Saturday, April 30, 2011

The wombat zone

Saturday (yesterday here, probably today where you are) was the birthday of a colleague of Tina’s who lives in Melbourne. Lisa and her husband, Maury, picked us up at the hotel in the morning, and we went to the Healesville Sanctuary, part of the Victoria Zoos system, about an hour’s drive northeast of Melbourne, in the Yarra River area.

A zoo is a zoo, you may think, and why spend precious tourist hours visiting one, especially sans grandchildren. But many of Australia’s native species are not easily seen in American zoos, and so it was an interesting excursion. I had never seen a platypus other than on tv and no idea how small they are in real life, for example. Nor did I have a clear mental image of what a wombat looks like. And although I’ve been to Tasmania, this was the first time I’d seen a Tasmanian devil in the flesh.

After a few hours there, we drove back through wine country and stopped at an elegant winery bistro for tea (the time of day, not the beverage). It is fall here, harvest time (think Halloween), which explains why pumpkin is featured on so many menus and in so many interesting dishes, none of which bear any remote resemblance to pumpkin pie. And no, there are no outdoor decorations of pumpkins, gourds, and cornstalks to be seen anywhere. The American fruit has been adopted but not the kitsch that goes with it.

I was struck, on our drive, by the difference between public works in Australia and those in the U.S. This is a place where architects and artists are allowed—perhaps encouraged—to play. Everything from highway sound barriers to tunnel entrances to bridges of all types to train stations to customs houses is a work of public art, not just a utilitarian structure devoid of personality or attitude, as seems to be the only permissible style in the U.S. At home it’s considered wondrous that a government entity can ram a cable stay bridge through the approval process. Here, there is a sense of exuberance. Cable stay bridges are merely a starting point for beautiful and varied ways to move people from one side of a river to another. In fact, the tunnel we went through yesterday was built to get beneath a mountain stream that was thought important enough not to disturb with a bridge over it.

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