Australia Day overseas? The locals shudder

Australia Day celebrations at The Longhorn Saloon & Grill, Whistler.
Australia Day celebrations at The Longhorn Saloon & Grill, Whistler. Photo: The Longhorn Saloon & Grill

The Canadian guy next to me gives a visible shudder.

"Trust me," he says, "I won't be leaving the house. All day."

He grimaces, then gets back to driving the bus that's running me down to the bottom of the chairlifts at Whistler Blackcomb. The guy's name is Gary, and he's a proper local. He's been here 30 years - long enough to know, apparently, that you don't go outside on the 26th of January.

It's almost Australia Day here in Whistler, and the permanent residents are battening down the hatches in preparation for a blizzard of drunken Australianness. The mountain - popularly known as "Whistralia" - is home to a floating population of thousands of Antipodeans, from the lifties to the ski instructors to the waiters to the people cleaning your hotel room, and they're getting set to be a bit silly in a few days' time. Straya!

"Oh it's wild," Gary says. "You'll see naked people coming down the ski runs. The bars will all be full by 9am. Pretty much no Australians are going to turn up for work. I'm not leaving my house."

I, however, am leaving Whistler. Despite this being the focal point of Antipodean celebration in the next few days (or maybe because of it) I'm heading east, over to a smaller ski resort called Sun Peaks, which is far more restrained in its Australianness. There are actually a couple of Canadians working here, in among the southern contingent. Australia Day won't be a mountain-wide celebration in Sun Peaks but something that's cheered home in a single pub that's actually owned by a Kiwi.

The party won't even take place on the 26th. In keeping with the time difference and to allow the observance of an Australia Day rite - the listening of the Triple J Hottest 100 - in Sun Peaks the festivities will be held on the 25th, which, among other things, will guarantee a fairly poor work attendance on the 26th.

It's party time.

There's something about being overseas for Australians that makes our national day far more important than it would be at home. You might normally pass it with a barbecue and a radio in Oz, but once your passport gets stamped it's a licence to drape yourself in the flag and scream from the rooftops that today is our day. At least, that's what happens in Whistler, and Aspen, and most of the larger ski resorts in North America.

It happens in London, too, at every Aussie theme pub and Antipodean gathering place in the city. There are smaller versions in LA and New York, some in Vancouver and Toronto. They happen in Niseko and St Anton.

It's not, however, a worldwide phenomenon. I was in Madrid for Australia Day last year and decided that, not knowing the city well, I'd just hang out in the inevitable Aussie theme pub. Except, in Madrid there is no inevitable Aussie theme pub.

I wound up in an Irish bar in the financial district at an event sponsored by Billabong, where a covers band struggled through some Men At Work tunes while the crowd linked arms and howled the words at some nonplussed non-Australians at the back of the room.

Back in Sun Peaks, however, there's no covers band. There is Triple J, which is being streamed over the loudspeakers at the bar owned by the Kiwi.

Getting in here was an ordeal. I'd been met at the entrance by a large Maori doorman sporting an All Blacks jersey and a sense of humour dark enough to match it.

"No Aussies tonight," he'd said, folding his arms and blocking the door. Then he broke into a huge grin. "Oh all right, just you then, bro."

The scene is fairly tame inside. A few people sport Australian flag capes, but there are probably just as many hilarious Kiwis decked out in their All Blacks kits. Some Foster's has been imported for the bar, but every real Aussie knows that's the stuff of desperation. The $10 bottles of Coopers are much more popular.

There's a pie-eating contest sometime during the night. A guy in a Queensland State of Origin jersey knocks his back, without the use of hands, in about a minute, beating a girl in a Socceroos shirt. Both of their faces wind up covered in gravy and smiles.

I decide to call it quits at a reasonably sensible hour, saying good night to the Maori bouncer and heading out into the crisp, cold night.

From here you can see the bottom of the ski slopes as they appear from the night, those white alleys wrapped in trees.

I can hear a shout from the slopes, and there's two solitary Aussies in their jerseys and flag capes, skidding down the mountain, diving face first, Superman-style on their stomachs.

Sure enough, the clock has ticked 12. It's Australia Day.

Have you celebrated Australia Day overseas? What was the experience like? Post your comments below.

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