Archive for the ‘Bill Bryson’ Category

Everything Worthwhile in Canberra in 24 Hours

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

Our second day in Canberra got off to a late start since Justin and I were in no rush and Angela was exhausted from working on her paper the day before. We made breakfast in Angie’s apartment and then caught the bus up Capitol Hill to see the Parliament Building that we had failed to reach on foot the day before.

“Parliament house is a new building, which replaced an older, more modest Parliament House in 1988. It is a rather arrestingly horrible structure, crowned with a ridiculous erection that looks like nothing so much as a very large Christmas-tree stand. On the way in I stopped beside a large ornamental pool to have a look at the rooftop erection. ‘Largest aluminium structure in the Southern Hemisphere,’ declared with evident pride a man with a camera around his neck who saw me studying it. ‘And are there many other aluminium structures competing for the honor?’ I asked before I could stop myself”
- Bill Bryson

Parliament House complete with Christmas Tree stand topper

View of the grounds from the front of the Parliament building

“To enter the Parliament house I had to submit to a security inspection and had a small pocket knife taken away from me and twenty minutes later was sawing away on a scone in the cafeteria with something far more lethal. The whole of Parliament House is rather like that- superficially grave and security conscious, in keeping with the trappings of an important nation, but at the same time really quite relaxed as if they know that no international terrorists are going to come storming over the parapets and that visitors are mostly just people like me who want to see where it all happens and have a nice cup of tea and a bread product in the cafeteria”
-Bill Bryson

Main lobby in the Parliament building

Once you get into the Parliament building you are left to wander as whimsy takes you. Having grown up in Washington DC this seems absolutely preposterous to me. If you wanted to so much as walk into the lobby of a government building of any significance in DC you would have to submit to a security screening, full body scan, finger printing, metal detecting wand, pat down, light frisking, background check, and quite possibly be asked to provide a blood or urine sample. Assuming you are not deemed a terrorist after all that you would probably still have to walk around with an armed escort and a name tag with your finer print and picture ID on it. However, inside the Parliament building nobody seems to be terribly concerned with security of this magnitude. Once we were inside we opted not to do one of the hour long guided tours and instead let Angela take us around and give us the more concise run down of things.

Justin and I sitting in the Senate chamber. There are two houses to Australian parliment. The color of the Senate room matches the colour scheme of the House of Lords in England, decorated in red, but muted to tints of ochre, suggesting the earth and the colours of the outback

Justin and Angela repping their citadel rings in the House of Representatives. In commemoration of the colour scheme of the British House of Commons, the House of Representatives is decorated in green. However, the colour is muted to suggest the colour of eucalyptus leaves.

As if being able to stroll around the most important government building in Australia wasn’t wild enough, they also allow you to take an elevator up to the roof and walk around on top of the building. The views from there are spectacular, and I didn’t see a single sniper or security guard while we were up there. I can’t tell if Australians are too trusting or they just long ago accepted that tourists don’t want to go to Canberra, so why on earth would an international terrorist waste time trying to blow up a lot of hideous buildings and empty space. Plus it would be a royal pain to get out there. So yeah, they are probably safe due to apathy.

View from the roof of the Parliament building

Justin and I posin on the roof

Christmas Tree stand/flagpole

After a thirty or so minute stroll through the new Parliament building, we decided to walk down capitol hill to check out the old Parliament Building. This building was in use from 1927 to 1988, when the New Parliament building was opened. The interior offices are set up to look like they did in the late 70′s, so there is awful wood paneling and yellow and green tones everywhere. It doesn’t really feel that old at all, just dated.

Old Parliament Building

Aboriginal protest over their lack of representation in the Australian government, located on the lawn in front of the old Parliament building

Aboriginal parliament building, also erected in protest

Shanty town that acts as the permeant residence of the aboriginal protestors

Me sitting in the Speakers Chair for the House of Reps (you can tell its from the House of Reps because its green)

Angela playing dress up and repping her citadel ring

The house of representatives in the Old Parliament building. As you can see they updated the color palette in the new building to be more muted and more Australian looking.

This Mace, which is used in the House of Representatives was given to the speaker of the house when it is in session to signify that the session is open and he or she has the floor. The current Mace in use was a gift from the United Kingdom House of Commons in 1951 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the commonwealth of Australia.

Senate chamber, again, with a very bold color palette in the old building and the senate chamber currently in use features a far more muted palette. The Senate is always red and the House of Reps is always green.

After we had seen our fill of the Parliament buildings, both old and new, we began our long walk back towards Angie’s apartment. To get there we walked back over Lake Burley Griffin and leisurely strolled around the sprawling green lawns in the surrounding Parliamentary Zone, an area very similar to the National Mall in Washington, only more deserted and futuristic looking.

“Even the National Capital Authority, the governing body for the city, admits in a promotional fact sheet that ‘many people believe the Parliamentary Zone has an empty and unfinished character, where the vast distances between the institutions and other facilities discourage pedestrian movement and activity. ‘ I’ll say. It was like walking around the site of a very large world’s fair that had never quite gotten off the ground.”

-Bill Bryson

"The Lake Burley Griffin contains an engineering wonder (the wonder being why they bothered) called the Captain Cook Memorial Jet, a plume of water that shoots a couple of hundred feet into the air in a dazzlingly unarresting manner, then catches the prevailing breeze and drifts in a fine but drenching spray over the bridge and whatever is on it." - Bill Bryson

“it’s a very strange city in that it’s not really a city at all, but rather an extremely large park with a city hidden in it. It’s all lawns and trees and hedges and big ornamental lake.”- Bill Bryson

This part of Canberra has a very Washington DC-esk feel to it, like you are near the Jefferson Memorial

This is the National Library of Australia, which looks ASTOUNDINGLY similar to the Kennedy Center. There is an architect somewhere who plagiarized and got away with it since nobody can be bothered to care that much about Canberra.

The Kennedy Cen...I mean National Australian Library and the Lake Burley Griffin as viewed from the overpass bridge

Citadel buddies

Exhausted and hungry we stopped at a wood fire pizza restaurant for dinner before heading back to Angela’s apartment to rest, shower and change before going to the Canberra Burns Club Pipe Band Ceilidh (a ceilidh is a gaelic word meaning party and it is pronounced kay-lay). The ceilidh was being put on as a fundraiser for the pipe band that Angela had been playing with since arriving in Canberra. Ever since we had proposed the idea of coming to Canberra, Justin had been ecstatic about attending the ceilidh.

When Angela and Justin were in Scotland last summer with the Citadel pipe band for the Edinburgh Tattoo, they had attended a traditional ceilidh with lots of older experienced pipers, and both of them had glowing accounts of this evening. Their experience consisted of them hanging out in a pub drinking while lots of pipers got up in front of the room and piped amazing solos and then everyone sat around chatting and generally having a great time.

If this had been how things had gone down it might have been an interesting cultural experience, but the reality of the evening was far from the intimate bar hang out that Angela and Justin had been expecting. Instead we spent upwards of two hours sitting in a banquet hall of a country club-type establishment listening to a bagpiping talent show-esk performance, featuring many differnet bag piping and celtic music groups from the area, many of whom were not that talented at all. Refreshments were absolutely perfect….. had we been at a five year old’s birthday party.  On each table were plastic plates and bowls filled with doritos, potato chips, jelly candies and mints. Classy.

Since bagpipes have only one volume, obnoxiously loud, conversation was almost futile, but Justin tells me my facial expressions said it all. About halfway through the first groups set Justin looked over at me and said

“I think I am going to go get you a drink”

To which I replied “No amount of alcohol will make this better, but you are welcome to try anyway”

He came back with a Gin and Tonic which was made with some sort of weird gin that tasted vaguely like licorice. Even the alcohol in Canberra is awful.

Justin and Angela went back and forth discussing the various musical strengths and weaknesses of each group but to me it all sounded like a rousing chorus of cats being drown that refused to die. After about two hours of this Angela and Justin had both determined that this situation was never going to morph into the idyllic memory they had from Scotland and we left. Once we got back into the downtown area we met up with Angela’s friends to hang out at a bar that had more people in it than I had seen the entire weekend walking around the city. We hung out there and chatted for a bit before catching a cab back to Angie’s apartment, since it was below freezing out and Angie and I were both wearing dresses, having foolishly believed that the ceilidh would be an occasion that required such attire. I shouldn’t have worn a dress, I should have worn ear plugs. Once back in Angie’s apt Justin and I packed up our things to prepare for our early bus the next morning and then all three of us turned in for the night, underwhelmed but exhausted all the same.

Canberra: Gateway to Everywhere Else!

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

When I was a junior in high school I took AP Lang and one of the books we had to read over the summer was Bill Bryson’s A Walk In the Woods. I had never read any travel literature or anything by Bill Bryson before, and I found myself completely enamored with the genre and the author I discovered it with. Since then I have made it a goal to read all of Bill Brysons books and have yet to find one that has disagreed with me.

One of my favorite books of his,  In a Sunburned Country details his travels around Australia and had me laughing out loud the first time I read it. I added it to my Christmas List one year and received two copies from different people. I brought one of those copies with me to Australia but Justin took it home with him when he left, and then my friend Jordan told me to keep his copy when I asked to borrow it to write this entry, because he didn’t want it. In my absence my mother bought a copy of her own to read while she planned my family’s Australian adventure. So I have two copies of this book to my name, but three in my family. Needless to say, I’m a fan.

Funny, grumpy, sarcastic, and so correct. Read this book.

When I first read the book my freshman year of college I remember the chapter on Canberra as being particularly hilarious. Having now travelled to Canberra I can say with full authority that everything Bill Bryson said about it was 100% correct, and so for my blog entries on Canberra I am going to quote him and invite you to laugh along with me at my favorite grumpy travel writer who couldn’t have been more correct in his observations about this odd little town.

Justin and I woke up (or rather Justin woke up and then fought me out of my sleeping state) around 6am on Friday morning to catch our 7am bus from central station to Canberra. We were both groggy and grumpy but made our bus on time without incident and then promptly went back to sleep. The bus ride was around three hours long and once we got out of Sydney the scenery was filled with lots of mountains and odd looking trees. When we got off the bus Angela, Justin’s friend from the Citadel, was there to greet us and walk us to her apartment where we would be staying for the weekend. Angela is currently working on her masters degree in peace and conflict studies (somewhat ironic since she went to a military school for her undergraduate degree) and when she heard that Justin was going to be in Australia demanded that he spend a weekend in Canberra.

As Justin and I surveyed the landscape on our walk from the bus stop to Angie’s apartment we were very underwhelmed. It was around 11 am on a Friday morning and nobody seemed to be around. Things were eerily quiet. All the buildings we saw were sleek and modern looking, but devoid of any real character. Already we were judging.

Angie had glowing things to say about the city, but it is the only Australian city she has visited, and she spends most of her time in it studying. I think Canberra would be a very good place to work on a masters or doctorate degree since there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of distractions in the city. I would think you would find plenty of time to study because the city doesn’t give you many other options.

A little history on this odd little place from Mr. Bryson:

“Years were consumed with squabbles about where the Australian capital should be sited before the selectors eventually settled on an obscure farming community on the edge of the Tidbinbilla Hills in Southern New South Wales. It was called Canberra, though the name by then was often anglicized to Canberry. Cold in the winter, blazing hot in the summer, miles from anywhere, it was an unlikely choice of location for a capital. About nine hundred square miles of surrounding territory, most of it pastoral and pretty nearly useless, was ceded by New South Wales to form the Australian Capital Territory, a federal zone on the model of America’s own District of Columbia.  So the young nation had a capital. The next challenge was what to call it, and yet more periods of passion and rancour were consumed with settling the matter. King O’Malley, The American-born politician who was a driving force behind federation wanted to call the new capital Shakespeare. Other suggested names were Myola, Wheatwoolgold, Emu, Eucalypta, Sydmeladperbrisho, Opossum, Gladstone, Thirstyville, Kookaburra, Cromwell, and the ringingly inane Victoria Defendera Defender.

In the end, “Canberra” won more or less by default. At an official ceremony to mark the decision, the wife of the governor-general stood up before a gathering of dignitaries and, “in a querulous voice,” announced that the winning name was the one that had been in use all along. Unfortunately no one had thought to brief her, and she mispronounced it. Never mind, the young nation had a site for a capital and a name for it and it had taken them just eleven years since union to get there. At this blistering pace, all being well, they might get a city going within half a century or so. In fact, it would take rather longer. Although Canberra is now the sixth largest metropolis in the nation and one of the most important planned communities on earth, it remains Australia’s greatest obscurity. As national capitals go, it is still not an easy place to get to. It lies forty miles off the main road from Sydney to Melbourne, The Hume Highway, and is similarly spurned by the principal railway lines.  Its main road to the south doesn’t go anywhere much and the city has no approach at all from the west other than on a dirt track from the little town of Tumut.”

“In 1996 the prime minister, John Howard, caused a stir after his election by declining to live in Canberra. He would, he announced, continue to reside in Sydney and commute to Canberra as duties required. As you can imagine, this caused an uproar among Canberra’s citizens, presumably because they hadn’t thought of that themselves. What made this particularly interesting is that John Howard is by far the dullest man in Australia. Imagine a very committed funeral home director – someone whose burning ambition from the age of eleven was to be a funeral home director, whose proudest achievement in adulthood was to be elected president of the Queanbeyan and District Funeral Home Directors Association – then halve his personality and halve it again, and you have pretty well got John Howard. When a man as outstandingly colorless as John Howard turns his nose up at a place, you know it must be worth a look.”

- Bill Bryson

The history of this location is very exemplary of the reality of it.

Justin and I hung out with Angie for a bit in her apartment and then she gave us a quick walking tour of some of the sites nearby before handing us a map so we could do some exploring of our own. Since she had a paper due by midnight she said she would take us out on the town Saturday but needed to work till then. When she gave us the map she cautioned, “things look like they are close together on the map, but when you start walking you will see that it takes forever to get anywhere”

Bill Bryson had this to say about that:

“My one tip for you if you ever go to Canberra is don’t leave your hotel without a good map, a compass, several days provisions, and a cell phone with the number of a rescue service. I walked for two hours through green, pleasant, endlessly identical neighborhoods, never entirely confident that I wasn’t just going around in a large circle. From time to time I would come to a leafy rotary with spooked roads radiating off in various directions, each presenting an identical vista of antipodeans suburban heaven, and I would venture down one that looked most likely to take me to civilization only to emerge ten minutes later at another identical rotary. I never saw another soul on foot or anywhere watering a lawn or anything like that. Very occasionally a car would glide past, pausing at each intersection; the driver would l0ok around with a despairing expression that said, “Now where the fuck is my house?”

“On paper Canberra looks quite inviting, with its serpentine lake, leafy avenues, and 10,000 acres of parks (for purposes of comparison, Central Park in New York is 840 acres) but at ground level it is simply a great deal of far-flung greenness, broken at distant intervals by buildings and monuments” - Bill Bryson

Being that it was around 3pm when we set out, Justin and I set our sights on walking up Capital Hill to see the Parliament building, which seemed reasonable to accomplish before it closed at 5. We walked for about 25 minutes before realizing that it was much further away that we originally thought, and not easily accessible on foot. We walked across the bridge over Lake Burley and found that in order to get to where we wanted to be, we would have to dash across four lanes of highway traffic, leap-frog a set of jersey barriers and then scale a fairly steep hill covered in bushes. We decided against this.

After this failed expedition we headed back into the center of town and found a quaint local bookstore where we ordered hot beverages and rested for a few minutes. With grumbling tummies we soon left the bookstore in search of dinner. We found a large shopping mall where we got wraps and salad and then wandered into a Borders Books to try and find a copy of Bill Brysons book so we could compare our experiences to his.

Justin had been trying very hard to stay positive about the city, but when I read him this quote from Bill Bryson he cracked up and couldn’t help but to finally admit that this city was in fact quite crap.

“I glanced at my watch, appalled to realize it was only ten minutes after ten, and ordered another beer, then picked up the notebook and pen and, after a minute’s thought, wrote, “Canberra awfully boring place. Beer cold, though.” Then I thought for a bit more and wrote, “Buy socks.” . . . Then I decided to come up with a new slogan for Canberra. First I wrote, “Canberra — There’s Nothing to It!” and then “Canberra — Why Wait for Death?”
- Bill Bryson
After several u-turns and phone calls to Angela we somehow found our way back to the University and chatted with Angela for a bit before deciding we were ready to call it a day and get some decent sleep. We briefly contemplated going out with Angela and her friends once she had turned her paper in at midnight, but only operating on four hours of sleep this notion was soon pushed aside by our heavy eyelids. We headed back to Angela’s apartment, showered and crawled into bed exhausted and confident that our decision to spend less than 48 hours in Canberra had been the right one.