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It's CAN-bra, not Can-BERRA

(Reprint from News: February 18, 2002)

February 9, 2002


A few hours later and after driving past what seemed like a million eucalypts (quite obviously Australia's national tree), I reached Canberra, Australia's capital and its largest planned city with a population of about 300,000.  Canberra is kind of a strange place, mainly because everything is so nicely laid out with concentric streets that radiate from the Parliament building. 


Before 1901, Australia consisted of seven separate British colonies but in that year, and with the English Crown's blessing, the several colonies became the country of Australia.  Melbourne and Sydney jostled to become the new country's capital, but instead a site was selected equidistant between the two and... voila... the city of Canberra was born.  The first thing I learned after stopping at the Visitor Center was that it's pronounced CAN-bra, not Can-BERRA, as I've always called it.  I had known that Brisbane was "Briz-bin" and that Cairns was "Cans," but this CAN-bra thing took a little getting used to.


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Left:  The Australian Parliament (left) and downtown Canberra (right).  Canberra is the largest planned city in Australia.  With all the government buildings and concentric streets, it's also, as I discovered, a little strange.


I spent all Saturday afternoon exploring Canberra's National War Memorial, a really amazing place.  Being an avid history buff, I've visited a lot of museums but I think the only one that has impressed me more is the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. 


The War Memorial doesn't glorify war; instead, it honors Australians who fought and died in global conflicts, starting with the Boer War in the late 1800s and ending with Viet Nam, which surprised me, since I didn't realize Australians had fought in Viet Nam alongside the Americans. 


A huge part of the museum is devoted to the Battle of Gallipoli, with numerous maps, dioramas, and memorabilia of this failed Australian invasion of Turkey during World War I.  As I'm discovering, Gallipoli is a big deal in Australia.  You can joke about someone's mother, but don't dare make a joke about Gallipoli.  Probably the most touching part of my visit happened late in the afternoon when, just before closing time at 5 p.m., all the visitors including myself were ushered out the doors where, in the courtyard by the eternal flame, a lone bagpiper played to honor Australians who have died on battlefields around the world.  About 200 visitors quietly listened as the bagpiper played "Amazing Grace," and after he stopped, you could've heard a pin drop.


I got a motel room that night in Canberra and watched the first night of the Winter Olympics from Salt Lake City.  I've always been a big fan of the Olympics, especially the smaller and more casual Winter Olympics, and it's been interesting to watch a different country's broadcast of the games.  They have the same camera feeds here as in America, but the commentators are Australian and the focus is definitely on the small Australian team. 


During my first week in Australia, I couldn't figure out why they played the 1960s tune, Georgy Girl, so much on the radio.  Then I learned that the group who sang it, The Seekers, are Australian.  Here it is.

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The American broadcasts of the Olympics are usually pretty intense, focusing on how many medals the U.S. athletes have won -- or why they haven't won more.  Here in Australia, though, the tone is a bit more light-hearted because Australia, of course, doesn't have an abundance of winter activities, especially considering that most of whatever snow that falls in this country is confined to a small area near Mt. Kosciusko which, at 6,700', is Australia's highest point.  Speaking of winter sports, the concept of skiing in July seems strange to me, and skiing among eucalypts instead of pine trees is really weird.  


Anyway, the Australian coverage of the Olympics has been fun to watch and, though hopes aren't high for many medals, Australians are quite proud of their small team.  I'm not trying to sound patronizing, but after seeing American competitors mope and whine in previous Olympics, including Portland's own Tonya Harding (that baton-wielding, trailer-park glamour girl and my former neighbor -- well, almost), it's refreshing to see athletes -- and indeed, an entire country -- take pride in 10th- and 20th-place finishes.


Before I left Canberra (oops, I mean CAN-bra) the next morning, I visited a couple of sites that I'd heard good things about.  The first was the Australia National Museum, a multi-million dollar building with futuristic architecture which recently opened to the public.  The goal of the much-ballyhooed and modernistic National Museum was supposedly to tell the story of Australia, but I thought it was disjointed and emphasized style over substance, and I was pretty let-down.  Interestingly enough, the museum mentioned very little about Australia's convict past (the original settlers in Australia were convicts deported from England in the 1700s) and about the Aborigines, who weren't treated nearly as well by the English as Maoris have been in New Zealand.  I had hoped to spend a few hours at the museum but left after 45 minutes -- good thing it was free. 


I couldn't leave Australia's capital, though, without dropping by the Parliament Building.  While the National Museum was a big disappointment, the Parliament Building was utterly fascinating.  I was just going to pop in for a few minutes but stayed for two hours, during which I joined a guided tour and learned quite a bit about the Australian political system. 


It seems that back in 1901, when Australia became a country, they looked around the world for an existing political system that would work in Australia and settled largely on the American bicameral system.  Australia adopted a Senate and House of Representatives, each very similar to America's system, while retaining some elements of the English system, with a Prime Minister (currently John Howard) who is a sitting member of the House. The Parliament Building is a lot like the U.S. Capitol building with the House and Senate on opposite sides of the building, but it's more modern.  Best of all, it has cushier seats in the visitor's gallery.


    2-2130_Parliament_Building.jpg (38702 bytes)    2-2134_Driving_to_Snowy_Mtns.jpg (41681 bytes)

Above left:  The new Parliament building in Canberra.  I spent a couple hours here and found it really interesting.  It's a lot like the U.S. Capitol building... but, of course, without the dome.

Above center:  When Australia's government was formed in 1901, they borrowed a lot of ideas from America, such as a Senate and House of Representatives.  Here's the Australian Senate chamber, which is a lot like the American Senate.  Definitely better seats, though.

Above right:  On the road again.  This is heading up to the Snowy Mountains


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