In contrast, paradise - literally, groves of Birds of Paradise, that spectacular orange and purple flower, as well as that other paradise - fabulous beaches a half hour's reach of the major cities, stunning botanical gardens within each city, all that exotic flora and fauna that fill the tourist posters. All true! And never mind the kindness of strangers, imagine the kindness of airport security guards. Canadians have a reputation for being 'nice,' but we pale (in every sense) next to Australians. For instance, one of the pleasures of travel is learning the lingo. Australians favour short forms - uni for university or ute for utility vehicle, but a new one I discovered was well, quite lovely. I was thanking a young man for returning a ticket I'd forgotten, and he said in response, "Sweet as." Exactly.
The previous afternoon I walked around Circular Quay bracketed on one side by the Harbour Bridge and on the other, by the Opera House. In between, there's the Museum of Contemporary Art (impressively packed the two times I went - actually all the art galleries I visited in Australia were full, not entirely explained by the fact that admission is free), and terminals for the harbour ferries, monorail and trains. To add to the festive atmosphere are a range of buskers - from Japanese flute and French accordion to didgeridoo and percussion. In one instance, I fell for the tout, buying a CD of what I thought were the Aboriginal performers in front of me. Pretty good, I thought. When I listened that evening, I discovered it was techno-didgeridoo, if you can imagine that - I couldn't.
On the ground, what looked like manhole covers were in fact tributes to Australian writers (A.D. Hope, Germaine Greer) or international writers who had visited Australia (D.H. Lawrence, author of Kangeroo). There were quotes from their work and a brief bio, and again rather surprisingly, a fair proportion of women. The fine print revealed "New South Wales Ministry for the Arts Writers Walk".
At eye level, a large billboard pictured the faces of two women, apparently one white and one Indigenous. In big print on top: "Who would you want to work with?" I passed it a few times before figuring out its message, in tiny print at the bottom, "We're hoping you couldn't answer that." reconciliation.org.au
At the other end of the quay, the iconic clamshell opera house seems to float on its own peninsula. How could I not love a country whose most famous building - a World Heritage site - is an opera house! Surely the most photographed opera house in the world, it's toured by some seven million visitors a year plus all those people who attend concerts, plays and opera. It too was in the news almost daily because of attempts to raise the $900 million needed to restore the building to the original vision of its Danish architect, Jorn Utzon. More than forty years ago, in 1966, he left the project in a famous dispute over costs and design. Utzon, who died last November in Copenhagen, aged 90, never returned to see the finished building. A couple of days before I left, there was a memorial ceremony for Utzon with performances by the Opera Australia chorus and readings by Cate Blanchett and a tribute written by David Malouf. There was even an aria from an opera about Utzon and the opera house called, "The Eighth Wonder". After years of negotiation, the state of NSW threw its support behind the renovation project but the feds (under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd) demurred though negotiations are still underway.
Inside the opera house a sweet and lovely production of Massenet's Werther with Quebec mezzo Michele Losier. Around the back, the Royal Botanic Garden with its vast Morton Bay fig trees, Queensland bottle trees, lorikeets, magpies, cockatoo and colonies of flying foxes (aka bats). I could go on, but what stays with me are the words of activist and novelist, Sam Watson whom I met with in Brisbane at the Aboriginal Country Music Station where his son, poet Samuel Wagan Watson Jr. works. Impassioned, articulate, Sam was co-founder of the local chapter of the Black Panther Party of Australia back in the early 70s. At the end of our conversation, he talked about the deep history of his country - what's referred to as its songlines and dreaming - and in wishing me a bon voyage back to Canada, he said - with generosity and accuracy -that I would take a bit of the dreaming with me.