Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Culture Shock

Most people here think that moving to Aus is not such a big change to living in the UK. But, as I explained to my friend Aly the other night, in some ways moving to Australia is more of a culture shock than visiting India or China. Just because The Bill and Neighbours are on TV, the food looks the same and everybody speaks English, many aspects of ordinary life are completely new or sometimes completely impenetrable to foreigners. Here are some examples of what I mean.


Yes, the food is similar. We have fish’n’ chips, meat pies and pasties, takeaway pizza, sausages on the barbie. So far, nothing spectacularly different. But on top of that there are so many new things. Melbourne is a gastronome’s paradise: there is even a permanent newspaper segment called Epicure dedicated to all things gourmet.

There is an infinite number of places to have breakfast in Melbourne, even out in the suburbs. Whilst now and again we miss the honest fare of a good London-Greek caff or a full Irish breakfast (aah, how I miss Irish sausages and decent brown bread), even close to work I can sample divine French toast, fruit-laden raisin breads, omelettes, eggs benedict, home-made muesli, porridge with banana, and of course good coffee.

Melburnians take their coffee extremely seriously. Not for them a Starbucks at every corner: the local cafes and even train stations serve the very best espressos, macchiatos and café lattes. Starbucks is here, but tolerated rather than revered.

Good delis and markets are never far away. Footscray Market is our local, dominated by Vietnamese and Chinese food but boasting the very best fishmongers and butchers not to mention fresh fruit and vegetables. It is mentioned in Rick Stein’s “Food Heroes” book as an excellent source of fresh produce. Victoria, Prahran and South Melbourne Markets are just as good, with famous dim sims at one (larger versions of Chinese dumplings) and a great organic produce section at another.

Melbourne also has a burgeoning Slow Food culture too. The state of Victoria alone has five Slow Food convivia, and coming up soon is A Taste of Slow, two full weeks of quality food and wine, with a focus on seasonal, regional and traditional foods and boutique wineries.


We live surrounded by vineyards. It is heaven to live in a country where wine is a locally-produced item. Nowadays, even buying a South Australian wine seems pointless when there are so many Victorian wineries I haven’t tried yet. My personal favourite is Candlebark Hill up in the Grampians, in Hanging Rock country (about an hour’s drive from here). But the Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula are no more than an hour’s drive from home, and we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of these regions or Geographic Indications, the Australian version of “appellations controllĂ©es”.

Grape varieties I have never heard of are enthusiasically embraced by boutique wineries. Petit Verdot, Arneis and are wines I could select by the glassthe other night in a small wine bar. Even grape clones are heralded as varieties in their own right: for example the MV6 pinot noir clone so beloved of the Hurley vineyard on the Mornington Peninsula. However I don’t think I will ever be able to bring myself to order a glass of “cab sav”, preferring to give cabernet sauvingnon its full title always, despite not being understood by many waiters.

All in all, food and wine here in Australia is so different in many aspects as to be a completely new experience. I cannot think of one way in which our lives have not been enriched by this aspect of Australian life.


No matter what traffic jams we experience here, nothing is as bad as Dublin on a bad day or London on any day. Dreadful traffic here constitutes a ten minute delay. Anything worse is headline news on TV that night. Most of the time at weekends we don’t even bother switching on the car stereo as we are hardly in the car long enough on any journey to bother.

Australians do love their cars, though. I admitted the other day to not having washed our car for over four months: I was confronted with a wall of incomprehension by colleagues who religiously valet their cars every weekend, usually driving to the local car wash where they pay to have somebody else do it while they have a real coffee while they wait (see Food and Wine above).

Personalised number plates are ubiquitous. People of every age soup up their normal suburban hatchbacks and saloons: under-car purple neon lighting, blacked-out windows, huge decals, “sports” exhausts (meaning specially designed to be noisy) adorn the vehicles of forty-comething blokes who should know better. There is no age limit to burning people off at traffic lights or doing spectacular U-turns on dual carriageways. It is a nation of boy racers (and that’s only the shielas).


The old adage about England and America being two countries divided by a common laguage could also be said about England and Australia. Yes, they speak English here, and mostly it is understandable, especially when you get used to the so-called “high-rise terminals” – the ubquitous interrogative tone that make every Australian sentence sound like a question?

People really do use G’day as a greeting, and the phrase “fair dinkum” is commonly used, even by politicians in speeches. But it takes a while to understand words such as sook ( a softy or sulk), rapt (delighted), bogan (somebody who is perceived as being an unfashionable "lower-class" person, typically of British Isles ancestry and living in deprived urban areas), and shonky (dubious, underhanded).

Once you have figured out that shortening any word and ending it with an “o” will make you sound like a local, you’ve made it:

Ambo paramedic
Arvo afternoon
Servo petrol station
Reffo refugee
Rego vehicle registration
Milko milkman

One also has to learn where Woop Woop or the Back of Bourke is (very far away), how to handle a stickybeak (tell them to mind their own business) and find the alternative local phrase to”It’s like Piccadilly/O’Connell Street” when trying to emphasise how busy somewhere is (still looking for that one). One of my favourite alternative local metaphors – the same as a few sandwiches short of a picnic – is “kangaroos loose in the top paddocks”.

On the other hand, if you use a phrase familiar in England or Ireland like “starter for ten” or “I amn’t” or “it was great crack” you are also likely to get mystified looks as if one was speaking a foreign language (which of course one is).


It’s Melbourne. Seventy percent of all clothing is black. Get used to it.

Sick Leave

Being well used to EU regulations it never dawned on me that you would have to earn your sick leave. Over here you accumulate sick days at a rate of around one day per month worked. Down side is that many people use them like an extension of their annual leave.

TV and Celebrities

Celebrity TV shows and gossip magazines are totally lost on me. We have no idea who these people are. There are famous people doing TV and billboard ads for stuff like All Bran and Nurofen but we didn’t realise they were famous people – we thought they were just actors. There is a “Fifty Years of TV” exhibition on in the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Everybody is talking about it. It might be nostalgia to Australians, but it is impenetrable to us.

We don’t know who the famous people in Torvill & Dean’s Dancing on Ice are (is that a show in the UK too???). Celebrity Big Brother will no doubt also be lost on us. We have no idea who the ex-Big Brother housemates are (although a friend of the family is going out with one).

Popular Music

We have not found any radio station we can listen to on a regular basis as we recognise about 20% of the music (and that’s stuff we would switch off anyway). Spicks and Specks is the Aussie version of Never Mind the Buzzcocks: because we don’t recognise either the famous contestants or the songs they are being quizzed on.

We were in the city on New Year’s Eve and the big midnight fireworks display was accompanied by what sounded to us like random anonymous heavy rock music. We were baffled until somebody told us much later that it had actually been a medley of some of the most famous and best-loved Australian hit songs of recent years.


Everything in the country is trying to kill you. Crocodiles, jellyfish, man-eating sharks, baby-eating dingoes, not to mention the six species of stinging tree, five of the world’s seven most deadly snakes and the nine most poisonous spiders in the world.

Spiders come as big as you like. I have discovered that the three most frightening words in the English language are as follows:

Bird Eating Spider

A friend of ours once saw one. He mistook it for a crab. The female of the species can grow to about 60mm (2.5 inches), and that’s just the diameter of its body.

Funny enough, the smaller the spider, the more deadly it is. Mena tells me that Huntsman spiders (typically 2 inches in diameter) are not really scary as they are more like small furry creatures than spiders. Apparently, it is the tiny redback under the toilet seat I should be more worried about. Now, why did she think any of that would comfort me?