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American as they wanna be, Aussies still just blokes and mates

There's nothing like a 24-hour flight to really put you in a different world. I recently flew Qantas from New York to Sydney, Australia (before showing up in Melbourne, where I'm studying abroad this semester). We crossed the international date line from Feb. 13 to Feb. 15, skipping Valentine's Day — a useful trick I'll have to remember for future years.

So, disoriented, I stepped off the plane and found myself in a world strangely like America, and yet different in enough ways to keep me constantly guessing.

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My first hint that it was a foreign country was the radio's announcement that it was a "hot 36 degrees." And here I thought it was going to be summer — oh wait, I remembered. That's Celsius. Stupid American. I had the bus driver translate it for me. Also, distances are in kilometers, cans are 375 milliliters and my box of cereal is 500 grams. And prices are in dollars, which is confusing because they're Australian dollars so they're not worth the same amount.

I have accepted that for four months I will not know what the temperature is (besides "hot" or "cold"), how much things weigh or what anything costs. I also have no idea what size I wear, which made buying a swimsuit difficult. Like prices, sizes look deceptively American (as in "an eight" or "a 14") but they aren't the same. Finally I just asked the sales lady what size I looked like. "Twelve," she said, which made me gasp, since I was under the impression I wore a size six. Turns out size six is size 12 — or something like that. This conversation was also accompanied by wild gesturing. In theory Australians and Americans speak the same language, but often this is not the case in practice. You're a good bloke going to a smoko unless you're piss-weak. Whatever that means.

Aussies also have a bizarre system of rhyming slang. Americans, when they're behaving badly trying to buy 40s (what is that in milliliters?) after closing time in a liquor store with traveler's checks, are "seppos." Apparently the epistemology goes something like this — "Yanks" rhymes with "tanks" and septic tanks are everyone's way of summing up Americans. This is just the Aussie's way of coping with the fact that they could be our 52nd state, behind Canada as the 51st.

They watch "Dawson's Creek." They endure a merciless number of Tom Cruise movies. They sing along to Backstreet Boys on Top 40 radio. They wear American clothes, unfortunately, six months behind us fashion-wise, which means everyone's wearing the same stupid capri pants which had American women looking fat and short last summer.

More seriously, Aussies and Americans share broader similarities. Both governments are originally derived from the British system, though the Aussies actually voted to keep the Queen as the head of government last year. Both societies were built around a frontier that shaped the culture, a wilderness that caused people to value ruggedness and individuality. But if it is the 52nd state, it's a state with a twist, as if all of America were on the beach.

They play hard here, be it "footy," beach bumming or bar-hopping. There are containers for used syringes in bathrooms, shops featuring "non-violent erotica," people smoking pot fairly openly and a sensible drinking age (18).

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I've been playing in the Pacific Ocean, strolling through Melbourne's beautiful gardens and partying under the constellations of the southern sky. Instead of saying "OK," Aussies say "no worries." After a 24-hour flight and two-and-a-half years of Princeton, I'm ready for "no worries." Yeah, I'm beginning to like it here. Laura Vanderkam is a Woodrow Wilson School major from Granger, Ind. She is currently studying abroad in Australia and can be reached at laurav@princeton.edu.

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