The things you learn when you don’t realise that you are. As a kid, I learned so many things, like we all do. I thought I would share a few, because it is a unique environment and this time of year, I get a bit homesick.
I learned that most Aussie days are sunny. If you’re anywhere north of the NSW border, any time from around 4am in the summer, it’s daylight. Winter is a little more kind, closer to 6am. Imagine teaching that to your kids – “yes, it is daylight now darling, but you can’t get out and play, it’s 5am”. Daylight and sunshine, two of the most taken for granted things when you grow up there and the things I am missing the most right now!
I learned that we are the land of the “big” things – Big Banana, Big Lobster, Big Ram, the list goes on. I am not sure why, all I know is that the drive from Sydney to the Gold Coast every year meant we stopped at the Big Banana. Very exciting as a small child. Going back as an adult however, left a little to be desired. There is very little excitement surrounding a large fibreglass banana.
I learned to take sport and exercise for granted, and although it doesn’t seem that way now with so many obese people wandering the streets, as kids we were in that daylight and sunshine as much as we could get, swimming, running, riding our bikes – could never get enough. I have some English friends who shudder at the thought of daily exercise. I do think there was nothing like computer games when we were kids, except for that thing where two lines moved on the screen stopping a square ball – and we were amazed!
I learned to take friendliness, happiness and smiling for granted. So much so, that I am sure I am considered simple here and throughout Europe! All that heat and sunshine makes you feel different, makes you want to be alive and happy. We talk to people on the street, say hello, pat their dog, help with their bags – weird stuff like that!
I learned that fruit was sometimes out of season! That Christmas meant stone fruit and mangos and that as much as my Dad tried to tell us they were awful, we learned not to believe him! I learned that you only ever bought Australian made! My father even stipulated in his will that the funeral directors had to be Australian. Now that was a tough call!
I soon acquired the taste for prawns, crab and most seafood, except for oysters. Once my Dad told me they tasted like snot. Just once….and I never ate another one. He was right. He was also greedy; that meant more for him.
We watched shows like Skippy and thought Sonny was the luckiest kid in the world. Not only did he get to live with all those grown ups (what was going on there??) but he got to ride in a helicopter and he owned a talking kangaroo. No one owned kangaroos in Australia, especially not talking ones. It took me a while to learn that not everyone could afford a helicopter – and that roos didn’t actually talk, or tsk like that.
I grew up knowing bush fires were part of life, that if you lived in the bush, you had to have a fire trail around the house, and you had to make sure you had an escape plan. I knew that we would get sunburned on every holiday – even every second day when we went to the beach. I know that vinegar is what you put on a blue bottle sting and you learn to dodge real quick when there is wind in the air, ‘cause they blow around in the water a bit.
You don’t get out, that’s just ridiculous.
I learned that Huntsman spiders come in pairs usually, and they jump. They also like the water, which means they will catch you in the shower, naked and frightened, not a good place to be!
I learned that you can run really fast on the hard wet sand but it takes you ages to run up all that soft stuff. I knew that mossies got you if you stayed out just after dusk and that if you put a cross where they bit you, with your fingernail, they didn’t sting as much. Later I learned that you rub Vicks on them to make the sting go away. The lump stays but the sting goes. I also knew that my sister was allergic to them and they made her have big rashes all over her body. She passed that onto her kids! I know that I got hives when I ate too many tomatoes; just like they were apples. I also learned that if you rubbed tomatoes on your sunburn, it would hurt less. Unless of course the sunburn was on the top of your head, where your part was from your pontyails, that really hurt and nothing makes that better!
I always thought I would keep my permanent tan mark from my thongs (the ones you wear on your feet, the only kind!) but I actually grew out of it. A good summer meant you went through more than one pair. You live in shorts and singlets and when you grow up; you just add jewellery and lipstick.
Sunday nights were all about roast chook, peas, mashed potatoes and then choc chip ice-cream. I learned to deal with getting picked on at school because my European mother would make us food none of the kids had ever heard of. But I learned to fend for myself – usually by swearing at them in Maltese, they couldn’t help but be impressed then. At least we weren’t like Gerard Said, he had cockroach sandwiches. OK – they were dates, but they looked like cockroaches!
Speaking of cockroaches, you learn really young that they can fly, usually at you when your mouth is open! And when you go outside at Christmas time, the Christmas beetles fly around and get stuck in your hair! Between those and the cane toads, the back yard could be pretty treacherous, but always big fun!
I learned that Christmas was all about rushing to open the presents then heading outside for the rest of the day to play with your toys, occasionally coming in to eat the hot dinner that mum cooked because that was tradition, even though some of those days were almost 40 degrees.
I lived in a land of either machismo or just plain stupidity when people had ceiling fans and not air conditioners. The land of above ground pools with a bucket next to the ladder that you put your feet in so that the grass didn’t get into the pool. Heaven forbid you had to go around with the scoop before you were allowed to swim – that took an eternity! I learned how to stay underwater and hold my breath, just so I could beat my brother and sister. I learned to hold it even better when Mum told us it was time to come in…..!! Heard perfectly well of course when Dad called! I used to love going out shopping, fresh from the pool, straight into a pair of shorts and singlet, stopping sometimes if we were really good to get a slush puppie or a slurpee. Raspberry of course, oh unless they were the coca cola ones. Then make those disgusting noises, get into trouble, apologise and do it all over again.
I knew that we could never ask to go in the pool until an hour had passed so that our lunch would go down and we wouldn’t drown. I also knew that we could go in, but had to make sure our little sister had her floaties on if she wanted to go in. I knew that if we were at our grandparents place in their pool, we couldn’t wet Grandpa’s hair – I mean toupee. I also knew that there was no way you could wee in there, they had that purple dye that followed you and so everyone knew that you had done a wee in the pool. (Mean, mean, just mean – until now of course when I tell my nieces and nephews the same thing!). I learned that if you had swimming for PE then you had to make sure you wrapped your cosies up in your towel afterwards and then put it in your bag, or Mum would get really annoyed!
I learned the slow and hard way never to leave fruit in your school bag, especially not hidden in your glasses case….’cause then you forget about it, and bananas go brown really quickly! They also smell just before they have been in there long enough to disintegrate.
I knew that you never opened your eyes in the pool after Dad had put that floating chlorinator thing in there, or if it got in your way, you picked it straight up and threw it at your brother. I learned just how to wet the tennis ball playing brandings and throw it hard, and fast, usually at the head.
I learned all these things and so many more and I am sure that any kid, anywhere in the world can tell stories like this. We weren’t poor, but we weren’t rich, and we certainly didn’t’ have any spare money. We had hand-me-down clothes (great as the middle child whose older sibling is a boy!) we ate home cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner. We barely ever got money to spend at the tuck shop and if we did, it usually came from Grandpa (with Mum clicking her tongue!). We always ate fruit, lots of it, and all the time. We barely ever ate junk food and soft drink was a Christmas treat. We never asked for anything, if you asked you never got, plus we always knew Mum and Dad never had any money.
Holidays were at places like Burrunjuck Dam or Hastings Point, or on the Gold Coast before we moved there. We used to drive there every Christmas, 1000km of fairly treacherous roads, in the back of the station wagon, sleeping side by side in the back. (God – our parents will never live that down – especially when we remind them, which of course was often!)
We used to stop off at the side of the road to have breakfast, usually in our pyjamas, eating coco pops or weetbix or rice bubbles in those cute little Kelloggs packs – the only time of year we ever got to eat them – what a treat! Mum and Dad had instant coffee in the thermos and we got to eat cereal in our pyjamas by the side of the road, with all the cars and trucks going past. And you want to know something? They were some of the best times of our lives. Some of the richest memories I own.
So when people ask me what it’s like in Australia, I don’t usually tell them these things. I tell them it is way too hot to be comfortable most of the year, that fabulous weather doesn’t always make up for bad politics, racism or expensive groceries or having to drive everywhere or having your TV viewing censored up the yin yang, and your media controlled by one megalomaniac.
But I’m always glad I was raised an Aussie kid (we’re Weetibx kids you know). I am glad that I eat Vegemite and not Marmite and glad that I know what Twisties and Tim Tams are. I still know all the words to the Aeroplane Jelly song, would murder for a pack of Jaffa’s or a Violet Crumble or a Redskin and as a grown up, know that I can order a long black or a flat white and not get looked at strangely! This isn’t about what is great about growing up an Aussie, it is about celebrating the fact that I got to this age and can remember it (my siblings will be surprised!), feeling a long way from home at Christmas and appreciating that I can remember, that I got to live to the ripe old age of 43 and I can think that I am rich and privileged in the smallest possible way, to have lived a life made up of the simple, wonderful things that families and different experiences can bring. How blessed!