Come closer while I tell you this. Let me whisper in your ear. No one likes a dissenter. No one likes a deserter. I can’t say this too loudly. So huddle up while I tell you a secret.
I am leaving Dorothea Mackellar’s sunburnt country for snowflakes in the north. I’m crossing the equator, because Down Under can never be home to a woman who wants to be on top. I am turning my back on Australia Day for Martin Luther King Day. I may even prioritise Thanksgiving over Christmas. And on the fourth of July I will be out celebrating a different red, white and blue. The greenback might be in strife but the rainbow-fish coloured bills of our currency are a joke everywhere in the world, except New Zealand. “Advance Australia Fair” doesn’t even come close to the “Star Spangled Banner”. And before you ask, yes, I know all the words. I even know the second verse by heart. So much the worse. We may ‘toil with hearts and hands to make this Commonwealth of ours, renowned throughout the lands’, but it can’t compete with “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
So goodbye to yellow, sun-bleached grass. Goodbye to water restrictions. Goodbye to all that, I say.
We bought a house in Salem, Massachusetts, last week – near Pickering Wharf and where the ferry leaves for Boston. Ye Olde Pepper Companie is around the corner and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables is down the road.
He told me we didn’t have to move right away. But I could tell he was mentally packing his suitcase. And mine. A colleague once said that he was an American trapped in an Australian body. So I guess that part of him was returning to a place he called home. I still call Australia home. And supposedly there is no place like home. Except, perhaps America.
I haven’t packed my suitcase yet. I’m not the kind of person who can pack up her troubles in her old kit bag and smile. It will be a wrench to leave. I don’t deny it. I won’t be able to take things like the dining suite I bought with my first month’s pay. Or the partitioned Pilbo coffee table with one missing screw that holds my fondest memories under glass. And what are my fondest memories now? I have been collecting little pieces of Americana. I have gambling chips from Las Vegas and matchboxes from our favourite restaurants in Boston. There is the menu from the place we had dinner at on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco and a photo just after he proposed to me at Utopia, in Washington, DC.
The t-shirts I wear and the charms I have on my bracelet will be all wrong when we move to Salem. I need to collect Australiana. Maybe I should buy an Akubra and a Drizabone. I should have an Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge charm. What kind of charm do you buy to commemorate Melbourne? The jeweller tells me: ‘a tram’.
We live in an apartment in Moonee Ponds. The shopping centre has framed Dame Edna Everage’s photograph and displays it outside Kmart. And there is a restaurant called Edna’s Table next to the two-dollar shop. It seems most people here don’t know about her bitter satire exposing Moonee Ponds as the most ordinary place on earth. There are few things worse than ordinariness. And let’s face it, Barry Humphries got as far away from Australia as he possibly could. He returns only to humiliate crowds of adoring fans, for the odd fat cheque. But I like the cafés in Puckle Street. I like the caramel cream cake at Delphi and the calamari salad at the Junction Tabaret. That was enough for him once. He’d put on a Quaddie and we’d play rapid roulette using our favourite numbers. We have different philosophies, though. He thinks if there have been a string of reds in a row, the next will be black. I keep going. I like to roll. Should I risk it all and roll with him?
At the Witch’s Brew in Salem I drink double Scotch and coke while the bartender tells us for the third time how he nearly went to Australia but went to the Bahamas instead. I’d probably choose the Bahamas over Australia for a holiday. I think it’s more exotic. But then, Americans generally think Australia is exotic. I think of Australia as the outback, dry and dusty. It’s odd that I don’t think of the Great Barrier Reef and scuba diving. I think of Uluru and the red earth. And I’ve never been to the Northern Territory.
The bartender at the Witch’s Brew gives me a drink that he describes as a ‘heavy pour’. I drink it quickly and order clam chowder. There is nothing finer than Massachusetts clam chowder. There is no equivalent in Australia. Clam chowder is delicious.
He orders bacon, eggs and corned-beef hash. If he were writing this, he would say that there is nothing finer than corned beef hash, that there is no equivalent in Australia and that it is delicious. When people find out we are Australian they ask if we throw shrimps on the barbie. I’ve never really understood this expression. I always thought shrimps were tiny prawns, most often found in fried rice. So they would definitely fall through the bars on my grill. And before they ask, I tell them that I have always greeted people with the far more American “Hey”, rather than “G’day”. I think it’s because I watch so much American television. I’ve never been a fan of Neighbours or Home and Away, and I shudder at the popularity of Packed to the Rafters and Underbelly. If that is the best Australia has to offer, it is destined for cultural oblivion.
The bartender asks me if I would like another Scotch and coke. He asks partly as a joke, because it is one o’clock in the afternoon, I have already had a pretty potent one and I look young for my age. I give him the thumbs-up. And that appears to be Australian enough to satisfy him.
Every morning we walk to the Maribyrnong River. It’s about 4,500 steps to the bridge. I know because he always wears a pedometer on his belt. It looks really nerdy and I ask him if he would like a pocket protector so he can wear pens in his pocket to cap off this look, and he smiles. I wonder if he will wear the pedometer in Salem. We pass the man who works at the Junction Tabaret and his dog, Cinnamon. Cinnamon rolls on her back for a tummy rub and I can’t imagine not seeing her every day on our walk. Her owner sips strong coffee at Delphi. He is an observer, and sometimes I envy the way he looks so relaxed and content. When I drink coffee I worry I have been away from my email too long. I wonder if I will be the same in Salem. Sometimes I find it hard to sleep in America because, with the time difference, I am sure I am getting important emails that I need to respond to while I am sleeping.
This is an extract from Griffith REVIEW 28: Still the Lucky Country? (Text Publishing) www.griffithreview.com
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