Please visit our new site!

Lab Rats

Big country

An itinerant scientist adapts to Australia

rpg 20 July 2008

Another angle: emigrating in the name of science can change your perspective

In conjoined foreignness with our neighbours, we have made this our home

Flying into Sydney, we peered eagerly out of the grimy windows for a first glimpse of something we might recognize – the Bridge, perhaps, or the Opera House – global icons of our new home. But the Harbour City was grey, shrouded by low cloud. Summer humidity pressed in on us when we left the air-conditioned comfort of the terminal building, making breathing difficult.

It’s not that we weren’t seasoned travellers: from military families and merely intending to stop off in our quest for an ultimate home in New Zealand, we have been around a bit. But Australia still managed to surprise us. It is big. It doesn’t hit you at first, not if you’ve overflown Canada or Europe, or rumbled through the night via Singapore to get there. But from the Gold Coast to Kalbarri is two and a half thousand miles: further than Washington DC to San Francisco – or about the same as from the Channel Islands to the Urals. In the time it takes to fly from Canberra to Uluru you could be in the administrative capital of New Zealand.

We were not ready for the scattered nature of the population, even along the coast. In Europe you can travel for an hour and be in a totally new city, or visit three countries and as many different languages. But it is at least an eleven hour drive from Sydney to the next major urban centre (Canberra, skulking behind trees next to a man-made lake, hardly counts). It is twice as far again to Cairns, and you’re still on the East Coast.

The sky, too, is big. Perhaps it is an illusion brought about by the intense ultraviolet, but there is a hell of a lot of it. The sky and land seem to converge asymptotically. We expected sunshine. We knew it would burn this fair-skinned European in minutes. We prepared: plenty of sun-block, mandatory hats, rash vests in the surf. And after two years I am only slightly tanned. But no one warned us to expect monsoons. We survived Australia’s wettest drought. I have walked home some days unable to get any soggier. But I also feel naked if I ever leave home without sunglasses.

It gets dark quickly; there is no drawn-out dusk. Leaving the lab well after nightfall I am still amazed how hot and muggy it is. But an hour inland and the temperature suddenly plummets: away from the city lights the sea of the sky is lit from beyond, so bright it it almost hurts to look up.

Australia is hot. Swimming pools and air-conditioning are necessities, not luxuries. When the sun shines you can tell the new immigrants by how readily they nick off to the beach. In May, the weather forecaster will describe a high of 18°C as ‘wintry’. But, strangely, I miss the cold, the frost on windows, the golden gown of autumn. In this crazy climate the palms and succulents ignore the seasons and the price of bananas is the only guide to the time of year. It is the English trees, the seeds planted in a faraway land, that keep the rhythm of death and new life.

We did not anticipate language problems. We expected some ribbing for being bloody Poms, had been warned to the difference between ‘root’ and ‘route’. We knew what was meant by ‘stubby’, ‘wowser’ and ‘thongs’. We expected a bit of a culture shock in moving from a small market town to a city. What we found was that the imperatives of housing, closeness to public transport and a state (‘public’) school landed us, after some heart-wrenching moments, in the midst of Strathfield: population 80 % Asian and 15 % Indian. We expected meat pie floaters and got kimchi.

We are strangers in this strange and wonderful land. Our two girls go to a public school – a good one, consistently scoring much higher than the state average – with a roll that is nine-tenths Asian. They are the only white girls in their classes, and love the attention. Our suburb is crowded with incredible shops, cafes, smells. It is rare to overhear a conversation in English, and in conjoined foreignness with our neighbours, we have made this our home.

The lab, like labs everywhere, is populated by a mix of cultures and nationalities. A poll last year determined that between us we spoke about twenty different languages. Occasionally, we’ll launch a search for a genuine Ozzie cobber (I thought I found one once, but he turned out to be a Kiwi). The ‘real’ Australians are endangered, often found begging in ‘The Block’ –the Aboriginal heartland by Redfern Station.

Sydney roads and drivers are terrible; narrow and in bad repair. Anyone used to the M40 or London traffic will find themselves mentally downshifting at the sheer incompetence of planners and motorists alike. Frugality and economy are buzz-words for early adopters – as are “defensive”, “skillful” and “driving with due care and attention”. We were fortunate to find a car with a manual gearbox; the V6 engine it came with is not, sadly, unusual. I hear the rain forests cry every time I open the throttle. And yet, in a country where petrol is half the price it is in Cambridge, politicians make election pledges to reduce the cost of motoring. Climate change might as well be happening on a different planet.

But at least Sydney feels like a real city. It is alive. There is rubbish on the street and queues to get into cafes, standing room only in pubs, the odour of kebab vans and the roar of people and traffic squeezed into too small a space. City lights burn into infinity, broadcasting that we are, here and now, alive and glad of it. The capital, Canberra, is a different matter entirely. The business of executive administration can not support a third of a million people, so more respectable trades (pornography and prostitution, as the old joke goes) have to be shoehorned into this artificial space. The major shopping centre is clean, civilized and aseptic. The sun-warmed pavement cafes are full, but not crowded. There is always a seat. The lazy 50 mph speed limits on wide roads make for a soporific experience, compared with the slower but more frenetic goat tracks of Sydney. Signs along the parkways inform residents how much water is in their dams and how much they are using, as if siting the capital in one of the driest regions of an arid continent was ever a good idea.

Australians, rightly, are proud of their beaches. We love them. I count them as a reward for going through with this upheaval. And there are other things I have found too: to carve a new niche has forced me to focus on what I will call, borrowing from management-speak, my core competencies. I am communicating better, writing more, concentrating on the hypothesis. Perhaps it is the isolation that pervades this vast continent: lost in the Outback you would be thrown ultimately onto your own resources for survival, resources you maybe did not know you had.

Together with the madness of the sub-tropical climate, this might explain why the strangest contrasts persist. Australia likes to consider herself progressive, but is gloriously un-PC and reactionary. Republican, but clinging to and constrained by dreams of Empire. Patriotic, yet insecure about her place in the world – disparaging of her heritage and mother country, but never quite growing up. Valuing independence, as long as it conforms. Immensely proud of sporting achievements, but lopping the tallest poppies. Boundless plains to share – but almost constitutionally intolerant. We were used to globalization, but got bananas that triple in price with the seasons.

I’m used to the humidity now. Australia is big enough to challenge your preconceptions and change your outlook. This is the land of opportunity, the Lucky Country: but it is up to you to do something about it. Arrive open-eyed and grasp the opportunities that you see – and if you don’t see any, generate your own. Being different is maybe an advantage; people expect strangeness from you. As anywhere else, Australia is what you make it.

It’s big enough to cope.