Our first summer in Australia
(A shortened version of this article appeared as ‘That’s quite a lot for a Scot to deal with,’ in the Geelong Advertiser, 30 December 2011, p. 31.)
I suppose we arrived at the tail end of the European invasion of Australia in the summer of 1977. The long post-war boom had ended, Gough Whitlam had been dismissed and Deakin University was just opening its doors. We, my wife and two young children, landed at Tullamarine in Melbourne on 2 September to be met by a couple of my future colleagues. One took my wife and kids and drove three times round the car park trying to find his way out, since it was the first time he had been In Melbourne, never mind the airport, since his own arrival a month or so earlier. I introduced him to Glenfiddich when they dropped us at our motel in Belmont around midnight.
In the next week we bought a house, a car and got the kids into school and then sought some temporary accommodation while the ship was bringing our things from the UK. A kind colleague offered to rent us a cottage on his farm for a while—a lovely man but rather otherworldly. He wanted me to help him castrate his sheep, but I had done enough farming in a Scottish winter to turn down that opportunity, and anyway I was at work at Deakin already. The cottage was pretty basic with the only heating/cooking being a pot-bellied stove whose flue was full of blowies which exploded around the place when we tried to light it. There was no fridge, but our friend said, “No worries,” and took us up to the farm where there were three. He took the sheep dip out of one of them and said, “You can have this one.”
Our first night in the cottage we woke to the sound of machine gun fire ricocheting off the tin roof, but it was only possums, we later learned. My colleague met me one day at work and said, ‘I don’t want to alarm you but I have just shot a black snake at the cottage, but I think I have hit the wrong end.’ I had this image of a rather angry serpent trying to find its tail, but my immediate thought was, “Please don’t tell my wife.” But off he went and met her and gave her the news. So I had a wife and two children who were constipated for a month because they would not go near the outside dunny.
Early in September we wakened to a beautiful cloudless day and set off with friends to the coast. Somewhere near Airey’s Inlet we hit the beach, stripped off and jumped into the small surf. Just as quickly we jumped back out again as the temperature reminded us of the North Sea in winter. In Scotland if you had a day with an air temperature of 25 degrees you would be swimming in the Firth of Clyde quite happily, and you would take advantage of every such opportunity. Later we realised that Victoria did have a proper summer and there was no need to try the Bass Strait before December.
Many things appeared strange to us in those first couple of months. So we got out the camera and started taking pictures of all the things we encountered which we half-suspected we would not ‘see’ when we had been here for a while. So storm drains, trucks festooned with fairy lights, car yards with streamers, overhead powerlines, geraniums growing up lamp-posts, road signs, like ‘Turn left at any time with care’, later the title of a book of poetry by another colleague, all found their way into a photo-album we sent back to Scotland to our parents for Christmas. We also added a commentary on a cassette tape telling the story.
That included notes about the strange language, which seemed like English, but confused us no end, at times. ‘Bring a plate’, meant bring food, not something to eat it from. You never got home and dry, but home and hosed. You barracked for a team, not against them. Your goal was in front of you, not the one you were defending. Everything was upside down, not just the language. The country turned brown in summer and green in winter. The trees lost their bark but kept their leaves, or so it seemed.
Talking about Christmas reminds me that our friends led us to believe that Australian families all had a barbeque on Christmas Day. So there I was barbequeing in the rain under a golf umbrella to the massive amusement of our neighbours and those to whom I recounted the story.
Well before Christmas we had decided that living in the cottage was a bit too much, so we arranged with the folks from whom we were buying our house to allow us to rent it until settlement day. We bought a heap of camping gear and a couple of foam settees which made up into beds and slept on them until the boat came in.
We also got ourselves a television set just in time to see the drawn grand final between North Melbourne and Collingwood and then the replay. That was our introduction to Australian football, though our allegiance was quickly transferred to the Cats. Having supported provincial losers all my life, I had no issues with the intermittent performance of the locals in the next decades. There was just one problem. My wife was looking for a Cats jumper for our son and found some in the shopping centre nearby. Or so she thought, not realising that black and white vertical stripes were not the colours of our local team.
We look back and laugh at it now and we were very lucky in coming to a job and to a very warm welcome from colleagues and the vast majority of the people we met. However, we always reflect that if we found it quite a challenge getting to know the ropes in Australia, how much more difficult it must be for those who arrived or arrive today with no knowledge of the language or customs of this country. Yet these are the people who make this country the wonderful place it is, as future generations will, and as they say, “We would not have missed it for quids.”