Saturday, March 04, 2017

A Few Thoughts



On 7 March we return to the US. As the first segment of our travels in Australia nears an end, it seems appropriate to reflect a little on what we've learned about this country and the gracious people that live here.


One of the first things we noticed is that there is strong connection with America here. We find better analysis of American politics on the TV here than at home. There are, of course, lots of US TV shows on here. And, I suppose, for financial reasons, much of the Aussie programming is reality shows. On free TV that we have seen here, there is no equivalent to the shouting matches that dominate American cable TV. There are political differences to be sure, they are just handled in a more civil manner.

The people here are simply wonderful. They are all friendly, gracious, and open. Going into a store always finds people who are happy to talk and help. Almost any stranger will strike up a conversation with you. We don't need to say we are from the US, just tell them what city or state. Our accent and general lack of awareness of what is going on are dead giveaways. While many have not traveled to the States, many have. Often there is a relative living there now. We have yet to meet anyone who thinks Trump is a good idea, although they certainly exist.

We still find new words and phrases in the local lexicon that amuse and befuddle: larikin, sticky beak, jelly, paddle pop, and dozens more I can't recall off the top of my head. Collectively, these generate a new way to look at the world. It is hard to take yourself too seriously when you're juggling a new vocabulary and, in effect, stepping out of yourself to see world differently. I only wish more Americans could do this.

The country is amazing. The geology, the beaches (OMG!), the forests, and the dizzying array of animals (including the spiders) makes every day an adventure. The outback is an experience unto itself. To simply stand silently and take it in leaves one a bit overwhelmed. Ever since a visit to Lassen Volcanic Park in northern California nearly 30 years ago where I first found a truly silent place to experience nature, I have struggled to find similar places in the US. Here, once you are out of the city, chance are good that you can be alone. It is marvelous experience.

The weather is on a different scale here. In most places in the US, people check out the weather to know how to dress or see if it might snow. Here, the worry is fire conditions, flash flooding, hail, heat that will melt your socks, or even a cold spell (it snowed in NSW last week!). Remember, almost no one has central heat and air here. This is all done with in-wall units that are heat pumps. Typically, one or two rooms are climate controlled. In small towns in the outback, buildings are often made from corrugated metal attached to a wooden frame sometimes with little or no insulation. On a 40 C day you can find yourself in an oven... literally.

Of course, things here are not as old as some things in the US. Old things date from the mid-19th century, most things are from the beginning of the 20th/end of the 19th. WWI is still a vivid memory here mostly because of heavy losses by the Anzacs at Gallipoli. Darwin was bombed by the Japanese in WWII and there were POW and internment camps from that war. Vietnam is relatively on their doorstep and human losses during that war are still keenly felt.

For huge swathes of the country, doctors travel by plane. I suspect they get better care than some places in the US. There is a near universal fire season and along roads there are signs tell you there is total fire ban or the fire threat is high or severe. When the temperature and the winds increase, watch out. Floods and wild weather along the coast are not uncommon.

Water usage is continual issue. Nearly everyone has water tanks for collecting rainwater from the roof. Water here is very soft. Even in places where the water tastes bad straight out of the ground, filtered is very tasty. In some places, it is so soft, it take 5 minutes to rinse the soap off in the shower. It is generally much better tasting water than any bottled water in the US.

Over half of the population lives in one of the state capitals and most of them live in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. As far as we can tell, the entire country is divided into small postal regions. In the cities, these are the suburbs. In the countryside, they are more often whole towns or simply regions of sparsely populated farmland. And it seems as if everyone knows lots of these as they are routinely used in reporting crime, floods, fires, and accidents on TV. The zip codes are all 4 digits long and every suburb has its own. Web forms always ask for your suburb, never your city.

Food is different here. Any kind of meat that can be grilled and put on a bun is a "burger".  Beef burgers, chicken, turkey, and kangaroo burgers are common. Occasionally other sorts show up as well. A hamburger often has a slice of beet on it. If you go to a Subway sandwich store for a quick lunch, the only mustard you can get is honey mustard...no yellow mustard, although this can be bought in the grocery. Barbeque sauce (always sweet) is on a wide variety of foods. Pineapple is almost universal on a pizza...it's an Aussie thing. The cuts of meat have different names here: scotch fillet, blade steak, oyster blade steak. Lots of lamb for sale. Plenty of sausages in unnatural shades of red.

Coffee is everywhere, but Starbucks only exists in major airports for the American tourists. It is nearly all local shops. McDonalds (called Maccas for short) is, interestingly, a major vendor of coffee. All Maccas have a barista. An Americano here is called a Long Black. It is almost always good. Even Maccas is consistently good. If the TV is to be believed (!), lots of Aussies drink instant coffee as well.

Houses are often small compared to their US counterparts and always expensive. There is now talk of making it possible for people to cash out their superannuation (as near as I can tell, the rough equivalent of Social Security) for a down payment since it is not possible for so many Aussies to afford a house. But then they'd have a house and no retirement. In a country the size of America with only 1/11 the population, land is remarkably expensive. For some reason, everyone wants to life in the parts of the country that don't routinely hit 40C. It would appear that housing is nearly universally built by developers in tracts, rarely by an individual building a home. It is just too expensive.

On the other hand, car insurance is much cheaper than at home. Gasoline is much more expensive. When we arrived, diesel was a bit more than petrol and around AU$1.15/liter. Now it is close to AU$1.30/liter. This makes a full tank of fuel in the neighborhood of AU$90.

Land prices seem to have given rise to another phenomena as well. Most service stations are one-way. You must enter and leave in the right direction. Spaces are confined. We use diesel so not every pump has this and we must queue in the right line and wait. If you queue for the wong pump island, it is a real pain to get to the right place with the fill pipe in the ute on the side nearest the pump. If you just want to run into the BP or 7-11 to get a drink, there is often no place to park.

When we are not totally besotted with the thought of seeing Anna and Seth and meeting our new grandchild, we are excited about coming back to Australia. Our first stop upon return in June is Tasmania. It has been on our bucket list forever and we are finally going to see it. We're going to be able to see Mt. Wellington from the back deck of our next housesit.

It is not possible to describe what it is like to spend months in Australia and get to know the people and the land. You'll just have to come see for yourself. Look us up when you do.