Single, white female

I sometimes want to take Australia out for a drink and sit her down in a quiet corner. Listen, I imagine myself saying, you are a young, vibrant woman. You have your own unique qualities. Nobody else in the world is quite like you. It makes me sad to see you copying other people – that old bint Britain and the addled tart America – copying won’t make you happy and, really, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You can’t live their lives, just as they can’t live yours. Don’t think that either of them is a good model for you to copy –just be yourself!

But of course Australia is a country of white immigrants, historically close to Britain, in the 1960s the focus seemed to shift to emulating the States with, to my mind, somewhat disastrous consequences. One can see it in the size of the houses, the extent of the sprawl and many other things. Australia always seems to be looking outward, either to other Anglo-Saxon countries or back to whatever European homeland applies. It’s too soon, I think, to see what changes large-scale Asian immigration will bring (and yes, I realise that Asian immigration began with the gold rushes), except of course in the realm of fusion food.

Mostly, I would like to point out today, one can see the shifting tides of (European) immigration – one can literally taste the homesickness – in dairy products. We have Aussie versions of cheddar (Tasty – anything but), fetta (not quite right, it melts and lacks the salty bite of the real deal), brie (not bad, but not quite the same) and ‘Greek’ yoghurt that has cream added to bump up the fat content instead of being strained (oh, Fage, how I miss you). Finally, we have the abomination known as ‘thickened cream’, single cream that has been thickened with gelatine, which crowds out the natural cream ten to one on the supermarket shelves. I spend many hours puzzling about this. Was it a refrigeration issue that led them to start messing with cream in this god-awful way? Why can’t they make decent sharp cheddar? Is the terroir unsuitable for decent cheese or is it the processing techniques that lead to the taste/texture differences? Given that we’re working with non-indigenous foods to begin with, what would a ‘genuine’ Australian cheese taste like? I’d like to taste the Tassie equivalents (NOT ersatz copy) of Stinking Bishop or a nice slab of Yarg (a cheese wrapped in eucalypt leaves? Perhaps bush tomato leaves might be a better bet).

And as for Aussie versions of pork pies and custard tarts, well, I weep at what I’ve lost. Which rather explains why these versions exist, but not why they are such miserable failures.

Battlers, diggers and me – oh my!

There are several intertwined threads to my thinking and every time I think about how to write them down I get myself in a tangle, but I’m determined to try.

So, here goes… The UK is a country that privileges the middle classes. When the political discourse talks about ‘hard-working families’ it means families where mum and dad are white collar workers, small-scale entrepreneurs or similar. This being Britain or, more accurately, England, we are talking about middle classes: there are a million and one graduations from lower to upper, but the fact remains that the middle is where it’s at. I hadn’t quite understood this position of privilege until I had it removed.

Australian culture is, it seems to me, inherently suspicious of the middle-class and its values and, instead, lionises the blue-collar. Historically, the digger (miners and, later, soldiers), the battler (‘you little Aussie battler’) and, by modern extension, the fluro-wearing tradie, as the backbone of the country. As an aside, I was perplexed by the romantic yearning of office girls for sweaty herberts as evinced by the spotted column in the free rag mX on the train, until I realised that the earning power of said sweaty herberts far, far outranked that of the university-educated professionals.

Australia has not had a Thatcher to break the power of the unions and it is still, also, a country very much under construction. These factors undoubtedly contribute to the hero-status of the labourer, as does the country’s foundation stories that mythologise the glories of the early settlers – in much the same way as the American West glories the cowboy. Of course, the corollary to this is that it is a very male discourse and, when I arrived, I found the land of Germaine Greer to be inexplicably, not misogynist exactly, but certainly andocentric.

I’ve recently reread Collapse by Jared Diamond. He highlights Australia as the one first-world country that is most environmentally fragile; essentially a new society living on very old (and depleted) soil. He posits that Australia is mining all its resources – even the renewable ones – at such a rate that they will soon be depleted and that instead of investing in value-add, by processing raw materials, the country is exporting them for other countries to profit from. It is sobering reading for a mother who moved here specifically to give her child the best start in life. The economy in Victoria is stalling, but Western Australia is setting the agenda (political and, hand-in-glove, economic) for the whole country with its phenomenal, but unsustainable, resources boom.

I’m a product of my country – I believe in the worth of education, the liberal arts, culture and all those other English middle-class values. I see here a society that mocks, denigrates or is openly suspicious of many of the things that I hold most dear and it worries me quite profoundly. It also seems to be rather a limiting factor on Australia itself: these are not values that are going to help the country to survive beyond the mining boom. These values mean that politicians here play to the cheap seats even more than their cousins in Westminster do, something I would not have believed possible before. Clearly, the whole issue does not sit well with me: I recognise inner snob/class prejudices and dislike them in myself, but equally despair at Australia’s celebration of the lowbrow in exclusion of the highbrow.

Slanging match

I like being English and am in no hurry to lose my accent or seamlessly assimilate, but I do love the flavour of spoken Strine; the salty tang of slang that is uncompromising in its directness. Language shapes thought and having specific words for certain things gives you a very clear idea of how a people thinks…which brings me to ‘bogans’.

A bogan is a white-trash Australian, a chav in England would probably be a bogan here, but the overlap is not perfect. In my mind’s eye I see a flannel shirt, torn jeans and uggs. A ute, possibly spray painted or pimped out in some way. Probably there is a fondness for 80s hair metal. The women and girls wear legging or jeggings. Some bogans are tradies, but not many as tradies are more lionised than their feckless bogan cousins.

A hoon is a bogan in a car. Hooning is driving recklessly, often in a less-than-roadworthy vehicle. Australia has hoon laws. This by itself makes me happy. And they are needed, too, as hooning does seem to be a very popular pastime. We are frequently woken in the early hours by the screeching of tyres as hoons tear round the corner of our usually quiet suburban street.

When I am woken up by a hoon outside, I pull the doona over my head. Whenever Tim, in England, referred to this object I imagined the words was both spelt duna and only used in conversation, but no! Now we are here, I see print advertisements for doonas all the time. Lovely.

Trend watch

As I still follow the UK news and occasionally visit the motherland, not to mention scouring Pinterest, I keep track of all the Northern Hemisphere fashions. This can be somewhat frustrating as, of course, when it’s winter here I’m looking at summer trends and vice versa. Last Christmas, UK winter, Australian summer – keep up at the back and stop humming that Wham song – I was in Blighty and as far as the eye could see it was Nordic jumpers. Men, women, children, I expect even well-dressed hounds, were wearing Sarah Lund-inspired knitwear. A-ha! I thought, come July (winter in Melbourne, yes, it takes a while to get used to), everyone will be wearing Nordic knitwear.

If only life were that simple. Unfortunately, the trends undergo a Chinese-whisper type process in their seasonal migration across the planet. This can result in some very unpredictable mutations. So it was that on Monday, on the train home, I observed my first Australian reinterpretation of Nordic chic: ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Nordic legging. There were reindeers on her knees! Truly, one should never underestimate the Antipodean teen girl’s attachment to leggings worn as trousers (or pants, if you must) tucked into knock-off Uggs.

So, it is with a sense of trepidation, I note that in the top half of the world the ladies are currently wearing pastels and neon. In a country that has absolutely no use for the Christmas jumper, what day-glo fashion mash ups will be on display this summer?

Big country, small world

Australia is a huge, vast country. Victoria, the smallest state, is easily as large as the UK. Melbourne is a geographically large city. After the recent rezoning of some of the outer suburbs, Melbourne is about the same diameter as the distance from the central business district (always called the CBD) to Bendigo: 150kms. However, in those 8,806,092 square kilometres, not that many people live…by crowded English standards.

People here are really, genuinely friendly. It’s actually pretty easy to make friends, particularly if you get the same train into the city each day. Soon that random person you see every day is asking you for help with the quiz in the newspaper; the next thing you know – true story – your new friend has got you a new job. That’s great, obviously, for a newcomer.

There is, of course, a flip side: there are never a full seven degrees of separation. Usually, anyone you meet is only two or three degrees of separation from someone else you know. If you work in a small industry – and in Melbourne most industries are fairly small – your reputation may well precede you, hopefully for the good, or you might find that there isn’t the breadth of opportunity you are used to.

My son recently moved to a new kindergarten. Last week he brought home a birthday party invitation for a boy in his class’s fifth birthday. When I called to accept, I recognised the voice of the mummy as someone I used to work with (she went on maternity leave to have her second child at the end of last year).

It often feels as though I’ve moved halfway across the world and ended up right back where I started: on the Isle of Wight. Better weather here, though.

Boxing clever

Shipping. Clearly, if you are emigrating you will need to ship your worldly goods – unless you make like Michael Landy and destroy everything you own beforehand. Remember that – even if you plan to rent rather than buy – houses here are leased unfurnished and, also, although the plugs are different we’re on the same power supply. Factor that information in when deciding what to take: you will need furniture, a microwave, a fridge, a freezer, a washing machine and so on. Ship or buy? If I was to do it again, I’d buy most white goods in Australia, but ship all furniture…including a bed!

Who to trust with your precious things is a difficult question – and one I did not answer well when we did it. I plumped for the most expensive option; the one with the convincing sales patter and the shiny brochure. I did not do enough research, clearly. I trusted that the packers knew what they were doing. I also took out insurance. And they did, up to a point. Out of 52 boxes, we lost one. Gallingly, it ‘disappeared’ while it was sitting in our hallway as it was overlooked when the manifest was filled out by the packers and, although it got sent to the depot, was never found again. Insurance was null and void and the shippers claimed no knowledge of the box, despite the fact that we could list its contents. Of course, its loss was only discovered weeks later when the boxes finally arrived in Sydney. The moral, evidently, is to supervise the packers very carefully and do not be afraid to double check everything – I was juggling a dog and a baby and just wanted to see the back of the packers so trusted them to do a thorough job.

The packers in our crew were of varying levels of skill and experience – books and shoes emerged bent and battered at the other end – and, worse, their Sydney-based partners were rude, smelly and lacked in care factor. However, we only had one broken plate. I also learned a lesson with the insurance. Despite the forms looking as though you can give broad categories – kitchen utensils, say – when it comes to making a claim the insurer wants the precise article listed. Imagine! Back to Michael Landy: create a complete inventory and include absolutely everything. Take photos of each item.

Professional packers will put things in much bigger boxes and with more polystyrene packing beans than you can imagine necessary. This is worth watching because you pay by volume rather than weight. We used vacuum shrink bags for crush-proof clothes, linen, bedding and so forth; these then got placed in large boxes with beans, but it certainly helped reduce bulk. Tim carefully packed up all his electrical/computing equipment in the original boxes and with the original polystyrene packaging. The packers were very suspicious of this and put each item in its own outer box, together with a full serving of beans. While any move, but especially a move of this magnitude, focuses the mind and encourages one to get rid of superfluous nonsense, be careful and judicious before you donate your entire library to charity in a bid to reduce shipping costs. I’ve been amazed at the things I’ve missed in the years since we have moved, books among them.

It’s very easy to get into a mindset that everything is replaceable, but that’s not true. Books are vastly more expensive here, for instance. As mentioned before, furniture is a different style here and it can be hard to find comparable pieces – particularly antique furniture, unsurprising given that all that is here must have been shipped over too. It’s easy, I think, to underestimate the cost of replacing items when one is faced with the cost of shipping, but really an additional three boxes are not going to add greatly to the cost. Depending on what those boxes contain, the cost of replacing the items may far, far exceed the cost to ship them.

Finally, no matter how keen you are on the move, there will come a time when having familiar and loved things from home around you will be a comfort. Denby plates, an octagonal occasional table with decorative inlay, the complete works of Jeanette Winterson… I just wish I’d shipped a few other things too.

Comedy walk

I love walking in cities. Once upon a time, my commute to work took in Guy’s Hospital, Borough Market, the Clink, Tate Modern, the Southbank, Waterloo Bridge and Covent Garden. These days things are slightly different, however, I still get an interesting walk each day.

My favourite bit of my walk to work is the palm-tree lined Treasury Place, just to the right of the Parliament of Victoria, where in the afternoon I often see wedding parties having their photos taken. This little tucked-away stretch of private road is home to a life-size (or slightly smaller) collection of bronze statues. On first discovery I took them to be comedians – there’s something Laurel and Hardy or, perhaps, even Ben Elton about Bolte, Dunstan and Cain: smaller than life, cut off mid-speech, round tummy and pointing finger. These figures seem slightly shabby rather than heroic.

I approve of a country that honours its politicians by cutting them down to size.