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NY Conversation: Bathing In A Shellsuit

10 July 2012 | 4:24 pm | Tom Hawking

Then there's the politics of the beach umbrellas and banana lounges that line pretty much every vaguely popular beach in Europe — who do they belong to?

There's nothing to make you feel quite as overtly and uncomfortably Australian as going to the beach overseas. Specifically, in Europe, where your correspondent has found himself of late in a financially ill-advised bid to escape the oppressive heat of the New York summer.

With a few notable exceptions — parts of Greece, Portugal, parts of Turkey  — European beaches are pretty terrible by antipodean standards. They're crowded, dirty, lined with umbrellas and entirely devoid of waves. And people approach the whole idea of going to the beach differently. It's perhaps because the experience of visiting Europe is generally free of any sort of culture shock that the differences between what a day at the beach means here and what it means in Australia.

The Australian obsession with sunscreen, in particular, is generally regarded with avuncular amusement, which'd probably be more charming if, y'know, it wasn't the northern hemisphere's CO2 emissions that had punched a hole in the ozone layer in the first place. Then there's the politics of the beach umbrellas and banana lounges that line pretty much every vaguely popular beach in Europe — who do they belong to? Do you have to pay some asshole a not inconsiderable sum of money to rent one, or can you just sort of plop down with your towel between them and ignore the icy glares you get from aforementioned asshole for the rest of the afternoon? And if so, is it worth the slightly pitying looks you get from locals who assume you're so broke you can't afford a place on a banana lounge?

And speaking of paying, umbrellas aside, there's the whole question of potentially paying just to get onto the beach in the first place, which tends to raise outrage in Australians used to having to no such thing, and also requires some degree of cost/benefit analysis when you consider you're being asked to pay to swim in water that looks like Prahran pool after a particularly long and pissing-nine-year-old-heavy summer's day.

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But then, you tend to notice after spending long enough on European beaches that swimming is often something that's reserved for the kids anyway. Actively-inclined post-pubescent types are far more interested in shit like playing volleyball — last time NY Conversation spent any time in Greece, we ended up involved in a hellish five-set volleyball game where a slab of beer was at stake, and the guys on the other team kept deliberately thwacking the ball at the clearly clueless Australian who had no idea what he was doing, leading to much quiet contempt from your correspondent's "teammates" and an implicit sense that it was he who'd be shelling out for the slab. More sedate grown-ups lurk under umbrellas or slowly bake themselves in the sun. Budgie smugglers are everywhere. (Except in Turkey, where men wear shorts and devout Muslim women bathe in shellsuits.)

The inescapable tendency, even for avowedly non-patriotic Australians like NY Conversation, is to giggle quietly into one's book and mouth the words "They don't know what they're missing." God only knows how the Southern-Cross-tattoo-and-Bintang-singlet brigade respond to it all. (Well, okay, we can answer that — they get pissed and make arses of themselves, as usual.)

And no, anyone whose experience of the beach extends no further than this probably doesn't know what they're missing. But then, do we know what we have? You tend to notice more Australians abroad these days, thanks to the still-burgeoning exchange rate for the Australian dollar versus just about everything else, as well as airfares that are markedly cheaper these days than they've pretty much ever been. This is a good thing, of course — going out and seeing the  world is a positive experience for just about everyone, and the world would probably be a much better place if more people exposed themselves to cultures other than their own.

But it's interesting — being out of your own country rather throws a spotlight on both it and its residents. It's a degree of perspective, perhaps — in some ways, it's harder to have a clearer view of a place if you're in that place, looking out. And it's hard to miss the increasingly conceited air of superiority with which many Australians approach the world. I booked myself into a hostel for old time's sake this week, in the Sultanahmet tourist ghetto of Istanbul, and just sat and listened. It's dirty. It's crowded. Why don't they speak English?

There's always going to be a narrow-minded fringe in any nation, of course. But if travel gives any sort of insight on how comfortable life in Australia is, then that insight should in turn grant an appreciation of how lucky we are, not breed contempt for the places that don't share our luck.

It's great to be Australian, after all. If you're born into a reasonably well-off white Australian family, you're one of the most comfortable people in the world. That recession everyone else keeps going on about? Didn't bother us much, did it? Things are great. We've got it all, eh? High wages. Plenty of space. A fuckton of natural resources that the Chinese just can't stop buying. And as much unspoilt pristine umbrella-free coastline as we want.

I'm not arguing that we should feel any sort of culturally relativistic guilt here. We can no more help the situation we were born into than can some poor bastard born into a Chinese brick factory or a Congolese refugee camp. We are who we are. But still, it's perhaps worth reminding ourselves every so often of Donald Horne's epithet for Australia: "the lucky country." We don't have what we have out of any sort of inherent superiority to the rest of the world. We have it because of a series of accidents of geopolitics and history. We were born into it, to use Gaga's phrase. we are custodians of our good fortune. It doesn't make us better than anyone else. It just makes us luckier. We'd do well to appreciate that.