A few days before I took the pledge and became an Australian citizen, I celebrated my impending ‘Aussie-ness’ in true style by enjoying the spectacle of the AFL Grand Final – Pies v Eagles – in my local pub in country Victoria.
Can there be anything more Aussie then sipping a pot of cold beer, surrounded by dinky-di locals hurling abuse at muscly boofheads on a big screen amid the pungent aroma wafting up from an unwashed carpet?
Perched on a bar stool, holding an ale, there I was offering my limited analysis of the great Australian game (whose rules I still haven’t quite figured out after 14 years of trying), wondering how the hell I ended up here in the first place?
After all, I was the least likely person among my circle of Johannesburg friends to ever contemplate moving Down Under, someone who once famously vowed never to live in the same country as Steve “You’ve dropped the World Cup” Waugh and Shane Whatshisname and all the other Aussies that had, more often than not, thrashed us South Africans on the cricket field and other sporting arenas.
But here I was, a few days out from joining the other 25 million-odd people in this vast and curious land who call themselves ‘Australian’, and feeling rather pleased with myself.
This might have had something to do with three or four pots of ice-cold beer I’d enjoyed as the game drew to its thrilling climax, creating a warm glow in my belly.
Or perhaps it was the un-expectantly jovial conversation (unexpected, since I’d walked into the pub knowing no one) I’d struck up with Jason, the larrikin bloke sitting next to me at the bar, who it turned out lived on my street and was full of funny tales from his job on the Melbourne docks and his travels with his wife to Nepal and who by the end of the afternoon was slightly rat-arsed and could only make it half way through a story before chuckling to himself, because he’d forgotten the point entirely.
But the feeling was deeper, like maybe, I actually belonged here, that I’d absorbed something of the country’s essence – it’s essential “fair go” good heartiness, it’s fair dinkum spirit and inexplicable cultural oddities and contradictions – into my skin after all this time.
It was as if I’d grown a new layer of ‘Australian identity’, over my South African roots and the other layers of ‘me’ – my traditional Orthodox Jewish upbringing and my adopted Englishness, courtesy of four cherished years living and working in London.
As the evening of the citizenship ceremony at Kyneton Town Hall drew nearer, I became gripped by nostalgia for the past 14 years.
My mind danced back to the day I touched down in Sydney in late September 2004 after a long flight, and feeling the muggy heat of a surprisingly humid Spring day as I exited the airport building. From there I was taken to La Perouse, named after the French navigator who landed there before Captain Cook, to enjoy the view across Botany Bay and be warned to watch out for snakes.
The bright sun and deep blue waters were a stark change from the grey, Autumn skies of London, where I’d said goodbye to my friends a day earlier, before hopping into a mini cab in Golders Green for the motorway out to Heathrow.
In suburban Sydney, newly unemployed and work visa-less, Australian pop culture got its early hooks into me courtesy of morning re-runs of The Secret Life of Us a show about a group of twenty-something friends living and loving at Melbourne’s St Kilda Beach, narrated by the philosophical observer and writer, Evan (played brilliantly by Samuel Johnson). I took daily jogs beneath the fig trees of Centennial Park only a short walk away, went on weekend excursions to the Central Coast, visited Canberra and the Floriade and was introduced to the music of Cold Chisel, The Whitlams and Powderfinger.
Sydney soon departed, as did my relationship in a cloud of self-induced misery, giving way to the humidity of tropical Brisbane where I secured a job in PR (writing media releases that no one read) and a cherished 457 work visa. I vividly remember feeling both exhilarating and melancholic waking up on Australia Day 2005 in a shared townhouse in Stafford in Brisbane’s Northern Suburbs realising I was completely on my own.
I also won’t ever forget that scorching hot day wandering aimlessly around the Brisbane Botanical Gardens, Southbank, and the city, the Triple J Hottest 100 playing on the radio, wondering just what the bloody hell I was doing here.
Rather then become a recluse, being alone jolted me into a new and surprising phase of gregariousness and adventure. Within a few months, with the help of websites like the Gumtree, I soon gathered around me a motley crew of new friends, most of them local Brisbanites, who had returning from London work stints. They were all lovely, warm and welcoming people who made me feel at home, and I’m sad I’ve since lost contact.
We’d catch up after work in the city or Fortitude Valley, drink ourselves silly and rock out to the local band playing cover versions of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Hunters & Collectors, Paul Kelly and the Rolling Stones at the Elephant and Wheelbarrow or Pig & Whistle. By that time I’d relocated to a shared apartment in leafy New Farm on the banks of the Brisbane River (my previous flatmate, with a propensity for having loud, moaning intercourse with her boyfriend, having kicked me out for a few harmless indiscretions including using her expensive winter blanket without asking).
I would often stumble home down Sydney Road after a night of drinking, dancing and canoodling in the Valley, crawling into bed as the sun was just starting to come up.
I remember a wonderful Christmas spent as the pseudo-adopted son of my delightful new flatmate Jane’s Gold Coast family in their swimming pooled home, a holiday which included a Formula One-like ride in her father’s super-charged Holden Commodore to pick up a relative in Murwillumbah across the border.
There were new discoveries: the gaudy delights of Surfers Paradise only an hour away, the beaches and markets of Noosa on the Sunshine Coast, the rather depressing hippyness of Nimbin, a weekend away to taste the bohemian air of Byron Bay, a holiday at Rainbow Beach below Fraser Island with its bleached white sandy beaches -and a string of short-lived romances.
The party stopped soon after that Rainbox Beach Christmas holiday, when I got “boned” from my job (they finally figured out I actually did very little all day) and ended back in Sydney, working as a journalist for a trade publishing outfit on the North Shore on another 457 visa.
(As a side note I should add that Brisbane was where I sat enthralled watching the epic 2005 Grand Final between Sydney Swans and West Coast, a game which was instrumental in developing a surprising interest in the sport alongside my established passions of rugby, cricket and the English Premier League.)
Back to Sydney: Coogee Beach and Dural
In Sydney, I made my first home in an Art Deco flatshare overlooking Coogee Beach and then later, after I met the gorgeous Kiwi who was to be my wife (we were introduced by mutual friends at the bar at the Lord Nelson Hotel at The Rocks), to a two-storey apartment in Woolloomooloo that we shared, nestled amid the hipsters, drug addicts and down-and-outs of Kings Cross for two funky years.
With the bustle and hustle of rainbow-flagged Oxford Street only a short walk away Betty’s Soup Kitchen (sadly no longer there) and its homemade damper bread and cramped Don Don’s with its enormous bowls of Chicken Katzu became favourites as did drinking holes like the Gaslight Inn, Dolphin and Clock Hotel.
I attended my first Mardi Gras parade, ran my first City to Surf run, and took our dogs, two playful silky terriers for morning walks, heading up to the NSW Art Gallery, as trains rattled below, and to the rocky wilds of the Royal Botanical Gardens and sensational views across the harbour.
When our Woolloomooloo lease ended, inner city Sydney with its buzz, noise and congestion gave way, for a magical six months, to country living as we joined my future wife’s sister and her partner sharing a large house on a couple of acres north of Dural on the rugged and bushy northern outskirts. On the property were half a dozen horses, five dogs, and a couple of Diamond-backed pythons who made a home in the roof above the living room, feasting on rodents. They could often be seen slithering through vines outside our expansive lounge windows. (It was at this time that I bought my now well-thumbed copy of A Guide to Australian Snakes).
A delightful wedding in an Apple Orchard in Clyde, Otago surrounded by 50 of our closest family and friends (followed by a honeymoon road trip around the New Zealand South Island) gave way to a magical year-long backpacking adventure around the world (read about my BEEG Adventure here) and then a new chapter: Melbourne when we returned to Australia from our travels in February 2011.
There after I got an online writing job in the city, and soon after, we started a family that has most recently grown to five. It was in Melbourne, that I also landed a cherished role writing for The Australian Financial Review where I recently clocked up five years. Where does the time go?
Return to the country
We spent almost six years in the rather bland Northern Suburbs of Melbourne – Oak Park and then Niddrie – before packing up and heading north on the Calder Freeway for leafy Gisborne with its rolling kangaroo-hopping green hills and country fresh feel.
Which of course brings me right back to the country pub, and the big screen telly, and the Grand Final and the pots of beer in the belly, and the locals laughing and yelling and my new friend forgetting the point of his stories and me feeling rather pleased with myself after my unexpected 14 year odyssey.
So here I am. As Aussie apparently as the next bloke, part of this fabulous, swirling multi-cultural melting pot with an uncle called Bruce (truly), father-in-law who barracks for Collingwood (sadly) and three Australian children, wondering…who the bloody hell I am going to vote for at the next election?