Australia | this impulse of mine

I almost didn’t make it here. Tickets were a last minute scramble. The decision to come was also an impulsive one. The Friday I set out, I had gone through the wringer at work, ending many months of a murky situation, and was quite sure I’d miss the flight. Fifteen hours later, I found myself ridiculously overdressed as I stepped out of Sydney airport, into the hot, humid, cloudcast city.

I found Sydney an aspirational cousin of San Francisco, and I’d found San Francisco an aspirational cousin of New York. In Sydney there was dog yoga and suburbs sprawling, Google Pixel ads and a tech industry in difficult making, overseas money building up skyscrapers tall and public infrastructure crumbling. I made the tourist stops, to the harbor, to the beaches, to the opera house. The food didn’t quite stand out to me. Whatever I experienced there, I had experienced somewhere else. I loved the warm beaches and surfed, though I have to admit I was scared of sharks. I had to rent gear, and when I did that, the lady, noticing that I had a scarf, asked me if I needed a surf hijab. I said no, and explained that it was only to shield me from the sun. It was thoughtful of her. I was reminded of all the times in Dubai airport where they take it upon themselves to show me the prayer room. And of more than one nosy man in Mexico City who had asked me if I was from the Middle East. Maybe I should learn some Hindi.

The public transport system is easy to navigate. It brings back old sense memories. My left side has bruises once more, because of how I stand at an angle, my hip bone striking those metal bars on buses and trams.

People in Sydney are beautiful; reminds me of LA, of perfect tan and silicone to help along.

Melbourne was different. The river flows through the city. It reminds me of Sibelius rowing us down the Charles, and back to the Harvard pier. I am tempted to go down to the pier and row, but it is too hot, and I much prefer it when someone else does the hard work. So I settle for walking alongside. The arts scene is thriving. The city is well laid out and easy to get around. It is as green as Atlanta. Going up north, the high country reminds me of Thornbirds, of Drogheda.

People are warm and helpful. My neighbor on the train is a great mimic, as he walks me through the different Aussie accents. He tells me about the oddities of the Northern Territory. He loves Barangaroo. He has a guitar. I think this is the first country where I have seen so many people on buses and trains in swim wear holding guitars. It is a beach-beer-guitar country. When we disembark, I humor him and play a few chords of Black Dog. He declares it very good, but it is not America, and there are no spontaneous hugs. I hand the guitar back to him, decline his offer of showing me around the valley, decline his offer of taking me to lunch, and thank him quickly before taking off to explore. It is still early, and I can be horrible company at that time without a great deal of coffee and sunlight.

There are parks everywhere. Tea and scones, cricket and clotted cream. The colonial legacy holds strong, I suppose. The wine country, outside the city, in Yarra valley is beautiful. The coastline reminds me of the splendor of the California Highway 1. There are little concerts here and there.

There is a cafe, a Turkish one, with a single communal table. It faces the river. It is sunny and quiet. I spent hours there, watching people, writing, and let myself be pampered by the barista. It is a quiet day there, so she has time. She refills my coffee without charging, and engages me in conversation kind and witty, and I fall in love. I have very few charms, but baristas are susceptible to them. She tells me about her dreams. Then she laughs wryly and says they’ll be just dreams. She asks me what brings me to her corner of the world. I’ll never see her again, I think, and so I tell her many things. It is rather freeing. Her accent is twangy and reminds me of a cello. I tell her about music. I tell her about how I used to write, about how I write still. She tells me about how she’ll have to stay in the city for Christmas, about how she wishes she could go home to her family for the holiday. At five, her trading hours are done, and she cleans up and closes shop, and then she comes out to sit with me on the grass by the lake. She is religious. Outside there are evangelists yelling at the commuters running to and from the city business district about how we are all eligible to be saved by Jesus Christ on the last day of reckoning. I smile at that before I catch the faith in her eyes. I carefully refrain from commenting and change the subject to more mundane things. I show her the pirate scar from my eye surgery earlier this year. I try to sate her curiosity about Catholics in India. I tease her about her obsession with the British royal family and cricket. It must have been all the wine tasting I did earlier, but I was happy sitting there with her for hours, and felt young and hopeful again. She has not seen Priscilla, Queen of the desert before. So I tell her all about it, about cocks in frocks on rocks. I don’t think I have tried this much to impress and entertain anyone in a very long time. The last time was years ago, when I tried to impress Sibelius’s mother, and she had not been impressed and had just asked me to have some more iced tea. This time, when I leave my barista at the train station, she hugs me, and I am mellow and full of goodwill towards all mankind. It lasts until my itchy, achy sunburned ear-tips complain.

3 responses

  1. As a Sydneysider, I’m disappointed to hear you didn’t love my city as I love it. But you do raise a very interesting question with your comparison to San Francisco/New York etc. about what it is, in the diverse expanse of things, that makes Sydney special.

    I think this is a particular problem for relatively young cities overshadowed by a colonial past, now forging their own path. For example, in Surry Hills and Paddington, you have those lovely terrace houses set in narrow genteel streets, leafy overhang etc. Though I think this area is intensely beautiful, I also think it is just a pale shade of Notting Hill in London. And then you make a good point about the whole Google/foreign money investment aspect – but Sydney doesn’t even do late capitalism nearly as well as America or China.

    I think the one thing that definitely makes Sydney idiosyncratic is its parks and beaches; their variety and natural salience. But if you’re not mad about beaches, where does that leave you?

    Then I would have to say it is the combination of all of these things, among others, which make the city so intensely liveable but not, perhaps, the most exciting to visit.

    One point I must adamantly refute! Sydney does have excellent food (at every price point)! If you ever come back I would be happy to make reccommendations.

    • I loved the public transport in Sydney, how clean the city is for the sheer size of population it has, and I loved the warm water and the beautiful beaches accessible within minutes of leaving the city business district! I am convinced having a beach so close by and having such lovely weather for months makes you all utterly cheerful creatures 🙂 I certainly enjoyed that when I was there. I like beaches and surfing, and Sydney was perfect for that. I think I had come with different expectations, and perhaps that is why I was a bit taken aback by what I found, by the similarities to other cities. I agree with you that in this age of clicked and shared information, what is trendy here is also trendy across the world, and it is difficult and near impossible to have standalone cultures and norms in an open society. It is difficult to forge an unique path now, for cities, for countries, for people. We have more access to resources and information than in any other time in this world’s history, but we also have more limiting us as norms are now constantly enforced by social media mechanisms. For someone who comes from any of these cities, moving to another is less hassle than it would be ten years ago. The mobility factor is a great thing! If I were considering relocating, Sydney would have been on the top of my list. However, as a tourist, I often want to see different things, unique things in a place, and I guess that was a kernel of my disappointment.

      Let me know where to eat! I found very good food, just nothing particularly different from dishes I have eaten in other cities. Maybe that was because I went by Yelp instead of a local’s knowhow. Tell me! For next time 🙂 I’ll be back.

      Apologies if I offended you! I sometimes write without a filter. No harm was intended!

      • Exactly! And then of course there is the rise of the ‘airspace’ – that kind of hipster coffee-shop reductionist aesthetic which is also so ubiquitous in Sydney! I’m afraid that some of my recommendations probably fall into that category but oh well:

        There are a couple of cult foods you have to try – Ricotta cake from Papa Pasticeria, Portugese custard tart from Sweet Belem, gelato from Messina. For the ultimate Sydney Brunch, I would recommend The Grounds of Alexandria or Bill’s. My favourite contemporary dining restaurants are Cho Cho San and Sepia.

        And no, not offended at all 🙂

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