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Published: July 19th 2009
I Don't Care What You Say
They still drive on the wrong side of the road...
He finally got his wish. Even when I told him where I was going to spend the better part of the month, he found a way to inject an element of trepidation into my veins as though it might force me to reconsider. In years past, conversations between us with something to the effect of:
“Why won’t you consider it? It’s a big place, lots to do, and the folks are very friendly.” My father would then squint in anticipation of the answers he knew were coming and did not want to hear.
“No, Dad, there’s just no challenge. There’s no edge.” If he was trying to direct me back into Western Europe, I had an easy out. A summer or significant portion thereof in Europe would destroy my budget in a matter of weeks. Only the farthest Eastern wisps of European society would keep me happy, and I had no inclination to dabble between Tiblisi, Baku, or the Baltics. My mother would interject about a destination north of the Rio Grande knowing full well that would go nowhere.
“What about…”, and on he would go with his suggestions.
During one of my unannounced visits coincidentally around the time a hot
Burger King Knockoff?
These two have gone to court over marketing infringement...
meal hits the table (Who knew?) I broke the news that would put them both at ease, at least for this year. My father was talking about whichever varietal he was fermenting downstairs and Mom had just turned off the stove.
“Sydney” I declared without any follow up.
“Sydney. I’m going to Sydney after I get back from Tennessee. I booked the flight last night. Of course, their first silent but communal reaction was to scan the globe in their minds to come up with an alternative to the obvious. It just couldn’t be. Maybe there is a Sydney, Uganda, only a stone’s throw from downtown Kampala.
I broke the stiff dead air. “Australia. It will probably be Australia for the entire time.”
They were relieved and knew that the series of events with Phillip impacted my decision to compromise. The conversation over dinner ebbed and flowed about the specifics of the flight and what would keep me from going insane in such a developed and, in my mind, spiceless destination. By the time it came around to put the flatware and wine glasses in the dishwasher, my father amazingly found a way to squeeze in a threatening element
Skyscrapers in the Shadows
It is a sleek and glossy city...
of uncertainty. If I could relent and go to Australia, perhaps he could work on me and I would just settle for a few daytrips to New Hampshire. “You know, don’t go up north at all. I don’t want you walking off and running into any crocodiles. And Australia has the most venomous creatures…” Blah, blah, blah. I should have countered by saying that I will just stay in New England, but drive into black bear territory in Northern New Hampshire so I can pet and cuddle with the furry, oversized puppy dogs, especially when they’re hungry. Perhaps they’d be interested in sharing a bottle of Chardonnay with me.
It has only been a few years, but he is bigger in stature than I remember, even quite taller. His job with the New South Wales government requires him to suit up, in this case a single-breasted dark pinstriped outfit. His gold tie clip made him look even more unfamiliar; as an engineer in previous assignments, his attire was far more casual when we crossed paths after a day’s work. Ray greeted me with a firm handshake and ripped away my cumbersome backpack I brought along as a carry on.
Fools actually leads even more foolish tourists on a walk UP to the top...
On the train ride, we made a light attempt to catch up on lost time since I flew to visit him for a week in Belgium four years ago. Now in Sydney for the better part of two years, there is much that has changed. His parents are now gone. His approach to work differs a great deal. “Rich, I did not come here for the money, you see.” This is entirely true. As a high-end earner, making double what I make is a monstrous drop in pay for the highly-skilled computer engineer. “I want travel and work is my way to do it.” This is the part of him I envy.
“Australia suits you then?”
“Absolutely!” He pointed out an elderly man struggling to keep his suitcase upright. I dashed over to give him a hand. Ray radiated a smile caught by others on the other side of the subway car, “I love it here and you will too.” I doubted that, but kept it from him. His sincerity was genuine and just maybe over time I would grow fond of Australia in spite of its modernity, English-speakers, and proximity to my own culture, which I aim to discard
Manly Beach Surfers
Winter is mild enough. Body suits and in you go...
each year at this time.
I was struggling to unfasten a knot from two straps in my backpack when Ray interceded. “Want me to get that?”
“Yes, please.” He took hold of my luggage and successfully freed the straps. I examined his hands carefully. They trembled, just like before.
“They treat you well here?” In our parlance, ‘they’ could refer to the general populace, or young women. ‘You’ is an allusion to either Ray directly or our American nationality. It mattered very little. He answered in the positive on all counts.
“You see, Australia is just like America, but there is so little crime here.” There is more than just that for Ray. He also went on about the conveniences and the lifestyle absent of the daily grind with which we are familiar in New England. Having exited Central Station, I got my first look at Sydney by foot. At mid morning, the struggling beams from the winter sun had done away with the earlier day’s chill. Still in a daze from the flight over the Pacific, I concentrated on crossing Elizabeth Street by looking to the right before moving forward. Except that reversal of infrastructure it occurred to me
No tour necessary, just grab the Manly ferry
as I glanced up through the haze at the deep, silky, and mirrored skyline, this could be Minneapolis.
The key to visiting or hanging out with Ray is that he can only be taken in small prescribed amounts. In some ways, nothing has changed since our last encounter in Antwerp; a massive disappointment but in no way a surprise. While organizing and labeling photos for some slide show I’ll give at senior community center a few years from now, he texted me on the Blackberry he lent me pre-loaded with features and calling minutes for my entire stay. Schooled enough to manage the labyrinth of options, I scrolled down to read, “Rich are you up for a few beers?” He was thoughtful enough not to disturb me in the en suite room he set up for me downstairs in his Surry Hills duplex apartment. With Ray, it’s never just a few. He does not sip, he gulps. From the time I met him (in a bar), there have been so few instances where there has not been with a brewed beverage in his hand. As with so many, the more he consumes the more disagreeable and belligerent he becomes. Some
The scales of an icon...
righteous obstinacy inflected with profanity and exaggeration beyond the point of believability and it is an ugly transformation. Mornings greet him with a hoarse, sickly cough, which he shrugs off as it vanishes during the course of the day. I did not dance around the topic with his lovely girlfriend, whom I had not known for twenty-four hours. She spoke of their relationship and cited many of Ray’s behaviors as I have always known them. I captured her eyes directly and over-emphasized, “If things do not change, he’ll be dead in ten years. His body cannot continue to withstand the kind of punishment it has endured.” She did not react, rather she forlornly replaced the plates from the dishwasher into an upper cabinet. I hoped she would lash out at me and tell me to watch my manners or choose my words more carefully while in her home. She cares about him a great deal. Instead she said nothing, affirming what we both knew was a bona fide possibility.
“Your best bet is George Street.” We had already stopped by a café for a quick bite near his office, guarded by fire-engine-red sedans with black and yellow checkered bumpers.
A windy day at Darling Harbour...
Here the Federal Police make little effort to hide their presence. Ray unlocked his right elbow and dropped his forearm down the main boulevard to the north. “You’ll like it”, he confidently repeats. A small part of me thinks he fears I might not care for Sydney. But then again that wouldn’t be Ray. More often than not his confidence overwhelms or at least veils any fear. He rattled off a series of sites and destinations ending with, “Just stay on George Street. It’ll take you right to Circular Quay. You’ll figure out the rest. Call me at five. We’ll meet for drinks.” He walked away without another word.
It is easy to spot tourists in Manhattan because they are the ones looking skyward at angular edifices that reach beyond sight. The windows of Sydney’s turquoise office towers reflect shorter and flatter earthen-colored buildings of a bygone era from across the street. The architectural coexistence is uncomfortable and one where the present-day encroaches on and belittles the Victorian. I took particular note of the MLC Centre at a busy corner, impeding the gentle flow of pedestrians on their leisurely morning commute. Unlike in New York, I was not shoved, cursed
at, threatened, or trampled. Walking down the busiest street in the city, I have not bumped anyone or been accidentally shoved. I listen down the wind tunnel boulevards and question whether cars in Australia are equipped with horns; I have only heard a single one. One smashing woman in scarf and gloves (it wasn’t that cold) paused her mp3 player to apologize for bumping into me. I lowered my camera patted her on the shoulder and we shared smiles. Then she went on her way. This is not Times Square, where I would have become a bumper decoration for a speeding yellow taxi.
Sydney’s futuristic skyline heaves to the harbor front. It is hard to put a finger on it while I was walking down George Street to the waterfront. Sydney is Australia’s urban showpiece, sort of Toronto’s dapper cousin going through an identity crisis. A hybrid city, it does not know what it wants to be, a conundrum with which Sydneysiders are entirely comfortable. A monorail snakes around stately columned Victorian buildings after casting its reflection on an office tower out of the introduction to The Jetsons.
Sydney’s signposts and language reveal a British origin; escalators go up on
Out of Place
Sleek office towers, Victorian buildings, and of course...a monorail...
the left, cars’ steering wheels are on the right and I have to look right first in order to cross the road without getting my legs amputated. More often than not, pedestrians follow the ‘Way Out’ illuminated signs instead of ‘Exit’. They queue up in the morning at cafés and overpay for double mocha lattès with skim soy milk. At Central Station loudspeakers order unruffled passengers to alight to the left at the next stop. When I heard that I did not know what to do. My options were to follow everyone else, or dive into an unabridged dictionary before it was too late and the doors closed on me. Australians frequent pubs, not bars, they way it should be. If sick, they buy medication at a chemist. Like Londoners and Glaswegians, they see no problem with common and annoying misspellings of words such as centre, colour, and organisation. In the residential neighborhoods uphill from Downtown, roofs sprout brick chimney stacks above crowded semi detached homes, reminiscent of English row housing.
Whether born here or still recovering from the numbness in the legs due to jet lag, there is no denying how American culture has penetrated every nook and cranny of life here. Australians’ approach to life is unabashedly extroverted and to quote my new president, bold. Seven Elevens pop up at every street corner manned by the stereotypical South Asian family whose distant relatives are operating roadside motels in Missouri. Ambulance sirens blast the same cadence as on Law & Order as opposed to the flat up-and-down dual tone associated with a medical emergency in Paris. American knockoffs include Hungry Jack’s whose logo is the fast food restaurant’s name squeezed in between two golden buns; it’s a corporate infringement of Burger King if there ever was one. At least in Australia it is cheaper to get a Whopper value meal than in Cleveland. I can buy a footlong at Subway and pick up a pair of Nikes at Foot Locker. Every night through the cable television provider, I can get my fill of mindless sports chat on PTI (Pardon the Interruption) through ESPN. Only instead of touchdowns and homeruns, banter surrounds overs, wickets, ball bouncers, and spillage (the latter two are terms in Australian Rules Football). The morning news program broadcast ‘Today’ every day out of Melbourne makes no attempt at imitating its American founder based in Rockefeller Center. Australia’s weekly news magazine is 60 Minutes. Enough said.
Overall, the lingering first impression of Sydney vis-à-vis back home is its spotlessness. The most intrusive litter curbside in the Downtown area is tree twigs. People go out of their way to deposit trash in bins. No wax paper wrappers stained in last night’s kebab after closing time drift in the morning air. I can sit on a park bench without checking to see what sticky substance will come in contact with the seat of my pants. By the time I reach the Queen Victoria Building halfway to the harbor, I do not know if I was in a hospital operating room or someplace even more bacteria free, like Singapore. Sydneysiders are spiffy, if not a bit businesslike in their morning attire, even if it is casual. The homeless fellows (I have only come across two) camping in a patch of green at Circular Quay near the ferry terminal demonstrate top-class grooming techniques. In spite of calloused and soiled bare feet, each take the time to straighten out their beards with scratched plastic combs while staring into a mirror shard inclined on a park bench. Though independently conferring with buddies only they could see, they excuse themselves to a water fountain to brush their teeth. They straighten out the frayed collars on their faded flannel shirts. These two are unquestionably the best groomed homeless men I have ever seen.
However, with the comforts and conveniences of an antiseptic environment comes an uneasy sterility. Manicured palm trees line the wide and smooth platforms of Darling Harbour, an entertainment district of downtown. The aligned tropical dominoes stand apart equidistant from each other as liquid arches from fountains gurgle into collecting pools. Terraces of glass, angular restaurants face dinner cruise ships docked at the foot of newly constructed high rise apartments. No grass shoots protrude through the cracks because there aren’t any gaps in the surface. Downtown Sydney is devoid of spontaneity and laughter on a weekday. Like the rest of downtown, it’s all too new, too perfect, too clean. Whatever happened to the putrid peaks of waste piled up on the back canals of Bangkok or at bus stops in Delhi? I resist every temptation to bounce trash on the ground in a fit of protest as an unassailable American right. I can’t stand it …it’s very hard to stomach it all.
I couldn’t click ‘Confirm’ on the car rental website quick enough. It’s not much, but the four-door sedan powered by a few angry squirrels under the hood will be my home for the next two weeks at least. I’ve been itching to go since I satisfied the traveler’s requirement to look and say, “OK, there’s the bridge, there’s the Opera House. What’s next?” For as short as my stay has been in Sydney, it’s time to go see Australia.
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