I saw “Avatar” in Sydney, Australia, at this time last year, and when those golden eyes snapped open at the end, it took me a moment to remember where I was — not just because I’d been caught up in the movie, but because I’d already been disoriented by this strange but lovely city.
At first, Sydney looked and felt familiar — like Los Angeles, I thought, only fresher and not so frenetic. Or a very warm London, say, but with palm trees.
“Antipodean,” an American friend suggested. Yes, that word would cover it — something familiar at the opposite end of the earth. But not all that familiar.
The longer I stayed, the stranger it felt. It seemed too good to be true.
A normal reaction, apparently: Another American resident who loves the city said Sydney sometimes reminds him of a kindly zoo in a science-fiction movie — one of those recreated environments for earthlings.
It’s as if well-meaning aliens have taken pains to make it as home-like as possible, he says, and they’ve gotten almost everything right, but when you look closely, the details give it away.
Take the wildlife. Listen when the birds sing in the morning, he suggested: “They sound like no creatures you’ve ever heard.”
I didn’t have to wait that long. We had just strolled across the campus of the University of Sydney, whose centerpiece is an elegant stone quadrangle of Victorian buildings around a quadrangle of perfect green grass — a scene as quintessentially English as anything at Oxford or Cambridge.
Overhead, flocks of pretty white birds were cruising. I took them for seagulls or pigeons until they suddenly rampaged into a tree beside us, shrieking, squawking, screaming, so noisy and peculiar that I flinched.
“See what I mean?” my companion said mildly.
The shrieking birds turned out to be parrots — a kind of cockatoo, I was told — birds you’d never see in Minnesota outside of an exotic pet shop.
Other local creatures made me do my own shrieking, as in “What the hell are THOSE?”
It was a few days later, and we were downtown, in Sydney’s Hyde Park. Against a gleaming backdrop of skyscrapers, Sydney-siders strolled under shade trees and around a magnificent memorial fountain, oblivious to what had unnerved me:
Three big-bodied white birds the size of cats, with black stilt legs and long black bills like heavy-duty tweezers.
Birds I’d seen before, as it turned out, but had never seen alive, let alone pecking at spilled popcorn on some city sidewalk.
“Ibis,” my companion said calmly.
“But the ancient Egyptians mummified those!’
“Yes,” he said. “They’re all over here.”
At least the ibis don’t hurt you. Other Aussie things can.
In what may be one of the best environments in civilization — clear air, lots of sun, so much harbor frontage that local maps look like blue lace — there was enough strange fauna around to keep me permanently on guard.
Giant hidden toads croaked every evening from those tidy Victorian gardens, an uproar that sounded like cicadas on steroids.
Signs on office bulletin boards warned about deadly spiders, including one considered the most dangerous in the world.
“This place also has the most dangerous snake in the world and the most dangerous bird in the world,” my American friend added cheerfully.
And then there were the bats. One fine evening, I was down at The Rocks, the place where Sydney’s first settlers — a shipload of British convicts and their guards — stepped ashore in 1788.
It’s Australia’s version of Plymouth Rock, and it’s not only historic, it’s beautifully restored — with a great view of the famous opera house — and its shops, restaurants and scenery are constant draws for locals and tourists alike.
Evening came on while I was strolling around The Rocks with flocks of visitors off cruise ships and local folks of all ages. As the sun set, the jagged white profile of the opera house began to glow like pearl, and the sky turned soft shades of pink — pink, with these really big birds flitting around…
No, not birds — of course not birds. Birds would be too normal. The pterodactlylian creatures were flying foxes — fruit-eating bats that locals pay no more attention to than we would pigeons.
Except these guys have six-foot wingspans, making them bigger than bald eagles, so to me any one of them looked like the Bat Signal over Gotham.
But I’d try to get used to them too — and those parrots, toads and ibis — if I were lucky enough to live in Sydney.
Adjectives are usually a bad idea, but I have kept reaching for them ever since I left, trying to sum up this city at the other end of the earth. Many fit, but none have been good enough by themselves:
Vivacious? Yes — I’ve never felt so much positive energy in a city before.
Bright? Blinding, in fact — a combination of intense sunlight and no smog.
Busy? Even on a Saturday, when many downtowns in U.S. cities are all but empty, downtown Sydney looked as if it were a giant party.
Efficient? That too. There’s a gleaming downtown monorail and a good bus system — so good that I found there was no point in rushing to catch a bus. All I had to do was look up the street, and there’d be another one on its way.
And clean? There must be bad parts of Sydney, since all big cities have them, and greater Sydney has 4.5 million people. But in a busy week of sight-seeing, I never saw one.
It’s hard to admit this, but Sydney managed to edge out Paris as the top seed on my favorite-city list. No place is perfect — I’m duty-bound as a travel writer to say that –but Sydney came close, and its especially nice to think about in this winter of monster storms here at home.
Never mind the ibis and the bats. For a place like Sydney, I’d put up with pterodactyls.