Saturday, August 16, 2008


Australia National University is courting me for their PhD program, and though I am 99% sure I want to continue on here at the University of Melbourne, I was willing to give the ANU a second glance. First, they have more applied ethicists on staff than any other university I’ve heard of. Second (and not coincidentally related to the first), they are the home of the internationally-renowned Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE). Third and most convincingly, they offered me an all-expenses-paid long weekend in Canberra to see if I liked their faculty and campus. I’m a sucker for free vacations, so off I flew to Melbourne’s nearest neighbor to the north.

Canberra is the Australian equivalent to Washington, D.C. It is the seat of Australian federal government. Like D.C., Canberra is located in a neutral territory not part of any state, and was chosen for its symbolic rather than functional geography. While D.C. is supposed to be at the heart of the original northern and southern American states, Canberra is as close as they could get to halfway between the two major cities Melbourne and Sydney. It would be like putting D.C. between Boston and New York… which would coincidentally make it end up in Hebron, CT, my hometown! Canberra’s location is about as reasonable and interesting as Hebron’s. There are some hills. Some fields. A few ponds, a big man-made lake. Some very small mountains off on the horizon. And in the middle of it all sits… Canberra.

When I mentioned to a few friends that I was going to Canberra for a few days, I invariably received the same response: “Oh god, why would you want to go there?” The overwhelming sentiment was that Canberra was such a dreadfully boring city that it wasn’t even worth visiting, despite the plethora of free museums and the like. “There’s too many bloody trees,” “The whole things’ one big boring park,” “There’s nothing to do”... Honestly, this sounded pretty appealing to me. I like places where most cityfolk think there is nothing to do. I like places with lots of trees. Canberra sounded like my kind of city.

I was wrong. Canberra is awful. [EDIT: my mistake, Hebron. You are much, much more interesting and lovely than Canberra.] It was like the newly-developed sections of Nashville TN without the music culture, or a smaller and less-historical Albany NY without the waterfront, or like the Storrs campus of UConn without the agrarian/pastoral backdrop… Picture the least inspiring modern low-rise urban landscape you can, and make it more boring. It’s like a business park. Add to that the fact that it’s terribly windy, designed entirely for cars (everything is spaced really really far apart with big boring parks in between so it takes forever to walk anywhere), and really actually has very little to do: it isn't rural enough to have outdoors fun, and not urban enough to have city fun. It's described by its inhabitants as a suburb in search of an urb.

And then the creepiest part: I was there during the school term, during both weekdays and weekend-days, and took numerous daytime and nighttime walks, so I assume I was seeing the city at a good cross-section of what should have been its busiest times. And there were no people. Anywhere. It was a ghost town. The streets and sidewalks were empty. The malls were empty. The restaurants were empty. The museums were empty. Where was everyone? They must have gone from being holed up in their homes to being holed up at work, and magically gone from one to the other because there was no rush hour traffic, very little traffic at all actually. I asked around, and learned that this was normal. It was disconcerting, and led to the whole city having the least energy of any populated place I have ever been.

So I followed suit. I holed up in my hostel, then snuck to the university campus for the lectures being presented by the philosophy departments (they have three), and repeated this for the majority of four days. The presentations were admittedly excellent. There were lectures and discussions of everything from the fairness of fair trade to the ethics of selling kidneys to the possible permissibility of political assassination to the representation of ‘the other’ in the WWII firebombing of Japan to the philosophy of statistics. My personal favorite was by a PhD student, Lena Eriksson, who spoke quite convincingly and insightfully on if and how religious reasons can be considered to be reasons on a public debating ground. The philosophy faculty in general seemed like a fun, brilliant group of people who really enjoyed one another and who worked closely together despite holding very different philosophical views. Pretty rare.
What made the endless talks bearable was that ANU had asked one person from each of the major universities in Australia and New Zealand up for the weekend, so I got to meet fellow students from all over. There were about a dozen of us total. I found I had a great deal in common with Roger, the guy up from Melbourne’s other university (Monash), and plan to keep in touch with him: he’s a rare philosopher/ outdoor adventure sports enthusiast/ vegetarian/ goofball like me! I don’t come across one of those every day. Roger and I stuck around in Canberra for an extra few days after the workshops ended, visiting the museums and biking around the lakes and up the hills and walking at night and looking into the cafes and bars and shops, hoping to find some quality that would redeem the city, but to no avail. The longer I spent there, the more I realized that it was a small, soul-less, inefficient, and uninteresting pile of concrete. I have no desire to ever return, even for the excellent PhD program. Sad, really.

Ok, that’s all really depressing. So let me end with the two highlights of the weekend. First: The new National Museum was fascinating. It presents aspects of Australian culture and history in a very unusual way. Rather than having a chronological layout or a subject-themed layout, the museum was organized by visual and material content. I.E., rather than having pre-colonial, Victorian, industrial, and modern sections, or having sections on industry, Aboriginal life, and sports, the museum had sections like: things made of grass; rabbits (stuffed rabbits, a piece of the fence, a rabbit fur blanket, photos of dead rabbits); heavy things made out of metal (post boxes with old postcards, irons and ironing boards, cars); words (prison-era texts, modern Aussie slang quizzes, audio recordings of Aboriginal songs); complicated visual patterns (industrial textiles, Aboriginal paintings, landscape photographs, textured natural artifacts); stuff relating to the bottom of the ocean (fish traps, scuba gear, trash, shells, photos of people diving); etc. My favorite exhibit was the backlit glass case of things that were 3”x1”, from arrowheads to action figures. The exhibits, and really the entire museum, seemed like they were created by graphic designers with a penchant for flea markets and a drastically irreverent and ahistorical conception of the world. My kind of museum. I was intrigued to note that while most of the adults visiting were confused and disturbed, the kids were all totally engaged and fascinated. Whatever the museum was doing was working for the kids. And for me.

The second highlight of the weekend was making chocolate chip cookies in the hostel kitchen, which had no oven. Roger and I tried various techniques (I love practical problem-solving!), including running the cookies through the conveyor-belt toaster, pan-frying the cookies, and microwaving them. Microwaving was the greatest success by far. They didn’t brown up satisfyingly like the others, but they were more thoroughly cooked and cookie-like. More fun than I’ve had in ages.

(the first photos below are a panorama)


Anonymous said...

The photo of the fountain reminded me of Geneva's Jet d'Eau ("fountain of water"). It looks exactly like the one in Canberra. Must be a boring-city thing.

Anonymous said...

Personally, the highlight of my time in Canberra was the bicycle museum which was actually a display in the back of a pub that was then continued in a warehouse. Lots of peculiar bicycles. But I did like the National Museum too. Very cool. At any rate, yes, Canberra as a whole can be boring. I liked Brisbane best, of all the big cities I visited.

I'm planning on following suit re the whole up and changing my life to travel around the world thing, but probably not for another 18-24 months. Saving up money first. Seems a few of my friends/acquaintances have done that and never looked back/regretted their decisions.

Hey. I'll look you up when I get back down to Australia. Whenever that is. There's a woman in Sydney I've got to see before long.

I hope you are happy, well and taking care of yourself.
-Ann Kabza