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August 27th, 2010

Sydney 2

It's been a full two days.  Museums, history, dinners with people we like.  Also birds, fruit bats, trees, bushes, and different kinds of grasses in the Botanical Gardens.  My dogs (as my Papa used to say when his feet hurt) are barking.

I now know more about Sydney than I used to.  I know that the Botany Bay so beloved of broadsheet balladeers was not where the convicts actually landed.  That would be Circular Quai  or Port Jackson, neither of which is particularly poetic, nor do they rhyme or scan very well.  I know that Phillips was a reasonably good governor, Hunter was weak, Bligh was deposed, and Lachlan Macquarie was a man of vision and enterprise, with a wife, Elizabeth, who was at least as energetic and forward-thinking as he.  I know that gin came in square bottles because it was easier to pack them, that 4011 Irish orphan girls were brought to Australia during the Famine as servants and potential wives for the colonists, and that if it hadn't been for rats stealing gloves and stockings and bits of shirt and chemise and apron for their nests, not to mention buttons and hairpins and spools and needles and bits of clay pipe and shoes, the archeological record of the early colonies would be a lot thinner than it is.  I know that an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1900 (!) inspired the authorities to tear down a good portion of The Rocks slums just east of Circular Quai, and that residents rioted in the streets in 1967 rather than allow developers to bulldoze what was left to build high-rise hotels, residences, and retail establishments.  I know that people made do with one-holer outhouses and wood stoves for cooking and unheated bedrooms and tin baths in corrugated iron bathsheds in their back yards until well into the 1970's.

I know I need to write a story about some of this, in some context, at some point.  At the moment, it's enough just to have added it to the stew of Fun Facts and observations and images and characters bubbling at the back of my brain.

So.  Places we went in Sydney, just the two of us:

The Museum of Sydney, which had a very cool exhibit of paintings and photographs of The Rocks, a hodgepodge of haphazardly-built hovels and tenements, bars, and shops where the poorest workers lived.  When there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900, the city decided to clean it up, first sending in teams of out-of-work artists and photographers to document what it had looked like and also the clean-up process.  The paintings are romanticized, serene, sundrenched.  The photographs show floors built over trash deposits and rat's nests and slurrys of garbage and water.  Also knee-high piles of dead rats and a butcher carving a carcase right next to an open outhouse.  Fascinating.

The Botanic Garden
is gorgeous.  I really realized it was spring here when I walked down a lane blazing with azaleas cherry trees and flowering quince and primroses and tulips and budding spirea.  The real highlights were the Australian Rainforest Walk, full of strange and wonderful plants with names like Lilly pilly, the birds, and the flying foxes.  They're stopping off at the gardens on their migration, and hang in the treetops like furry, leathery fruit, occasionally stretching a wing or scratching an itch, then subsiding back into sleep.  We had a nice talk about them with a young man who was counting them for the park.  He was very polite and cheerful, especially in light of the fact that the foxes, however cute, tend to destroy the trees they rest in for any length of time, creating a real tension between the supporters of flora and the supporters of fauna.  They are very cute, though.  As are the rainbow lorikeets and soldier birds and ibexes that perch, hop, flutter, nest, soar, dive-bomb, and steal what they can from tourists all over the park, with a particular concentration around the Garden Cafe.  We sat outside with our tea and buns until one particular ibex got too cheeky, after which we retired to a kind of mesh people-cage.  It was kind of cool to be the object of the avian gaze for once.

Places we went with our Australian Writer Friend (AWF), who knows lots of Sydney history owing to have written a novel about it and is the Best Guide Ever:

The Barracks is a real nexus of transport history.  It was designed by a convict architect, built by convict labor, and was used as housing for new convicts while they were being sorted and processed through the system.  When transportation stopped in about 1840, it was used to house new immigrants waiting to find work, most remarkably, boatloads of Irish female orphans of the Potato Famine, brought in to provide servants (and wives) for the growing colony.  Over a 2 year period, there were over 4000 of them.  Rats carried away their hairpins, ribbons, stockings, reels of thread, which were discovered under the floorboards when the place was made into a museum.  Before that happened, though, the place cycled through being an Insane Asylum, a Sanitarium for Indigent Old Women, and several kinds of court.  It's a gloomy place, as you might imagine, but it's got a certain grim dignity, and the shop is full of Really Cool Books.  You can also buy a t-shirt printed with the convict's broad arrow (which always looked like a bird's food to me).  We were getting hungry, so we didn't linger, but may go back for one.  Just the thing for gym wear, don't you think?

Susannah Place.  Wow.  Oh, wow.  A row of working-class houses, preserved as they came to the Historic Trust in the early 90's, furnished according to the memories of people who had lived there, with tin bath houses in the back yards next to the outhouses and the laundry copper, kitchens in the basement, two rooms up and two down.  Catnip.  Pure catnip.  Our docent, Margaret, loved the place more than somewhat, and told us stories about who had lived in which house (there are 4, including the corner shop kept by the owners) as if she'd known all multiple generations personally.  There was the Greek immigrant grandmother who refused to use electricity, and lit the house with lamps.  There was the shopkeeper/landlady who gave long credit to her customers so they wouldn't go hungry when they were out of work.  There was the girl who loved comic books and put her bed by the window so she could read them by the light of the street lamp because her stepfather wouldn't allow even a candle in the bedroom she shared with her two sisters.  There were the last renters, who didn't move out until the 90's, who installed a shower in the old basement kitchen and did stealth repairs on the untenanted houses so the city wouldn't have an excuse to condemn them. 

We came out dreamy-eyed and with our heads buzzing, walked back down to the harbor, and caught the train for Surrey Hills.  Tomorrow, we'll probably take at least part of the day off.  Even when my jet-lag has mostly worn off, I'm not capable of perpetual sightseeing.

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