Aussie A-Go-Go – Unalloyed Joy in the Southern Hemisphere

Landing in Australia was difficult because they have a strict quarantine policy – no seeds, fruit or food of any kind. So rather than toss it, I had to eat my mini pack of Almond Roca at 6am. Maybe I love Australia so much because I arrived with an extreme chocolate buzz.

And I did not have a diet coke and a Krispy Kreme doughnut in the arrivals hall at 6:30am, or rather I did, but I didn’t mean to, it was just the jet-lag talking.

Landed in Sydney and flew on to Brisbane (middle of west coast): bright blue wide-open skies, perfect white fluffy clouds, crisp air – oh so lovely. A friend met me at the airport and we went out for lunch at Japanese place, then to a mall. It’s so helpful to have wise friends.

And it is so nice to visit someplace which lives up to all your positive expectations – they drive on the wrong side, eat vegemite without irony, and say “no worries.” A lovely cross between Wyoming (hardy, outdoorsy, frank) and London (self-contained, insane about tea); combination of very familiar (speak English!) and new (“melting moments” is a kind of cookie, national sweet called a “Lamington”).

Brisbane is like California in the 1970s (yes darling, I know I was never in CA in the 70s I am making a metaphor!) That whole pre-techno/ pre-psycho vibe – laid back, tropical plants, general feeling of calm (dozens of magazines in the bookshops about healthy living, sports, yoga etc., about three on fashion).

Brisbane (and Melbourne and Sydney) are all on low hills near the water – curving roads going up and down all the time. Small houses (usually one story) cheek and jowl as far as the eye can see. Aussies are seriously into owning their own home and everything is designed to cram as many single detached houses in the area surrounding the cities as possible. In Hong Kong everyone lived in sky-rise apartments with views of unspoiled green mountains and pristine beaches (live like a sardine – look out on beauty, the sense of government control is palatable). In Singapore the entire beach-front area was public parks or restaurants/ yachting clubs – no private beach property at all. In the Aussie cities I saw, the concept is everyone gets their own house with a (fenced!) little yard with a few trees. Fascinating juxtaposition on what a culture values – although in Brisbane at least, drive 15 minutes and you are out in real countryside.

Stayed with friend’s daughter who rents a genuine “Queenslander,” a sweet house with a ‘cabin’ feel. All wood, pitched single hip roof, wide veranda across the front (in the country where there is more space, veranda is all around the house), wide board orangey wood floors, very tall ceilings, two front rooms which have plastered walls in that Northern European muted gold or grey/ slate blue, molded plate rail at about 6 1/2 feet up the wall; door handles are at almost shoulder level. Back rooms have plain wooden walls with built in cupboards, windows with louvered, slightly-frosted glass panes, painted shutters and Victorian gingerbread detailing. Kookaburras (almost crow-sized with formidable beaks) in the trees.

First day I took bus to the city, walked around, then my friend L took me for a drive to see different parts of the city. Stopped in gourmet store to get goodies for dinner (Greek mezas!) and tea. Why do British drink so much tea? They have to have liquid available to dunk all their rock-hard cookies in; Americans do well in technology because they don’t have to slow down their typing to insert cookies into warm liquid to melt them into a palatable consistency. This is a fact. Trust me a person with wide experience and fastidious research, Americans, and only Americans, can make yummy portable bakery treats. (Yes dear, Italian treats are good but they are all coated with powdered sugar which gets everywhere and to eat French things you need a table, knife, fork, crystal water glass, crystals wine glass, sommelier, and starched linen napkin. The socio-political-economic ramifications are immense.)

That night got to see some Aussie TV (shows start at odd times and ads every 5 minutes or so). My favorite was “Border Security” – actual footage from airports of people arriving from overseas: clips of bewildered Asian couple with possible drugs in their shampoo (dogs sniffing enthusiastically), German woman who has something suspicious in her luggage, tape of hapless Indonesian guy who has discrepancies on his visa application, woman having a hissy fit as the customs people confiscate some kind of apple she tried to sneak in. They take quarantine really seriously.

Then I went to see the Australian Zoo (pax Steve Irwin), got to pet a kangaroo and hold a koala. Good place with large, natural cages.

Next day got on the overnight sleeper train to Sydney then on all day to Melbourne. LOVELY COUNTRYSIDE. The same scene the whole time, gently rolling green hills with some sheep in large enclosed fields and some very nice tree which had the same sort of shape as broccoli (wide truck, many thickly packed branches), hundreds of miles which look like well-tended parkland. Only problem with train is all the people spoke English so it was brought home to me again how boring most strangers are. This is Walla Walla – really? Walla Walla? – yes, Walla Walla – oh yes, there is a sign, Walla Walla – yes Walla Walla – oh this is nice tea – yes, very nice tea – yes, very hot – yes, good, nice, hot tea – nothing like a nice cup of tea – yes, nice hot tea.

Melbourne – what can I say? What is there to say? I don’t want to upset you but truth must will out. Where you (and I) live is not as nice as Melbourne, not nearly by half. We all made a bad mistake along the way which we must ALL attempt to rectify as soon as possible. Move to Melbourne. Quickly. Chop chop.

Lovely lovely lovely city about which I will now blather for pages. Situated on the water, hence beaches; authentic Greek area; excellent shopping; cafes; excellent shopping; authentic Chinatown; pleasant, mellow people; good weather; excellent shopping; trams; high-tech; high-fashion; excellent shopping; authentic little Italy (ricottino! fazzoletto! coffee freedo!); gentle sloping hills; easy layout of town hence simple to get around and figure out where you are; excellent shopping. How good was the shopping? I got coffee served in a champagne glass..

Move to Melbourne for no other reason than Myer and David Jones, the two main department stores in Australia – so immeasurably better than ANY American store that you should start packing tonight. They have all Australian, English, Euro, Ami and Asian brands of cosmetics, clothes, shoes etc. Immaculate presentation kept in perfect order by scads of sales people who know where things are, help you, happily get you different sizes, walk around with you. And the food halls – the food halls. Better than Fortnum Mason. Tis unbelievable but this is your brutally factual auntie dearest. I have seen FM, I love FM but David Jones is less ruthlessly stuck-up and more user friendly.

“Good on you,” “how ya going mate,” fruit smoothies at every corner, blue skies, beautiful, peach-colored sandstone colonial English buildings, probiotic yoghurt with pureed passionfruit at the 7-11, up-scale liquor store with bar pulls so you can drink a pint of Heineken while you shop (not to mention drive-through liquor stores), cafes with those scrumptious, tiny Dutch pancakes. Omnipresent thick-cut raisin toast (they are a little nuts about their thick-cut raisin toast, really it is everywhere, I ought to also mention a predominance of cherry and mint candies, and a highly developed interest in pumpkins).

Only flaw in an otherwise unsullied ointment was that there is a certain laconicy issue – it’s nice that the people are mellow, but Melbourne has the worst taxi drivers I have ever had. All were law-abiding, speed-limit driving, signaling 100 meters before the intersections horrors. I could have walked faster than they drove. Placidity and serenity are not high on my list of taxi-driver virtues.

Stayed in the euro-cafe section, near the beach – all great little ethnic restaurants, independent bookstores and cafes. Fell on my sword and had high tea at the Windsor (only grand hotel in Australia). Serving tea every day since 1873 but, unfortunately, they still don’t have it right. I hope you appreciate how I suffer for you, my dear. All those lovely folkloric/ historic museums full of exhibitions on the history of cow-sheds in the 1700s, home-spun wool socks, engrossing tableaus on grain diseases and farming implements from the Bronze Age. How I can look at chipped rock arrow heads for hours! But I know my adoring darling demands a full report on the cream teas in superior hotels and I would welcome toenail fungus rather than deprive you of the necessary information. So no fascinating pottery shards, your desire to know the exact color of the drapes in the Windsor comes first – straw, with a camel-colored, fleur-de-lis pattern. Parquet wood floors; plain wooden pillars; shiny, steel-colored chandeliers; plain white tablecloths; plain white china. ’Tis true, ’tis pity, ’tis pity, ’tis true that Aussies don’t understand the vital importance of over-decoration – understated elegance is all well and good in theory but it doesn’t accomplish much in practice – no one ever swooned over a plain wooden pillar, no one ever went mad or got drunk and lost their head over straw-colored curtains, silk or not silk.

Not a pot of water with tea leaves, but they pour the tea already brewed from a possibly silver-plated, but perhaps simply metal tea pot, which tells you everything you need to know but I will mention in passing: revolting sandwiches, excellent scones, passable Devonshire cream, not utterly ghastly pastries. Not the sort of place you would wear your red flamenco dress and have violent scenes with Enrico de Castile over your petit amour with Gaston, the chauffeur’s assistant, more like the sort of place you take your dentist or your banker after a successful refinance.

Left Melbourne, just as well – how much perfection can a person stand? – and took train back up to Sydney.

Sydney was a-go-go, hectic, more crowded, more tourists, New Yorky but still civilized. Double-decker subways with padded seats and clever flipable seat backs so that you are always facing front. Integrated subway, bus and ferry station with cafes, stores, office buildings and picnic spaces. Where did all those excellent city-space planners come from? If you had children this is the country to visit, you no more than think “I need a cafe, bathroom, coffee, post office, or sorbet” and voila! one appears! Clean, safe, lots of playgrounds and green parks, not to mention all the cuddly animals!

First day I walked all around the downtown area, and then sampled the transportation, rode the light-rail, the mono-rail, the subway and a tour bus. I love transportation. And I love the fact that that night I got Mexican food delivered to my hotel room.

Took a bus tour that went along the coast to a series of small bays (exclusive neighborhoods, surfing beaches, naval yard, nightlife area, beach for children etc.) Then went to seminar on constructing wattle houses. I most certainly did not go to Myers (world’s best department store with lavender-scented dressing rooms) and buy a dress with charming rhinestones. Because that would be wrong and wattle houses are so interesting.

Went for tea at the “world’s most beautiful” shopping arcade – and it was, 1800s, peach sandstone and the nicest ladies bathroom I have ever seen. The tea was pretty good (sliver plated services, not solid silver; étagère in the wrong order: sandwiches, sweets, then scones when the whole world knows it is sweets, scones, and sandwiches). I simply don’t understand why people call me picky, am perfectly willing to forgive the heretical addition of a spinach spanikopita, a Devonshire cream which was a tad more liquid than we like to see, scones a bit crustier than strictly proper and a good white table cloth which could not manage to hide or overcome the déclassé grey table legs. I won’t even mention the slightly wrinkled apron or the fresh, but overly spindly, watercress.

Went back to hotel for nap and that night, went back out to the ferry terminal and hopped on a ferry (not sure where it was going but I made sure it was taking a round trip) – so beautiful, lights sparkling off the water, the opera house (I appreciate it like I appetite well-cooked zucchini lasagna, ok, I can see you spent a lot of time and effort but it doesn’t mean I am going to clap my hands and shout hurray, still looks to me too much like air shafts), the harbor bridge. And Sydney ferries zip zip zip – they scoot around the harbor which is bigger and deeper than I expected, and every hillside in sight is covered with little houses. I suppose a lot of people commute with the ferries.

More days walking around, taking bus and ferry tours and shopping, then the sad last day. Got up early to say goodbye to pro-biotic yoghurts with muesli, blueberry and passionfruit smoothies with vitamin booster, decaf skinny mocha lattes. Had Mexican lunch: nachos, glass of sangria, extra guacamole and CUBAN coffee. Then departed in something approaching grief but no so much like grief that my mascara was smudged.