It’s uncomfortable, hard work getting to know a culture and it’s people. When I stepped off my $600 round trip flight to Melbourne from LAX, I was hit with a wave of payoff.
I was “home” in a way I hadn’t expected. 1For new readers I spent most of 2013, part of 2014, and half of 2015 in Australia. Being surrounded by little uniquely Australian things — the federation architecture, the ridiculous crows, the shape and smell of eucalypts everywhere — filled me with happiness. Is this how people felt a century ago when they got a once-in-a-lifetime trip back home?
Flying in over Melbourne’s iconic CBD (“downtown” to you Americans), I smiled at Australia’s round, green sporting fields used for cricket and “footy.” I almost laughed when the dad next to me called his young kid “mate.” When my former co-worker and I made our way the next morning down the Great Ocean Road with amazing Australian coffee in hand, I giggled at the McDonalds and Burger King logos that instead say “Makkas” and “Hungry Jacks.”
On the way to my mate’s family farm in “regional Australia,” the roadside signage surprised me by railing against drowsy — not drunk — driving. Classic rock from my teens poured out the speakers and the super-polite, built in navigation system made gentle suggestions: “In 250 m, please turn right on Livingston. Please turn right . Please follow c346 until further instructed.”
In between welding lessons, we search the surrounding “bush” — aka forest — for Koalas. No luck, but the caramello version my mate’s mom got me as a welcoming gift made up for it! We traversed the same roads back to the city that make Australia a profitable country for mining in the first-place. Many resource-rich countries don’t have the infrastructure for extraction. The historic mine and settlement we toured on return represented the main reason Australia went from a penal colony to a land-of-opportunity overnight — gold!
Australian Rules Football
Lucky for me, my Great-Ocean-Road-welding-farm-friend is also a third generation Richmond Tigers fan, and so is his mate’s girlfriend. Her parents put her on the “members” waiting list when she was born, landing us guest seats 30 years later.
Even if you approach new sports like I approach art museums, Australian Rules Football games are fun to watch. If nothing else, you get to examine 40 scantily-clad men 218 players per team + four referees”¦ yes, even the refs wear tight little uniforms! running around performing impressively-athletic feats for two to three hours. You wouldn’t know from the tiny uniforms that AFL (Australian Football League) is a winter sport! Usually the stands are full of people wrapped in scarves emblazoned with team logos and sipping on mugs of soup. Winter came late to Melbourne this year, so I draped the scarf across my shoulders.
Being in the “members only” section both confused and thrilled me. Thanks to Aussies’ British-descended love for decorum (see Why Australians Think I’m an Asshole), a collared shirt dress-code is enforced. Unlike the plebes in the rest of the stadium, the upper crust is allowed full-strength beer. So why weren’t any of the “members drinking while spectating? And more importantly, why wasn’t I swilling a beer while asking my many game questions? Well, because “members” don’t drink out of lowly plastic containers, of course. It’s glass-only for the elite. But even elite-glass breaks when dropped on concrete, so… we don’t drink in the stands.
Not boozing gave me even more time to observe things like:
- The “report antisocial behavior” signs. As I’ve mentioned before, I love the cultural subtlety here. Not “inappropriate” or “rude” behavior”¦. “anti-social.”
- The sounds of silence. More subtlety! No commentators echoing off the walls of the stadium. Just dudes running around on a field while the crowd murmurs and occasionally goes wild.
- No game clock. Oh, they are keeping time. They just don’t display it for the crowd. My friend said not knowing how much time is left makes the game more fun and suspenseful. Hmm.
- Maxing out. In an American football stadium or basketball arena, a huge swath of real estate between the boundary line and the spectators is reserved for camera crews, players warming the bench, etc. In Australian football, the boundaries go with a yard of the fence!
- Blind ref tosses. Apparently to ensure fairness, when the ref chucks the ball back in the game they have to do so facing away from the field. I’m not sure this is a terribly sound safeguard against fraudulent behavior, but”¦ it’s the thought that counts?
- Blood rules. Players can get pretty smashed up, but as long as the blood from an injury isn’t “free flowing” they’re still allowed in the game.
- Why do players throw the ball so much? They have to. The ball has to be passed every 10 meters/yards or when someone tackles you.
- Super celebration. The winning team’s team song gets played over the loudspeakers (and sung along to by the crowd) three times. The fans happily stand there belting out the anthem over and over and over. I joined in!
More Aussie Quirks
At the footy game I found a hilarious example of how keen Aussies are to shorten words. In cheering for the Richmond Tigers, did we yell, “Go Tigers?!” Oh no. It’s “Go Tiges!” Even though “tig-ahs” — what an Aussie would say — is actually easier to say than “tiges.” Try it. I dare you.
Aussies also say “Ts and Cs” instead of terms and conditions, “B and Ss” instead of Bachelor and Spinsters (one of their school formal dances), among thousands of other shortened phrases.
Other great Australiana & observations:
- Storefronts. How to describe them? Across the nation, it almost looks like a Hollywood movie set has put up a bunch of placeholder signs while they wait for the real deal to come in. Imagine a newspaper ad the size of a storefront or building side”¦ that’s what you see!
- Lingo. My friend took me to an auction in the countryside. Everyone wore oiled up leather coats to protect themselves from the rain. The auctioneer whacked items for sale with his pointing stick and yelled adorable things like,
“It’s a good go-er!”
“Pay the devil there boys don’t know what to ask.”
“Have a look at it boys. Rare as.”
“Quick. Done. Sorted.”
- Color-coded trash bins. Red for landfill, yellow for recyclables, and green for compost. Clever common sense!
- Roof lines. The four-sided pyramid dominates the landscape.
- Reputation roots. Poor Tasmania sometimes gets treated like the Kentucky of Australia, being called a backwoods and backwards place. On my flight before my wonderful week there, a resident told me that a lack of iodine did long ago cause Cretinism, establishing the now-undeserved reputation.
While Australia certainly has its own personality, there are many facets going the way of the rest of the western world. Waistlines are growing, as are home sizes. And this time around I found that even the country’s brilliant coffee culture is under attack.
When away from OZ, I pine for their amazing black gold. When I order a flat white in the U.S. and baristas ask me “what size,” I usually refrain from saying, “There is only one size. It’s a 9 oz. coffee.” So imagine my jaw hitting the floor when my first Australian barista of the trip responded to my flat-white request with, “What size would you like?” Excuse me? What size? What kind of Australian coffee shop are you?! Australian baristas everywhere are now asking this question. The have-it-your-way American ethos is spreading. Having seen what this level of entitlement can do to other facets of a culture, I’m not thrilled.
But I’ll take what I can get!
Happy Travels! â™£
More on Australian culture:
- Why Australians Think I’m an Asshole
- Why Everyone is Talking About Pot Plants
- Is That a Banana in Your Pocket”¦?
- Australians Really Eat Fried Mice
- When Being “Paid Out” is Bad
- Australia’s Richest is a Woman (language alert!)
- Australian Vocab Lessons & How I Misplaced an Entire Day