Here's the funny thing about travel: you go to learn about the world, but you end up discovering just as much about the place you came from.
What are Australians really like? It's impossible to tell if you haven't been anywhere else to compare us to. It's impossible to assess our quirks, our annoyances, our successes and our failures if you have no experience of anyone else.
Are we really that funny? Are we really that sporty? Are we really that laid-back? You'll never know if you just sit there.
That's one of the glories of travel. It opens your eyes to the world. And it opens your eyes to who you really are. Here's what I've learnt about Australians.
This doesn't really fit with our larrikin, anything-goes mythology, but Australians are actually unfailingly polite. Spend time in certain other countries and you miss the simple niceties of Australian society: the way a stranger will hold a door open for you, or offer a hand if you look like you need one, or just smile and say hello. That doesn't happen everywhere.
We say "thank you" way too much
"Hola Ben," my Spanish teacher said to me recently. "Que tal?" I smiled. "Bien, gracias." She just laughed. "See, that's how I know you're not Spanish. You say 'thank you' too much." Australians really do say "thank you" far more than most cultures. We thank the waiter. We thank the bus driver. We thank the person who hands us a coffee. Most people don't do this.
We drink a lot
In plenty of other countries, you just don't see drunk people. In some places they don't drink at all, sure. But in others there's plenty of alcohol around, but they don't go silly with it. No one is wasted. Contrast that with the inner city of anywhere in Australia on a Saturday night and you begin to see that we might have a problem.
We don't smoke much
You only realise this when you leave our shores and it seems like every single person is a smoker. Your hair stinks. Your clothes stink. It's back to the bad old days.
We travel a lot (but so does everyone else)
This is another part of the national mythology: that we're extraordinary travellers, that we're everywhere at all times. And that's partly true. You always notice other Australians in pretty much every hostel or hotel around the world. But this is selective. What about all the Germans? The Swiss? The English? The Americans? They're there too.
We're only as sports-mad as everyone else
They love sport in Argentina too. Photo: AP
We love to tell ourselves that we're crazy about sport, that we have events that stop the nation, that we go nuts for any sort of competition. But … have you been to a football match in Argentina? Or a high school basketball game in the US? Or Test cricket in India? Now that's sports fandom.
We're lazy with languages
"What's your second language?" people always ask when you're in Europe. "Ahhh … Kiwi?" Australians are notoriously lazy when it comes to language. We speak English, and that's it. And we think that's fine.
We really are. We're happy to meet strangers. We're open. We're kind. I've heard it from travellers in Australia and I've noticed the difference when I travel: we may not be perfect, but in the grand scheme of things, Australians are a pretty friendly bunch.
If you were born in Australia, you're extraordinarily lucky. You won the lottery. You are the 1 per cent. When you look around the world and see the dire circumstances that so many people find themselves in thanks to geographical location, or poor governance, or wars that either take place within their country or spill over their borders, you get to appreciate just how ridiculously fortunate most of us have been.
But we don't want to share that fortune. We don't want to lose any of what we've got in favour of giving too many people a hand. You look at countries that have inherited serious problems through no fault of their own, as neighbours flee war-torn areas and they're forced to house and care for them, and you wonder why we can't find it in ourselves to shoulder more of the global burden.
We like rules and order
We're a nanny state, and we love it. Australians are supposed to be laid-back larrikins, but really we just want to be told what to do. We want a clean, functional, orderly society. We want to feel safe. We want security. And in order to achieve those things, we're more than willing to give up a few personal liberties.
We have no respect for our First Nations people
Look around the world. Look at Canada. Look at New Zealand. Look at any number of colonies with displaced indigenous people. Then look at the queues of Australians trying to climb Uluru recently while they still had a chance. Look at our lack of a treaty. Look at the way we so glibly tell people we're a "young country" without much history. We have no respect for Indigenous Australians.
We're a highly successful multicultural nation
Don't let conservative politicians scare you with stories of African gangs and Bantustan-like ghettos. Australia does multiculturalism well. There are hundreds of languages spoken in Australia by people from all over the world, and we all live together in a relatively peaceful, happy way. That's something that should be recognised and celebrated more often.
What has travel taught you about Australians? What are the good things and the bad things that you've learnt about your own country by going somewhere else?
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