Thursday, November 20, 2008

Big Differences

In the past three years, we have lived in three different countries--Qatar, The Netherlands, and Australia--with occasional visits to the States and Germany mixed in with small vacations in France and Italy (and Dubai and the Seychelles...and Singapore on the way here...). Whew. I feel jetlagged just looking at that list, but that's not why I bring it up. The point is that we've been living away from the States for a while now, and after initial settling in time, we adjust to where we are. The culture, the lifestyle, the language (if necessary), the people, the style of dress, etc. When I first arrived in Doha, I couldn't stop staring at the local dress. I had never been in a Muslim country before, and I'd only seen abayas and dishdashas on TV or movies. Seeing men in white and women in black from head to toe (finished off with huge designer sunglasses in either case) was a very new experience for me, and it felt DIFFERENT. But then I adjusted and didn't notice anymore. I didn't wear shorts or tanktops (too revealing and disrespectful), but I'm not really a shorts-and-tank-top-wearing kinda girl anyway. Jeans or skirts, short-sleeved tops or blouses were fine, and though I never stopped noticing the sunglasses or the massive flashy watches that are so requisite for the local men and on display in every jewelry shop window, I did stop noticing how differently we were dressed. I even learned some Arabic, though it wasn't particularly necessary. With so many foreigners, English was the rule. I also got away with English in The Hague. Although the Dutch are fiercely protective of their language (all printed material is in Dutch, though you get an occasional Turkish or Arabic translation), almost everyone speaks English in the major cities. My height and blondish hair often led to assumptions that I was Dutch and some communication confusion, but on the whole, English got me through (though my basic shoppers' Dutch was well-received). Of course, there were other adjustments to be made. European grocery shopping, for example, in which it takes visits to several shops often over several days to complete your list. And the fridge is so tiny that we bought milk every other day. Same deal with the washing machine. I was perpetually grocery shopping and doing laundry...but you get used to it.
Now we're in Australia, and there aren't these big adjustments to be made. There are hardly any adjustments at all, actually. It's amazing. The settling in process was so streamlined that we were settled here faster than we were able to do in New Orleans. We had a house, a car, and a scooter in no time flat. We are close to the big chain grocery store, which looks just like big chain grocery stores back in the States and has almost the same type of selection. There are subtle reminders like this...

but otherwise we could be somewhere in the States.
Yes, there's an Aussie tilt to it, but the language is English. Burger King is called "Hungry Jack's" and breakfast is "brekky", but most other differences are British-English (as opposed to American-English) that we learned in the UK years ago (cookies are "biscuits", diapers are "nappies", strollers are "prams", and most importantly pants are "trousers"--because here and in the UK, "pants" are underpants). Like the States and most unlike The Netherlands, it's a car culture here and people drive EVERYWHERE. Even short distances that seem so inviting to cycling or walking are most often tackled by car. Which finally brings me to the biggest difference we get on a daily basis: DRIVING ON THE LEFT.

When we first arrived, I was a bit afraid to drive. Markus spent a few years driving on the left in the UK, but I did it about 4 times and only then to get to Safeway and back, shaky the whole time in his little manual diesel car with my automatic transmission, drive-on-the-right brain. Once we were here, I was not eager to get behind the wheel when the wheel was on the wrong side of the car! But ya know what? It's not that bad. At all. I was surprised at how quickly I adjusted, and I think it's mostly because the roads (and parking spaces) are large and open here (not like in Holland where I cringed entering the underground garage in our big car). In Qatar, nearly everyone drove a white SUV and in The Netherlands, cars are far smaller on average and most are European brands, but here I see about the same mix I'd see at home, though with LOTS of Holdens (an Aussie brand) mixed in. Driving on the left isn't hard or nearly as confusing as trying to figure out which part of the road was for cars as opposed to trams, cyclists, pedestsrians or even horses in The Hague. I have yet to find myself on the wrong side (which ironically is the right side) of the road. The only adaptation I had to make was for using turn-signals. Yes, I actually use them, but for several weeks I kept turning on the windshield wipers every time I wanted to turn or change lanes because the switch is on the other side of the steering wheel. Now the difference I notice is when my mind is on auto-pilot when I walk out to the car, I unlock and climb in to drive away...on the passenger side (front left). Oops.

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