Of Laksa and Kangaroos III

It’s a long way from Melbourne to Sydney. The train journey took over 12 hours. It was, however, a very pleasant 12 hours. The NSW XPT trains are segregated at Southern Cross Station, somewhere in a back corner. They didn’t bother to check my ticket at the gate, they just waved me through. Onboard, they only asked for my family name. I liked the informality of it. I spoke with a New Zealander shortly before departure. A strange man, but that seems to be the case with New Zealanders. The Australian woman sitting next to me for most of the journey was far more pleasant — and far more interesting. Her son is moving to the UK, her husband holds dual UK-Australian citizenship. As is so often the case, there is a great deal of overlap between the UK and Australia. They’re not exactly the same, far from it, but they’re not exactly foreign, either.

In Victoria, the obligatory Myki card costs A$6. In New South Wales, the Opal card, the state’s comprehensive travel card, was free. I saw that as an improvement. I managed to find my Sydney hotel quickly. It was a treasure. It lacked the faded grandeur of my Melbourne B&B, but it was certainly not an inferior experience. The owners are a Greek-Australian family. The manager and I hit it off right away. He appreciated my sense of humour and my relatively easy nature. He also told me that I’m the time of person that could eviscerate someone with a beaming smile. We had a good laugh and had a go or three at the expense of German tourists, especially the couple he had chucked out a few days prior. Sydney gets humid. It was especially humid when I was there. Several inches of rain had fallen and it was in the 20s C. The air conditioner had some condensation. They were deeply unhappy about that. They complained about everything and were incredibly demanding. After several increasingly tense run-ins with them within a few hours of their arrival, he had enough and told them to leave.

I arrived too early to get into my room, but he gave me the key and held onto my luggage for me. He invited me down for a coffee — a free, well-prepared flat white. I appreciated that. I had a good chat with some British holidaymakers. We immediately coalesced into an amicable group, a couple from the Midlands, a woman from Cornwall and the lone Dorset-resident.

Hyde Park Barracks, my top priority, was closed. Hey ho. I re-visited a few museums in Sydney: the Justice Museum and the Susannah Place Museum. I visited a few new museums as well: The Museum of Sydney, Elizabeth Bay House, the old Sydney Mint and the Reserve Bank of Australia’s currency museum. The Sydney Museum left me a bit cold. I bought a special museum pass for A$24 which gave me access to a number of historic houses and museums. That is the only reason why I didn’t feel cheated at the Sydney Museum. For a city with a history that rich and complex, it really didn’t go into any sort of depth. The film about the British settlement of Sydney was probably the best thing about it, though I did take issue with the occasional one-sidedness of the narration.

Sydney left me a bit cold. It was beautiful, of course, but it felt empty, somehow. There was so much, too much, going on around me but it felt so very lonely. Everything was very commercial, everything was very money-oriented. Melbourne had the air of the insufferably smug about it, Sydney reminded me almost of Los Angeles in its immediate judgement of people based on money and appearance. It is beautiful, it is grand — but what it isn’t is very humane. There were some good aspects, of course. The breakfast at the hotel was excellent. Freshly-prepared and delicious without fail, made to order! There was a charming coffee shop at the entrance to the metro station. A young Korean couple owned and operated it. It was well-made and, despite the gritty surroundings at King’s Cross, it lent a touch of class and charm.I found a bakery owned by a Vietnamese man who had been a refugee in his youth. No excuses, no moaning, no complaints. He simply started a business, made a success of it and carried on with his life. He made a good life for himself and he is deeply grateful to Australia for giving him a go.

The Susannah Place Museum was interesting. The Elizabeth Bay House gave insight into the other side of the social spectrum. The man who worked at the front desk moved to New South Wales from Dorset in his youth. We had a good chat and he appreciated some of the updates about poor old Blighty. There was something haunting about that building. One of Australia’s grandest estates, it never-the-less has a very tragic, troubled past: ego in excess of means, pride in excess of humanity, ambition in excess of capacity.

A couple of Hun tourists had a go at me about the UK and its current political situation. They quite confidently told me that the UK had better make its mind up — do they want trade with Europe or not, because trade and European investment were contingent on the EU. I told them off. If Japan, Korea and Taiwan can have smooth supply chains, if Singapore and Malaysia can have smooth supply chains, if the USA and Canada can have smooth supply chains and dynamic economic relations without the need for a suprastate, perhaps it is the Europeans that need to re-evaluate their outlook. They refused to talk to me again after that. Some Australians came to my aid once again and made it clear that Britain is not without friends and allies and certainly won’t be after Brexit. (If we leave at all)

I travelled to Chatswood a couple times to dance with the past. I have fond memories of the place and had some momentous experiences there, some years past. My memories and I danced a final waltz and we could take leave of each other. I’d not mind owning a flat in Chatswood, life continues on with best wishes and hopes.

I travelled to Bathurst by train. It was remarkably affordable. I bought a banh mi, Vietnamese sandwich at that little bakery on the way as well as a final flat white from the Koreans. The Blue Mountains are beautiful. I felt relieved as the urban clutter of Sydney disappeared behind me. The plains turned into hills, the hills into endless green mountains. I changed to a coach at Lithgow. The Korean man sitting near me was picked up by his working holiday sponsors.

Bathurst is a pretty town. As the first official inland settlement in New South Wales, it has a relatively rich history. Their museum, while small, is surprisingly good and the volunteers were absolutely lovely. We had a good chat about a wide range of issues. I found that Australia and Britain are facing similar challenges in many respects, hence the increased political fragmentation in both countries and political classes utterly estranged from the concerns of their electorates. It sounds heavier than it was. We understood each other very well.

My room in Bathurst was in a stunning building — one of the grand estates. Built in 1870, it was perched on a hill with views over the plains and the Blue Mountain foothills. I managed to get lost one night, but was able to see the southern skies.I gave up after walking around in circles for nearly two hours and simply took a taxi back.

I travelled to a small town to see an old friend who has been poorly. I learnt valuable lessons about rural characters. The first is that I should shut up. The second is that I have nothing to say and really need to shut up. The third is that I should be helpful, but must shut up and should by no means expect a “thank you” for going out of my way to be helpful. Shut up I did and it was for my benefit. It was brilliant hearing them have goes at each other, eavesdropping on the banter and being able to piece together fragments of inside jokes. All in a coach driving through the hills! My friend and I met, it wasn’t clear that we would due to communication difficulties. At the last minute, something was arranged.

I found my way through the streets we walked together years ago. She was asleep when I came, the morphine did that. But she came to. When she saw me, she hugged me tight and broke down in tears. Cancer has a way of changing a person. The skin discolours, the limbs become emaciated even as the core swells. Then there is the stench of death, that reek of cancer. I did my best to play the clown. I got a few good laughs out of her. We chatted for a few hours as she drifted in and out of consciousness. Any effort exhausted her. We bade our farewells. She was in high spirits, determined to live, determined to make it to the beach again. Her partner saw me off.

I returned to Bathurst and sat silently in the coach listening to the same cast of characters telling more stories. I enjoyed that, enjoyed it more than anything. There is something utterly refreshing about candid, risqué, anti-PC humour. All on a coach!

I picked up a few things to eat at Coles. Nothing spectacular, but I had a small kitchen to myself at Bathurst and could do my wash and hand it out to dry under the autumn skies. It sounded trivial, but it’s been a long time since I could do something like that. I cried that night. I knew my friend and I, almost a second mother to me, would never see each other again. If nothing else, we had that last meeting, that last cup of tea together.She passed away a few days ago. A few days after I left, her condition started to deteriorate drastically.

As I walked to Bathurst Station to return to Sydney, the woman from the museum saw me and ran across the street to have a chat. I had plenty of time and it was reassuring to know that there are still places like that, still places where people remember you — where you can still be a person. She bade me farewell and insisted that I come back to New South Wales as soon as possible.

The return journey went smoothly and I made it to Kingsford Smith in good order with lots of time to spare. The Qantas flight to Brisbane was surprisingly pleasant. But Queensland proved to be quite an experience…

Author: Christopher-Dorset

A Bloody Kangaroo

11 thoughts on “Of Laksa and Kangaroos III”

  1. Great stuff, Christopher. I am really enjoying your travelogue and can’t wait for the QLD segment.


  2. Christopher!

    One of the things the major problems that most British immigrants have to deal with is the fact that it all looks so familiar – one can get overly blasé and then: ‘Whoops!’ one has to realise that it’s quite, quite different. I remember being appalled that the laws of slander and libel were quite different: there is (or was) no safety in showing that what you said (or wrote) was true – it was all a matter of ‘whether it was in the Public Interest’ for such things to be revealed. Quite a few journalists were very wary of publishing – I knew one such.

    A lot of Pollies got away with a lot of things. However, once they were out of office they didn’t survive long. At one time at least seven former Premiers were in goal for a number of offences that were ‘not in the Public Interest’ to publish at the time – but were thereafter. The story, that I’d heard about a WA Premier, was published very shortly after he was replaced – and he got a fairly hefty prison sentence for ‘bribery and corruption’.

    At least we, sort of, speak the same language… Just remember not to call a hoover a hoover – many Ozzies will not understand you! And even worse, was when I returned to the UK and insisted that I was speaking English… and had to admit I was using words that none there understood…

    We lived for four year in Sydney. I only found a few parts of it ‘beautiful’. Mainly, I found it too fast, too furious, and not interested in anything but money.

    It, actually, wasn’t as bad as Canberra – where the first thing anyone asked was what you and / or your husband did. If you (and /or hubbie) were not at the same ‘Level’ as they were in the Public Service (or equivalent) – you were ignored. For a, so-called, class-less society one learnt very rapidly that class DID matter in Canberra.

    My biggest pleasure in Sydney was taking the Ferry into the CBD. OK! It was a hover-craft which didn’t mess around – but it was far better than the crammed and crushed trains.

    I was thrilled when we moved to Adelaide… still my favourite city in Oz.

    … although after ten years and more Brisbane has grown on me. 🙂

  3. Just to add a couple of teensy-weensy clarifications to Boadicea’s admirable comment, the crook Premiers ended up in gaol rather than playing in goal, and the Sydney RiverCats (Meadowbank to Darling Harbour etc.) were, and still are, catamarans rather than hovercraft.

    But highly qualified Economic Historians can’t be expected to be techos as well, can they? 😎

  4. Boadicea: Sydney has a beautiful harbour. Some of the more historic buildings and neighbourhoods are rather pretty. But, much like Los Angeles, the culture, tone and pace of the place make it hard to take in anything but small doses! I couldn’t imagine myself living in Sydney. In Chatswood or some of the northern suburbs, yes, but not the city itself. In the same way, I didn’t mind East Melbourne so much but I couldn’t get on with Melbourne.

    You are, of course, correct. Australia is not Britain. My mate in Melbourne had lots of fun at my expense because of that, too. It reminds me, to an extent, of going to Scotland. There are a number of similarities, but it doesn’t take long to realise that the culture is very different, the mindset is different and the attitudes are different. Even then, it’s still within the realm of the intelligible. The differences between Britain and Australia aren’t quite as profound as the differences between Britain and the United States, for example. They’re certainly more similar than Britain and France or Britain and Germany. The differences in laws make sense. One of the most interesting things about the Common Law is that it provides continuity and stability, but is flexible and can adjust to local conditions. In Hong Kong, the Common Law and Chinese law merged together seamlessly — English sensibility, Chinese logic. Naturally, the longer Australia has been independent, the more distinct its corpus of jurisprudence will become and the more bogged down it is by its own, unique body of pointless acts of parliament. Keeping its unique historical and cultural circumstances in mind the United States provides another example of that. Even Canada, to a lesser extent, provides a good example.

    A few days ago I spoke to an old university colleague, a Tennessee-born Texan. He asked me about going to the UK for his honeymoon. It took a while before he understood what I meant when I said “If you’re going to Ulster, don’t count on the trains. It’s better to hire a saloon or small estate”.

  5. One of my jobs in the eighties at the trade delegation at the US Embassy in London was to ‘translate’ literature for publication !
    The pitfalls between American and English English, especially when moving from metric to imperial were/are horrendous.
    They payed me rather well, seemingly very few people have the facility, weird or what?
    Nowadays I do a lot of writing for various clubs etc, they get English English free, American English has to be paid for!!! Amusingly none of them ever complain. I rather suppose most don’t know the difference!
    Oh dear, I am feeling uncharitable this morning.

  6. It was at a time when the domestic market in the USA for construction wood was at a low. They desperately wanted a market for it abroad. Stress rated lumber was all the rage, ie using less dimension wood for more load. The conventional 2×4 was no more! Also the USA uses Imperial, sold by the board foot. Europe used metric and bought by the cubic metre. Now that is one hell of a calculation to do the conversion! My ex was an international timber trader so I knew far more about than most. I understood the engineering plus I was in advertising so could cover all bases. It was incredibly niche so to speak and I happened to fit it. I spent a lot of time organising seminars for specifying architects , translating technical literature and building exhibition stands. Various big agencies tried to have that account off me, couldn’t touch me when they realised how technical it was. Most retreated hastily! I had them for years until a very bad divorce. My boss was from Idaho , he hated travelling on the continent. So half the time he disappeared to the USA and I would end up in Glasgow or Milan or wherever at very short notice. Thankfully most of them spoke English. I hated travelling too like that so used to charge them from the moment I left my own front door! He didn’t give a damn as long as he didn’t have to go!
    All my accounts were technical, I never bothered with the ‘Jesus in a Jar’ crap of retail markets. Another was a dry dock builder, all he had to show were holes in the ground! A router bit manufacturer and an outfit that made wood dust extraction machinery for timber factories. They kept me busy!

  7. Thanks Tina, but my question was more of a gentle remonstration at your use of the word ‘payed’ instead of ‘paid’. Payed is, generally speaking, a nautical term as in ‘rope was payed out…’.
    For monetary issues, the past participle is ‘paid’.

    But the background you provided was interesting. I know that in some quarters there is resistance to the metric system, but I cannot for the life of me understand why the US does not just bite the bullet and make the transition. Maybe the Imperial system provides some form of protectionism.

  8. Ooops! payed/paid, serious geriatric brain fart!
    Re Imperial, guess I”m old enough to have learnt it at school and Uni.
    I mean to say, its 20, jock strap and sunglasses or fur lined knickers!!
    And jam sets at 220F. What more does one really want to know in a domestic environment?
    Frankly I’d go back to rods, perches and clay tablets.
    Better than these bloody mobile phone appendages on every moronic ear as they step from the kerb under the nearest passing car!!!
    AND I don’t want to buy an ffing kilo of anything. I want a lb.

    What I would really like to do is turn off the electricity and the mobile phone masts and see the buggers survive for a week. Growing up in far flung rural areas in the UK without power for days/weeks at a time in winter was a good way to ensure survival skills no longer known or understood.

    Long may the dear old USA keep their splendidly archaic measurements.

    Metric did Boeing a lot of good recently didn’t it? Sometimes I am pretty damned sure the world gets far too clever for its own good.

  9. CO: Imperial measures put man on the moon, metric measures put 12 million people in gas chambers. Napoleon, Lenin, Hitler and Mao were also the biggest supporters of the metric system. I recently had to order a replacement strap. The length was only given in milicentis, gramometres or whatever they’re called. I was at a complete loss. I was taught to cook using imperial measures. Whenever I’m given a recipe using metric measures, I accept it with a polite smile and then bin it. Can’t be bothered to convert.I’ve been cooking the same way for decades, not about to change now.

    PS: Having grown up in the countryside, I know how to raise crops, light fires, chop wood, slaughter and dress animals. Were it not for the fact that I work online, I’d be happy enough with my books!

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