I’m now back in France, having arrived yesterday from Perth. As such, I’m trying to shake off the jet lag. Despite having lived in Melbourne I forgot how damned far away Australia is from anywhere. The flight from Perth to Abu Dhabi was over 11 hours; if I’d been asked to guess before booking it I’d have said it was around 6 or 7.
I went to Perth for one reason, and that was to visit people. I’d spent my three months of gardening leave travelling and catching up with pretty much everyone I knew, and with a spare month before my MBA starts I decided I’d take the plunge and go see all the people I know in Perth who I’d not seen in years. If I didn’t do it then, I probably never would. I stayed with a family I knew in Sakhalin, two adults and two girls aged around 6 and 8. They live in Cottesloe not far from the beach, and I had an opportunity to wander around the neighbourhood.
From what I could tell from the very large and expensive houses that dominate that area, Australians are to architecture what Germans are to fine dining. Some houses seemed a combination of several styles, as if the architect couldn’t decide what to go for so just used all his favourite features in a single design. One I saw looked like a British council estate bungalow which had been scaled up three or four times with a porch held up by a row of Greek columns. A lot of them are the ultra-modern box-style, which don’t look too bad in themselves but appear odd beside the old colonial-style houses. Obviously there’s no requirement in Perth for new houses to blend in with the surrounding ones. Some are described as Tuscan-style, and while I can see what they are trying to do they sort of look as though an Australian architect designed it while on the phone to his mate who was looking at a postcard his aunt sent him from Italy. And as I saw in Melbourne and Hobart, over half the houses had tin-roofs. In the UK, corrugated iron is usually reserved for farm buildings and warehouses, but in Perth they’ll build a $3m stone house with a swimming pool and landscaped lawns and finish off the roof, and even sometimes the walls, with the same stuff. Uninsulated. My guess is it was a cheap solution 50 years ago and Australians have simply got used to it.
The beach was nice if a little short of topographical features: no rocky coves here, it was straight beach and sand dunes for a couple of thousand miles in both directions, broken only by the harbour at Fremantle. They’d built a cycle and running path alongside and when I went there on a Saturday morning it was filled with beautiful people in lycra; I’d found the same thing at Melbourne’s tan track. There were also plenty of people surfing and kite-surfing, the water turning turquoise halfway through my trip when summer suddenly arrived making it look very inviting. Up until then it was a brownish colour and choppy. The wind in Perth, coming straight off the ocean, is strong.
I went into the city centre several times to meet people, and I think I’d seen most of it by the first afternoon. The two tallest towers belonged to Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton respectively, letting everyone know why the city is there and who’s in charge. The oil company Woodside moved into a brand new tower when I was there; I suppose it seemed like a good idea back when the oil price was over a hundred. Perth is a town of boom and bust – or rather, one big boom and then a bust – and everyone I spoke to referred to the boom era at least once. The place didn’t look as though it was in a slump though, and it seems to be slowly recovering. I wandered through the shopping district thinking it was a lot like Melbourne (particularly the covered pavements with the perpendicular shop signs hanging perpendicular), and then along Langley Park by the Swan river. It was nice, but perhaps not for the whole afternoon.
Possibly the biggest culture shock I received was when my host family sat down to eat at 6pm. Coming from France, I wondered whether this was a late lunch but it turned out to be dinner. Then at 8:30pm everyone took off to bed, leaving me wandering around in the dark. I awoke the next morning at about 7am and thought I’d get up to say hello to find the parents gone to work and the kids with the au pair getting ready for school. Their father had got up at 5:30am to go surfing, too. Later I was out with a blog reader for a drink and we finished up around 8pm. I walked through deserted streets to the railway station, where I joined about 5 other passengers going in the direction of Fremantle. I think much of this is explained by the fact it gets light at 6am, dark at 6pm, and there is no daylight savings time in Western Australia.
Perth wasn’t as expensive as I was expecting, and much cheaper than Paris for food and booze. One evening I went to a birthday party held at a French restaurant, and found it staffed by French people and the food excellent. Otherwise I was mainly eating decent burgers and the sort of meat-cheese-chips-sauce melanges you only find in Australia. I also ordered a rack of lamb ribs in Fremantle which had been brilliantly marinaded before overcooked.
As in Melbourne, I found the Australians extremely friendly and pleasant to be around, but the place itself rather dull. As my holiday wore on I reached the same conclusion of Perth that I did of Melbourne: if you have a good job, it’s a great place to raise kids. From what I could tell everything worked, it was safe, the weather was great, the schools good, there was plenty of space, and you had everything a family could want or need. But if you were a single bloke I think you’d go a bit nuts after a month; it’s not like you could drink all night if the bars empty at 8pm. Interestingly, I met two foreign wives – one French, the other Russian – and both said they find Perth to be a cultural desert and they’d like their children to spend at least some time back in the motherland before they reach adulthood. Like anywhere, I guess it comes down to what stage your life’s at and what you’re doing with it. So with that, I’ll say I had a great time in Perth and it was absolutely wonderful to see people I’d not seen in years, as well as meet some new people who read this blog. But Perth isn’t a place I’ll be hoping to live in any time soon; I would definitely go back for another visit, though.