The Melbourne Mélange

In Australia, 50% of the population has at least one parent born abroad (according to the 2016 census). Melbourne has an especially high density of migrant population; as soon as you step off the plane you can feel that it’s incredibly diverse. Last time I picked someone up at the airport I heard more Italian spoken around me than English. The suburb where I work is predominantly Asian; you can get all kinds of Asian food (really good, too!) but you will not find pizza, burgers, fish&chips or the like.

In Melbs, you’re bound to encounter all sorts of migrants, from all over the world. I find it fascinating how different people undergo the settling process quite differently, depending on things such as cultural baggage, values and mindset.

The cultural baggage depends on the person itself, because some people are well entrenched in their culture while others find it easy to assimilate, and also the culture they’re part of. Some cultures tend to be quite traditional and strict, covering stuff from what one eats to whom a person marries (India), while other cultures are more flexible, as is the case with newer countries (such as New Zealand or Canada). Some cultures require a high level of conformity (Japan) while others accept some level of being different. It’s not a level playing field.

The values play an important role in two different ways. The first is how they align with the society: it’s obviously easier to make the transition of one already holds similar values. This one guy was confronted for parking crooked and taking more than one spot and his answer was “if I don’t agree with the government I won’t obey their traffic laws” – something that in Australia is quite baffling, because that is not how values are applied here. Values also dictate how one measures success in life. I talked to this one guy who was originally from India and had moved to Australia from Dubai. He thought he wasn’t saving enough money compared to UAE (what he earned minus expenses), was severely disappointed, and finally moved back to Dubai. His main success criterion was the amount of money he could save. I have a different set of values and how I evaluate life in a different place depends on how that place measures up to things that are important to me.

Finally, the mind set has a role in it. This is quite a complex concept to describe; simply put that some people are willing and able to go to great lengths to reach their goal of settling in Australia, while others are have a harder time rolling with the punches. It’s worth noting it is not constant and that the same person can change their attitude along the way, many times over. There is no right or wrong and there are several internal and external factors that contribute to this. Being introverted or extroverted influences how easily one establishes connections to other people. This also depends, of course, on the kind of social and affective needs of each individual. Some need physical proximity to feel connected while others don’t. People coming from a safe environment with a loving family and supportive friends are likely to experience the move differently from people who feel that they haven’t left much behind. Some tend to look forward at what’s ahead while others focus on the past. I would argue that those who are more aware of their own needs, capabilities and limitations are better equipped to work with these aspects to achieve a state of mind that is more conducive to integrating into a new society. A combination of determination, personality and emotional intelligence is really what this mindset is about.

To all this, add a healthy dose of luck / fate / divine intervention. I find this process fascinating. What I also find great is the way in which every person settling here contributes to the overall Melbourne that I absolutely love. We are all so different; perhaps the one thing we have in common is the determination and courage to take this step, adapt and make it work.

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Learning to Hibernate

So I’ve been in Melbourne for over 3 years now. I sometimes catch myself playing the role of a local; I am comfortable giving directions and I can recommend activities / places / restaurants / pubs / etc. I know some of the more obscure info (such as how to get to the airport using your Myki). The most recent local trait that I’ve acquired is my views on the length of a flight. The other day I’ve caught myself saying that an 8 hour flight is short. I was looking at an upcoming itinerary and the first flight is only 8 hours. Meh. I wasn’t just saying it; a recent 8 hour flight from Lisbon to Dubai really did feel short. And to think that I used to bitch about flying between Europe and the US – ha! imagesLong distances are part of living in Australia: going anywhere, even within Australia, is usually a long trip. It’s all about the mind set: you learn to board a plane and assume that it will take forever to get there. You don’t worry about how much time has passed or how much you have left; you are in flight mode and you just chill. At some point in a distant future, the captain comes on to say that you’re about to start your descent and will be on the ground in about an hour. That’s how long you have to come out of hibernation. Bears, snakes… they all do it; they just don’t earn frequent flyer points.

I mentioned this before, but as a precursor to the following paragraph, I should point out that there is no tipping in Australia.SSD-NOTIP There are some rare exceptions, but normally you don’t tip. If in doubt, don’t tip. Many places do have a tip jar, usually with a funny invitation to tip. This kind of humour is very typical for Australia, but it’s mostly for decorative purposes – some tourists may bite; Aussies wouldn’t.

I tried a new restaurant the other day, one that was famous for its burgers. This was a typical, deeply entrenched Melbourne experience. This location followed the pub / hotel / eatery process, whereby you go to the bar or the counter and place the order and pay. You pay the exact amount (no tip) and you are given a number that you take with you to the table. When the food is ready, someone will bring it to you (they look for the number.) When all the items in your order have been delivered, the number is taken away. Staff, typically the same who bring out the food, also bus the tables. It’s a different kind service: instead of being fully taken care of by a server, you do some of the work yourself (e.g. place your own order), and in turn it’s a quicker and more efficient service (you don’t wait for server to come and take the order or for the check to come out). In the end, it feels like an efficient and honest approach. There are restaurants that offer the full service, where a server comes to the table to get your order, brings out the food/drinks, occasionally asks if you need anything else. It’s just not everywhere (definitely not in pubs).
Some other Melbourne food notes:

  • Bacon, by default, is middle bacon (more meat, less fat). What America calls “bacon” Australia calls streaky bacon. The Aussie bacon may have some of the side (i.e. some of the streaky stuff) but it’s typically more meat than streak.
  • Aussie style burgers feature an egg and a bacon slice (that’s Aussie bacon, not American). burgerPersonally, I don’t like either on a burger and there is usually a “simple” option without egg and bacon, or you can ask to get one without, but by default the 2 ingredients are there. Beetroot is also a common ingredient. (Yes, you can get kangaroo burgers; they are a thing.)
  • Chips/fries: many places have battered fried potatoes, not just simple/plain fried potatoes.
  • Chicken parma is HUGE in Australia: think of a chicken schnitzel, with a slice of ham, tomato sauce and melted cheese on top, served with chips and salad. Every pub has this.
  • “Standard” pizza, as you would get from a normal pizza joint, is different. I find that it typically too busy – it has too many ingredients, and the ones with few ingredients have too much of those ingredients. The stadard Aussie pizza is the one with “the lot” and it has lots of finely chopped (“shaved” ham), usually some salami and a bunch of veggies. It’s a very “busy” pizza.
  • Ketchup is referred to as tomato sauce and it’s not sweet (thankfully). Aioli is a type of mayo that’s made with olive oil and has some garlic as well. I love the Australian mustard; it has a horseradish kick to it but not as hot as the English mustard, it’s not dijon, not as sweet as the American mustard… I find it a perfect combination of mustardy flavours.

Melbourne Summer

Melbourne summers feature a little something for everybody. While the weather is consistently inconsistent, you can count on Melbourne turning up the notch in the summer.

It all starts with Christmas and the New Year, which I find to be much better as summer activities than winter. A white Christmas? Fuck that – I’ll take a bright, hot summer day instead, thank you. You can keep your bundled up inside, dark at 4pm holiday and I’ll have my bbq outside in the sun.

The Australian Open is quite an event! I went for the first time this year and will definitely go again next year. It’s an experience not to be missed: you go to these top notch tennis facilities to see the best players in the world battle it out. It’s really well organised: very clean, plenty of toilets, you get decent (and only mildly overpriced) food, drinks, everything. Watching a world class tennis game on a hot day with a glass of rose in my hand was just priceless. The only negative: the one Australian beer brand I really dislike happened to be the sponsor, so at the venue the only beer available was Coopers. I wish ATP tried the product before allowing them to sponsor an event.

Australia Day, while contested for its historical significance, is conveniently in the summer. Such countries (like France or USA) that have their national holiday when the weather is beautiful just GET IT. Sure, the bundled up inside / dark at 4pm national holiday allows you to have fireworks really early, but other than that it’s just not worth it.

This past weekend there was the St Kilda festival AND the Greek festival, both Melbourne summer favourites. Unfortunately, I’ve managed to miss both of them, but I did make it to a movie night on Saturday – this is where the local city council projects movies in various outside locations. I know it’s just a movie, but it really has a nice community feel to it. People come in families, bringing chairs, blankets, food, toys and whatnot; and there is always some sort of food available.

And then there are the beaches. Having the beach as option is just awesome. The ability to just go to the beach for a couple of hours after work can not be understated. I try to go on Sunday afternoons (after playing soccer in the morning). When you live far from a beach, as I have most of my life, the rare beach experience becomes an all day activity. (You take vacations specifically to spend your days on the beach.) When you live close to beaches, you get to enjoy just enough of the beach experience to continue to love it, while still living your every day life. I LOVE this! 🙂

That said, this summer has been the least beach-friendly since I’ve been in Melbourne. 😦 I remember being new to Melbourne and asking people if they went to the beach ALL the time (as I expected they would), and several told me that the previous summer there was hardly any beach weather. 😮 I couldn’t fathom how you can have warm/hot weather and not be able to go to the beach. Now I get it. You can have a proper summer, with some 40+ degree days and some warm (but not terribly hot) days, and it’s entirely possible to have just one Saturday when the wind is not too strong, it’s not too hot (<40 degrees), not too cool (>28 degrees), no rain in the afternoon, etc.

First world problems, right?

(No soap) RADIO!

Several days ago, I was listening to the radio on my way to work in the morning. Following a very odd non-mandatory, non-binding postal referendum, Australia has expressed the desire to legalise marriage equality. (Normally voting in Australia is compulsory and a referendum is binding – that is what makes this situation odd.) The prime minister was a phone guest and I found it interesting that they weren’t addressing him as Mr Prime Minister, or Mr Turnbull, but by his first name, Malcolm. It seemed like a characteristically laid back, friendly conversation that I find quite typical for Australia. On another radio channel, the opposition leader was on, cracking jokes with the radio hosts and even talking about the night before, when he was present at a celebration march on Lygon Street in Melbourne and he skolled (“chugged”) a beer. Politicians are not afraid to act human sometimes and it’s refreshing to see politicians showing that there might be a trace of humanity in them.

Melbourne Entertainment

Concerts: Australia is quite isolated in this respect. I don’t know about Asia, South America, and Africa; I can speak about North America (USA) and Europe. Some US artists only have concerts in London and Paris and some European artists only have concerts in New York and Los Angeles, but I think that the majority of popular artists usually tour both the US and Europe. Australia does not seem to be a popular destination. Some artists do make the trip and when that happens concerts sell out way in advance.

Food / cultural festivals: Melbourne is big on this point. I have seen anything ranging from a quaint European (Swiss/French/Italian) mini festival in a small alley (the idea itself screams Melbourne) to the BIG Greek festival where an entire street is blocked off, features several stages and lots of food. It is said that Melbourne is the city with the second largest Greek population, after Athens. (I don’t know if it’s true.) The one festival that truly disappointed was the Japanese one I want to last year: everybody was making their way through the tents of (mostly) origami and a few other things, desperately looking for food. There was no food. Through everybody was visibly hungry and frustrated, I haven’t seen anyone try to eat the origami. Maybe that was the point and we all missed it. There is a [relatively small] food truck venue near where I live. During the summer there is a food truck event every weekend, with various themes. I’m sure there are several others around Melbourne. Festivals / food-themed events are a thing.

Other events: the light festival is now ubiquitous nowadays so it’s no surprise that Melbourne would have one. There is a white night event every year where people roam around the city all night – pubs and clubs are open all night, there are various stages with music events, even some interesting night art expos. There is the good beer week, which has various beer-themed things: pubs often have specials, restaurants offer a fixed-price menu with plenty of beer, trivia, game nights… and my favourite GABS (Great Austalian Beer SpecTAPular), which is fun.On the low key end of the spectrum, there are plenty of outdoor activities organised by local councils in the summer: concerts, movies and such. They’re pretty popular and draw decent crowds.

Sports: Melbourne is an important sports venue. There are some major global events (formula 1, tennis open) and also the local sports (Australian football, rugby, soccer, cricket). The AFL (Australian Football League) grand final is always in Melbourne at the MCG and the day before that is a public holiday in Victoria. Another big thing (though hardly a sport) is horse races – Melbourne Cup is a public holiday in Victoria (and it’s said to be the day that Australia stands still). Personally, I don’t like the idea of horse races, but I will mention a fun fact: the horse races is not just that one big day; it spans several days with all sorts of events. There is a ladies day and around the time people get off work (5-6pm?) you see HEAPS of ladies, all dressed up (dress, make up, hat…always a hat), wobbling around drunk with their high heal shoes in their hands, then talking loudly on the train. I won’t say it’s necessarily a pretty sight, but it’s something that one should probably see at one point in their life. I can’t really describe it; you just have to be there.

Melbournians

One of the most remarkable things about Melbourne is that it’s very diverse. If you walk through the city you will see all kinds of people. At work, in my son’s classroom, in the park… I’ve encountered people from all over the world. While this may not be true for all of Australia, Melbourne really is a well-functioning melting pot. Maybe it’s because it’s quite isolated from the rest of the world and there is no history of conflict with other cultures (Aboriginals notwithstanding). There’s nothing like Western Europeans hating Eastern Europeans or Americans feeling animosity towards Mexicans or India VS. Pakistan. Some suburbs can be a bit polarised, with people predominantly from a similar background. You have your rich, pretty much all Anglo white suburbs (which I find the most disgusting of all!) and you have suburbs with predominantly Greek or Lebanese (Lebos) or Italian or Macedonians (Maceos) or Vietnamese or whatever. It seems to me that birds of a feather tend to stick together, but mostly for the first generation and far less so nowadays than when Melbourne was more industrial. When people worked in factories (back when factories existed), you would have lots of workers with a similar origin (for fairly obvious reasons) and that created these neighbourhoods or suburbs with people mainly from one part of the world. Things are a different today – on a whole, Melbourne is wonderfully multicultural, with warm people who welcome and accept other cultures.

People in Melbourne tend to be athletic and health conscious. I find both traits to be more prevalent the closer you are to the city. Plenty of people run (jog). Riding bicycles is pretty big, if not sometimes exaggerated. There are HEAPS of riding clubs with people getting together to ride bikes in groups. What I don’t get is this: if the point of riding a bike is to exercise, why spend $10,000 on a super light, ultra efficient bicycle that you ride for 100km, when you can get a cheap, heavy bicycle that takes more effort to ride and you can then burn the same amount of calories in a fraction of the distance/time? If physical exercise is the goal, isn’t a cheaper, inefficient bike better? I digress…

Generally, I find people in Melbourne to be open and friendly. I attribute this in a small part to English not having a polite version of speaking, so you express yourself the same way whether talk to a friend or a stranger. Your brain has the “I don’t know you so I have to use the polite speak” switch turned off. In many European countries I found that randomly approaching someone or a group of people in a bar – a social setting – generally elicits a negative response; if the words are not uttered, at least the look often expresses “who the fuck are you and why are you talking to me?” Here I find the experience closer to the one I’ve had in the US, where it’s ok to talk to strangers; people respond warmly.

Australia is big on the sense of humour. Maybe because for many years it’s been an extremely harsh environment to survive. Maybe it was a way for the criminals who were originally sent here to deal with the feeling of rejection. (Sending someone from the UK to Australia, i.e. on the other side of the planet, has to be the epitome of rejection.) Maybe after all they’ve done to the aboriginals, they just had to have a laugh to go with their cup of tea. Either way, it’s deeply ingrained into Australian culture. Admittedly, it’s easy to be jolly and have a sense of humour when life is generally okay (as opposed to living in a harsh, frustrating environment). You witness humour everywhere you go: people are quick to make fun of each other, there are funny signs all over the place (stores, bars, restaurants), stuff you hear on the radio, and so on. I’ve often seen a humorous response to news events that were quite consequential, something that in many places would trigger a serious, if not outrageous, response. E.g. the 2016 census, the first to be done online, was a big mess; the servers failed within minutes. The next day instead of newspapers with letters written in blood, you had stuff like “Australian population is now 4, according to census“.

I feel that there is a practical, reasonable down-to-Earthiness about Australia. When Westerners started settling here they had no choice – those who were not able to find practical ways to survive perished. The attitude is present to this day. I feel that in most situations common sense prevails and it’s simply liberating. You don’t get stupidly searched when flying domestically (in fact, you don’t even have to show an ID). You can swear at work. There is no tipping. Things generally work; government services are not perfect but quite decent and efficient. Common sense goes a long way.

Melbourne now features bollart: authorities placed some bollards in various places in Melbourne CBD to prevent cars from driving into people. People are now turning the ugly blocks of concrete into works of art, because that’s what Melbourne people do.

Of course, people are people and the asshole syndrome has not been eradicated. Though there are dickheads in Melbourne, I should note that it’s not the quantity but rather the density of dickheads (as a percentage of the general population) that truly impacts one’s quality of life. GENERALLY speaking, from a people perspective, I think Melbourne gets lots of points.

Living with Nature in Australia

Part of moving to a new place is learning to live in harmony with the local nature. Anyone moving to Massachusetts learns about skunks. For Australia, there is quite a lot to learn. People often ask about kangaroos. Yes, they’re everywhere. They do have a cute appearance and those of us who have grown up outside Australia find them really, really strange because nothing familiar resembles them. They go around eating grass (like deer?) but hop instead of walking (I guess somewhat like rabbits?) and then there’s the giant tail. At one point I couldn’t stop watching this wallaby hop around – it was just fascinating to see an animal move like that! Kangaroos can be aggressive. A few months ago, a woman in Melbourne was on a morning run and got viciously attacked by a kangaroo (story). Then there is the famous video of a guy who had to punch a kangaroo in the face to save his dog. It’s rare, you don’t normally worry about it, but it does happen. Someone I know angrily told me “people think they’re cute but they’re just giants rats that destroy everything in a garden!” Cute, but… there’s a “but”, and any local will tell you that. Oddly enough the first time I’ve eaten kangaroo meat was in Switzerland. You can find kangaroo meat in every grocery store, though the only time I’ve seen it on a barbie (“barbecue” for non-Aussie English speakers) was a gathering of foreigners (Dutch, American, Chinese and Romanian). Aussies prefer lamb.

I think the yellow crested cockatoos that I see all the time are beautiful birds. My friend has to have plastic snakes in her balcony to scare them off, because she has some flowers/plants that cockatoos would otherwise destroy. Crows on my street have a passion for windshield wipers – I’ve seen them countless times picking at them and then carefully peeling the rubber off a windshield wiper. Cars parked on my street have to have their wipers wrapped in a towel or a plastic bag. (Thankfully, I have a garage.) I find the Australian magpies to have the most annoying sound! The sound is not the most annoying thing about them though – during mating season male magpies are known to attack humans (presumably to impress the females). Imagine minding your own business and suddenly BAM! – a magpie cannon ball to your head. They really do that. It’s also illegal to harm them, so they must also have a pretty powerful lobby. They’re absolute dickheads!

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned was that koalas give birth to babies that are about the size of a golf ball, after which they go in the pouch. I’m sure every woman who has given birth agrees that it’s a genius idea.

You live, you learn. You adjust. In the summer you have to be extremely careful with fires, because bush fires are a thing here. It’s not a big deal, but I do recall an Aussie telling me he was absolutely horrified going to a barbecue in the US because there are things that you just don’t do here. In the Northern parts of Australia, where crocs are common (among many other deadly creatures), you don’t just go in the water. When you see in movies people taking a spontaneous dip in a river or a lake – that is NOT something you do in parts of Australia. There are salties too (salt water crocodiles), which are bigger and more aggressive than their fresh water cousin, so the ocean is not a good bet either. You learn to be careful about snakes. That’s also a thing. It’s not like people get bit all the time, but you just know that Spring is when snakes are out and about looking to mate, that they like to be near water, that they like to hide in bushes, etc. So when kids play ball and the ball rolls into a bush, they know not to just run in and get it. It’s not something you do in Australia.