Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Lost in Sydney: Is This Really My New Home?

Not lost "lost," so don't bother trying to offer me directions. It's not like I don't know my way around here (or can't figure it out on my own, for inner Sydney is fairly user-with-a-map friendly). Yesterday's landing at Sydney International was my eighth one in the city, which couldn't have looked more gorgeous from eight miles high (or wherever we were when we were no longer flying above the clouds). But I think it started before I went up, up and away in Qantas flight 64 from Johannesburg to Sydney.

My final hours on the ground in South Africa (two in Cape Town, two in Johannesburg) were imperfect caps to my last year abroad, so fraught with inconveniences that they seemed to be screaming "Get out while you can!" (..."and don't come back!" -- which is a twist for a future blog post once I make more sense of it) while confirming what has become my No. 1 travel truth: The worst parts of any long-distance voyage are the parts spent in airports.

The waiting isn't the hardest part of that part, though. It's dealing with airport speed bumps post-9/11: rigorously enforced weight restrictions (If I book a two-leg flight on Qantas.com, and Qantas uses a partner airline for the first leg, shouldn't Qantas arrange for me to have the same weight limit on both flights?), baggage checks (I'm still not sure what airport security has against liquids), and customs (a necessary evil that's still a pain in the ass). The latter was never actually a problem for me until I left South Africa this time, six days after my visa expired, which, again, is a story for another blog post.

Thankfully, my arrival/welcome in Sydney was smoother than my departure from South Africa. Although Australia's border patrol has a reputation for being extra-vigilant and strict (and it has its own TV series to document/show for it), in the dozen or so times I've entered the country, I've only once had an Immigration problem (the first time, as I didn't enter my middle name on my ETA visa application, making the ETA me, in essence, a different person than the me named in my passport), and I've never had my baggage inspected. That's probably not the reason why I click with the country and the people in it, but it's never a bad start.

So why have I felt so out of sorts since my latest arrival? Was it because of the gloomy overcast skies and the autumn-like spring chill that greeted me? I overheard a woman on the shuttle bus into the city complaining about how she didn't have to leave London to get such grim weather. Another compared it to Melbourne's notoriously capricious climate, citing the "four seasons in a day" cliché. For a moment, I found myself wishing I could be somewhere else: in London, in Melbourne, in a taxi. But I've been so looking forward to Sydney for weeks. I should barely be able to contain my glee.

Perhaps the reason for my continuing malaise is that I left South Africa, my home for the past 11 and a half months, under less-than-stellar conditions, but I feel like I'm already moving past that. God knows it's not my living arrangements in Sydney. My accommodation for the next three months is certainly welcoming enough, even without some of the necessities (towels, bed linings, toilet paper) that I might have expected to find in a furnished one-bedroom executive rental which is costing me more than twice what I paid per month for my apartment in Cape Town. (Aside from views of Devil's Peak, Table Mountain, Lion's Head and Signal Hill, it's the one thing I'll miss most about Cape Town).

On my way to a store to buy a towel to dry off with after washing myself clean of the grime my body had accumulated over 14 hours of air travel and several more of airport drama, I discovered that I live only a few blocks away from my new job at ninemsn, which will make the work commute my easiest ever and my temporary CBD address convenient, if not ideal on a social level. And I was immediately reminded of the unpredictable but excellent Aussie taste in music. The first two songs I heard in public after landing: "Best Friend" by Foster the People, which was playing over the loudspeaker en route to the customs and baggage claim area at the airport, and "To Know Him Is to Love Him," the 1987 No. 1 country hit by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt that was blaring from the radio at the 24-hour convenience store near my new home.

I think there may be a couple of key contributing factors to this peaceful but slightly uneasy feeling that's been washing over me since I woke up mid-flight from Johannesburg to Sydney somewhat panicked. For one, I'm about to start a new job (which, in itself, is generally a cause for some trepidation), one that will mark the first time I've been tied to a 9-to-5 gig in more than eight years. I'd better make it work. I'm a perfectionist that way, and the terms of my 48-month 457 visa demand it. The pressure is on.

For two, there's my social standing in Sydney, or rather, lack thereof. The last time I arrived in Australia thinking long-term (in March of 2011), it was under considerably different circumstances. I was arriving in Melbourne, my first Australian love, and my second Australian love (my boyfriend-to-be) was waiting for me. I've never been one to move to a new country or city for love and can't imagine myself ever being motivated to do so, but I now fully understand how having a human connection awaiting you on the other side of a relocation can make all the difference. The job may, for the first time, give me a legitimate reason to be in Australia, but reclusive as I am, I've always been driven mostly by human connections.

Thankfully, I'm now in a place where it should be a lot easier to make them. I spent most of the last year mostly on my own, partly by choice, but partly because South Africa's social fabric, particularly in Cape Town, is so difficult to penetrate. The local gay scene is even tougher. Before I left, I hadn't been on a date in at least three months, which may have had something to do with my rare excursions into the nightlife and my temporary departure from the Grindr dating pool. One's skin color can be the hot topic for only so long before one begins to feel even more self-conscious than usual about it. Who needs that?

As valuable as the lessons learned in Cape Town were (and I got an entire second book out of them), I'm looking forward to living in world where the racial politics don't really apply to me. (As a black American, I've never felt more accepted than I have in Australia.) I know that eventually my diffidence will pass. Like jetlag -- killer, as usual -- it always does, leading to bright new (and hopefully, sunnier) days.
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