When travelling makes you glad to be Australian

Dinner conversation: Nadin is one of a handful of Iraqis to have been lucky enough to flee her homeland.
Dinner conversation: Nadin is one of a handful of Iraqis to have been lucky enough to flee her homeland. Photo: Ben Groundwater

“It makes you glad you’re Australian, doesn’t it?” 

You hear this refrain fairly regularly when you travel, in hostel dorms and hotel foyers around the world, always from homesick Aussies pining for a sunburnt country. They’ll nod at each other and bond with a favourite saying: “Kinda makes you glad you’re Australian…” 

They might say it after enduring a sweaty, jam-packed trip on a London Tube. Maybe it will be after a dose of food poisoning from a Thai marketplace. It could be when faced with the urban sprawl of LA, or after being exposed to the poverty of India. 

Australian travellers, in my experience, are rarely afraid to confide that our country is better than the one they’re currently travelling in. 

I’ve never really bought into that. I’m not a fan of nationalism and I’m not the world’s best patriot, and I also find it a little condescending to be travelling through someone else’s country and be silently thankful that you get to go back home to your own. 

Australia is great, but so are plenty of other countries in their own special way. Travellers should be trying to celebrate that. If you’re going to be glad to be Australian, maybe wait until you’re back there to express it. 

That’s always been my opinion. Except, a few weeks ago I actually got it. For one of the first times ever while I’ve been travelling, I really was glad to be Australian. 

It happened because of a person I met in a small town in Sicily. Nadin was staying in the same hostel dorm as me, lying on a bunk bed reading her Kindle when she suggested we head out together to find some food. I was travelling solo – sounded good. 

So we found a place to eat and got chatting. Nadin wasn’t Australian or even a Kiwi – she was from Iraq. How often do you meet an Iraqi backpacker? For me, never. A complete first. 

Nadin, I gradually found out, had spent the first 23 years of her life living in Baghdad, but for the last 11 years had resided in Malmo, in southern Sweden. She and her sister had been forced to flee the Iraqi capital during the second Gulf War, afraid for their lives during the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. 

OK, this is not standard dorm-buddy dinner conversation. I’m used to the old “how long have you been travelling for, which part of Australia are you from” chat. Not, how did you flee your war-torn homeland? 

Nadin and her sister paid a people smuggler. You know those traders in human misery? One of them saved her life. As Saddam fled and those associated with him were hunted down – Nadin’s father was a professional musician and a favourite of the president, who’d bought their family a luxury apartment in the city centre – she and her sister gave all of their savings to a man who smuggled them out of the country and into Sweden, where they were able to seek asylum. 

Now, 11 years later, Nadin is a professional musician in her own right, fronting a world music band that tours the globe. She performs for school kids in her spare time, and teaches Swedish and English to fellow refugees. She also, in an unassuming way, makes you feel like a desperate underachiever. 

I teased this story out of Nadin over a whole evening, and it was an incredible tale of bad luck, near misses, bravery and fear. She can never go back to her homeland, but was fortunate to have been able to leave it. 

If you ever wanted to hear something that would make you truly glad you were lucky enough in the ridiculous lottery of life to turn out to be Australian, then that was it.

What Nadin has been through, none of us will probably ever come close to having to experience. Forget the condescension. Forget the misplaced patriotism. Forget the crowded Tube rides or the doses of Bali Belly. Nadin’s story is the kind of stuff that would make you turn to any other traveller and mutter that old refrain: “Makes you glad you’re Australian.” 

It also makes you think more about sharing it around. 

What have you seen or heard on your travels that has made you glad to be Australian? Post your comments below.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

Comments