For the last year in much of the world, many of us have spent most of our days at home. We have memorized every freckle on our partner’s faces, walked every street in our neighborhoods, cleaned out every closet, and baked a lot of bread. For some, this time at home has been invigorating. For many of us, accustomed to the hustle and bustle of our city lives, it has been enervating at best. In our great yearning for a spontaneous trip anywhere—even if to a new grocery store—Mark Crimmins’ warm, detailed observations on his ten-day January 2019 vacation to Sydney, Australia, offers a welcome opportunity for escapist armchair travel.
Sydneyside Reflections is part-memoir, part-travelogue with each of the chapters covering one day of his journey, broken up into smaller sections by the times of the day in which Crimmins finds an opportunity to plop down at a bench, cafe table, or hotel desk to record his latest walks. Refreshingly, Crimmins did not plan this trip expecting a deeply personal revelation; instead, he prefers a more journalistic approach: “You just saw a chance to go to a new place and write. You would wander around and write what you saw.”
Relying on second-person narration, the affable, conversational tone invites us to plod along at a comfortable pace as Crimmins gets in the “walking trance,” learning a great deal about Sydney and their companion in the process. Crimmins commits early on to travel without maps, “adlibbing” his daily route as he searches for his next cigarette break, long black coffee with a decent pie, or shady spot to rest for a moment and overhear snatches of conversation, not altering his route hoping for a bigger, better story, preferring to accept ordinary experiences of rained-in afternoons or dead-end trails. He absorbs the local vernacular and creates puns from storefront signs—an extended moment misreading a sign about Elvis Presley is done for laughs, as are his repeated conversations about the Aussie weather terms of “sudden cool” and “big wet.” Other moments, when musing on the deep meaning of “mate” in Aussie culture, reflect Crimmins’ empathetic worldview and his deep love of language, as he intersperses linguistic lessons throughout the text.
Choosing Sydney as a vacation spot ensures this narrative is a pleasant one. Many of the tourists, hotel staff, and cafe workers the narrator meets reinforce the city’s reputation for cheery hospitality, although he does note the seeming overabundance of “towering torsos of [unnatural] muscles” on many of the Sydneysiders. Crimmins finds opportunities to meet folks, commenting after a spontaneous conversation with a realtor from Marin County, California: “This is one of the great pleasures of travel, is it not? The luxury of bonding with strangers.” Still, his devotion to recording all the events of his trip means he doesn’t shy away from other Sydney experiences. He writes, too, of the many homeless men and women stepped over when asleep on the sidewalk or begging for change; the woman having a massive psychiatric break in the street near the St. Vincent Mental Health Clinic; the awkward conciliatory attempts to fix historical wrongs with the native peoples. Crimmins records these encounters with a sympathetic eye, noting at the woman’s breakdown: “the words come back to you: To live is to suffer.”
Crimmins’ text is best in the small encounters, connecting the new sights with his own life. One particularly memorable scene occurs on Day Seven as Crimmins orders from a Venezuelan-owned food truck, speaking to the Mexican cooks in their native language. Although born in Manchester, England, Crimmins has lived in America, Japan, Canada, and currently resides in China. As he chats with the restaurant staff, Crimmins recalls his own humble beginnings, first moving to Salt Lake City, Utah: “you were a poor factory worker, a skilled labourer, a high school dropout of nineteen […] You were and are and always will be: an immigrant. And your story is an immigrant story, your sensibility and sensitivities are an immigrant’s, a migrant’s, a poor migrant’s.” It is clear that his generosity of spirit is not an act to look good for his narrative, but is rather a reflection of his true character.
Later in the journey, Crimmins reveals he was born on Remembrance Day in 1959 and that this fact has greatly influenced his worldview. Offering a balance to the overall light-hearted nature of his vacation, Crimmins stops at every war memorial and comments on every tragic story in the local newspaper, for he’s acutely aware of the “millions of young men who never got to live and move and travel and love and dream as you have, who never got to waltz through the great cities of this world.” But all is not dreary in his own life—Crimmins also notes he was born in the auspicious Year of the Pig and delights in the Lunar New Year celebrations he observes in the city.
While Crimmins notes he had already reached nearly 40,000 words after only five days on the journey, the text, on the whole, doesn’t feel long. For an armchair traveler, it may be slightly disappointing that Crimmins doesn’t focus more time at the expected sights like the Sydney Opera House or famous harbors—for “the beach is stasis, endless repetition, nothingness,” in his opinion. Luckily, the alleyways and forgotten historical markers and even one significant seagull he observes become charged with meaning, for Crimmins is a great guide with a stunning array of knowledge—he is, after all, a writer who packs Chekhov novels to read on vacation. And while the street map of Sydney never fully crystallizes for us, it doesn’t matter; this trip is less about the sights than about the journey itself. Crimmins’ enthusiasm is infectious, reminding us of the world we hope to fully inhabit again someday soon, a world that hopefully still exists beyond just the pages of this book.
Sydneyside Reflections, by Mark Crimmins. Everytime Press, June 2020. 202 pages. $12.50, paper.
Maria Judnick teaches in the English and Environmental Studies departments at Santa Clara University while working part-time as the digital projects coordinator for the San Jose State Writing Center. She has been published in academic (most recently, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy) and literary (including Gemini Magazine) journals. She previously freelanced for KQED Pop! and the arts section of the Santa Clara Weekly.