Arriving at Brisbane’s airport on a Qantas flight from Alice Springs, we are met by Tim and Jan, our good friends from Istanbul days who have now returned to their home after ten years abroad. From the moment of our arrival until our departure more than a week later we will bask in their company. I’ll say right off how nice it is to be driven instead of driving myself and not to have to puzzle our way through yet another big city. Our friends are magnificent hosts who have planned our stay beautifully.
The fun begins this evening. We eat a quick dinner on the deck of Tim and Jan’s large home in a hilly section of the city and then drive a few minutes to a neighborhood nightspot called the Retro Bar. We are there to hear Delta Express, a rock band of mature men, all of whom have day jobs and play covers of classic rock tunes for the fun of it. In the course of the evening we hear exuberant versions of songs by Wilson Pickett, the Doobie Brothers, REM, and many others. They even play Randy Newman’s You Don’t Know What Love Is and Wild Cherry’s Play That Funky Music. Kay and I dance in a way we haven’t for a long time. We meet Russell and Vicki, old friends of Jan and Tim, and Richard, a dentist friend, whom Tim hasn’t seen for ten years.
The next day is Sunday, and it’s hot in Brisbane on the Queensland Coast. At a landing on the Brisbane River we board a City Cat, a small ferry in the form of a catamaran that plies the river making stops along the way.
Our destination is GOMA, the Gallery of Modern Art on the river’s south bank. There we view one of the most unusual art works we have ever seen, its title, is by Cai Guo-Qiqng, a celebrated Chinese artist born in 1957 in Quanzhou, Fujian province. Here is a description of this singular man taken from the leaflet of the exhibition:
“Over the past 25 years, Cai Guo-Qiqng (pronounced tsai gwo-chang) has created a unique body of work characterized by the grandness of its scale and ambition. Cai’s installations, social projects, gunpowder drawings, and explosion events have been presented in prestigious museums and public spaces throughout the world. His works are spectacular in staging and effect, yet they are always underpinned by deeply felt philosophical meditations on the transformative forces that impact and flow from human life: science and faith, beauty and violence, history and current events.”
Falling Back to Earth has four parts. In Heritage, 99 replicas of animals from around the world drink from a single waterhole. This is a gigantic installation filling a very large oblong gallery. There is real, blue water in the waterhole, and the animal replicas are life size. Their proportions are even slightly exaggerated in some cases. They stand on a ground of white sand around which we observers can circle. To see the faces of the animals, which are bent down towards the water, we must walk to the opposite side. According to its description, “this pristine environment embodies Cai’s perception of a ‘last paradise’ far from the cares and conflicts of the rest of the world.” It puts us in mind of Henri Rousseau’s famous painting of animals existing in harmony. Our first impression of this work is amazement at its scale and beauty. Its execution seems flawless. How was it accomplished?
Head On is the fourth part of Falling Back to Earth, incorporating another 99 animal replicas. These are all wolves, however, each one individualized to be slightly different from the others. They form a dynamic line as if running and then jumping in a high arc that comes to a sudden end as the leading animals smack into a glass wall and tumble down to Earth.
The allegorical meaning of this work is not hard to grasp. Once again we are awestruck by the scale and beauty of what we are seeing. To view these works would be enough reason to come to Brisbane, yet there is still another delightful surprise in store for us.
In our early New York days, Carolee Schneemann had lived in our co-op. She is a noted performance artist who in the early 1970s challenged viewers’ ideas of the role of women in society. Now, we see our former neighbor in a suite of large photographs, taking various poses while wearing only a hat, scarf, and a pair of ice skates.
We eat lunch at an outdoor outdoor café, resting and chatting before walking a good distance down the river toward the city’s botanic garden.
All day, we have been struck by the beauty, cleanliness, and massed strength of Brisbane’s modern architecture.
There are several bridges along the walk, one of which, for pedestrians only, takes us to the north side of the river and into a very upscale neighborhood of hotels and pricey cafes. These are filled with Brisbanites relaxing and enjoying the lovely weather. The air around us seems so clean that everything – buildings, trees, and bridges – stand out with a special vividness.
The following day is our anniversary; Kay and I have been married for 35 years.
We begin celebrating with our friends Jan and Tim and two other couples, Russell and Vicki, of two nights before, and Brian and Barbara, also long-time friends of Tim and Jan. We meet for a champagne barbecue breakfast outside the city at a picnic site overlooking a lovely valley. It is an excellent, relaxed celebration. Our friends cook bacon, sausage, and eggs on a wood-fired grill. We share stories of travel, laugh about the differences between American and Australian English, and enjoy our alfresco meal.
Later in the day, Tim, Jan, and the two of us go into downtown Brisbane to tour its historical sites. We share a Devonshire tea complete with scones, jam, and cream at the Shingle Inn, a restored English tearoom that opened in 1936. It has been a very good day.
Noosaville is a holiday town on the Queensland Coast a couple hours north of Brisbane. Again with Tim and Jan, this is where Kay and I will spend our final week in Australia.
Through a friend of hers, Jan has rented a comfortable duplex apartment for a reasonable sum. We head up to Noosaville in the afternoon after a morning of repacking and local errands. I finish a book I’ve been reading off and on for a while. Awakening Giant by David S. Reynolds is a political and social history of America during Andrew Jackson’s administration and the years that followed until 1848. I loved reading this book. Not only is it very well researched and written, it introduced me to a fascinating period of American history I knew almost nothing about.
Noosaville is in the heart of an upscale and very popular region known as the Sunshine Coast. The irony is that the sun won’t shine for us until our final day. The rain begins on our drive from Brisbane and will keep up for four days. One day, it is raining as we awake and continues steadily all day and into the evening. The park across the street floods and some ducks waste no time to colonize it. I’m sure I’ve experienced rains like this before, but I can’t remember when. On the other days the rain stops long enough for us to get some exercise. Jan and Tim stay fit by taking long walks every morning, and they walk fast. I go with them every day, happy to be getting the exercise.
Our best walks are along a sealed path above the sea. We go uphill and down with excellent views of the coast and of the surfers riding the waves below us. We spend the rest of our time cooking and eating meals, going out for coffee, and playing numerous hands of bridge. Tim and Jan, who are really experienced players, have many tips to share with us.
If I haven’t told you before, Australians have a thing for coffee. Coffee service is everywhere, and the varieties of preparations make a long list: lattes, flat whites, long blacks, cappuccinos, and piccolos are only some of them. Australians are similarly enthusiastic about beers and wines, both of which can be had nearly everywhere, except perhaps in church.
I introduce Tim to Little Creatures Ale, and he takes to it immediately.
The day we go up to Noosaville is Jan’s birthday. Another celebration is called for. Tim and I cook dinner, and our present to Jan is a card and our copy of Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice, a novel Kay and I greatly enjoyed. To Tim, whose birthday occurs near the end of the week, we bequeath our copy of National Geographic’s Guide to Australia. Our friends are looking forward to soon having the leisure to travel more widely around their own country. To celebrate Tim’s day, we dine out at a restaurant improbably named Little Humid where we enjoy perhaps the best meal Kay and I have eaten in Australia. Beginning with a pair of oysters apiece, served with a sauce of sherry and shallots, we follow with our mains, mine, a piece of fish called Blue-Eyed Trevalla garnished with a potato croquet, three asparagus spears, and a small piece of bacon. We share a bottle of Pinot Gris, Australian, of course. Not only have we done Tim proud, we have ended our own Australian adventure with a flourish. Ta da!