Australia, again.

posted: 07 June, 2009
Awakening to the laughter of kookaburras.  The chilly evenings of the Queensland winter return to the daytime heat and humidity that out-swelter the summer of my regular environment.  A pile of Sunshine Coast newspapers lies beside me, all torn open to the two-way crossword and sudoku puzzles that I devour.


My partner’s gone down to Brisbane for one last night with her friends but I decided to stay back and enjoy a quiet night to myself on the Sunshine Coast.  I’ve spent quite a bit of time here, in this house with a clever open-plan design and lots of screen doors overlooking the very green hillside.  The in-laws; I think of the Peter Falk/Alan Arkin classic or the many cultural stereotypes but none of it applies to me.   My in-laws are all about feng shui, an electric hob, a borrowed espresso machine. 
And then.  Hot potato scallops on the beach.  Gravel crunching underfoot in Brisbane West End driveways.  The thin layer of scum, probably imagined, that coats all surfaces of Fortitude Valley.  The sound of The Einstein Factor bleating from ABC1 while I microwave leftover rice noodles with Panang curry base.

A night spent with a hilarious opinionated man, a tenuous connection (father of the partner of a friend of my partner) whose house I ended up in by chance.  One AUS$240 bottle of wine later and I’ve been invited to see his $5,000 glass sphere purchased in China and treated to his outrage that modern women go to restaurants together and enjoy themselves without the company of men.  I’m told their small town ranked #2 on a list of the most desirable places to live (right after Paris) but I suspect this ranking was in the Sunshine Coast Newspaper.  This is followed by a ride home in a Mercedes amid frequent jokes/warnings about the dangerousness of the neighboring small town, in which I am staying (which is completely ridiculous, of course).

Charity shops galore!  Or rather, op-shops as they are known here.  I bought clothes; I bought books.  Books I would never buy in Finland, books that were insanely cheap and will pose some difficulty in getting back under Qantas’s restrictive, if not fascist, weight limits. 

We have not yet progressed past the dream of wanting all things in all places.  This is coupled with our inherent thirftyness; thus we return with items we can’t find cheap in Helsinki: decent vegetarian furikake, a large tub of Vegemite, fluorescent magic markers, a certain kind of sore throat spray, and perhaps some organic hops if the homebrew store is open tomorrow.

Oh, the joys of pronouncing Australian place names as if they were Finnish words! Sometimes it just sounds great, better than the original (Maroochydore!  Mooloolaba!  Indooroopilly!) but sometimes it just doesn’t work as well as you want it to (Wooloongabba).  A few visits to Maroochydore are inevitable, after all, Sunshine Plaza mall is there though the food court isn’t as magnificent as I remember; still, you can’t get falafel with satay sauce, pineapple and jalapenos in Finland (at least as far as I’m aware).

A few days each in Melbourne and Brisbane were spent continuing old habits; record stores, bookstalls, supermarkets.  Tendencies I have avoided since the Departure (that time 5 years ago when I left Pittsburgh for good) but were once hallmarks of my visits to other cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit.  Melbourne in particular feels a bit like all of them - an amalgamation of other cities, with flavors European and American yet a distinct Australian wrapper.

It’s the small town where I am right now that I seem to  enjoy the most.  Not sure if this is because it gestures towards some sort of homesickness or secret suburban envy, or because it’s incredibly comfortable here.  Without anything to actually do, I can justify sitting on the couch and reading all day, drinking bottles of beer in those foam holders to keep things cool and trying to get the ridiculously slow Internet connection to stay active.

Tourism!  We visit Australia Zoo, formerly run by Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter, now deceased, so the zoo is run by his wife.  The hefty price tag and my general vegetarian unease about zoos was quickly overruled by the sheer wonders of what was inside.  Wombats, otters, cassowaries, emus, kangaroos you can feed, koalas you can pet, jabirus, snakes you can be photographed with (for money).  Afterwards why not hit the Ettamogah Pub? It's one of the few times I’ve had a beer inside an actual fictional place, modeled after the incomprehensible comics by Ken Maynard that every Australian grew up reading.  Why not eat an overpriced steak dinner on the side of the highway?  Then on the Skin Land, which is actually a place to buy leather goods and not the sleaze you’d expect.  (We didn’t stop).  Instead we stopped in another small town (Landsborough) and exhausted their op-shopping options (one stop; nothing bought).


Or how about the few actual cultural things I went to see; the Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art, with a stunning show of Chinese art which was mostly cherry-picked from their permanent collection of Asia-Pacific Triennial holdovers but so what, cause it was great anyway?  Or the National Gallery of Victoria’s permanent collection, stunning enough (particularly the indigenous art) that I didn’t feel bad about skipping the John Brack show (which wasn’t free - more money to spend on records!)  QAG had an exhibition on American Realism and Impressionism opening the following day but I didn't go back; I should be looking for Australian art anyway, right?

Now, opening a tallie of Coopers (green label), I look over the empty containers of dip that I attacked the previous night.  Spinach feta and rocket; mango cashew and coconut; black olive almond and parmesan.  Australian supermarkets are festivals for the senses; all manners of fusion ingredients, all packaged with attractive designs and reasonable prices (for the Euro does very, very well against the Aussie Dollar).  I’ve tried Cole’s, IGA and Woolworth’s, or Woolies; all have their perks.

Multiculturalism is a lovely thing.  Footscray (a suburb of Melbourne) is like being simultaneously in every place on Earth.  As I float between covered market, Ethiopian restaurant bar, and a mind-blowing Moroccan restaurant I feel like I am stuck between the frames of Marker’s Sans Soleil.  Which is actually interesting sort of because the last time I was in Brisbane, two years ago, there was an exhibition of Marker’s work on at some gallery that I never made it to.

”Australians tend to shorten words,” said my mom-in-law on the way from the airport.  Aussie English occupies a weird tangent to my daily British-American conflict.  It's eggplant, not aubergine; but both elevator and lift are acceptable and the preference is for toilet, not bathroom (though ideally ”dunny”).  The St. Vincent DePaul op-shop has now been completely renamed to Vinnies (no apostrophe, I don't think, but actually I'm not sure).

Travel!  It never stops with me.  My lifestyle is inadvertently ridiculous.  I continually travel from country to country with a frequency that I never could have imagined, yet I remain nonplussed, blasé, and occasionally annoyed by it (when the visits are for work). This trip feels more like ’visiting family’ than ’vacation’ though it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t been a festival of hedonism and leisure.

There’s nothing particularly Australian about this moment, right now, yet it feels somewhat otherwordly to me - the stillness besieged by the sounds of the house.  There’s a continual buzzing from the switched-off set-top TV tuner box, an angry reminder of the evil of standby lights. The analog clock on the wall is ticking on the downbeat and the complement is the old cabinet-top clock across the room.  I can hear the dryer, in the garage, whirring to a finish while a radio plays at a volume that makes it impossible for me to actually make out anything.

The sheer hell of getting here - particularly because our uber-cheap buy-one-get-one-free plane tickets were only from London, so we’ve had to start and finish this trip by flying in the wrong direction a bit — and then transporting ourselves between Gatwick and Heathrow airports —  wasn’t nearly as bad as last time, perhaps because my body is more able to handle the whole jetlag thing.  Or maybe because we splurged and got massages at Singapore Changi Airport halfway through the journey.  38 Singaporean dollars is a small price to pay to feel great, especially when subjecting yourself to such hardship.

And then.  Pumpkin-barley rolls served at a market by a rapping Hari Krishna.  ANZAC biscuits, Tim Tams - and that’s not even getting into the gourmet sweets.  Watching the Pittsburgh Penguins be humiliated in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals from an RSL Club in Nambour, where I actually got my own membership (a nice thrill after the Nambour Library rejected me for not having proof of address).  Australia.  Where the Internet is practically third-world; horrendous bandwidth limitations, generally dial-up speeds, and the need to browse with images turned off for the first time since, I dunno, the 90’s? 

The other night a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire contestant got the question about where Prime Minister Kevin Rudd went to high school wrong.  I know because my partner went to the same school and I drove past it today.  It’s probably better bragging rights than ”My Mom went to the same high school as Bill Cowher” but maybe not.

This could be regular life; an antipodean alternative to the (admittedly bizarre) regular existence I eke out in Helsinki.  Australian and American culture is similar enough to make this feel like I'm glimpsing memories of the future again.