Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Australian Adventures: One Month In

Predictably, I petted my first one of these guys
before I'd been here a week.
Somehow, a month has gone by since I arrived in Sydney. A month ago Sunday, to be exact, since I started hearing "no worries" six times an hour and blinking in confusion at everyday expressions like "How're you going?" and "D'you want cash out?" It feels like I've been here both much longer and much less than a month. Longer because I've already done so much and I feel settled in; less because how could I possibly have been gone a whole month already?!

I didn't quite know what to expect from Australia. I'm a foreigner, but one who shares the same native language, albeit with a different national bent. I'm a student, but an international one whose studies take place at least half the time in a language native neither to this country nor to my own. And I'm a traveler, looking forward to learning the ins and outs of this country that is my temporary home. Where would I fit in, in Australia, on campus, in class, I wondered? Australia, with its laid-back sense of welcome, seems to say "fit in wherever you like, mate!"

That's one of the things I'm slowly realizing is a big part of what makes Australia so appealing: its unquestioning acceptance of whoever happens to show up. Sure, you have to certify that you're not a criminal and aren't trying to wipe out any of the native species to get through immigration but, once you're in, the welcome is universal. It isn't overpowering or over-eager, like a scene in a musical where every member of the cast is dancing with manic joy in the middle of the street; it's a casual "Hey, how're you going? Glad you could make it," that's extended to everyone from the man who's lived around the corner all his life to the tourist who arrived yesterday and is still fumbling with the currency.

Do I look relaxed yet?
Every single person I've met in the past month has emanated this casual acceptance and welcome. The cashier at the local Woolies (Woolworths, an Australian grocery store), who took in my bleary, jet-lagged confusion when she asked if I wanted cash out (that's cash back, for my fellow Americans) on my first evening here, put it together with my non-Aussie accent and welcomed me to the area with a smile. The waitress at Hobart's Retro Cafe who saw my Arizona driver's license as I pulled out my wallet, thought it was the coolest thing she'd seen all week and wanted my opinion on what Aussie English sounds like to American ears (charming, is the answer!). Not to mention the multiple bus drivers who have kindly advised me that the bus to my desired destination is the one that arrives on the opposite side of the street and haven't seemed at all put out at having stopped for a passenger who turned out not to be one.

The first country other than my own that I lived in long-term was France, for which I fell head-over-heels instantly, swept off my feet by the rich colors, textures, scents and sounds of everyday life, so different from what I grew up with in the U.S. Australia is more subtle - less intense, more easy-go-lucky and much less passionately opinionated - but no less convincing. Already, I find myself relaxing in a way I rarely did in the U.S., not just on the surface but right down to my bones. Despite the fact that classes are now in full swing, stress is becoming a distant memory. "No worries," which you can't help but hear every day in Australia, isn't just a phrase, it's a way of life, one that seeps into every pore and which, I have a feeling, may be impossible to get rid of once it's made its way into your system. Then again, why would you want to?