When Richard’s church choir director once mentioned he grew up in Perth, my response was, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
The reason I said this is because at the time, I was naïve, ignorant, and didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. Well, I’m still all of those things, but not when it comes to Perth. Well, some aspects of Perth, anyway. Actually, “some” might even be pushing it, but whatever.
My aversion to Perth’s isolation wasn’t just based on its amusement park situation. Frankly, the thought of being that far away from anything made me uneasy. Sixteen hundred miles is a long way to go to reach the next sizable hub of civilization. That would be like living in Los Angeles and coming across nothing until Kansas City (actually, you could probably make the argument that such a situation exists already. But that’s neither here nor there). Moreover, when I was researching possible activities to fill the time in the event we left Adventure World early, there seemed to be diddly squat to do. Perth has a reputation as being Australia’s largest retirement center, which means it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the city’s main draw is a low impact, geriatric friendly botanical garden and municipal park. The more interesting attractions like Rottnest Island required more time than we had and we are not museum/symphony people. That pretty much left walking trails which, you know, I can do at home.
Basically, Perth seemed like a giant bore.
I was still excited when we arrived. I always imagined my first contact with Australia would be at Sydney, but hey. One does not fly all the way to Australia and get all poo-poo about it just because you’re instead landing in a city that, for all intents and purposes, is a wilderness outpost that happens to contain skyscrapers and a Tony Roma’s.
There was a minor issue with the rental car, so while Richard went back to the Avis desk, I opted to wait in the parking lot where the heat was enveloping me like a warm, safe hug and the car roofs glimmered in the gilded light of the sun. The sky was that brilliant rich blue of late afternoon, the kind of blue that seems to put everything into perspective in its signal that the day will end, the kind of blue whose short lived beauty makes you reflect on what’s important in life (in other words, the kind of blue that makes you look at your 9-5 and think, fuck that shit). It began to register that I was finally fulfilling a wish that had been germinating since childhood. Australia, I thought. I am in Australia.
I looked down at my feet, still encased in sneakers. No, that would not do. I unzipped my suitcase and rummaged around until I located my flip flops. My feet had that pasty, clammy look from being closed up for so long. I wiggled my toes, smiling at both the feel of the fresh air and the knowledge that there was no way any spider would be able to hide inside those sneakers now, not with that smell. After four months of living in a climate that often necessitates doubling up on socks, it hardly looked natural to be sliding my feet onto the el cheapo faux suede soles of my flip flops. But I can because it’s February and it’s summer because this is Australia, I thought. Australia. I am actually in Australia.
I stretched a little, looked down again, then frowned. My jeans and t-shirt were definitely emitting generous whiffs of l’odeur de l’avion mixed with l’odeur de has-not-showered-in-over-24-hours Megan. Back into the suitcase I went, glancing around surreptitiously as I emerged. Satisfied that the lot was devoid of people, I ducked into the front passenger seat and, hoping I wasn’t about to star on a CCTV channel, I quickly and most ungracefully shimmied out of my jeans and then just as ungracefully folded my legs into a pair of shorts.
I opened the door and stepped out barefoot. With the heavy denim gone, I felt like I could finally present myself to Australia. The heat from the ground pleasantly radiated through my heels and the balls of my feet. I pressed my toes into the macadam, gripping it like a gymnast does a balance beam. Australia, Australia, Australia. To be physically standing on this continent—a continent that, until about an hour ago, had existed in my mind solely as a series of faraway images, maps, stories, and that marvelous heart attack known as a Bloomin’ Onion that doesn’t even count because it’s apparently about as Australian as sensible portion sizes are American—was profoundly surreal.
I was farther away than I had ever been from every place that had hosted my 28 years of existence.
The world was such a big place, and yet here I was, stray pieces of sock fuzz between my toes like any other day.
* * *
Of course, such a sense of surreality only lasts so long. Eventually, some part of your physical body finds its voice and the wants of basic survival outtalk everything else. At that moment, the voice was issuing from my stomach, and it was saying, “Knock it off with that poetic drivel and feed me, dammit.”
And in no time, it was business as usual: Richard was adjusting the driver’s seat and muttering how this car couldn’t possibly have been designed for anyone over five foot nine, I was giggling at his suffering, and Australian Karen (I guess just Karen now?) was guiding us to the closest Chinese restaurant she could find.
Oh, and the weather was seriously magnificent. That part doesn’t always conform to the business as usual routine, but goodness me, this was fine. Hot, but not oppressively so. Hot in a way like an electric blanket feels when you first crawl under it on a cold night. Sunny, but not in that hellishly blinding way I’d been used to lately, namely the Dublin-In-Wintertime way where the highest the sun gets, owing to Dublin’s northerly position on the globe, is a haha-fuck-you angle that hits you precisely at eye level no matter the time of day. I remembered what travel writer Bill Bryson wrote about this city: “Perth has glorious weather, good-natured weather—the kind that sets the postman to whistling and puts a spring in the step of delivery people.”
And perhaps that is the key to my realization that the two million plus people who have settled in this remote corner of the world maybe aren’t such loonies after all.
The mystery started to unravel at the Chinese restaurant, where I couldn’t help but gush to our waiter about how good the food was after so many airplane meals. Ten minutes later, he (along with a customer picking up takeaway) was still chatting with us, curious about the details of our trip, wondering why we chose to visit Perth of all places, wishing us well, still wondering why we picked Perth, thanking us for visiting, still donning that you’re-serious-you-actually-came-to-Perth-for-Perth look of incredulity, and just generally being a nice guy.
And then there was everyone at Adventure World, detailed in the previous post.
And then there were our hosts, Sandy and Joe. We decided to try the Airbnb route since hotels in the area were fiendishly expensive. As a result, we found ourselves with a lovely little apartment attached to their house. For less than half the price of the going hotel rate, we had a large, comfortable bed; hardwood floors; some of the best smelling coconut shampoo in existence; breakfast; an invitation to join certified instructor Sandy’s yoga class (not that we’re into that, but the offer was there); quality time with their dog Meescha; and access to what they call their “secret garden,” which was a behemoth sized covered and partially enclosed patio that was fully furnished and decorated with plants and rockwork. I think my favorite memory of Perth is sitting out there after the sun set, sipping tea, chatting with Joe, and spoiling the hell out of Meescha. The place was lit with white string lights and Chinese lanterns, creating a cozy glow that seemed to complement the subdued heat of the evening. Meescha had her eyes half closed as my nails drew light circles on the top of her head. Joe was saying that you can wear shorts year-round in Perth and that he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. No, I thought. I can see why you wouldn’t.
But it wasn’t just people that made Perth what it was.
(Although they sure do write the wittiest and most thought provoking signs, it must be said.)
No, I do not identify with this whatsoever, nope, no way, not I.
It was the fact that the city itself was clean, vibrant, and uncluttered.
And it didn’t hurt to know that I’d always have a date to bring to the park…
…because, while I originally wasn’t too keen on a municipal park being the happenin’ destination, I can’t fault a city that manages to tuck so much green space into every available nook and cranny. Kings Park is the big one, but notice all the other green bits. That’s a lot of reading benches.
And the parks do provide some awfully pretty views.
And some rather humorous signs. (Safety first!)
But perhaps more alluring than anything, Perth has the privilege of looking out on the sublimely marbled amalgam of teals, turquoises, ceruleans, and sapphires that is the Indian Ocean.
I have never seen a more perfect color in my life.
The one thing I did want to be able to say for myself regarding Perth was that I went in the Indian Ocean. Before we flew out, we drove to Fremantle, which seems to be one of those trendy beach towns whose streets are lined with alfresco cafés that serve overpriced, unfulfilling things made with organic ingredients you can’t pronounce and upscale boutiques that make you wonder just how many women are actually seeking $120 sundresses. At least, this is what I gathered from the grand total of twenty minutes we spent there since rush hour traffic lengthened the trip from Perth considerably (hey, I never said the place was perfect) and we had a plane to catch.
Most of those twenty minutes were spent making a mad dash to the beach and back before our parking meter expired, but at least three minutes were spent performing that arm flailing, high stepping schlepp meant to transport oneself across dry sand without getting it in your shoes that invariably ends with half the beach in your shoes.
I mean, I couldn’t come all this way and just look at it.
So I did my best to stick my hands in without bringing a tsunami to the sandy shores within my sneakers, which resulted in an awkward squat that was close enough so my palms could skim the water but far enough to infuse the whole affair with a cringeworthy note of foolishness that Richard so kindly captured for posterior…er, posterity.
I stood up, clenching and unclenching my fingers. My attempts to flick off the wet sand left by the receding waves were about as successful as trying to locate a plot in a James Joyce novel. That was okay. I didn’t mind.
* * *
I’d arrived in Perth with sock lint between my toes.
I was leaving with sand there instead.
For the rest of the day, I’d ever so often curl and flex my toes inside my sneakers, feeling the grit rolling and crunching beneath and within my socks. It was an unexpectedly fond reminder of this city, the kind of reminder that just as unexpectedly made me feel a little wistful as we drove to the airport. Much to Richard’s satisfaction, I was rather regretting now that we hadn’t taken advantage of being wide the eff awake at four a.m. the day before to go for a walk by the river as he’d suggested (instead, I’d chosen to pull the blankets determinedly over my shoulder in an attempt to triumph over jet lag and tune out the crows bleating outside, which was exceedingly difficult to do because this is Australia and nothing can be normal and so the crows sound like goats who’ve somehow gotten a hold of some helium and no, I am not making that up).
It seemed hard to believe that I had expressed my condolences to someone who had grown up here. Sometimes I should really think before I speak.
Granted, we’d spent less than 48 hours in Perth, which is certainly not enough to gain a true feel for any place, not to mention the novelty element was still there. Maybe it really is boring if you’ve lived there your whole life, but with people like this, in a climate like this, next to the most beautiful ocean I’ve ever seen, I still think I’d be mighty pleased to call this place my hometown.
At any rate, when I’m old enough to say that strolling to a bench to get my Charles Dickens on legitimately counts as exercise, I dare say I’d be rather pleased if that bench were in Perth.