Monday, December 23, 2019

Season’s Greetings; questions we have been asked …



Of late Margo and I have been asked many questions about what we are doing for Christmas, the New Year and beyond. At this time of year it is so different for each of us – Margo growing up in Warsaw and enjoying snow at Christmas whereas for me and my family, it was all about making jokes of a Santa Clause in traditional garb trying his best not to falter under the blistering Aussie sun. As you may recall Margo and I spent this time of year in Sydney only twelve months ago and the memories are returning with a vengeance. With snow on the ground all around us, a little warmth would be much appreciated. And yet the memories of that trip continue to linger if only for another chance to sit on shores of Sydney Harbor.

I was about to add how I sure wish we were both back in Sydney, but as they say, be careful what you wish for in case it comes true! No, reading each morning of the devastating bushfires that blaze out of control with some sources telling us the fire line stretches 10,000 kilometers does not seem too appealing. Like a jagged coastline weaving in and around headlines, the fire cannot be measured in straight lines but has to account for all the twists and turn it takes so I have to wonder about the longer term impact. Will we be able to see Australia’s famous bushland any time soon? Will the koalas, kangaroos and king parrots be welcoming us? Will we be able to turn around and see Sydney’s Opera House and Harbor Bridge all at once?


Then again, Australia is one of the most resilient landscapes on the planet even as it set the record for the hottest place on earth just a few days ago; the average across the continent touched 49.9 Celsius last time I checked and that’s 121.82 Fahrenheit! And that’s the average across a continent barely a few hundred square miles smaller than continental USA. But high temperatures only tell part of the story. The question we get the most living here alongside the Rocky Mountains is how could you possibly live in such a country? A desolate terrible island continent – how could you possibly love such a place? Is it possibly a foretaste of the inhospitable lands facing those planning on populating Mars, for instance? 

I first flew coast to coast in 1981 on a trip that would take me from Sydney to Singapore and then on to Europe. The flight would last 8 plus hours but for the first 5 plus hours we flew over Australia. Taking a southeast to northwest route and crossing at Derby, the one thing that struck me was that looking out of my window all I could see were waves of crimson earth. For hour after hour; you just don’t get to appreciate how desolate the country really is until you see it from the air. But at the same time you quickly come to understand why the country’s population clings to a few hundred miles of coastline along its south eastern shores.


Source: Getty

At this time of year with the fires raging up and down the coast and far inland, it’s hard to ignore the words of the poem “My Country” penned a little more than a century ago by a very homesick young lass, Dorothea Mackellar:


I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me!
                               
Yes, her beauty and her terror – until you drive over the crest of the highway to see the whole horizon ahead of you nothing but a billowing roiling cloudlike mass telling a story of its own: Devastation and loss. And yet, the country bounces back so quickly that in little more than a year, the leaves are appearing on blackened tree trunks and quickly mask all that transpired just a short time ago. My father spent many a day on the fire lines whether it was in the bush directly opposite our family home located as it was on the edge of a National Park or up at our holiday rental hundreds of miles up the coast. Blackened, blistered exhausted after dodging flames and yes, snakes too, there were many times where these fires only died down with a change in the weather. 

Drought, fires, floods and yes, flies and other pests – you can see it all back home in Australia. And it would be remiss of me not to highlight how California today shares much of the same flora as Australia thanks to the importation of Eucalyptus trees more than a century ago. Some disingenuous entrepreneur thought that their quick growth coupled with their straight tree trunks would make ideal railway ties, that is until California’s termites feasted on them faster than railway workers were able to set them in place. Today, we all witness dreaded fires up and down California’s famous coastline thanks to a much unwanted forest of Aussie imports! 



Before we get deeper into what Margo and I will be doing at this time of year – Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the New Year and beyond, our conversations quickly turn to this time last year. In reality despite the headlines, it’s tough to ignore how different Christmas in Sydney really is – with summer temperatures pushing the mercury well beyond the century mark, it’s a time to enjoy the great outdoors with cricket, tennis and golf contests high on the list of pass-times that draw huge crowds. There is always an international “test match” between cricketing nations held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The Australian Open tennis championships are taking place even as there continues to be a continuation of Golf Championships featuring many international golfing stars.

But most of all Christmas means family time. It’s the one big event of the year that brings together entire families. Australia, naturally enough, doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving and there are no other festivals around this time of year so Christmas is it! Gathered outside, ducking the ever present flies, families settle around tables enjoying everything that makes it onto the grill. These days, with the cosmopolitan makeup of the bigger cities together with the inclusive nature that comes naturally to all Australians, the Christmas Lunch is a time of celebration. And then, it’s off to the beach for a surf – there’s not too many places where you can say that.


For many Australian families it’s a time too to pack up and head to the holiday home for a much-needed rest. Christmas time is also the time when schools shut down and universities fall quiet. Anywhere from six weeks to nearly three months of down time means lots of holiday time that is spent either on the beach or on travel abroad. No matter where you might find yourselves at this time of year, if you listen hard enough there is bound to be a party of Australians nearby. For Margo and me, living in Colorado, it’s easy to suggest we look at Australia with rose-tinted glasses and in some respects we do. But Colorado is our home and we have spent many more Christmases here together than anywhere else. 



Yes, that is my brother Greg relaxing at the end of the table. And among the many questions Margo and I field at this time of the year has to do with our families. Greg is surrounded by his wife, Robyn and my sister Judy and closer to the camera but just out of view is our daughter, Lisa. This is such a traditional spread that is almost impossible to recreate in Colorado – spot the jar of Vegemite, the sausage and the chicken satay, the tomato sauce (not ketchup) and yes, bottles of  wine and beer. The beer is James Squire’s One Fifty Lashes of IPA – the name coming from the fact that it was the convict James Squire who, after stealing ingredients from the stores to brew the infant colony’s first batch of beer, was caught and the judge ordered him flogged with one hundred and fifty lashes. And yes, plus two barrels of the ale! Or, so the story goes ...

Heading into the city of Sydney for last minute shopping is not too different from last minute shopping in any other major city around the world. Except, that is, for the mad dash across any given streets and into the first air conditioned shop you can find. Sydney was under construction last year and while the trams have started running and more streets are closed to vehicular traffic, it’s apparently still very much a construction zone as overhead cranes continue to dominate the skyline. Then again, there were many highly-decorated Christmas Trees adorning almost every vacant space the city of Sydney affords.


 But then again, in my lifetime Sydney has grown from a city populated by barely a million residents whereas now, with 2020 fast approaching, the same city is host to more than five million Sydney-siders. And it’s still growing. In daylight, it seems to be heaving under the extra weight as tunnels continue to be drilled, structures continue to be torn down and yes, increasing less-tolerant Sydney-siders continue to yell for this or that! What I did miss seeing were the many fruit barrows that dotted the city streets that sold fresh produce picked up at the markets earlier in the day – fresh strawberries! fresh cherries! and much more!

On the other hand, Christmas by night is a revelation. A quick trip north to visit my cousin Mark and his wife Sue landed us in the middle of a proverbial wonderland. My brother had warned me that Margo and I might not be fully prepared for what we would see and clearly as we entered the street, we were not. Every imaginable Christmas icon and every possible combination of lights transformed the street into a northern hemisphere village. Even as the temperature still hovered around the century mark, it was hard not to feel transported to a very different place. And cousin Mark was right in the thick of things with perhaps the most ornate of presentations of all!



This year, it all starts with Christmas Eve as traditionally, for Margo it’s been all about the night before Christmas. We will be heading down to the home of our daughter Anna and her family. With three grandchildren there will be plenty of toys handed out. It’s a whole lot of fun for the little ones even as it will be borderline chaos for everyone else – fully expected and yes, a tradition that I am familiar with dating back to when all of the Buckle clan gathered at the Sydney suburban home of my parents. There isn’t any forecast for snow that I can see, unfortunately but hey, it’s Colorado so weather can change in an instant. Decorations are already hanging in our Windsor home even as boxes of wrapped gifts litter the floor of Margo’s office.

Then again, traditions very much have their place in all of our lives. You may call them routines or even habits and practices but there is something reassuring about re-enacting events steeped in our own families’ histories. In rural Colorado, there are fir trees liberally decorated in lights everywhere you turn and the short trip into Ft Collins one evening last week meant that for Margo and me, we saw that city beautifully illuminated for the very first time! Yes, it was a pretty sight.

But perhaps the biggest question asked of us at this time of year concerns the New Year. Where will we be celebrating? What parties will we be attending? For readers of posts to this blog who follow our travels each year, where we have been in 2019 will be no surprise.  Equally, it should be no surprise to read that Margo and I will be celebrating quietly, at home. For us and with only one exception, we have never made it to midnight on any previous occasion. As for the exception well, of course, it was last year on Sydney Harbor as we watched millions of dollars in fireworks erupt across the harbor and surrounds.


Even so, our thoughts will be returning to Australia as the news of fires continue to be posted with awful videos of blazes rising higher than Sydney’s Opera House – yes, walls of 70 meter high flames.  
And yet, it’s hard to forget a stanza in that poem by Dorothea Mackellar who captured the heartache along with the hope that has been ever-present across all of Australia at this time of year:

Her pitiless blue sky,
When, sick at heart, around us
We see the cattle die
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady soaking rain.

To all of our friends – and in this case, particularly our Aussie mates – we wish you the very best for the holiday season. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

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