click on the left side to start audio
Sydney was a strange place when I first arrived; standing sweaty-faced in a noisy queue of Asians, new smells hitting my nose like fireworks, seeing bats hanging asleep or screeching in their dozens, stunned seeing their fat bodies flapping above us in the evening. All white traffic: white police cars, white taxis, white vans, and mostly white buses. When people asked what I thought of Sydney I lied and said I loved it. There was a peculiar unsettling aspect alongside the great weather and natural beauty. The people I interacted with came across as bland, easily slotting into formulas they looked to be forcing the shape of; especially these copies of young guys on banana boards who seemed to slide out of view and then pop back into sight with a different coloured t-shirt and hat moments later.
The inner-city suburbs were indistinguishable to me. From Potts Point to Chippendale it looked the same as I slogged up hills totally uninspired: Victorian terrace houses of slightly different colour, and vacant footpaths. And this thought kept crawling on me: where the fuck are all the aboriginals? I knew there wouldn’t be more than white and asian people but the idea that I wouldn’t see an aboriginal in a suit going to the office or working in a shop kept pestering me and I blamed white Australians. I remember listening to a guy say something like ‘Australia is the most beautiful country in the world’ and remembering the aboriginal I saw slumped over on a bench in Redfern hours earlier with a bottle at her feet. Only the simple beautiful flag and drunks spotted about the city were the visual remnants I could see of who were recently the only people here. It seemed like all these white people had stolen the place and were overly proud of all the natural beauty that was now theirs. Sydney felt like a place to come on holiday but not to live, not for me or the rest of the people here.
Things changed. For months everything in Sydney was compared to London and couldn’t compete, but that shifted over time and London became less relevant. Eventually the suburb borders started to clarify and distinctions between them became obvious. The places and people changed in my changing mind. I met some cool, unusual people and wondered about some I rode past, what their options seem to be for themselves, what their futures or pasts might be, what their voices could sound like. I started recognizing my own version, the city I’d created through experience, and how limited that was. I turned into a kind of train-spotter wanting details which found me recording this bus driver’s story:
I’ve unintentionally been making Sydney my own, week by week. I don’t know the inside of any shops and I can count the bars and restaurants I’ve been in on my hands, but the outdoors is mine. I’m finding places to sit reading or writing where there’s shelter from wind or a bit of quiet shade and as they’re found and I return to them all of this feels more and more like it’s mine. I go for walks and sniff around in the bush near home like I have been blind and never had the sense of smell. Especially since coming back from Canada I want to explore all of Australia, sail around it, walk across the red centre, actually see this country before we leave for our trip. We did a two-day trip to check-out what will be an epic group ride on the way to worlds in Melbourne next year, which has just gotten me more keen on what this country has to offer. A few of us were sitting on the beach after the first day’s riding, drinking beer and watching the waves when a pod of 20 dolphins popped playing in the waves.
The only city I knew to the age of 16 was Halifax, in Nova Scotia where I grew up. My family would pile into our car with snacks and suitcases for the one hour drive from as early as I can remember. The drive up was an endurance test for us kids with bits of sleep, singing along to the oldies, stopping for pee breaks and coffee alongside of a feeling of having crossed an enormous expanse of land. Then arriving, finally in the city, the same landmarks on the way in, crossing the bridge, traffic seemed intense and angry, walking down the street it was strange for the people walking towards you to make eye contact and say hello. Strange to see so many different races and everyone up a few speed notches.
It wasn’t until I was in Boston that I knew what a city could really be outside of books and movies. We had taken the subway into the city centre (after a 12 hour drive from home) and had to climb up through the old brick station to get outside. I remember the fluorescent lights stopping and seeing the daylight and there being an in-between place that was dark and stagnant. The noise and smell came with the light as I climbed out blinded into the city. Everyone seemed to be on top of me, all walking in different directions and talking too loud, every car honking or accelerating fiercely or screeching to a stop, construction noise out of sight: jack-hammers jarring my eardrums, dust and exhaust in the air stinging my squinting eyes. I was used to being in a small town where you would effortlessly take in each person and car; I was trying to do that in Boston but there was way too much happening. I was hanging onto scaffolding almost falling over, dizzy from how fast my eyes were twitching to keep up, and how all of the overload felt like it was coming down on me. A few hours later the roaring mass of the place became an adventure and I wanted to explore it on my own, to go around smoking cigarettes and wandering around bookshops. That evening we were taking the subway back out of town, it was rush-hour and there’s no room for slow moving, easily confused country people at rush-hour. We got to the platform as the train pulled up. I figured the game was getting on the train so I slipped past a few people and jumped on, squishing my way clear of the closing doors. As I exhaled and was feeling like a professional city kid I saw my parents’ panicked faces through the doors as the train lurched away. In the time between seeing their faces, getting to the next station, and getting off the train it seemed like anything could happen and all of it was positive. I’d never felt so free in all my life.
These days I have a filter that I can turn off and on, everyone who doesn’t have a migraine and has lived in a city for a while has one. It’s how you walk down a street jammed full of people eating a sandwich thinking clearly without losing your shit about having no space and the obscenely loud sounds. No matter how loud; noises rarely bother me, busy streets and crowds and all other inputs are either stimulating or unnoticed but never that initial Boston dizzying. But sometimes I spot a tourist breaking their neck looking up heading straight for a bus and whatever caught their attention is something that I’d never spotted before; which makes me wonder what else I’m tuning out. So I play a game where I pick a colour and pay attention to it for a whole day at work. Last Friday I was on blue and saw it everywhere, from the sky and water reflected on the glass towers to a woman’s fingernails to the back of a little beetle in Prince Alfred Park. A while ago it was orange and I took photos as I spotted it.