I’m writing from Australia where I’m visiting for the first time; this is the world’s smallest continent but sixth largest country. When I landed in Sydney, the first real surprise was to discover that this is not an English-speaking country. After 20 hours in the air and feeling a bit disheveled, my friend greeted me with a hug and said, “Are you right?” I had no idea what he was talking about and he said, “It’s Strine [the Aussie dialect] it means how are you doing?” and then he added, “You’re a bit on the nose.” I wiped my nose, thinking there was some remnant, while he laughed and said, “No, no, it’s just time to take a shower.” When I patted his bald head and told him I might be tired and smelly but that he looked wonderful, he responded, “Don’t come the raw prawn with me” which meant don’t B.S. me. I discovered that when Aussies speak to each other I am lucky if I understand every sixth word.
My wife and I arrived at 6:30 AM, and we all went to breakfast on the boardwalk at Manley Beach. It was 50 degrees at 8 AM and the surfers were out en masse in full-body wet suits, but there were also bikini-clad swimmers. Seeing me gaze, my friend said this appreciative awe was called “perving.” To ogle is “to perve,” a verb that is also a national sport.
People are irrepressibly friendly and helpful; when they get off the bus, they thank the bus driver. The Prime Minister just celebrated his 67th birthday and was given a congratulatory hug on the street by one of his countrymen. The guy, who happened to be working at the time, was holding a screwdriver when he embraced the Prime Minister. Can you imagine someone in America getting that close to the President with a screwdriver in hand and not getting shot?
After speaking in Sydney, we drove 800 miles through the desolate Outback to Adelaide, which most Australians found incomprehensible because they fly everywhere. We passed a billion sheep but never passed a single car. Road signs warned of kangaroo crossings and that’s what the road-kill is around here.
In the small town of Hay, we came upon the Sheep-Shearers Hall of Fame. I held a Merino sheep between my legs and tried to cut its fleece and ended up with a sore back and a hernia; the pros can do 200 a day. Hay is also the site of a WW II Internment camp. In July 1940, the English arrested German and Austrian Jews whom they still considered to be enemy aliens, and these doctors, lawyers, professors, artists, farmers and craftsmen were loaded onto a cargo ship in Liverpool and sent to this place so remote that escape was impossible.
The people here have made a museum of this episode in Australian history. Paranoia is running high in these days of Red Alerts; let’s hope these terrible days will also pass as unpleasant memories.