Whenever I say, “Meanwhile in Australia” I want to make a joke about my own country. This is one of the ways Australia is seen by the rest of the world. We’re often amusing and we’re usually within tolerable limits of strange.
In reality, we’re not always amusing. We’re not always strange. Sometimes we’re terrifying. When the streets heat up enough to fry an egg on the pavement and we’re told that tomorrow will be hotter still, that’s terrifying. A few days ago Canberra was scary, because the air was filled with dust. Last time I experienced that kind of dust storm the dust was red and I wondered what planet I was on.
Australia is seldom dull. This is why I’m going to write you letters from Downunder, once a month (and sometimes more often, when life becomes curious), telling you what’s going on here. One day I might tell you about fire or flood or the world may look tiny due to the desert dust that infuses the air. Another day I might tell you about politics. If I meet an echidna I’ll let you know, and if people ask me questions on social media, I will try to answer them here.
It’s hard to tell what the day will bring in any country right now. This means I can’t tell you what I will talk about next month or in a year.
Let me give you a couple of anecdotes about my own experiences in Canberra, so that you know what might come. Or what might not come. These are two of my favourite stories, so some of you may have read them elsewhere. They both say something about life in Canberra.
I wrote a few pages in The Wizardry of Jewish Women where Molotov cocktails were thrown onto the roof of a building. Upstairs in that building were 78 people, enjoying a quiz night.
This is the kind of story I tell when people explain to me how lacking in bigotry Australia is. I tell this one in particular because I was one of the three people who had to get those 78 people out safely. Most of the quiz-answerers didn’t even know that anything was wrong, because I was the one who had to decide on the level of panic and I froze. This is why my life will never be made into a movie. Freezing is not the stuff of which action heroes are made.
My total brain freeze was interpreted as “Let’s not tell anyone what’s happening. Let’s finish the evening early and get them out without any fuss.”
And that’s what happened. The opposite of movie terror, in fact. Most people went home and to bed straight away, for it was late on a Saturday night.
I pulled the upstairs curtains shut on my way to telling the quizmaster that he had to finish up calmly and quickly. No-one was able to look out of a window and see the fire burning. I didn’t put those curtains in the novel, because I didn’t put myself in the novel. I didn’t put my quiet consultation with the quizmaster where he agreed to skip the last round and claim it was because everything was running late and that we had worked out that telling people it was late would make them feel tired and leave the hall quickly. And that someone had to lock up and so could they please continue their conversations outside.
I was over my brain freeze by then, and I explained about the person locking up being tired (simple truth was effective) to any groups that lingered on the stairs and in the corridor. When everyone was gone, the police took their place.
The police didn’t do much. They never got back to me to tell me why they never caught anyone, or why it took them 45 minutes to come to Parliamentary Triangle on a quiet Saturday night. They came much faster the night we had a perfectly legal bonfire and told us that it might be perfectly legal, but it was in Parliamentary Triangle and security came first so we had to get rid of it.
I’ve spent years trying to sort out all the contradictions in these things. Why it was better I had a brain freeze because otherwise I might’ve set everyone panicking. Why it was not better the police that night were not their normal efficient selves. Why the Molotov cocktails never made front page news.
I’m not the only one who found it puzzling. I was at dinner in Parliament House (my life was once odd) sitting next to the guy who was about to become Chief Minister for the Australian Capital Territory a few weeks later and I wept about it all in his direction. He gave an impassioned speech about the whole thing to the local Legislative Assembly.
These days the Jewish Centre has the highest metal fence to keep out such problems. The wider community thinks it’s wrong for the fence to be so high. “What’s there to protect against in Canberra?” they ask me. I tell them my story, or one of the other ones, and most of them don’t believe it. They would know if such things happened in their home town, they tell me.
This is an aspect of Australia that doesn’t get talked about often. Kangaroos are easier to talk about than racist violence, and my second story has a kangaroo. This is the story that made the front page of the paper.
Some years ago, I ran food history research and devised science fictional and historical menus (both, not one or the other) for the local science fiction convention. Hotel chefs did all the cooking from my menus and recipes. I had some really interesting conversations with them.
My most interesting conversation was with Beat, a Swiss-Australian chef. He maintained a dignified face and sober comportment in meetings. He always wore full chef garb, including the hat. I always wanted to try speaking French with him, just to see what his accept was like, but I never had the courage. Beat is an excellent chef, but trained in the classic style, which means he presented to me as intimidating.
One meeting, however, he was not intimidating at all. I tried hard not to giggle. I restrained myself (barely) from asking about the events of the previous week.
The meeting was so much more relaxed than all the previous ones, but maybe for the wrong reasons.
Beat’s home also had one of those super high fences. They were not to keep out Molotov cocktails, but kangaroos. Kangaroos are a big problem in Canberra. On the highways in particular at dawn and dusk they hop across and if the driver is not careful they end up roadkill. Cars are not that safe either, for the biggest kangaroos around here can reach six feet.
A six foot kangaroo had jumped over Beat’s tall fence.
That wasn’t the problem.
That six foot kangaroo had entered Beat’s family home.
That wasn’t the problem.
When Beat woke up from sleep, it was to the news that his son was trapped in his bedroom with this big kangaroo. Beat (wearing only his underpants, said all the news reports) went straight to the child’s room, took the giant roo in a neck hold and wrestled it outside.
That convention dinner was one of the best I’ve ever attended. Beat did an amazing job.
My sole amazing moment was not asking all the questions I wanted to ask about wrestling kangaroos out of bedrooms, through houses, out the door and off the property… wearing only one’s underpants.