Things different about Australia

By way of example, I am being completely devoured by mosquitos sitting on a bench somewhere in Newtown, a suburb of Sydney. I’m leeching wifi in quite literally the only freely open, non-commercial wifi spot I’ve been able to find in the entire city after searching for such a spot for more than a week. Turns out, Internet access here is obscenely expensive—even by American standards—which partially explains the lack of free, open Wi-Fi.

Leeching this wifi is incredibly uncouth, I know, but I justify my behavior with the fact that I absolutely must ensure that my finances are in order in time for things like rent payments and every other opportunity to use the Internet—my only means of banking at this point—have been unavailable. Indeed, even the most common “free hotspot” service in this city, uConnect, provided by Unwired, shuts off at 7 PM. In fact, most of the city shuts off relatively early, save for nightspots and pubs.

The University of Sydney campus is, for the most part, closed on weekends. Those of you familiar with New York’s collegiate services would be appalled at the notion of something like your college library being closed at anything other than normal 9-5 business hours, but that seems the norm here. Similarly, back to the Internet access frustrations, all (and I mean every) bit of bandwidth you use on the University’s network is monitored and, ultimately, limited. The University has a Squid HTTP proxy set up which you must use to get anywhere on the Internet, but each account has a bandwidth cap of 2 MB per day, barring cache hits, of course. Beyond that, and you pay by the megabyte.

All Internet access, it seems, has bandwidth caps like this. There’s a veritable alphabet soup of ISPs that provide similar services, most over ADSL technology, since cable is hard to come by. Very frustrating, as I’ve never before had to think about how and where my bandwidth is being spent.

In any event, aside from the Internet access woes which were sadly unexpected, there are a number of other things about Sydney that are very different that New York City.

In restaurants, water is either self-serve or comes in bottles instead of being poured into glasses. This is a great idea, because it means I’m much more likely to actually have water when I want it. Also, waiters and waitresses expect no tip, so your bill is all you pay. This has two side effects, one rather nifty, and the other very uncool.

First, because your waiter isn’t your personal server for the meal, any and all waiters will wait on you at your behest. None of this, “I’ll call your waiter” non-sense. Makes restaurants seem much more cohesive, egalitarian—a theme in this country. Secondly, because wait staff get no tips, they get paid much better than they do in the states, which in turn raises prices for the meals. This goes so far as to change the prices on menus during “public holidays,” when—presumably—wait staff get paid time and a half. Menus often say “surcharge applies on public holidays and weekends” to indicate this.

And speaking of menus, there’s a whole different language for coffee here than in the states. Regular coffees as we know them in NYC are called “long blacks” here. Contrast this with a “short black,” or single espresso. “Flat whites” are lattes served in coffee cups, whereas “lattes” are lattes served in regular water glasses. Why the distinction? I have no idea.

Some things are the same. Mochas, for instance, are coffee with chocolate. (So are the “stop” buttons on the public transit busses, but I digress.) Other coffee slang bits sound way too Starbucks-ese for me to like them, such as “Vienna long black,” which just means a long black (regular) coffee with whip cream on top.

If you order any coffee, don’t expect a refill—there’s no such thing as free refills here. In fact, everything, even the tiniest bit of luxury, is charged here. It costs you 10 cents per printed (B&W) page at the University of Sydney computer labs to print anything (but pages here are not the normal 8-and-a-half-by-11 that you’re used to in the States). If you want hot water at the showers after taking a swim at Bondi Beach, for example, then you drop a 20 cent coin into the shower stall. Say you want some condiments for your fish and chips, like ketchup? That’ll cost you 80 cents in addition to the price of your food. Tartar sauce is more expensive, at $1.10 per several-ounce dish.

Food in general is obscenely expensive, and at first I thought it was just me, but after talking to locals it seems everyone’s noticed the price increase. The past 7 summers in Australia have been very dry, so dry that the drought caused harvest yields to decrease dramatically, raising food prices by more than 30% in the past several years. Couple this rising inflation concerns, weakening U.S. Dollar strength, and what I’m left with as an International traveller is the grim prospect of paying almost $15.00 (USD!) for a bacon and egg breakfast with a single, non-refillable coffee at any decent café.

Similarly expensive are spirits and liquor, which in addition to being taxed at 10% like everything else under Australia’s national “Goods and Services Tax” (GST), have an additional tax associated with them dependent on their alcohol content. This means my favorite liquor, Tequila, costs about $70 AUD for a 750 ml bottle of Cuervo. Forget the really good stuff like 1800 Resposado or Patron, which are upwards of $100 for the same amount. Sigh.

As a result of all of this, my money is not going nearly as far as I would have hoped. I am looking forward to having an actual apartment—with an actual kitchen—because at least when that happens I can stop paying exorbitant prices for food. It’s nearly impossible to cook in the hostels Sara and I have been staying at because they’re simply uncomfortable, not private, and not very well-equipped. And to top it all off, I think my hostel’s bed is giving me allergies.

I have a job offer, assuming I can get permission to work from the New South Wales government. Ironically, permission to work is also something I have to pay for—how crazy is that?—so I’ve had to rush to set up bank accounts as soon as I got into the country. The banks, for what it’s worth, are surprisingly good even though everyone here says they are terrible thieves. This makes me think no one from this country would be able to put up with any bank from the States.

The best thing about my bank is that it has CSV, QIF, and MNX download options for every single data table presented on their web site. This is, interestingly, the biggest selling point for me but something no one at the bank had any clue about. It’s not mentioned in their marketing material, their sales staff had never heard of it, and the only reason I knew it existed was because I saw a screenshot with the words “export data” on the corner. I took a chance and set up my account with them based on this screen shot and it looks like it payed off. Machine-readable financial interchange, baby!

Conclusions? This country is in what I consider to be the bronze age when it comes to technology. Only the elite technophiles—looked down upon as “tall poppies” here, rather a bad thing what with the whole egalitarian society thing—even know their way about anything other than a web browser or Microsoft Office. That being said, everyone knows how to lock their wifi, even if they don’t know how to change the channel so that they can actually broadcast that signal more than 10 feet in any direction.

5 replies on “Things different about Australia”

  1. This is actually funny… Well, as long as you can keep your humor about it. So my fears of you falling in love with down south and possibly stay there are less prominent, given the bronze age observation. Right?
    I hope you enjoy EVERY moment there.

  2. It was wonderful to read up on the details of life in Australia. Even if they do seem ass-backward by New Yorker standards I’m wondering if after a few months you wont want to come home? I want to hear more about the beaches.

  3. > This country is in what I consider to be the bronze age
    > when it comes to technology.

    I have two things to say: “tyranny of distance”, and “economy of scale”.

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