The curse of swearing like a foreigner

WARNING: This post contains swearwords. But so did the most popular blog post I’ve ever written, so either deal with it or move on…

My love of appropriate swearing – no, that’s not an oxymoron – has been documented before. I thought I knew the whole lexicon. So you can imagine how excited I was to discover a whole new swearword: shithouse.

At first I wasn’t actually sure whether it meant good or bad. Was it the Aussie’s sense of irony at play? But a quick scan of the Urban Dictionary revealed that it was far more straightforward than that. It definitely means bad.

But much as I love the word, there is a problem with it. I just sound ridiculous saying it.

Maybe it’s because I’m female. It sounds totally natural when spoken by an Aussie man, which of course is where I first heard it. The example of usage given in the Urban Dictionary is perhaps a giveaway: Fuck me, I lost my right testicle! That is shithouse. Frankly, I can’t see when I’d ever use that combination of words, in that order.

Or maybe it’s my Scottish accent. While my accent has definitely got a bit milder in the two decades that I’ve been away from Scotland, the only people who can’t tell that I’m Scottish are those who assume I’m Irish (‘What part of Ireland are you from?’ ‘Er, the part that’s in Scotland…’). Indeed, there are some who still think I sound like Billy Connolly. An Australian colleague’s wife commented on how broad I sounded when she first met me; I felt like turning into the Scottish linguistic equivalent of Crocodile Dundee and introducing her to my relatives and schoolfriends: ‘That’s not an accent. That’s an accent!’

And as anyone who has ever watched anyone from Scotland depicted in a TV drama, swearing is (apparently) what our accents were designed for…although I fear it only extends to our native words.

I’d never want to change the way I speak permanently. Not only would it mean losing my identity, but it would also not go down well with my Scottish compatriots. Just ask Sheena Easton. But it would be nice to sound a bit less Scottish when it mattered – like in my Spanish oral exam at university, or when I need to use the dialect of where I live, rather than where I’m from. In Bristol, I always sounded like I was taking the mickey when I hopped off a bus with a friendly ‘Cheers Drive!’ in my approximation of a West Country accent and in Australia, I can’t say ‘shithouse’ without sounding like it’s a word I’ve never, ever said before.

And that really is shithouse.






Happy new year!

What to wear on Australia Day

What to wear on Australia Day

It’s been a while since I’ve been down this way. Is there anybody there? Or have you all wandered off while I’ve been away? I wouldn’t blame you if you did. In fact, if you’re in Australia, you probably have been away.

For in Australia, not a lot happens between December and February. The country takes a siesta, a snooze, a sojourn. Sure, some people return to work immediately after new year, but they don’t really do very much those first few weeks. At least not anything that involves other people, because most of them are on holiday.

No, the Australian start to the new year actually comes on January 27 – the day after Australia Day. On the 26th, the nation rouses itself from whatever it’s been doing for the previous month and prepares for the start of the new year proper by wrapping itself in the Australian flag, drinking VB and listening to Daryl Braithwaite. Every year there are (in my view, very valid) calls for Australia Day to be moved to another date to avoid the annual tradition of rubbing the Aboriginals’ noses in the fact the Europeans invaded, but somehow the sentiment is lost amid boozed-up beachside barbecues and firework displays strangely reminiscent of the ones staged just three weeks before for New Year.

And then on the 27th, everyone returns to the office and the real work starts.

This month-long hiatus in normal activity is a challenge for the incomer who’s not completely adapted to Australian living. For most Aussies, the combination of summer weather and enforced holidays for Christmas is the perfect excuse to head to the coast or to the country. Camp sites are packed and holiday homes booked out at premium rates.

But for this new Australian, it’s just a bit too much excitement in one go. Used to splitting my leisure time between what what passes for summer in the UK and the cold, dark, Christmassy Christmas break, I can’t seem to get my head round blending the two. I like to separate my summer holiday from my Christmas one by around six months, give or take a week. The upshot is that here, I end up neither fully enjoying Christmas nor a mid-year holiday. Despite trying to maintain some of my northern hemisphere Christmas traditions – gorging on DVD box sets and chocolate – I still struggle to feel festive in Oz. It’s too sunny to see the lights on the tree, goddammit. And taking a holiday in June or July is less fun when you’re faced with the worst weather of the year and you can’t just book a £25 Easyjet flight to Spain to escape.

So I take my allotted 10 days off work, potter about, then go back to work as soon as they’ll let me. Got to earn the cash to get me to the European summer somehow.




Home delivery

Every migrant misses something from their homeland. For Brits, Bisto and Marks and Spencer often top the list.

For me, it’s prawn cocktail crisps – and letterboxes.

Yes, I miss having a slot in my front door through which mail and newspapers can be pushed.

In Australia, if you have a front garden, you don’t have a letterbox in your front door. Instead, like in much of the US, each house has a postbox on the front boundary. It saves the postie a trip up your garden path, a time-saver that was probably quite important when the majority of houses were built on large blocks.

We have a nice black metal mailbox. Like most, it has a handy cylinder attached where large letters and newspapers can be left. Newspapers for delivery come shrink-wrapped in cellophane, a tight tube of newsprint ideally sized for slipping into said cylinder.

Our mailbox

Our mailbox

So why is it that every Saturday and Sunday morning, the newspaper I ordered can never be found in this custom-made receptacle, but instead ends up tucked behind a bush, or rolled under the car? I’ve never actually seen it being delivered but I can only guess it is thrown from a moving vehicle to save time. The missing top of one of my solar garden lights suggests the thrower has the strength, if not the aim, of Mitchell Johnson.

But even if the paper was left in the logical place, the cellophane wrapping causes another problem. The newsprint is so tightly curled that I need to spend 10 minutes trying to flatten it out before I can read it. I’ve mostly given up now, choosing to leave the pages under a heavy book for a few days before catching up on the weekend’s news midweek. I have actually considered cancelling my subscription and walking to the shop to buy a paper when I want one instead, knowing it will be nice and flat.

They say the newspaper industry is dying. Here’s a thought for the executives desperately trying to revive it: maybe it’s not just the fault of the internet…




The only way is up

When I left my old job in Bristol, England, to move to Australia, one colleague was more envious than most. G and her husband J had been toying with the idea of moving to Oz for a while, but kept putting it off for various (eminently sensible) reasons.

Now, they’ve finally made the leap and joined us in Melbourne. They are making good progress in sorting out their new life, which they are reporting on through G’s excellent blog. But today G is having a bad day. The previous tenants of the rental property she and her family have just moved into turned out to be grubby types, and it’s getting tiring sleeping on camping mattresses. First world problems, maybe, but problems most migrants will identify with. I certainly do.

For the first few weeks after the Silver Fox and I landed in Australia, we moved from holiday let to holiday let, unable to find anything longer term that suited. The first was fine, except for the infestation of millipedes that I would find curled up like tiny, crunchy Cumberland sausages everywhere – including, one evening, in our bed. The second had nicer decor (and a washing machine!) but only a bed to sit on – and you couldn’t see the TV from it. By the time we moved to the third, I had a contract at a university and was working from ‘home’, which meant editing on a netbook on a rusting garden table that we’d moved in from the small balcony.

Millipedes: not my ideal housemates

Millipedes: not my ideal housemates

The Silver Fox had a job to go to the Monday after we landed. I got one too, following an interview the day after we arrived, but it didn’t start until a few weeks later. This meant I was left in charge of setting up the things that make life easy: phones, broadband, health insurance, Medicare… I hate dealing with corporations at the best of times, but after a few days of doing little else I was broken. As yet another call centre worker told me I really should pay the highest health insurance premium “because it’s all about peace of mind”, I cracked. I put the phone down, I wept, and when my eyes dried I rang the Silver Fox and told him he would have to do it. I couldn’t take any more.

But once the basics were taken care of, and we had moved into more permanent accommodation, things did get easier. There were still moments of intense frustration with Australia, as I struggled to live by a set of unwritten rules no-one had ever taught me, and got tired of everything just being so hard. The lowest point was an appointment with a GP at the local health centre, when I needed a repeat prescription for something I’d had in the UK. After a wait of two hours (something I had never even experienced on the NHS, and yet I was paying for this!) I finally saw the doctor, who chastised me for not having made an early morning appointment when I just wanted a repeat prescription, and made me feel like a stupid child for not totally understanding what medicines were available in Australia and exactly how Medicare worked.

Packing it all in and going home wasn’t an option for us, so I focussed on the positive. Despite my naturally pessimistic character, there were many things to be positive about. I now had the opportunity to see Paul Kelly play regularly. I found a great dentist who (admittedly for the price of a medium-sized luxury yacht filled with gold bars and steered by a diamond-studded wheel) sorted out my NHS-ravaged teeth. And at my first proper job, I met some great people with whom I am still friends today. (I also met the most rigid bureaucracy I have ever encountered, a fair amount of bullying by senior staff and a dash of good old-fashioned racism, but that’s another story.)

Five years on, and having moved to the city I should have lived in all along, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I’m still not in a rush to review my health insurance options, but I’ve got an amazing GP and I know where to go for the cheapest prescriptions. I know how to find a Justice of the Peace for those times when a piece of paper just has to be witnessed by someone you’ve never met before for no apparent reason and I understand why you can’t find out how much something costs on certain retail websites without entering your postcode first. And although we’ve now bought our own place, I learned to accept the limitations of our last rental while charming the letting agent into getting the biggest problems fixed.

I feel your pain, G and J, I really do. But you’re going to have to trust me on this one. When you’re at your lowest point, remember there’s only one way you can go.





Music to move to

According to research reported this week, listening to In Da Club by 50 Cent before a job interview can increase your chances of success.

When the Silver Fox was offered the interview that would eventually lead to our move to Australia, music did play a part – although there was no rapping involved.

He had to drive to a venue on the other side of town to be interviewed via video-conference. I knew he’d be nervous and wanted to calm him down. And I also wanted him to get the job.

While we hadn’t actually agreed that we would move if he was offered it, we agreed it would be nice to have the choice.

So the night before, I sneaked out to the car and put a copy of Paul Kelly‘s album Gossip in the CD player. And when the Silver Fox started the engine the following morning, this is what he heard: Kelly’s love song to Melbourne, Leaps and Bounds.

True, we were headed to Perth, not Melbourne. And the job itself was in the Western Australian suburb of Kwinana, known in polite circles as a lower socio-economic area, famed for the industrial plants along its shoreline, rather than one of the world’s most liveable cities with world-class sporting facilities as name-checked in Kelly’s song.

But the sentiment was right, and it did the trick. Two months later we were in Australia, and we did finally make it to Melbourne – without any help from 50 Cent.





The joy of the incidental visitor

Welcome MatWhen you leave one side of the world for the other, you know that you will never see some people again. It’s a harsh reality of expat life: you invite everyone to come and visit you in your new home, and everyone promises they will, but it doesn’t happen. Money, family…LIFE gets in the way.

Close family will come, if you’re lucky, but there is no guarantee. Surely it would be better for you to come here, they say. You can see everyone that way, and you’re used to the long flight, not like us. Wouldn’t you rather come back than put us up for a month? We don’t want to impose.

So while our spare room is the only room in our house that is propery finished, it’s also the least-used. We’ve only had one set of ‘proper’ family visitors in the five years since we migrated, and they’ve made it clear that they have no intention of coming back. If we want to see them again, Mohamed will have to go to the mountain.

But while our nearest and dearest expend their energy on getting us back to Blighty, we’ve discovered that many other people we know do travel to Australia, usually to visit family of their own. And what has been fantastic is that they often take the opportunity to spend a little time with us.

Our first ‘incidental visitor’ – a former work colleague of the Silver Fox – called on us just months after we moved, during a visit to family in Perth. Another making a similar trip followed soon after. And in a couple of months we will meet an old journalist friend (and former boss) of mine for dinner. It’s been 15 years since I left the paper we both worked on, and almost as long since we’ve spoken. But he’s coming out to Australia to visit others, remembered I was in Melbourne and decided to look me up. I’m looking forward to it already.

These brief get-togethers are an opportunity to share a little of our new life, catch up on some gossip and hear a familiar accent. For at least some of the visitors, I’m sure we have provided some respite from family business, and the endless cups of tea which punctuate visits to overseas relatives.

So should you wish to pop in, for an hour, a day or a week, you’ll be very welcome. But beware the risks – one of these incidental visitors is bringing her family back to Melbourne in a few weeks, to stay for good.

Losing a language

Scots dialect tablematsI read a story on the BBC website recently about people who had lost fluency in their own language. At first the idea seemed ridiculous, particularly as I work with words. Surely I could never forget what they mean, no matter how embedded in another culture I become?

But even although I have spoken English all my life – a few years at night school practising tortured Spanish aside – it did make me wonder if my travels had had an impact on the way I speak.

I grew up in Scotland, but never considered myself to have a particularly strong accent; not did I use a lot of Scots dialect. So the people in my home town might have had accents broad enough to warrant English subtitles on a film set there, but with the naivety of anyone who had never travelled far, I assumed that I’d always be understood. With a mother from the west of Scotland and a father from the east, I’d never developed the intensely localised vocabulary of either community. I was also a bit of a snob, associating true Scots dialect with the working class of which I was most definitely part, but which I was keen to escape. I remember finding a dialect dictionary in the university library and gleefully searching for the words I’d heard my mum use a million times, but which sounded strange on my own, aspiring middle class lips. Continue reading

Catfish – the Australian edition

One of my favourite shows on TV at the moment is Catfish. It’s a documentary series made for MTV about people who met online, but have never met in real life. The show brings them together, which usually involves an interstate road trip, and as you might expect, not everyone is who or what they claim to be online.

On a superficial level I love it because of the handsome and engaging host, Nev Schulman. While other women swoon over rock stars and actors, documentary makers seem to be my thing. You can keep Brad Pitt: I’ll take Louis Theroux any day. But it’s not just Nev’s perfect American teeth and luxuriant chest hair – which seems to make an appearance more often than is strictly necessary for a documentary –  that keep me tuning in. Nor is it his endless optimism and complete lack of cynicism (“Sure! So you told Vanessa that you were a male model with a Lamborghini  and a Calvin Klein contract and you’re actually an 18-year-old girl who lives with her mom in a trailer in Wisconsin. But hey, maybe you can still be friends!”).

Nev Schulman

Nev Schulman, possibly the nicest man on television

No, I watch because I cannot believe that people can build relationships as deep as they claim to have without ever having seen each other. Some talk daily by telephone, all are heavy users of Facebook chat and texting, but despite their love of technology and apparently generous data allowance, none of them have ever had a video chat on Skype. They are prepared to propose marriage, and plan the children they will have together, all on the basis of a voice and some Facebook pictures. Continue reading

Footy fever

HawksNow that I’m Australian, I have to do Australian things. And that means going to the footy.

AFL is as much a part of life in Melbourne as trams and hipster baristas. If you meet someone new, you can be pretty sure they will ask you who you barrack for (note: never support, always barrack for) early in the conversation. If you don’t have a team you’re considered a bit odd.

So I got myself a team pretty sharpish: Hawthorn FC. Contrary to popular belief, this wasn’t because they win a lot. Nor was it because I find their brown and gold strip particularly attractive (I much prefer Port Adelaide’s black and teal ensemble). No, it was a practical decision. The Silver Fox had sworn allegiance to Hawthorn more than 20 years ago when he saw them play on his first visit to Oz. While he would argue that I am not inclined to follow his advice on much else, he knows his football, so I decided it would be simplest to tell people that I, too, barrack for the Hawks. Continue reading

Welcome to Australia?

Not taken at my ceremony. Picture Glenelg Shire Council.

Not taken at my ceremony. If only I’d lived in Glenelg Shire, I’d have got a plant.

In the four years while I waited to qualify for Australian citizenship, I’d occasionally imagine what my ceremony would be like. I’d read about them – jolly events where the latest batch of immigrants celebrated their newly-earned Aussieness amongst family and friends. I’d heard tales of sausage sizzles and gifts of trees, of handshakes from Mayors and enthusiastic flag-waving.

And even although I told everyone I was really only upgrading my permanent residency to citizenship so that I could vote and choose the appropriate passport for the shortest queue at the airport, I was still a little bit excited about taking the pledge. Continue reading