Travel is a funny thing. People either use it to confirm the fact that they love the place they come from more than anything else the rest of world has to offer, or it serves to make one restless and dissatisfied with the place you’ve chosen to call home.
I’ve recently had to do a bit of wrestling with those feelings as a result of spending some time in a couple of places on literally the other side of the planet. Rather uncharacteristically – I don’t have a singular vegetable patch of writing to encompass everything, but rather some bitty and scattered thoughts which I wanted to park here, mostly because that’s really what this little corner if the internet is for anyway.
Beer as bond.
There is no single human being more aware of what it means to be an inhabitant of The Global Village than the barman in an international airport.
Sitting with a drink in a proper international hub, somewhere like Dubai, Singapore, New York or Hong Kong, the kind of place that pretty much just exists for people to hang around in for a bit before they go somewhere else, is probably one of the true great pleasures of life. That knowledge that you’ve got a finite and very specific amount of time to spend at a weird airport drinking-hole ordering a pint of something that’s probably not your first choice and eating a plate of crappy nachos paying for it in a currency that you don’t reeally understand, is made magical by the people you stumble across while doing it.
Being able to have a properly meaningful discussion about the IPL with an Aussie and a Texan, bound for Hyderabad and Chennai respectively while watching a Yankees game on the TV, is a lovely illustration of chaos-theory made tangible.
Australia is a tough place for a South African to be in. Firstly it’s expensive. Like, moere fokken expensive. A pint of beer that you’d normally pay maybe R25 for, will cost you about R80 in Melbourne, slightly less in Brisbane, and don’t even think about in Sydney.
But that’s not the real reason it’s tough. The real reason is a deep cultural one, one of sociology, background, expectation and of life itself.
South Africans expect things to be hard. They expect life to be difficult, for the obstacles between what one hopes will happen, and what will most likely happen to be very high indeed. Nothing is a straight line in our dear, beloved country – and that is what sometimes makes our journeys that much more unexpected and exciting, but it also means that our default setting is to be disappointed, to be thwarted, to just not have things be … easy.
But that’s okay, because you go to other countries, places like, London or Paris or New York, and you see efficient, bustling cities, full of things that just work, but it’s easy to dismiss them, because they’re so different from ‘back home’. The weather is shit, or the buildings are poky, the people are rude or the food is funny. It makes it more comfortable to accept the difficulties that come ready-baked into our country. Our safe-word is, “yes, but we have…” and then we proceed to fill in one of the following: weather, beer, beaches, bush, food, space, people…etc. It’s our safety-blanket – and we’re very loathe to let it go.
Then Australia comes along. Fucking Australia. Because it looks just like us. It sounds like us. The weather is like us. The people are like us. They drink like us. They drive on the same side of the road like us. They like sport like us. Cook like us. Laugh like us. Value the same things as us. But, and here’s the kicker, everything…just…works. It more than just works. It’s brilliant. Proper fucking brilliant. And it truly and utterly messes with your head and your heart. Because suddenly you become acutely and painfully aware of the half-life that you’ve been living. The shadow-version of an existence that you thought was full and vibrant and had meaning, but was actually a shabby, badly-made thing. And it makes you angry. Firstly for the time you’ve spent being a half-person. And then that a place exists with the audacity to be everything you wished your own country could be, but knew in your heart of hearts would never. Which sounds either harsh or pragmatic – depending on how you choose to take it.
Because its not normal to see a thriving city that almost could be Capetown, but with trams and busses and subways and trains, and get angry about it. Angry because it’s so unexpected to see those things in a place that otherwise looks and feels just like home.
This is not to say that I’ve resolved to pack my bags and say cheers – my weird and crooked little path is too tied up in my homeland – but it’s quite a thing to be made aware of.
Melbourne in particular has a food-culture, quirk and a brand of ‘interesting shit’ coming out the wazoo like it has an endless supply and they don’t really get what rationing means. The suburb defined by the rod-straight 2 km stretch of Brunswick street is home to more creative, gastronomic and drinking delights in one little patch than I’ve ever seen before, and it’s almost overwhelming, and that’s not even getting into enclaves like St Kilda or the city center.
Then, take a deep breath dear possums (see what I did there?) because – having been to food markets in France, Italy, England and of course at home – the Queen Victoria market in Melbourne is probably one of the best I’ve ever been to. No wonder this city is fast (and justifiably) getting a massive reputation as becoming one of the food capitals of the world.
I didn’t nearly have enough time to look at it all properly, but at least I know that I can go back.
All of this has an uncomfortable sense of rant about it, so I’m going to stop – and just say that Australia is really not what you think, which – funnily enough – is exactly what we like to say about South Africa.