Good or bad the human spirit is made to get used to things. We adapt. Get familiar. Make routine. So often it takes change, and a break in daily patterns and structures, for us to see things in a new light.
As someone who loves to travel, who needs a large dose of freedom, it is these shifts in perspective and consciousness which make me feel most alive.
Here are a few contrasts which have jumped up and clobbered me in the last few weeks since leaving London and landing in Australia.
The smells: one minute I’m in the city not smelling much at all (too much cement perhaps... not helped by picking up a cold)... the next I’m standing in a forest surrounded by towering gum trees and late summer, early autumn heat. They don’t say you can taste scents for nothing. I was inundated with eucalyptus. A glorious sensation and as familiar a welcome home as one could get.
Later came my reunion with the Aussie sea: the salty air and sound of waves crashing, calling me from the car the second I opened the door at my Mum’s beach house in Kiama... urging me to run onto the beach to feel sand between my toes. Ah, bliss.
Of course I’m as white as a light-house at the moment, after the best part of two years without sun-baking... so just as quickly the searing sunshine forced me back indoors until I could: a) escape the midday heat (you know, Mad Dogs and Englishmen and all that), and b) find a huge tub of sun-screen and my old Aussie cricket hat with a wide brim.
Another contrast is the light. Australia is so bright! Seriously, every freckle and blemish on your skin suddenly feels like it’s under a spotlight. I ordinarily admire the skin of English girls for its purity – but could I have turned into a scaly crocodile overnight?! It’s like the unforgiving fluorescent lighting in nightclub toilets at 2am... where your slightly smudged mascara takes on the look of a wanted felon. Searing Aussie light also makes rogue grey hairs yell like Kath and Kim “look at me, look at me”. Ooh, not good. Though past experience tells me it won’t be long before they’ll be bleached golden by the sun; and if that fails there’s always a hairdresser. Meanwhile I’m in and out of the fabulously warm water so much that my hair is frequently wet; not to mention extra curly because of the vigorous sea-salt.
I could complain this extraordinary light is playing havoc with my one dodgy eye – whose pupil was damaged such that it doesn’t contract as it should – but it just means I must be vigilant and not leave the house for a moment without wearing really good sunglasses. Yet even that reminds me, in a strangely fond way, of the reasons Australia is called ‘the sunburnt country’. It seems when it comes to vivid colours and natural spotlights, Australia is like a lead actor down-stage centre in a special, while other countries hover in comparatively subdued light like an under-appreciated chorus line. I’ve had similar experiences when sailing around the Greek Islands or living in Tuscany, and many tell me the light in Africa has a dramatic appeal, nevertheless this is a keenly felt contrast upon ‘coming home’. The surprise, is that I’d forgotten.
A trivial but fun contrast is that I’m driving again. I hardly go near a car living in central London. Down Under I am zipping around happily in my old Mazda – which friends and family cannot believe is still going, but which I heartily defend as she’s never let me down and as the engine works that’s all that matters to me. Oh, and the air-conditioning. She and I have been companions for more years than I can remember. It’s a shame the on-road taxes are now so high it probably doesn’t make sense to keep her going in Australia while I’m spending most of my time in Europe, but it’ll be a sad day when I say goodbye. She’s cute and small and would be perfect to drive around European cities if I could teleport her abroad. Otherwise I rather like telling my young nieces and nephews “no, there’s nothing wrong with my car... it’s called manual locking... “ to which they screw up their faces in non-comprehension, only exceeded by bemusement “the car from the olden days” is installed with something called a “cassette player”... not a CD or iPod device. I’d have liked to find a tape to educate them with a bit of Aussie rock from the 80s, but no doubt they’re lost or stored in a box somewhere (like much of my stuff, scattered around the globe).
Another thing which seems strange, is to be hearing Australian accents. I know I still have the accent of my heritage... but I’m used to listening to British accents on the street, in the pub, on the news, in the theatre, with friends... so this is currently a marked contrast. It’s nice. But it’s different.
The price of fruit and vegetables is a huge shock too. Volume ensures these products are far cheaper in the UK and, though that’s no guarantee of quality, it does take some getting used to that a small bag of groceries from Woolworths costs $50 whereas at my local Co-Op or Sainsburys in Wandsworth I’d pay £15 or £20 for the same. Thankfully, my sister Rebecca has pointed out that legs of lamb are far cheaper Down Under, and access to quality seafood is easy, so I think for the month of May I’m going to go on a protein load-up.
When I first got off the plane in Melbourne – after a particularly quiet and spacious flight on Royal Brunei’s new Dreamliner 787 - a great mate, David, picked me up and drove me to a pretty part of Victoria, the Yarra Valley. That evening David and lovely Linda (and her mum, Gwen) hosted an evening of music around a fire pit. Jet lag had not yet taken hold, so I lay back on a wooden bench listening to songs on guitar and blues-harp, and looking up through boughs of gum-trees to a perfectly clear sky and hundreds and hundreds of stars. The flight takes a day, so it was technically a day and a half then since I’d left the UK, and two days since I’d looked up at the sky in suburban London, so the vision of these glistening constellations - the southern cross as familiar as the eucalypt, the music, the company and the beer - was a welcome reminder the sky is not only different from one hemisphere to the next, but always a feature of movement from the city to the outback or less populated countryside. And that is a contrast of place which I need to feed my soul and bring me back to the basics. I could not have asked for a softer landing on the other side of the world.
Which brings me to one’s mates: it’s sad to part, to leave friends behind for a time, but it is wonderful to be reunited with the other people in your life, in your heart, who you’ve been missing. It’s precious to find in that place of contrast people who mean so much to you, and who are genuinely happy to reconnect, to quickly fill the gap since you last met with stories, love, memories, laughter and shared hope for each other’s prosperous well-being.
Where would we be without our mates, eh?! It’s those contrasts, those individuals who share a history and an affection with you that is unique, which is most precious. So if I haven’t seen you yet, I’m looking forward to it.
Hello Australia and happy Anzac Day!
[P.S. Sorry about the unusual gap of time since my last blog post. Moving apartments, travelling, and a misbehaving laptop have proved distracting.
Thanks for checking back in with ‘There’s Always A Story’. Cheers, Julie]