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Picture: abc.net.au

So I woke up this morning and Australia had a new Prime Minister.

None of that drawn-out election nonsense for Oz this time. Just a challenge, some meetings, then an announcement, all in the space of 24 hours. Julia Gillard (aka Tilda Swinton) has deposed Kevin 07.

Now I don’t know much about Australian politics yet. I’m only a permanent resident, not yet a citizen, and as such, I’m not allowed to vote here. Being disenfranchised in this way has made it difficult for me to get too excited about the pollies here, despite my passion for politics in the UK.

Rudd struck me as basically a nice chap whose heart was in the right place but who bowed to pressure too much when things got tough. He possibly spent a bit too much time appearing on TV entertainment shows – I became convinced at one point that he just had a really good lookalike, but it turned out it was really him on Good News Week – but for a while, at least, he was hugely popular. He also had a great deal more gravitas than his TV persona suggested, according to a friend who met him a few weeks ago when he visited Perth.

Gillard had caught my eye in TV debates – I recall her tearing shreds off opposition leader Tony Abbott on more than one occasion – and it seems that no-one is particularly surprised she’s nabbed the top job.

But there are many interesting things about Ms Gillard, all of which are now being picked over by the Australian media. She’s Australia’s first woman PM. She’s unmarried. She has no children.

And she’s also an immigrant. She was born in Barry, Wales – where Gavin and Stacey is set – and her father sounds like he’s never left. Admittedly she’s been here a long time, since she was a child. It’s unlikely she ever found herself in my situation of being unable to vote in your country of residence, and her accent has been unfavourably compared to Kath’s from Kath and Kim. But an immigrant she is.

None of these factors are typical of your average politician – in Australia or the UK. So here’s hoping Ms Gillard’s policies are as positive as what she represents in a country that sometimes, when you are a left-wing, child-free, female immigrant, can seem like a very strange place.

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The other night a woman I’ve never met before came to my flat to buy something I’d advertised on Gumtree. Admiring the view from my lounge – over a park – she asks if I had ‘seen the Aboriginals there’. That’s a strange question, I think. It’s not a park with any particular significance to the indigenous population. Along with a million Aussie pubs, it’s named after the Duke of Wellington, who as far as I know had little positive impact on Aboriginal history. But it is a city centre park, and as such attracts its fair share of homeless people; sometimes they may even have had a drink or two. Ah-ha! The penny drops. She’s wondering if I’ve seen them.

True, there is evidence that there’s high likelihood of any homeless people being Aboriginal. And while indigenous Australians tend to drink less overall than white people, those that do drink often do so to harmful levels. Sadly, these things are not uncommon in Australian cities, but when you look at the staggering inequalities between indigenous and white Australians, is it really so surprising?

‘More than 200 years of dispossession, racism and discrimination have left indigenous Australians with the lowest levels of education, the highest levels of unemployment, the poorest health and the most appalling housing conditions.’

So says Oxfam, which is running a major campaign to improve indigenous health. Yes, that’s right – Oxfam, otherwise known for its work in war-torn Africa and the poorest Asian nations, is working in Australia.

A great deal of work is being carried out now to right the wrongs of the past. But I have still been shocked by the casual racism displayed by ordinary people.

My Gumtree purchaser, a well-dressed, articulate woman from a nice suburb, would probably be horrified to hear that I considered her comment offensive. But for me, defining a person’s unfortunate situation in life by their race is just bizarre. And I can’t imagine anyone in the UK saying to a complete stranger ‘Have you seen the Blacks?’ in a similar way.

It’s not my first experience of this either. A few days into my first proper job in Perth, a colleague circulated a poem by email. The punchline suggested that it was acceptable to throw tins of tomatoes at indigenous people. To this day I feel guilty that it took me several weeks to raise it with my manager (because I was keen to settle in and not ’cause trouble’ in my first month), and that I never directly challenged the sender about it (although I did find plenty of reason to challenge his views as the months went by – soon after he moved on from Aboriginal people to his deep distrust of all Muslims).

Is Australia a racist country? I like to think not. I’ve met many people who respect all cultures – and there are many represented in this nation of immigrants – including indigenous culture. But these incidents, along with the Hey Hey It’s Saturday debacle and shameful crimes like this, make me wonder if the nation is as comfortable with its multiculturalism as it should be.

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The Perth skylineIf swearing doesn’t raise too many eyebrows in polite Perth society, there is one thing that will – the admission that you choose to live in a city centre apartment block.

Anyone who has watched Neighbours or Home and Away will have an image of what the average Australian house looks like. In most British TV series, the homes are far grander than the average person can afford. But in Perth, the average home really is that big.

Perth folk have always had plenty of space to play with. The city has taken advantage of its relatively small population, and the fact there are no other cities nudging it on the shoulder.

Single-storey homes on big blocks have for many years been the norm. Those that can afford them have pools, while those that can’t usually still manage a double garage with room for the ute and the beer fridge. If you aren’t cashed-up from the latest mining boom, you might have to live in a slightly rougher area, a bit further out from where you work, but in a city where the car is king (despite its above-average public transport system), what’s the big deal?

But that’s not sustainable. Partly due to immigrants like me, Perth’s population is growing fast. All these people will need somewhere to live, and while coastal towns like Mandurah boom, and new towns are created, they are at the limits of a reasonable commute to the businesses in the CBD.

In the city, single homes on single blocks are becoming rarer, as the developers move in and transform the space formerly occupied by a single-storey home into three or four two-storey houses. A house on a single block next to the house we rented in Victoria Park recently sold for around $1 million. It looked like it would benefit from demolition – and I expect that is what will eventually happen. In Perth it’s often the land you’re paying for, not the property on it.

So homes are becoming smaller and taller, but the detached dream holds strong. I have viewed beautiful houses that are so close to the one next door that the planners insisted on obscured glass in the master bedroom, such is the risk of your neighbours catching you in your underwear (or worse). Then there are the mini-mansions that have four bedrooms, three bathrooms and a home cinema room but a postage stamp of a back yard, hemmed in by the neighbours’ walls.

Regeneration projects and the development of smart apartment blocks are drawing more people to the city centre. I’m one of them. Driven by a (somewhat pompous) desire to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, I’ve abandoned the Australian dream of a big detached house and purchased an apartment in East Perth, close to public transport and other facilities and designed to minimise the cost of heating and cooling. The block has a great mix of residents – but it is perhaps notable that very few of them are Australian.

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One of the lesser-known reasons why I thought I might feel at home in Australia is because Australians swear a lot.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am no foul-mouthed harridan. I swear selectively, only when appropriate and only when a more ‘acceptable’ word won’t do. But I don’t find swearing offensive. Swear words are just words with a judgement imposed on them. If you’re looking for an insult, combinations of non-swear words can be more effective.

I hate to say it, but my fellow Scots do have a reputation for peppering their speech with a few too many ‘swearie words’ as they are delightfully known on the west coast. Yes, swearing can punctuate a sentence to great effect. But it should be more of a semi-colon than a comma; tricky to use correctly but amazingly useful when you know what to do with it.

No matter how much they swear themselves, I suspect most immigrants from the UK will find the language used on Australian radio a bit of a surprise. Often British celebrity guests will accidentally let a minor swear word slip, sh*t, for example, and apologise, only to be told that of course it’s f**king alright for them to say that on air. Swear words in songs that would be routinely bleeped out overseas are left in here. This year’s top place in the Triple J Hottest 100 – a kind of chart of the year’s most popular songs – went to ‘Little Lion Man’ by Mumford and Sons, a track with a chorus lamenting how the singer ‘f***ed it up this time’. I heard thousands of people sing it out loud when the band played the Laneway Festival in Perth earlier this year. It wasn’t offensive, just slightly out of tune.

So if I’m so comfortable with all this foul language, you may be wondering why I have gone down the route of using asterisks to disguise – not very effectively – some of the words I’ve used here. My usual writing loosely follows The Guardian’s style guide – which is quite clear that no asterisks should be used.

But given that I’ve only been in this country five minutes, it’s probably best not to risk offending anyone. You never can tell what people will think. I recently told someone I have known for nearly 20 years that I thought I swore quite a lot, and they were visibly shocked – even although I am pretty sure I have never uttered anything much worse than a ‘bloody’ in front of them. So the asterisks can stay on screen; the full words are safe in my head, ready for the next time I have to deal with my mobile phone company or another crazy bit of Australian bureaucracy – what swearing was invented for.

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Rockwiz hosts Julia Zemiro and Brian Nankervis

Rockwiz hosts Julia Zemiro and Brian Nankervis

At the weekend I went to see the stage version of a TV show called RocKwiz. As the (irritatingly-spelled) name suggests, it’s a quiz about rock music. As most of you will never have seen it (even my work colleagues looked blank when I mentioned it; I mean, it’s on SBS which is hardly Channel 7 but still…) let me explain.

There are two teams of three – two members of the public, selected from the audience, plus one celebrity in each. The punters guess who the celebs are from clues read by host Julia Zemiro (who I love, mainly because she always wears black and red). The celebs come on, sing individually (backed by the RocKwiz Orchestra), take part in the quiz then duet at the end. For UK readers, it’s a little bit like Never Mind the Buzzcocks but with more live music. And fewer pop stars.

I have usually got no idea who the celebrities on RocKwiz are. I do actually know more about Aussie rock than a lot of immigrants, thanks to the collection of cassettes (yes! cassettes!) my other half brought back to Blighty after his first trip here in the 90s. Paul Kelly and the Hoodoo Gurus are among my favourite artists ever, and I don’t even resent the Gurus for giving me tinnitus when I saw them live a few months ago.

And I was secretly thrilled to discover that one of the celebs at the show was Deborah Conway, the former lead singer of a band called Do Re Mi, whose album I’d bought on a whim when I was 14. I’d only heard one song but Deborah had managed to tame her curly locks into what I thought was the coolest hairstyle EVER (there aren’t many positive role models for teenage curly tops) and she wore the most fabulous red dress in her video – an event which I suspect sparked off my lifelong obsession with finding the perfect red dress.

But as the show progressed, I quickly discovered the limitations to my knowledge of OzRock.  About halfway through one of the contestants, a man in a Mental As Anything T-shirt, was asked to perform a karaoke rendition of Khe Sanh by Cold Chisel.  I have never heard of this song, but judging by the crowd’s reaction I think it must be the Australian national anthem. Better learn it before I apply for citizenship. And I was astounded by the sheer number of questions about AC/DC.

Fortunately I don’t think it will take too long to get to grips with the whole Australian music scene, as it sometimes seems amazingly small for such a large – at least geographically – country. Six degrees of separation? Make that three.

As an example: RocKwiz (the TV version) is filmed in a venue in St Kilda, a fashionable suburb of Melbourne, where Paul Kelly lives. The drummer on the show is Peter ‘Lucky’ Luscombe.

Peter Luscombe on drums behind Paul Kelly at Escape to the Park, Perth, December 2009

Lucky Luscombe on drums behind Paul Kelly at Escape to the Park, Perth, December 2009

Peter plays drums in Paul Kelly’s band. At Sunday’s show, Ash Naylor was a guest member of the RocKwiz Orchestra. Ash has played in Paul Kelly’s band, replacing Dan Luscombe, brother of…you guessed it, Peter Luscombe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Peter is frequently credited for booking the talent on RocKwiz – which I think means he rings his mates and gets them on.

So I might not have been able to answer all of the questions. I might have had no idea who Henry Wagons, the other celeb, was (even although a Twitter search on Perth before the show turned up a tweet from him saying he was doing RocKwiz that evening, I still had to Google him) but it felt good to be part of a music scene that is not entirely dominated by MTV.

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Thanks to http://socialhoneycomb.com/So I’m in Australia. I have a permanent visa. I have a job I like. I am about to move into a rather nice apartment, where I hope to stay for several years. So it’s probably about time I made some friends.

Perth is a friendly city – it’s one of the reasons I wanted to move here. I’ve had more conversations with random strangers on buses here than in my whole life in the UK. But I’m a married woman in her late(ish) 30s, with no children and a tendency to pretend I’m 10 years younger – which apparently means I am not a mate-magnet.

Child-free – so no chance of me meeting other mums in the playground. Too irresponsible (and neurotic about hygiene) to have a dog – so no chats with other pet owners in the park. A husband – so people tend to assume your evenings and weekends are already booked up. And while Perthites are friendly, at the end of the day most people drive home to their detached houses and do their own thing. Distances between suburbs are huge and there isn’t a focus on the city centre like there is in most places, so people socialise in a variety of suburbs.

I do actually have a semblance of a social life that occasionally involves people other than my husband. I made one good friend within weeks of arriving, and although she’s now gone overseas, she’s left behind a few nice people who I’m now getting to know. But I am conscious of the need to widen my circle of friends. Oddly enough, those few nice people are all immigrants to Perth, or have lived overseas at some point, and who knows? They could decide to try another city or country at any time. Besides, I want to meet some locals, who can show me parts of Perth I might not discover on my own.

In the chaos of moving, finding friends was not a particular priority. As new arrivals, my husband and I did get a few, very welcome, invitations. Nearly eight months in, we are expected to be finding our own way.

I know the best way to meet people is to join a group doing something you’re interested in. It worked for me in Bristol. Practically all my friends there I met through dance. It’s not been so successful here. I’ve tried a couple of dance classes. Hip hop was full of REALLY young people wondering who the old bird was; tap, while providing the requisite number of kooky, verging-on-middle-aged women (hair in bunches – CHECK; wacky socks – CHECK), didn’t offer enough opportunities for interaction with the rest of the group…and frankly I didn’t enjoy the class much, which didn’t help.

Here I am doing a lot of cycling – but most cycling groups take it a lot more seriously than I do. It’s a similar story with kayaking, or to more accurately describe what I do, drifting around on the river trying to remember which way to paddle to turn round. Pilates is doing wonders for my flexibility, but so far zero for friendships. Websites directed at new immigrants organise meet-ups, but they don’t appeal – I’m desperate to integrate and while it can be comforting to speak to others in a similar situation, I don’t think it’s necessarily the best thing in the long run.

So I’m now looking for something else that will bring me into contact with like-minded people. A cause for which I can volunteer, or a course I can do. What really appeals is something that is focussed on making Perth the groovy state capital it deserves to be, but a trawl of t’interweb hasn’t thrown anything up just yet. I found out about PERTHour too late for this time, although I hope to make it to the next.

And I’ve just got to be careful not to appear too desperate – as one of my (old, UK-based) friends pointed out, there’s always the risk you’ll ring someone in another office to get a piece of information and before you’ve hung up you’ve invited them round to dinner and to stay for the weekend.

So if anyone has any ideas, I’d be glad to hear them.

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Many relationship experts claim that it’s the little things that cause marriage break-ups – the toilet seat being left up, or the dirty clothes abandoned on the floor…

The same applies to the immigrant’s relationship with their new country. Even when everything seems similar on the surface – language and culture – you quickly discover that your new home is determined to leave the milk out of the fridge every couple of days just to annoy the hell out of you.

Society is oiled by a whole raft of unwritten rules. When you’re growing up, you pick up these rules as you go along. You don’t even know you’re following them. It’s only when you move somewhere else that you realise that the rules you weren’t even aware of aren’t the same everywhere. What’s worse, because no-one in your new country is aware that they’re playing by their rules, no-one will ever explain them to you. Somehow you are just expected to know.

Take, for example, healthcare. Between private health insurance and Medicare, the scope for befuddlement is huge. In the UK, you go to your doctor, get a prescription, take it to the pharmacy, pay your £7.20 and that’s it. Here, you have to pay for your appointment with the doctor, then claim most of it back by visiting a Medicare office, then shop around because pharmacies can charge more or less what they like, then remember to ask for the cheaper generic version, because it would be WAY too helpful for the doctor to have prescribed that in the first place…oh, and don’t forget to present your Medicare card at every stage of the transaction.

Then there’s shopping, which seems just like shopping at home, but which actually has a whole language of its own, which no-one taught you at school. At the checkout in Target, you’re always asked if you have any lay-bys or Fly-buys. I finally plucked up the courage to ask a local, and discovered lay-bys are a throwback to Britain of the 1950s, where you can have an item kept aside for you, to be paid off at a rate of 5 shillings, sorry, dollars a week. Fly-buys is some kind of loyalty scheme, but it’s so ingrained in society that there are never any leaflets or posters explaining what it is. Bra sizes and shoe sizes are different, and I’ve already mentioned the difficulties caused by cheese descriptions.

None of these litle irritants want to make me divorce Australia, but sometimes I do feel like yelling at it for leaving the lid off the toothpaste again.

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