In an effort-soaked quest to stick curious fingers in Sydney’s darkest recesses I find myself rifling through her secrets, tiny sparkling gems of Australiana my prize.
Equipped with an obliging stub of pencil, a crumpled notepad scoured with unintelligible marks, the tin lid (on occasion) and my trusty secretary, her aura of advice billowing gently, I am armed with inspiration and a tousled map from 1974.
As the crow flies, Auburn’s got my back, standing firm at the ever-shifting front between east and west. Just a dead-man’s hand from Rookwood, calm in the lee of the snarled western city arteries, Auburn is named after Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village, which describes the English version as the “loveliest village of the plain”.
First impressions are less kind. No plains. No villages. But the threads of humanity have woven an exquisite pattern here, a tapestry of colour, creed and custom that sparks life into the air around me. I know that feeling. It’s the feeling of being able to breathe life, taste life and touch life in a single sensory moment.
The scent of sharp, earthy coffee snaps around my nose, fresh mint, cigarettes and scorched meats smear together in a smoky pall and the streets thrum with noise. Old men cluster around tables laden with thimble-full glasses stained with grounds, their prayer beads jostled in time with the conversation; a giggle of head-scarved girls peeps out from a milk-bar intent on attracting the boys’ attention; and statuesque African women, the bodies and hair swathed in peacock-bright tribal print, are silently, strikingly, beautiful. Joining the throng we eat and drink:
and jolted with caffeine spin out further into the streets. Our search is over before it has begun: the secretary, exhibiting a distinctly un-secretary-like intent, has barrelled into the Hot Sale furniture warehouse and is enthroned upon a glam-rock bed ensemble from the late 1970s. A quick flick of the peripherals and it is clear that we are in the heart of Australiana. Plasticky covers crackle with promise, shiny pvc glimmers in the dust and the air is stained with nostalgia:
Nearby a jewellery shop is gilded in light, the bright glint of yellow gold visible from a distance. Invited to “look, try” this is as close as I get:
Though closer inspection was required for this message, a homily I am sad I cannot understand:
Turkish, Syrian, Lebanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Somali, Bosnian, Iraqi, Iranian, Afghani, Pakistani and Sudanese communities call Auburn home and the taste of these cultures is rich and diverse. Cardamom, clove and cinnamon marries with the crisp sourness of cherries and delicate rosewater. Rank meat sweats in the open, unidentified greens are an array of shades from Persian to pistachio and the aromatic elegance of earl grey tea swirls in the mix. In a deliciously retro supermarket shelves of products line up for inspection and include these such childhood stalwarts:
In this Persian inspired wonderland complete with accents of Middle-Eastern devotion, Asian diligence and African pride, the backstreets tell a different story. A lost space between the comforting human chaos of the strip and the genuine peace of the burbs, the roads we found all lead to the highway and were teeming with lost 4WDs. Here there are jargon-juggled “medium-density housing solutions”, tired facades and stereotypes. Sheets stretched taught across windows are poor substitutes for curtains:
This is another Australiana, borne of necessity. It is a suburban paradise choked in skeins of diesel and tangled in expectation. A world of tacky stereotypes and wary glances, the rumble of our fast-paced world is just metres away, belching, farting and stinking. Residential backstreets should be peaceful, full of the sound of children laughing, their indulgent parents watching from the step – this a modern suburbia that challenges its very self, encroached by storming six-lane highways, shopping malls and strip lights.
Yet I left Auburn with a bright smile courtesy of this,
a monument to the weatherboard revolution of the 1920s, wishing well front and centre; and this:
a poor-man’s mansion with a shroud of shade.
Auburn is a surprise. Abayas abound and I sense my alienation from a culture I am yet to understand in full, yet I am made so welcome and the language of the streets is hypnotic, the soft cadence of sofra, burke, baba fuat, birfazla enveloping me in another world.
I will be pursuing my secretary for the following expenses:
Mountain tea: $2.70
Earl grey tea (in tin): $2.40
Cool op-shop shoes: $2
Sour cherry juice: $1.50
An almost excessive yet utterly delicious lunch: $12