I keep waking up in the middle of the night. Sometimes from the acid ravaging my esophagus from some annoying ailment, sometimes from the jet lag that sits heavy on my eyelids at two in the afternoon and pries them awake at four in the morning. I tell myself that first thing in the morning, I will finally compile all of the golden thoughts and sparkling experiences- and predictably, this will vanishes as soon as the sun’s morning rays streak through the window. But after fingers fluttering around my neck and keyboard and apartment for several days, it’s time to write of the past two weeks. My past two weeks in Australia. Our past two weeks in Australia.
We’re fairly used to early morning flights: this one was no different. With a 3am wakeup call and generous pickup from Mom and Geza, we began the first leg of our journey. Because of an upgrade, sleeping tablets, and noise-canceling headphones, the 17-hour flight went as well as could be. By the time we arrived in Townsville, Australia three plane changes later- our bed at the hotel was deeply welcome.
After sleeping on what felt like a cloud made of mashed potatoes, morning came early and we sorted our rental car to Airlie Beach and stocked up on Aussie snacks, including a long awaited introduction to Vegemite via Cheesymite Scroll.
It was an arid three hour drive through the Australian countryside: carcasses of wallabies strewn about the roadside, craggy, beautiful trees seemingly reaching upwards and outwards for a drink of water, rolling hills changing from brown to green to red. We were feeling the excited compression of emotions after months of planning this trip. We were on our way to visit Olivia, Mark’s daughter, to spend the next three days together.
After driving in what felt like desert for hours, an electric shock of blue greeted us as we turned a corner. The ocean with its soft white veil and Cowry-shell necklace and ceaseless heave beckoned us closer and we followed unquestioningly.
When I first saw Olivia loping through the sliding glass door and out into the yard with two dogs at her heels, the resemblance to her father struck me. The height, the stance, the slight squaring of the shoulders with neck bent and gorgeous hazel gaze seemingly turned upward even though I fell inches well below.
I was presented with my first tube of Vegemite- which rests in my kitchen cabinet- along with a generous offering of some of Australia’s sweetest gifts. After some time arranging activities for the following day and marinating in the heat, Mark and I left to check into our hotel across the city before meeting back up with Olivia for a dinner of burgers and wings at Little Vegas. After stuffing ourselves full of Americana-inspired dinner, we crashed into sleep hard and fast- prepared for an early, exciting start.
After a frenzied start of the day Mark, Olivia, Olivia’s brilliant cousin Tom, and I hopped aboard a bright purple catamaran for a day exploring the Whitsunday Islands. A stunning boat-ride cresting waves shared with turtles and dolphins and sharks, we arrived at Whitehaven Beach. As we tromped our way up the hill to the overlook, we chattered about snakes and the rocks and leaving as many people in our dust as we possibly could. The trees around us pointed their gnarled fingers toward the ocean and we followed, shocked at the tableau that surrounded us. Alabaster sand met water that azure only begins to describe, encompassed by a sky of blue fondant, soft and delicious. Our feet hit ground that felt less like granules of broken down minerals and rocks and more like powdered sugar.
We spent hours married to that sand: grazing our fingers across, sinking our bodies in, comparing the hard, barnacled slabs of earth to the softness surrounding it. We became neighborly with stingrays and I cried from happiness when I felt the small, viscous muscles of a sea snail work their way across my fingertips. I became lost in a tide pool the size of a credit card, fully absorbed in an alien world bursting with life I don’t understand, much like that around me most of the time.
My senses were shattered after such an incredible day prior: filled with new friends, discovery of life, snorkeling, sailing, and nautical exploration. It took a walk at dawn to start our final day in Airlie to refocus my mind. We met again with Olivia and were eager to continue our play in the sea, extending our expedition to Hideaway Bay. We were welcomed yet again by the sea and her unrelenting generosity. We were gifted with dozens of cowrie shells, picturesque views, and beams of sun roasting our skin as we splayed out, eyes expectant and intent on each centimeter of prosperous strand.
We ended a sun-soaked day back in the same seats at Little Vegas, chowing on fried chicken and balls of macaroni and cheese and burgers. It was relaxed, it was easy, it felt like a home- in a way.
Saying “goodbye” never gets easier, particularly after mornings like this. I had my first proper Vegemite toast, made by Olivia and Mark, before he and I left for our journey back to Townsville. The flavor still reminds me of salty tears.
We retraced the roads back toward Townsville and were met by Mark’s sister Lizzii and her husband Jason at the rental car lot. We shared a first “double date” at GYO, a favourite Japanese restaurant, before we boarded the ferry toward Magnetic Island (aka Maggie), where they live with their sons Harry and Flynn. They’re almost neighbours with Mark’s mother and stepfather, Sue and Mal, just a few twists and turns up the street.
I fought through exhaustion to enjoy a delicious home-cooked roast chicken (which Flynn, the voracious meat-eater, particularly loved) with the beautiful, welcoming Watson family and Mal: sipping champagne, tasting light-as-air Pavlova and settling into a new pace, new place.
Mark started the day with one of his pavement-pounding too-many-kilometers-to-be-reasonable runs while I continued to sleep off jet-lag and started my day watching Mal feed kookaburras mince off the balcony. We shared brekkie (juicy bacon and perfectly over-easy eggs) complete with the Vitamin B wonders of Vegemite followed by a dip in crystal clear water in Radical Bay.
Mark and I had our first proper bush walk up to the Forts, eyes peeled for koalas. Those sleepy, stoned creatures did nothing but rest their fluffy behinds in the crook of gum trees and sleep through the sweltering heat. We garnered views of Magnetic Island and its stunning bays that reminded me of why people choose to live on the tropically bucolic island- backpackers and tourists rivaling the local population in size.
It was an exciting time as dusk fell when the rock wallabies began to truly debut. Carefully retrieving the snacks of carrots and apples the boys brought, I finally got to see wallabies that were alive and well. We began to wind up the day with the Watson crew at a perfectly deserted park smack dab in front of the ocean. We ate sweet chili burgers and threw sausages to the blue-winged kookaburras laughing peculiarly at us from their perches in the dusk. The evening ended with bedtime stories of Diary of a Possum and Possum Magic.
My birthday and our final morning on Maggie was crowned with eggs, bacon, pancakes, and gifts with the family with a few games of UNO, something I had never played until Harry taught me the ways of the game. I am now a convert.
We hugged Lizzii almost-teary-eyed goodbyes before taking Harry to a club dedicated to training lifesavers, apparently a very important thing in Australia. Donning a purple wetsuit, fluoro pink vest, and lime green swimming cap- young Harry walked onto the beach among his classmates for the first time with determination and ease. Flynn spent the next half hour being a charming spider in the web of playground equipment, crafting a trap where he would nip-nip-nip us until our fly-bodies were drained of invisible blood. Eventually, our time had to end and we caught the ferry back to Townsville for our flight to Hobart, Tasmania.
Sue, Mark’s mum, met us at the airport and we drove to the chilly harbor to share a bottle of bubbly and toast to the next set of adventures back in the city where Mark created so many of his stories. We sat around the pitiful heat of a decorative flame and chatted about the flight and the days to come. Immediately I felt at ease, like Hobart was telling me to stay for a bit. Soon after, the brightness of Alex and Amy joined us. Two incredible constants in Mark’s life, they were welcome familiar faces not seen since January in the brutal cold of Milwaukee. It felt as if family had walked into the hotel lobby.
After moments of flushed, bright reunion we made our way to St. Albi to meet Matt and Ange, more of Mark’s dearest friends. “Quick with a joke and to light your smoke” describes Matt well, minus the smoking part, and he is balanced by the pure loveliness of Ange. I felt wholly invited to the table and we laughed, sank into some of the best steak I have ever had, and left plumed in red after too much good wine.
The glorious day started with Billie. Two years old with more charm, cheek, and cleverness than fair for one little girl, she scooped us back up into her expressive, curious world. We took a road that reminded me of a curly-fry to Matt and Ange’s for brunch (savory corn fritters and bacon) in a house seemingly plucked off a glossy page of Dwell. We met little, lion-haired and hearted Liam for the first time and just as he began waking from his nap, we went home so that I could begin mine. We had late lunch scheduled with Sue, Mark’s grandparents John and Joan, and his Great Aunt, Pam; I wanted to be well-rested and in top form.
Mark nudged me awake for a tour through Tasmania for glimpses of his previous home in Huonville to the farm in Woodbridge. He always told me how Washington resembled Tasmania, but I don’t think I ever truly believed him until I began to view the landscape in person. The unending hills draped in greenery, the blue-gray water dappled with crisp, clear light, the gentle clearness of the air. The Eucalyptus, Mark driving on my right, and the soft white flocks of lambs freshly introduced to spring were the small reminders that I was in a world unknown to me.
Our lunch was nearing and Mark wanted to show me one last place: the jetty where he and his late father spent “hours on end, talking about anything and everything”. The tide announced its familiar greeting as we creaked across the timber, out to sea. To my delight, a flock of inky cockatoos screeched in a frenzy to our right. Mark laughed as I laughed at the clamour and took my into the arms that feel like home. He expressed himself simply and perfectly and knelt. It felt as if my lungs were removed and replaced with sugar-spun lanterns filled with moths and he asked. And I answered. And we were engaged.
Catching my breath, I said I wanted to remember every part of that moment: the mellow temperature, sound of the birds now in the distance, soft saline bite in the air. He told me I wouldn’t need to and turned me around to a photographer, a friend of his from his days working at the newspaper, The Mercury. Her name is Amy and she captured every candid moment so that I could revisit the memory at any time.
The next several hours were a shaky, delicious whirlwind. I met dozens of Mark’s beautiful family who were under the impression that they were waiting at the restaurant for a surprise birthday party for me. There were tear-inducing toasts, staticky video calls to my friends and family back home, photos upon photos, and endless embraces. It took an hour for my champagne-flute grasping hands to stop shaking.
The filminess begins to drop away by the time we were sitting in the window of our room at The Henry Jones. We came into focus a bit more as we sat, painting my nails (it was necessary!), Mark sipping a beer, and a rendition of Can’t Help Falling in Love floating from the speakers. In a deliriously happy and slightly shocked state, we wandered around Hobart’s city center in the dusk among the places he used to frequent, around the marina filled with ships that have seen the world.
We ate richly and langourously at Landscape, on silky scallops and firm orechiette, delicate calamari gilded with miso caramel and a plump gem of fillet. We chased the meal with a bottle of glittery light Tasmanian Jansz, sent as a gift to our room from Seattle by Mark’s wonderful sister and brother-in-law, Anna and Nick.
We slept beautifully.
We had left a day behind that felt like a watercolor, so we followed it up with an oily canvas covered in slashes of acid: the Museum of Old and New Art, MONA. The gallery- more like an asylum- is well described here. I was captivated by a pageant of taxidermied kittens sharing tea and a game of croquet; the ridiculous faces of the animals preserved by Noah’s Ark in a painting struck my fancy.
We drank champagne to and from the museum on a fast ferry, glimmering from within from the sheer nearness of each other.
After sausage rolls at the athletics track where Mark used to train, we noshed on flaky meaty pie from Jackman & McRoss in Princes Park, and shared an unfussy burger at Jack Greene with Mark’s crew of friends. We wandered through the galleries in Salamanca and continued to explore Hobart before dinner at Blackman’s Bay with Sue, a meal of gnocchi ragù tender as the company we dined with.
After a day of eating my heart out, I felt like vomiting my heart out. And then I did. Damn acid reflux. Note to self: schedule endoscopy.
It was an ideal last day in Tasmania, filled with small charms and everyday comforts that reminded us that the wonderful comes both in sweeping, grand gestures and the quiet, simple routine. One of my favorite things to do in a new country is visit a grocery store. I love aimlessly walking through the aisles to gape at the artfully wrapped sweets and goggle at what I consider bizarre meats and drool at the hundreds of foreign flavors of potato chips. I filled my basket with jars of Vegemite to bring home as gifts (which were taken away when going through security) and lollies before spending a few last hours with Alex and Billie before we left to spend our last night with Liam, Ange, and Matt.
Ange prepared a perfectly light and luxuriously hearty lamb salad, we sipped more bubbles, and digested over some trash TV- soaking up our last moments on the island.
Our taxi arrived in the dead of night to pick us up for our 6am flight to Sydney. Barely awake, we made our way to the city: only two stops away from home in Tacoma, but a world’s distance away.
We spent the morning traipsing through the city that reminded me a little bit of so many places I have loved: New York, Seattle, Glasgow, Hong Kong. We stopped for a coffee at one of the many vibrant little cafes in the back streets that Mark used to frequent during his time working and living there. The streets were alive with people smoking their reeking, modelesque cigarettes, working hard or working hard to look working hard on their cell phones, and dressed to the sixes, sevens, eights, and nines.
After stopping to stare at the Circular Quay and all its activity for a bit, we took a ferry out to Manly Beach for a wander- drinking in our surroundings the way there, the brisk wind raising the hairs on our skin as we stood on the port of the ship.
After a stroll around the beachtown and lunch on the docks, we made our way back to the Modern Art Museum and then onto the balcony of the Aurora for drinks with Mark’s previous coworkers from the old newspaper days, Justin and Josh. Although far too short, it was a delight meeting these friends from far away times and far away climes who clearly hold their friendship as highly as Mark does.
Our last proper meal in Australia was relished at Longrain: clean Tassie sparkling with welcome dishes of Betel leaf wrapped chicken, bright acidic Som Tum, comforting stir fry, and succulent pork hock. Of course we stopped at McDonalds on the way home so that I’d have a midnight snack: the Double Cheeseburgers are far better in Oz than the US.
As we spent our last hours remembering the past two weeks we had spent together in a place so familiar and so foreign, I felt tiredness nuzzle into my chest like a kitten, soft and inviting as a warm baguette.
I fell asleep next to my fiancé- ready to commence tomorrow, together.