Travelling at the stern of a boat, you get a blinkered view of what's about you. New scenery arrives fully formed and out of nowhere, rather than slowly evolving from a distant speck. You are granted time to sit and consider what you see as it moves gently away from you. There is a certain thrill of course, of standing at the bow instead, with the wind in your face and 180 degrees of possible directions, but it leads to the irisistably tempting belief that you have some control over your destination.
We sat on the back of the ferry a couple of Mondays ago on our way to Manly, on Sydney's North Shore. Manly was famously named by Arthur Phillip himself, on seeing some particularly virile looking Aboriginal standing there. Looking to the other bank, this position is helping me confirm my feel for Sydney's Southside geography. The city is a gently rolling low-rise disc with the Central Business District acting as the centre and skyscraping axis that holds it all together. This is the great unsettling confusion I feel in Sydney. I don't know whether I'm in a city or a small town, or a beach resort, or a great port. The skyscrapers live easily alongside the spectacular harbour, and the gardens and parks. The small villages of Newtown and Rozelle still have an urban atmosphere - that unmistakeable mix of self-confidence, and relaxed openness. Bronte and Coogee beaches are teeming with surfers, swimmers and posers, generating an ambiance of their own. Enormous cruiseliners pull into the very heart of the city, towering above the quayside buildings, but dwarfed by the harbour itself. All of these Sydneys are linked by buses and trains that bind this spinning disk together, and allow it to remain as one.
Once you head too far south, west or north, I imagine the city life loses much of its appeal. The energy and expense required to sample the delights I've mentioned above become prohibitive, and you make do with your own local amenities. The cost of property with even a glimpse of water is enormous and so those who live in the real Sydney still have to make great sacrifices for that pleasure. But I can't think of a city in the world to match it. "Ah - but it's so far away from everywhere else!" people say. No. Everywhere else is so far away from it.
In Manly, we strolled down the pedestrian street that links the harbour beach to the ocean beach, and settled down for lunch next to a Scotish couple who had made Sydney their home a long time ago. Like almost all Sydneysiders we met, they were very happy with the place, other than the high rent. They used to live in Manly itself, but moved up North to get a bigger living space. How did they deal with the presence of creepy-crawlies, I wondered, given that they were not born into it. "It's the lizards I can't stand" said the lady, much to my surprise. I told her how even in Europe we had lizards (thinking of the gekkos in Sardinia) and then went on to boast about how they didn't bother me at all. Surely I was prime Aussie material. "Well these lizards ate my pet rabbit" she mentioned (get back in your box, Paddy).
At the end of our day in Manly, we took the ferry South and West towards Circular Quay, still at the back of the boat (actually, the boat had bows on either end, a water-going pushme-pullyou). Looking back, North Head and Watson's Point at the mouth of the harbour seemed to converge from opposite shores, and eventually join. Nostalgia, that unrequitable love for a time and place gone by, is the other great Irish disease. I couldn't help but interpret the effect as a last embrace from the city we were about to leave.
How's that for being up myself, Darragh ;-)