Jun '03 [Home]


Sydney:  Bohemia Down Under

by Barbara Foster
. . .

S ydney, Australia's largest city and host to the 2000 OIympic Games, has another face less well-known to tourists. It offers a laid back mood that California once claimed as its own. Call it 'Bohemian.' I found my brisk New York walk slowing down to an amble and pauses appearing in my rapid speech. The international attention accorded Sydney during the Olympics has failed to dent its inhabitants' leisurely rhythm. Nothing short of a natural disaster could. The actress Kate Fischer, who divides her time between Hollywood and her native Australia, sums up the local attitude in the popular phrase: "Ah yeah, that'll be all right."

To my surprise, I took the twenty-four hour flight from JFK in an easygoing style—largely due to the considerate Qantas staff. Whisked by this magic carpet from shivering in a drab New York overcoat to parading the streets in colorful shorts, I happily fit in with the Sydneysiders' casual look. They dress up only for the swankiest restaurants and to attend the Opera House. The modernistic design of this architectural marvel, with sails atop, reflects its seaside location.

Hot weather induced me to browse the 25th annual Sydney Festival, a citywide explosion of cultural events, many free of charge. Running concurrently is a Fringe festival which offers experimental performances. For tranquillity I escaped to the Chinese Garden in downtown Sydney, the largest of its type outside China. This refuge embodies principles of garden design dating back to the 5th century. Lounging in this meditative spot, one can hardly believe that the center of an industrial city is merely blocks away.

Lounging comes naturally to Sydneysiders. This pastime produces a Bohemian ambiance, evident in charming domestic architecture, which ranges from sandstone cottages typical of the convict days to modern apartments built on a human scale. Especially in Newtown, Kings Cross and Paddington, the Bohemian sections, high rises are outnumbered by small, idiosyncratic residences so close together that neighborliness is mandatory. Dwellings are painted in pastel and bright colors, grille work abounds, profuse flowers in pots and on vines emit seductive odors.

Views from the Ledge

I resisted the impulse to lounge away my vacation. Instead, I mapped out vigorous days of sightseeing. High points were:  views from and strolls around Darling Harbor, which encompasses museums, restaurants and a glossy shopping pavilion, dips in the surf at Bondi and Manly Beaches. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Taronga Zoo, the Aboriginal collection in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the Aquarium proved equally worthwhile.

Sydneysiders are famous as "party animals," imbibers of their own highly rated local wines. They welcome any excuse to get together privately or in clubs. Coffee houses are hubs of activity during the day and into the night. Drinking coffee facilitates conversation, people-watching, newspaper-reading—and flirting. In mild weather, patrons wearing brief attire and, rather than sit inside, lounge on the outdoor ledge of restaurants and coffee houses. Their relaxed body language advertises that stress is foreign to them. This pervasive "ledge culture" is symptomatic of the Sydney attitude, a willingness to pause and savor the moment.

Exploring Sydney and its environs is easily accomplished on foot, by train, bus and car. Thanks to an extensive transport system, the latter is far from necessary. A tourist pass permitted to me to travel in most zones, even on ferries, and included an excursion to the scenic Blue Mountains—two hours from the Central Station. The CityRail network is immaculate and efficient. Trains run until midnight. A couple of times, when I looked confused, friendly employees intervened to steer me onward.

Piccolo is Grand

Friendliness also characterizes the attitude at two popular coffee houses where Bohemians gather. Both are landmarks in King's Cross and both are near the train stop. The Bar Coluzzi, at 322 Victoria Street, off Darlinghurst, would fit perfectly in Rome or Milan. Although a Sydney institution for more than a decade, the Coluzzi's authentic Italian flavor remains as pungent as the coffee patrons consume with gusto. The Coluzzi is popular with academics, artists and television personalities who visit from table to table. Weekends are particularly festive. Local comedians often drop in and give impromptu performances. However, by 7 p.m., the Coluzzi is closed up.

If days hum at the Coluzzi, nights belong to the Piccolo Café, which opened in 1956. Posted on one wall is the manifesto:  "We don't ever close." The management's free-wheeling attitude toward time is shared by the offbeat characters who are Piccolo regulars. This hive of conviviality, tucked away at the end of Rosyln Street (number 6), is difficult to find. Piccolo, means "small" in Italian, and I sometimes felt that I was sipping coffee in a walk-in closet. But the ambiance is grand. A revolving cast of characters drawn from the four corners of the globe, plus local stalwarts, pack the six tables and a makeshift bench.

Penny Arcade, the New York performance artist who steered me there, described the Piccolo as "the last Bohemia." The Piccolo is no intellectual Left Bank haunt. Nor did it remind me of Greenwich Village's more formal coffee houses, which, alas, are rapidly disappearing. Devotees flock to the Piccolo because of one major attraction:  its manager, Vittorio Bianchi, the master of the cappuccino machine.

Vito's Lentils; Suzie's Lament

Slender, in his mid-sixties, Vito (his nickname) favors shorts and colorful shirts. This grey-haired dynamo appears to be in perpetual motion:  cooking his legendary lentil soup on a single-burner stove, chatting with customers, talking on the phone, playing the jukebox, or sorting mail that arrives for patrons past and present. He switches roles with lightning speed: from headwaiter to money-lender, psychologist, father confessor, matchmaker.

A former stage actor, Vito has plastered the walls with photos and posters of stars. James Dean is represented in several poses. The likes of Peter Allen, Jeremy Irons and Frank Sinatra have made cameo appearances at the Piccolo. Liv Ullman, when she requested the key to the toilet next door (the Piccolo has no restroom), caused Vito an embarrassing moment. Aware of its less than immaculate condition, he flinched. "Don't worry," she giggled. "I've been to India."

Once dubbed the Elsa Maxwell of Kings Cross, Vito singlehandedly assures that at the Piccolo conversation won't become a lost art. If he notices a person alone and not talking or hears a lengthy silence, Vito steps in with a provocative, witty comment. He will seat a new arrival near someone he suspects is a suitable companion. The Piccolo resembles a salon held at home rather than a commercial establishment.

One night I witnessed a touching vignette. Vito was in the "kitchen" whipping up an omelette while singing a sentimental Frank Sinatra song. A buxom, middle-aged blonde made an entrance. Accosting Vito, she crushed him to her ample bosom. Vito pulled back in alarm. "It's me Suzie, you devil!" she shouted. Now he grinned, returning the embrace. "Stranger, it's been ten years," he declared, growing teary-eyed.

Kisses or Wolf Whistles

Suzie plopped down next to me and broadcast her story to the company, nonchalant as ever. Formerly she was famous for going "on toots," sometimes arriving drunk at the Piccolo at four in the morning. Vito begged her to stop drinking for the sake of her children. Once he threw her out after she punched a customer. Now, after seven years of sobriety, she bragged about her executive position with the Social Services Department and how her sons were both in college. A young couple at the next table, kissing passionately, ignored Suzie's diatribe. They found their own drama too engrossing.

What accounts for Sydney's Bohemian atmosphere? Could it be the success of Australia's multicultural experiment, which promotes the harmonious coexistence of various races and ethnicities? Or the vocal and numerically significant gay population, who support the largest Mardi Gras in the world, an event given mainstream media attention? Or is it that Australia's original settlers were British convicts unwillingly shipped here who passed an anti-authoritarian streak down to their descendants?

Local wits describe Melbourne as a lady and Sydney as a tramp. No matter. Sydney has plenty of panache, like the tramp paid tribute to in the song Frank Sinatra sang so lovingly.

(Professor Barbara Foster contributed "Love Song to the Borgia:  A Meditation on Coffee House Culture in Greenwich Village and Beyond" to the Aug '02 issue and poetry and an article on Ursule Molinaro to the Jul '02. She is working on a book tentatively titled, The End of Bohemia. Interested contributors may contact her at bellad@earthlink.net.)