Three months ago, during the last week of July, my diplomatic posting to Australia was ending and my colleagues threw me a going-away lunch. Over Indian food, one colleague asked what I would miss about serving in Canberra and what I was looking forward to in the United States. Funny he should have asked, because at that time, what I was going to miss about Australia was a topic I had been thinking about a lot. I’d actually been sketching a blog post outline about it for several weeks!
However, life happened and I didn’t manage to finish writing and editing the post before I left, or even during the past several weeks since we returned to the U.S. I started thinking about it again when I saw the post sitting in my drafts folder, and during my recent Spanish evaluation, when I was asked to compare and contrast life in the U.S. with life in Australia.
So here are my thoughts, in no particular order, about what I miss (and don’t miss) about living in Australia.
What I Miss
“Pay wave,” or tap-and-pay. Between mid-2015 and mid-2019 I didn’t live in the U.S., so I don’t totally know how far U.S. banking has progressed beyond chip and pin (which also took forever compared to other countries). However, pay wave with my Australian debit card was so safe and easy. I’m kind of low-tech, pro-privacy, and identity-theft cautious. While my friends and colleagues have used Google Pay and Apple Pay for years, I tend to use cash or credit cards with rewards. But I was impressed by holding my Australian debit card against the reader and voila! Transaction complete – no swiping, inserting, or pin entering. I miss it. And the look on cashiers’ faces when I would still request a receipt and proceed to deduct the balance in my paper checkbook. Because that’s how I roll.
The irreverent Aussie sense of humor. I have almost died laughing so many times at the way Australians just come out with something so plainly, so ironically, and with devastating, anti-authoritarian dry wit. The self-deprecation, black humor, tall-poppy takedowns, slang, badass things people do while acting like it’s no big deal – it’s all funny. Definitely miss, mate.
Accents. I could listen all day to an Australian accent. I find them soothing.
The laid-back culture. Australians work hard, but they don’t take everything too seriously. They take their time away from work and they enjoy their free time, with no guilt whatsoever. I miss apologizing to someone about being 2 minutes late and getting an incredulous and dismissive, “No worries, mate.”
Speaking English at work. Just, yes. Thank you God. I could not imagine conducting some of the policy conversations I had there in a foreign language. Or, at least not to the extent and with the authenticity and fidelity I could in English. When I get to my next post I will get a rude awakening about how much I took that for granted, for sure.
Our house. I posted some photos and what I loved about our Canberra house in my Foreign Service Housing post several months ago. Our house and yard were just terrific and I miss them almost every day. Sure, our house had single-paned glass, which by American standards is drafty. Some of our doors slammed a lot. Our porch screen door was on the inside of the sliding glass door, which seemed backwards. I missed having air conditioning and a garbage disposal; the latter we lived without for four years overseas. And I hated our living room embassy couches, which were so soft and broken-down I couldn’t sit on them for more than an hour without miserable back spasms. But our house itself – I loved its beautiful light-filled spaces, its warmth, its flow, the wraparound yard with its wraparound veranda and its cherry and apple trees, having a two-car enclosed garage and so much space.
Our neighborhood. The wide streets. The well-manicured gardens. The red tile rooves. The thousands of pine trees that make up Isaacs Pine Ridge rising formidably as the backdrop. The little walking trails that meander through the woods and along the river behind the homes. The bird calls day and night. The scenery and peace and quiet, maybe above all.
Birds and animals. Where do I even start with this? When I used to drive to Costco, I would see kangaroos bouncing through the meadows on both sides of the highway. When I would pass by our porch, I would see parrots on the railing, fence, lawn, or roof. When I would walk around my neighborhood at night, I was likely to see a wombat or native nocturnal animal scurrying by. I want to draw a giant heart around all the native wildlife there. My heart is still breaking that I don’t see them everyday.
Nature. I miss living close to Tidbinbilla, the large nature reserve less than a half hour from our home. I miss the native bushes and flowers. Wattle, bottlebrush, banksia. The smell of eucalyptus trees and the dryness of a wood. The incredible empty beaches. The vast desert of the red Outback. The modern and trendy cities peppered with green spaces. The dramatic cliffsides along the coast. The rich primordial lushness of Tassie. The rolling brown hills and meadows of Canberra. That once unfamiliar landscape felt like home.
The big Australian sky. It was SO enormous, just endless. It seemed bigger than anywhere I’ve ever been.
Public conduct. In the two years we lived in Canberra, I think I only saw someone act obnoxious, scary, or display threatening behavior in public maybe twice. Canberra is really safe and comfortable, and people’s comportment in public is exactly what you’d expect: calm, dignified, totally civilized, and under control. In some ways it’s like a social experiment from a better time.
Tipping. No one tips in Australia. Not at cafés, restaurants, and bars. Not at salons. Not for good service. Why? Because Australian labor laws are strong and people working in the service industry make a very good living. They don’t depend on tips to survive, and they don’t think companies should outsource paying their employees a living wage to their customer base. Not having to figure out tipping at restaurants and salons is something I miss now that I’m back in American culture, where even cheesy places like Applebee’s suggest a standard 20% tip by default. I get why things are the way they are. I just miss being in a place where it’s not that way.
Community culture. I really felt part of a community in Canberra. Local government is responsive to things like reports of street lights out and even has an online service portal that works. Local police have a funny social media presence. Community and volunteer events and local festivals abound. Neighborhoods post community watch signs, and block parties with your neighbors are common around the holidays. People bring their own bags to the store and seem cognizant about how their actions affect society; by the same token most people I met seemed to feel empowered and even obligated to change circumstances within their control for the better. Announcements about how to use public transportation and days it might be free. Holistic treatment of people by health care practitioners. Civic-minded announcements about having your say. When we leave local government offices there is sometimes a little digital survey on the way out where you can select a face from mad to happy to rate your customer experience there. Even though customer service per se is different in Australia, I appreciated the care with which people did their jobs – it was less about money and more about the human experience and doing what’s right. I miss the sense of belonging I felt – and it persisted, even when we didn’t know all of our neighbors, just by virtue of our presence in the town.
Patient drivers. People waited for others to park without laying on the horn, even when it took… um, several maneuvers. People let you merge. Errors in a roundabout followed by an apologetic hand wave a la “mea culpa” were usually answered with a wave in return rather than a middle finger. I’ve heard Australians complaining about the rudeness of “Canberra drivers” but honestly, I think those people have never been to Northern Virginia, or California. (Or Tashkent!) The rudest things I saw people do in Canberra were failing to signal out of a roundabout and tailgating. I mean, really.
Speaking of driving… I miss the way Australian drivers zipper merge. When losing a lane, Americans either stop in the middle of the road to try and muscle their way in, or cruise to the end and drift along, not signaling or really merging with traffic. All this power struggle fouls up the flow of traffic completely. You rarely “lose your lane” in Australia. Instead both parties merge together into one lane. It’s everyone’s action, and they all signal left or right to zip in. Each car lets a car, and cars zip in from left, right, left, right. I literally never in two years saw someone mess this up or try to be “first.” I miss it!
What I Don’t Miss
The things I don’t miss about living in Australia seem kind of petty, especially considering much longer and weightier lists of things I don’t miss in other places. But it’s worth a few comments, in a pros and cons type of framework.
Lack of street lights. In more rural places, there aren’t a lot of street lights. Even some places in Canberra have a lack of street lights which makes driving at night extra dark. I don’t see at night as well as I used to, and I was always semi-terrified of an animal jumping into the road in the dark and causing a wreck.
Instant coffee. I was pretty against instant coffee when I first arrived in Canberra. Since then, I actually have had some pretty decent instant coffee. But I prefer filter coffee, and lacking that, French press. Australians’ affinity for instant coffee in offices, at gatherings, at less-expensive hotels, means you will have to face it at some point. Unless I am camping, I personally don’t see the point of instant coffee.
Bookings. Australians make reservations for things more than Americans do. Going out to dinner with no booking is a risky move. V and I many times walked into a restaurant that was half-empty (or more) and got turned away for not having made a booking. Many book things way in advance – vacations, salon appointments, car washes, doctor visits – and so much so that I got surprised by it. I literally could never see my hair colorist on a Saturday because his Saturdays were booked 18 months out. Some of this could be Canberra-specific, where there is a fairly large population vis-a-vis services. But I thought it was a little crazy. I adapted to it, though, and played the game so much so that when I returned to the U.S. I was a little paranoid about not making bookings. Ha ha! It’s nice to have things planned and confirmed, but it’s also nice to be spontaneous sometimes, and having to make reservations for everything hampers that.
Ridiculous car washes. I’m sorry, it does not require a booking a week in advance, spending 4 hours, and paying over $100 to wash your damn car. It just doesn’t. I really missed U.S. car washes where for about $15 you can just spontaneously roll up, drive through, and not go through a protracted service interaction and burn up half your day.
Lack of Mexican food. I had Mexican food several times in Australia, and it is mostly way off the mark.
Fear of speeding tickets. I think I have talked about this before, but people don’t speed in Canberra. They pretty much follow the exact speed limit or maybe 2-3 kilometers per hour under. The speeding tickets are hundreds of dollars for even going the equivalent of 3 or 4 miles an hour over the speed limit, so it kind of feels like driving in a driver’s ed video. Infuriating when you are in a hurry. I don’t miss having to set my cruise control literally every time I drove – the margin of error for which still falls solidly in the speeding ticket danger zone. I think it’s good they respect the law and avoid more accidents this way, but if speed nets are picking up ME, someone who almost never speeds and drove 24 years without a speeding ticket, perhaps the bar is being set a little too low. When I got a speeding ticket in Australia my friends laughed and didn’t even believe me.
High cost of living. In many countries, Americans working in our embassies and consulates make a lot of money compared to salaries on the local economy. In Australia, I’m convinced that most of the local staff made more than we did. The cost of living was pretty high, and while we were on one salary it was a real struggle to save anything. It is expensive to eat out, to maintain a car, to buy groceries. The cost of clothes and shoes is patently absurd. The cost of domestic travel is exorbitant. The cost for a $300 oil change – which of course required two days at least, a loaner car, and a booking was so shocking to me.
Places you expect there will be a bathroom but isn’t. Cafés and restaurants. My nail salon. Grocery stores and shops. Many offices. What do these places have in common? You might expect there to be a customer bathroom inside. Surprise! There probably isn’t one. There might be a common bathroom down the hall, out the back, or in an adjacent set of buildings. I don’t miss always looking for a bathroom or wondering what the bathroom situation is.
Paying for parking. In most parking lots in Canberra, you have to pay. We even paid for parking at the grocery store. I sometimes made salon appointments (if they were open) on Sundays when I knew parking was free. It took a little getting used to and I can’t say I miss it.
Lack of table service at many restaurants. There were many times I was surprised by the lack of hosts/hostesses and standing in line to order, even at more upscale restaurants I thought should have table service. I don’t want to fight the crowd for a table, and stand in line to order food, only to stand in another line to order drinks. I do not miss this and found it super annoying. If you’re going to charge high prices, there should be commensurate service to go along with it.
Customer service being pretty relaxed and things closing early. A lot of places don’t stay open as late as you would expect, something I remember from the first time I lived in Australia. This is in line with Australia’s more family-friendly worker policies that let people prioritize their lives outside of work. I appreciated it as a student, and thought many times we would do well to take a page from their book. As a diplomat however, I often worked late, and found it almost impossible to run errands without taking time off. It is kind of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the Australian attitude towards customer service is more relaxed and workers work less hours. As a result, I think people don’t give as much and don’t expect as much. On the other hand, in the U.S. you can expect a lot of service, but it’s all founded in the hustle to get more of your dollars. Those dollars for which you yourself are putting in 60 hours or more a week. You have convenience, but you’re maybe part of the big soul-crushing machine at the same time. In the end, I again understand why it is the way it is, but working in an American embassy culture within the broader Australian context posed some challenges and frustrations with pay, flexibility, free time, benefits, and expectations which I don’t miss.
Scary spiders. Everyone talks about Australia as if it were crawling with animals that could kill you. And while there is dangerous wildlife, we rarely saw it. But on the other hand, honestly, all the very dangerous spiders to me looked just like the non-lethal ones. So we had annual pest treatments at our own expense at our home, and anytime we saw a spider in the house or yard, we treated it as if it were the most dangerous kind. A few of my colleagues were bit by poisonous spiders at home and my boss was even hospitalized after a spider on the underside of a porch chair bit his leg, and so insects were something we took seriously. I don’t miss the hypervigilance or coming across a robust spider in my curtains and wondering if I needed to initiate Threatcon Delta.
I guess I feel I can be honest about the parts of living in Australia that bugged me because I feel it is a second home to me. Australia’s successes make me feel proud, and when something bad happens there I cry the same tears they do. I was educated there. I walked its halls of diplomacy and decision-making. I laughed and cried and in some ways became who I am there. I love that wide brown land, and the things I appreciate and miss are dearer and go deeper than what I can express with a few paragraphs. It is a brilliant country and if you have the chance to visit there or live there, I suggest you do. (Bring money!!)
In a different upcoming post, I will talk about my perceptions of how life has changed in the U.S. during the four years I was away. There have definitely been some small culture shocks. Suffice it to say that as far as the reasons I was looking forward to coming back here – being closer to family, the food I missed, customer service, being more spontaneous – have all been wonderful so far!!
So many pros and cons … very interesting, especially for those of us who have never visited Australia.
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