Thursday, February 07, 2008

Starting Over Down Under

I've heard that Sydney is sometimes described as the LA of Australia; it's large, diverse, has great food and it sprawls for miles into the surrounding suburbs. I'll reserve judgment on the accuracy of this comparison, but for now must note another similarity between the two metropolises: like LA, Sydney is not pedestrian friendly. In LA, walking doesn't make sense because you simply can't get from place to place on foot. In Sydney's central business district, the pedestrian lights are poorly timed. Almost everyone jaywalks because they simply don't want to wait three minutes to cross the road. Imagine crossing a city street with a triangular cement island separating the turn lane from the through traffic. Sometimes, you get the 'WALK' light to get to the island (four steps maybe) and then get a 'STOP' light preventing you from safely crossing the rest of the street in one go.

Mickey and I will also have to get used to the foreign mobile phone service plans and seemingly archaic ISP plans. Under my current plan, $50 bought me $300 worth of talk time and texts. It is cheaper for me to call the US than make local calls and I get penalized if I try to top up my SIM before I am scheduled to do so. When either my first month of service is up or when that $300 worth of credit runs out, I can purchase $50 worth of credit for $50. It's almost enough to make you want to buy a wig and a fake passport and get that first month deal every month. Frustrated at the Vodaphone counter in the airport, Mickey said, "why is this so complicated?" The sales guy assured us that it wasn't at all complicated. What a comfort...

Likewise, I was stunned when I found out that unlimited internet usage plans are almost unheard of here. 'Pay by the hour?' I scoffed, 'what is this, 1997?' Mickey explained to me, however, that there are only two major pipes that connect Australia with the US and its many data centers. Apparently these pipes get overloaded and it is more expensive for ISPs to operate. In a country with so much to offer outdoors, many Aussies probably prefer catching real waves over surfing the net and I can live with that. Just don't take away my Tivo.

I've complained plenty about these minor areas of adjustment, but have not yet mentioned my favorite part about living in Australia. All the anxiety that surrounded asking for help in public is gone. When I was in Zurich or travelling elsewhere, I'd have to mentally prepare to ask 'do you speak English?' in the local tongue. I was always worried about people correctly identifying me as an American and responding rudely to my ignorance. This almost never happened; in fact, the Swiss are really quite friendly folk. However, it was frustrating that even when I got more comfortable with my German and knew how to ask the right questions, I couldn't count on being able to understand the response. I wanted so badly to get by on my German that I didn't ask for a repeat when I didn't catch something. One time I struggled so hard to order some white cheddar from the fromagier that I was too embarassed to say anything when I paid for the wrong amount of cheese. I preferred instead to have my friend Thao go to a different store and pick up what I really needed later. Anyway, it's a relief to not have to clench up and listen hard when I ask for help in public. I feel like patting myself on the back every time I understand someone.

As it turns out, I'm not the only one down unda who doesn't hesitate to ask for help in public. Last week a middle aged man approached me in the supermarket: "I hate to bother you," he stammered. "I hate to have to ask a woman this, but..." Oh my god, was I on some Australian candid camera or what? "My missus has diarrhea and I need to know what to get" he whispered as he held up his mostly empty shopping basket for me to inspect. I made a quick call to treat this as a sincere question and told the man what I knew about the BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) diet. I hope I helped. It's a strange trade, but I'll exchange my pedestrian woes and service plan confusion for the freedom to ask a question in public any day, especially if it means I can ask anything.

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