When talking to people in Australia – people who actually live here, rather than tourists – you notice how different things are between Australia and England, even though, on the surface, they can seem almost anticlimactically similar.
Take Chris, a recently divorced university researcher who knows Laurence through Acorn. He lives in a lovely old house near the centre of Melbourne; I'm probably going to be staying with him for a couple of weeks while the Hardwicks take Laurence's parents to Ayers Rock. Last Sunday Laurence, Mary, Alistair (Laurence and Mary's ten-year old son), Chris and myself went off to St Kilda beach to stroll in the sun and look at the market, but Alistair felt sick – he'd been off school with a virus for the latter half of the week – so they left me with Chris to explore.
Chris is a quiet man who is rediscovering what it means to be single and in a big city, and as we were hanging out on St Kilda beach looking at the women in their swimsuits – like all men do on the beach, regardless of what they say – he commented how interesting it was to bump into someone who was looking at Melbourne for the first time. By my interest in the city I was helping him rediscover places that he'd forgotten about; he's lived here for decades, but in the same way that I didn't explore huge tracts of London when I lived there, he felt he'd not been seeing as much of Melbourne as he could have done.
This is where the little differences cropped up. I was telling him what I found fascinating about the place, and Australia in general, and he'd never thought of it that way. For example, most people know that in the southern hemisphere the sun goes round from east to west via the north side of the sky, as opposed to the south in the northern, and this is why people always get their sense of direction mixed up when they swap hemispheres. But not a lot of people know that runner beans grow round poles in a different direction in each of the hemispheres, because they follow the light round the poles. Little things like that are really weird to a stranger.
Houses and Cities
Another big difference that is really obvious to a Pom is that in Australia all the houses are flat. There's so much space, there's no need to build multi-storey buildings, so ninety-nine per cent of the houses are bungalows; in fact, nobody uses the word 'bungalow', they're all just 'houses'. Sure, some areas have houses with stairs, and there are skyscrapers in the city centres, but the suburbs are just full of flat houses with red roofs. It also means you can see all the trees between the houses, so although the amount of greenery in suburbia isn't hugely different to that in the UK, you can actually see it when you look over the city.
The upshot? Every suburb in Australia looks the same, and it looks pretty boring too – red roofs and gum trees, acre after acre. If you've seen Neighbours, then you've seen most of the modern suburbs in Oz, though there are obviously exceptions, such as Balmain in Sydney. Here I visited some friends of my mum's who had stairs, which I'm sure they regularly showed off to unbelieving visitors...
Another legacy of modern buildings and design is that all Australian cities (except inner Sydney) are built on a grid road system, so every junction is a crossroads. In the UK every junction is different (except in Milton Keynes) so it's relatively easy to find your way around by memory, but here it's impossible; every junction looks identical, and when you consider the number of orthogonal roads around, there's a lot of grid to get lost in. It's a nightmare when you're used to windy roads and junctions with character. Add in Melbourne's tram system – you have to turn right from the left-hand lane, so you're not sitting in the central tram lane – and driving becomes a challenge, shall we say. Sometimes I'd rather have London's chaos than Melbourne's grid, because it's more interesting, but to be fair grid systems are far better suited to traffic... they're just a bit boring.
Talking of driving, get this: a lot of the cars here run on gas. Not gasoline, but real gas. They have big tanks in the back, and petrol stations have these special pressurised hoses that clamp onto the car and pump in liquid gas at about 20¢ per litre (about 10p). It's amazing stuff, and you wonder why it's not available in England.
The way people approach university is totally different, too. There isn't any such thing as free further education here, so most students stay at home and go to their local university, which also makes sense considering the size of the country. The only problem is that you keep coming across these 21-year-olds who haven't got a clue about coping for themselves, because they've never left home, or got into life as a student. They simply stay with mum and dad until they get a job, and then they buy a house, and some parents are really protective. Can you imagine a 23-year old saying, 'I can't stay out too late, my parents are expecting me back?' Nor could I until I came to Oz...
House buying is strange too. Here people don't tend to buy houses, they buy plots of land, and when they've got enough money to start building, they do just that. As a result you get these housing estates with empty, overgrown plots, surrounded by neat little suburban gardens and twee red roofs, which looks kind of odd. Apparently in the north you get people building houses in stages; because it's so hot, they can build the roof on pillars, then fill in the walls, then partition the rooms, then add water and electricity, all in stages that spread over years. That must be a wacky sight, roofs without walls in the bush...
Television is a different world, too. There are plenty of English programmes on the Australian networks – one night we had To the Manor Born followed by The Good Life, with Heartbeat on the other side – but there are loads more advert breaks than at home, and they repeat the same adverts all the time. What happens is that you get companies sponsoring certain programmes, and part of the deal is that the company gets its adverts in the break; this means you see the same advert maybe four or five times an hour, which is pretty tiring. Another annoying habit is the advert break two minutes before the programme finishes, so if you want to watch the end of anything, you have to sit through those bloody adverts again. It really makes you appreciate the BBC.
Another confusing thing for the English visitor to Australia are all the signs saying 'Cheap Manchester' and 'Huge Manchester Sale' – even 'Best Deals On Manchester Inside'. This one took me a long time to work out, but 'Manchester' is what Australians call linen, bed sheets and so on, presumably because they used to be imported from Manchester. This must be the only place in the world where you can put your Manchester in the washing machine and wash all the crap out of it...
Everyone drinks champagne here, too. Not the French stuff – anyone caught with French wine would be a social outcast after the nuclear blasts in the Pacific – but Australian champagne, which is rather a nice drop, to be honest. The main thing, though, is how cheap it is; you can get a good bottle of champagne for £5, and it goes as low as £3 per bottle. Back home we're conditioned to think that champagne is expensive and for special occasions, but with prices like this, you can drink it all the time.
There are lots of other little things you notice about Australia, too. Absolutely nobody watches Neighbours or Home and Away except little kids, and nobody can quite believe that the Poms love it so much.
Lots of trees in Australia (gum trees, mainly) don't shed their leaves in autumn; instead, they shed their bark in spring. As a result Australia is very green, much more so than people expect, and it's green all year round. OK, the red centre is desert, but there's a lot of rainforest and green parkland about.
People in uniform, like policemen and traffic wardens, wear shorts when the weather's hot. Businessmen also wear suits with shorts, which can be a bit of a surprise; you keep thinking they've put on the wrong pair of trousers! There's also an interesting approach to business called the 'weekend beach attitude'; how can you get stressed about the job when you know you're going to spend the weekend soaking up the sun on the beach? It's great for relaxing, but not so good for hammering out a difficult business matter on a Friday afternoon.
Some things are the same, though. The national dishes (if there are such things) are pie 'n' chips and fish 'n' chips, and the way they cook them is just like in the UK (though the fish is normally much better). And do you know what the biggest news stories were last week? No, nothing to do with the Keating government or the Asian economic summit. The two headline grabbers were Princess Di and her Panorama interview, and the release of the first new Beatles material in 25 years. In some respects, I hardly felt that I'd left England.