Boys, Boys, Boys

Sitting in the back of the gym at St. Pat’s, I was struck by how 95% of the boys had black hair.  In Minnesota, it would have been 75% blondes due to our Scandinavian and German immigrant history.  Many St. Pat’s families had come from Italy and Lebanon. There were a few redheads, maybe kids of Irish ancestry, some Chinese kids, and one Aboriginal kid who was on an exchange with another Catholic school in Alice Springs. All of them wore smart uniforms.

The ceremony opened with what I learned was standard in Australia, an acknowledgement of the Aboriginal people who originally lived on the land on which the school was situated.

This was followed by remarks by the head of the school, which included a statement about how bullying and intolerance were just not anything in which any boy should participate—including bullying of fellow students who were gay.  This took me by surprise.  It was a Catholic school after all, and while I wouldn’t expect them to encourage bullying of gay students, I was surprised it was mentioned explicitly. The church my mother’s husband belongs to didn’t allow me to stand on the altar at their wedding because I am Jewish.  I’ve heard there is a sign at the entrance now making it clear that practicing homosexuals, divorcees, and other sinners must not take communion.

I asked Heidi about it later. I wondered if the Catholic Church in Australia looks upon homosexuality in a “hate the sin, love the sinner” way, or if they “love” gays as long as they are celibate.

Heidi looked thoughtful, then said mildly, “It’s just not an issue.”  She is a regular church-goer, if not every week.  “I can’t recall it ever coming up at church, or at St. Pat’s, except in the context of bullying.  One kid posted a homophobic comment on social media a few weeks ago and the boys came down on him.  He’s a good kid who had a moment of poor judgement, and he was embarrassed.”

Australians voted to legalize gay marriage last year. So the law is catching up with general opinion, if indeed is it so open minded.  Of course there are people who opposed the change.

“Does the Pope know what’s going on down here?” I asked.

“Oh, probably, but he’s likely more concerned with other matters.”  Like priest sexual abuse.  There’ve been almost 5,000 claims.  The Australian Church is paying out hundreds of millions of dollars to survivors.  To its credit, it started facing this issue early on—in the 90s—and has done a better job of apologizing and making up to survivors than other countries, from what I’ve read and heard.

The ceremony was very moving.  It involved announcements of which year-twelve (senior) boys would hold leadership positions next year. These included things like social action, sports, house leads, and so on (the boys are organized into “houses,” like in Harry Potter).

As each boy’s role was announced, he and his parents came forward from wherever they were sitting to meet at the front.  Some parents gave their boys big bear hugs; others shook their hands and gave them a clap on the back. The parents then gave the boys a pin they would wear to indicate their leadership role.

Afterwards, Heidi and I had tea in the Diverse Learning office and I met her coworkers.  They were friendly and talked about where they would go on their break, which started the next day.  One was going camping in Tasmania and I told her how one iteration of my trip had included four days in Tasmania.

“Aww yeah, you can’t do Tassie in a few days,” she said.  “And you would need a car.”

When the head of the department learned that I work for the Center for Victims of Torture, she asked if I would talk to the boys about it after the holidays.  I was game, but made a mental note to buy some professional clothes.

I wandered around in the hall and noticed this poster.

Some smart alec had stuck sticky tack on the poster kid’s nose.  Boys will be boys, after all.

Getting Around

My plan is to write one post about each day in Australia, since I had so many days there.  When I recall all we did on just my second day, I’m doubtful.  Here goes.

Day Two was a work day for Heidi. Classes had ended at St. Patrick’s College, where she is a teacher, but there was some kind of assembly she wanted to attend.  I jumped at the chance to go along for the ride.  I love doing things like this when I travel—things off the usual tourist menu.

“College” in Australia doesn’t mean higher education.  St. Pat’s, which is Catholic, is a boys  school with grades five through 12.  Heidi works in the “diverse learning” department, which is a combination of what, in the US, we would call “special ed” and “gifted and talented.” She works three days a week but will go up to four next year.  She loves the boys at St. Pat’s, especially after chaperoning a group of them on a 10-day trip to remote Papua New Guinea this summer, where they had no internet, phone signals, or hot water for showering.

Heidi was dressed smartly in a grey skirt, blazer, and heels. She looked at me appraisingly. “Do you have any close-toed shoes?” she asked delicately.  I did look pretty scruffy.  My clothes had been shmushed up in a suitcase for 72 hours and I didn’t have anything formal.  I put on the battered but closed-toed sandals I’d brought for camping in the desert the following week.  I realized I was wearing the same loud, flowery top I’d worn to an awkward meeting in London last summer where well-dressed attorneys had sneered down their noses at me.

We walked to the train station, uphill about five blocks.  We caught the train to Central Station, where I noticed the entertaining mix of names that were English (Epping, Richmond), Aboriginal (Katoomba, Bullaburra), and just funny sounding (Emu Plains, Rooty Hill).

We took another train to Strathfield, then caught a cab to the school.  I had begun to appreciate how long it takes to get around in Sydney. Heidi stays with a cousin in Strathfield some nights, which helps cut down on commuting time.  She doesn’t have her own apartment or car.  She always looks remarkably put together for someone who lives out of a suitcase.

The cab driver appeared to be Somali.  We have about 80,000 Somalis in Minnesota so I feel pretty confident about that.  He was on speaker phone talking to the dispatcher and carrying on a diatribe against the police.  He didn’t know where the school was and wasn’t paying attention to where he was going.

“They stop me because my passengers were not wearing seat belts and mark me down three points!” he complained.  Apparently this would involve a sizable fine and go on his driving record.  The dispatcher asked, “Do you have passengers right now?”  When he answered in the affirmative, she suggested they continue the conversation later.

“They only want money!” he said to us over his shoulder as he rubbed his thumb and fingers together to insinuate that the police would personally benefit from his citation.

“I don’t think police in Australia take bribes or get a cut of fines,” I replied, irritated. I didn’t know for sure in the moment, but I just looked it up and Australia ranks 13th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Index (with 1 being least corrupt). Somalia is 180th (the US is 16th).  I guess if you come of age in the most corrupt country on earth, it’s hard to imagine a country that isn’t.

He went on for the duration of the ride about how it should be the passengers’ responsibility to put on their seat belts, even while acknowledging that the law says taxi drivers hold this responsibility.

“They were Chinese,” he declared, as if that explained everything.

St. Pat’s has a lovely, serene campus.

“Look! What are those birds!?” I exclaimed excitedly.

It took Heidi a moment to understand what I was excited about.  “Oh those?  Those are ibises.  They’re real pests.”  Well they were exotic to me.

And that was the first two hours of the day.

Long Days

Yesterday 11 people were shot to death at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Many people are saying that Trump is responsible because he has incited violence with his fear- and hate-mongering rhetoric.  Sure, it’s true he has encouraged it, but it may have also happened if Hillary had become President, because anti-Semitism is the sickness that never heals.

There are all sorts of “anti-isms,” from homophobia to Islamophobia to misogyny.  I may be wrong, but I believe Anti-Semitism and misogyny have been around the longest, and women aren’t killed in mass numbers because we are needed alive to work, to be used for sexual gratification, and to reproduce.

Man, that sentence was a downer.

I’ve experienced anti-Semitism firsthand, mostly the mild variety that stems from ignorance.  But I once moved out of a neighborhood six months after moving in because my son was hearing anti-Semitic comments at school and a neighbor was threatening us—waving his arms and yelling, “The only thing wrong with Hitler was he didn’t kill all you Jews!”

When I moved a year ago, I didn’t put up a mezuzah, which is a small case containing Torah verses. One is typically posted at each door to remind ourselves we are in a Jewish home.

I can’t put my finger on why; I just had a feel about the neighborhood.  And then my neighbor across the street unfurled a flag that says, “Don’t Tread on Me.”

This phrase is associated with people who believe the government is planning to take away their guns, but I think it’s all part and parcel of hatred and fear.

The fact that anti-Semitism has been around as long as Judaism doesn’t mean Trump isn’t a problem.  Some will say he can’t be anti-Semitic because his son-in-law and daughter are Jewish.  I think people have an incredible ability to bend their beliefs so that people close to them are “the good kind” of Jews while all others are “the bad kind.”  And when Trump incites violence against journalists, immigrants, his opponents, women, gays, and Muslims, all the violent nut cases out there hear is “others.” As they say, “haters gonna hate.”

Should we start posting armed guards in synagogues, as Trump has suggested?  Guess what—synagogues have been doing that for decades, but there is an opening this shooter exploited.  At the synagogue I don’t go to (that’s a joke), we have off-duty police officers on the doors during the High Holidays.  Most other days, the doors are locked and you have to identify yourself and be buzzed in.  But on days when there is a celebration such as a wedding, bar mitzvah, or baby naming (as was the case in Pittsburgh), the doors are unlocked and there’s no guard.

I keep thinking of that poor baby and his parents, whose day of celebration will always be marred by this memory.

In Sydney, I walked past the Great Synagogue a couple times hoping to get a look inside, but it was locked up tight and there was no information about when it might be open.  I knew I could go on a Saturday morning during Shabbat services, but my schedule didn’t align with this so I had to make due with a look at the outside, which was impressive.

Back to my first day in Sydney. I wish everyone could travel like I do—I think exposure to different places and people would reduce the hate and fear in our world.

Heidi and I took the ferry, which is part of Sydney’s public transportation system, past Milson’s Point, home to Luna amusement park.

Then on to Circular Quay, the main stop close to the Opera House.

You just can’t resist taking photos of it.

Then we headed for Manly Beach, which afforded a view of sprawling Sydney.

Manly was cold and windy, but beautiful, and offered my first sights of the magnificent trees one sees everywhere in Australia.

We lunched very late at the Skiff Club; this was my introduction to how great the food would be in the coming month.

Then back to the flat, as night fell.

Where I slept for 12 hours …

… then jumped out of bed ready to explore.

Tea Talk

As we had tea, Heidi asked about my flight.

“Did you declare your food?”

“Oh yes.  They make a big deal of it inflight. They even showed a video titled ‘Declare It!’ which was as exciting as it sounds.  It showed people trying to bring things in like sheep and trees.  When I told them I had ‘dried fruit and nuts for personal consumption,’ they waved me through like I was wasting their time.”

“They’ve taken things off me,” replied Heidi.  “Once they took mulled wine spices I’d bought in Austria.”

“I hope they enjoyed them,” I smirked. “I noticed there was a box on the landing card asking if you’d ever had a criminal conviction.  That’d be scary for someone who’d served time, to come all this way then see that as they were landing.”

“I don’t think they’d turn anyone away,” Heidi remarked.  “I think they just want to know.”

“And then what?” I wondered.  “There’s probably no way to find out ahead of time, so why would anyone even try to come here if they had to check that box?”

“It’s so ironic!” Heidi declared.  “We were founded on convict labor.  It’s just stupid.”

Of course my son, Vince, served time in prison for drug offenses but I had just met Auntie Margaret so I wasn’t going to get into that.  Vince had read Bill Bryson’s hilarious book, In a Sunburned Country, while inside and it gave him a hankering to go to Australia.  Vince is doing great now and even has a passport, so I hope he does go some day.

Heidi had used Auntie Margaret’s car to pick me up at the airport, and we’d gotten into a minor fender bender in the parking ramp.  We chatted about that, and traffic, and different ways to get to and from the airport.  You know, normal chit chat.

About Heidi and Auntie Margaret and the family: Margaret is Heidi’s dad’s sister.  There are eight siblings in that generation; I believe it was their parents who emigrated from Ireland.  Heidi is named Heidi because her mother, who is Austrian, came to Australia at age 12 as a refugee after World War II.

Auntie Margaret is what we used to call a “maiden aunt.”  She inherited the flat from her aunt, also a never-married lady.  Margaret had it rehabbed (or “reno’d,” as Aussies would say), decades ago and it hasn’t changed.  There are Lladro figurines, and doilies, and miniature vases with plastic flowers, and photos from a life lived for others.  Margaret, at 87, still drives to church and to St. Vinnie’s to volunteer. She would drive to her sister’s house later to make room for Heidi and me, since the flat has only one bedroom and a sofa sleeper.

I think it’s normal that as I sat there I glanced around and thought, “I’d tear out that wall, and move that wardrobe in there, and paint over that pink, and …”  Later, Heidi confirmed that everyone who steps inside the wonderful flat with the million dollar views does the same.

People often ask how Heidi and I know each other.  Because we explained it so often while I was there, we thought we would make up a laminated card illustrating the connections that brought us together.  But until I’ve got that, here goes.

I have a friend named Chuck, who met a guy named Rob at a teachers’ conference in Minnesota.  When I moved to the UK 12 years ago, Chuck told me Rob was now in the UK too, so we met up.  Five minutes after we met, Rob asked if I wanted to go to Greece with a group of people over Valentine’s Day. It was cheap to go in winter.  This is why you live “over there”—so you can travel everywhere.  I showed up at Gatwick airport and there was Rob with two Aussies, Melissa and Heidi.  Whoo boy, that was a fun trip. Here we are clowning around.

I house sat for Rob last summer in Windsor/Eton.  Heidi and I have met up in Berlin, Provence, Ireland, and in London a couple times.  She came to Minnesota. Now it was my turn to see her country.

Worldwide Wallaby Convention

So much for live blogging as I traveled around Australia.  I lugged my laptop around for a month and only wrote two posts.  I just wasn’t staying in places that had free wireless, or wireless at all, very often.  And that was kind of nice.

I’m back in the homeland.  My passport, after disappearing, was turned in to the police in Palm Cove.  I had left it—embarrassingly—at a bottle shop where I had stopped to buy beer.

I can explain.

It was raining when I arrived in Palm Cove.  It was beautiful.

Tired from traveling but excited, I donned my rain poncho and set out to explore. I had been asked for ID about 20% of the time I’d made a purchase in Australia so far, so I zipped my passport into my bag.

I walked on the beach, then along the boardwalk for half a mile to the tiny town grocery to buy cereal, bananas, coffee, and milk for the next morning.  You don’t get plastic bags anymore in Australia; this is great for the environment but not for carrying groceries in the rain.  The cashier stuffed my purchases into a paper bag that began to disintegrate as it got wet.  At the bottle shop, the 16-year-old clerk asked for my ID so I took out my passport.  I then proceeded to take everything out of the paper bag and fumblingly rearrange it to make room for the beer so I could manage to get back to my room without leaving a trail of bananas and beer bottles along the beach. This operation was not facilitated by my wearing a wet poncho.

Finally satisfied, I trotted off, oblivious that I was leaving my passport and a $20 bill behind.  The next day I visited every shop on the beachfront, and the post office, grocery again, chemist, and two restaurants.  By the following day when I realized my passport was gone, I had no idea where I might have left it, or if it had been stolen.

Long story short, my passport was handed to me a few days later by a very tall, good-looking young police officer, along with the $20.

Sadly, I had already cancelled it on the US State Department website.  It was too late to change my plans and stay here another two nights, as planned.  I would have to go ahead and get a new passport, which would cost a bundle.

At 3:30am a van picked me up to take me to the airport so I could make my 10:30 appointment at the consulate in Sydney. The driver, who appeared to be well beyond retirement age, was taciturn.

But then he said, “There’s a wallaby.”

Then he said, “There’s three more.”

“Aww, there’s a whole mob!”

There were at least a hundred wallabies bouncing along the side of road.

The driver said, “I’ve never seen so many in one place in my life.”

They were everywhere.  “It’s like a wallaby convention!” I exclaimed excitedly.

He didn’t say anything after that.

If I hadn’t lost my passport, I wouldn’t have seen a single wallaby.

Getting through security at the consulate will be a story I will write later, but when I finally rocked up to the bullet-proof-glassed counter inside, I was informed that my passport had not been cancelled.  So it’s not like in the movies, where the cops call a hotline and bark, “Cancel his passport!” and your passport is instantly invalidated.


Back to the beginning.  Upon my arrival in Sydney, I was met at the airport by my friend Heidi and her Auntie Margaret, whose lovely flat I shared some photos of in a previous post.  We got there are around 8am, had tea, and chatted.  Auntie Margaret and Heidi displayed a lamb sweater.

Yes, a lamb sweater.  Knitters like Auntie Margaret are knitting them for lambs in the outback due to the hard winter and drought that make the babies vulnerable.

The drought, I know now, is probably why I saw so many wallabies in one place a few weeks later in Palm Cove.  It’s driving wildlife in from the outback to urban areas to find food and water.

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates

You never know what you’re going to get.

One moment my passport was in my bag, the next moment it wasn’t.   Did someone steal it?  Did it fall out somewhere?  I have no idea and I have covered so much ground it’d be fruitless to go looking.  I’ve torn apart my room and suitcase five times over but no luck.

My advice to you: Never lose your passport.  It’s a real hassle. Um, that’s an understatement.

Last week I added a night to my stay on the Queensland coast to spend more time near the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree rainforest, and the ocean, the jungle, and just enjoy the slow pace of this area, after go-go-going for three weeks around Australia.

I have to show up in Sydney to get a new one.  So I’ve cancelled two nights here in the north and changed my flight to Sydney for 5am on Wednesday to arrive there in time for the only appointment that was available in the next 10 days at the US consulate.  I filed a police report and cancelled my passport (maybe, the online system told me I had “no passports to report stolen or lost”). I am filling out forms and finding a hotel in Sydney at the last minute (not a cheap proposition!).

I am lucky.  I have a credit card, a driver’s license, and access to cash, which makes all things easier.  I can’t imagine how it would feel to be a stateless person and have no friends or resources.  It’d be scary as hell.

I am eating a veggie pizza and drinking some wine.  I could spend my last day here obsessing about all this in my hotel room, but I am going out to the reef tomorrow to snorkle.

This too, is an adventure.  I hope it ends well.

How Ya Goin’?

Greetings from Palm Cove Australia, where I am on my own in this country for the first time since arriving 18 days ago.  I am reading the guest information book in my room and under “Swimming” it says:

Crocodiles are occasionally seen off the beaches but generally they inhabit creeks and estuaries that flow into the ocean. They are ambush predators and generally do not actively hunt or expend a lot of energy in the process.

Is this supposed to make me feel safer?

Visitors are discouraged from wading in creeks, waterways and mangroves where water is shallow or knee deep. Visitors should NOT swim in the ocean at night.

I can abide by those guidelines, but apparently others cannot.  Before I left Melbourne my friends were telling me about recent croc deaths. A park ranger was fishing with her family—wading in a shallow creek.  One minute she was there, the next she was gone.  They found her dismembered body a few days later. A German tourist went swimming in a creek that had a sign warning, “NO SWIMMING—CROCODILES.”  It even had a picture of a crocodile with its mouth gaping open, for non-English speakers.  That was his last swim, ever. As I was riding into town on the hotel shuttle, I saw dozens of people fishing and wading in the creeks and mangrove swamps.  What gives? These are probably the same people who would swim in the ocean at night.

The one thing I dreaded about this trip was the 15-hour flight from LA to Sydney. I have to say, it wasn’t that bad.

I had my compression socks, eye mask, ear plugs, down pillow, crossword puzzles, and a book, which I thought might be overkill but the movie selection wasn’t great so I was glad to have it.

I did watch one really good movie, All the Money in the World, about the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson.  It starred Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg, Christopher Plummer, and his grandson Charlie Plummer as the grandson.  This was the movie Kevin Spacey was cut from after his #MeToo moment.

There was an Aussie sitting next to me on the plane who was returning from a vacation in Mexico.  He raved about Mexico, took a sleeping pill, then didn’t move for 15 hours except when I shook him awake so I could go to the bathroom. It’s interesting how Mexico was exotic to him but he was dreading going back to Australia (and work).  I have spent a lot of time in Mexico and it no longer feels exotic.

And Australia—does it feel exotic?  There have been moments when I thought, “This could be Minnesota.”  Like this view of Heidi’s family’s farm:

But then there were the roos.  These photos aren’t great, but they are candid.

There are other landscapes, of giant gum (eucalyptus) trees that feel alien, in a stunningly beautiful way.

The language is English but they shorten many words (a journalist is a journo, a medic is an ambo) and so much slang that I have often found myself staring blankly at the speaker.  A newly arrived immigrant is a FOB (Fresh off the Boat) and going to hang out with your friends is hooning around.

In the UK I was thrown by the standard greeting, “Ya’ll right?”  In Australia, the greeting is “How ya goin’?” instead of, “How ya doin’?” as we would ask in the US.  Aussies really do say, “G’day”—not everywhere, but here and there and more so in the country.

People are so friendly. Yesterday when I was checking my bag at the airport, the agent told me about her favorite tour here, while hundreds of people waited behind me.  None of them seemed irritated.

Is Australia as expensive as I’d read?  It depends.  Hotels are very reasonable, while meals out are outrageously expensive, and food in groceries is somewhere in between. The American dollar is strong against the Australian, so I get to take 30% off everything.

Heidi and her family have been so welcoming.  Heidi’s Auntie Margaret gave up her flat in Sydney for us to use for a couple nights.  This is the view.  Horrible, huh?