I’d intended to report chronologically on my Australian adventures and will endeavor to provide a fairly linear account of what I’m doing here, but I couldn’t resist jumping ahead a few days in my storytelling to report that I have seen the cutest of Australia’s natural wonders—get ready for it—THE WOMBAT! I actually encountered a couple of different varieties at the fabulous Taronga Zoo in Sydney, and my favorite marsupial did not fail to please. More on wombats throughout these chronicles from down under will surely be forthcoming, but I just couldn’t wait for you to see how precious a wombat really is. So chubby! Such a fine nose! This specimen was enjoying a carrot during my visit to the zoo.
One further digression before I get back to my tale, you must check out the Periphery—a really great online literary publication which has previously published great work by Chris Dankovich who has also had quite a few pieces in PCAP’s Michigan Reivew of Prisoner Creative Writing. In addition to reading Dankovich’s story (and basically anything you find anywhere that Dankovich has written because he’s that good), you should take a gander at this piece that my very talented husband Phil Christman wrote about novelist and journalist Renata Adler, who, as Phil so eloquently argues, is well worth reading herself.
Back to the other side of the world! Picking up my journey where my last blog post left off, I arrived in Sydney a little after 6 AM on what was July 2 here but still July 1 in my native land. The sun didn’t rise for another hour or so, and when it did, it was startling because my body felt like it was night but all of a sudden was being asked to begin a new day.
It’s winter in Australia, which seems to trouble the locals greatly. They shiver and exclaim how cold it is and apologize to me as though they had done me some great offense in conjuring up clear skies and heavenly light with a bit of chill in the air. The weather has been mostly in the 50s during the day in Sydney, and the sun shines more brightly here now than it does in the height of summer in Michigan. I’m told that the ozone layer above Australia has suffered a good deal of damage, which is a great shame, but having survived a particularly cold couple of winters for the last two years in Michigan, I appreciate a good, strong ray of sunlight, even as I try not to dwell on our earth-wrecking habits as a species. When I tell folks in Sydney that in a few weeks I’ll make my way down to Hobart—a city on the island of Tasmania which is Australia’s southernmost state—my Australian friends wince and tell me that it’s been colder there than it ever has in the last sixty years. The internet (or interweb as I’ve heard Aussies say) has been showing lows in the 30s in Hobart—winter temperatures which would cause my University of Michigan students to run around in shorts and throw outdoor parties. My personal feelings about the cold have always tended to land squarely alongside those of my new friends down under, but I’m realizing for the first time since I’ve moved to the Midwest that I actually am more able to withstand the cold than someone else on earth! I dread the Michigan winters and complain just as bitterly as the Australians are doing now, but in this beautiful land of wombats and perpetual sunshine I stand out as a tough and wizened survivor of real winters. No one at home would ever believe that there was another person on earth who has a lower tolerance for the cold than I do, but there it is. Australia is a land of wonders.
My residence in Sydney has been a very comfortable Holiday Inn in the charming neighborhood of Potts Point. Here and in several other residential neighborhoods through which I’ve wandered, the homes, apartments, and backpackers’ hostels have lovely little balconies with intricate wrought iron railings, reminiscent of those you might find in New Orleans but in a distinct style of their own. Sydney has a delightful architectural mix of very modern buildings and large, old stone edifices like those you might find in London. The colonial hand is evident throughout the city, which startled me more than it should have. Australia seems like such a far outpost of the British empire that I didn’t expect to find the Queen on postage stamps and currency, but there she is—blue hat and all.
I’m still struggling to wrap my mind around Australia’s current political link to the United Kingdom. As I understand it, the Australian prime minister doesn’t exactly report to her Majesty, but the Queen does appoint a regent of some sort—called the Governor-General—whom she usually selects based on the Australian prime minister’s recommendation. However, this has more substance than the mere form of a shadowy monarchical figurehead. In 1975 the Governor-General exercised a never before used right to fire the Australian prime minister, install a temporary leader, and hold new elections for a permanent replacement. In an even more bizarre twist, in the subsequent vote the Australians overwhelmingly elected the gentleman whom the British had installed as their temporary leader. The prime minister who was thrown out must have been hugely unpopular, but it still seems like Australians might have been righteously upset about that heavy handed of a British intervention in their independent governance. I read only a few sentences of the history of this remarkable political upheaval and cannot pretend to have even the faintest grasp of what was really going on there, but it startles me to think that in such recent history the Aussies were not more fiercely protective of their independence. In 1986 the Australia Acts finally removed the British’s right to intervene in Australian government. It’s a strange and complex history.
Then there’s the most bizarre tale I’ve heard of Australia’s history. In 1967, Harold Holt, the sitting Prime Minister, disappeared into the ocean at a place called Cheviot Beach and was never seen again. No body was ever recovered. How is it that the head of state of such a large nation in such a recent period of world history could have vanished into the sea? Furthermore, why hadn’t I ever heard about this until I read Bill Bryson’s delightful travelogue In a Sunburned Country?
I digress. I’ve promised to tell you of my adventures in Sydney, and so I shall. My musings on Australian weather, culture, and history grow out of my fascination with the people and place I am encountering here. The wonders, great and small, rush upon me, and my thoughts and words go wandering.
After checking into my hotel in Potts Point with a quite stunning view of the harbor, the Sydney Harbor Bridge, and the glorious Opera House, I set about exploring and went in search of food and some much needed coffee. I wandered in the direction of the large clustering of beautiful public parks and gardens in the heart of Sydney, conveniently located within walking distance of my hotel. I found a restaurant called the Pavilion on the edge of a huge expanse of green called the Dominion (a lot less intimidating than it sounds in U.S. parlance).
As I sat in the sunshine and ate a tasty meal, I had my first encounter with Australian wildlife. Some really cute brown birds sat on the backs of the other empty chairs at my table and talked to me while I ate. They were quite polite and had a good deal to say. There’s quite a lot of birdsong in the public parks of Sydney, and it’s unlike listening to birds in the U.S. Many different birds were talking in the park that day, and their songs were strange and melodious. When the little brown, chubby birds who were sitting with me started to talk, they puffed up big and fluffy and returned to their regular sleek appearance when they quieted down. After they’d said what they came to say, they fluttered off to talk to someone else.
Needing more than a regular dose of caffeine to see me through the early stages of jet lag, I ordered a second latte. It was delivered to my table while I was reading my book. As soon as the waitress stepped away from my table, two very fast and brightly colored parrots landed on my table, snatched up the unopened sugar packet from my saucer, and leapt over to
the chair next to me where they skillfully opened the packet and devoured the sugar. I was too fascinated to shoo them away, but they quickly left once they’d finished their snack. They had obviously done this before. Just as the parrots were departing, a white ibisy-looking thing about a foot and a half tall, walked past my ankles. I tried to take a picture but wasn’t fast enough. I stood up to turn to follow it for a better shot, and as soon as I stood, a fleet of the chubby brown birds landed on my table, ready to finish my half-eaten breakfast. I let the ibis go and resumed my seat to guard my breakfast. The chubby birds departed but looked at me like I’d done them wrong.
In my next post, I’ll tell you all about the fabulous New South Wales Art Gallery and its treasures.