My first week in Sydney: ‘There are things that will be different and difficult’
Pretty pictures on Facebook don’t tell the whole story of what it’s like to move country
Jonathan Drennan (pictured with Peter Todman): ‘The novelty of constant sunshine can wear thin very quickly when you’re away from your support network and out of work in an increasingly expensive city.’
After seven hours of hearing about Tasmanian dog training laws I just wanted to sleep, even for one precious hour. But my chair mate on Singapore Airlines to Sydney had other ideas. Jet lag would be my next unwelcome companion.
I arrived into blinding blue skies and heat that was to be expected as a welcoming party. I was to stay with a very good friend’s mother, but had failed to ask him what she looked like.
Squinting through the sun, I checked and checked for a family resemblance as cars sped into the tightly marshalled pickup zone. But as my friend is a 28-year-old man, that resemblance was hard to find. Some ladies waved, and I waved back hoping they would be the right mother. They looked confused; I really should have known better with the Vietnamese lady.
I thought I would make myself look as conspicuously like I’d arrived from London as possible. I wore a black overcoat with a poppy badge in 35 degree heat, and it worked. Mrs Todman picked me up, and we drove over the Harbour Bridge into the beautiful Northern Beaches area.
I hung out the window like an overheated dog with its tongue out, snapping generic shots of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. I had seen them twice before, but they are still spectacular. Us newbies fill our Instagram and Facebook feeds with similar shots of beautiful and pristine beaches, tormenting people at home but never quite telling the whole story about what it’s like to move here. It is not all sunshine and oranges.
I met the Todman family and had a coffee. It was very early in the morning, but Bigola beach was teeming with small children, “nippers” with water polo hats learning how to lifesave. They sprinted shuttle runs across white sand while their parents strolled about barefoot, drinking flat whites. Beautiful women carried yoga mats. I compared the scene to my own parents at home in Belfast, who used to come to watch me drown in icy mud playing rugby in rural fields on freezing Saturday mornings.
I went back to the car, and patted my bags. I realised the plural had become singular. “Mrs Todman, did I come with two bags?”
“No Jonny, your exact words were to me when you picked me up were, I am travelling lightly for once”.
In my jetlagged haze, I had left my cabin bag in the densely populated pick-up zone of Sydney airport. I inwardly panicked, as both my British and Irish passports were in that bag. If I had only my British one with my visa, I would sadly sacrifice Mother Erin and hope that Michael D Higgins would forgive this boy from East Belfast. Unfortunately, I didn’t have either.
Mrs Todman showed the calm I think will define my year with Australians: “Do you want to go for a swim in the sea now or try to find your passports?” Deferring panic is not a strength of mine, so we drove into Saturday rush hour traffic, battling against the tide of cars rushing to the beach.
After retrieving my bag, the weekend of beautiful beaches and languid coffees continued. One woman even recognised me from my brief days on Australian breakfast TV, as a heavily accented UK correspondent. She was drunk and said “we couldn’t really understand you, but you had such great energy and feeling”. I was generally talking about bombs or child abuse, so I was grateful for her praise, and forever will be.
I negotiated a primitive bus system into the city centre that insisted on the patience of Job. It took two hours from door to door. Sydney suffers in transport terms by the fact that it’s a largely unplanned city and most Australians drive.
A bunch of lads with bleach blonde hair sat beside me drunk and upset after losing all their money on the Melbourne Cup, a horse race that shuts down the whole country. “I am as pissed as nit mate, I lost all me money and me girl”.
I didn’t offer my bony shoulder to cry on, just nodded sympathetically. I sat with Bill Bryson’s Down Under for company. That book and my pale skin are a neon badge proclaiming I’m here on a working holiday visa.
I am staying in Surry Hills for the next two weeks, a beautiful part of Sydney with a friend from London. It’s a bit like Notting Hill with sunshine. There are flowers in the hedgerows and people smile.
There are things that will be different and difficult. Internet cafes are packed with people with familiar accents trying to find work wherever they can. Groups of young Irish spend weeks in and out of generic recruitment offices, handing out crumpled CVs.
The novelty of constant sunshine can wear thin very quickly when you’re away from your support network and out of work in an increasingly expensive city. My landing has been comparatively soft and I can only admire their stoicism.
The path I’m on has been trodden so many times by many Irish and British who have made successful lives in the lucky country. The start of any journey is slightly daunting, but Sydney, I think we’ll be fine.
Jonathan Drennan (28) has written previously for Generation Emigration about being exhausted after five years living in London, and how Irish people abroad should embrace the opportunities emigration offers rather than wistfully yearn for the past in Ireland.