In preparation for our return to Australia for the holidays, I boned up a little more on the history of this fascinating continent. A few years ago I treated myself to Colleen McCullough’s novel The Thorn Birds (1998), first reading the book and then with Joy and Gretchen and Brad Jacob spending some pleasant hours in Tillamook viewing the television series based on it (starring Richard Chamberlain, otherwise famous as Dr. Kildare). McCullough’s an accomplished story-teller, but not one you consult for documented history.
Last year I turned to Thomas Keneally’s 2006 A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia. The title gives away the plot. The white man targeted Australia in the late 18th century when the UK attempted to purge itself of the “criminal class.” For crimes great and petty, men, women and children were charged, convicted, condemned, and transported to the other side of the planet to serve their terms (generally 7 or 14 years). Out of sight, out of mind. What happened to these prisoners was despicable. Their stomach-turning story is a reminder that “there’s none righteous, no not one” and some who wear uniforms and bear titles are the least righteous, most cruel, of all.
This year I reread Robert Hughes’ classic The Fatal Shore, published in 1986. It is another tough slog. Hughes is Australian, proudly so, convinced that to fully understand this independent, occasionally fractious, quite secular society those early years must be revisited, painful as they are, back when white settlers with their guns (the military, not the convicts) and deadly germs almost completely wiped out the aboriginal population, replaced by the prisoners and their keepers. The hunter-gatherers thrived, generally self-sufficient and satisfied before the English descended. Then they died. In those early years their white successors didn’t do so well. They lacked basic skills and tools for farming and for re-creating a proper British society on this foreign soil. Basically, they were warehoused here until their sentences or their lives ran out, whichever came first. Too many of them died, also. Others wished they could have. But a large remnant not only survived but in the end built themselves a nation.
I’m typing this post in that nation a little over two centuries later. It’s as modern, attractive, democratic and economically competitive as any on earth. I just wish it were closer to America. What we like best about Australia is this: it gave us our son-in-law.
This is enough of a backward glance for now. Except for one more word. The next time you’re tempted to give up on the human race, pick up Keneally or Hughes. On their pages you’ll encounter at its very worst—and I’m not talking just about the so-called “convict class.” Then glance up from the pages for a look at modern Australia. It’s a country founded on people England wanted to get rid of—they considered them sin-ridden, beyond redemption, the dregs of society—who collectively did not give up or give in but persevered and in the end triumphed. The result looks pretty good!
Our trip to this far-flung island/continent was a bit of a challenge. You have already learned I’m your basic cheapskate. As the person in this partnership in charge of buying airline tickets, I always go for the least expensive. It’s a matter of principle. So instead of flying from Sao Paulo, Brazil through Santiago, Chile—the direct route to Melbourne—I found we could save about $1500 by flying Delta. So we did. From Sao Paulo to Orlando to Los Angeles to Sydney to Melbourne. Total elapsed time from Campinas (friend Carlos drove us to the airport) to Melbourne: 54 hours. That is, it would have been 54 except that our flight out of Los Angeles was delayed, which meant we missed our connection in Sydney, so add on two more hours. Somehow, when we finally stumbled into the Ohanessian home, I had the feeling Joy thought I might have made a better choice.
That choice is costing me dearly, by the way. After the first of the year we’re heading to Southeast Asia. I felt so guilty about this cheap itinerary and what it did to our photographer that I booked us on a sight-seeing cruise from Singapore to Hong Kong. We’ll get to visit places and friends we want to see in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam on the way—and we can sleep in our same bed every night. And don’t have to wrestle luggage. Don’t ask me how economical this trip will be. Might save a marriage, though.
One more word about our flight to Melbourne. Two, actually. The first is about our arrival in Orlando. Delta agents lined the jetway from the plane to the terminal with flashlights. The person in charge of turning the lights on was missing, so we disembarked in the dark. That would have been noteworthy in itself; we’d never seen it before. But then it happened again. Our departure out of LAX for Sydney was delayed over an hour because…. the jetway was dark. The person with that key was missing, also. Finally the agents gave up and lined the walkway, flashlights aglow. Isn’t this modern age wonderful? It just takes one person in charge of a key in one city to make innocent travelers miss their connection an ocean away 16 hours later.
I take a daily early morning walk. I love it. Melbourne has so much to commend it, not the least is what we pay for rent in our kids’ apartment. (Of course, we have to do repair work. This morning we had to go into Richmond—several blocks away–to buy batteries for the air conditioner’s remote control. It took two trips. The first to buy a tiny screw driver to open the device so we could learn what kind of battery was required. Then we discovered the part we needed to open wasn’t controlled by the screws, so we didn’t need the screw driver in the first place. Then back to the store to buy the batteries. I hope our landlords appreciate the trouble we go to on their behalf.) Obviously, what’s best about the city is that our kids live here. (That’s what’s best about the St. Louis area, also; we head there this summer to be with our other kids there.)
We’re dieting. Our eating has been out of control. We travel without bathroom scales, so we don’t have solid evidence of our weight gain—until we look at ourselves in the mirror or let out the belt one more notch. So as soon as we arrived I went shopping. Couldn’t find SlimFast but found something like it called OptiSlim. Tastes just as bad. Joy insists I supplement the supplement with a bunch of green stuff. My personal goal is to lose all the weight I can before next week when Candy and Michael return. Then out of respect for their hospitality I’ll have to return to my regular overeating—so as not to upset them, especially during the holidays. I figure a week of dieting ought to do it. It’s amazing, isn’t it, though, how when you are dieting all you think about is food? That’s another reason why I need to limit the dieting to a week. There are other things calling for my attention.
I wrote Candy in London to alert her about our dieting, so she and Michael won’t be shocked by our svelte appearance when they get here. I also mentioned the work I’ve had to do: replacing the batteries; buying a set of tiny screw drivers for the job She wrote right back. I think she is sincere: “Oh Dad, you must be exhausted. The batteries, the screwdriver, and all on reduced caloric intake. You deserve a nap.”
Here’s the worst part of her letter, though. She writes of being converted to better eating by a film called ‘Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.’ She’s started making vegetable smoothies to start the day. She says she’s already feeling better. Then this: “I was hoping to inflict it on you guys for a few days when we got back but it looks like you’re ahead of me. Maybe we can meet in the middle. Veggie juice for breakfast.” Sounds like more green stuff.
On my walk this morning, I realized for the first time that Richmond, our Melbourne suburb, really is in a relatively high rent district. Last year the hygienist in the dentist’s office explained she couldn’t afford to live near her work but must commute from a suburb farther out. I was surprised.
The place doesn’t look that affluent. It is an old town; most of the older houses are quite small. The lots are tiny. Apparently the value is in dirt they sit on. What made me suddenly become aware? Swan Street. I don’t know property values but I can spot a pricey car anywhere. Swan Street is the home of several automobile dealerships. There they are, lined up in a row for your inspection and, they hope, consumption: Maserati, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Alfa Romeo and others.
Renault, for us humbler sorts, couldn’t break into the neighborhood; it’s around the corner on Church Street. Still, Richmond auto patrons may be wealthy, prestigious even, but they haven’t caught on to the latest rage: You have to go to Sydney for your all-electric, self-driving Tesla.
As for Joy and me, we’re content with the Melbourne tram system. It’s all we want. Except when we need something more versatile. Then we borrow the O’s Toyota Prius. We don’t look rich but we do feel trendy.
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