Saturday, April 12, 2008

Leaving Oz

Oz. A suitable name for a place which is partly magical, partly fictional, and well, not Kansas. Before we came here, all I knew of Australia was what I had read, and what learned from Australians directly through a number of friendships. My impressions of the place were overwhelming positive. But now Australia has become much more - instead of the printed page and second-hand reports, I have personal memories that I will always be able to call on. Now my view on Australia is based on direct experience, distorted undoubtedly by baggage and the special atmosphere that accompanies a trip like this.

I'm heartbroken to leave the place, but at the same time, I'm already beginning to feel the excitement of arriving in a new destination, New Zealand. (I am a fickle bastard.) Letizia has done a wonderful job of summing up (in English) what we owe, and how meagerly we have paid, for the many kindnesses shown to us by so many people here in Australia. There is nothing I can add to what she has written, so instead I'll offer some last words on Australia. For what it's worth, here are my 2 Australian cents...

Australia is a particle collider. It takes elements from many different sources and bangs them together at high speed, each time creating something new. It is too diverse to define but still hangs together in a way that works, defying expectations.

They drive on the left here, they speak English, and many of them even look quite English (or a tanned version of English). Many of the cities have leafy suburbs that would easily blend into an English storyline. The coins have the profile of Queen Elisabeth II stamped on them, and the national sports include cricket and rugby. But this isn't England. Your bank manager might address you as 'dahl' (darling), you might think nothing of shopping in your bare feet - or at least not be too surprised to see somebody else do so. At the end of a busy day, you might relax on your balcony or veranda with an excellent local wine and listen to the amusical raspings of parrots, the insane guffaws of kookaburras, or any number of other birdsongs that you'll never hear in the UK. You might be able to set your watch by the first signs of rabbit-sized bats moving across the dusk sky. In short, Nature will make clear to you with every sight, sound and smell that you are somewhere very different to the old Mother country.

Despite the ties to an English way of life, this isn't some island orphan of a defunct sea-going empire. This is a nation of its own, born of Europe but long since grown up and moved out. And yet it has Europe in its DNA and a cultural and political heritage that anyone from Europe can recognise and bond with at once.

In the meantime, the older culture on this continent has been all but wiped out, and even if today some amends have been made, and some attempts are underway to conserve the wisdom of the Australian aboriginal, this is all being done within the social and economic context of the conqueror. The trip to Alice and Uluru set me thinking that any talk of a solution to the Aboriginal Problem is premature. The problem itself continues to unfold. 230 years is an instant in historical time, and the impact of the white invasion on the black population is still revealing itself in different ways. You can no more speak of a solution to it, than you can talk of rebuilding a city while the earthquake is still shaking it. I hope this doesn't sound to pessimistic, but that's how it seems to me. (It will be very interesting to compare the condition and fate of the Maori in New Zealand to that of the Australian First Owners.)

The many faces of Australia - natural, human, historical - are hard to bring together into one picture. Many of them seem unrelated while others quite simply clash. How can you say that tropical Queensland and downtown Melbourne belong together? Where is Australia? In the red sands of Uluru or in the golden dunes of Fraser Island? Is the whitefella a survivor, a pioneer, a refugee, or is he a conqueror, a thief, a murderer? Is the blackfella a sage, an ecologist, an artist? Or is he a drunk, a bum, a loser? These are ideas that are about as mutually compatible as urinals and open-toed sandals (though Australians seems to take that combination in their stride too!). But that's how it appears here - the fabric of this superficially young, but in reality ancient country is woven from impossibly different threads. It seems to me that those threads are held together by something other than knee-jerk nationalism. The stark isolation of Australia seems to have forced and forged a cohesion in this country that is the envy of many older nations in the Northern hemisphere. What makes Australia work? It's the people, stupid!

A few weeks back, when we were resting for two days in Depot Beach, I listened to a talk show on one of the national radio channels to an interview with an Australian moral philosopher. He was talking about a great many interesting things but eventually came to the subject of what made Australians different. By way of describing that difference, he told the story of a German Jewish refugee who was being interned in Australia during WWII (not because he was Jewish, but because he was German). The internment camp was in the middle of nowhere (they sure have plenty of nowhere here) and he was being marched at the tail end of a line of other internees towards the camp. All of a sudden, the soldier guarding him stopped, handed him his rifle and said "Here, hold this. I need to go for a piss". Australians in general have no respect for bad rules. (Above and beyond the point of the story itself, I just love the fact that in Australia, moral philosophers say "piss" on national radio.)

In a few hours we'll be landing in Christchurch, New Zealand, where we have a house-swap arranged for the coming weeks. It's also Sara's 7th birthday today, which we've celebrated in an orgy of sugar at the breakfast table - again thanks to Simon and Leah for organising balloons, cake and the other necessaries. Now Sara's going to do a Phil Collins on it, and jump on a plane to celebrate the rest of her birthday across the Tasman Sea. Next post from NZ.

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