Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Canberra: Not as Boring as You Think

In preparation for our trip to Canberra, I instructed my mom to read Bill Bryson's chapter on Australia's notoriously boring national capital in In a Sunburned Country. She then passed it on to Tom and we all had a laugh over Bryson's cynical wit, but prepared ourselves for the worst: colder weather and getting lost.

Bryson goes on at length about how Canberra was planned; it was modeled after Washington DC with roads that loop and vantage points that lead the eye from one monument to the next. Had Canberra grown and thrived as it was meant to, such a layout would have made sense, but instead the city is too spread out for its own good and is marked by impractical empty spaces. Bryson joked that locals drive around in circles wondering, 'where the f$%k is my house?'

Mom found this particularly funny and we'd repeat to each other, 'where the f#$k is my hotel?' and giggle throughout the three hour drive from Sydney. We eventually located it without much trouble at all and found the city to be pleasant, but eerily empty. Parliament had just broken up apparently and you could feel the absence of energy.

Still, we enjoyed an informative tour of Parliament House, a modern building consisting of 4,500 rooms that only opened in 1988. We were dumbstruck by the number of people (four) milling around the outside of Australia's capitol building on a bright Saturday morning. Mom grew concerned for the Girls' Choir from Seattle who we learned were to perform in the foyer at 10:30. 'The girls came all this way and there's no one here to see them.' We stuck around though, clapped politely and watched as a small crowd came from out of the woodwork to watch.

The true purpose of our visit was to see Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 at the National Portrait Gallery and it was well worth the trip. Of course I was fascinated by the Annie Liebowitz shots of recent Hollywood A-listers, but also enjoyed the older portraits of authors I was familiar with, but of whom I had never seen photographs: Hemingway, Arthur Miller, Chaplin without makeup, etc.

We also stopped by the Australian War Memorial, a mega complex consisting of sculptures, lawns, museums with full-sized planes and more. Though war memorials aren't my favorite type of attraction, we could have spent the entire day there looking at different things. The highlight was the beautiful and very Australian mosaics, stained glass and ceiling in the Hall of Memory.

When dinner time rolled around and we began hunting for restaurants, we knew we were in the same city that Bill Bryson loved to loathe. He swore there wasn't a restaurant within miles of his hotel (The Rex) so he helplessly ate and drank there every night of his stay. We found a number of decent looking restaurants, but all of them, despite seemingly empty tables, were "booked." With hangic (hunger + anger + panic) quickly setting in, we opted for the local club/RSL.

For those unfamiliar with the Australian club/RSL (Returned and Services Leauge, as in veterans) scene, clubs are "members-only" restaurants and bars known for basic, unpretentious meals and plenty of beer at reasonable prices. Non-members are welcome to patronize clubs for a modest fee ($1 per person, in our case).

With an out of character "when in Rome..." attitude, I ordered a steak. This was a mistake as it was way overcooked, but everyone else seemed to enjoy their food. Mom's willingness to fit into the club scene served her well as she won $40 at the pokie machines before dinner.

The next day, we packed up our things and departed early; Sydney and the Big Merino in Goulburn beckoned. We enjoyed our one day in Canberra, but I can't say that I'm desperate to go back.

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