Sub rosa

I will admit that Australia is not the best place in which to spend the first years of a marriage. We arrived there just after the Australian gold rush and the opening of the Sydney-Melbourne railway, before “Waltzing Matilda” was ever sung, before that flag was flown. So we knew Australia before it became a federation. I remember hearing the debates about that flag: the Confederation Star was too big, the Union Jack was too big, the Southern Cross was too big. People seem to forget, and too easily, that Australia is a big country, much wider than that Sydney to Melbourne line, and the sky above it is wide and vast. But I do admit that that flag might be the result of some sub rosa dealings, if you want to know my opinion. Still, there were conventions about that flag, and the judges selected the winning the design from an international competition. We might have gone to the viewing of all the contest entries, had it been in Sydney instead of at the Exhibition Hall in Melbourne, which was, even with the new railway, not a very excursion in those days. Anyway, I like it. “Waltzing Matilda” is another story. And I would have preferred different food, which is not at all a criticism of my wife’s cooking.

India, on the other hand, is just the place for me and my stomach. My wife says I favor curry too much. I like to think I simply have good taste. This is the danger of falling in love with India: you fall in love with curry. This is not the only danger. My health has suffered since we came to India, I know: my nose has gotten red, my heart rate has increased, and there are fewer opportunities to go walking. The sky is not so wide here, but there is some comfort in knowing that I am a part of bringing Shell Oil to India, where I am certain life will change for the better. That’s the exciting thing about living in these outposts of British civilization: we have the privilege of watching man surpass the expectations of his surroundings. But I digress.

My wife will probably tell you that the years we spent in Australia were the happiest of our life together. She will tell you, straight-faced, about that run-in with the dingo that stole some of her laundry off the line, and about the birth of our son Sydney, named for the most magnificent city we have ever seen. She could tell you about the things that didn’t work out, about the surprises, the disappointments, the hair-raising scares associated with living in a country not yet formed. She could make you laugh about it, the absurdity of two young people running off to the other side of the world. I’d like to hear her tell it.

I was asked to help some family friends write a fictionalized account of their ancestors’ years in Australia, in honor of their granddaughter’s first birthday this month. In writing this fiddly bit, I took huge liberties with both their family history and with Australian history, but my goal was to evoke the sense of an oral history interview in which the interviewee does not really answer the question posed,  catches himself veering off into other memories, and places himself within the context of larger historical events.


The basilica was nestled in a neighborhood just off the city’s historic main line avenue, the side streets rippling off around the church as if it had just plopped there, a pebble in Toulouse’s architectural waters. The Basilica of Saint-Sernin — just one of the stops on the route of Santiago de Compostela in France — had, in fact, been constructed over several phases beginning in the fourth century, its red brick arches and buttresses departing from early church designs, its tower finally piercing the sky above the rose city. Still, a pilgrim wandering down from the Place du Capitole along the Rue du Taur, might find, upon his first glimpse of it among the jumbled storefronts and groceries, the basilica squat and small, a paradox among French churches, and would be, upon entering the building, surprised by this tardis of a sanctuary, its interior voluminous and vast.