AUS/NZ Trip Diary: Day 11

March 16

Day 11: Sydney

Morning

I’d set the alarm on my phone to go off at 8am this morning, which is very early for me on vacation. But I did so in order to catch up on writing, since I was a bit behind. I also used it as an opportunity to just hang out at a and cafe and people-watch. Our schedules have been so busy, just sitting and sipping coffee and writing for a couple of hours is kind of luxurious.

So I end up at Cuckoo Callay again. I bring my umbrella since it’s lightly drizzling. And, what do you know, it turns into a downpour not long after I take a seat — outdoors, but under one of those wide Sydney awnings.

Newtown station view from my flat white
Newtown station view from my flat white

I watch commuters scramble into and out of the train station entrance a stone’s throw away, trying to avoid getting wet, as I sip my first flat white. I’ve finally figured out the lingo for getting a double shot of espresso, as I’d unwittingly been getting singles for the entire first week of the trip (the horror!). I need to order it “strong,” that’s all.

I’m also a big hungry, so I get my standard poached eggs on toast, which comes with a side of beetroot spread. This is another thing Kit had told me about, Australians’ love of beets. (“There’s nothing like a nice thick slice of beetroot on a burger!”) I spread some on my toast and it’s actually not bad, kind of like a sweet tomato jam.

The inevitable poached eggs on toast (w/beetroot spread)
The inevitable poached eggs on toast (w/beetroot spread)

I’d let Mike know the night before I might be heading out in the morning, and I texted him my location from the cafe so he knows what’s up when he awakens. But after awhile I’m done with my food and my second coffee and ready to head back to the Airbnb. The rain has all but stopped, thankfully.

I enter our room to find Mike snapping pictures of his comics haul (ha). So I guess we’re ready to head back out soon. Since I’ve already had something to eat, Mike gets to pick the breakfast place this time, and I follow as he leads us up King Street and down a road where… there’s one of the record stores we need to check out! I take a peek in the window and we continue on.

The cafe we arrive at is another indoor/outdoor seating affair. Maybe a bad idea, but I order a third coffee of the day, a long black (tiny Americano) this time. Since I had something to eat earlier, I just get a muffin. It’s a savory muffin, with pumpkin, feta and pesto. Sounds weird, tastes great. In fact, we’d grabbed muffins on the way out of Breakfast Thieves in Melbourne the second time we went, and I’d gotten a savory chorizo and cheese muffin there, too. Non-sugary muffins: I approve!

Pumpkin, feta and pesto muffin
Pumpkin, feta and pesto muffin

Afternoon

We walk back over towards he record store, Egg Records and begin our synchronized routine, flipping through vinyl. There are some good things, but nothing that I didn’t already have. Mike, however, finds a cheaper copy of that Contrast 7″ for himself, plus an early Sloan single. We also peek at the various theme cases of toys, some music-related (The Beatles), some not (The Simpsons). This is not the first record store in Australia where we’ve seen toy cases, but I find it kind of random.

Egg Records
Egg Records

Again we text Kit to check in. He’s coming back from the gym but can meet up with us shortly at the Cat Protection Society. Are we going to protect cats? No (though we totally would if needed, obv)… we are going to pet them! Kit had brought us by the CPS building the previous day, but it was not open to visitors at that time. Because he’d explained to the staff that he was with a couple of Americans experiencing kitty withdrawal, and perhaps we could see some cats?

So we walk over to the CPS, but Kit’s not there yet (we’re a bit early) so we check out the CPS op shop on the same block. We don’t find anything, but I’m surprised by the relatively small amount of cat-themed items (though not by the enormous collection of Barbra Streisand and Sting cassettes).

Walking back to the CPS, there’s Kit, waiting for us. He leads us inside and explains the situation to the woman at the front desk, who is very nice and offers to lead us into the cat holding areas.

After slathering disinfectant on our hands, we’re ready to get cuddly with some kitties. We’re asked if we want to see kittens or adult cats. Both, please! So first on the agenda are some kittens. We are led to a corridor where on both sides there are stacked cages, tiny faces peering at us from each. Which kittens do we want to hold? Uhhh… so much cuteness! We start with this little black and white cutie, each of us taking turns holding him:

Mike the Kitten Whisperer
Mike the Kitten Whisperer

Then I notice a little brown and tan ball of fuzz in a cage on the opposite side. We need to cuddle him, too. And he’s soooo tiny and fluffy and nestles into my chest when I scoop him up. Not wanting to hog this little dude all to myself, I eventually pass him to Mike, though the kitten has latched on to my arm a bit already. Awww!

As great as that was, there are more cats upstairs, so we follow our CPS guide up the staircase to the room with adult cats. The first cat to greet us, in the hallway, is a fluffy black cat with no eyes. Our guide tells us that he checks people out by licking them, and he does do some sniffs and a couple of licks before darting away. He is a bit skittish, but friendly.

Blind kitty, sniffing us out (photo: Mike Baehr)
Blind kitty, sniffing us out (photo: Mike Baehr)

Then we move into the main room, where there are cages with cats that still need to be socialized as well as more relaxed cats just walking around free. Two especially playful dudes, both named Archie, provide entertainment by running around, chasing each other and wrestling.

Archie & Archie, sparring (photo: Mike Baehr)
Archie & Archie, sparring (photo: Mike Baehr)

This charmer is super-shy, refusing to exit her cage, only going so far as to put both paws outside:

Shy cutie, meeting us halfway (photo: Mike Baehr)
Shy cutie, meeting us halfway (photo: Mike Baehr)

We pet some of the cats wandering around, and open a few cages to try and pet those that aren’t too shy, all while our guide gives us a little info about the personality and background of each. Such cuties! Hoping they all find loving homes soon.

Me, getting my kitty fix (photo: Mike Baehr)
Me, getting my kitty fix (photo: Mike Baehr)

Now feeling the feline contentedness, we thank the CPS staff and exit into the sun. Great, no need for umbrellas (for now). Kit has some work to do now but will meet up with us after we check out the one other record store in the neighborhood on our list.

Revolve Records is a 15+ minute walk away, and we follow Google’s directions down behind the Newtown station and through a narrow alley that empties onto a larger road where we find this coffee bar, as earlier mentioned by Kit.

Oh, you silly Australians.

A little further on is Revolve, a dusty old shop with some decent records, almost all older stuff and fairly high-priced. But the stock is just interesting enough to get us to dig through all of the relevant bins, even though the only item of note to me is the Australian cassette edition of the Go-Betweens’ Tallulah album in the checkout counter display case. Oh well.

By this time we are very hungry, and Kit has promised to take us to a place where Lebanese manooshes can be found. They were my $1 street-vendor breakfast almost every day when I visited Beirut in 2007, and they are fucking delicious: a fresh-baked flatbread, brushed with olive oil and rubbed with zaatar spices, rolled up with pickles and tomatoes or other fillings. I text Kit and we arrange to meet at the restaurant at 4pm.

We get there early enough to scope out the menu, where I quickly decide on the “Beirut-style” manoosh with pickles, tomatoes and halloumi cheese. Mike chooses the same, then scopes out the freezer case to try to determine if Australia has any country-specific Ben & Jerry’s flavors. (Kit, later: no.)

Then Kit arrives and we order. And when the sandwiches are brought to our table, they smell and look so good that I am most of the way through mine before I remember to take a picture. Oops.

Not pictured: my delish manoosh
Not pictured: my delish manoosh

Then I think: maybe I can get a picture the next time I’m here. Because… maybe we could come back to Sydney again this trip?

Ever since Mike and I saw that poster at the Union Hotel listing that gig on the 25th with Mines, Hideous Towns and Mope City, we’d had a few conversations about returning for that gig. It may seem crazy, but the major reason for this trip is to see bands. And Auckland, the city we’d planned on being in that weekend, seems to be shutting down for the long Easter weekend. There are no interesting gigs scheduled that we know of, and two of the main rock clubs will be closed multiple days.

Finally, if we change our flight to return from Sydney instead of Auckland, we get to avoid a grueling 33+ hour journey with a 7-hour layover in Beijing, flying direct to LA instead. (We booked the tickets using miles, so we couldn’t be picky.) Having a shorter flight also means being able to stay one more night in Sydney than we would have been able to in Auckland. And we can still visit Auckland, of course. We’ll just spend a little less time there.

We mention our potential plans to Kit and he offers to hold on to some of my records if we know we’re going to be returning. Tempting offer, but it’s far from certain that the airline will let the change request go through. We’ll see if we can book it later that night and let him know how it goes.

But right now I need to walk off some of this food, and Kit leads us on, pointing out various local landmarks on the way to a nearby park, where the trees are filled with scores of wild cockatoos. Mike and I are bowled over by this and immediately start taking pictures as they fly from tree to tree. But Kit is all yeah, whatevs. Apparently this is as normal in Sydney as seeing a bunch of squirrels is back home. (And squirrels do not exist in Australia, so oh, the excitement when Kit sees them in our country!)

Wild cockatoos in the park
Wild cockatoos in the park

The park is on the way to a supermarket in a small, semi-hidden shopping complex. We are on a mission to scope out local foodstuffs, including the selection of the ubiquitous Tim Tams, chocolate-covered Australian cookies that can be had at every convenience store and market. And this supermarket has a lot of Tim Tams:

A small portion of the vast selection of Tim Tams
A small portion of the vast selection of Tim Tams

I am also feel compelled to check out the hot sauce section. While a bottle of Tabasco, at minimum, is de rigeur at the table of every egg-slinging eatery back home, not so in the breakfast places of Australia. Can you even get decent hot sauce here? Well, kind of. There are a couple of shelves’ worth of sauces, including one of my faves, Cholula. But the mayo section far rivals the hot offerings.

Hot sauces at the supermarket
Hot sauces at the supermarket

We don’t buy anything at the store because we are (hopefully!) coming back to Australia before we head home. And it’s time for our next stop: a local brewery, where we are anxious to sample their fine wares.

Evening

On the walk to the brewery, we encounter not one, but two adorable street cats. The first is very friendly, running through the gate in his yard to the sidewalk and our waiting hands. Scritch, scritch, scritch! The second cat, further down the block, just gives us a cool appraisal from his porch, immune to our entreaties. Okay, be like that.

Kit with Sydney street cat
Kit with Sydney street cat

When we arrive at the brewery, we can see there are a number of different options on tap, with some available in bottle or jug size in addition to glasses. We each get a glass of whatever sounds good, and for me that’s another sour.

Beers at brewery in Marrickville
Beers at brewery in Marrickville

While we drink, we check Sydney gig listings in a local freebie paper, but there are virtually none. Kit again laments the state of live music and clubs in general in Sydney, which has taken a rather large hit due to stupid laws that limit operational hours and prevent patrons from re-entering clubs if they leave after a certain hour. We also peruse the program guide for a Melbourne comedy festival that we’ll be missing, just to get a sense of who is performing. Unsurprisingly, I recognize only one or two names; Mike IDs a few more.

There is one more planned stop for the night: a bar where a couple of bands are playing that none of us have heard of, but whom were advertised (according to Kit) as “indie non-yacht rock.” Sure, interesting enough to check out, so we walk in the direction of the bar.

And wouldn’t you know it, right next door is a record store. And it’s open until the decadent hour of 10pm. Heavens! We’re a bit early for the music, so we flip through the bins. We don’t find anything, but it’s fun nonetheless.

The bar itself is very quaint and old-timey, with a stage at the front and a cozy sofa and some chairs at the back where we take a seat. The cocktail list features offerings from a local distillery, so I go for the one with rye and cherry heering. Mike gets a local beer with shot of rye. My cocktail is tasty, but does suffer in comparison to similar one I had expertly prepared for me at the Baxter Inn the previous day.

The band starts to play and it is… banjo music? Kind of folky Americana stuff. Hmm. Not really my (or Mike’s) bag. I think the combination of liquor and nonstop activity over the past few days has gotten to me, as I’m suddenly feeling very tired. So I ask to call it a night, and we depart.

After taking the bus back to Newtown and saying our goodbyes to Kit, we make it the flat and prepare ourselves for the now-familiar ritual of packing for another flight, this time north to Byron Bay. Plus I need to call United and see if we can switch our return flight home. I also need to figure out whether we need a rental car in Byron Bay (probably) and how much that is going to cost (a lot) and whether I can handle driving on the other side of the road (I sure hope so).

This last-minute travel planning is all part of the drill when you don’t find out about gigs sooner than two weeks before they happen, and often with much less notice than that. And it is another task we need to add to our to-do list in the midst of more enjoyable activities. In Melbourne, for example, we spent our Sunday evening booking more Airbnbs and flights and determining the best airport transport options. And how early do we need to get to the airport? Are checked bags included in that price? What is the carry on bag weight limit? Yeah, fun stuff like that.

Anyway, I call United and am connected with a somewhat robotic representative who seems to know less than I do about how this flight change stuff works. (I’d already changed our flights once before, a couple of weeks prior to our trip when we decided we wanted an extra week.) He tries to tell me no seats are available on the main SYD-LAX leg even though I am looking at an online seat map that indicates otherwise, even though the seats aren’t next to each other. I tell him as much and he is all oh, but aren’t you traveling together? YES. Are you both adults? YES. Oh, I guess that’s okay then. (No kidding!)

Robotic United rep finishes the booking and, even though there is a change fee, we are now all set to depart from Sydney on the 28th. Yay! Then I scope out online car rental options for the following day and get angry at the prices and finally just book a damn car while grumbling under my breath the whole while. Since we are dropping the car off in a different city (Brisbane) there is of course an extra fee. A large fee. Of course.

But now we have easy transport from the airport in Byron Bay to our Airbnb in Bangalow, a quaint town not far away where the next night’s show — a Milk! Records showcase with Courtney Barnett and others — is happening. And we can take our time heading up to Brisbane the following day, stopping at Byron Bay on the way to spend a little time at the famed Gold Coast beach.

Travel agent duty over, it’s time for bed. And bedtime is later than planned because the other residents of our Airbnb have been hogging the shared bathrooms. And I will only mention in passing the resident who felt that peeing with the bathroom door was a-ok. Shared bathrooms: never again!

Setting the alarm for way-early, but excited to be off on the next part of our journey, we try to get some shut-eye.

AUS/NZ Trip Diary: Day 10

March 15

Day 10: Sydney

Morning

We awake to the sound of rain… and loud bird chirping and wailing coming through the open window, open because our Airbnb has no air conditioning, just a ceiling fan, and our room is hot, hot, hot.

This bird we see everywhere; it is particularly, uh, expressive:

Damn tweety bird
Damn tweety bird

We roll outside into the heat and wet in search of the next Great Australian Breakfast. Current candidate: West Juliette, a short walk away. But the rain is picking up and we decide that maybe we need to finally break down and buy some umbrellas, especially since we plan on doing a lot of walking.

We walk towards the station and find a pharmacy selling umbrellas, get one each, then head back in the direction of breakfast. We don’t get to use our umbrellas too much on the walk over, thanks to the wide, block-spanning awnings hanging over the sidewalk. Then the rain lets up a bit and we’re better able to enjoy the residential Sydney neighborhood we walk through to get to the cafe.

Shortly after we sit down, the rain starts thundering down in sheets. We watch rivers of it flow along the curb as we wait for our meal. Good call, those umbrellas.

Food arrives in the form of two artful mounds of deliciousness, one savory (mine), one sweet (Mike’s). In fact, we’re both agog at Mike’s plate of French toast with salted caramel sauce, ricotta, nuts and grilled pear:

French toast explosion
French toast explosion

My smoked salmon with eggs and lemon ricotta on toast is practically hidden under a heap of fennel, sorrel and pickled shallots:

Salmon brekkie deluxe
Salmon brekkie deluxe

We take our time eating, waiting for the rain to die down. Umbrellas or no, walking in that kind of rain is no fun. I text Kit letting him know we’re ready to take off shortly, and we agree to rendezvous at Newtown station.

Afternoon

We’re able to leave under just a light sprinkle and meet up with Kit, who helps us buy Opal cards we can use to take the bus. We then top them off at a newsagent’s, where I briefly get a scare when my credit card is declined. (Turns out the clerk just didn’t know how to run my American card and had me remove it from the reader too soon.)

We then walk down King Street in a direction we hadn’t yet been, first stopping at a record store which has mainstream-ish new releases and used CDs/DVDs — think Strawberries, Coconuts or similar now-defunct, fruity chain music store. The next stop, a bookstore, initially doesn’t look all that promising, but it turns out to have a good selection of indie comics, and Mike finds a couple of things.

Kit has our next destination planned: a good indie record store called the Record Crate that’s a short bus ride away. We hop on a bus and head on over only to find… it’s closed! Bummer. Like a like of stores and restaurants in Australia, it has what I’d consider eccentric hours, opening around 5pm on that day, even though Kit says it is often open earlier.

Well, at least there’s an op shop nearby, and we say sure, let’s check that out while we’re in the neighborhood. It has boring records and CDs (no surprise), but on the t-shirt rack I score a lady-sized Devo Australian tour t-shirt. And for only $6 Australian. Sweet.

Expert street cat-spotter Kit then leads us down a side street known for its prevalence of lounging felines, though the recent rain does indeed a prove a wash in that department. But we’re about to meet a different kind of animal.

A few blocks away is a pub that, as Kit explains, is very old school Australian. And indeed there’s the worn carpet, a couple of older dudes at the bar and… a cockatoo?

He’s just chilling above one of the bar doors, and we try to coax him onto our arms. O e of the barkeeps helps out by getting him down off his perch and onto Mike:

Mike and cockatoo
Mike and cockatoo

Then Kit:

Kit and cockatoo
Kit and cockatoo

By then, though, the bird has had enough and hops back to his perch with a sulky look. Time to go.

Our remaining stops are in the central business district, so we again transit it over to a different part of the city. Mike and I had passed a comics shop on our first day in Sydney a week ago, but we had just gotten off the plane, and had heavy backpacks (and the online reviews were bad), so we’d passed on by. But now Kit was taking us over to this place, Comic Kingdom, as they’re going out of business and everything is 40% off. Worth a look, eh?

The store is filled with tons of old comics, magazines and books, many of which look like they’ve been there for years and years. Kit informs us that the store used to have a lot more stock, including in an upstairs area that is now closed. But the ongoing sale has cleared out a lot.

I peruse a few early 80s-vintage copies of Mad magazine, hoping to find one I remember from my childhood. (Nope.) As I’m casually scanning the racks — I dig comics, but I’m not a full-on comics geek — I notice Mike’s browsing getting more methodical and intent. I head to the back of the store to browse, and then spend a good chunk of time reading an interview with Robert Forster in a recent issue of Uncut. Mike is still at the front of the store.

Mike is a full-on comics geek, and he’s fallen into a comic-browsing trance:

Mike digs
Mike digs

I see he’s already accumulated a small stack and, is probably going to continue to add to it. Hm, so I guess this is what I look like in a record store?

Anyway, it’s all cool. (Collector solidarity!) It’s just that I’ve reached my comics limit and decide to grab a coffee. I tell Mike to keep browsing, I’m headed out and will text him with my location once I find a good coffee joint.

I land at a tiny takeaway place near a mall complex, which happens to have no seating. But there are benches in the plaza where I can sip my drip coffee (mixing it up, yo) and get a little writing done.

A little while later, Kit wanders along, saying Mike is still in the store. So we head over to a burger place together, as Kit is hungry.

At the restaurant, Kit mentions having suggested to Mike that perhaps I should get a head start browsing at one of the record stores on our agenda. He relayed that Mike was not that into that idea. Ha, no kidding. One of us having first crack at the records just wouldn’t be fair. I mean, if the tables were turned I’d have had the same reaction.

As Kit is finishing his burger, Mike texts to say he’s finally done, and he head back to the store to meet up. Mike is carrying a large paper bag and is quite pleased. Now we’re ready for records…

The first record store in the CBD is mainly older, mainstream vinyl (no indie stuff), so we idly flip through some of that before agreeing we’re done. The next one, though, is the main attraction: Red Eye Records, onetime label and now main independent music retailer in Sydney. Oh yeah, we’re gonna find stuff.

There is a good selection of vinyl, but by this point I’m mainly seeing copies of things I’ve already bought at other stores. The CD section, however, yields a used Ocean Party CD and a new copy of the Go-Betweens comp Quiet Heart with the bonus live disc.

We usually browse vinyl together, taking turns as flipper/onlooker. But I’m generally less interested in CDs, and feeling kind of tired after browsing all the vinyl, so I idly flip through discs while keeping one eye on Mike’s progress. And then I see him pick it up: a copy of the previous album by Melbourne band The Ancients, whose 2013 album Night Bus, we both loved. Damn, good score. And yes, I will be demanding MP3s.

While checking out, I spy a cassette rack. On it is a tape by a band that, as the sticker on it says, features “members of Twerps.” Okay then — purchased!

This is a pretty good record shopping finale for the day, and boy is it time for a drink. Kit knows just the place. We follow him for a few streets then turn into a slightly sketchy-looking alley. Uh, okay. Now past some spent kegs through an unmarked door, down an empty concrete staircase… ummm…

Then through another door and into… a totally swank whisky bar with a mile-high bottle selection.

Wall o' whisky
Wall o’ whisky

We’re at The Baxter Inn, one of the best bars in Sydney. Very well hidden! We get some fancy cocktails, including a fan-fucking-tastic cognac and cherry heering concoction for me:

From left to right: Mike's Old Fashioned, Kit's cocktail, and my whisky-cherry heering cocktail
From left to right: Mike’s Old Fashioned, Kit’s cocktail, and my whisky-cherry heering cocktail

Drink game: upped.

Evening

Mike and I still haven’t had food, and the rest of our stops tonight are back in Newtown, so head back over in that direction. The dumpling place we’ve now passed a couple of times on King Street is sounding pretty damn good at the moment, so we head on in.

I get chicken and veggie dumplings in a spicy miso chicken soup broth. And I should have gotten a side of a jug of water and a box of tissues, because DAMN was it ever hot. To be fair, I was warned by my server, and I do like really hot foods. And it was so, so, mouth-burningly good, even if I did have to blow my nose and/or gulp down some water every few bites. Hottest food since I accidentally ordered a dish 4-star-spicy at Thai Tom in the U District.

What is good for cooling the tongue? Beer! After dinner we walk down King Street to the Union Hotel, where… hey, wait. What’s that sign by the door? Upcoming gigs? Let’s take a look:

Upcoming gigs at the Union Hotel
Upcoming gigs at the Union Hotel

I let out a groan on seeing the Miners/Hideous Towns/Mope City gig on the 25th. All those bands are really good, especially Miners, which would in my top 10 of new Aussie or NZ bands to see on this trip. But we’ll be in New Zealand by then. Dammit.

Anyway, we go inside and order more sampling paddles, this time five beers in a sampler. Things get pretty chatty at this point, and oh, this beer is tasty. And we hear the story of the failed Burger King expansion in this part of the world, a,one other deep topics.

At this point we are yes, tipsy and yes, tired. We walk back down King Street with Kit towards the direction of the train and our Airbnb and we think we’re calling it a night when Kit walks us a couple doors past our turn and opens the door to what looks like a butcher shop from the outside. Huh?

Another hidden bar — of course! And with amazing cocktails — of course! Can we say no — of course… NOT. We’re on vacation, after all. And there is an espresso bourbon cocktail on that menu that’s calling my name. Bottoms up!

My espresso-bourbon cocktail at left, next to Mike's and Kit's
My espresso-bourbon cocktail at left, next to Mike’s and Kit’s

It is a good thing we need only stumble around the corner to bed, because we are now sleeeeeepy. Kit says he planned our drink-a-thon for tonight since the next day we’ll need our sleep that night for an early flight the following day. Pretty sneaky!

It’s still pretty hot in our room when we get back, but whatevs! Zzzzzzz…