Archive | January, 2017

Ruminations from afar

26 Jan


As soon as we arrived in Australia, we announced to everyone that we were refugees from Trump’s America. In Ulladulla, I went to a small AA meeting—with the always comforting mix of people, from sheep shearers to housewives and North Shore Sydney sorts here on holiday. When I said that we were escaping Trumpism, they all laughed in a kind of skittish solidarity. Even here, thousands of miles away and in a rural setting with little access to the internet or cell phones, one can’t entirely escape the terrifying news that the United States of America has gone insane and is attempting to jettison the last vestiges of liberal democracy. While Australians are happily going about their everyday lives in this salubrious summer season, safe and prosperous, the clouds of uncertainty and impending doom hover in the background.

Newspapers—and Australian papers are generally not known for their overly liberal views–are full of fearful analysis. The Australian Financial Review—the country’s equivalent of the Wall Street Journal—carries headlines such as “Turnbull scrambles to save TPP, condemns protectionism,” with grave warnings that “the prospect of some sort of trade war with China is now a very real risk.” Another article decries Trump’s “untruths”: “What we are witnessing is the destruction of the credibility of the American government”; for the writer of these words, the worrying aspect of this destruction is that American governmental honesty was the cornerstone for all other democracies. Without that model, then no government can be trusted anymore. No matter how one feels about specific issues such as TPP, the expression of these concerns is a vivid indication of the global impact of Trump’s irresponsible and impulsively demagogic decisions.

On the glorious upside of America’s global reach and the most positive aspect of globalization: the photo above shows the community bulletin board in the tiny beach town of South Durras, near Bateman’s Bay. Durras was our favorite summer spot when we lived in Canberra, so we had to make a nostalgic visit again as we drove down the coast from Sydney. Normally this bulletin board would announce community barbecues and town meetings. I was overwhelmed with emotion to see that even in this little corner of the country, women (and men) would be marching in protest of “Trump’s inhumanity.” Proof again that this is a global issue, not just sour grapes on the part of American “elites.”

I’m writing this (long-hand!) on January 26, Australia Day, which is in itself a politically vexed holiday on the national calendar. A combination of the 4th of July—barbecues and fireworks—and Columbus Day—a cringe-making imperialist celebration of European conquest of a “new” land, appropriately considered a “day of invasion” by the indigenous people so cruelly displaced by this arrival—the day really marks the end of summer holidays and the subsequent beginning of school terms next week.


A sign in a shop window in Bermagui, NSW.

We have been in four different communities along Princes Highway today, and none of them seemed to be celebrating much, at least not communally. I am choosing to see this as a positive step—that many Australians recognize the inappropriateness of festivities on this day, at least here on the South Coast, where many Aborigines live. (To be fair, Pearl Beach and many other places still have a community barbecue with traditional snags and onions and white bread grilled amid booths selling Lamingtons and hand-crocheted doily covers for toilet-paper rolls, and TV still broadcasts an Australia Day concert from Sydney). But it could also be a sign of the increasing unease, distrust and disconnect across all Western nations concerning the citizenry’s relationship to its governments. The shock of America’s descent into xenophobic extremism, the indecent reaction by so many Americans to a perfectly decent Obama presidency, is felt as strongly here as everywhere else. The whole world is girding its loins for the uncertainties and madnesses ahead.

Ulladulla & guinea pigs

20 Jan

We left our friends in Pearl Beach by train, picked up a car at the Sydney Airport, then drove down the South Coast about 4 hours to Ulladulla–well, Kings Point, actually–to the lovely cottages of our friends Chiaki and Colin. Ulladulla is an Aboriginal word meaning “safe harbor.” There was a long-standing myth that the name derived from the Aborigines’ pronunciation of the colonial era’s “holey dollar,” but that has been proven to be apocryphal.

Chiaki was my graduate student (by default: her advisor left so I took over, knowing nothing about Japanese art but something about Arts & Crafts), and we’ve been friends ever since. She is a serious scholar of Japanese art and its connections to Western art, has been a translator for Australian TV, and is a practicing Buddhist.  She is tremendously honored that a renowned Buddhist nun, Robina Courtin, once stayed here, in the very room where I am now sleeping. (  Her partner Colin was a newspaper photographer, and is the one who found these wonderful cottages in the bush. We find them to be the most inviting kind of beach houses, unpretentious and perfectly comfortable, unlike all the suburban-style houses that Australians usually build now in the bush and along the coast. Chiaki and Colin now live here full time, and each lives in one of the cottages. A nice set up, eh?


As Buddhists, they believe in killing no living creatures. That includes wasps, flies, cockroaches, ants, mosquitoes, and other beasties.  We are trying very hard to comply with the house rules. As evidence of their commitment to these concepts, I present the story of the guinea pigs.

Apparently one of their neighbors a few years ago was going to “toss” a pet guinea pig that they could no longer keep. Chiaki rescued the one, and put it in a big cage. Feeling that the male needed companionship, they got another guinea pig that they were assured was a male.  They were misled; within a few weeks, 4 baby guinea pigs arrived.  Ooops. Before they could correctly sex any of them, another 4 babies had arrived. Ooops.  They now have 10 guinea pigs, appropriately separated into girl and boy cages, and they are “determined to give them a good life.”  The care and feeding of guinea pigs now occupies much of their morning routines.  They give them all the best of food, and they even have a “camp-out” station on one part of the property.  I just think this is the sweetest story!

They also feed the birds, which means that they have an abundance of regular and very cheeky visitors. We’re thrilled to see again so many of our old bird friends, even the Gang-gang cockatoos, my favorites from our ACT days.

A nice environment in which to deal with the tiny fracture of my big toe (bye-bye, long bush walks!), my forgetting of my walking shoes in Pearl Beach, and a rental car that has some mysterious beep that won’t stop.  I am also finding it hard to get psychically acclimated–driving on the other side, for example,  has been particularly unsettling this time for some reason.  No doubt our fears for what will happen after tomorrow’s Washington “event” is contributing to this sense of unease. We are also appalled by the cost of things here now. Housing is through the roof; it’s true that there are NO HOUSES in Sydney under $1 million! NONE! The other night we went out for pizza and a few of us had a fish plate. For the 4 of us, with minimal drinks, it cost over $150. Yep, that’s right. For pizza. In a small beach town. Already it’s looking highly unlikely that we can afford to return here for any long stay, and even short visits are going to be dicey.

But there are the birds!

And the incomparable beaches!


Chiaki at Narrawallee Point, Ulladulla.

In Oz again

16 Jan

First of all, let’s just dismiss the idea that any 12-to-15-hour flight in economy class can ever be “enjoyable,” or even comfortable.  It’s just something one has to endure if one wants to experience the Southern Hemisphere.  We arrived this time via Auckland, which just added to the amount of time spent in transit.  Too bad we couldn’t have stopped for longer in New Zealand–perhaps another time.

So here we are back in Australia, our second home (we’re dual citizens), still in jet lag, and me with an airplane-induced cold. But it’s summer in Australia, and we are in Pearl Beach, a very upscale beach community about an hour and a half to the north of Sydney.  Our friends Bruce and Diane Swalwell have lived here in one place or another since we first came to Australia in 1990; we met them 40 years ago, when we were all dorm parents while in graduate school in Philadelphia. Our kids grew up together.  Pearl Beach is the most perfect beach for children, since it has limited waves, and a beautiful strand to walk on, plus fascinating rocks and tide pools to explore.  It received its name from Arthur Phillip, Captain of the First Fleet, in 1788, when he spotted the cove while exploring this part of the coast; he said the waves breaking against the beach looked like a strand of pearls. And they do!

And it’s high summer in Australia!  No better place to experience essential aspects of Australian life than at the beach in January:  kids playing cricket in the sand, families with all their beach gear walking and biking down the road, wet bodies walking up to the showers or to their cars.  And there couldn’t be a more salubrious setting than Pearl Beach, with its jungle-like bush around, and its overwhelming number of birds and wildlife surrounding the beach.  And to hear kookaburras again is just music to my ears.

The Swalwells’ house is a block from Pearl Beach’s Arboretum, a lovely left-wild but well-cared for parcel filled with the most glorious red gums and ferns and cabbage trees. The paths are tended by the village’s residents; flyers on the trails list the “Birds of Pearl Beach,” which number more than 100.  We didn’t see any there this time, but the vegetation was as beautiful as ever.

Oh, to be able to live here! But alas, as with most of Australia’s East Coast, the house prices are obscene, even for falling-down fibros.  So we will have to look further afield, even for rentals. But aren’t we lucky that we can visit this wonderful place?