Exotic Normalcy

We ventured into downtown Brisbane yesterday afternoon for our first look around the CBD (city business district). We exited the train at Central Station, which harkens up images of the grand halls of New York City and Washington, D.C., but instead seems to be a low-lying, lovely old façade of sandstone nearly buried under the city’s modern edifices.  (I’ll have to go search out the main hall sometime and see if it’s adequately decorated.)

Our first order of business: get local mobile phone numbers.  We took a stab in what we thought was the right direction to get to the store Matt had searched out online earlier in the day. Instead, we detoured into a park that holds the city’s World War II memorial, another memorial to the South African war dead (I assume that meant the Boer wars, but will have to check that), and a view of what looked like the old court house.  

Those monumental edifices seemed familiar in an old European way.  It was the ibis high-stepping across the lawn that got my attention.  I stopped to gawk at one rooting in the grass. As I pulled out my camera (the better to look like a tourist), I buttonholed a passerby who looked like a local – “what are those birds, and are they pests?” I asked.

His answer:  “Well, yeah, ibises are pests. But they’re a native pest.” 

How Australian!  This is a place where the path through customs is punctuated with regular reminders to declare *everything*:  foodstuffs, whether you went wading in a freshwater river in your fishing gear that might have picked up insects’ eggs or freshwater bugs, whether you have any soil particles stuck to your shoes — anything and everything is a threat to this isolated island continent and its ecosystems. 

I’m sure you’ve heard that rabbits have overrun Australia – introduced a century ago for sport into a world where they had no predators, no mites, nothing to attack them and keep them unhealthy or their population numbers low, they thrived, breeding like the rabbits that they were. Bill Bryson says in his book In a Sunburned Country that there are millions of them here, and that they ate away the continent’s native plants, destroyed its topsoil, and cannot be removed… even an effort to introduce a natural microbial toxin that would kill them just made the stronger ones survive.  Evolution in action, on an island nation that is the pinnacle of weird evolutionary success.  Platypuses, echinoderms, giant jumping marsupials that evolved from their tiny kin, the kangaroo mouse.  This place is a biological experiment in geological time.

And it’s exotic to me, even though the natives find it all normal. Hence, my fascination with the ibis and its nearby mates in this postage-stamp-sized park tucked between office buildings downtown.  I was prepared in part for this sight only because my friend E recently told us a similar story of her time in Malawi, where the ibises were bigger and more aggressive, eating trash on the street and picking their way past people only slightly taller than they.  But even so, that first ibis sighting was a surprise.  To me, they are exotic creatures, with their ungainly walk, curved beaks, and leathery spotted heads.  I think they are lovely.  And yet, they are the equivalent of the pigeons and seagulls of North America, the ugly trash birds that pester and annoy.  They are as exotic as cement here in Brisbane.

Matt eventually led me away from the park, and got us turned in the right direction so that we stumbled into the main shopping area on Queens Street.  Elegant grill work armors some of the older buildings in this pedestrian zone here, which is lined with everything from upscale shops like Chanel and Swarovski to cheap sports stores, a mall with a Target, and cotton clothing shops (including one called Cotton On), all in the throes of post-Christmas, summertime sales.

Say that again and roll it over your tongue:  Christmas summer sales.  That’s a weird one and, of course, entirely normal here.  (Have I mentioned yet that it’s been lovely and warm here?  Warmth in December throws me off, but that’s another essay for later.)

And yet, it’s all familiar too.  The price knockdowns, the come-on call to buy.  Even the same stores are here, from Body Shop and Lush to the ALDO shoe stores I first met up with in Switzerland years ago.  I have yet to find Zara, but I’m sure it’s there.  (Did I mention the Target, with its familiar red bull’s eye?)  And while Burger King is called Hungry Jacks, you know it’s BK from the orange burger logo. Normal, and yet slightly off kilter here on the other side of the world.

That sense of familiarity breeds a feeling of ease of connection and understanding:  a familiar language with an accent that makes it difficult for me to understand, but in which I can still communicate. 

And a familiar infrastructure of sorts:  We found our telephone company of choice and purchased local sim cards for our phones, topping them up for the month.  Finally we were reconnected with the world.  We have had a pretty bad Internet connection here, and picked up a portable wireless connection as well.

It turns out that our rental building has hit its internet limit.  Since we’ve arrived, we have found out that phone and internet accounts here are limited – but not how we are used to that concept.  You get only so much bandwidth per month, and it’s translated into a dollar amount that you must then top up.  That sounds normal.  But wait a second:  So, say you buy a $20 starter package for a month.  That gets you phone calls, text messaging and data downloads, amounting to $150.  Say what?  When Matt read the payment schedules at the store, you could see his mouth torque and his eyebrows furrow:  “Why not just translate that into the rates?” he said to the lovely young woman helping us, X dollars for X minutes and so on.  “Yeah, no one really understands this system except the Australians,” she said, shrugging.  It’s just normal here.

That’s the joy of traveling, right?  Bumping up against the things that a society has come to accept as normal — the activities, objects, habits built up over time into monoliths of the everyday.  These are the things that make a place what it is:  Swedes and their fika, numbered tickets for queuing and a sense of lagom.  The salt they crave, their cinnamon rolls. 

I’m looking forward to finding the equivalents of these things here in Australia.  I’ve started my own shortlist at the moment of normal things that have thrown me for a loop.  Alongside the other flora and fauna here (even the mourning doves look exotic with their crested heads), at the top are the ibises.  You can be sure I’ll keep posting as the list lengthens.

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One Response to Exotic Normalcy

  1. Lila says:

    In London, we just kept a list of words that were unique to British English or meant something different to Brits and Americans. I think we had about 100 on the list by the time we left. I wish we had kept this other sort of list, too!

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