I know it’s a small country, but…

Everyone is this country seems to be on a first name basis. It’s very friendly, but also confusing and unspecific. When I started my temp receptionist gig, I was surprised how everyone who I spoke with on the phone immediately assert their name as if I should know who they are, then ask to be directed to a staff member, usually also only using first names. Um, we have four Sarahs that work here… Yes, Perth is a small town where everyone seems to know everybody and even I can’t walk down a street without running into someone. (And I know, like, five people.) But are there really so few people in Australia that “Nathan” is a sufficient unique identifier?

A bicycle safety lesson for North American travelers

I was riding my bicycle to work like I do every day, and as I went down a hill just around the corner from my house I hit the sidewalk wrong and went head over handlebars. My bike went to the left, my head struck concrete just above my right temple (thank god for my helmet!), and my right leg, arm, and shoulder dragged across the pavement.

I lay on the sidewalk, shaking in shock, staring at my hands, feeling alone and injured in a foreign country. I was sure my helmet was partially split open from the impact my head made on the sidewalk. I looked up at the road. Why aren’t any cars stopping for me? It felt like longer, but surely only took a few seconds for people to rush to my side. A neighbour brought me water and offered to stow my bike, another cyclist phoned his family doctor who was nearby, a man on his way to the beach offered me a ride in the coolest camper van I’ve ever seen with a black and white checked floor and an 8-track playing the Beach Boys.

In a daze, I got a phone quote from the private family doctor: $80AUD for a visit. Seemed expensive, but turns out the emergency room was $225AUD. It sucks to be an American abroad with no reciprocal medical benefits and a high travel insurance deductible. (For citizens of countries with nationalized health care, that emergency room visit would have been free and travel insurance is $30 instead of $300…) I got in to see the private family doctor immediately, they made sure I didn’t have a head or spine injury or broken bones, then dressed my wounds. I fumbled with my borrowed water bottle, unable to manage keeping it upright as I sat. The British nurse told me I had gone “head over tits”. An Aussie told me a better way to put it: I “came a cropper on my bike”.

After I was released, I spent the day ingesting painkillers and resting on my left side. A wonderful girlfriend came to my aid immediately to watch over me (you’re not supposed to be alone soon after sustaining an impact to the head). The day after, my arm and shoulder still hurt and everyone at work is grimacing at my impressive-looking battle scars, but I’m really thankful all my scrapes are superficial. It’s a serious reminder to wear your helmet (turns out it didn’t even crack, definitely did its job) and it frightens me to think of the damage I could have done without it. Still, scabby arms and legs was not the look I was hoping to sport on New Year’s Eve…

I originally wasn’t going to blog about this (because come on, if Erin falls on the streets of Fremantle and there isn’t anyone around does anyone really care?), until I found out that the likely reason I fell was a cultural difference:

A Canadian co-worker told me the breaks on bicycles here are opposite from North America–the rear break is controlled from the left handlebar and the front break is on the right. He said he sees it all the time, North American visitors go down a hill, instinctively hit their right break, it stops the front tire and sends them over their handlebars. I was definitely riding downhill, breaking as I dodged trash cans put out for collection; it’s very likely sharply hitting the front break by mistake is exactly what I did. There’s another Australian lesson for me, and something for others to watch out for.

A timely headline… Watch out Tony Abbott, it can happen to you too!

‘Twas the weekend before Christmas… and Bad Santa is coming to town

Merry Christmas!

I got an email on Friday: How would you like to make some easy money? We need a stand-in to play a Christmas fairy with Santa this weekend at the local mall. Hells yeah! This was my dream job last Christmas, but my application for Space Elf to help Santa atop the Space Needle was rejected. Here in Australia however, the job of Christmas Poinsettia Fairy falls in my lap.

I’ve been feeling homesick again; the summer weather simply doesn’t feel Christmasy to me. I have been digging Elvis’ ballad “Blue Christmas” and crying at Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”. I am filled with holiday spirit, but need an outlet, and Christmas pageantry is just the ticket. All decked out in my shiny costume, poinsettia-petal wings, butterfly-tinsel-wreath, red lipstick, and glitter, I checked into the mall’s office to meet my Santa.

“What agency are you with? Are you from xyz productions?” he pestered me, trying to determine my acting pedigree. Because, as he quickly informed me, he was quite an actor himself. Have I spoken with his agent? Because he could put me in touch. Oh, he’s played Santa for years now, and does voice over acting too. Would I like to hear some impressions? Doesn’t matter if I do or not, as he immediately launches into a terrible stereotypic borderline-offensive Indian convenience store owner impression. He follows it up with an awful approximation of Elvis.

Santa likes to chat and somehow it segues into Vietnam. He’s a vet, was a truck driver during the war, never shot anyone but did go into the fields to cart away bodies. The things those soldiers did, man… they’d go into villages and rape native girls. But no one likes a rapist, and sometimes the men would shoot the offenders–from their own side–and blame it on Charlie.

Whoa boy…

We step into the sparsely populated shopping centre. An older woman at the gift wrap station yells that Santa is missing his hat. Whoops. I smile widely, wave to kids, and wish everyone a Merry Christmas. I love how smiling at another person has power to generate a little extra happiness in the world. Most kids get very still when they see us, star-struck by the big man. One precocious kid in a hot pink romper isn’t shy at all; she asks why I walk instead of fly, then accuses me of not being a real fairy!

A few kids visit and we make their day, but they are few and far between. Santa ends up talking about drugs with a group of teenagers: “This one [points at me] gets me in all kinds of trouble–alcohol, weed, shooting heroin…” What?! In the US, Santas are pretty good about staying in character, what the hell is this!? The teens love it. I pull him away for a photo op. He does another bad Elvis impression and calls me ‘baby’.

Up on the dais, air-con blows onto Santa’s throne. He grumbles about how this place has gone down hill. I continue to flutter about, recruiting children. Santa sees an Asian teenage girl walking by herself and shouts in a phony Asian accent (excuse me, “impression”, so that makes it ok) something terribly racist. He repeats himself in case she didn’t hear. I can’t believe it.

Air-con Santa.

Bored, he steps down, saying let’s go for a walk. He quickly detours into a shop that sells antique housewares. We greet the shopkeeper, then I head back outside. But Santa is transacting business, and it isn’t going well. He storms out with a trolley filled with a grotesque vintage doll, two large stuffed dogs, a rug, and a clock-radio. He’s pissed: “She says she wants to buy these things from me, then changes her mind? How dare she. Now, will you watch the stuff while I get my car keys?” Seriously, dude?

Now key-enabled, Santa pushes the trolley out to the nearby car park, whinging the whole way. En route, he is spotted by a little girl. And she is the absolute cutest little girl. Perhaps three years old, sitting in her mom’s shopping trolley, big blue eyes and curly blond hair in pig tails. She looks at him wide-eyed and excited: Santa! Aw crap, I think. Putting on my best fairy smile, I go over and make Christmas chitchat until Santa is done stuffing shit into his car.

After a few more kids, Santa looks at his watch. We’ve been working for over ninety minutes, which means–according to him–it’s time for a break. Because we’ve been working *really* hard. He shuffles back to the office and then for ten minutes he tries to impress me and a security guard with a mediocre story about meeting the actor who played Kojack.

We re-enter the mall, Santa ringing his attention-grabbing bell loudly, interrupting the new nearby musical act. They graciously thanked him for chiming in (*facepalm*) and continue with lacklustre off-key carols. I sing along, surprising people by knowing the words to all the Christmas standards. (Yes, I’m that person who is happy to hear piped in Christmas music all day every day during the holidays!) The music does make things more festive, but I also can’t get it out of my mind that we all belong in a dingy, third-rate old-school casino lounge…

The tagline on the sign, just under the picture with piano-key neckties, reads “Let us entertain you”.

But Santa just isn’t into it. He needs to be reminded to zip up the front of his costume. Still sore about not selling his goods, he grumbles about “greedy superficial people” and under his breath wishes the shopkeeper a terrible Christmas. With twenty minutes left in the our shift, Santa left again to check on his car, paranoid that his wares might be stolen, and then knocked off early. Thus concludes my three-hour shift as a Christmas Fairy. Wow…

How did day two go, you may ask? We got far fewer kids and more criers, perhaps in part to Santa’s attitude. He complained about wanting a whiskey, brought a CD player to play his own tunes, took a supersized break, swore repeatedly while adults posed with him for a photo, and then FELL ASLEEP IN HIS CHAIR. I was focused on prepping a little girl who was meeting Santa for the first time when her mom laughed, “Santa’s asleep!”. I had to punch him in the leg to wake him up.

I asked my Aussie friends, is this normal? Are Santas in Australia more casual and rough around the edges? Nope, everyone was shocked… and encouraged me to write it all down right away. 😛 Despite his bad behaviour, I did my part and enjoyed it. It felt good to be sparkly and embody cheer, not only spreading the holiday spirit but helping me feel more of it myself. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Australian tragedy in the news

At work, I bring in the newspaper every morning and lend it out to people who want to read. People come down and have water cooler chats with me about current events. Highly unusually, there have been three tragic Australian major news stories in as many weeks:

26 Nov, the death of Phillip Hughes: a young cricket player died from injuries sustained during play. In a freak accident, Hughes was struck with a ball in the neck, splitting the cerebral artery, never regained consciousness and died in the hospital two days later. Public outpouring of grief was staggering. It was all over the news and on everyone’s mind and tongue. In a country where talking about feelings isn’t the norm, people were quick to share their grief. Everyone was sad about it, immediately hanging and shaking their heads for days after his death. Australians I know felt his death very personally and spoke of him like a friend. There was also a strong sense of “this isn’t supposed to happen”, that cricket should be safe and shattering that concept made Hughes’ death hit home even more. There has been debate about cricket safety, discussions on potential changes. and tributes.

11 Dec, the disappearance and death of Sam Trott: a two and a half year old boy wandered out the back door of his house, setting off a massive search that resulted in finding his body drowned in a nearby lake. After he went missing, the search took over a day and dominated the front page of the news. During that time, co-workers passing by my desk would say in passing how much they hoped someone would find the little boy. Again, there was a feeling of tragedy in the fact that young children are supposed to be safe their homes. This isn’t supposed to happen.

16 Dec, the Sydney siege: an Islamic fanatic held 15 people hostage in a Sydney café, ultimately resulting in the death of two hostages and the gunman. This happening is scary and captured world-wide media attention, from so many angles: the gunman’s motivations, timelines of the event, the grief for the victims, Uber’s insensitive dynamic pricing during crisis, Australian gun control, and the #iwillridewithyou anti-Islamaphobia social media campaign to prevent backlash against Muslims. All of this is huge news. However, the Sydney siege is not openly on the lips of anyone I know. It is not a casual topic.

After the death of Sam Trott, I asked a co-worker who often comes down for the paper to explain to me a bit more about the cultural reaction to Sam and Phillip’s deaths, how people feel them so acutely. We discussed feeling stronger empathy when bad things strike in what is supposed to be a safe environment. Today, I saw her and she told me she had been thinking of my cultural question, this time in regards to the Sydney siege. She told to me that she noticed there wasn’t the same open expression about the siege because–from her view–there are some things you don’t say. The thought that simply going for a coffee (so incredibly commonplace) could no longer be safe is a concept that cannot be given voice. It is certainly on everyone’s mind. But the implications are too much, too serious, to say.

Tea time

“What are we going to have for tea?” This can mean any sort of meal or snack in Australia, and I love it. My housemate asks me this sometimes as we begin to think about dinner, and I find it charming. As an avid tea drinker, I do sometimes like to take it literally. My choice? Earl grey or mint tea with a caramel Tim Tam, a quintessential Australia chocolate biscuit. It’s all about the simple pleasures… 🙂

Logistics, sorted.

Two weeks into living in Australia and, to my relief, major logistics have already been sorted:

  • Housing: Living in Fremantle with a wonderful travel buddy of mine from Central America. He has generously taken my in at his sweet new place and has been an invaluable friend and resource helping get my life set up. 
  • Connectivity: I have an Australian phone number! Just fixing this single element helped connect me to my stateside support system and feel so much more at ease. All my love to everyone back home. 
  • Transport: I’ve got myself a SmartRider card for easy transit on TransPerth busses and trains. Also, my housemate has loaned me his old beat-up push-bike, which I’ve gotten all fixed up. I’m excited to try out the lifestyle of being a bike rider, bumming around town. Now all I need is a basket!
  • Financial: I’ve got an Australian bank account. I opened a Classic Banking account with NAB that has no fees/minimums and–SURPRISE!–links to a savings account with 3.5% interest. I did a double take when I heard this news, as I like most Americans have not earned meaningful interest on a basic bank account in years. My local friends tell me rates are actually shockingly low currently, but feels pretty great to me.
  • Work: I’ve been looped into a temp office admin agency, and just accepted my first temp assignment today that will keep me working full time for the next six weeks. Feels nice to start building my new bank account.
  • Social: Meeting lots of friendly people so far, mostly through my housemate. People have been friendly and welcoming to me, and I look forward to making more connections here.
  • Recreation: There’s a proper squash club near my house, how sweet is that?! Got myself shoes and a racquet, and am psyched to pick back up an old passion of mine. I’m also curious to join a casual cricket rec league or something… that would be sweet.
Not bad for week two, hey? 🙂

I’m ready to scuff up a new pair of court shoes!

Initial shocks

I’ve experienced more culture shock here in Australia than expected.

Little bits of language surprise me constantly. Every shop you walk into give the same greeting: “howyagoin’?” with a smile. When putting together our Ikea shopping list, Nick laughed when I added ‘clothespins’… here they are ‘clothespegs’. More people have commented on my accent than I’ve ever experienced. It’s very weird feeling different, even in a country where you speak the language and don’t stand out visually.

I don’t understand the subtleties–or perhaps the basics–of the Australian point of view. For instance, in a casual road trip conversation, I asked about Australian free speech. From a few sources now, I have heard that there are uncodified free speech liberties, but hateful/dangerous speech can be limited. When I asked where the line gets drawn, I get a fuzzy answer that “bad” speech may happen but common sense doesn’t allow it to catch on so everything sorts out naturally. As an American, I find this baffling. How could it work? I am intrigued and need to learn more.

One of the most salient feelings I’ve had is sticker shock. Australia is expensive, particularly going out. Yes, food prices include tax and tip, but still, holy crap: $10+ for a pint of beer, $30+ for lunch? Yikes. Thank god the exchange rate has come down a bit in favor of the greenback… but even with that recent advantage, I feel cautious in what I can afford to do. A job will certainly help me feel more comfortable in this regard. To help, I eat mostly at home, taking advantage of cheap in-season strawberries and reasonably priced Australian meat and produce. 

Also plaguing me is homesickness. In the past, my time traveling has usually been at a natural pause in my life: moving or school break. I’ve always already said goodbye to a homebase for good or known everyone was to reconvene soon. Never have I spent a significant amount of time simply “away” from home. I know what my life would be like if I were still in Seattle, and I know it is going on there without me. I miss my family and friends. This all of course is natural, but still challenging. I am settling in and know it will get better, but there is a Seattle-sized hole in my heart currently…

Vintage Seattle flavor on the walls of a Freo pub, be still my heart! New vigor and strength indeed.