In the classic Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction, the characters played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson discuss what Europe is like compared to the USA.
Travolta’s character Vincent Vega puts it best when he says “You know what the funniest thing about Europe is? It’s the little differences.” That’s how the Amazing Aussie Adventure feels: the biggest things of all are the little differences.
For a country that speaks English as a first language and drives on the left-hand side of the road, you’d be surprised at the little differences in Australia.
Yes, they speak English here. And it’s not even like it’s “American” English, for all intents and purposes it’s the same English that I know. Things like realise and fantasise are still spelled with an “S”, and as a professional copywriter, I go around correct American English spellings on my company’s website. We’re an Australian company and our brand should reflect this. But then other things trip you up.
Like pants, for example.
As with the North American continent, pants here are not your underwear. If someone mentions wearing “dress pants” they do not mean the occasion is so formal it requires special underwear, but just smart trousers. Pants are what we, in the south of England at least, call trousers. I know the English makes no sense, since surely underpants go under your pants, but that’s just how it is. Neither is right and neither is wrong, but it can be confusing if you see a pub’s dress code stating that pants must be worn.
Which brings me to another confusion: thongs. If a pub has a dress code, and it mentions pants, it only follows that it would also mention no thongs allowed. As an Englishman, I nod my head to this and think it makes sense — pants yes, thongs no. Nobody wants to see your g-string. But thongs are what the rest of the world calls flip-flops. Or if you want to compromise, sandals. If a friend mentions they wear thongs in the shower, they’re talking about their footwear, not their choice of shower apparel.
Even when you logically know these things you can still get tripped up.
British kids raised on a TV diet of Neighbours and Home and Away are more familiar with Aussie slang than maybe other nations around the world. Apparently, Aussie TV soaps are also responsible for the proliferation of “up-speak”, but that’s a different conversation for another day. But when someone calls you a flaming drongo or a great galah, you are already on the ball. Except you’ll almost never hear someone talk like that outside of the country.
But there’s also a world of Aussie slang that you might not know, from having roos loose in the top paddock to being mad as a cut snake. Before moving to Australia, it’s a good idea to read some Aussie literature to get up to speed. You can buy books of Aussie slang, though trying to drop things like “I hope your chooks turn into emus and kick your dunny door down” into everyday conversation is as difficult as using the phrase “le singe est sur le branche” when in Paris (there’s not a lot of jungle in France).
You’re likely to also be confused by being asked how you are going, especially if you’re not travelling anywhere at the time. It’s just saying “How are you?” and probably means something similar to “How are you going on your journey through life/the day/the universe”. One of the things that delighted me most early in my days in Australia were the words “dobber” (what you might call a snitch or a grass, but in a much more schoolboyish way, than a criminal informant sort) and the phrase “made you look you dirty chook.” Other phrases you’re likely to hear in normal conversation include “winner winner chicken dinner.”
You’ll be glad to know that Aussie politics is just as bipartisan as it is in the UK or the USA. That’s about all I understand of it. Oh, and the Liberal Party are not what anyone else in the world would ever describe as “Liberal”.
The one and only election day I’ve been to here was a big disappointment: I was promised a sausage sizzle and a cake stall, and there was neither. Both of those things probably also need explaining another time. Voting is also compulsory here: not voting means a fine, and possible jail time if you don’t pay.
Strangely, it doesn’t seem to drastically increase voter turnout.
Obviously, in the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are reversed, and for a while that confuses you, until you go through a full cycle of seasons and learn to disconnect the month from the season. What you don’t get used to is the confusion between things like Easter and Christmas and the seasons. It feels plain weird to have Christmas in the height of summer, and to see inflatable Santa wearing shorts and holding a surfboard — but then everything else is still branded for the Northern hemisphere version of Christmas. Evergreen trees decorated with tinsel and fake snow, cards have images of snowmen and robins. Santa still comes on a sleigh, pulled by reindeer! There’s “Australian” versions of songs like Jingle Bells and the 12 Days of Christmas, and even that song by Rolf Harris that we won’t listen to any more — but they’re not really official songs, not like the traditional carols.
Easter, too, is “branded” for Spring — even though it officially falls in Autumn, so it’s not really all about rebirth and new life and all the traditional themes of abundance. Except that the seasons get even weirder: it’s in Autumn and Winter that it rains and things like your lawn that died in the summer comes back to life.
Sometimes it’s the little differences you didn’t even expect. When something you know from home looks different or tastes different to what you’re used to, or when you can’t find something in the supermarket and you realise you don’t even know what it would be called here.