The throng of fans waiting to farewell me at Melbourne airport was surprisingly modest. Moreover they all seemed to have brought luggage and were queued in an orderly fashion facing the check-in desks. I joined the line and moved among them quietly, generously signing personal items without waiting to be asked. At length I was bid approach the counter. I offered my fawning retinue a lingering wave and was gone. Thank God talent is not a metal or I would have been stuck at the X-Ray machine for hours.
For nearly 20 years I have postponed an overseas debut in anticipation of the inevitable smash record that would fund the trip. By day, I imagined, I would parade significantly through the galleries of the Olde Worlde, finally at home amongst my intellectual equals. In the evening I would linger over cool aperitifs while strategically seated so that photographs of the architectural icons over my shoulder would set off my brooding profile to its best effect. By night the youth of Europe would come together in one great celebration, united in the understanding that centuries of cultural development had led inexorably to this moment. Unfortunately, Flight Centre recently changed its policy and now refuses to accept a guarantee of future sales in exchange for airline tickets. Humbled, ashamed of the ordinariness of my situation, reduced to a common punter, paying my way like a tourist with a suitcase full of Hawaiian shirts and camera equipment, I handed over my credit card and swallowed hard on the cold gristle of my indigestible pride
I settled on Spain as a destination. A certain poignancy infused the decision; given that it was to the Spanish possession of Mallorca that the Fauves most nearly secured their only overseas engagement. When, in 1994, the first possibility of an unknown band performing at an unheard of festival was mooted, the stark improbability of such an offer ever reaching fruition was outweighed by our naïve enthusiasm. As we purchased passports and learnt the Spanish for ‘do you come here often?’ the prospects grew daily more remote. At last, with blunt finality, it was made clear that the trip would not take place. Never again would we meet the eye of Opportunity without first having mouthed calumny behind its back. Now, broken and nearly 40, I prepared to make the trip that Chance had so coldly ripped from my grasp. With girlfriend Kelly along to attend to my every need, from middle-aged incontinence through to a pathological fear of awkward situations, I spread road maps over lounge room floors and began tracing fingers over prospective itineraries.
I spent much of the first leg to Singapore walking the aisles of the plane. After each pass I returned to my seat and consulted the latest edition of Who’s Who in Australia. Five hours of patient study rewarded me with the comforting knowledge that I was indeed the most famous person on the plane.
Fortunately this was a fact that did not seem to have gone unnoticed by the obsequious cabin staff. After the first warm aromas signalled the imminent arrival of the meal trolley, I was unsurprised to find myself among the first people on the plane to be served. To the untrained eye this was nothing more than the function of an airline policy that dispenses with special meal requests first. My experience with celebrity hospitality taught me otherwise. It was clear that these ingratiating Myrmidons were acting under instruction from a higher authority as they sought to accommodate me with every privilege warranted by my exalted station. I resolved to sign a few in-flight magazines for distribution to an awestruck cabin staff upon disembarkation.
From Singapore the Gods bore aloft our winged chariot, scything through the darkened skies of the subcontinent. Below, a billion Indians awaited enlightenment as to the life-enhancing potential of our music. A computer graphic periodically charted our progress, marking each city of significance over whose streets we passed 10 km above. “Hello Calcutta! Hello Chennai! Hello Ahmadabad! ” The untapped audiences, milling about aimlessly in search of a philosophical framework around which to build their lives were a mouth-watering prospect. What chance the major religions of the world once the Fauves’ catalogue took hold? Thousands of years of received wisdom blown away by the opening riff of Dogs Are The Best People. Hindus, Buddhists, Mohammedans, Zoroastrians, Christians; rank and steaming in a great pantheistic moshpit. Mosques, temples, churches and shrines would lay empty or be given over otherwise as venues for Fauves concerts. A million shoes at the gates to the great sub-continental stadia. The merchandising prospects were tantalising. I closed my eyes and dreamt of bent-backed women washing a generation of Fauves Shalwar Kameez’s in the sacred waters of the Ganges, the Indus and the Brahmaputra.
By the time we touched down in Dubai I had visited the toilet 37 times. Irrespective of the degrees of debauchery to which he ordinarily indulges, the canny rock musician remains educated as to the need to hydrate during a long haul flight. While my less sagacious antecedents rolled irritably in their graves, their vomit-stained chins fused into a grim rictus of thirst, I devoted a few minutes every hour towards ensuring I took on the necessary fluids. I recalled an old British Airways ad, the predatory British businessmen imagining their Australian colleague vulnerable to their dastardly manoeuvring after his long-haul flight from the antipodean netherworld. “He’ll be cold, hungry, tired”, they smirked. I determined that Europe, at the least, would never get to experience the malevolent pleasure of finding me thirsty.
With two hours before the flight to Paris I browsed Dubai airport’s extensive duty free arcades. Forensic analysis failed to uncover evidence of The Fauves’ back catalogue among the Green Day compilations and Coldplay albums. The Arabian Peninsula seemed poorer as a result. Mysterious scions of oil-rich family dynasties flowed past in billowing white robes – disposable income at the ready and exactly our target demographic.
Sadly, there was not enough time to set up any meetings with the local record companies. Peering out over the brown expanses of the United Arab Emirates as we took off through the hastening dawn, one couldn’t help but feel the pang of an opportunity lost. Recovering quickly, I turned my thoughts to the stopover in France, the birthplace of Fauvism, spiritual home to our celestial muse. I saw myself making a new life there, quickly ditching all memory of Doctor, Doug and Ted for a backing band more suited to the memory of Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck and all those other dudes with goatee beards, lopsided berets and paint-flecked smocks.
Charles DeGaulle airport dawned wet and overcast. Setting my collar in anticipation, I reflected that this was exactly the kind of weather I would need as an accompaniment as I mooched existentially through the wet, cobblestoned lanes of my Parisian despair. Boulevarde de Broken Dreams, Place de Washed Up Career and the Rue de No Airplay were thoroughfares yearning to feel the dull thud of my disillusioned footfall.
The train from the airport took us through the bleak urban outskirts. I tried hard to remember the episode of Getaway in which David Reyne sold the signal delights of a weekend in the ghettos of northern Paris, an upturned vehicle burning below his housing commission flat window as he swept his arm across an expanse of jackbooted gendarmerie tipping their riot shields towards a marauding gang of destructive protesters. Thankfully I’d packed my dog-eared copy of Peter Mayle’s, “A Year In the Outer Suburban Ghettos of Northern Paris”. Mayle, the gently quizzical Britisher, turns a deft ironic eye towards the quirky unemployed, disenfranchised and hopeless locals, gradually learning their quixotic customs, looting and rioting with some Algerian drug addicts before being bashed and killed by a gang of terrorist gypsies. Forsooth I had to allow my first half hour in Paris was a disappointing one. In all that time I failed to spot even one baguette, beret, bicycle or horizontally striped t-shirt.
We changed trains at Chatelet Les Halles. Now on the Metro, I gripped my bag like a nervous drug courier passing customs. Incomprehensible bursts of French shot periodically through the public address system, presumably advising as to the name of the proximate station. The bluff ease with which I carried myself on public transport in Australia vanished in the gritty realism of the Parisian subway. Where was the tough guy who leant back with his feet on an adjacent seat, ostentatiously brandishing a hefty tome of classic literature, cover angled to its best advantage that fellow passengers might glean a sense of the intellectual giant in their midst? I now cowered in a corner of the carriage, peering anxiously through the grimy windows in fear of missing our stop. Presently the train drew up at a station. We alighted, and made for the streets above.
Ah! Paris! The inestimable romance of it all! The incomparable food, wine and culture! Surfacing out of the Metro onto the Boulevard St. Germain, I held Kelly’s hand tightly and steeled myself for a sensory overload.
Walking onto the busy afternoon street my senses were immediately overwhelmed, not by a surfeit of Gallic ambience, but rather a lamppost festooned in yellow posters advertising the Australian band End Of Fashion. La Rafale Rock Australienne, the cardboard placards screamed. A more unwelcome vision has surely not darkened the streets of Paris since they hosted a preening Hitler, chauffeured past glum onlookers in the rear of an armoured car. I dwelt darkly on the wretched irony. Where we had laboured for 18 years in Australia with an unpronounceable French name, destined to never leave its shores, these slimy usurpers had made their way onto the continent without so much as conjugating an irregular verb in the language of love.
Still, it was impossible to stay gloomy for long – we were in the City of Light after all. Perhaps my esteemed countrymen were playing nearby while I was in town. Our shared heritage might be enough to ensure me an opening spot on the bill, where, squeezed in between sound check and doors, my post-modern bush balladry would eventually coax the French bar staff into removing their earplugs.
From the top floor of l’Hotel du Petit Trianon I watched with a muted sense of pride as evening descended over the damp streets below. Certainly our room was a barely habitable squat, furnished with a bed that seemed to have been snatched that morning from the kennel of the proprietor’s uncooperative dog. Nevertheless it was costing us only 50 Euros - a modest impost in this most expensive of cities. Downstairs at reception our French adversary doubtless burned with humiliation as he reflected on the fleecing we had latterly subjected him to. “No, is impossible” he had protested upon hearing that 50 was the agreed price. “This one is for nuclear testing in the Pacific,” I thought as he turned his palms upwards in helpless resignation. “No, no 50 cannot be right”. The feckless cowering of the French in times of trouble reappeared like tinea on an unwashed foot. “No wonder we had to bail you bastards out at Ypres and Passchendaele ”, I reflected, face set firmly against his craven prostrations. At length Kelly came down the stairwell to where I had been listening in from the floor below. She dropped the keys into my hand. “We sure showed him”, I announced proudly, hurrying past the office door in fear of being spotted.
The thrill of a foreign land had honed my appetite. I was a world-class gourmand in my natural purlieu. My gastric juices bubbled and fomented in anticipation of gastronomic succour. Sadly an inordinate fear of the French people and their haughty indifference proved an insurmountable barrier between the table and the lining of my stomach. We scanned scores of restaurant menus only for me to hurry away at the first sight of a white-aproned waiter. Cruelled by a crippling self-consciousness, I preferred martyring myself with starvation to the risk of making a fool of myself before the most daunting wait staff in the world. Every maitre d’ was Jean Paul Satre in white starch, ready to expose my philosophical pointlessness at the first hint of a mispronounced order. After several hours plodding hopelessly around the darkening alleys of the Latin Quarter we returned to the hotel and passed out.
By 1pm the following day my blood sugar was lower than Kim Beazley’s approval rating. Petit-dejeuner had proved so petit as to be invisible to the naked eye while dejeuner, its imposing older sibling, loomed ahead like a tattooed sailor on a dark street corner. Patisseries, bistros, cafes and kerbside vendors were left indignant as we scurried off like a forest fawn at the sound of a breaking twig.
At the top of the Eiffel tower we made our stand. With her arrondissements laid out around her like a crinoline skirt spreading across a picnic lawn, we surprised Paris at her most vulnerable. Just as she expected us to be stuffing a battered coin into the end of a telescope, we stole away from the observation deck and made indoors for the kiosk. There, we drew comfort while queuing with some Americans, surely the only people in the country who spoke less French than us. It was like getting into a Drive-In in the boot of a car. The high-pitched screech of their inane chatter was exactly the covering fire we needed as we apprehensively approached the counter. It was not a time to get fancy. A couple of coffees, pain au chocolate and a crocque monsieur - merci. We watched bewitched as the salesgirl deftly removed the cold cheese sandwich from its plastic covering and placed it in a microwave for 30 seconds on high. This was exactly the kind of cultural experience we had paid thousands of dollars to be a part of. We left the scene quickly, like a nervous gambler after a modest win, departing gratefully with a small pile of chips rather than risking all in a quest for more.
Now that we were reinvigorated, Paris rolled over like a dog to have its stomach patted. Famous landmarks were remembered only as the hazy backdrops in front of or beside which we ate food. The Notre Dame, gothic and indomitable, was merely a large building in the corner of my eye as I fished some ham out of a baguette, dispensing it to an audience of pigeons. A large, turbid river roiled beneath the wall that I leant on while eating roasted chestnuts. It may have been the Seine.
The French capital, despite its manifest attractions, remained a mere stopover, a Frankish diversion, a Gallic caravanserai, a Merovingian distraction on our pilgrimage into the heart of the Iberian Peninsula. Not 24 hours later we had crossed the Pyrenees by air, caught a high-speed train in Madrid and gained the city limits of Cordoba in orange-blossomed Andalucia. The Castilian empire had been calling ever since a bare 52% pass in my third year afforded me the right to call myself a Spanish major. Launching straight from the cloistered walls of university into the cosmopolitan music world, I tried for a time to make a living as a Latin heartthrob, shaking maracas and experimenting with salsa versions of songs that were later to become massive hits in a more anglicised form. Now, I was here, in person, ready to reclaim my destiny.
Almost immediately I regretted not having packed a framed degree into my luggage. Whatever heavily accented, slurred dialect these southerners were practicing it was not the pristine, textbook, language-tape Castilian of my alma mater. Barely able to grasp more than a passing clause or a half understood greeting, I felt keenly the lack of some official documentation to prove to these uncouth natives that they were doing it wrong. “See”, I would declaim, pointing triumphantly to the Monash University seal, the incontrovertible imprimatur, the guarantee of my superior grasp of their mother tongue. ”I do speak Spanish! Now pick up your game and start making yourselves understood to me”. It was all terribly deflating. The last 15 years had presided over a steady oxidisation of my skills. Building a conversation was like trying to construct the Opera House with some sticky tape and a packet of toothpicks.
In Spain I was presented with a new set of culinary challenges. Confident enough with the local idiom to at least order in a restaurant, much of the overarching fear that had crippled me in France now dissipated south of the border. It was supplanted by an inordinate frustration at the limited range of options on which I could practice my grammar book verbs. Had we been in search of a repast drawing from a selection of suckling pig, venison, quail, bull’s tail, prawn, goat, ham, sausage or lobster, my halting but comprehensible Spanish would doubtless have proven adequate. We remained, however, adamant in our desire to eschew the consumption of our vertebrate cousins. I am the first to admit that vegetarianism does not always travel well. Sweeping an impatient arm towards the icy wastes beyond the rough-hewn walls of an igloo and demanding that one’s hosts find some ripe tomatoes, a bunch of basil and a ball of buffalo mozzarella is both boorish and futile. Nevertheless, the groaning tables of the temperate First World have no such excuses. Where were the places set for two herbivorous guests who had arrived unexpectedly? The sons and daughters of Ferdinand and Isabella had no answer.
By day it was all Moorish architecture, sun glistening off snow-capped sierras and white-washed villages clinging to precipitous slopes. By night our stomachs were propositioned by the ubiquitous Spanish tortilla – an invariably bland potato omelette tempered to varying degrees of hardness in accordance with the local style. We quickly came to greet its appearance on the menu like a tired housewife answering a telemarketer’s call. Rice, universally fashioned into an ersatz paella, was an omnipresent staple. Would that this staple have been loosed from the cookbooks of the nation, setting free forever the pages devoted to the description of its preparation. It invariably presented like an acne-scarred hunchback at a teenage modelling contest. Served in the microwave-proof pan in which it had been heated, a powdered flavour sachet gave the dish its requisite saffron hue without exacting of the chef the unnecessary effort of staining his hands on the fiddly stigma of the crocus plant. Wizened peas, grey broad beans and tinned carrot, soft to the point of puree, loitered menacingly in the jaundiced slurry. The combined effect was akin to that of picking rice-a-riso off the fibreglass hull of a boat sinking into the saline-rich waters of the Dead Sea. Accompaniment came in the form of the positively evil Ensalada Mixta, a criminal concoction that must have escaped Nuremberg undetected via a back road. Limp, tinned asparagus, eggs boiled hard to the point of nauseous greenness, watery tomatoes, tinned corn, kiwi fruit, cocktail onions and several tough olives dealt with the stomach like a gang of Franco’s henchmen questioning a gay, Jewish communist.
From Granada we took to the road in a rented car. Not half an hour into our journey south towards Las Alpujarras we missed a turn off, performed an intemperate U-turn across double lines and were punished for our infraction by the sight of 2 Guardia Civil cresting the hill on powerful motorcycles. The ensuing minutes dissolved into an hallucinogenic nightmare of flashing lights, riding boots, peremptory commands in halting English and skin tight jodhpurs, all shot through with my wretched pleas for clemency. These entreaties fell like snowflakes on a pair of woollen earmuffs. A gruff officer read my licence like a current affairs host reading the autocue on a story about paedophiles. He demanded that I make an on-the-spot contribution to the Spanish exchequer. “You pay me now!” he growled as my shaking hands emptied the contents of my wallet onto the freshly detailed carpet of the rental car. While I searched for 63 Euro through the false leads of several Australian notes and a wad of receipts, he proceeded to lecture me as to the folly of my actions; the nearest translation of which is rendered as: “You might do this sort of stuff back in Australia but not here mate”.
Installed in the tiny Alpujarran village of Capileira, we fell quickly into the rhythm of Spanish life. Scenic walks along rough trails brought us in close contact with the realities of animal husbandry in southern Spain. We debated furiously as to whether the local herdsmen were tending goats or sheep. The livestock was of a disconcertingly vague provenance; goatish features on a woollen coat of ovine appearance. I felt certain they were sheep and scanned that night’s menu for a surfeit of mutton in an effort to prove my point. The proprietor of the Hostal Atalaya took pride in serving us a complimentary breakfast every morning in a small antechamber off the corridor leading to our room. This kindly fellow exhibited a complete mastery of his in-house coffee machine; a simple rural artisan who would have been a celebrity barista back home.
From Capileira we skirted the Mediterranean along the Costa del Sol. The Sol was in little evidence behind persistent rain clouds, while the costa remained resolutely obscured by 100km of hideous high rise holiday apartments. From the coast we turned north towards Ronda. We had the misfortune of entering this famous hilltop town via the tradesman’s entrance, an arid industrial estate full of hardware stores and car wrecking yards. We decided to bypass Ronda and stopped to urinate by a dumpster several kilometres out of town. Public toilets had been stubbornly difficult to locate in each of the places we had thus far visited. Those that did present themselves seemed to require of the squirming patron a few donative coins to secure entry. Several days earlier in Granada I had spent nearly my life’s savings in one morning’s perambulation, turning out my pockets in fumbling desperation every time my swelling bladder requested evacuation. From the dumpster we traversed an ever more scenic route through the verdant countryside, reaching the picturesque outpost of Grazalema just before dusk.
Many tourist attractions fail to live up to the promises made in their brochures. Grazalema’s bold claim to be the town with the highest rainfall in Spain was vouchsafed by two days of constant precipitation, testament to the unswerving honesty of the Andalucian Tourist Board. Pouring rain on this village, however, was akin to tipping champagne on a diamond. Each evening after strolling the wet lanes of this beautiful pueblo blanco, we would select a restaurant. Once therein, the town’s unsettling preoccupation with taxidermy ensured we always had company for dinner, inevitably in the form of several stuffed deer heads mounted above our table. Silent and all knowing, they watched with ironic detachment in as we ran probing fingers fruitlessly over menus loaded with the butchered carcasses of their direct descendents.
By day we visited Zahara de la Sierra, an improbably spectacular hamlet where I smashed my head viciously into the doorway of a medieval castle. That afternoon I walked the meandering trails of the Parque Natural de Grazalema without the requisite permit. My alpha male, risk-taking personality was in bold evidence as I forged through the thickening fog, aware that I was in danger of being chastised by a park ranger at any moment. Thankfully, humans were in little evidence. I saw several ibex, a stand of rare Spanish fir trees and an unflinching Grazaleman cow whose horns threatened to tear me open with the efficacy of a can opener through aluminium foil.
Eight days travelling through the heart of Moorish Spain brought us to Sevilla for the train ride back to Madrid. Reclining in my well-upholstered seat, I reflected on the chocolate pastry I had inadvertently dropped on the dirty concourse of the station. I was hungry and the outward journey had demonstrated to me well the poverty of the produce on offer in the dining car. The pastry sat temptingly above me, stuffed back into my bag, on the luggage rack. Looking out over the olive groves and the endless vistas of the central plateau I wondered dare I eat it.
This was exactly the kind of profound musing I had hoped the European experience would inspire in me. I could feel myself growing as an artist even as the train sped through the Spanish countryside. What breadth of achievement lay ahead of me as a result of the dilemma in my backpack? By the time we reached Madrid I realised that it no longer mattered whether I had eaten the pastry or not. As a philosophical exercise the sugar-dusted treat had served a purpose far beyond any nutritional value it could offer me
We met our friend David upon our return to the capital. He had been kind enough to offer us lodgings in his flat on the metropolitan outskirts and, in the time-honoured tradition of the tight-arse traveller, we duly accepted. With generous expansiveness he gave his bedroom over to our pleasure, while in the spare room another bed lay made up and waiting for some putative arrivals. That evening we took the car into Barajas airport to pick up exactly these mystery guests.
An electric frisson suffused terminal 4 as the arrivals monitor alerted a small gathering of friends and relatives that the FinnAir flight from Helsinki had landed. I craned my neck in eager anticipation, studying each baggage trolley as it led its proprietor through the exit doors. My phone tinkled into life with a text message – delay at the baggage carousel. I sat back on my stool and watched weeping families reunite under the unforgiving glare of the florescent lighting. At last, through the jumble of embracing limbs, I spotted Doug and his wife Jane.
The mercurial drummer looked in rude good health, fresh from the cleansing asceticism of a frigid Baltic winter. A week in Latvia seemed to have honed the physical expression of his lineage. He appeared somehow more Slavic in the limpid air of the arrivals lounge. We embraced in open contravention of the natural enmity that exists between frontman and drummer and made forthwith for the car park.
We repaired immediately to the Australian embassy in search of the wherewithal to help identify us as travellers from Down Under. The ambassador was not accepting visitors and an aide directed us to the Madrid chapter of the Fanatics, the parochial supporters who travel the world to barrack vociferously at any sporting contest in which an Australian is competing. We purchased a good quantity of Australian flags, green and gold face paint and some of those yellow Afro wigs. It felt good knowing that simply by draping ourselves in the hallowed Australian ensign, with its iconic Union Jack in the top corner, we had marked ourselves apart from over half the citizens of the world. Now when guessing at our heritage, the locals would need only to pick from a list of 30 or 40 countries whose flags still bear the venerable crosses of Sts. Andrew, George and Patrick. We were deliberately setting ourselves apart as a mark of respect for the grand Australian tradition of liberal individualism.
We scanned the sporting periodicals for news of any upcoming fixtures at which we might be able to barrack for some battling, underdog, ordinary, heroic Aussies. Disappointed to find that there were none, we turned to the bullfighting pages for news of the next brave Aussie scheduled to dangle his green and gold cape in front of a foaming bull, that he might slaughter the degraded Spanish beast in Australia’s Glorious name. The lists were disconcertingly empty. We embarked on a search for an appropriate shrine at which to remember the thousands of fallen Australian servicemen who, in giving of their lives, had secured freedom for the Spanish people. Again we came up short. There simply seemed to be no record of Australians having ever contributed anything to the fabric of the Spanish nation. Knowing this could not be so; we redoubled our efforts, focussing in particular on the demise of Franco and the role of the Aussie digger in the tyrant’s downfall. Nothing. The Spanish Civil War, too, seemed bereft of heroic infantry charges during which golden haired Australian boys martyred themselves so ordinary Spaniards might live free of despotism for all eternity. In desperation we ended up at Franco’s tomb outside El Escorial where we made a couple of sheepish fascist salutes, gave voice to a half hearted Aussie aussie aussie ole ole ole chant and retired for the evening.
Later in the week we rented another car and made for the province of Asturias in northern Spain. Housed high in the foothills of the Picos de Europa, we relaxed in a bucolic wonderland of postcard views and tinkling cowbells. On the second morning we mounted an expedition to the high plains of a nearby peak. This thigh-blasting ascent rewarded the intrepid with fine views that were compromised only by the presence of a high-voltage power line running directly over the mountain. Tourism is all about the angles. Cameras focussed with judicious selectiveness betrayed no evidence of these ugly cables, and we admired our well-edited memories on the LCD screens of our digital cameras.
That afternoon we drove to nearby Oviedo in search of groceries. The Spanish economy is a pale, sickly thing, yet to feel the tanning glow of consumerist enlightenment in which our country basks. Why, these primitive shopkeeps still close many of their stores on Sunday! This unnecessary day of rest is a pernicious drain on productivity. One can only hope the Lord is happy that an entire day is wasted in his devotion. This one day comes at great cost, for worthy consumers have 24 hours fewer per week in which to buy things.
We toured the quiet streets of the town without success. After 15 minutes someone spotted a convenience store that appeared open for business. I was ordered to find a park forthwith. Still tentative with left-hand steering, I pulled hastily into a bus stop, driving the passenger-side tyre hard into the kerb.
The impact was accompanied by a loud rushing sound. Visual reconnaissance confirmed our fears – the tyre had been punctured, split open like a boxer’s forehead before the referee steps in to stop the fight. Almost immediately a bus pulled in behind us, seeking to take on the passengers who had evacuated the shelter to stare at our predicament. With a collective shrug of resignation, we set quickly about replacing the tyre.
The car, however, did not carry a spare. This seemed an outrageous oversight, stranded as we were in a bus stop on a quiet Sunday afternoon in rural Spain. An orange fluorescent jacket, compression pump and tyre sealant mocked us from the recess in which we had expected to find the tyre. None of these would act to suture the gaping wound that confronted us. We phoned the rental car company for assistance.
Avis, however, were insensible to our predicament. We were shunted around a switchboard like a ping-pong ball being paddled back and forth across a rec room net, while any number of unhelpful functionaries endeavoured to absolve themselves of responsibility. At length it was proposed that we wait while a mechanic was sent to assess the damage. The damage, we explained patiently, did not require expert assessment. We had a flat tyre. A replacement and the equipment necessary for its installation were all that we needed.
Two hours later a tow truck appeared alongside our vehicle. The driver demounted and set about affixing a strong chain to the undercarriage of the stricken car. What, we asked, was he doing? A mechanical winch spluttered into life, slowly dragging the car up a ramp and onto the tray of the tow truck. His reply seemed superfluous. The finest in European automotive engineering was about to be piggybacked around Oviedo by a dirty tow truck, all for the lack of an inflated tyre.
Back at his garage the man’s son set about removing the wheel while the boss searched the recesses of his dim establishment for the apposite tyre. We made for a small bar several hundred metres up the road where I purchased a coffee for 80 cents. It was not the first evidence of the extremely competitive prices on offer to the discerning diner in Oviedo. Earlier in the afternoon Doug had been the beneficiary of a 3.50 prawn and vermouth deal that, idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, had proved excellent value. We watched disinterestedly as a local soccer match played itself out on a television in the corner and returned crestfallen to the garage.
The proprietor had found a replacement tyre and was leafing through a manual in search of its price. Coming eventually to the appropriate page, he made some exculpatory gestures and pointed to a dramatically large figure. At 160 euros I understood at last why King Leopold II went to so much trouble getting rubber out of the Congo. This was a $275 AU tyre. Another 60 euro for the tow and the ordeal was nearly over, some three and a half hours after our front wheel first sagged despondently into the gutter.
The mechanic generously offered to show us the way out of town, now grown unfamiliar in the dark. At the city limits he pulled off the road and motioned with an exaggerated flourish that we continue straight ahead. Jane, who had earlier decided to forgo climbing the mountain, had by now grown concerned at our prolonged absence. Speeding home along the autovia, we assured her we were but 20 minutes away.
An hour later we pulled into a service station to ask for directions. Half-remembered routes, overstated claims of geographical rectitude and a wanton disregard for the fundamental principles of navigation had rendered us hopelessly lost. While the attendant and a helpful patron screamed at each other in friendly disagreement, we took advantage of Spain’s liberal liquor licensing laws and selected some alcohol from a shelf next to the engine oil and radiator coolant. The fractious locals eventually reached concord and handed us a rough map.
An hour later we pulled into the car park of the Hotel Mieres in search of our landlord. He was indisposed but his wife was happy to issue us with a fresh set of directions back to the elusive villa. Straining intently for comprehension, I noted her reference to cinco tuneles, Santa Eulalia y La Pinera. We pulled back onto the highway and soon passed through a series of five tunnels cut into the hillside. Shortly thereafter we gained Santa Eulalia and beyond, a sign to La Pinera. Home, at last, was just five minutes up the road.
An hour later we inched the car down the narrow laneway leading to our accommodation and killed the engine. The 20-minute journey from Oviedo had been multiplied ninefold. Thankfully 3 hours along the lonely byways of Asturias gave the rods in my eyes plenty of time to adjust to the dark, and I greatly enjoyed the shapeless, shadowy, silhouetted scenery as it raced past my tinted window. We slumped inside to find that Jane had thoughtfully fashioned what little food remained in the refrigerator into a hearty, nutritious dinner.
As we sat back to digest our meal there was a large report from the patio outside. Hurrying to investigate, we found David igniting some French fireworks. Shortly the surrounding hills were echoing to the sound of Penny Bungers while our nostrils itched with the sulphurous smell of burnt cordite. Fizzing around on the bare ground where the landlord had latterly sown some rather forlorn lawn, the fireworks were nothing if not a cheap thrill. Now this was living! Shots rang out with the random caprice of a high school massacre. Doubtless there were by now local livestock stampeding over the trampled fences of an adjacent province. Lest someone take an eye out, we refrained from lighting the whole cache and returned indoors.
By 1 am we were dozing comfortably on the lounge. Bed wanted only for the energy to propel us up the stairs. Suddenly Kelly rose with a start. Torchlight danced on a nearby window pane. I must own that a certain gothic dread coursed my veins as we gripped each other’s arms like doomed teenagers in a slasher movie. Presently a loud knock issued from the front door.
Standing on the porch were two representatives of the Guardia Civil. It was our second encounter with the armed constabulary in a week. Peering suspiciously into the house, they demanded to see our passports, while David sought to mollify their pique with some high-speed small talk. With studied deliberation they matched faces to photographs before slowly returning the documentation. Were we hunting without a permit, they asked accusingly? The largely deforested hills surrounding our retreat did not exactly strike the casual observer as a haven for big game. No, sirs, we replied contritely - merely setting off some illegal fireworks. Their faces softened. I heard the word Australia and then “es verano, no?” Well no, technically it was now “otono” back home but why cruel a budding conversation? Thoughts of long, white beaches, waves crashing majestically against the shore and beautiful sunbathers laying out towels on the warm sand, transported our guests momentarily from the chill spring air of an Asturian night. The guns on their hips lost a little of their menace. We suffered some more idle conversation and then a perfunctory lecture, the nearest translation of which is rendered as: “You might do this sort of stuff back in Australia but not here mate”.
We flew back into Paris the day after a strike by air traffic controllers. My lifelong solidarity with the oppressed worker had dissolved at the prospect of being stranded at Madrid airport. Thankfully in Australia such public disturbances are all but impossible. The revolution in industrial relations would see the perpetrators of similar action guillotined, as deserving victims of the workplace Terror.
The staff at Iberia Airways were notionally at work too, though their languorous approach to customer service belied such an observation. With only three yawning staff to work a queue that stretched to the outer limits of the terminal building, it was no surprise to find our flight delayed. The monitors advising passengers about departure gates shuffled numbers like a lotto barrel – I had four and the supplementary by the time we boarded two hours later than scheduled. There were an abnormally large number of loud, young people on the plane and I was reminded that annoying dickheads transcend all classification of race, colour, language and religion. Just as the European Union has relaxed internal travel restrictions for its citizens, the Fuckwit Society long ago dispensed with superfluous documentation, and its membership can travel the world comfortable in the knowledge that beyond every border, every customs post and military checkpoint there will always be more of their kind.
Back at l’Hotel du Petit Trianon we haggled once more over price and were again rewarded with a pyrrhic victory that saw us trudging up the interminable stairs to the worst room in the establishment. By now the holiday had the fading heartbeat of a terminally ill patient, resting comfortably in hospital surrounded by close family. It was all about making the most of the time remaining to us. Adhering strictly to the diminutive theme suffusing our Parisian sojourn, we dined at the Petit Legume, where the food was both overpriced and under-flavoured. I briefly tossed up calling a cab to take me to Guérande on the Brittany coast where I might gather a little of the famous fleur de sel with which to season my meal. Later we walked along the Seine and watched the Tower light up like an Iraqi city in a nighttime bombing raid. So many millions have made the journey before me, seen so much more and written so much better about it. Still, I feel no shame in adding my banal observations to the cobwebbed libraries of affirmative testimony, and I warrant that Paris is indeed a kick arse town.
The reverse journey to Australia was as tedious as the outward with the extra disincentive of a return to my stultifying and mundane daily routine at its end. Back in Melbourne I stood disconsolate for half an hour while all around me happy travellers reclaimed their luggage and evacuated the terminal, in a hurry to get on with the rest of their lives. Eventually the baggage carousel gave a death rattle and shuddered to a halt while my empty trolley waited like a loyal horse on a Crimean battlefield for the slain rider that would never remount. A sympathetic airport official contacted the men smoking an after-work cigarette out the back to confirm that there was indeed no more luggage in the cavernous hold of the plane. This was Emirates flight 404, destined for infamy when several weeks later it managed to arrive in Australia without the body of private Jacob Kovco.
The airport is a lonely place when, at 1.30am, the last passengers have left and you are completing paperwork at the Lost Luggage counter for a bag you feel sure you will never see again. I found Australia as I had left it, oblivious to my absence and unconcerned about my return. Waking the next morning in the same childhood bed whose mattress was long ago stained with pubescent wet dreams, I pondered the life stretching aimlessly out before me and searched briefly for the old German service revolver I kept in a shoebox with some yellowing copies of Playboy magazine. With the barrel nudging the internal recesses of my throat, I blew the back of my head off before re-affixing it and getting up to see what there was for breakfast.