Out There: In the Land of Oz

You look into the rear-view mirror and see the guy behind mouthing "no worries."

herb keinon (photo credit: )
herb keinon
(photo credit: )
'No worries," said the customs officer at Sydney's Airport when I warned her she was about to rifle through my dirty laundry in what was officially a search for illicit food, but quickly became clear was actually a hunt for drugs. Fascinating country, Australia. Big, friendly, scenic, vibrant - but genuinely a little nuts about bringing in food products from abroad. It's a good thing an Australian friend warned me in advance about this little Aussie obsession, otherwise I would have done what I do when traveling to all countries: carry in a salami to tide me over until some local kosher fare can be found. "What should we do?" I queried the wife en route from Hong Kong, as I filled out the unique entry card into Australia that didn't only ask about financial instruments over $10,000, or whether we had been in contact with livestock during the last 30 days, but whether we had any food in our possession. "Mark yes," she sagely replied. "What are they going to do, confiscate our cup-of-soups?" Good strategy. Like a seasoned smuggler, I thought that by admitting we were bringing in food, the authorities would take cognizance of our innate honesty and put our bags through an X-ray machine but spare us a full search; see the harmless potato puree mix, and wave us right through. I was wrong. Instead of getting points for honesty, the airport officials shuffled us to the side, apparently after pegging us as potential drug runners, and directed us to a table next to where a man was undergoing a complete body search in front of whirling television cameras. I naively asked the woman who would be inspecting my laundry whether the camera crew was there for some kind of training film. No, she said, it's for a popular Australian reality television show, Border Security - Australia's Front Line, that shows the country's border officials enforcing customs, security and immigration laws at the airports. "It's all real," she said, ominously. And then it was our turn. The woman inspector, like so many other Australians we met, was sunny, talkative, friendly and chirpy, even as she took out and inspected every single item in our luggage. While at first I thought she was just looking for contraband chicken, when she started rifling through books, and opened up a sealed envelope, I realized it wasn't only smuggled salami she was after, but drugs. Luckily the camera was preoccupied with the other guy - searching through dirty socks makes far less dramatic television. INDEED, while "G'day mate," or "throw another shrimp on the barbie" are stereotypical Australian phrases made famous by Paul Hogan of Crocodile Dundee fame, "No worries, mate" better reflects the true nature of the country. And this I say as a newly-minted expert on all things Australian, after having spent two weeks there. Everybody says "No worries" - about everything. When you buy a newspaper, the clerk gives you change, and says "No worries." When you can't figure out how Australian coffee works, and that to get a water-based cup of coffee you have to order a "long black," the waiter smiles, says "No worries," takes back what you ordered and returns with what you really wanted. And when you can't figure out which direction to turn at a roundabout because driving on the "other side" of the street is one of life's most discombobulating experiences, you look into the rear-view mirror (once you find it on the left) and see the guy behind mouthing "No worries." Australia does genuinely seem like a land of no worries, or at least of worries that pale in comparison to the ones we get to deal with here. No suicide dinghy making its way from New Zealand, no long-range missiles aimed at Brisbane from Papua New Guinea, no wild-eyed Fiji leader threatening to blow Australia off the map. In fact, on a certain Saturday one of the papers in Sydney, on its op-ed page, featured a column that discussed the downright annoying tendency of some Sydneysiders to grow their hedges too high, blocking the view of their neighbors. Gevalt! Which doesn't mean the Aussies don't have issues, and important ones. On the day after we landed, the Australian government apologized for past maltreatment of Aborigines, no insignificant or trivial event. Also, the country's politics is lively and combative, Australia has troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a terrorist trial involving Islamic radicals is currently taking place in Melbourne. Still, all that is small change considering the harshness of our reality; Australia - lucky for them - lacks existential fears on a national level. There are so few worries there that I actually question how the Jewish community can blossom. "Are you really Jewish?" I wanted to ask Melbourne Jews existing in what seems like an impossibly care-free reality, an abnormal state for any part of the Jewish people. Since we, as a people, have turned fretting into an art form, one could rightfully ask how the Jews in Australia can thrive in a land of no worries. But thrive it does, perhaps because the community creates things to fret about. They fret about rising real-estate prices in the Jewish neighborhoods; they fret when a new rabbi comes to town and worry about the fights bound to ensue over whose toes he will step on; and - in an act of solidarity that not only shouldn't be taken for granted, but is actually uplifting - they fret mightily about Israel and the situation over here. "No worries" is for non-Jewish Australians. The Jews, God bless 'em, get to worry about us.