"It’s so far away.” I’m in Australia for the first time and this was all most people could muster in response back in the UK when I told them about my impending trip. A handful of more experienced folk told me about the addiction to breakfast and sport. As a child I’d watched Neighbours; as an adult I’d watched Wolf Creek. As a London resident I’d become familiar with screeching young Aussies pulling pints in the west of the city. As a quivering arachnophobe I’d imagined Australia as a country where you wade through harmless-but-huge and horrifying huntsmen spiders and pray that you never share your shoe with a Redback or Funnelweb. From Australian colleagues I’d learnt that avocados get eaten at hourly intervals and that the breezy, easygoing, fun-loving spirit belies a dogged, unflappable work ethic. And I knew about tinnies and stubbies too.
What I’ve seen in the three days I’ve been in Melbourne though bears very little resemblance to the image I’d conjured up prior to my trip – bar the avocados. The coins are solid and beautiful. The GFC (global financial crisis – they do love an acronym) didn’t really make it over the Pacific, bar a brief wobble in the housing market.
Australians talk of their country being in a bubble, but it appears to be more of a sturdy, hard shell. Sturdiness is everywhere here. In the handshakes, the hospitality, the coffee, bar, restaurant and retail scenes. Calves are sturdy from a healthy cycling culture – upper bodies, from early morning rowing on the Yarra River. The architecture and urban planning is sturdy too – dense where appropriate, open where needed. Old, contemporary, experimental and modern buildings happily jumble side-by-side. And the young people here have a sturdy optimism and entrepreneurial verve that’s so woefully absent from much of the GFC-hit world at the moment. Small businesses with big success stories abound. Old businesses with new leases of life are common. Asian tourists are everywhere, eating better Asian food than they do back home.
“What do you make of it?” everyone asks me, everywhere, constantly. If Australians weren’t so flaming amiable it could get grating. But herein lies the fly in Australia’s ointment – self-confidence. I’m sure many might balk on reading that, thinking of the loud Aussies flip-flopping through Europe on two-year trips, laden with lager, hoodies and beachy blonde surf hair. But on home turf it’s a different story. The isolation of distance that once made Australians anxious has now proved to be a boon, incubating a successful, dynamic culture that pulses and surges while the rest of us flounder or tread water in the eddies of financial constraint.
Beyond the barbies and beaches, the kangaroos and koalas, the time is ripe for Australia to sell itself better to the world with a new sheath of 21st century assets beyond avocados. At the moment, the country, its people and its potential are hiding a rather giant light under an old baobab.