Sydney is a foreign country again.
Coming back, there are always a few strange days where I see it like it’s the first time. Any city, once you’re inside it for a while, hides itself – or rather consumes you with its internal logic – so you are swept along in a kind of shared hallucination with the people moving beside you. You sit amongst them on the train without noticing them, frowning as if you’re busy, convinced you have important things weighing you down. But go away for a while and the illusion falls apart. Looking with new eyes, you often catch something of what’s real underneath a city’s distorted self-image. Temporarily immune to its pretensions of globally-connected-importance, and your own daily perspective, you can see an actual place.
In Sydney, on the bus, people make a great effort to seem invisible: staring like frogs into the middle nothingness, their ears plugged with white wires. If you were to take away the sound of engines and compression brakes and jackhammers, the morning silence of the thousands of humans on any central Sydney street would be eerie. But this silence is common in any place where money and technology have taken away the need to interact with others and where the overwhelming crush of people has taken away the desire to. There is something particular about Sydney commuters though that is difficult to pinpoint: a kind of casual expansiveness. They take up more room than they need to, as if the city were an extension of their living room; some on the bus do their make-up or yawn widely, their hair tangled and still wet from the shower. They sit together without the slightest apprehension because they have nothing more to fear from each other than an awkward interaction. Ignoring each other is actually a demonstration of their high levels of social trust.
Or maybe the expansiveness is not comfort with each other, but the effect of Sydney’s overwhelming natural environment. This is the most unexpected thing to observe as a returning resident: everywhere you look nature is invading. The roots of giant trees push up through the pavement, literally cracking the thin asphalt crust of the city, as if the whole thing is ready to peel away and crumble back into the earth. Even where the steel and concrete are solid, the air settles in around you thick and salty and uncivilised. There is a sweet smell from the breathing vegetation that collects heavily around things all day, until it is blown off by the marauding wind that glides in off the sea.
This was always what I thought coming to Sydney as a kid: the air is different. Driving in from the north the highway cuts through high cliffs of sandstone – a channel into the Sydney basin with its air swirling like soup, trapped in by the mountains and the sea. Back then, everything about it seemed big: the endless networks of dipping power cables; the mountainous glinting glass buildings; even the rain drops were huge, hitting the windscreen with enormous warm thuds and spreading out.
Now the city seems almost small but the towering, operatic weather events are no less impressive. And it’s often hard to see the city for the trees. There are small twisted ash and ragged acacia and the Port Jackson figs: pushing upwards, huge and muscular, spreading the deep holiness of their shade. The eucalypts have fine pencil detail on their thin-legged trunks, while the old European masters paint the ground with rotting leaves and the tropical ferns sway their sweaty limbs, reaching out and grabbing at everything.
On my street the trees have thick coastal leaves, oily on top with a fine white satin underneath, that rub together with a distinctive blunt hiss when the air moves through them. Bubbles of sound pop releasing birdcalls: the garbled arguments of invisible parakeets, the uneven staccato whistle of willy-wagtails, the elliptical cascading improvisations of magpies. The magpie is most famous for swooping unsuspecting pedestrians during nesting season, but his singing style is really his most incredible talent. He seems to suck the sound in rather than sing it out, articulating impossible backwards melodies– as if his throat were a system of pipes with water being slowly poured through it.
Sometimes at night, looking out at the tops of dark trees rising and falling in the wind, it isn’t hard to imagine what it was like when there were no buildings in Sydney, when people slept on the ground with only a fire or a dog or other human beings to keep out the cold and the incredible aliveness of everything. Even now, protected by concrete and steel and communication technology and modern medicine and bored cynicism, the undeniable life that surrounds this city still seeps into our brains. We may never really know what it was like for them, to live without these protections we take for granted. But there is something we know about them, simply because we live in the same place.