Tuesday, December 25, 2012
This is Australia
It was nine a.m., and I was sitting in my daughter’s house, looking out of the window at her garden, in a fairly typical Australian suburb. It was already 25° C. The sun seems (and probably is) much brighter here than it ever seems to get in Europe, the world is much drier. There is a mixture of native and exotic plants in this and the other gardens that I can see. But it is the eucalyptus and the melaleucas that stand out most. The houses are all red or cream brick, mostly with red-tiled roofs. Magpies are perched on the branches of the big gum tree in the garden across the road. I can hear the noisy myna birds, probably on the roof – these are not native, but are certainly ubiquitous. One glimpse of all this, and I know immediately that I am in Australia. The colours, the sounds and the smells are somehow uniquely Australian, even when they contain exotic elements.
It is this that constitutes Australia for me. Not the beaches, not the wide open expanses of the outback, but this suburban vision. Australia is one of the most highly urbanised populations in the world: sub-urbanised, really. Not many people actually live in the cities themselves. Most live in the vast expanse of suburbs that surround these business centres. There is a sense of space, even in these suburbs. Perhaps this is also one of the things that changes the quality of the light. Once in the suburbs the buildings are low, the sky seems more vast, the sun has more freedom. Even the eucalypts, with their distinctive open canopies, seem to frame, rather than limit, this openness.
It is also this mixture of the native and the exotic, which seems so very characteristic of Australia. It is noticeable in both the plant life and the bird life. European visitors will find here many of the birds they are familiar with: pigeons, sparrows, starlings, blackbirds. But this seems to add to, rather than replace, the local avian fauna. Alongside these introduced species are the magpies, the lorikeets, the honeyeaters. Magnolias and jacarandas grow alongside eucalypts, flame trees, melaleucas and bottlebrushes. In the suburbs, at least, this seems to work, even though ecological purists might object. There is also an increasing mixture of cultural and ethnic origins among the human population, with cultures sitting happily side by side, and sometimes mixing and spilling into each other. A good thing, I think, although not all would agree.
It is difficult to capture and describe what makes Australia Australian. Australians struggle a great deal with this, with trying to describe, or even establish, a clear identity. Yet somehow it is clearly there, a gestalt that can’t really be captured in words or photographs. You just know you are here, the minute your feet hit the ground. When coming through customs, and the customs official says “G’day. Anything to declare, mate?”, where else on the planet could you be? Perhaps they are trained to say this; perhaps they make themselves more ocker to satisfy the incoming tourists. But, Jeez, even that tells you you’re in Australia!