On a clear, blue, ocean-scented morning in Sydney, a day like so many others when the sidewalk cafes in Kings Cross have their awnings out for breakfast, the joggers are loose in the Royal Botanical Gardens and no one is sleeping nearby in a cardboard box, it's possible to see that California is no longer the end of the line. The search for the good life and the new life that for 150 years carried millions of restless Americans across the continent to the West Coast has in recent years carried some of them farther, 7,500 miles and 15 hours by air farther, into the southern hemisphere, to Australia.
Settled 200 years ago by the same stock of Anglo-Irish criminals and political dissidents King George III had been shipping off in servitude to the American colonies, Australia has always been a distant cousin, both strange and familiar. Maligned in the past as a rude wilderness of kangaroos and ale-slobbering rugby players, the country has become increasingly attractive to Americans as more of them turn their gaze backward in pursuit of happiness. To Californians, Australia can look like only yesterday, a thinly populated, eucalyptus-lined frontier of manageable cities, unspoiled hills andbeaches far from the smog, mini-malls, freeway shoot-outs and desperation of their own lost paradise.
A U.S. Consulate official in Sydney estimates that there are 80,000 to 90,000 Americans living in Australia. Although the consulate doesn't compile such statistics, a good percentage of them are known to be Californians, drawn by the same visions of adventure, economic opportunity, peace of mind and wide-open space that once lured their parents or grandparents to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Australia is a country the size of the United States with the population (16.5 million) of Southern California.
As recently as 10 years ago, the Australian government was offering to help finance passage to its remote island continent for immigrants with proven skills--teachers, doctors and businessmen. Those days are over. Such inducements are no longer necessary given the country's rising profile, boosted lately by the America's Cup races, the romantic hokum of "Crocodile Dundee" and the 1988 Australian Bicentennial celebration. The Australian Consulate in Los Angeles receives about 5,000 travel and emigration inquiries a month from residents in Arizona, New Mexico and Southern California, the last of which accounts for a majority of the 670 immigrant visas it grants each year. Although the government still holds seminars in America for wealthy businessmen considering migration, for the average person it's not a simple matter to gain residency.
Nevertheless, a lot are trying.
Last year, more than 1 million people worldwide applied to immigrate to Australia, and the government accepted 140,000, making it just about as easy as getting into Harvard.
"It's a comfortable place to get very far away," said Becky Robertson, who moved to Sydney this year from San Gabriel with her two young daughters, Sarah and Carly, and her husband, John, formerly a software engineer with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. His technical skills landed him a job with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, a government agency, although the application process took a year and a half.
The Robertsons, both in their 30s, went to Australia partly to escape the incidents of daily violence in Los Angeles that they felt were hitting closer and closer to home. "I feel so much safer here," Becky Robertson said.
"Family issues were one of the main reasons we left," said John Robertson, sipping a can of Foster's Lager in their still-undecorated living room. "Australia is very family-oriented. I had a negative image of what's going to go on in the U.S. in the next five years, and I wanted to protect my family from that."
They feel safe enough in their rented $1,200-a-month (in Australian dollars, $900 in U.S. dollars), three-bedroom house in the northern suburb of Lane Cove not to lock their doors at night.
"It appealed to us," Becky Robertson said, "that everyone said it was 30 years behind the times. I was reassured that it wouldn't be considered outmoded to stay home with the kids."
She hasn't been disappointed. "You don't get the impression that every kid is being shipped off to day care. Here, a woman isn't proving anything to anyone by having a career."
Greatly impressed by the friendliness and informality of the people, she mentioned that as she was walking to the local shopping center, a motorist stopped and offered her a ride.
"God, it's so innocent!"