The Alternate Universe of Australia

Somewhere towards the end of the last century, my family and I visited London. We happened upon the “Millennium Dome” (apparently, we were among the few tourists who did) and watched a show, “Back and Forth”, while in the attraction. The stars of the show were the cast of the “Black Adder” series including Rowan Atkins, Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie and Steven Fry. Robinson, the least known of the cast, plays “Baldrick” in the Black Series, one of my favorite characters of all time.

In “Back and Forth”, Blackadder and Baldrick travel back in the past and accidentally kill the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. They also meet Shakespeare and ask him for his autograph. When they return to the present, everything is similar but not quite: the world speaks French and Shakespeare is remembered as “that clever fellow that invented the ball point pen” (they’d left theirs behind).

This is what Australia is to the US: a parallel universe where things are almost the same but not quite. We both speak English (differently than the English), we both have dollars and we both play a game called “football” that differs from the game that everyone else calls “football”. Both countries are large and sparsely occupied. Both are isolated from the rest of the world (well, we have Canada and Mexico; they have New Zealand and Antarctica). Both were colonized by outcasts and refugees from Europe. There are many other similarities. It is sometimes easy to forget that one is in Australia instead of California.

Other times, however, I forget that I’m in Australia and I think I’m in Sweden or Denmark. The cities have grand architecture. There is great public transportation and the pedestrian boulevards are large and numerous. Cafes and pubs are everywhere.

There is no tobacco advertising anywhere. At 7-11, the cigarettes are hidden behind white cabinet doors with signs urging smokers to quit. A pack of Marlboroughs can set you back $15.

The drinking age is 18.

This is a young population. You see many families with 3 kids. On Fridays and Saturdays, the night clubs are jam packed with what seem to be 15 year olds (probably, 20, but it’s a matter of perspective; from mine, the look like they’re 15).

There are not a lot of people of color here. Most cities have large Asian populations and many businesses that cater to Asian tourists but you see very few blacks and browns in the street.

People are extremely friendly (even by Washington state standards).

You have to drive on the left side of the street.

It is my premise that Americans are fundamentally optimistic because the country was populated by people fleeing repressive societies or ones with limited economic prospects. We came here because we believed that this place would be better and that we would enjoy more freedom and opportunity. Frequently, we risked our lives and all our belongings to pursue this conviction.

I think Australia is much the same. The early convicts certainly had prospects for a better life! The subsequent settlers were driven by many of the same dreams as their American counterparts.

Alas, when comparing things, one tends to notice the differences in addition to the similarities. Australia’s youth, both historically and demographically, manifests itself as a society that still sees itself on the rise. Much of Australia is still undeveloped and sparsely populated. China is their largest trade partner and a frequent investor in the country. For the most part, Australia weathered the recent economic storms with little damage.

I suspect few Americans would voice the same optimism. I am hopeful that the economy will improve and that, eventually, we will solve our debt problems, but I am doubtful that we’ll ever see the growth and hubris of the early 90’s. I am doubtful that we can overcome the reality of increasingly properous countries (China, India, Brazil) that will diminish our influence in the world. I am not surprised to see young people here leaving for other countries in the hopes of finding better opportunities. After all, those “nomad genes” are a fundamental part of our American identity.