Sunday, November 11, 2007


When I was in central Sydney for a few weeks last year, I was fascinated by the opportunity of walking around in circles for hours and hours, trying to get a feel for the city, and examining the ways in which it had evolved since the '50s and '60s. Inevitably, too, I was constantly tempted to compare the Australian metropolis with the great European city in which I had lived, on and off, for three decades: Paris.

My initial impression of Sydney was a sensation of great physical fatigue, induced by the endless lines of people walking rapidly from X to Y, and from Y to X... where X and Y are entities that mathematicians would refer to as unknowns. After a few days of observation, I ended up imagining that X and Y are probably, basically, train stations and office buildings... but we might need to throw in a Z that designates eating establishments. In other words, the visible population of central Sydney would appear to be moving constantly between these three poles: trains, offices and places where they can eat and drink [which does not appear to mean pubs in the English sense, or restaurants in the French sense].

One thing is certain. Nobody in Sydney simply strolls. Either you're going somewhere, in a determined fashion, or you're not going anywhere... which means that you're located somewhere in a stationary slot, in an essentially invisible state. And funnily enough, I never had the impression that many of the local lemmings were actively engaged in shopping.

In Paris, one often feels that half the population is seated and relaxed, watching the other half of the population moving around, either working or giving the impression that they're working. In Australia in general, and in Sydney in particular, this notion of observing explicitly one's fellow citizens is unthinkable. It would be likened to voyeurism of a perverted kind. In public transport, for example, the general idea is that everybody burrows their head, ostrich-style, into a newspaper or a book. In the streets of central Sydney, it's the same thing. Each person barges stubbornly forwards towards his/her specific destination, eyes fixed on the road ahead, like a runner in a marathon. For a visitor, even the simple task of halting somebody to ask for directions is far from easy, for the outsider has the impression that nobody sees him, or wants to see him. Sydney pedestrians are a robotic race, a little like those TV bunnies that run on long-life batteries.

It's weird to discover the same dense and uniform style of robotic rat-race [I realize that I'm switching metaphorical animals at an alarming rate, and I haven't even got around to kangaroos yet] in the motor traffic on the major road arteries into and out of the city. There's no doubt about the fact that Sydneysiders are going somewhere... but the where and why are not clear.

Curiously, local journalists don't seem to be particularly lucid when called upon to describe their city. Here's a telling specimen, written by a female, in the Sydney Morning Herald: "Sydney is a trophy wife. Like her smug husband, we bask in the glory of association and smooth over the rough spots. Sydneysiders struggle with their glamorous, sparkling city." Really, this is twitter, which no doubt reveals less about Sydney than about the state of the woman who concocted these words, who is probably a "trophy wife" with a "smug husband". In any case, it's absurd to liken central Sydney, metaphorically, to a glamorous female. Sydney, in my eyes, secretes the same kind of unhealthy bird-like sexuality, based solely upon plumage, as a school mistress, an austere business secretary, a uniformed nurse or a policewoman. It's all about permissiveness, or rather the lack of it, and nothing to do with intrinsic sensuality, carefree eroticism or plain fun. In Paris, everybody knows that all kinds of human encounters, often of a sexual nature, come into existence more or less spontaneously within the rich and complex fabric of the city. In clockwork Sydney, this would be unthinkable.

The title of the female journalist's article was Welcome to the CBD: all arteries, no pulse. Borrowing her physiological metaphor, I would say that central Sydney is basically one of the least horny hangouts I've ever encountered.

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