Second impressions on Australia

Curiously, there’s no phrase “second impressions”, so what comes after first impressions? Noting that I wrote a couple of posts about first impressions of Australia some 2½ years ago ([1], [2]), it’s time to take stock of some cultural and other impressions from the past years. Some of these I have touched on in my other, Finnish blog, so apologies for the overlapping parts to the readers of both.

So what, if anything, is different in Australia, using my previous home countries Finland and United States as the comparison points? The usual disclaimers about these all being incomplete, generalizations, personal non-scientific observations, YMMV etc apply. (Note that I’ve later made a couple of additions to the list later on, preceded with the addition date)

Business & infrastructure

  • Australian businesses are a curiously risk-averse bunch. Curiously because there’s lots of grassroots innovation and invention going on, but you wouldn’t believe it if you looked at just the enterprises. It is partly because of this that has led to a situation where many areas of technologies are, as many expats and foreigners often note, “behind” in Australia compared to other parts of the world. This is not a universal feature, however – for example in the area of mobiles (devices, services, even networks to some extent) and usage of social networking tools I would argue Australia is ahead of Finland, the self-proclaimed leader of mobility until some years ago. Of course, Ground Zero for mobile and social stuff is still San Francisco. In water conservation Australia is also, understandably, far ahead of many countries.

  • There are lots more small businesses here than in Finland; it is evident right down to the streets, with countless lively suburbs filled with small businesses. At least in Melbourne, there are not many strip malls to speak of, but there are many, many wonderful small suburb centers with all the services provided in an almost quaint fashion, starting from the butchers to fish shops, flower shops, fruit shops etc. Not that Australia is immune to people shopping online or at supermarkets; most book stores have gone under and many smaller shops are under pressure, but at least they’re still there unlike in Finnish suburbs, let alone American suburbs. I consider these relatively distributed and localized economies to be extremely positive and important. The distributed nature applies to sectors such as health care as well, with many GPs and even specialists practicing at their home offices or at small medical centers that are dotted everywhere.

  • What’s more, there are many small businesses who are completely happy being small and profitable. While many do aim for continuous growth, there is also a clear feeling that there are many small businesses who are completely content as they are – small or smallish and profitable, with no need to drive for continuous growth. I think that’s admirable.

  • Many people like to make fun of Metro, or whoever happens to be the operator of the local commuter train system in Melbourne. It does have its share of problems, but overall the trains work well and so do the trams. News from Finland how VR is failing left, right and center has tempered my critique of the system here, and I would say the public transport system in Melbourne is okay. Obviously it could work better, but it’s a geographically huge city so there’s only so much one can reasonably do.

  • Traffic is, in a word, polite. There is next to no speeding (speed limits are enthusiastically enforced) and driving is a remarkably smooth, low-stress experience compared to Finland. Of course there are traffic jams, but bad behavior on the roads is minimal. To exaggerate only slightly, everyone is polite, people give way at the slightest hint, be it for another car or a pedestrian. If there’s heavy rain or fog, people promptly slow down significantly. Contrast this to the Finnish drivers who seem to think it’s fine to travel at 120km/h on icy roads with visibility of 10m and it’s just baffling. Over in Boston, of course, everyone sped and you got used to it. Most of the time that worked well, too, but I suppose sticking to the speed limits does have some safety benefits.

  • Housing infrastructure is a different story, however. In short, most houses are built very poorly – there is no insulation to speak of and hence houses are freezing cold in the winter; +15C as winter daytime high may not be too bad, but +15C as an indoors temperature and freezing floors as a bonus is just not right. This is a real shame since there a) is know-how to build properly, it just isn’t utilized and b) it’d be supremely easy to design passive houses given the climate. At least solar hot water heating is common and distributed solar PV generation becoming common as well.

  • What houses lack in insulation, they make up for in architecture. Melbourne has some awesome architecture and I also love many of the floor plans with open kitchens and living areas.

  • Some businesses, like Australia post, could use a lesson or two in logistics. Packages are always delivered home, which is a good thing because the place you pick them up from when you’re not home to receive them is a logistical nightmare. Let’s just say it’s a minor miracle we have not lost packages in either direction (yet) and that mail usually travels at reasonable speeds.

  • There are many more services with home delivery than in Finland; from the numerous regular & organic food delivery companies to niche services like mobile knife sharpening services, it seems you can get pretty much any service home-delivered.

  • Child care is, at least where we live, a disaster. Not only is the average quality of child care lower than in Finland, the costs are exorbitant ($100/child/day is the norm) and to top it off, waiting lists for a year or more are also normal.

People & culture

  • While there is a sense of risk-aversion compared to Finland (and definitely the USA), failure does not have the stigma it still has in Finland. Much has been done in Finland in recent years to try to emphasize that failure is an inevitable part of innovation and a learning opportunity, but there is a deep-seated negative image of failure in Finland. Australia is not as failure-glorifying as the USA where failure is completely acceptable across the board, but it’s somewhere in between – and this is a recurring theme; in many, many instances Australia places somehow between Finland and the United States.

  • People in Australia are very friendly and positive. This is true both superficially through positive small-talk (that I much prefer to the Finnish ways), but also on a deeper level. Having said that, however, it is probably slightly more difficult to establish deep friendships here than it is in Finland, where once you get through the veneer of brutal indifference and impoliteness, the transition into what could be called mateship here is perhaps easier. Establishing friendships with immigrants is probably easier than “native” (even non-aboriginal) Australians. This is of course a complex topic so such generalizations are somewhat dangerous.

  • There is racism, but not even close to such an extent as the still sadly common xenophobia in Finland. In Finland, lots of the negative sentiment has to do with the socioeconomic and cultural background of many immigrants to Finland – substantially bigger proportion of the immigrants are refugees than here – but also because immigration is a new thing there. With 30% of Australians having been born abroad, it has been necessary to weed out outright racism or the society couldn’t function. For the most part I believe this has been successful.

  • In many respects the Australian society is a more old-fashioned one than in Finland. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good, for example in the sense that people are polite and helpful; good manners are still appreciated and doors are opened for strangers. It’s also bad, for example in the sense that much of the society is structured along the same models and it’s mostly expected that women with children are at most working part time.

  • Children are welcome everywhere, and they are treated with respect and friendliness – in Finland you often get the feeling that kids are somehow treated as annoyances and are often personae non gratae in places like better restaurants. Here they’re warmly welcomed and catered for.

  • Grassroots environmental awareness is far more visible here than in Finland. This has been “helped” by Australia already suffering from impacts of climate change and being in general a country of climate extremes (in drought/floods etc), hence things like water conservation policies etc have had more time to be established. This environmental awareness is a bit of a paradox, considering Australia is one of the worst greenhouse gas emitters – but people still genuinely care about the environment and live close to the nature.

  • The Economist report on Australian people has many good points; for example, I completely agree with these:
    Relative absence of conspicuous consumption (and, it has to be said, a certain lack of style in everyday dress); the evident democracy of the beach and the park; the practice of passenger and driver sitting side by side in taxis; the general amiability of discourse; the pervasiveness of a café society based, for the most part, on small enterprises producing their own excellent coffee (Australia, inventor of the “flat white”, has all but seen off Starbucks, which closed 61 out of its 85 Australian cafés three years ago, having found that anything it could do the Aussies were already doing better).

  • The language, I must admit, I find occasionally annoying. Not so much the everyday spoken language – which is a mix of British and American English, spiced with heaps of local shorthand expressions and terminology – but written language, as it seems all media outlets spend 75% of their journalistic efforts to coming up with a supposedly funny wordplay-title for their articles. The more puns the better, it seems. Well I’ve got news for the MSM: 99% of it is not funny.

  • [added later on Feb 7th, 2012]: jealousy and destructive envy are big issues in Finland; if someone appears to enjoy (particularly financial) success, the natural instinct of a typical Finn seems to be one of finding ways to damage this success – whereas the USA is the polar opposite of this; despite the recent 99%-vs-1% movement, success there is mostly seen as a positive & inspirational thing and something to strive for yourself, too. Australia is closer to the US in this; though there is a phenomenon called tall poppy syndrome in Australia, it’s much less prevalent than related trends in Finland.

  • [added later on Feb 7th, 2012]: vandalism is less of a problem in Australia than in Finland. Helsinki is in perpetual fight against ugly graffiti tags on bus shelters, trains, buses etc. Pretty flower installations during the summer are also popular vandalism targets. I have seen very little of that here; there is clearly a better respect of the commons in Australia.

Other things

  • The weather, one of the contributing reasons why we ended up moving here to begin with, is great. It is also, however, extremely variable – not quite “four seasons in one day” as the locals like to say, but I grant them two seasons. Differences of 20C degrees in daytime highs within just a couple of days are not unheard of. There are also more extreme weather events – rains are usually shorter and heavier than in Finland, hot periods are really hot, high UV radiation is really high (UV index of up to 12 vs the high of 6 Finland reaches in summer) etc. Still, summer by Finnish standards lasts maybe 9 months of the year, and there’s beach weather to be found from at least 6 of the warmer months. The Economist aptly pointed out in the special report on Australia last year that the weather is “benign and beautiful much of the time, but often by turns scorching, soaking, dehydrating, burning, blowing, parching, cyclonic, cancer-causing and generally destructive.”

  • Good availability of a wide range of organic food is one of the best things in Australia. You can find pretty much everything as an organic version and the price premiums are lower than they are in Finland. Food supply seasonality is also much more visible here – fruits are absolutely delicious when they are in season, and many are simply unavailable when they are out of season. Over 95% of the fruit and veggies sold here are domestic. In Finland, where much of the fresh fruit & veggies are imported for much of the year, everything tends to be available year round – but also tends to have a pretty bland taste for much of the year.

  • The nature is simply awesome and there’s a lot of variety from deserts to beaches to rainforests to rivers, from flatlands to mountains (well, closer to real mountains than the hills in Finland anyway) and numerous exotic animals.

  • [added on Feb 13th, 2012]: closeness to nature is somewhat paradoxical; on one hand, it can take a 30min drive or more to reach a real forest from the city whereas in Finland one can find a forest from pretty much anywhere. On the other hand, however, nature comes closer to you than in Finland – be it in the form of possums, variety of spiders, cicadas or even snakes, it feels as if you’re more thoroughly part of nature here, even in the cities. It’s hard to explain, but may also have something to do with the fact that nature is pretty dead half the year in Finland. In both Finland and Australia, however, people have an affinity to nature and a need to go out and enjoy it – be it at a kesämökki in Finland or bushwalking & camping here.

  • Unfortunately there is also a ubiquitous lack of quality that is apparent in many things; from houses that are built in the cheapest possible way to clothes and workmanship (and to child care, as mentioned), the median level of quality in pretty much everything is lower than that in Europe. That’s not to say good quality cannot be found – it can – but unless you go look for it, the average experience is worse.

  • There’s lots of variety between the cities; I haven’t visited all the big ones yet, but it seems fairly accurate to compare Melbourne to Boston and Sydney to New York (and Canberra to, oh I don’t know, maybe Columbus Ohio or perhaps Washington DC? ;)) – the atmosphere and vibe of the cities differs markedly, which is probably a good thing, giving everyone a choice of where they fit best.

  • Australia has somehow – whether it is a reality or an illusion, I cannot tell yet – managed to brand its countryside as a “cool”, desirable place. Life in the Finnish countryside never really appealed to me that much, but for some reason moving to rural areas has become an appealing possibility here. Not to the in-the-middle-of-nowhere outback, mind you, but outside the major population centers. Maybe it’s the plethora of organic farms (some of which we’ve visited) or the good quality of the meat and produce, maybe partly thanks to the Royal Melbourne Show or the picturesque scenery when driving there or just a desire to raise kids somewhere peaceful and quiet, who knows.

Finally, I have become much more interested in the theory and practice of raising TCKs, the so-called Third Culture Kids. Plenty of those, and ATCKs (Adult Third-Culture Kids), here. I have somehow always thought of myself as one, but have not paid too much attention to it – now that it appears we are raising TCKs, the topic is back on my mind. It’s a tough and complex topic that I will return to in another post.

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4 Responses to Second impressions on Australia

  1. paivi bertucci says:

    Very good article enjoyed reading it. having spent the last 10 years travelling to or living in melbourne whilst at the same time living in three different continents like yourself, i agree to your views except completelly disagree with your point of driving. i find australians one of the most arrocant, speeding, skilless and dangerous drivers i have come accross. it is m
    ore than common to drive under the influence, young people have horrendous amounts of accidents…people dont get taught to drive properly nor safely!

  2. sim says:

    Well I guess it’s safe to say we’ve had vastly differing experiences with drivers then :) Accident figures don’t really back up the dangerous-part, however – Victoria is pretty much on par with Finland in traffic deaths (slightly lower in fact), i.e. both fairly low by international standards.

  3. Paivi Bertucci says:

    Ok good, my impressions on driving are my own views and I still think aussies are mostly extremely speedy drivers! Was interested to know whether your impressions were backed up by the statistics, thanks for your reply.!
    Maybe there’s something to do with the taxation re small business successes as well, not sure.

  4. Chris says:

    Nice post and thought provoking. As an Australian who has traveled and lived abroad its always interesting to read how others view Australia. I’m not sure I agree with you about racism in Finland (although you do mention its mainly xenephobia), I thought it was quite similar to the situation in Japan actaully. I sort of started a blog about my reactions when I was living in Finland (Kouvola) which you’ll find from my profile on my blog (if you haven’t done so already). Its perhaps a little darker than it needs to be which I put down to how I was feeling when living there.

    With respect to the insulation issue, you may have noticed I’m working on a solar floor heating idea which has combined floor insulation and a sort of poor mans double glazing. The idea of insulation needs to be combined with the higher humidity here and the issues of mold. The more one examines it the more its a bunch of compromises. Personally I think better and more efficient central heating combined with some insulation will be a better compromise.

    All the Best.

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