Tag Archives: Sydney

Alice to Sydney

“That was weird,” Heidi remarked as we walked on after talking to her student for a few minutes.  He was in the Red Centre for his school holiday, just like Heidi.

“You were just saying you could bump into Mr. Right around the next corner and then BAM, there was Griffin.”

“Next time I’ll specify that when I mention dating younger men I don’t mean teenagers.”

At the airport, we ran into Griffin again with his mum, who was wearing faux eyelashes.  Heidi chatted with them while I hit the gift shops to make sure I wasn’t leaving behind some important souvenir.

Then it was all aboard Flight QF791 to Sydney.  I couldn’t get the scene from the movie Rainman out of my head.  Dustin Hoffman’s character says to Tom Cruise, “Quantas never crashed.”  I couldn’t help it, I had to say it aloud to get it out of my head.  Heidi smiled indulgently.

Heidi queued up a podcast for me on her Aussie phone (as opposed to her UK phone).  I had never listened to a podcast before. I know they’re extremely popular and that the cell phone zombies all around me with earbuds in are probably listening to them.  Heidi, who spends so much time commuting, says they’re a God send.

Lost in Larrimah is a about a town of 11 people in the Outback from which one person goes missing.  It was how I learned the phrase “hooning around,” (hanging out) one of my favorite Aussie slang terms.

Sydney was cold and rainy.  The train was packed; a couple from Melbourne who were touristing in Sydney struck up a conversation with Heidi while I pretended to be extremely interested in a mobile phone advert on the wall to their left.

When Heidi mentioned we’d be driving to Melbourne in a few days, they started rattling off sights we had to see.  “Aww, you have to go see the blah blah blah!” and “You have to go see the blipplity doo doo.”  They even began providing web site addresses and street directions.

Am I the only one who finds this irritating?  Heidi was nodding pleasantly but noncommittally.  Sometimes I think I need to go live in a mountaintop cave with no human contact for a couple months to reset my tolerance for strangers.

I had topped up my Oyster card with $35, but it was minus $2 by the time we reached MacMahon’s Point.  Now it was Heidi’s turn to be irritated. “I know Sydney transport is stupidly expensive, but that just can’t be right!  I’ll call them tomorrow and fight it.  There has to be some mistake.”  She did call them eventually and spent forever being transferred and kept on hold, but got the money back.  Bravo, Heidi!

Auntie Margaret had left a bottle of cab sav for us and we partook of it while Heidi made spag bol.  Then we watched the journos on ABC and went to bed.

In the morning Heidi had to do some very thoughtful packing—she would be here, in Blayney, then Melbourne, then Canberra and possibly back in Blayney, then back to Sydney but she wasn’t sure where she’d be staying for Sydney Part II and she needed clothes for work, home, and traveling—all in the smallest bag that was not a carry on.

“I’ll go for a walk to get out of your hair,” I said, and Heidi showed me something called Wendy’s Secret Garden in nearby Lavender Bay.  She handed me her Aussie phone with the place mapped on it.  “It’s a real jumble around here,” she said.  “It looks close but it’s easy to get lost.”

And I did get delightfully lost in the maze of alleys and dead-end streets below Auntie Margaret’s flat.  If I hadn’t, I would have missed views like this.

There were lots of renos and new construction going on, adding modern houses into gaps between older ones.

I passed a construction worker smoking a hookah.

The garden had been founded by Wendy Whiteley after her husband Brett, a famous artist, died.  It was all maintained by local volunteers.

Had I inhaled?  No, the garden really was magical.



Bondi Beach

Day Two in Australia, and more experience of what it is like to get around Sydney.  We waited 20 minutes for a bus and were lucky to get the last two seats.  It was standing room only afterwards.  It took an hour to get to Bondi Beach.

Sydney is a very big, sprawling city.  Americans think of LA as the ultimate example of sprawl, at 503 square miles.  By comparison, London is 607 square miles.

Sydney covers 4,775 square miles, including dozens of bays and coves formed by the Paramatta River. It’s a wonder anyone gets anywhere at all.

We waited 20 minutes for a bus, got the last two seats, then rode for an hour. I’m not complaining.  Buses are a great way to see a city if you can get a window seat.

I had never heard of Bondi before planning my trip.  If you’re a surfer, it’s legendary.  When I’ve mentioned it, half a dozen people have said, “Oh Bondi—the famous beach!”

Bondi was populated by surfers, skateboarders, potheads, volleyball players, and graffiti artists. We took in the scene and then I said, “I’ve got the idea.  We can go now.”

It was cool and stormy—not a beach day anyway—our plan was to hike from Bondi to Bronte beach.

This was the first incidence where my photos, no thanks to me, turned out spectacular.

The storm came closer, whipping our hair and scarves around our faces.  Rain began to gently patter down.  It was so beautiful we didn’t want to stop.  “Let’s just walk around one more bend?” I kept saying.

Then the sky broke open and we made a run for it back to Bondi. There was nowhere to shelter except under the cliffs, where other tourists were already massed. So we kept on, and got soaked.

We dashed into the nearest building, which happened to be the place Heidi had wanted to eat anyway.  It was the Icebergs Club, Sydney’s winter swimming club, which runs a bar and restaurant that overlook the beach.

“So what’s with the clubs?” I asked her, looking around.  We had gone to the Skiff Club the previous day.  This place reminded me of a cross between an old-timey American supper club and a VFW hall.

“I don’t know,” replied Heidi.  “Does it seem unusual?”  You often learn new things about your own country when foreigners visit.

“The only similar thing I can think of in St. Paul is the Curling Club.  I think anyone can go in and watch the playing, and I think they serve cheap drinks in plastic cups.

“Maybe sports clubs like this are everywhere, and I just don’t know about them because I’m not sporty.”

You learn things about your own country by visiting others.

It was my first official day on vacation, so I had my traditional “I’m on vacation!” drink—a rum and Diet Coke.  Okay, I had two.  We sat and talked for a couple hours, catching up, watching the storm come and go, then we started the long journey back to the flat to get an early night.  Tomorrow we would fly to Ulara, in the Red Centre.

I woke up at 3am to the sound of drunks yelling down by the point.  “Fuckin’ fuck, fuckity fuck fuck!” pretty much sums up their sparkling banter.  This went on for about 20 minutes.  A siren started up in the distance and slowly came closer.  When it got within a half mile, the loudmouths dispersed and I sunk down into a deep sleep again.

I remember this story because it was one of only three times I heard a siren in Australia.  Three times!  I hear sirens almost every day in St. Paul.

I withdrew some cash at Sydney airport.  Every ATM, even for the same bank, gave me a different amount.  Half charged no fees, half charged varying fees.  I had opened a second checking account before leaving home that doesn’t charge Foreign Transaction Fees.  I thought briefly about saving all my receipts and figuring out which banks or ATMs gave the best conversion rate, but I just didn’t care that much to know who ripped me off.

Sydney Reccy

Reccy: Aussie slang for reconnaissance mission.

While I hung out waiting for Heidi to finish up at St. Pat’s, my eye fell on a list of rules for uniforms and grooming.

It’s very specific, especially with the haircuts.  I must be old because I don’t know what lines, steps, “under No. 2 in length,” or the other prohibitions even are.  I do know that “fringe” is what we call “bangs” in the US.  When you think about it, fringe is a lot more descriptive than bangs.

I wandered the halls a bit and learned from a display that St. Pat’s most famous “old boy,” as they call alumni, is Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler’s Ark, the novel upon which the movie Schindler’s List was based.  How did an Aussie come to write a book about the Holocaust?  Heidi Googled this later and read the story to me. On a visit to Los Anglese, Keneally went into a luggage store to buy a suitcase and happened to talk to the owner, Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor.  When Pfefferberg learned Keneally was an author, he told him about Oskar Schindler, a German businessman credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews, and urged him to write the story.  The rest, as they say, is history.

There were display cases featuring Cricket awards.

It reminded me of Eton, but spacious, bright, and new.

There was a physical acknowledgement of the Darug Aboriginal people, upon whose former land the school stands.

When Heidi was done with her year-end odds and ends, we walked across the street to the bus stop and waited.  And waited.  She consulted her transport app and reckoned it would take as long to wait for the bus as to walk, so we gave up and ambled toward the train station.  That was fine with me because it was a nice day and the neighborhood we walked through was lovely.

Houses in Australia tend to be one story (think about heat rising).  It was spring, and everything was in bloom.  These are some photos of Australian houses I took elsewhere, but they seem pretty typical of what I saw near the school—Victorian or Edwardian with beautiful gardens and massive trees.

We took the train into the CBD.  That’s Central Business District, for those of you who like to spell things out.  We headed for the QVB, or Queen Victoria Building, and here I will use the word massive again.  So many things in Australia are massive.  The QVB, constructed in 1893, fills an entire city block.

We wandered around inside and gawked at window displays of the high-end shops and the architectural features.

You can’t see it because of my lousy photo-taking abilities, but the clock is incredibly detailed with lots of—literally—bells and whistles and a train that runs around it at the lower level. Just think, this was the era when clocks used to be the proud main feature of buildings.

We sat down for lunch at a tea shop, and I noticed the tables adjacent to us had Chinese newspapers scattered on them.

I could say this over and over but I’ll just say it here—there is such a big Chinese presence in Australia that I sometimes had these weird moments where I had to check myself and ask, “Where am I?  Am I in China?  No, I’m in Australia.”

When you think of the geography, it makes sense.


There are Chinatowns in Sydney and Melbourne but also Thai towns and Japan towns and probably Korean and Vietnamese neighborhoods.  So if you like any of these types of foods, you’re in luck in Australia.

After lunch we hit a couple shops where Heidi returned some clothes, then she led me to Hyde Park, the “Central Park” of Sydney.  It is dominated by St. Mary’s Cathedral, which seemed to be the most massive church I had ever seen.  And I’ve seen a lot of churches.

It’s frustrating that photos cannot capture the scale of things.  I tried including Heidi, and a lamppost, in these two photos to give a sense of scale of the trees, but that didn’t really work.

This is the ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) war memorial.

Next stop: Bondi Beach

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.