First Impressions from Down Under

Not one day has passed without drenching my shirt in sweat. Only for brief moments in my AirBnB, while sitting directly in front of the fan scanning for a more permanent home, do I find myself no longer dripping. But then I want a snack, or need to relieve myself, or have someplace to go, so I start rustling around in my bags. The sweat starts rolling down my back. Perhaps Seattle built up my winter insulation more than I thought, but even locals comment on the heat. It’s summer here in the Southern hemisphere and the sun is an over eager visitor. The temperature at 7:30 this morning was 24 C (75.2 F).

Units of measure: my first culture shock. While my training as a scientist and engineer has me accustomed to using SI units in the lab, they haven’t been everywhere in my life. , Celsius to Fahrenheit, kilograms to pounds, kilometer to miles. A small difference in standard, each one. But every time I come up against one, all other tasks stop, a little colored wheel whirls in my brain, motion stops, a moment skips by in conversation… and there we are. Back online. I collect myself and ask some mate, ‘What was that? I just lost a few seconds.’

Harder than any of these, however, and potentially more dangerous, is remembering which side of the road cars will be attacking me from. The British legacy reigns, with left-oriented traffic flow. I watch people waiting to turn across traffic, think Oh, they’re turning right. And there they go – left! Wild cognitive dissonance between symbolic language and physical expectations. Quick left-hand turns make my brain panic: Oh no! Crash imminent. Only to watch everyone continue on, just peachy. I find myself walking down the sidewalk, absent mindedly veering to the right hand side, only to look up and find people bearing down on me. More than once, I’ve started a dance battle – You go left, I go left. You go right, I go right.

But I’ve had plenty of opportunity to practice the switch in orientation, as I’ve spent the past few days walking around various neighborhoods looking for housing. It’s offered opportunity to get a better sense of the city, the feel of each place. West End is more of a neighborhood like Cambridge, MA, or Fremont, WA. South Bank, flanking Brisbane River south of the central business district, is a long stretch of public space, featuring restaurants, green spaces, museums, a giant public pool (pictured above), a movie theater. Like a combination of the Boston Greenway, the D.C. mall, and something else uniquely tropical. Highgate Hill, where I’m staying, is even more residential, more like Somerville, MA, or Maple Leaf, WA. The central business district, a.k.a. The City, is downtown anywhere, with large skyscrapers.  At its heart, Queen Street, a central pedestrian market that is well-groomed, clean, welcoming, and largely corporate. Down at the Southern tip of the City is Queensland University of Technology (QUT), where I’ll be working. It’s the Gardens Point Campus, so named for the Brisbane Botanical Gardens which border one whole length, the city’s Central Park, or like Volunteer Park mixed with Arboretum. Fortitude Valley apparently hosts the club scene. Matt, my advisor here at QUT, picked by up from the airport on Saturday night when I arrived and we drove through Fortitude Valley on the way to my AirBnB. All the boys and girls were dressed for a raucous evening. Everyone seemed composed, but it was just the beginning of their night. Brisbane residents are certainly dressier than Seattle, and not just going out, but for daily work as well

Through all these meanderings, I’ve been surprised at how familiar Brisbane feels. My reaction to the difference is like anticipating lifting a heavy object and finding it feather light. I’m off-balance and giggling a bit, somewhat surprised that I’m surprised. Yes, it’s a different country and certainly a different climate than Seattle. But the culture, at least in the city, feels much the same: a melting pot of different nationalities, primarily British, yet heavily influenced by a strong recent relationship with the United States.  I’m sure as I’m here longer, I’ll start to notice subtleties. But on first impression, it’s like speaking the same language with a different accent.


Header Image: South Bank swimming pool with central business district skyline behind. 


  1. michael v

    whoa, that public pool! looks lovely.

    Is the Australian vocab-of-the-week “mate”? Just curious how far into the weeds (or bush?) we’re going to get with uniquely aussie words.

    1. Trevor

      That’s the brilliance of a walkabout, Michael, you don’t know where you’ll end up. But we’ll certainly hit a few billabongs along the way. No need to worry about being thirsty.

  2. Nancy

    The photo of Brisbane surrounding the water is very reminiscent of Seattle. What is that body of water if you are an hour from the ocean? And if you are sweating so much, have you gone to the pool?

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