My heart forever torn between two great loves.
American surfers often gaze at Australia like Narcissus gazed at his own reflection upon the waters. They stare, tenderly, into the vibrant, high-spirited nationalism staring back and think, “Having convict forbearers is much cuter, and equates to a much better time, than having Puritan ones.” They smile at the tanned, beer drinking, easy living, carefree, surf obsessed doppelganger and sigh, “Australia is perfect. Australia is us only better.”
I felt this same way when I was a young boy. My father taught school, for two years, in Papua New Guinea and many of my classmates were Australian. I envied them. I found myself calling friends “mate” and saying, “G’day” to passers by. I told my teachers that I was from Australia too and claimed the Southern Cross as my own. Australians were just so dynamic and captivating and it was only through some rude cosmic hoax that I had not been born “down under.”
Three years ago, I moved to Sydney in order to fulfill my childhood destiny. Everything seemed exactly perfect as I stepped off my Qantas flight and breathed the Eucalyptus tinged air. I was now “Australian” and things were the way they always should have been. I looked around at my new countryfolk and saw that the entire population lived within twenty minutes of fantastic surf and that living well was prized above all. Wild nights cascaded, effortlessly, into barrel-filled days cascaded back into wild nights. Men wore v-neck t-shirts so low that their tanned midsections were visible to the blonde and easy sheilas prowling for a “go.” I gazed deeply into the waters and was thrilled by the lateral inversion beaming back. Cars drove on the left instead of the right. Steering wheels were on the right instead of the left. Winter was summer and summer was winter.
Fannies were on the front of women and not the back. It was just different enough to be very very cute. And better. Everything around me was better. I believed that those first convicts, shipped across the Pacific, had created a heaven on earth for surfers. They had been seen as undesirable in their home Britain and so the crown, in its wisdom, sent them away. Left to their own devices, they cast off cultural stratification and the very idea of noblesse oblige. They were all one, dirty, fun-loving lot.
They were all one and the same. They were fathers of a nation nonpareil. And I strove to be the best Australian I could be, wearing very very low v-necks myself, cheering the footy, eating meat pies for breakfast, drinking Tooheys by the glass and pronouncing it “Choo-ees” and calling the glass a “schooner.” I surfed Bondi, Byron, Snapper and Bells. I added –ies to the end of every word I said, as in, “Mate, let’s go for a surfies at Snappies.” But I soon realized something profound. “Striving” is quintessentially un-Australian. I found that a condition called Tall Poppy Syndrome inflicts the entire continent. In Australia, to achieve anything at all is an affront to the nation. They mock excellence. They despise upward mobility. To become someone, or something, is not valued. Tall poppies are meant to be cut down to size. It was a grimy cockney pickpocket accent sneering, “What? Yous think yous betta than me, govnah’?” at the well-bred and well-fed. It was making sure everyone stayed down together.
I looked around without rose-coloured lenses. Australia has no good architecture, save the Sydney Opera House, no good university, no seriously lauded scientist or thinker or author save Derek Rielly who just released the greatest political book of all time. It has plenty of pretty actors and actresses and models and surfers but, let’s be honest, none of them strive for more. Each is happy in his or her lot. I fell into a deep existential funk. The reflection of my dream, of our dream, was no more than a fraudulent trick of light upon the waters.
I flew back to Los Angeles, one year after moving to Sydney, and wandered the streets, looking at art-deco buildings and upwardly mobile execs driving Porsches. I watched people judge other people and envy what other people had and I realized that judgment and envy makes for great art. I thanked God that he made my forbearers Puritan and not convict. But then I remembered the good times. The lack of pressure. The easy smiles.
The surf, surf, surf and surf. I missed my Australia and realized I was forever twisted. I would never be happy in either place. I would forever need both Australia’s easy going and America’s upward toil. Well, so be it. God save the queen and God bless America.
(This piece first appeared in Surf Europe)