He sat where it would seem every American tourist wants to sit -- on a bench in Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens overlooking the harbor on a beautiful spring morning. Off to the left, the Opera House unfolded; behind it, the Harbour Bridge stretched, its span crowned by two snapping Australian flags. Across the water, red-roofed houses and white apartments surveyed the passage of green-and-yellow ferries.

"Best bit of Sydney," the man said. "I wouldn't give you two bob for the rest of it. Used to be a lovely old city before the developers had their way. Now you've got a bunch of cereal boxes. Look at that thing," and he pointed derisively to a windowed carton of Wheaties.

"Every year in the States," I said, "the readers of the glossy travel magazines vote Sydney the No. 1 city in the world. It never fails."

He gave me a look which, after a week in Australia, I was getting accustomed to. It said: You silly Yanks.




Commuters dodged tourists on Circular Quay while a bogus-looking Aborigine in white stripes and loincloth blew resonant notes on a didgeridoo. It was here, on the west side, that the First Fleet -- 11 ships of convicts and soldiers under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip -- had landed on Jan. 26, 1788. It is here, today, where it seems all of Sydney comes, residents and visitors, in a daily, hourly, mass return to its European roots.

Underfoot, every few yards, is a plaque with the name of a writer who has brought Australia notoriety, and a salient quote. There are natives: Patrick White, Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer, Peter Carey; and foreigners: Mark Twain, Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Anthony Trollope, whose plaque reads: "The idea that Englishmen . . . are made of paste, whereas the Australian, native or thoroughly acclimatized, is steel all through, I found to be universal."

A freeway gives the back of the Quay a surprisingly quiet ceiling, a sort of highrise El that separates the city of well-grounded purpose from the play of water. As you wander back through the maze, you are surprised by the odd ancient, the lone relic scrunched in shadow. The apotheosis of which you find on George Street in the Queen Victoria Building, a multi-domed, Romanesque arcade that looks to have parliamentary aspirations. Waiting to cross the street in front of the statue of a seated Victoria, I heard two young women conversing in an unplacable tongue.

"Excuse me," I said, "but what language are you speaking?"

"Nepalese," they replied.




The station at Sydenham seemed transplanted from outer London: the dingy platforms, the brightly wrappered kiosks (in Cadbury purple and Malteser red), the view outside of a cramped brick suburb of overgrown gardens. The news agent carried four Chinese papers, two Greek, one Vietnamese and four Australian.

Sally was a few minutes late, a tall woman with long straight hair, no makeup, thrown-on sweater and slacks. A seventh-generation Australian, she told me proudly, she had recently returned from five years in England. She was in her 40s and had an endearing, illicit laugh.

We drove the short distance into Marrickville. The front door had been left wide open. Her father rose from the sofa with a toothy smile; son Christopher barely glanced up from his Harry Potter; Ella, the 14-year-old, shook my hand with a grown-up's poise. At school, she studied Greek and Mandarin and belonged to a group called The Gershwin Girls. They had sung at the Opera House. I said I'd taken the tour. Joern Utzon, the Danish architect, had returned to Sydney a few years ago, she said, and saw it for the first time; she'd read about it in the paper. On the tour they had told us that, after a falling out halfway through construction, he abandoned the project and had never come back to see the finished work. "That's not true," said Ella, putting me straight.

"What about something to drink?" asked Sally. "Australian red? Or white?" I said red. Father told of his neighbor, when he lived out in the bush, who built himself an airplane so he could fly his son to school. Ella said she'd never seen snow and that Hershey chocolate had just appeared in Australia. Sally suggested that they would probably go somewhere for vacation during the Olympics.

We moved to the table and sat before two plates piled with Vietnamese spring rolls. "One of our neighbors brought these by this morning," Sally said. They were followed by vegetarian lasagna. "I became a vegetarian in England," Sally said, "not here. Australian beef is wonderful." The ricotta she got in town. "There's an Italian cheese shop where they now have a Chinese man making the ricotta. They say he's the best Italian cook in Sydney." And then that girlish, got-away-with-something laugh.

For dessert we had baklava. "A typical Australian dinner," Sally said. When it was over, Ella sang quite beautifully.