Dec 2006 Journal

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My Australian misadventure

When I embarked in Genoa at the end of April 1949 I was no longer the innocent teenager who had left Vienna in 1938. I was twenty-nine and a half years old, and by the time I arrived in Sydney I was five weeks older - well on the way to becoming an old maid. Dressed to kill in my New Look Balenciaga suit and hat to match, I caused something of a stir on landing. There were loud mutterings of 'Look at the Frenchie!'. The New Look obviously hadn't yet reached the Antipodes.

The date was 3 June - so my British Travel Document tells me. (I was still a stateless person.) It rained heavily and there was a general strike on. What on earth was I doing here? I had had an excellent job with the 'Joint', the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, in Paris, close to my family.

Well, it was all Stella's fault. I had met her when we were both working for the US army in Germany, and we had never lost touch. She had emigrated to Sydney from London a year earlier and, in her letters, urged me to join her. One needed only summer clothes there, she said, and the future was bright.

On the day after my arrival, Stella's boss, a Hungarian Jew, took us to lunch. 'There are only two varieties of soup', he said, 'sick or sin'. I opted for sin. His partner needed a secretary, and I was to work for Mr Webster, an Austrian Jew, short of stature and irascible by nature, for the next year or so.

Stella had found us rooms in a pleasant suburb, I had a job I didn't dislike and I made new friends, but I wasn't happy in Sydney. For one thing, it was winter and I was always cold. No one at that time thought of heating homes or offices. The myth was that the city was blessed with eternal sunshine. In fact, it rained almost every day during those winter months, and I took to wearing woollen socks. When summer finally arrived, temperatures soared to 100 deg. Fahrenheit and above.

The weather, however, was the least of my problems with Sydney. The contrast between its crudeness and the sophistication of Paris was simply too much of a shock for me to absorb.

There was no purpose-built theatre or concert hall or art gallery, hardly a decent restaurant. When Stella and I had lunch at the café next to our office, where the choice was between lamb's fry and lamb's fry, I nostalgically remembered my lunches in Paris at a small restaurant where two elderly sisters cooked and served a variety of delicious dishes. And whereas the French enjoyed their aperitif or glass of wine leisurely, here men lined up their drinks between five, when they finished work, and six, when the pubs closed, and then threw up in the street.

I was homesick - not for any particular country because I no longer could call any country my own - but for the Old World. I dreamt of the view of Paris from the top of Notre Dame; of the tranquil Thames Valley; of the lake in Austria where, aged eight, I had learned to swim. I ached for Europe.

We - I had been married for a year by then - finally left Sydney in July 1951. Without really trying, I had acquired a husband and, with him, British nationality. Not a mean achievement!

Before you start composing indignant letters in defence of Australia, let me tell you that I revisited it for the first time in 1993, and what I found was a vibrant, multi-cultural, confident country. Sydney, of course, has its stunning opera house, Melbourne a splendid arts centre, and I have spent great holidays in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales in hotels that are comparable to any in Europe.
Edith Argy

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