Photo by Shutterstock
Photo by Shutterstock
Bells Beach is a famed surf beach along the Great Ocean Road.
How a country 10,000 miles from home became the place I miss the most when life gets really, ridiculously hard.
The fall of 2001—you know, that fall—means something very different to me than it does to most of my friends and family. I don’t have vivid memories of smoke wafting from Manhattan to my childhood home on the Jersey Shore; of semesters canceled and funerals attended. Instead, I remember my first bite of Vegemite (Is this what tar tastes like? I wondered). My encounter with a kangaroo on a suburban golf course. My 10-day trip up the eastern coast of Australia, where I went skydiving just west of the Great Barrier Reef and bungee jumping in the rain forest (on the same day—my poor parents). A semester abroad is a transformative time for any young student; at age 20, it was my first time away from North America. My first passport. Only the second time I’d been on a plane, ever.
Layer on top of that being abroad on 9/11, more than 10,000 miles from home and not quite sure when I’d be able to go back, and a semester abroad takes on all new meaning. Australia wasn’t just my temporary home for six months. It was my safe haven.
Have you ever had to explain to someone what the Pentagon is? Or where Pennsylvania is? Or worry about being an American in a crowd? Actually, you might have. The global reaction to those Bush administration days wasn’t so different from the American-as-pariah pandemic we face now. But after witnessing the fall of the Twin Towers in the middle of the night, as the token American in a room full of Aussies, I felt like I had protected status. Gathered around me were very concerned peers—all brand-new friends—who wanted to help be a distraction while the world was on fire. They took me to their homes in Geelong and Lorne along the Great Ocean Road—not minding the absurd number of photos I wanted to take at Bells Beach, aka the site of the finale in Point Break. They taught me about a stubby (that’s a tiny beer, folks) after our college basketball games and took me to a Melbourne club for Hip Hop Mondays. Every night was a night out, except for Tuesdays, which was when we all became weirdly studious.
And when they couldn’t join me on an adventure, they’d point me in the direction of Sydney, Brisbane, Fraser Island, the Whitsundays, Cairns, Noosa Heads, Byron Bay, all seaside destinations that reminded me of being back home on the Jersey Shore. (Except with more dingoes.) Nearly every weekend, I’d escape to a surf city and get in the water, on the water, near the water at the very least, with easy-going folks all around me, and make idle chatter about something other than 9/11. I could spend 30 minutes discussing the merits of a flat white, no problem. I was probably in denial of all that was happening at home and how it changed America forever. But then again, I was 20, scared, and a little selfish. It was simultaneously the best and worst time to be on my own in another world.
I’ve returned to Australia four times since I left in December 2001. Now, during yet another global crisis, I find myself thinking about the country again. I dream about it, literally. My subconscious seems to want to flee there—whether to hide out, to seek solace, or to just unwind. I’m downloading breezy music by Ocean Alley, a band from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, as I write about recreating a day in Sydney. Wines from the Yarra Valley near Melbourne arrive at my doorstep.
Like that first visit all those years ago, my Australian “happy place” is where I find adventure, gobsmacking natural beauty, freedom. An ocean breeze that’s foreign and familiar. It’s still both a proverbial security blanket and a reminder that things will improve, no matter how bad they seem right now. Australia will always be my safe haven.
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