Welcome to my first blog from Down Under. It’s been a couple of weeks since I first arrived in Australia and let me tell you, they have been hectic! I’ve done so many things in such a short amount of time that I don’t even know where to begin. The flight here in itself was a new experience since it was the longest I have ever been on in my life, and against all expectations even the biggest commercial airplane (Airbus A380) suffers from a lot of turbulence. Nonetheless, it was an adventure touching down on Singapore and the 28 long hours were smoothened by the beers I shared with a German and Polish student. Making new (international) friends has basically been my main occupation during the past weeks and since we all share the same experience abroad more or less, this has been an easy and fun thing to do.
Jetlagged and all, the day after I arrived I embarked on an orientation trip with most of the international students down the Great Ocean Road, to Bells’s Beach and finally to the town of Lorne. The first thing I found out was that I’m not made for one of Australia’s favourite pass times: surfing. Hardly able to keep my knees even on the board, let alone standing up. Now the Ozzie surf and beach boys did tell us that the waves that day were quite wild and that if you knew how to surf them you’d be a pro in no time, so a little comfort was provided. What they also mentioned was that if the helicopters that fly all along the beaches make a circle in the skies, it means there’s a shark nearby.. thanks for the warning! So amongst all the waves, fun and excitement in the sea, every time a helicopter would come by I’d take a little sneak peek into the sky and check whether they actually just flew along their usual path.
The sights along the Great Ocean Road are unlike I’ve ever seen and range from high cliffs to beautiful bounty like beaches. The Twelve Apostles, a formation of high rocks in the sea makes you feel tiny, since they are huge and it probably took tens of thousands of years for them to take shape. On this trip I have also spotted my first few koala’s during a hike through a patch of rain forest near Lorne. Keeping a sharp eye, that’s what it’s all about when trying to find them because they are quite lazy animals just chilling and sleeping during the day high up in the trees. Also, the guide warned us once more for Australia’s dangerous wildlife: all kinds of venomous creatures… snakes, spiders, bugs. Whatever happened to just going into the woods for a relaxing walk?
After this trip it was time for the international students to acquaint themselves with the campus grounds, enrol and above all: booze up! Australians have a reputation for drinking beer, so no surprise there, but a new drink was added to my repertoire: GOON! For those who don’t know, it is probably the bottom scrapes of Australian wine barrels put in a 4 litre bag (which you apparently need to slap before drinking it) and ye be warned: it may contain traces of milk, egg, nuts and fish (??). You may wonder why it is the one and only alcoholic backpacker beverage? Easy answer: it is basically the only affordable drink on the continent! Not only alcohol is ridiculously expensive, multiply Dutch prices for just about anything by 1.5 and you’re up to Australian standards. For my Dutch readers: I have taken scouting for BONUS-products to a whole new level Down Under. The market is usually pretty good for finding good deals, which is also where I got my first kangooroo meat from and a whole range of other Australian produce.. such as the countries equivalent to Marmite: Vegemite! Just slightly toast a slice of that thick gnarly Aussi bread, cover it with loads of butter and gently spread some yeast extract on it they call tasty and healthy.
In the meantime, I’m settling in on the campus of La Trobe University, in a halls of residence called Chisholm College. The typical room here consists of a bed, desk, chair, a closet and copious amounts of fluorescent light (TL-Buizen). Before coming here I was advised to bring some photo’s to put up on the wall so as to not get home sick. All my friends and family can be assured that if they were up on my wall in Utrecht they are Down Under, too. Chisholm has a real international vibe to it, and many of the world’s nationalities can be found here, but they are predominantly American and Canadian. Always up for a new adventure or a venture into the city of Melbourne, I’ve been hanging out with them mostly and slowly my UK “can’t” is turning into a US “can’t” and a whole range of US slang has been added to my vocabulary which I will not utter here.
Next to expanding my boundaries socially, I have also been working on my academic skills. Last week classes started and my first class was Discover Australia. During this semester, we will try to uncover Australia’s national identity, if it exists at all. It is interesting to see how a young nation such as the Commonwealth of Australia (founded 1901) deals with the problem of shaping the nation’s identity. What are they to be? As a former British settler society (convicts) they carry the burden of a people that dispossessed humans indigenous to the continent. Is the history of discrimination, racism and exclusion of Aborigines really in the past or do ‘true’ Australians still feel they have a different national identity then indigenous people? When asked whether they had been taught Aboriginal history in secondary school, only very few of the Australian students raised their hand. The general feeling was that Aboriginal history in Australia might not be considered as relevant. It is a very difficult issue which I feel has not been resolved yet.
So how do people shape Australian identity? What is that famously laidback Australian way of life? As in the Netherlands, defining what constitutes being Dutch/Australian is highly debated. What and mostly who, do you include and exclude in your definition? Apparently, Australia Day, a national holiday that celebrates the first touchdown of the British fleet in Sydney in 1788 (also called Invasion Day by Aborigines), raises questions as to what is means to be Australian. On this day, people fly the Australian flag in their houses and on their cars. Research shows that a significant part of these flag flyers are in some or other form racist or have objections to the large number of Asian immigrants in Australia. These are mostly white Australians, probably descendants of the British or other European peoples. Can an Asian immigrant who is integrated into the Australian society also fly this flag without being frowned upon? All these questions I hope I will be able to answer at the end of semester.
After this rather intense intermezzo some lighter news on classes: the first tutorial of my course on Nazi-Germany and Europe in WWII started out with a little pop-up quiz on European geography. Being the only European in class, this was of course a home run for me. However, what I saw was surprising to say the least: when asked for France, Germany and Spain some ended up in Sweden, Romania or Italy. Or they put France in Germany and vice versa, a particularly sensitive mistake. I won’t even try to say where the Netherlands ended up on the maps. I guess coming from a continent/country that is as big as or bigger than the United States makes you less aware of other regions in the world.
I think I went on for long enough now. Needless to say, I’m having an amazing time so far and I was even able to buy my own car: Bertha, a white ’93 Ford Laser. This way I can go explore the region with some friends, and maybe even go on a little road trip during Spring Break. Last weekend, we took a night bus to Sydney, and saw all the sights there (Opera House, Harbour Bridge), went on a boozcruise, partied for Mardi Gras and visited Manly, Shelly and Bondi Beach. I realise now I haven’t even mentioned the city of Melbourne yet. I will make sure to do so next time!