One evening in May 2015, I was racing as fast as I could while holding up a tuxedo in my one good hand on Pitt Street as everyone was finishing the work day in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Dusk was just arriving, and I was sprinting southward on this distinguished street weaving around natives and tourists alike in an effort to get my days-overdue tux returned. Albert Pisani of Man About Town suit hire was awaiting—but only for a few minutes, he had said on the phone. My wife and I had cut our trip to the Blue Mountains short having barely glimpsed those storied cliffs from too far off. As I ran, it was as if a director had yelled “Action!” while the boom camera was positioned to capture my race against the clock. The whole thing was ridiculous, but I did enjoy that feeling of running within a city as far from home as I’d ever been like I belonged there—past the shopping, the traffic lights, and Sydney’s abundance of corporate logos.
We weren’t the most obvious choice to make a 17-hour flight from Dallas to Sydney (22 hours when you count our morning fog diversion to Auckland, New Zealand). In 2004 I had backed out of a flight from Pennsylvania to Oregon with a case of air scares, and my wife has found turbulence to be a four-letter word in the past few years. So the longest mileage flight operating in the world was possibly a stretch for us. Nevertheless, we used the same preparation and resolve that got us through previous travels across the U.S. and to Ireland along with Kindles, on-board movies, and various meals and snacks. When you’re on a flight that lasts the better part of a full day in economy seating, strange behaviors emerge, like when we devoured entire Kit-Kats in seconds when the steward surprised us with a snack delivery at the 12-hour mark.
We were in Sydney for the wedding of a good friend of my wife from her University of Texas days. I was nursing a sports injury of a broken knuckle, but no way would I let that dampen the spirits of such a trip. The happy wedding couple certainly made the most of their amazing city for their guests. Our hotel on the North side offered an excellent view of the Harbor Bridge, and the bride and groom also set their guests up with a harbor cruise that was delightfully smooth sailing for us land lubbers.
Travel provides a direct experience, and sometimes the smallest of elements can be quite memorable. The wedding site was the chapel of the Church of England school campus that the groom had attended as a youth. On the afternoon of the wedding (which came off beautifully), as we waited for all of the guests, we noticed a few black birds flitting about and perching atop the campus buildings. They were noticeable especially for their odd vocals, a kind of otherworldly, mournful yodeling. As I listened and reflected I thought, intuitively they’re ravens! At that moment, the “Nevermore” of Poe’s great poem suddenly registered for me. When I did some brief research later, I found that it was true: Sydney was home to ravens—in all of their uncommon beauty and character.
The Opera House is located on the South Harbor, a distinctive metropolitan setting that we will not soon forget. On that southern wharf, you can sit at the Opera House Kitchen and sample the modern, Asian-influenced menu and enjoy some delicious regional wines as the cool winds drift over the water. But as one might suspect, adjusting to the time difference as a foreign traveler is no small challenge to master. At 9:00 pm of our first complete day in the city, we attended the ballet “The Dream” based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Sydney Opera House. It was just as magical of an experience as billed. The dancing, the symphonic music, and that astounding structure all made for a great night—while we resisted a tremendous sleepiness. As we were finding our seats on the outcropping of the mezzanine level, I happened to peek over and look down in front of my seat. On the back of one of the light fixtures, there was a small, lone, dusty sticker that read “Life could be a dream.”
That night and those words presented a fitting opening move on the part of this landmark city. Language and phrasing were particularly interesting aspects of our trip. I noticed that the word bit was used the way Americans would use part, as in “other bits of the economy.” The short “e” in neck often sounds like a short “i” sound, so a salesperson on TV might be heard to encourage people to “chick it out.” We were fairly tickled when a proud member of a professional rugby team told an interviewer in the classic accent, “Evuh since I wuz a little kid, I always wanted to be a Wallaby.” We noticed that some familiar brand names were different—for example the fast food chain Burger King is known as Hungry Jack’s. But our favorite unofficial branding was for a type of sporty legwear in a women’s store at the shopping mall. A sign in magic marker read “Flashdance Pants.”
In the Southern Hemisphere, the perspective is a little different, cosmically speaking. When I looked up at the night sky, I didn’t recognize the familiar man in the moon. After a little while, I realized that “he” was sideways as was Orion’s Belt. For years those three nearly aligned stars were an astronomical marker of significance for my dad; now the Belt stood on its side as if to show that times had changed and that Mere and I had traveled quite far.
The Taronga Zoo was another highlight of our trip. After a short ferry ride from Sydney Harbor, we boarded a cable car and made our way over the zoo from a short distance above. As we strolled about, the kangaroos relaxed in their fold, while a joey peeked out of his mother’s pouch. The wallabies hopped and played in their enclosure like kids in the schoolyard. We met a Koala named Sydney and posed for a picture near her while carefully noting her sharp claws.
The Sydney Botanical Gardens were everything we hoped for and more. In those expansive Gardens inside the city we saw exotic birds and immense trees that seemed to be from the fables. Inspired by her grandmother’s love of botany, my wife examined and photographed some of the prettiest flora that we had ever come across.
Nature played an important role in another adventure we had: our trip to the Hunter Valley vineyards. We enjoyed the sense of panache and good humor of Glandore Estate Wines, and their Hunter Shiraz was delicious. At Lambloch Estate, I appreciated the hosting vintner’s ethical dictum that “the price of a wine should be what it costs to produce the wine.” I couldn’t help but think of our parents during this part of the trip, and as our shuttle ferried us about the green countryside, I remembered the similar rides we had taken from Dublin to Omagh in Ireland.
To travel well you have to practice, and it is so important to have a great partner with whom to share everything—I’m very lucky to have as a partner a highly practical planner and a thoughtful participant in just about any situation or adventure. She was very understanding about that nearly forgotten tuxedo. We witnessed a superbly celebrated wedding and explored so many moments that only Sydney could offer. We returned to Texas with the feeling that we had made a good decision to make this trip. When we are at our best, we give each step proper consideration before we take it, and we explore when we can because life could be a dream.