Perhaps the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) never stood much chance with me when it’s competition is a cherished (and no doubt partly fictionalised) childhood memory, but people I speak to later on agreed that its current installation is quite uninspiring. A bit too general, a bit too rubbish; it’s too flat and far too much of it has been dedicated to the meandering yawnfest that is Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. I’m as polite as can be with the PR, but truth be told, I’m clock-watching.
My next appointment is at 11:30, but I have plenty of time. In fact, my plan is get to a pawn shop I’d noticed the other day in a bid to punt an ill-fated diamond ring I’d bought a month earlier.
The first place is populated by two old women who buy and sell antique jewellery. While they’re passingly interested in the ring, they’re a little put off when I tell them how much I paid (obviously adding a good few dirhams onto the real total). I pop next door to an Indian guy who doesn’t look it as the bespoke piece of finery that it is, but rather a collection of not especially value shiny things. The diamonds (all five of them) are worthless, according to him, and the white gold is only worth about 25 quid. I’d rather swallow the thing and shit it into eternity than sell for that, so I leave indignant and poor. Next stop is Pellegrini’s, an Italian café that is apparently a Melbourne institution, but given that anything over ten years old is, according to A, an institution, that doesn’t say much.
Truth be told, for somewhere that’s both very famous (and it is) and very busy (and it certainly is), it’s pretty hard to find. A small, nondescript café on a corner that, back home, would have blended into obscurity and ruin, here it’s narrow walls instead house a hive of Italian theatricality; all passionate shouting and wild gesticulating. Empty it would feel tight – a long narrow bar stretch back to the kitchen, with barely enough room to walk two abreast. But Pellegrini’s is never empty, and for lunch and dinner, it’s rammed full. Co-owner and host Sisto, is an Italian from Ancona, who is so over-the-top, it’s hard to imagine any other nationality getting away with behaving the way he does: a Glasgow equivalent would be some fat dick in a ginger wig shouting “hoots mon!” and serving only haggis, whiskey and rainwater. Being Italian, though, all that cliché and theatricality instead feels genuinely warm and welcoming. His place is laid out like several Italian-owned ice cream parlours or fish and chip shops you find all down the west coast of Scotland and as a result, what the locals find quirky-cool, I find familiar in the best possible way.
The food served is outstanding too and the coffee is easily some of the best I’ve had in months. Sisto’s amateur dramatics impress me less, but I’m happy enough to listen while he gives me a history of his place. Soon I’m joined by two senior figures from Tourism Victoria. They’re keen to learn more about my job and Dubai and as usual, I paint a bleak picture, but play up Abu Dhabi. Between a slight nervousness and a second atomic coffee, I find it hard to put the brakes on – blasting out bullshit like Amnesia’s ice cannon. I’m so wired, it actually feels like I’m a bit steaming, but the big cheese from the tourist board seems to be in a similar nick so I feel less out of place. After an hour or more of this insanity I leave shouting “Ciao Sisto!” as I go, immediately cringing for sounding like my bloody father.
After that A comes to pick me up and take me to Brunetti’s, another Italian place, that specialises in cakes and yet more coffee. I’m pretty sure I’ll shit myself if I have another drop of caffeine, but while he lets me off on that front, he insists that I eat at least two slices of cake. Poor A – he describes himself as a “heavy fella”, but it’s pretty clear he’s over the moon at hosting international guests – it means he can get torn into three course meals on the company at all times. For this week, I am little more than his enabler.
An hour later, he’s dropping me off at my next hotel in the city centre. We go through my itinerary a few times to make sure I know what I’m supposed to be doing for the next few days. I leave him and head into the lobby and what happens next is all really weird.
I’ve had dreams like this; where I walk into a room and there are people from home and I’m so fucking happy to see them and just as we start to talk… Then I wake up in the Middle East, alone in a room without a door or window. But this time – this time – they’re definitely here in front of me. I hug Patch and Louise hello and am immediately ripped for my International Speaking Voice while checking in. It doesn’t matter how many things change; thankfully some things stay the same.
After an hour of frantic talking they’re leaving for dinner and I can’t help but feel sorry to see them go, despite knowing I’ll see them again over the next few days. A while later I’m sitting in the dark in an expensive seat at the Prince’s Theatre for a production of Wicked. It’s pretty good, but between being a bit drunk and the heat of the place, I sit stewing in my fatigue like an unflushed turd. Embarrassingly, the people either side of me are old enough to be my grandparents and have no problem in staying awake. But what do they know?