I was reeling from jet lag that first morning in Sydney after a long night's journey into day. Because my hotel room was not ready, I was ushered into a lofty lounge to join other early arrivals crumpled on sofas.
They, too, had crossed the Pacific and broken through the clouds at dawn, the busiest hours for in-bound international flights.
"It has to do with where we are in the world," a hotel clerk said apologetically, as he welcomed me to Australia.
So this is the tyranny of distance, I thought as I gazed at the groggy faces in the lounge. Determined not to surrender to stupefaction on this bright and glorious day, I dug in my suitcase, donned my Reeboks and walked gingerly into the sun.
The hotel doorman, who was more formally dressed than I, liked my notion of breaking out for a stroll. He unfolded a map and suggested that the Royal Botanic Gardens would be a safe place to start: plenty of fresh air, no driving-on-the-left cars to dodge and, if I did veer off a sidewalk, there would be lawns and shrubs to cushion my fall.
Towering gum trees and century-old ficus proved elevating company and soon I heard myself humming--a bit too loudly, perhaps--"Waltzing Matilda." Was I being sentimental or do all American visitors succumb to the spell of that song?
Glint of the Harbor
The snip of pruning shears interrupted my reverie: A gardener was tidying a rose bush. We traded nods and, suddenly, he handed me three crimson blooms. "G'Day," he said. Pleased and bewildered, I clutched the bouquet of trimmings and ambled on toward the glint of the harbor and the oyster-white shells of the Sydney Opera House.
Even with the exaggeration of jet lag, when objects blur bigger than life, I recognized the wonder of this architectural triumph, which is anchored on Bennelong Point like a great white sailing fleet tugging in the breeze to pull free.
No Bad Sides
To my eye and heart, the opera house has no bad side or wrong angle. It is bold from the harbor, where sloops and ferries and hydrofoils parade in salute. It is majestic from city skyscrapers and from the Rocks, a jolly restoration of bricks and cobbles that marks the site where the European colony in Australia took hold 200 years ago.
The ceramic tile roof of the opera house soars 220 feet above sea level and gleams in all seasons, as dazzling against the lightning of a tropical storm as it is in the blush of summer fireworks.
Despite its awesome beauty, the house is not a snob. It is an immensely personal place, a home away from home for a bank teller on a break, for a family sharing sandwiches at a table on the wide promenade, for a stumblebum traveler such as myself, whose head is still in the clouds.
The opera house is limiting only in its name: It is also a showcase for symphony orchestras, live theater, cinema, recitals, lectures and folkloric dance troupes.
There are sprightly guided tours every day except Christmas and Good Friday, yet individual exploration is encouraged.
The song of an oboe seeped out from a rehearsal hall as I went by; the crack of applause from behind closed doors underscored the sense of discovery. And, in all directions, I had beguiling views of the sunlit harbor and hills, through the soft tint of topaz glass.
On that first morning I savored the hush of this sanctuary as I studied the posters of seasons past, and then read the current charts.
One man was on duty in the opera box office, his sleeves rolled up for work. He said the only performance that fit my itinerary would be a Saturday matinee at month's end, and, yes, a few tickets were left.
I stared at the seating plan, pointed a finger, and went for the best available: a splurge of $38. With a lilt in my step, I hiked back to my hotel and its welcome hot tub and wide bed.
Three weeks later, when I returned to Sydney after rambles around the land, I was astonished to find myself holding a slightly smudged ticket to a sold-out performance of "Carmen."
I hastened to the opera house to be transported to Spain with settings that were subtle . . . and voices that were rich.
It was a heady trip, yet one free of jet lag.