Saturday 26 December 2009

Letter from Australia 1

Pressing my nose to the window, I took a breath. I was here - transported half a world away from home by a humongous blimp-like Qantas AirBus. I was circling over the brightest city in the southern hemisphere. Night-time Sydney lay below me, sparkling in the darkness of the vast outback like the Promised Land. And I swore I could see Christmas lights blinking in the suburbs.

Day One found Rose and I walking the coastal path past sublime beaches with names such as Bronte and Clovelly, plucked straight from the Old World, interspersed with native Coogee and Tamarama. We didn't wear sunhats because we didn't want hat-hair. Big mistake. In between trying to spot which one was Heath Ledger's house on the cliffs above Bronte beach to insisting on going as far as the headland so we could gaze at Bondi in all its white-wave, white-sand sweeping bonanza, we spent far too long in the sun. Mad dogs and English women? Later, swimming in the sheltered seaweed-streamed lagoon-like waters of Clovelly I was clobbered again by the Sydney sun and paid for it with a day in bed with heatstroke. Heatstroke? But Santa Claus was coming to town!

Christmas Eve found me in better shape, and a trip to the suburb of Matraville where houses in a Ramsay-esque Street compete to Olympic levels to display the flashiest, trashiest of festive lights, from roofline to garden gate. And, streuth, does it draw the crowds. Some families settle for a cruise-by to stare at the spectacle; others stroll amid the chattering, good-spirited mayhem of excited rug rats and indulgent parents in shorts, thongs and t-shirts. How incongruous it felt as tropical winds ripped at the jacaranda trees in the humid dusk, threatening to uproot a big-blow-up Santa emerging from inside a big-blow-up chimney anchored to someone's lawn. It was a fairyland of tackiness where silver reindeer and fake snowmen were there to prompt us - if indeed we had forgotten: Do We Know It's Christmas Time At All?

Christmas morning roused me with chirping cicadas sounding like rice shaken in a cup, and the on-off shriek of a parakeet dawn chorus under balmy skies. I remembered the years I woke as a child in a cold, dark bedroom with brother or sister or even the cat at the foot of the bed but never a wily cockroach zipping about across the floorboards. I was half a world away.

And I remembered my flight in. It must have been the gaudy lights of Matraville I'd seen from the plane, like a great landing strip. It must be impossible for Santa to take a wrong turn Down Under.

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