Be Nice to Australians Month

Part of learning how to become Australian has meant trying to figure out the relationship between Australian and New Zealand.
Woman stands on hilltop bench above Auckland
Growing up in Canada, I never thought much about NZ. Australia had a defined character, a national brand, thanks to Crocodile Dundee and Foster’s beer ads. New Zealand was just a place on the map, like Wales or Delaware.

One article described Aus and NZ as “two warring children with the same parents“, which is a lengthy way to say siblings. The author couldn’t pinpoint the origins of the rivalry, though a lot of it has to do with sport – and possibly the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

My most significant insight came from the March 2007 Tourism New Zealand marketing campaign Be-Nice-to-Australians Month.

The campaign was created in earnest, and involved “painting New Zealand green and gold” in honour of Australia. It also encouraged Kiwis to cut back on the snide remarks: “While one comment is pretty innocuous, if every second Kiwi makes a comment about the cricket or about the rugby, it will start to grate on them.”

New Zealanders didn’t respond well to it. An article in the NZ Herald describing the initiative was headlined “Through gritted teeth”. The Herald ran a follow-up article of collected responses.

What I found most interesting about these comments is that you could substitute Canada/America for New Zealand/Australia in most of them. Take these:

“I am all for a Be-Nice-To-Australians month. And from the 1st of April, I will be looking forward 1000 years or more to the next one.”

“How can you be nice to people whom 90 per cent of do not know where NZ is or even that it exists? To the average Australian, New Zealand means zilch.”

Works both ways! A Canadian political TV show used to have a segment called Talking to Americans. In it, a reporter travelled to the US and interviewed Americans about fake Canadian news stories, like the dome we had to install over the igloo that serves as our capitol building, to prevent it from melting. At one point, the governor of Arkansas congratulates Canada on preserving their national igloo.

I’ve enjoyed getting to know New Zealand as part of our Australian experience. It has some of the most unique places I’ve ever visited, like Hot Water Beach, Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, and Hells Gate Mud Spa. (Smearing that mud on my face was a mistake though, I had a splotchy face rash for the rest of the trip.) 

I wonder if, as Canadians, we would have fit in better in New Zealand. But I suspect much of the ‘rivalry’ stems from both nations’ habit of expressing affection (and many other feelings) through needling sarcasm – and that’s something I’ll never adjust to.

 

Traveling well or flatchat?

Australia has 10,000 unique words, according to The Story of Australian English by Kel Richards.

In comparison, Canada only has 4,000 unique words, despite having 10 million more people. It’s shocking to me that Canada has even that many specifically Canuck terms, but could come up with three: toque, poutine, and using borrow to mean lend, as in, ‘Will you borrow me your toque? I’m going out for poutine.’
Story of Australian English book cover by Kel RichardsOne of the great joys of living in Australia is discovering its eccentric and creative language. My only disappointment is that it’s not used more. Maybe it’s because I live in the city, but it’s relatively rare for me to receive a g’day.

That was one of the few Australian terms I knew before I arrived, one of the handful of words that appear on every list of ‘Aussie slang you need to know!’ along with arvo, sunnies, barbie, etc, etc. There’s no thrill of discovery in these words, although I’ve certainly come to use them. (And now I can’t understand why the rest of the English-speaking world doesn’t use arvo. Who has time to say all three syllables of afternoon?)

As I started reading more Aussie authors, I’d write out lists of baffling terms, then take them to friends for decoding. One list read:
– having a blue
– let’s get stuck into it
– it was suss
– to have geed up
– he sculled his beer
– possum light
– made a good fist of it
– scabby
– rough as guts
– grunty as
– munted
– smacko
– flatchat
– yonks
– travelling well
– it’s cactus
– people would be dark on him (this sounds a bit racist?)
– Brisvegas
– stitch me up
– furfy
– putting in the hard yards
– hard yakka
– sprucker

I could have looked up definitions on the internet, but it’s much more fun to ask people for their personal definitions. When I asked a friend what scabby meant, she replied, ‘dodge – down and dirty’. Which didn’t clarify anything, but definitely delighted me.

Now I understand many of the words of this list, but I rarely hear them, and use them even less. Which is a shame. What could be more linguistically delightful than calling something cactus, or describing yourself as either travelling well or flatchat?

I’ve lived in Australia nearly a decade and have probably added a few hundred words to my vocabulary. I’d love to learn another few thousand. This week a friend introduced me to the term sportsballer and now I want to use it all the time.

My new memoir, How to Be Australian, explores my journey to become Australian through everything from the language to the beers to the cultural neuroses. You can sign up to my monthly newsletter to hear about upcoming events related to the book.
xo

The new book, out this year!

I can finally share some exciting news with you. My second book will be out this June from Affirm Press. It’s called How to Be Australian, and it’s a memoir of moving from Canada.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt, author
In a lot of ways, the book is a love letter to Australia, this charming, vast, baffling country that has been my home for almost a decade now.

When my husband and I moved here, we thought it would be like Canada, but hot. Australia is completely unique, and I dedicated myself to learning about it, to travelling widely and to the ongoing journey of discovery that is being Australian. It’s a memoir of anxiety and becoming an adult and struggling with marriage, but mostly it’s a book about loving Australia.

This summer’s fires have been devastating across the country. It’s heartbreaking. To offer a tiny bit of help, I’m taking part in Authors for Fireys, which means you can get:

  • YOUR NAME in the acknowledgements of How to Be Australian, plus one of the very first signed copies
  • and a signed copy of My Name Is Revenge

To get in on this, you need to go to Twitter and post your bid in response to the original tweet here:

Melbourne’s most terrifying attraction

Melbourne Medical History Museum
When I visited the Medical History Museum at the University of Melbourne, the last thing I expected to find was Champagne Jimmy.

I expected to find Dr Tracy’s ovariotomy instruments. Well, not his specifically, but something very much like them.
Ovariotomy instruments, medial history
Dr Richard Tracy performed the first such surgery in Victoria in 1864, using this horrifying set of ovariotomy instruments. He became ‘locally and internationally renowned’ for his success with the procedure. The set contains a scalpel, scissors, ‘a vulsellum forceps (with hooked tips),’ a ‘double sharp hook for raising the peritoneum’, pedicle clamps with detachable handles, and on the left, a mess of thick greyish thread that looks like it’s been removed from a ratty blanket.

I also expected the original shock therapy machine from 1885, described as an example the annals of ‘quackery’. It uses a hand crank to generate a charge.
IMG_2077
I even expected to learn about bizarre apothecary treatments, such as the use of fox lungs for respiratory conditions. The Saxons believed that ‘for oppressive hard drawn breathing, a fox lung sodden and put into a sweetened wine, and administered is wonderfully healthy.’ (Fox lung in beer, however, results in blindness). 

Amid all that, Champagne Jimmy caught me off guard. First of all, check him out.
Champagne Jimmy or Diamond Jim, historic Melbourne medical doctor
The slicked-back horns, the bushy horseshoe moustache, his apparent love of the Hawaiian hang ten sign. Not to mention the uncorked champagne bottle at his feet, which is definitely what I look for when choosing a surgeon. ‘Does this guy know how to party?’ is the first question you should ask when considering a new doctor.

The museum describes Dr James Beany as a flamboyant and controversial senior surgeon and a ‘Melbourne personaility’. He was so flamboyant he earned himself two nicknames. He was called Diamond Jim for the rings he wore, ‘even during operations’, and Champagne Jimmy, ‘because of the champagne he dispensed freely.’

Champagne Jimmy sounds like an absolute delight. That is, until you picture him wielding the surgical tools of his era.
Historic medical surgery tools
Imagine it: you’re on the surgical table, wearing an old-timey paper gown, and in stumbles Diamond Jim, champagne bottle in one bejewelled hand, giant amputation saw in the other, and little flakes of sausage roll pastry stuck in his moustache. Right before you pass out (from terror; anesthetic doesn’t exist yet), Jim drops the empty bottle at his feet and flashes you the hang ten sign.

How this museum didn’t make Melbourne’s top ten attractions, I’ll never understand.

Lessons from Australia: You don’t hit sleepy lizards

Last week I was on a self-styled writing retreat in country NSW, near the Hunter Valley, and it was sublime. I spent most of the week at this desk, staring out at this view of the Williams River. I was interrupted only by eastern rosellas, kookaburras, and one dead mouse that showed up in the middle of the kitchen on our last morning like the perfect metaphor for the piece of writing I was working on, ie lifeless and a bit cliched.  Writing retreat bedroom with desk, view of river
The writer friend I was with, A, was a bit skittish of mice, so guess who had to scoop the fresh mouse corpse into a dustpan and drop it into the trash? I imagined it was the end the mouse would have wanted, laid (well, dumped) to rest among a week’s worth of food scraps.

Occasionally we stopped writing and went to explore this new corner of NSW. I can sum up our explorations in three incidents.

1. We go for lunch in Morpeth, a town that features a historic bakery, exclusive parking for ‘tourist coaches’, and, by law, a lolly shop. Inside Miss Lily’s Lollies, there’s a woman working behind the counter, and one other person, a man. He’s tall and fit-looking, in black dress pants and a pressed button-up shirt and shined shoes. He’s standing over three clear display buckets and talking loudly into his phone: ‘You’re all good for candy watches and candy bracelets, but you’re down to – one, two three – four, you’ve only got four candy watches. Definitely going to need more candy watches.’ He has the tone of someone conducting important business.

2. The Erringhi Hotel in Clarence Town has a $5 burger night on Wednesdays from 4-6pm. We’re eating our burgers at 5:57 in the pub courtyard, which has a garden that drops off down a small hill. A boy, maybe five years old, parades around the courtyard with a Spider-Man action figure. He stops at the edge of the hill, looking down into the darkness like he’s ready to take the plunge. A man that is probably his dad calls across the courtyard, ‘Tim, no.’
Tim swivels his head toward his dad, then back down the slope.
No,’ Dad says.
‘Bogeyman?’ Tim asks.
‘Yep,’ Dad says, and takes a swig of beer. Tim sighs and dashes into crowd.

3. While we’re out for a bushwalk, A tells me about the time her dad gave her tips for safe country driving while they were on a road trip in SA. ‘The important thing is not to swerve for small animals. It can be really dangerous.’

Soon after, while her dad is driving, they see a sleepy lizard crossing the road. He swerves around it. ‘What are you doing?’ A says. ‘You just told me not to swerve like that!’
In a tone that implies A is a bit of a monster, her dad replies, ‘You don’t hit sleepy lizards.’

Being a foreigner, I didn’t know what a sleepy lizard was, and later when I asked A about this, I couldn’t remember the lizard’s adjective. Smiley lizard? Shakey lizard? Sleepy lizards, I learned, are a slow-moving variety of blue-tongue skink exclusive to South Australia, and they are amazing.

It turns out sleepy lizards are known by many names: the shingleback, the stumpy tail, the pinecone lizard and the bob-tail goanna. Their diet consists mainly of flowers. They live as long as 50 years, and in that time, they develop a social network of both friends and foes. And one more thing about sleepy lizards: they grieve.

This research comes from ‘probably the longest-running lizard survey in the southern hemisphere, if not the world‘.Williams River, NSW Australia Australia always has new and fascinating things to teach me.

xo
Ashley

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A new life of mud pits and stink water

I recently discovered Anna Altman, an American author with chronic migraines. Altman  perfectly highlights truths like this: ‘Our culture encourages us to think that, if we push ourselves hard enough, we can overcome whatever ails us.’

As she discovered when her migraines became debilitating, it’s simply not true. But we deeply want it to be true, which is why it’s such a pervasive idea. In an essay about living with chronic illness, Altman describes what felt like her ‘failure to bear up under average hardship’ when she could no longer work full time. Yes, I thought. Exactly.

After trying all kinds of doctors and treatments for years with little success, Altman says, ‘I ended up finding that giving in to my limitations and trying to find a meaningful, happy life within them helped a lot.’ Her mother counselled that in spite of what she had to give up, she could make a new life for herself.

Giving In To Limitations And Forging A New Life was definitely the theme of my recent trip to New Zealand. When I say ‘recent’ I mean two months ago, because this is yet one more way I’ve given into limitations.

Steve and I booked the flights early last year. I suppose we thought I might be significantly better after all those months. We were very optimistic, it turned out.

In the past, planning a trip to New Zealand would have involved researching all the best hiking trails, kayaking spots, and sunrise yoga on the beach. By November though, it was clear I wouldn’t be doing anything physical. We still refer to the mildest incline as my nemesis.

If I couldn’t hike or kayak or swim, if I had to give into those limitations, what could I fill that gap with? What could this new life as a chronically ill person still desperate to travel look like?

Te Ika-a-Maui, New Zealand’s North Island, had a perfect answer: HOT SPRINGS. Living within the limits of chronic illness, traveling to hot springs

This photo from The Lost Spring looks incredibly relaxing, but what isn’t pictured is the chainsaw and wood chipper blasting away on the other side of that wall. It was actually intolerable, since one of my least fun symptoms is noise sensitivity.

But that was okay, because New Zealand has dozens of hot springs, and I’d planned to visit as many of them as possible. Hot springs are definitely within my limitations, as you can see here at Hell’s Gate mud spa, which was blissfully chainsaw free.  Traveling with chronic illness, hot springs in new Zealand

New Zealand is full of options. When you’re done slathering yourself in mud at Hell’s Gate, you can soak in this even smellier sulphur pool. It was super weird and I loved it. Traveling with chronic illness, hot springs in New Zealand, sulpgur

At the right time of day, you can visit Hot Water Beach in Hahei and get your able-bodied husband to dig a sand pit that will fill up with geothermically heated water. It seeps out of the ground at 65 degrees Celsius, so dig the pit carefully to make sure some cool ocean water seeps in also.  Traveling with chronic illness, hot water beach in New Zealand

Or just visit a traditional New Zealand cat cafe, where you can spend an hour sitting quietly, drinking a cup of tea, and feeding kibble to 17 cats. Traveling with chronic illness, cat cafe in New Zealand

I was able to see and do a lot while mostly sitting down and relaxing, which meant I felt especially good in New Zealand. I was still disappointed to miss out on sights like Cathedral Cove in Hahei, which was only accessible via a rather vertical one-hour hike or an expensive boat journey that would have been exhausting for me. I stayed in the shade on the beach and Steve hiked up on his own. Traveling in New Zealand Cathedral Cove

All that resting meant I was able to see some of the flatter sights, however. This was especially exciting in Rotorua, one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever seen. It’s an active geothermal area, which means all sorts of weirdness goes on. This is a park in the city, where there is a variety of steaming lakes and bubbling mud pits. This steam blows right onto one of the major streets. Travelling with chronic illness to Rotorua, New Zealand

I wasn’t kidding about the mud pits.

To see these sights, I had to walk around. This meant planning carefully and rationing my energy. It worked out. The highlight was Wai-O-Tapu. The website describes this ‘Thermal Wonderland’ as ‘a spectacular showcase of New Zealand’s most colourful and unique geothermal elements sculpted by thousands of years of volcanic activity’ and it is not wrong.

This is Champagne Pool, named for its bubbly constitution. Traveling with chronic illness, Champagne Pool, NZ

And this is Devil’s Bath, which Atlas Obscura describes as a ‘neon green pool of stagnant stink water’ and compares to ‘a cartoonish radioactive dump site’.  traveling with chronic illness, Wait-O-Tapu New Zealand

Trust me, I loved every minute of this. Even the minutes where my symptoms flared in the heat and I struggled to breath after battling a mild incline.

I’m very lucky to have been able to travel to New Zealand at all. Many people with chronic fatigue syndrome and other chronic illnesses wouldn’t be able to. Still, part of me insists that if I push myself hard enough, I can overcome my illness. Every time I try, I make myself worse.

So, welcome to 2019: The Year Of Giving In To Limitations And Forging A New Life … Again.

PS. In New Zealand, shopping carts are called TRUNDLERS. Really. Made my day.

 

Pose with my grave and skeleton

NewSouth City Series travel books

Before visiting Melbourne in September, I read Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. It’s one of the City Series from NewSouth, ‘travel books where no-one leaves home’. I’ve spent several years working my way around Australia while reading my way through this series. Melbourne has been my favourite yet.
Melbourne travel book in Melbourne Laneway
There’s a moment in the book where Cunningham is learning letterpress at a workshop downtown while listening to AFL (Aussie-style rugby) on the radio and taking soup breaks to stay warm. ‘I realised,’ she writes, ‘that I felt about as Melbourne as it’s possible to feel. It was a good sensation, one akin to (but colder than) waking up and taking an early morning dip at Bondi Beach and consequently feeling very Sydney.

This is my favourite description of both Melbourne and Sydney.Travel to the Nicholas Building Melbourne AustraliaThe letterpress workshop took place in the Nicholas Building. I was keen to visit it because of Cunningham’s description of the three ‘lift operators’ that work the building’s elevators. ‘Joan has been spending her days in the lift for thirty-five years, and its walls are covered with newspaper clippings and photos of children, grandchildren and animals. Some of the animals are her pets, others belong to building tenants.’

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to ride in a lift like that? It seemed too good to be true, and it was. Melbourne was published in 2011. Sometime since then, the lift operators have vanished. There were no newspaper clippings or photos, and I had to push the lift buttons myself.

Still, I was already inside and decided to wander around the Nicholas Building, which had the vibe of a curious relic. I was immediately rewarded with this sign on a seventh-floor door:
The Royal Over-Seas League in Melbourne, Australia
What is the Royal Over-Seas League? I’ve entertained myself by tossing around possibilities for days, and I’ve come to hope they’re the Avengers of the Commonwealth, like the Justice League but British, knighted by the Queen maybe – and I had stumbled on their Australian headquarters!

I was also rewarded when I reached the top floor.
Travelling in Melbourne Australia, discovering graffiti
Amid the mess of graffiti, I found a real gem:
Graffiti in Melbourne Australia
So now I know what I’ll carve on my tombstone. I’m even toying with the idea of having my skeleton put on a pole, like one you’d find in a science lab, and positioned beside my tombstone, perhaps holding a sign inviting photos. Could be a real tourism opportunity for whatever lucky city I’m buried in!

Being sick, I wasn’t able to do a lot in Melbourne. In my wanderings through the Nicholas Building, I went through the wrong door, got trapped in the stairwell, and had to walk down several flights to exit on the ground floor. The exertion of walking down stairs made me nauseous. And when stairs make you nauseous, that’s when you know it’s time to return to your hotel and go to bed at 4:17 pm.

Still, it was a treat to wander along different streets, sit in different cafes, and catch up with some the many friends who’ve moved to Melbourne. The theme of this catching up was definitely Let Me Tell You About How My Body Has Turned On Me, but that’s fine. I’d much rather people ask about my crazy illness than pretend everything is normal. And I’m slowly slowly slowly (like a sloth through tar) getting better, so I feel optimistic. I know I’ll eventually visit Brisbane and Adelaide and even Alice Springs, and read those books. Who knows what unexpected wonders I’ll stumble upon. ~

PS. The tour guide who helped me out was Local Guide to Melbourne. Highly recommended!

 

Brain worms: A Love Story

I’m in The Moth GrandSLAM this August – and here’s the story that got me there. It’s probably the greatest love story of all time (and my friends’ favourite story about me, ask any of them), so no wonder it won The Sydney Moth StorySLAM in April 2016.

This was the start of the now classic genre, a story in which I almost die, featuring my husband in the role of himself. This one takes place during my travels through Armenia.

The Moth is a live storytelling event that began in New York in 1997 and now takes place internationally. The theme was kin (the caption says jokers, but the caption is wrong).

A few things I particularly like about this video are how it feels like the camera is pushed flat up against my face, at what is definitely my most flattering angle. Also, that I’m sporting my trademark hairstyle, the clump. It’s gonna catch on, trust me.

 

Experience the nectar

Bhutan by Ashley Kalagian BluntIn 2015 I visited the Kingdom of Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan country wedged between China and India, like a pea delicately set between two butt cheeks. Bhutan is world renowned for its Gross National Happiness philosophy, which the government believes is a more important metric than the standard GDP. It’s less renowned for its history of ethnic cleansing, which forced more than 100,000 people out of the country and into refugee camps in the 1990s.

One other notable cultural aspect of Bhutan is that everyone is really into anatomy, specifically one region of male anatomy.  For example, one of the local drinking establishments is named Phallus Bar. Their slogan is  –  this is true  – Experience the nectar of Phallus Bar.

(I didn’t experience the nectar. I kind of regret it.)

Bhutan folk art tooIn villages in Bhutan, if you, as a male property owner, want to indicate to your neighbours that you’re strong and virile, you paint a giant phallus on your house. This is one of those cultural aesthetics that is perfectly acceptable in the region it originated in, but if that same Bhutanese guy were to move to the West, his neighbours may not appreciate his exterior decorating style. Or they might. It really depends what neighbourhood he ends up in.

Bhutan folk artThis obsession dates back to a Bhutanese religious folk hero, the Divine Madman. He was both a Buddhist master and ladies’ man, judging by his reputation as the “Saint of 5000 Women.” The Divine Madman used his “thunderbolt of flaming wisdom” (his term, not mine) to kill evil spirits. He was basically an x-rated Buddhist superhero.

This is all to let you know that in May, a monologue I wrote after my Bhutanese travels is being performed at Voices of Women in Sydney. It’s called “Tonight’s Performance: You’ve Definitely Got Rabies” and it doesn’t require you to know about the Divine Madman, Phallus Bar or anything about Bhutan. But aren’t you glad you do?