Friday, 25 April 2014

ANZAC Day

Five years ago today I was crawling out of bed at 4:30am in the hushed pre-dawn darkness in Newcastle, Australia. Joining my fellow International and Aussie students, we boarded a bus that drove us down to Nobby's beach. The day was just a mere hint of pink on the horizon.

2009, Nobby's Beach. ANZAC service
ANZAC stands for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. There is day to remember these soldiers that is observed each year on April 25 - the day the ANZAC forces landed at Gallipoli. Thousands of men were slaughtered on the beaches there in 1915.

When we arrived, Nobby's beach in Newcastle was already busy. By the time the sun began inching up, the Military band was welcoming the day. Flags were raised, and men in uniform both young and old marched in. There were speeches, someone read a poem (The Ode of Remembrance, I believe), and there was also a prayer; commemorative wreaths were laid out and the Military band played 'Waltzing Matilda' as well as other patriotic songs. 500 metres up the hill, four canon shots were fired from Fort Scratchley. The service ended, of course, with the Last Post.

This particular piece of bugle music never fails to get me choked up. In the minute of silence afterwards you can not help but feel grateful to those who fought and those who continue to fight to this day. That I had the opportunity to stand there on the sand, free and young and full of life - how could I not shed a tear for the brave and the few?

Military band on Nobby's Beach, 2009
I am not Australian, so why should ANZAC day feature in my calendar, you might ask? Well, I did live there; the Australians and New Zealanders also fought in two World Wars in both the European and Asian theatres. In conflicts on such a global scale as these, we are united.

Australia holds a very special place in my heart, and my remembrances on ANZAC day extend beyond the heartfelt thanks to past and present soldiers. It is also a day where I can think back to my time there, the experiences I had, the people I met. You see, Australia played a huge role in shaping me into the person I am today.

Sun just up over Nobby's Beach, Australia, 2009
It started before I left: growing up I watched The Man from Snowy River and programmes like Skippy and The Crocodile Hunter somewhat religiously. Steve Irwin was, and remains, my hero. Some Aussies may scoff at this as he was quite a wild character. However, to a twelve year old a world away, learning about new animals and understanding the importance of wildlife conservation was eye opening. There was a world out there that needed saving, and I spent months climbing trees with an old video camera filming all sorts of animals in the back forty. (A rather lovely American idiom that means a section of land, usually quite large.) I was determined to go to Australia, pitch up at Australia Zoo outside of Brisbane, and offer Steve Irwin my knowledge of wild animals. Sadly, I never got the chance as he died in September of 2006. I learned of his death while sitting in my 8am Anthropology lecture.

Two years later I spent weeks planning out how I could get to Australia. Come hell or high water, I was going. After welcoming in 2009, I hopped on a plane in LA in January. I spent a few weeks with my college room mate exploring New Zealand before arriving in Australia in February. I jumped on a train from Sydney's Central station and began a journey from which I have never ceased. I was beginning the rest of my life in that moment. I have never looked back.

One of the many commemorations of a True Blue Aussie
I did go to Australia Zoo; I had nothing to offer but my tears. Silly, perhaps to grieve a childhood hero that one has never met, but there we are. I'd made it at last, and it was one dream I had fulfilled. How wonderful it is that Steve's legacy and his life's work continues to live on through his family and colleagues.

The things I miss most about Oz are naturally the friends I made there, but also the food (Arnott's biscuits in particular!), the bizarre (and often dangerous) wildlife, the fact that one can get away with saying "mate" in every sentence, and making each thing you say into a question. I miss feeling entirely at home in a culture that often seemed like an odd mix of American and British. I miss the scorching heat and the hospitality I experienced. I could go on for days, really. It is a wonderful country - if only it wasn't quite so far away. I often think that if I go back, I will go back for good.

ANZAC day has come and gone in Oz, a day ahead of the rest of us. But now, in the Netherlands, on the eve of a national holiday here, I am dreaming of a sunburnt country.
Let's crack open a tinny, mates...