An American Couple in Delft
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Several minutes after we left Singapore for Sydney, we crossed the equator. Unlike on the globe in our den, there is no line on the ocean showing a traveler that this momentous occasion is happening. I was shocked. Our flight took us over most of the Australian continent. In North America, we think that Singapore and Sydney are pretty close if we ever think about Singapore and Sydney at all. Actually they are 200 miles farther apart than Philadelphia and Delft so it was a pretty long flight. After a while, we came into Australia in the northwest somewhere west of Darwin and east of Derby. Like much of Australia, itís the middle of nowhere. We went for a several hours and 2000 miles and barely saw anything from the air resembling a human settlement. All this desolation is referred to as, pardon the expression, the bush. Anything more than 50 km from urban or suburban areas is the bush which is almost everything.

Sydney is a place where an American is immediately comfortable. The history is similar. The British first arrived there in 1788 and the city has grown up with similar influences and in a comparable time period as large cities in the eastern U.S. The British Union Jack is still on their flag and the British monarch is still the official head of state, but this a matter of growing controversy. Older folks, who grew up singing God Save the Queen, like it that way. Younger folks see no real connection to the British and want it changed.

We got to Sydney late in the evening, but no matter, we were there. I read The Thornbirds almost 30 years ago and have had a fascination with Australia ever since. Probably even before. The late hour and our tiredness were overtaken by adrenalin and a sense of having finally arrived. Sleep could come later. We were in Sydney!

We left the hotel and headed to The Rocks. The Rocks is an area right next to the Sydney Harbor Bridge. It has been faithfully restored to the way it looked in the 19th century. During the building boom of the 1960s through 1980s in Sydney, some developers wanted to level it for high rise expansion. A lot of Sydneysiders (is that a great name, or what?) were not happy about this. There were protests and clashes, and eventually a compromise was reached. What remains today is an area of beautiful shops and restaurants, and even Sydneyís oldest pub. Thereís something to write home about.

It was getting close to midnight and there was nobody around. I knew where we were on the map. I always know where we are on a map. We headed a little to the east between a couple buildings and when we emerged, we saw the Sydney Opera House bathed in a beautiful white light, across Sydney Cove. It is a magnificent sight.

The Opera House has a fascinating story. For a long time, Bennelong Point, the site of the Opera House, was a military fort. When the harbor began to be used by coal-fueled ships, the location was a tram shed. In the late '40s, Eugene Goosens, the principal conductor of the Sydney Symphony, temporarily laid down his baton and put on his salesmanís hat. He spent a lot of time convincing people that Sydney needed an opera house. He succeeded. In January 1956, an international competition was announced for the design of an opera house. There was a panel of judges who met to decide. One came from far away, the U.S. in fact, but he was delayed getting there. The others went ahead with their work and came to a decision. When the late judge arrived, he found the choice made by the others to be marginal and he reviewed the discarded designs. He liked one by a Danish architect named JÝrn Utzon. Somehow he convinced the others that this one was the best and Utzonís design was ultimately declared the winner in January 1957.

Work began in 1959 and was supposed to last about four years. The original cost was estimated at $7 million. It soon became apparent that the building as designed was unbuildable. Back to the drawing boards. Utzon came up with something called the "spherical solution" which means that all the sails with which we are so familiar could be cut from the same sphere and therefore had the same radius. This new design was technically feasible to build but it drastically altered the price tag, the final cost being about $102 million. It also delayed the completion date by about ten years. Next time youíre a little late or over-budget, point to the Sydney Opera House. You may be building the next masterpiece. But back to the story. In the mid '60s there was an election and a new government was formed. The new guys had had enough of the cost overruns and Utzon was fired. He left Australia, never to return. He has never seen the Sydney Opera House. While the exterior design is his, most of the interior is not.

The first performance at the Opera House was in December 1972 by the Sydney Symphony to an audience of construction workers and guests. This was a test of acoustics. The first public performance was nine months later in September 1973 and the Opera House was formally opened by Queen Elizabeth on October 20, 1973. Coincidentally, this is the same day as the Saturday Night Massacre of Richard Nixon fame.

In 1999 there was a project to redesign some of the interior spaces. JÝrn Utzon was rehired. Because of his advanced age, he did his work from afar and his son, Jan Utzon, was his representative in Australia. Today he is 88 and unable to make the long flight from Denmark to Sydney. He has still never seen the Sydney Opera House.

Bennelong Point and the Opera House sit on the right side of Sydney Cove, the Harbor Bridge is to the left, and Circular Quay is at the base. (By the way, you can actually climb the bridge for a spectacular view at a spectacular price!) This is a ferry terminus and it works like a train station. Ferries are a common means of public transportation. The first two days we were there were very cloudy. On our final day, a Saturday, the clouds blew out and it was beautiful. The pictures reflect that. We spent much of the day at Circular Quay people-watching and just being in this vibrant place.

That evening we thought weíd go somewhere a little farther away for dinner. We took a bus to a neighborhood called Paddington. There are lots of places here that have the same names as places in London. Hyde Park is another. Paddington is a pleasant neighborhood where the tour book said that some of the homes were only 14 feet wide. Evidently the writer had never been to a Philadelphia rowhouse like the one I grew up in. We found a pub called London. What a surprise. I had kangaroo. Try to get that in Delft. We left the restaurant and headed back to the bus stop. The neighborhood was dark, not well lit, and I realized that the sky was cloudless at night, the first time it had been that way since we arrived. I looked up into the clear southern sky and there it was; I saw the Southern Cross for the first time. And I understood why I came this way.

Part of why I came this way was to do some more observation of the sky, my first such observation in the southern hemisphere. Weirdness exists in the southern hemisphere sky. Or to be less chauvinistic, itís different in some ways that I didnít expect. I knew that the sun appears to go the wrong way across the sky, from right to left, instead of left to right as weíre accustomed to seeing it. Thatís because the sun is in the northern sky; it still goes east to west. But the orientation of the moon is different. There was a full moon that night and I noticed that the face of the "man in the moon" was totally different. He seemed to be smiling rather than frowning. This was because the moon was rotated almost 75į from the way we see it in Philadelphia. Think of a globe. Think of the angle of your body on the globe. Now think of us down under in Australia and the angle of our bodies looking at the same moon. Get it? I never thought of that before. And Mr. Pierce never told us about that in junior high school, either. Also, I noticed the belt of Orion the Hunter. In the northern hemisphere, the three stars in the belt appear almost horizontal. In the southern hemisphere, they were almost vertical. It could drive an amateur star-gazer nuts.

There are chotchkah shops everywhere. Donít know what a chotchkah shop is? Ask your friendly local Jewish person. We saw these key rings with a furry sort of thing attached that looked big enough to hold a couple chestnuts. They were in a lot of stores and eventually I picked one up to look at it. They were kangaroo scrotums. Scrota? Somehow, being a carnivore, I didnít feel too bad about eating one, but this crossed the line. There are also stores around where one can buy a didgeridoo. Naturally if a person is interested in buying one, he would want to play it, so I did. Lynn says I wasnít exactly "playing" it, but I was playing WITH it. You blow into the business end with your lips flapping like a baby's does when heís blowing bubbles. The didgeridoo makes a sound. We heard people really playing them but I donít think that instrument is capable of "Hello Dolly."

Sydney is famous for something else that I never knew about. On the third Saturday in October about ten miles west of central Sydney in a town called Eastwood, there is a festival in honor of a woman named Maria Ann Smith. Mrs. Smith, like many women, was a grandmother but thatís not why she was famous. She was Granny Smith and she developed the strain of apples that bears that name on her Eastwood farm.  I love Granny Smith apples so this is as good an excuse as I will ever need for going back to Sydney in October. Every year.

It was not a surprise that we never saw an Outback Steakhouse. Everything is an outback steakhouse. Besides, I think thatís an American company. What did surprise me was something I had always believed and now I think Iíve been lied to. Fosters. I donít think itís really Australian for beer. Not once anywhere did we see a place that served Fosterís. Whatís an American to think?

See all my pictures of Sydney.

See videos from Sydney


© 2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008