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…

AUS/NZ Trip Diary: Day 9

March 14

Day 9: Sydney

Morning

Melbourne has been so much fun, I feel we could easily spend another week there exploring entirely new things. So it’s with a little bit of sadness that we head out that morning for the airport.

We’re prepared to take the tram to the airport express bus until, upon reaching our tram stop we realize that we left the transit cards in the Airbnb. Leaving them was as planned, since our host had lent us the cards for our use while staying there. But we forgot that detail when plotting our route. Oops.

I call us a cab, which actually ends up being cheaper (and faster) than two transit modes x 2, so no big deal. We have a passable airport breakfast with plenty of time to kill given our unplanned early arrival.

At this point, I’ve resorted to checking my one big backpack for each flight, as my shoulder bag is now almost completely full with records. And it weighs just over 8kg, which is technically in violation of the Qantas Airlines 7kg max per bag rule. But my shoulder bag doesn’t look that big, so no one checks. Weigh limits for carry-on luggage are another thing I need to watch out for in this part of the world.

We are accidental hobbits once more as Qantas serves us a (second) breakfast: a fancy-by-U.S.-standards leek/cauliflower/cheese quiche. An airline providing real food on a one-hour flight? Unheard of!

Arriving in the Sydney airport via a domestic flight is much more laid back than when we came from the U.S., plus we now have a better feel for the airport and transit options. So we’re able to get on the train towards the city pretty easily.

We do need to change at Central station this time, as we’re staying in a different part of the city: Newtown. Newtown and the adjacent Enmore areas were recommended to us by Kit (he lives in the area) as places that would have the kinds of things we’re interested in doing and seeing. And when we exit at Newtown station and begin to walk down the street, we see this is a mellower, lower-rise commercial strip, with bars, restaurants, op shops and various boutiques.

Our Newtown Airbnb is a short walk from the station, and we manage to pass the very cool-looking record store at the corner without going in, as we’re still toting our heavy bags.

Our room is one of four in a building on a residential street. It’s a professional operation similar to our Melbourne Airbnb — printed laminated signs and instruction sheet, remote entry via code to get a key — but without the personal touch. In fact, it’s a hostel-type setup with two shared bathrooms, and we never do meet our “host.” But our room is clean and pretty cozy and the location is aces (and the price was low), so we roll with it.

Afternoon

Bags dropped, we text Kit to let him know our whereabouts, as our expert guide has some plans in store for us. But first we plan on getting some food. Mike is pretty hungry and I could use a small bite, so we wander up and down King Street looking for a decent option. Foursquare/Google isn’t being much help for some reason, or maybe we’re just too hot and tired to put the needed effort in. Then Mike spots the sign for six dollar felafels in front of one of the many Turkish restaurants on the strip: bingo.

Alas, Mike reports this is an under-seasoned felafel, with no tahini even. And my tabbouleh is mostly parsley. Oh well. First truly bum meal of the trip, but at least it was cheap.

I need my afternoon coffee, both to wash the taste of parsley out of my mouth and also… caffeine. Online reviews point to Cuckoo Callay back by the train station as a top option, so off we go. And for the first time I order my coffee iced, because… great big flamey orb in sky! Much hotness. So thirst. My iced coffee comes in a regular hot coffee takeaway cup. Such delicious. Much chug.

Getting out of the sun and into the dark and hopefully cool confines of a record store is our next priority, and we both want to check out the particular one around the corner from our Airbnb. I text Kit our location as we head on in.

Again we make our way directly to the local (Australian/New Zealand) vinyl sections, with a small detour for the cassette section by the door. I’m happy to see a few newer Australian releases that I hadn’t spotted in Melbourne and pull those out: two 7″es by Community Radio and one by Day Ravies. In the LP section I also finally see a decently-priced, used copy of the most recent Day Ravies album, so I grab that, too.

Record shopping strategy tangent: In Melbourne I’d resisted buying brand-new copies of bigger releases (LPs on larger indie labels, generally), reasoning I’d see them again and would get a sense of the best price. I’d also avoid adding weight to my luggage until the latest possible moment. And our last stop before home was scheduled to be Auckland, home to the well-stocked Flying Nun store.

I turn around and… there’s Kit! We wrap up our shopping and head out to be led to further destinations as-yet-unknown.

Kit had promised to show us the talents of various local breweries, so our first stop is a place in Surry Hills with a wide selection of local brews, all written on a chalkboard above the bar.

Beers on tap at our first bar
Beers on tap at our first bar

We make selections for each of our beer flights, done here and in other local bars as “tasting paddles”: small glasses slotted into a wooden paddle with holes in it such that when you lift the paddle, the glasses sit snugly in the holes for easy transport to your table. I pick a sour (#17) a Hefeweizen (#14) and a very strong and darkly-sweet black IPA (#15).

Paddle of local beers
Paddle of local beers

Drinking our beers, we learn more about Australian politics from Kit. (It’s been fairly easy to avoid American political news over here, something for which we’re currently quite grateful.) And I notice that I am sitting directly under an enormous taxidermied bison head. There is an elk head above us by the door. Were it not for the surfing competition on the bar TV and the hot sun outside, all these dead animal heads would make me feel like we’re back in a Seattle bar.

We still have time to kill before the comedy show we’ll be headed to, the same regular Monday night event we’d attended the previous week the day we arrived. And we still have more local brews to sample. Onward to the Albert!

On one wall in the bar area there are drink coasters with portraits sketched on them. Great idea — we grab fresh coasters and sharpies along with our beers. Mike and I split a peach sour beer (gotta pace ourselves!) and Kit tries another sour.

We decide to sketch cat portraits, and I pull up a reference picture of my orange tabby Habanero. Mike chooses to draw my other cat, Jalapeño, and also pulls up a picture.

Mike draws
Mike draws

My drawing skills are, uh, rudimentary at best, so I create what Mike charitably calls a “cubist cat”:

My cubist cat, Habanero
My cubist cat, Habanero

And here are all three efforts, including Kit’s freestyle cutie and Mike’s amazing portrait, Jalapeño fang sticking out and all:

Cat coaster drawings (clockwise from top): Kit, Mike, me
Cat coaster drawings (clockwise from top): Kit, Mike, me

Evening

Properly refreshed and ready for comedy, we make out way to the club and our reserved table by the front. It’s a picnic-style table, so we choose the seats on the far side, hoping as before to avoid the attention of the comedians onstage.

As it turns out, friends of Kit’s also from Seattle happen to be in town, and up for comedy. Mike and Janelle, and their Seattle friend Suzy, join our table and we laugh nervously about how what a great comedy target our table now is: a group of Americans, and all from the same city, at that.

We get a jug (pitcher) of a cucumber-minty gin cocktails and super-thin crust pizzas that actually exceed my (admittedly low) expectations for Australian pizza.

On with the show! Our host for the night is a pretty hilarious and kind of bawdy, riffing on escapades from her dating life. One table of coworkers gets the spotlight for awhile, as one of their members unwisely volunteers to be the subject of a “tell us about yourself” riff. Everyone else at their table looks very uncomfortable and the host takes the opportunity to get even raunchier, directing a few gags at them.

At one point, though, Mike and I do become the target (oh no!) as she looks for an opening for a bit:

Host: “Do we have any couples in the house?” [pointing at us] “What about you? How long have you been together?”

Me: [wanting to hide] …

Mike: “Just over a year.”

Host: “Ah, been together awhile then, okay…” [attention begins to drift to others in the room]

I guess she figured we weren’t a new enough couple to easily embarrass. Ha! Bullet dodged.

She introduces the first of maybe 8 comedians, again in three different groups, or brackets, each bracket with a break in between. Of the featured comedians, we like best this kind of dry-humored, slightly angry guy who does some bits about his working on a construction site and getting shafted by his bosses (and getting even). Not everyone is hilarious, but it’s all entertaining, and a fun way to spend a Monday night and share Australia experiences with fellow Seattleites.

Kit guides us back to the station where we get on a train headed back to Newtown. Tomorrow he’ll lead us around the city once more to explore things other than beer. (Okay, and also more beer.)