It was recently my 40th birthday, and I chose to mark the milestone by spending a week on vacation in Australia, with my three young children. We began our holiday in Sydney and then we spent a few days at a beach-house north of Sydney, on the New South Wales coast.
During the course of this short week, I received the best birthday present imaginable: seven days where the clock seemed to slow, then stop, and then wind backwards, to a time long past when my world seemed a simpler, far less complicated place.
To set the scene, though, a nudge from providence was needed. Specifically, on arrival in Australia my temperamental Blackberry decided to erase itself, and I was suddenly disconnected from the world at large. At first, I suffered surprisingly strong withdrawal symptoms but after two days I stopped noticing, and a couple of days later I was loving life without emails. As fate would have it, the beach-house was in an area with no mobile phone reception, so my break from the information age expanded to include all phone calls and text messages as well. I found myself to be secretly welcoming of a situation that would ordinarily have induced in me a mild cardiac arrest.
On the first day of the holiday I organised a brunch and unofficial birthday party with my youngest brother, who lives in Sydney, and a group of old friends. I was caught completely off-guard when my other brother, who today lives in Los Angeles, showed up as a birthday surprise. This was the first time all three of “the boys” have been in the same place for almost two years, and certainly the first time we have all been together in Sydney, where we grew up, in over a decade.
There is something special – almost magical – about spending time with family and friends in a familiar place, particularly if you are like me and large chunks your life are devoted to travelling and living out of a suitcase.
We spent a lazy Sunday morning and well into the afternoon around a large table in a cafe at Centennial Park. We talked and caught up, we noshed and drank coffee, and we relived shared memories formed over a lifetime. The adults present were comfortably outnumbered by our collective offspring, who oblivious to the magic of the moment were enjoying a day in the summer sunshine: splashing in a nearby fountain, playing hide and seek in the park, climbing on trees. The girls held hands and sang schoolyard rhymes; the boys kicked a soccer ball; they all joined in for an impromptu game of baseball.
And as the afternoon wore on, I literally felt time slow down around me; with each moment I felt the weight of the present lift off my shoulders, and as we all laughed and smiled together I somehow felt more and more grounded, like I was being reconnected to my roots.
Under cover of showing off my “home town” to the children, I spent the next few days revelling in unashamed nostalgia. My brothers and I took the kids on a picture book tour of Sydney. We walked through the Rocks, the place at which European settlers first landed in Australia, and where modern Sydney began. We strolled under, and drove over, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. At the request of my tunnel-obsessed son we drove back and forth through the tunnel beneath Sydney Harbour (twice!), we stopped to view Sydney from various vantage points around the magnificent harbour foreshore, and of course we walked around the famous Sydney Opera House.
But the picture book tour of Sydney had a much more personal edge to it for me, and subtly, almost imperceptibly, I was carried back to when I was a teenager, enjoying long summer holidays on Sydney’s many beaches.
We took the kids on a ferry, across Sydney Harbour to Watson’s Bay, where we had morning tea at the cafe adjacent to the Watson’s Bay sea-baths. It was the same cafe that my brothers and I used to visit on sunny afternoons, where we would eat home-made fudge before taking an early evening dip in the sea.
We showed the children the suburban house we had grown up in, perched on the cliff-top at Diamond Bay, looking out over the Pacific Ocean. Where we had once scrambled over them unobstructed, the cliffs now have paved walkways and security fence. The seedlings we had planted as school projects in the garden of our house were now, more than twenty-five years later, mature towering trees.
Bondi Beach is, for most visitors to Sydney, a must-see tourist icon, but for my brothers and I it is a place steeped in memories, where we spent almost every day of our summer high-school holidays – swimming, rollerblading, and sun-baking. Now, as then, we joined the throngs of sun-seekers on the scorched sand, we swam in the warm water, and we ate oil-drenched fish and chips for lunch on the “Jerusalem Steps” leading down to the beach – so called (at least to us) because when we were younger, the local Jewish kids and Bondi’s hordes of Israeli backpackers tended to congregate there.
I had planned an extensive and organised schedule of activities for my week with the kids: tours to go on, theme parks to visit, sights to see. This list very quickly found its way into the garbage bin – the kids weren’t interested, and I was becoming increasingly intoxicated by the throw-back to my teenage years and the slower pace this was promoting.
Instead of following maps and itineraries, I found myself doing simple things with the children and my brothers, and taking enormous pleasure from doing them. We went for walks and played in parks. We ate spaghetti bolognaise at Bill and Toni’s – the “kitchen away from home” that had sustained me for five years through my university studies. Each day I would unpack some crayons and paper I had brought with me, and the children and I would draw pictures together. On one evening, we had an old-fashioned sausage sizzle dinner at my brother’s apartment. The children passed that evening without a television, computer or game machine in sight, and instead we told stories and played charades. Both my brothers are talented musicians, and as they jammed together on their guitars, the children danced and sang along.
It was in this reminiscent, semi-dreamlike state of mind that I drove ninety minutes up the New South Wales coast to the small beachfront hamlet of Killcare, to spend three days with the kids at a beach-house I had rented there. We were joined for these few days by Linda, the children’s mother and from whom I am recently separated. We wanted our young children to see that notwithstanding our being separated, we could still spend time together with them in a positive way. And despite our recent separation, it felt right that Linda and the children were who I should be with on this milestone occassion in my life.
The beach-house is tucked away at the end of a cul-de-sac facing right onto the Killcare beach, the sand less than five steps away from the front gate. It is adjacent to the Killcare Surf Life Saving Club. Bronzed, sun-bleached lifeguards were on parade, and a beach-front cafe offered an array of Australian holiday staples: meat pies, burgers, hot chips, thick-shakes and paddle-pop ice-creams.
From the timber floored veranda of the beach-house we enjoyed sweeping vistas of the curved yellow-sand beach, stretching for miles between two rocky headlands, frothy waves breaking on the shore. In the middle distance we could see a tribe of wetsuit clad surfers bobbing in the sea, frantically trying to catch the next big one. The sky above was big and blue and almost entirely cloudless for the duration of our stay.
It would be hard to imagine a more perfect setting for a classic Australian beach getaway and after settling into the beach-house, all my remaining sense of time and place simply melted away. The three short days spent there seemed like weeks. Days consisted of little more than playing on the beach with the kids, swimming in the sea, and hunting for shells and crabs in the tidal rock pools. I felt like I was cocooned in a time-warped bubble, drifting surreally somewhere between the past and the present.
In the last few days many people have asked me: “so, what did you do on your 40th birthday?” The answer: I went to the beach. I enjoyed a simple day filled with simple things.
On the morning of my birthday itself, I found myself alone for a few minutes on the beach, while the children played with Linda in the surf. I sat there peacefully, enjoying the quiet and solitude, breathing in the salty air and wriggling my toes in the crunchy sand. I was sucking on a deliciously cold lemon icy-pole. The children were in view, running away from the waves as they crashed onto the shore, squealing with delight. The air was warm, a light breeze was blowing, and the sun beat down on my back. I sat facing the infinite ocean, powerful yet healing and calming at the same time. I could not have conjured up a more idyllic scene, and in that moment, the world to me seemed perfect in every way.
Life is made up of these small moments, and sometimes, they can be sublime. For my birthday Linda, my children, my brothers and all those close to me gave me the opportunity to experience a whole week of such moments. A priceless gift and I thank you all.