I’ve long had a thing for Sydney. Call it a curiosity, call it a fascination, call it whatever you’d call the act of having a crush on a city—however you describe it, Sydney has held a piece of my mind captive ever since NBC spent two weeks in September 2000 broadcasting sweeping panoramas of its harbor before cutting to sweeping panoramas of Bob Costas’s doleful eyes. Without any distractions like the pinkeye of his 2014 Sochi coverage that rendered his conjunctivas more colorful than anything Jason Brown wore in the figure skating finals, my thoughts would invariably drift back to the dazzling images of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge.
The Opera House got me especially. It was just so beautiful, the way all those triangles rose like perfect white wings over the deep blue water. The Opera House was so different from any building I’d seen, and being so far away only added to its exotic appeal. To me, those triangles were more than just an icon of Sydney—they were Sydney. And hence, Sydney became synonymous with splendor, style, aplomb. Even the name seemed to emanate an enviable air of savoir vivre. You know you’re onto something special when you pull out a pretentious French term to describe it. I was enthralled.
But I could only admire it from afar.
So Sydney became one of the cool kids. Sydney was the honor roll cheerleader who sat at the popular lunch table. Sydney always looked put together and unruffled. Sydney was charming, sophisticated, glamorous—in other words, pretty much everything I wasn’t. Living in Pennsylvania, I was sitting about as far away from the popular table as you could get. I was with all the other socially awkward kids who remained unnoticed and unsolicited.
Sydney was a world away, both literally and figuratively.
But then, as often happens in the movies, there comes a night when the dynamic changes. The outgoing, popular character admits the company of the shy outsider. It’s a fleeting acceptance, usually because
it’s helped along by okay, maybe kind of dependent on oh who the hell are we kidding, this kind of thing simply does not happen in real life without bounteous amounts of alcohol, but it happens. For one night, the door opens. For one night, the outsider gets to see what it’s like to be at the center of the action, to be where everyone wants to be, to be with all the cool kids, to be (or at least pretend to be) one of the cool kids.
And so it was that for one night, I got to hang out in Sydney. For one night, I got to see the sights that had held my imagination spellbound for nearly fifteen years. It was just one night, because we are coaster enthusiasts who design itineraries that might be, shall we say, less than ideal for your average Fodor’s wielding tourist, but it was one night when I was finally where I’d envisaged my first foray into the country would take me (because let’s be honest, no one starts describing their wish to see Australia with “Gee whiz, I can’t wait to someday visit the municipal parks of Perth! I sure am longing to see some lichens!”). And even though I’ve matured to the stage where I recognize the totality of a country’s essence is not concentrated within a few tons of concrete and steel (Uluru had certainly been a lesson in the dangers of that sort of thinking), I still couldn’t help but feel gleeful that I was finally realizing a dream and seeing in person the most iconic landmarks not just in Sydney, but in the country. If there was ever a night to feel like I was finally invited to the hip, happenin’ spot…
…(a feeling made all the more potent considering I’d just a few hours earlier departed from the double gate and lone baggage belt of Ayers Rock Airport where a piece of common receipt roll paper served as a boarding pass)…
…(guys, seriously, AYQ was adorable. Doesn’t it look like a retirement home or something? I can just imagine those buses filled with Atlantic City-bound seniors eagerly anticipating slot machines and buffets and Joey Dee and the Starliters…
…or at least I could were it not for the fact that there was a big ass A320 parked behind the building)…
…and that I was so purely and unequivocally in Australia, then this was it.
We touched down in Sydney under dreary, cloudy skies. There was rain in the forecast for the evening, but the brief glimpse I got of the Opera House from the plane was enough to buoy my spirits and discourage dwelling on the weather. Still, I took the precaution to bring a sweatshirt since the darkened skies gave the illusion of chilliness and besides, it wouldn’t hurt to be prepared in the event of encountering air conditioning set to the finger icicling, nipple hardening sort listed on some thermostats as the Every American Office Building Ever So Much For Wearing Short Sleeves In July setting. I usually bring an extra layer wherever I go and I will usually wind up wearing it, which once prompted a high school classmate to remark that I had “a very grandmotherly nature” about me.
I tell you this to remind you that I’ve never been one of the cool kids.
As such, I set off with Richard, filled with the anticipation and trepidation that comes with setting foot for the first time in a city that has awed you for so long that it feels, in a way, like meeting a celebrity. And celebrities are the cool kids. I had on glasses, my hair was rolled back in a librarian bun, and I was wearing a sweatshirt that said Anthropology: that’s where the big money is.
This was basically like Fanny Price at a house party thrown by Regina George.
But even at this early stage in the evening, Sydney was a host already a little tipsy and in warm spirits. We emerged from the metro into a sultry hum, the humidity from the day’s earlier thunderstorms lending an atmosphere of casual affability to a nightlife already in full swing. My sweatshirt came off and thanks to our power walking to meet a friend of Richard’s for dinner, I arrived at the restaurant swimming in sweat and regret that I had worn denim Bermuda shorts, which might as well have been made of saran wrap at this point.
Still, even if my fashion choices had been on point, there was no way I was ever going to top the guy I saw wearing a t-shirt that read SMOKE METH AND HAIL SATAN.
One Hard Rock meal later (oh, and if anyone wishes to bemoan our lack of “cultured” food choices, Momofuk-you), I had just about unstuck my thighs. I had refueled, rejuvenated, and probably left Richard’s friend horrified with my somewhat less than refined method of eating a grilled chicken sandwich, which requires various grotesque facial contortions and the use of about fifteen napkins if done properly.
It was dark, the lights had come on, and I was finally here. I was finally invited to the party. I was finally a part of it all.
It was time to imbibe this city with wild abandon.
There is something so profoundly surreal about finally seeing with your own eyes something that you have seen hundreds of times, but always through someone else’s camera lens. That first look, that instantaneous transition from the vicarious to the real tends to feel almost unreal, in that I still can’t quite believe my eyes, and were the vision to suddenly disappear, I wouldn’t necessarily feel disappointed because I still wouldn’t be convinced that I’d really seen it.
Exiting the Circular Quay metro station was a bewildering affair. Richard knew where he was going, which was a relief because my mind was a game of JezzBall, my thoughts eluding corral as they zipped between getting my bearings, trying to remain composed amidst the sudden surge of people, and incessantly thinking whereisitwhereisitwhereisitwhereisit. We surfaced from the hordes waiting for ferries, walked past accommodations whose price is far scarier to dream about than anything Freddy Krueger could ever conjure, made a right turn and then…there it was.
There it was.
There was Sydney. This was it. This was Sydney. I was finally in Sydney.
It was like that moment in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation when Clark first lays his eyes on the Griswold family Christmas tree.
It seemed a show had recently let out. A few dozen formally attired people were making their way down the stairs. Hundreds more spilled out from the pubs and were sitting with lipstick stained wine glasses, foamy pints and deep fried bar snacks at the tables set up along the quay. We hastily zigzagged amongst the bustle until I pulled Richard aside. “Hang on,” I said.
I knelt on the bench lining the wall. Across the water, the Harbour Bridge looked every bit as mighty and dominating as 52,800 tonnes of steel and six million rivets should. The evening illumination highlighted the trusses silver and the pylons gold. In a spotlight at the apex were a pair of Australian flags, symmetrically positioned with a red aircraft warning light between them, whose every flutter asserted pride, ownership, and proof that once again, pretty much every country uses flags more tastefully than America.
I turned around toward the Opera House, then back to the bridge, then to the Opera House again. Between the two was boisterous chatter, inebriated laughter, and ferries with decks rimmed in white light carrying it all across the harbor and back, again and again. And then farther back, of course, there was a glob of white that was Luna Park’s evening illumination. No matter how many times I gazed at the scene, it still felt unreal.
But then I looked back and saw Richard’s all too real impatient expression and that was enough to convince me that a) this was really happening and b) that I had better hurry up if I wanted it to keep happening because Richard—who has never been a night owl at the best of times, let alone at the end of a long day like this one—has this disconcerting tendency to go from being chipper and awake to a crotchety sleepwalker in a matter of zeptoseconds. Now, in his defense, I make the same transition (and don’t we all), just with far less efficiency. It’s more of a gradual slide from wakefulness to something that can best be described as a somnolent hormonal crackpot, delivered with the kind of gusto that all aspiring actors would do well to observe if they wanted some pointers on how to convincingly play a villain whose demise is cause for celebration. At any rate, I hardly wanted this evening to suddenly detonate into a battle of wits against Oscar the Grouch or worse, between two Oscar the Grouches.
So on we went toward the Opera House. Originally our itinerary had called for a guided tour of it, but I had to settle for a stroll around its exterior owing to foolish coaster enthusiast priorities. This was okay. After all, it was the exterior that had always been more intriguing anyway.
And it remained so, even though seeing it in person risked an outcome similar to Uluru’s. In this case, however, reality could not destroy the flawless image of it I had in my head. If anything, it only strengthened it. To be in its presence, to see it up close—to see that the seemingly smooth surface of its shells was actually a series of tiles with thick, black, geometrically patterned grout separations between them…
…and to peer into the shells, to see the gently arcing fan of ribs supporting them, to see them as triangular portals into an ever changing program of performances, was to render animate and textured what had always been static and two dimensional in photographs and on screens.
It was like finally meeting that long idolized celebrity and finding a real person beneath the veneer of makeup and scripted speeches.
But this wasn’t like Uluru, where the celebrity turned out to be a diva. This was a case where reality seemed to renew the image I had in my head, rather than destroy it. In fact, the only worrying element of reality occurred as I was watching a flock of seagulls circle overhead at one point. Their flight speckled one of the shells with about a dozen gracefully pirouetting shadows, swirling black flecks against an ivory wall. We were far enough away from the crowds that the noise had largely abated. Even the usual grating squawks of the seagulls themselves were absent, leaving just this silent choreography.
Beneath this mesmerizing sight, all I could think about was the very real possibility of getting pooped on.
You may be wondering at this point what the hell I’m on about getting all flowery and shit as I describe this place. All I can say is that it just felt so incredible to realize that I was standing on the other side of the world, that I had finally traveled this far and was standing in the presence of a building that had embodied my impressions of Sydney (not to mention Australia) for so many years. Of course, it probably helps that we didn’t actually see an opera at the Opera House, because ever since I left a music class one afternoon in the sixth grade with a headache that screamed louder than the opera sample that brought it on, I’ve done my best to avoid the whole genre. And you might argue that the only reason I was so enchanted with it was because I’d built it up so much in my head that I wanted to be enchanted with it (although let me remind you of my high expectations for Uluru and how I really did get pooped on there).
But whatever about flowery shit and headaches and preconceived notions. The fact of the matter is that my notes for that evening read, “just wow freakin’ wow to finally see this.” That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
In terms of sticking to things, however, we had by this time fallen behind our predicted timetable for the evening. Realizing that my only chance of getting up close to the Harbour Bridge before Richard did his light switch thing was shrinking with every passing moment, I reluctantly turned away.
And so began the Great Bridge Sleuthing Expedition of 2015.
So, um, how do I put this without sounding like an idiot…um, well, we couldn’t find it. I mean, well, it’s not that we couldn’t find it find it, it’s just that we…okay, we couldn’t find it. I’m not making this up. Some time between balking at the realization that the bridge was a wee bit farther away than it seemed (or at least a wee bit farther away than was desirable at eleven p.m. when we had to be up obscenely early the following day), and passing the point of no return (i.e., the point where we were far enough away from the metro that I knew we were committed to the cause no matter what), we kind of lost sight of this colossal slab of steel that’s high enough to pass a ten story building beneath and longer than the buffet line at Holiwood Nights.
The Great Bridge Sleuthing Expedition of 2015 thus unfolded more or less as follows:
- Richard, having pre-programmed the bridge’s southern terminus on his bulky, unwieldy, and charmingly nerdy GPS watch, reminded me that he was going to use his bulky, unwieldy, and charmingly nerdy GPS watch to get us there.
- I acknowledged this, just as I have the other approximately 3,675 times he has glowingly reminded me of this watch’s usefulness, while silently vowing to keep an eye out for street signs: for it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a technological gadget, must be in want of a woman to roll her eyes and take over when the gadget invariably causes frustration and abundant swearing.
- The First Law of Modern GPS Navigation, which is that the satellite signal is somehow always better approximately three feet at a 45 degree angle away from you, was duly demonstrated by Richard, who was leading the way with his watch-bearing arm extended at the sort of awkward angle that he probably wouldn’t find funny were I to point it out at this stage of the evening.
- I began to regret those Bermuda shorts again.
- The Second Law of Modern GPS Navigation, which states that the most meanderingly absurd route will always be chosen if it’s 22 seconds quicker than the most direct and logical route, was once again proven. We could hear the vehicles rushing toward the bridge—hell, we could even walk beneath the highway on which they drove—but the labyrinth of hilly streets and staircases the watch directed us through to reach them is not a route I could easily replicate.
- I wished I had a bottle of water. And my deodorant.
- Richard’s patience began to wane. Still, he trooped on because a) he is a good, kind boyfriend and knew how much I wanted to walk across this bridge and b) he is a shrewd, smart boyfriend and knew how much he didn’t want to listen to my disappointed musings if we didn’t.
- I accumulated the equivalent of a small fjord between my boobs.
But finally, with one last set of stairs that could have awarded my suffocating thighs immediate employment at the Ministry of Silly Walks, we emerged at the correct footpath.
Was the sweat dribbling down my front and my increasingly parched throat worth it?
Oh come on, what do you think?
For all the times I dreamed about seeing this view in person, I always pictured it in the daytime. While I would have loved to make that image a reality, the advantage to being time constrained was experiencing a view that I’d imagined thousands of times in a way that seemed novel and extraordinary.
Instead of gleaming white triangles, the Opera House was now a softly lit bundle of canvas sails. Instead of a cobalt harbor, the water rippled with thousands of reflected lights like a moonrise over a black ocean. Every few minutes, a ferry would cut through, the waves in its wake like the boughs of an evergreen cascading atop each other. For the first time, I registered the view beyond the harbor, admiring the way the lights on the buildings contoured the skyline.
We made our way across, Richard stopping every now and then for photos, me stopping a bit more often to gawk, until I reached the middle. That’s when I decided to look up, and that’s when it really hit me that I should be appreciating the Harbour Bridge as more than just a 1,149 meter long Kodak spot.
There’s no question that it’s impressive when viewed from afar, but to focus on it up close is arresting. All that dark gray steel—all those thick iron beams, all that latticework, all those rivets—especially all those rivets—is just so industrial looking, so damn powerful looking. In front of me whooshed hundreds of cars, a din of engines and metal and wheels. Behind them rumbled a train coming from Milsons Point. And that’s the thing about bridges. Fundamentally, they are simply a means of conveyance from Point A to Point B. And yet…my eyes followed the rivets skyward. I craned my neck back far enough that I just about lost my balance. Against the black sky, the two Australian flags glowed in their white spotlights. Unfurling above the trusses, the rivets, the bustle, the noise, the Opera House, the ferries, the lights, the skyline, they were the coup de grâce to a masterpiece: “AUSTRALIA,” they seemed to say. “We are really fucking pleased with ourselves here.”
Like I said, you know you’re onto something special when you pull out a pretentious French term to describe it.
After we completed the bridge crossing, we decided to take the train back across. It was nearly midnight and the alarm would be going off in less than six hours, but even with that bleak thought I was exultant. Also thirsty. But mostly exultant because I did it. I’d finally experienced Sydney. Okay, so it was Sydney in a nutshell—hell, even less than that; probably more like a sunflower seed shell—but fuck it, I was thrilled anyway. Up until a short time ago visiting Australia hadn’t even been on my radar, let alone the prospect of hanging out for an evening in a city that had tantalized my imagination for fifteen years. There was something so satisfying on seeing what it was like, if only for one night.
I had reached that stage of the evening where I was drunk with elation and probably delirious with fatigue.
In the movies, this is the part where the cops come to break up the party and everyone scurries away.
In real life, this was the part where the thunderstorms came to break up the mood and we scurried for cover.
We arrived back at the hotel as disheveled as if we had actually been to some rager. The only differences were that we were drenched in rainwater instead of a questionable medley of spilled alcohol, bodily fluids and shame; and that the copious quantity of bottled water I began glugging before I even paid for it wasn’t to ward off a hangover, but rather because I’d shed more sweat than a Rocky montage thanks to those damn Bermuda shorts.
But oh, what a night.
* * *
Unfortunately, we didn’t quite escape despair the following morning. It wasn’t so much the torture that is wrenching yourself from a cozy bed after too little sleep, nor was it the ensuing combat against agonizingly heavy eyelids.
It was a hangover, and the hangover’s name was Pat*.
*Name is totally made up. Regrettably, the woman to whom it refers is not.
Now, I have to be honest. I don’t drink, so I’ve never had a hangover. But I gather they are terrible, and Pat was terrible. Pat was a walking headache, a nauseatingly shrill hellion who made me inwardly groan, wince, and long for the sanctity of a quiet, dark room.
Pat was a hangover incarnate, and that’s because Pat was an American tourist.
It started on our way to breakfast. Richard and I were the first ones on the elevator. A couple floors down, we picked up two more people, who each had a large rolling suitcase. It wasn’t a large elevator, so we made room with that that bleary-eyed, listless shuffle that people perform in elevators at six a.m. and continued toward the lobby in mutual silence.
On the second floor (or first floor for you European folk)—you know, the floor where it’s always faster to take the stairs than wait for an elevator—the car stopped, the doors opened, and there stood the human equivalent of snapping open a windowshade the morning after a bender.
“Now, everybody!” came a voice far too peppy to belong to anything human at this hour. “Mooooove back! Move back!” As she said all this, she gesticulated in the kind of exaggerated manner that belongs on a stage, swinging her chubby arms and flapping her wrists as though to push us all away. Somehow she managed to squeeze both herself and her friend into the elevator. She tittered and giggled at herself, even though the rest of us hadn’t said a word. But then she turned her head, beamed, and loudly proclaimed the following that I swear to you and every deity out there I am not making up: “You can tell I’m a sassy lady!”
She said this. She really said this. At six a.m. in an elevator full of sleepy, half comatose people, a past middle aged woman who was dressed like she’d just come from the set of SNL’s “Mom Jeans” parody commercial really said this. At six a.m. in an elevator full of sleepy, half comatose people she had just ordered around in the manner one corrals unruly schoolchildren, she really said this. Richard and I whipped our heads toward each other and engaged in one of those conversations where darting pupils and dancing eyebrows do all the talking.
We escaped the confines of the elevator only to find that Pat and her still silent
friend hostage, definitely hostage, were heading toward the breakfast room like us. When we reached the host stand, Pat was in the process of nasally bleating to the host and everyone within the greater Sydney and Canberra metropolitan areas that she wanted a table for two.
The host nodded and gestured toward the dining room, telling her they could sit wherever they wished and that they were welcome to help themselves to the buffet.
Pat began to sputter. “But—but—no, no, I want to eat at the restaurant!”
“The restaurant over there?” asked the host, pointing to the darkened windows and locked door of the full service restaurant on the other side of the lobby that wasn’t open, as anyone literate could deduce by the hours posted on the door. “It’s closed. This is the only breakfast place here.”
“What? So it’s only the buffet?”
“But I want real breakfast!” she screeched.
While Pat stood off to the side bemoaning the prospect of fictitious eggs and fraudulent hash browns, Richard and I approached the host stand. “Two of us for the fake breakfast, please,” he said.
* * *
And with that incident, just as with a hangover, any sense of magic left over from the previous night was well and most assuredly gone. In its place was a loudmouthed, awkward thwack of reality: for Pat and I sat at the same lunch table. We were both American tourists. Pat was a reminder, albeit a rather embarrassing one, of where I come from. Pat was a reminder that I am not really a part of Sydney, that I am just a visitor, and that soon enough, I would be thousands of miles away from it again.
I would be back to admiring it from afar.
But even as we ventured toward our next destination under cloudy skies that cast a pall over the city, I could still picture how it dazzled the evening before because I had really been there. For one night, I finally got to see what it was like. For one night the door opened and I was invited inside. For one night I got to turn the images in my head into a reality that didn’t have the Olympic theme music piping through the background. For one night I could be a part of it, even if it was just for pretend.
Yes, I know my experience was a mere pixel of the larger picture.
But I’m sorry, college professors who taught me how to overanalyze everything. It’s impossible to spoil the excitement of just simply getting to experience it at all.
At any rate, it’s probably good I didn’t wait any longer. Pat had a voice that could sunder steel. I can see the headline now:
HARBOUR BRIDGE COLLAPSES DUE TO SASSINESS AND BOGUS BACON
So who’s ready for more roller coaster related things?