Scenes from an Olympic city

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He sat where it would seem every American tourist wants to sit -- on a bench in Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens overlooking the harbor on a beautiful spring morning. Off to the left, the Opera House unfolded; behind it, the Harbour Bridge stretched, its span crowned by two snapping Australian flags. Across the water, red-roofed houses and white apartments surveyed the passage of green-and-yellow ferries.

"Best bit of Sydney," the man said. "I wouldn't give you two bob for the rest of it. Used to be a lovely old city before the developers had their way. Now you've got a bunch of cereal boxes. Look at that thing," and he pointed derisively to a windowed carton of Wheaties.

"Every year in the States," I said, "the readers of the glossy travel magazines vote Sydney the No. 1 city in the world. It never fails."

He gave me a look which, after a week in Australia, I was getting accustomed to. It said: You silly Yanks.


Commuters dodged tourists on Circular Quay while a bogus-looking Aborigine in white stripes and loincloth blew resonant notes on a didgeridoo. It was here, on the west side, that the First Fleet -- 11 ships of convicts and soldiers under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip -- had landed on Jan. 26, 1788. It is here, today, where it seems all of Sydney comes, residents and visitors, in a daily, hourly, mass return to its European roots.

Underfoot, every few yards, is a plaque with the name of a writer who has brought Australia notoriety, and a salient quote. There are natives: Patrick White, Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer, Peter Carey; and foreigners: Mark Twain, Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Anthony Trollope, whose plaque reads: "The idea that Englishmen . . . are made of paste, whereas the Australian, native or thoroughly acclimatized, is steel all through, I found to be universal."

A freeway gives the back of the Quay a surprisingly quiet ceiling, a sort of highrise El that separates the city of well-grounded purpose from the play of water. As you wander back through the maze, you are surprised by the odd ancient, the lone relic scrunched in shadow. The apotheosis of which you find on George Street in the Queen Victoria Building, a multi-domed, Romanesque arcade that looks to have parliamentary aspirations. Waiting to cross the street in front of the statue of a seated Victoria, I heard two young women conversing in an unplacable tongue.

"Excuse me," I said, "but what language are you speaking?"

"Nepalese," they replied.


The station at Sydenham seemed transplanted from outer London: the dingy platforms, the brightly wrappered kiosks (in Cadbury purple and Malteser red), the view outside of a cramped brick suburb of overgrown gardens. The news agent carried four Chinese papers, two Greek, one Vietnamese and four Australian.

Sally was a few minutes late, a tall woman with long straight hair, no makeup, thrown-on sweater and slacks. A seventh-generation Australian, she told me proudly, she had recently returned from five years in England. She was in her 40s and had an endearing, illicit laugh.

We drove the short distance into Marrickville. The front door had been left wide open. Her father rose from the sofa with a toothy smile; son Christopher barely glanced up from his Harry Potter; Ella, the 14-year-old, shook my hand with a grown-up's poise. At school, she studied Greek and Mandarin and belonged to a group called The Gershwin Girls. They had sung at the Opera House. I said I'd taken the tour. Joern Utzon, the Danish architect, had returned to Sydney a few years ago, she said, and saw it for the first time; she'd read about it in the paper. On the tour they had told us that, after a falling out halfway through construction, he abandoned the project and had never come back to see the finished work. "That's not true," said Ella, putting me straight.

"What about something to drink?" asked Sally. "Australian red? Or white?" I said red. Father told of his neighbor, when he lived out in the bush, who built himself an airplane so he could fly his son to school. Ella said she'd never seen snow and that Hershey chocolate had just appeared in Australia. Sally suggested that they would probably go somewhere for vacation during the Olympics.

We moved to the table and sat before two plates piled with Vietnamese spring rolls. "One of our neighbors brought these by this morning," Sally said. They were followed by vegetarian lasagna. "I became a vegetarian in England," Sally said, "not here. Australian beef is wonderful." The ricotta she got in town. "There's an Italian cheese shop where they now have a Chinese man making the ricotta. They say he's the best Italian cook in Sydney." And then that girlish, got-away-with-something laugh.

For dessert we had baklava. "A typical Australian dinner," Sally said. When it was over, Ella sang quite beautifully.


In the morning, I opened my window to a rehearsal in a schoolyard. A dozen girls in uniforms were singing Mambo No. 5 -- "a little bit of Monica, IN MY LIFE" -- and taking turns stepping up onto a backless bench where they posed briefly in unconvincing postures of seduction. One threw her red hair back and lifted her institutional gray skirt, revealing a pair of patterned bloomers, before spotting the leering man in the second-floor window.

"Hello!!" she yelled up to me, waving for all her classmates to see. "We're performing Sunday at 3. Come see us!"

I carried my bags down to the street and hailed a taxi. "You leaving home, are you?" the cabbie asked me as he opened the trunk. "Couldn't stand the cooking?" I explained that I was changing hotels, and as we drove away he turned and said, "Welcome to Sydney, son." We dipped down out of Potts Point and into Woolloomooloo; passing Harry's Cafe de Wheels I almost had him pull over so I could buy him a meat pie topped with green peas.


The English invariably find Australia American; I kept thinking I was in an expansive England. The Australians drive on the left, they play cricket and rugby, instead of "thanks" they say "ta." They call each other blokes and mates.

Their children wear school uniforms, topped by sunhats, out of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. They use large coins imprinted with profiles of the queen. (While I was there, they voted to keep her as their monarch, though it wasn't a clear-cut choice; most people want, and expect eventually to achieve, sovereignty. Still, it was strange to hear people, like the prime minister, described as "monarchists.") Their cities are full of Royal this and Crown that and streets with names like Argyle, Leicester, Bond, Grosvenor, Albert, Victoria. Take a picture of someone who asks and he'll show his appreciation by saying "brilliant." (And all you did was look through a window and push a button.)

They go to pubs in groups and order rounds of pints. They are stingy with ice cubes. They eat bangers and mash, and beans with their bacon and eggs. They seem unable to survive without at least two Indian take-aways between home and office. They pile chopped tomatoes atop white bread toast and call it bruschetta.

They have individual faucets for hot and cold water (so you have to shuffle between quick burn and freeze). On Sunday afternoons, they broadcast documentaries on the love life of H.G. Wells. A shop specializing in Che Guevara souvenirs -- posters, T-shirts, caps -- also stocks tea towels. Che tea towels.


The Saturday morning ferry to Manly was oddly lacking in outdoor seating. It deposited us into an aroma of salt air and kebabs.A path led south from the beach, past a small cove patterned with sunning bodies. Australians in their element. Then it climbed the hill, cutting through low scrub, and came out onto a stony overlook.

"Beautiful isn't it?" the young woman on the adjoining rock asked. She was looking out over a sparkled Tasman Sea. She wore hiking boots, white socks, tight shorts and a muscle shirt that revealed impressive biceps. She had a freckled nose and wispy brown hair tied in the back.

"My name's Emma." (Did every woman in Australia bear an endearingly outdated name?) "I live a little north of here, just came back after a year traveling in Europe and Asia."

She made young Californian women seem formal.

"I'm going off again soon, probably to Vancouver. I'd like to get a job in films, working the camera. Though I studied anthropology at uni, and I grew up playing music -- flute, piano, recorder. But I didn't stick with it. Now I'm just a beach bum."

She said that her friend from "uni" was doing anthropological research on Homebush Bay, the Olympic site. "She's part Aborigine, from Tasmania. You should give her call." And she immediately gave me her friend's number, from memory, and her name: Emma.


The ferry approached Sydney just as it was turning on the lights.A crowd was gathered in front of the old Customs House, staring up at elongated human shadows scampering across images that were being projected onto the side of the neighboring skyscraper. Looking closer, I saw four figures dangling from ropes, running this way and that along the side of the building, 500 feet up, and then pushing off, flying out over a stage where a choir of women in red neck scarves sang Bulgarian folk songs.

When the performance was over, I picked up a flyer. The group was called Legs on the Wall, the piece was Homeland, which "celebrates the struggle and courage of so many stories of refugees and migration."I started talking to the woman next to me; she had mildly Asian features and asked if I'd like to have a drink. We walked to a cafe on the east side of Circular Quay and found a table beside the water. The lights of the Harbour Bridge curved in the distance; along the shore glowed Luna Park, the water reflecting electric whimsy.

"It used to be a lovely place," said Juanita. "The entrance was a big face and you walked in through the smile. The figures looked like they were made of papier-mache, and you could see the wiring. Then they had a fire -- about seven people, teenagers, died. So it closed for awhile, and then it reopened, but not with the old charm."

Juanita's father had emigrated from Hong Kong and married a local woman. Growing up she'd been something of a rarity, but not anymore. "After Tiananmen, the prime minister said that all Chinese students could stay, so whereas there used to be mostly Hong Kong Chinese, now there are a lot from the People's Republic. They don't mix much."

A ferry sailed in, sending water up over the quay that splashed my chair. "You know about The Toaster?" Juanita said, pointing to the modern apartment behind us. Downtown Sydney was taking on all the appurtenances of a family kitchen. "It was a very controversial project, because it blocks the view of the Opera House, and the Botanic Gardens. When it opened a few months ago, people came and threw eggs at it."

She lived with her boyfriend, a medical student, and worked at a boring office job; her dream was to start an Asian Film Festival. She was not impressed with contemporary Australian cinema. "It seems that all of the films are about the Outback, that that's the image we project. But over 80 percent of the population lives in coastal areas."

Walking back along the Quay, we stepped across the Clive James plaque. I told her I was a great admirer of his work. "He's a monarchist," she said disapprovingly.


A cement block building with a corrugated roof clung to the cliff at the southern end of the beach. Painted on its side were the words -- "Bondi Public Baths, Home of the Bondi Icebergs, Club Est. 1929" -- and the insignia: a polar bear reaching through the bars of a "B."

"It's a very blokey club," said Bob, "even though we have women members." He was standing with his back to a dazzling panorama of sun-lit blue ocean. He was like a captain on his bridge; the sway of the sea far below even giving the giddy impression of movement. Directly beneath him capped amphibians swam laps in a pond-green pool, undaunted by the waves that crashed over the side and into their lanes.

"To be a member, you have to swim three Sundays out of four, from May to August, over the course of five years," Bob said. He was a stout man with a white goatee and white hair swept back from a widow's peak."I've been a member 24, 25 years. You'd come down here on Sunday morning with a terrible hangover, and it would be f…… cold. You'd swim your heat and then come up here, have a beer and revive."

He was drinking a Resch's. "It's what all the Bondi boys used to drink. They had a brewery in Bondi Junction. We used to all live around here. Come here," and he walked me to the side of the building, along the bar and past the room with the one-arm bandits. "See that?" he asked, pointing down to a deep spot near the shore. "That's the bogey hole. We'd go swimming there after the races. There used to be a rope slung across, and we'd grab onto it so the waves wouldn't throw us into the rocks. We love sea water." He said this with gruff, redoubtable affection.

"Now hardly any of us live here. We can't afford it. Most of us are ordinary people, simple workers. I have two, soon to be three jobs. Though you do get the odd police inspector, barrister.

"And we had to take on associate members. You only see them on Sundays. As soon as they start the loud music," he said, looking over to a table of potential blasters, "we all take off."

The building showed signs of age. The paint on the window frames was chipped, the pool a somewhat rancid green. "The water should be as clear as the ocean," Bob said. "You got kids peeing in it, and the slime from the vegetation."

But soon the whole place was going to be rebuilt, modernized. "It will be ready by May. We're not going to have top floor billing anymore. They're going to move us a floor lower and put a restaurant in here. Shops downstairs."

Another landmark, if not destroyed, altered probably beyond recognition. For the Icebergs, it was a matter of submitting, or losing it altogether. They took it well; Bob commended the new owner, John Singleton. "If he sees an icon about to die, he'll do what he can to save it. We're not just a Sydney icon, we're an Australian icon. We're the oldest swimming club in the country -- we claim."

I asked if he and his friends had been out to the new swimming center at the Olympic site, an impressive glass structure open to the public. He looked at me with a pained expression.

"That's not sea water."


Emma eased her ancient station wagon into a spot opposite the Australian Hotel. She had told me she'd be wearing red Doc Martins, but a more distinguishing feature, I thought, was the black stubble covering her small round head.

We drank tea at a table outside the pub, while a tape of Tom Flannery's The Explorers played. "When I was at school," Emma said, "we were all taught that the heroic Captain James Cook sailed into the bay and claimed Australia for England. The Aborigines have a different view. One of the elders said to me 'that white fella Jimmy Cook' -- he calls him Jimmy Cook -- 'he came in here and stole all our fish.'" And she laughed with approval at the indignant, unreverential tone.

No one, she said, had consulted the Aborigines about making Homebush Bay the Olympic site. And yet Homebush had been important to them, serving as the meeting ground for the coastal and inland peoples. "Homebush was like the front door," Emma said. "You knock at the door and ask if you can come in. It's where you sit down to work out your protocols."

And it was still unclear what role Aborigines would play in the Games. She said she didn't know any Aboriginal people who wanted the Olympics, but she thought that the elders should give a "welcome to country speech."

"We never gave up our rights to the land. We're still fighting for it." She added that a lot of journalists didn't envision her people doing anything but protesting.

"Australians don't let Aborigines adapt. And we're the most adaptable people in the world. We adapted to the desert. But they don't allow us to acquire new skills. They expect to see us all painted with stripes. If you're not wearing a lap-lap 'loincloth' and carrying a spear, you're not authentic." And she let out a long, reactionary laugh.

"Before 1967," she said, referring to the year of the referendum that gave indigenous Australians citizenship, "Aborigines were still in the fauna and flora category."

She asked if I wanted to see the only European building protected by Aboriginal law, and we hopped in her station wagon and rattled downtown. "The Europeans followed our paths to make their roads," she said, heading up George Street. "Parramatta Road is an Aboriginal dreaming track."

It was a short drive of injustice and suffering. "Forty percent of us are unemployed," she said. "In Redfern 'the strongly Aborigine area of Sydney' there are no black people working at McDonald's. Our health state is battered, absolutely. I talk about our elders -- our elders are in their '40s.

"Yet we survive. In the '60s, the government tried to collect all the information they could about us before we all died off. They thought we were going to disappear." She unleashed that infectious, silly-them laugh. "Aboriginal culture is fluid and vibrant, mate."

The building sat on Elizabeth Street, a stone-and-red-brick facade flying the Aboriginal flag. (One red and black stripe -- for land and people -- with the yellow ball of the sun in the middle.) In the second-floor office, Emma picked up a key and led me through dilapidated corridors to a door that opened onto a large theater. Rows of plush red seats, a wall of high arched windows papered over.

"This is where our people met to make a call for citizenship," Emma said. "They came from all over, and had to enter through the back door -- coppers were standing at the front. It was Australia Day, 1938, so they had to walk past a reenactment of the First Fleet landing to get to the meeting. Douglas Nicholls, our only Aboriginal governor, was here, and Bill Ferguson. No Europeans were allowed in, so they could all speak freely.

"They demanded citizenship. They demanded equality. The meeting laid the foundation for the '67 referendum. In 1938," she said, her voice wrapped in awe. "Before Martin Luther King. Before Malcolm X. This is the place where the Civil Rights movement started."

It seemed as good a place as any.


IF YOU GO

GETTING AROUND

Public transportation is excellent, giving you a choice of subway, bus, train or ferry. Ferries are a great way to see the harbor and seem to lift the spirits as soon as you step on board.

LODGING

Sydney has had a hotel shortage, something that the Olympics are helping to amend. But make reservations well in advance, especially for weekend stays. I stayed in four different lodgings, only two of which I recommend:

The All Seasons Crown Hotel (302-308 Crown St., Darlinghurst; 011-61-2-93-601-133; fax: 011-61-2-93-808-989). Rates start about $115. Steps away from busy Oxford Street (a lively gay area) and a 10-minute bus ride from Circular Quay. (It's booked up for the two weeks of the Olympics.)

The Australian Hotel (100-104 Cumberland St., 011-61-2-92-472-229). This is in the touristy Rocks, but high enough on the hill that it's away from the crowds. Rates start about $60. Cozy rooms -- you'll find your soap wafer clutched in the claws of a miniature stuffed koala -- above an atmospheric pub. The shared bathrooms are kept spotless.

EATING

Great fresh seafood. Try Sydney rock oysters, small and thought by some to be the world's tastiest. Also wonderful ethnic restaurants -- Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Indian, Persian, Turkish, Mongolian -- scattered about. I had a wonderful meal -- Sydney rock oysters and the delicate fish barramundi -- at a little neighborhood place at the top of the Rocks, called Fish at the Rocks (29 Kent St.). And don't forget the meat pies at Harry's Café de Wheels.

PUBS

The Lord Nelson in the Rocks claims to be the oldest, but the nearby Australian (part of the hotel) is less touristy and has pizzas with toppings including emu, kangaroo and crocodile. (Tastes like pepperoni. Just kidding.) Like the Australian, the Lord Nelson also has a few rooms, with baths and at twice the price.

MAIN SIGHTS

The Opera House, the Harbour Bridge (which you can climb on a guided tour), the Olympic site, the Queen Victoria Building, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Taronga Zoo.

NEIGHBORHOODS

The joy of Sydney (as of London). The Rocks, rising to the west of the Circular Quay, for a taste of old Sydney; Glebe, genteel bohemian, with lovely terrace houses; Newtown, less genteel bohemian (both near Sydney University); Darlinghurst, more lovely terrace houses, a big gay area; Kings Cross, the red-light district; Pyrmont, the Sydney Fish Market; Balmain (artsy); Leichhardt, (Little Italy); Cabramatta (Vietnamese); Bondi and Manly, the two famous beaches, the latter reached by ferry and possessing a sunny, honky-tonk atmosphere.

INFORMATION

Contact the Australia Tourist Commission Helpline at 800-433-2877; on the Web at www.australia.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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