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GENERAL KNOWLEDGE: AN AMERICAN IN OZ

January 25 2013

An expat reflects on a year Australia: the Good, the Bad and the “IE”.

by Amy Sharma

Ah, Australia. The Land Down Under. With its Outback, Crocodile Dundee, the Crocodile Hunter (who, BTW, Australians thought was a major tool and/or idiot for chasing down salties, but they did appreciate his conservation efforts), the English Queen on their money and most importantly, that catchy little Men at Work tune.

Everyone not already from here dreams of vacationing (or “holidaying”) here. The land is beautiful. The people are friendly. And they have things we don’t have: The Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, The Outback, Tim Tams, the Opera House, marsupials. But what people don’t tell you is that this place can kill you (and not just because they all drive on the wrong side of the road).

My esteemed editor, being an Aussie, wanted to know my thoughts on the place because as an American (lover of football and apple pie, but not of guns) who has been living here for about a year, I can offer some “outsider” opinions on this fine country. I’ve lived from Atlanta to Texas to DC – so I can compare Australia to lots of things, except, Cali.

I have spent most of my year here living in the city of Perth, which is not only known as the “World’s Loneliest City” (as it is the state capital that is furthest from any other in the world – even from its nearest Australian neighbor) but is also capital of Australia’s largest state, one that takes up fully a third of a country that is roughly the size of the mainland US. That’s like drawing a line up through the middle of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana and then everything to the left of that line is just one, jumbo-sized state (most of which is desert). Perth was ranked the ninth “World’s Most Liveable City” in the IEU’s Global Liveability report of 2012, a list topped by Melbourne, on Australia’s more densely-inhabited East Coast, with Adelaide and Sydney fifth and seventh respectively. (The best-placed US city is Honolulu, at 26th.)

Perth should also be called a “best kept secret” because it is spectacular, but the rest of Australia makes fun of it and thinks it is full of backwards red-neck morons (“bogans” as they are called in Aussie). No one from the rest of Australia will move to Perth because it is “too far away” (and full of bogans) so they have to import their workers from foreign countries (hence, why I went). Perhaps I have generalized a little based on one city – but I also visited a lot of other Aussie cities and talked to a lot of people who work and live in other parts of Oz (including other Americans and a whole lot of Germans). And if you’ve read my other contributions around these parts, you’ll know I like to bang on about things I may have little to no business talking about. That’s how I roll. So generalize about Australia I will. But, we all know a person who lives in NY will have different experiences than a person who lives in LA. That’s just how it is.

Of course, the biggest problem I had when I arrived was that I assumed that since Australia is a strong US ally and everyone speaks English it would be “just like home.” Boy, was I wrong. Apparently, people have their own cultures. Who knew? The differences were more jarring because things on the surface seem the same, but then, they are not. For instance, ketchup: it’s a lovely condiment. Here, it’s called “tomato sauce” and it looks like Heinz, but it doesn’t taste like it at all. My husband grew so frustrated with imposter ketchup that we now pack a bottle of Heinz (they do sell it in the stores) when we go out for a burger and chips (I mean, fries).

But that’s just scratching the surface. Below I list some of the things I’ve learned about Australia, in honor of “Australia Day” – the local equivalent of 4th of July, on January 26. It’s part travel guide, part warning and, of course, mainly sarcastic because if all I have to complain about it the ketchup, it is pretty awesome here.

THE GOOD

Vegemite

Okay, many people may hate on the Vegemite, but this stuff is awesome. It’s the by-product of the beer manufacturing process, which aside from making this a product associated with beer (so how can that be bad?) also makes it eco-friendly.

The first mistake that people make with Vegemite is to just try a whole spoonful like peanut butter. Bad idea. It is strong. It will put hair on your chest. (According to the ads, it puts a “rose on every cheek”). Instead, spread some butter on toast and then a real thin (really thin at first) layer of Vegemite and enjoy the salty goodness. Soon you’ll be addicted. Soon you’ll be putting it in places Australians don’t (by this I meant ham sandwiches, you dirty people!).

Also, kids love this stuff. I think the Aussies are missing out on a great export opportunity here. With the huge preponderance of nut allergies and “nut free zones” in all the schools, Vegemite could be the new Peanut Butter. Vegemite and cheese for all (except the lactose intolerant).

Tim Tams

These are the most delicious things ever. I am not kidding. [] The are cookies, but better, being wafers of cookie goodness encased in chocolate. Eat them as often as possible. Bite a corner off each end and use them as straws for milk or coffee. (This, BTW, is a real thing called a “TimTam Slammer.”)

It’s Beautiful Here

I just spent 12 days in New Zealand which is supposed to be awesome and beautiful. It’s got nothing on Oz. I think this is because in NZ they’ve got green and mountains and more sheep than people. These are all things you can see in Ireland and Canada and Scandinavia (heck, West Virginia). What you don’t get in the rest of the world are the exotic landscapes of Oz. Everyone from here finds it monotonous, but I think it is lovely. The beaches are beautiful (ok, I’ve been living in Cottesloe, Western Australia, which is one of the best beaches in the world, so maybe I am spoiled). The interior of the country is desert/outback/awesome. They have the Great Barrier Reef. The wine country is lush and hilly. In fact, every time I go for a ride I always think “Isn’t this scenic?” I feel like the guy in The Castle (a great Aussie flick) who keeps saying “Can you feel the serenity?”

Public Works

They have a lot of great public parks here. And all the land along the waterfront is public, with bike paths and playgrounds and such.

But the real star of the show are the public toilets. At a company picnic I needed to find the restrooms. One my co-workers pointed me in the right direction and said “it’s the bathroom of the future – it plays music.” I politely smiled at his “joke” as I went to find the Port-a-Johns. Much to my surprise… they were the bathrooms of the future! To enter I had to press the blinking blue button, at which point the door whooshed open and the voice said, “Welcome.” Then, once inside I had to press another blinking blue button and the door whooshed closed and locked. The voice said “Hello. Welcome to the toilet.You have ten minutes.” And then elevator music started playing “It’s Not Unusual to be Loved by Anyone.”

I had to press another blue button to get toilet paper. Dispensed 4 sheets at a time. Here are two other helpful signs. I am really glad I missed “auto clean.”

I really, really wanted to try and exit without washing my hands. I imagined a lecture from the voice about good hygiene. But, then I was scared that if I opened the door before washing, maybe I wouldn’t be allowed to wash my hands anymore. I couldn’t take that chance.

This is the most futuristic bathroom I have been in since the time I visited Google Headquarters and was outsmarted by the toilets there (10 buttons! good gravy! I just want to flush.) And one would expect smart toilets at Google, but not in a random city park.

This is what happens when you have only 22 million people, good tax revenue and not a lot of military spending. Overly nice city parks with bathrooms of the future.

Marsupials

As a consequence of being its own land-locked continent, Australia has some very weird animals. And all native mammals are marsupials (the kind with the pouch) or monotremes (egg laying mammals). Anything else is an import. It’s pretty cool. The platypus is the weirdest thing I have ever seen. I love it. I will never get over how cool they are.

On the flip side they have these crazy-ass ravens that sound like the cross between a goat and a dying man. And they are freaking huge. These birds are not exclusive to Australia, but they are weird. And watch out for the magpies. They’ll get you during nesting season.

THE SURPRISING

Okay, the surprising doesn’t fit with the subtitle, but some things were neither good nor bad, but just not what I expected.

Food Items

Okay, you already know about the ketchup, but some other things that may surprise you:

There is no good bacon in the land of Oz. They have bacon rashers and other bacon forms. But they are just ham slices. No salty, fatty deliciousness. It makes me so very sad. We found a butcher that slices “American Bacon” and he does brisk business with all the bacon-starved ex-Pats.

Ice cream just isn’t quite the same. It lacks structural integrity. And milk shakes are mainly milk and not a lot of ice cream.

Just be prepared that your ketchup, bacon and ice cream won’t be what you are used to.

Beef

Australia has a lot of cows (and sheep, don’t forget the sheep). But, compared to America, they overcook their red meat. Order a steak rare here, and it’s likely to come out medium, or medium well. But it might be because no one here likes it rare, as the informal poll of my co-workers and my husband’s co-workers found. Ordering rare (or “blue” to let them know you really do mean rare) usually draws inquisitive looks.

My husband’s co-worker (German) ordered his steak blue and then told the waiter “Look, no one in this country knows how to cook a steak. I mean blue and I expect blue.” And then the manager came to talk to him and this time, the steak actually came rare. I bet the kitchen staff just seared both sides thinking “we’ll stick it to him” and didn’t realize that is what he actually wanted.

Anyway, just expect your steak to be overcooked. The fish is typically delicious as are most other menu items.

Coffee

Surprisingly, for their laid back culture, Australians take coffee very seriously here. In fact, they are such coffee snobs, Starbucks has basically failed in Australia. They only now exist in major tourist hubs such as Sydney Harbour.

I am not a coffee snob. In fact, when I walk into Starbucks I order a “small coffee.” Not a vente-triple-latte-moca-cream-whatever. I don’t even know what their equivalent of small, medium, large and now, extra- large, actually are. I am the customer Starbucks lost to McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Here, one cannot even order a small coffee. There is no such thing as a vat of regular drip coffee from which a restaurant or drive-thru can just pour you a steaming cup of joe. I don’t even think they sell drip coffee makers so I can make my regular coffee at home. All I can buy are one of those super fancy cappuccino makers that people get as boutique coffee gifts for their coffee-snob friends. And at offices there are kettles for instant coffee and hot tea.

Essentially, if you want coffee you have to go out.

Oh, and the options they have:

short black = espresso
long black = espresso shot with hot water (close to an Americano whatever that is)
flat white = espresso shot with foamed milk (close to a latte)
latte = how is this different from a flat white? who knows?
cappuccino = (I think this must be served in a glass and not a mug)
mocha = anytime chocolate is added to anything it is delicious

Since none of the above can just be made ahead of time (see lack of vats), picking up a coffee is time consuming. I order, they write it down, the barista putters away behind the giant coffee machine: grinding some beans, pressing a shot through super-hot water, mixing in some water, etc.

A long black is as close as I have found to a regular cup of coffee. At the bakery near my office I am the American Chick who orders a long black with two sugars and cold milk who is still trying to figure out Australian money. Sometimes I am given grief for asking for milk. “Order a flat white” the haters say, but my co-worker told me to stand my ground and that plenty of people like milk in their long blacks.

Beer

I figured that since Australia was the land of fun-loving people (or so the “Outback Steakhouse” commercials say) they would have a thriving beer culture. In fact, several Aussies have told me how great their beer culture is. They are sadly mistaken.

In the US most cities have at least one beer-friendly restaurant, with at least 50 beers on tap and a gazillion in bottles. And lots of restaurants have a decent on-tap selection. Not here. Here, maybe they have beer on tap. Maybe. And, if not, there will be, at most, 5-10 bottled varieties to choose from. And those are most likely all going to be lagers or pilsners or ales; rarely do you find a porter or stout or dark or amber. In fact, the lack of style-variety is the most shocking. Can I get a dark beer in the house? Just one? Please?

I have been informed by my editor that this may be a Western Australia thing. But, I am not sure. Because, 1) having chatted with people who are from Melbourne and Sydney – they are also surprised by the variety and availability of on-tap beers when they visit the States. 2) While we have found some good Aussie brewers (Matilda Bay, James Squire, Little Creatures) and visited several breweries there is still a painful lack of genre variety (a “sampler” is 6 different types of pale).

So no, Australia does not have a beer culture. Don’t be saddened when you can’t find a lot of beer (but do try a local beer, because it will be good). Instead, what they do have is some really great Aussie wine. It is quite delicious. And, relatively inexpensive. Even if you are not typically a wine drinker, I recommend the wine. There are plenty of light-ish varieties that are tasty won’t overwhelm you.

THE BAD

Look, But Don’t Touch

So while Australia is a wonderful, beautiful place, it proved to have some issues for me. First off, it is home to many plants and animals that can ruin your day and/or kill you.

Number one killer: the salt water crocodile. Or “saltie” as they are known. These things can grow to be up to 6 meters long. They are higher on the food chain than humans. They will come up onto the beach and drag you into the water because you look like a tasty snack. Do not screw with these dudes (as this unfortunate bogan did).

There are also great white sharks. These guys also like to eat a few humans every year. But, they are less dangerous than salties. To sharks, humans look like tasty seals, and thus they take a bite. But we aren’t tasty like the seals, so the sharks will spit us back out. Not so with the salties. They like humans. They’ll eat us whole. However, sharks bites are large and can be fatal (esp. if the shark takes another bite just to make sure you are really not a tasty seal).

Jellyfish. The beaches on the east coast all have swim zones surrounded by nets so you don’t get stung by the box jellyfish. At least those are jellies are large enough to be stopped by a net. At the top end of the country, there are these small jellies that sting you and then 24 hours later, you are dead. Great. So, since the top end also has the salties – it may have the most beautiful beaches ever, but everyone just swims in the hotel pool.

Other things that can get you: spiders, blue ringed octopus, stone fish, various species of coral, anything in the rainforest (stay-a-while, neuro-toxin plants). We went on a rainforest tour and by the end my good buddy said, “Why does anyone live in this country at all?”

Moral of the story: Australia – Look, But Don’t Touch.

Customer Service

In Australia, they aren’t really sure what customer service is. Apparently, compared to the rest of the world, America has exceedingly high standards for customer service, but down here, it is non-existent. Even the locals admit it sucks.

In the US, when I go to a store and ask for something, and they don’t have it a few things may happen: 1) they call to their other store down the road and ask if they have it 2) they help you order one online or 3) they say “we don’t carry things like that but try XYZ store instead.” Now, this doesn’t happen every time, but this normally happens. In Australia they say (as cheerfully as possible) “We don’t have that. Have a great day.” And then they walk away. But wait – I am not from here – where do I buy that? I would trade the excessive friendliness for actual usefulness.

Also, there is no tipping. Which you think would be nice. But it isn’t. Because the wait staff is purposely slow so you will buy more drinks. Once, while out to brunch, our Chilean friend turned to the only Aussie at the table and said “Do you think if you all tipped, we might get our food in under an hour?” *sigh*

There was an article in the local newspaper where they interviewed the owners of the most exclusive restaurants in Perth and even they admitted that dining is unpleasant because the wait staff is surly. (You know how in the US if you make eye contact with a waiter – they come and ask if you need something? In Perth, they actually go and hide. I am not kidding.) [Disclaimer: Perth wait staff is surlier than that in the rest of the country – but everywhere service is painfully slow. I think that sometimes taking 3 hours to eat at a diner is called “European” but I just call it ridiculous.] But, bad customer service is the sign of a good economy, and when low-skill workers can get jobs in a mine for $200K a year, why bother being good at other jobs?

This leads to…

Trading Hours

Australians are allergic to making money. Most stores close by 7pm. For a while there, nothing was open on Sunday, but they’ve started to relax that and now things are open from 12-5 on Sunday. Which helps with things such as: buying milk. In general, stores are open when it is nice for people to be working in them (9-5) and not really when it is convenient for people to be shopping in them. Which is most-likely bad for business.

Prices

Things are expensive here. As in, twice as pricey as the US. And, maybe that could be blamed on shipping costs. But it can’t. It is because of some serious protectionism against imported goods. (There was a Cyclone a few years ago that wiped out the banana crop, but they wouldn’t open up to cheap bananas from the Philippines – so $17 a kilo bananas it was). It is also because of the labor shortage (see above). $5 lettuce is what happens when you don’t have illegal migrant labor. Chew on that, Arizona and Georgia.

The Internet

When I moved to Australia, I reassured my family, “It’s Australia, not the Serengeti, they have broadband, we can chat all the time.” Oh, was I ever mistaken. The internet here is awful. So very bad. It goes out all the time. It is slow. Painfully slow. Streaming a 1-hour TV show is a 2-hour process. And this is an actual VOIP transcript with my friend:

“I got engaged”
“Oh yeah, you started a new job how is that?”
“Yeah the job is good, but I got engaged”
“Oh I am glad you like your new co-workers.”
“I am getting married”
“The Packers are great this season. I agree.”

Screw you, bad internet connection – I can’t even be a good friend.

And it is wicked expensive. Good gravy. Unlimited access? Only for $90 a month. Which maybe would be okay, but see the painfully slow aspect of it.

My co-worker went to Thailand for a holiday and she said the internet in the small villages was 10x better and 30x cheaper. And wireless in a hotel? Maybe. If you are lucky it will be in your room (and not restricted to the lobby) – and you thought US prices for hotel access were bad? Just accept that you will pay through the nose.

My editor again thinks this is a WA only thing. I’ve been all over the country. Its slow everywhere and is wicked expensive everywhere. In Cairns (with $40/day internet available through the hotel) we played the fun game of: go outside the room and try to find any signal on whichever network card you can (also try and avoid the salties and man-eating rainforest plants while you are at it). The internet may be a slightly slower in Perth, but it is still painful no matter where you go. She just doesn’t know what she is missing.

I went to New Zealand (the Canada of Australia), which has even worse internet. And this man was complaining at the front desk “What do you mean I can’t have internet in my room? And why is it so slow?” And I chuckled. Newbie.

Cheese

Australians have a huge disdain for American cheese. They believe all cheese in America is orange and comes in those pre-wrapped slices. I have had this conversation multiple occasions with very different sets of people. To which I say, “Yes, the slices are a little scary. Esp. after I learned that they just squeeze the cheese into the little plastic wrappers (YUM!). But, isn’t cheddar supposed to be orange?” To my Midwestern friends, I strongly defend your lovely cheeses. And, cheese curds are delightful. And, yes you may walk into a grocery store and find singles (or even worse: cheese in a can) – but there is also a “high class” selection of Gruyere, Munster, Brie and a host of other good cheeses that I am too common to know about (or be able to spell). What about smoked cheddar? Delicious.

The same snooty cheese bin exists in the Aussie grocery stores. But go to the common cheese aisle and all they have is “Tasty” cheese. At first I thought Tasty was a brand of cheese. No, Tasty is a type of cheese. It’s Australian Cheddar. Really? That’s all you got on our orange cheese? Tasty? “But it has to be good – it’s called Tasty!” Additionally, “light tasty” is mild, “extra tasty” is sharp. And that is it in terms of variety. At least in the common American aisle I can get pepper jack, cheddar, provolone, “Mexican bled” mozzarella and Swiss. Not here. Just Tasty.

Okay, maybe if this were France, which only really has cheese going for it (next time you get angry at a French person, remind them that their wine grapes are all American – due to a blight in the 1970s), then maybe, you could have national cheese pride. But you’re not. And all you’ve got is Tasty. And the most popular brand is “Coon” – so not only do you only have only one variety of cheese, but it is racist cheese at that.

Actually, last year Myanmar and Liberia dumped Imperial too.

The Metric System

I hate the metric system. Okay, I will give you that basing things on actual constants is a good idea. And meters to kms (instead of feet and miles) makes some sense. And I’ve gotten good at quick and dirty conversions in my head for most everything. Except Celsius. What an inane system for air temperature. F makes sense. In fact, it was invented just for that. 0 was the coldest that dude could find and 100 was human body temperature. There is a good graduation. And the decades all work. The 40s are cold, the 50s you need a coat, the 60s light jacket, the 70s is pleasant, the 80s is getting hot, the 90s are hot and the 100s mean stay indoors in the air conditioning.

Here, 40 is hot. WTF? 40 means you need a parka. And 20 is cold, while 25 is nice. That’s only 5 degrees of difference. And there is no nice conversion in my head. When someone tells me, “Oh its going to be 25 tomorrow” I have no idea if they are complaining or looking forward to the weather. It’s dumb. No one needs an air temperature scale based on boiling water. If we get to 100 C the sun has supernovaed. Not helpful. If you are going to be all scientifically snobby about it – why not use Kelvin? That is even more accurate. Even people here admit they miss F. Bring it back, you wankers!

THE IE

Finally lets chat a little about Aussie words. And by this I do not mean words such as: lift, lorry, biscuits (it’s a cookie people!), keen, heaps, nappies, rubbish, queue, prawns, capsicums, and pram. That’s fine. They are their own country. And usually, everyone can talk though the colloquiums and get the point across. Except the time I asked for silverware at a restaurant and the waitress was horribly confused until I said “forks?”

No, by words, I mean they like to shorten a lot of words and put an “ie” or “y” at the end (and since this is a nickname type thing, I am uncertain of the spelling).

For example:
Brekky = breakfast
Chrissy = Christmas
Brissie = Brisbane
Kindy = kindergarten
Barbie = BBQ
Posty = postal worker
Firey = fireman

Name a word, and there is a good chance it’s got an “ie” sound on the end of it. Sometimes place names are shortened with an “o” instead (Fremantle = Freo), and even words get the “o” treatment too (ambo – ambulance driver, convo = conversation, vero = verification). Anyway, it’s odd to say the least. And it takes some getting used to. And do not try and shorten things until you know they can be. Because otherwise, you look silly and someone will look at you and say, “Why on earth would we shorten that word?”

IN CONCLUSION

I love Australia. Really. Spending a year here has been one of the best years of my life. I plan to come back every opportunity I can. But, in the end, home is where you grew up. Home has bacon and grits and biscuits (the warm flaky kind, not cookies), no metric system and working internet.

I am sure an Aussie in the US would have troubles with some of our foibles (and also be confused as to why we can’t pass a budget). But I challenge them to come up with something better to complain about than our cheese. Our cheese is lovely. Yours is just tasty.

Now excuse me while I overindulge on Vegemite and Tim Tams (not together) while sitting on the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. I have to heading home soon.

– Amy Sharma

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