Sydney: An Englishman's Parallel Universe

Walking up to the door, it seemed like a regular enough building. Rectangular and squat. Yellowy-orange brickwork and a flat tiled roof. Rusted lettering peeling away from the heavy swing door. An uninspiring and bland piece of design. But then it was just a toilet block.

Yet there was something uncannily familiar about this average-looking toilet block. Something almost homely about it.

Then I realised why.

I'd seen this building before. Many times before. This was exactly the kind of public amenity block you'd find across the length and breadth of England. In busy town centres of London, regional cities, even in the occasional village. This Sydney toilet block was a very English place to go for a pee.

The difference was that this very ordinary toilet block had multi-million dollar views. Set on the edge of the beach at Balmoral, it overlooked the entrance to Sydney's harbour, was surrounded by opulent waterfront properties and Sydneysiders with more money than sense, and faced a string of high-end restaurants and cafes lining the promenade.

It was a completely English occurrence sat a million miles away from home.

And this is the paradox of Sydney.

A parallel universe.  Photo credit: rasdourian (Creative Commons)

As you walk around this world-class city with its iconic beaches, faultless weather and sparkling deep water harbour, it is a city as far removed from any in England as the 17,000kms that separate the two. However, there remains those English throwbacks in Sydney that make it less of a polar opposite and more like a parallel universe.

The national dish here is not a serving of Balmain bugs, saltwater barramundi or prime rib of kangaroo, but the nation's most loved meal is the 'meat pie with veg', a food stuff as English as the pint of beer.

When someone behind me in a queue recently asked his companion "Are youse lot coming over to my place at the weekend?", my head snapped around looking to pick out the Scouser from Liverpool who might have booked cheap flights to Australia with his mates and was here on his hols. But this is the Sydney accent - a uniquely Australian mix of broad northern English dialects and occasionally the odd bit of Cockney rhyming slang thrown in for good measure.

The television programming here has a distinctly British flavour - from the witty comedies produced on the ABC to the regular flow of redeveloped variety and talent shows from the past. When I lived in Canada, the best of British on TV was Coronation Street but here I can watch almost any show coming out of Britain and often aired mere weeks not months after their British premieres.

Sport cannot hide its true origins. In Canada, I was exposed to uniquely North American fare including ice hockey, American football, baseball and lacrosse. Upon arrival in Australia, it was as if a spaceship picked me up in the night and dropped me in England... but in the sun. I watched cricket played in front of palm trees and red gums, rugby league under a bright winter's sun with a schooner of lager in hand, and soccer in a Central Coast stadium with picturesque views over and along the Brisbane water.

So much of Sydney's history and culture is derived from Britain but those sneaky little oddities - the toilet blocks by the ocean, the sight of a double-decker bus crossing the Harbour Bridge, the seat of Parliament in the Central Business District, the morning games of lawn bowls played at the local bowling club - continue to persist if you look long and hard enough about you.

Read the local press and you'd be forgiven for thinking the English and Australians live at absolute polar opposite ends of the earth in more ways than one. In reality, the people and places here are less different and, for better or worse, more often the same.

This makes Sydney an Englishman's parallel universe and that, for me, is quite a comforting thing.

What subtle English throwbacks have you seen in Australia? 

Are there similarities from your own previous 'home' where you currently live - things that make you do a double-take or give you some comfort? 

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Michellelmckay said... Add Reply

Perhaps. But Sydney is certainly no London. That city is utterly gorgeous. 

Jackscottbodrum said... Add Reply

Judging by the easy way expat Aussies (and Kiwis) slip into
life in Britain, there’s more that binds us than divides us. This isn't so true for North Americans.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

I'm a big London fan too although I could no longer live there - a bit too busy for me.  I'm trying to gradually downsize with my cities :)

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Yep, life in North America for me was quite different culturally - it required a little more effort to adjust and settle in. That said, there remain many British oddities across Canada. Not sure if the same is true in the US...?

Robert Sharratt said... Add Reply

Imagine my delight when i discovered that the local Woolies supermarket now sells Soreen Malt Loaf, imported all the way from UK, unfortunately that 6 kg that I'd lost looks like going back on again.

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Ah, yes, Soreen Malt Loaf. I remember it well and good luck with keeping those pounds and kilos off.

I've noticed that most supermarkets here now have a 'British Foods' section in them which I think is a fairly recent thing. And no bad thing either.

Heather said... Add Reply

I love the odd cloudy day in Bangkok, as it reminds me of growing up in the American Midwest...

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Hey Heather, fascinating that a cloudy day reminds you of the Midwest. Are there many American influences in that part of Asia? I haven't been there myself so can't comment but plan to head that way in the next year or so.

Loulouloves said... Add Reply

I do a lot of double takes here in Sweden but they are rarely from a place of comfort :)

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Oh, you can't leave us hanging like that Loulouloves! How come they're rarely from a place of comfort? Do tell all...

Lesley Snell said... Add Reply

You know its an interesting thought but me being a Londoner ( and born under the sound Bow Bells) I don't feel Sydney is anything like London. Interestingly the families I relocate here sometimes think Australia will be like the UK with sun .....surprisingly its not and a lot of UK families don't find it easy to make friends and quite a few end up going back . Just trying to recall the toilet block Russell ?
School uniforms here remind me of English Ones in the 50s and 60s very old-fashioned and totally inappropriate for this climate !!

LouLouloves said... Add Reply

People wearing socks with thongs/flip flops. Easter eggs made from cardboard not chocolate. People wearing Uggs outside and thinking they are the height of fashion. Finding out that 'spring' has arrived when the temperature soars to zero. Seeing children dressed as witches, for Easter. Feels like my life is one big double take at the moment!

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Thongs with socks? Cardboard Easter eggs? That is pretty bizarre.

I've seen the whole 'people wearing Uggs outside' thing in the UK. I tried explaining to friends that, in Australia, Uggs are worn in the privacy of your own home kind of like slippers but, no, they're often worn as a fashion statement there. Seems like Sweden has caught on to this trend too.

Some great examples of double takes. Just hang on in there and embrace the difference! :)

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Hi Lesley :)

On the surface, I think the two places are completely different but I wanted to show that, if you scratch a little bit below, you reveal more similarities than differences.

The environment is 'completely' different but I don't think the culture and pastimes are. More than anything, I love sharing the same sense of humour with friends here - they actually laugh at my jokes! - but then I have been 'connected' to Australia for more than 12 years through my 'other half' so maybe I've acclimatised through this period?

The good ole toilet block in question sits almost opposite the little island at Balmoral Beach, at the midway point along the promenade. I think it may be going through a bit of an upgrade but in its original form, it reminded me of so many amenity blocks back in Blighty. And I just had to share that with you all :)

Do you mean the uniforms with the broad hats that they wear?

Thanks for stopping by.

Heather said... Add Reply

Nothing else immediately springs to mind, though I'm sure there are other similarities. So you'll be heading to the US soon?

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

No, not to the US but maybe to Asia for an extended holiday next year. That's the plan but these things always change.

Heather said... Add Reply

 Asia, that's great. I was confused because I thought you'd been to SE Asia/Thailand before. What part of Asia do you plan to see?

Lesley Snell said... Add Reply

Just the dresses and the hideous dresses!
I think that block is no more and has been stylishly remodelled.
I think you mean acclimated not acclimatised don't you!

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

No, I definitely meant acclimatised but I appreciate you trying to correct me. Let's stick to the blog post and not get off topic, Lesley! Thanks :)

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

No, not for a vacation. I'd love to visit Vietnam, Hong Kong, maybe even dip a toe into China. Too much to see in one trip really.

Emma Lewis said... Add Reply

London is my home town and sorry, I don't find it particularly gorgeous.  It does not have the magnificent harbor for a start... And each time I go there it seems more ugly!  But then, I have childhood/teen memories of it as a much nicer place.  Yes Russell, I noticed those little very old-fashioned English things which I loved - reminded me of England/London in the 50s and 60s...especially in the small towns we drove through between Sydney and Brisbane.  Wonderful!  Subtle English things... a group of ladies sitting by the roadside drinking tea... I will have to dig out my travel journal where I noted down other English-isms.  Bowling clubs? Well, funnily enough we found one in the middle of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, just like the one back home!  

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Hi Emma, where exactly in London are you from?

I've heard that Australia (and New Zealand) often remind people of the UK in the fifties. By all means, do dig out your journal and share any other English-isms you remember.

The bowling club is a funny one - they open them up here to the 'younger folk' at the weekends with 'barefoot' bowls, cheap drinks and bar snacks. Quite popular.

Kate Reuterswärd said... Add Reply

What an interesting observation, and so cool! I had an odd experience like this in Sweden. I saw a picture of a Swedish kitchen on a blog and thought, "Omg, is that a picture of our kitchen?" As it turns out, in the 60s, the government created a standardized apartment model to help guide construction companies, and hundreds of thousands of apartments were built according to the template. Our kitchen is one of countless others throughout all of Sweden. Very funny and strange at the same time! 

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

Thanks, Kate. Bizarre that you share the same identical kitchen as countless others across Sweden. I enjoy these double-takes. Life is full of them...

Adventures said... Add Reply

Who knew the presence of a 'toilet block' could be so jarring? Loved the description of the familiar plunked down in what feels like the wrong setting. (And can't believe you actually referred to it as soccer!)

Russell V J Ward said... Add Reply

I know. Bizarre, eh? But it was exactly that - the familiar plunked down in the unfamiliar - that made it stand out so. Like deja vu.

Yes, here football or footy refers to rugby league. In Canada, it was always soccer too. I should stand my ground and call a spade a spade but can I really be bothered? Nah!

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