10 Things I Learned in Australia

1 – Some people say “g’day” and others call each other “mate,” but I never once heard “g’day, mate.” This was a relief because I would have been smirking constantly (how many Americans do you know who say “Howdy, podner”?). On the other hand, smirkable words abound, particularly abbreviations. Breakfast, chocolates and presents become brekky, chokkies and prezzies. Australian for “How you doing?” is “How you going?”, for which there is no clear response.

2 – In Australia, “bush” refers to a place of wonder rather than that man I revile, and it was a pleasure not to have to hear about him daily. The Australian bush is great for outdoor activities from hiking to climbing and mountain biking, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many stars. To photograph a kangaroo in the wild, take a few quiet steps toward it and stop. Eventually it will look up at you. Snap then. It may decide to hop away, but if it goes back to grazing, repeat the process. This can go on for several minutes until you get close enough for a great shot. If you miss a particular roo, there’s always another.

Koalas also live in the bush, but to photograph them you need a very powerful lens (they often sit WAY up in the eucalyptus trees) or to go to a zoo.

3 – Speaking of shooting animals, kangaroo meat tastes like a nice steak, without the fat and cholesterol, and it’s environmentally sustainable. Crocodile tastes like chicken; it’s especially tasty when served Chinese style in sweet-and-sour sauce. “Bugs” are a delicacy, actually small lobsters. And emu paté tastes like chopped liver, so if an emu asks you that question, the answer is yes.

4 – Aussies are serious gourmets, with native foods plus flavors from all over the Pacific, Africa and the Mediterranean. They are also serious about wine. As I was leaving the country, I accidentally broke a bottle of wine at the airport, and the cleaning woman said “I’m so sorry for your loss, love. Tell me, what year was it?”

Everyday Aussie foods include beef pies, like peppery beef stew in a crust. The Tiger at Harry’s Cafe de Wheels in Sydney is a beef pie topped with puree of mashed peas, mashed potatoes and gravy. “Flat white” and “long black” are styles of coffee (both strong, one floated with hot milk and the other without). And vegemite is available at hotel breakfasts in those little plastic containers like for jam. The secret for making vegemite edible is to spread it as thinly as possible over buttered bread. That still doesn’t mean you’ll like it, but at least you can say you tried.

5 – I adapted to the whole it-gets-colder-as-you-head-south thing pretty much instantly, but it was over two weeks before it dawned on me that the sun shines from the north. Like Bart Simpson, I checked to see whether the water in the toilets spins the other direction, but generally it just flows down.

6 – The Great Barrier Reef is as breathtaking as they say. After a disconcerting, first-ever panic attack (shortness of breath, nausea, feeling like this was the end), I managed my first scuba dive. The panic was soon forgotten, I found Nemo, and the instructor said I was an excellent breather. Fun clownfish fact: in the real world if Nemo’s mom had disappeared, his dad would have undergone a sex change to become his new mom. Yow.

7 – By rights, Australian aboriginal art should become the next big thing; relatively few Australians even know about it. It’s spiritual, beautiful and socially responsible since many of these very talented people live in poverty. My favorite style uses little dots to depict the spirit world, creation, community and/or nature as seen from above.

8 – Australians are aghast at Americans’ casual use of the word “fanny.” Here it means a different part of the female lower anatomy. To hear a guy refer to his “fanny pack” induces peals of laughter.

9 – Australians are justifiably proud of their sports. There are only about 21 million people in the whole country (that’s 2/3 the population of California), but they contend in just about any sport they try, from soccer to the PGA to the gay rugby league. The public squares were packed at 4am to watch on giant TVs as the Aussie World Cup team, the Socceroos, advanced to the second round. The Australian equivalent of the chant “U.S.A…U.S.A…” is the call and response “Aussie Aussie Aussie,” “Oi, oi, oi,” a subconscious Jewish reference that no doubt explains the fondness for emu paté.

10 – If you hang out with Australians long enough, they will probably give you a nickname. It is not something you can choose, and if you say you don’t like it they’ll think you’re a stick in the mud. It’s common for redheads, for example, answer to “Bluey.” Andys often get some variation of “Swag,” which comes from “Waltzing Matilda.” The song is about the Swagman, a sort of hobo in the bush of whom the lyrics sound like they’re saying:

“Andy sang as he watched and waited ’til his billy boiled.
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?”

I can live with that.

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