I’m just back from a three-week trip to Melbourne, Australia, where I traveled to visit the family of friends and get a taste of a new city. I’ve visited the city just once before and had a wonderful time, and this trip was fantastic too. It was just delicious to get some relaxation away from all screens and devices and spend my days eating and walking and exploring. There was nothing fantastically exotic that I saw in Melbourne, besides a trip to the zoo; it is a distinctly familiar city to me, because Australian culture has so much in common with American culture. Specifically, the city of Melbourne has so much overlap with the city of Boston.
You can start with the size of the city, which at a few million, is right around Boston’s size. As an American, you’ll also be surprised to see all the usual fast food places you know lining the busy, pedestrian-friendly streets. (KFC, for one, is huge there for some reason, but you don’t get biscuits — you get chips, a.k.a. American fries). The Australian accent even shares some commanalities with a Boston accent, with its broad a’s and dropped r’s. You’d “pahk your cah” in both Boston and Melbourne. More than that, though, there’s a kind of cultural vibe that Boston and Melbourne just might share; a friendliness, business, and hopping intellectual life that I saw evidence of. We’re both small, but we act cosmopolitan.
Australia and the United States should get along pretty well, because they’re both the slightly coarser, bumpkin cousins of Great Britain, though Australia holds its ties to Britain much closer. Most of the television is British, as is the interest in British celebrities. Some people I hung out with knew all the details of the royal family, for example, whereas I think most Americans don’t know more than the queen and her direct descendants. Australia maintains a close cultural handshake with Great Britain, whereas a lot of America is disdainful or uneasy of any connection to England.
There were perhaps only two major differences I saw in my brief tourist’s view of this lovely city; the first was the proliferation of Asian culture and cuisine, and the second was something more intangible. Because of its proximity to Asia, Australia has benefitted from the things that Asian immigrants have brought with them. Just as Mexican food is accessible and known everywhere in America, Vietnamese, Thai, and Malaysian food is cheap, ubiquitous, and delicious in Melbourne. You can get fast food or street food from most countries of Asia on every street corner.
The second difference might be the most fundamental shift from American to Australian life. From the little I’ve seen, and from what I’ve heard when I questioned Aussies, it seems that Aussies are far more laid-back than Americans. There’s a certain calm, friendly laisse-faire attitude that fills every part of life. Americans are certainly casual about some things, but we are very heated and violently polarized about others. Politics are deadly serious and can divide the nation sharply. The whole time I was in Australia, the people I saw didn’t get too fussed about anything, even when they didn’t approve of the government’s latest doings. It’s a great place to spend a vacation for that reason — it’s just hard to rile the typical Aussie character.
The mirror image of Boston was presented to me in other ways, too — I happened to be there right in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave. I was watching matches of the Australian Open on a 112-degree day. I’d never felt such extreme heat; it was hard to breathe, and impossible to keep my clothes from getting soaked in sweat. This was at pretty much the same time that Boston was struggling through record-breaking lows in the temperature. Go figure.
There were a few moments of startling discrimination that came from some drunk train passengers, but you can find that kind of attitude in America as well. Again, the attitudes of Americans and Australians seem closely intertwined. It’s funny to think of a brother city, a parallel Boston, or a parallel Melbourne, almost exactly around the world.