'The thing that I noticed about returning to Adelaide,' Sebastiane said when I visited her there, 'was the lack of broken glass on the footpath and of cries in the night.'
I drove into the fine city of Adelaide on Wednesday evening last week. My brief encounters with Adelaide over the last decade or so have been enough for me for me to appreciate some of the good things about the place (the elegant township, the good food and wine, the festivals), without experiencing any of the aspects people complain about, like the conservatism and the relative lack of degrees of separation in Alice.
I dined with Kerryn in the evening, and among other things, she warned me about the road to Nihill -- how some kind of traffic accident vortex exists along the section of inland highway around Nihill.
I had to admit, I didn't enjoy the last leg of my journey so much -- it may have been tiredness or the fact I could no longer speed, but more than anything else, the sudden change of landscape. The more cultivated environment definitely seemed dull after the arid plains, orange rocks and salt lakes of the drive directly south from the centre. It all seemed like drab farming country, with the kind of towns that teenagers can't wait to escape (tho I did enjoy the country bakery-style meat pie and homemade wagon wheel at Bordertown).
Nihill was mirage country: trees shimmered on the horizon, hazy where their trunks should be. The shadows of trees flickered across the road. The picnic areas of yore have all been transformed into power nap stops. No wonder, I thought, there are so many accidents in these parts. Drivers would be mesmerised into some sort of trance state. Not only that, but the constant signs warning against taking you eyes off the driving game began to take on a certain gnomic wisdom: 'Yawning? A microsleep can kill', 'open your eyes - speed kills', 'only sleep cures fatigue' (a certain Shakespearean eloquence there!) And more intriguingly: 'in times of emergency, tune into local radio xxx.' Imagine, the little green peeps in the purple saucers are fast approaching rural Victoria, and you tune into radio Horsham for advice on what to do.
And then I realised: I'm back in the police state. That's why I'm seeing so many warnings. I mean, a series of road shrines is the more usual warning in the Territory.
Some time, a couple of hundred kilometres out of Melbourne, when I started seeing huge European trees lining the highway and thick, lush grass, I thought to myself, this is a place where it actually rains. (Melburnians might dispute that, as I'm told it's hardly rained in Melbourne over the last ten years, tho it seems to every time I visit...so there may be more of that, now that I'm back).
It was also a part of the highway (particularly the segments with convict-built stone walls) I remembered from driving out to meet with a certain Aboriginal leader's community. Yet again, I felt I was re-tracing much of my initial journey into Aboriginal affairs and the Centre. An Aboriginal woman said to me today that it was surprising that I was still working in the area, given some of the crazy people I've worked for: certainly, I've seen some very interesting politics, far more complicated than the perception of what goes on -- the 'Star Wars' view of Aboriginal issues that the Left often holds. On the hand, I feel privileged to have been taken by them to places (communities, old mission -- 'reservations') that I would never have visited and to have met people I would never have met otherwise. If I was feeling less tired, I might philosophise on some of these themes more (maybe the subject for another blogpost some time).
Then in the early evening, as I rounded the green curves leading into Bacchus Marsh, I saw it, the celestial skyline of Melbourne, like the silhouette of a liner's hulk in the pink dusk light. (Admittedly, it lacked the heavenly fingers of light that touched my first view of Salt Lake City while driving in Utah). Unfortunately it was too late for me to take a picture and memorialise the moment (not that there's anywhere to stop in that neck of the woods). But for me, of all the Australian cities, Melbourne has the skyline: it seems so sudden and so unreal, it almost looks like sf.
Anyway, there it was: marvellous Melbourne, city of haircuts, decent coffee, clothes, books, movies...all those things that were almost like contraband items in Alice. It's also, of course, the capital of overthinking and PC-ness (tho I'm sure either Canberra or Adelaide run a close second). How would I survive, was a constant theme in my discussions with fellow Springians, in genteel society. Melbourne is the kind of place, they reminded me, where people get in a tizz about welcomes to country and Aboriginal place names...as if they're major issues. (This part of the post was drafted before the Abbot outburst - ed). I would have to stop talking about 'blackfellas' and 'whitefellas' (I did hear someone say 'blackfellas' today, but they were from Fitzroy Crossing). What would I say if a well-meaning Melburnian suggested I to buy wattleseed tea from Friends of the Earth online or something? I would have to expunge every non-PC utterance from my mouth (no wonder I was going mad in Alice: I could no longer tell whether it was good or bad to see oneself as not being PC). I've also been told that women over the age of 45 don't get noticeably drunk in polite Melburnian society...not that I'm quite in that age group yet, but I take the warning hint. I certainly hope my days of being lured into 10+ standard drinks on a hot Territory night are over.
So, Melbourne the return. Ten years later, Brunswick and Northcote are suddenly cool places to live, whereas they used to be like the poor cousins of Fitzroy and Carlton. All the yoga teachers at Clifton Hill yoga studio have changed. Swimming amongst the bandaids of Brunswick in the Council pool (rather those of Alice) is pretty much as it always was. And ...I'm back to shopping at Piedmonte's supermarket, as it's almost directly across the road from my new place of work.
I am now working 4 days per week for one of those organisations founded in the '80s with an Orwellian acronym for a title (so don't pretend you've ever heard of it). This should be for at least a year, and I'll think about whether I want to make Melbourne my latest home for now.
I plan to continue working on my book (proposal): ven I haf finished the latest draft of teh script. I wonder if living in Melbourne will bring greater or less clarity to the book project: I hope to gain more insights into the state of play in the publishing game at the moment, but will it be at the expense of remembering the 'real Alice' or will I see it more clearly from a distance?
At the moment, I'm tending to think of the things that are different between Melbourne and Alice in the positive. Like the sound of trams rattling in the distance, the mild light that extends well into the evening at this time of the year. There's definitely more traffic than I remember, and while I remember the broad brushstrokes of where everything is, now as a driver rather than a cyclist, I keep on getting caught out in strange one-way backstreets and 'Go back - wrong way' signs I don't remember being there.
Still when I drive down High St to work, I feel my heart leap at the sight of that skyline.