Thursday, February 25, 2016

Thoughts on Australia

I'm sitting under a heavily-laden peach tree in an Adelaide back garden. The sun is shining, and the desert-dried wind is blowing in from the north-west. Lorikeets and cockatoos are making a racket in the trees, but it's so nice to look at them that I almost don't mind the noise.

Sitting here just now, I was thinking to myself that Australia has a lot going for it. Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide have all been welcoming and enjoyable cities, and the weather has been great. The food and coffee have been top-notch - I appreciate how seriously Australians take the business of making a cup of joe.

It strikes me, though, that being anywhere for two weeks is just not sufficient for knowing how good a place is to spend a lot of time in. It's like going to PEI in August, as Drew and I used to do every year (but haven't for two years running - and this year might make three), and calling it paradise. It's tempting to do this when you happen to see the best in a place because you've gone at just the right time.

Drew has always been into the idea of Australia, and as a physiotherapist, this country holds a lot of opportunity for work and education for him. I've been less interested, but there are, it turns out, piles of ethicists here, working at great institutions. So, because we're here and seeing the sights, our thoughts have wandered towards the livability of Australia, in the short-term sense. It's not an easy evaluation.

For example, here are some observations:

Food: overall, pretty expensive. Great fruit and veg, because of awesome climactic conditions for growing, and backyard gardens seem to do really well. Lots of people in Adelaide have their own fruit trees. Local stuff is easy to find, partly because it's expensive to import things to Australia. A larger part of a household budget would have to be put aside for groceries, though, and eating out is really pricey (though delicious). Coffee is A+.

Housing: overall, pretty expensive and not temperature controlled. It's hard to believe in such a hot country, but here's what I've noticed: a lot of the houses in the cities we've been to, including the places we've stayed in, look great and have a lot of character, BUT, they lack HVAC systems almost as a rule. New office buildings, retail stores, and university buildings have A/C, but some don't have heat, and it seems incredibly rare that a residential dwelling would have either central air or heat. This is insane. It gets well above a comfortable temperature in the summer, and well below a comfortable temperature in the winter, so indoor temperature control seems appropriate. The windows are also mostly crap - so British of them!

Cycling: Sydney was not awesome for cycling, so we took transit to move around the city. There wasn't a ton of bike infrastructure, and there was pretty heavy vehicle traffic on the surprisingly narrow streets. Melbourne was a bit better, though some of the bike lanes disappeared without warning, and somehow they don't have a bike share stand in Fitzroy - which is one of the funkier neighbourhoods to hang out in. Overall, though, we found that we could easily get to where we wanted to be from our accommodation in South Melbourne by bike. Adelaide is the bomb for biking in, partly because the downtown area is completely ringed by parklands. There are bike paths through these parks, and alongside train and light rail corridors, which makes biking enjoyable (because away from heavy traffic and often very scenic) and fast. The only downside to cycling in all of these places is the heat, which really would be a bit of a barrier sometimes.

Weather: it's been pretty darn hot, but since we're semi-vacationing it has been manageable. I'm not very productive when it's really hot out - like above 30 - and many days are much hotter here. Only one day on our trip has been 38 degrees, and most were between 28-34, but we're also at the end-ish of summer, heading into fall, so we've had fewer really hot days than there are in early summer (December-Jan). Apparently Melbourne is a bit unpredictable, and we experienced that on arrival, when it was 18 degrees and drizzly, followed the next day by a 10-degree jump and sunshine.

Wildlife: we haven't seen too much beyond birds and a few non-deadly spiders, but there's plenty of those. It was a special adventure to use the 'spider bathroom' at the house in Sydney - basically an outhouse with flushable toilet at the end of the back garden. I really wanted to see a koala or a kangaroo, and though we have been in places where both of these would/could be spotted, we had no luck. Koalas have adapted to urban places, and live in Adelaide's southerly neighbourhoods, wandering from one tree to another at night, or hanging out in a tree for a month or so before moving on, and making horrendous screamy noises. If they also got into people's compost bins, I'd say they're just like racoons without tails.

Politics: super weird. Did you know that marriage is not legal for same-sex couples in Australia?? I had no idea, and frankly can't believe it. It's not often that the US is ahead of other industrialized nations when it comes to equal rights, but here we see a rare example. There is also some weird and uncomfortable practices pertaining to migrants, and a large detention centre on an island off the coast of Australia where thousands of migrants are being 'held.' Immigration is very tightly controlled and difficult, it seems. I have gathered that Australian politics have been right-leaning for a while, and that there is a tendency of the mainstream Australian populace to feel a bit protectionist and a bit xenophobic. These feelings have informed federal policy, and I think it's reflected in a fairly non-diverse population. In other words, Australia is very white.

So, the jury is out on Australian liveability, but it's interesting to ponder. I often consider the politics of a place when thinking about whether I'd really be able to live there, and this has usually ruled out a significant number of American states (because of the death penalty, abortion laws, or marriage laws, for example). With the current marriage and migration laws/practices in Australia (which are homophobic and racist), as well as the higher cost of living and the difficulty that I think Drew and I would face trying to move here, I'd be tempted to give it a pass, as well. Unfortunately, if I follow an academic career I may end up having to compromise on my no-live list, because, as they say, one has to go where the jobs (or funding opportunities) are. If that's the case, then at least I'll have an idea of how to spend my advocacy energies.

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