The most surprising things about Australia, according to an Italian expat

Giovanni at the Great Ocean Road. Image: Supplied

Giovanni moved from Pesaro (a relaxed town between the hills and the beach in the middle of Italy) to Sydney in 2010 to take a Master in Business Administration at Macquarie Graduate School of Management.

He then worked for four years in management consulting, travelling in a number of cities including remote areas of Queensland, and he is now working on few projects in the M&A industry.

Here’s what has surprised him most about Australia in his time here.

People walking around barefoot

I was surprised to see people walking around barefoot not just at the beach but everywhere else – on the main street shopping, and at the supermarket buying groceries. Even more surprising was to see girls, all dressed up, walking barefoot after the night out with the shoes in their hands.

Not being a girl, I can’t talk from experience, but it leads me to assume heels here are more painful than in the rest of the world.

People whisper in meetings

At first I blamed it on my hearing playing games, but then I realized that people here tend to “whisper” their comments during work meetings.

It is a well known that Italians are loud and do not shy away to make everyone aware they are in the room. After having to repeatedly ask “Can you say it again”, I finally came to accept that it wasn’t the fault of my ears.

I am not sure if it is just matter of local manners, or a matter of different volume standards. Regardless, my meeting minutes tend to end up with a lot of blank spaces.

There is no confrontational feedback

I think Australians have developed a finely tuned way of giving non-confrontational feedback.

I am a simple person and at work back at home I got used to saying it as it is: “I think this is good, I think this is bad, I would do this, I would not do that.”

Since I started working in Sydney, I’ve discovered that rarely people at work openly disagree on something. It’s a less confrontational environment, a subtle game of hints and allusive words, avoiding being too direct and risking upsetting someone.

It remembers me of a shark (Australia!) circling its prey. It’s saying it while not saying it: “Maybe you could also consider this”, “That is a great approach – and by the way, I have seen this other idea working well,” and so on.

So, to help new arrivals: when Australians say this, what they really mean is: “This sucks.”

Cockroaches and spiders everywhere

This may sound a cliché, but it is very surprising for a foreigner: the insects. The sheer quantity of them.

  • Cockroaches: so many of them, everywhere, all the time. After the first year trying to get rid of every single one of them, I am now inclined towards a more philosophical approach: if you can’t fight them, befriend them.
  • Spiders: I was pretty impressed to see for the first time a huntsman in all its enormity, but I will never forget the time I was driving my motorbike, when I suddenly noticed a dark shadow moving on the left side of my helmet. It became quickly clear that a spider was walking on my visor, yet not on the outside, but on the INSIDE.

Yes, I had an ginormous huntsman walking on my left eye for about a minute, while driving 100km/h. I found a spot to pull over and threw away my helmet to see the spider jumping out like something out of Ridley Scott’s “Alien”.

So Australian.

The Asian influence is surprisingly strong

When I first landed here I was surprised to see how many Chinese there are in Australia. This was especially the case when I started attending university: it felt like being teleported to China.

The population is so young

Photo: Chris Hyde/ Getty

The first thing I noticed walking around was how young everybody was, and how many children there are. Try walking around any city in Italy, which has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, and you will understand what I mean; no children around, and grey hair everywhere.

The age difference is also very noticeable at work: I happily find out that here your manager may be in his early 30s while senior leadership meetings are full of young faces.

In Italy, at 40 you are probably still considered a “young guy trying to emerge” and board rooms are full of people that should have already retired 20 years ago.

Good on you Australia.

The pizza is world class

Now you probably expect to read about me complaining that the pizza here is lower quality than in Italy, that the taste is different, it is less this, it is more that, etc. etc.

I will say it: I have had excellent pizzas in Sydney. And I mean excellent pizzas, by an annoyingly picky Italian standard.

And for anyone asking, among other excellent places, my recently discovered favourite one is Caracalla in Haberfield, in Sydney’s inner-west. You have to try it.

Girls at construction sites with “Slow Down” signs

When you drive past road works and there is always a girl holding a ”Slow down” sign. Never a guy. I’ve never seen this before – in fact, I’ve never seen girls in a construction environment.

Then I have been told that drivers tend to pay more attention and effectively slow down if a girl is holding the sign rather than a man. Tricky!

The drinking culture is faster and harder…

Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

This would probably deserve an article on its own. Australians drink differently than Italians.

I do not want to generalise too much, but in Italy drinking is about enjoying the evening, while here for many (not all) it is about getting smashed. It’s as if you can’t go out and have a good time if you don’t get drunk.

I discovered what I call the “horror of empty”: you can’t have your glass empty for than 10 seconds before the next round is in your hand.

Now I enjoy my drinks, but I am used to drinking more slowly, having breaks between glasses and not feeling guilty to decline the immediate next round.

… but there are so many rules

There are also a surprising amount of alcohol-related “Do’s and don’ts”, in what I’d describe as a policy over reaction: bouncers and security everywhere, you can’t take your glass out of the venue, cocktail pouring is strictly measured, you can’t hang around for a chat outside of a pub or you’ll get ushered away – the list goes on.

Italy is much more relaxed in this sense, free pouring is fine and you can have your drink while walking in the street.

Finally, the fire alarms

Photo: Cameron Spencer/ Getty.

Australians love fire alarms.

In 30 years in Europe I never had one single situation where the fire alarm went off, and everyone was evacuated from the office, only to come back half an hour later.

Now I am used to a couple of fire alarm drills a year.

I remember in Brisbane suddenly waking up at my hotel’s fire alarm going off at 4.30am, with a loudspeaker shouting “Emergency, out now! Emergency, out now!” I quickly dressed, ran outside, and found myself in the street as the only person wearing an office suit, surrounded by half-naked people in their pyjamas.

False alarm. “Everyone can go back to bed now”. I was too awake to sleep and already dressed, so I decided to go straight to the office.

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