Exhausted after spending well over an hour vibrating with happiness, one hand in Mike’s and the other gently clutching the set list to my chest against the winds whipping from across the harbor, I walked along the wharf back towards our Airbnb. A simply magical night, and one that I hoped to repeat in another form less than 24 hours later with The Verlaines.