The Amazing Aussie Adventure: It’s the Little Differences

Festival of Christmas in Perth

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.

The Language

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.

Aussie Slang

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.”

Australian Politics

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.

Seasons

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.

Sweden-town in London

Sweden-town in London

Sweden-town in London
Sweden-town in London
I’ve written before about my love of London, or more specifically the love I have for London’s diversity and especially my particular part of east London.

Until fairly recently, I had no idea there was an active Swedish community in London — not until one of the girl‘s friends from her show choir invited us to celebrate Swedish Midsummer at the end of June.  Rotherhithe park was filled with Swedes in white dresses and green leaf headdresses picnicking, drinking schnaps (complete with the obligatory drinking song and toast with each glass), and celebrating the midsummer in a traditional sort of way.  Even though the event was organised by the Swedish church, it was still very traditionally pagan.

It’s one of the things I love about London at this time of year: all the different Christmas markets popping up in the various parts of London — who knew there was a small part of the city around Marylebone referred to as “Sweden town”?  Almost six months later, we were back in the Swedish community this weekend with a Swedish Christmas market.

We found the Swedish church without trouble and were amused that the sign outside specified “English spoken”.  Apparently it’s been the centre of the Swedish community in London for several hundred years. The girl had opted to wear her red-and-white knitted Christmas poncho and a matching woolen hat: as we entered the church, the rector admired her knitwear and commented how she looked very Norwegian — our Swedish friend Linda later explained that this kind of chunky knitwear is very common in Norway.

Off-topic, I didn’t see a whole lot of people when I was in Norway (other than the adventurers I was with) but one place where we were staying was a popular spot for snowmobilers to stop and eat before moving on.  These people all wore the kind of ugly Christmas jumpers that are becoming very fashionable in the UK in recent years.

Inside the Swedish church, the market was largely being held in the basement — each stall had a handmade wooden sign, indicating in Swedish what they were offering, and the place was packed.  Better yet, you’d occasionally hear snatches of conversation like “It actually gets busier than this” and “I had no idea it would be this crowded, is it always like this?”.  While at some stalls you practically had to push your way to the front or push your way through the crowd, it was a good kind of crowded — with a positive atmosphere, rather than one of impatience or stress (unlike a busy shop around Christmastime).

The market wasn’t very big, and after I saw it as a prize on the tombola I probably spent almost as much time searching for a particular wooden decoration (a wooden heart with a picture of a black cat inside it) for sale than I had walking around and exploring the market originally.  Nobody seemed to be able to tell me for sure where I could buy this ornament from — the stall especially for Christmas ornaments (like the traditional Gävle goat) almost laughed at the idea they had anything with cats and pointed me to a different part to try, who in turn pointed me back to where I started.  Just the same, I came away with a Swedish “jultomte”, a Father Christmas made of felt for our tree — a man consisting of just a hat, nose and white beard.  Some had grey beards instead of white; this is something I should look up.

I don’t know where my work will take me next on my travels, though I am tempted to try and contrive a visit to somewhere with a good Christmas market — but even if I don’t make it out of England again before the end of 2012, I know there will be more interesting Christmas markets to be found in London.