Saturday, December 05, 2009

A few things I'd like to bring home from Australia


I just returned from a two week visit to Australia, where my sister lives with her Australian husband and their family. As far as foreign countries go, it takes a long, long time to get there, but it is pretty familiar territory once you land. A thoroughly modern, cosmopolitan city, Sydney kind of looks like Southern California, complete with tattooed surfers, texting teenagers, Target, McDonald's, Subway and KFC outlets.

But Australia isn't America Down Under, and they've got a few things I'd like to import.

1. Public Health Care

Yeah, this is a big one. No one in Australia goes uninsured. Everyone has access to the state-run Medicare plan. Yes, you might have to wait a few months to get non-emergency work done, but you won't have to mortgage your house or go bankrupt to pay for it. Once your household reaches a certain income level, you can pay a penalty (I believe it is $2000) to stay in the public plan or you can opt to buy private insurance. In my sister's case, private insurance cost about the same as the penalty but got her access to "fancier" care like a post-partum recovery suite at a local hotel where she had catered meals and 24/7 access to a private maternity nurse.

2. Enforcement of Driving Laws

Obviously regulations vary from place to place in the U.S., but at least in Chicago it takes a lot to get yourself pulled over and a whole lot to lose your license. In Australia traffic fines are high, enforcement is constant (traffic cameras and random roadblocks with breathalyzer tests are common) and it isn't uncommon to meet someone who has lose his or her license for 6 months for accumulating too many points. Yeah, there's a little less freedom on the open road, but I didn't see anyone speeding, talking or texting while driving. In general, drivers were courteous and pedestrians respected.

3. More Natural Foods

I couldn't find a single processed food item in Australia with high fructose corn syrup. Not Heinz ketchup, not Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail, not peanut butter, jelly or crackers. The candy Smarties (basically Nestle's answer to M&Ms) was running an outdoor campaign touting "no artificial colors." Even Kraft Singles were a natural shade of white instead of orange. The egg selection at the store was a revelation. Each package described not only whether the eggs were organic or free range, but whether they were raised in a barn or a field. And they were delicious.

4. Dual Flush Toilets

It doesn't take a genius to know that you don't need the same amount of water to wash away number 1 as you do for number 2. In Australia, whether you're at a public restroom or at home, you select your flush. It just makes so much sense. Can someone please explain to me why dual flush toilets haven't taken off in the U.S.?

5. Parents with Prams Parking

I was astonished to find that my sister's local shopping center, an indoor mall with a Target, Big W (Walmart), a bunch of mall-type boutiques and a food court, had an entire section of the parking garage dedicated to "parents with prams" (that's strollers to us Yanks). Those not headed to family parking don't even pass through! Imagine how wonderful it would be to park close to the entrance in a special lot where every other driver is on the lookout for small children on the loose and no one will impatiently tap their steering wheel as they wait for you to fold up your stroller and buckle two wiggly kids into their car seats.

There are lots of other things I'd like to bring home from Australia, like warm weather, sandy beaches, roundabouts, flat white coffees and honeycomb as an ingredient in indulgent treats (ice cream, gelato, chocolate bars and butter). I'll pass on the harsh sun, rampant wildfires, poisonous snakes, enormous spiders and roaches and Vegemite.