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Saturday, 30 June 2007

Living and working in Oz

Written by Megan Manni
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australiaBy most people’s standards, I had made it. I had a good job - glamorous even to some - great benefits and off-the-chart raises every year. By no means was I rich, but I paid all my bills and made it work. I had my own apartment in New York City, my life all planned out according to subway line, volunteer work, and a vibrant social life. I was living in the largest and arguably the most exciting city in the world, but something was still missing.

Maybe it’s that I did have everything in place, or that I didn’t know where I should advance within the company, or maybe that I was just getting tired of living my life up-close-and-personal with millions of other people. But I had to get out.

I’d spent hours at my desk fantasizing where I’d like to live, what kind of life I’d like to have, or to which far away place I could escape. I knew I was at a crossroads and that I had to do something big, and eventually I managed to channel all that confusion into a plan. Several of my British friends had done unconventional things like spending six months in another country just to learn the language or traveling the world on their own. For someone in the UK, this is typical, especially during the traditional “gap year” between high school and university. But this type of trip is a big deal in the average American girl’s life, yet that made me more determined to do it myself. I thought, if British girls can do it, why can’t I? Sure, I had no spare money… after all I was living in New York! But there is more than one road to one’s future.australia

I began researching programs on the internet – bless the internet! All I had to do was Google “Work Abroad Program” and compare prices and policies. BUNAC was my program of choice: British Universities North America Community. People under aged 30 – especially students – can request a working holiday visa from any of several countries, buy a plane ticket and have the time of their lives. The program processes your visa, provides temporary housing and job hunting advice, and acts as a “home base” within your destination: including mail, email, travel, and luggage storage services. All you need is the program fee and an airline ticket showing entry into and exit out of the country. I filled out the necessary forms, braced my boss for what was to come, and I was in!

australiaThe Australian Immigration Department granted me a 4 month working holiday visa, beginning in January of 2005. I immediately went to the library and took out stacks of books on the history of Australia, the geography, the culture, and touring. I read everything from its exploration and settlement through to its present-day pop culture.

australiaI had always wanted to visit Australia – ever since I’d seen it on a map. Even though the flight was almost a day long, the idea of vast unspoiled land, unique animals and thousands of miles of pristine coastline made my eyes dilate. Just the thought that a country about as big as the U.S. in area could have one-tenth the population helped me shift into high gear! I quit my job, said the necessary goodbyes, and tried to explain my decision to people whose eyes popped out at the mention of the word Australia. Some people even said things like, “why Australia?” or “what made you decide to do this?” and my personal favorite, “you’re going ALONE??”

I didn’t have even one ounce of hesitation or worry. My anticipation was like having a constant flow of adrenaline… the packing and the flight meant nothing except for a new start and the achievement of a dream. Every country we flew over was another joy for me – just knowing I was flying over someplace like Romania or India was exciting.

australiaMy goal in doing this was to live my dream life, so I knew there was one place to live for me: the beach. I researched all Australian cities, but knew that I felt a calling to Sydney for an as yet unknown reason. From what I read, Sydney’s residents were the kind of people who’d work hard all day, but at 5:01 p.m. would shed their business suits for wet suits and surfboards and head to the waves. Australians love the outdoors and value life over work, which was exactly the vibe I felt was lacking at home. I had planned to do the Eastern Beaches Coastal Walk the first day I got to Australia to find out which town was for me. The sooner I found my beach haven, the sooner I could start my life there.

As is often with international arrivals, the plane arrived with the dawn. The stopover in Singapore’s shopping mall of an airport provided the opportunity to adjust somewhat to the time difference, and amazingly I had been able to sleep for most of the plane ride. I was wide awake and ready to get my stamp, collect my baggage and find my hostel’s shuttle. My eyes took in everything on the road from Kingsford-Smith Airport to downtown Sydney, and all I needed to see was palm trees in January to have a huge smile on my face. After the realization of the small fact that I’d forgotten to pack a towel, I dropped my bags and left the hostel to explore the streets for some kind of option. I came upon a Woolworth’s, tried to be as natural as I could with my brightly-colored money, and hurried back to Footprints Backpackers on Pitt Street to shower. I really wanted to get going immediately, but knew I’d be flat on my face later if I didn’t take some sort of nap.

In every new city I’ve explored, one of the first orders of business is to get a map and familiarize myself with the transport system to have some idea beforehand of how I was to get from major attraction to major attraction. Part of my research, after deciding on the region of Sydney I was interested in, was learning the bus routes as I knew having a car wouldn’t be an option day-to-day. It took me awhile to figure out where to access each bus route, but that day I made it out on bus 380 to Bondi. I knew the Walk would take approximately 3 hours, and I had sneakers, sunscreen and camera ready.

It started in Bondi Beach and ended in Coogee – where I had the undeniable feeling of coming home. The 5k walk-through had taken me on a scenic path through some of the most beautiful beaches in Australia, inches from the water’s edge. The cave-like rocks, stunning views, sea spray, wind and sunshine all welcomed me. The Walk is also a popular jog or exercise route for locals, and even crosses the picturesque Waverly Cemetery on its way through quiet hamlets like Tamarama, Bronte, Clovelly, Gordon’s Bay and ultimately Coogee Beach. I felt like Goldilocks – while all other beaches were lovely, none felt quite right until I reached the community of Coogee.australia

I rounded the arc at the top of a hill overlooking the beach, and smiled. Coogee had a sweeping bay with a large expanse of sand, a unique shallow rock pool and two large park areas adjacent to the sand. Streets both parallel and perpendicular to the beach were lined with restaurants and “hotels” or pubs. The hilltop itself was romantic, providing views down the coastline to more hills on the opposite end of the beach that would rival the French Riviera. Where I was standing there had been two memorials erected in honor of those Coogee locals lost in the terrorist bombings of Bali in 2002. At 6 p.m. on a sunny Thursday evening the beach was still dotted with people, and I knew this suburb had a foundation. Not only that, it was a mini-hub for buses to and from Sydney’s CBD, or central business district. While I boarded the bus to leave, I saw a huge sign for a hostel across the street, and my plan was advanced. But first, there was a little more of downtown Sydney I had to see.

australiaI’ll never forget the first time I saw the Sydney Opera House. It is every bit as gorgeous as it is in pictures, and after my long-awaited arrival the sight of the white-tiled exterior was even more breathtaking in person. A proud grin crept across my face as I savored my accomplishment.

Ever since I was little riding in the backseat of my parents’ car on trips to visit relatives, I was fascinated by suspension bridges. My eyes would follow the arches from the ground up and over from one side to the other, and I used to imagine what it’d be like to walk up and down and whether the two waist-high cables that followed the rib of the bridge were supposed to be handrails. When I found out I could climb Sydney’s famous bridge, I couldn’t wait to suit up. So before I even left America, I had booked my spot on the Harbour Bridgeclimb.

On my second day in Australia, I reported at my appointed time to the Bridgeclimb. After some training, explanations and introductions to others in the climb group, we were off. We all wore the given grey, lightweight body suits that were designed to keep us cool while keeping our body heat in for the ascent to a height twice that of the Opera House. We were attached via karabiner to those cables I’d always wondered about, and were told stories by our guide about the history and building of the bridge and those who fell from it and lived to tell. Not the best thing to hear on the climb, one would think, but we felt entirely safe in our straps and gear. The only worrisome part was when the wind picked up, but by then we were halfway through and on our way down.

The next day I moved to Surfside Backpackers, the beachfront hostel in Coogee, and began looking for a job. I bought a pre-pay cell phone from Vodafone and got myself a local phone number. I pounded the pavement every day, popping in to every eatery in sight, and scoured the rental classified listings on at the local internet café. Two weeks later, I was working full-time waiting tables at two different restaurants, and had found a room in a gorgeous apartment in neighboring Clovelly with a view to die for at AU$175/week.

The apartment itself, as fortune would have it, was located on the Coastal Walk path, perched high on a cliff overlooking Gordon’s Bay and looking south down the coastline. My room was small, but my two female roommates were older than your average backpacker, more mature and delightful. The place was so dreamy and so perfectly located, that paying the equivalent of US$600 a month for it was nothing short of a pleasure. I could see the ocean from my bed, and hear it when I awoke. I was in heaven.australia

When I wasn’t working, I spent the summer days from January through March on the beach, swimming in turquoise ocean, sunbathing and snorkeling. Waiting tables is something I always thought everyone should do in one’s life, and I was enjoying almost every second. For me, interacting with the customers and mastering seeing a table through their meal from sit down to finish was the best part. My patrons at Fed Café on the first floor of the famed beachfront Palace Hotel were friendly, funny and outgoing, and upon saying “hello” I was almost always immediately asked where I was from and how I came to Australia.

What also made the job something to cherish is the people I worked with. All the servers and kitchen staff were travelers too, as were many of the young people in Coogee during the summer, so we all knew what it was like to be traveling and living on every dollar we made. We worked long hours, but all had the energy to make the most of our days and nights, either on the beach or out dancing and hanging out at the local bars. After our shifts, it was off with the aprons and on with our flip flops to go upstairs and dance the night away or down the block to the “beer garden” at the Coogee Bay Hotel to relax in the summer air.

australiaWhat I loved about Australian culture is that every activity is designed to celebrate the outdoors, the ocean, and the fresh air. Sydney’s climate is very much like that of Los Angeles – temperate all year round, with a low in the July winter of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Most restaurants and bars have retractable walls or outdoor seating. It seemed like every place had a way to enjoy the weather, and that life in Sydney was constructed around nature and sought to preserve its beauty, as opposed to using and abusing the land like so many other prosperous nations.

Australians are very environmentally conscious. For example they encourage grocery shoppers to buy a A$1 reusable canvas bag to shop with, and they were ubiquitous. Thankfully the concept has migrated, but I have only just started to see the bags be sold in New York this year. The small beach beneath my cliffside apartment, Gordon’s Bay, was declared a recovering ecological site and thus was a government-protected zone. People swam and snorkeled there, but the rule was simply not to remove anything found. Every bathroom I used in Australia, rural or cosmopolitan, had water conservation signs and buttons for half flush or full flush, and every hotel asked that you reuse your towels and leave a sign on an unused bed so as not to waste clean sheets. Every outlet has a shutoff switch to be turned off when the outlet is empty, and native Australians will reach over and shut off a running faucet in front of you if by chance you forget. It struck me especially because I am used to brushing my teeth or washing the dishes with the water continuously on, which is a major faux pas in Australia due to their perpetual drought.

australiaMost of the country in fact is arid desert, and Australia is considered the driest continent on earth. Eighty-five percent of its residents live along the coasts, and I was warned never to go into the outback alone or try to drive cross-country, as it would be a deadly endeavor. One could travel hundreds of miles without seeing a single soul, and indeed some of the roads are so straight and flat that drivers are in danger of spacing out. The country also has dozens of the most lethal species on earth. Perhaps Australians have such reverence for nature because it can be so dangerous.australia

As much as they worship the outdoors and beaches, Aussies are also conscious about the sun and how dangerous it is. The sun is much stronger in Australia due to the hovering ozone hole, and the skin cancer rate is an alarming 1 in 4. For the last twenty years Australians have been vigilant about their skin protection, because they’ve routinely topped the list of the highest risk in the world. I noticed canopies and overhangs over all shops and outdoor areas, sometimes all along the length of major streets downtown. I also was burned very early on, even after what I thought was a thorough swathing of myself in SPF 30. The one small part I missed was purple and painful at the end of the afternoon, and when the peeling ended the skin stayed darker than the rest of me for the next several months.

In my opinion Australian culture is a perfect cross between American and British. Australia is a constitutional monarchy, albeit an independent one from its parent monarchy, but they also have a similar history to Americans of rebellion due to how the original settlers had been treated by the British government. The government in Australia is also a blend of British, Canadian, and American structure, whereby a Parliament exists but within it so does a Senate and a House of Representatives. Aussie culture incorporates much of British slang and vocabulary, but like America is a relatively new country having been made official in 1901. It feels much bigger than Britain where cars and streets seem like miniature models; Australia’s streets and layout feel much more open, airy and spread out. In fact, Australia itself is three quarters the size of America in land mass.

australiaThe best thing about Australia was that everyone is chilled out, everything is cool with them, and “no worries” is not just a catch phrase, it might as well be the national anthem. All societies have their problems, but I never saw anyone fussing or cross with someone else; people were friendly and gracious. Aussies are so friendly that you can chat with a waiter, a store clerk, a bus driver or fellow passenger for ten minutes, and then say goodbye and be on your way. To me it was encouraging that such a life exists, because this is what life should be; about being fulfilled and happy and experiencing the world, and not about getting ahead and worrying about nitpicky things.

Australians are extremely used to "backpackers" like myself, and everyone was very understanding, accommodating, and interested in my travels and how I was enjoying their great country that they refreshingly took so much pride in. The pride boomed through bars when Men at Work’s “Land Down Under” began playing, and every native patron sang the words loud and proud to each traveler’s amusement. Another of their favorites is Gangajang’s Sounds of Then (This is Australia), which describes things like the magnificent lightning storms and the nighttime heat.

australiaI felt like I was living a million miles from the U.S. The wilderness, Australians’ respect for nature and the environment, their relaxed and fun-loving personality, and the stunning scenery make Australia an amazing and fascinating place to call home. It may sound like utopia, but it is truly no exaggeration. It’s not nicknamed “Oz” for nothing.

©Megan Manni


Check out the aussie dictionary on the next page!



An Aussie Dictionary

sunnies = sunglasses

top up = refill (verb and noun)

Air Con = air conditioning

bikkies = biscuits

biscuits = cookies

sultanas = raisins

eskie = cooler

togs = swimsuit

Brizzie = Brisbane (even the pilot calls it that)

winge = whine (verb and noun)

chunder = puke (verb and noun)

goss = gossip

avo = afternoon

exy = expensive

hundgie = hundred

yobbo = hick/country bumpkin

Kiwi = someone from New Zealand

devo'ed = devastated, shattered, bummed out

Rotto = Rottnest Island

Freo = Fremantle, W.A.

Too easy! = nice! beautiful!

She'll be awwriiite, mate = it'll be ok

Yer awriight = it’s ok/no problem

Howye going? = How are you?

Good on ya = good for you, nice going

Heaps = lots, very/really or much

Keen as = eager to, ready, psyched

Tah = Thanks

brekkie = breakfast

cuppa = cup of tea

lollies = candy

nong = idiot

mozzie = mosquito

Rocky = Rockhampton

joey = baby kangaroo

jumbuck = sheep

cordial = fruit squash

Chardy = Chardonnay

That’s s**thouse = that sucks

Schooner = pint of beer

Jug = pitcher

Witches hats = orange cones on road

Trading hours = hours a store is open

Hotel = pub

Apartments = hotel rooms

Flats = apartments

Arcade = shopping center

Pokeys = gambling rooms, slot machines

Whereabouts = where

What are you after = what would you like?


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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