imagesSydJanuary 2015

To relax or not to relax, that’s the question.

Amsterdammer becomes Sydneysider.

‘Please come to Sydney. Come for two months!’ my friend D said on the phone. My initial idea was to stay a fortnight, but flying to the other side of the world for a short holiday would be rather silly indeed. The deal was closed at five weeks. This way I could support my friend who is going through rough times and on the side I would work on my new novel. D and I know each other from Amsterdam where she’d lived for 15 years before moving back to her home town. The other Sydneysider I knew in Amsterdam was late Melinda (may she rest in peace), my marketing boss at Heineken International. Through these Sydney ladies I got an impression of this city’s style and a very enjoyable one it is. Their cheeky, sarcastic sense of humour, their demand for great wine and food, the love for parties and not to forget their ability to cook awesome meals. Always a joy to be with them. Both our nationalities are known for our chilled attitude in life. Some foreigners even think that the whole of Amsterdam smokes pot for breakfast. Believe me, we don’t. In fact a very small percentage does that: tourists from Italy and…Australia.

D loves everything about Amsterdam. Melinda on the other hand used every opportunity, in her witty complaining way, to let us Dutchies know how unworldly we were and how much was lacking in the provincial town of Amsterdam. One of the first things I encountered in Sydney was something we in Amsterdam indeed do not have: large cockroaches. With wings. D and I were having dinner in her kitchen and suddenly I saw a God-given creature crawling on the wall. It was a big motherfucker. Two by two meters, the least. Fight-flight-freeze!? My instinct ordered me to do the latter. On top of a chair. The moment the cockroach noticed us he chose flight. D did something that was close to fight, with a thong in her hand and her vocal cords producing a lot of treble. She murdered and I was grateful. That night I barely slept, despite the fact that she’d kindly placed a towel on the threshold of my bedroom door. In my panic I saw the siblings of the murdered cocky flying through every possible hole to haunt us, especially me. I saw them placing their eggs in my nostrils and the bunch of new-borns would suffocate me instantly. My imagination took over completely. ‘Gregor,’ I said to myself, ‘think of him and you’ll be fine.’ Kafka’s wonderful story, of the man who turned into a repulsive bug overnight, should bring some peace of mind. The bug in that story had a soft soul and it made him sad to notice how the human world was treating him. After reading that I’d sworn to always see the goodness in every scary insect. But the Methamorphosis story couldn’t calm me down that night.

Here I was in the country that is known for its relaxed vibe and I was completely stressed out. To calm my upset nerves I started to ponder; this must be the underlying reason for the notorious Australian drinking culture. They must have been just as scared from the moment they set foot on this barren soil. Exhausted from their boat trip, nothing to eat and then these insects fly around your head. You can grab some and eat them or head for the bottle. I’d say an easy choice. The next day the rest of the family crawled over the walls. While I (in normal life a tall, fearless, sporty lady) remained in my seat in freeze mode D went after them as an accomplished hitter. The cockies were fast, but my brave friend got them all. It was a massacre without blood. I sat up straight that night, eyes wide open, sweating and praying that daylight would kick in soon. The only solution was to buy the complete range of Mortein and Raid products. But D said she did not like killing animals, not with a thong, nor with chemicals. She was in the process of detoxing her body to fight her illness. Creating a chemical mess by spraying the house clearly didn’t have her preference. ‘Take a Valium, woman,’ she advised. That was a ridiculous suggestion, I wasn’t going to take chemical stuff because of stress. We had to break the stalemate. I threw in argument after argument and finally we bought a spray. Odourless, to fool ourselves. At 8 pm the cockroach family decided to go on a protest march against all the killing of these past days. As I had pushed for using a spray I now had to be (wo)man enough to use it. While my heart was yearning for a nice, tough man, that stout-hearted, gentle, witty, intelligent Australian to solve this, I was unlocking the spray and went for the kill. Again in complete silence but this time in a pitiless fight mode. ‘It’s enough, Linda, it’s enough! He is dying, he is on his back already,’ D yelled standing behind me, as I could not control myself with my weapon. More and more came out of their hiding place. ‘We want to live and eat your food!’ was written on their little banners. We didn’t pay attention and killed them all, turning the place into a chemical factory. I poured our wine glasses to the rim once more. No Valium needed.

The next day we ‘bombed’ her apartment with more spray cans. To be able to write in solitude on my new novel  I’d booked myself an Airbnb, in Potts Point, in the centre of Sydney. ‘Please know that I am  terrified, and that’s putting it mildly,’ I text the house owner. ‘Better get used to them, dear. Or keep the windows closed at night and use a fan.’ So there I was, writing this article in a beautiful apartment, with a fan next to me, closed windows at night in the middle of summer and a full spray can near at hand. Wanting so badly to behave like a relaxed Australian local, but when looking in the mirror all I saw was a pathetically fearful redhead tourist who avoids the hot blazing sun and has blisters on the soles of her feet from walking on thongs. Gosh…

And why this fear for somebody who is not at all afraid of mice and spiders? Probably because spiders create something beautiful, their dewed webs in the early morning are a feast for the eyes. A mouse can be looked in the eye and many children have it as a pet, so knowing you can stroke them takes away my fear. When seen as pests the cats take care of them. In the middle of the night a loud snap makes you realize they are working their jaws through the mouse skull. All is taken care off.

Don’t get me wrong, I do like Sydney, I love its worldly and easy going vibe. The sound of the crows is by far the best ever heard, the wondrous ibis birds are gorgeous. The vast variety of great neighbourhoods with wonderful restaurants and bars. Sydney kids racing skilfully with their scooters on the pavement. And last but not least I take great pleasure in looking at these Sydneysiders, as they are a healthy and good looking lot. But the constant scanning of walls and floors didn’t make it a relaxed time. It’s the season, yes, yes, I know. So better not be in Sydney while hot temperatures dominate the place but be back when it’s cold and drizzling. But…. insect free.

Maybe, in the name of tourism the mayor can start a campaign for a cockroach free Sydney. But if she is unable, or unwilling, to do so then there is nothing else to do but take the words of an Australian immunologist, noted over 50 years ago, into account: ‘At a biological level encounters between ‘self’ and ‘other’ are often fiddle-faddle or harmless. If there would be a norm in such encounters, then that’s truce rather than war. Rather tolerance than destruction.’ In these times of violence and terror this applies to much more than just a repulsive bug.

Linda Fontijn (Amsterdam, Holland) author of (Dutch) novels, short stories, columns, children’s books and interim manager in the communication/design industry.