Australia – Shangri-la for Europeans

I’ve become quite addicted to yet another daytime TV staple, a reality programme called “Wanted Down Under”. It’s a rather irritatingly Australia 2010structured show about people who want to emigrate to Australia. They’re given an introduction to employment opportunities, house prices, and whatever lifestyle opportunity they think their move will open up to them. They are invariably nurses, carpenters or mechanics, and are always told that they can earn more money in Australia. In a rather mean twist, they’re then often told that they will have to re-tra

in in order for their qualifications to be recognised, and can almost  never afford the house prices. Mostly, they decide to move anyway.

Almost all of them want to move because they want a more outdoors lifestyle, or they want to spend more time with their families.

I was born in Australia, and lived there until I was almost 14. It was a great place to be a child. I had no concept of wrapping up warm, and we only really stayed indoors to eat and sleep. We had a big garden in Brisbane, and our favourite pastime was climbing into the canopy of the jacaranda tree that grew over the pond, and spending all afternoon reading.  The playgrounds were mostly dust bowls, except when it rained and the whole place turned into a fun mudbath. We used to catch lizards, and put them in jars. When we realised this made them mysteriously die, we put some holes in the top, and eventually decided maybe lizards preferred to be outside too. There was a small banana tree by the pond, and we grew papayas, although I don’t quite remember where. Later on, we had a lemon tree and a huge fig tree. We didn’t go to the beach that often, as it was quite a drive from central Brisbane, but we did spend weekends at Stradbroke Island or Surfers Paradise, and I remember spending hours exploring all the rock pools and the exotic little creatures in them. Rock pools in England tend to contain a dead crab or two, and nothing colourful. Our school had a full length outdoor pool, and swimming was a huge part of my life in general, although I was very afraid of the sea for years. At least in Australia this fear is somewhat justified by sharks, lethal jellyfish etc. Of course the only time I was in any danger, I was completely unaware of it and quite happily swimming around, having failed to notice I must have caught a rip and been swept 500 metres out from the shore. I had no idea why some lifeguards had rocked up in a rubber dingy.

When we moved to Melbourne, I was about nine, and was more aware of the world. My main memory is that there was a multitude of cultures, and a huge range of Greek, Vietnamese or Italian places to eat. Our parents used to spend time with an orthodox Jew on Saturdays sometimes, which was really amusing, as he tended to creep along the side of buildings and sit in the back of cafes, in case his wife discovered that he was not observing shabbat. Our class had school had a whole clutch of Vietnamese kids, whom I didn’t know very well, a Polish kid, several Greeks and of course lots of kids whose parents were English. Obviously I actually mean they were of non-Australian origin, but no doubt all of them were Australian citizens. We were known as the English girls and don’t even have British passports. I knew the Greek girl quite well. She was called Helen Stassnopoulis, and once asked me if she could buy my pencil case off me. So I gave it to her to look at (ever keen for a dollar for sweets), and she gave it back to me with a big penis drawn on it. Still, the following week she managed to burn down her own room and all her school textbooks, including my history exercise book that I’d given her to copy (according to page 80 of Diary #3).I sometimes wonder what happened to her.

So in many ways it’s a great place to grow up, but I can’t think why you’d want to move there. For a start, it’s at the end of the world, even if it does create its own more Asia-focussed centre. People view it as basically England with sunshine, and the language and cultural similarities mean that’s an easy mistake to make. If the average person in England was as bigoted, authoritarian and smug as the average Australian or its government, I’d move to Germany. In primary school, we had to stand in the melting sun and sing the National Anthem every week, and we had to look at the flag while we did it. In one school in Sherwood, I seem to remember it being every day, although that’s surely not possible. Notwithstanding Julia Gillard’s apparent lack of skill as a politician, the way she was treated was shameful and unworthy of any democratic nation. She was basically crucified for being a woman who didn’t do all the girly stuff she was “supposed” to do, like have kids and get married to a bloke who worked in a timber yard, or something equally manly. The fact her partner was a hairdresser was completely irrelevant, but in a rather famous radio interview, the interviewer actually asked the prime minister of his country if her partner was gay. He may have got sacked for it, but he’d never have shown such a total lack of respect to a man (although I suppose asking a guy if his wife is a lesbian has a whole different tone to it anyway).

If you’re interested in anything that isn’t a sport, that’s fine, as long as you’re actually good at sport and follow some form of it. The whole focus on sport is in many ways great, but it seems to come at the expense of any real engagement with any  type of cultural endeavour.

People think that Australians are relaxed, always shown as kicking back with a beer on a sun lounger.  The reality is that they’re possibly more obsessed with career success than English people, so they spend most of their time at work. They like rules and regulations, and don’t seem to mind really aggressive big posters everywhere, telling you all the many things you’re not allowed to do at the beach or in a shopping centre. On a visit to Melbourne a few years ago, I saw a big sign up in the main rail station shopping centre that had about 20 things you weren’t allowed to do, like wear ripped clothing. It’s as if they are afraid that letting people make their own decisions in such a huge, hot, beautiful country will somehow result in anarchy. If you drive into the countryside, you could drive for 500km without ever encountering another vehicle, but the speed limit is 80 km (50 miles) an hour, nationally.

I do still miss it sometimes, and a few years ago I really wanted to spend one last year there, just soaking up the rays and maybe enjoying time out in Perth for a while, which is a relaxing backwater sort of a town. I wish I could let my little baby play naked in the garden, like I used to as a little girl. There is nothing as beautiful as the sunsets by the sea, with the galahs and cockatoos screeching in the trees, but going to live there won’t solve anyone’s problems.

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