Recently I lived one of those reality TV moments. You know the kind – two long lost sisters meet. Separated from birth, they find themselves at opposite ends of the globe. They share the same DNA, but it is only through their meeting that they discover a bond that is anything but accidental.
Nobel-prize-winning author Toni Morrison once said a sister is a special kind of double, ”someone who is both ourselves and very much not ourselves”. Well, almost 26 years ago to the day, we of Melbourne were united to our collective sister. Yes, Boston and Melbourne are sister cities matched by chromosomes, with a predisposition for a life threaded by culture, education and intellectual pursuits. We are sport patriots and more gently inclined to European ways. So with this DNA as my rod and staff, the search for my sister began. But was I to find my double or my opposite? Looking for your sister in a city is a little like looking under a rock for a clue. But always when you least expect, it happens – the anticipated moment. The first such was at Boston Common, the city’s central gardens. It was here that our own Fitzroy Gardens seemed to sit like a spectral figure. European plane trees offered the worker a canopy, manicured lawns and tended flower gardens gave distracted delight, and where squirrels scampered I was reminded of our ringtail possums creating a similar mischievous theatre for the passer-by.
Then I picked up The Boston Globe. The DNA evidence was undeniable. Every day the front page did not seem complete without a story on the big game in town – the Red Sox or the Bruins – always there to remind me of my own Australian rules. Yes Boston, in our adoration of the game we are a special kind of double – only a hurricane, pestilence or war could remove the big game du jour from headline status in our lives.
For my daily bread I was led to Copley Square Farmers Market, where I wanted to tell you, Boston, about the wonder of my own Victorian markets. And when I saw woman after woman dressed in basic black, I knew I had packed the right signature.
On hearing Yo-Yo Ma with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I was reminded of Melbourne’s strong sense of civic ownership of our resident symphony orchestra. And not a day went by when I wasn’t caught eavesdropping. As I walked on Massachusetts Avenue I overheard snippets about cells that refused to mutate or the latest lecture by Noam Chomsky, and I wanted to know more and join in – just like a young sister tugging at her older sibling.
This was the moment I slowly began to adopt your ways, to talk your talk. I would soon talk about Comm Ave instead of Commonwealth Avenue. I would take the book, the newspaper or the Kindle and, like it seemed every other Bostonian, while away the hours. And like every other Bostonian, I would soon be jogging along the Charles River. Yes, we were becoming sisters. But in that longer passing, when our acquaintance developed beyond the seeing and the doing, I also learnt your hidden narratives, those traits I could only discover by being with you. I would learn the parts of you that were not very much like myself.
You were more reserved than I. You carried yourself with a certain stillness that I could not emulate. Where I was prone to the extrovert, you were insular – you seemed to carry your life like a book whose story unfolds in a measured, discreet manner, whereas the book of my daily life seemed to be more like a tell-all. I was more the larrikin, and while I was more prone to exaggeration, yours was a tempered language.
You turned off your lights earlier of an evening, but there was always the mystery of what would be continued in a doorway, a theatre or in a brownstone apartment. It might have been a single antique light or perhaps what was left on a step outside the home that seemed to suggest that it would take time to unwrap you.
As time drew to departure, I reminded myself of the uncanny ease when we met. There was no strangeness in our meeting. There was no map – I remembered a kind of embrace as if we already shared a secret that only sisters tell each other.
Xenia Hanusiak is the recipient of the 2011 Hugh Rogers Melbourne-Boston Fellowship, which aims to enhance Melbourne and Boston’s reputations as centres of knowledge excellence and to strengthen international relationships in medicine, the arts and education.
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