Category Archives: Sydney

No 48: Malabar – A winter solstice beach (25 June 2017)

In 2014 I heard a story on the radio about ceremonies people create for themselves. A caller described a women’s winter solstice ceremony she had been conducting for years. The Winter Solstice, marking the moment when more light begins to fill your days, is the beginning of a new cycle and a nadir. The caller’s ceremony involved letting go of the past year – which I then sorely needed to do.

I had then run my worst turn around the sun to date and was, finally, starting to recover. I’ve missed marking the solstice in 2015 (I was in the northern hemisphere) and 2016 (I was focussed on other things), but this year I’ve returned to the idea and set off on a glorious winter’s day to beach number 48, Malabar.

I like how the demographics on the bus shift as I travel from home to beach. From the city to the University of New South Wales we are a mixed crowd leaning East Asian, from UNSW to Kensington mostly East Asian, from Kensington to Maroubra moving towards working-class whites and Southern Europeans. Beyond Maroubra – mostly working-class whites with maybe a few Aboriginals as well.

Malabar has a strange not-in-Sydney vibe – it feels like it could be a down the South Coast someplace … a village between the ‘Gong and Kiama. A row of old-school 1950s – 1970s family homes face the rich blue inlet and the undeveloped green headland to the north.

This is an ocean beach but set at the back of Long Bay and the big waves just don’t reach the shore. When the water is clean enough to swim in (which it isn’t always) it’s a great spot for a lazy paddle.

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I’ve come with my pocket datebooks of the last year. On most days, I’ve recorded three short bullet-points – an event, my mood, the weather, a movie I saw or book I finished reading, that sort of thing.

The sea is a saturated indigo, the sky pale cerulean. The park behind the beach is filled with families, the barbeques in high demand. I sit on a bench facing the beach and, accompanied by the metronomic squeak of a child being pushed in a swing, review my year. One day’s snapshot after another. It takes nearly an hour.

Looking up from my task I notice two frolicking naked 3-year old children – a boy and a girl – and think “I love Australia”. Shame about our bodies is a learned thing. And until they learn it and stop wanting to run around naked, let kids be free – it’s lovely that these kids haven’t had embarrassment and fear imposed on them. People see people in public and think what they will think – it does no harm (predators who act do harm). That the parents of these kids are, themselves, unashamed of their naked children and not fearful that someone might be masturbating in the bushes or about to swoop in to snatch their kids, makes me happy.

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I retire to the Malabar Beach Café for the writing of the Lists – one of all the worst things that happened this past year: the disappointment of a thing not working out with a man, the long search for work, the unexplained silence of a friend, the outcome of the US election, boredom & uncertainty. And then a list of all the best things: that I maintained old and developed new friendships, became a baseball fan again and attended games, that I met my birth mother and her family, the excitement and pleasure when I thought the thing with the man might work out, getting involved in the Women’s March in Sydney, and finally landing a job.

All those things – the good and the bad – are done. They are equally behind me – I can let them all slip into the past today and begin afresh.

I walk to the northern end of the beach and prepare to burn the paper – first the bad, then the good. All the best rituals involve fire. But the paper won’t light – it just smoulders and chars. Rather than take this as a bad sign I move to an alternative. I tear them into little pieces and fling them into the sea. (Actually, I discreetly sprinkle them in an area from which I hope they will quickly be washed away from the beach.) Frankly, it’s not as satisfying as fire – I’ll have to prepare better next year.

Ceremony finished, I go for a walk on the Malabar Headland.  I am passed by two teenagers on bicycles. When they get to the sign for the National Park which says “No bicycles” the boy urges the girl to ignore it, “who’s going to be checking? Come on” he pleads. She refuses – nope, not going to do it, it’s not about being caught it’s about the rule. I like the strength of the girl’s refusal to do what the boy wants – I think that bodes well for her.

Not much further along a couple in their 50s or 60s, difficult to say as they have clearly lived hard, pass in the opposite direction talking of the wisdom and regrets of age.

I think about the lifetime of experiences between the rule breaking teenage boy and the craggle-faced man with regrets. I think about how distant the man’s age must seem to the boy and how near the boy’s age may seem to the man. Time is a funny thing.

Malabar and its beach from the National Park
Malabar and its beach from the National Park
Ancient rocks, endless sea
Ancient rocks, endless sea

The last time I did this Solstice ceremony I had feelings of lightness and release, unexpected but real. Today I’m trying to feel those things – and am sort of succeeding: being in the moment, breathing in big lungfuls of clean air, watching the sea. But, it’s not quite as good as the first time. Then I was farewelling a momentously bad year, while this one just past has been … well, just a year really. Better than some, worse than others. Even if the ceremony is about putting things behind and moving fresh into the new year – the reality is life is a continuum and the effects of the last year will continue.

Time, in the end, is like the the sea, it keeps rolling in – today, right now, both are steady and calm.

And that’s okay too – it’s been a gorgeous day and I’ve enjoyed reviewing and letting go.

The wreck of the MV Malabar
The wreck of the MV Malabar

Malabar is not named for the region of India but after a ship, the MV Malabar which shipwrecked on Miranda Point on 2 April 1931. Europeans, since arriving in the area in the 1860s – had called the suburb either Brand or Long Bay, the latter still naming the nearby prison.

Wiki says that the area had been a camping location for the original Indigenous residents. There are said to be carvings on the headland and that a rock overhang on the south side of Long Bay was used as a shelter for Aboriginal people suffering from smallpox in the late 1700s. An English historian wrote in 1882 that Aboriginal people referred to Long Bay as ‘Boora’. Scraps, all we have are tiny scraps from a once thriving culture and the few strong descendants of the survivors of a horrible, horrible injustice trying to hold on to what remains and piece together some of what was lost.

In the 2016 census Malabar was home to 5,420 people of whom 64.8% were male – I’m guessing the prison population is skewing that statistic as the state is only 49.3% male. 359 (6.6%) Malabar residents are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders heritage. 67% were born in Australia with England as the top overseas location with 3.5%. One-third had one or both parents born overseas (England, the top location). 1,925 (35.5%) show their religious affiliation as Not Stated (again, I think that’s the prisoners as state wide it was 9.2% – 1,920 did not state their education level as well – state wide 23%). Catholic came next with 26.5%. The top language, other than English, was Greek for 90 people or 1.7%

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Malabar is 12.3 km (7.6 miles) from home.

Malabar is in the local government area of the City of Randwick, the State Electorate of Maroubra (Labor – Michael Daley), and the Federal division of Kingsford-Smith (Labor, Matt Thistlethwaite) (prior to Matt this was the seat held by Peter Garrett, presently touring the world with Midnight Oil).

Long Time a Coming – Long Reef (No. 47*: 16 April 2017)

You’d almost think I’d grown weary of this project given how slowly I’ve returned to it after my time away, but that’s not it at all. I continue to love the idea but sometimes it just becomes hard to get there.

No 47: Long Reef ... slowly, slowly
No 47: Long Reef … slowly, slowly

While unemployed, my weekends weren’t a break from my labours – I could just as easily search for jobs at the weekend as any other time. Even if I wasn’t looking for work at the weekends I felt the pressure that, perhaps, I could be, I should be.  While unemployed, I was also more conscientious of spending money and felt that if I stayed close to home I’d spend less than if I went to the beach. That may not be true, but that’s how I felt.

So, I’ve been meaning to get to Long Reef for weeks but now that I am again professionally employed in a 9-5, Monday to Friday kind of way – it’s finally time.

It’s Easter Sunday and a cracker of a day: blue sky, light breeze, hot for April but not scorching. Australians being Australians are flocking to their chosen places of worship: the beach, the footy grounds, and other places of recreation and beer. I’m heading for the Manly Ferry – such a perfect day for it.

I walk through the picnickers and off-leash dogs in Hollis Park on my way to Macdonaldtown Station where I join a trainload of Sydney’s diversity for the ride into the city. At Circular Quay, I make my way through the throngs to Wharf 3 – where I find there are enough passengers queued to fill a ferry and a half. I guess I’ll take the bus.

From Wynyard Station I get a limited-stops bus which drops me at Collaroy Beach in about 40 minutes, from there I catch a local bus back two stops and pop into Outpost Espresso for a pick-me up.

It’s nearly 2 pm, and closing time, the only other customers are a salty, sandy, end-of-summer bronzed family of five getting milk shakes and iced lattes.

I find myself in a state of joyful liberation because I am employed and it is Sunday and there’s nothing I must do. I have employment and pay coming around the corner – so, no worries.

With this feeling of lightness, I set off for the walk past the golf club and Fisherman’s Beach (No 27 – visited in April 2013). Around Long Reef Point the footpath is crowded with families and couples. A paraglider is circling on the breeze, casting the occasional shocking shadow – like a giant raptor looking for prey. The sea is an autumn steel blue and crashing into the rocks below. I turn the corner and eye Long Reef Beach from its tucked-in northern end sweeping south and melding into Dee Why Beach (No 21 – visited February 2012).

Looking south from Long Reef point to Long Reef Beach and Dee Why beyond
Looking south from Long Reef point to Long Reef Beach and Dee Why beyond

 

Walking on Long Reef Beach
Walking on Long Reef Beach

I walk up the beach to the flagged area, plant myself near the Surf Lifesavers marquee and survey my fellow beach-goers. They are mostly white, mostly local – I’m guessing. There are a lot of families, a few clusters of teenagers, a smattering of couples. A toddler with caramel skin, curly locks and nothing but her Manly Sea Eagles bottoms on – dashes, laughing, away from her Surf Lifesaver father, who is trying to wrap her in a towel.

The sea is a bit dumpy and the flags are planted narrowly together so it is through a crowd I wade into the surf. The water is cool but I grow used to it, dunking my whole self beneath a folding wave and I’m happy to bob in the power of the ocean for a wee bit while dodging little kids on boogie boards and full-grown men body surfing into shore.

I realise I have not been in the open ocean – not a bay or harbour – since before I left for my Midlife Gap Year. Anywhere. I visited some on my ride home to Sydney from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland but for one reason or another didn’t swim at any of them. Admittedly I’m a bit intimidated by the surf – as a native of the American Midwest I came to ocean swimming late in life and being dependent on glasses to have clear vision – the power and mystery of rips and waves unsettle me. The last ocean beach I visited as part of this project was No. 31 Freshwater back in January 2014 – wow.

Autumn, Sydney-style.
Autumn, Sydney-style.

Wet and sea-salty I take up a position on the beach in the sun and enjoy the warmth of the autumn sun – generally more pleasant than Sydney’s often bitingly hot summer sun. It’s already late afternoon and I don’t stay long – but it’s been a lovely day for it and I’m glad I got to Long Reef before the beach season ends.

Long Reef was part of the homeland of the Dharug people, probably, before European invasion of Australia. The commonly used name, by Europeans, for the people who had been living in this area is Guringai, however, it now seems this is not what the people who lived here called themselves. Some rock engravings done by these people remain in the area.

European settlement began in 1815 when William Cossar (a master shipbuilder) was granted some 500+ acres (200+ hectares) including Long Reef. By 1825 it was in the hands of James Jenkins, a former convict who had been transported in 1802 for stealing sheep. His eldest child, Elizabeth, had inherited land in North Narrabeen in 1821 and with the 1825 acquisition, the Jenkins family owned all of the foreshore form Mona Vale to Dee Why. At the extent of their holdings they had 1800 acres (728 hectares).

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 Long Reef is 24 kilometres (15 miles) from home.

For census purposes it’s in Collaroy, which was, in 2011 home to 14,388 people of whom 50, or 0.4%, identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Conversely, 110 residents listed the United States as their country of birth. So there are more than twice as many Americans in Collaroy as there are Indigenous Australians.

It’s in the Northern Beaches Council local government area, the state electorate of Wakehurst (Liberal – Brad Hazzard), and federal division of Mackellar (Liberal – Jason Falinski).

*The next beach in the alphabetical list is actually Little Patonga – another Pittwater beach needing a boat. Four of those have now been set aside to be visited in one weekend out on the water, eventually: Gunyah (Brooklyn) No 35, Hallets No 37, Hungry No 39, and Little Patonga No 46.

Getting Naked on Little Congwong Beach (No 45, 2 January 2017)

No 45: Little Congwong (Monday 2 January)

Little Congwong is not officially clothing optional and yet it is.

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So it was appropriate that I should visit while my friend Matthew is in town.

Matthew recently rode his bicycle from Eindhoven, the Netherlands to his hometown of Adelaide. I had been following his blog as I was preparing for my own big bicycle tour and, one day in December 2014, I was catching up on his story when I watched this video, and thought it was excellent.

I complimented the video, and, knowing he was summering in Australia (wisely not riding in the northern winter), I suggested that if he made to Sydney we might meet.

He messaged back that he was in Sydney and asked if I were free that afternoon.

I found him to be as interesting in person as he’d been on line.

Over the course of my mid-life gap-year, return to Australia, and time spent campaigning for Hillary Clinton we’ve maintained our on-line friendship – liking and commenting on each other’s stuff. While I was on my journey he was riding through Iran, Central Asia, China, South East Asia, and Australia.

He got home to Adelaide in August. Then, just before Christmas, rode to Sydney.

We’d caught up a few times before our beach outing and each time out I liked him more. He’s smart and funny, with a million stories of course, and, unlike any of my other friends, in pretty much the exact same place in life: mid-40s, having dramatically left behind an earlier version of ourselves to go on a big adventure, now on the other side of that we’re trying to figure out what comes next, how to be our genuine selves and be gainfully employed. Oh, and we’re also both on the market for boyfriends.

One thing Matthew enjoyed doing on his journey across the world was to sometimes ride naked. So, a perfect companion for a trip to an unofficially clothing-optional beach.

Matthew met me in Newtown and we set off on our convoluted bus journey to La Perouse under threatening skies. From King Street we walked down Erskineville Road, and into Swanson. We had coffees at Ella Guru Café while it rained.  We then pushed on to McEvoy Street to catch the 370 to the University of NSW and the 391 to La Perouse.

I hadn’t been down that way in, well, years. There’s something about that peninsula, once you get past Maroubra which feels apart from Sydney. It feels more like something down the south coast, some misplaced bit of Sussex Inlet or Nowra.

That is, until you get to La Perouse which is always more Asian and Middle Eastern than those places. And, of course, there are more Aboriginal people. La Perouse is one of the few places in all of Sydney where Aboriginal people have an unbroken record of continual residence.

I also like that Matthew is at least as frugal, if not more frugal, than I am so we perused the lunch menus of the restaurants of La Perouse with one eye and, not surprisingly, settled on the old-school fish and chippery.

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Once fed we made our way, down the stairs through the bush to Congwong Beach (No 16 – visited a lifetime ago on 3 April 2011), to the far end, and along a further bush path to Little Congwong.

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Just as we emerged we ran into a Polish family who warned us there are naked people on the beach – we know, we said. And Matthew chatted with the guy for a bit – here’s a place where we’re different, he’s happy for a chat with anyone.

Sure enough at the near end of the bush-backed, slightly curving 150m or so long beach there were a few topless and naked women sun bathing. There were some men and women in bathers. We kept walking toward the far end of the beach where there were some naked men and other men in skimpy bathers. “We’re definitely in your neighbourhood now,” I said. He offered to head back the other way and I was like, oh, no, I have no problem with naked gay men.

We spread our towels and Matthew got his kit off, but sat in such a way that his junk wasn’t all obvious to me as we chatted. I was happy clothed.

At the far end of the beach a lean, bronzed, naked, middle-aged man was exercising. He had dumbbells and did standing arm curls, and shoulder presses. He did squats and lay on his back doing bicycle kicks. And a variety of other exercises you’d expect on a 1950s parade ground of soldiers dressed in white t-shirts tucked into small shorts. But he was naked. And on the beach. We watched and chuckled. And Matthew mimicked him with is bottle of Dare.

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See naked man with dumbbells in the background.

Mathew went for a swim and fell into conversation with a young European man who was part of a quartet of guys parked near us. Matthew’s new friend, a Belgian, was married to another of the quartet but he, his husband, was up in the bush checking out the cruising scene. My time with Matthew has been an eye-opening, fascinating, education in the ways of life in a certain segment of the gay-male world. Having been dateless and single for quite a while now, I admit a certain envy of the easy, fearless (or at least less worried – about violence, about pregnancy), open, sex-driven culture he’s part of. And, really, it’s just fascinating and deeply foreign – a culture I can no more access than Saudi politics, Japanese yakuza, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

It rained a bit. The sun came out and then disappeared again. When it was out it was like an overly powerful heat lamp much too close at hand.

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Walkers on the bridge to Bare Island.

I wasn’t going to swim. The water was fresh, but not too cool, just sort of dumpy and churning. In the end, I realised I’d regret not having gone in. I have come to like nude beaches; I like swimming naked. And I am at best invisible to the gay men on the beach and at worst irrelevant. So, with Matthew already in the water and chatting with another of the quartet of men. I stripped down, hugged my boobs and marched into the water. And then tip-toed to where they stood. It is a bit strange – the conversing with people while naked.

We emerged, dried, and laughed once more at the exercising man – now wearing a hat and chatting with a naked fisherman. Then we were done, we dressed, and made our way back to the bus stop and on to the City.

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We didn’t ride but this is, pretty much, the route we took to get there.

Little Congwong is about 17 kilometres from my home. La Perouse is home to 418 people according to the 2011 census. Of these, 27.9% identified as Australian and 19.2% as Australian Aboriginal. (Compared with 0.3% of all New South Wales, and 0.5% of all of Australia.) The balance were 17.5% English, 6.1% Irish, and 4.3% Greek.

Little Congwong is the City of Randwick, the State electorate of Maroubra (Labor – Michael Daley), and Federal Division of Kingsford Smith (Labor – Matt Thistlethwaite).

 

All of My Sisters in Burqinis are Enjoying Christmas Day at Lady Robinson’s Beach (No 44 – 25 December 2016)

In recent years, I’ve made the tradition of a Jew’s Christmas my own. In the United States that’s a movie and Chinese food. But this is Australia so: a swim, a movie, and Chinese food.

Lady Robinson’s Beach is on Botany Bay between the mouths of the Cooks River and the Georges River.

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European settlers (invaders) named this Seven Mile Beach but it was renamed during the tenure of the 14th Governor of New South Wales, Sir Hercules Robinson. He served from March 1872 to February 1879 and the beach was named for his wife, Lady Robinson, or Nea Arthur Ada Rose D’Amour. The fifth daughter of the ninth Viscount Valentia.

Sir Hercules’ career, Lady Robinson’s as well, reads like a stereotype of British colonial service: Administrator of Montserrat, Lt Governor of Saint Christopher (Saint Kitts), Governor of Hong Kong, of British Ceylon, of Fiji, of New Zealand, Acting Governor of British Mauritius, High Commissioner for Southern Africa, and Governor of the Cape Colony. Yet, he managed to get home to London to die in October 1897, aged 62.

Their daughter, Nora Robinson, wed Alexander Kirkman Finlay at St James’ Church in Sydney in 1878. The groom owned Glenormiston, a large station in Victoria. This wedding was the second vice-regal wedding in New South Wales and, as such, attracted much public attention – a crowd estimated up to 10,000 gathered outside the church.

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Wedding party for marriage of Nora Augusta Maud, daughter of Sir Hercules and Lady Nea Robinson, to A.K. Finlay, Sydney, August, 1878 (Lady Robinson is seated, facing the bride)

I do suggest reading Sir Hercules’ Wikipedia page. It’s both fascinating and a strange and unlikely tale to be tied to this stretch of beach – which, on Christmas Day 2016 is hosting families from all around the world – a few of whom, were surely, from other places touched by Sir Hercules’ colonial hand.

The day, while breezy, is otherwise a perfect Sydney Christmas Day: sunny, warm but not too hot, not too humid. Just lovely.

Every bit of shade in the reserve has been colonised by a United Nations of families: East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, European, and African. Many are clearly Muslims, some probably Buddhist – the Christians come for a dip and go back to their parties and lunches at home.

Christmas is the day when I feel most Jewish, not that I practice, but on this day I usually feel very much an Outsider. But not here, not at Lady Robinson’s Beach, where today is, mostly, a day for non-Christians making the most of a holiday courtesy of the Christian majority.

There is a busy shark-netted swimming enclosure. Jet skis buzz along the shore. International flights circle, approach from the southwest, and land on Sydney Airport’s third runway while other planes queue for their turn to depart. In the distance, the cranes of Sydney’s port fill the horizon.

I love this beach. I love how it’s a bit gritty in a working class, working port, immigrant families way – the antithesis of the glitzy beautiful-people blonde-haired blue-eyed stereotype of Sydney’s beaches.

There are more women and girls on this beach in burqinis than bikinis.

And I love that too. I love that an Australian woman, Aheda Zanetti, started a company, Ahiida, to provide swimming attire that allows Muslim women, who choose to abide by dictates of modest dress, to fully participate in this most Australian of activities – swimming in the sea and enjoying the beach.

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I wade into the Bay – the water is cooling, refreshing but not cold. I move slowly to where I’m waist deep then dive in. Emerging I feel a wave of welled and condensed emotions – a rejoicing for my return home, finally, to Sydney, and the easy contentment that has brought me, also some nostalgia for the 19 months of travel and volunteering gone by and the knowledge I’m unlikely to have that kind of open-ended freedom again, and, too, some sadness, for hopes unfulfilled. All of that in the woosh of rising out of the water, raising my arms to splash the sea around me, and then feeling the heat of the sun on my wet skin.

I sit for a time on the beach and write – as I do, an excited family group arrives, first a dad and kids running past me into the water than the younger women, in colourful burqinis, then older women in flowing black hijabs and matching garb. They were all, seemingly, having a really lovely time – while making for a striking scene – these black clad women, wading in the shallows, the planes and port cranes in the background.

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I rode my bicycle home, enjoyed sweet and sour chicken at the Happy Chef then met some new Jewish friends for a screening of La La Land at Bondi Junction.

And so, another Australian Jewish Christmas in the books and a good beach from which to restart this blog.

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Lady Robinson’s Beach was an 13.5 kilometre (8.3 mile) bicycle ride from home.

The portion of the beach which I visited is in Kyeemagh, a suburb in the Bayside Council.

Kyeemagh is a wee little suburb – home to 780 people of whom 37.5 % were born overseas (Greece 10.5%, Lebanon 2.3%, and Cyprus 2.2%). English is the primary language spoken in 44.3% of homes. (All per the 2006 census.)

It’s in the Rockdale State Electorate (Steve Kamper, Labor) and the Federal Division of Barton (Linda Burney, Labor). (It has been a LONG time since I’ve been to a beach represented at both levels by the Labor Party.)

The Last Beach Before My Travel Began, No 43: Lady Martin’s – 17 May 2015

Is this a bit of a cheat?

I visited Lady Martin’s on 17 May 2015 – one week before I departed for my midlife gap year – but never posted about it.

I don’t want to visit it again so I’m going back to my diary from the day to write it up now.

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Lady Martin’s is a wee crescent of beach at the bottom of Point Piper. I suspect in any other country it would be privately held and divvied up among the millionaires whose mansions hover nearby. These include the current Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull. Of course, when I visited back in 2015 he was fuming on the back benches as Tony Abbott went about his business of losing popularity.

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Sneaky access: the pathway next to the Prince Edward Yacht Club.

Here’s what I wrote then:

There’s real and lovely warmth in the sun – which burns bright when not obscured by clouds. The light shimmers blindingly on the weak harbour waves as they flush ashore with a rhythmic, sleep-encouraging hush.

A flotilla or racing yachts rush past out on the harbour.

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There is a party – a birthday party  perhaps – at the Prince Edward Yacht Club. A one-man-band plays groovy guitar jazz.

Among the party guests are many multicultural, multilingual families – a wee girl speaks French, English, and Russian. But mostly people seem to be speaking French. Which seems appropriate as I realised earlier today that I really will need to learn some of that language.

Had I come at high tide I expect there’d have been little beach to visit as the sand is wet right up to the retaining wall. As it is, there’s maybe five meters of beach running 100 meters or fewer and bisected by the yacht club’s pier.

The beach is Sydney-sandstone golden and surrounded by about a billion dollars’ worth of residential property. It’s a place to really celebrate the decision, early in Australia’s story, to keep beaches, all of them, even little ones like this – public.

It’s lovely. I’m so glad I came.

Next Sunday … will I have time for a beach before my flight?

The following … a river ride and the Giro d’Italia?

Close enough to a swim for May.
Close enough to a swim for May.

Lady Martin’s Beach is in the Municipality of Woollhara, the State Electorate of Vaucluse (Gabrielle Upton, Liberal) and Federal Division of Wentworth (Malcolm Turnbull, Liberal).

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Leaving Australia – Flying Forever – Arriving Finally in Milan

I write from seat 70J of Qantas Flight 127 halfway through the first leg of my three-legged journey to Milan.

We are somewhere over the Arafura Sea, perhaps – my last view of Australia passed across the portal some time ago. It was a beautiful view of reddish earth and worming watercourses meeting the blue of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Gulf of Carpentaria

I’m listening to Blue Sky Mine on the in-flight entertainment system –

I could not believe the stars of Warburton were waiting for me.

Those stars will appear tonight in their dense wondrous clusters over that remote Western Desert hamlet. As they will tomorrow. And the next night and the next; as I lay beneath a northern sky.

I’m excited and tired. I feel both the warm bolstering support of my mates and a little pressure to have the trip they expect – a pressure that is all me, not them. I am on the verge of a year of days – each of which stands on its own, clearly separated from its neighbours both by being actually different and through a sort of presence that comes with dealing with New all the time and of solving problems as matter of course. I feel like I’m going to thrive, be super present, be in my element, use my strengths, do things I like doing … all that good stuff. That’s how I feel about it but I fear weighing the thing down with expectations.

This day came as it always would with a last final rush of disbelief and a mistaken fear that I am unprepared. I am deeply ridiculously prepared. I have, in someways, been thinking about this trip since I was a teenager and in practical terms I’ve been planning for nearly a year and a half.

From early on I wanted it to be an organic journey – something I made up, more or less, as I went, with certain anchor points to aim for. That’s pretty much how it’s looking right now – I have plans for this coming week in Milan, some ideas of which direction I’ll point my bicycle in the coming weeks but nothing solid, and a ferry ticket from Le Havre to Portsmith on 9 July. I’m uncomfortable with not having sorted the first week or two of riding but recognise it is as it should be. That making it up as I go holds the life of the thing. Discomfort can be a creative energy.

I fell into conversation with my seat neighbour. We came to speak of my relationship with Australia. I spoke of the waves of Australian cultural exports which reached me in 1980s America which included Midnight Oil. He mentioned their street gig in New York. Which I was able to say was 25 years ago today because Jim had said so an hour earlier.

 

You know, I’m not generally a name dropper but he’s like how did you know that … we spoke of the Oils and other Australian music as Sydney disappeared from view.

Wait … what? I was going to Hong Kong (diverted due to weather to Manila – how my already long day became monumental).

I’m sitting on the tarmac in Manila watching episode one of season seven of Mad Men. A storm in Hong Kong had us diverted – the smidge of compensation was a beautiful sunset illuminating great walls of curvaceous clouds. But this is going to be one very long day. When we do take off it will be nearly 90 minutes back to Hong Kong and then who knows what will happen there with my onward flight to Doha. It’s an adventure.

To the credit of the customer service people in Hong Kong we Doha-bound passengers were efficiently gathered and rushed across the airport to join a flight just before it took off. To London.

There comes a point when being on an airplane almost becomes the totality of one’s reality. Right now I’ve been on board for 23 of the last 24 hours with nearly four and half more on this flight, a two-hour turn around at London then whatever it will be to Milan.

I’ve slept and watched a few movies. My newish attitude toward long-haul flights that it’s just time; this attitude is being tested but has mostly held sway. To say I’m glad that my next scheduled flight isn’t until October is a huge understatement.

As I was originally scheduled to have a nine-hour layover in Doha (oh how I long for that missed hotel room) I will arrive in Milan at pretty much the same time as originally scheduled. My luggage – that is my bicycle – well, I know it’s not on this flight. Nothing to be done about it right now so I can’t worry too much. Hopefully I’ll have time in London to talk to Qantas and find out where it is and when I might expect it in Milan. I’ll be there all week and I have travel insurance.

We’re flying over early Monday morning Russia.

Trying to see some sort of positives ….

  • This day and a half in the deadening void of economy flights will serve as a hard full-stop between before and after. It’s a hard double return on the page breaking up the getting ready from the going.
  • I’ll hopefully get to ask questions about my luggage to native-English speaking Qantas staff.
  • I’m accidentally following the most-common traditional path of Australian gap-year takers: Sydney to Hong Kong to London.
  • The last time I went to Europe for open-ended travel – when I was a 19-year-old with a Eurail pass – I flew into London.
  • My first international flight landed at Heathrow, too.

Might try to sleep some more. Four hours to London.

….

And now, in the final leg of this very very very very very long long day of travel here I am in seat 13A on a British Airways flight from Heathrow to Milan – Malpensa. Were it clear I would be looking at France down there.

Our approach into London came in right over the city – and even after all the travel I had to smile at the totally unexpected view: Tower Bridge! The London Eye! The House of Parliament and Big Ben! Yeah … wow. The Thames, brown sinuous silvery.

Um, London? I wasn’t supposed to see you until like July. But whoa – hey, look Tower Bridge.
And the Houses of Parliament! Big Ben! The London Eye!

All things considered I was doing pretty well and still in good spirits right until I dealt with a British Airways customer service representative who greeted me with an accusative and unsympathetic tone.

The first guy I spoke was pleasant and easy to deal with but he couldn’t help with my question about baggage and sent me to another counter. There, I began by saying I’d been flying for 27 out the last 28 hours and asked for her to bear with me – I’m a little out of sorts. I explained my situation and provided all the paperwork I could. She looks my details up on the computer says, not asks, that I’ve come in on a Virgin flight, not BA. No, I assure her I’ve just disembarked from the British Airway flight from Hong Kong. She tells me the computer says I was on a Virgin flight not a BA flight …. Well, um, I wasn’t. That sort of set the tone.

She looked at my onward paperwork and told me the people in Hong Kong hadn’t done it right – not with any, you know, charm or humour but like I had something to do with that. “If I ever see them again I’ll be sure to let them know.” She issued my next boarding pass and said I was done. And my luggage? I said – she said she’d added it to the system but couldn’t tell me more and to ask at the gate.

As I was putting my paperwork away she noticed a docket I was given in HK – which I had shown her earlier to her disinterest – and she says “You didn’t give me this.” A regular charmer she was, definitely the right person for customer service.

After leaving her I had a little, you know, total meltdown. Head in hands, weeping, struggling to breathe evenly. Eventually moving from general view to the limited audience of the ladies. There, someone, a worker of some sort, asked if I was okay – she was the only one who did. I thanked her for asking, explained why I was so out of sorts and assured her I’d be okay. It was then that I also realised that I felt like I was still on an aeroplane – you know feeling the movement.

Luckily the people at the gate were much more friendly, sympathetic, and helpful – they at least were able to tell me that my bags weren’t at Heathrow and were last in the system in Hong Kong. She assured me that they would be following me and that, generally, they put them on the next, most direct, route to one’s final destination. So we’ll see what they say in Milan.

In the meantime I had been using the free WiFi to message Jim and Vickianne asking them to ring Qantas in Sydney and see if they could learn anything. Unfortunately I finally got a reply from Jim as I lost signal joining the bus to the Milan-bound plane.

Boarding, I asked the flight attendants for water and if they could tell me who won Eurovision. They had been voting when I boarded in Sydney and I hadn’t been able to learn during my long, long, long day. Sweden, the favourites – had taken it out. One more win and they will either tie or move past Ireland for most winners. Guy Sebastian had come fifth: which – especially in my state – made me rather Aussie proud.

They showed the safety video first in English, then in Italian – I listened, recognised a few words, and was struck in a way by the reality of this journey. I think that moment marked the transition from this buffering void of tin-can travel to the beginning of my actual journey.

I wanted to say something of the final days in Sydney … of the way, in the end, it rushed up to greet me. That I was prepared but not quite as ready as I hoped. But still got out on Saturday afternoon to soak up something of the city. Earlier I’d run some errands at Burwood – I’d bought a luggage scale …

HOLY FUCK – THE ALPS!

… and had a final coffee from George at Mrs P’s – my final Australian piccolo for the year.

I went home and sorted the packing and felt I was in a pretty good place with it. Went to the city and rode the Manly Ferry over and back. Getting at times a bit emotional about it but resolved to just be in it, with it, enjoy the view, the rise and fall of the swell, the throb of the engines. Coming back with the Vivid lights – it was really good.

I promised myself that later I would let myself just feel what I felt and not push it away.

I’d hoped to meet Erin and Jonathan at Hart’s but they had pushed back their meeting time too late for me – I got the bus home, began disassembling the bicycle. Jim arrived with bad but necessary pizzas, red wine and a willingness to help or simply keep company. Not long after Vickianne came home. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was on SBS – Jim had never seen it. NEVER SEEN IT.

We were done around 1:30 or 2:00 and then I wept, I let myself feel what I was feeling – what was it exactly? It wasn’t fear or worry that made me weep. It was a certain sadness … a sadness at leaving Sydney for so long, for leaving my friends for so long – a sadness that was real and unassuaged by my joy and excitement for the trip itself. Maybe a touch of sadness too that … while everything has long since been done and over with Mitch that my leaving for this solo mid-life gap year is a hard mark between before and after.

….

I’ve been at Malpensa for two hours. Finding it strangely hard to break orbit from the flying world. My bags are … someplace and I’ve filed the paperwork to encourage them to find them and deliver them to me. I’ve bought a SIM and await its activation. I’ve had an espresso and a donut.

 

Screenshot 2017-12-07 07.49.15 (2)

Weeping for What Will Come and What Will Stay Behind

The tick-tock of time passing is getting very loud. Today is my Going Away Party. As I write I await the first of my guests. I feel anxious, nervous, excited and sad.

When I planned for a prologue ride in Australia, which begins next Sunday, I was thinking of it as a test of my bicycle, my gear and my physical readiness. I’ve realised this week it will also, and maybe most importantly, be a test of my emotional readiness.

I’ve been a bit sad all week. I love Sydney; I love my mates here, my life here and as much as I’m looking forward to my adventure I am also looking forward to coming home at the end of it. I know I will be changed – if I’m not I haven’t done it right. So, perhaps some of the sadness is in saying farewell to the me I am today, the me that my friends here know and the bit of trepidation around what I will find out there, and what I will find in myself as a result.

This past week I spent several days on Queenlsand’s Gold Coast for the baseball Junior League Nationals. For 15 years I have handled media and public relations for Major League Baseball International’s office in Sydney. I thought a few days of watching Under 14s playing baseball would be a good point of departure. It was lovely in many ways. What I hadn’t anticipated was the ways it also eased me toward life on the road and travelling alone. I was away from home and when the day’s playing was done I was on my own to make what I would with my evenings: dining alone, befriending the man at the gelato shop and going for walks.

On my Wednesday night flight home the moon, red and three-quarters full, hove into view drawing my attention to the window. The lights of Sydney slowly filled the space beneath us. The confused roadways of the northern suburbs sparkled like luminescent tracers with streetlights and headlamps. I was seated alone in my row but on the aisle so the view was perfectly framed by that familiar oval – and into that frame came the Sydney Harbour Bridge and then the Opera House – for it seemed nearly a minute there they were. The iconic symbols of my city, of my home.

I wept.

I was listening to Jim Moginie’s Alas Folkloric:

And we live in stolen moments … solitary moments of truth sometimes shine through

The first time I flew into Sydney my flight came in over the city and my first view of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House was also from the sky – but in daylight.

The next time I fly into Sydney will be in May 2016 at the end of this particular road I am about to set off to follow. Whoever I have become, whatever I have experienced, the Harbour Bridge and Opera House will welcome me home and so too will my friends – just as today they will gather to see me off. I will weep – probably with a mix of joy at being home and nostalgia for the journey just finished. And I’ll be that little bit more Australian for having been away and for having made the long journey home again.

My Traveller’s Year Continues

As I wrote about my journey to Jibbon Beach:

I feel like I’ve opened myself to a traveller’s life and a traveller’s experiences even while still in Sydney.

… I’m seated in the bow of the Bundeena Ferry surrounded by people speaking many different languages in many different accents. Opposite me two women of a certain age are chatting, they are wearing beach moo-moos and sun hats, gold jewelry compliments fresh manicures. What language are they speaking? Something Eastern European. At times it sounds German: und, nicht – but at other times it doesn’t sound like German at all. I am reminded I know nothing of Eastern European languages; I’m so ignorant I can’t even guess whether they are speaking a German dialect or Hungarian or Romanian.

Finding Inspiration at the Art Gallery of NSW

I spent part of New Years Day at the Art Gallery of NSW having a wander through the exhibits.

The text accompanying Tony Albert’s Hey Ya! (Shake it Like a Polaroid Picture) read, in part

Ritsi (the young man in the photographs) and Albert share an experience of re-connection to country and community by following the movements of their ancestors.

One image from Tony Albert's 'Hey Ya! (Shake it like a Polaroid picture)' at the Art Gallery of NSW
One image from Tony Albert’s ‘Hey Ya! (Shake it like a Polaroid picture)’ at the Art Gallery of NSW

 

Part of what I’ll be doing on my Big Ride is, in a way, just this: I’ll be re-connecting with the places my antecedents lived for thousands of years by following their movements across Europe. I will visit reminders and remainders of their culture and, hopefully, connect with my fellow descendants who still, or are again, living there.

The European Jews were, of course, displaced by the awful tides of hate history bore down on them. My families have done well in the diaspora, I’m not complaining. They were fortunate to have been driven out by the pogroms before Hitler’s Final Solution was enacted. But still, they were displaced. They were disconnected from their places and their communities. They had to learn from scratch how to make their way in the world.

As a still new, and happy, immigrant to Australia I suspect I see Australia’s Aboriginal history and people somewhat differently than I would if I had been born and raised here. The relationship between new and old Australians is complicated — as are these relationships anywhere in the world where there are New and Old.

Tony Albert’s work had me thinking about two things. How can I, living my modern peripatetic non-religious assimilated life connect with my not-to-distant Eastern European Yiddish-speaking shtetl-living observant Jewish ancestors? And how can my efforts to do so connect me with these, my fellow Australians, the descendants of the first Australians.

* * *

Tom Carment's 'Flame Tree'
Tom Carment’s ‘Flame Tree’

I was also taken by the exhibition of Tom Carment’s small watercolour sketches of parks and street scenes. These reminded me to put a sketch book and watercolour kit on my shopping list for the trip. I have basically no experience drawing or doing watercolours – not since I was a kid anyway – but am keen to give it a go. It seems like the time one would take to really look at a scene to try to represent it in pen and ink would be good — just taking that time to really look, will be a good exercise.

My Big Ideas About Bicycling and the Cities We Ride In

Forget about the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends – Lewis Mumford

In January 2011 I gave this 15-minute presentation to the Australian Cycling Conference in Adelaide, South Australia. My talk, as you’ll see, was based on the paper I wrote while completing my Masters of Letters in US Studies at the University of Sydney.

If I can I’d like to begin at the beginning. This is me, aged about four, around the time I got my first bike: a Schwinn Pixie which looked an awful lot like this one.

Schwinn Pixie
The best first bike a girl could have – the Schwinn Pixie.

Me, aged about four

Me, aged about four

Mine is a familiar story — I was a keen cyclist as a child and into my teenage years but I abandoned my bicycle in favour of driving and taking public transportation as I entered adulthood.

Since I moved to Sydney in 2000 I have become an everyday cyclist.

Me_Surly_Bridge

I ride.

Until recently I have not been involved in bike culture or advocacy. I was merely a woman on a bike riding around Sydney.

But as an everyday cyclist I found myself thinking about how bicyclists are perceived, how public space is allocated and how the world looks different from a bicyclist’s saddle.

In 2008 I began a master’s degree in US Studies at the University of Sydney. Given my accent that might seem a strange course to pursue but it gave me the opportunity to look back at my old home with the perspective of distance and with the rigour of academic study.

As an interdisciplinary degree US Studies allowed me to pursue various interests. Ultimately this led to my Masters of Letters treatise just finished entitled:

Cities for Lovers and Friends – Contesting Automobility One Pedal-Push at a Time with a Case Study of Portland, Oregon.

As my paper was prepared as part of a Masters of Letters program rather than a post-graduate research degree, my approach was more an exploration of ideas than the creation of new and testable knowledge.

In my paper I looked at the rise of modern, car-centric cities and the role of automobility in the physical and emotional structure of our lives. The idea of automobility, at its most basic, is concerned with the way of life constructed around the premise that private automobiles are good in their own right and, as such, anything which facilitates driving is positive. It considers the affects of living in a car culture – the isolation from nature and society, the acceptance of the human and environmental costs etc.

From this grounding I then looked at Portland, Oregon – as advanced a bicycling city as any in America – to ask if and how bicycling is contesting, or challenging, the norms associated with automobility.

Over the next 15 minutes or so I’ll tell you a little bit of what I’ve learned about the way our cities have come to be as they are and the rise and nature of automobility. I’ll talk about Portland as a city and bicycling Mecca and explore some ways cycling is and can contest automobility in Portland and elsewhere.

Riding_in_Sydney

This project began from the saddle. Looking at Sydney as I pedalled around I noticed, for the first time really, just how much space is devoted to the personal automobile. I noticed all the space taken for their storage on public roadways; I noticed that people in cars were given priority usage of the nearly all public thoroughfares and that they took the lion’s share of the space wherever they operated.

So I began with the question: How have our cities, or for the purposes of my paper, American cities, come to be as they are?

Urban Sprawl

In short, I found, our 21st century cities are the product of 20th century solutions to 19th century problems.

Early20thCentury

At the dawn of the 20th century American cities were densely crowded; people lived and worked in the same spaces; the roads were shared by pedestrians, drivers, horse drawn vehicles, and bicyclists in a lightly regulated un-segregated muddle. Cities were increasingly filthy with industrial grime and their working class neighbourhoods were breeding grounds for disease.

CityofTomorrow

Modernist city planners and architects made it their job to solve the problem of cities. And the presumption of increasing car ownership was a key to their solutions. Leading figures such as Switzerland’s Le Corbusier and New York’s Robert Moses promulgated visions of The City of the Future. While none of these were ever built from scratch certain elements were broadly adopted. These planners sought to separate the various functions of the city so residential areas are distinct from business, industry and recreation. To free the working masses from the mire of tenements they envisioned clean functionalist high-rise apartment buildings surrounded by plazas and lawns. Middle-class bedroom communities were to flourish in the suburbs. High speed motorways would provide access to areas of employment and leisure from outlying residential areas.

RobertTaylorHomesNew

SuburbsThese ideas were pretty much universally embraced in the United States. Older cities razed slums and moved the working class residents to high rise apartment blocks; they carved highways through older neighbourhoods to deliver suburbanites to their city jobs. They implemented zoning regulations to keep separate functions in separate parts of the city. Basically they planned cities for car drivers.

The resulting cities would sprawl in all directions and lead to automobility.

Automobility can be seen as an apparatus which promises fast, easy, self-directed mobility but, at the same time, physically removes us from the social and natural world, encapsulating us in mobile private spaces and carrying us at speeds in excess of our human capacities to make eye-contact or safely operate the machines we are driving; we have built cities and lives around the expectations of automobility which has required us to devote more and more time to moving between the disparate places of our lives. We have undermined the genuine utility of the automobile by over-reliance upon it for our every mobility need and by building cities which require their use.

To begin thinking about how everyday bicycling might contest the norms associated with automobility I looked at two seminal critiques of automobilized cities: Jane Jacobs’ “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” and Jan Gehl’s “Life Between Buildings”.

Greenwich Village Street 1960s
Greenwich Village Street 1960s

Jane Jacobs was an urban activist and commentator living and working, initially, in New York City in the early 1960s. In contrast to her nemesis Robert Moses she was drawn to the organic city. Rather than trying to devise a highly functional city from a blank page she looked at good urban neighbourhoods, mainly her own, and sought to understand why they worked. She argued that mixed use streets, busy all day and into the evening with the pedestrian comings and goings of residents and workers alike were what made for good city life.

Cities, she noted, are inherently full of strangers. Safe functional streets are those regularly used by people and watched by people – not out of an explicit interest in deterring criminal behaviour but as the consequence of normal day-to-day activity and the enjoyment humans get from watching other humans go about their business.

This coming and going leads contact among strangers and neighbours. According to Jacobs, these seemingly insignificant social contacts are the basic building blocks of safe, vibrant cities.

BusyPublicSquare

This perspective is shared by Danish architect and planner Jan Gehl. He is interested in how cities work as social spaces and in thinking about how to build or alter urban spaces to foster greater liveability, liveliness and spaces bustling with people doing and watching.

The intentional purging of public squares as part of the modernist redesign of cities eliminated places of social interaction. This problem was then exacerbated by planning dominated by the puzzle of how to handle cars – this planning deprioritised public space and made functionalist planning the norm. People on foot, humans seeking the stimulus of social space, were pushed out of the picture. Yet being able to move about on foot or bicycle enjoying the city, with the opportunity to “meet and get together with other people” is fundamental to good cities.

Gehl talks of Offers of Experience or the chance to be around other humans without necessarily having to be with them. The most basic sort of social interaction is simply being in the presence of others – to see them, hear them, smell them. This is the building block around which being comfortable with strangers is constructed.

PortlandCyclists

So it was with these ideas about modern cities, automobility, and how things might be made better that I turned to Portland, Oregon to see how things were going there.

While Portland is one of the most bicycle friendly cities in America it is still a car-centric city in a car-centric country. However there are many people – politicians and planners, business people and artisans, activists and just everyday riders – who are having success in challenging the dominance of cars.

Portland is trying to be a city with a bicycling culture within a country without one.

Mt Hood
Portland, Oregon

Portland is a city of 566,000 (in a metropolitan area of over two million) situated on the Willamette River just south of the confluence with the Columbia River in the northwest of the state of Oregon – which is situated on the Pacific Coast between the states of California and Washington. The city enjoys mild if wet whether most of the year with truly beautiful summers. It sits in a valley between Mount Hood of the Cascade Mountains and the more modest Coastal Range which separates the city from the ocean.

Oregon shares many attributes with Tasmania both physically and politically. The state has historically been dependent on primary industries – timber products, commercial fishing, farming and cattle among others – and long enjoyed a sort of stalwart middle-American small-business oriented conservative sort of politics. Beginning in the 1960s Oregon began attracting new comers many of them hippies, back-to-the-land types and just progressive-minded people looking for a fresh start in a place they saw as still new, a place they could shape. The resulting political system is open and welcoming; it is consultative – though of course not utopian. There are tough battles and bloody spills but if you are keen to get involved you are welcome to do so and elected officials expect to hear from and listen to their constituents.

I should say here that I first moved to Oregon to attend University in 1990. I left in 1992 for nearly two years to work on the Clinton Presidential campaign and then at the White House but returned in 1994. I lived in Portland for a couple of years while finishing my bachelor’s degree in Political Science at Portland State University. I’ve maintained by Oregon connections over the years, continuing to vote there and, if I had to move back to the US it is to Portland I would go.

OregonBikes

In the 15 years since I moved away two interwoven strands of bicycling development have flourished in Portland. – one is the rise of bicycling subcultures and the other is the push by advocates, some government agencies and their allies to enable and encourage Portlanders to ride by building infrastructure and making that infrastructure work.

In that time the bicycle route network has gone from 134 kms in 1990 to 441 in 2008 and ridership had grown exponentially – in the early 1990s about 1% of commuters used bicycles and now it’s about 7% city wide. The 2008 City Auditor’s Survey found 8% of Portlanders considered the bicycle their primary commute vehicle and another 10% considered it their secondary commute vehicle. Portland is doing a good job but still has a long way to go to meet its goals and in the meantime most Portlanders remain everyday drivers.

I came to this project as an everyday cyclist pedalling though my streets and asking questions about why the world worked the way it did. Retreating to the saddle, then, what is it like to ride in Portland and is it all that superior to riding in Sydney – a city with a particularly bad reputation for cycling?

I visited Portland from March 15-25 2010 during which time I rode around town extensively both on my own and with locals. I rode for leisure along the river, got around town to various meetings, toured the City’s infrastructure following a guide provided by Portland State University’s Initiative for Bicycle and Pedestrian Innovations and shadowed a local on her morning commute. The weather varied from sunny, warm and springlike to dreary, wet and windy so it was fair but not prime bicycle weather.

My expectations were high, having absorbed all this information about what a phenomenal job they have done and are doing, I expected a town full of happy peddlers rolling around on well marked paths and roads with ample bike parking. From the media I knew there were plenty of unhappy drivers in Portland so didn’t necessarily expect every one of them to wave and holler a warm cheerio.

That said, I had no conflicts with drivers and generally felt safe navigating the town. I found, as I would at home, that I used infrastructure where it existed (and I knew it existed) and, where it didn’t, I rode safely on quieter streets or foot paths, rarely did I make my way on an arterial lacking cycling provisions. The few occasions where things felt a little sketchy were in situations where the weather was bad or I was simply in an unfamiliar environment and couldn’t immediately spot where I was meant to ride.

It might be useful to ask if I were used to riding in Portland if I’d find riding in Sydney challenging – absolutely. Portland’s system is much more thorough – though most of it is strictly paint-on-pavement with the city only recently installing their first fully separated cycleways. Riders can easily route-find across town, at least in the central area, without using a totally unmarked route and, nearly everywhere, there is a quiet side road in any case. Compared to Sydney, motor traffic was light even in peak hour. With 18% of Portlanders saying that bicycles are either primary or secondary commute option most Portland drivers are themselves occasional cyclists or have a friend, family member or colleague who is a cyclist. Riders, then, for many drivers, are seen as people they know and so they tend watch out for them in the road.

There really were a lot of riders about and I felt more like I was part of a traffic stream than in an exclusive club of in-the-know cyclists.

MorningCommute

During peak hours there was heavy bicycle traffic of fairly ordinary-looking people, albeit often wearing specialist cycling gear – more fluoro rain gear and Gore Tex gloves than lycra.

 

Through the middle of the day the streets filled with the hip and young – moustachioed young men on fixies, skirted women on Dutch style city bikes etc — many un-helmeted and occasionally smoking a cigarette as they went.

RidingChild

In the after-school hour I saw parents riding with their children.

Riding in Portland, as an experience, really was very enjoyable. Utilizing the infrastructure was easy, the free folding pocket sized map of bike routes around town was super handy, there was reasonably good signage and I always found somewhere to lock-up near my destination. It was nice to feel included in the city’s plans and designs and I enjoyed being part of a community of riders. Travelling by bicycle is unremarkable in Portland even in bad weather.

It was good not to be seen as weird or suicidal. More than all that it really is a lovely place to ride. The residential streets are meant to be enjoyed at human pace the details of the paint work on the houses, the mixture of plants in the front gardens, the varying smells of blooming trees engaged the senses.

This project began with the question of what role, if any, bicycling plays in contesting automobility in modern American cities. How, then, can cycling been seen as playing a contesting role in Portland? Cycling has been a crucial piece in a larger move by the City of Portland and Portlanders more generally to contest automobility.

PortlandBikePlan

Upon receipt of Portland’s Platinum Bicycle Friend City Status then-City Commissioner, now-Mayor Sam Adams said, “this is integral to our broader vision of Portland as a world-class, sustainable, and economically vibrant city that attracts families and businesses because of the quality of life we offer to all. Bicycling helps us achieve that and more”. Portland’s embrace of the bicycle almost as an undeclared symbol of the city signifies that Portland generally is a place contesting automobility.

There are a number of specific examples of contestation happening in Portland but I think the best relates to bike corrals.

BikeCorrals

A few years ago the city began offering merchants the opportunity to request that one on-street parking space be removed at their business and be replaced by parking for up to 12 bicycles. So popular are the bike corrals that last I checked the waiting list was well past 100 – that is over 100 businesses clamouring to have their on-street car parking removed in favour of bicycle parking spaces. If that is not a sure sign that a shift in thinking about the role of cars in the future of Portland is underway than I don’t know what would be.

CarsinPortland

That said driving remains the primary mode of travel to work for around 75% of Portlanders. It is not an American Copenhagen – bicyclists, while prominent and well supported, are a minority. Unlike some European and Asian cities where bicycles are considered akin to washing machines or vacuum cleaners – a widely distributed, handy domestic tool – in Portland the bicycle is, among other things, a symbol.

PortlandCoffeeBridge

For riders it is a symbol of identity or inclusion in various subcultures; for the city it’s a symbol of the sort of place they are trying to be. But mostly it is a symbol of having broken free of the coerced freedom, the encapsulation and the entrancement of automobility.

More broadly and more generally I suggest there are two key ways that everyday cycling is contesting the dominance of automobility:

For drivers operating in an environment where non-drivers have long been reduced to a subordinate position the mere presence of cyclists in the roadway challenges the presumptions of automobility.

Increasingly cars have become like mobile lounge rooms where we as drivers are operating complex and dangerous hardware via highly nuanced software designed to simplify driving and minimize the consequences of human error at least for those in the car. These changes, operating in conjunction with the engineered environment we drive through, lull drivers into a false sense of security. The presence of bicyclists in the roadway is confronting; the bicyclist challenges the driver to take control and responsibility of his or her operational decisions and not merely rely on engineering to direct him or her.

Becoming a bicyclist changes your perspective on the city. Bike riders have a much more sensual relationship with their environment and they enjoy greater opportunities for social interactions than drivers.   They are more connected to the place and its people.

When you become a cyclist, having previously been an everyday driver, you see your city with new eyes and more importantly experience your city with all of your senses. You realise you had been having a very limited relationship with the physical world. On a bicycle you feel the weather, you smell the flowers (and the rubbish and the exhaust fumes), you hear the ever present roar of motors and the twittering of birds; you taste the sweat when your muscles are working hard to get you home.

Your route-finding changes as you move from high traffic arterials to quieter roads which introduce you to new parts of your city; your experience of the geography become three-dimensional as you learn the hills and valleys of your ride.

As a rider you are sharing social space – even if you are moving much more quickly than a pedestrian – you can and do make eye contact, hear human voices, and can easily stop for a chat when you run into a friend.

You are out in public, out in the world, rather than just passing through it in a bubble of your private space.

Over the course of researching and writing this paper I have concluded that everyday urban cycling is playing a role in contesting the norms which have developed over the past century. We have found that cars are not the only tools which can provide personal mobility; bicycles too allow you to go where you want, when you want arguably with more freedom of self-direction than cars do. By our choice of mode we are countering the congestion, sprawl and pollution caused by over reliance on private cars. We live lives which are less spatially fragmented and encapsulated than our driving peers. And merely by being out in the world we are contributing to a sense of community in urban neighbourhoods

I am reluctant to suggest that rise of everyday urban cycling is the vanguard of some sort of post-industrial, post-modern urban revolution. But if, as has been claimed, “revolutions entail a taking of the streets and a taking of public space” then as people of their own volition discover the joys and liberation of riding in the city, and by literally claiming their rights to the streets, perhaps a quiet revolution is taking place. A revolution not just to reclaim public space, but to reclaim a sense of community, of connection to the city and its people.