Tim Boden’s Letter from Australia – First Impressions

Tim Boden

Tim Boden has been a grumpy old man since he was about 13. Born and raised in the darkest East Midlands, he now lives in Australia as part of an ongoing project to avoid getting a proper job and settling down for as long as reasonably possible. His interests include comics, beer, rugby league, 20th-century history and other things mostly favoured by middle-aged men who spend a lot of time in sheds. He has very strong opinions on vegetables.

Tim Boden had good friends, a steady job, a nice place to live and a pot plant called Ivan. Then he decided to chuck all of that in and move to Australia. This is what he’s learned so far.

When I told my friends and family I was going to Australia I got asked a lot of questions, and not all of them were “Why?” People seemed genuinely concerned about how I might fare up against the giant deadly spiders or whether I would be able to get from city to city without hitching a ride in the back of a pick-up truck driven by a man called Wombat who might decide at any moment to skin me and turn me into a fetching hat.

I laughed it all off, confident that the knowledge of Australia I’d cobbled together from history books, movies, and repeated viewings of the video to the song Down Under was enough for me to be adequately prepared. I was, of course, wrong.

Because although there probably isn’t a country in the world easier from someone from the UK to migrate to in terms of integrating into the culture, there’s still all kinds of little things which constantly take me by surprise. The crows sound different. There are cycle lanes on motorways. Supermarkets sell spring onions untrimmed, so the green bit’s about a foot long and sticks out of my backpack. Lots of tiny things like that which are completely pointless in themselves, but when accumulated keep on reminding me that I’m still an outsider.

Then again, I’ve only been here four weeks. My first impressions are likely to be proved wrong, but here’s what I’ve figured out so far.

Climate

Yeah, it’s hot.

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A typical day’s weather forecast.

When I first arrived here, it was 37 degrees Centigrade. I’ve never experienced that kind of heat before. One of the wheels of my suitcase melted. I nearly melted. As I have to date still not developed even a hint of a tan, it’s only a matter of time before I turn into a giant melanoma.

On the other hand, it does rain in Australia. Oh boy, does it rain. None of this namby-pamby non-committal drizzle you get back home – it’s either bone dry, or it’s bucketing it down, with nothing in between. It’s caused me a bit of a footwear dilemma: I have shoes for hot weather, and shoes for wet weather, but hot and wet weather? How do you even deal with that? (As a tangent, this makes it even more baffling that Australians invented Ugg boots, which are of no use for either.)

One thing Australia’s weather does have in common with the UK, though, is that the forecasts are unreliable enough as to be mostly pointless. A day with 90% predicted chance of rain might be nothing but clear skies; a day forecast as sunny might be windy and overcast. You might as well replace each forecast with, “it’s fucking hot, mate”, and leave it that.

Wildlife

I hate to break this to you, but the internet has lied (shocking, I know) – Australia is not, in fact, a seething deathtrap in which every animal has a personal grudge against humanity. The rivers aren’t swarming with crocodiles and sharks. The biggest spider I’ve seen was no larger than my thumbnail. There are no kangaroos bounding through city streets (well, give or take that anecdote one of my neighbours told me about seeing a very confused-looking one sat on the pavement by Gus’s Coffee Shop a few weeks ago).

Of course, I live in Canberra. If you live in the outback, or in the tropical regions of Queensland and the Northern Territory it’s another story. Here in the unsettlingly quiet and tidy Milton Keynes of the bush, however, what we mostly have is parrots. Vast quantities of parrots, all over the place, greeting you with a dawn chorus that sounds like particularly aggressive experimental industrial noise-rock.

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Pictured: The Australian magpie, which comes far below ostriches and cassowaries in the list of ‘birds I would not like to fight’, but quite some way above anything we’ve got in the UK other than possibly swans.

Oh, and then there’s these guys. The Australian magpie is not actually related to the European magpie but is very much like it in shape, colour and being absolutely everywhere – however, it’s also quite a bit larger, completely unafraid of humans, and has a tendency to launch unprovoked attacks on cyclists. The good news is that it’s about the most dangerous thing you’re likely to encounter in a city. The bad news is that still isn’t any consolation if you drove your bike into oncoming traffic while trying to avoid being swooped.

So perhaps I’m being rather blase in thinking that as I wasn’t set upon by snakes and sharks as soon as I set foot on Australian soil, the danger had been overhyped. Maybe they’re playing the long game, waiting for me to let my guard down. And that‘s when the drop-bears jump you. Still, not dead so far!

Food and Drink

The differences between UK and Australian pub and/or coffee-shop culture could easily fill an entire post in themselves, but here’s a brief summary of some of the things I’ve encountered so far –

Vegemite: Not as good as Marmite.

Weet-Bix: Not as good as Weetabix.

Lamingtons: Amazing. I could happily eat my entire body weight of them in a single sitting. They’re like a sponge cake and a Bounty bar had a mutant, cube-shaped baby, and it was delicious.

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I Googled ‘Australian food’ and this was what came up. Lamingtons are those square things in the middle of the bottom row. I haven’t ate any witchetty grubs so far; they don’t sell those in Aldi.

Chocolate: An odd mix of the familiar (Cadbury’s, Mars, etc.) and the completely new – such as the Cherry Ripe bar, a confection of cherry and desiccated coconut (desiccated coconut is kind of a big deal in Australian confectionery, for some reason) wrapped in dark chocolate, which shouldn’t work but does. Also, the caramel Freddos are shaped like koalas and are bigger than the ones back home but also a lot more expensive than the equivalent of the already extortionate 20p. (I still haven’t quite recovered from the feeling of betrayal when they bumped the price from five pence to ten.)

Beer: No, nobody drinks Foster’s. They don’t drink Castlemaine XXXX much, either. However, the big beer brands that are popular here, such as Victoria Bitter, Carlton Draught and Toohey’s New are all just as disgusting variations on the theme of fizzy yellow gnat’s piss, so you get the same basic effect. (Some of the bottled stuff is quite nice, though.)

Also, Australians can and will barbecue anything, aided by a basic innovation in barbecue design involving putting a metal plate over the heat source so you can pour on oil and use it like a giant frying pan, rather than being limited to stuff which won’t fall through the grill. I’ve had barbecued stir-fry, quesadillas, bacon and eggs (though no shrimp, funnily enough) – rather than the British pagan ritual of greeting the arrival of the sun by cremating meat, the barbecue is just another cooking option alongside the oven and the hob. The act of frantically poking the sausages and fretting over whether they’re done enough yet, however, is universal.

People

Okay, so you can’t really make sweeping statements about every resident of a country based on the individuals you’ve met, but generally? Australians are really, really nice. They’re friendly and relaxed and good-humoured; customer service tends to be really enthusiastic and helpful (or people are just way better at concealing their utter contempt here), and people generally tend to be quick to strike up conversation with strangers without being intrusive.

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Pictured: some typical Australians, doing their thing.

(For context, the guys pictured are from the Parramatta Eels rugby team, and somebody on Tumblr posted all these pictures of them goofing around in a water park. I have no idea what’s happening or why but it’s kind of adorable.)

Which in a horrible counterproductive way makes me feel even more awkward because, damn, I’m not naturally friendly and relaxed and good-humoured; strangers are nice to me and I just kind of mumble vaguely and don’t know what to say and then feel bad for not responding with more enthusiasm. The other day I saw two guys gliding by sharing the same skateboard, one of them holding on to the other and both of them singing ‘My Heart Will Go On’. I couldn’t do that. I’d be too self-conscious. And I’d fall off the skateboard.

On the other hand, I also once saw a guy walk past eating raw instant noodles out of the packet and when I texted a friend being all ‘you’ll never guess what I’ve just seen’ she told me that was completely normal. So I really don’t know what to think any more.

It doesn’t matter how well you think you know a place – it’s impossible to fully prepare for all the strange little things which catch you out. In future instalments I’ll explore single topics more in-depth; for now, though, I will leave you with my favourite Australian fact that I’ve been taught so far: the Australian coat of arms is, apparently, the only one in the world in which both of the heraldic animals are edible. So now you know.

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