Sydney Shine

Last Sunday night, I flew out of New York and began a twenty-two hour trek around the world to Singapore. By the time I finally arrived on Tuesday morning I was beleaguered with jet lag, but Singapore greeted me indifferently with its usual, unforgivingly hot and humid weather. The equatorial heat is nearly always a shock to the system and it compounds travel exhaustion, so I was lucky to spend only a day in Singapore before returning to the airport. That same evening, still unrested, I flew out to Sydney, Australia on a business trip.

Unconsciously, I keep a list of cities I know nothing about, wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit, but which hold little immediate interest for me. Quebec, Berlin, Brasilia, and Moscow are on this list, among others — and so was Sydney before I arrived here. For whatever reason, it never figured prominently into the daydreams I had about touring Asia-Pacific when I first got wind of my transfer to Singapore.

It might sound unfair, then, to say that my expectations were low when I touched down here on Wednesday morning. The seven-plus hour flight from Singapore just left me more exhausted, and all I was asking of Sydney was a comfortable bed and some relief from travel. Whatever the rest of the city held would be fine; if it just gave me rest I would ask nothing more of it.

“Sydney is shiny and magnificent in small, finite concentrations. But it has one inarguable wonder: the Sydney Opera House.”

Upon arrival then, I was thankful at least for the weather. It’s a world away from what I’d just left in Singapore. The calendar says "July" now but Sydney is in the middle of its coldest months. This winter is mild in comparison to the bitterness of New York — the cold here is never as fierce as the sub-zero temperatures that plow through the mid-Atlantic in January and February. Brisk winds move through Sydney, but they never bite the skin with unbearable frigidness. This kind of winter feels more like an early New York autumn, when the quality of the air is brisk but not yet given over to barren temperatures. The thermometer reads just fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit, and the days are wide-eyed, cloudless, clear.

This climate does no disservice to the Sydney represented by Darling Harbour, where my hotel is located. Once a commercial port, its waters are now strewn with expensive yachts and tourist boats. Like other redeveloped urban centers, the area now thrives on tourist dollars and casual entertainment. Its shores are anchored by a maritime museum, a huge IMAX theatre and shopping arcades. People wander the wide concourses leisurely in the crisp, clean breezes.

To the east and overlooking the bay is the precise architectural skyline of the business district. Sydney has its share of corporate outposts, and from my hotel room window I can see the logos of Nestle, British Telecom, Citigroup and IBM emblazoned atop skyscrapers. A monorail follows a pedestrian footbridge across the harbour, and a ten minute walk leads into the city centre.

Having lived in New York, I’m impressed by the sanitary habits of just about any city that can keep most of its garbage in its garbage cans. Sydney manages this, and in Darling Harbour and the city centre area at least, there is a sense of nearly pristine orderliness. A kind of artificial magnificence is present in the streets. Surfaces gleam wildly, and there is a deliberateness to the architectural spaces that sings of high design.

It’s all very tasteful, but there is an echo of banality present too, as if the city centre might just as well be a pricey shopping mall. It’s a finite magnificence and a finite space. Darling Harbour is a postcard of moneyed urbanity, but wandering further out to, say, the King’s Cross area reveals a less robust Sydney. The merchants here are seedier and the clientele less free with their dollars. Abandoned store fronts sit side by side with adult book shops, pubs and convenience stores. Get in a car and drive even further out, and the carefully crafted illusion of the harbour disappears entirely. Taking its place is a middle-class contriteness that is surprisingly, sometimes disturbingly similar to the suburban East Coast I knew back in the States.

If the best parts of Sydney that I saw were shallow concentrations of magnificence, then the city has at least one inarguable wonder: the Sydney Opera House. I saw it at night, with a fine, cold wind rolling in off the Harbour. It was lit up like a starship of some sort, an enormous celestial vessel parked at one of the northern tips of the city. Walkways of enormous breadth lead visitors through the grounds, emphasizing the structure’s immense, awe-inspiring scale at every opportunity. Its shell-shaped roofs burst from their foundations in a manner that suggests some sort of mathematically precise, spontaneous growth. The truly amazing thing about its beauty is that it looks vastly different from every angle, and yet it’s unmistakably the Sydney Opera House. I looked up a dozen times and saw a dozen different angles, all of them uniquely gorgeous.