The Mediocre Panjandrum

I’m currently cooking like a braised lamb shank with red wine and tarragon, with roasted balsamic potato bullshit on the side and like a spiced pumpkin-pear sauce over ice cream for dessert. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing – I found the lamb shanks on sale from $8 to $3.50, so I bought them, and everything else was lying around getting all expired proper – but I do know that I have another hour and a half for the oven to finish her up, so I thought I’d write an old update; obviously, they’ve been as sparse as ever, and likely more so.

Not to fret, however, for those keeping score: if you might have noticed that the population of gerunds in the collection to be a bit slight, it’s because I’ve just finished two short screenplays (twenty pages-or-so, each, so…not such a huge deal, unless you’ll allow me to consider it to be, in which case I will!). I’m writing or cooking with most of my free time, and my skin is as pale as a dead chicken’s, but this, and its associated contentedness, can be explained in the following paragraph:

About a month ago, I took a weeklong, exploratory trip to Tasmania, as many of you know. I was inexplicably unhappy in Melbourne, or at least felt a certain void within me, and in finding flights for about $30 each way, I decided to put my life on pause, rent a car, and drive down the coast of nothing. I was alone, had no idea of what I would do, or why I was going (as usual), and this model had succeeded in most precedent. Still, I was in my dream city of Melbourne and this was a huge concession of failure. I half-expected to return with no bed and no job, aborting my dream before it could even bloom.

I got to the tiny, two-roomed airport in Launceston, on the northern part of Tasmania, at night, and drew circles on the floor for fifteen minutes, trying to figure where and how I could rent a car, where I would sleep, and what I would do with my lone morning in this city. By the time I concluded that I could determine nothing, the shuttle had already departed, leaving me with another three hours at the quiet, cold airport. I secured the number to a hostel, reserved a bed, and when the shuttle driver arrived, he instructed me immediately to stay elsewhere, so against my instincts, I went where he took me. Upon arrival I met the most annoying women I’ve met in my life and spent the rest of the night figuring out how I could be alone. The result was a late night spent in a snug, Edwardian-hued reading room with Saul Bellow’s Herzog and a bottle of wine procured from a late-night liquor shop. This, mixed often with a shot of notebook and the “book I’m writing” (ha!), dominated my nights in Tasmania. My days, instead, were that when I wasn’t walking up a mountain or driving through the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen in my ham life. To put it simply, my going to Tasmania was a less-dramatic instance of a newt finding water after a post-natal lifetime spent inexplicably and invariably ashore. I loved her, and she loved me. Her nutmeg-scented woodlands, her peppermint rainforests, her topaz-and-sprite oceans and confectioner’s sands, even her moth-y lamb’s wool elders and wayward, Wayfarer youths, I loved. Tasmania in July was, if kissed by a touch of frost, the type of place where you drove for an hour without seeing a soul before landing at a place, almost accidentally, that was recently named the number one travel destination on the earth by Lonely Planet, still finding simply no one. Tasmania was my kind of place.

Arriving in the Bay of Fires wasn’t dramatic. I got into its nearest town around four or five, poked my head into the information center/library to ask an old man how to get to the heralded beach, then snapped into my car and drove out of town, but in the wrong direction. After a ten minute drive full of shame, I shot back around and drove toward the ocean. I drove, and then I drove more, realizing that this place wasn’t nearly as close to town as I expected it to be. The sun began to set and, considering that I hadn’t planned more than that night there (this only begins to scratch the surface of the abundance of beauty on the Apple Isle, that one can’t even devote a full day for fear of missing other places), I had to haul brass. Shooting defiantly past speed placards, turning my nose up and the countless nocturnal warnings and their associated and flattened kangaroo, koala, Tasmanian devils, wombat, and wallaby. It was like piloting a clipper ship, against millions of warning signs, through New York Bay, to find the Statue of Liberty littered with bullet holes: knowing that I could be victim of laying waste to a number of a country’s true icons was exhilarating or worrisome. Nevertheless, I hauled ass up and down hills in my rental car, racing the sun, trying to find a beach that faced the sun’s set. Ultimately, I found the tip of the collection of bays, screeched my car to a halt in a makeshift parking space, and literally ran through a field of brush and sand, resembling the long grass of the Cape Cod of my mind, before I could tumble on a beach I had completely to myself. I sat on the lichen-covered rock, famously surrounded by that molten orange, playing my harmonica with the lapping of the invisible water onto the sand, impossibly drenched with countless vibrant shells, rendering the beach almost pizza-like, and waited for that big, buttery star to plunge into the horizon. It was among the most wonderfully anticlimactic experiences I’ve had.

After that, Tasmania was mostly driving for mile upon kilometer, kilometer before mile, seeing no one and everything, blasting my music through open windows as gusts of wind carried Cameron Bird’s shrill voice past the frightened sheep, over the haggard crevasses, into the heartless and wild ocean. A night here was spent in some V-frame with no heating, breath visible in bed, sharing a bottle of Jameson with two weird and whimsical Germans, the hotel’s owner living ominous/omnipotent in the lit loft above us, these eight the only opposable thumbs for considerable distance.

Ultimately, I ended up couchsurfing on Mount Wellington, which is the crag that hovers over the otherwise pedestrian city of Hobart. I must express how grateful, for the city’s comparative mediocrity, I am for having found this place, as Mount Wellington manages to be close to the city while still exhibiting the qualities of Tasmania that I came to love. What’s more, though I arrived hours late for a curry party/couchsurfing convention, the last awkward guest to arrive before all of the guests departed, fifteen minutes later, my host ended up being one of the most wonderful people I’ve met to date. Her heart spanned Cataract Gorge, that awesome natural phenom located near Launceston created right around the Ice Age, her laugh as infectious as was whatever disease rendered the dinosaurs extinct, her taste in music and film as timeless and essential as a fern. We intended to perhaps do something with my time there – I tried to cook her decent Mexican food, and failed, and certainly never left the house during the evenings – but ended up staying up late, watching movies and discussing the heartbeat of the universe. My last night there, after I spent the day hiking on the mountain, calculating moss and racing the calm breeze at the mountain’s summit, we rented a few films and ultimately watched The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which made me cry for a long, long time. I should have been embarrassed, but I wasn’t, because Jo was crying, too, and again we proceeded to talk for three hours about things I’ve never expressed to another person before. My relationship with Jo was, and continues to be, representative of why traveling is necessary: with nothing in common and no bond or even ground, we nevertheless could, without pretence or effort or ulterior intent, break down social barriers on that mountain and become as close for one night as I’ve been with anyone. And no, I don’t mean close in that sense, thanks.

Back in Melbourne, all of my friends and co-workers noted the significant upswing in mood I carried with me. Even tonight, talking with my lovely French roommates, Elise and Elodie, they looked back with nostalgia to the person I was, fresh from my vacation.

Since then, I must say, life has been pretty normal. Not that it’s a bad thing, or that I’m complaining; contrarily, life has been alternatingly as great and careless as I can remember. Still, I am back to working full time at the restaurant, Deveroli’s, whose food is fatty and awful and overpriced (the lamb shank, priced at nearly $30, is vacuum-packed and located in the dry storage closet with no need for refrigeration), but whose staff is familial in every sense of the word. I complain about the place enough – I’m paid AU$13/hour with nary a tip in sight (if an Australian tips you 50 cents for a $40 bill, consider yourself lucky, seriously), and on our 12 hour double shifts’ thirty-minute break, if we want to eat from the restaurant, we are entitled to an absurd and measly 30% discount – but I’ve gotten used to it. I am friendly to the customers that are friendly, curt or worse to the rude or indifferent, and have come to appreciate the customers for the crazy and obsessive-compulsive lunatics that they are. Oh, the stories, so tailored for nonsense literature. Being a waiter, too, is different here than in America: if a customer unreasonably questions my service or my effort, I simply tell them, to their face, that I don’t care about their complaint, and if they ask to see my manager, I laugh at them. Some days I hate my life, and some days I just spend chatting with good or interesting people, hearing wonderful stories, or simply standing around doing trivia from the newspaper with my colleagues. Everyone urges me to loosen up and appreciate what I’ve got – I can roll into work drunk if I wanted to, and no one would really notice or care – but then one can’t escape completely from oneself. That’s not to say, however, that I haven’t done so.

Mostly, my reflections of life in Australia are mixed. It’s a great country, just as the USA is great, though in some ways, greater (Australia, mean…though this is a debate for another time), and Melbourne is probably the best city I’ve ever visited by a long shot. It’s just so easy and so colorful, in spite of her residents’ monochromatic fashion tendencies, and, more than anything, so well structured in regard to my own nose; every week is a new arts festival or a fresh cultural theme. With that said, I’m surrounded by my own language, and most of the travelers are here at the mouth of their journey, in regard to itinerary or mentality. Outside of the occasional difference in colloquialism, or the frequent passing of judgment I get for being American (frankly, it was tough going, initially, constantly deflecting ignorant, or even deserved, slander), it’s not much more of a challenge than moving to San Francisco might be, and this has been difficult for me. I would wonder, “why am I so far from home if I’m not even vainly struggling to learn a new and fleeting language?” “Shouldn’t I be learning of the Aboriginal philosophy instead of draining pints to Top-40 music?” “Am I doing anything at all for myself in being here?” All of this has driven me mad at times, surely.

By now, in reflection of most of this, I am able to say with resolute confidence that I regret nothing – truly nothing – I’ve done in my life. It was my dream to live in Australia, and I’m here; if my own stuffy prescriptions for travel haven’t quite been filled, plenty of others have. In the framework of my life and my personality, I’ve been well served, and continue to be well served, though far from completely sated, by my time here. As a “backpacker” that used to take offense to the title, I have been forced to appreciate a life without high-impact, life altering significance in the most obvious sense. Really, I’ve learned the value of Loosening The Fuck Up. Am I yet loose? Well, I’ll let this entry stand as testament to that. Still, more and more I find myself able to handle a variety of situations, and this traveling chapter of my life has really sprawled me across that register, but living in Australia as a flighty outsider without anything to contribute has revealed so many things to myself of myself. I’ve come to like my own country, my own identity (still two things as disparate as ever), and my security in being Me has never been stronger. I love sitting in my room listening to music, playing guitar, watching movies, or reading. I love talking to old people; I love seeding and blanching fresh tomatoes for sauce instead of opening a can; I love sitting for three hours with someone that matters to me, and I can disregard those that don’t. I can whistle to idiotic music while walking in public dressed like a clown, and I can scratch a number of things off my list as things I’ve tried a number of time, full force, to no avail. I might not be completely honest with myself and I might not be as happy as I could be, but at very least, I’m understanding the person that I am and what I value. I used to rank cultures from my preconceptions, figuring perhaps that I’d find more in common with a liberated, intellectual Europe, or an unpretentious, welcoming Australia. Well, though I can’t deny anything of anyone, I realize that special people are in a minority all over the world, that I don’t sport qualities Italian any more than I do American, and to me that’s far more hopeful than it is cynical. It’s taken me 30 countries to realize this definitively, and that I still thirst for more travel reminds me of how worthwhile all of it has been.

I don’t think life is to be squandered or saved. I think it’s mine to be spent as I please, and if that has me dancing naked and ablaze through some forest or living in isolation in the middle of a metropolis, who gives a shit? If you want to pick a booger, you’ll pick it.  And now I fart until my bed is warm enough for sleep.

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~ by nearhelsinki on September 1, 2009.

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