Saturday, December 20, 2014

7 New Things I've Learned About Sydney-siders Since Becoming One

1. They're all about their beaches. Sydney, we have a problem. First off, forget that American surfer aphorism. Life is not a beach. As someone who has never been a beach person, I can honestly say Sydney's celebrated shores have absolutely nothing to do with why I'm here.

Don't get me wrong: I love living near the ocean. But just knowing that it's there is enough for me. I don't actually have to splash around in it to appreciate it. And I can't think of anything I'd rather do less than bake under the hot sun. It's not like I ever look at a piece of meat sizzling in the oven and go, "Lucky!"

Though I live just one block away from Circular Quay, where the Sydney Opera House sits, and I take twice weekly runs along the water (and around the Botanical Garden), I've yet to step foot on a proper beach since moving here two months ago. In this beach-obsessed culture that gets me as many sideways glances as my American accent. It seems every time anyone tells me what they're doing, what they want to be doing or what they're going to be doing, a beach is involved. Sometimes I get so bored by the predictable script that I find myself daydreaming about life in a landlocked town. Oh, Jerusalem, where are you when I need you?

I've actually had people ask me why I live in Sydney if I'm not a beach person, as if there couldn't possibly be any other reason to live here. This makes me kind of sad, not because of what it says about Sydney, but because of what it says about those people. Life isn't a beach, and by making Sydney all about its sand and surf, they're shortchanging the city they're trying to sell.

The beach obsession is particularly curious because during my year in Cape Town, a city with some of the most spectacular beaches I've ever seen, the only people who talked about them were tourists. Locals always seemed to be busy doing other things. Ditto Melburnians. Sure St. Kilda is a bay beach, nowhere near the spectacle level of Sydney's water works, but I love Melbourne partly because I could go months there without any of my friends ever mentioning the beach.

2. They've got Christmas cheer to spare. This is my ninth Christmas living outside of the U.S. and my seventh non-consecutive one in the Southern Hemisphere. I'm as into Christmas as I'm into beaches, and it's even harder to get into the holiday spirit when the sun is shining and you're wearing shorts. In Bangkok, it was easier to ignore Christmas altogether because it's barely acknowledged there. That was one of the benefits of living in a Buddhist culture.

Buenos Aires is largely Catholic, but Christmas there is more about family traditions than carols and gifts. Everything went eerily silent on Christmas Eve while families bonded, and as soon as midnight struck, it was off to the clubs. BA business as usual had returned.

I spent but one Christmas in Cape Town, and since I can't recall anything about it, I'm assuming the holiday itself must have been pretty under the radar. Perhaps the country was still mourning the death of Nelson Mandela, who had passed only weeks earlier.

Sydney, though, is a completely different Christmas story. The holidays haven't made such a big splash anywhere I lived since New York City. There are Christmas decorations all over town, a Christmas tree on Martin's Place (the Aussie version of the Rockefeller Center tree), and I swear Christmas is the only thing anyone can talk about. Christmas at the beach (of course)! Woo hoo!

The excitement seems to be less about gift-giving than planning the perfect Christmas getaway. It's summer, after all, and there's no better time to get to Bali -- if insane travel crowds are your thing. The spirit hasn't been contagious in my direction, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find the Aussie Christmas enthusiasm incredibly endearing. No Scrooges here -- and that can't possibly be a bad thing!

3. They're serious about their costume parties. Apparently, themed costume Christmas office parties are the thing here, with numerous "Christmas" stores in Sydney's CBD dedicated to the attire. That's why when I suited up as Captain America for my first Australian Christmas office party this past week, I was able to walk the 10 minutes from my apartment to the party venue alongside Catwoman, a mermaid and a magician and get shouts of appreciation but not a single strange look. That never would have happened in NYC, and I love Australia even more for it.

4. They're not big dancers. One of my colleagues asked me how office holiday parties in the U.S. are different, and the first thing that came to my mind after the costume thing was the dancing…or lack thereof. There was a little of it at Bar 100, but it was mostly a small group who created an impromptu dancing space underneath the DJ platform.

It was a lot different from all those People magazine Christmas parties I used to go to where the dance floor was the center of the action after the sit-down dinner. (Oh, no sit-down dinner the other night either.) There was always a proper dance floor, and by the end of the night it was pretty much filled with colleagues you never expected to see under the strobelight.

Bar 100 didn't have a dance floor (though it did have a short red carpet at the entrance), but come to think of it, I don't think I've even seen a dance floor anywhere since I arrived in Sydney.

5. Their sidewalk etiquette needs work. My friend Zena recently pointed out while visiting me in Sydney that she's never been in a city with more confusing sidewalk social norms…as in, there doesn't appear to be any. Do you walk on the left? Do you walk on the right? Nobody really seems to know. It doesn't help that everyone is too busy texting or talking on their phones to pay attention to where they're going or whom they're about to bump into. Walking through the CDB during weekday business hours might possibly be the most unpleasant part of living here.

6. They're hot and cold on their own stars. Apparently, the U.S. appreciates Aussie performers more than Australia does. They all flock to the U.S. to succeed, leaving TV presenters and reality stars to pick up the slack at home. Those are the real Australian celebrities, which I quickly learned while watching the action on the red carpet at the ARIAS a few weeks ago. One pair of MTV presenters went from being snapped on the red carpet to being banished to the other side of the rope to take their interviewing spot among the rest of the lowly press.

In perhaps the most shocking twist of the evening, when Guy Sebastian -- who is actually a bonafide celebrity Aussie entertainer -- showed up, the hoopla was cut short by the arrival of One Direction from the UK. Guy was quickly whisked off the red carpet, never to be seen again. The message: Who cares about their own when there's a superstar British boy band in the house? When Katy Perry (who along with 1D was the only act there with a substantial international following) finally showed up, she waltzed past the entire Aussie press without a word. She couldn't have been bothered. Kylie Minogue never would have done such a heinous thing, but then, I hear Aussies don't care much about Kylie these days. Who needs her when they've got all those reality stars to obsess over?

7. They're a lot more innocent than I thought. I learned more about Sydney-siders during Monday's so-called "Sydney siege" and its aftermath than during any other 48-hour period. One can't underplay the tragedy of any hostage situation that results in the loss of two lives (I refuse to consider the death of the gunman a "loss"). Although my Facebook news feed appeared to be more interested in D'Angelo's surprise album release (one person who clearly hadn't been paying attention to the news actually wrote "How can anyone talk about anything other than D'Angelo today?" as his status update), I was touched by the outpouring of grief among my fellow adopted countrymen, if not by the apparent indifference of many of my fellow least online.

As someone who lived through September 11 in New York City, I found some of the sensationalist news coverage (Sydney was not under siege; there was an isolated hostage situation in a CBD cafe) and the public hysteria it spawned to be perplexing. Clear heads were not prevailing. An American friend who was here at the time put it perfectly: "Some commentator on Channel 7 just said it was like Independence Day, which is really quaint, I guess, since we both know what that's actually like."


For all of that hysteria, I was surprised to walk past Martin's Place that evening while the hostages were still captive and see scant police activity and no sign that a potentially deadly situation was in progress just meters away. For a few moments, until I went home and checked the news, I actually thought the "Sydney siege" was over. Sadly, it wasn't.

In the aftermath of those tragic murders, I was convinced that Sydney and Sydney-siders would never be the same. As someone whose city has been under attack (on September 11) and who has been attacked by an intruder in my own home, I am well aware of how one incident can change everything. Of all the headlines and commentary that I read and heard in the days after the stand-off, one statement rang particularly true: Australia has lost its innocence.

God help us all.

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