One of my most admired Australian institutions is Sydney-based, car rental company, Bayswater. It’s a no-nonsense business that lives up to its promise of providing a hassle-free service to its customers. It is to car rentals what McDonalds is to fast foods. It takes less than a minute to complete a booking on the company’s web site and less than five minutes from the time you arrive at their depot in the city to the time you drive out in your hired vehicle.
Naturally this kind of speedy service comes with a few snags. You only have the choice of one make of car – a Toyota – and colour selection is confined to white. Finally you are obliged to drive around with yellow stickers on the doors containing a cryptic message “no birds…..”. I still haven’t figured out its meaning, but as you’ll read it is one of many issues in Australia that has me groping for answers.
It’s one thing having the convenience of a car in Sydney; it’s something else knowing where to park it. Mounting a pavement or stealing a curb is not something you want to try in a society that always plays by the rules.
The problem is that Australians are determined to preserve their heritage. As a consequence new building or re-development in Sydney’s fashionable but pricey eastern suburbs has been tightly controlled within the limits of its slender boundaries. Most of the existing properties were built at a time when motorcars were an extravagant luxury. No one imagined back then that, one-day, families would afford two or three vehicles. Few houses were designed to accommodate even one car, let alone the colossal SUVs that most moms now use to schlep the kids to swimming lessons.
I accept that trying to find parking in many of Sydney’s popular suburbs is a test of one’s endurance but when you are fortunate enough to find a gap you need the sharp mind of a Mensa affiliate to interpret a compendium of incomprehensible rules highlighted on signs at the side of the road. A parking spot can change its nature by the hour, from a zone reserved for loading to a bay confined for permit holders only. While in most countries you often stumble upon tourists brooding over street maps, in Sydney you constantly encounter outsiders staring vacantly on pavements trying to decipher these mysterious hieroglyphics.
If determining where to park is a dilemma, knowing where to dispose your litter is an even more vexing challenge. In Johannesburg you’re lucky to find anything that resembles a refuse can on our streets, but walking home from Bondi Beach holding a nectarine pip I was confronted with a choice of 6 different plastic bins, each with a distinctive coloured lid. Red was for household waste, green was for garden refuse and the yellows and blues were for various kinds of recyclables like paper, cardboard, tin, aluminium, plastic and glass.
As I mentioned, Aussies take the law seriously. A short while ago, my youngest brother, an Australian citizen, was walking his Dachshund in a park close to his home when he noticed a warden gesticulating frantically. Aware that his dog was not on a leash, he picked up the animal and sprinted for shelter. The next day he received a knock on the door. It was a policewoman acting on a complaint lodged by the park keeper.
So not wishing to offend my hosts by depositing my nectarine pip in the wrong bin – was it garden waste, recyclable, or just plain rubbish? – I did what most Johannesburgers would have done. I waited until there was no one around and tossed it into someone’s garden.
The stress of always doing the right thing can give one a severe headache that only a good cup of coffee can cure. But the good old days of walking into a café and ordering a cup of brewed coffee are long past. Nowadays it is more traumatic than selecting a wine at a snobbish restaurant. Your “sommelier” asks whether you want Brazilian, Colombian, Costa Rican or Ethiopian beans? And whether you want a cappuccino (straight or decaf), an espresso (single or double), a macchiato, a latte or an Americano?
It has taken me years to refine my choices, but in Australia I have thrown in the towel all together. Don’t get me wrong. Australians make the best coffee in the world by a long stretch. If you’re still wired at 3am, it’s not jetlag, it’s that their coffee has more potency than Mike Tyson’s right hook. But when a waiter asks whether I want a flat white, a short black or a long black, I stare blankly and reply, “Please bring me a Coke.”
This article was first published in The Times (South Africa) on 20 March 2012