Friday, February 6, 2009

Making Tracks in Sydney: Part 3

I am nothing if not a market person. Put me in a shopping mall and I have no problem strolling through, stopping occasionally to window shop. Probably I will be begging you to let me leave after a bit. But present me with an outdoor market selling whatever-- vegetables and fruit, used clothing and books, crafts-- and I am in deep trouble.

I had heard that Sydney has a great market scene, and as the weekend had finally come I resolved to check it out. I originally planned to explore two markets, in Paddington and Glebe, but the planning stage of the excursion went so long that I decided to cut my losses and just look at Glebe. Good choice. The market was situated among shady trees in a local park, and it featured plentiful arts and crafts, used clothing and books, homemade cosmetics and candy, many kinds of food, and Chinese massages. I wandered blissfully for a few hours, munching on dim sum from a take-away cart and listening to the Spanish men manning a jewelry tent sing and play the guitar. It took awhile, but I finally settled on my one allowed purchase--a Scrabble tile made into a charm for a necklace.

The Spanish singers at the Glebe Markets

When I was finished I settled in the grass and read, listening to the Celtic band playing nearby and waiting for Damian, the couch surfer from the night before. He showed me around Glebe a bit, including treating me to some positively sinful Spanish-style hot chocolate at a funky chocolate shop (for those keeping track: the standard marshmallow colors of Australia are pink and white, much like Ireland and, as I later found out, New Zealand.)

Street art in Glebe

After a stop at Damian's apartment, we took the bus into the city for the event for which I had stayed an extra day in the city: Sydney Festival First Night.

The annual Sydney Festival takes place every year at the height of summer and includes performances musicians and dance companies from all over the world. After several years, however, people started to complain about how expensive all the shows were, so the city arranged for an All Free first night, which amounts to a massive set of free concerts scattered over the center of the city. I had heard about this night in my first few days in Sydney and resolved to stay on for it.

My cell phone ran out of batteries quite early in the night, and this turned out to be a fortuitous occurance that encouraged rather than hindered an amazing time spent. Right before my phone heaved its last sighs, I was able to meet up with James (my couch surfing host, if you remember) at a band where a great big band was playing. I watched Aussies dancing happily and enjoyed the music in the quickly falling dusk. In between sets, we were treated to entertainment by Aphrodite, who was hosting Love TV on a closed circuit television all over the park, from a little all-pink trailer next to the stage. She interviewed a series of Sydney quasi-celebrities about their love lives and their respective love-affairs with Sydney. Most of these interviews were amusing blather, but one point in particular shone brightly as a point of cultural difference (which you have to really look for in Australia). At the end of each interview, Aphrodite asked her interviewee to arrange his/her facial features as they would look at of climax. Note that this image was then broadcast to the hundreds of revelers watching on the lawn around the big band stage-- including children! I told James that that sort of thing would never fly in the US. It looked for a few minutes like I might have gone on Australian Love TV, which I would have put down to a cultural adventure, but Aphrodite ran late and didn't have the time.

Scenes from Sydney Festival First Night: An enormous orange wombat; Three bikers playing unconventional clarinet in the park

Following the big band performances I tried to go see my fellow Wesleyan alum Santogold performing, but the place was packed to sardine levels with Australian hipsters and I couldn't even get close. Instead, having lost James at this point, I struck out on my own and decided to make my way to the stage where the Gypsy Kings and Queens, a Spanish/Balkan band, was to perform. The show, which lasted an hour and a half, felt a bit like getting drunk on music, along with a crowd of thousands. At first I was a little lukewarm on the whole thing, as the songs were very heavy on brass with very fast trumpet finger work and not much else--music to fight bulls to. But the crowd warmed up and the music did, too. There was ornate, interesting vocal work threading in and out of the brass, a couple of beautiful gypsy dancers spicing up the stage, several incredible guitarists, and then, all of a sudden, a mass of us all of us dancing and singing wildly to the music of northern Spain and the Balkans. I don't know if any of us could have told you when the transformation happened, from skeptical audience to excited masses--only that it had and we were happy.

As it turned out, I was standing next to a Serbian immigrant about my age, and as the concert went on we chatted and she told me about the songs she recognized, this one fit for weddings, another sung by an enormous woman with a huge voice who is apparently very famous in Gypsy circles. It was wonderful to be able to catch my breath in between songs and have some cultural context as to the alien, lovely music I was enjoying.

The famous Gypsy singer

The show ended with a burst of fireworks. My feet throbbing, I joined the crowd as it flowed as one being out into the city. I found a pub with the Serbian girl and her two Armenian friends, one with terrible pounding techno but fitting nonetheless. We had a pleasant drink wand walked back to the metro, where I stumbled home ecstatic and exhausted.

I spent my last day in Sydney largely in a previously unexplored part of the Australian world, that of the upper crust. In the morning I went to the famous Bondi Beach, first to the markets (where I very smartly bought the book "Down Under"by Bill Bryson--also known as "In A Sunburned Country"-- which would keep me well entertained and informed for the rest of my trip) and then to see How The Other Half Lives.

Bondi Beach markets

The famous beach itself
Ceal and Tony were friends of family friends, and they had been generous enough to offer to spend the afternoon with me. They picked me up at Bondi and whisked me off to a posh sailing club for lunch. While we waited I was introduced to Pokies, mysteriously complicated poker machines that I couldn't figure out. Apparently they are wildly popular-- if you start looking you seem them everywhere: in super markets, pubs, coffee shops, hotel lobbies. Bryson says in his book that Australia has 1% of world's population and 20% of its poker machines. I believe it. It would seem that Australians love to gamble.

We had a drink before lunch and then I dined on minted lamb with more than one fork in my dingy gray singlet (that's what they call "tank top" here.) I tried not to feel too out of place-- the food was great and I knew it would be the best meal I'd have for a long time, living as I am on a backpacker budget. Ceal and Tony were great lunch companions-- Ceal very intelligent and filled with opinions, Tony quieter and more reserved with the classic dry Australian humor. I loaded up on vegetables and tried to be as thankful as I could.

After a drive around the area to see a few of Sydney Harbor's smaller bays, they took me to an area of the city botanical gardens called Mrs. Macquarie's Chair, named after an old governor's wife, with gorgeous views of the opera house and bridge. This particular sojourn was appropriate for a couple of reasons: first, it brought my time in Sydney full circle as I admired the opera house from afar. Second, I was to leave the next morning for the second stop on my trip, a town named for that same governor: Port Macquarie.

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