After I’ve been in Australia for about a week, I get a message from my brother.
“How’s south ‘merica?”
“There’s surprisingly fewer people speaking Latin American languages than expected,” I reply. “Also the Amazon has been replaced by a bunch of red desert, which is weird.”
“That is weird,” he replies. I’m thinking he’s pulling my leg, being his usual big-brother self, but then he says, “Also that’s why I said murica. It’s just a southern USA from what I’ve heard.”
I had this assumption when I came here, too: Australia is just like the USA, only in the Southern Hemisphere and with deadlier animals / cool accents. Well, for the most part, this is true: there are well-developed cities and supermarkets and people speaking English and a stable economy and government. However, I would like to at least partially dispel this myth that my brother brought up: despite all of its incredible natural beauty and its ex-British-colonial-history, Australia is neither South America nor south America.
Here are a few of the biggest differences I’ve found:
Amazon. Ok, so I knew that amazon.com didn’t exist in Australia, but I thought they’d have some sort of adorably named alternative, like with Craigslist (they have Gumtree, aw!). Nope! If you want to order something online, be prepared to pay for shipping and then to wait at least two weeks for it (and that’s if it’s domestic).
Busses. You have to hail the bus here, they don’t just stop if they see you standing there. I found this very strange the first time I went to try out the metro, but I wasn’t about to stay on my high horse and not wave (after all, if my high horse was really that great, I wouldn’t need a bus in the first place), and thus waved semi-frantically for all of my busses since getting here. However, I’ve discovered more recently that you don’t have to hail the bus at busy places (e.g. at the end of the line or at UQ’s campus), because the driver sort of assumes there’s no way there’ll be nobody to pick up. I know that now, which is great, but my first time trying to get the bus was…um…interesting:
Okay, so there’s signs EVERYWHERE in and around Brisbane reminding you to “hail the driver!” “Don’t forget to hail the driver.” “Hey! You have to hail the bus driver.” “We don’t just stop for you, you entitled American — HAIL THE BUS DRIVER.”
So here I am — first time trying to take public transport in Brisbane — and I’m standing, waiting, at the bus stop for over twenty minutes. Having waited so long, I’m thinking I must have missed the first bus that came around and I’m really starting to get anxious about properly hailing the bus. My wait has shown that, as promised, they’re not just going to stop if you’re standing there and I am not about to miss another one just because I want to look like a cool local while hailing it.
When I finally see my bus pull around the corner, I take a deep breath, step forward, and stick my hand out calmly but firmly.
The driver keeps driving.
I try to make eye contact and wave more urgently now, fearing having to wait another twenty minutes for the next bus. He’s not stopping or slowing and my wave builds into a spastic sort of flailing. Now I’m on tiptoe, eyes glued to the front of the bus, frantically waving my arm back and forth and making a right scene in front of the probably 60 other students waiting at various points around the area to catch busses from UQ’s bus stop.
The driver keeps driving.
At this point I know it’s a lost cause. The driver is basically past me and so, half in an effort to save face and at least look like an adorable imbecile and half in a last-ditch effort to hail the bus, I reach longingly after the bus and say softly, “No…please…don’t go!” The driver looks at me, my pained expression, and my outstretched arm in a way that says chill, girl, I’m coming back and motions to me that he’s circling. Relieved and only a little embarrassed, I smile in thanks and put my hand down.
Sure enough, he circles around the bus stop’s little roundabout and parks the bus. As he does, everyone who’s been casually waiting on the bench behind me (read: watching me have an aneurism trying to hail the bus) gets up and gets in line to board the bus. I turn bright red and join the line (which formed in front of me) and avoid eye contact with the bus driver, who smirks at me when I hop aboard. Why is it no one else bothered to hail the bus? Hmm? I see you, Brisbane. Hail the bus! You say. It’s what everyone does here! You say.
A likely story.
Coffee. Anyone who knows me knows that I love coffee. I love it so very very much. Having heard that Australia has a big coffee culture, I was pretty stoked to head to a cafe and taste the deliciousness of coffee Down Under myself. That is…until I saw the menu. It would seem that, since I’m now in the Southern Hemisphere, and thus upside down and entirely wonky as compared to the birthplace of the espresso-based drink, it’s imperative that I specify (a) the height of my drink and (b) whether or not gravity applies to it. How this affects the milk, espresso shot, and water ratio of the drink takes me awhile to figure out, but luckily a cappuccino is still a cappuccino here. However, in case anyone is hoping to branch out, I did get around to decoding the local cafe menu…
Cappuccino: same as home, woo! (Except it gets sprinkled with chocolate powder — score!)
Babyccino: And Americans get made fun of for puppuccinos?! This, essentially, is a puppuccino, except it’s often sprinkled with cinnamon or chocolate powder and you give it to your child instead of your dog
Doppio: a double shot of espresso
Flat White: somewhere between a latte and a cappuccino
Latte: same as home, woo! (Except it’s often served in a glass, rather than a mug here…which is odd.)
Long Black: an americano
Long Macchiato: this one was tough to decipher, but it seems like a double shot of espresso with a dollop of foam…so like a double shot macchiato…?
Mocha: same as home, woo!
Short Black: a shot of espresso
Short Macchiato: a macchiato
Chips. I’ve included this below in the slang section, but it’s so ridiculous I’m putting it here, too. French fries are called “chips” here. Okay. That’s fine! I’ve been to Europe, this neither surprises nor concerns me. It’s no big deal…until you find out potato chips are also called chips! You can’t have it both ways, Australia! Even worse: Aussies will still try to make fun of you for not calling french fries “chips.” I’m sorry, but I don’t even know what food you’re talking about right now. Take a seat!
Coins. There’s seemingly no rhyme or reason to the size of their coins here. I don’t understand. Their 50¢ coins are dinner plates and their $2 coins are pennies. Why, Australia? Why?
Condiments. Though ketchup is still a thing here, rather than offer a sauce as base as ketchup or — gasp! — ranch, the default condiment of choice to have with fries here is the fine culinary specimen known as aioli. (Aioli is pretty much garlic mayonnaise, but with a fancy name.) It’s so lovely it almost makes up for them calling fries “chips.”
Feminine supplies. I know this isn’t a stupendously blog-appropriate topic, but statistically speaking, my audience is likely to be 50% female and it has to be said: the tampons here are just downright weird. There’s no applicators! WHAT IS HAPPENING I THOUGHT AUSTRALIA WAS SOUTH AMERICA!
Political correctness. I was warned about this one but it nevertheless catches me off-guard. Everyone here is just a little bit overtly racist, just a little bit overtly sexist, and just a little bit of an asshole. It’s all part of the characteristic Aussie dark / slightly morbid sense of humor, but I still can’t help but bristle when someone makes an inappropriate comment or “joke” about women or black people or jewish people or low-income people or…you get what I mean. Also, in lieu of the usual honk or “hey baby” I’ve learned accompanies me walking down the street, it’s apparently common here to yell “SLUUUUTTT!” out the window of your passing car. Glorious.
Prices. The national minimum wage here is A$17.70 per hour, but from what I’ve heard, most jobs around here pay over A$20 per hour, so all of you economics majors and conservatives are likely waving your fists and yelling “BLARGH the cost of living must be ENORMOUS!” Well, you’re not wrong, but the cost of each part of living really varies. For example, my monthly rent here in Brisbane is nearly half (that’s right, half) of what I paid last semester in LA, and that’s for a pricier apartment just a block from campus. However, random foods here are exorbitantly expensive. At the supermarket down the street from my apartment, bell peppers are whopping A$19.99/kg (that’s about $11.80/lb in the USD) and pink lady apples are usually around $9.99/kg (nearly US$6/lb). Meanwhile, though, kiwis (strangely, always ones from Italy, never from our close neighbor, New Zealand) are often four for A$3 and lentils, though normally around the same price as rice back home, are under A$2 for a big package here! On a different, note, with the minimum wage being so high, people don’t tip here, so just as an example, my already cheap A$30 haircut here stayed A$30, whereas in LA I’d be paying US$70 for a haircut (if I was lucky) and then shelling out US$10-$20 extra as a tip. It’s a price minefield over here, honestly.
Slang. Ah, yes. The moment you’ve all been waiting for…the infamous Aussie slang. I’ll be updating this as I talk to more and more locals, but here’s the list so far…
Avo: short for avocado, made famous by the delicious breakfast “smashed avo on toast”
Arvo: pronounced exactly like “avo,” but this time it means afternoon (“I’ll pick you up tomorrow arvo”). Though I’ve yet to become confused by this word’s similarity to “avo,” both words tend to make me extraordinarily hungry
Bickie: short for biscuit, which is the Aussie word for some, but not all, cookies (*rolls eyes*)
Brekkie: an adorable alternative for the word “breakfast”
Bloke: guy, dude
Bogan: Aussie redneck
Capsicum: not really slang, but it’s a word we don’t have in the U.S. so I’m putting it here…capsicum equals bell pepper; pepper here equals chili/jalapeno/habanero peppers and the sort
Chips: french fries…and also potato chips. See above for clarification.
Chook: chicken, both literally (a tasty bird, especially fantastic in nugget form) and figuratively (“she’s just chook”)
College: this isn’t really shorter, so I’m not sure if it counts as slang, but dorms / residence halls are called colleges here
Dero: this might be the most articulately-based slang terms yet, though it is by no means all that friendly — “dero” is short for “derelict” and is used as a replacement for “hobo”
Fruit and Veg: pronounced “froot ‘n’ vedge” — this is what the Aussies call fresh produce
G’Day: a classic Australian replacement for hello (yeah, people actually say it here, it’s great)
“How ya goin’?”: Australia couldn’t pick between “How are you doing?” and “How’s it going?” so they do both
“It’s a hole”: it’s not a very nice area / it’s kind of gross, used to refer to regions and establishments (e.g. “Yeah I don’t go to Fortitude Valley that often, it’s a hole.”)
“It’s okay”: this is the Aussie equivalent of “You’re welcome” or “No problem.” As someone who’s used to people saying “It’s okay” in response to me saying “I’m sorry,” this exchange frequently leaves me feeling strangely guilty
Keen: willing or enthusiastic to participate in an activity or event — similar to “down” in the States, you’d say you’re “keen” to go somewhere or do something
Mate: an almost perfect substitute for dude, including the types of people who say it too often as well as in which situations it’s often used; also a substitute for friend or buddy (e.g. “one of my mates…”)
Maccas: Aussie for McDonald’s — though the word certainly makes Mickey D’s sound more appealing, I can’t say it tastes any different
Mozzie: mosquito (yeah, figured this one out after getting laughed at for naming my first car Mozzie)
Rego: registration (for a car) — saw this one preceded with the word “no” a lot while looking for a cheap car to buy…I didn’t wind up buying one…
Rocket: yet another non-slang word in need of translation…this is Aussie for arugula
Rock Melon: more mislabelled produce — this is an oddly descriptive way of referring to a cantaloupe
Rock Up: an informal way to say “to arrive,” usually without notice — similar to how we say “roll up,” only without the secondary, drug-related definition (e.g. “Yeah they all just rocked up dressed like idiots”)
Slang: this is obviously not limited to Australia, but did you know that “slang” is literally slang for “short language”?? Learn something new everyday…
Straddie: North Stradbroke Island (a gorgeous island just off the coast of Brisbane)
Suss: suspect/suspicious, as in “Hm, this American dissecting our way of life seems sorta suss”
Togs: swimsuit, interchangeable with “swimmers”
Uni: this also isn’t limited to Australia, but they call college here “uni” and dorms “college” (oh, and “school” really only refers to grade school…so I’ve been confusing people left and right)
Vego: a vegetarian
The Sun. This is not a drill. The sun is about a million times more powerful here than at home. Going to be outside for your quick ten-minute walk from your apartment to campus? Better slather sunscreen all over yourself. Going to the beach? Dear Lord have mercy on your soul and skin you had better put on an entire bottle every half hour.
Wildlife. I won’t get your hopes up and tell you there’s kangaroos hopping through UQ’s campus, but there’s still a ton of amazing, bizarre, Australia-specific wildlife that is pretty much everywhere. Within the city, it’s completely normal to see possums (not opossums, there is, in fact, a difference) and flying foxes (aka giant fruit bats) at night. During the day, birds like ibis, cockatoos, ground turkeys, rainbow lorikeets (aka lil’ mini parrots), and actual parrots are as common as ducks and pigeons in any American city.
Meanwhile, if you make it to the beach, you’ll hopefully be treated to the sight of dolphins, whale, sea turtles, and manta rays, all of whom surf the waves rolling in off the coast of places like North Stradbroke Island.
Once out of condensed civilization altogether, you get to see every cliche you’ve ever dreamed of: kangaroos hopping through tall grass, koalas snoozing in trees, all the good stuff.
And if you head northwest away from the city, you might just run into the Aussie equivalent of a cat lady: a wallaby lady (and if you’re really lucky, you might just get to stay for supper).
In case you were wondering, yes I’m in heaven here.