Ejo #129 – (It’s Easy) Bein’ Green

My friends Andrew and Chris were recently talking about all the work they’d done to their homes in an effort to make less of an impact on the environment. I’d been aware that they were pretty clued up about this kind of stuff but I was blown away to learn exactly how much they knew. I asked them if they would be interested in sharing the wealth of knowledge and experience they’ve amassed over the years with all of you, and they both said yes. You’re welcome, readers!!!

Chryss: So let’s get started with what people can do to reduce their energy consumption in the home.

Chris:  I think home efficiency first, including draught-proofing, double glazing, etc. Then maybe electrification; convert to an all-electric home including solar, heat pumps, aircon, heating and hot water.  Efficiency can be very cheaply done and have massive wins.  Whereas changing the house to all-electric is more of an investment.

Andrew: For house efficiency, draught-proofing is #1.  It’s very cheap, and will payback in a year.  Glazing; there are millions of types.  Maximum reduction is replacing the entire window (with either double or triple glaze) but it’s also highest in cost.  Best value for money in glazing is window insulation film.  The average house uses 40% energy for heating, 30% for lighting and 30% on the rest.  A well designed house basically chops the heating by 80%, the lighting by 70% and leaves the rest.

Think about reducing your consumption of energy.  Use the house like in the old days, open the windows at night and in the morning for fresh and cool air, and shut them during the day.  This costs zero dollars, but equals big comfort.  If you want to spend maximum dollars for maximum return, get a high coefficient of performance aircon.  High COP means that for each unit of electricity consumed from the grid, you generate five or six units from your aircon/heat pump/fridge etc.  Solar panels are a no-brainer in Australia.  You can payback in four years for most people in Melbourne now.  Which is a pretty nuts return on investment.  Plus you become more sustainable.  It wakes people up to what the hell they are consuming when they look at an app and see all the things chewing the electricity. 

So, the order in “bang for buck” is draught-proofing, then lighting, then curtains/blinds, then windows.  All of these are ‘passive’ improvements so they don’t use energy to be beneficial.  Also they can’t really break or become obsolete.  Then you can move towards energy efficient equipment. There’s no need to buy new, but just replace old appliances with the latest; things like fridge, induction stove, etc. (exceptions to this are getting rid of plasma TVs, or replacing an old dryer with a heat pump dryer – these are immediately beneficial).  Even the new kettles that can boil just one cup.  This is the important bit.   

Then you go active. With aircon, proper LED lights, a heat pump if you have cash for hot water, otherwise use solar hot water.  Then you reduce external inputs to the house.  Get solar panels.  As Chris said, if you can get off gas that’s great (I haven’t succeeded so far). 

Chris: Another thing is shading.  You can use natural elements to shade walls.  For example, a new house around the corner from me has a north-facing, double-storey, single width, BLACK brick wall, with NO insulation.  Talk about crazy.  Now, if they mounted a huge trellis over that wall, and grew a passionfruit plant, or grapevines, we’d have three things in great play.  Shading for a huge heat sink to prevent the wall from getting the sun, we’ve put in plants to help absorb CO2, and, the kicker, we’re growing delicious, home-grown food.  People often think of high tech when, really, we can use nature to our advantage in so many ways.  For example, in Coober Pedy they build houses underground. 

It “feels” more natural to work in harmony with nature than to fight against it with, for example, pesticides, herbicides, mono-cropping, etc.  But for betterment of self and the planet I like the word stewardship as it elicits a desire to look after something for a short period of time (our life), to pass on a better world to future generations.  We are stewards of the planet, which means we should be embracing appropriate technologies that allow that.  Sure, allow modern life to remain in place and to advance, but also embrace nature and natural processes that have been around for millions of years.  For instance, why make a CO2 capturing machine, which is highly complex, when you could just plant a forest??  Or, just use cows to restore soil, restore nature, and consequently capture carbon, and feed us at the same time.

Andrew:  I mean I could go to town on it all, but it will just bore people and turn them off. I have read the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports and actually worked with clients on trading carbon credits etc. so I do have some clue, but there’s still plenty to learn. 

Chris:  I don’t think people are that interested though, are they?  Solar, sure.  It’s perfunctory though; buy solar panels, move on with your life.  Big efficiency, lifestyle changes, lowering CO2, those are the much bigger life changes needed.  As Andrew said, no one is truly really engaged with those.  Or maybe they are, I dunno.  It’s a very big topic, way beyond solar.  Our goal should be reversing our impact on the planet.  Our goal with solar is to make our current lifestyle sustainable, but unfortunately if we sustained our current level of use of everything, we’d be toast.  Precious metals are being depleted at rates that simply can’t be sustained more than 30-40 years.  Arguably, our most valuable asset, top soil, has about 30 seasons left.  Instead of sustainable, the thing we need to think about now is regenerative. I think it’s important to point out that lifestyle change is needed, and that simply adding solar isn’t a “Well, I’ve got solar. I’m done now” proposition.  My perspective is that solar is but one of many steps we can take to address our impact.

Andrew: Learning about all of the things you can do, I realised that different elements can be prioritised; whether it’s reduced energy bills, more self-reliance, less carbon emissions or just a sense of shared help for others. Any step people take is a step in the positive direction!

Chris: It would be good to explain the “why” though.  People can make all the changes their wallet desires, but the “why” behind the change might put things into perspective and inspire more?  Long lasting change, that is. Solar panels and generation of electricity is pretty much a commodity.  It will save people money over five years, so it’s an easy sell.  As is cutting gas and going to an all-electric house.  Try convincing anyone they need a drop toilet though.

Chryss: Can I ask you both to talk me through your own personal journeys of how you arrived to where you are now, in terms of your commitment.  I’ve known you both for nearly 25 years, and I can’t remember you being this interested in saving the environment back in the day.  So how did you both get to this point?  Also, do you think that becoming parents has amplified it at all?

Chris: About eight years ago I went on a health journey that started with, “You need to take statins”.  After researching that and deciding I didn’t actually need them, I ended up learning a lot more about food, and health.  I lost 40kg, and 33cm off the belly, cured a lot of other ills I didn’t even know I had, and I am now in the best health of my life.  Part of that health journey led me into looking at food, and resulted in me doing a course in permaculture, which is about sustainable living, sustainable lifestyles, growing food, and living a life more in line with nature.

We need to be able to pass on a better world to our children (or to future generations, for those without kids).  This doesn’t mean sacrificing modern lifestyle – it’s just about being more mindful, and making positive informed changes.  Sure having my own child has maybe brought that to bear a little more, but I’d like to think I care enough about everyone else that I would have made those changes anyway. 

Andrew: So I got into what I call acting sustainably in a very slow fashion, starting as a teenager, thinking about why the snow in the mountains was greater or lesser each year.  I read STARK by Ben Elton as a late teenager, and later the IPCC, which is the entity that publishes the climate change research and the various consolidated scientific models on this.  I was focused on what the impact would be in the various places that I cared for (Melbourne, France, the mountains). 

I also disliked the very emotive language used (little did I know how pervasive it would become).  This was early 2000s, before Al Gore etc., and I wanted to get to the analysis sitting under it, to protect myself and my investments.  Since becoming a father, this has not changed, I believe.  The action that I take will not make one bit of difference.  I am doing it to simply say to myself that I did something to reduce my impact on the world, and also to reduce my financial risks (i.e. if I have lower electricity costs, then I need less income/salary to live day-to-day). 

ChryssWhat exactly have you guys done to your homes?  And why?  Could you please go into as much detail as you can.

Chris:  I’ve converted my entire home from using gas and electricity to an all-electric house.  We completely decommissioned the gas.  In place of the gas central heating, gas hot water and gas cooktop (which are all very inefficient) I’ve installed a 6.6kw solar system, heat pump (often called reverse cycle) heating and cooling in each room and a heat pump hot water system (which heats during the middle of the day only).  For a couple of years we had a portable IKEA induction cooktop simply positioned on top of the unused gas cooktop, but recently we bought a new oven stovetop with induction built in. Those portable IKEA induction cooktops are excellent though, as a temporary measure, for $59.  By switching from gas to electricity it did several things.  We’re safer, as gas leaks account for a LOT of the methane in the atmosphere and can often leak into the house.  We also ditched the connection fee for gas, leaving us with a single, low connection fee for electricity (with Tango Energy, which also has a low kwh charge, and a good feed-in tariff). 

In addition to those things I personally sealed up the house, making a priority of draught-proofing.  This was the first step I took in improving my home efficiency.  Any gaps in walls, floors, doors and windows got either a tight silicone strip or a silicone seal, to ensure no air leaks.  I also sealed up all the internal air vents, all the internal central heating vents and all the gaps behind appliances and under sinks.  Building contractors just smack holes in walls for wires and plumbing, so sealing up these big gaps is crucial to efficiency.  Check your entire building envelope for air gaps!  I also sealed up all the chimney cavities with cut up bits of foam mattress bought from Clark Rubber. 

We use to have on-demand gas hot water.  A stored heat pump hot water system is by far the most efficient when used in combination with solar.  I know some dudes who did in-depth analysis on all of the hot water heat pumps, and Sanden was the winner so we got that.  We only heat between 12pm and 2pm (peak solar times), and it’s perfect hot water at any time of day.  We bought other new appliances too.  We now have four Mitsubishi reverse cycle coolers/heaters.  The old dishwasher, washing machine, large commercial freezer, oven and cooktop, kitchen extraction fan, light fittings, wall/kitchen and bathroom fans were all replaced with low energy efficient versions (with backdraft protection, to prevent air leaks).  We reduced the number of appliances needing power.  We turn them off, replaced them, or just got rid of them. 

I replaced all the windows in the north facing kitchen area with double glazing myself, and even managed to feature in the ReNew Magazine a couple of times with my home handyman work.  We invested in a full roof replacement, using lighter coloured Colorbond sheets, and we installed R6 roof insulation (due to limited space we used foil lined foam panels specifically designed for cathedral ceiling spaces).  We installed a 6.6kw solar system, fed back into the grid to effectively use the mains grid as a “battery” so we can draw back when there is no sunlight, and to minimise costs.  For about five months of the year we have zero electricity costs, for another four months it’s about 50% and the three months over winter it’s about 10% fed back into the grid.  We’re on track to pay off our solar in less than four years. 

Outside, I put in plants that provide shade for north and west facing walls in summer.  These produce food (grape, raspberry, kiwi berry), draw CO2 from the atmosphere, and they look pretty.  I installed a measured irrigation drip system with a solar powered pump for efficient use of water, a 3000 litre water tank for rain water collection and I also diverted all downpipes to the water tank.  We got a bee hive to pollinate our plants and also to provide honey (not that we eat it, but we can trade with it or give it away).  I removed all the non-productive plants, for example the 15 metre lilly pilly plants at the rear of property, and replaced them with three apple trees, three pear trees and other productive food plants, allowing more sunlight to the backyard, for us.  We grow a lot of our own berries and fruits in water-efficient wicking beds (hundreds of plants in total).  It’s no secret that a LOT of the food we buy is one of the biggest carbon footprints.  For instance, where did that banana come from? And where was that Coles/Woolies bread made?  Where was the soy in that Bonsoy milk grown?  So one of the biggest things we can do to reduce our impact is to buy local, in-season produce, and direct from farmers.  For example, the beef I buy is from a farmer I know who is less than 100km from my house.  We can reduce our own fossil fuel use, but we also have to consider first, second or third hand usage too!

Finally, we grow azolla, a plant that draws nitrogen from the atmosphere and turns it into a great fertiliser, while being a great habitat for water animals.  Also, bees can land on it and get water without drowning.  We also grow comfrey, another nitrogen fixing plant used as fertiliser (both of these mean I don’t need to import fertilisers, and it’s all organic) and we keep all organic material (cardboard, kitchen scraps etc.) for the garden.  There are lots of ways to be efficient beyond just electricity, but all have an impact on either energy use, or conservation.

Chryss: Andrew, how about you? 

Andrew:  My list is in priority order, meaning bang for buck, and not necessarily the order I actually did it chronologically.  Bang for buck meaning maximum reduction in energy costs/liveability factor for minimum cost.  I personally believe this is the only way to get people to move, which is slightly different to Chris’ view (I mean, I agree with his view, I just don’t think that other people will behave altruistically.  I don’t behave altruistically so why should I expect others to).

Draught-proofing and sealing up gaps.  I paid someone to come to the house and do this professionally.  It cost me 1,200AUD.  The person put dropdown seals on all the doors, filled in around all the windows, put draught stoppers in the bathroom exhaust fan, and silicon sealant in various gas wall vents.  Payback on this is probably a year or so in winter heating bill reduction (our house was leaky, and still is)

LED lighting.  First we replaced bulbs with LED globes.  This works and is cheap to do. Everyone can start with this and reduce the lighting part of their bill by maybe 60-70%.  It causes some heat loss due to the design of bulbs though, so I ultimately replaced them with full LED units (these have a computer inside the unit and are fully sealed so no leaks from your roof, which is a big deal with heat loss).

Roof insulation.  Hot air rises. Melbourne is a heating dominated climate so we need to focus on improving heat retention.  I put R6 insulation in the roof (actually R4 plus another lot of R2).

Solar panels.  We paid way too much for very high end solar panels (with a slightly tricky install due to shadowing).  Nevertheless, my panels output crazy amounts of kw.  I have 8kw of panels, which means that for three months of the year I get paid, three months I pay nothing, and six months I pay a bit (we still use a lot of electricity).  I installed a lot of panels, partly because whoever buys the house after us will always need a lot.  Current payback period is about four years.

Underfloor heating.  We replaced ducted with underfloor heating.  This is NOT economic.  I mean it’s 20% cheaper than the gas-ducted heating to run. But we will never recoup the installation cost.  It was installed for allergy and comfort reasons.  It’s very pleasant to have the house at one temperature, and a smart sensor means it switches off when it’s not needed.  We also installed underfloor insulation (though there’s no need to do this unless you do something like underfloor heating).

Double glazing.  We paid a lot of money for very well sealed double glazed units from Paarhammer.  We could only afford to do the bedrooms.  We like very quiet bedrooms so it was a key element.  There is a good firm called Thermawood that can replace just the glass, keeping your wooden frame, which saves a fair bit and is quite useful for Melbourne houses.

Induction cooktop.  This is good for cooking.  Modern ones are much better than the previous models (we still have both gas and induction).

Dryer.  Obviously the best option is to dry your laundry outside.  But if you are going to have a dryer (and we do), then buy a heat pump dryer.  These use fridge technology in reverse, are very mild on clothes and use very little energy

Heating/cooling.  Similarly, install reverse cycle air-conditioning for the same reasons (it uses fridge technology, which means that each 1kw you consume gives you 6-7kw of cooling/heating).

Pool pump.  Install one with variable speed pump and auto chlorinator.  We don’t have a pool, for environmental reasons (and they are a complete schlep to maintain).  But if you do, installing these reduces electrical and chemical usage.

I mean there’s lots of other things I have done that I don’t want to bore you with.  For example, I bought a thermal camera (which plugs into an iPhone) to see where gaps are.  I bought a meter to track consumption, planted trees, I’m riding my bike more, not buying replacement stuff.  The old reduce, reuse, recycle (in that order).  But there are still large errors in my behaviour.  I am happy to fly (which, by far, has the biggest CO2 impact).  I still use gas (as the cost to move to underfloor electric is astronomical).  I still buy food from France.  Hence I am not comfortable to say anything to anyone.  Any step that someone takes is great as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter how small. 

Chryss: Seriously impressive guys.  Hats off to you both.  Now here are some questions that I’ve fielded from people who are interested in making changes but don’t know where to start. 

What size unit would we need to cover our average daily energy usage?

Chris: You’d need to check your electricity bill to work that out, but my personal view is to maximise solar generation on your roof.  I think most of the deals going around now are about $2000 for a 6.6kw system (after rebate). This is about 20-22 panels, so that’s fair chunk of roof.  I have a 6.6kw system, 22 panels.  This gives us five months electricity bill free, about four years payback.  Current deals pay back in two years.

Andrew:  Divide your daily bill by 3.5 so, for example, 35kwh of usage would need 10kw of panels. To be clear you will (in Melbourne anyway) generate 1.5x your panel size in winter and 5.5x in peak summer.  Chris is right though. Panels are so cheap you should just get the maximum size that fits on roof, given labour versus panel costs.  IKEA have a good offer at the moment.  Payback period on that, assuming all self-consumption, is about two and a half years. Assuming just feed in tariff is five years.  You get a return on your cash of around 30%p.a. for the self-consumption version.  That’s not bad to feel good about your impact on the environment.

Is the additional cost of the top quality solar cells worth it for the extended warranty (25 years versus 10 years)?

Chris:  Not sure I have an opinion on the warranty (I’d probably say top of the range is never, in any technology, the best bang for buck), but I will say this; most package deal systems out there use Tier 1 panels, e.g. Jinko Tier 1, and they come with 25 years warranty anyway. 

Andrew:  Yes and no.  Focus on what percentage the panels are scheduled to generate after ten years.  Also better quality panels will have lower reduced losses if temperature is higher (look for a low temperature coefficient).  If you want maximum output, generally it’s easier to just add more panels.  The key to keep cost down is to check if you have any shadowing due to chimney/trees etc.  If you do, then you need to look into optimisers or microinverters, which are mini computers that optimise the output of each panel if there is shading (if you don’t have them, then in one line of panels you can only produce at the lowest output of any of the panels, which can significantly chop your output).

What kind of solar panels are good, and why?  What inverters would you recommend?

Chris:  I recommend Tier 1 manufacturer, with a moderate panel.  I wouldn’t choose the most efficient, but probably 3rd or 4th down in the range (about 330w).  Like all tech, don’t bother with the top of the range – it will pay you back, but it will be a much longer timeframe.  I’m sure Andrew will touch on this, but a decent panel with Enphase microinverters is probably considered the “best” but only because it handles shading, and partial solar generation.  If you don’t have much shading, like me and unlike Andrew, then you can get good Tier 1 panels with a string inverter, and you end up producing just as much (maybe more as there is less wiring) pound for pound than more expensive options.  The price difference in setup?  We’re talking $15k+ versus around $2k.  Shading on the roof is the factor in determining this.

Andrew:  Bang. Nothing to add. 

Any idea what impact solar panels have on roofing?  For instance new Colorbond roofs state that the warranty ill be invalidated if solar panels are installed.  Any idea why?

Chris:  I don’t know.  They pull up screws in your roof, and attach the frame through those same holes, so there are no extra holes.  The impact solar panels do have, a very positive impact in my opinion, is that they provide shading on your roof.  The sun never hits the sunniest parts of your roof, so this keeps your roof from getting as hot, and thus lowers your cooling requirements!  Win-win.

Andrew:  Agree.  If you get a decent installer, there is no problem as they mount on a frame (having said that I have tiles, so I don’t have specific experience).  One thing I’d suggest is to make sure you put as many panels west facing.  You can thank me later.  But generally put as many panels as you can fit on.

How much more would we need, if we wanted to charge an electric vehicle every day?

Chris:  Good question.  I’m not sure I have the specific answer as it varies by the amount of charge/energy you use in the car, and when you’re charging it.  If we go back to the previous point, get the most number of solar panels/setup you can afford, and use the electricity you generate to power everything you need during the day, feeding back into the grid any excess so you can draw back electricity when you need it over night.  I’m presuming electric cars would be charged over night, so, yeah, you’ll need to be feeding back into the grid as much as possible.  From a pure energy view point, in a Nissan Leaf, if you charged in the middle of the day, then for the 10kwh needed for 100km travel, you’d likely need a 2.5kw solar system just for that single car.  The same car to charge in winter, you’d need a 25kw solar panel system – in Melbourne anyway.  There are so many factors, and too little detail in the question to fully answer though.

Andrew:  From the reading I have done, you will struggle to have enough excess to charge your electric vehicle.  A Tesla car battery is 75kwh.  So on its own, it needs say 20kw of panels to charge from empty.

How much do we reduce our carbon impact on the environment with an electric vehicle charged by solar rather than from the grid?

Chris:  Damn, that’s a complicated one.  Probably less that you might think.  Your panels are made of plastic, silicone, glass, etc.  They are manufactured in China, transported here, trucked around, and need to be replaced every 20 years.  Compare that to charging from the grid in Melbourne, which is now becoming more and more wind and solar powered every day.  It’s easy right now, home solar is better.  But it’s a tough call what the lower impact will be in five years.  I suspect in the next ten years there will be very little difference in environmental impact, grid versus home solar.  But you will find home solar electricity is cheaper/free.

Andrew:  Large losses due to transmission mean home production is always better.  For instance, 100kw produced in Mildura might only be 30kw by the time it hits your meter, due to losses in the power lines and transformers.  Electric vehicle versus petrol?  A simpler car means less to break down, less replacement costs/maintenance.  The main one is battery recyclability and degradation.  Petrol cars are very efficient.  Honestly, the analysis I’ve read is that for an identical car, EV versus petrol, you would be better to buy the petrol car and buy CO2 credits with the saving.  That doesn’t get you the green status symbol though.

Should we get a battery?  

Chris:  A battery is not worthwhile at present.  The economics don’t work out well.  Better to treat the grid as your “battery” by feeding back into it with your solar setup, and drawing back from the grid at times when your solar setup isn’t providing all the energy you need.  Batteries are not worth it on several levels.  

The big advantage of a battery would be being able to use power when it’s dark, and selling power at a better time of day (though there’s no flex pricing at the moment), and if you were completely off-grid as the only option. The downside is that batteries degrade more quickly than panels and need to be replaced, they contain toxic chemicals (so if my goal is to improve the environment, this conflicts), and ultimately you will still need a grid connection as backup, as we use more power than we generate over winter months, meaning the connection fee is fixed.  Until there are some significant improvements in battery technology I think this is probably a good compromise.

Andrew:  I agree with Chris on the economics. I also agree that recyclability of batteries is terrible at moment.  Actually charging at night helps stabilise the network (it doesn’t help climate change but it does reduce instability, and hence the possible need for extra gas-powered quick-start plants).  You’d need the Tesla battery price to be $7000 installed, for the economics to work in Melbourne.  It would need to be half the price, or prices need to vary intraday by 20-30% more than they do currently.  Basically a way better to spend the $12k of a Tesla battery is on reducing your household leakage. For example, there are houses out there that can keep warm with only human heat (and sun, during the day).  Hence the only consumption at night is for lights, and that’s tiny.

Is it better to have solar panels or get electricity from green energy companies like AGL Green Energy.

Chris:  With a two year payback on a 6.6kw system priced at $2100 after rebate, with a life span of 20-25 years, get solar.  It’s a no-brainer.

Andrew:  As per above, economically.  And also note that buying green power costs you more and doesn’t change the retailer behaviour.  It is actually cheaper for them to source renewables now, so you’re paying them to do something they would do anyway.

Ejo #120 – Drunk In….. Beirut (or How We Joined The Revolution)

I was in Tbilisi, Georgia, sleeping off a serious hangover when my Mum died. David and I had hit the city hard over three days; boots on the ground, party hats on, elbows bent – all in the name of researching my next Drunk In installment. But “Drunk In….. Tbilisi” is an ejo that will never see the light of day. It would be impossible for me to celebrate, let alone reconcile, the drunken revelry that David and I indulged in over those three days, with the fact that they were my Mum’s last days alive. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write another Drunk In post ever again. It’s not that I stopped drinking after Mum died, far from it. And it’s not that I haven’t experienced moments of joy or frivolity either. Those moments have co-existed with my grief, and they still do. I actually just thought I would never be able to write about anything ever again. I wasn’t even sure that I could continue with these monthly ejos. But, here we are.

There is something that happens to you when a loved one dies. When the shadowy concept of death becomes a forcible reality, something you have to look at in the eye and face every day, the value of life is actually somehow reasserted. Yes, I am still sometimes crippled with the pain of losing my Mum. But yes, I can also still genuinely experience happiness, I can still laugh and have fun. This is known as living. My Mum would have wanted it, and I want it. Anything less would be an affront to this beautiful gift each of us has been given. When you wake up one morning, and learn that someone you love is gone forever, it brings into very sharp relief how truly precious (and shockingly short) life actually is. Eleven years ago, I made a choice to live in Dubai, away from my Mum and my family and my friends and my home. I did that, not because I love Dubai so much. I did it because it was an opportunity to see the world. I sacrificed one thing, for another. And I ask myself sometimes if that choice was worth it – though it really doesn’t bear much thinking about. I’ll never be able to answer. The only thing I am able to do now is to honour the decision I made all those years ago. To make that sacrifice count. I have to travel, I have to see the world. I have to do it for myself, and I also have to do it for my Mum.

Our first vacation since Tbilisi was in November. Our friend Cath (whom you might remember from our drunken adventures in Hoi An a couple of years ago) was taking a well-deserved break from her award winning work as a newspaper photographer, and when she flipped through the atlas to decide her destination, her finger landed on Beirut, Lebanon. David and I were thrilled, as we’ve always wanted to go to Beirut. And being so close to Dubai, it was the perfect destination for us to join Cath for a three day Drunk In adventure.

Three weeks before our trip, startling reports began surfacing of demonstrations and rioting in the country. The three of us monitored the situation carefully, reading up about the protests and decided that, despite several travel warnings, including advice to “exercise a high degree of caution” from the Australian government and a suggestion from the US government to “reconsider Lebanon due to crime, terrorism, armed conflict and civil unrest”, we would stick to our plan and go. Of course this was exactly the kind of thing that would have made my Mum extremely anxious. But because she’s no longer here to worry about me, in my mind I no longer have any reason to be cautious. I can throw caution to the wind, because it no longer matters if something bad happens to me. Twisted logic, right? Who said grief isn’t fun?


So we landed in Beirut after a night shift, and a four hour flight, ready to hit the town. We were staying in a vibrant and gritty part of town called Mar Mikhael because that’s just how we do. It’s a lively area known for its many restaurants and bars and that’s exactly what we’d come for. After reuniting with Cath over a bottle of duty free Champagne on our balcony, we ambled a leisurely six minute walk from our Airbnb over to Enab, a well known restaurant specialising in local cuisine and wine. We ordered a bunch of different plates to share and delighted in the fresh flavours of what arrived on the table: hummus (of course), flatbreads, beef kibbeh and roast potatoes. The pièces de résistance for me though were the most delicious and tender char-grilled lamb chops I’ve ever eaten. They were perfection!!! All of this was washed down with three bottles of Beqaa Valley rosé. To say it was easy drinking would be an understatement, and to say we were on a mission would be the same. It was the perfect start to our night.

Armenia Street, Mar Mikhael


Bellies full, we pranced out of Enab and down the street, looking for the next hotspot.  We found it less than a four minute walk away at Bar Chaplin, a (you guessed it) Charlie Chaplin themed bar.  The place was absolutely heaving on a Friday night and we were lucky that a group of people sitting at an outside table moved over and made room for the three of us to be seated.  This is something that completely characterises Lebanese people.  They are bloody lovely.  They are friendly, and warm, and they will smile at you for no reason at all, which makes it ludicrously easy to flirt with them.  I absolutely loved almost every interaction I had with the people of Beirut.  After ordering drinks from the lovely waiter, we got into a conversation with our neighbours and spent the next three drinks talking about the issues consuming Lebanon.  They were thrilled that we would visit Beirut, despite the trouble brewing in the city.  We were very drunk so I can’t remember what we drank but it was pretty damn good.  You can trust me.

Alexander Fleming Street, Mar Mikhael


So, after Chaplin we decided we’d had enough and went home.  Sounds like a good idea, right?  But that’s not where the shenanigans ended, oh no.  We sat on the balcony for a couple more hours and caught up over many “sips” of Cognac and arak, a Lebanese aniseed based spirit.  It felt like a good idea at the time.  OMG though, the hangover the next day was epic.  I can’t even.  I don’t remember flopping on the bed around 4am, fully clothed, but I do remember stumbling down the stairs at around 8am to join David on the couch in the air-conditioned living room.  Sometime around 1pm we pulled ourselves together enough to jump into an Uber and head straight to The Lebanese Bakery for espressos and a bite to eat.  Regular readers of this ejo will know that I have a huge soft spot for flatbreads of the world.  Turkish pide, Jordanian manaqish, Hungarian lángos.  I love my flatbreads!!!  And now I can add Lebanese manousheh to that list. Baked fresh to order, you can choose from a variety of toppings to satisfy any craving.  We decided to share, and settled on halloumi cheese, basil and pine nuts for Cath, minced meat, onions and bulgur for David and free range eggs with kashkawan cheese for me.  BEST HANGOVER FOOD EVER.


The mince beef manousheh.


The free range egg version.  Looking at this gives me food orgasms.  They are a thing and if you don’t have them I feel sorry for you.

Salim Bustros Street, Tabaris, Ashrafiyeh

After eating we took a really long walk around town and ended up at Martyr Square, where the biggest demonstrations had been held.  On this Saturday afternoon it was deserted, but we somehow found ourselves accosted by a news crew wanting to know what we thought about the protests.  I was more than happy to share that we were fully supportive of the Lebanese people and that we weren’t frightened to be there at all.  That we wanted to be there.  I was broadcast on some Lebanese TV station, no doubt.  Listen, when you’re Drunk In a city, you get right in there, you get involved.  You don’t skirt around the edges.


Martyr’s monument.


I love being interviewed when I’m hungover as fuck.


The reporter told us that there would be a major demonstration the next day so we popped that into our itinerary before taking off in an Uber for some beers.  Cath had already visited Al Falamanki and reckoned we needed to get there in time for sunset.  And boy, was she right.  This restaurant/bar is perfectly situated on a cliff-face overlooking the Mediterranean and has incredible views of the setting sun and the famous Raouche Rocks.  Also, ice-cold beers and wonderful wait staff.


We turned up in time for this view.


After a really hard day of…. recovering, we needed these beers.  Don’t look at me like that.

General De Gaulle Road, Kraytem


So we had dinner at one of the hottest restaurants in Beirut that night, but to be honest it was nothing to write home about, so I won’t.  What I will mention is that after dinner we were ready to kick on.  We walked to Anise, a bar featured in the World’s 50 Best Bars list.  Again, people went out of their way to make room for us, this time right at the bar.  Honestly, I’ve never felt so genuinely welcome and accommodated anywhere else in the world.  Lebanese hospitality is second to none.  We settled in and attempted to read the cocktail menu, somewhat thwarted by the dim lighting (oh, the vagaries of old age).  In the end a cocktail we watched being constructed in front of us proved too tempting and we just said, “We’ll have what she’s having”.  It turned out to be a sage margarita, and it turned out to be very fucking tasty.  While our drinks were being made, a guy next to me was served a yummy looking snack.  I was curious, so I asked him what it was and… seriously people, he offered me a bite.  And then he offered some to David and Cath too.  And we tried it.  And it was delicious.  And I can’t, for the life of me remember what it was, because… drunk.  But where else does that happen??   How wonderful.


The lovely bartenders at Anise.  And the toaster oven (to the right) where the tasty snacks were being heated up.


Sage margaritas.  Yum!

Alexander Fleming Street, Mar Mikhael


Em Sherif restaurant is a Beirut institution.  Everyone from our Airbnb host, to our taxi driver, to Tripadvisor (#1 don’t lie) said it was a must do dining experience.  And so we did.  And it was…. everything.  And when I say everything, I mean that literally.  Thirty six dishes were laid out before us, one after the other in a constant (CONSTANT) procession.  And I will admit to making the rookie mistake of eating too much too soon, because I simply couldn’t finish everything that was served (which really sucks).  It’s kinda too much.  But at the same time, it’s kinda amazing.  So many feelings.  I think it’s definitely something everyone needs to experience at least once in their life.  If nothing else, to taste the silkiest, most incredible hummus ever created.

PS.  You need to make a reservation here.  Our table of three was the smallest table by far.  And we were the only non-Lebanese folks in the joint.  Just sayin’.


We were amongst the first ones to arrive, but by the time we left the place was loaded with joyful Lebanese families celebrating life.


But a small sample of the Lebanese delicacies that streamed out of the kitchen.

Yesouiyeh Street, Ashrafieh



Avoid demonstrations, they said.  Ha!!!!

All day long we’d been joking about “dropping in on the revolution”.  Little did we know that’s exactly what we were going to do.  We made our way back to Martyr Square at sunset just as the demonstrations were kicking off.  Thousands of people had gathered in solidarity to protest their corrupt government and a mismanaged economy.  Despite paying high taxes, the city hasn’t had reliable electricity or running water since the 70s.  When the government recently announced that they would be introducing a tax on WhatsApp usage the people said, “OH NO YOU DIDN’T!!!”.  It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and it brought Lebanon, a country made up of 18 different religions, together.  It was incredible to be swept up in this feeling of unity on this night.  It was intoxicating.  Everyone gathered, regardless of their spiritual beliefs or religious identities, and they sang the national anthem and they danced and they waved their flags and they announced that, together, they were the people of Lebanon and that they’d had enough.  And we were right there.  It’s not often you get to be part of an historic event.  Despite being scared for me, I think my Mum would have been pretty proud that I was there.


Photo courtesy of Cath Grey (award winning photojournalist).



Revolutions are pretty thirsty work, so when things looked like they were winding down we set off in search of some drinks.  We happened upon Torino Express, which during the day disguises itself as a café, but morphs into a very cool bar in the evenings, complete with someone’s grandad, decked out in his best tracksuit, spinning tunes on a record player in the corner.  And let me tell you, grandad has some pretty good taste in music.  We all decided to start with a classic margarita, and they were so good we just kept ordering more.  Paying the bill I got confused with the currencies (both Lebanese pounds and US dollars are universally accepted), but the guy behind the bar was kind enough to point out that I was leaving a ridiculous tip.  He could have just pocketed it and I wouldn’t have been any the wiser, so huge props for honesty.  Just another reason to love Beirut.


Torino Express


Simply.  Perfect.  Margaritas.

Gouraud Street, Gemmayzeh


Right next door to Torino Express is Dragonfly.  I’d read about their incredible cocktails online, and we were not let down.  The guys behind the bar are like cute, happy scientists, carefully measuring and concocting delicious libations with a smile.  Seriously, everyone in Beirut seems so chilled out and happy, despite the massive problems they face.  I want to know their secret.  I guess I’ll just have to go back and do some more research.  Come here if you’re passionate about cocktails.


Such a sweety.  We asked if we could take a photo and he happily obliged.


Three different versions of yum!


The bartender obviously enjoyed all the love we were throwing his way because he threw these shots of arak our way.

Gouraud Street, Gemmayzeh


Opposite the front door of our Airbnb was a very lowkey bar called Grayscale.  It was so lowkey, and so hidden from sight, that we weren’t even sure it was open, so of course we had to go and find out.  And yes it was!  Post-revolution, we used this bar as a rendezvous point because Cath and I wanted to hit the streets and check out the action, while David was feeling a more chilled out kind of vibe and hung out at the bar while we went exploring.  I was extremely fucking drunk by this point, wandering around the streets, making friends, bringing them back to Grayscale (much to David’s bemusement).  Cath and I got separated but I never once felt unsafe.  So much for travel warnings.  You know you’ve reached the upper echelon of Drunk In when they name a cocktail after you.  Life goals people.


Grayscale Bar


I present to you the cocktail known as…. 40 Shades of Grey.

Opposite Galerie Tanit, Armenia Street



The people.    © Cath Grey


The future.  © Cath Grey


Peacefully protesting.  © Cath Grey.


Standing together.  © Cath Grey.




These guys were amazing.  They were so peaceful, and above all, human.  They didn’t want me to take their photo but I drunkenly snuck this one in.  We chatted about what they were doing and what I gleaned is that they are simply young men forced into a position of authority.  They don’t want any drama.  They don’t want to be there.  While we were there, the protests were not only peaceful, but friendly.  Sadly, after we left a protestor was shot and killed by a young officer. Things have taken a darker turn since and that makes me really sad.





Ejo #105 – Drunk In….. Rome

Roma!  You might be surprised to learn that even though I’ve been to Italy eight times in my life, I’ve never been to Rome before.  I figured it was time, so David and I booked a three night stay at the end of our Sicily sojourn.  And I’m SO glad we did.  The moment we hit the streets, eyes wide in wonder, I fell in love.  The vibe, the architecture, the people, the opera floating into my ears from an open window down a cobblestoned alleyway.  It was such a delight to discover that Rome wasn’t going to be a huge let-down.  That it really is as wonderful as everyone says it is.  Naturally, we hit the ground running, already slightly tipsy from our flight from Sicily.  Surely you’d be disappointed with anything less.



Taxi rides from Fiumicino Airport into the centre of Rome cost a flat fee of €48.  So, check out this cool life hack – for the exact same price, you can get a chauffeur-driven Mercedes to whisk you into town instead.  All you have to do is book it in advance and the driver will meet you and escort you into a luxurious, air-conditioned vehicle.  No queueing in line, no smelly cab, no confusion about where your Airbnb is located.  None of that shit.  This one’s a must do if you’re travelling to Rome.


Better than a taxi, any day of the week.



We normally stay in Airbnb accommodation when we travel.  This time was no different, but this particular apartment was also available on other sites, and I have to say that I’m getting a little peeved with Airbnb’s extortionate service charges – so if I can get the same place for €70 less why the hell wouldn’t I?  We stayed in Vicoloft, an awesome apartment managed by the very lovely Alessandro, located in wonderful Trastevere.  This beautiful, cobblestoned neighbourhood is situated across the Tiber River, offering the best of both worlds – it’s walking distance to most of Rome’s incredible attractions but also a nice escape from the tourist hoardes.  Even better, this part of town rocks a great vibe every single night of the week.  I tell you what, Romans sure do love to party!!!  Our apartment was located in a particularly lively part of town, with local revellers going strong into the wee hours.  Luckily the windows are double (maybe even triple) glazed, which means that when you’re ready for bed, the place is as quiet as a tomb, despite the masses downstairs partying like it’s 1999.


Crisp, clean sheets.  And art.  Minimal perfection.

Vicolo De’ Cinque 16, Rome



It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Aperol Spritzes are ubiquitous in Rome.  They are literally everywhere.  And you can bet your bottom dollar we guzzled plenty of them during our three day stay, eschewing the tradition of having them just before dinner.  Hey, traditions are made to be broken.


There’s a charming tradition in Italy called aperitivo, during which you buy a pre-dinner drink and they bring you free snacks to whet your appetite.  How civilised.



We had these Spritzes during a power outage in our ‘hood – this bar had a generator, and we were lucky to squeeze these in before they ran out of ice.



What better way to celebrate success at the shops than with an enormous Aperol Spritz.



Pimm’s Good Bar was my favourite.  First we ordered espressos (espressi??).  When they came out we ordered Spritzes and the waiter high fived us.  It was 11am.



The waiter wanted to join us in a Spritz – you could see it in his eyes.

Via di Santa Dorotea, 8, 00153




We stumbled across this wonderful little bar, a couple of steps from our place, and decided to give it a go even though it had just opened and was totally empty.  The old dude smoking on the bench outside rushed in to take our orders and promptly made it very clear that he was only bar-sitting until his son, the owner, turned up.  But he was still more than happy to make us a drink.  How fucking cool is that.  We ordered negronis and then helped him to make them when he pretended he didn’t know how.  And you know what?  It was the best damn negroni I’ve ever had.  Listen kids, when I travel and when I drink, my absolute favourite experiences are in places like this.  I will go to five star hotel cocktail bars but they’re kinda same-same the world over.  When you want to go deep into a city or a neighbourhood, then these are the kinds of places where you’ll meet locals.  Where you talk to the owner, and watch them go about the day to day business of running a small bar.  I live for places like this.  This whole “Drunk In….” series exists because of places like this.  So, next time you travel why don’t you look for the seediest bar you can find, support a local business and have a fucking good time.


This bar was literally five doors down from our apartment and ended up being our absolutely favourite haunt.  By the time we left three days later the owner was hugging us and giving us free shots.



I know I might come across like a fancy girl, but I love nothing more than a dingy bar with a cool bartender making me tasty drinks.



The Porno shot, in case you were wondering, is Mr. Brown’s home made concoction.  It’s a little sweet, a little spicy and designed to encourage more drinking.  Oh, and at €1 a pop, they’re very fucking dangerous!  Suffice to say that five Porno shots gave me the worst hangover of our holiday.



The infamous Porno shot.  The picture’s a little fuzzy, because so was I.



Dad was fucken awesome, chatting to us in broken English and free-pouring the tastiest damn Negroni’s we had on the whole trip.  Total highlight.



During the day the bar was empty, and we had the owner, his feisty girlfriend, and his Dad to ourselves.  At night it was a totally different story.   The place was totally packed every night.

Vicolo de’ Cinque, 29, 00153



Suppli are the perfect snack.  So, what’s suppli, you ask?  Well, my friends, suppli are deep-fried balls of rice – kinda like arancini, but also kinda not.  Firstly arancini is Sicilian and suppli is Roman.  Secondly arancini are huge and suppli are bite size.  They’re also delicious and made in an assortment of flavours and fillings, which means they’re the perfect mid-afternoon snack to wash down with a cold beer.


The Classic suppli – rice, chicken giblets, tomatoes, mozzarella and Parmesan.



Cacio e pepe suppli – rice, Pecorino Romano, mozzarella and black pepper.  Mmmmm!

Via dei Banchi Vecchi, 143, 00186
1130-1600, 1630-2130
Closed on Sundays



As you know, strong coffee is a stalwart companion to any drunken shenanigans.  And as you’d expect, Rome has some of the best, and some of the strongest coffee around.  We didn’t have a single bad cup of the stuff, but I do think that the reason for that was that we stuck to espressos rather than milkier concoctions.  My suggestion is to walk into any espresso joint, order an espresso while jauntily standing at the bar and chug it down for an instant jolt of caffeine.  Don’t linger – that’s not how the Italians do.  A couple of pointers: NEVER, not in a million years, order a cappuccino after 11am.  You’ll be laughed out of the shop.  And don’t order a latte unless you are in the mood for a glass of milk.


My favourite espresso bar in Rome.  Mostly because it was roll-out-of-bed-and-lurch-down-the-street distance from our apartment.  But also for the friendly service and fantastic, strong coffee.  Apparently they also do amazing mojitos, but we were there just for the coffee (I can’t believe I just wrote that!)



Check out the marbling on that crema.  That’s some coffee-porn right there.

Vicolo del Cinque 5, 00153
Mon-Fri: 0630-0200
Closed on Saturdays & Sundays




I want to say that we ate well at every meal in Rome, but the sad fact is that we didn’t.  When an awesome hole-in-the-wall restaurant gets reviewed really well (or features on a TV show – Anthony Bourdain, I’m looking at you down there) it starts getting a lot of tourist traffic.  And the problem with that is that bloody tourists don’t actually like real Roman food.  They like their idea of Roman food.  So out go all the authentic recipes that made the place awesome in the first place, replaced by a bunch of dumbed down, standardised dishes which are shit.  I was disappointed at nearly every single restaurant we ate at.  But not this one.  Pasta e Vino exceeded all  my expectations and if you’re looking for a relaxed place to eat some outstanding pasta then you should come here.  Some wonderful friends (shout out to the Micheners) bought me a meal in Rome for my birthday and I chose this place as it had some pretty good Italian reviews on Tripadvisor.  The service started out a little aloof (as is the norm in Rome), but over the course of lunch warmed up significantly.  And the food?  Well, let’s just say I had the best plate of pasta I’ve eaten in my entire life here.  ‘Nuff said.


All the pastas.



David had the bucatini all’Amatriciana, a very traditional Roman dish made with tomatoes, olive oil, pecorino and the magic ingredient: guanciale (cured pork cheek).



This is the dish I’ll be thinking about on my deathbed.  Bucatini alla Gricia – basically Amatriciana, minus the tomatoes.  Bloody amazing.



All topped off with a beautiful Sardinian white wine.

Vicolo de’ Cinque, 40, 00186




One very fine morning David and I got up super early and walked about an hour from our place to the Galleria Borghese.  I have a very close friend who sometimes wants to smack me in my face because when I travel I’m not very much into museums or sightseeing.  I’m just not.  I don’t need to see that shit.  But every now and again, I meet someone who is SO enthusiastic about a place, that it triggers something in me.  That’s when I go out of my way to seek a bit o’ culture.  And that’s exactly what happened with Galleria Borghese.  I met an older gentleman at a wedding last month and he was positively effusive about this museum.  His eyes just lit up when he mentioned the artwork inside.  He described it to us with such passion.  That kind of enthusiasm is kinda sexy, and definitely infectious.  I immediately booked tickets to go and check it out while we were in Rome.  This museum books out weeks in advance so we were very lucky to get in.  And it was totally worth it.  It really was an incredible experience to behold all that historical art set in such splendour and extravagance.


The Borghese Museum.  It’s incredible how much art is contained behind these walls.  A mindblowing and enlightening experience.



I’m getting this exact same picture painted on our bedroom ceiling at home.



Hello, David.  😉



Bernini’s fucking astonishing Ratto di Proserpina, which until today I didn’t realise translates as Rape of Proserpina.  Fucking intense.  Please, please, please look at Pluto’s muscular hands digging into Proserpina’s flesh as he drags her struggling ass down, into the Underworld, to be his queen.  This thing was carved out of marble, people!!  MARBLE!!!!



When you’ve just spent two hours gazing upon the disturbing magnificence of Bernini and Caravaggio, it’s time to hit up the Museum cafe and get yo’self an espresso and an Aperol Spritz.  Stat!

Piazzale Scipione Borghese, 5, 00197
Closed on Mondays



We didn’t have any dinner reservation on our last night in Rome and that nearly turned out to be a big mistake.  All the places we wanted to eat at were full and we started to get nervous that we’d be stuck eating a slice of pizza at the local kiosk (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Trattoria da Teo was on my list of places to try, and our final chance at nabbing a table as it was getting pretty late.  Once again we lucked out and were given the last table for two.  This place was rocking with an awesome atmosphere, jovial and friendly service and very delicious food.  We were happy to let our fantastic waiter make recommendations from (and off) the menu and we weren’t disappointed with his choices.  By the time we ordered the limoncello dessert, we were on such good terms with him that he comped us two generous nips of limoncello to go with it.  Now that’s service.


A beautiful restaurant, with street-side dining, that serves delicious and traditional Roman food that is as authentic as you’re going to get.



Squid and artichoke for antipasto.  Bloody delicious.



We were lucky enough to get the last serve of this special seasonal dish of stuffed zucchini flowers.  So yum!



Another recommended dish of fettuccine with mushrooms



Spaghettig with tuna, olives, capers and super fresh tomato.  Delish.



Limoncello dessert and limoncello digestivo.  Coz you can never have too much limoncello!

Piazza dei Ponziani, 7A, 00153
1230-1500, 1930-2330
Closed on Sundays




One of the food highlights of our trip to Rome was this amazing sandwich shop in a markethall, about a 45 minute walk from our place.  It was on our list of must-do’s, but we hadn’t really been able to find the time to make it here during our three days in Rome.  Luckily, on our final day we had to check out of our apartment at 10am and found ourselves with 2.5 terribly hungover hours to kill, so I made us walk to this place in the searing heat just to get one of these damn sandwiches.  Props to David, who loyally trudged behind me as we schlepped along the sweltering riverside to get some lunch.  And it was SO worth it.  This place is awesome because it serves proudly traditional Roman cuisine in a street-food style.  So you can get tripe, you can get offal, you can get oxtail – as well as less confronting fillings of meatballs and braised beef.  There may be a vegetarian option, but I’m gonna be honest, I did not notice.  I was too busy salivating!!!  We had done a bit of research and everyone was telling us (as I am now telling you) to get the allesso.  When you do, owner Sergio is gonna grab a panini bun and dip that baby right into a big vat of lardy, delicious gravy before stuffing it with the softest, tenderest damn slices of beef I have ever seen in my life.  This is topped with some delicious, bitter greens and the whole thing wrapped up in a plastic bag coz that baby is juicy as hell.  Best fucking hangover food EVER!!!


Sergio Esposito making us our sandwich.



Get the panino all’allesso.  You will thank me for it.

Nuovo Mercato Comunale di Testaccio,
Via Beniamino Franklin, 12/E
Closed on Sundays