"Walkabout Year is a brilliant, amusing, and canny piece of autobiography by a writer who has, in book after book, established himself as one of America's major essayists. He is part Montaigne, part Garrison Keillor, part Mark Twain, but mostly Pickering."Jay Parini
Walkabout Year: Twelve Months in Australiaby Sam Pickering, Jr. Samuel Pickering
"Reading Pickering," said Smithsonian, "is like taking a walk with your oldest, wittiest friend." In Walkabout Year, Samuel Pickering, the professor who inspired the movie Dead Poets Society, provides an intimate, engaging chronicle of his family's year in Western Australia. The reader is pulled into Pickering's tight family circle and off on an
"Reading Pickering," said Smithsonian, "is like taking a walk with your oldest, wittiest friend." In Walkabout Year, Samuel Pickering, the professor who inspired the movie Dead Poets Society, provides an intimate, engaging chronicle of his family's year in Western Australia. The reader is pulled into Pickering's tight family circle and off on an intriguing trip to another land.
With humor, skill, and insight, Pickering describes the educational system his three children experienced; the family's journeys from one area of the country to another as he lectured; and the peopleboth academics and nonacademicshe encountered. He compares the flora, fauna, and economics to those in America, and reveals much else about daily life in a new country. As a result, Walkabout Year is part travelogue, part reflection on the differences between two cultures, and part autobiography. As Smithsonian stated, "Pickering has created his own comfortable world, and it is always a pleasure to slip into his company for a time." Readers will feel a strong bond with the family and as if they too have been thoroughly exposed to the intriguing world of Australia.
- University of Missouri Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)
- Age Range:
- 14 - 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
I never thought about going to Australia on my sabbatical.Instead I dreamed of going to Greece. Before Vicki and I hadchildren, we explored the Dodecanese. We wore floppy hats, sandals,and shorts. We drank retsina in cafes with red and yellow flowerson tables and walked along dusty roads bordered by olive trees. Lastspring I taught a course on "nature writing." The first book assignedwas Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Creatures, an autobiographydescribing five years Durrell lived on Corfu with his family. Durrellwas a boy, but instead of spending days in a classroom, he roamedhill and shore. He caught zoos of the crawling and flying creations. Inthe process he educated himself and trapped shelves of anecdotes. AsI taught the course, I imagined roaming an island with my children,leading them through a library of natural history. Together we followeddeep paths across limestone hills. In shadows beneath gray bouldersred and black poppies bloomed. Along a ravine lemon trees wereyellow with fruit. I imagined us sitting on rocks and eating oranges, thejuice clinging to our chins like honey, words rustling sweet about us.In my class students read poems written by William Wordsworth, thenineteenth-century English poet. Late at night verses of Wordsworth'spoetry turned through my mind. Instead of thoughts sublime, however,I had feelings fleshly and dreamed of strolling beaches with Vicki,recapturing moments of "splendor in the sand," or so I imagined atmy desk.
I decided to go to Kos. Four hours northwest of Rhodes by steamer,Kos had a population of twenty thousand people. Fortymiles long andone mile wide, the island resembled a bottle opener, one sticky withfruit: grapes, melons, and pomegranates. In ancient times Kos wasfamous for its Asklepieion dedicated to medicine and named afterAsklepios, the god of healing. Fifteen years ago I explored the ruinsof the Asklepieion. Cicadas chattered in pines at the top of the hill.I looked across the sea at Turkey. Houses in Bodrun floated throughthe edge of sight like white motes. Suddenly a tortoise crawled out ofbrush at my feet. The animal's right eye was swollen shut, resemblinga golf ball that had been rolled through mud then scraped on a rock.Jutting out of the corner of the tortoise's eye was a thorn. I grasped thetortoise's neck and stretched it, wrapping my left hand around it likea collar so that the animal's head stuck out between my thumb andindex finger. Then using the thumb and index finger on my right handas tweezers, I gripped the thorn. At first the thorn would not comeout, but then it slid loose, glistening and followed by a spurt of brownpus. I saved the tortoise's eye, and maybe its life. A year on Kos, I toldVicki, would remove all the splinters that bothered us and made usrub irritatingly against each other.
"That's well put," Vicki said opening the oven and taking out achicken casserole, "but turtles are not children. Children want to go toschool and have friends." "I will teach the children," I said, "and I'll betheir friend." "Do you know how cold the winter will be on Kos?" Vickisaid, pausing before she answered her own question; "damn cold, Ican tell you. And if you think," she continued, taking the lid off thecasserole, steam rising in a cloud to the ceiling, "that I am going towalk naked with you on the beach you are mistaken. We are too oldfor that sort of thing." Compromise, nay, giving way completely is notsimply the blood of marriage, it is also the muscular stuff of narrative.Deciding not to go to Kos was the first step I took toward Australia.
At the time of my last sabbatical, Edward was three, Francis, five,and Eliza, a baby. Doings for the children so filled hours that I stayedin Storrs and didn't dream of elsewheres. Although I was taking theyear off at half salary in hopes of traveling abroad, remaining at homewas also appealing. At home I would not stagger beneath suitcasesbulging with worries about schools, houses, and doctors. At homedays would fold seamlessly into each other. "Where are you goingon your sabbatical?" Iack asked me two weeks later at a reception forfaculty of the College of Arts and Sciences. After I explained that Iwanted to go to the Dodecanese but had decided against it becauseof the children, he said, UGo to Australia." "Where?" I asked. "Perth orAdelaide," he answered; "Perth is a children's paradise."
"Vicki," I said that night in bed, "let's go to Australia; people speakEnglish, and the children could go to school and make lots of friends.""That sounds fine to me,~ she said, turning off the light, "but I'm tirednow and want to go to sleep. You make the arrangements and tellme about them." The next morning I called the Australian Embassy inWashington and talked to a member of the cultural affairs staff. "Perthis wonderful," he said, adding that he had a friend at the University ofWestern Australia. "I will call him," the man said, "and see what he cando for you." And that was simply that. Before Vicki and I considered thetrip, we were on our way. Moreover, I decided to write essays about theyear. Seven or eight years ago, a former governor of Tennessee spentsix months in Australia with his family. Afterward he wrote a bookabout the experience. The man was decent and bright, but the bookwas poor. "That's what happens," an Australian told me, "when youlive in a Lear jet. If you stay on the ground you will do better."
Our deciding to go to Australia resembled an engagement, made inthe passion of a moment but over time shaping its own identity, nomatter the wishes of anyone involved. Vicki spent the night before ourwedding crying in her bathroom at home. The engagement to whichshe agreed almost carelessly had hardened into stone. Invitationshaving been sent and friends having assumed expectations as weighty,in her mind at least, as iron bars, all she could do was weep then marchto the altar the next morning. Similarly, once I mentioned that I wasthinking about going to Australia, people transformed considerationinto fact. "How exciting," a woman said, telephoning Vicki, "what atrip! I wish Carl would plan something like that." Alas, I plannedlittle, and preparations were mostly time-consuming, not exciting. Icanceled my automobile insurance for the year and paid home and lifeinsurance in advance. I bought short pants, loose cotton shorts madein the Philippines, from the legs of which my knees and calves hungdown and swayed like thin, rusty bell clappers. I wrote automobileand airline companies trying to enlist sponsors for my essays. I was notsuccessful. "I have to love a project before I give an advance," an editorwrote, "and your idea just doesn't thrill me." We spent a morning inWillimantic having passport pictures taken. We spent another morningat the post office filling out forms for passports. For visas I gathered afolio of papers and mailed them to the Australian Consulate in NewYork. After receiving them, an official asked me to send a copy of Vicki'sand my marriage certificate. I refused. "The request," I answered, "iscommon." Six days before the children went to summer camp in MaineI learned they needed physicals. Dr. Dardick squeezed them into anafternoon, charging eleven dollars apiece for the examinations.
Once the children were at camp, Vicki cleaned and packed thehouse. I mailed checks to Brian Gamache and to Grasshopper Lawnsso that they would clean the gutters and rake the leaves in the fall.Mr. Fish regrouted the bathrooms, and I hurried through essays andreviews that I had agreed to write. Because of George the dog I didnot rent the house. Instead I arranged for two graduate students to behouse sitters. Rents on our street ranged from a thousand to fifteenhundred dollars a month. My charging nothing for the house madeGeorge the most expensive four-legged mongrel in Storrs, if not inConnecticut. Two days before leaving Vicki wrote instructions for thehouse sitters. I typed them on the computer. The instructions wereeighteen pages long. Four pages pertained to George. My old sweatersbecame George's bedding. "George's sweaters," Vicki wrote, "may bewashed with detergent except for wool ones. Two are particularly nice;one is cashmere! Always cover the cushions with a sweater. Use oneor two or three sweaters for blankets. George will need lots of coversin winter. Tuck him in like a baby. Use sweaters on the TV room dogpillow also. Try not to let the wicker touch the radiator. George willhibernate in its heat in winter. We turn the heat down or off at nightGeorge always sleeps downstairs in one of his beds."
At ten-thirty in the morning on August 25, we left for the airport.I hired a limousine to take us, a white Cadillac with a claret interiorand lines of orange lights flickering around the ceiling. Loaded withsix suitcases, three duffel bags, ten backpacks, and five people, thelimousine was the only vehicle that could have carried us, aside froma paneled van or a dump trunk. The limousine cost $90.75, by thistime an almost meaningless expense as the airplane tickets for thefive of us cost $8,337 round-trip, Francis at twelve being classified asan adult. The suitcases and duffel bags were new, bought on sale for$452.59 at Sears and Kabels in the Buckland Hills Mall. The ride in thelimousine was a success. None of us had ridden in a limousine before,and after Edward forgot George and stopped crying, all three childrenput on sunglasses with reflecting lenses and pretended to be celebrities.Eliza's glasses had scarlet rims. When she draped herself against theseat and lifted a champagne glass, she looked to the limousine born.For earrings Vicki wore a pair of stainless steel kangaroos. Whenevershe moved, the kangaroos hopped, "anticipating going home," Francissaid. For my part I wore loose khaki trousers, cowboy boots, and ared T-shirt. Across the front of the shirt, an orange bird of paradisebloomed. Two blue tree frogs hunkered on a green leaf, one pullingitself over the back of the other and bringing thoughts inappropriatefor airplane travel to mind. "When people see us arrive at the airport,"Eliza said, waving languidly at a man driving a Ford, "they will thinkwe are movie stars." "Not," I thought, "when they see us unload. Thenthey will think we work for a circus. Only clowns could stuff so muchjunk into a car."
The ride to the airport was the easiest part of the trip to Australia.Forty and a half hours and five flights loomed ahead of us. FromHartford to Chicago we sat in the last seats in the plane, only jetmotors visible out the windows. From Chicago to Los Angeles we flewin a DC-10. We sat in the first seats facing the bulwark that dividedtourist from business class, the movie unwatchable but shaking likerain before our eyes. Stewards thrust platters of food at us. I ate littlebecause I do not like to use bathrooms on planes. More relaxed, thechildren devoured everything put before them. From Los Angeles weflew to Hawaii. Unfortunately the electricity on the 747 scheduled totake us to Sydney went haywire, and we spent five hours in the airportat Honolulu, watching the sun rise over the tarmac. During the day Idrank so many cans of orange juice that I became citric and, bloatedwith criticism, paced about and muttered. In contrast the Australianswaiting for our flight sat quietly, my first indication that citizens of thecontinent did not resemble characters from their films, extravagantindividuals long on personality and knives. I looked out the window.Eight men stood under the airplane, each with a flashlight and a setof plans in his hands, all the men looking in different directions.Minutes turned slowly, and as Australians chatted or dozed, I longedfor a seasoning of brash New Yorkers. To pass time I shaved once andbrushed my teeth twice. Eventually airline personnel served Hawaiiansouvenir pastries, or so Vicki dubbed them. The pastries resembledancient volcanoes, the sharp edges of which had been eroded bytime. In the mouth of each volcano squatted the lava, a red plop ofhard, waxy jam. Instead of serving the pastry, Qantas representativesinstructed the three hundred and fifty passengers to form a single line.Without protest people followed the instructions, and after standingfor twenty minutes, we each received a souvenir pastry and a tepid cupof tea.
Once the flight took off, I read Thomas Carlyle's extended essay SartorResartus, a book I last read as a student thirty years ago. Supposedly abiography compiled from paper bags containing the autobiographicalleavings of the learned German professor Diogenes Teufelsdrockh,Sartor Resartus was a device enabling Carlyle to write his own philosophy.On a plane, or really anywhere, I am not up to philosophy,and so I read Carlyle for snippets, underlining crochets stitched outof irritation, statements such as "Custom doth make dotards of usall" and Teufelsdrockh's remark, "Of the insignificant portion of myEducation, which depended on Schools, there need almost no noticebe taken." When I read that language was "the Garment of Thought,"I wondered about my red T-shirt and cowboy boots, simple sentencesand metaphors stretched ragged. I finished Sartor Resartus over theSouth Pacific halfway between Honolulu and Sydney. My reading thenbecame mundane. For the Department of Immigration, Local Government,and Ethnic Affairs, I filled out five Incoming Passenger Cards,forging the names of the rest of the family. The instructions for a sectionentitled "Main Reason for Coming to Australia" read "Please MarkONLY ONE Box." The card provided nine choices: In Transit, Convention,Business, Accompanying Business Visitor, Visiting Relations,Holiday, Employment, Education, and Other. I wondered if businesstravelers and their spouses had to provide marriage certificates. "No,"a man told me later, "if a chap comes from Japan with a bag full of yenhe can bring a geisha house with him." On my card I marked Other.On the four remaining cards I drew a caret before the O of Other andwrote in the word Accompanying.
The flight on which we were supposed to fly to Perth had longdeparted when we landed in Sydney. After we retrieved our bags,Qantas bustled us through Customs and onto a plane. Four hourslater we landed in Perth. Australian airlines are more relaxed thanthose in the United States. After leaving Sydney the pilot opened hisdoor, and keeping it open until just before landing, he invited childrenand interested adults to visit the cockpit. One by one people traipsedforward, including a group of retarded adults returning home from atrip to Disneyland. On flights in the United States I become nervouswhenever I see a person walk toward the front of a plane to use abathroom. There are so many nutcases in America that I want thecockpit door bolted. "Jesus," I thought as I watched a very large retardedman wedge himself through the door, "if one of these people stumbles,much less gets frightened and has a seizure, that's the end of us."
No one met us in Perth. The telex that Qantas officials in Hawaiiassured me would be sent to the University of Western Australia givingour new schedule had not been sent. Two weeks earlier I talked onthe telephone to Bob White, professor of English at the university.Bob booked an apartment for us and said he would meet us at theairport. If I had known the address of the apartment, I would havehired two cabs to take us and our luggage there. I tried to call Bob, butthe Perth telephone book listed eighty-seven Whites with Christiannames beginning with R. We arrived late in the afternoon, and theuniversity was shut. For a moment I did not know what to do. ThenI remembered Charles Edelman. An American born on Staten Island,Charles taught in the English department at Edith Cowan University.On Bob's advice I had telephoned Charles from Connecticut. Charlesdescribed schools in Perth and suggested neighborhoods in which tolive. Only one C. Edelman appeared in the telephone book. Charlesand Leslie, his wife, were eating dinner when I called. They put dinnerin the icebox and twenty minutes later arrived at the airport inseparate cars. When we reached the apartment, Bob was waiting forus, presents in his hands: for me, a book, The Living West of Australia;for the children, cookies and soft drinks; and for Vicki, two bottles ofAustralian champagne.
We drank the champagne, and after Bob, Charles, and Leslie left, Iwalked down Fairway and found a fish and chips store where I boughtdinner, the first fish and chips the children ever ate. At a comer groceryrun by a Chinese family Vicki bought milk and cereal for breakfast.Bob had arranged for us to stay in the apartment for a month, theEnglishdepartmentpayingthefirstweek'srentasawelcomingpresent.Although I eventually liked the apartment, it did not appeal to me thatfirst night. Upstairs were a bathroom and three small bedrooms, onewith bunk beds, another with a single twin bed, and a third with adouble bed. Downstairs were a kitchen, a combination living roomand dining room, and a small washroom with a toilet at one endFurnishing the living and dining room were a gas heater, a ceiling lampa sofa, two armchairs, a standing lamp, and a coffee table. Behind thesofa stood a laminated table with six wooden chairs around it. Thenight was cold, but I was too tired to figure out how to operate the gasheater, so we went to bed right after dinner. The mattress on whichVicki and I slept resembled a V. A deep trench ran down the middleand throughout the night we rolled down from the raised edges andthumped against each other. Because it tumbled mates against oneanother, such a mattress might be a wise investment for the manor woman, experiencing a domestic chill. For the couple exhausted bytraveling halfway around the world, I do not recommend the mattress.At three o'clock Edward went to the bathroom. Flushing the toiletstarted water coursing through the bowl. I got up and took the topoff the tank to examine the innards. The ball and levers differed fromthose in Connecticut, and for a moment I couldn't dam the streamcascading through the bowl. " Oh, God," I exclaimed, and putting downthe plastic seat, I sat on the toilet and cried. "What have we done,"said to Vicki when I returned to bed, "why did we leave our nice houseand little dog in Connecticut?" "You are asking that question long afterthe plane has bolted the hanger," Vicki said, trying to claw a way upher side of the mattress and out of the gulch.
The next morning was sunny. I looked out a window. ImmediatelyI felt better. Trumpet vine twisted over a fence. A singing honeyeaterdropped onto a pink grevillea and thrusting its bill into a blossomdusted the crown of his head with yellow pollen. On the roof ofnearby house two laughing pigeons bubbled at each other. In thedistance a magpie called, its song bouncing, resembling a coil ina music box. By the front door bottlebrush bloomed. Eight incheslong and round as the mouth of a jar, the flowers dangled in scarletspikes, smelling cool and clear. Suddenly I heard a shrill, rapid piping,reminding me of the sound made by smoke detectors. In a coral treefour parrots shredded blossoms. The flowers swept upward in red gustslike flame, the pink stamens glowing then becoming ash and fallingout and downward. The parrots were ring-necks, feathery tapestries ofred, green, blue, black, purple, and gray, the colors bound together bya yellow band cinched around the birds' necks. Never had I seen aparrot outside a zoo, and I didn't expect to see them in Perth. "Vicki,"I shouted, "come look. You won't believe your eyes."
When I first saw the birds and plants, I could not identify them.So long as the language in a new place is the same as the languagespoken at home, adjusting to difference is easy. Custom and quirkare quickly learned. Thought runs shallow, no matter the terrain, andbending words to fit local expectation is simple. Birds and trees areharder matters. Plant life in Western Australia was stunningly lush.The luminous reds and purples of Perth dismayed me, and I felt like astranger. "I have never managed to lose my old conviction that travelnarrows the mind," G. K. Chesterton wrote at the beginning of WhatI Saw in America. Chesterton was right, I thought, as I stood on thesidewalk watching the parrots. I knew the birds and flowers, trees,snakes, and insects of New England. When I studied a meadow inConnecticut, I knew how to look and what to look for. As a resultI could probe beneath the topsoil of things. In Australia I did notknow how to focus. By the time I learn to see, I thought, I will beback in Connecticut. "Don't worry," Vicki said later that morning, "atworst you will write a superficial book. Actually that might increasesales. As things are now your sales couldn't be much smaller. Anyway,"she continued, "you can buy handbooks and learn the names ofthings. What I want to know is what are you going to do about thechildren's schools?"
Chesterton said that only a "double effort" of "imaginative energy"could prevent travel from narrowing the mind. For the next three weeksthe practical, not the imaginative, sapped my energy. For Edward andEliza, Charles recommended Nedlands Primary School. The schoolwas three blocks from the apartment, and on the afternoon of oursecond day in Perth we walked to it. On the school grounds a pair ofkookaburras foraged through holes in the trunk of a date palm. Abovethem the crown of the tree sprayed upward, ferns growing like weedsamid the fronds, and orange dates hanging down in strings. Along awalk black pods of kurrajong lay open, exposing rows of yellow seeds.Above our heads a red-capped parrot twisted noisily through a marri,digging into the fruits.
The school buildings were red brick. Over them tin roofs rolledin the sunlight like waves. The school resembled a small complexof stables and carriage houses attached to a Georgian estate: thelibrary, the saddlery, the administrative offices, the blacksmith's shop.In the largest courtyard grew great dumps of lavender. Scattered aboutthe buildings were bits of playgrounds: playscapes painted blue andyellow, sets of parallel bars, tractor tires, heavy stumps of eucalyptus,then sticking out from a peppermint tree, a walkway resembling thebow of a ship, the tree itself forming both sides of the boat, thefigurehead a limb white with blossoms.
Behind the school were a small green playing field, an asphaltbasketball court, and a swimming pool. The school looked quiet andold-fashioned, and early on Monday we enrolled Edward and Eliza. InConnecticut, Edward was supposed to start fifth grade in Septemberand Eliza third. The school year in Perth being two-thirds over and thechildren good students, we registered Eliza for the remainder of thirdgrade and Edward for fifth. After Christmas, Edward would start thesixth grade and Eliza the fourth. The children found the work easy. "Iadded and subtracted thousands in the second grade," Eliza said, "andhere we don't do hundreds." Reading assignments consisted of smallbooks in big type. To supplement her schoolwork Eliza read througha bookcase in the Nedlands Public Library, during the first two weeksof school completing L. M. Montgomery's novels describing the life ofAnne of Green Gables. Classes in Storrs rarely consisted of more thaneighteen or nineteen students. In Nedlands, Eliza joined a class oftwenty-seven while Edward entered one with twenty-four. In contrastto public schools at home, Nedlands Primary did not furnish childrenwith books and supplies. Instead parents purchased them from a localmerchant. Children wore uniforms: boys, gray shorts and a light bluecotton shirt with a soft collar; girls, a blue skirt and blue blouse or ablack and gray dress, loose and flowing, a good outfit in which to playtag. Both boys and girls wore blue sweaters. Printed in white letterson the left side of the front of the sweater was NEDLANDS. Abovethe letters lumbered a pelican, his near wing clawing sharp above hisbody, pulling him upward.
The One-Handed Pianist and other stories
By Ilan Stavans
University of New Mexico Press
Copyright © 1996 Ilan Stavans.All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Samuel F. Pickering is a Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut. His unconventional teaching style was one of the inspirations for the character of Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams in the film Dead Poets Society. Academically, Pickering specializes in the familiar essay, children's literature, nature writers, and 18th- and 19th-century English literature. He has published many collections of nonfiction personal essays as well as over 200 articles. Pickering and his wife, Vicki, live in a small house in Connecticut with three little rescue dogs and two imaginary grandchildren.“Well-behaved children,” he writes, “mannered and old-fashioned, kids who genuflect to their elders and use bad language only at the dinner table at home.”
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