19 September 2004

First leg is done, and relatively painless at that. The flight to Los Angeles (LAX) was five hours, and I didn’t take Pancho [my laptop] out once. I had picked up a novel by Douglas Coupland called Hey, Nostradamus!, which deals with questions of faith and high school shootings, all taking place in the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver BC, mostly). I get to read fiction so seldom these days that it was an especial pleasure. Interesting, too, how the experience carves an island of sanity out of the cacophony that is modern air travel.

Coupland made a name several years ago with his book Generation X, but it was his book MicroSerfs (if I’ve gotten that correct) that introduced his work to me. It deals with the experience of working at Microsoft, especially during the heady early 1990s. A young writer who, I suppose, is not all that young anymore. Time passes.

20 September 2004

Linda’s husband, Stephen, had passed along a tip to use a certain international dialing service [GRIC Communications, evidently no longer active]. I looked into this, seemed to fit my need, but before I remembered to set up an account, I got distracted by adding a wireless connection to Pancho. Am here at the hotel in Sydney, and there is no discernible wireless connection, so I need the dialer service I never got around to establishing. Guess I’ll just write blog entries and wait to post when I can borrow a computer long enough to establish the account.

Anyway, I’m here. I calculated at one point that my total flying time from DC was 20 hours but that when you include the time I spent waiting to get on the plane, my total elapsed time from DC to here—Sydney, Australia—was about 32 hours. Although I closed my eyes for much of “the night," I never fell asleep. The seat (on this full flight from Los Angeles) was just too cramped, and I could never get comfortable enough. I am therefore intensely sleepy as I write this, despite having taken a 1.5 hour nap after some shopping. Tonight, I’ll attempt to use a full night’s sleep to balance the internal clock.

Discovered another book. At Los Angeles International Airport (the infamous LAX), I found a fine bookstore that includes among its wares many “classics." Seeing Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I included that and a Faulkner novel in my shopping, and started reading Dracula during my 9-hour LAX wait. It’s terrific. It helps having a taste for old stuff (Stoker is yet another member of the Irish Ascendency, and published Dracula at about the time my pet project—Lord Dunsany—was publishing his first literary effort. I don’t believe that he mentions knowing Stoker, but then Stoker was a generation older than the 18th Lord Dunsany). I’m convinced an excellent film could be made of Stoker’s novel, where instead of using just the Dracula legend, the film would mirror the structure of the novel’s plot.

The most dramatic thing that struck me upon leaving the aircraft this morning (we landed at 6 am) was the coolness. Not the spiritual, beatnik coolness but the literal coolness. I haven’t felt a temperature like that for some six months. Here, they’re just leaving winter (or what passes for it) and moving into spring. Although our DC summer has been among the mildest on record, it’s rare for even a nighttime temperature to fall below 70. Here, it was in the 50s, and it was sweet as heck.

I took a cab into the city, arranging with my driver to get a brief tour and narrative of the city instead of a direct shot into the hotel area. It’s not unlike other cities that have a strong mixture of old stuff and new. I would instantly think of Vancouver BC, as I later got onto the street and heard people talking (sometimes, even in English), so let’s let that comparison stand. The city is much defined by its water expanse, and my hotel room looks out over a part called Darling Habour.

I set up some things, ironed a couple others, then set out to do some exploring. This Darling Habour area is a nice introduction to the city proper, and there are excellent pedestrian facilities for moving from one to the other. My driver had suggested going to the top of this really tall tower and restaurant (very similar to the Space Needle in Seattle WA), so I aimed for that. Along the way, an older gentleman who turned out to have spent much of his working career in the Seattle area (in shipping) gave me many more observations on the attractions of Sydney. Both here so far and in my several encounters with Australians in the States, I’ve found these people to be nothing if not friendly and helpful.

The accent is distinctive, although I cannot tell it from the New Zealand accent. I’ll have to ask one whether they can. Personally, I don’t find it as pleasant as the Irish accent, but I’m already so used to it I hardly notice.

Took a bunch of pictures from the imposing height, then realized that I’d made no provision for uploading photographs from here to my blog. I’ll put together a set of pictures and captions when I get back.

Spent a great deal of time in a shopping complex that forms the base of the Sydney Tower (at Centrepoint, if I remember correctly), and that’s always a good way to observe real folks. I still have several memories of my Irish experience in such contexts. Bought a pair of shoes at one specialty shop, then spent quite a bit of time in a Nordstrom-like store looking for socks. People are amazingly similar in such situations. You could have picked up the whole lot (mostly female), and placed them in a Nordstroms in the States, and no one would have blinked.

One dramatic difference between here and Seattle—and even between here and DC—is that there are more languages being spoken on the streets of Sydney than anywhere I’ve ever been in my life. There are clear leaders in the immigrant population (there are, for example, lots of Koreans here), but there are many, many groups of white Europeans speaking languages I cannot identify. Are they traveling here? Do they live here? Probably bits of each possibility.

I’m sorry for the effect that not having slept in a couple days is having on my making the most of every minute here, but that’s the way it is. Will now go down and arrange for my car rental, cleverly arranged by Linda to exist in the car park that is part of this hotel. I won’t actually have to drive the thing until I leave Wednesday morning. I’m hoping that will have allowed me some time to study a map and see where to go.

Oh, first a couple observations on money. Their smallest bill is $5, and they have $1 and $2 coins. Just what we’ve tried unsuccessfully to introduce within our own culture.

[Later that evening]

I ate Roo, tonight. Normally, I eat Piglet, so I suppose Roo was due. More, in a moment. [These are references to A.A. Milne’s books about Winnie the Pooh]

First, I stopped in at a branch of the local chain bookstore (Dymocks). I had two missions. When I visit a foreign country, I like to ask someone knowledgeable for a recommendation for a local author and a book or two written by said author(s). Most often, the content of the book reflects the society I am visiting. In Ireland, that introduced me to the work of Roddy Doyle, and tonight I obtained the means by which to encounter the works of Bryce Courtenay (“who you probably know already, because he’s world-famous;" No, actually) and Vernon God Little.

The second mission is to obtain some reading material for dinner. As one who often dines alone, I’ve discovered the need (for me) of such an activity.

I didn’t bring a watch, so when I reported for duty at the appointed restaurant (Michael’s itinerary, page 1, by Linda Campbell Bird), I was told that the restaurant didn’t open until 6. Surprised that it wasn’t yet 6, I walked off to start on one of my new acquisitions: Bryce Courtenay, Mathew Finders’ Cat. Quite a good read, so far.

And then I started to freeze my ass off. Having just made a reservation for an outside table, I knew I had to buy one of the ubiquitous “Australia!" [or whatever] sweatshirts for sale everywhere around me. Instead, I ended up with a hemp something or other (kind of a very thick t-shirt), all of which I cared was that it had long sleeves...

[Next morning, 5 am]

I fell asleep, as I was about to write about eating Roo. Had a nice sleep, and here I am at my usual waking hour, so perhaps I’m back on schedule. I see breakfast in the hotel, coffee at Starbucks (they’re all over the place), and a harbour tour, in my schedule for the day. Perhaps, even a nap before the opera.

Anyway, back to Roo. Linda had suggested that I try eating kangaroo, and that a good place to do so is at I’m Angus, a restaurant here on Darling Harbour. I took my place not long after the appointed hour, then proceeded to enjoy another exquisite meal (my light lunch yesterday at a coffee shop was excellent). Australian red wine (Shiraz) with the dead kangaroo (“but just barely," cautioned the waiter; “Kangaroo does not do for overcooking," so I chose medium rare). [I’m watching dawn add its light to the downtown business district outside my window—lovely] Earlier, when I was discussing my impending meal with a couple Eurocar folks, they disagreed about how tender kangaroo is. They did end up agreeing it depends upon how fast the car is going when it hits. “You see, visitors think the kangaroo is going to move off the road as you approach." Well, whatever. This one died happy, ’cause he was as tender as meat can be. Flavor? Everyone had agreed: gamey. I disagree. Based on my experience, most of us would be hard-pressed to tell kangaroo meat from beef.

This is holiday season (at least, for Aussies), so the level of touristy activity seems reasonably high. As my cab driver had told me, there are only 20 million folks on the whole continent, which my new author, Courtenay, tells us is the driest land on earth (it rained the night before I arrived—this might explain why I am being treated so royally). Based upon accents, I’m the only American in town, but then there were several more on the plane, so I guess we’ve distributed ourselves around town. What I saw last night was the significant Japanese presence. These are people almost certainly just here for business (even if it means fairly long-term). The significance of their presence can be seen in the fact that of the three greeters working this restaurant last night, one was Japanese. None was American. I sat right next to the entrance, and the Japanese speaker would rush to greet anyone who looked Japanese, and also, it seemed, to assure them that they would not need to speak English. My people (it’s a long story) are not famous linguists, and they prefer to hang out with their own. All preferences accommodated. Most visitors were Aussies. I didn’t see any evidence at the restaurant of the many varieties of Europeans I have seen on the streets.

A couple more observations that rush to be recorded. No sales tax. At least, none that you’ll notice. It’s built into the price, a practice that is more common outside the US, I think. Fine with me. I guess we don’t do it because our tax rates are so different from community to community?

When I bought my books, the seller asked where I live. “Washington DC" was this answer (I vary this with my mood). “Oh, the capital of the world!" Well, I assured him, I wouldn’t go quite that far. “Why not? We see more American news here than we do Australian." Once again, the influence of American culture is ubiquitous here. The cab driver had been surprised to hear that KFC is actually an American company. A company called Woolworth’s has hit big here, my driver told me, and was again quite surprised to learn that it, too, is (or was?) an American company. There’s nothing “big" about the Woolworth’s I know, so perhaps this is some kind of reinvention of itself.

Everyone at I’m Angus was impressively professional. All were of the age (young) that we expect at restaurants in the States, but all were exceedingly good at their jobs, and made that very, very busy restaurant run like a machine. All the time keeping that informal Australian charm that has so far marked all its people.

It just doesn’t get any better than what I just saw. But before we get to opera, let me recap the day’s activities.

After an excellent hotel breakfast—you know, with all the buffet goodies and all, I sought out a nearby Starbucks for a cup of serious coffee. There are plenty of alternatives, by the way. Coffee is more present here (in Sydney) than I would have expected.

Then, I proceeded with the next step on my itinerary—a boat tour of Sidney Harbour. Amazing place. Far more coastline than any place I’ve ever seen. My driver (I was alone for the harbour tour, so we’ll think of him as “my" driver) showed me one property that had recently sold for AUD$33 million. Location, location, location. I asked about population, and with some 4 million people in the Sydney area, it comprises a fifth of the population of the whole country. Easy to see why, but of course that it is a hub of economic activity means that there are jobs here.

Found an Internet cafe, and set up my dialer service, which is how you got to see the previous installment. Then took a brief nap in anticipation of the opera evening. Good thing, because it was after midnight before I got “home," and it will be 1 before I’ve finished. I had planned to drive out of town about the crack of dawn—to give me a fighting chance with traffic and driving on the wrong side of the road, but I don’t know whether I’ll get up early enough.

Cab’d over to the Opera House early enough for a light dinner. My Houston experience (and, come to think of it, Seattle, too) had suggested that the Opera House would have something to eat, and I joined many of my fellow opera fans at a simple but effective cafeteria.

By the way, the Opera House is absolutely magnificent, and far more impressive in real life than when viewed from a distance. To ensure perfection, I saw it most closely at dusk, as I walked around after dinner, as the moon fought the sun for dominance, and was beginning to win. A good part of the downtown area is just yards from the Opera House, so the overall impression is one of excellent integration with the rest of the city. I’m sure if I’d known where I was going, I could easily have walked from my hotel. And at least at this time of year, the heat that had built up during the very lovely day dissipated rapidly with the sunset, and it was quite cool as I fought unsuccessfully with aggressive Sydney opera goers for a cab after the performance. In the end, I won, though. I waited until everyone had gotten a cab, then I got mine. That’ll show ’em.

The opera portion of the Opera House (a much bigger complex than just the opera stage) is startlingly smaller than almost any other opera house I’ve attended. At 1,500, its capacity is about half that of, say, Houston and Seattle, and probably Washington DC, too. But hurrah for the audience. This is easily the finest setting I’ve yet experienced for opera.

And we haven’t even gotten to the performance. I think everyone is a no-name (although we won’t bother to refer them to this blog). Tom Clark has heard of the primary soprano in tonight’s performance, but none of the others. Well, good for Australia, because they were all terrific. The oafish baron was played oafishly by a good character actor and great singer, and the “boy” part (at one point near the end, three women are standing on stage singing gorgeously how much in love they are with each other, but you’re supposed to realize that one of them is playing a male part; makes for a very modern play) by a fine acting mezzo, who gave us comedy when called for and tears when not.

That’s it for today. Will now figure out how I’m going to get out of here in the morning. One thing at a time...