Melbourne story-telling

My name is Mandy Kennedy – you need to know that for this story.

We met online which clearly is the way these things happen nowadays.
He was living in Perth but about to move to Melbourne for work.
His company had let go 25% of its workforce several weeks prior and they’d all gone out drinking for the evening.
He’d drunk applied for half a dozen jobs later that night and, fortuitously, was successful regarding the one in Melbourne.
He’d never been to my city before. He’d spent the last dozen years between Kalgoorlie and Perth, being from England originally.
He flew over (remember those days) and spent several days looking at apartments until he found one he liked.
2 bedrooms 11th floor apartment in St Kilda with views out to the Dandenongs. Nice!

Online, he kept looking at my profile, so one night and half a bottle of sav blanc later, I threw him a bone and sent him a message.
‘So Mr Kennedy71, I guess I should introduce myself; I’m Ms Kennedy 72.’
Now I can see this message with a more objective eye.
My profile name was Klimt – as in Gustav Klimt – the Austrian symbolist painter, one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Secession movement, noted for his frank eroticism of the female body. You know his work even if his name doesn’t ring a bell.

Dating profiles are like the blurb on the back of a book, they should pique your interest and hint at what is to come.
I’ll never use lovestolaugh73 (too cliched) yrdestiny (seriously?) and never anything featuring my name or location. I don’t need any more stalkers.

I figured he was using his name and year of birth cause he was fresh meat – I mean, new to online dating.
Anyway we connected and messaged briefly before taking it IRL – well, talking on the phone.
A week later he’d moved to Melbourne and that following weekend we met up. I volunteered to taking him on a walking tour of my city; my Melbourne, if you will. ‘Wear your good walking shoes,’ I said.

So there we are, at Queen Vic market munching on a bratwurst with sauerkraut in a crusty roll.
It’s one of those typical busy Sunday mornings and the market is pumping with shoppers and tourists alike. He buys the sausages while I find us a perch by the wall to eat them.
We’re chatting easily, both dropping crumbs down our front, when I think how easy it is talking to him.

He then gets a bit more serious – ‘I need to tell you something. I’m not Mr Kennedy 71.’
‘What?’ I say, genuinely not understanding.
‘I mean, my surname is not Kennedy.’ He goes on. ‘My name is Steve Druce not Steve Kennedy.’
‘Why would you use Kennedy in your profile name then?’ I ask.
‘Well, Mr Kennedy is a WWF wrestler and he’s the complete antithesis of me so it’s funny, see?’
‘How would I know Mr Kennedy is the name of a wrestler?’
‘But it’s funny, cause well,’ he shrugs, ‘I’m clearly no wrestler.’ At that he pops the last of the spicy bratwurst in his mouth and smiles.
‘Well, you’re in my phone as Steve Kennedy,’ I say.

After wandering around the market, we walk down Lonsdale Street and I point out the Hellenic ornamental border on the footpath, we walk through China town, up to the Parliament building and stop for a coffee at the European. Conversation is easy between us. We discuss books and art but mostly food and travel.
We walk down towards the river and around Fed Sq. I explain its controversial redevelopment and how no one calls it Federation Square but always Fed Square.
We watch buskers entertain the crowd and try to figure out how much money they make in a day.
We wander down to the river’s edge and I point out the prime real estate occupied by the private boat clubs on the south bank.
Further along we cross the pedestrian bridge and divert down to Ponyfish Island for a unique perspective of the Yarra River and the city. For true Melbourne initiation, we share a long neck of Melbourne Bitter.
We cross back into the city and duck into Young and Jacksons and I show him Chloe – the nude portrait which caused such a stir in the days before you access nudes almost instantaneously on your phone.
I explain how the public transport system works and that it’s pronounced Myki not mickey. I think I allay his fears about hit by a tram.
I’m enjoying our afternoon so much I try to delay its conclusion by taking a succession of laneways and arcades to weave our way though the CBD.
(As an aside – a few years later, I end up employed as a tour guide taking visitors on walking tours of our city.)

We’re almost back to where we started so I offer to give him a lift home. He agrees, confessing to being tired from all our walking. Too quickly, we’re in St Kilda and the car is idling while we continue to chat. We sit this way for another half hour.
Finally we say goodbye and he suggests that he call me that evening to arrange a second date later in the week.

‘That’d be great Mr Kennedy,’ I say.
‘It’s Mr Druce, remember?’ He says.
‘No, I think it’s easier if you stay Mr Kennedy, that way you don’t have to change it when we get married.’

I drive away.

The Last Time

The last time

The last time I rode my bike to work, I didn’t ride it home. An ambulance took me to hospital instead. My bike had slipped on tram tracks (very Melbourne) and I tumbled down like a sack of potatoes. It took me 6 months to get the courage to ride again.

The last time I dyed my hair was over a year ago. I like that my blonds now shine through.

The last time I was in a St Kilda pub on a Saturday night, the bartenders ignored me while they clambered to serve a skimpily-clad 18 year-old. I guffawed so loud I startled them.

The last time I got married, I divorced him 13 years later.

The last time I took illicit drugs, I did so in a safe and comfortable environment with someone I trust to guide me through. The next morning he asked if I wanted a cigarette with my coffee. I said, ‘I don’t smoke.’ He said, ‘you did last night.’

The last time I took a pregnancy test it was negative. I was, and still am, very thankful for that.

The last time I lied was yesterday.

The last time I swam in the ocean it was off Magnetic Island and not really warm enough but I hadn’t carted my bathers from Melbourne for nothing.

The last time I slept solidly through the night was earlier this year. It’s so rare that when it happens I wake in awe.

The last time I went for a jog I was 12 years old and before I had finished developing fully. I don’t care what other people say about sports bras, bouncing is just too uncomfortable. So if you see me running, you’d better run too cause there’s something scary coming this way.

The last time someone asked me to get married, I said no to the marriage but yes to jewelry and a party.

The last time I raged against injustice was earlier this week. There seems a lot stuff in the world to rage at lately.

The last time I did yoga was this morning. It seems that if I don’t stretch and move daily, things start to seize up.

The last time I was able to use my phone without finding my glasses was over a year ago. I apologise for those on the receiving end of my typos. I now own multiple pairs of glasses that I have stashed in various bags and spots around the house.

The last time I used the phrase ‘in my day’ – oh no, that’s right I never have. Because I still think of things as being ‘in my day.’

The last time I wore high heels I got a blister. I’d like to say that’s the last time I wear high heels but I’m not ready to make that kind of commitment.

The last time I sang in public was – who am I joking, I’ve never sung in public and trust me you don’t want me to start.

The last time I experienced sexual harassment was – actually, it’s happened so many times in my life that I no longer bother to remember.

The last time I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone I came to a story telling night. I’ve been coming every month since. I’m hooked and reckon I’m learning and improving month by month. And tonight won’t be my last time.

Friday 31st August – New York City

Friday 31st August

9.33am

Two loads of washing done and currently tumbling away in the dryer downstairs in the basement laundry. $2.00 a wash and $1.80 per 30 minutes drying. Apart from setting the alarm to remind oneself to go get the stuff, I reckon I could get used to this system. Though it needs to be said that the laundry is insufferably hot and stuffy in Summer, which it currently is here.

My sister and her partner are flying home to Australia today. Luggage is in various stages of being packed. Bags of rubbish, recycling and donating sit in different parts of the apartment. US friends came over this morning to comb through accumulated kitchen items for the taking. Bottles of olive oil, hardly-touched spice packets and half-empty packets of nuts made it into their grocery bags. Stacks of baking accoutrements remain on the kitchen bench while plastic storage containers were snaffled up.

New York City is such a transient place that this ritual is common as people move to and from the metropolis. These friends moved from Texas a year ago. Others I met have been here much longer, though it seems that everyone came from somewhere else first. Six months here was enough for Simone to feel the need to bake. This is one sign she isn’t a native New Yorker, whose kitchen is usually just a place to dish up take-out meals.

Preparing your own food is an act of self-determination. How thick I cut the bread? To butter it or not? How long I cook the eggs for? – these are all small decisions that we make each day according to own individual desires. While there’s no denying that there’s a certain freedom in eating out, it is something that I rapidly tire of. Maybe I don’t want to get dressed to go out and search for food. (In place of ‘get dressed’, feel free to substitute ‘put a bra on’ as essentially that’s what I’m saying.) Even answering the door to a food delivery can be more than I’m up for at times. Other times, I’m excited to find a café or restaurant where I can prop by myself, chat with the wait staff or read a book. Taking my time to choose a meal, the appropriate drink to go with it and savour the luxury of the whole experience.

When I prepare food for myself, I don’t have to consider that someone else may want some of the perfectly ripe cheese I bought. I can stand at the bench and pop one slice of jamon on my mouth for every piece that makes it to the plate. I can butter the thick slice of crusty bread before liberally sprinkling salt crystals over it. And finally, no one judges me for over-filling my wine glass which saves me a return trip to the fridge in the middle of my meal, thus rendering my food vulnerable to my cats.

Letter to my mother’s diabetes.

Dear diabetes,

I’m well, thanks for asking.

I’m not going to ask how you’ve been because I don’t care.

I wish I’d never met you.

You’ve robbed my mother of her sight. Not all of it, mind you, but enough to suck some of the sweetness out of life. I can picture her, many years back, sitting on the couch next to dad, crocheting a toy or blanket for one grandkid or another. Now she just sits on the couch, staring ahead at a fuzzy pattern of shapes and colours, hands idle in her lap.

Thanks to you, my sister and I have now inherited the abandoned craft supplies. The crates of fabric from under the stairs went to my sister who sews. My daughters and I happily received boxes of wool, knitting needles and crochet hooks. Yes, the cats do love chasing the wool but I am also relishing the chance to teach my daughters crochet.

Mum, like her mother, was always happy to let us kids have a go at craft. I can even see Nana sitting in her floral chair by the window so she would catch the natural light, knitting needles in hand. Somehow, she never was short with me as she attempted to figure out what on earth I’d done with the wool. It usually involved a drop stitch or three. So I’m not being sarcastic when I say thank you. The craft supplies that have been passed on to us means that we, too, allow our children to play around with creating.

The ability to have a go and fail is something my mother encouraged in me from a young age. She is not the type to take the pencil out of my hand to draw something for me. She would suggest I walk around it, pick it up and get to know the thing I wanted to draw. Her time at art school in the 60s was not wasted. Her paintings and sculptures filled the house growing up. But once again, thanks to you, diabetes, she can’t even paint. The half-finished canvases rested against a wall in the garage, blank faces poking out under a layer of dust and cobwebs, until they too came to live with me.

As a child, I remember my grandfather had a shed that smelled of wood shavings and engine oil. His tools hung neatly on shadow board which lined the walls. I recall stories of Papa making a home brew system from discarded fuel tins. My mother inherited her ingenuity from her father. She also inherited his diabetes, developing it late in life as he did. So damn you diabetes for cursing my Papa as well.

Whilst reducing my mother’s sight so that she can no longer drive, you have tried to curb her independence but you did not succeed. My mother simply upsized her phone’s display and downloaded a public transport app. So once again, I must thank you. Thank you for nudging her into the modern world. Buses, trains and trams have replaced her own car but she will not be hobbled. We are both viciously independent people and though you may try, you will not limit our wanderings.

It’s not just diet and insulin production you impact. You effect the eyesight, feet and healing ability of people who get too close to you. The strong genetic link looms over my life so I’m actively working to remain free of you, damned diabetes. I exercise regularly so that you can’t catch me. I eat well, so that you’ll not join me at my dinner table. I have inherited many things from my mother – my body shape, my love of creating and my independent streak. But I will not inherit diabetes. I will not inherit you.

Down here we all float, you’ll float too

‘So how do you feel?’

I don’t know. How do you possibly expect me to be able to answer that?

I should’ve known something wasn’t right when my standard greeting of Hi, how are you? elicits a most non-standard response of I’m fantastic. How are you today?

‘Ummm, not bad,’ I reply already knowing that is not the correct answer.

‘I’ve got 1pm appointment,’ I continue on valiantly. ‘I’m a bit early, I know.’

‘Grab some water or tea and take a seat. Your room will be ready soon.’

‘No thanks, I’m fine.’ I flop down in an over-sized neutral-coloured chair which matches perfectly with the neutral-coloured surroundings. Kicking my shoes off, I relish the cool concrete beneath my feet. I search my bag for my book but come up empty. Meanwhile a tattooed young man in shorts, striped t-shirt and worn-in thongs enters and greets the receptionist by name. Reluctantly, I resort to messing about on my phone. Was electronic stimulation advised at this point? I’d read the FAQs last night and had avoided a morning coffee but eaten a small meal a few hours prior as recommended.

‘Amanda? The Atlantis room is ready for you.’

I resist the temptation to make any lost city jokes as I follow the lithe, leisure-wear clad receptionist.

Inside the Atlantis room, I discover THE POD. Smooth, white and egg-like, it is everything I had hoped for. I am almost surprised not to find Mork from Ork sitting inside. A soft blue light twinkles off the shallow water. Flat, shiny beige tiles line the floor and walls of the room.

‘ . . .trust me, you’ll be thanking me for that later,’ she carries on though I know I’ve missed something vital. ‘Then use the pre-float soap on your body and the pre-float shampoo on your hair and then you’re ready to hop on in.’

I nod as though this is all expected even though she knows it’s my first float from the online form I’d filled out when I booked the appointment. I’m looking directly at her now so I don’t miss any more information that I’d be grateful for later.

‘Once inside, you pull down on this handle gently to close the lid. This button on your left is only for emergencies you understand. If you press that, I will come in assuming it is an emergency.’ She stares at me and I duly nod.’

‘And press this switch here to turn the lights off.’ Multiple pressings of the switch are doing nothing for the lights but she soldiers on anyway. ‘Press it like this . . . Hang on . . . Like this.’ With still no luck, she steps behind my egg and turns the whole thing off at the wall then back on again.

‘Ok, you turn it off like this.’ This time, the lights go out first time.

I almost put my hand up but figure it’s only me and her here so I can interrupt without repercussions. ‘And if I don’t want the lid down, that’s ok too?’

‘Are you claustrophobic?’

‘Kind of.’ I have experienced claustrophobia before but not sure that makes me claustrophobic. I’ve smoked a cigarette before but that doesn’t make me a smoker.

‘Sure, you could do that if you want to.’ Though clearly she doesn’t think it’s the best idea.

‘The session starts with five minutes of music and ends with five minutes of music. So when you hear the music the second time, you know it’s time to get out, have a shower and get dressed. Any questions?’

‘No, I’m good.’ I’m already taking off jewellery.

‘Oh, one last thing.’ She reaches into my egg and grabs a small spray bottle hooked onto one of the suspension struts that holds up the lid. ‘If you get any of the water on your face, spray this on your skin. It’ll help, trust me.’

She pivots, her sneakers squeaking on the tiles and is out the door in seconds. I start to peel off my clothes in this humid, too warm room. I try to lock the door behind her but can’t figure out if I’ve done it or not. I give up after a couple of attempts, assuming no one is going to accidentally walk in on me and more fool them if they do. Clothes hung up, I step into the shower area to begin the ritual. I can’t imagine what it was she first opened her spiel with that I’d be thanking her later for. I soap my entire body and wash my hair.

Careful not to slip on the tiles, I gingerly step over to my egg and place one then two feet inside. Crouching down, I grab the handle and pull the lid down, closing off the world momentarily. I press the plastic coated button and my thumb slips off it. I try again and then again with my other hand. I’m flailing around trying to stay upright and put all my weight into making that damn button responsive. It doesn’t work and briefly I wonder if this constitutes an emergency and should I attempt to press the button on the other side and summon assistance. I decide against this. A non-functioning light switch is hardly an emergency and I don’t fancy subjecting the receptionist to seeing my naked body.

I lay down on my back and automatically my arms shoot out sidewards, palms facing up. My fingertips touch the edges of the tank and I figure this isn’t conducive to my intended sensory isolation. I wedge my hands onto my chest, interlocking my fingers. This feels too rigid so I place my hands lightly crossed between my breasts. This feels slightly vampirish and I smirk and keep them there. The magnesium salts which are mixed with highly filtered water provide the flotation mechanism as well as acting as muscle relaxant. My skin feels slippery, almost slimy but I like it. My eyes are closed and I wonder if I’m moving in any one direction. Occasionally my toes bump the far wall to let me know where I am.

Although my shower was a cool one to help combat the mid-30 degree temperature outside and my five minute walk in the sun to get here, I’m still too hot. I sit up inelegantly and open the lid. This in turns triggers the sensor light in the room which lasts a few minutes before cycling through dim to off with a click. I lie back down and try to find a comfortable position again. Arms out, arms in, arms crossed, arms behind head. I settle with resting them on my belly-button. The salts begin to dry out on the portion of skin which is exposed to the air. My skin itches so I wash more water over my body to keep it damp. Images of beached dolphins are hiding somewhere in the back of my mind.

‘Ok, mind – go blank. Well, not blank but at least quieten the chatter please. I’m here to relax, to switch off, to tune out or is that tune in?’ My neck feels odd so I grab the inflatable pillow tucked under the left hand strut and splash about getting it comfortable under my head. Water has splashed onto my cheek, so I wipe it off only to figure out that is not going to help. I paddle across to the other side gently and unhook the tiny spray bottle. Eyes closed I spray my face. Nothing comes out.

‘This is going well,’ I think sarcastically. I open my eyes and sit up awkwardly. The salts make any movement clumsy. I try the bottle again. The lever won’t compress. It is multiple attempts later that I realise a small pin needs to be pushed to one side to allow the pump action to work. Ok, lay back down, spray face more than is possibly required and return spray bottle.

Hands gently resting on my abdomen, eyes closed and I’m determined to find oblivion in my egg – now that everything is sorted, well, apart from the light and the lid. My stomach growls. That sushi hand roll two hours ago may not have been enough. My 1pm appointment was probably not the wisest in hindsight. I’m a late breakfast eater cause I find food too violent in the morning (I’m not getting into that discussion here). As per the FAQs I was mindful not to float with too full a stomach. Hence the one sushi hand roll. Tuna with brown rice, in case you’re curious. I choose to ignore my digestive system and chase nirvana again. But maybe my digestive system is trying to communicate something to me? Maybe it is the seat of my nirvana?

In an attempt to sidetrack my mind, I let my hand wander along my skin, enjoying the silky feel of it beneath the heavily salted water. Reconnecting to my body, I decide piping a guided meditation track into these eggs would be a solid idea. Maybe birdsong or a whale singing soundtrack would be good instead of silence?

My mind wanders and I remember floating off the bayside beach my family would frequent when I was a kid. On hot days, the water was flat as a tack and you’d walk out to where the sand dropped away and the water changed from clear to a deep teal. It was here, too far out for little kids to follow and annoy you, that you’d find a quiet place. Lay back and close your eyes. Hands outstretched and let the water cradle you. No waves to upset your float, you’d keep your eyes closed for as long as you dared. There was usually someone sneaking up to scare you. But not here, not now.

It is the low rumble of a passing tram that lets me know I’m not at McCrae anymore. A shower is running in the room next door and Miss Squeaky Shoes is walking down the hall. I spray my face again with water and wash my body to halt the salt crystallisation. I can’t quite grab that childhood beach memory back again no matter how hard I try. Momentarily I think about driving an hour down to the exact location to recreate it but then realise there is no point. I can enjoy the memory from a distance without the disappointment of a failed recreation.

I now begin to wonder how long I’ve got to go on my one hour introductory float. I run through the rest of week and its commitments in my mind. I plan out the week’s dinners and what I need to get from the shops. I tell myself to remember to email Nick this afternoon and transfer the rent tomorrow. I flirt with the notion of standing up and showering now anyway. The post-float soap, post-float shampoo and post-float conditioner are waiting for me.

‘Don’t be ridiculous. Just wait.’ And I do.

Several minutes later, standing in front of Miss Squeaky Shoes who is seated behind a ridiculously large computer screen, I hear her ask again, ‘So – how do you feel?’

‘I honestly don’t know,’ I reply. This time I manage to respond, though I keep the honest answer to myself. I feel like a Seinfeld episode.

72 hours on the little blue planet

You may only think of Earth as being a planet with a convenient climate devoid of too many terraforming activities. Well, it’s much more than that. With improved inter-galactic transportation, now is the time to see what this pretty little blue planet has to offer. We’ve done the hard work for you, organising an indulgent, first-class long weekend. So sit back and let Earth seduce you.

Saturday

Paris

Grab a strong café au lait and a pain au chocolat or almond croissant and let’s hit the streets. This is not the Galleries Lafayette or the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. This is back to basics shopping. Paris is undoubtedly a city rich in history and you deserve the chance to take a piece away with you. After all, the word souvenir is from the french ‘to remember’. Spring and Summer are the best seasons to spend hours trawling through the plethora of sidewalk stalls. Diversity is the name of the game here. Items range from high to low end and all points in between. Flea market finds are just as likely to unearth vintage postcards and antique buttons or a unique set of alabaster cufflinks.

Smiling translates the same in every language and it is a great ice-breaker as you rummage through dusty, crammed boxes shoved under tables, searching for that one perfect item. Talking of which, don’t get hung up on one particular thing as curious wonders and oddities abound at every stall. Most likely an early 19th century armoire will not fit into the carry-on.

A couple of important points to remember: wear comfortable shoes because you’ll be doing a lot of walking. Leave any valuables at home and dress like a local to avoid being singled out by pickpockets. Above all, arrive early to secure the best bargains and haggling is perfectly acceptable.

Why not grab an Auto-Uber and travel a little further afield to get the better bargains but bear in mind it’s buyer beware and it’s not always easy to tell a genuine piece from a replica. Finally, just like the rest of the planet, it goes without saying, bring your own bag because you won’t find any plastic bags here.

Audrey Hepburn was right when she said, ‘Paris is always a good idea.’

Austria

With all that bargain hunting, you’ve no doubt worked up a thirst. Now’s the time to pop over to Austria and check out wineries as they should be – all rolling hills and glowing fires – and the reason you’re here is to sample some of the country’s finest Gruner Veltliner wine. Dry, savoury and very food friendly, it gives Romulan ale a run for its money.

Of course, that is if you can drag yourself away from Vienna and its cobblestone streets, original trams and delicious traditional foods. Austrians have an understandable pride in their heritage – so proud of St. Stephens cathedral, in fact, that Haas Haus was built opposite with a mirrored façade to increase visibility of the cathedral within the tightly built up city. Do as the locals do and grab a restorative coffee and cake to see you through the afternoon. Visit Café Sacher Wien, all dark wood and worn leather chairs and sample Sacher Torte which they’ve been serving consistently for the last 150 years.

Self-drive vehicles mean no one has to be the designated driver, so let the vine-covered hills unwind in front of you. Lower Austria is one of the most under-rated wine regions on the planet. Small, progressive, organic producers sit beside large scale wineries, both of which welcome the wine professional as well as the enthusiastic amateur.

Grape growing in the region dates back to at least 2nd century BC and the vineyards have survived both Roman occupation and phylloxera, a disease which devastated grapes across Europe in the late 19th century. Connection to place, or terroir, is expressed most elegantly in Gruner Veltliner, the variety of which accounts for the country’s greatest production. Gruner means green-picked and it is this under-ripe picked grape that produces an audacious but balanced profile wine. The region’s cool climate lends the wine excellent acid retention, adding structure and ageing capability. Grab a Reidel wine glass, still the leading wine glass producer on the planet Earth, and let your tasting journey begin.

TASTING NOTES – GRUNER VELTLINER

• Think savoury pear plus hints of talcum powder – it can have the texture and body of a Pinot gris but other examples have the spine of an off-dry Riesling

• Works as an aperitif but can also be matched with poached weisswurst, or cold pork terrine on a picnic rug in a stemless Riedel on a mild spring afternoon but that’s another story…..

• Ideally served at 7 degrees it has a moderate alcohol content of around 12-13%

Say ‘auf wiedersehen, Austria’ and ‘ciao, Italia!’

Italy

You could start at the toe of Italy’s boot, board the train at the reputationally-suspect Reggio Calabria station and head northwards. Hugging the rugged west coast, weaving through numerous mountains and even hitching a ride on a ferry, the Italian rail network provides many options. This time, however, you should head straight to Modena. Situated on the south side of the Po Valley, in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, Modena is the home of Italian sports cars.

Tonight though, you’re not here for sports cars. You are here to sample some of the most unmissable food on planet Earth. Once you’ve had your fill of palaces, cathedrals, museums and other historic buildings, it’s time for a little aperitif. You can go past the ever-popular Aperol Spritz. Featuring Aperol, the bitter orange aperitif traditionally made in nearby Padua, a spritz is low in alcohol and refreshes your palate for the onslaught that lies ahead.

Recipe

3 parts prosecco, 2 parts Aperol and 1 part soda. Ideally served in a large wine glass or tumbler with citrus slices of your choice.

Your perfect dining spot this evening is Osteria Francescana, where chef Massimo Bottura showcases the best that the Emilia-Romagna region has to offer. Balsamic vinegar, prosciutto and parmigiano reggiano each play their role in the 9 course tasting menu. Self described as both contemporary and traditional, Bottura’s menu travels from house-cured culatello aged 42 months with mustard fruits to oyster water and cider sorbet. If you’re fortunate you may even be served cotechino, a fat, juicy sausage made from the less popular cuts of pork, including the head. Traditionally served with lentils layered over a rich reduction of pan juices, the legumes represent coins and it is said to bring good luck. Whatever the intended fortune, no description does it justice. It can only be understood through by taste. It’s just damn delicious.

All those cliché catch phrases apply here – seasonal, locally-sourced, farm to table – as lawyer turned chef, the obsessive Bottura explores food as memory, his own and his customers’. Inarguably, food is the collective memory of a people. It is the result of hundreds of years of habit and farming tradition and yet it is the personal dishes that tell the greatest stories. Deeply embedded in the Italian lifestyle, there is no such thing as a rushed meal. Hours pass over antipasti, pasta for primo then secondi, or protein portion (usually something lighter such as fish in the South through to heavier meat in the North) alongside contorni, or side dishes, and always finishing with sweet dolci. Robust conversation is part of the deal with politics and sex causing less uproar than ‘who has the best ragu recipe?’

Perhaps this degustation asks too much of the diner, you should probably give it a go anyway.

Buon appetito!

Sunday

Africa

A culture filled day yesterday in Europe is the perfect way to start your whirlwind long weekend here on Earth, and today you hop on over to Africa. After your degustation dinner last night, you’ll need to step out and grab some fresh air to blow away the cobwebs. Spending the morning on an African safari is the ideal solution. Join a kayaking group and let the gentle flowing waters of the lower Zambezi river whisk you away. As you float past sheer rock faces, you’ll need to manoeuvre around sunbathing crocodiles or herd of hippos feeding on grasses in the shallows. Wildlife vastly outnumbering humans, now’s the time to get up close and personal, though not too close, these animals aren’t holograms and hippos can be extremely aggressive when threatened.

From one kind of wild animal to another, it’s time to jet over and visit New York City.

New York City

There is no such thing as an American cuisine. The American dining table groans under a diversity of dishes, influenced by hundreds of years of immigration and its plentiful natural resources. Fear not, fast food nation is not what you’ve signed up for here.

The ideal solution to such over-whelming choice of options is, of course, found at a cocktail and pie bar. Located in Greenwich Village, lower Manhattan, Little Branch combines unmissable cocktails and home-style pie – what could be more American? America embraces pie of all varieties from pumpkin pie, coconut cream pie, pecan pie to apple pie and everything in between. Cocktails established their foundation ironically both during and after Prohibition.

Like all the best parts of New York City, there’s a touch of the theatrical to this bar. The first act being discovering the unmarked door, making your way past the burly bouncer and down candle lit steps. Dark and moody with low ceilings, this speakeasy is the perfect spot to catch some live Jazz on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Let the sartorially splendid bartenders tailor their mixology just for you. Quintessential American apple pie is the perfect partner to a Manhattan – a sublime balance of vermouth, whiskey and bitters in a low ball. These killer cocktails are worth waiting for.

In a city that never sleeps, Dorothy Parker once said “As only New Yorkers know, if you can get through the twilight, you’ll live through the night.” Good to know.

Monday

Australia

You’ll be double dipping in this sprawling country this morning but it’s worth it, trust me. Australians have a well earned reputation as laid-back and carefree and the White Elephant Café in Margaret River, Western Australia epitomises this attitude. Sprawling vistas over pristine shoreline are the perfect accompaniment to your breakfast fare. Ordering from the eclectic menu, you’re just as likely to get a deconstructed soba noodle salad as eggs Benedict or smashed avo on toast. It doesn’t get any more authentically Australian than this.

Possibly a symbol for the region itself, endless fields of golden wheat sway in the coastal breeze. Biodynamic farming methods foster strong connection to the land as much as literal deep crop roots. Bread has been much vaulted and philosophised over and again. Bread is wheat transformed into flour, flour transformed into dough and ultimately dough transformed into bread. It is often called the staff of life and rightly so. Grain from the field nurtured just so becomes bread.

After all that philosophy, you deserve a coffee. Melbourne, Victoria has to be the next stop. Still the home of hipster coffee, track down a converted shipping container cafe in an un-named laneway. Hour-long lines are not the only barometer of quality. Single origin, cold drip or straight forward espresso, your barista is the gate-keeper of coffee knowledge. Coffee, like wine, has its terroir and equally strong advocates. Your three-quarter flat white never looked or tasted so good.

Caffeinate up and let’s hit our next destination – Bali, Indonesia.

Bali

Monday afternoon is as good as any time to visit Bali’s 24 hour market In the heart of Denpasar. Buildings stacked high with every possible variety of food, fabrics, souvenirs and spices, the number of stalls multiply yearly. Weave your way through the labyrinth to find that perfect Indonesian memento.

Bali is one of Indonesia’s more than 18,000 islands that make up the archipelago. One of the most densely populated islands, its towns vary from sleepy to bustling. The people are a mix of mostly Hindu and Muslim, temples sit check by jowl with mosques with a catholic statue or two squeezed in. Visitors to this island range from scuba enthusiasts, sun-seekers or surfers, culture junkies to shopaholics.

After all that shopping you deserve to ease the tension with a serene spa visit. The Legian Luxury Retreat is just the spot. Recently refurbished using local materials crossed with sleek interior design, wooden balconies lean out over the shimmering blue waters below. The in-house spa mixes classic treatments such as facials and hot stone massage with more new age therapies like chakra realignments and holistic reiki healing rituals. Your most difficult decision will be between the plunge pool or your own private beach.

Let’s finish off your long weekend here on Earth and catapult yourself to Tokyo. The only way to experience Tokyo is at 120 percent.

Tokyo

It’s too easy to get lost in this megalopolis but it’s worth exploring Tokyo’s many prefectures, whether you want to go shopping in Shibuya, get your fill of shrines in Asakusa or visit Harajuku’s many cosplay cafes. However, for your last night here on Earth, head to Shinjuku and visit one of Kabukicho’s robot bars. Notorious but not dangerous, this red light district allows you to slide up next to salarymen unwinding after a long day at work before they retire to a ‘capsule hotel’ to steal a few hours sleep.

List of a few Dos and Don’ts

• Don’t engage with the street touts if you want to hold onto your wallet.

• Don’t loiter out front of the adult stores regardless of how tempting these multi-floor shops are with their videos, dolls, all sorts of dress ups and toys. Either go in and shop or leave.

• Do get off the main strip and visit a maid café which vary from maids as school girls to old school air stewardesses. For a moderate amount, you buy a beer and a minute of the maid’s time. They’re not hitting on you; flirting is all part of the transaction.

• Do grab a Suica card and hop on public transport. It’s a cheap and efficient way to get around.

• Do ask the price and what you get for it. Hostess clubs vary widely, but you can be treated like a king for the price of a cigar or a glass of whiskey

Finally, you have to hit the barely shoulder-width bars of the Golden Gai. Each with their own personality, bars in the Golden Gai are not cheap but the cover charge at least gets you a simple bowl of soup or a few hot dumplings.

As the locals say ‘It’s not over til the rooster crows.’

Don’t leave Tokyo before you try these –

Donburi

Essentially a scaled-down version of an entire meal, it is the quality of the rice that is the most important. Perfectly cooked, separated grains but still sticky enough to pick up with chopsticks, topped with unagi (eel) or yakitori skewer, toasted nori and a condiment. Each dish comes in a unique bowl, as Japanese culture values the aesthetic as much as the food itself.

Yakitori

A range of skewers from chicken ribs or heart to shiitake mushrooms, each yakitori master applies their own glaze with a recipe containing soy and mirin. All parts of the animal are used in this dish and yakitori varies from a simple snack to an extravagant feast. Basted frequently and grilled over fanned charcoal, the skewers obtain a smokey edge to balance the sweet glaze.

Dumplings

Dumplings are basically mini flavour sensations made concrete. Often pork based, the filling should be firm but moist. Dumplings are a welcome addition to any Japanese meal.

Don’t forget to complement these tastes of Tokyo by sampling a locally brewed sweet potato beer from Coedo or Hitachino’s red rice ale.

Whether it’s the romance of Paris, the sybaritic indulgence of Italy or the raw visual spectacular that is Africa, Earth is bound to get its hooks into you. Don’t fight it, just surrender.

What you need to know before you go

• Leave your filter mask at home, Earth has a naturally breathable atmosphere. Take the opportunity to breathe fresh air thanks to the 21st Century moratorium on destructive air-polluting activities.

• That 24 hour-in-a-day construction actually makes sense here, thanks to ancient Egyptians. Appreciate your work guys!

• Don’t forget to pack your charge card for all those unmissable purchases. However, you’ll still need to pack some cash (yes, cash) as that virtually extinct custom of tipping still exists in the United States of America – 20 % no less. Maybe one day soon, the minimum wage bill will be passed (along with the Equal Rights Amendment) eliminating the custom.

• Remember to pack your babel fish, there are over 4,000 languages spoken on Earth.

• Virgin Earth offers a range transportation options for every budget. To make your reservation, visit http://www.virginearth.ea

Jill and I

A couple of drinks with friends. We’ve all done that. Some nights, I have more than a couple of drinks and still walk down ill-lit streets by myself. Mostly, I have a pre-set arrangement with my best friend to check in on the way home but then there are always the impromptu nights.

Saturday September 22 2012, Jill Meaghar was out having drinks with friends in Melbourne’s inner north. From one bar to another, her colleagues from the ABC enjoyed convivial times with alcohol. I do this. I’m still here. At 1.30am, she left the group to walk a short distance home to her husband waiting for her in the bed they shared. It was probably a cool Spring night and she would be looking forward to leaning against his warm sleepy body. She never made it there.

She spoke with her brother on the phone on the way home. I pretend to talk with people on the phone to deflect unwanted male attention or exude a false sense of security. She lived close to the bars and it wasn’t worth getting a taxi home. The spendthrift in me understands this. All she had to do was walk down a well-illuminated Sydney Road, turn the corner into a now ill-named Hope Street and make her way home. Adrian Bayley wouldn’t let her. Adrian Bayley had other plans.

At 29 years old, I like to think of Irish born Jill as a strong, intelligent, feminist woman in the early stages of a promising career in Melbourne radio. Her disappearance was widely reported and for a small time women of Melbourne were hopeful she would be found shaken but alive. Social Media campaigns circulated, well over 12 million Twitter references to #helpusfindJillMeaghar. Ten years older than her, newly single and eagerly dating, I walk along less illuminated roads after more than a couple of drinks and I am still here to tweet about it.

I put myself willingly, and unwillingly, into vulnerable situations and have not met an Adrian Bayley. Maybe I have met an Adrian Bayley with circumstances or his own internal situation thwarting any malicious actions. What separates the men I date and Adrian Bayley and how can I tell the two types apart? Is there a checklist I can download or an app that will sift potential suitors for me? Should I just give up now meeting people? Is online dating really any riskier than meeting someone in a bar?

Jill was happily married (if there is such a thing and now we will never know anyway) so she wasn’t putting herself out there as I am. Jill was just walking down the street, keeping to herself. Maybe she spoke to Adrian Bayley. Maybe Adrian Bayley was following her and that’s why she called her brother as someone to speak with to avoid interacting with Adrian Bayley. Maybe she had to talk to Bayley. Maybe he wouldn’t allow her not to. Maybe she played nice to avoid escalating the situation. I’ve played nice to avoid scaling an interaction. I’ve smiled and nodded and said, “A-ha. Okay. “ meanwhile stepping to the side and trying to hold my line.

Women, adult women, have learned to play nice to avoid situations. I don’t want to play nice but I want to survive.

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