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We’ve come to realize that, although we came to Australia with the hope of an easy transition as a result of similar culture and language, the language they speak in Oz is nothing like the U.S. of A.  The language barrier has been one of the most striking differences between two nations born of a common English heritage.  When ordering food, directing a cab, or just trying to make casual conversation with the locals, we are met with blank stares and forced to repeat ourselves in a painstakingly slow and deliberate manner (and even then, I’m not entirely confident I’ve been understood).  Australians are known for their unique slang, so this shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to us, but we did expect a softer learning curve given that we all are, in fact, speaking English.

First, there’s the day-to-day expressions.  In the morning, you wake up to a long black (double espresso and the closest thing to American coffee at a coffee shop) or a flat white (latte), have a spot of brekky (breakfast) with your caffeine, and are greeted by the morning refrains of “How you going?” (how are you?).  In the arvo (afternoon), its lunch or nibbles (snacks).  If you’re feeling indulgent, you order chips (fries) with your sandwich, or satisfy your sweet tooth with a lolly (principally candy, but can encompass sweets of all sorts, and is not limited to lollipops).  (OK, ok, so the first one’s pretty intuitive to anyone who’s been to England or had fish and chips, but for the sake of completeness I felt compelled to include it.  I certainly don’t think of chips at a local sandwich shop meaning crispy golden-fried potatoes).  If you’re dishing for some greasy American fast food, you can stop for mackers (McDonald’s). 

One never should forget to carry a brelly (umbrella) or a cardigan (the description for any sort of sweater, not just the button-up type) to deal with the ever-changing Melbourne weather patterns.  Refrains of “cheers” can mean anything from “thanks,” “excuse me” and “goodbye” (or more properly, “good’ay”).  And I’ve not yet fully comprehended the scope of the word “ta”, which seems to be used as “yes”, cheers or goodbye, or confirmation of a point or request you’ve just made (as in, “Mel (my secretary), can you scan this and send me a pdf copy” and “ta, scan it and send it.”).

In the evening, you might find yourself in need of a stubby (beer) or shuffle (single serving of wine with an inverted glass as the twist-off bottle cap).  But don’t drink too much, or you might get pissed (drunk).  If you want to try your luck, you hit up the pokies (slot machines) at the casino, or grab a scratchy (scratch ticket) from the 7-11.  (Aussies sure like to gamble; there’s gambling everywhere – traditional, Las Vegas-style casinos, bookies outside all the major sports venues, and prime-time advertisements for online gambling venues).  And the locals will declare “goodon ya” (good luck, or sometimes, have a good day), as you try your hand or just go about your normal day-to-days…

On the weekends, especially during finals time, you barrack (root) for your favorite footy (Aussie rules football) team.  (Do not, however, “root” for your footy team, as this means something else all together.  Think very literal and basic human evolutionary desires, as in “root” the “seed”).  Or, if the weather ever gets any blasted warmer, you might venture out in St. Kilda in your costume (bathing suit) and sunnies (sunglasses) to soak up some rays, or ride your push bike (bicycle) along the beach.  If you opt for a weekend road trip to the wineries in the valley or down the Great Ocean Road, don’t forget to throw whatever amusements are necessary for the trip in the boot (trunk) of your car. 

Man, where’s Rosetta’s Stone when you need ‘em?.  Maybe we should check out the Melbourne library and see if they have a free copy…

First things first, on our first blog posting from down under, a number of first impressions…

We’ve arrived in Melbourne and settled into apt #20 at the Caroline Serviced Apartments, in South Yarra.  It’s a great, fully furnished apartment in a quaint neighborhood just on the edge of the Royal Botanic Gardens and Fawkner Park and bristling with restaurants, cafes and boutique stores.

Our first weekend we laid-low, dealt with a bit of jet lag, and explored a bit in South Yarra and Fitzroy.  We jumped right into apartment searching during the day on Saturday and our new pals Adrianna and Krisztian met us for brunch on Sunday and showed us around town – the beach, St. Kilda, South Melbourne Market, the docklands and even a trip to Costco.  It was great to drive around, because it confirmed that the city is both massive and somewhat compact (seems contradictory, I know) at the same time.

We of course came to Melbourne with a few preconceptions and expectations, and after a week’s worth of exploring and observing, it seems about time for a full report…

#1) Myth:  Melbourne is like D.C. 

We’d heard the comparison a few times – lots of parks and green space, niche neighborhoods, but a city feel, just like D.C.  Incorrect. 

Fact:  Melbourne is like D.C. on steroids. The city is massive.  It spreads out from the CBD (central business district) and the Yarra River in every direction.  D.C. population = 600,000 (up to 2 mil with the suburbs); Melbourne population = 5 mil.  And, it’s a real city – 13 story, horizontal buildings never felt like a city to me.  Melbourne’s CBD skyline towers over the river (my office building has 52 stories (I’m on 32)).

And it’s super green.  Just to the east of the CBD, the Royal Botanic Gardens and Fitzroy Gardens flank each side of the river and form a nearly 2,000m square.  To the south, Fawkner Park dominates South Yarra, and Albert Park (complete with man-made lake in the center and Formula 1 race track) on the edge of South Melbourne and St. Kilda is nearly 10 city blocks long and 5 blocks wide.  Melbourne is also super “green”: we’ve got compost bins in the office (even the plastic shopping bags are compostable), half-flush water conserving toilets, and massive public transportation systems (trains, trams, buses and city-rent bikes (with docking stations every few blocks)).  My hippy heart is happy here.

#2) Truth:  They drive on the left and generally do everything backwards.    Seriously, it’s against all instinct and nature as an American to switch to the left after spending 27 and 30 years, respectively, in a right-oriented world.  Not only do they drive on the left, they walk (and pass) on the left on sidewalks, keep to the left when standing on metros, escalators and stairs are on the opposite side as they should be, the locks turn the wrong way (towards the door-locking mechanism to unlock) and the list goes on and on… After only a few days in, I do believe we’ve managed to annoy probably half of South Yarra with our right-ward leanings and only narrowly avoided a few head-on collisions whilst gazing around at our surroundings and straying to the right side of the sidewalk.

#3) Myth:  Melbourne is in a drought, and the weather is like Southern California.

Before our arrival, we had of course checked out in an attempt to gauge the weather and pack appropriately.  It seemed cool (mid-50s to low 60s F) but appropriate spring temperatures.  And of course, everyone’s heard of the “sunburned country” to which we were headed – land of no rain and drought.  So imagine our surprise when it rained nearly everyday this week, and remained dismally gray.  (and, the surprise of most everyone in Melbourne, including people whose properties were flooded by the deluge).  At least after the rain…

It’s also down right cold. Clearly, packing for weather in the southern hemisphere whilst it is summer in the northern hemisphere is not a brilliant idea.  We packed light summer jackets and a few long-sleeves; the Melburnians are decked out in full winter coats, wool hats and gloves.  In some ways, its fitting.  In the mornings, there is the cool crisp feel and smell of the breeze that is just like late September in D.C. when you can first tell that winter is approaching.  Except here, summer is approaching (at least I hope).

#4) Myth: There is no Mexican in Melbourne.  Prior to our arrival, I had heard from multiple sources that Mexican in Melbourne was either non-existent or flat-out rotten.  Although touted as a city of vast and diverse culinary experiences, my main associate contact in the Melbourne office remarked (unprompted) that Mexican was sadly, absent.  A few google searches prior to our arrival seemed to confirm this myth: although many restaurant listings appeared at the top of the search page, one critic’s review of a recently opened Mexican restaurant in the CBD (Mamasita) offered a simultaneous ray of hope (reviews of Mamasita seemed positive) and saddening concurrence in the myth (Mexican locales previously sampled by such critic were deemed, in the same post, “rubbish” after his journey to Southern California to taste real Mexican food).  His blog is titled melbourne gastronome–with culinary vocabulary like that, he had to be reputable.

Fact: Within mere blocks of our apartment in South Yarra, we encountered a fantastic-looking Mexican restaurant (to be sampled soon, stay tuned) and tortillas and salsa at the local supermarket.  Repeated commercials for Australian “avos” graced the TV, though, admittedly, we were watching the food channel and Mexican dishes were not among the 5 or 6 uses suggested by the Australian avocado farmers association (inclusion of an avo on an egg and vegemite sandwich was, however).  Nonetheless, the glimmer of hope has brightened into a full-out beam, and I’m hopeful that I will not have to terminate my work contract early and return to the U.S. for want of semi-decent Mexican cuisine, as previously contemplated.

#5) Myth:  Although some things are more expensive, generally you can save money in Melbourne due to the exchange rate.

Fact:  EVERYTHING here is more expensive.  The exchange rates been between .91 to .92 AUD to 1.00 USD, but in terms of purchasing power, its more like 1.20 to 1.20 AUD to 1.00 USD. 

 Grocery store trip on day 1 to get milk, cereal,eggs, english muffins and coffee = $50.  Ticket to ride the train, tram or bus (once) = $3.70.  Daily lunch my first week at the office at local cafes = $18-20.  Mixed nuts on Friday night at a wine bar in the CBD = $8.  Pair of black shoes (from Payless!) to tide Steve over while he waits for the air shipment with our supplementary clothes to get here = $80.

Arriving with an expectation to save some money on housing (or at least not continue to shell out the atronomincal monthly rent payments we’d endured in D.C.), we’ve also realized that, although there are generally apartments available in a cheaper price range than what we paid in D.C.: (1) they look like they haven’t been tended to or possibly cleaned since 1980, (2) the floorplans are clearly made for midgets, or at least people under 5’5″ and with two-seater couches (certainly not super-tall folks like us who have a queen bed and wrap-around L-shaped couch), (3) there’s about 40-50 other people putting in an application for the same place, and (4) there’s no way in heck they’ll take animals (since its cheap, and they’ve got 50-60 other interested tenants who don’t have bothersome pets).  More about the all-consuming task that is apartment hunting to come…

At least, lucky for us, the wine is super cheap (and good!)

 #6)  Fact:  There are no shower curtains in Melbourne.  Prior to arriving, my contacts in Melbourne had tried, unsuccessfully but not for any lack of explanation on their end (just incomprehension on my end), to explain that there are no shower curtains in Melbourne.  Instead, a strange half-wall of glass was described.  I inquired, “Do you mean a shower stall, you know, enclosed glass?” “Can I bring a shower rod and curtain?”  The answer to both was negative, and I settled for a temporary state of bewilderment and air of mystery until our arrival. 

Fact:  Confirmed, I have seen the half-wall and it seems that there are precious few showers in Melbourne adorned with curtains.  

Really it’s not that bad, so long as you can get used to flattening yourself along the wall with the shower head nozzle and the remnants of excess shampoo in your hair all day long (as flailing arm movements necessary to vigorously apply or remove shampoo are a disaster, spraying water all over the floor and walls, not to mention your clean and formerly dry towel).  Every morning after we shower, we hang the bath mat up to dry.  Still, a number of apartments we’ve searched and viewed seem to have either a fully enclosed shower stall or a shower curtain, which earns the apartment an automatic plus in our book.

#7) Myth:  Toilets in Australia flush in the opposite direction as toilets in the U.S. 

My first Aussie toilet experience was in Sydney, and in childish fashion, I admittedly watched with glee to see whether my favorite childhood TV show was right:  do toilets in America (N. hemisphere) drain counterclockwise, while toilets in the S. hemisphere (i.e., Australia) drain clockwise?  To my dismay, the water went straight down.  Undeterred, I checked again when we arrived at our apartment at the Caroline… counterclockwise it was.  My two toilet viewings left me with no real consensus on this myth, particularly as I can’t remember which direction my toilet in D.C. drained.  (A more academic review will confirm the falsehood of the myth, particularly the bit about the Coriolis effect causing directional drainage.  Lisa is a smart little girl, but she missed the mark on this one.)

(to be determined: whether dingoes eat babies, the PM lounges naked in Lake Burley Griffin, and whether booting is a sanctioned punishment for under the Australian penal code.)

#8) Myth:  Melbourne is the fashion-capital of Australia. 

If “fashion” is all-black attire, tight pants or jean shorts over black leggings and tucked into boots, lots of bow hair accessories and gloves with cut fingers (i.e., hobo gloves), then I’m going to need a whole new wardrobe.  For women, think a slightly tamed Cyndi Lauper; men, John Cusack in Say Anything meets Matthew Broderick’s Ferris Bueller. 

#9) Fact:  Aussie Rules Football rules.  Our first weekend here we passed the jet-lagged afternoons in awe at the total chaos that is the game of footy.  Aussie Rules Football is a cross between soccer, football, rugby and/or wrestling, and at times, even basketball.  Players can kick, shovel pass, punt, head butt and dribble the ball, and tackle, grapple, shove, punch (or so it appears, so long as they don’t go for the face) and otherwise physically assault the other players.   It’s a quasi-amateur sport and any amalgamated private band of players can form a club, and the fans are die-hard, decked out in the colors of their favorite team.  It’s fantastically captivating; needless to say, we’re both hooked. 

#10) Fact:  Australians are super nice.  As any native Bostonian knows, you keep your head down, your mouth shut and mind your own &*$% business, thank you very much.  When I first moved to North Carolina, I was put off by all the nosy people–the gall at asking where I was from, what I did, what were my plans for the day (and this was just at the checkout at the local grocery store).  Gradually, though, I came to appreciate this cordial human interaction. 

Well, we are happy to report that  Melburnians give Southerners a run for their money!  Everyone we’ve met so far has been super nice, telling us about the city, what it’s like to live here, how to navigate the train/tram system, and refrains of “cheers” and “no worries” abound wherever we go.  I could definitely get used to a city like this.