When you visit Australia, what’s the one thing you must do? Obviously, you need to eat their national animal, the kangaroo, right?
Australia and New Zealand. They go together like peanut butter and jelly (or jello, as they call it here). Frick and Frack. Shields and Yarnell.
They’re really quite similar, aren’t they? For starters, their flags are practically identical.
They both say “g’day” and “no worries.” In both countries a double espresso is a “long black” and a cappuccino is a “short white.” Their accents are pretty similar, although Kiwis say “fush and chups,” which is how I tell them apart. From now on, if I can’t tell if someone is Aussie or Kiwi, I may be forced to trick them into saying either “fish” or “chips” or, if I’m lucky, both. My sense is, however, that Kiwis have a bit of a chip (or chup) on their shoulder about their bigger, richer neighbor. While we were in New Zealand, we heard more than a few barbs aimed at the folks next door. Eec/ Dare I say it? New Zealand seems like Canada to Aussie’s America, which is to say that the place is nicer, safer, and cleaner, and all that pisses the Kiwis off just a bit. As far as I can tell, the Aussies don’t seem to notice.
Anyway, notwithstanding the shocking similarities, seeing as how we made it all the way to New Zealand, it made sense to give Australia a chance to show its stuff.
I will say that the bar was sitting a bit high. New Zealand was lovely. We covered almost 1200 miles over the two islands. Here’s the final route:
The people were almost comically friendly. Eighteen seconds out of any downtown in New Zealand and we were back in Middle Earth. The whole country is basically one big Shire full of happy hobbits. Top that, Oz!
On the other hand, we’re city people, and as it turns out, our first stop, Sydney, is an excellent city.
We hit the ground running. In December when we were still in Egypt (which feels like lifetimes ago) I bought tickets to the February 13 Paul Simon/Sting concert in Sydney. We landed, dropped our bags at our hotel (after three weeks in an RV we got to sleep in an actual bed again!) and dashed over to the arena for three hours of real, live popular culture. The walk back to the hotel took us through some of the gritty sections of downtown, complete with more than a few clubs of ill repute, drunken revelers, and other non-Kiwi like experiences. Unlike Wellington, New Zealand, which is just a nicer version of Victoria, British Columbia, Sydney has an underbelly.
In addition to all the fine culture, the nice people of Sydney also served us what may be the best meal of the trip so far, if you don’t count Peter Lugar. We went to a place called Monopole, in the Pott’s Point neighborhood. Despite its name, which brings to mind the central feature of a strip club, it delivered a near-perfect meal. We started with a scallop ceviche, served with grilled avocado and corn and topped with a buttermilk avocado cream and a hint of fresh tarragon. Damn, friends, this was a good dish.
Then there was that kangaroo. It seemed kind of rude to come to Australia and eat their most famous animal, but I just couldn’t help myself. They served us a simply smashing kangaroo loin in a red wine reduction with a dandy little raw beet salad. The ‘roo was tender and tasty and I don’t care who knows it. I promise, however, not to eat koala. (For the record, Janine wants me to remind everyone that there are lots of kangaroos in Australia and that eating the national animal is not against the law or anything.)
Sydney is known for its Asian food, and we went all in, searing our innards at a northern Thai place called House. Isan food from northern Thailand is known for being fiery, and let’s just say that the House burned down, despite the copious amounts of India Pale Ale I used to attempt to put out the flames. We also had really good ramen at one of the very many good looking ramen joints in town.
We went on to sample even more culture in Sydney. After touring at least a half dozen theaters in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Argentina, we finally saw a show. At one of the six theatres in the Sydney Opera House, The Sydney Theatre Company (run by Cate Blanchett’s husband) presented a strange but good production of Tennessee Williams’s play Suddenly Last Summer starring one of Australia’s most beloved actresses, Robyn Nevin. The production employed a very weird technique – half the time the actors performed behind a white cyclorama, but the live performance was captured by cameras and projected on the screen. Every so often, the stage would rotate and the audience could see the actors directly. The technique distracted me from the (mostly) great acting, but Janine felt it gave the wordiness of the text some oomph. I’m happy to say that we disagreed unbickeringly. No matter, this was risky theatre done with verve and I give them points for that.
We also saw Tosca at the Opera House, which reminded me why I have come to really like opera. It was a huge production with massive sets, a cast of more than fifty, an enormous and wonderful orchestra, an overwrought love story, and great big, unamplified voices. Opera audiences are almost as fun as the show itself, and Sydney’s didn’t disappoint. There were dowager empress types, old guys with short ties and pants up to their necks, and a goodly assortment of the aged and the aging out for a night on the town.
The Sydney Opera House really is all that. It’s every bit as dramatic from the inside looking out as it is from the outside looking in. As you might imagine, building it was no picnic. Before the opera, we dug deep for the guided tour, in which we learned of the tribulations of its construction. For any of you out there who have remodeled your house, or, heaven forbid, built one from scratch, take heart – this project went ten years and $70 million over budget. The architect quit two thirds of the way in. When they poured the foundation, they didn’t actually know how they were going to build those famous sails. I’m here to tell you that it was worth it. When Washington, D.C. wanted to create a big performing arts showpiece, it settled for the square, boring Kennedy Center. Sydney built this. These are my kind of people.
There was so much we didn’t see or eat in Sydney, which in addition to being cultural and delicious is also a truly beautiful city. It’s got harbors, hills, some really lovely neighborhoods, and the famous Bondi Beach. What’s not to like? I’m only sorry that we didn’t have more time. We are told that Melbourne, the big city to the south, is more elegant, more hip, and even more delicious. If that’s the case, we may never leave.