by Robert Hamilton
I recently returned to Sydney for a month long working holiday. After living in NSW’s capital city for some 15 years through the 1980s and 1990s, I had departed the harbour city just prior to its 2000 Olympic games and had shifted to regional Australia. My time on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast hinterland and, later, a stint on the Fleurieu Peninsula of South Australia, were welcome respite from big city living. A long-time friend invited me to bunker down in Mosman with him for a work experience vacation. The green leafy streets of the northside of Sydney were still there, but these transport veins were clogged with European SUVs. It was bumper to bumper BMWs, Benzes, and Range Rovers. Yummy mummies and working executives squeezed their way down streets not designed for this level of traffic, in a bid to avoid the slow march on Military Road.
Harbourside Living is Bumper to Bumper
It is difficult to find a flat surface anywhere in a harbourside suburb. Looking up and down these winding side roads, I thought to myself, motor vehicle traffic does, at least, look a lot better on tree lined thoroughfares. Crossing the street at roundabouts is something to approach with vigilance; and it is a credit to Sydney drivers that more pedestrians are not knocked down in the process. Cafes dot the corners of many Mosman avenues, and al frescoe tables are filled with locals sipping lattes. Great coffee is accessible in abundance all over Sydney, as I can personally attest to. Café prices are reasonable, when compared with the price of parking and most other things in Australia’s largest city.
Still a Sticky City
The humidity of Sydney was a clammy shock to my skin and body temperature, after living away from the east coast for several years. Playing golf at Northbridge I was drenched in perspiration after climbing my way up the cliffside pathways and fairways on this delightful little course. Adapting to mountain goat conditions is a prerequisite when traversing these northern harbourside suburbs. My body soon grew accustomed to the steep climbs on streets, apartment stairs and other slopes. I used to joke about never being able to stand still in Sydney, without being shunted backward socially and economically, now, I must circumnavigate the inclination geographically. My heart beat faster and my blood pumped more vigorously, I was alive in this city.
Sydney’s Good Fare
Good food is not as easy to access in regional Australia, especially of the takeaway kind. Cheap eats do not exist in little towns. It takes mass to manifest an abundance of commercial culinary options. The ubiquitous Thai restaurant does not deliver affordable and fantastic fare in the impoverished outer zones of the great southern land. Luckily, I am a dab hand in the kitchen myself and do not overly miss the cheap eats available in larger cities. It was great to be back in Sydney for the food alone. Sensational Thai, fabulous phos, superb pizza, really fresh sushi, and a myriad of other cuisines, tantalised my taste buds for the duration of my stay.
Natural Beauty Harbourside
The essential beauty of the harbour itself is breathtaking. I had forgotten just how dramatic and verdant parts of it were. Looking down from the Mosman national parklands was extraordinary and evidence of why people have stuck around and paid handsomely for the privilege of living harbourside. Boats bob about on blue waters, bushland rises to the top of cliffs, and birds screech and wing their way about the ecosystem. Sometimes you can, even, forget about the mass of humanity perambulating around in their shiny new SUVs.
Driving around these streets I felt squashed in from all sides and worried about making contact with the metal skins of other drivers. Parking was a case of sucking in my belly and hoping to fit in, which I invariably did. It was a perceived reduction of room to move, there was enough space, but it felt constrained. I thought about the recent comments of the ex-Premier Bob Carr and Dick Smith in relation to the accelerated population growth in Australia’s two biggest cities. The high levels of migration, in excess of 100 000 every year for years, has marked Sydney and the lifestyle options it affords its residents.
Looking around the streets of Mosman and the northside suburbs of Sydney, you see a proliferation of Chinese faces. I imagine these are some of the wealthy migrants who have moved to Sydney over the last couple of decades. Those I saw looked happy and were engaged in the common pursuits of this harbourside suburb. Young women were jogging and walking, enjoying the warm weather and exercising their lithe bodies. Mothers were escorting children to and from their SUVs. Mosman is a vibrant and health conscious community in the 21C, judged by the behaviour I observed.
You cannot turn the clock back, ala John Howard and his conception of the Australia of the 1950s. You can, however, question the social and economic settings that exist in any nation or state. You can talk about issues and debate whether these settings are correct in the current climate. Do people in Sydney want more and more population growth? Are we spoiling one of the most beautiful cities in the world, through excessive urban development? Is the Mosman lifestyle worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to reside there?
Human beings are funny things, we love to crowd together in one spot, despite there being an enormous Australian coastline of opportunities. Businesses will not shift to regional locations and assist in the spread of our population. Those who move to the country, often struggle to find employment and to survive away from the major cities. Democratic governments have narrow short-term vision and will not plan for sensible satellite-city growth. The socialist dictatorships, seem, better at making long-range plans, which cater for their population’s tomorrow. Sydney on the current scale of growth, will be a challenge for commuters, and, I imagine, residents will spend more time within their domiciles.
I was impressed with the natural vivaciousness of the all the locals I encountered during my working holiday. Sydney people are out there living their lives, even, if finding a park takes up considerable amounts of time. Get more people using Uber, and other crowd sharing applications, and it could take some heat out of the traffic situation. I am thinking self-driving cars may make some inroads into the bottlenecks and traffic jams in the, hopefully, not too distant future. Sydney drivers are great at letting each other into lanes and making turns. They are far more mature than drivers in smaller cities around Australia. It is like they all share a secret, about how great their city can be, and they act in concert to alleviate gridlocks and make life a little easier for their fellow human beings.
Sydney brings out the best in most locals and visitors, I reckon, with the majority striving to have a good time. Darling Harbour is the mega multicultural melting pot, where the variety of faces and skin tones is wonderful. A brief pit stop at Maccas, saw Islander girls singing hip hop tunes out loud, tables of Asian youth enjoying the vibrant parade of their peers, and families from all over tucking into a fried treat or two. There are concrete ping pong tables to share for free with those who love their table tennis. Parking is cheaper on Sundays to support families partaking of the facilities. We kicked a footy around on a grassy expanse in the middle of it all.
A trip to IKEA was another eye-opening experience. Carparks full of consumer vehicles that had journeyed out to shop in giant warehouses. Whether it be a mega sports mart, a Bunnings, or the Swedish furniture monolith, these folks were here to have a good time. Sausage sizzles fronted one joint and my friend made a beeline for this carpark gourmet snack. Meatballs were, also, on the menu at the IKEA cafeteria, surrounded by families enjoying the budget offerings. The food was unsurprisingly good, this was Sydney after all. I watched an African church congregation exit their temple, which was taking place over the highway. The brightly coloured dresses caught my attention on this Sunday morning. My friend could not decide on the floor lamp he sought from among the many choices within the IKEA display. I purchased a pizza cutter, a desk lamp, a colander, 3 side plates, and a stainless-steel grater. We left deflated after exploring two immense floors of furniture and accessories, which we were forced to traverse like rats in a maze, which appeared to never end.
A night time visit to Marrickville in search of Pho memories (pronounced fer I am assured) was like journeying to another world. A warm world of spicy Asian smells, flying cockroaches and balmy breezes. The Pho was wonderful, served in an extra-large bowl for my reminiscing friend. One could say it was a long way to go for a bowl of soup, but that would be completely missing the point. Sydney is a kaleidoscope of distinctive microcosms, which sit side by side in different directions. Marrickville is quite unlike Mosman, as Manly differs decidedly from Glebe; and higgeldy piggeldy roadways criss cross suburbs like something planned on LSD. The expression, ‘up hill and down dale’, comes to mind, as I reencounter this city from my previous lives.
As you get older, and, if like me, you have lived like a gypsy, moving around ceaselessly, you look back at periods of your like, like some immortal vampire. Times spent in certain locales take on misty past life shades. Did I really live there, with her, all those years ago? It becomes like those places do not exist anymore, which they don’t, really, the past is gone forever after all. Sydney is a patchwork of memories for me, but this time around, those memories do not call to me like sirens in the night. I am thankfully free of the tug of the past. I can enjoy today for what it is and not what it once was.
I am older and the people I meet are older, it seems. My pursuits are not those of a younger man. I diligently labour at my work, and, then, am happy to quaff a glass of wine and enjoy a tasty meal. I no longer seek extracurricular entertainment in my surrounds. Is this pulsating city wasted on one of my generation? Is the hassle of getting from A to B worth the grind, if the rewards sought are not of the extraordinary kind? We used to call Sydney, Sin City, half-jokingly, of course. My only sin, these days, is occasional gluttony. Too much of a good thing can kill you, or so they say.
Younger people clamour on the busy thoroughfares in this city. They are all hurriedly on their way to somewhere. I see faces from a hundred different cultures, as these people gambol about in search of prosperity. Broadway shopping centre is a hub on the inner west side of this metropolis, and it attracts large numbers of itinerant city dwellers. A coffee seated here by the vast sloping automated walkways, affords the watcher a parade of Sydneysiders going about the business of consuming and living. Apple has a store here that is more like a temple than a mart of any kind. Sleek people fondle sleek machines in search of who knows what. Light reflects from the devices into faces huddled above, as if these were pilgrims seeking holy benediction from godly relics. My god, Steve Jobs.
Parking is an unavoidable chore for the motorist in Sydney. The amount of time, my friend and I spent in search of affordable parking options was considerable. Councils in this city seem to allow developments to be built without the necessary parking facilities to support their functioning. A trip to the Orpheum cinema complex in Cremorne was not complete without the dance of finding street parking. We watched The Shape of Water, which began inside a building, which was the movie’s Orpheum cinema. This was a story within a story, our very own Russian doll experience. Del Toro exquisitely explored the concept of our relationship to the monster, disability, and morphed genres together like an alchemist. This was the old Mike Walsh cinema, but it has grown in size and dimensions.
Hot stifling nights, without a fan, sleeping on my friend’s son’s red racing car, single bed, were not a highlight of my trip. The view out the window was of the tree lined slopes of Mosman, of houses and apartment buildings bunched together up hill and down dale. I could see a designer bathroom, way in the distance, which overlooked a Sydney harbour view, in my estimation of its orientation. The average house price in Mosman last year, was $3 827 000, according to www.realestate.com.au. The median rental price for a house in Mosman is $2 300 per week, and for an apartment $650.
As the days until my departure dwindled, I felt myself constrict somewhat and my appreciation of the city dimmed. It is a natural cycle within a holiday, when the realisation dawns that you are but one tiny part of a giant machine going about its business. Sydney has its daily regimes defined by the usage of its roads and facilities by its population of residents and visitors. The takeaway food did not taste quite so special anymore. The pokiness of the flat was suddenly more apparent. The sounds of the city were intrusive and annoying. Holidays are like honeymoons, familiarity breeds contempt, and what was charming is, now, chaffing.
Getting out of Sydney is no easy thing on a budget. Airfares are much cheaper these days; but you get what you pay for in this life. Uber would not allow me to register online, there were multiple problems with the sign on for rider’s process. I took a taxi from Northbridge to Mosman and it cost around $40 something. I was already up for in excess of $300 for long term parking at the other end of my journey. I tracked down a minibus service to the airport for $52. On the day of my departure it was late because of traffic. As the bus pulled up 30 minutes late I simultaneously was informed by Virgin that my plane was delayed by some 45 minutes, this would stretch to over an hour in actuality at the airport. At the terminal there was one baggage drop receptionist for every hundred, waiting queued up, passengers. Once we had passed through this grim experience, passengers on our flight were wrongly informed of a gate change twice, before we sat on the tarmac, in our stationary aeroplane awaiting a flight plan from those in command at the tower. Onboard we received a tiny packet of crisps, as our allocated snack. This is what airlines now provide in the age of the cheap fare. Our stewardesses were aggressively cheerful throughout the flight.
Upon landing I did not look back, but Sydney was not to blame, it had just been a bad day.
©Robert Hamilton & Midas Word