Two wonderful things happened this week, or, better put, two wonderful people happened this week.
On Tuesday I sat by the beach in Manly, eating grilled fish and salad that was served in a cardboard box and slipped into a paper bag, with a German girl who has spent the past year living in Sydney. The gulls tried like mad to get her chips as we talked about Australia and Germany and empty forests and big skies. She asked me what I missed the most when living in Germany and I said the sky, the ocean and the birds. The space. I said it hit me once, when driving across the country, that you couldn’t go more than ten minutes without seeing something. A tiny village, a church, an Ikea. But here, here I could drive for days and see nothing but blue, red and green. Nothing but what has held the lightest of footprints for 40,000 years. She said she misses the long, winding human history of Europe, the so-evident tread of settlement and growth. We spoke about how that settlement and growth emptied Germany’s forests, leaving only the most innocuous of species; squirrels, deer, hedgehogs. I told her I still watch where I am putting my feet when I walk through parks and forests over there, a life-long habit of keeping one eye out for snakes slithering across my path. I will always watch where I am walking, just like I will always tip my boots upside down to check for spiders. She said the Australian bush is like aromatherapy but our birds don’t sing, they laugh. I told her about the Kookaburra who smacks his beak on the kitchen window at home, waiting for the inevitable piece of ham.
A true German, she produced a block of chocolate after our fish. She asked me, arcing her arm over Manly Beach, why I wanted to leave Australia. I said most Australians have this need to leave, to cross the seas and check all the other things out. We’re big travellers, a country built on immigration, a people with roots and ancestors dotted about the globe. It’s in our blood. We leave, we explore but we come back. We almost always come back.
On Wednesday, I perched on a stool in a cafe and ate a typical Sydney breakfast thing (involved sour dough, avocado and a poached egg) with Rebecca, an Australian who has just returned from living in San Francisco. Next week she will, with her husband, hit South East Asia. They want to be happy, happier than they were in San Fran, so they packed up their apartment and are trying again. There is a breed of person that finds – no, seeks – happiness by packing up life and moving it, who see change as a method of exploration, who choose change as an antidote. I don’t know how long we will do it for, but for now, this relentless quest for new and different, it works.
We talked about the Americans and the Europeans, about progression and regression and systems that don’t make sense. We talked about the sky. Turns out it’s an Australian thing. I told her how, time and time again, I took umbrage with being told I ‘had to do something’ in Germany, with implicit rules that everyone went by. She told me that was because I was Australian and I told her I had that precise cultural epiphany sometime in Münster, likely when I was told off for jaywalking. I never realised how stupidly stubborn I was – my people are – until I lived in a country whose socio-cultural norm is to do what they are told because it works. Australians have to do the opposite of what they are told, just for the sake of it, just to rebel a little bit, just to show we don’t have to do what we are told if we don’t want to. We are little shits. But my God, we’re a bit of fun.
So, three women. A German and two Australians. Three lives that have been, for snippets of time, lived in countries not our own. In a matter of weeks, we’ll all be in different cities again, then countries, as this relentless quest for change, for newness, for difference, continues. But for a little while, we were all beneath the Australian sky and for that, I am grateful.