Solo in Sydney* or: Getting My Groove Back

17 Dec

candle-lit mantlepiece with shiny silver backdrop.

[tweetmeme source=”@mummy_t” only_single=false]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a pulse will not be in want of attention in a cocktail bar. I have no idea how I’d forgotten this. But I had…

Over the course of a “career” not so much chequered as positively gingham, but dominated by language and creative stuff, one of few constants has been writing about bars, cocktails, bartenders and combinations thereof.

So as the witching hour when economics moves me from travelling mama to digital nomad mama approaches (accelerated by the prices in Oz), I’ve dipped a tentative toe back into the world of paid writing.

More specifically, an old, old friend and quondam employer who has asked me to identify, write up and take the odd shot of the top bars in Sydney and Melbourne. Z? He’s frolicking in saltwater pools outside Cairns with his dad.

So here I am, in Sydney. Solo. Bouncing around cocktail bars and landmarks with a notebook and a camera as I did rather a lot from age 24 until Z arrived on the scene two years later.

And how does it feel?

Pretty damn good, actually. Not just because thanks to the climate there’s a better class of gentleman here than in the UK. Not simply because the boy, whose company I enjoy immensely, does (appropriately) tend to function as the walking, talking equivalent of bromide in the tea. Not only for the total freedom of movement…

It’s partly the camera.

yellow flowers

My Sony Cybershot TX-5 proved, guttingly, not as waterproof as the literature claims approximately forty-five minutes after we arrived in the wilds of Eastern Halmahera, three days’ travel from the nearest decent camera emporium, to trek successfully in pursuit of nomadic hunter-gatherers.

But even before then, I’d been hoping to upgrade to a more serious camera, one where I could play with depth of field, colour, motion blur, angles and the like…

I settled on the Canon EOS 550D T2ni (Rebel T2). And bouncing around with a camera that actually does roughly what you want it to do when you want it to do it (and will, I am sure, do far, far more once I’ve got to grips with white balance and exposure and acquired a prime lens) feels nice.

Having great drinks in some of Australia’s best bars feels, well, pretty great, actually. They make good drinks here. They genuinely do.

There’s also something about walking off a plane with a brief to get a grip on a big city, and exploring a city with a specific urban purpose that’s, well, really, really fun. Last time I did this, I think, was in Barcelona, over a decade ago, though I did a chunk of Vegas solo in 2003…

Sydney I approached, I have to say, with a certain anxiety. Not so much because I’ve found Australia challenging, though I have. It’s never been on my bucket list, we’re here for family more than travel per se and it’s *incredibly* expensive, leaving me, largely, dependent on the wonderful generosity and hospitality of a range of family members.

It’s not that I have any anxiety about being a solo female traveller. Aged 19, I hitched solo around apartheid South Africa, a baptism of fire, bordering on insanity, which makes me fairly hard to scare.

You know: “You are safe from those kaffirs in my truck, lady!!! See, I have a gun right here!”…

Or: “You need to leave this bar right now, girl! That man is dangerous… Oh, you’ve been trying to leave?… No, like I said, the taxi’s broken. You’re going to have to walk… No, it’s not safe to stay upstairs, the locks are no damn good… Can’t help, you, sorry girl…”

Or: “Yeah, fucking great Swaziland green! Woooo!… Can you just take the wheel for a bit?… Just hold it straight while I get a bit of sleep, there’s a bend in 10k you need to look out for… Yeah, roadtrains have a load of gears, but you’re not going to need the stick out here…”.

More seriously, as a feminist who travels, I can’t reiterate often enough that any woman anywhere in the world outside the most vicious war zones is far more likely to come to harm at the hands of a male partner, ex-partner, relative or friend than a stranger.

It’s more the, well, the age thing. I’m 36, which, my spawn tells me, is middle-aged, and, having passed the halfway mark of my three score years and ten in April, he’s on the nail.

And the living out of a backpack thing…

Sydney is Australia’s only world city (though other cities have their different charms, which I’ll be posting about soon). Which carries with it a certain, well, wardrobe pressure if one is to gain access to a certain type of bar.

Y’know. Not the type that knocks out jugs of beer and greasy, overdone meat products of allegedly marsupial origin to backpackers. I wouldn’t go to one of those joints in London (or Bangkok), and I’m buggered if I’m going to one in Sydney.

All the same… I have carried mascara, blusher, nail polish, remover and lippie tens of thousands of kilometres over the last ten months. But I can count on my fingers the numbers of times I’ve used them.

Sydney girls all wear makeup. A lot of makeup. Plenty of London women eschew foundation in summer and some wear no makeup at all. Sydneysiders are also in possession of wardrobe items, especially shoes, which don’t need to pass the travel tests of light, compact, uncreasable, hardwearing and multifunctional.

Further, most of them can afford to shop in places that aren’t Target (say “Targé”, as “Primarché” for Primark) or secondhand stores. I would hazard a guess that most of them attend a hairdressers rather than highlighting with lime juice, cutting with nail scissors and styling with their small son’s hair wax…

Now, I wouldn’t say I haven’t been out in the last year. Z and I took a sophisticated trip to Vertigo, in Bangkok, and dined in style in a revolving restaurant in Penang.

We’ve been to some genuinely good restaurants in Ubud (Bali), Vientiane (Laos – and, no, I’m not joking), Penang (Malaysia), Manila and Kuching (though I had my best meal in well over a year at Duke at the Flinders Hotel last night).

We (and that does sometimes mean both of us) have been force-fed rice wine on a range of exotic cultural occasions. I’ve checked out the nightlife in Kuching (the capital of Sarawak, in Borneo), Kapit (upriver in rural Borneo) and Tobelo, Halmahera (the brothel capital of its region).

In none of these places, however, did I have to encounter the critical gaze of what tradition dictates I refer to as clipboard Nazis (though working the door of a trendy bar or club is an *extremely* skilled job), while sporting Targé sparkly, erm, thongs, and a camera bag in lieu of a handbag.

And, for most of the year, my wardrobe decisions have been based on two simple questions:

1) What body parts do I need to cover?
2) What do I have that’s clean?

(Like any good traveler, every item in my wardrobe bar the party frock can be combined with and layered over others.)

You can, perhaps, imagine the transition…

Anywise. My wardrobe, extended in consultation with my lovely mother at some of Adelaide’s gorgeous vintage/secondhand clothes shops for a price of $65, and in consultation with my wallet at Target in Melbourne CBD (apparently the only clothing outlet open after 6pm in the run-up to Christmas) at a price of $50, has held up OK for Melbourne. I opted for boho Darlinghurst over the more chichi city bars on my first night here in Sydney.

Tonight, the last Saturday before Christmas, is, in fact, the single worst time of year to take the measure of the city’s posher joints. But my flight’s on Monday, not everywhere opens on Sunday, and a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

So I’m sitting here, weirdly, sipping Flat White in an internet cafe opposite Central Station, and hovering between two worlds. A slice of my old life, and a slice of my new one.

The plan for today? Wash smalls and a couple of tops in hostel sink then drape them, classily, to dry over my bunk. Purchase foundation or Touche Eclat, new black mascara, razor, and, conceivably, red lipstick and eyeliner. Faint with horror at the cost thereof…

Do a little paid writing work and sorting out of photos. Don vintage/second-hand frock, accessories by Targé, makeup by whatever the equivalent of Superdrug is and camera bag by cousin in Adelaide. Then brave the door police at the capital’s glitzier bars…

I’ll keep you posted.

But what about you? How do you pack for smart restaurants and bars when you’re travelling light and/or longterm? Do you even go? (I’d always rather stay in the cheapest clean place and eat at the best place, which is by no means always the most expensive.)

What are your best tips for a wardrobe that runs from urban hotspots to trekking knee-deep through rivers? I’d love to hear…

*: Most of the photos are from Melbourne. Sorry ’bout that…

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23 Responses to “Solo in Sydney* or: Getting My Groove Back”

  1. Babygirl December 17, 2010 at 11:03 pm #

    Very nice photos

    • MummyT December 18, 2010 at 6:16 pm #

      Why, thankyou!

  2. Natalia December 18, 2010 at 7:08 am #

    Hope you are having a great time.
    As for packing for going out while on the road – a black non-crushable dress (from Australian Target no less!) which is knee length, with elbow length sleeves and a deep v-neck. Dress it up with tights, basic but nice jewellery, it works. The drama is always shoes though …

    • MummyT December 18, 2010 at 6:21 pm #

      Non-crushable is what it’s all about… And so with you on the shoes. I’ve managed to get away with heeled flip-flops (thongs), though observed a tendency on the part of door folk to give my footwear (and badly painted toes) a Paddington Bear hard stare before allowing me entrance to whatever palladium of pleasantries I am entering. The frock is vintage Alannah Hill, purple seersucker with lace around the neck and fringe, big plunge, knee-length. Which, I realise, is probably why a loosely London hipster look plays OK on Sydney doors. (I’ve just googled her. Never heard of her, but it sounds like she’s big over here.) So you carry jewellery? That’s a plan… I have some nice bangles back in the UK. Will have to pick one up once we’re back in Indonesia…

  3. Anne-Marie December 18, 2010 at 2:05 pm #

    Very, very funny – lovely to have another post. Hope last night went well!

    • MummyT December 18, 2010 at 6:23 pm #

      Yes! Saturdays in the city are basically bridge and tunnel (i.e.: the days when all the folk from the suburbs get dressed up and come to all the cool bars, and no one who’s local goes out). So the frock delivered. Accessorised with my single most expensive Target purchase, a $25 fuchsia and black bra. (Though visible bras don’t seem to be as big here as in Adelaide or Brisbane…)

  4. Tracy Burns December 18, 2010 at 3:24 pm #

    Oh the dilema of only carrying functional clothes and then having a ‘night out’ … I tend to carry one nice ‘goingout’ dress, a small kit of essential makeup that has been used 3 times this trip and a few accessories … but its the shoes that let me down! I can’t quite justify carrying a third pair of shoes just for nights out (sorry kids, we can’t bring your toys as mummy needs a set of heels!). But that leaves me stuck in grotty worn travel sandals in my best frock as the shoe shine guys on the streets of Hanoi chase me down telling me I need those shoes polished desperately!

    I went out Christmas shopping late the other night in KL … wearing a cleavage showing dress (with shoulders and legs decently covered) that I’d bought in Thailand and found perfectly fine there. Of course … Malaysia and walking around solo … had guys almost falling off their bikes. Very different reaction to what I get when I’m out with the kids!!!

    Glad you’re enjoying the excuse to be out solo and the new camera (same as ours – little tip accessories are 2/3 the price in Malaysia that they are in Oz).

    • MummyT December 18, 2010 at 6:27 pm #

      LOL! It is funny, isn’t it? The effect on the gentlefolk of Asia, of being a solitary lady as opposed to a mother…

      I stretched to another pair of shoes, by going with heeled flip-flops (thongs), which you can wear in the day as well, and weigh not significantly more than the flat ones. You also can’t mess them up by carrying them around the way one might mess up say *begins to salivate and mist over* sparkly strappy stillies.

      So I’ve got flip-flops (flat), flip-flops (sparkly with heel) and hiking boots (which I’m probably going to trade in for Converse hi-tops as they pack down to less). But then I’ve got biceps like a Bondi queen the amount of stuff I’ve been lugging around…

      I’m wondering whether I can get accessories in Indo…. When do you guys hit Queensland? I have been provided with a list of posh bars in Brissie…

      • Tracy Burns December 18, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

        We’ll be in Brisbane 22-23, then again sometime before New Years. Email me where you’re staying and I’ll figure out how we can catch up.

        One of the shopping centres in Denpasar had great sandals. Started with a R – my one shoe splurge was on strappy no heel sandals that squash down to nothing. The problem is whenever we have a night out I realise I have left them back in a pack in KL at our friends house! Of course Col constantly complains that I don’t have heel … but when I point out that to fit them in we’d need to leave behind a laptop …

      • MummyT December 19, 2010 at 3:23 am #

        Y’know, I think that heels are actually worth the extra space. Not just the looking taller, thinner, hotter. But feeling taller, thinner, hotter… A good thing, I feel *she says in flip-flops*… I’ll e you in a tick…

  5. Richard J December 18, 2010 at 4:57 pm #

    Absolutely superb reading!

  6. Ad December 19, 2010 at 4:23 pm #

    As a Sydney based follower of your adventures, I would have volunteered to take you to a bar or two, so I’m sorry you’re moving on so soon.
    Just back from a smaller adventure of my own (hiking in Tasmania) or I would have made an offer sooner…


    • MummyT December 19, 2010 at 4:27 pm #

      Tasmania sounds great… And I’m sorry I missed you. I fly to Brisbane today…

  7. Nicole December 19, 2010 at 6:20 pm #

    That’s awesome you’ve got a paying gig! And works out great that your son is otherwise busy! I’m with my kids so much too that those times I’ve been out in the world without them, it is a totally different place as a woman, not a mother. Have fun!

    • MummyT December 19, 2010 at 6:30 pm #

      Yes, it’s an interesting one, isn’t it?!… It’s really nice to have that perspective from time to time, I have to say.

  8. anna December 21, 2010 at 6:19 am #

    I always travel with a bit of jewellery – this time I took two necklaces, 3 or 4 pairs of earrings, & a couple of bangles. I like to kid myself that I can dress my plain tee shirts & cotton trousers up with them. I took flip flops & converse only on this trip, & wish that I had squeezed in a pair of ballet pumps too – we ended up going to a party in Delhi entirely populated by women in heels carrying Hermes bags – I had to down the champagne to cope with the sartorial embarrassment.

    • MummyT December 22, 2010 at 12:05 am #

      Ooh! I haven’t heard from you in ages… I think jewellery is a great plan. In fact, I am going to ask Z to get me some for Xmas. You know. A bangle or something…

      It’s funny, isn’t it? I’ll do vintage frock plus cheap spangly shoes and feel pretty damn good in those circumstances. But I can’t feel glam in ballet pumps. That could, of course, be because I have bad feet. Terrible. My mum has great feet. I got my dad’s…

      • anna December 22, 2010 at 9:03 am #

        I’m flattered that you noticed! We’ve did our 3 month trip to Nepal & India – I intended to blog about it but it never quite happened – I blame the 2 year old. I think I saw in one of your posts that you & Z are going to Nepal – fabulous. Lots of bangles there…

      • MummyT December 25, 2010 at 4:55 pm #

        Yes! Very much looking forward to Nepal. Was talking to Z’s grandfather’s girlfriend, and she did Kathmandu-London twice in the 70s: there’s a magic just to the name Kathmandu that still gets me. Z got me a lovely bangle for Xmas, but there’s always room for more…

  9. with2kidsintow December 28, 2010 at 9:17 pm #

    Black always looks dressy–like a black tank top (which you can always use everyday) and a black skirt (ditto), dressed up with a bright big (inexpensive)necklace and bangles. india’s great for jewellery!

    • MummyT December 29, 2010 at 2:46 pm #

      i’m a big fan of black. although, once it’s been through yer average Asian laundry, it does tend to lose a little of its glamour. Z got me a bangle for Xmas, but I think I’ll pick up another in Bali (last of the big spenders!). are you around the brisbane area right now?


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