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Dateline Sydney

As I wandered around Sydney’s Chinatown, weaving among the bargain shoppers and carefully-casual college students who were streaming in and out of dumpling shops and clothing outlets, I thought I kept hearing the squeals of happy children — mildly insane children, judging by the pitch and warble of their cries, but happy all the same.

Shop Window, Sydney Chinatown I wondered what it was that made them happy. The roast ducks, ruddy with spices and shiny with fat, hanging in shop windows? The Hello Kitty shower caps and marshmallows? The bakeries with their pans of fresh rice cakes, plump with sweetly exotic fillings? The pan-Asian food court, smoky and dark and teeming with hungry people, where I restored my health with a pungent bowl of kimchee soup, properly imbued with scraps of vegetable and meat?

Finally, while waiting at a stoplight, I looked up into two trees greening the corner to see fat, glossy-black birds with beaks as long and needled as the high-heeled shoes that have been popular of late among those who suffer for their fashion. “Eee HEEE hee hee hee hee!” screamed the birds, fluffing their feathers and rocking with joy.

I was happy, too, even though I was discombobulated and grubby. I had learned upon my arrival this morning — after my otherwise unremarkable intercontinental jaunt through TLH-ATL-LAX-SYD–that my suitcase had decided to spend an extra night at LAX and would not be joining me until tomorrow at noon. So my trip to Chinatown — a block from my hotel–was prompted partly as a food expedition (enthusiastically and proudly recommended by my taxi driver) but also as a search for some inexpensive duds to tide me over a day.

It wasn’t as straightforward a task as I thought. Earlier, when I stopped at a cell-phone stand to buy a phone for use here (the recommended path by those with extensive travel experience-I did try a prepaid SIM card but it wasn’t working for me, and I was losing interest in the futz factor), I joked with the women at the stand that I was sure I could buy underwear in Australia.

In case you’re wondering how they knew I needed underwear, or at least clean clothes, I have found Aussies to be remarkably direct. “Where’s your luggage?” several have asked. The-airlines-lost-it story elicits universal sympathy. The less-interesting part of this story is that the airlines didn’t actually lose my suitcase; they just didn’t put it on the plane. But when people hear “suitcase” they think “lost,” so I leave it at that.

It turns out underwear in Australia has its own mysterious sizing-not that U.S. sizing is anything but arbitrary. I think U.S. size 6 is equal to Australian 14 or 16, but it’s not quite as clearcut as Fahrenheit to Centigrade, and it has nothing to do with dress sizes. The young woman at the lingerie store was surprised by my question about size translation, which I think has more to do with her being young than Australian. Clearly, the underwear size problem could use some attention from the standards community.

(The phone-store lady said her grandmother took disposable, universally-sized underwear on her trip to China, and reported that it was remarkably soft and comfortable. Perhaps airports could install vending machines near the baggage services departments. So I’m not the only one wondering about underwear. Then again, it’s as easy for the airlines to lose disposable underwear as the permanent sort, so I take it the phone-store lady was alluding to the separate, no less pressing problem of bringing home a bag of well-experienced undies, particularly in this era of random bag inspections.)

People here seem to like being Australian, such as my taxi-driver, who insisted Sydney has better Chinese food than San Francisco, Vancouver, or anywhere else outside of China, or the woman at the café who unfolded my fingers and taught me what each coin meant. I’m sure there are unhappy Australians, but they weren’t visible this afternoon.

Two men sat down next to me at lunch. One, obviously of Chinese stock, picked up a fork. “You don’t use chopsticks?” asked his lunch partner, a strapping blond fellow. “Not me,” he replied. “I’m an Aussy.” Looking around, I saw quite a few young people of Asian heritage with forks in hand. I soldiered on with my chopsticks, tweezing out the larger chunks in my soup — after all, I’m a native San Franciscan, and therefore to the chopstick born.  But I respect what it means to define the answer to the question, “What makes me part of my world?”

After acquiring undies, a shirt, and socks — all on sale! — I finally allowed myself to return to my hotel room. It’s 5:30 p.m. here and my goal is to stay awake until 10 p.m. The famous bridge, visible from my room, sparkles with rush-hour traffic, and I know Sydney beckons. The light rail is temptingly just around the corner. But for a first, very jetlagged day, this has been a grand adventure.

I will be writing blog posts offline and posting occasionally. Internet access for travelers is pricy, so after I get my presentation done, I will only be occasionally cadging Web access here and there. (Anyone who knows me well understands that I putter with my presos right up to the wire; I even absconded across international borders with overdue interlibrary loans because I wanted to re-read a couple of books.) But I shall pop up now and then!

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