Thursday, May 17, 2012

Joining the Party

Dear Mr. Bogut,

I’ve been meaning to write you for a few days now, but haven’t really had a chance. I just wanted to let you know that I’m in your home country. My brother-in-law and his wife live here and we’re visiting them. For my third emergency contact on our customs information, I listed you. I do know a couple other Australians, but they live in the U.S., so you’re pretty much all I’ve got, Andrew. I’ve been hoping to run into you randomly on the streets, spot you towering above the crowd, but my siblings-in-law live in Sydney and your website says you spend each offseason back home in Melbourne, so I guess it’s not meant to be. I’ve had to settle for looking for Cate Blanchett instead, who apparently runs a theater company not far from the coffee shop where I’m writing this letter, but she’s much shorter than you and it hasn’t been easy. I haven’t seen any kangaroos either. I have, however, heard many people of all ages and ethnicities say “no worries” and “mate.” I’ve also heard the phrase “G’day, mate” spoken unironically, by an old man in an electric wheelchair. I’ve also learned that your countrymen call breakfast “brekkie,” which is cool. I can’t speak to Australia as a whole, or your home city, but Sydney’s pretty dang fantastic. It’s like a great mix of London, San Francisco, Singapore, and Honolulu. It’s like the platonic ideal of a city, actually, plus beautiful beaches and harbors. You Aussies are lucky to have this place. If Melbourne is anything like it—and I hear some people actually prefer Melbourne—I can see why you still come back every year. In fact, after these last two weeks, I’ve concluded empirically that Australia is much cooler than America. 

My preferred mode of traveling is to pretend that I actually live in the place I’m visiting. I don’t like feeling like a tourist, Andrew. That’s the worst. I like walking around and imagining that I actually have a daily existence here. The defining emotion of traveling to a great city, for me, is longing. You know what I’m talking about? For every hour I spend in a great park or pub or street or restaurant or coffee shop or bookstore or beach or bakery—and Sydney has all of these in abundance—I inevitably have the same bittersweet thought: “Imagine if I got to do this all the time…” The magic of visiting Paris or New York or Sydney isn’t the sights—it’s imagining a life in these places. Right? You know what I’m talking about? Maybe for you it’s different. Maybe your longing is just for home, for Australia during the endless months of the season, or for Croatia, your ancestral home. Maybe when people travel all the time for work, they just long to be in their real home, instead of imagining an alternate one. I don’t know. I’m just saying that this is how it is with me. 

And a couple days ago something painful happened that is related to all this, Andrew. Let me set the scene: I was sitting at the same coffee shop where I’m sitting now, at “my” table outside in the little courtyard next to the brick sidestreet, drinking my large Flat White (possibly the greatest coffee in the world) and typing on my computer, trying to convince myself and everyone else that I was a regular. A middle-aged Australian guy who was leaving the coffee shop with his wife stopped by my table, nodded at my laptop, and said, “Excuse me, mate. You look like you know about this sort of thing…Where’s the best big computer shop around here?” It’s not relevant that he thought I looked like a guy who knows about computers, so I’m going to ignore that. I don’t see myself as that guy. (And I’ve had this problem before. One time a drunk lady after a Houston Texans football game told me and my buddy that we looked “like IT guys.” I’m sensitive about this.) The important thing to focus on here is that the Australian dude asked me for advice about where to find something in Sydney. When he asked, I did the same thing I’ve always done on the rare occasions when someone asked me for directions in a city I’m visiting: I waited as long as I could before I finally had to use my dumb American accent to say the most dreaded phrase in my traveling lexicon: “Sorry...I don’t live here.” Before I said this, though, I scrunched up my face in an imitation of thinking, like I was trying to recall a good computer place, even though I wasn’t. I did this so I could at least enjoy, for a few more seconds, the privilege of being treated like a local. But then the charade ended, I revealed myself as a tourist, and he and his wife walked away. Except here’s what I realized as soon as they had turned the corner: I do know where some big computer stores are in Sydney! I know exactly where some big computer stores are. Me and my wife have been pushing a stroller along these streets every day for two weeks. I know them well, or at least as well as someone can know them in two weeks. I could’ve said, “Yeah, mate, there’s a huge, three-story Apple store on George Street in the CBD.” (That’s the Central Business District, but I’d use the abbreviation, of course.) And I could’ve added, “Also, you might want to try Pitt Street, a couple streets over from George. There’s a lot of shopping over there. They have a couple big computer stores, I think.” Why didn’t I say all this!  Instead of pretending to think, I should’ve actually thought, because I could’ve come up with all this, easily. And you know what the middle-aged guy would’ve said? He would’ve said, “Thanks, mate.” And I would’ve said, “No worries.” Damn! My whole trip had led up to that moment, and I choked, Andrew. 

The rest of the time I spent at the coffee shop that morning, I kept redoing the scene in my head, answering the question, instead of acting like an idiot. Then I looked for the guy and his wife on my way back to my brother-in-law’s apartment, but I didn’t see him. And I don’t know how I would’ve brought it up if I had. “Excuse me, are you the guy who asked me about the computer store? What I meant to say was…” It’s not feasible. The whole situation reminded me of The Great Gatsby, except in reverse. I don’t know if you’ve ever read The Great Gatsby, Andrew, but there’s a great moment at the beginning of the book where Nick has just moved to West Egg and he’s feeling lonely and out of place, until a guy stops him on the side of the road and “helplessly” asks for directions to West Egg Village. And here’s the great narration that follows: “I told him. And as I walked on I was lonely no longer. I was a guide, a pathfinder, an original settler. He had casually conferred on me the freedom of the neighborhood.” So true, that moment. And that could’ve been my situation, too. I could’ve been an original settler! I could’ve received the freedom of this great neighborhood in Sydney, the Rocks. But I freaking blew it. I’m only here for a few more days and all I can do is hope for a chance to redeem myself. 

I’ve seen the following NBA jerseys one time each during my travels in Sydney: Rose, Wade, Rondo, and LeBron. All of these, from what I gathered by eavesdropping, were being worn by non-Americans. The kid in the Rondo jersey appeared to be German. America seems to be about the third or fourth or even fifth biggest cultural influence on Australia, at least in Sydney, and basketball seems to be about the fourth or fifth most popular sport here. Aussie Rules, rugby, cricket, soccer, tennis…actually, maybe not even fourth or fifth. I was able to watch a couple of Spurs games and half of the Lakers game seven, but besides that, I’ve only followed the playoff news on my phone when there’s Wi-Fi. It’s kind of nice, though. It’s like looking at the ground from a high altitude: everything is miniaturized. The NBA news doesn’t seem so huge. All I see are the scores and not the endless detailed analysis. Maybe this is good for you, too. Maybe being Australian can somehow help you keep more perspective than most professional athletes have. That being said, I have a feeling you’re like me: You miss being part of the playoffs. You miss it as a player and I miss it as a fan, but still. We’re not that different, you and I. Every time I see a score or hear a bit of news about a game, I wish I could’ve experienced it myself. Every time I hear about the Celts or the Spurs having another big game, I wish I could’ve participated in the joy of actually watching the game unfold. When I hear that the Thunder held Kobe and the Lakers scoreless for the last two minutes of a game--the last two minutes!--I wish I could’ve watched them do it as it happened. Same with the Pacers beating the Heat. It’s like the playoffs are a big block party, and I’m missing it. Make no mistake, Andrew, I’d very much rather be at Bondi or Manly Beach than watching TNT or ESPN, but still: I’m looking forward to actually watching some games, joining the block party. And I know you’re glad to be home in Melbourne, but I’m sure you also wish you were part of the party, too. So in conclusion, let me say this: Next year, man. Maybe next year you and the Warriors will be there. As a newly rabid fan of Australia and Australians, I’ll be rooting for you. 



P.S. My wife and I saw a store on Oxford Street here that was strictly devoted to Ohio apparel. Dayton University shirts, Indians hats, etc. What’s up with that? Do Australians have an obsession with Ohio? And if so, WHY? Also, Oxford Street is the first street I’ve ever seen in my life with three high-quality bookstores within fifty meters of each other. (I use the metric system now.) Pretty great. And at a stoplight on that street the other day, I saw a tow-truck driver playing a clarinet out the window of his truck. He stopped playing and drove off when the light turned green. It was awesome.