Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Grand designs of my own

Lately it’s felt like we’ve been missing a lot at home. From big things like family birthdays and Mother’s Day, to less significant stuff like this hilarious planking craze or TV shows, which we can only really experience vicariously through other people's activities on our Facebook feeds. I ‘like’ Tim Winton on Facebook, and his most famous novel Cloudstreet, which is in both mine and Til’s top five favourite books, has been turned into a series that we won't see. And everyone’s always updating quotes and clips from Chris Lilley’s new show Angry Boys.

It was one of these Angry Boys YouTube clips that brought me to an epiphany, recently. Every time one comes up I click on it, ravenous with curiosity, only to be told I’m not in the right region to view it. Ridiculous. At home I’m forever getting these messages from the US and UK saying I’m not in the right region, and now the ONE time there’s something good to be watched online in the Australian region, I’m outside it. This makes me realise that now I am in the UK region, and I frantically try to recall all those moments of frustration when I couldn’t watch something because it’s from a less antipodean locale than the South Pacific, but only one show comes to mind: Grand Designs.

Grand Designs is one of those shows you stumble across one night when all you want to do is sit in front of the TV, but Ten inconsiderately decides to run a double episode of Glee or something at the same time as the Dancing with the Stars finale on Channel Seven, the Spanish news on SBS, and something equally inane andor incomprehensible on Nine (that's right bitches, I just left the slash out of 'and/or'. It's going to happen eventually anyway; it's a concept we don't have a word for in English - I'm just three-hundred years ahead of my time. Future generations will find in this blog the first ever instance of the use of the word 'andor' outside of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series or that metal manufacturing company and dedicate a dictionary to me, or worship me as a God. Either one.)

Anyway, cycling through the channels in dismay, you eventually come upon ABC  and images of the verdant British countryside overlaid with Kevin McCloud's dulcet tones, and find yourself gratefully entranced. It nourishes you through the next hour until one of the atrocities on one of the other channels finishes and you can go back to the treacly, advertisement-ridden products of commercial television that for some reason form the bulk of your televisual diet. You probably forget all about that serendipitous encounter, that saviour in your hour of need. You forget which timeslot it was in, and whether it was on ABC or SBS.

Until it happens again a month and a half later. Repeat this process several times and you begin to cultivate a profound love and respect for this niche program and wonder if you can watch it anywhere on the internet, which you can’t, because it’s in the UK region. But then you go to the UK and realise you can watch it and you write a blog post about it and end up narrating what you’re doing as you’re writing the post in a cycle of mise en abyme that destabilises the very foundations of the universe itself.

... So long story short I’ve been watching a lot of the show. Up to the fourth season, in fact. I’m convinced I can finish it before I go home. Basically, dreamy host Kevin McCloud follows rich British people as they build their dream homes. I think the appeal for me is that I so desperately would love to work with an architect to design and build my own dream mansion, and watching other people do so constitutes some kind of architectural, Lacanian gaze process. An English friend tells me he considers the show daytime television crap for housewives, but I don't believe him. It's high architecture, man! It may not be primetime, but that doesn't mean it's low quality. It's niche. In fact, to be primetime in this country is to be low quality, is to be X-Factor, or Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents, or The Weakest Link. No, Grand Designs is far above that.

 Kevin McCloud: what a dreamboat.
(Image from http://www.smh.com.au/)

The corollary of my Grand Designs obsession was that I ended up spending a lot of time trying to conceptualise my dream home and drawing it and stuff, but it was never quite satisfactory. I wanted more. I wanted a 3D model. I wanted a computer-generated simulation. I wanted The Sims.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a disk drive in my laptop, and I wasn't sure I could buy one here because it might not read Australian-region disks when I get home. It’s been some time since I’ve played a computer game though, which meant it took me ages to realise that of course you could just buy and download the game off the internet. It’s the 21st century for God’s sake.

So I did. And then, I’m ashamed to report, I spent two days solid playing it obsessively. So obsessively that I didn’t eat anything but caramel eggs and milk for the entirety of those two days. Those that know me well know how much of a big deal it is for me to go without food.

But don’t worry; I’m not actually addicted. It was just an initial burst of obsession; just a pressure release of all that pent-up design desire fuelled by all that Grand Designs. What I am addicted to, however, are those caramel eggs. They only have the crappy little ones left over in the UFO (Union Food Outlet) now, but they’re good enough, and cheap because it’s so long after Easter.

 Forget creme eggs, caramel eggs are the bomb.
(Images from http://www.britishcornershop.co.uk and wikipedia)

So I thought I’d post some screenshots from my incredibly productive, two-day The Sims 2 Double Deluxe binge.

My first project was, of course, my dream house. Sims wasn’t as good a program for realising my design as I’d hoped. It’s very restrictive, actually, and I had to make a lot of compromises to fit it into the framework, especially in terms of elevation and colour and the style of specific things. It hasn't helped me visualise what the house would look like in real life very much at all, really, it's just restricted my imagining to the terms of the game world. But it was fun to do, and the basic layout of the home itself, while exaggeratedly palatial, is generally accurate.  It was inspired by the central courtyards of the Roman-style villa and my love of stone homes, although the real thing would be built of prettier stone than that available in the game. Also, even though I spent a looooong time furnishing the house, there’s no furnishing in the pictures below because of an unfortunate technical error I made. But you get the idea:

It's basically, as you can see, a large courtyard surrounded on three sides by a U-shaped structure which is, in places, two storeys. This shot is oriented from the building's rear where, I imagine, the main view would be situated. You can see in the front my attempts to make it look like it sits on a hill, and the ring of a stone wall. The entire right side of the structure is two storeys, with a sunken lounge room, a bathroom, laundry, kitchen and sunken dining room running the length of the lower floor, and an outdoor dining balcony, children's bedrooms and second living space above. On the left side, only the front-most end of the wing is two-storey, with a study and library on the bottom floor featuring a staircase that provides the only access to the second-story master bedroom. Yes, I spent a lot of time on this haha.

A view of the sunken study and the staircase leading to the master bedroom. The colonnaded walkway beyond bridges a small stream leading from the pond in the courtyard to the swimming pool and supports an overhead a balcony, while leading to the opposite wing of the building.

The windows of the right wing of the house. Bottom windows show the split-level dining room with double-height ceiling, and the top ones show the upstairs second living space.

Looking from the outdoor dining area balcony across the courtyard towards the isolated master bedroom.

After employing all the cheats and exhausting unfathomable funds in the pursuit of my Villa de Lucania, I was feeling excessive, and wanted to play the game honestly, without cheats. I wanted to get back to basics and build a cheap little shack and earn money by getting a job for my Sims. But when I tried to think of the most simple design possible, and perhaps this is a little bit of subconscious homesickness, the only thing that came to mind was ‘The Farm’, the one-room bungalow on a south coast property where my group of friends and I would annually celebrate one of our number's birthday during the school holidays at about this time of year, four years running. So I set about constructing that. Once again, concessions had to be made, but I think it's surprisingly accurate:

Of course, the logical extension of building this structure was to habitate it with Sims versions of my group of friends, which I created with great enjoyment:

Charlene and I talking on the lounge while Kennedy's dad Michael, who I included because the game doesn't allow you to have teenaged Sims living on their own, and who, in reality, accompanied us to the farm the first couple of years to very goodnaturedly clean up after us and cook for us, does the dishes.

Charlene still on the lounge and Alexandra lazing on the bed in the distance (somewhat unrealistically, because she was always the one attempting to enervate us). I had to make do with single beds because the game doesn't have bunks, and the pink shelves of bowling balls on the right represent the shelves which, in reality, house quad-bike helmets.

Ken, Brad and Alice lazing on the outside deck, a pair of old newspapers representing the stacks of seventies and eighties magazines to be found under the coffee table.

I found playing these effigies of my (in at least one case, former) friends hilarious for about five minutes until I realised that playing with seven Sims was untenable and, when Alice kept going around giving ‘family kisses’ to everyone, that playing it out might in fact be a bit creepy. So I decided to recreate some iconic farm moments and be done with it:

Here's a closer look at the simulated group; from left to right: Brad, me, Ken, Charlene, Alexandra, Michael and Alice.

Real farm memory: Brad going psycho and running around crazily one morning when we went for a walk, and looking like a midget in this picture.


Real farm memory: Alexandra warming herself in front of the fire.


Real farm memory: Alice crashing out on the lounge.


And a re-creation of a farm memory we sadly don't have a real photo of: me standing 'in' the shower to stop Alexandra being scared while she goes to the toilet in the outhouse at night.

So my attempt to get back to basics failed, and I tried again this time just buying a pre-made house and creating a single cool dude character. I played basically for a while but then got bored and cheated and renovated his house into a Modernist bachelor pad. What do you think of it?:
View down the open-plan kitchen-dining space with bar on the left and dual feature-wall.

Lounge room paying homage to the character's slovenly beginnings with student-style wall hangings and bookshelf (which isn't actually meant to be outside the room) alongside Modernist furniture, high-tech electronics and the red feature-wall.

Cutaway view of minimalist bedroom.

And here's just an in-game shot of my Sim, his girlfriend, friend, and gay love interest dancing 'the Smustle', a hilarious dance. Strangely, you can select hair-colour, body-type, and even olfactory preferences and turn-ons for your Sim, but you can't select a sexual preference ... I suppose it's some kind of pansexual statement.

But enough of computer games and TV shows now, or you’ll think that’s all I do over here. To be honest, I’ve been doing a lot of it lately, but only because this is our last stretch of downtime in Norwich before travelling for two months straight, so we needed a little lazing. Like I said, I'm largely over The Sims already, but I daresay it'll be handy for our impending twenty-five hour bus trip to Prague!

In other news, I have a haircut. When I was like sixteen, I got a haircut that became known as the Missy Higgins haircut for obvious reasons. In my first year of uni, Jess Cooper told me I had hair like Jared Padalecki, of Supernatural fame. Later, at nineteen, I was interviewed for an internship at Hachette Children's Books because I had Zac Efron hair in the photo I included with my resumé, and Theresa Bray has undying love for the Zefron. Well now there's a new chapter in my book of capillary celebrity. Tilly thinks I have a Justin Bieber haircut. I don’t quite agree, but see what you think:

Bieber-esque at most, I'd say.

Friday, May 20, 2011

I am sterdam (and nothing's gonna colour me)

As far as I’m concerned, Amsterdam is THE greatest place on Earth. That I’ve been to, anyway.

It’s difficult to explain how instantly I fell in love with the Netherlands. Every time I encountered something new, discovered another fact about it, talked to another person, I was only convinced more of its utopia. Wherever we went I was clutching onto my idyllic conception, just waiting to come upon some rude local, some druggo, something that would make the city sink, even an inch, in my estimation. But it never happened.

Tilly was asleep when we crossed the border from Belgium on the bus, and I didn’t pay much attention. The next time I looked up from my book I instantly saw two people on bikes and knew we were there. I love the fact that they all ride bikes. It's so romantic and environmentally friendly, as well as preventative of judgement of those that don't drive (haha). I love how they ride them, as well, with such good postures. And I love how every road has like, seven lanes for traffic, trams, bikes and pedestrians. 

So ... many ... bikes.
I loved the scenery as we drove towards the city - flat green fields divided by irrigation canals and dotted with windmills, the old ones beautifully nostalgic, the new ones proudly green. I loved how beautiful the city was - the canals and the old leaning buildings. 

Beautiful Amsterdam.

I loved the weather, and the afternoon sun dappling through trees that shed millions of seed pods, falling to the ground like snow, gathering in the gutters in piles like Cornflakes or woodchips. Tragically, the DSLR was out of commission for most of the visit, but hopefully that won't show up too much in the photos.

Seed pod storm.

Seed pod fun.

Til dejected after coming under seed pod attack. 

I love that every ten metres is another sculpture, the mark, I think, of an advanced, cultured society (I can't believe the prevalence of the view in Australia that art and arts degrees are 'useless' - utilitarianism of this kind is for cavemen). In the same way, I love that even their corporate buildings are architecturally fascinating. I love that, in a world I've only recently realised is almost completely authoritarian right (in other words, evil) they're so libertarian left. And that’s without even having mentioned the people themselves yet!

It was such a change to be in a place so welcoming after Paris. I think the Dutch have the best attitude to tourists – they have the perfect mix of retention of their own language and culture but being open to anglophonic tourists. So many times during our trip we would just be standing somewhere and a local would go out of their way to approach us and ask if we needed help. While Til was waiting for me outside the toilet, someone showed her the information desk in case she needed it. Later on the tram a guy nearly forced us to take his seat for our massive bags. And again, when we were a bit lost, a guy came up to us and asked if he could help.

And trams! We don’t have them in Sydney, obviously, and I never really liked the idea of them before. But now I realise they’re the perfect mix of the above-ground, light-filled, visible accessibility of buses and the fixed-track, reliabile predictability of trains.
I think one of the things that makes the city so good is that it has a small population for a world city, despite the fact that the Netherlands is the most populous country in the world for its size. They must just be more evenly spread, or something, because Amsterdam only has somewhere around 700,000 people, where Sydney has around 4 million. I don’t think people should live in huge numbers – it makes them callous. There’s simply not enough time to be courteous to everyone; friendliness is impractical. Too many people are vying for too little resources. Like the song goes, 'Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.'

There was only really one place left to stay in Amsterdam by time we booked – The Van Gogh Hostel. Presumably this was because of its low ratings on hostelworld, but after some investigation you could see that the low ratings were only because it is brand new, a fact that shows in its facilities. It felt almost like a cross between a hotel and a hostel – the room was as nice as a decent modern hotel room and each room had its own beautiful bathroom, the only difference being that there were six to eight beds in the room.

When we first arrived we found in the room some luggage and three pairs of Crocs. From this, Til deduced that we were either staying with Asians or people middle-aged or older. We went back out and when we returned once more it proved to be the former. We walked in on three Asian girls huddled around a chair.

'Hi,' I chirped.

They looked up, seemingly stunned. They said hi back, then burst into giggles and turned back to the chair, where I pretended not to see them removing some wet pairs of underwear they had just been laying out. Later I found out they had been told it was a girls only room, hence their surprise.

We had dinner that night in a really cool restaurant where we were serverd by a guy so friendly it almost made me cringe. AND we got free bread and garlic butter. I LOVE free stuff - how did they know!?

Free bread!

So in case you hadn't deduced, the title of this post is a modified version of a Grates song that I kept getting in my head because 'Iamsterdam' is Amsterdam's tourism slogan.

 The much-photographed 'Iamsterdam' sign from a different angle, wearing a crown for Queen's Day.

And it turns out I was being ironic when I included the lyric 'nothing's gonna colour me', because something did colour us. That colour was orange, and that something was QUEEN'S DAY! Queen's Day is like the Netherlands' Australia Day, except instead of laconic barbeques, picnics, beach expeditions and Sam Kekovich ads, they have a MASSIVE street party in honour of their royal family, the house of (ta da!) Orange. Wearing orange is a requisite of Queen's Day celebrations. The entire city turns orange. It's not a very common colour; I've never seen so much in my life!

It's interesting to see how much the Dutch love their royals compared with the Brits.

We started out at the markets in Vondelpark, where there were lots of talented children dancing and playing instruments for money, games involving throwing eggs at people, and junk to buy.

There was also zorbing for kids! Jealous!

After that we ventured to a supermarket for alcohol. Our plan was to get a large quantity of potent, delicious, refreshing, alcoholic, orange drink that the two of us could drink in the park with some nibblies, and we ended up concocting a mixture of rosé and juice which fit the bill perfectly and got us nicely, mildly inebriated.

 Magic nectar.

After that we had a wander into the center of town.

 On the way.

 Love  the sign.

 Street market.

Inner city Maccas devastation.

In town we found some more alcohol and a few dance parties to join in, lunch, a little park in which to laze full of lizard statues which we conjectured might be to discourage birds from eating the bulbs planted there, and then a pretty little canal to sit by.

 A man dancing effeminately outside the lizard park, attracting quite a crowd.

 From the side this guy's helmet looked like a gigantic splodge of toothpaste.

We also found a toilet for Til, the use of which she had to wait for for like half an hour. It was easy enough for me, 'cause they had these additional open-air urinals everywhere.

They were extremely convenient, but it was a bit weird being so in the open, and they STANK. It seems to be the attitude over there, though - they have permanent versions of these around where you stand in like a giant metallic coil, but only the mid-section from your shoulders to knees is screened and you have a view of the outside. The first time I saw a guy using one I thought he was a homeless guy pissing in a phone booth or something.

Later, on the free tour we took of the city, our guide pointed out the devices below, which are apparently installed solely to stop people pissing on buildings. If you try to, you find it splatters back considerably. After telling us about them our guide jokingly told us to touch it and I did just to shock everyone. He said he'd remember me as the only person ever to take him up on the suggestion haha. I reasoned that as a piss-deflector it was probably actually the safest place to touch, but he assured me their main victims are drunk people in the dark. Whatever, urine is sterile haha.

 After sitting by the canal and drinking another litre of rosé-juice concoction, we were feeling the drawbacks of wine - it works fast but makes you sleepy, so we reasoned that if we headed back to the hostel for a nap we would be reenergised to party on that night. Unfortunately, as Amsterdam newbs, we didn't realise that the Queen's Day celebrations commence on Queen's Night, the evening before Queen's Day, and continue on through the night, meaning that by the end of Queen's Day the party is dead. We headed back out and couldn't work out where everyone was. We missed the end of Queen's Day!

Sunday we visited Anne Frank's house, a really moving and depressing experience. Even so, it was a shame because it was so busy that you felt like you had to press on through to the next room to let the next people in. It was surreal, but I couldn't really reconcile the information I was reading in the pamphlet, that I was hearing from the TV displays, with the fact that I was actually standing where it all happened. I saw the posters she put up on her wall, but while reading about it I couldn't appreciate that fact. There was a room at the end of the tour outside the house which was devoted to Anne Frank's older sister Margot, which I thought was so beautiful and touching. They had a video of one of her school friends saying what a beautiful, intelligent, kind young woman she had been, and how the friend felt a bit bitter that it hadn't been Margot's diary that was found, that it was Anne who got all the fame. I thought the room was a nice gesture towards redressing that disparity.

After that we really needed to cheer up - it was so thoroughly disturbing. We got ourselves some frozen yoghurt and consoled ourselves with the beauty of sitting on a canal. The frozen yoghurt, by the way, was a thousand times better than Snog!

The aftermath of Queen's Day - a broken dinner table in the canal.

We were further consoled by coming across Lijnbaansgracht, the most beautiful street in Amsterdam, and where we will write our novels when we're rich. Take a look and tell us if you hink it's worth $800 a week (for a crappy apartment) or $2800 a week (for a nice one), as we discovered later on a real estate site:

Ducklings in the adjacent canal.

The residents of Lijnbaansgracht dancing on their boats. I'd be dancing too if I lived there.

The next day we did yet another free New Europe tour. At first I was hesitant about our guide because he had such an annoying American accent, and when I overheard another guide ask him for his email address I heard him spell it out with a 'to the' between each letter (eg 'L to the U to the K to the E, etc) and I didn't think it was ironic. In retrospect it must've been, because he turned out to be pretty cool and funny. And the accent was just a result of having gone to an International school.

The tour went through the Red Light District, which was surreal. I can't believe those girls just stand there in the window until someone comes along and picks them up haha. He stopped us at one point to show us the artwork below that just appeared overnight in the street which the council considered vandalism and removed until the locals complained and it was reinstated. Thought that was cool.

Our tourguide telling us about the most famous 'coffee shop' in the world.

More nonsensical Queen's Day aftermath: a ski boot?

He also explained to us why all the houses along the canals lean so drastically. The ones which lean sideways, he said, were accidents due to the fact that most of the Netherlands is reclaimed land and the foundations have sunk, but the ones that lean forward are by design. Apparently, in order to fit the highest number possible of merchants into the city, there were restrictions on the widths of houses, meaning they were all really tall instead. But with such narrow, tall houses, the staircases were too tiny and winding to transport goods to any of the higher floors, so they would winch them up to the top floor using a pulley system hanging off a pole at the top of every house. Because Amsterdam is quite windy, though, this could get dangerous when hauling up heavy loads that could blow around and damage the property. To remedy this problem, houses were built with a forward lean so that the goods could be hauled up and be far enough away from the house not to bash into it. Our guide did tell us, though, that they later realised they could just build a longer pole at the top and get the same effect.

On our way from the end of the tour into town for lunch we came across a super cool novelty shop where we thought we might find some good souvenirs for people, but we could only find ones that would be good for us, like coffee bean-shaped ice cube trays that you're s'posed to fill with coffee-water to put in your iced coffee so it doesn't get watered down as the ice melts. Ingenius! I also came across a card I consider to be very relevant since I managed to get upgraded to business class on the flight over here, and am hoping for the same on the way back:

After that we had the most serendipitous, delicious, inexpensive lunch at this place called Broodje Bert.

Blew this picture up because of the unfortunate woman in the bottom-right corner that I managed to catch at the wrong moment.

Our good friend Gilly, of 'A vindication of the rights of sloth', 'Winchester II: return to gilly's', 'Winchester III: darrel's revenge' and 'University of east anglia: a crytoscopophiliac's dream', formerly lived in Amsterdam, and gave us a lot of advice about where to go and what to do. She was the one who told us about Queen's Day in the first place. She said one must-see in Amsterdam was this old-style cinema called the Tuschinski. It was really beautiful. Unfortunately, though, we didn't take any photos in the lobby, and we were seeing True Grit, which had come out quite a while ago, and consequently wasn't in the main cinema, which was the only old style one. Still worth it, though. Good movie, too.

The next day, all too quickly, we had to leave and embark upon a massive coach journey back to Norwich. Amsterdam, though, is without a doubt our favourite place that we've visited so far, and we're resolved to go back very shortly and have a long weekend with Gilly and Elisa and do everything we didn't get a chance to do on our first visit. It's gonna be awesooooome!