Expats returning to Australia: 13 things that shock people who have been living overseas

We're back. With coronavirus sweeping the world and so many countries badly affected, the pull for expats to return to Australia has never been stronger, with many, like me, already finding themselves back on our land girt by sea.

Australians are returning from Europe, from the US, from Asia. Former residents are flocking home to the lucky country to enjoy our (relatively) coronavirus-free lifestyle, getting reacquainted with everything this place to offer.

Mostly, that's a good thing. However, as one of those returning residents, I can tell you that reverse culture shock is real, and there are a few quirks of Australian life that it takes a while to get used to once you return ...

(It's worth noting that your personal level of culture shock will very much relate to the place you've come back from. I've arrived from Spain, so the differences are subtle, but real.)

Everything is expensive

There's going to be a parking meter crackdown in Stonnington.

Parking is expensive in Australia.

I'm still, unfortunately, that guy who compares the price of everything in Australia to the equivalent goods and services in Spain. Going out for food and wine here in Australia is insanely expensive. Parking your car is expensive. Paying your rent is expensive. I'm sure it's not true but it sometimes feels like everything in Australia has a huge premium whacked on top of it.

We're terrible drivers ...

I might not be saying this if I'd just returned from India, or Egypt. But I've returned from Spain, where people drive well. Fast, but well. With no road rage whatsoever. And then you get to Australia and see people driving in the overtaking lane without actually overtaking, or refusing to let vehicles merge just in case they slip one car further back, or beeping their horns or raising their fists at any perceived wrong. It's not good.

... but we can use roundabouts

Most Brisbane drivers don't know how use a roundabout.

Roundabouts were invented in France, and because of that, apparently, no one in Spain has any respect for them or any desire to learn how to use them properly. Hence, every entry onto a dual-lane circle in the Iberian Peninsula is a wild game of vehicular roulette. Australians are better.

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Everyone here eats really early

"Any last orders there guys?" I looked at my watch: 8pm! Last orders at 8pm! I realise things are different right now thanks to coronavirus restrictions, but still, I'm constantly surprised at how early everyone in Australia eats. Most of my friends seem to have their dinners done and dusted by about 7 o'clock. That still feels weird to me.

The shops are open on Sundays

It took me the good part of a year to get used to the fact that Spanish supermarkets (and most other shops) are closed on Sundays. It was also a slog adjusting to siesta, just never bothering to go out to buy anything between about 2pm and 4pm. Now though, the reverse is happening: it feels strange to me that the shops are open all day, every day. The convenience!

People are friendly

The good people of the Basque Country, where I lived, tend not to be immediately friendly to strangers. People don't smile at you on the street. They don't offer to help you with, say, your kid's stroller or your shopping. So it's still a pleasant surprise to me when Australians do that, when walkers smile at me in the morning, when people offer to help if I'm struggling. Australians are kind to people we don't know. We should be proud of that.

We're truly multicultural

Check out the "sabores del mundo" – "tastes of the world" – section of a Spanish supermarket and you'll find specialty products from… other parts of Spain. Maybe Italy. Possibly France. Walk the streets of the Basque Country and you see the same faces over and over again, the same heritage, the same culture. Australia is immediately and noticeably different, a society of so many different traditions and ethnicities.

Public transport is scarce, and expensive, and necessary

So much of the rest of the world does public transport better than us. Japan, South Korea, Singapore, pretty much everywhere in Western Europe. It's a disappointing surprise to get back to Australia and discover how expensive and scarce public transport is here, and how much we need it. Sydney to Melbourne high-speed rail, anyone? Anyone?

Parking spaces are enormous

This is entirely trivial, but still, in Spain you have to be an absolute ninja to park a car properly; here, the spaces are enormous! You could park a jumbo jet in those things.

There's nothing to do here ...

But then, there's nothing to do anywhere. Part of the discombobulation of our return to Australia this time – and I imagine it's the same for so many returning expats – is that the home we find is not the home we left. COVID-19 restrictions have changed everything, and you have to keep reminding yourself that the country you just fled is going through the same thing.

Our cities are huge sprawls

You get used to the way cities look and feel in Europe. They don't go out so much as up. People live in apartments; those apartments have everything you could need within walking distance, including markets, specialty shops, bars and restaurants. Most people in Australia, meanwhile, want a quarter-acre block, which means sprawl, it means commuting for several hours a day, it means getting in the car to buy groceries, it means our modestly-sized cities have huge geographical footprints.

I can understand everyone; they can understand me

It still surprises me, every now and then, to be greeted in perfect English. I occasionally find myself mentally rehearsing the things I'm going to say before I get into an interaction with a stranger before I remember, oh yeah, we speak the same language. I can just talk. Spending so much time inside my home since returning to Australia has really drawn that phenomenon out.

Everything is safe and predictable and understandable

Australia makes sense to me, in a way that a foreign country almost never will. Perhaps that's the biggest thing to get used to on your return from a long stint somewhere overseas. Just knowing the way everything will work, and knowing how to fix it if it doesn't. Being able to predict other people's actions, knowing the reasons we all do what we do. Knowing what you can get away with and what you can't. Knowing the unwritten rules and societal norms. We travel to escape that, to add some mystery and some excitement to the everyday. Still, I'm sure that for so many returned expats right now, safety and predictability is a pretty good thing.

Have you ever suffered reverse culture shock in Australia? What surprised you the most about your own country?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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