dee why

Moving to a new country, indeed to the other side of the world, is sort of like being born. You arrive suddenly in a new place, and don’t know much about it. You might have limited choice, or none at all, about your circumstances. From that point in space and time your experience and reality start forming and expanding outward. The universe takes shape.

I’m from America. I now live in Australia — in Lindfield, a suburb on the North Shore of Sydney, in an apartment arranged for me and my wife in advance. I began occupying this place just a couple of hours after I landed here in Oz. I migrated in the morning, and was doing dishes in the afternoon, ten thousand miles from where I was before.

My life started there. I had only intellectual knowledge of where I was. No real feel for this country, this neighborhood, the people, their ways. The local geography and climate were obscure.

The first step was to wander out and find milk, bread, stamps, and cheap Thai food. Everything that came later and went further was a new thing, like it would be for a child, or someone from outer space. Driving on the left side. Learning how to order beer. Realizing it’s not personal commentary when someone says “Yer all right mate.” Finding out milkshakes are quite thin and pickled beetroot is standard in a burger. Every day brought new things to my experience. Delight and terror went hand in hand.

When I tell people I live in Lindfield, the response is often, “Aw, you’re lucky!” or “Aw yeah? Where the rich people live?” But I know little about rich neighborhoods. I didn’t really choose Lindfield, or anything — except Sydney itself. I just live where I do and go from there. One thing I do know is I’m not rich.

For three months I’ve been travelling in Sydney on a simple personalized grid, a network of streets and train lines connecting the places I know. This network grows but slowly. My sense of direction is abstract and nonlinear in the first place; I love to explore, and have no fear of being lost, but with specific routes or directions I’m sometimes easily turned around.

However Sydney’s byzantine conglomeration of suburbs and intertwining streets are something else entirely, just maddening for a newcomer. Though the “suburbs” (more like what an American would call “neighborhoods”) are packed close together, each one is treated as a distinct entity, like a small town. Streets change names from one suburb to the next with obnoxious regularity; if the names don’t change, address sequences do. You can drive fifteen minutes and one or both might change four times. Within each suburb there’s often no reference point to anywhere else in the city.

I’ve gotten lost a lot, okay? I think did better in Abu Dhabi with no addresses and few street names.

Beyond that I’ve been working at night and resting in the day and haven’t had much energy to explore. I drive to Homebush and back for work; I walk around Lindfield running errands. I take the train to Chatswood to shop. I’m often at Circular Quay to meet people. There are a few other places, with other great names, I’ve visited for this reason or that. Five Dock, where I bought our car, and Mosman, where we watched the fireworks at New Years. Gordon, where we filmed bats. Rose Bay, Paddington, Crows Nest, Manly Vale. It’s a big city with many more places to discover.

Dee Why, a surburb on the northern beaches, is one of the brightest points in my constellation. It’s rapidly becoming my favorite place to be — and not only because of its terrific name. (At first I assumed the name was Aboriginal, but it turns out to be of deliciously mysterious origin; it might even have started with the initials DY on an old map). I go there with my wife sometimes; but more often I go alone, to relax after my brutal early-morning shifts at work. And to live the life I imagined for many years in cold, dark New York.

It’s the beach most convenient to our area; we can get there in 20 minutes if traffic cooperates. But it’s possible I’ve been going back simply because it was the first beach I visited here, and I know where it is. There might be better beaches, but Dee Why feels like my local beach, like it belongs to me. The way a kid might feel about the places in his limited world.

A good beach is really important to me. Having the ocean as a regular part of my life is the reason I migrated. I won’t wax eloquent about everything the ocean means to me, how it always relaxes me and changes my state of mind, how it’s my favorite way to commune with nature. Simply put the beach makes me happy. Wait, doesn’t it make everyone happy?

Dee Why has everything working: it’s convenient to the city, or is in fact part of the city; but it also seems like a little beach town. One of those classic beach towns with unpretentious, brightly-colored buildings, silly nautical decor, and a profusion of ice cream and candy shops. But being part of Sydney it’s not merely quaint: there are nice cafés and restaurants, posh homes, great parks and sports facilities, and a strong interplay of cultures. Lots of Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern people live and trade there — and enjoy the beach.

The effect Dee Why has on me starts with the drive down to the shore. Warringah Road runs most of the way from our neighborhood to the coast over lowland waterways and up into a range of steep hills. At a certain point you come up over the crest of a hill, the horizon opens up completely, and there a couple of miles off in the distance is the Pacific: blue water and the entire blue sky. My mood elevates as I roll down the hill to Pittwater Road and the water disappears again for a few minutes.

Along the main part of Dee Why Beach runs a pedestrian-friendly drive with bustling shops. Large, pleasant lawns and a seawall divide the street from the beach. Hundred-year old Norfolk Island pines tower overhead, looking improbable and sculpted, a splendidly dark and vertical and bristly contrast to the soft pastels and marine motifs of their surroundings.

The beach itself is spectacular, the kind of place I used to dream about. It runs a couple of miles in a long, graceful crescent between two huge sandstone headlands. At the foot of the southern headland is a wide beach made of sandstone, skirted by broken rocks. Being on this stone beach is like being on another world. But the sandstone is soft and warm, inviting to walk on barefoot, comfortable even for sitting or lying down. The vast Pacific swell breaks in multifarious and often fierce ways off this headland, off the rocks, onto the concave sandy beach close by. In fact these breaks are famous, and surfers flock to Dee Why by the hundreds.

One of the best things about this place is standing on these rocks and taking in the view to the north. On the distant northern headland, the sweet green hues of grass reflected in the sun climb gently up to the fantastic brown sandstone of the cliffs. (Turns out it’s a golf course over there.) You think you could be looking at the coast of Ireland. Look to the left, and you see the bleached walls and red rooftops of seaside dwellings, tumbling in delightful disarray: this outlook seems somehow Mediterranean, especially if a nice southerly is blowing. Yet look down, closer to where you are, and there is the great blue sea surging against the wide beach, hundreds of people out in the potent sun and powerful surf, and there’s no mistake you are on the Pacific and this is Australia.

Yes, if you want to find out what Australians are all about, go to the beach. It may not be news, but it’s true. This nation is an archipelago of coastlines, thousands and thousands of miles of shore, more beach than they know what to do with. But they sure try. Watching Aussies disport themselves in the surf is a pure joy. It’s somehow dead serious and exuberantly silly at the same time — they take to the water with an incomparable lust for life. It’s so uncool it’s cool; and it seems to stand in defiance of anything in the world that’s dark, depressing, sinister, lonely, destructive, self-obsessed. Yeah, people seek those things out. Maybe even me at times. But it’s hard to remember why at the beach.

Want a recipe for happiness? Spend any amount of time watching parents play with their kids in the ocean. Especially Aussie parents teaching their kids how to surf, a common sight at Dee Why.

I’m amazed by the sheer number of ways Aussies attack the surf. At Dee Why alone I’ve seen: surfboards (long and short), bodyboards, skimboards, surfskis, sea-kayaks, paddleboards (these things are astonishing — they make their riders look like Polynesian kings), windsurfers, kitesurfers (yep, surfing with a parachute, a delightfully crazy sight), and the hilarious little boards they strap to their wrists for better bodysurfing. I’m probably forgetting some. And of course many rely on their own bodies for bodysurfing (at which Aussies universally excel), or taking laps in the ocean, or just playing in the breakers. On some windy evenings on the long beach here you can observe almost all of these at the same time (with good old-fashioned sailboats in the offing to complete the picture). It’s a splendid thing, a big ongoing tribal celebration. Each of these devices or craft, some of which I never saw or thought of until I moved here, has an expert, someone who spends long hours and long sunny days perfecting a technique. All for the love of being in the ocean and moving with the water and wind. In most cases there’s no competition going on. It goes beyond sport to a kind of expression.

I’m completely fascinated by surfing. It has a unique hold over me (a direct corollary of how I feel about the ocean). I’d like to pick it up one of these days, and I’ve been doing some bodyboarding recently. But surfriding as a total lifestyle is something I may never achieve. I’m not the strongest swimmer, I’m intimidated by strong currents — and I’m definitely not fearless enough. Watching the guys (and plenty of girls too, of course) walk nonchalantly with their boards out onto the rocks on Dee Why’s point break and dive right into the treacherous currents just astounds me. I’m not sure I’d ever have what it takes to do that.

Me? I bodyboard like a little kid. I get as far out as I can where the waves are breaking, but making sure I can still stand if the current feels strong. I judge the set as it comes in; if the set wave is too big or far out for me, I wait for the second, or third, or even the fourth or fifth wave — anything I feel comfortable trying to catch. I tend to tumble about on my board getting in position. When I finally do manage to latch on to a wave, I ride straight in — the wave is usually too small and crumbly for me to think of cutting in on it — doing my best to dodge old people and toddlers in the shallows. The extent of tricks I can do is perhaps spinning around a bit as I wash right up onto the sand. It’s ridiculous. And man is it a lot of fun.

I often see middle-aged ladies out there bodyboarding too, with about the same awkward skill set. God bless them for going out and having fun with a board and not caring what anyone thinks of them. They’re my inspiration.

But most Aussies are very accepting about people enjoying the surf no matter how. No one’s ever made fun of me or the middle-aged ladies; no one’s ever told me to get off their wave or their beach. There’s a jolly camaraderie, and it exists out of the water too. When the owner of a surf shop saw me holding my board and asked how the surf was that day, I admitted I wouldn’t be the one to ask, since I don’t know what I’m doing. He replied loudly, eyebrows raised, with typical Aussie sternness, “Hey. The most important thing about surfing is: have fun.”

I do. Thinking of weekday afternoons I’ve made a fool of myself in the surf, then sat in the sun drying off and watching the experts swoop down the waves, and soar over them, and spill into them. Then walked up to the shops and had a veggie burger (complete with delicious pickled beetroot) and potato wedges from the greasy lunch counter. Then ordered a disappointingly thin milkshake from the hipster café next door and sat in the park, watching surfers walk down to the beach barefoot with their boards, and old people out enjoying the sun, and kids laughing and throwing things at birds. Right now I can’t think of anything better.

Note: working on this post was a frustratingly meta experience — writing about the beach when I’d rather just be there.

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