What can I say about Sydney? It’s a city where Christmas is celebrated on the beach, everybody surfs, the laneways are full of beautiful little bars, and yet the Australia of kangaroos and red dust is only a couple hours away. A city which makes the best coffee I’ve had outside of San Francisco, full of hipsters, lawyers, miners, fashionistas and every type you can imagine, who find nothing odd about living in such a wonderful mixed bag of a town, who take it for granted, even. Because they call it home.
The first time I felt that strange, nostalgic ache in the heart which signifies love for a town, for this town, was on the way to the airport. I had just completed my first visit to Sydney, a trip spent entirely in office towers and hotels during a grey, rainy July. I was on the train, bags packed, kind of staring out the window, not thinking much of anything, when the train pulled into Circular Quay. Suddenly the skyscrapers were gone, the view was clear, and I was looking out over a magical sunlit harbor, encircled by bridge and Opera House and lovely refined buildings, with some sort of magical fun-park tucked away under the bridge, and a half a dozen ferries puffing around on the water. It was just a moment’s glimpse, and then the train went into a tunnel and I lost it. But in that moment I had a sudden sense of Sydney - its soul, its magic - and what life here could be, if I had leisure to explore it.
As fate would have it, my time to explore all this wonderfulness was coming. I drifted into town a few months later, thinking I was moving on shortly, planning all sorts of moves and changes. Somehow am still here. The harbor is now one of my favorite places, that view of Circular Quay an everyday sight from my desk. I’ve discovered the Blue Mountains, the neighborhoods, the rocky coastline north and south which turns so quickly into farmland. And Sydney has found its way into my heart.
Accidental love is a funny thing. There are no declarations, no valiant intentions or noble struggle. Instead, a slow, creeping acknowledgement that this town, this place, this time of your life, has developed a significance you had not planned for or even imagined.
Sydney has a dark side. It’s not all beaches and wearing white on Christmas, and lazy Sunday Sessions with a startlingly good live band. There is something else, too - a bracing knowledge of change and loss, which, like the yeast in a sourdough, keeps the place from being too sweet. It’s inspired many a ghost story. If you visit you will see why.
In the aftermath of the siege on Martin Place, you saw this side of the city. The sidewalk outside the cafe where the siege had taken place was soon covered by an enormous pile of flowers, handwritten notes and cards. A silent crowd surrounded them. Whenever I passed I would see a few people who had stepped over the barricade to step into the newly sacred space, reading the cards and carefully replacing bouquets. One of these was a bride in hijab, who laid her wedding bouquet onto the pile in a gesture of solidarity. Others were friends or family members of those affected.
At our office, a few blocks from the site, there were tearful conversations and an unusual number of hugs. People baked treats at home and brought them in, to offer to colleagues or take down to Martin Place. Signs bearing messages of support went up in windows. A lady in a sari stood by the train station, offering hugs. Across town everyone seemed to take a deep breath, trying to find a way to honor what had happened. And to go on with the happy, friendly, cosmopolitan life of this town, of which the victims of the siege were such lovely examples.
So it seems fitting, as a new year begins and the Festival season starts up, to pay homage to this sun-gilded, surprising, beautiful town. Here’s to you, Sydney. Go on, with your laneway bars and Spiegeltents, jazz clubs, surf rescue clubs, gloriously mixed inhabitants and refreshingly modest reflexes. You are a world city, without the pretensions of one. Full of good people, people with heart. I consider myself lucky to be among you.