Saturday, February 14, 2009

Slice of Life: Adventures in Brisbane 1

In my array of travels, some trips end up being about places--enjoying architecture, exploring neighborhoods, seeing what there is to see -- and some trips end up being about people. For me, Brisbane was very much about people. I got to see a chunk of the city, but my time in Brisbane was enjoyable and, even more, important to me, because of the people I met and the parts of their lives I got to experience.

I stayed for five days in a beautiful, rambling house in Sherwood (which is funny because the place I stayed in near Sydney was called Burwood) with Karl, his younger brother Sven, and their friend Ed, three guys roughly my age. The house belonged to Karl and Sven's parents, who moved to Singapore a few years ago and left the house for their sons to inhabit. Evidence of the family that once lived here was everywhere, in the high shine of the floors, the decorating choices (very much an Asian theme), the photos of younger days. Sometimes it was evidence in absence--the lovely pool was pretty much unswimmable, as no one "could be arsed" (as they say in Australia) to keep it clean. I don't mean to say that it was a messy house. In fact, it was much cleaner than I would expect from three guys ages 19-21.

Besides the highly-polished floors, the E boys' house featured a great open balcony/porch, a large, very fat cat called Attie, two turtles, and a small white mouse called Octavius. I later learned that this mouse once belonged to a fourth roommate, who tragically died of a brain hemorrhage about a month before I arrived, while Karl and Sven were in Singapore visiting their parents. As it turned out, the room I stayed in was once the roommate's. This was a little weird/creepy, but not as much as I was expecting, maybe because Sven didn't mention it until a few days into my visit.

Top: The living room and my host; you can also see out to the porch.
Below: A "family" dinner. From right Karl, Sven, one of their friends (reaching), and Ed (face partly blocked)

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I took the commuter train from the Gold Coast to the city, an unremarkable ride except for one stop, Olmeau, which sounded like "Almost" when paired with the announced "Olmeau Station." Maybe you have to be an English nerd to appreciate that.

When I arrived in Brisbane it was mid-afternoon, and Karl was busy at a first-aid seminar he was required to complete before he began medical school in half a week. So my first impression of the city was a very brief meet up with girl from Canberra (pronounced CAN-bra) and a local named Adrian. Adrian had seen a post I'd made on the local couch surfing group saying I'd be coming into town, and cruised up randomly on his bike, giving us a spin around the center of the city nearest to the train station, including a cool but touristy walking area called Queen Street Mall.

The Casino, a fancy building near Queen Street

Adrian left fairly soon after, and I had a coffee and enjoyed a copy of the local newspaper. Again, Bill Bryson puts the joy of Australian newspapers wonderfully:

"It always amazes me how seldom visitors bother with local papers," he says. "Personally, I can think of nothing more exciting-- certainly nothing you could do in a public place with a cup of coffee-- than to read newspapers from a part of the world you know almost nothing about. What a comfort it is to find a nation preoccupied by matters of no possible consequence to oneself. I love reading about scandals involving ministers of whom I have never heard, murder hunts in communities whose names sound dusty and remote, features on revered artists and thinkers whose achievements have never reach my ears, whose talents I must take on faith.
I love above all to venture into the colour supplements and see what’s fashionable for the beach in this part of the world, what’s new for the kitchen, what I might get for my money if I had A$400,000 to spare and a reason to live in Dubbo or Woolloomooloo... Where else can you get this much pleasure for a trifling handful of coins?"

In any case, it was a great way to pass the time before I met Karl at the train station and wandered off into suburban Brisbane and a fantastic stretch of days.

I arrived at the house and immediately felt that I had met some of my tribe, as they say. Sven, tall and striking, was into death metal and rock climbing. Ed loved similar music but preferred to hang about the house drinking beer and making droll comments. That first evening was spent eating spaghetti, drinking wine, listening to music, and playing Jenga and Guess Who?, two board games I hadn't thought about in years. A few of Karl's friends came around to visit after awhile--he had just gotten back from a six month jaunt in eastern Europe and so his presence back at home was a matter of some excitement.

In the course of the evening Ed, Karl, and I walked down to the "bottle-O" (that's what they call liquor shop) and I learned that Australia has, wait for it, drive-through liquor stores. Also I saw some possums (we know them as flying foxes.) Double plus bonus. The rest of the night was equally silly, fun, and low-key: it felt like a day at home with my friends. Except that every few minutes, as another song I loved came on Karl's iPod, I would pull out my mental map and remember exactly where I was. That made it all the more miraculous.

Quite a bit later, after an interesting conversation about gay rights in Australia vs. the US with a friend of Karl's called Woody, I ventured into the realm of Vegemite. Making me Vegemite on toast was a huge deal, apparently, and Karl and Woody made much of the right amount of butter and spread that was applied to the bread. I didn't hate it as much as I thought I would, but the salt was intense and built with each bite.

I snuck it into the waste basket after a few tries as we chatted about this and that, and Woody grinned, "I saw that." I shrugged, admitting it.
"That's okay," he said, "We'll ease you into it."

I spent the next several days alternately exploring the city and environs with Karl and hanging out with him and his friends. Karl told me that his favorite hosts on his trip in eastern Europe had been those who took time to explore with him and really introduced him to their world. His approach was the same, and the effect was great. We pushed through the considerable humidity and heat of mid-January Brisbane to walk the Botanical Gardens, take the City Cat (the commuter ferry that runs on the river) to South Bank to wander, and look through used bookstores and great coffee shops in West End, including one called The Three Monkeys with fabulous ambiance and great chai.

One morning I had the chance to experience Australian bureaucracy, which gives the American version a run for its mony, at a central office similar to the DMV, where Karl had to drop some papers. Another afternoon we gave ourselves up to the heat and sat on the false beach by South Bank, eating ice cream from Cold Rock (I guess they can't call it "Coldstone" down under) and watching small children flounder in chest-high water. In the background an enormous TV screen played "I Come From the Land Down Under" by Men At Work (I mentioned my surprise that Australians love the song) over the tumult of shrieks and splashes.

Brisbane skyline from the City Cat

Path through the Botanic Gardens

Bridge from the Botanic Gardens to South Bank

Chai and record shop in the West End

Nights were busy as well, fat with humidity and friends to see. Once we ventured into an area known as "The Valley" (proper name Fortitude Valley) near Brisbane, a warren of clubs and bars, to see The Travelling So and So's, a band made of up several of Karl's friends. We had drinks before on the street, revelers streaming past us on the way to another alcohol soaked night (have I imentioned that Australians drink a LOT?) The Traveling So and So's played in a dive called The Globe, which spotted an odd but cool characteristic: a dance floor tilted at 50 degrees. The So and So's music was heavy on the saxophone, and their singer sounded like Gwen Stefani: I felt pretty good about them as they tossed party noisemakers and plastic mini tambourines into the crowd (I still have mine), although not totally excited.

The lack of excitement was partially because I was having a realization. As I listened to the show, I watched the people I'd gotten to know over the past week enjoy themselves, dance, lean against each other laughing. I remembered, although the days before and after made me forget, that I was only a brief blip on their screens. Couch surfing affords incredible experiences and allows you to meet wonderful people. But put appropriate emphasis on "meet," because to dig deeper to the connection I generally prefer, well, that's not so simple, especially when your window of opportunity is only five days.

Even if you're staying with a person all the time, there are still walls that stay up, and I wanted them down. This made Brisbane both a wonderful experience and quite painful. The painful part came first as I watched the concert, then again later as I realized I was leaving and the walls I wanted down weren't there yet. Give me more time, I thought. We can make this work. The potential is huge. I just need more time. But there was a whole world waiting.

No comments: