Thursday, September 22, 2011

Culture Share: Australia - Through the Looking Glass

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Juliette Wade discusses her discovery of Melbourne, Australia.

Before I ever went to Australia, my images of it were mostly about animals. After all, we see them on nature programs - the koala, the kangaroo, the dingo, the emu, the platypus and occasionally the echidna. When I met my husband, who hails from Melbourne, I'm embarrassed to say that was the first time I'd ever taken the time to think about the human population of Australia to any extensive degree. Obviously I've learned a lot more since then! (Phew!)

When I started visiting Australia with a view to making it my second home, I got a very different view of it. I came out of the experience of Europe, where there are lots of countries side by side, often with distinct and mutually unintelligible languages - that, and Japan, where almost everything is unintelligible at first. From that perspective, Australia seemed much like home. It's not even just that the people speak English. The place is clearly a former English colony, and all kinds of little things resemble America, even as a whole lot of other things resemble England. The result is something uniquely Australian, but to this day whenever I'm there I have the sense that I've traveled through the looking-glass.

I remember how Lewis Carroll described the world within the looking-glass: every part of it that you could see by looking in the mirror was the same as this world, but every part of it that was outside the reach of the mirror's view was entirely different.

It fits rather well, of course, with the fact that in Australia, people drive on the left-hand side of the road. On my first visit, I had come direct from Japan where they also drive on the left, so it didn't trouble me much to look right first when crossing the street. However, since I never actually drove a car in Japan, the trouble I had was in walking to the incorrect side of the car. To this day, even after all the time I've spent in Australia, I still occasionally walk to the right side of the car expecting to find the passenger's seat! When you're driving, in fact, it's less difficult to figure out which side of the road to be on, and much harder to choose the correct side of the steering wheel (windshield wipers or turn signal, which in Australia is called the "indicator"). Also, because of one's different position in the car, it's easy to drive too close to the left-hand shoulder.

There are other things too that seem literally backwards. The toilet and other drains swirl the opposite direction (I had a commenter point out that the association between this and the Coriolis effect was considered urban legend - but I have noticed the backwards swirl, and I wonder what else might cause it!). Then of course there is the fact that autumn (they don't call it fall) comes in April and spring in September.

I very clearly remember walking down the sidewalk (the "pavement") with my husband on a beautiful 80-degree-Fahrenheit day (roughly 27 degrees C to an Australian) which happened to be Christmas Eve. You could buy Christmas cards with Santa on a surfboard at the news agent's, which is like a stationery shop plus newspaper and magazine source, and all the while the public speakers were playing "Walking in a Winter Wonderland." It was extremely surreal for someone from the northern hemisphere.

One of the other interesting things I've discovered in Australia, which may or may not be common to other places in the southern hemisphere, is that the quality of sunlight is different. My gut instinct is to say that the sunlight seems brighter, though I'm pretty sure it's not literally brighter, only coming from a different angle. Certainly to anyone accustomed to gauging direction based on the sun's position, it can be a confusing place (my father and my brother noted this particularly).

As a person from California I am quite accustomed to the presence of eucalyptus trees. The San Francisco Bay Area is full of eucalyptus groves. What stood out to me about the gum trees of Australia were the sheer number and variety of them. Australia is home to vast forests which appear, at least at first glance, to be composed of about 75% eucalyptus. The other thing, of course, is that when you're in a grove of gum trees in Australia it's worth looking up to see if you can find a koala. It took me a good three years or so to break my husband of this "looking-up" habit whenever we encountered eucalyptus groves. I can see why he misses the possibility of koalas, though. While I haven't seen many, in spite of much looking, I still love the possibility of finding one myself. And of course I love the sound of kookaburras.

There are so many details that I could go on forever, but I do want to mention two things I particularly notice about Melbourne. In California we have a lot of strip malls - on a piece of land to one side of the road you'll have a large parking lot and on the inward side of it will be a long building, sometimes with end pieces like a bracket. This building will be divided into a number of smaller shops and restaurants. Melbourne doesn't have these strip malls. There is no "parking lot at the side of the road" phenomenon. Going to run errands is called "going up the shops" and the shops are right along both sides of the main road. Often enough the shop buildings share a wall, even if their heights and appearances are different. The closest thing to a strip mall is a long building along one side of the road (with the pavement directly in front of it), which gets divided into smaller establishments. You might find a news agent's, a chemist's (pharmacy), an op shop (like Goodwill), a bakery, a milk bar (like a snack bar, with ice cream bars and meat pies and candy bars, etc.), all side by side. Their doors will be kept open, but will have thick strips of clear plastic hanging down across them to prevent the entry of flies (you push them aside as you enter). The stores won't have small cloth awnings. Often what you'll find is something that appears half awning, half roof - an awning that sticks far out from the front of the building, supported by poles, which entirely shades the sidewalk. The names of the shops are labeled above this, or at the front edge.

Melbourne also has some beautiful historic homes with special ironwork which deserves mention. I see it as one of the defining characteristics of Melburnian architecture, much like the ironwork that you see in New Orleans, but in an entirely different style.

Australia is an awesome place, and I find Melbourne to be one of my favorite places in the world, even beyond the natural affection that comes with its being the home of my favorite person. I hope you'll have a chance to go through the looking glass too, one day. When you get there, remember that "G'day" is pronounced with some stress on both halves, like you're saying "good day" without the first "d."

G'day everybody!