Betwixt

Shepparton - Bondi Beach, 27th - 29th December


27th December

Bertie has clearly decided today that we’re overdoing it with the tourist experiences. Or that our luck has simply run out. Or just thinks we aren’t paying him enough attention as we don’t sleep or cook around him with all these bungalows and AirBnBs. I’m sure you know that in the dramaturgy theories if a gun is hanging on the wall in the first act, then by the third one it should go … So here, all of the inserts about the cooling liquid will build-up to the culmination of the play. I warned you!


We leave Shepparton, oblivious, with hope to go around Canberra today. Some of us are even hoping for an early arrival in Sydney. About an hour and a half later, on a slight slope, the air in the car becomes hot and humid. Just as we’re about to change the settings of the air-conditioning, Nic sees one of the least desired indicators on the dashboard. The temperature of the engine is going up. We pull over immediately to avoid serious consequences and to let Bertie cool down.


I am not sure why but we are all relatively calm. We’re having car troubles on some random road in Australia. We’re having car trouble two days after Christmas. The Australians don’t like working during normal days let alone these forgotten days between Christmas and New Years. We’re having car troubles - two of us barely 25 years old and the other two having been in Australia for less than ten days. But maybe that’s exactly why we’re calm. They are hopeful that we know who to call. While we are expecting they will have enough experience to act in the right way immediately.


In the next ten minutes, as we’re all leaning on the guardrail and waiting, a few cars pass by. I don’t say “many” because on the Australian roads “a few” mean an “endless procession”. The first driver, without much deliberation, stops behind us and comes out to check if they can help in some way. After that, every car pulls over. Even though they can see someone is already assisting us, they want to ensure we have everything we need.


We add water into the tank that had been fully used up by the engine and set off again. We are only a few kilometres away from a town called Beechworth and our temporary companions will follow us to it. But not even ten minutes later, the thermometer starts creeping up again. This time we call road recovery. We check what their conditions are but still decide that we will be okay on our own, at least to this town. Following dad’s experience, we turn up the heating to the maximum, take down the windows and drive off. We are supposed to be pulling the heat from the engine. And who cares that it is already hot inside the car and we will suffocate alive - even with the windows down.


We stop by the first car garage which, of course, is closed. Why would it be working today? They even have no intentions of opening until the sixth of January. Dad and Nic open up the bonet and start looking and poking around in deep thought while mum and I go to circle the neighbourhood. Maybe we could find someone to help. On the opposite pavement, a man in working gear is locking up his gate. I ask if he maybe knows somebody from the garage or even another place in the area that can help us today. He shrugs his shoulders but is happy to come and see if he can help somehow. He’s an engineer. Okay then.


Mum and I hide under the only shade available while the men, under the supervision of the GoPro continue to look smartly. A hose appears from somewhere next to Bertie and they start pushing water through him. Why, where, how and all other questions, you can keep to yourselves. I don’t know the answers. About half an hour passes before the tribunal announces it is a problem with the thermostat. Great, what are we doing then?


Nic calls road recovery again. Whatever their conditions are, they will have to take us to the first garage, even if it is 400 kilometres away in Canberra. And let’s hope it is there because our booking for tonight is non-refundable. “A mechanic will be with you within the hour”, they tell us from the call centre. We’ll wait then.


I feel like we’re in a Western. The four of us sat in the shade of some miniature shelter. Surrounded by dust and desolation. And the heat starts to create a haze in front of us. Other than chewing on a desert weed stalk, we have nothing else to do. Will someone pull a gun out of somewhere?


We are managing with the hope that “within the hour” will be more like 30-40 minutes. But even ten minutes after the full hour, there is no sign of anyone coming to save us. Nic calls the call centre again. “Oh, there’ll be someone with you in an hour”. What? Another hour??? Do you understand where we are and how much precious time we’re losing? Sorry, but no, we can’t stay here any longer. We get back in Bertie and drive to the centre. There are no garages open anyway, at least there are restaurants with air-con and food.


Beechworth is like every other town in the Nothing of Australia - small with a few shops on the main street and one or two pubs. We find our place in one of the restaurants and they save us with wonderful food and cold beer. We spend the time talking about Bertie, the many kilometres we’ve travelled since Adelaide and those to come towards Sydney. We’re thinking that it’s not impossible for us to be the first Bulgarians to have ever stopped here. What an odd thought … And so on for an hour and a half. So far no one has appeared to help us.


Well, now we’ve had enough. It has already passed five in the afternoon. There is a four-hour drive to Canberra in a healthy car. Tomorrow is a Saturday betwixt the Christmas vacation. If we don’t get there this evening, we are worried what the next few days could look like for us. Nic calls again but this time we’ve convinced him to be firmer and at least a bit angry by the lack of communication. He gathers up all the inherent negativity and explains to the lady on the phone that we can’t keep waiting around like crazy people. Will someone help or should we be finding our own solution somehow?


Another half an hour passes and our coffees have just arrived when the mechanic finally calls. Naturally, they haven’t informed him that we are no longer in the closed garage so Nic instructs him on where to find us in the centre. The men go to the car and come back in less than ten minutes. Bertie, of course, decided to shy away in front of the new person and didn’t show his problems at all. The technician can’t find anything wrong with him so he can’t lift him onto the platform and take him to Canberra. He thinks we shouldn’t have any issues getting there on our own. Easier said than done. It is already six pm and we need to drive 400 kilometres with the heating on max and the windows down.


This time I sit behind the wheel and Bertie makes no trouble. For the first hour and a half. Just as I’m about to pass a rest area I hear “Stop! Stop!” Dad noticed that the arrow is moving up again. Indicator, break and I pull over. We take our crisps from the back and sit down waiting for the engine to cool down yet again and refill the water in the tank. We decide that from now on we won’t risk it and we’ll stop every hour for a short break. And so we proceed - we stop three more times at working and closed fuel stations.


Nearing the federal capital, through our fully open windows, a strong smoke smell starts to come through. According to the great internet, the bushfire is about 300 kilometres away and only the smoke is getting to us. Can you imagine something like this? It would be like London smelling a fire from Leeds. We finally manage to get to our cabin after midnight. Fortunately, the check-in is independent. I manage to convince the family not to air out the bungalow as stuffy as it is. I think we’ve breathed enough smoke for one day.


We are all exhausted. Some of us skip dinner, others just snack on whatever can be easily found. Tomorrow won’t be an easy day. But at the end of the day, we’re here - whole and in good health, even if our tourist plans have been postponed slightly.


28th December

Nic gets up at seven am and starts ringing through the numbers while we’re all still in bed. As we expected, finding a working garage on the Saturday after Christmas is an especially difficult task. Finally, someone picks up the phone and Nic is out as quickly as possible so they can do the work before they close at lunch.


In the meantime, and without any idea how today will go down, the three of us try to put together some sort of plan of action. Or more precisely, two or three plans according to the different uncertainties around Bertie. Mum is convinced, after her independent research that there isn’t much to be seen here and has no desire to stay a second night in this bungalow. She wants to set off for Sydney as soon as we can. But having in mind we haven’t yet started seeing the capital and that we have no idea what will happen today, dad and I aren’t convinced we will be able to leave today.


Nic manages quicker than expected in the garage. The problem really was with the thermostat. Dad was right. But half the day has already passed and the four of us decide to stick to the initial plan - we will stay in Canberra tonight. We leave the mess in our three-room bungalow, pick up our day bags and leave.


Canberra! I should turn your attention again to the fact that the stress in the name is on the first A. You probably remember that in Adelaide we talked about planned cities and I warned you we will come back to the topic when we arrive in the capital. Well, we’re here. After years of disputes between Melbourne and Sydney over which is the greatest and should be the capital of Australia, the parliament made a decision in the fashion of a beloved Bulgarian saying: “two are fighting, the third one wins”. The only problem was that at the beginning of the 20th century there wasn’t a third one yet. It needed to still be built.


They chose an empty territory in the wilderness. Kicked out the kangaroos and emus that lived there and announced a competition for a completely new urban development. They decided to pay some respect to the Aboriginal population of the continent (and probably the banished tribe) and called it in Aboriginal - Canberra meaning “a meeting place”. Suitable, if you ask me. Other than meetings what else can be expected from a city without history, culture and furthermore, without an ocean. What Australian is crazy enough to separate from the ocean?


And so, under the supervision of architect Walter Griffin, in 1913 all federal institutions were moved from Melbourne to Canberra. In Melbourne, they can stick to local state affairs. Here, they will decide the issues of the entire nation, the full collection of federal entities.


But let’s get back to the topic of architecture in this “faux” city. You don’t think that we can miss it with two architects among us. Canberra is one of the leading examples of planned urbanism and is considered one of the few successful examples. Brazilia, for example, is leading in the opposite sense - things didn’t quite work out the. They say the main problems were due to the inhuman spaces - huge buildings, vast (but necessary) distance between them, endless and straight boulevards. A city not meant for living but for ... I don’t know what for. Parades? Let’s see how different Canberra is.


We had a sneak peak into the “perfect” city last night. On the smoky boulevards, we passed the capital’s war memorial. No … war palace. Located over 14 hectares. I know that the Great Ocean Road is meant to be the biggest war memorial in the world, but maybe this one is a close second. And from it stems a huge road - hugely long and hugely wide. In a straight line it connects the eye with the parliamentary hill, only the Molonglo river separates them. It reminds me of the space around the obelisk in Washington.


We park slightly out of the centre but close to the Parliament House. A decision we will later regret because of the distances here. When we get on the hill we open the map. We are facing away from the main entrance of the building and looking straight ahead towards the war palace and two lines in perfect symmetry connect this point with the two bridges that cross the river. On the map, this shore of the river looks like a keyhole - a perfect section of a circle and an isosceles acute-angled triangle.


The Parliament House building is modern and memorable. Two symmetric wings spread out on the sides of the hill; a pyramid structure holds high the Australian flag; a dual facade leads us to the entrance under the state coat of arms, made out of wire here - a kangaroo and an emu holding a shield under a star. The access to the foyer and some of the roms is free in exchange for a quick scan through the metal detectors.


We walk in and are left speechless. How could you comment on something like this? How can you even assimilate it? There’s nothing to hide - the first word that comes to mind about the interiors is “ugly”. After two months of deliberations on the topic (he probably dreamt about it multiple times), this is what dad shared in a radio interview and I don’t know if I can put it any better:


“The National Parliament House is located in a wonderful place. From the outside, it looked great to me. I was impressed until we walked in. Inside, I was simply horrified. This is a bad assortment of styles, of cultures, of materials, of colours … The ceiling looks like a Japanese paper house; the marble floors are as if in Italy; there are over-the-top railings - something like art-deco; the furniture is all sorts - there are Victorian ones and many others.


Our first reaction was that the Italian architect literally failed. But actually, I now think that can’t be possible. This architect was chosen by an international competition and, as we can see everything that is currently done in Australia, we realise that these people know exactly what they are ordering, who they are asking to do it - they know what they want. I think that the architect, just like I felt, couldn’t find a different way to express this artistic chaos that is Australia.” Yes, when a country doesn’t have its own history, culture or cuisine, they can't have their own architectural style either. Like everything else, it is just a collection of borrowings from the foreign, from the imported.


The rest of the halls and corridors aren’t particularly unique. Endless carpets, wood facings, perfect joints and politicians’ portraits. We also reach the two session halls - their colours can easily stay in our memory. A vivid pink-maroon for the Senate and a green-turquoise for the Representatives. There’s almost a complete symmetry between the two rooms. It is too bad that one of them has to house more politicians than the other. Otherwise, they would have been perfect copies of each other. For some reason, I was really interested to see these rooms. Perhaps because I have never been in a parliamentary building before - not in Sofia, not in London, Budapest or anywhere else.


We make the wise decision to look for lunch at the canteen here. The prices turn out to be much better than what we usually find in Australia. After all, the poor politicians need to be able to afford lunch. They probably don’t pay them enough for such passing expenses. And not only is it cheap for them it is also delicious. We have nothing to complain about.


After a quick visit to the gift shop we are ready to return back into the hot summer day. And we walk on the long path down to the Old Parliament House. You are probably thinking that isn’t possible for a 107-year-old city to have two whole parliamentary buildings. And you should be right, but you aren’t. The new one wasn’t open until (notice) 9th May 1988 and it wasn’t in the initial project for the planned city. Only this Victorian building was. Today, it houses the Museum of Australian Democracy though none of us are hiding our lack of desire to visit it. Even dad isn’t interested. But at the same time, none of us would refuse a few minutes in the air-con.


Next to the museum there is a small garden in honour of the House of Representatives. It isn’t anything special but one element gets our attention - a subject that was heavily covered in the actual parliament building too - the women in Australian politics. Up on the hill, there was a huge board with all women currently in the government, and down here this progress is shown with a mosaic fountain. A strip of blue and green tiles marks every step - from the right to vote in 1902 (the first one in the world) until the reach of the highest level in 2010 when Australia elected their first female Prime Minister.


The next nearby building and also one of interest for us is the National Gallery of Australia. In European proportions that would usually mean just crossing a little garden. Well, it’s the same here but the garden is an entire kilometre. Are these “human” distances? For me, this is a clear example of grandiose.


But the gallery is stunning! The collection is one of the richest, diverse and captivating that I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen quite a bit. The exhibit starts with early Aboriginal art in all shapes and reaches the huge name of Pollock, Dali, Mucha, Warhol, Rothko and many more! I have never studied art history so I can’t take you through the rooms with knowledge of the styles that surround us. But that can’t stop me from carrying the feeling; There is something very calm, informal … spacious here. The colour intensity of each canvas, wood or marble - even the whitest ones scream with the diversity of the feelings they carry. Nothing is intruding, everything is right. And what a building! As if the interiors are living with the paintings and the sculptures. As if it is a multifaceted sculpture! The exhibits on the walls change, but you can’t pull your eye off the actual architecture!


The best entertainment, however, is in the installation of Yayoi Kusama: The spirit of the pumpkins descended into the Heavens. I am certain that the 88-year-old Japanese artist put a lot of meaning when she created this room three years ago, but we might just pay more attention to its superficial value. Because it is so great for goofy pictures. A yellow room - walls, floor and ceiling, covered in black dots of different sizes. And in a mirror-covered cube in the centre, there are a few pumpkins with the same pattern on, that you can see by sticking your head inside the mirror room in the yellow room. As they say: “A picture says a thousand words”. So I will let you see our photos instead of trying to make up another 980 words.


We stay in the gallery until the guards start kicking us out. They might be closing but we don’t want to leave. Can’t they just accidentally lock us inside? We slowly soak in again the rooms as we leave and we’re from the last visitors to step back into the vast parks of Canberra.


We walk down to the river to try and rearrange the rest of the day. The original plan includes crossing the river on one of the bridges to get to the odd National Museum of Australia. But a cyclist appears out of nowhere and starts a conversation. He could tell our language is familiar to him so he had to check. Turns out, he is a neighbour - a greek living here. So as a local Canberran, he would not recommend walking into the centre of the city. If the distances so far were huge to us, then that one would take our souls.


And he’s right - even to walk back to the car we need forty minutes. Nic and I will make that sacrifice and go pick it up, while mum and dad rest by the water. And then another four kilometres in the car to the museum. It is, naturally, closed but we can judge from the outside the weirdness of its architecture. Colours, materials, shapes, techniques - none of them matching or completing each other. But if they like it …


From the comfort of Bertie, we do a quick lap of the centre - so we can say we’ve seen it. Mum wasn’t right - there is plenty to see in Canberra, especially if you’ve decided to do it all by walking.


I am not yet sure if I like Canberra as a city. Other than its huge instances and artificial spaces, the capital was empty today. Let’s not forget it is the summer and Christmas break. And as no one wants to live here anyway, they’ve all picked up their surfs and moved to the ocean. Thus, Canberra is left without the only thing that probably makes it a successful example of planned urbanisation - the human presence. If the people are gone what is left?


29th December

Okay, mum! We’re going to Sydney!


Actually no … we’re going to Bondi Beach! The actual Sydney we’ll leave for tomorrow! From Canberra, there are two roads to the capital of New South Wales. A direct one and a panoramic one. We would love to go on the second one but the bushfires are at their largest there. If they can carry smoke all the way to Canberra, maybe it is wise for the roads to be closed. So we set off on the shorter one to also not torment Bertie. Although he is now fixed so he gives no trouble for the “short” segment of 290 kilometres.


We found an AirBnB in the heart of Bondi last minute. It was very fortunate but the price also matches the conditions. It is still too early to check-in, so we’ll park straight at the beach, and once we’re done with the walk, we can go back. The entire neighbourhood is completely different from what we saw four months ago. The then empty baths and beaches are now full of people! There’s no space for a needle to fall. That’s where the people from Canberra are. And no wonder.


As a result of this summer euphoria, finding a parking spot, especially for our beasty takes way too long. We finally find one which turns out to be the perfect one. We walk out onto McKenzy Point. Yes, the spot with my favourite view in Sydney. Bondi on the left and Tamarama on the right! And in the park behind, which four months ago was still being built, there’s a picnic table specially for us and our sandwiches. The wind is merciless but the view is worth any sacrifices.


Our walk continues towards Tamarama and the atmosphere really is nothing like the spring moments we had here. The sky is also different - the light is gone. Because of the bushfires, Sydney is completely covered in smog. There are no blue gaps, not a single white fluffy cloud can be seen. The lighting and the nuances around us are refracted through this beige hood and everything looks dull and tired. And that will follow us in the following few days.


Are we on Mars?! The pictures below are from the first, as well as the following moments here. I think you can guess which ones were taken today, and which we made four months ago.


All of a sudden, I’m taken over by a mix of feelings … mainly the negative kind. Is it because of tiredness; because of the tons of people around; because of the nearing end of our Australian adventures … I don’t know. But it ruins my mood and I am stubbornly trying to pass it onto the others. They’ve come all the way out here to see what Bondi Beach is all about, and I’m trying to ruin it. But, unfortunately, that’s how we are the very-emotional people. Wisely, Nic takes me to the side so we sit on a rock and observe the ocean, the people and the many dogs. Until I pull my thoughts together, mum and dad look around (let’s hope it was enough) just in time to head to the AirBnB.


It is wonderful. It is not even ten minutes away from Bondi’s main street. There are four flats in the building - we are at ground level. All rooms are spacious - we have two separate bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and even a back garden. The interior is simple but in our style and cosy. Oh, how we regret we can only stay here one night. It is especially annoying now, as I write, when I know what is waiting for us the night after.


We decide to split up. Mum and dad will walk back to the beach to have a walk on the panoramic promenade, which enchanted us back in September while Nic and I stay here. In peace and quiet. To do nothing! Okay fine, I’ll put on a wash.


We meet again in two and a half hours at Bondi and sit in the first jazz bar. Mum has successfully dipped into the ocean - they both look happy and pleased. The atmosphere is extremely charged and charging. The waitresses walked around tensely. Live music is coming out of the bar. A cool jazz! We will celebrate!


What are we celebrating? This morning, we both wanted to do a small diversion from the main road. When coming into the megapolis, we passed through Redfern to pass the Beginning. If you remember, the office of Too Easy Travel is here. Here, we picked up Bertie from four months ago, and we have to pass through here to close the loop. We have arrived! We have come back … home! After 24 thousand kilometres! My throat is clenching …


After a few beers, we shop for dinner and move the celebrations to the flat. We feel at home here anyway. The wine continues pouring and we all go to bed dizzy. Only two days of the year left!


These days were a strange mix of experiences. But I guess everyone should go through such extremes to connect the two holidays. Nobody can expect an Australian road trip without car struggles. It is on the list of necessary experiences that everyone should go through. I guess in Canberra, people don’t need more than a day to get to know it and Bondi is the perfect step towards Sydney. We wouldn’t change these days for anything.


Stay Vivid,

Vassya (Boyan, Nic and Svetla)



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