Australia is amazingly similar to the United States. So much so that every once in a while we have to remind ourselves that we live in a foreign country. That said, there are a few small things that have continuously tripped us up in our first month here. Things that, quite honestly, we didn’t expect to be different from the United States but are. Or better put, things that we take for granted in the United States but that we can’t take for granted here.
1. Stores close early. OK, it’s not as bad as Switzerland where it felt like every store in the country was only open from 10am-4pm, but stores just don’t have as long business hours (known as ‘trading hours’) here. Thankfully for us, who like to shop for food daily, the supermarkets are one of the few types of stores that are open until 8pm or 9pm every night. Besides supermarkets, there just aren’t that many service-oriented shops that stay open past 5pm or 6pm each night. It’s taken me a week to buy a phone, for example, because I can’t seem to make it home before the 5:30pm shop closing time. Want to buy a dress during the week but can’t get out of work before 5:30pm? You’re probably out of luck. Want to go to the mall after work? Sorry it closes at 5pm. Sometimes we’re left wondering : 1) when do Aussies shop and 2) how do these stores stay open?
2. Imperial to metric. It’s not that we can’t convert kilograms to pounds — though I don’t expect to ever be able to do it fluently and with accuracy in my head. This is more about the challenge of understanding how much things, usually produce, actually cost here. I am sure we’ll adjust with time and practice, but right now we have no idea what a reasonable cost is for spinach.
3. Limited already prepared food. Every urban supermarket and cafe in the United States will have its share of prepared foods. Whole Foods makes a huge percentage of their profit on pre-made salads, sandwiches, pizzas, etc. Our go-to quick meal in Adams Morgan was made-that-day sushi rolls at Harris Teeter or a grab and go sandwich from a nearby cafe. That ‘geesh I’m starving and too lazy to make anything myself’ convenience gets us in trouble here. The prepared foods section in the supermarkets (outside of the frozen section) are small to non-existent. Cafes sell coffee. They may have a baked good or two, but we haven’t found one yet (other than downtown) that carries pre-made sandwiches or salads that we can grab for dinner. And when the average cost for any meal here is $10-12, laziness quickly becomes an expensive habit.
4. Peeing with your mates. Many, if not most, public institutions in Australia still have trough-style urinals, where men line up shoulder to shoulder and pee into a great big trough. No individual urinals here and definitely no ‘privacy’ walls between urinals. At first, I thought these would only be found in old pubs who hadn’t upgraded in half a century. I was wrong. The brand new AAMI Park, a state-of-the-art soccer and rugby stadium, is two years old and its urinals are trough style (see photo on the right). What’s even stranger to me is that you stand on grates above the tub while the pee runs under your feet. Just don’t slip! As many of you know, I’m pretty comfortable with my own excreta (i.e., can’t wait to get my own composing toilet) but this kind of weirds me out.
5. Credit vs. debit. This is our biggest frustration this week. We bank with ANZ and have a debit card; they won’t even let us apply for a credit card for another six months (and there’s no point anyway since the points schemes here are so minimal). We have three accounts – main chequing, main savings, and internet savings. When we use our ANZ debit card at a point-of-service we have the choice of either credit (credit) or savings (debit) or chequing (you would think debit). In fact, if we use chequing the transaction is always declined. If we use savings the transaction is deducted from our chequing account and if we use credit the transaction is also deducted from our chequing account. All of that kind of makes sense to us — at point of service credit/savings work and chequing doesn’t — even if the descriptors of where the money is coming from seem off. It’s at the ATM where it gets really upside down. At an ATM, if you pick savings, it comes out of your chequing. And if you choose chequing, it comes out of our savings.
6. Where to find ‘fair and balanced’ news. We really, really miss NPR. There’s nothing like it in Australia. Sure they have ABC (like BBC or CBC), but it doesn’t provide the breadth of coverage (both short-form and long-form) that NPR does. And ABC has separate channels for local broadcasting and national broadcasting, unlike NPR that reserves a 5-10 minute block out of every 30-60 minutes of programming for local affiliate news. In other words, I can tell you a lot about Australian national news at this point but very little about Melbourne. In desperation we decided to subscribe to The Age, Melbourne’s least trashy paper.
On a more trivial note: did you know that FM radio channels really didn’t catch on until the late 70s here? AM is still the dominant band used in radio here for anything that’s not a music station, so almost all of the broadcasters that carry news are found on the AM dial. It’s like I never left a world in which people drive El Caminos! (foreshadowing people, foreshadowing).
7. Crossing the street. Everyone knows that Australians drive on the opposite side of the road from the U.S., so of course crossing the street is something we knew would take some getting used to. We are now pretty good at remembering to look “right, left, right” before stepping off the curb. However, Melbourne seems to have fairly long blocks, busy streets, and very few mid-block crossings. This means that, more often than we would like, we are forced to run across the road, dodging cars right, then left and there are bicycles and trams to look out for as well. Overall, Melbourne is very pedestrian-friendly (it’s pretty flat and has great sidewalk connectivity), but we would love to be able to cross mid-block without risking our lives!