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I am now working in Brisbane, Australia on the campus of The University of Queensland for a little non-commercial company called QFAB where my bosses are English, French and Kiwi but all speak excellent English and I even get paid in lovely currency called the Australian Dollar which has a pretty picture of Queen Elizabeth II on the plastic five dollar note.
The country is vast and generally flat empty and dry. All of the countries of Europe would comfortably fit in this one country.I flew across Australia once in a fast jet airliner but after three hours, I was still in the same country and it was still just dry red rocks below all the time. The rocks are so stable that almost no dinosaur bones have ever been unearthed - they are buried here but the rocks have never been uplifted and exposed so the fossil hunters must dig down instead. Basically, Australia is old low red rocks with a few trees and people just around the edge.
Most Australians are culturally British and speak English which is a simplified Germanic language and some may have noticed one corner of their own flag or possibly think of themselves as basically less-stuffy British Anglo-Saxon folk. However, Angles is in Germany and Saxony is in Germany so if Australians have invented their accent and some of their culture in an effort to try and distinguish themselves from being English, then maybe they are missing the point ? Actually to me, it seems like the whole population are absorbing a bit too much of the hormone Oxytocin - maybe it comes in the milk and the new immigrants from Asia are being fed it in the tofu too ? Oxytocin is called the love hormone and causes humans to love their closest friends and family more than usual but also distrust outsiders even more too. Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson could be Australia's greatest cultural exports, so you might get the idea that it would be hard for them to love themselves for what is uniquely Australian but it is not true: it may not be intellectual high culture or any bizarre cultural baggage like a cuckoo clock, lederhosen, Cadillac wings, or a Bangkok temple but whatever it is, if it is Australian, then it is deeply loved and this binds them all together. Weird sports like Aussie-rules footy, rowing in big waves wearing a red cap, drinking beer with an awful taste, following all sports intensely and sharing near death experiences with animals keeps everyone connected together as a big bunch of mates. There is no conflict about this basic common culture, anyone who might disagree is just ignored, and never debated which my French colleague thinks is great because she can always have the last word in any argument with a local. The only banter I have had is over sport, of which I am too ignorant to put up any entertaining resistance so I have not made any local connections myself but I have met many ex-pats from everywhere else that have plenty of common arrival experiences to share.
The loving your mates thing might especially help Australians in tough times and ANZAC troops were some of the most effective that ever fought with the British Empire and they even foolishly followed the Americans into Vietnam (without the British). All the military celebrations are still remembered and celebrated appropriately: with beer by the war memorial and a trip to the local beach, or maybe Bali. In some ways, Australians used to be such good citizens on the outpost of Empire that they were just British who got born overseas but that has changed and they have their own perspective on everything now and have just asked The USA to station troops here for the first time since the Second World War. Australians used to judge the worth of any weapon system by asking if it had the range to fly to Jakarta but trips to Indonesia are all just tourism now. Whenever another Australian is caught with drugs in Indonesia, the local TV crews will find someone on the street to say that it is unfair and no Australian should ever have to stay in an Indonesian gaol no matter what crime they did in someone else's country - it's simply "Not fair!".
The unique wildlife is probably the best reason to visit here as long as you are aware that much of it will try to kill you. One lecturer explained how lucky he was to be studying venoms (for medicines) here in Brisbane because it is so easy to go collecting all around here in Queensland: not just the obvious spiders and snakes but also scorpions, echidnas, snails, Jellies/stingers and even tiny ticks that can paralyse you. My colleague who is relaxed about a python sunbathing beside his pool is still scared of the ticks. Australians may casually surf even when there are sharks around but it is the ticks and all the strange mountain encephalitis diseases that you have never heard of that still scare the phlegmatic locals. I keep being told that sharks don't really eat people but three people were eaten in Australia in the last two months. Mosquitoes tried to take over my outside toilet but around 10 spiders moved in to feast and I have been flushing the larvae away so it can be used again. My hotel came with Water Dragons which are not as big and scary as their name suggests but they are amusingly bad tree climbers so well worth watching. When I cycle to work I faced a special risk from territorial Magpies during the day and friendly Flying Foxes at night who fly alongside my head as I cycle down the road. Watch the fun scientific study of Magpie behaviour on video and an explanation. I lent one of my bikes to a new French colleague but he was stopped and given a hard time with lots of questions by the Queensland police (who could have fined him) so he was forced to buy and wear a helmet so then he got attacked by a Magpie a few times which hate the helmets and sometimes, as usual for here, kill a few cyclists annually by surprising them so much they swerve and end up under a car or the birds just poke out the cyclist's eyes. There really is plenty of wildlife in the suburbs not just snakes and spiders: crazy fat bush turkeys walk across the roads, bats are in the trees and possums make lots of noise but can usually be forgiven because they are so cute except when the party in mango trees when they are apparently just too noisy for anyone to bear.
I have had a private war with Australian wildlife since arriving but, luckily, last week, I only got crapped on, by a bird at lunchtime - all over the back of my shirt. However, I think something sneaked up my arm a few days ago during lunch then bit my left wrist at work in the afternoon and made it really hurt - I thought maybe I had bruised or broken it but I had just been sat at my desk and the next day it was properly swollen and red but at least it started moving again then cleared up. The week before, a sneaky leech got me: there was blood everywhere soaking through my jeans and through my sock - obviously I did not notice the bite immediately so it bled for a long time after the fat fellow dropped off. He must have jumped on me on a short 20 metre path between two roads on a damp day then climbed up my leg before the anaesthetised bite.
One local bird often flies just over my head or right in front of my face then makes a loud click to startle me. My main hope is to stay away from the snakes and spiders which I cannot yet identify. I was bitten overnight in bed three nights in a row but I think that was just ants. The craziest bird stunt was on Manly Beach in Sydney when I was reaching out to share a "Hungry Jacks" burger when an incredibly intelligent seagull who must have noticed the HJ bag was circling out of view waiting for this moment then flew in from behind (under the radar) and with foot-first crash acrobatics somehow flew through a narrow gap between Hong and I and then kicked the burger out of Hong's hand onto the beach ahead where 50 other gulls, who knew what was going to happen, had instantly arrived to scoff it all in seconds. This was no simple thievery, you need to consider the planning, flying skills and ruthlessness to steal from the dominant most intelligent species on the planet who was also hungry at the time and then very angry: Hong not me - I had another burger :-) I am however glad that gulls do not have big claws ...
The previous time that I was in Australia, I dropped in on Australia zoo and saw Steve Irwin doing his best to aggravate a new huge pet crocodile by threating its personal space with a large chunk of meat stuck on the end of a stick banged in the water near the crocodile's big jaws. That was Steve's last holiday performance but it was ultimately not a crocodile but a stingray barb into the heart that killed him rather unexpectedly - except that this is Australia. One of my colleague's mates actually saw it happen - pretty horrible apparently.
With each passing month, the floppy little plastic Australian dollar notes that I earn seem to buy more and sexier gadgets and also more Euros. China likes to buy AUDs then swap them for huge piles of rust which Australia certainly has lots of. If you have any big piles of rust lying around in your country, please don't start shipping yours to China because the Chinese seem to be happy paying more than 10 times as much for the dirt (sorry Iron ore) as they did just a few years ago. They also buy some coal here too to combust together to make huge amounts of steel for growing infrastructure projects.
Generally, the Citizens of The United States of America are famous for not thinking ahead too much which could be considered to be 'natural optimism' and Australians are famous for not worrying about anything at all. Incidentally, optimism is just a delusion, not a (govern)mental deficiency, but when one considers Pearl Harbour, September 11th, Iraq, Enron, Worldcom, Madoff scandal etc. and the the sub-prime mortgage crisis one begins to wonder if it is more than undeserved bad luck? When Norway discovered huge amounts of gas and oil in The North Sea in the 1970's, they said we are fine, we don't need the money now, lets extract the energy and invest the profits around the World for the benefit of the next generation of Norwegians and so established one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the World. Perhaps by contrast, when the Australians started shipping suddenly higher-cost coal, gas and iron ore it created a resources boom which led the Australians to buy some Japanese cars, lots of awful beer, maybe drive to the beach for a surf plus barbecue and then buy or build all the biggest suburban homes that they could afford. Australians really are relaxed about the future.
The upwards push on both the currency and home prices has now made Australians the richest people on Earth (on the basis of median average wealth - the Swiss are still richer by the mean average). The government of Australia has also taxed some of the resources wealth off into pensions - again for the current generation of Australians. Queen Elizabeth came to Brisbane in October 2011 to check her face was still on the cash and to share her observation that Australians seemed much more confident these days - I wonder why ?
I get the feeling that I am a rat who has left a sinking ship when I read these two articles over breakfast:
one from Robert Peston and another in The Telegraph which suggest that unless Germany does something soon, there will be horrible chaos in Europe within a few months. Robert Peston has an enviable, perhaps perfect, record as a prophet of doom so I suspect that someone very clever in The City of London has been working on how to make money out of a major disaster like a Euro split and now just needs The BBC to spread the word for the trigger to be pulled and everything falls into place so they talk to Mr Peston who ends up looking like a genius. Now, as an aside, if ever you want to control the future, there are a few things that are essential to understand first: history, second: Darwinism, and third: the power of positive feedback loops. Banking depends entirely on two things: confidence and the ability to create money in the form of debt - not notes or coins. Unfortunately, if confidence in a bank decreases, then its borrowing costs increase which increases the likelihood that it will go bust and so the positive feedback loop continues. Now, whilst Spain may do something financially naughty and not pay everything back it actually has a big chunk of its debt held in British banks so who is the bigger fool ?
My own record as a prophet of share prices is mixed at best but if Mr Peston's worst case analysis is correct, then there must be a real risk to, for example, Spanish property prices which have only fallen 25% off their peak unlike 50% as has happened in parts of Ireland. If you ask me in which countries things will tend to get better, I have a few ideas but I'm feeling lucky to be in Australia - just for now.
Australians seems to think that they can pick and choose their monarchs and may decide to ditch a probable King Charles to become a republic but they quite fancy The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge so who knows? The important thing here is that it is much more important that government works than that it does not cause embarrassment to a bunch of middle-class politicians and philosophers. Speaking of which, did you ever see the Monty Python's Australian Philosophers Sketch ?
Australians seem very proud of their democracy and think it works well but since no one wants to live in Canberra, where government sits, they might not actually be getting the best people for the job ? It is ironic that the only purpose designed human-livable city in Australia is perhaps its least popular but it also suffers uniquely from all the extra (non-biting) Australian risks like: seismic risk, fire risk and cyclone risk as well as the generally extreme weather. Australia is doing well, but one last irony is that the rather clever Niall Ferguson did not include democracy or anything uniquely Australian in his list of six essentials for a country to become rich. What matters most is being in the right place at the right time and sensible politics being decided in undemocratic China and a little bit in Canberra.
I started looking for a job in Australia back in April 2011 so flew from Singapore to Brisbane's other airport: Gold Coast Airport. The big Singapore story talked about in Australia in April was the Filipina maid carrying a Singaporean soldier's rucksack on manouevres
I took an expensive coach to charming Byron Bay after a suggestion from my old colleague David (who also left the Singapore lab just after me) and drove quickly through tiny Murwillumbah which seemed to have everything: aerodrome, rail station, sugar cane fields for ethanol experiments, nearby beautiful hills and not far from the coast. I had a full day to relax in Byron Bay which was not exceptional in any peculiar way but was overall so deeply nice it seemed very Australian indeed. I wrote an email about the lights in Byron Bay and what I had seen back in Brisbane:
After a swim and as afternoon turned to evening, I watched an aeroplane flash its way through the stars of Orion's belt and realised that Australia must be an agoraphobic's nightmare. Byron Bay Beach is vast and perfect in every way (like Noosa): on my right the lighthouse sweeps its beam around the headland and then across the beach, directly out to sea beside a rocky island, a catamaran's masthead marker light bobs about, directly above me, The Moon is sitting in a dark pool of The Universe bordered by some grey clouds and off to the left, some town lights are turning on for the night's entertainments to begin but most striking of all is a magnificent sunset. It is a proper big sky. A woman walking past said she had never seen one like it in all her time before in Byron Bay. I haven't seen stars for most of my time in Singapore, so it all seemed fresher and more enjoyable than usual. Also the sand is so soft and sings whoop whoop as I walk over it (not imported grit as on my still-beloved Tanjong Beach on Singapore's Sentosa Island).
Everyone is on holiday in Byron Bay, each street corner has a busking band with a blonde girl listening instead of an occasional dog on a string (as happens in Britain) and families are sat on the pavement taking time to dance together or skateboard in circles and just relax. The shops and restaurants are spread out and only one or two storeys tall, the cars go slowly and gesture me to cross before them and there is a 23-hour bakery selling meat pies that genuinely appear to contain meat instead of the bone and brains in Britain, or skin and gristle in Singapore. Accommodation and transport are much more expensive than I remember but wine and beer are half Singapore prices so a drink out doesn't seem too bad.
Brisbane is lovely, except relative to Sydney and Melbourne which are a bit more evolved and less planned. One of the most foolish parts of planning in Brisbane is on the South Bank where all the excellent museums and fun civic buildings were put right next to each other but without any sensible connections among mega tonnes of concrete walkways, none allow a cyclist or walker to cross from one building to another without climbing stairs - its the finest example of bad architecture in town: having all the fun restaurants and galleries concentrated together could be advantageous but the concrete is soulless and the public transport is mostly on the other side of the river and the one bus stop on the South Bank is sealed in with high walls to prevent pedestrians from having an easy ground-level escape despite the exclusive bus route being empty of buses for maybe 95% of the time. Brisbane doesn't do too well in International surveys of liveability.
Why do Australians follow rules that no one else except a German could manage? Someone must tell them that it is OK to question their civic leaders and learn that architects with an approved small-scale model are more dangerous than any urban terrorist. Who else but an Australian planner would think it clever to design bus routes with all the disadvantages of trains: infrequent stops, isolated tracks and overpass exits ? The other Brisbane planning foolishness is the rigid street grid pattern which was fixed without any reference to topography except for a few fat rivers. Looking at a map without relief countours can lead to some awful cycle route planning including arriving at the top of Highview Terrace which is a roller-coaster pretending to be a road, or one could follow one particularly enticing looking road with actual curves from the excellent Botanical Gardens and find yourself climbing nearly 300 metres to the top of Mount Coot Tha. Using a little bike, I soon learned that Brisbane is really hilly. Brisbane does offer a huge cycle hire scheme but I have never seen anyone riding one of the bikes - perhaps because it would be illegal to do so unless one was already wearing a crash helmet!
All Australians can be aggressively friendly: In Brisbane, they like shouting directions and bus routes out of car windows. The cars are conspicuous for their normality with fast cars being just slightly stretched and lowered versions of family saloons. Unlike London and Singapore, I haven't seen a single Ferrari, or Aston Martin since I got to Brisbane. However, the buses go round the corners at frightening speeds assuming that the pedestrians are all well-behaved and obeying the little red-standing-man on each street corner. The car drivers played too much scalextric when young so even though they are far more technically able than Singapore drivers, they might be even more dangerous. On my bike, I stay off main roads but can use a lovely lumpy cycle track to work and to the city alongside the river when it is above water level. The serious floods earlier this year put the track a few metres deep under water as well as washing away plenty of homes and coming within 50 cm of the University of Queensland's big computer room.
After a year of living in Asian countries, the most striking thing in Brisbane was that women come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes have appalling taste in clothes and shoes. It is unbelievably weird seeing whole bars, and restaurants full of only Caucasians and then the dance floors full of really badly dancing women who seemed to be feel regularly compelled to say cheeky or argumentative things to their male companions. I am not sure it is all due to alcohol but generally oodles of freedom and relaxation. There are some women who have an effortless natural beauty (a bit French) and then there are many who seem to spend heaps on all the wrong or unconventional things with disgusting patterns and hems that are deliberately lopsided. My new Italian housemate has said she has been shocked by combinations of clothes that would be laughed of the streets of Milan. I know nothing about fashion but at least I do not try so hard before I fail. Australian women are much too nice to each other: they should never believe what their female friends say to their new outfit !
Most white Australians know that they are very lucky to be here but the only Aborigines that I have seen so far in Brisbane seem quite demented by their loss. The Aborigines are still at the very sharp end of evolutionary forces so even though the European settlers have changed from mass-murdering them to trying many schemes to control the new diseases and alcohol, many Aboriginal males end up in a mess or dead. Australia has recinded race and sex equality laws as another attempt to directly help Aboriginal children and women. The Aborigines who survive in the new alien world must be even tougher than the ones that survived before European technology.
At first Brisbane seemed especially cold because none of the houses have central heating and Winter temperatures have once, for a few minutes one night, dropped to below 0 Celsius. Some of the definitive local "Queenslander" houses are made with deliberately thin structures: wood and tin rooves in the air raised up on stilts to allow the air to move in and out and the snakes, spiders and floodwaters to move beneath. Having locked-open glass slats might be clever in the Summer but it did not seem so to me in Winter when I had no duvet or electricity as I first moved into my (actually more modern style) house. Finding a place to live in Brisbane was really hard because each rental house is only shown to the public for 10-minutes per week - seriously ! I arrived at one place with the agent still there but just getting in the car (at the time I had been told, and had written down) but obviously 10-minutes after the start. The agent gave me a big smile and said come back next week ! The Australian newspaper headline last month was: "From Lucky Country to Lazy Country". There may be a special problem getting workers in Queensland because the miners up North pay twice as much as anyone else just for driving a lorry.
One extra trick to surviving Australia is to never do anything unusual: I went down to catch a train then changed my plan but was immediately fined AUD 10 because I passed through the same gate twice: it would only have been AUD 2 if I had popped up at a different station ! Bus stations are smeared and scattered all over town and often underground so tourists have zero chance on the bus but now the boats are working again after the floods, they are great fun and good value if you are not in a hurry.
As well as being the wealthiest country in the World, Australia is one of the most expensive but thanks to Woolworths, K-Mart, gumtree and IKEA, I did manage to settle in and furnish my new home. In addition to the financial pain, there are the regulations and evil mobile phone companies that must be navigated before actually getting a local mobile phone connected. Woolworths AUD 29 plan is actually from Optus and it is by far the best PAYG in Australia with 5 GB data and a AUD 2 SIM card. Australia has the most expensive broadband Internet access in the modern world. The base ADSL from Telstra (national carrier) is AUD 100 per month and one must sign a 24 month contract - not likely ! I used my Huawei Ideos 1850 Android phone as a brilliant fast modem to connect to Woolworths for a long time until TPG and housemates forced me into ADSL. Arriving in Australia without a car, mobile phone, Internet connection or suburban home means that you really are a total misfit at first and you will have a hard time for the first few months. Australian bureaucracy just makes it all tougher and maybe even though it is generally wonderful here - especially the climate, it might not be quite as good as the Australians themselves think it is. However, I am not always sure what the highly positive-speaking locals always mean: "awesome" is overused more than even in The USA so here it often actually means, thanks for shopping here, or I'm not interested but need to say something before turning away.
I will never underestimate how much work and hassle is involved in moving home to Australia: visas take three to nine months, health checks, communicating with landlords, searching for property, removals, storage, shipping, customs, boxes, packing, unpacking, cleaning off mold after shipping and dirt before (Australians hate immigrant dirt), then there are expenses forms, credit card clearances, electricity, gas, water, Internet, phone and other utility deposits and bills, new bank accounts, housemates advertising, interviewing, showing and learning new towns, public transport and getting new licenses, buying new vehicles and buying furniture and setting up my computer HiFi and bookcases - crazy! I must get settled forever sometime soon.
Australian immigration decided that I was a special Tuberculosis risk because I had lived in Singapore and demanded my second chest X-ray in 18-months before I arrived: Singapore did it in the first week of employment and they arranged everything but Australia needed approval before arriving even when as a tourist I could have come in or out an unlimited number of times over a period of three months already. Being abroad, none of the medical electronic submission systems worked and getting my 457 visa took three months overall. I had originally wanted to do Australian immigration but the Australian Computer Society has been put in charge of approving programmer's skills so even after 10 years of experience, a Masters in Computer Science and a PhD. from Cambridge university would be worthless in the eyes of the ACS who obviously have a huge vested interest in keeping foreign competition out.
At the student cafeteria, I am turning into a carnivore because the cheapest eats seem to be 90% solid tasty meat: usually chicken or beef but I have eaten kangaroo too - best as mince! Sometimes, I want to take my meal back and complain that it contains too much meat and not enough sauce - honest, this is not Asia!
I enjoy the Australian cover bands playing in the bars: better than most South-East England pub bands but the bouncers are nasty and I regularly get refused entry to places because my shoes are not right or because I do not carry an Australian drivers license and might therefore be an underage drinker :-) I noticed that the two genders do not seem to go out together on Saturday night. I thought I had found the extreme example last weekend, not a nightclub hen-night but a whole long table of seemingly only women avoiding men but it turned out to be the Brisbane women's choir out for a drink so I think that doesn't count. I did listen to one bad but talented band sing a song to all those Australians who pretend to be matey and caring and vote for Labour but actually vote for the Liberals when no one is watching - that seemed all very possible. Labour have passed the laws for one of the World's first Carbon taxes so they would get my support for being aware of another of those nasty positive feedback loops working on climate change.
There are more pictures here and here.
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