When I emigrated to Australia with my family in 2008, what immediately struck me was how different it was to how I remembered. I’d visited the continent once before, a trip that had been a rollicking, sun-drenched sojourn through the Australian tropes and terrain every foreign tourist imagines to define Australia.
All the quirks I’d witnessed on TV and read about in books turned out to be true. You could spy bounding kangaroos from the highway! The lighthouse from Round the Twist did exist! There were people who actually said ‘g’day mate’, all the while sporting 5-inch fingernails! (While I technically wasn’t expecting the latter, it only served to reaffirm the antipodean peculiarities to which I soon became accustomed).
Strewn between the pristine beaches, scorched deserts and lush rainforest we traversed were Australians who offered up more than their fair share of distinctive hospitality and eccentricity. One memorable week spent in the Northern Territory, for example, featured joining a distant cousin, reminiscent in both manner and looks of Steve Irwin (heretofore my primary informant on Australian culture) as he fished for crabs, chartering what he called a ‘tinny’ through crocodile-strewn waters. I had to google what a tinny was later.
And he wasn’t alone in opening my eyes to a new world. Having been brought up thinking that addressing elder strangers with anything less formal than ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ was nigh on sacrilegious, overhearing local kids in a small beach town jovially call out to a shopkeeper using his first name proved novel and fascinating.
Such informality was mirrored, I remember, in my parents’ parlé with friends of my father’s cousins in rural Victoria. These Australians dispensed with what I thought were universal rules of conversation. Incremental steps of friendship were replaced by leaps and bounds – within a matter of minutes following their meeting, jokes poking fun at both England and Australia had been made, and plans for a barbecue dinner had been instigated. Back home, this level of social comfort took long-established friendship to elicit; the no-frills amicability of Australians once again exceeded my expectations. When the time came to return home to London, I was both sunburnt and sated. I’d hoped for an insight into the true blue Australia, and the ‘lucky country’ had more than delivered.
I never imagined that, four years later, I’d be returning to Australia to live – and for the first few weeks following my return I was somewhat underwhelmed by the nation the second time around. At first I dismissed the feelings as temporary: perhaps symptomatic of the new-country jitters that I’d anticipated, and that I assumed would subside.
The disappointment lingered, however, and it wasn’t until a few months later that when I truly came upon the cause of my upset: the reason Australia felt disenchantingly different was because, prior to actually moving to an Australian city, I hadn’t properly experienced Australian urbanity before – and, wow, was it far-flung from the places I had experienced in 2004. The entrancing emptiness of Katherine Gorge was replaced by, well, plain emptiness at the hands of sprawling satellite estates. I quickly realised that I was about as likely to garner a genuine “g’day” from the average Bendigo or Melbourne cashier as I was to have them ask me if I was planning to “chuck a few shrimps on the barbie” for dinner.
Yes, it was a shallow to want to hear these idioms vocalised, but for me they represented something greater: an affirmation of the friendliness and simple means of living that I’d naively assumed characterised the whole of Australia. It wasn’t that people in the cities I frequented – Melbourne and Bendigo – were unfriendly: it was simply that they fell short of my high expectations. In boycotting the cities of Australia on my first trip (save for a brief three-day stay in the Melbourne suburbs), I’d been sheltered from the inevitable formalities and mundanities that characterise every city in the world.
It took me a while to truly appreciate the nature of Australian cities – that they’re simply representative of a different Australia, not an inferior one – and given that 89% of the population inhabit urban areas, I came to see that to a certain extent I’d experienced the exception, not the rule.
Melbourne has come into its own more than ever in the 21st century, with rich multiculturalism and diversity allowing it to forge an identity reflective of Australian ideals of egalitarianism and hospitality. But there is there is no denying that Australian metropolises, in defining themselves for so long in relation to European and British cultural ideas (whoever coined ‘Paris End of Collins street’, I’m looking at you), whilst country regions were more prone to embrace Australianness, severed ties between city and country mentalities.
Some might scoff, but the quintessential Australia does still exist, albeit in increasingly rarity, and perhaps not as stereotypically as Paul Hogan or Lara Bingle might have impressionable foreigners believe. Get around it.