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Everyone in Perth had said that it was the most expensive city in Australia. This was at least some relief for me stepping off the train in Sydney…at least up until I found out it was nonsense. In town, a hop on hop off tour bus passes me by with “$40. Why pay more?” written on the side in larger letters than I’d have thought prudent. Why pay more?! Insanity, perhaps? I decide to pass on the bus tour.

The problem with Sydney is that, if you’re going to pass on everything that’s ridiculously overpriced, you could end up doing very little. The obvious first place to head in Sydney is the harbour. There, I could climb along the top of the Harbour Bridge –

– if I had the trifling sum of A$218 (E180) to part with. Even if I did, there’s no way that crossing a bridge could possibly be worth that much money (a minority view, as it’s generally fully booked). For $12, I take the steps up to the top of the tower instead, enjoy the same view –

– and then walk across the bridge. Same thing really. But it’s with trepidation that I head across the harbour to see about a Sydney Opera House tour. Passing a parking lot doesn’t help –

– and the Opera House tour turns out to be $35. Perhaps a bit of creativity will help? Under Milk Wood is showing – not the first thing I’d have thought of going to see, but a bit of literature can’t hurt, and maybe a ticket would be better value than the tour. Nope – $60 plus a fiver booking fee at the counter. So I fire off a couple of standard Sydney harbour photos –

– and try to prioritise Sydney on $100 a day. Embedded in the path around the harbour are a number of plaques with quotations about Australia; this one from the writer of Waltzing Matilda speaks loudest to me –

– but it seems wrong to come all this way and sleep through four days in Sydney.

When on a budget, museums are always a good place to start, and the Sydney Museum is a good place to start on Sydney’s, shall we say, interesting origins. Sydney was founded, of course, as a convict settlement after the United States decided it had had enough of taking England’s criminals. Transporting people to a new life wasn’t necessarily going to change them, though. The museum notes the tale of one Thomas Barrett, who was sentenced to death in England in 1783 for stealing a silver watch and some clothes (which seems a bit harsh, but this was in the olden days). This was changed to transportation to America, but Barrett led a mutiny on board the transportation ship, was arrested and again sentenced to death. Again, he got let off with transportation, this time to Australia, where he was on the Charlotte, part of the First Fleet, which brought 700 convicts and 350 freeman to found Sydney. On board, he was caught leading a coin-counterfeiting racket and when, within a month of arriving in Sydney, he had been arrested for stealing beef and peas, the authorities decided enough was enough and had him hanged straight after his trial. It’s hard to argue that he wasn’t warned.

It’s not an uncommon city history; Adelaide prides itself in being the only non-convict city in Australia. Another convict city, Melbourne, has long had a rivalry with Sydney – the balance of power seems to be reflected in Melbourne’s hosting of the 1956 Olympics, while Sydney was selected for 2000. When, just over 100 years ago, a newly-independent Australia was looking around for a capital city, rather than side with one or the other, they decided on a village of 1,500 people located between the two called Canberra.

Signs around Sydney note that NAIDOC (National Aboriginal Islander Day Observance Committee) Week is soon. It, along with National Sorry Day in May (Australia’s reputation for being blunt when naming things is absolutely justified), are part of Australia’s way of coming to terms with the racist treatment of Aborigines, who until the 1960s weren’t even counted as people on the census. For 100 years until the 1970s, Aborigine children were routinely removed from their parents and placed in foster care to “protect” them from their culture and instead introduce them to civilisation, with parents denied all contact. Museums display semi-literate but moving letters from parents to the whites who had taken their children away, all too often with the sub-note that no reply was ever received. The Australian Prime Minister issued a public apology in 2008.

In the evening, it’s time for a session with Declan, instigator of the phone call that has me out here in the first place. After a pint in the Irish pub, we head out to Strathfield to the pub where Declan works. On the way, we pass one of the last people transported to Sydney – a large bronze statue of Queen Victoria. A plaque underneath notes that “At the request of the people of Sydney, this statue of Queen Victoria was presented by the Government and people of Ireland in a spirit of goodwill and friendship. Until 1947, it stood in front of Leinster House.” James Joyce once referred to the statue as “the Auld Bitch”; Noel Lemass Jnr – son of Seán – is on parliament record as saying “I think we all agree it is one of the most ugly statues of that royal lady.” After being taken down in 1947, she sat in storage in the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham before apparently ending up in an OPW storage unit in Daingean (in Offaly, I think). When, in the 1980s, it became known that Sydney was on the lookout for an unused statue of Queen Vic, Ireland was only too happy to oblige – all in the spirit of “goodwill”, of course. Scrawled on the side of the base are the words “Off with her head”, presumably a symptom of Sydney’s large Irish population.

Anyways, back to the pub – which in Australia, isn’t as recognisable as you’d think. Drinks don’t come in pints for a start; the best you can do is a schooner (three-quarters of a pint), with a middy – a half-pint – also available (as Australia is more a loose confederation of states, the names for these measures change from place to place). The sight of a big Aussie bloke buying a middy is a bit strange given the connotations of a half in Ireland, although I wasn’t going to tell anyone that… Apparently, the reason for the small servings is that Australia actually has a summer; by the time you get towards the end of a proper pint, it’s warmed up too much.

In the back of most Australian pubs is the TAB, the gambling area. There aren’t really any bookmakers shops in Australia; instead, TVs line one wall of the pub –

– showing the latest odds and races from around the world. Horse racing is the most common, but chariot racing features strongly as, bizarrely, do computer-generated horse and chariot races. If you’re betting on fake races, I would have thought you have a serious problem; it seems akin to betting on a Championship Manager game. In one corner is generally a computer allowing betting on pretty much any sporting event around the world (including UCD v Dundalk), while many pubs have a room of poker machines (pokeys). The Asians in particular love the pokeys, and even at 4 or 5 in the morning, there’ll generally be someone in there, blindly putting money into the machine and pulling the handle over and over. The pub interiors have a very open and spartan feel about them, and are quite different to (and nowhere near as good as) a proper Irish pub.

Even the cigarette packs are different in Australia; they have proper health warnings –

This has changed again since I was there – now, every cigarette pack has to be plain white, with just a health warning and the name of the brand in plain lettering common to all brands. Smoking is (very) slowly on the way down in Australia; given that we copied the smoking ban from New Zealand, the above could be a glimpse of smoke packs of the future in Ireland. No harm either.

More differences continue to surface. Declan is refused service at 4am for being drunk (I’m served, much to my smugness) – there’s a potential fine of up to A$1,000 for the barman who serves someone who’s clearly drunk. At least we’ve gotten as far as drinking till 4 in the morning – until the 60s, pubs in Australia (and New Zealand) closed at 6pm to try cut down on drinking. The logical outcome was for everyone to head straight for the pub when work finished at 5pm, drink as much as possible in the hour and then drive home – possibly via an off-licence – and give the family a good beating. Like in Russia, the attempts to cut down on people drinking simply didn’t work.

It’s 5am when I get to bed, so the next day is mostly a write-off. Add in the trip from Strathfield back into town, and it’s late afternoon when I get back into Sydney proper, having missed a protest march in support of Australian Julien Assange, who’d sought asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London during the week. In the evening, Sydney Swans are playing Geelong in the Aussie Rules, so I decide to head down to see what all the fuss is about. Unfortunately, bar the $165 premium seats, the game is sold out (partly because one stand is being rebuilt, so capacity is down from 46,000 to 27,400), so I head into the pub across the road and watch the game on TV with the floodlights visible out the window. Geelong are the reigning champions; Sydney have only one the league once (in 2005), but are near the top of the table this season, so it’s a big game. Sydney’s team doesn’t include Tadhg Kennelly, one of the first GAA players to join the AFL – he retired at the end of last season.

The aim of the game is to kick the ball either between the middle two posts (a goal – six points), or between the outer posts (a behind – one point). Scores must be kicked, and there’s no such thing as an own-goal – if a defending player so much as touches the ball before it goes behind, it’s not a score. Catch the ball before it bounces and you get a free kick, which should be a goal if you’re within 40 yards or so of the posts. It’s 18-a-side on a cricket pitch – an oval shape maybe 150m long and 135m across. A siren starts the game, the umpire bounces the ball in a ridiculously exaggerated manner, and it immediately becomes clear that Aussie Rules is a very silly sport. It’s a bit like GAA, except that the oval ball means it’s practically impossible to catch the ball, and assault is pretty much part of the rules. As a result, one player will get the ball from the start, hoof it upfield towards a team-mate who will attempt to catch the ball while being punched in the head. Usually, he’ll fail, there’ll be a mad scramble involving six or more people all failing to get control before the referee gives a free for some reason and a goal is kicked. It’s as easy to kick a goal as a behind, and given that a goal is worth six behinds, the latter is pretty much useless. After the first quarter, Sydney lead 7.0 (42) to 1.1 (7). After every goal, the feed cuts for an ad break.

At this stage, it looks like it’ll be a hammering for Geelong, but Sydney did manage to lose the previous week despite being 47 points down at three-quarters time and amazingly, this game goes along similar lines. Sydney stutter through the next two quarters to lead by just 24 going into the last quarter, but Geelong take the lead with five minutes to go, much to the delight of four or five hammered Geelong fans in the pub who stand up on a couch to tap the TV screen with every score until the bouncer, who must weigh at least 25 stone, shows a turn of speed I would not have believed had I not seen it to throw him out. In the game, Sydney re-take the lead, throw it away again and with 90 seconds to go score from a mark to finally seal the win 12.8 (80) to 11.8 (74). A seriously dramatic game, in fairness, but it’s hard to shake the comparison with an under 8 football game, with all the players swarming after the ball, hoping to get a random kick on it to push it nearer the goal. Aussie Rules, it has to be said, is awful nonsense altogether. And yet the league final is the best-attended one-off sporting event in the world; 100,000 attended last year’s final.

Having failed to understand native Australians, I spend the Saturday among its immigrants. A quarter of all Oz residents were born outside the country, and Ireland doesn’t even make the top 20 nationalities. First up is Declan’s son’s first birthday. The mother was born in India, but moved to Australia aged 2. The Catholic/Hindu mix isn’t entirely straightforward – the parish priest in Dublin refused to have anything to do with their Dublin wedding on the grounds that it came shortly after a Hindu ceremony in Australia; how could he wed two people who were already married? – but the birthday is a bit easier; I’m the only one in the country on the father’s side. There’s 150,000 Indian-born Australians, and a fair few Hindu temples around. We head out to the Sri Venkateswara Temple, about 35 miles south of Sydney for a curious ceremony which neither mother nor (obviously) father seem particularly able to follow. The inside of the temple is largely empty space, with a few statues in the walls for private reflection –

During the ceremony, people sit cross-legged, but get up, wander away for a chat or take photographs as the feeling takes them. A priest throws various small offerings – mainly rice – onto a small fire and chants away in Sanskrit –

which would be similar to hearing a Mass spoken in Latin. At various stages, people are asked to put their hands over the offerings – I’m skipped by, of course – while the son, Connor, is proffered a small flame, which he’s expected to put his hands over and then raise his hands to his face. This seems like asking for trouble, so the parents help out, and are bedecked in garlands and have bindi (the red spot) affixed for their troubles. Much of the hour-long ceremony seems to involve ensuring that Connor doesn’t burn his scarf or tip a pot full of hot rice over himself. Still, there’s dinner provided after –

As I’m obviously the foreigner, everyone’s keen to make sure I have plenty of culture to eat. It’s not bad, as it turns out.

On the way back home, with a car boot laden with birthday presents, I get a text asking if I can head out to Rooty Hill to swap Hindu cuisine for Muslem. Twenty years ago, I was in primary school with Vahid, an Iranian whose dad was ambassador to Ireland. In 1992, after two years in Ireland, they went back to Iran, and I lost touch until a random facebook search a year or two ago turned up trumps. My visit turns out to be exceptionally well-timed; his parents are over from Iran, and the whole family (mostly living in Australia) have gotten together for a meal, to which I’m invited. As I’m coming from the far side of quite a large town, I’m a bit late, and dinner’s already underway. The men are at the table in the main room, while the women are in the next room. I’m re-introduced to the brother; it’s been so long that I’d been wondering on the way out if there actually was a brother (I was fairly sure there was). The father, being older, remembers more and surprises me by commenting that, although he’s been around the world (having been ambassador to Holland, Vietnam and Malaysia as well), he found the Irish more similar to the Iranians than anyone else. Nothing to with drinking of course, as in Russia and Mongolia; just the general friendliness of people. Right on cue, I’m handed what appears to be a two foot long sword blade, which is skewering a large (and delicious) slice of halal beef to go with some rice. There’s a strange conversation about the early 90s – half-remembered names and Ataris and Amstrads, while his dad struggles to remember what year it was (mainly, in fairness, because he has to convert from the Iranian calendar, where it’s the year 1391). Still, the circumnavigator is rarely too short of conversation topics, especially when with a former ambassador to three of the countries on my trip.

After dinner, the women join us. Vahid’s sister and wife come over to say hello; I go to shake hands, although I think this might be taboo. “Sorry – we’re not allowed to shake hands; it’s against our religion”, the sister, Zahra, confirms completely un-self-consciously, before noting how great it is to hear an Irish accent again and showing off her weeks-old baby – both of which feel strange given she was five when we last met.

After tea, FIFA, talk about Éamon Zayed’s famous hat-trick (scored for Vahid’s brother-in-law’s team against Vahid’s team) and some music – a couple of haunting Iranian folk songs, with accompaniment on a modern guitar and a tar, a traditional Persian instrument possibly the forerunner to the guitar (hence the name) – it’s time to head on. As I leave, I’m asked to make sure I drop into Teheran the next time I’m in that neck of the woods. Just past half way around the world and already another enticing idea…

Before I leave Sydney, there is one more thing to visit –

The Sydney monorail was opened in 1988; it’s a loop in the city centre so short that there’s no need for two tracks – trains only go one direction. It’s never been too popular in Sydney though, and while I was there, it was confirmed that it’ll be closed next year. Bizarrely, the city of Hobart has enquired about taking it off Sydney’s hands and shipping it over to Tasmania; apparently the monorail would fit Hobart perfectly. Sounds like Sydney should be able to draw on its past experience there.


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