On the 28th of February one of my mates offered to drive me to Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport rather than see me take the coach/train combination which is offered residents of Central Minnesota. Since she was going to Minneapolis that day anyway it was not inconvenient for her. The next morning we went together laughing, joking and gossiping. At airport I met another mate who lives in the Twin Cities Metropolitan area. Well-connected politically, he gave me some insights about upcoming elections in the country and why John Kerry was appointed Secretary of State. (No, it was not that he was especially suited for the job – many in the Democratic Party saw him as dead weight in the Senate and wished to get rid of him. Making him a member of a term-limited president’s cabinet was the quickest and easiest way to let him end his political career with honour.) The rest of the day was underwhelming. Poor weather in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain Region meant that flights were often running late and experiencing turbulence. Still, I survived the flight to Sacramento and was relieved to see the ground again.
After a few days rest I travelled by train to San Francisco to take the longest flight of my life – San Francisco-Seoul, Seoul-Sydney. Total travelling time: 26.5 hours on Asiana. The flights were relatively pleasant, especially the Seoul-Sydney flight on a new Airbus A330. Landing in Sydney was a relief, though. I cleared immigration quickly and found Australian customs civilised. I declared that I had brought some food items with me which they did not find problematic. The train ride from airport to Chatswood, the North Shore suburb where I was staying, was also painless. A bit dear, but that is hardly unusual for airport trains. The hotel was a somewhat worn but still tolerable Victorian with very friendly staff and no shortage of quirks. They were kind enough to let me check-in several hours early and take a nap.
Sydney was beautiful. At heart an urbanite, I felt at home there – truly at home. I never managed to get lost even without using a map. Compared to Tokyo, Osaka or even Minneapolis it was a great relief. Perhaps the most remarkable thing I can say about it was simply that I felt at home there. It didn’t seem like a holiday as much as coming home from one. I explored Newtown and bought a book needed to complete a series: Eye on the World by Singapore Chinese writer Tan Kok-seng, an old friend of the British Hong Kong writer Austin Coates, the son of Eric Coates. I visited Hyde Park, walked down Macquarie Street a few times dreaming about having money and probably found the Crime Museum far too interesting.
After a few days in Sydney I flew to Adelaide. “Why are you going to Adelaide? Why don’t you go to Melbourne”? That’s what the Singapore Chinese bloke I met a few times while in Sydney asked. No, it’s not some sort of interest in the German history of the place. Rather, so many tourists go to Sydney, Melbourne, Cairns, and Brisbane while ignoring the rest of Australia. What I wanted was to see something else, something not while so glamorous. The flight was on Virgin Australia – decent, but not remarkable. Adelaide was rewarding in its own way. I found it more difficult to like the city at first. My hotel was not quite as pleasant – a beautiful structure from the 1920s ruined by an indifferent renovation from the last decade. It was also bloody expensive. Getting into the city was also more difficult. Making the mistake of taking tourist advice seriously I took the wrong bus and ended up almost going in a loop. Having grown annoyed I just took a taxi to my hotel. It wasn’t until I left Adelaide that I realised that simply taking the taxi to the CBD would have been far cheaper and easier than trying to save a few mobs of kangaroos by taking the bus. The Art Gallery of South Australia was marvellous and its free entry improved the experience.
The collection is said to be one of Australia’s largest. The contemporary art was strange, but the older works were worth seeing. I winced a few times at the Migration Museum. In principle it is a good idea, but the execution was far too politically correct and ideologically-driven. Much of the time I simply walked around Adelaide trying different restaurants and coffee shops.
After a few days in Adelaide I returned to Sydney in order to take a train to Cowrashire. Rural Australia was a brilliant experience. It was a home-stay of sorts. An old mate’s sister invited me to stay in her spare bedroom. The train ride took me through the Blue Mountains and the coach through the rolling hills. When I arrived it was dark, but my hostess was waiting for me. We talked for hours that night. The following morning we went to the war cemetery at Cowra, visited the site of the POW camp and went to the Japanese Gardens. We also went to see some of the small towns in the region – the Australia that few travellers bother seeing. Watching a parade in Cowra with my hostess’ boyfriend we discussed the common realisation that in many regards, isolated rural towns are much the same everywhere.
I was also able to provide my hosts with no shortage of amusement. After drinking a single standard glass of wine I proved the fact that calling me a feather-weight drinker is far too generous. I spent the rest of the evening sitting down in order to avoid the humiliating spectacle of stumbling around clumsily. It took several hours to stop slurring my words. Of further amusement, especially to my hostess’ 9-year-old son was my driving. Despite having had a driving licence for a decade I have only driven in continental Europe and North America – that is, on the wrong side of the road. As a result, turning onto another road means that I went by instinct to the right lane before correcting that error. For the rest of the day he mocked me mercilessly and her boyfriend found it equally amusing, albeit with more sympathy with his experiences living in his native Finland giving him a greater appreciation for my failings.
While unable to hold alcohol, I stunned everyone with my ability to consume vast amounts of coffee – so much, in fact, that my coffee supply was nearly cut off for my own good. It was a caring act, albeit annoying for a caffeine-addict. No rancour, no worries – my hostess baked a Pavlova for me. All was quickly forgiven. That and she introduced me to a friend with a pet kangaroo. The kangaroo let me hug him. My life is more complete now for some reason.
Next was Canberra. There was nothing really remarkable about it. It is simply good sheep pasture ruined. It was pleasant, but dull. The Australian War Memorial is beautiful and worth visiting. The view of Old Parliament House and Parliament House is also stunning – it is the same view featured on the back of the Australian 5-dollar note. Old Parliament House was intriguing, although it took the poor man working at the front desk a few minutes to realise that the reason why my post code has 5 numbers instead of the 4 used in Australia was because German post codes have 5 numbers. He didn’t believe that I wasn’t Australian.
I returned to Sydney by train over the Southern Highlands – beautiful. In some ways it was nicer than the Blue Mountains. More subtle, less overwhelming the scenery was more my taste. I stayed at the same hotel again. I met the Singapore lad again and realised that we both had the same taste in music and many similar interests. I also found out that he fancied me which was flattering, although it did not mean that much happened. It was not disturbing like the time I was in Hong Kong in 2011 and a man followed me around a public convenience rubbing his, ahem…
On my last day in Australia I met an acquaintance visiting from Auckland at the Queen Victoria Building. There is a beautiful Viennese-style coffee shop there which relies more on its ambiance than the quality of its coffee or service. Never-the-less, we had an excellent discussion. He is originally from Qingdao but took NZ citizenship some time ago and has embraced his new homeland, albeit tempered by a continuing sense of being Han Chinese.
I left Australia with a great deal of sadness. It felt like home, I fit in. It took some convincing to make people believe that I was not, in fact, Australian. Even if people believed that I was from abroad they did not easily believe that it was my first time in Australia. Australians thought I was Australian.
After leaving Sydney I stayed in Seoul for a week. I had a largely pleasant experience there – Koreans are very gracious people and are eager to show visitors their country. People were generally very accommodating and did everything possible to make me feel welcome. The hotel I stayed in was no exception. The young man working at the desk insisted on helping me carry my luggage to my room. When I was having trouble connecting to the internet, he spent half an hour trying to help. The next day, he arranged for the hotel owner to have it sorted out for me. He walked me over to a computer shop and had an expert take care of the problem for me. North American wi-fi settings are somewhat different from Korean settings and sometimes there can be an issue, but not always. They didn’t charge me. They remembered my name and also provided us with a simple breakfast every morning at no extra charge. My room was small, basic, but clean. For the week they charged me £130.
I visited the ruins of an old fort, burial mounds of kings and queens, two palaces, shopping districts, walked down Teheran Road in the Gangnam district. Most importantly, I met two young Koreans – one I have known for 11 years, the other a childhood friend of hers. She took me through some of Seoul’s nicest shopping areas – the eclectic Insadong District with its traditional restaurants and arts/crafts shops. Because of her poor health she could not stay long, but being able to see her again was worth it. I later met her friend again, a veteran of the South Korean Marines. He took me around the parts of Seoul that he knew – the places where only Koreans bother going. I also went to Suwon, a city near Seoul and the home of a small palace. It was a profound reminder that Korea is still a developing country. Seoul is as modern as any city, but even towns near it are still grappling with pressures and conditions that Japan stopped facing years ago.
When I left Korea I felt a sense of foreboding. My flight was unpleasant although I cleared passport control and customs quickly and without hassle. My flight was the first of 5 to arrive and all counters were open. After spending a few days in California to recover from the international flight I left for Minneapolis. At that point, I had already purchased a one-way ticket to Luxembourg City. Going back to Germany seemed the most sensible, especially for career-building with the far stronger economy and shortage of educated workers. Within days of returning to Minnesota, however, everything in California had changed.
The original plan was that following the completion of my studies in May I would return to California and spend roughly two months there in order to get my affairs in order. I arranged to donate a number of books to library and sort through things to determine what I wanted to keep and what could be either donated or thrown away. In short, my parents are now in the process of divorcing following my father’s continuously declining mental health and alcoholism. Rather than returning to sort through my things and leave, I have lost almost everything and no longer have a place to return to in California. My landlords have been kind enough to allow me to stay for several weeks longer than originally intended. When I return to California at the end of next month I will be moving around a bit, staying with different people while I wait for my flight to Europe. I suspect this might be an omen that leaving for Europe was ultimately for the best.