Australia / Think Piece

Elsewhere, part III – Sydney

Sydney Harbour from Botanic Gardens
1.

I returned from a short trip to Adelaide for Christmas. It wasn’t as ‘prodigal son returns’ as I half-heartedly mused on before leaving Sydney. I just went. I saw. I walked for forty minutes in a straight line and encountered nothing but suburbia. Arriving in Sydney I was happy to be back to the busyness, back to my house, back to some routine, back to my bed.

In fact, I was so happy to be back to my bed that I fell asleep at eight in the evening. Who’d’ve thought mince pies for breakfast and stuffing sandwiches would be so tiring? At eleven that night, I woke up. Something crawled across my neck. I cupped whatever it was and held it in my hand. With the other, I grabbed my phone and used its screen to light up my visitor. What I saw was a rather innocuous-looking bug. It seemed quite unperturbed. And I would’ve flicked it away and rolled over back to sleep if I didn’t then notice its abdomen looked like it was full of… full of… my blood?

Isn’t it fascinating that we go about our daily business, not realising we carry a portfolio of useful facts around with us for moments like this?

The next minute went like this: bug w/ blood = parasitic creature = not alone = infestation? – Turn on light – See a cluster of bugs chilling around the edge of my pillow case – Jump out of bed – Rip off all bedding – find more of the fuckers around the edge of the fitted sheet = Remove all bedding and contain it – Are these: bed bugs? = Parasitic, blood sucking pests = will die by chemicals – don’t have chemicals = BOIL THE KETTLE! – Chuck bedding in bathroom sink – pour boiling water on everything.

After the third time the kettle boiled, I’d awoken one of my housemates and her visiting mother. I said, “I think I have bed bugs.” My housemate nearly fainted. I did a Google image search and concluded that the lil’ bastards were indeed bed bugs, and then the horror began.

You know how they say, “Never self-diagnose by internet”? Yeah. This was like that. Every site that ‘answered’ the question of how to get rid of bed bugs pretty much summarised: “Burn down the entire building, with all your belongings inside, including the clothes off your back, visit Area 51 for a thorough decontamination, build new house from scratch on a previously uninhabited block of land, somewhere in a mild, dry climate. Bid adieu to sleep, and skin that doesn’t crawl.”

We called pest control.

I slept on the couch. Pest control came the next day and sprayed the entire house. The man told me that I had to get rid of my bed. I slept on the couch for two more nights.

I didn’t actually think bed bugs existed. Or, I thought they existed in some bygone era, like smallpox, or Saint Nicholas, but had been eradicated by genius science or Coca-Cola since. I’d only ever heard my parents say, “Don’t let the bed bugs bite” and figured whoever came up with that adage had started with a word rhyming with ‘night’ and lazily thought up a creature called a ‘bed bug’ – because, y’know, that’s where you are when you’re being well-wished a good sleep. But no, my sheltered existence had now been torn asunder.

I surprised myself at how calm I was throughout it all. In fact, compared to the distress of my housemate, I seemed to be able to make light of it. I don’t know if this is a part of my personality – I seem to be the ‘misery chick’ (Daria reference: I’m good to talk to in a crisis) – or whether the ‘writer’ part of my brain knew that I had a story to tell. Either way, I was able to shake my head and grimuckle (grimace + chuckle), and get on with what needed to be done. Pragmatic Sam slipped behind the wheel and drove. It also surprised me because the night before I discovered the bugs – back in Adelaide – I woke up from a nightmare and had an almost-panic attack.

Circular Quay

2.

I’d moved to Sydney with a plan. I had enrolled as a PhD candidate, I would ‘do’ my PhD. I was burnt out by teaching and wanted to utilise the skills I’d acquired whilst working for an arts collective – I hoped to start a new career. I was waiting to see if I would get second-round funding for study, and for the first month or two in Sydney I lived off my savings. I started applying for part-time jobs. I had turned a page: I would stride confidently into my new life in a new place, things would be easy, things would fall into place.

For the time being, I would flaneur the fuck out of my new city. I walked and sometimes cycled everywhere. Distances were nothing when everything was new. I said ‘yes’ to every social invite, I reveled in newfound anonymity. Money was low, but I would get a job, no worries. There was no chance I’d be unemployed for more than another month – surely. Besides, I had a PhD to start studying for. And I did: I bought books, I downloaded articles, I read, I made notes. I was passionate about the topic.
I didn’t get any funding.

I was in a bind. I hadn’t published enough for the university (really, the Graduate Centre) to see me as a bankable candidate; yearly cuts in funding for the Humanities meant students who ticked the right boxes had priority to it; and, to me, the most outrageous factor was that I hadn’t completed an Honours degree. I have a Masters degree by coursework, but because I haven’t had the research history that one gains in Honours, I am deemed too dull to be able to research a PhD. But, wait a minute… the university offered me a candidature anyway. Somewhere, the King of Bureaucracy sits on his throne, muttering, “And he shall smite the wicked…”

I realise that in Australia we’re lucky not to have to pay fees to study a doctorate degree. I realise that perhaps I shouldn’t’ve punneted so many proverbial eggs on a scholarship. I realise what a darn privilege it is to get money to study what you love. A doctorate in creative writing won’t change the world. I can’t complain about the situation without sounding like a petulant child, when you throw relative circumstances into the mix. But! I was pissed off, to say the least.

Around this time I started an unpaid internship because it was a company I admired and had worked with in the past. Out of it I gained CV fodder, so it definitely wasn’t a waste of time. I applied for welfare (a whole other bureaucratic nightmare that still makes me white-out with rage). I applied for jobs. From jobs I applied for I got other short-term jobs, filling in for staff on leave. It was nice to find that people sometimes do look out for you. It was reassuring to know I can adapt to new (and somewhat more professional) workplaces, and be able to do any job thrown my way (except answering phones… there’s a task that can leave a message after the expletive).

The Gold Stump

Overall, the first half of the year was a lesson in perseverance and learning how to deal with rejection. It was about aiming high, mustering courage, leaping. It was about dashed expectations, and building the muscle of self-esteem, and training it to work when the fifth ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ email of the week sits in the inbox. Things got desperate. I changed to part-time study for the PhD, but soon had to drop it altogether. My social life slowly ground to a halt as I was too afraid to spend money on frivolous activities (like having a social life – natch).

Furthermore, the English as a Second Language world at this time was in a slump: I couldn’t get a job anywhere. Australia was too expensive for most international students, so there just weren’t enough classes to teach. On top of the setbacks already mentioned, I couldn’t even get a job in the industry I’d worked in for five years. It was a matter of pride that I didn’t return to hospitality or retail work. Because of this I had periods of no work, which I used as an opportunity to write in order to get published: a whole new world of rejection.

I had sporadic almost-panic attacks during this time, too. A fear of mine is going back to stacking shelves, my first job at sixteen – or something equally as unchallenging and unrelated to my studies and interests. I’d like to think the hard work and commitment (not to mention debt) to the promises of tertiary education was worth something. And yet I compare the freedom I have to demand I work at something fulfilling to the trap of those working because they need to eat and sleep under cover, and feel like a prat. So while unemployment tested my resolve and confidence, and was not always a straight-forward problem to solve, like the bed bugs, I found I could grit my teeth and find a silver lining. I was an unemployed writer. Wasn’t that living the dream?

3.

I crouch down to remove the tent peg lodged in the wet earth of the showgrounds in the northern suburbs around St. Ives. This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve erected these tents here, but this is the first time something catches my eye near the cuff of my jeans. The sentient nib of a stretched out leech jubs towards the exposed skin around my ankles. Leeches. Bleurk.

Up until then I’d only seen leeches on television: once on Getaway – Sorrel Wilby trekking through the Tasmanian wilderness – and that scene in Stand By Me where the boy finds a leech on his dick. Oh yeah, and in Speed 2: Cruise Control. Lots of them, in a jar. My friend had also once told me about her leech experience, again in Tasmania, where, after a walk with her parents around Port Arthur, she felt something heavy drop along the inside of her pants leg. She looked down and saw a big, fat leech, post-gorging (probably lighting up a cigarette) lolling about on the ground. Being thirteen, she screamed. Her dad, not one for histrionics, strolled over, looked for the source of distress, and stomped on the creature, splattering my friend’s blood over the ground the length of a school ruler. She screamed again.

Back at the campsite, I say, “Yuck”, and flick the leech away, only to then see several more already jubbing their way onto my shoes. I flick and curse and dance and skip over to dry ground, panting. I’m working with relative strangers: we’re casual contractors working for the art department of Australian soap opera, Home & Away. Our job is to construct (and then, two days later, strike) the set of the Summer Bay Caravan Park. Someone notices my agitation and asks what’s wrong. I try to compose myself and say, “Leeches. Look out for leeches.” I summon the Power of Manning-Up, and go back to my tent. As soon as I’ve knelt for a minute, the leeches return; their thought-bubbles read: “Oh god yes, blood. I loooove blood. You got blood?” I flick and stomp my feet. I keep moving them up and down while I fiddle with tent pegs, I dance as I hammer, I pirouette as I lift the tent above my head – the leeches are now all over the ropes dragging along the earth. My mind and mouth exclaim, “Fucking disgusting.”

Summer Bay Caravan Park

This casual job has been a godsend: it gets me outside, uses my body, and has the rewarding benefit of tangible outcomes – harder to come by in teaching, or even writing. At the end of a day creating the caravan park, you can stand back and admire the work: the surfboards leaning ever-so-casually by the caravans, deck chairs at jaunty angles, soccer balls left mid-game. Will the crew and extras wonder at the lived-in effect we’ve created? Will Alf say “flamin’ mongrel” this episode whilst struggling to open a caravan awning? Maybe not. But it doesn’t matter. Money was well-earnt. What wasn’t there is now there. Tick.

I’m now back at the campsite, deconstructing the caravan park. The leeches are not out. In fact, the other day was the only time I ever encountered them. Now it’s getting warmer, huge goannas are the star attraction, sunbathing, climbing trees – the surrounding bush rustles, teeming with life. That’s what I notice on the truck ride back to the studios: Sydney abounds with greenery, it drips – even along the freeways. I’ve been used to the southern states’ brown summers and frozen-still winters. The natural world is more hemmed-in out of the subtropics. The heaviness of humidity creates a dazzling light in Sydney on a sunny day – I completely agree with Delia Falconer in her book ‘Sydney’ when she says the geography of the city, and this weather, inspire a corporeal reaction akin to lust. I want to surrender cat-like and bathe in the light. However, on a cloudy day, this same humidity oppresses. It bears down on the senses, like being trapped in smoke under a glass dome.

We cross the Harbour Bridge. Today the sunlight reflects off the Opera House roof, and bounces around the boats and crests of waves, ferries and piers. There’s a strength and confidence in it, like a lighthouse – a beacon. It’s affirmative light. I’m reminded why people live here, despite the costs of living, despite the leeches. Despite the rain (it rains twice as much in Sydney compared with Melbourne), despite the angry, frustrated days of speeding cars, delayed public transport, and agitated junkies.

Ibis

I arrive home and change to go running. I run around a big park and stop to work out on public gym equipment, which I share with other humans and ibises. The birds are a fixture of the city – fearless, antagonistic – but haven’t always lived in urban areas. I’m tempted to extrapolate on them being an important part of the Eora (indigenous Sydney Basin-residing peoples) Dreaming – the black-faced ghosts of ancestors or something like that – but, as it turns out, ibises have only been Sydney residents since the 1970s. After rain, they dine out in parks and disused spaces on creepy-crawlies, but mostly on moist rubbish. No one really likes ibises here, but that makes me feel a little sorry for them. Pigeons and seagulls, on the other hand, have a certain pluck about them – they’re undoubtably photogenic – but the poor ibis is like a crusty, misunderstood, old uncle that your family still invites to special occasions, but nobody wants to talk to. I run pass them, pondering all this, when one stretches its wings and I see the underside – bright red, skeletal arms on white plumage – and think, “Fucking disgusting.”

Darling Harbour Sunset
4.

In the post ‘Leaving Adelaide’, I concluded that moving interstate would be ‘a challenge’ – ‘an adventure’. Re-reading it makes me remember the first months in Sydney: the newness of everything – people, strangers, opening times, narrow streets, no grasp of the geography. (My bedroom window faces north-west, but I’m still reluctant to believe it.)

The irony of moving to a big city to meet more people is that I met someone very special just before I left Adelaide. Though not ideal (he moved to Melbourne on the same day I moved to Sydney), the shared experience of living somewhere new has been a bonding tool, and for me, at least, has been a true test of constancy. I met someone, and there was nowhere to run to – I was already going. I also met someone who shares my curiosity about the world and we’re keen to have adventures elsewhere together. I love him.

I’ve been to Melbourne and Adelaide several times since the move, and Sydney does feel like ‘home’ when I return. Home for the moment, anyway. If anything, the experience has shown me that I’m capable of packing up and moving and making a life for myself, that I’m adept at ‘discovering’ a place, and adaptable to circumstances changing – as long as I keep my expectations under control.

So for now, I keep exercising the muscle that lets things go: no expectations, and resilience in the face of rejection. I’m done with parasitic negative thoughts. There will always be things I can’t control. What I can control, however, will be easy enough. A can of Mortein by the bed should keep the nasty blood-suckers away.

Darling Harbour Fountain

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