By Susan Roberts
If the first year of doing something is the hardest, then I am optimistic about the future. I’ve just celebrated my first year of living in Australia. Sometimes it feels as if I landed only a few months ago, but at other times I seem to have been here for a good portion of my life already, because so much of it is second nature to me.
It’s hard to believe that more than a year has passed since I gave away most of my books, frantically packed my Move Cube, sold my car, left my job, tearfully sent my two cats on a plane and even more tearfully said goodbye to all my South African friends.
So what have I learned about Australia in that first year? Let’s look at the bad first:
- Exchange rate: Coming to Australia was not cheap. On the day I bought my foreign exchange, all the money I had in the world was reduced to only 10% of its buying power. This is worth crying about until I can earn Aussie dollars. So far I’m not earning, and my converted Rands are running out…
- Accents: I still have trouble decoding some accents. Apart from the peculiar words for things (dunny for toilet, doona for duvet, chook for chicken) Australians abbreviate everything: arvo for afternoon, servo for petrol station. As a writer and wordsmith, I hate showing my ignorance by using the wrong words.
- Weather: Winter is bitterly cold here. After fifteen years of living in Durban where the temperature seldom drops below 18 degrees, this is something that will take me more than a few winters to overcome.
- Rules and regulations: In Australia these are mandatory. While it was easy to convert my driver’s licence, I also had to have a medical to ensure that my thyroid medication didn’t affect my ability to drive. This involved precious money spent on what I felt was an unnecessary doctor’s visit – a $90 appointment to fill in a one-page form cost me R900!
- Regulations are strict for pets: Cats have to be registered with the local municipality and there is a limit – no more than two cats per property in the suburbs. There is a dusk to dawn curfew. Also, if your cat annoys a neighbour, the neighbour can trap it (humane traps are available from the municipality) and send it to the pound. This costs the owner a small fortune to retrieve their pet. End result: I don’t let my cats out on their own. I take them outside once a day on a harness and lead. One cat is fine with this but the other can’t bear the harness so she has to be watched constantly. I feel happier knowing my cats are safer, but the cats themselves don’t understand why they can’t be allowed out to freely roam the neighbourhood.
- Work situation: Until last month I wasn’t allowed to work so I’ve been gradually using up my meagre financial resources. The workplace is very competitive here and it’s not uncommon to be out of work for several months before finding a job, which is a scary thought. Who knows how long it will take me, and if my last few Rands will stretch that far?
But there’s a good side to everything:
- Sense of belonging and shared history: The official language is English, and while not everyone looks like me, a large number of Australians have travelled here from far away. Whether they crossed the globe voluntarily as my ancestors did to Africa or are descended from British convicts who were forced into ships and transported across the sea to penal colonies, the end result is that a pioneering spirit and a can-do attitude lives on in most people here.
- Weather: Three good seasons definitely make up for the fourth! Summers can be scorching – up to 47 degrees in January – but the lack of humidity leaves you with plenty of energy. The between seasons – Spring and Autumn – are a novelty for me because I’m finally able to wear scarves, jerseys and light jackets which only gathered dust back in Durban.
- Bureaucratic efficiency: After the expensive medical to convert my driver’s license, Vic Roads lost my paperwork and I was threatened with suspension of my shiny new licence. However, Australian efficiency ruled because the doctor had a copy of the filled-in form, and an amazing gentleman at Vic Roads was able to fast-track that copy through his system and my licence was given the go ahead the very next day.
- Calmer Lifestyle: Wonderful public transport system of trams, trains and buses – all safe and efficiently run. Clean streets with plenty of trees. Parks and open spaces which are used by everybody. No litter, no load-shedding, no water cuts, no rioting, no burning of cars, buses and educational institutions while protesting. In fact, no protesting because if people here are unhappy with something, there are properly working channels through which to register their disapproval without endangering the lives of others.
- Safer Lifestyle: No burglar bars, security fences, barbed wire or razor wire. No guns. Cars that park on the street are seldom broken into or stolen, and if they are, the perpetrators are caught. It’s also safe walking to and from places after dark.
- Friendly officials: Policemen are friendly, polite and helpful. So are the transport police who monitor station platforms and who board trains to check for valid tickets. Just because they wear bullet-proof clothing doesn’t turn them into robots. Likewise the officials behind counters in municipal offices, traffic departments, shopping centres and banks. They greet and smile at you; they are well-informed and help you. People at help desks are actually helpful!
- Friendly people: You can stop a person on the street and ask directions and they will talk to you. In fact, chances are they will stop you first if you look lost, and offer their help. On the first day of our road trip from Brisbane we reached a street corner where the car hire place we were expecting wasn’t there. While we were still fumbling for our map, a man stopped and asked if he could help. And he did. (Whoever you were, thank you again. You and the thousands of other Australians like you!)
Here’s what I have learned about myself and my ability to adapt in that first year:
- I’m older and probably a bit more fragile, but that’s a natural part of aging. I’m optimistic about the future. I feel safe here. I feel that I have a future here. I am happy knowing that I can grow old in this country and be reasonably protected. Not just by the systems in place, but by the majority of people who harbour no ill-will towards their fellow human beings. Where there is crime, arrests are made and criminals are served their due justice. That gives me enormous confidence in the system.
- I feel inspired. As a writer, I feel more creative here. I feel that I can write heroes and heroines who really can live happily ever after. I can invent characters and put them into stories where worries about the past, dangers of the present and fears for the future can be narrowed down to suit a particular plot-driven situation instead of being constantly overshadowed by the guilt-ridden burden of being a scared person in Africa.
- I love seeing kangaroos, koalas, wombats, dingoes, emus, and even the occasional duck-billed platypus – both in the wild and in wildlife sanctuaries.
- I am ticking things off my bucket list. Last year I saw Hugh Jackman performing live on stage. Now I can die happy.
But first I have to find myself a job…