Nine Things I Learned About Australia

Where you can (and can’t) touch a koala

My wife and I just spent a few days in Australia. What a great place. Expensive as all get-out right now, but still a swell destination for the curious. Obviously it's all quite huge and there's lots to see, but we got enough of a "sampling" of the country for me to make the following nine observations. I'll bet you didn't know that:

  1. No one says "G'day, mate". Well, I did hear one guy at the airport bark it into his cell phone. But otherwise, Aussies mostly rely on the ever-popular "Hi".
  2. No one drinks Foster's. Despite the years of advertising to Americans that Foster's is "Australian for beer", I saw this brand absolutely nowhere in Australia. Must be an export-only thing. (Apparently it is huge in the UK.) However, the Foster's Group also brews Carlton Crown Lager and Victoria Bitter, both highly popular brands Down Under.
  3. All about platypuses. We splurged a little outside of Melbourne and paid for the privilege of wading into a platypus tank (with a trainer), and got really up-close with these elusive and fascinating mammals. Here's what I learned about them: First, they're much smaller than you'd imagine - adults are just about 12 inches in length, from duck-like bill to beaver-like tail. They're also very playful and cute. The males are the only venomous mammal in the world. The females lay eggs (the echidna, also an Australian native, is the only other mammal to do so). Surprisingly, they're not endangered. And thus far, you can't see a platypus outside of Australia. They are high-maintenance and somewhat fragile, and can't survive being transported for more than a few hours.
  4. Where you can touch a koala and where you can't. We were in three of Australia's seven (or is it eight?) states. In Victoria and New South Wales, for some reason it is not allowed to hug or pet a koala unless you are a professional animal handler. However, in Queensland you can! So if it's your lifelong dream to give a koala a cuddle, then head to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary outside Brisbane - but I warn you, koala fur is rough and spongy like lamb's wool, not soft and smooth as you might think.
  5. You (probably) need a visa to enter. As an American citizen, I've long taken for granted the easy entry to most other first world countries. Unless it's somewhere weird like Russia or China, you just buy a plane ticket and go! So I was surprised to learn that, to visit Oz, you need to get a special visa called an "Electronic Travel Authority" - provided you're American, Canadian, or from one of several Asian countries. You buy it online through an Aussie government site, and you pay $20 per person. As it only takes about a minute to do, I'm convinced it's basically a legal means of scamming the country's most likely tourists. (New Zealanders don't need a visa at all, and European visitors have their own "eVisitor" visa, which doesn't cost a penny. What's up with that? Someone from Omaha or Seoul has to shell out 20 bucks, but someone from Zurich or Oslo gets a free ride?)
  6. Bathroom terminology. Every English language country seems to have its own term for public restrooms. In the US, we usually say "men's room" and ladies' room". In Australia, the bathrooms are almost nearly universally branded as the rather clinical "male toilet" and "female toilet". Also, urinals in men's rooms are often just the old-fashioned troughs, or else they hang side by side with no barriers between them. Aussie guys don't suffer from bashful bladder syndrome, I guess!
  7. American English is taking over. Allegedly, because of the ubiquity of American television and movies in Australia, younger Aussies are adopting more American English expressions, as the old British influence dies out. So "chips" are becoming "fries", "trousers" are becoming "pants" (the word still means "underpants" in the UK), "aubergine" is now "eggplant" and "courgette" is now "zucchini". Though the Aussies do say "beetroot", "capsicum", and "rocket" instead of "beet", "bell pepper", and "arugula", respectively.
  8. Halloumi everywhere. Speaking of food, I am not at all sure why this salty, chewy Cyprus cheese is so big in Oz, but I saw it on just about every restaurant menu that I came across. It's typically fried and served warm, accompanying everything from salads to sandwiches to pizzas.
  9. Sydney Opera House is covered in little multi-colored tiles. Well, by "multi-colored" I mean "off-white and cream". But when you only see this structure from afar, you might think it consists of huge sheets of steel, concrete, or whatever. Up close you will see that it's made of a bunch of criss-crossing little tiles, each just a bit bigger than your hand.