Americans have quite the conception of Australia, this lonely land mass quite literally on the opposite side of the Earth. For one, we call it the land “down under,” which you’ll only hear from tour operators here. Australia also probably conjures images of the outback, kangaroo-riding cowboys, blonde surfers, and constant sunshine. Well, I can assure you, that is not the case– at least in Melbourne.
In fact, Melbourne is a lot like New York in certain ways. Although greater Australia is pretty warm most of the time, Melbourne is the southernmost city and does in fact have a winter. Upon arriving in July (the dead of their winter), I was unpleasantly surprised by rather cold temperatures and the most erratic weather I’ve ever experienced– they call it “four seasons in one day.” It of course doesn’t compare to a New York winter, but I arrived to 40 degree weather with a suitcase full of summer clothes. My mistake.
And though Melbourne’s central business district is just a speck on the map in comparison to New York, you really couldn’t tell the difference if you took a walk around. Starbucks, McDonald’s (which they comically call Macka’s… they shorten everything), KFC, and even Subway are all over the city, as are Target and K-Mart. There is the tram system, a very obtrusive metal monster interrupting traffic and pedestrians every which way (never have I appreciated the merits of an underground subway so much), but other than that, Melbourne looks like any other city.
Yet there are hints that you are, indeed, on the opposite side of the Earth. Melbourne is incredibly international; there’s more than one China Town, an Italian district, a Greek precinct, and pretty much every ethnic food you can think of… but everybody is either Caucasian or Asian. Black people are extremely rare, and Hispanic people simply do not exist here. It’s bizarre. And though they obviously speak English here, it might as well be another language. The accent is so thick and the phrasology so unique that for the first few weeks I just smiled and nodded at people. Instead of saying “how are you,” they ask “how are you going,” or more commonly, “how ya going.” I had absolutely no idea how to answer this when I first got here, and constantly told people where I was going or the mode of transport I was taking, only to get weird looks. It was awkward. But I’m learning…
(By the way, I’m Courtney Chin, a member of the Columbia College class of 2010 studying abroad at the University of Melbourne for the Fall 2009 semester. I promise I’ll introduce myself properly in the next post!)