Blessed to be a witness

Tuesday, 30th August

The kindness of strangers

Having a miserable time drinking champagne in the brilliant sunshine at Watson's Bay

The night following the migraine, painkillers having failed me, I decided to anaesthetise the residual throbbing with a couple of beers. M and I set off down the road to the local hotel bar, and were having a quiet 'schooner' of the local ale, when a friendly stranger approached us and within minutes, on learning that we were tourists in Sydney, offered us the use of her car.

This has happened so much on our travels, and I'm glad Australia didn't let us down. I am starting to wonder what signals we're giving off. Do we look utterly harmless, hopeless or terribly respectable? Do we look like waifs and strays? We got chatting to this young woman (I say young because she's a year younger than me), whom I shall call June, and learned that she is a criminal defense lawyer. As the evening progressed and June drank a bit more wine (I suspect she might have had a bit before she approached us) she pointed out a fairly innocuous-looking middle-aged gentleman at another table and told us that he is a notorious gangster. I was slightly dubious, but, emboldened by the wine, she went over and chatted to him, which I felt a trifle unwise. As he and his cohorts left, he smiled at her and said "I'll be seeing you around" in a manner that did indeed seem rather sinister.

June and her boyfriend are in the process of adopting an Ethiopian orphan - not following a trend, they have been in the process of doing it since before Ms Jolie. Not wanting the conversation to finish, June invited us back to her apartment. Her boyfriend let us in, which was a bit embarrassing as he didn't look particularly impressed, but he went back to bed and we went out onto the balcony of her beautiful apartment, high above the lights of Clovelly and Coogee, and the dark sea below us. June was fascinating, giving us insights into the ghastly crimes being committed in the Sydney area, but also the innocent people occasionally caught up in false accusations.

She also talked of the appalling racism in the country. At the moment, as elsewhere, it is directed towards Muslim immigrants. However, she said she was at great pains to point out to the racists she met every day in her work, many of whom are first and second generation themselves, that it was their families who were the subject of exactly the same abuse just a few decades ago: Italians, Greeks, people from eastern European countries, were all personae non gratae until very recently.

And then of course there's the aborigines. I haven't really mentioned them during my time here. That's because I've only seen four of them. One was an alcoholic, begging in a bottle shop, and the other three were in their tribal gear in central Sydney, posing for tourists. The proportion of aborigines to 'Europeans' is minute - less than one per cent - and the majority of them live in rural areas. Due to misguided policies of the past - both seeking to destroy, as with the introduction of 'grog' to their societies, and seeking to 'improve', as with the ghastly Lost Generation experiment that for decades ripped children from their parents' arms and brought them up in white society with little provision for their lives afterwards other than as domestic servants for whites, nor their trauma - as well as the tribal nature of their societies, and their inherent difficulties in adapting to the society that has been imposed on them, means that they are underrepresented and the majority living in deep poverty or squalor. There have only been two aborigine politicians in the history of the country, and you don't see them on the TV, in shops, or even working in McDonald's. It's an intractible situation, and one that I doubt will ever be fixed.

Eventually we decided we'd kept June up for long enough - she had been in the bar because she was working from home so didn't have to get up the next day - and left, she still insisting we borrow her car the next day. Yet again I marvel at how kind people have been all over this planet. It has made us resolve to be more like the strangers we've met from now on.

The next day was our last in Australia, and we took it easy, being slightly hungover. We went to the Surry Hills area of Sydney to peruse the myriad little restaurants and cafés there for lunch. Since Surry Hills is host to a restaurant called Thairiffic, it is appropriate at this juncture for me to mention the love Sydney businesses have for really bad puns. Since we've been here we've seen The Lone Drainer, a gardening service called No Mow Worries, a bedding shop called Holy Sheet! and a creperie called Holy Crepe!, a men's clothing outfitters in Daly called The Daly Male, a lingerie shop called Cotton On, a juice bar called Sejuiced, a jewellers called Opal Minded, and my favourite, since it's so clever yet contrived, an aromatherapy salon called No Common Scents.

We had moved out of the house due to the medical crisis, but on our last evening our host took us to a pub quiz in the same area, where we were joined by Owen (he of the boat), another former colleague of M's from Dublin, and a fascinating chap who has done a master's in brewing and is just about to launch a new beer company. We ended up, to our surprise, by winning the pub quiz, but forfeited our prize of a slab of beer in exchange for just one round. It was a good night, and it was lovely to see our friend for one last time before we left. I wish him and his family luck and success, and am sure their astonishing stoicism, positivity and strength will defeat their medical problem.

I left the east coast of Australia with mixed feelings. It strikes me, as with Canberra, that this would be a fantastic place to live, but not necessarily to visit, or at least not as a 'cultural' tourist. For the majority of white people, life is spent outdoors in suburbia and looks to be a great pleasure. The lifestyle is good, the cost of living low, the climate gorgeous. It is, however, this pleasing nature that makes it less pleasurable for the tourist: happy middle-class Australians live their lives fairly privately, socialising at home in groups of friends, metaphorically turning their backs to the outsider. Where Australian culture does exhibit itself, it is so similar to that which I am used to that there's little contrast - I don't notice it; whereas Asian countries display their culture to me at every turn, probably because they're so different to mine.

To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at