sketches of newcastle & wollongong

In the past couple of weeks, the Sydney Travelling Film Festival has appropriately enough given me an excuse to do a little travelling in my adopted country. I haven’t had a chance to get around much outside of Sydney — I have a whole continent to explore — and it’s a great thing to visit new places even in a small way.

Last week my wife and I drove to Newcastle (a couple of hours north of Sydney) to meet her parents, who live not far away on the Sunshine Coast, and attend a TFF screening of Masquerades, an Algerian comedy co-written, directed by, and starring the super-talented Lyès Salem. My review can be found at Feral Kid, my new page for various ramblings on film, music, and culture.

At first I wasn’t sure whether to write about Masquerades on this blog or the new one. This will remain a page devoted to my life abroad, travelling, and other thoughts about the world. But seeing this film tied into those concepts. On a simple level, it’s a terrific glimpse into the lives of Algerian villagers in the Aurès mountains, a place I know little about. Incidentally, with the World Cup fast approaching and Algeria taking part for the first time in 24 years (the only Arab or Middle East nation in the tournament), I know Masquerades will cross my mind again.

It also could not help but remind me of my time at the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi last year, an experience that’s inspired and shaped a lot of my thinking lately. And the Travelling Film Festival is all about bringing a little of that inspiration to the folks in small towns. It’s just great to be in a theater on a Sunday afternoon in a smallish town in Australia with a hundred or so other people and get into a funny and poignant film starring a charmingly moody Algerian comic actor in an England track suit. And to know they enjoyed it. (My wife’s parents loved it). This is the world I want to live in.

After saying goodbye to the folks, who were staying for another film, we took a walk. It was my first time in Newcastle. I was surprised to find out my wife had never been there either.

We walked down to the foreshore. Along the way I had to table my desire to visit the hobby store not far from the cinema. I’ve never seen a bigger hobby store: it has to stretch fifty yards or more, and judging by its huge window displays, seems to be filled with so many model airplanes and boats, Lego sets, Playskool toys, puzzles, board games, and action figures that I could probably spend all day and not see it all. In such places I tend to quickly forget I’m supposed to be an adult, and make pretty bad company.

It was yet another lovely day. My first autumn in New South Wales has been two months straight of breathtakingly nice weather: sunny, hot days; cold nights; clear skies with fluffy cartoon clouds highlighting that staggering antipodean blue. You might put on a sweater in the morning and get sunburned in the afternoon. I moved here for the great climate, but it’s captured my imagination in ways I didn’t expect.

The Newcastle foreshore is an industrial zone that’s been partially redeveloped with parks and recreational facilities according to the current worldwide trend. But unlike other urban waterfronts, Newcastle’s industry has not dried up: it’s actually the busiest coal-exporting harbour in the world. Ambivalent as I am about coal, I’m firmly in favor of mixed-use planning.

The foreshore is impressive: it stretches for a couple of miles along the harbour formed by the estuary of the Hunter River. There’s multifarious waterfront activity as far as the eye can see. Looking in the other direction, the park looks like a nice place to spend time. There are a number of older industrial buildings converted for public use or upscale commerce — standing in one area I saw three restaurants. I’m guessing it only gets better; one could walk all the way down the shore to the end of the peninsula and end up in Pacific Park — which I expect is a pretty awesome place to see the coast. Unfortunately we didn’t have time for such a walk. I’ll have to cover Newcastle in more detail later.

We made our way back, stopping at a café to have lunch before hitting the road. Here I managed to get in a bad mood. I’ve been warned before about slack service in Australia, especially anywhere out of the city. This was the case here. I don’t want to name the café or go into detail; my intent is not to be scathing, and no one was actually rude to us. In fact when they paid attention they were friendly. But the slackness was kind of depressing. There were four people behind the counter and they were apparently overwhelmed by the lunch shift. They somehow couldn’t keep up with clearing the tables or keeping their work station clean, they had run out of a lot of the things on the menu, and they just kept dropping the ball with service.

In these situations I always ask myself, am I just a grouchy New Yorker? I guess the simple answer is yes. But it’s frustrating when you know some basic organization could solve the problem. How did such a friendly nation produce such a lame service ethic? Amo blames the lack of a tipping culture. I hate to think a few dollars on a table is what motivates people.

To top it off, as we were finishing our lunch, we saw them turn some customers away, presumably because it was nearly closing time. The way so many businesses in Oz prioritize keeping regular hours ahead of serving people and making money continues to astonish me. It’s one of the major differences I’ve had to adjust to living here.

This past Sunday I went the other direction to keep up with the TFF. I took the train to Wollongong, a coastal town south of Sydney meant to be one of the most beautiful places in New South Wales. I’d been confirmed as a guest writer for Sydney Film Festival’s official blog, and gave myself the assignment of blogging about Middle Eastern films at the TFF. Today I would be seeing Amreeka, a narrative about the struggles of a Palestinian woman and her teenage son in adjusting to their new lives in suburban Illinois.

I was on my own, and spent the time on the train writing and listening to music. As the train rolled further south and left the suburbs of Sydney behind, the landscape became quite beautiful. As I said, autumn here is something else indeed. Everything stays green (eucalyptus trees don’t lose their leaves) and flowers continue to blossom everywhere. It seems a lot like spring. But the weather on this day was much cooler than the week before. Often lately there’s been a strange disconnect between the colors and foliage I perceive and the temperature of the air. Actually, forget autumn, forget spring — these are northern concepts — it’s another paradigm, a strong reminder I’m in a different world.

At a certain point I was looking out my window to the west and saw a horse ranch on a steep hillside. The bright green pastures and paddocks of the ranch ran up and down the hill in irregular fashion, divided by wooden fences, hedgerows, and woods, and framed by a range of rocky outcroppings behind. Spread evenly throughout these acres the horses were peacefully doing their thing, each of them covered in comfortable-looking horse-ponchos to protect them from the cool weather. There were no people or machines in sight. It looked like something out of a Richard Adams novel.

Soon after, as the train was pulling into Coalcliff, the vista to the east on the other side of the train opened up completely. Suddenly the train was running along the top of a cliff and the whole ocean was right there. Just then, Radiohead’s “House of Cards” came up on my iPod, as if by design. It’s one of my favorite songs anyway; but the way the distant blue horizon and white breakers far below rolling steadily past out the window were perfectly matched by its pulsating midtempo swing and swooning orchestral melancholy was almost too much.

Arriving in Wollongong, I walked to the theater. It turned out that Amreeka was well worth the trip. It manages to be weighty yet funny and heartwarming at the same time. (My full review of it can be found here.) The screening was quite busy, and the crowd appreciative. It was good to see these people digging a story about Palestinian Arabs having a hard time with racism wherever they go. Amreeka is not polemic, but is a good deal more provocative than Masquerades. And the characters being migrants to America was interesting to me of course. To some degree the sense of alienation and puzzlement over American culture depicted in the film would have been felt by the audience too, starting with the harsh accents of the airport security guards who give the mother and son a hard time. Many other über-American problems and quirks are addressed in the film from the Iraq war to White Castle, often producing chuckles in the audience. It was weird but kind of cool to sit alone and have my own perspective.

After the film I took a walk. My friend Charlotte is expecting my assessment of the place. Sorry, Charlotte! As with Newcastle, I just didn’t have a lot of time to explore. And I was a bit bored being on my own. But I headed down to the beach just to have a look. Along the way, a guy driving a big black SUV got impatient waiting for me to cross a street and swerved behind me revving his engine. I made a rude gesture as he pulled away, and a guy standing on the corner said, “You go and tell him mate!” I laughed and shrugged, but he repeated, scowling, “You go and tell him! Just fucking stupid.”

Looking ahead, I noticed the way to the beach was blocked by a rugby stadium. A match had just gotten out and hundreds of rugby fans milled about. Hmmm. Should I worry about rugby hooligans? I wasn’t sure what this scene would be like, so I minded my own business as I walked around the stadium and found a path down to the beach by the golf course.

The beach was really nice of course. But maybe I’m getting a bit jaded with nice Australian beaches. It’s just what I expect now. I walked along the bike path for awhile (the place gets props for having a bike path on the beach), then walked back up to the train station on Crown Street, clearly the main drag for shopping and hanging out, stopping to get a gozleme, my new favorite snack. (Imagine a Turkish quesadilla: fresh pastry dough rolled flat, filled with spinach and feta cheese, and fried. Yum.) Honestly, the main reason the Turkish place got my money is because it was open. Most all of the other shops on Crown Street were closed. It was the same syndrome I mentioned above. It was early Sunday evening but the place was dead.

I did appreciate that nearly everything one could want to do here was in walking distance from the train station: the theater, the restuarants, the mall, the golf course, the beach, the rugby stadium. There’s a large pedestrianized shopping area right in the middle of it. Pedestrian-friendly makes me happy. I’ll come back with company and try it again.

Next stop, Byron Bay.


1 comment so far

  1. Caity Raschke on

    A relative once told me about a survey that was done, asking exiting tourists what they thought of Australian service and apparently they valued the fact that it was honest – yeah: honestly bad.That was probably 15 years ago. On a return from holiday in Paris once we went to lunch in Sydney and noticed the same cold and arrogant service we’d come across in France. (Having said that, the Parisiens were lovely last time we were there, 2 years ago.)Love your photo of the beach in Woollongong.

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