Dear Melburnians, I’m so sorry! I had planned for the 51st suburb to be in your fair city. But as soon as I’d finished Footscray, I made a snap decision to race back to Sydney so my daughter, Coco, could start school along with the rest of her class. After being a complete trooper for the entirety of this project and feeling she’d been out of the loop long enough, it just felt like it was the right thing to do.
We arrived late on a Sunday two weeks ago, rustled up a uniform and Coco was back at school the following day.
I loved Melbourne and was keen to explore another suburb – I hope you can understand.
And so to Sydney. Home. A home I’d fallen even more in love with in 2009/10 after spending a year exploring and photographing 52 of its suburbs, in a project that inspired this project. Although I was disappointed not to be staying longer in Melbourne, I was so looking forward to returning to Sydney after more than a year away.
It was going to be a blast. It was going to feel fantastic. It was going to be the best.
Nup. Not even close.
To begin with, the familiarity was frightening. It felt like coming to a screaming halt after 13 months of wonderful discovery. Instead of the shock of the new I had the shock of the known.
Then just one of our two beloved cats was returned to us; Jinx, whose disappearance I spoke about at the end of this Paris post, had never made it back.
And to top it off, I was worried about my finances. Although I’d been lucky enough to get some support from my wonderful sponsors and Kickstarter people, the project had ended up costing me a pretty penny. Plus I was no longer getting any rental income from my apartment, something I’d relied on to pay my mortgage for the year away – although I knew it would happen, the reality hit home the moment we landed. I’m used to the insecurity of being a freelancer but after such a long absence it would take time to get work.
So instead of rejoicing, I found myself marching to the bottle shop around the corner, tears streaming down my flushed face, conflicted about being home, feeling deeply stressed about money and just so sad about the cat that didn’t make it – this was not how I pictured my first week back.
My blueness was compounded by shame – I’d just had this most amazing year, what right did I have to feel so low?
But as the days passed, my mood improved. It was wonderful to see family and dear friends, and Coco – my amazing little girl – was so happy to be back at school. I loved seeing her being swamped by her mates on the first day – they ran from all points of the playground, “Coco! Coco!”, arms wide open to embrace their long-lost friend.
By the end of the first week back, I was ready to raise my head again and look around – and my first thoughts were, oh god, I’m running even later than usual and what was Suburb No 51 going to be?
A week before we’d floated earthwards into Sydney right over the harbour. A year away had given me the eyes of a tourist and it almost felt like I was seeing the landscape for the first time. But I wasn’t a tourist – I’d explored this city and knew how rich it was with different cultures, that it wasn’t a city without substance, just a pretty face. Its natural beauty was the icing on the cake – but what icing! Not even the leaden sky could take away from its brilliance.
What struck me the most were the long fingers of water jutting into the green land – and I realised that Sydney’s beauty was as much a part of it as the incredible mix of people who call the city home. Something I’d previously almost eschewed, I now embraced.
Having emerged more or less from my little hole a week later, I decided to make Suburb No 51 somewhere watery, to honour Sydney’s aquatic nature. It also suited my state of mind – and body; I was tired, it was stinking hot and I’d forgotten how blinding Sydney’s sun was.
So I decided on Rose Bay. Somewhere I’d driven through many times before but never really explored.
Some quick facts. Rose Bay is seven km east of the CBD. The largest of Sydney Harbour’s bays, it was the site of Australia’s first international airport – the Sydney Water Airport, so named because the only aircraft that landed there, landed on the water. These ‘flying boats’ operated from 1938 to 1974, through peace and war times. Today, the suburb is noted for being affluent and very Jewish.
Part 1: On the ‘beach’
Years ago one of my best friends lived in Rose Bay in one of the many apartment blocks. I must’ve visited her there dozens of times but not once did I cross New South Head Road to explore the nearby bay itself. But then as one local said, “we do a good job of keeping it secret”.
What’s so special about it? You can see the city – it’s a 10-15 minute drive – yet when the tide’s out, the place transforms into a South Coast-ish paradise. There’s hardly anyone around except for a few dog owners letting their four-legged ones run madly around the enormous flat (it’s one of the few places dogs are allowed), and fit looking bods paddle-boarding their way around the bay ($10 an hour from Rob who looks on from his chair under the swaying trees). Oh, and crazy people who still think tanning themselves in the midday sun is a good idea.
Part 2: On the promenade
Having had my fill of sun and sand between toes, I walked around to the other side of the bay, past the ferry wharf to get to Rose Bay Promenade.
On the way I met…
A man whose suit I admired who’d just got off the ferry and was walking home – “I like your yellow suit, can I please take your photo?” – turned out to be a famous Sydney businessman called Bill Ferris. What, I asked him, did he think about the cliche that most of Sydney regards the eastern suburbs as being snobs-ville.
“Well”, he said, “the cliche may be well earned but envy abounds”.
As he pointed out his house – one of only a handful right on the beach – I had to agree. I felt positively green.
On another visit I met an Irishman wearing very little at all – “I like your body, I mean green shorts, can I please take your photo?”. Ricardo – “Well, it’s Richard but people call me Ricardo” – turned out not to be famous at all – just a lovely Irish man in green shorts.
Then there was Harvey, walking home past the ferry with family and friends after a late afternoon play on the sand. I wanted to focus on his charmingly dishevelled straw hat but he had other ideas.
And lastly Rowen, who was taking his life in his hands by being in the harbour water at “shark time” – he and his mate had lost their surfboard which had a video camera attached to it for filming their surfing escapades on the harbour. He was retrieving the board from under the jetty when I forced him to stay one moment longer in the sharky water.
Part 3: At Rose Bay shops
I really only had eyes for Rose Bay’s shore and promenade. But I reluctantly dragged myself away from them to try and capture other aspects of the suburb.
I’m so glad I did or I would never have met a delightful Polish woman called Barbara. She and her Polish husband, Tadeusz, have run the Craftsman Bakery on Old South Head Road for 20 years. They fled their homeland in 1983, arriving in Sydney not long after.
When they first got off the plane, Barbara asked her husband, “Why are they blowing hot air at us?” Now, decades later, she loves Sydney’s heat and sun – “Every day is like a holiday!”
Which is amazing considering the workload they both have – Barbara gets up at 4am six mornings a week, and works through to 4pm. Her husband then bakes from 7pm to 4am. “So you never see each other?”, I asked. No, she said, we do – every Friday afternoon when they both down tools to celebrate Shabbat. “I thank god there’s a Friday”.
I don’t imagine Barbara’s popular Poppy Twirls and challah bread will be around for too long – the rent has recently gone up and at 65 years of age, she and Tadeusz are nearing retirement. Yet nothing seems to weigh Barbara down – she’s one of those incredibly kind, happy people. What was her secret to happiness – “Working and talking to people, sharing problems, yes, that’s it”.
Across the road from Barbara’s little Polish corner is Rose Bay’s Greek one – St. George Greek Orthodox Parish.
I caught the end of the Sunday service there last week and met little Yianna, newly Christened.
Some days later I was wandering around Old South Head Road when I noticed twins dressed for the beach. Brothers Eidan and Osher, who are actually a year apart, were off with their Israeli mum to a friend’s pool. Would they let me take their photo? No! What about if we gave them a chocolate? Yes!
Part 4: On the water
Having at least explored a little of Rose Bay beyond the bay, I let myself be drawn back to the water’s edge. One afternoon I took Coco down there after school. While she was busy cartwheeling and drawing in the sand, I got chatting to a Danish man who was dangling his feet into the shallow water from a small runabout. As I took his photo, Lars explained that he lived on a boat moored out in the bay, and was just on shore to walk his small dog, Maddy.
Oh, I said, really. Any chance of us having a nose around your boat?
Total cheek. But as his wife was off visiting a friend and he had no plans, he said we were welcome to.
Motoring out to get to his boat, 49 foot long ‘Nanok’, I was partly excited and partly crossing my fingers Lars wasn’t an axe murderer. As you do.
Thankfully he turned out to be a most charming man, without any axe murdering tendencies, married to an equally lovely woman, Elise (we ran into them both by complete chance the next day).
Once on board, we had a snoop around as Lars told us more about their life. Twenty odd years ago, when their kids were three and five, they’d spent four years cruising around the Pacific. They’d all loved it – even the home schooling part. Having endured rather than enjoyed home schooling last year, I was curious. But as Lars explained, they’d had plenty of time to do it – it had only ever become challenging when they met other boats without any kids who wanted to kick back and enjoy the sun and island life.
20 years later, with their kids now adults, Lars and Elise were back at sea – they’d left their home in Brisbane and had been travelling for six months with no plans to stop. “I could do this forever”, Lars said, “but I’m not sure about my wife.” Out of ten, how much did he love it? “12”. And Elise? “Maybe six.”
Lars had spent five years full time building Nanok, a boat designed in the Colin Archer style – which meant it was an extremely safe, sea-going vessel with four corner sails rather than the usual triangle shape.
And how did they end up moored in Rose Bay? “Some friends told us about it. Pretty nice isn’t it?”
The next day Coco and I were back in Rose Bay when, as I mentioned earlier, we ran into Lars and Elise. All Coco wanted to do was go back on their boat – it was so much fun, and we hadn’t even sailed anywhere. I agreed – having never really ‘got’ boats, I found myself wondering if I should learn how to sail. But small problem – I’m not so keen on the keeling bit.
Part 5: In the air
While walking along Rose Bay Promenade one day, I met Valerie and John. Now in her 70s, Valerie had come to Sydney from England as an 11 year old, 66 years ago. But instead of arriving by ship as most did, she was one of the lucky few to arrive by “flying boat”, right here at Rose Bay.
I knew about the seaplanes that took off from Sydney Seaplanes at Rose Bay – I’d walked past their base many times in the past week, watching their footed planes rise from the water into the sky – but I had no idea they were part of a long tradition of aquatic aviation in the area. Because Rose Bay was in fact the first international airport in Australia, the Sydney Water Airport – from 1938 to 1974, passengers arrived and departed on a watery runway, from and to all parts of the world.
Valerie’s journey from England to Sydney had taken just 9 days – amazing at the time when a flight in a normal plane required a whopping 31 stops.
But not everyone could afford to fly on the luxurious Empire Class flying boats – one ticket cost the equivalent of an average annual wage.
After meeting Valerie I researched the whole flying boat thing and got more and more excited about the idea of going up in one. Maybe not the Empire Class of old but one of those nifty looking seaplanes based at Rose Bay.
Which is how I ended up strapped into a de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver, camera at the ready…
Long a fan of flying – the wilder and more turbulent the better – I felt so uplifted (no pun intended) by my 15 minutes in the air. Really, we could’ve flown anywhere and I would’ve loved it. But the fact that we flew over one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, with the light turning its surface into glistening snakeskin, well, that just made it even better.
It was a wonderful way to finish in Rose Bay. Many thanks to Sydney Seaplanes for taking me up!
After my flight, I walked into Catalina restaurant, a Rose Bay/Sydney institution perched over the water, right next to Sydney Seaplanes, and was treated to a five course dinner and champagne.
Okay, no, that bit didn’t happen. I actually went home and cooked sausages for Coco and I, and was happy as Larry. Perfectly content after my week in the elements – I’d gotten sand between my toes, pretended to live on a boat, and soared into the heavens.
Rose Bay for me is all about that stuff. And while not everyone can afford to live there – or take to the skies or water – it doesn’t cost a cent to sit out on a picnic blanket, right on the water, and take it all in.
It was the perfect way to re-enter ‘normal life’ – by realising that you can still have mini adventures, even in your own city.
On the ‘home front’
After spending just over a year setting up temporary homes in 13 cities – a total of 18 different addresses – we’re finally back in our own city and home.
So what’s it like?
As I said at the beginning of the post, for me, it’s been a little stormy, much like the skies in Sydney this past week. But for Coco? Smooth as.
For example, a friend asked her how the trip was. “So much fun”, she answered. And then he asked, so how’s being back at school? “So much fun”.
She’s really just one of the happiest, ‘go with the flow’ people I know. Stuck in my little hole last week, doing circles in my head and not much more, I watched Coco attack the unpacking with great gusto and organise her room, chirpy as ever.
And school? Given how unscheduled her life has been for so long, I really thought she might struggle with the routine, and just having to sit down and pay attention. But so far so good. While maths might be a bit of an issue, she seems to be okay with the whole lessons-classroom thing.
And her friends? It’s like she’s never been away. She just slipped right back into her group as well as making a new bestie within the first few days.
In short, I find my daughter inspirational.
While I’m at it, can I just say to those who’ve been on this journey with us for quite a while, I reckon you’re pretty fabulous too. I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again a few hundred more times before I’m done – truly, this whole thing would not have been what it was without you. Just Coco and I travelling around the world on our own? Nah, never. What fun would that have been?
This suburb has been brought to you by John Agostini
See you next week – for the very last post.