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Published: July 31st 2009
On the Great Southern Ocean...
Never have I traveled so far and been so close to home. It is a country town of one million plus with a few skyscrapers. It would be unfair, even rude to say that the best thing anyone could do in Adelaide is leave. South Australia’s humdrum capital is in desperate need of the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it’s because I pulled into town in the middle of the winter. Perhaps it has more to do with being a nine-to-five city that rolls up its sidewalks to dismiss the workforce back to its lofty and leafy suburbs. The city council of Hartford, Connecticut could apply to be a sister city with Adelaide. In terms of liveliness, my capital city never looked so vibrant. Hartford’s social ills give it an excuse. In Adelaide, it’s TGIM (‘M’ is for Monday). It’s winter, they tell me. Stick around, they say. It’s not all that bad. So I think I will to see if Adelaide’s options extend beyond Wonder Bread and vanilla ice cream to something more multi-grain or a scoop of mint chocolate chip.
I hop on the pristine, tubular city bus for the fifty-minute ride into downtown from the bedroom community of
To a different type of pedestrian...
Aberfoyle Park. As with any other morning commute, passengers actively separate themselves from each other with books or headphones. There is no one to talk to, nothing to learn. The environmentally friendly natural gas-powered vehicle hums past finely groomed parcels of postage-stamp quarter-acre plots on which sit neat single level homes. Without literary or musical distraction, I can only think of how much I miss Broken Hill. I miss the Black Lion, Elaine, and the unconventional characters. I miss walking under the verandas and by the shops on Argent Street, by myself but never truly alone. In Adelaide, I am surrounded by 1.1 million people and feel like a drifter, a rogue electron never destined to join the atom’s nucleus.
“No, Ray, I really don’t need it” I remember telling him when he handed me his girlfriend’s Tom Tom. “I went to school. I can read a map.” Without it and the robotic female voice that ordered me around, I doubt I would have ever been able to accept Steve’s generous invitation to stay in Aberfolyle Park. My first time using one, I have colleagues and associates who use it back home to get to the supermarket, then the
Pretending to look important...
dry cleaners. They depend on it for practically every task after having left their property. As a result, it darins them of any familiarity with their surroundings. This spring, the daughter of a colleague was completely lost at night five miles from her home because she did not have her GPS. I vowed I would shun the automated backseat driver whenever possible.
“Just take it.” His girlfriend reaffirmed my need for it. I stuffed it in my pack so deep that I might not (hopefully) be able to dig it out.
Fast forward to Adelaide: “Go through roundabout, second exit, bear left, and then stay in right lane” it ordered me on the incoming highway. I surrendered my instincts to pull out a road map and plot my own course and did what I was told. Roundabout after roundabout followed wide boulevards and neighborhood shortcuts.
“At roundabout, take third exit.” There are no exits in roundabouts. The third exit equals a right turn when traveling clockwise.
“In four hundred meters”, then a sharp beep for no apparent reason, “turn left.” It was another side street. I was getting closer. But the beep? What was that? I took a quick glance
The consequences are rather clear...
at the screen to see the number ‘60’ in the upper left hand corner. It was blinking. Still confused, I returned my eyes to the road to assure I was still to the left. Just as I put down my blinker (not the windshield wiper this time) I passed a dull white sign with blue lettering. It read, “Speed Camera Ahead” and below it was the same ‘60’ symbol. Tom Tom was looking after me. I slowed down and prevented my New South Wales plates from being photographed and sent back to the rental agency in Sydney. They would not be levying a stiff fine on me today. A few minutes later, after six hours through the Outback, “You have reached your destination.” I parked the car under a massive gum tree; its lower branches struggled to support their own weight. I got out of the car and spun around. This could be the northern suburbs of Atlanta.
He told me there would be a key in the box where he keeps the clothespins. I could not find one among the submerged plastic clasps. His laundry hung neatly fastened on the rotary clothesline, sucking in the heavy falling raindrops. It
Sea meets land in Victor Harbor...
could be days until his shirts dry out. It turned out his door was left open; Steve would not be home from work for a few more hours. On one of his sofas another guest tossed and grumbled while waking from his afternoon nap. My arrival startled him. Not terribly conversant or receptive to me, he reluctantly shook my hand. “My name is Louis” he informed me, much in the same way my ten-year-old would tell adults about his age, grade, and favorite sport. The American from San José turned over and went back to sleep as if I were not there.
Make yourself at home. That was how Steve ended our last email. I did, neatly placing my belongings in a corner not exactly knowing where I would go down for the night. He mentioned there would be a young French woman there as well, good enough reason to poke my head around every corner of the house in hopes I could connect with her, but no such luck. Rays of the setting sun shone through the living room window. I estimated an hour and a half of light before nightfall. I decided to go for a ride to
the coast. There I could take notes, walk along the beach and grab a bite. My new trusted friend Tom Tom could show me the way and back.
Salty patches of decaying seaweed billow against neatly shuttered homes facing the waves above Christies Beach. Masters in coats and scarves walk their dogs where the Great Southern Ocean laps against the exposed pebbles and sand. The sun dips below a band of blue-grey clouds framed by a solitary pine. The sailing club’s doors are closed. The only restaurant, a Chinese take-out, is dark. I lift the collar to my jacket and walk a kilometer in each direction. The beachside boulevard is spotless. No litter dances against the seawalls. People ignore each other. A ho-hum inactivity consumes me. There is no reason to combat the cold and continue on only to confirm the lifelessness of this piece of coastline. Oddly enough it reminds me of travels in Austria: It is as beautiful and clean as it is lethally boring. I drove home to the commands of Tom Tom among golden arches, a colonel from Kentucky, and fenced off warehouse-style office supply megastores, all lit up at night. Where is Elaine when I
Could this be Ireland?
need her to so lovingly put me down? It’s so lonely here.
To put it mildly, Louis is a bird of a different feather. He aimlessly wanders around Steve’s home in frayed blue sweatpants, work boots, and an off-color fanny pack. He approaches me, but is incapable of making socially acceptable small talk to break what he perceives as a barrier I have put up between us. Conversely, when I ask him an innocuous question or make a general comment it is misconstrued.
“Oh,” he comes back to me. “I must be disturbing you.”
“No, not at all.” I had only put up my finger indicating to him to wait a moment as I finished a sentence in my notebook.” Louis wraps himself in self-conscious guilt.
Without any warning, “You know I haven’t showered in a few days. Maybe I should shave now, OK?” I remained at the table still taking notes, mildly stunned. His episodes of childlike behavior would make a woman alone with him in this house feel very awkward.
“Knock yourself out, man.”
“Yippeeee!” he cried out. Then nothing. He entered the bathroom and shut the door.
Whoa, he’s got some condition. I couldn’t put my finger on it, though. When he exited the bathroom, his face was cleanly shaven, but still in the same stressed clothing, he looked no better. “Rich? That was your name, right?”
“Are you a vegetarian?” another question from out in left field.
“No, I am not.”
“I am” he replied in the same manner a school girl would tell her friends that she was going to the teeny bopper concert knowing full well no one else in the group was. “You should really think about it.”
“Think about what, Louis?” I really wanted him to stop talking to me, but could not find it in me to be stern with him. Overall I judged him harmless.
“Being a vegetarian.”
“I don’t think so.” Give up steak? Those cute calves that taste so good when breaded and doused in marinara sauce with a side of angel hair? Are you nuts?
“It has a lot to do with men’s false sense of being macho, showing they have to eat meat to satisfy the role society has carved out for them.”
“Oh.” I tried to curl up into a small lint ball and hide under the couch. Louis went on a fifteen minute soliloquy of psycho babble. He was thought that if I just listened to him I would see the light. Fixed on the topic, he could not let it go.
When he was finished, “You listen very well.” I wasn’t really paying him much attention. Unable to pick up any non-verbal social cues, he longed to latch onto someone else, but lacked the ability to bridge the connection.
“Thank you.” Then he disappeared into a back room and shut the door.
Steve got home around eight-thirty just as he predicted. I popped up to vigorously greet him with a handshake. I looked at him from head to toe. The similarities are frightening. Only two years older than me, he has a cleanly shaven head and the curves of his physique match mine, all in the wrong places. He owns his own place, but chooses to live alone. His refrigerator is empty but for withering produce, half full condiment jars, and an assortment of items that would not add up to a single healthy meal. Since the rest of us had already eaten, he excused himself into the kitchen and cracked open a jar of chili and heated it up, just as I would have done. Low effort, high reward. From what remained of his Cooper’s Ale, he offered me a bottle and we sat down. He put his bowl of chili on the coffee table and faced a royal blue, dormant HD screen.
“So, what’s your take on Adelaide?”
I judged that I could tell him flatly, “Snore, to be honest. I feel like I’m home.”
Without any warning, Louis let free a verbal explosion, “When I go to New Zealand, I’ll go sky diving on the South Island and I’ll fly!” He flapped his arms up and down in front of the TV like a wounded albatross.
Temporarily stunned, Steve and I picked up our conversation after that most bizarre of interruptions. We both recognize Louis’ shortcomings. It called forth a certain kind of respect, patience, and tolerance to let someone so unpredictable at times into one’s home. I respect Steve for that. We knew something wasn’t one hundred percent with him, but couldn’t ostracize him either. All of us have our imperfections. Louis’ are more front and center.
We picked up the pieces of our conversation. “Who’s that?” I pointed out a picture of him with a younger girl, one of a few years ago. He still had scant wisps of hair on his head.
“My daughter. She and her mother just moved to New South Wales.” The door to one of the back rooms has handwritten on it ‘Scarlet’.
“Fourteen. But they went away to Byron Bay, a two-day drive.” Steve’s relationship with her mother was short lived. Now he balances the daily routine of being an IT professional and the frustration of not traveling at will by inviting folks from all over to his place. It has worked for him, but I doubt it fills in the gaps completely. “Her mother and me, it doesn’t work, believe me.”
“Take my word for it. I believe you. But do your best to”, I struggled to capture the right word, “reconcile”, that was it, “the situation. Make sure you can live with yourself. Make sure you know what or who is the most important. Don’t compromise your priorities. It is not easy.”
He switched topics to the theme that has come to define us over the years. “So, I am off to Paris for the first time next month and I will be in Munich for Oktoberfest…” His eyes lit up. I offered him some feedback on very familiar territory, but we knew he did not need it. His treasure chest of time and experience would suffice. He did need to be told how to prepare or what to be aware of. He knew. Though he had never set foot in France or Germany, he had already been to both places so many times in his mind.
Cute Lisa came back from with a bag full of provisions from Woolworths. “Hello…” she softly spoke to us with an accent formed somewhere between Toulon and Marseille.
Steve jumped in first, “Bon soir, Lisa! C’est bien allée ta journée?” If I required any more convincing that I had an Australian twin, Steve, born in Norway and still fluent in his native Scandinavian language, is a polyglot.
“My day was fine, thank you” she answered in English. Part of her Australian journey was to improve her language skills. Bright, classy, yet unpretentious, any man would go for her.
She excused herself to the back room. Louis appeared, hovering around the dining table. I was about to keep the conversation in French to exclude him when he called out lines in French poetry. While socially inept, his intelligence could not be questioned. Earlier on he went on a tangent with Steve about computer drivers at a level way beyond my comprehension.
I leaned into Steve, “Where did you get her? She’s a doll!”
“Don’t know. But it is great having her here. She brightens up my day.” No argument here.
Lisa took me into downtown Adelaide to show me around since she had been many times. I had no real desire to beat the city’s sidewalk, but being in her company can at least brighten up a dreary winter’s day in Adelaide. She took me nowhere in particular and I did not care. We entered the sanitized and odorless city market. Produce was properly stacked in stands by merchants whose aprons had not been stained by the morning’s travails. It immediately reminded me of Sydney or the life aboard a starship. We stopped for coffee and I told her about what it was like to be in France at twenty-four years old. I adjusted for her and over enunciated some of my words in English to help her grasp our chat.
“You picked grapes?”
“Yes, in Gascony.”
“And spent a New Years near Le Puy?”
“Then walked to the tip of Brittany?”
“Why? Why all these places?”
I replaced her question with one of my own. “Why did you drive from Adelaide to Alice Springs?”
She was caught off guard. It took her some time to process it all. “Well, because I wanted to see…”
“You wanted, or you had to?”
“What is the difference, Richard? To want to see and must seeing?” I saw in her a college student raising her hand from the back of a lecture hall out of sheer intellectual curiosity.
“Un monde de difference, Lisa. Un monde entier.” It’s a whole world of difference.
It took little coaxing to get her to come with me away from Adelaide the next morning. She had someone to drive her around and help her with her English. I had a companion: young, beautiful, and French. She affixed the seatbelt in the front passenger seat. “Lisa, I want to introduce you to a friend of mine.” I handed her the GPS, which fit in both her hands when she cupped them.
Confused, she looked down, “Wha- Who is this?”
“Meet Tom Tom.”
She smiled arrestingly, but I kept my eyes on the road to the left. “Bonjour Tom Tom!” She held the piece of satellite technology as if it were a fidgeting hamster.
“No, Lisa! Tom Tom does not speak French. It’s an Australian Tom Tom. English only.”
I taught her how to use it, when and how to touch which part of the screen. “Now, type in Victor Harbor. H-A-R-B-O-R, how it’s supposed to be spelled.” She did not get my sense of humor, or humour.
“OK, I did it.”
“Now touch ‘Done’ and we follow what it tells us.” She thought it an ingenious tool. We got to Victor Harbor on the Fleurieu Peninsula even though Tom Tom did not know the expressway was closed and Lisa would sometimes tell me to turn left when the GPS instructed right. When we reached a few vineyards for Rosemount Estate, I told her to put it away, though she had become attached to it.
“Why now? We’re not there.”
“We’re out of Adelaide, Lisa. There’s a sign for Victor Harbor” above some grapevines. “We’ll be fine.”
And we were. Thunderous waves intermittently crash into the rough and bouldery breakwater of Victor Harbor’s Granite Island. We walked together over the causeway that also doubles as a horse-drawn tram for tourists. In late July, out-of-towners number in the single digits. Lisa photographed the penguin sanctuary. I had something else on my mind, or stomach. “Lisa, what time is it?”
She raised her wrist. “It is about-”
“No, it is not.”
“It’s lunchtime. Lunchtime does not register on French watches.” She paused, speechless. “Sarcasm, Lisa. Humor!” Get it?”
“Oh.” She didn’t get it.
“There’s a restaurant over there. Let’s eat.”
Lisa and I took what we thought would be the best seats available, outside and right along the rail in front of the crashing waves. It was warm enough to dine outside in the sunshine in the middle of the so-called winter. Oddly enough, most of the other patrons were within the glass confines of the restaurant enjoying their lunches. Do you remember the scene in Finding Nemo where Marlin and Dory were hopping along a dock in Sydney Harbor and all of sudden were ambushed by a flock of pelicans? In our case, substitute crafty seagulls for the pelicans. No sooner did my fried calamari meal hit the table when two dozen of the winged scavengers stared at my lunch from a few feet away. They cackled and hovered above my baseball hat. Exhibiting coordinated teamwork, one on each side of the rail tip-toed closer and closer to me. When I lunged to take a swipe at one, its partner made a move for my plate. Thirty gulls surrounded Lisa and me. The patrons inside were in for a show, free of the unified assault. This continued for the better part of lunch until I downed the last deep fried ring at which time without warning, the flock took flight and moved in on another unsuspecting group. I believe they were a family from Adelaide.
Victor Harbor’s seascapes bring to mind the Emerald Isle. Cliffs, some fifty feet or more in height and insurmountable, extend westward. An occasional sheep grazes on grass seemingly cut like a putting green at Augusta National, but is not partitioned off by fences of hand-set stone. The stiff winds never come to a complete hush. Four foot waves crash into the surf and disturb the sandy floor. Particles of granular brown are suspended within the waves’ foamy crest. Victor Harbor’s tasteful but modest homes are far enough away from the coast so as not to ruin the scene.
Lisa took off farther up the bluff for a photo angle that could not possibly be superior to the bench on which I was sitting. On it was a golden plaque in honor of Elizabeth Robertson, a native of Victor Harbor. Shortly after her passing, her family erected the bench in the very spot where she leisurely spent her days admiring the collision of land and sea. Elizabeth had unquestionably fine taste.
When Lisa was back, it occurred to me; the light bulb went on in my head. “I got it! That’s it!”
“Louis? Why are we talking about him?” He was not one of her favorite encounters in Adelaide.
“It all makes sense now.”
“It’s only a theory, but it explains so much. I’ll show you when we get back to Adelaide.”
I was almost walking in circles looking for the place I stumbled upon two days before in downtown Adelaide. It had to be quiet and sublime with appropriate background music. I would need a table and chair at the correct height so I could type and I needed an electrical outlet. Ordering food and drink would not have to be a chore and I could be left alone. As a bonus, it is always advantageous to nestle into the woodwork of a corner in order to see the comings and goings of other customers. As with any decently populated city around the world, there should be such a place as a matter of course. Not being able to find one, I gave in and asked a finely groomed waiter for help. He was carrying two coffee orders to an outdoor table on the sidewalk. “Excuse me, sir. Do you know where the Irish Pub is around here?” He did, as well he should being in his mid-twenties. I was only a block-an-a-half off the mark in the city of gridded streets. He put me in the direction, only a two-minute walk. “Hey, what time have you got by the way?”
The waiter brought his left wrist closer to his face. “Just before twelve.”
“So it should be open, right?”
“It’s an Irish Pub. They usually open late morning.” He and I were on the same wavelength.
“Right. I countered anyway, “But this is Adelaide.”
“Yeah, I know” he answered disappointedly.
As I walked away, I turned to thank him and added a rhetorical question. “Hey, do you know if fun in legal in Adelaide?”
He shrugged his shoulders and served the two coffees.
Both Lisa and Steve gathered around one of the four laptops on the dining room table. I called out the title letter by letter of what I wanted them to research. Steve dropped the text in the Google search box and hit ‘Enter’. He then clicked on the first entry, inevitably from Wikipedia.
“Look at the symptoms of the disorder.” They did and immediately made the connections that hit me earlier in the day. They both studied the particulars of the disorder, a mild form of autism. “It makes perfect sense, no?” They shifted to another website. “The isolation, childish outbursts, fixation on a topic of great interest, and failure to perceive non-verbal cues. That’s Louis, guys. My guess is he has Asperger’s and doesn’t even know it or will not tell anyone.”
Steve questioned me, “So you’re sure he’s got it? How did you find out? How did you know about this to begin with?”
“I don’t know and I didn’t ask him. I would have had no idea what his reaction would be. It’s just a theory. To lighten the air in the living room I threw in, “I stake my medical reputation on it, Steve. All of it, right down to my schooling and advanced degrees in psychiatry.”
“You’ve never been to medical school, I take it?”
“Couldn’t put a Band-Aid on the knee of a child without reading the directions. I still think that what he’s got. People aren’t as patient as you, Steve. When he travels others will have difficulty dealing with him.”
Louis’ condition will remain a mystery. He quietly departed for Melbourne without bidding farewell to anyone. On Steve’s host page to thank him, Louis left these words:
He did a great job hosting me! He didn't make me go out during the day.
He forgave me for rummaging through his cupboard and for taking some of his
food, when I couldn't get a hold of him at work.
He was very kind. I spent some time thinking how he could be so kind,
without being a vegetarian. I can only deduce that it is because he is from
Scandinavia, and that there is something they put in the water over there.
I am impressed with him for many reasons. He is a computer expert,
and an experienced Linux user. Maybe, he can share Linux with you, and you
will be freed from the tyranny of Microsoft's global domination!
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