Day 12 – Melbourne / Sydney
When you're traveling, it's important to get used to waking up in strange places. This morning, I found myself on a blow-up mattress at Aunt Marg's house, and I instantly remembered the big day in store for Mum and I today. I would meet a long-lost relative I had only heard less-than-favorable things about in the past, and have never spoken to or seen in person.
After Marg made us another lumberjack brekky that will probably send my cholesterol over 300, we got ready to head towards Mornington, another suburb of Melbourne about 40 minutes from where Marg lives. During the drive over, I got some more much-needed background on Aunt Jenny, which helps to explain her personality, and hopefully, clears up some issues between her and Mum.
Jenny and her husband adopted a couple of kids from third-world countries many years ago to complement their four biological children. One girl she adopted is from Sri Lanka, and the boy she adopted is from Vietnam. I certainly applaud Jenny's efforts to create a better life for children from developing nations, but the scoop I got from Marg and Mum is that she played the martyr card from time to time, and that pissed off Mum. The two adopted kids (well, they're not really kids anymore – they're grown and live on their own now) encountered some hurdles blending into a new society, especially the Vietnamese boy. By the time he was 15, his family had been killed, and as he had developed some suicidal tendencies, he desperately needed a change of scenery. The adoption agency, which was unable to get the boy situated with a family for quite some time, harangued Jenny to take him off their hands, and eventually, Jenny reluctantly obliged. Soon after Jenny took the girl in, the girl was sent to a private technical school where she encountered mean classmates who mercilessly ripped on her being from a third-world country. The boy had a slew of psychological issues to work out, which would require loads of therapy. Both adopted kids were a handful, and this essentially wore Jenny down as the years progressed. And then there's the story with her husband.
Jenny had only recently moved to Mornington. She used to live closer to Melbourne with her husband, Tim. Unfortunately, Tim developed dementia in his early sixties, and eventually required hospitalization. Jenny sold their home, and moved to a more modest place so his institutionalization could be properly funded. They don't live together, but she maintains contact with him, and checks in on him several times a week. If you're familiar with dementia, you know that some days are better than others with regards to the afflicted. Today, everything is fine, and tomorrow, you're being berated in a crowded supermarket with some of the foulest language that would make sailors need to cover their ears. Basically, dementia turns someone you love into a vitriolic person you hardly recognize, let alone married.
Now that you have the scoop on Jenny, I'll take you back to the point where we drove up to Jenny's new home, situated a block from the beach in Mornington. After we knocked on her front door, I could feel a rush of anticipation culminated with the tingling of the hair on the back of my neck. As soon as she opened her front door, I was relieved that there wasn't one shred of tension I had feared. Jenny hugged me tightly, and I sensed that this encounter was something she was really looking forward to for quite some time. It seemed like Jenny was on her best behavior, so our time together should go smoothly.
Initially, the plan was for us to squeeze in an hour and a half with Jenny before we had to leave that afternoon for Melbourne to catch our flight back to Sydney. Nobody really had any idea what to expect from the meeting beforehand: it could have turned out great, or things could have gotten ugly. Either way, the allotted time could have either been far too long, or a mere tease. Since Mum might not visit Australia for another ten years, today might be the last time Jenny and Mum get to meet face to face before either of them gets too old. So it seemed necessary, at least for Jenny, to attempt to restore the relationship before the opportunity passed. Perhaps Tim's failing health cast a light on the fragility of life and good health, causing Jenny to reach out to Mum via Marg.
Jenny made us a cup of tea, and we chatted while she showed us pictures of her grown-up children. Her biological kids were all successful professionals scattered around Australia, including one that lives near Seattle.
I was amazed at how much Mum looked like Jenny, who maintains an athletic physique through a rigorous walking regimen coupled with frequent trips to the lawn bowling green. Armed with a set of muscular shoulders that would make Madonna jealous, Jenny is also quite tan. Although Mum's a bit of a newbie to lawn bowling, Jenny, along with Marg, is a seasoned veteran who is in a league and has a bowling partner. Lawn bowling is about as popular in Australia as "ten pin" bowling is here in the US. Mum and Jenny have slightly different body types, but their faces possess very similar physical traits. One example is Mum, Jenny and I all have the same nose!
After the ladies and I finished our tea, we went out for a walk down to the shore. Mere milliseconds passed before Mum whipped out the camera, and we snapped some photos of this historic day. I'm not sure if the entire Victorian coast is like this, but I once again found myself feverishly swatting flies away as soon as I reached the beach. I expected swarms of bugs in a tropical climate like Queensland, but not here!
Once we finished our walk/photo shoot, we went for lunch at an outdoor café in the commercial district of Mornington. While I chowed down on my salmon burger, we were surprised by Tony, an older gentleman who happened to be Jenny's lawn bowling partner. Tony was a handsome hale man dressed sportily in a Fila track suit. He looked about Jenny's age, early sixties. He told us he used to be a surgeon before an injury ended that career; he's now an author. Tony amused me with his animated personality, but Mum and Marg didn't care for him at all. After Tony left, Marg, the eldest sister, voiced her displeasure, calling him a "smaht ahss". Even before Marg's comment, I got the vibe from Jenny that she might have preferred he not pop by our table for an impromptu visit, let alone hang out and chat up the long lost relative for fifteen minutes. We checked the time, and realized we had to wrap up lunch and make way towards Melbourne Airport. In hindsight, it would have been nice to spend a bit more time with Aunt Jenny to learn a bit more about her considering I may not see her again for years, but I'm glad everything went so well.
Marg and her son Matt ordered us a Mercedes Benz sedan to whisk us off to the airport. The driver was a nice gentleman in his early fifties with five grown children and a wife that left him for a life of leisure in Bali years ago before the kids finished school. Although he said he always wanted to visit the States, he wasn't able to with his heavy home life. He mentioned Las Vegas a couple times with a wistful look in his eye. I bet he could use a weekend in Sin City! After we encountered a minor delay on the highway due to "roadworks", we arrived at Melbourne Airport with time to spare.
After we landed in Sydney at about 5:00pm, I made a point of walking to the Qantas taxi stand to expedite our wait time. When I found out the Qantas terminal was on the on the other side of the airport, I decided to simply stay put with my heavy luggage. After only ten minutes in the taxi line, Mum and I got picked up, and were on our way to Gladesville. The cabbie asked us if we wanted to take the toll tunnel, and Mum told him to stick to the freeway. I was about to object given that we were driving into the teeth of peak hour traffic. It took us over an hour to get home, and we definitely would have saved time and money paying the $4 AUS tunnel given the time we spent sitting in traffic accruing cab fare. By the time we arrived at Chez Manderson, I was quietly banging my head against the passenger side window from all the sitting I had done in Melbourne, the flight, and Sydney that afternoon.
My cousin Luke had pulled into the Manderson driveway from work less than a minute before our cab arrived. I greeted Luke, who was to take me out on a pub crawl that night. I hadn't many opportunities to simply go out on the town in Sydney given all the traveling we had done, but Friday was a chance to not only enjoy the Sydney nightlife, but to also hang out with Luke. I hadn't had much of a chance to spend one-on-one time with him since he came out of the closet a few years ago.
When we walked in the front door, I made a beeline upstairs to the shower to wash the Virgin Blue grime off of my body. I changed into a "clubby" polyester shirt I had brought for going out on the town, and joined Mum, Gerry, Carol and Luke in the kitchen for beer, cheese and crackers. By 7:30pm, we surmised that traffic had died down, so Luke ad I decided to head back towards downtown Sydney, where he lives in a centrally located loft he just bought.
Although Luke is a successful solicitor (Aussie for attorney) who works in television marketing, his flat is a work in progress. He profusely apologized for the dilapidated state of his recently purchased home, and immediately provided me with the ambitious vision for his renovated loft. Since Luke also needed a quick shower after his day at work and fighting traffic, I sat on the living room beach chair and watched a couple of Beyonce videos on MTV Australia while he dolled himself up. After Luke dried himself off, he threw on a white V-necked undershirt with jeans, and came downstairs. I was quietly surprised with his choice of wardrobe, but since Luke is a good-looking guy who stands a towering 6'5" (yeah, I'm considered the short cousin), I suppose he was putting his assets on display.
We walked down the street to a gourmet pizza cafe and sat at a table outside for some grub and people-watching. After perusing the menu, I was amazed with the exotic array of ingredients one could put on pizza at this restaurant. When the waitress came back, I ordered my pie to be topped with lamb shank, grilled eggplant, rocket lettuce, and "yoghurt". Luke? He ordered pepperoni. Before we sat down, I spotted a DJ mixing records toward the back of the restaurant. I was excited to hear some Aussie music in a nightlife setting, but instead, an American 90s soundtrack was played. Between "classics" from Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch and Sir Mix-a-Lot, I was loathe to discover how much of "Ice Ice Baby" I still had memorized from eighth grade. When I stepped away to the lavatory to "splash my boots", Luke surreptitiously paid for dinner. He probably didn't appreciate my calling him a "sneaky bastard" when I told him I wanted to pay!
As the saying goes, my eyes were bigger than my stomach. We had about half a leftover pizza, but didn't want to schlep it around town in a large box all night! I had absorbed a philosophy from my roommate back in Los Angeles, who hates wasting food. As the homeless problem in Australia isn't nearly as epidemic as it is in the States, I couldn't find anyone needy enough within the vicinity I could give our still-hot food to. Alas, I left it on a bench, hoping some hungry bloke would put it to use.
We were a block from King's Cross, the "cheeky" part of Sydney. Given that this is the only part of the city that permits the bars to stay open 24 hours, Luke said that it's probably necessary that I visit "The Cross". He qualified this statement by saying the bars in the opposite direction toward Darlinghurst are probably more fun. I told him let's get King's Cross out of the way first, and then head in the other direction towards his recommendations afterward. Luke was right: King's Cross was peppered with streetwalkers and rowdy frat-boy types. I noticed a library that I thought was curiously positioned between two especially dodgy-looking pubs. He said that library was recently constructed, and the facility used to be a government-funded drug den where heroin addicts could go, get free, clean needles and shoot up in a safe environment. An ensuing public outcry eventually closed the place.
Luke and I went into a bar called The Bourbon, and ordered a pint of Tooley's. I remember it being really loud from all the crowd noise talking over the obnoxiously loud music. Since I was a bit tipsy, I went for the jugular and asked him when he started to realize he was gay. Long story short, he said it was a gradual realization that began in 2002, and it wasn't like he woke up one day, looked in the mirror, and had an epiphany. Aunt Carol knew before Luke did (as many mothers do), and Uncle Gerry loves him regardless.
Once we bailed from The Bourbon,we walked from King's Cross to Darlinghurst, one of Sydney's best-known Eastern suburbs which is also home to a large concentration of the gay community. I had told Luke that I'm not homophobic, and I make a great wingman, so he could take me anywhere. Luke told me, "I'm not taking you to a gay club." We passed a gauntlet of pubs walking down Oxford Street. Each time we walked by one Luke didn't like, he pointed and exclaimed, "Foul!"
Luke took me to an indoor/outdoor bar called The Patio. While we were discussing Amsterdam, our conversation was interrupted by Tosh and Sarah, a couple of attractive 20-something ladies who chimed in with their opinion on Holland. We met their friends, and hung out until the bar closed at midnight. James, a quiet young man with a scruffy beard and a bit of a bohemian disposition, was one of the guys in their group, and he seemed to hit it off when he struck up a conversation with Luke. When the lights in the pub flickered, we decided to travel as a unit a couple blocks to a club with pokies downstairs, and dance music upstairs. The crowd was approximately half gay, half straight. Luke was engaged in conversation with James for a good chunk of the time we were at this most recent stop on our pub crawl. As it was about 2:00am, we decided to skip out.
There is still plenty of nightlife at 2am in Sydney, but some of the bars close, and the scene tends to concentrate. Since most of the open establishments looked too crowded to enter by this point, James said he lived right around the corner. Luke turned to me, and I told him that I was his wingman tonight.
We approached the entrance to an older-looking building when James pulled a skeleton key from his pocket. We walked up three flights of stairs, climbed over a young couple making out in the hallway, to James' apartment. There was a certain vibe to his flat that took me back to my college days. James asked me if I liked Dolly Parton. I told him my childhood would have been entirely different if Islands in the Stream was not burned into my memory. He set the CD shuffler to Dolly, and then Mary J. Blige. James then went to open to his fridge, and realized he had only two beers left! He apologized, and made me a glass of vodka on the rocks with a fresh strawberry. I sipped this while I bemoaned the fact that I had heard almost exclusively American music the entire time I've been in Australia thus far. James dismissed most Australian music as rubbish, but given that he just put on the soundtrack to 9 to 5, I took his perspective with a grain of salt.
My watch read 3:00am. After I took a look at James and Luke, I read the proverbial writing on the wall. It was time for me to find a cab back to Gladesville. I wasn't about to make Luke drive me home since he had been drinking, and the drunk driving laws in Australia are much stricter than in the States. After I made sure Luke would be able to get home safely, I bid the gentlemen good night. Before I left, James taught me the most effective way to catch a cab, which was to stay a block from the main street before the taxis find other customers. Otherwise, prettier, more scantily clad girls will get picked up by a cabbie every time.
It only took me thirty minutes of standing on a deserted street corner in the wee hours of the morning like a desperate hooker before I was picked up. The taxi driver, upon learning I was American, sang the praises of president-elect Obama, and exclaimed how happy everyone in Australia has been since the recent US election. I caught a few tidbits of Obama love at various pubs we drank at throughout the night, and it's pretty plain to see whom the international community was rooting for in early November. $45 AUS later, I was at Uncle Gerry's house at about 4:00am after the cabbie missed our street. I let myself in, and was thankful I remembered the alarm code this time.
Before I went to bed, I called my Dad in Los Angeles, and gave him an update on my trip. Fortunately for Uncle Gerry's long distance bill, my telephone conversations are much shorter than my writing entries!