Originally created 09/19/00

Aussies a laid back bunch



SYDNEY-It's dangerous to define a country's psyche based on just a few days' impressions, but since I'm in Australia, land of the fearless, I'll do it anyway.

It's amazing how uniform the impressions are from people of widely diverse backgrounds. Either there's a common thread here or they've all been reading the same guidebooks I have.

The Aussies I've talked to like to talk about how easy going they are, how they don't get too shook up about anything. They take everything in stride. They say they don't take politics too seriously and have a good sense of humor. That jibes with what I've seen.

I'll offer some examples:

I was eating a late dinner of chili and wine at an outdoor café at Sydney Harbour when this young couple sat down next to me.

They were very affectionate to each other, holding hands and kissing. In fact they were the kind of kisses that made Al Gore's famous back-bending kiss look like the peck on the cheek people who have been married 10 years give each other.

I tried not to look, but my chili was beginning to boil over in the bowl.

After a while they stopped so I struck up a conversation and asked them what Australians were like.

"We're more laid back here," said Jenny Twohill. "Nothing much bothers us. Although some people do get serious. Ask Karl, he's a bouncer."

Karl van Middeldyk just smiled and said, "Oh, yeah."

Many middle aged and older Australians are unassuming and don't like to draw attention to themselves. They even have a name for this: the tall poppy syndrome. It's the tall poppy in the field that gets cut down first, so it's better to blend in. Sometimes it even applies to politicians.

Prime Minister John Howard was leaving a museum in the Rocks section of Sydney and a respectable crowd gathered on the street to see him. There were only about five policemen to keep the citizens from getting too close. When McDonald came out he got a small cheer and sort of sheepishly went out to shake hands.

Many of the people seemed interested but not excited. Many just walked by. But then this is a country where a prime minister once was walking along the beach and simply disappeared. Politicians just don't seem that important.

And speaking of politicians everyone here seems to know about Bill Clinton and his intern problems.

While having a beer with Paul, a longshoreman, we started discussing Cuba. The talk turned to cigars and Paul yelled out "Monica, Monica, Monica," accompanied by pelvic thrusts. Makes you proud to be an American.

At a media gathering before the Olympics started I was talking to Nepo Gonzalez,a broadcaster who moved to Australia from Paraguay 25 years ago. He considers himself an Australian, but still has emotional ties to Paraguay.

"That's how it is with many people in our country," he said. "We don't have those strong national feelings because we come from so many different places that we still care about."

Just then Elena walked over and agreed. She was born in Australia but her family is from Singapore.

"I'm an Australian," she said. "But I don't get too excited about the politics. I like to travel a lot, so I don't really know that much about our government. We have a great country, but we know there are things that could be better. So we don't like to go around telling everyone how great we are."

It's not a perfect society. They still have issues to resolve with the aboriginal people, and their dollar is much weaker than the American dollar. But they are putting their best face on for the world, presenting marvelous Olympic Games in spectacular settings. They're making everyone feel welcome in Sydney.