Challenging Stereotypes: A Yank’s Guide to Working and (Mostly) Playing in Australia

Leah Taylor

What follows is a hearty recommendation for you 18-30-year-olds wondering “Great, I’ve got a degree in English. What now?” or “Lovely, a lay-off. Cheers for that. And?”

First things first: If you’re going to Australia, you’ve got to get a handle on their beer. No one there drinks Fosters, but then that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. What was surprising however was that “light beer” didn’t connote fewer calories, but rather “less alcohol.” That’s right, my tap-guzzling friends, should you order a pint of light, you’re only effectively cheating yourself out of percentages of sweet, sweet alcohol, and not doing your waistline any favors. Luckily, I learned this as I ordered breakfast on my layover in Sydney, and what would be the first of many pints.

Now that we have that out of the way, I should offer an additional disclaimer, as any self-respecting journalist would (Hi, Mike Albo!). I was able to gallivant around Australia as part of a press junket; it was a free ride all the way, thanks to Tourism Australia, who are hoping that I can get you Americans jazzed about a new program between the US and Australia. The nice folks at Tourism America allow the recently graduated to spend up to 12 months Down Under on a “Work-and-Play” visa, while scoring cheap(er) airfare, to boot. I happily agreed to the task, but within this piece, there will be some details they are perhaps less proud of, or at least wish I might downplay. That won’t happen, but I do have to say that what follows is a hearty recommendation for you 18-30 year-olds wondering “Great, I’ve got a degree in English. What now?” or “Lovely, a lay-off. Cheers for that. And?”

Previous Misconceptions

When I left JFK airport for the first leg of what would be a roughly 23-hour flight-time to Melbourne, I was looking forward to some cuddly koalas, some rugged outback dudes, and a few quaint towns that, if anything, would prove a casual and calm respite from the bustle of New York City. When I (finally) landed in Melbourne, I was greeted with anything but.

Melbourne is no sleepy seaside penal colony. It is in fact, the most multi-cultural metropolis below the equator, boasting a sprawl to rival the San Francisco Bay Area’s and a cultural scene -- from fine art and theatre to film, music, and graffiti -- to rival NYC’s. No joke. Oh, and let’s get rid of the tired “penal colony” stereotype while we’re at it. Bart Simpson and family may never have gotten over the fact that Australia started out as a UK prison outpost, but when you reconsider that crimes punishable by such banishment at the time included simply being in debt or supporting Ireland’s independence, this expanse of supposed n’er-do-wellers takes on a new tone.

Despite being just over 100 years old, the city of Melbourne has thriving communities of: young artists, Greeks, Italians, Southeast Asians, and backpackers -- sometimes overlapping. The largest Greek community outside of Athens itself is in Melbourne; Italians have built up a hearty culture you can spot from the prevalence of quality Italian restaurants all around the city; a similar preponderance of Southeast Asians is apparent from their geographical cuisine; artists and musicians are making steady gains in the subculture -- one recent boon is the building and opening up of city-center apartment buildings at affordable rates (until quite recently, it turns out, most everyone lived in Melbourne’s suburbs and trekked in to the city for nightlife and day jobs); backpackers are evident by the incredible array of accents you encounter in doing everything from ordering a coffee or a pint to booking a room at a hostel.

Because of the city’s youth, you’ll spot Victorian homes and office buildings adjacent to gleaming, modern skyscrapers (they’re particularly proud of the Eureka Tower, which, frankly won’t wow anyone who’s been to Chicago), but another great advantage is a public-transportation system that is reliable, and, in places, free. You can actually take the City Circle tram all over Melbourne for free; it might not be the fastest route from A to B, but when on a budget, it’s hard to beat.

Flinders Street Station

Gainful Employment

Say you decide to acquire a work visa. Having touched down after a long journey to Oz, you may realize that your trip isn’t over yet. You’ve still got to find a job. Well, as I noted from the variety of accents all over the city and the general youth of the service industry, there are actually plenty of jobs to be had. Maybe not a cornucopia (there’s no escaping the recession’s long tentacles), but it’s worth noting that when I asked people about the downturn in the economy, most remarked that they really hadn’t seen a huge effect. And that spells success in the high-overturn market of entry-level service jobs (since you’re probably not going to Australia to work in an office -- unless you’re the new Managing Editor of something). Barista, bartender, waiter, hostel reception: I spoke with Americans on visas in each of these positions, and all lent the impression that if you’ve got a resume and a willingness to hit the pavement for a few days, you’ll come up with something. The huge expat community in Melbourne is nothing if not supportive; everyone seemed pleased to both make your acquaintance and help you out (A recommendation: if you can swing it, try and work at Melbourne’s Base hostel. Easily the cleanest, coolest city-based hostel I’ve ever come across. And, they gave me free beer on my visit!)

When in Rome, I mean Melbourne

I’m not a fan of tours. Not of tourists, not of the group mentality, not of someone telling me the supposed important architectural or historical features of a city. But here’s one you can do on your own: I call it the Leah DIY Arcades and Alleys tour. A fascinating part of Melbourne’s cityscape is its twisting lanes and arcades -- not arcade like Dave & Buster’s, but arcade as in “covered walkway, connecting two or more buildings.” Here’s where you’ll find a handful of secluded and miniscule cafes and record stores -- even a zine co-op/gallery. And here too is where you’ll find Melbourne’s amazing graffiti. Seriously, up walls and behind dumpsters and snaking around windows and doorways is some of the most beautiful mural-work I’ve seen outside of Philly. It’s also where you’ll find lunching businessmen, afternoon drinkers (of which there are many), and young people hung over from last night. It’s by far my favorite part of the city because it feels as though you’ve just escaped the tourist-ridden high streets and emerged in some steam-punk rabbit-hole version of Melbourne. There is actually a tour you can book to see all of this, but if you’re traveling on a budget, get a map, clear an afternoon, and get lost.

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