Australia had been on my “bucket list” for years. With very little hope of success, last fall I emailed an inquiry to a woman in a suburb of Brisbane, Queensland’s capital, asking whether she’d like to swap houses with me so I could afford this once-in-a-lifetime trip.
The Aussie I contacted through HomeLink International said yes.
So on June 16, I took off to Australia for seven weeks while she made her way to Charlotte.
Having never been Down Under, I was struck from the get-go by how familiar everything felt. There were the obvious similarities with Americans – speaking English, being descended from a hodgepodge of upstarts and misfits, being sports-crazy and finding great amusement in the shenanigans of our elected officials.
As my vacation progressed, however, differences became more obvious. These quirks are what make travel so fascinating.
I’m calling this list of differences my Down Under Dozen:
Koalas. They’re found nowhere else in the world. Don’t call these cute, chunky gray Australian natives “bears.” They’re marsupials, not bears.
Kangaroos. Like koalas, kangaroos are seeing their native habitats rapidly shrink. But in Toorbul, a nearby town on Moreton Bay, I found a mob of ’roos living “in the wild” in apparent harmony with their human neighbors, on whose lawns they graze, poop and fornicate at will – sort of like giant bunnies. The sight of a toddler-age kangaroo, called a joey, hopping out of and back into his mama’s pouch only a few feet away from me was extraordinary.
Food, Part I: Prices. Think American groceries are expensive? You’re in for sticker shock in any Aussie grocery store even though the currency exchange rate looks favorable on the surface (75 American pennies = A$1). But any advantage is quickly eaten up when you see the prices. Many are double what they are in Charlotte.
OK, they use the metric scale, so I was never quite sure what produce really cost, but even I could calculate that an apple was about $1 and an orange closer to $2 in our money. A kilogram of fresh local shrimp (a bit over two pounds): A$32. A quart of ice cream: A$10. Bag of muesli cereal: A$8.50.
Go out to eat and inflation bites even deeper. Take fish and chips – a staple of the Aussie diet. A cod and fries combo at a no-frills stand costs about A$11. Add tartar sauce (A$2) and a Coke (A$4) and your fast-food picnic will set you back A$17 – that’s $12.75 in American money. Of course, being able to eat it at the pretty seaside park across the street is priceless.
Spring for dinner at one of the “nicer” restaurants and be prepared to fork over at least A$50, and that’s only with one beer (alone A$9). Fancy a salad, too? It’s extra, of course. On the upside, tipping servers is not customary.
NOT the Land of the Free. You may have already picked up a theme here: Condiments – ketsup, salad dressing, mayo, even gravy, for heaven’s sake – cost extra. At brunch, my waffle arrived half-frozen from a package and I was charged A$3 extra for syrup. Also: Aussies have never heard of free beverage refills.
The seasons are backwards. Like driving on the left, the seasonal thing is an obvious difference. But winter in June was still a shock to my psyche, especially leaving lovely long summer evenings in North Carolina. The impact was somewhat reduced by the fact that Queensland is semi-tropical – the same distance from the Equator as Florida – so July in Brisbane is equivalent to January in Orlando. Queensland, the “Sunshine State,” lived up its nickname, with mild daytime temperatures under glorious blue skies. However…
No twilight. I’d have to consult a meteorologist to find out why, but at 5 o’clock, a cosmic giant jerks down a shade and it goes from sunny to inky dark in less than a minute. I’m not joking. Spooky!
Food, Part II: Burgers with what? By the third week I pined for a decent burger. Aussies, however, have their own creative ideas. McDonald’s runs ads (with Handel’s classical “Zadok the Priest” playing in the background) touting burgers with pineapple – yes, pineapple – and a nasty paste called tomato-chili jam. I’m as adventurous an eater as the next person, but we all have our notion about the perfect hamburger, and that ain’t it. Most pubs slap pickled beets on their burgers. Beets? Seriously?
Do I need to add that mustard costs extra?
Food, Part III: Waiter, oh, waiter: OK, maybe I’m obsessing on this topic, but I love food and after a month in Oz I was starving for something other than fish and chips. I had given up on finding a decent burger. I was tired of cereal and Nutella on toast. Even though I had a well-equipped kitchen, I hate food prep and I’m a rubbish cook, anyway.
North Lakes, my sparkling new suburb, had dozens of take-away joints, but a proper restaurant with tablecloths, table service and a varied menu? Hidden elsewhere, obviously.
My quest led me to a members-only yacht club on Moreton Bay. Ah, I thought: Here, even with a steep tab I’ll find some class and be waited on. Wrong. Diners order at a counter just like at McDonald’s, pay in advance, collect their own silverware and take a number. Million-dollar boats docked at the marina only yards away, and yet there’s no table service?
Food, Part IV: Some spice, please. The lack of variety in even upscale eateries continued to amaze me. Beets and pineapple on burgers, but can’t they spice up the menu a little, too? For that matter, food in Oz was seldom seasoned at all. At the yacht club it was no surprise, then, that sauce was necessary to add flavor to the local seafood delicacy, mini-lobsters called “Moreton Bay bugs.” It cost extra, of course.
Wholesome fun. At least I had some enjoyable diversions to take my mind off my stomach. My exchange partner connected me with lots of her friends, like ourselves mostly retired, so I had a ready-made social life waiting for me – far more robust than I have here at home, which is why I list it as a notable difference.
Based on what I experienced, the Aussies enjoy getting together for what I consider old-fashioned, home-grown entertainment as much as anybody I’ve ever run across. Like the Brits, they love games and trivia quizzes. Moreover, smart phones stay tucked away and nobody cheats.
I’m about as good at trivia as I am in the kitchen – rubbish – but I love these corny, laughter-laden opportunities to make a complete fool of myself. My triumph at one of several games nights: I was the only contestant who knew which American president banned broccoli from the White House (George H.W. Bush). Cheers all around.
Think Americans are obsessed with football? From the best I could tell, Aussies have at least 118 games they call “football,” not just soccer and Australian-league football, and they’re on TV all day, every day, on multiple channels. How big is football? Funerals of footballers are broadcast live nationally.
Though tennis players, swimmers and other muscular men are revered, too, the football gods own Down Under.
“Join the club.” From the moment I arrived in Australia I felt embraced – as if I had been accepted into a club with all the cool kids. We’re proud of our Southern hospitality over here, but we have nothing on the Aussies.
Perfect strangers went out of their way to make me feel at home, inevitably brushing off my thanks with, “No worries.”
I don’t know what I did to deserve membership into this club, but I felt very lucky indeed to have been allowed to join.
Emily Hedrick is a Charlotte freelance writer.
HomeLink International: www.homelink.org.