Snakes, cows and barbecues

Coming down from Far North Queensland in the plane this week I found myself in the company of an Italian-Australian, one of large group of fellow migrants who were spending a couple of weeks in Victoria and New South Wales. He had arrived from Sicily as a carpenter but had worked his way around the country in a variety of trades before settling in Innisfail and bringing up his family there. He talked about how hard it was in the early days, though there were always Australians of longer standing prepared to help and befriend the newcomer. Eventually he became a builder, turning his hand to all the jobs involved, and settling into the landscape in his adopted country.

His experiences led me to remember our early days in Victoria, a decade or so later in the 1970s. We did not have serious language problems. Though a thick Scottish accent could be a bit of a barrier, we could usually communicate more easily than those without English. Also I came to a job in a university and universities have many similarities around the world.

After a week in a motel in Belmont, during which we got the children into primary school, bought our first Australian car, a station wagon, found a house we liked and could afford and bought it (or put in an offer which was accepted for settlement in three months) we looked around for temporary accommodation. A colleague at university said that another lecturer in who lived on a farm out west of Geelong had a cottage to let. We agreed to spend the next few weeks there till our cream brick veneer was available.

It was a strange time. Our new friend’s heart was in the right place. He was kindly but otherworldly in the extreme. The house had no heating apart from an open fire and a chimney which was blocked by thousands of flies. There was no fridge in the place, but he said, ‘Come up to the farm, I’ve got three in the shed’, and so he had, removing the sheep dip from one and saying we could have it. He came down with some curtains for the windows though we were 100 metres off the main road, but we were still struggling with a stove to cook on and blankets which were full of holes and maggots. Behind the house was this great brown mound which I initially thought was Mount Moriac, but was just the heap of bottles left by the previous tenant, an alcoholic butcher.

One day my wife came home to find the owner had planted geraniums in the garden, but there were Murray Grey cattle on the verandah and she could not get into the house. He wanted me to help him castrate sheep on my first day in the cottage, but I had my fill of farming in Scotland and declined. He had a tractor which he had to park on the top of the hill because it would not start. But it had no brakes, so that was a dangerous thing to do.

At university one day I met him in the corridor. He told me, ‘I have just shot a black snake under your house, but I fear I have shot the wrong end.’ I had this vision of a very angry snake looking for its tail. ‘Don’t tell my wife,’ I pleaded. But he walked around the corner and promptly did so. So I had a wife and two children who were constipated for a month because they would not go near the outside dunny. Eventually we persuaded the people from whom we were buying the house on the Olympic estate in Highton to let us rent the property ahead of settlement date, as they had moved to their new abode down the coast. We bought some camping gear and foam rubber bed-settees and camped at the house until the ship finally came in with our belongings from Scotland.

In those first few weeks we began to put together a couple of photo albums for the folks overseas. We took pictures of all the things which appeared strange to our eyes, knowing that after a month or two we would not register them as different any more. So storm drains, letterboxes at the kerbside, overhead power and phone lines, bullbars on trucks, flags and bunting fluttering at car saleyards, geraniums growing up power poles on nature strips, the beaches along the Bass Strait, road signs with kangaroos and koalas, or instructing us to turn left at any time with care (later the title of a book of poetry by our next door neighbour, Graeme Kinross Smith) and many other mundane parts of the Australian suburban and rural environment were captured in photographs. And we recorded an audio-cassette to accompany the albums and fired them off to Scotland as our Christmas contribution.

For our own first Christmas in Australia I had learned that tradition required a barbecue, so there I was under the golf umbrella barbecuing in the rain in the backyard to the incredulity of our neighbours. It was a good baptism into Australian life, and gives us laughs nowadays, and some of it at least was funny at the time.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Geelong Advertiser on Saturday, 15 October 2005, p. 37.

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