This past week I have been on the road around South-Eastern Australia, visiting family and catching up with friends (and sleeping on their couches). Being here only for a couple of weeks effectively makes me a tourist in my own country; having spent so much time away from Australia I am seeing places and people with slightly more distanced, fresher eyes. It’s an odd feeling.
Generally, I feel surprised at how little has changed in the 18 months since I left. Now my friends have reminded me that I shouldn’t be surprised at this, after all, 18 months isn’t that long. Nonetheless, I came home expecting more. That’s not to say that there haven’t been changes. The mood is a bit more sombre, tense. Even in the high summer the joie de vivre so characteristic of the Australian people is a bit dulled, as if what was once genuine has become a façade. One can only speculate as to why, though in talking with friends the finger is often pointed at the political and economic circumstances.
Certainly on the economic front, the biggest difference has been how expensive everything seems to have become. Maybe it’s just inflation – if you’re living with it every day you won’t notice, like a frog in a pot of water that is slowly raised to boiling temperature. For me though, jumping in after a long absence, it’s immediately noticeable. Each meal feels like being robbed, each coffee bill looking like I am paying for two. It isn’t helped by being a student again, living off savings and being acutely aware of each penny spent.
As well as this, there’s the differences in individual places that I have visited, the things that are noticed as a visitor rather than a resident.
Melbourne is still one of my favourite cities in the world. I just never really noticed how spread out it was. I always felt like the area where my brother lived was really close to the city, just on the edge of a reasonable walk. But it’s a half-hour train ride to the central station, and walking is definitely out of the question. Once you escape the confines of the CBD, the city sprawls and flattens.
Nevertheless, the city is still beautiful, the alleyways and side streets with their tiny cafes and shops still enticing and captivating. And the culture is still a heady mix of irreverence and intellectualism, with the major art museum juxtaposing serious exhibitions of Australian artists with tongue in cheek retrospectives on surfwear fashion labels (complete with faked chronologies of the company).
A couple of hours of driving through the hills and mountains northeast of Melbourne took me to my family home in Alexandra, a quiet country town. We celebrated Christmas there, 23 of us (a small Christmas by our standards) on the back verandah eating a full roast lunch in the summer heat, watching cows graze on the toasted brown hills.
Beyond a couple of new shops and changed owners, the town is virtually unchanged, still a place of solitude hidden away from the rest of the world. The bakery still does a good meat pie, and the horses still manage to break through the farm fence now and then…
From my home in Alexandra it was a 6 hour roadtrip with an old friend up the highway to the capital city of Canberra. For a city that I’ve spent more time living in than any other (and yet never call home), it was strange to come back to it for the first time as a tourist. Especially since all the faces were familiar. Let me explain.
Have you ever watched some of the later seasons of the Simpsons, the ones after they exhausted all the good writing and plotlines, and switched to a formulaic paint-by-numbers approach to making shows? In those episodes, they’d always follow the same approach: two minutes of opening scene, which would be a set up for the Simpson family ending up in some location that would then provide the focal point for the episode’s primary plot. And did you ever notice that when they went to that location, all of the minor characters from the show would be there (and the Simpsons would be the last to know about it)? Like the time that they went hiking through the forest and then suddenly discover a stock car race where all the local townspeople (including their next door neighbours) are?
After a while living there, Canberra feels like that. You’ll go out somewhere and you’ll see people you recognise. All the faces become familiar. Too familiar. Sure, in a town of 2000 people like Alexandra you expect that, but there it’s kind of charming, it’s a community where people look out for each other. Canberra doesn’t have that. It’s insular, but devoid of that charm or comfort of the small country town. Like the food truck “parking lot” on Lonsdale Street (where the trucks are permanently attached to the site and never move), it all feels artificial.
Still, the museums and art galleries are nice.
And then there’s Sydney. Another roadtrip up the highway, stopping in at a crowded jazz bar in the inner suburb of Glebe to watch swing dancers in vintage clothes ply their craft on the sidewalk outside to escape the stifling heat and humidity indoors (air conditioning is an unheard of concept in most of Australia – even the modern high-rise apartment building where we stayed lacked it).
Even in the high summer, Sydney is ever picturesque. It’s of its nature, suffering for fashion, looking conspicuously beautiful at any expense, like most of its citizens. It may be brutally hot outside and a pint of beer may cost the GDP of a small country but the harbour will sparkle and shimmer and you will love it anyway.
Last night I got back into Melbourne after a longer-than-expected flight from Sydney that diverted a good portion of the way to New Zealand in order to avoid bad weather. There’s just a couple more days left here in Australia, to enjoy the coffee and the company of my family (and Maceo the cat), before flying back to Dallas and the final semester of the MA/MBA. Classes start in a week. It’s only a few months now until graduation, and to the next adventure, wherever that is. Whether my next visit to Australia is as tourist or tenant is anyone’s guess…