Dienstag, 17. Februar 2015

The Travelogue, Part XLI - Straya, Mate!

After having been in Australia for a month now I figured it would be appropriate to sum up my impressions. They are based purely on my experiences in Melbourne, Sydney and their surroundings and unlikely to be representative for anything but these major cities. Since Australia is one of the most urbanised country in the world, however, it is probably fair to say that my experiences might be to some degree applicable to a large part of Australians. I'll be keeping my travel musing to the end of the trip as usual, just so much said: I love it here.

Identity struggles

One of the first things that struck me while traveling here is a certain obsession with everything foreign. While Australia’s identity seems to be pretty distinct to most foreign onlookers (you know, surfers, kangaroos and all), its inhabitants seem to feel a lot less so. In fact, I’ve never been to a place whether people’s idea of what makes their national identity is so shaky. Australia is a very young nation, and as such did not have a lot of time to develop a unique and consistent culture of its own. Or at least it seems to me that’s what the Australians themselves think. Otherwise I cannot explain why the highest pedigrees Australians seem to label their surroundings with are EVERYTHING BUT Australian.

I've heard these frequently, for example:

“Australia’s great because we got the best Thai/Japanese/Asian food."
"You can skip the Australian exhibition, go to the [insert random foreign country] one."
“Melbourne is great, it’s so European!”

Anything labeled 'Australian' is often equivalented to being backwards, rural and of lower quality, and even the more conservative countrysiders seem to take the label with a certain sense of irony.

If anything, Australia seems to define itself by its nature. In all national museums I have been at here, the sections about local wildlife are exceptionally large, and a conversation with an Autralian seems to inevitable include some reference to the Bush in some fashion. I guess when the even the key event of your nation’s forming happens in some border island in countryside Turkey some 10000 miles away, then hopping marsupials and over-sized birds are all you’ve got left to make your birthplace stand out.

The Australian Coat of Arms

 In all fairness, Australia did not have an easy ride. When the Dutch first mapped the continent, they hated it in a way that only the Dutch can hate. From derogatory place names (“Rats’ Nest Island”) to marooning sailors on its coast as punishment, they clearly did not deem it a desirable place to live.

The same was true for the British, who decided it was a great location to export all its unwanted citizens to (a time-honoured practice Australia now emulates by sending its illegal immigrants to desolate Pacific islands), setting the first foundation for modern Australian identity: that of the criminal. People who can trace their ancestry back to an original convict do so with glee, and being the descendant of a certified sheep thief or con man is a badge of honour and testament to your Australian-ness.

When Australia abolished its “White Australia” policy in 1966, thousands of immigrants flocked to its shores, changing Australia’s society forever. When you walk through the big cities, it often seems as if half of Australia is Asian, and Pan-Asian culture is well integrated in society through arts, culture, and of course food. Australian cuisine, when heralded, is usually a Euro-Asian fusion mix, and locals seem to be quite proud of the quality and variety that these newer Australians have brought to their streets and dining tables.

Despite a certain amount of Americanization it seems that Australia looks to (northern) Europe as a guiding beacon for its cultural identity, and often people seem to be filled with a almost wistful longing for an imagined Europe that is filled with diversity and wonders. Going there once seems to be an expected wish list item of fundamental importance to one’s understanding of their own heritage, as if Australia would be an inferior derivative of a cool and totally happening other country.

The Pan-European Quality Control approves.
Er, Franco-Germanic Italo-Skandie Cafe?

Ironically, most Australians do not seem to be aware that Australia has established itself as a lifestyle brand abroad, with Australian coffee, cosmetics, fusion food and clothing becoming trendier every year. Australia’s excellent self-marketing has led many foreigners to believe that this is a country of beautiful, liberal, eco-conscious, life-savouring free spirits. There is a wondrous transformation that most young foreigners here undergo, turning full Aussie as soon as they come across their first surf shop, showing the lasting effects of that marketing. Unlike America, Australia has so far mostly avoided being connected with its appalling refugee policies, extensive environmental destruction and sky-rocketing obesity rate in the global public eye.

In a somewhat haphazard attempt to include the Aboriginal population into what makes the Australian identity, there are also many projects, displays and notes informing visitors of original place names, sites of significance and cultural artifacts relating to Australia’s pre-colonial inhabitants. While these efforts are admittedly in their infancy, I personally find them quite forced. It might be fashionable and appear ethno-conscious to re-adopt indigenous place names and craftwork, yet I find it is still a very white man’s definition of what aboriginal art and culture is allowed to be, and have seen little that hints to a true mingling and pollination of the two heritages.

Courtesy of Wikipages

Among all this it sometimes seems to me that Australians forget that they don’t have to look elsewhere for cultural identity, but have the unique opportunity to shape a future society of their own. When Tony Abbott reinsituted the Australian Knighthood in 2014 it seemed to me that there was definitely a feeling that Australia was a country of importance. Yet there was no idea of what exactly it was, no new collaborative future vision of what this country is to be, and so it again emulated the old. The same is true for the flag raising ceremony on Australia Day, which never quite manages to marry British-style imperial pomp with the low key beach bum rebel vibe of Aussie fame. I mean, you're playing a song about a suicidal sheep thief when your leading politician ascends to the podium on national day -  way to go Australia!

One might argue that Australians are too chilled to worry about such things such as national values and future societies, and that that might be a good thing. But then again, I'd wager it's that mixture of colonial melancholia and easy-going apathy that got them Tony Abbot.

Sonntag, 1. Februar 2015

The Travelogue Homefront Edition - Nine Ways to Survive London

So you've moved? Great! London is a city full of amazing wonders, and you will have the time of your life, guaranteed. There are however some pitfalls that, while not necessarily unique to London, have the potential to make your life difficult. These nine tips aim to prepare you for some of the inevitable that comes with living in England's capital.

The Rule of No Thermopylae



This ain’t Sparta, and you are not here to defend a mountain pass. If you need to stop and check for directions, whether it be map or phone, move away from any crossings, funnels or exits, unless you want to unleash the righteous hate of London’s fast-moving population upon your inconsiderate ass. Always remember that you are blocking them, and it costs you little conscious effort to just step out of the way before you find your bearings. Learn from Bruce Lee: good peripheral vision is the key to successful navigation in the urban jungle.

Also, there's a special place in hell for those people who try to get into the tube by standing in front of the doors, blocking everyone from leaving the carriage. Let someone from NYC illustrate that for me:

And for God's sake, stand on the right when on the escalators.

Assume every journey to take at least 30 minutes


Sounds like a silly rule? It’s the rule that will make you be on time, trust me. Unless your destination is just a short walk away, there is no such thing as a quick ride in London. If it claims to take 15 minutes, just assume it to take 30 instead. Double all estimations if you need to catch a flight. London transport (including in- and outwards) has the habit of unpredictably altering or delaying your journeys, and you don't want to let your friends wait.

By the way, Google Maps is way better for fast and reliable public transport queries in London than its official travel planner, TFL.

Expect Everyone to Be Busy

Every city has its own vibe and population. As opposed Berlin or Barcelona, the majority of people come to London for career reasons. This, combined with Miss London’s relentless demands on your wallet will have a profound effect on your social life, and one that you should be aware of.

Finding new friends in this town is easy. Seeing them again and often enough is where the trouble lies. People tend to work long hours and be additionally occupied with a variety of social calls. If you or your friends work in a high lifetime-cost job such as trading, expect to need to call their PA so you can arrange to have a drink with them in a week’s time. If you are used to having a close-knit inner circle of friends you better prepare for a lot of hard work. Some people cope with this by adding a lot of reliable activities to their schedule to make sure that they have some steady gig to go to, but that in turn makes them more busy and hence less available - you get the drift.

The Menu and the NBT

At one point in your London stay your plans will fall victim to the New Best Thing (NBT). The NBT is just cooler, funner or can simply be reached with less hassle than your happening. In a city this size, opportunity is just so much more plentiful, and people will often leave deciding on where to go to the last minute. Be prepared for people to RSVP and not arrive. Or to fall victim to that show that everyone’s talking about and that has its last run today. Or one of their other friends is permanently leaving the country and they have to see them off. The best way to deal with this is to either always invite a little more people than you’d like or be equally flexible and move your own party to wherever the NBT is.

Because there is so much cool stuff on, many Londoners will gather a selection of competing weekend items to then make a decision where to go. If someone asks you what you are up to, it does not necessarily mean ‘let’s hang out’. It’s a menu call. If you provide the best item, you become the NBT on the menu. If you don’t, you will have to look for someone new or join whatever the NBT is. Don’t fret about this, just keep your plans flexible and accept that people will shop around before they make a decision. If you are the very sociable kind, you can become a menu master, meaning you have enough gravitational pull to ensure that you are always enough people's best menu pick. You might end up being London's top party organizers, which is a surefire road into a life of sexual adventure and substance abuse, so if you think you've got it - be my guest.

Budget your Friends


If you come from a smaller place, chances are you don’t have to do a lot of friends management. In fact, small town friends management usually consists of arranging yourself with people who you don’t like but you have to be friends with anyway. In London you will find the opposite is the case. You will be inundated with awesome and interesting people, and you will have to make hard choices on which of your many new friends you want to spend your limited time with. At first glance this might seem cynical, but we are only human and there’s only so much attention you can distribute. It's the only honest thing to do. If you don’t make those choices you will end up in the Catchup-Loop.

Avoid The Catchup Loop


You know those friends you see once every month, and you’re having such a lovely time? You meet for a coffee or a drink and you catch up. And then it takes another month and you catch up again. And again. And again. And while you are having a good time, the person never seems to make a fundamental difference to your life. You’re stuck in the Catchup-Loop, and it’s a good recipe for loneliness.
Human beings only have a limited bandwidth to engage with their social surroundings in a meaningful manner, and you should chose carefully how you allocate this limited supply to, even if that seems counter-intuitive. Not only will it make you happier, but you also owe your friends your genuine and full dedication. Remember there are always parties or other gatherings, where you can maintain any more superficial relations, should you chose to do so.

The Love Drought


Like in any big city, sex is easy to come by and most Londoners can get laid when they feel the need to. Consequently London is not a sex-starved city, but love-starved it sure is. As a result dating in London can be an intense affair.
Obviously no three-line advice can save you from the myriad of weird and wonderful pitfalls that human love interactions pose, but there are some things you should keep in mind while looking for ‘The One’ in the Big Smoke. Firstly, just like your weekend time, you are subject to the NBT (see above). Expect people to cancel, to clearly have several pots in the fire or be less excited about you than you would like to (also see ‘Small Fish, Big Pond’, below). Secondly, remember that in a hard-working, anonymous and transient city people tend to be desperate for affection and will likely jump at any opportunity to have their love box ticked. Unfortunately, often their lifestyle forbids a meaningful exchange of such deep feelings, and you find yourself in an unhealthy co-dependent limbo or even worse, being slowly drained by a emotional vampire. Be protective of yourself and take it slow, if they really care they will stick around.

The Bank Always Wins


Being one of the great financial hubs of the global economy, London (in fact the whole of Britain) dances to the beat of the banks. This means that from housing to drugs, the best of the city is always reserved for the highly affluent and spend-happy finance population. If that was not enough, the very business seems to turn the majority of its employees into self-obsessed, socially incapable teenagers who will basically ruin any venue they go to*. Thankfully this serves as London's only reliable coolness indicator: if the bankers have discovered it, it's certifiably dead. So when your favourite haunt has 'The Suits', it's time to move on - chances are you are late already.

*There are some thoroughly nice people who work in finance. They do, however, tend to agree with the above statement, usually accompanied by a slow, apologetic nod.

Small Fish, Big Pond


From Celtic plunderings to ravenous fires, from magnificent minds to despicable murders, London has seen it all in its two millennia long history. You, in turn, are small fry. Pierced body artist who suspends himself from meat hooks for kicks? London gets a couple hundred of you every year. Blonde model bombshell who’s been on top fashion magazine covers? Go form a queue.
Each year many unique and special people discover that what made them hot property in their hometown is little more than a five minute conversation piece when they arrive in London. Over here, everyone is a small fish and the pond treats them with an equal amount of indifference. I’ve see more than a few people unable to cope with their loss of their unique standout feature and leave broken. Others seem to welcome the fact that regardless of how bizarre, decadent or beautiful they may be, they have complete anonymity. Either way, be prepared for people to be less impressed with whatever it is you do, are, or claim to be. Embrace that and be humbled.