They’ve added a new desk to the Qantas check-in zone. A pair of smiling Hawaiians in slick uniforms, deputized by the Australian government, peruse the pile of documents we’ve brought: my passport, H’s passport, H’s travel exemption, H’s travel authority, our wedding certificate, our vaccine cards and, hardest to acquire as omicron tore through the mainland U.S. in the week before Christmas, our negative test results.
“Is this it?” H asks giddily as we wander into the near-empty terminal. “Are we actually going?”
“Not yet,” I reply. I’m getting nervous. There are reports that omicron is already taking off in Australia and it feels unlucky to assume the borders — only recently opened after nearly two years — will stay that way. “Not until the wheels leave the ground.”
Leaving Australia has done things to me. I am intensely homesick for a version of home that I’m finding, with each visit, is more and more out-of-date. It has also made me hyper-aware of its blatant jingoism and cringy attempts to forge an all-too-Anglo cultural unity. But no amount of cynical self-awareness can stop the visceral wave of patriotic nostalgia, the first real gush of hope that overwhelms my body when we round a corner and see Qantas’ iconic flying kangaroo parked at the terminal.
It’s been three years since I last went home. Three long years in which my own blissful little life — romance, marriage, friendships, a loving family-in-law, testing the limits of “working from home,” outdoor adventures in the paradisiacal Pacific Northwest — has shone in ugly contrast with a plague-ridden civilization that feels like it’s shutting down, turning in on itself. Australians had a tough pandemic in their own ways but, unlike their American cousins, one million of them did not choke to death under the influence of Covid-19. In a world where our luck seems to be running thin, Australia remains the Lucky Country. And I, one of its luckiest citizens, am going home.
The Fernleigh Track follows an old railway that once linked a series of coal mines to the port of Newcastle. There’s a nature reserve just south of central Newy where you can see coal seams running through the sandstone cliffs overlooking one of Australia’s patented empty, perfect yellow beaches.
H and I are on the Fernleigh Track to take our shift walking the motley assortment of dogs that have descended on my aunt’s place, where the Dol family reunion is taking place. Lurid rainbow lorikeets flit through the canopy overhead and, somewhere nearby, we hear the laugh of the kookaburra for the first time. Dominated by scented eucalyptus, jet-black grass trees and exotic bird song, the Australian bush can feel like an alien world. To me, it looks, sounds and smells like home.
Karl rides a wave and gets smashed on some close-out section, so he’s standing in waist-deep froth when it comes. I’m still out beyond the breakers and I immediately know it’s special, coming in at an angle that might make the lefthander — which has been hitting square on the sandbar all day — just a little more makeable. A strong offshore wind with a little cross-shore in it has been holding the lefts up, slowing them down and hollowing them out. Every now and then I’ve spotted one grinding along the sandbar, moments of achievable bliss — an empty barrel straight out of a surf magazine — before the close-out shuts it all down.
This wave looks angry. It’s moving slow, drawing water toward it instead of rushing headlong into self immolation. I lean forward, stroke hard as it lifts me bodily. Weightlessness defines one moment, a sliding subsiding the next as the board grabs hold of the wave face. My right hand never leaves the rail and my left hand trails behind me, above and behind my head. My eyes lift to the deep blue wall of water ahead: a morphing, fluid chunk of raw oceanic power. As it bites the sandbar, the wall sweeps up the left side of my vision and then it’s above me, enveloping me as the growl of whitewater and buffeting wind mutes like an inward breath, like I’ve entered a vacuum. For a half-second I am crouched in moving silence behind the curtain.
Just as quickly, the noise of the ocean rushes back in and I am skittering out onto a momentarily empty face. The wave face turns brown as it dredges the hard sand bottom and I straighten out toward the beach to escape the its final show of violence, an involuntary hoot of pure stoke escaping from deep inside my lungs as my brain finally registers what just happened.
I paddle back out. Karl is suddenly a long way up the beach, powering through avalanches of whitewater and craning his head my way — later, he’ll say that he’d seen me go in and, watching me paddling out so far down the beach, figured that something special had happened.
“D’you make it outta that one?”
“Yeah,” I grin. I’m trying to play it cool, but Karl reacts as stoked as I’m feeling.
For days after, as Karl guides his grumbling old Hilux up and down the coast in our search for new waves, his phone will ring and he’ll answer through the Bluetooth system.
“Yeah we’ve been getting a few,” he’ll say in the slow Tasmanian drawl he’s picked up down here. “Easterly swells can be a bit of a pickle because everywhere has waves, but nowhere’s been truly firing, y’know? Bit too straight. Needs an angle to hit the bars right.” He’ll pause for effect and then announce mildly that “Q got a barrel, though.”
This will surprise me the first time. To my mind, Karl has grown into the quintessential Australian bloke: wry, observant, capable of analyzing his surroundings and then shaping them with the help of his truck bed full of tools. He’s quick with his mind but slow to speak, full of bone-dry turns of phrase, eternally understated.
“He did?!” his mates will repeat through the radio. I will hear them grinning, genuine stoke radiating out through Karl’s community of surfers, mountain bikers and tradesmen scattered across eastern Tasmania. “Fucken awesome.”
Surfing’s a self-centered sport. We don’t like sharing waves. Folks get territorial about their local break. And everyone wishes they got the screamer that happened to come your way, secretly believes they could’ve ridden it slightly better than you. Karl and I were once stoked little beach rats, simultaneous allies and rivals in everything from waves to soccer to women. To some extent, we always will be. So I will register this pure, uncut stoke for his friend, and I will love him for it.
My sister and I have planned our seats perfectly. Realizing that Nadal was playing the next day, we decided to ball out on tickets. “He’s 35 years old. How many more chances are we gonna get to see Rafa Nadal play?”
Not many, we decided. So here we are. But Melbourne in January is hot and getting hotter with each passing year, so shady seats are essential. We spent a good ten minutes comparing match starting times, the trajectory of the sun and the orientation of the Rod Laver Arena to choose a pair of seats that maximized proximity to the court and time in the shade — without sacrificing as much coin as the fine you’d get from Tennis Australia or Victoria Police for offering to pick Rafa’s next wedgie for him.
Professional tennis in Australia is far from the genteel spectacle of Wimbledon, Roland Garros or Flushing Meadows. Shirtless blokes in Bunnings sun hats recline with thonged feet hanging over multiple seats. Fangirls shriek with joy every time Rafa’s opponent, a feisty young Canadian named Shapovalov, hits a double fault. This is Melbourne, after all: Australia’s sprawling multicultural metropolis where Toorak’s Anglo McMansions are an easy train ride away from Dandenong, a working class neighborhood where only 23 percent of people speak English at home. In the grounds surrounding Rod Laver, local lads wrapped in Greek flags are getting rowdy in anticipation for the Nick Kyrgios match later in the day. There’s little room for snobbery here.
Shapovalov fights back from a two-set deficit and, by the middle of the fifth, the players are waiting a good 30 seconds for the shouts to calm down. “C’mon Shapo!” cry the Shapovalov supporters who, in typical Aussie fashion, have Oz-ified the Canadian’s syllable-heavy surname without asking permission.
“Vamos Rafa,” come the cries of their opponents. The umpire is finding it difficult to settle everyone down. This is sport at its best in a truly sports-mad country, a place where regional cricket results and upcoming fixtures for the Lake Macquarie under-17 girl’s rugby season consume a full third of the nightly news.
Ahead of one particularly tense break point, the shouting of “C’mon Shapo!” and “Go on Rafa!” goes on for quite a while. Finally, as the crowd dies down under the umpire’s entreaties of “please,” a man with a South Asian accent pipes up: “Come on both of you.” And the crowd collapses into giggles.
“Please,” the umpire pleads. “Please.”
It’s been a tough Monday for Sydneysiders. Tough in the fact that it’s been a sunny Monday in a La Nina-defined summer of mostly wet weather. The sun has been out all day, a fresh sea breeze ruffling the glittery Pacific, and inducing dreams of the beach in millions of sun-starved workers.
In the afternoon they come, an eastward migration filtering through snarled traffic and an inadequate rail system that purposely segregates the coastal suburbs — leafy, hilly, powerful, Anglo and insular — from the vast western half of the city, dominated by the have-nots of Australian society: indigenous folks, descendents of convicts and a United Nations’ worth of migrants who have defined Australia’s growth throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. It is widely understood that while the descendents of Britain’s colonial overseers have inherited the most beautiful parts of Sydney — and prefer to keep the riff-raff out — the west throws better parties and eats superior food.
I’m staying with Robbie and his partner in the small bay of Coogee, where the leathery pensioners and “yummy mummies” on the beach are now being joined by mulleted high school boys in Sydney Roosters rugby shorts and girls in hijab with curls of henna creeping down their wrists. Today, my littlest sister has joined the daily migration out from her home in the hallowed “inner west,” where Sydney’s multicultural west collides with east side money in an explosion of graffiti-streaked gentrification.
Robbie guides us away from the sandy Coogee beach and over the northern headland. After a week of having me sleeping in his spare room, Rob must be getting sick of me interrupting him mid-conversation on these coastal walks — like now, as we look back over Coogee’s semi-natural amphitheater of cement and sandstone arranged around the spectacle of the pale green Pacific — to say “Jesus H. Christ mate, take a look at this. You live here?!”
Nine months earlier, Robbie and his partner had been riding out the worst of the pandemic in a dark apartment in south-central London. Sydney’s lockdowns have been tough, but there’s only so much complaining you can do when your five-kilometer radius of officially sanctioned wandering includes Coogee Beach.
Over the headland we go, past a couple of apartment blocks and multimillionaire homes with big windows full of ocean, and then down a public walkway into narrow Gordon’s Bay. Here the crowd is older and more subdued. Sunbathers and groups of friends hang out on the boulders pried loose from the sandstone cliffs, or pick their way down a seaweedy concrete path into the water. Once out, it’s a matter of laying back and floating in the almost-warm water, finding a boulder to stand on or pulling on some goggles to check out the fish. One of Robbie’s friends recently spotted a large blue groper, apparently a beloved Gordon’s Bay local, but we can’t find her.
After 20 minutes of floating and chatting, it’s time to get back. We’re going to feed my sister before she heads back into the heart of the metropolis for an evening soccer game. The stakes are low when you’re staying so close to the water — Robbie and I will be back for a dip and a waterside coffee before we open our laptops tomorrow morning — so you end up taking shorter swims. My sister is eager for me to hang out in the inner west this weekend and, indeed, she will end up taking me to a mezze spot where we’ll eat the best food I’ll find in my two months in Australia.
Casual evening swims and coffee chats with my friend, weekend plans with my sister and all of it tinged with the drowsy atmosphere that comes from combining Christmas and summer holidays. It feels like — hell, it is — a paradise.
There were tears at the drop-off spot, but also promises that it wouldn’t be nearly as long between visits this time around. The omicron wave is receding fast and Australians will soon start welcoming overseas tourists again. On the news, the goons and freaks and high priests of the American empire are positively salivating over their predictions that Russia will soon invade Ukraine but for now (and to the extent that holidaying Aussies are thinking about it), the consensus here seems to be that the Yanks are up to something shifty again.
The check-in line is full of Americans who, like me, were cut off from family by Australia’s border closures. “We’re going home for the first time in three years,” I hear a willowy white woman in front of me say. She’s wearing a full-body dress with sheets of material connecting the cuffs to her waist, like she’s going to leap out of the plane once we reach cruising altitude and coast the remaining distance to her west coast home like a sugar glider.
“Same for me,” says the middle-aged Latina in front of her. “I can’t believe it’s been that long. Honestly I’m a little scared to see what it’s like now.”
I stand in silence, listening, reveling in that airport feeling of weightlessness. Out on the highway, my mum and youngest sister are heading back to their lives. The friends and family I’ve managed to squeeze into an action-packed two months are back in their routines. And far away, in a ground-floor apartment on a frigid street on the far side of the Earth, my place in the world is empty and waiting for me to fill it.
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