September 18, 2004

The Little Things

When you live in a not-entirely-unfamiliar country for the first time, it's often the little things -- things you least suspect, like the unfamiliar sound made at the crosswalk to tell you it's safe to walk -- that take a while to adjust to. Bigger things (like driving on the other side of the road) and the things everyone talks about (which way the water drains in a sink) can sometimees be pretty banal by the time they get around to becoming your own experience. So here are some of the little things that struck me about Australia:

  • Food and shopping:  Australians eat a lot of meat and a lot of pies. Not to go on and on about the pies, but our microwave had one of those auto-program buttons for pies. When you pressed it, the display would ask "How many pies?". This probably caused us more amusement than it should have.

    Anyway, we found tofu was harder to come by (and there was less selection), and good veggie burgers could generally only be had from specialty shops. The beet is ubiquitous in Australia, particularly on sandwiches. If you want veggies on your sandwich, you ask for "salads," which typically includes the aforementioned beets! You can't buy frozen juice from concentrate anywhere we went, and if you want milk, get ready to learn a whole new nomenclature (as you have to do if moving between Canada and the U.S.). "Skinny milk" -- skim milk -- is the hardest to come by.

    Speaking of nomenclature, you'll have to bring a cheat sheet with you if you want to order beer in an Australian pub. Most of the States have different names for the sizes, as well as some different sizes. Some of the names I remember are "jug", "schooner", "middie", "pot", and I think "enormous vat" (o.k., maybe not the last one.) Thankfully Starbucks still has the same three clearly-named sizes for their drinks: tall, venti, and "our marketers were on crack when they named our drink sizes."

    Oh, and don't go looking for cheddar cheese. Ask for "tasty cheese" instead. For a sharper version, get "extra tasty" -- and don't stop to ask why anybody would buy plain old tasty cheese when extra tasty is on the market!

    Finally, you'll want to ask for "tomato sauce" -- not ketchup -- to go with your "chips" (not french fries). If you want the kind of chips that come in a bag, you're looking for "crisps."

  • Birds:  I'm not normally much of a bird-watcher, but the birds in Australia are quite something. This was especially true in Canberra, where cockatoos and rosellas (small, colourful parrot-like birds) frequented our backyard. I was also quite fond of the magpies and crows, which were plentiful in Melbourne as well. I find that early morning experiences can be quite vivid in forming impressions about a place, and I often awoke to the sound of the magpies warbling. In the evening, the crows would close out the day with their sorrowful sqwaks, which I am happy to imitate -- quite accurately, if I do say so myself -- on demand.

  • Brands:  No Crest toothpaste and no Tide detergent. What's this world coming to? Proctor and Gamble doesn't have the presence in Australia that it has in North America, Europe, and elsewhere, it would seem, so why not give Macleans toothpaste and Ocean Surf detergent a try? Missing your Oreo cookies? Try Arnott's Tim Tams instead (the Aussie cookie favourite), or sample a wide selection of breakfast and snack foods from Uncle Tobys [sic?]. If you're looking for Burger King, the logo and food will be familiar but the name -- "Hungry Jack's" -- won't be. Better to go for the Aussie alternative though -- home BBQs are extremely popular.

  • T.V.:  Australia has Neighbours, a U.K.-style soap opera that runs in the early evening. The closest Canadian parallel might be Degrassi Junior High, except Neighbours is more of an all-ages show (in terms of both content and audience). Miriam fell in love with Neighbours and is very sad not to be able to watch it in Canada.

    Meanwhile, don't get me started on the Australian versions of popular U.S. shows like American Idol and Big Brother. Australian Idol made me shed tears for the future of the Australian recording industry, and Australian Big Brother may be the most agonizing half hour of television in the world. Worse yet, Big Brother seemed to air constantly, under different banners like "Big Brother: Uncut", "Big Brother: Behind the Camera", "Big Brother: Eviction", and "Big Brother: Wild Dingos Take Pity on Australia and Devour the Cast and Crew." The producers should have had, in theory, hours and hours of tape with which to create a half an hour of good material each day, yet the final result had all the intrigue of watching a pile of lint mature.

    And then there's Australian television advertising, which is completely incomprehensible (our Canberra housemate Dom could be heard uttering "this is such shit" at least once a night in response to a baffling ad.) Couple the advertising with some bizarre business names -- who names an airline after a flightless bird () or their Internet ISP after an extinct bird (Dodo Internet)? -- and you're in for some good laughs.

  • Didjeridoo:  No self-respecting musician in Australia appears without a didjeridoo -- mostly, it would seem, to satisfy the tourists. The possible exception to this is the Opera House in Sydney, where we did not see a single didjeridoo. Speaking of the Opera House, there is a funny joke about it that goes like this: Australia has the best opera house in the world -- the outside is in Sydney and the inside is in Melbourne. Apparently they skimped a little bit when it came to the acoustics at the visually stunning Sydney Opera House, while Melbourne's is allegedly an aural but not visual treat.

  • Electricity:  Power sockets have on-off switches in Australia, as well as in New Zealand and Fiji. The downside was that I occasionally forgot to turn on the power for whatever I had plugged in. On the plus side, you could leave devices that you would normally unplug plugged in, simply flipping the switch off to prevent over-heating, standby electricity drawing, or whatever else it is you were worried about.

  • Road Safety:  Australian governments are really big on road safety, it would seem. What Canadian governments have done with cigarette pack warnings, the Australian Federal and State governments have done with highway road safety billboards. Graphic ads are accompanied by vigilant speed limit enforcement (including cameras) and side-of-highway powernap areas. The thing that stuck most in my mind was the campaign with the grim but compelling tagline "You bloody idiot." This would accompany a changing first line (e.g. "Just a little bit over?" with reference to the speed limit) and a correspondingly graphic accident depiction. Without being patronizing in a way that it would be tempting to ignore, the campaign jarringly but successfully picked apart some of the ways that dangerous driving practices are often downplayed.

  • One Flush or Two?:  Forget clockwise or counterclockwise, the toilets flush completely differently in Australia (and Fiji and New Zealand)! There are two buttons, one for a half or mini flush and one for a full or regular flush.

  • Real estate:  The lack of a sublet culture really made it difficult for us to find a place in Melbourne and Canberra. The term "sublet" is pretty rarely used, and the practice itself is even rarer, with most landlords demanding a 6- or 12-month minimum contract, with no subletting. Inspections are also part of the bargain, with landlords conducting an official inspection about one month after you start living somewhere, to make sure you're not wrecking the joint from the get-go.

    Also, most real estate is auctioned off. We discovered this in large part because the place we stayed at in Melbourne went up for sale while we lived there. There's a period of time during which people can go and look at the place, and then there's an auction -- typically a live auction, with oral bidding, held at or right outside the property. At least that's how it was on Neighbours. :)

  • Hemisphereferentialism:  So I made up the word, but Australia is really into its hemisphere. References to Australian events and objects in a hemispheric context are widespread, particularly since they often confer supremacy on Australia. The Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne is the "largest market in the Southern Hemisphere." Melbourne's St. Kilda Festival is the "largest single-day festival in the Southern Hemisphere." And so on.

    While I'm on the subject of the Southern Hemisphere, and on a more serious note, Australia's regional context is of course totally different from that of any other place I've ever lived, including nearby-ish Japan. Australia and New Zealand of course have a tight relationship that in many ways resembles that between the U.S. and Canada, but Australia also has close ties to a number of neighbours that are very different from it, from larger countries like Indonesia and the Philipines to small Pacific island nations like Fiji, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Micronesia, and New Caledonia. These ties range from government relations (on issues ranging from security to climate change) to student exchanges (many young Australians travelling outside their country for the first time visit a Pacific destination, where the traditional Canadian student pilgrimage is to Europe). It wasn't always like this, of course, as Australia was famous at one point for being more British than Britain itself. And you can't ignore the impacts of the current government's increasing ties with the U.S. (especially vis-a-vis security and trade). Still, Australia is clearly forging deeper bonds in its region.

  • The Environment:  While this blog might have you convinced otherwise, we actually spent the majority of our time in Australia working. We didn't want to bore you with it in this medium, but feel free to ask us about it if you're curious! The Australian environmental scene is pretty different from the Canadian one. Whether it's the huge focus on water issues on account of the dryness of the continent; the difference between the Australian and U.S. non-Kyoto-ratifying positions; the incredible havoc wreaked on the landscape by invasive species (and the further invasive species used in a failed attempt to control them); or the strong conservation theme in much of Australia's (and New Zealand's) environmental work, we actually managed to learn a thing or two while we were here. :)

Oh, and as for the water ... it kind of drains downwards, assisted by the ever-ubiquitous force of gravity.

Posted by anatole at September 18, 2004 01:21 PM

And for the record, those squeeze packets of tomato sauce have to be the most brilliant invention of our generation. Just squeeze!!

I was fooled by the term 'Maccas' in Sydney.. here I was thinking I was meeting a friend at some sort of fancy restaurant.... only to find myself in front of a Mcdonalds.

Posted by: Lana at September 19, 2004 01:55 PM

I just surfed in this great place. But itís really a pleasure being here. Go on
with this good work.

Posted by: Luzie Emily at September 24, 2004 07:12 PM
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