The light here is different. It’s hard to take photos because it’s so bright, it makes the edges of the buildings disappear before my camera. Buenos Aires was strange and bright and upside-down, too, with its blistering heat at Christmas, but not like this. A sweet guy at a convenience store yesterday asked me where I was from and whether I liked Sydney, and I totally confused him by talking deliriously about how shiny the city is. If Buenos Aires is buildings crumbling under the weight of their history and kids in dark mullets looking like they could start protesting any moment, Sydney is sunlight so blinding, I don’t see how anyone could dress all in black. Their clothes would fade too fast.
I know what I see is incomplete. (And it does rain, as it is now, in short, intense spurts.) Peter Carey, in his book 30 Days in Sydney, reminds me that for all its good looks, Sydney is a city with blood and violence in its history. On Monday, I went to look for some evidence of that in the Rocks, the oldest part of Sydney and where the convicts first made their home.
I saw quiet streets lined with Victorian houses. I saw the view from the Sydney Observatory, wharf and bridge and Opera House. I walked halfway across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, looked down, and suddenly realized I have a fear of heights. I skipped the museums other than the Museum of Contemporary Art, so maybe it is my fault that I couldn’t find the convicts.
The only sign I found of Sydney’s past was in my lunch, and in a way that only highlighted how much Sydney has changed.
Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel is the oldest pub in Sydney. My TimeOut had recommended a lunch of beef pies and a pint of ale, and I walked in expecting to be handed a pair of pies in a greasy paper bag over the bar. Given its status, no one would be surprised if it were a tourist trap with crap food. Instead, I found a menu so full of coconut broth and wild rocket, it took me awhile to find the “beef pie, mushy peas, mash and gravy.”
Like my snapper pie on Saturday, it was a joke, a hilarious joke. The “mushy peas” were bright green, fresh and flavorful. Mashed but not “mushy.” I don’t even like mashed potatoes, but I spun my fork around and around the plate, trying to soak up as much as possible of that incredible gravy. And the beef pie, if not as ethereally buttery and flaky as my snapper pie, was substantial and satisfying. I ate it all.
The Quayle Ale, a prize-winning beer, was quite good, too, light and easy to drink but with personality and character. It matched its setting, this old pub so proud of it history as well as its modern, quiet gleam. What scenes this pub must have witnessed over the years! I know that the violence isn’t completely gone—Bianca says you can go out to a bar and suddenly find yourself in the middle of a brawl very easily. And there is a part of me that is distrustful of pubs that are so clean. But I can’t help but be impressed by a country that can take a legacy of beef pies and mushy peas and turn it into what I ate that day.
P.S. Don’t tell the Australian authorities, but I have a scratchy throat and a slight cough, and the hypochondriac in me is terrifying me by whispering, “Swine flu! Swine flu!” But I think Bianca would be secretly pleased if we were quarantined and she couldn’t go into work.