FROM THE STOOL

DOWN UNDER

My wife Mary and I just returned from a glorious three-week trip to Australia to revisit people and places last seen 20 years ago, and to indulge a life-long dream of attending the Australian Tennis Open.

It is very difficult to grasp the essence of anyplace without going there and spending time. This is particularly true of Australia because of its enormous size, small population and unique origins.

Except for a handful of native Aboriginals and a few Asian and European immigrants, most of the 18 million English speaking inhabitants are descended from prisoners, exiled from Great Britain, to what was once the world's largest penal colony.

While the Aussies still pay nominal homage to the Queen, and recognize their ancestry, it is the Yanks not the Poms (Aussie slang for Brits) with whom they are most comfortable and after whom they model their approach to life.

There is very little, if anything, not to like about Australia. There are unlimited natural resources clean air and pure water world-class wines spectacular beaches a few beautiful cities excellent transportation great food warmth, charm, and civility a passion for sport unswerving support for the underdog, and a genuine fondness and affection for each other found in few places.

While boisterous, often out spoken, rough and tumble types, it is almost impossible to find a rude Australian. It is easier for an American to feel at home not just because of the climate and clean safe environment, but because most Australians realize how lucky they are to enjoy a land mass about equal to the U.S. with the lowest population density in the free world, one of the highest standards of living, and a location which leaves them isolated from most of the world's problems.

Our first stop before going to Melbourne and the Tennis Open was Sydney, which just finished hosting the summer Olympics in a venue which established a new standard for the games. We spent a very hot day in January touring all of the extraordinary facilities. Unlike America, where one of our cities New York, Salt Lake wins the right to host the world's best athletes the Sydney Olympics was truly a national commitment. Our host explained that 80% of the country followed every event from Tai Kwon Do, where an Australian unbelievably won the gold medal to Marion Jones' remarkable five-medal performance. Perhaps this explains how Australia with 18 million citizens finished third to the U.S. and China in medal count.

Australians love to argue and do so without rancor or hostility. Unlike Americans, however, they never deal in personal invective. It is quite common for us to zing a friend by pointing out that they have put on a few pounds, or to speculate that they bought their shirt from the Salvation Army. Make such a comment, even to your oldest friend in Australia, and you are likely to have to deal with a bloody nose.

As I mentioned earlier, Australians genuinely like each other. A good example of this almost instant collegiality is a six-hour lunch we enjoyed as guest of newly met colleagues in Sydney last month. Wolverine World Wide had recently appointed an Australian distributor for its new line of Merrell performance footwear, and as Wolverine's Board Chairman, I felt it appropriate to meet the Managing Director, one Peter Pitt. As is often the case, Peter immediately suggested a social get-acquainted Saturday lunch before I visited their office and familiarized myself with their business. I had made prior arrangements to have dinner that evening with old friends who were flying in from Melbourne that afternoon at our hotel, but couldn't envision any conflict between lunch and dinner.

I should have suspected something unusual when Peter asked that we be ready by 9:30 a.m. for a pickup and a brief stop at his lovely flat in Double Bay, overlooking Sydney Harbor. After meeting his wife, Vivian, two other couples joined us and at 10:30 a.m. we were riding in a limousine drinking champagne for our 90-minutes ride to a water taxi. Peter explained that Australia boasts the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the free world, but also has the most draconian penalties for driving at or above .05 about two glasses of wine hence the hired cars. Three glasses of champagne later, we joined the water taxi and about 25 other people all headed for Peat's Byte, a rustic open air island marina and restaurant, which seats about 120 people in one the most beautiful settings on earth. Several large yachts tied up at the sparse docking facilities, and one anchored out and ferried people ashore in a tender.

By 12:30 p.m. every table was filled and each was preset with a half a dozen bottles of premium Australian red and white wines. By the time the menus were offered, the chemistry among the guests was much like a class reunion, as everyone mingled and got acquainted. As we were the only American tourists fresh from a record cold and snowy Chicago everyone was genuinely interested in learning why we were Down Under and how we were getting along.

As neither Mary nor I had eaten breakfast due to the early pickup, it is unclear if our answers made any sense, but people couldn't have been nicer. A five-star, five-course lunch was served over the next three hours and as it was very warm, dessert was followed not only by cordials, but by large quantities of high-octane Australian beer and ale.

Some time around course two, an Australian brother and sister began to sing American folk and pop songs at the open air bandstand. They were excellent and many couples danced between courses. By 4:30 p.m., it became clear that I would not be meeting my Melbourne friends as arranged at 5:30 p.m. back at our hotel. Peter remained sober enough to use his mobile phone to call the concierge and advised my friends we would be a couple hours late.

By the time some 40 of us reboarded the much overloaded water taxi, we were singing, dancing friends for life. As a boater it concerned me greatly that our lone driver had been drinking beer all afternoon, that we were shipping water through the scuppers, that our twin outboards were dragging bottom, and that one enterprising young lad was doing chin ups and twirls from the ropes which served as hand holds for the 20 of us forced to stand.

Nonetheless, we made it back to our hired cars, exchanged names and addresses with more of our new friends, dozed off for the 90 minute ride and joined our Melbourne guests for, god have mercy, cocktails and dinner. I will save the details for a later column. Suffice it to say that Mary and I are both back on Dr. Atkins' diet, a small price to pay for a great day Down Under.