Australians are confused when it comes to Christmas.
I know this because I was down-under once, doctoring at Christmas time – following my great grandfather’s footsteps, who was an Irishman/doctor who got a wild hair and emigrated to Australia in the gold rush of the 1850’s - on the same boat many of his fellow countrymen had sailed on, when sentenced to transportation (great grandpa went voluntarily I hasten to add).
I saw the Christmas cards with snow scenes, snowmen, sleighs, and yule logs. Heard groups singing “let it snow.” Saw people in red fir trimmed suits - all in the withering heat of mid-summer, because of course Australia is on the wrong side of the planet.
I thought writing about this might be nicer for the middle of Christmas, rather than hectoring you about some serious medical issue.
I was working at Cessnock Hospital – a pretty typical small Australian town near the Hunter Valley - famous for it’s vineyards – in New South Wales.
This was a bit challenging. I was seeing medical things I’d not had to deal with practicing in central London. I didn’t know what to do about someone with an embedded tick (a different story now I live in Caroline County). But, luckily, I’d happened to see an ‘Outdoorsman’ calendar with a paragraph of “what to do about ticks” on the December page.
As Bill Bryson in his book In a Sunburned Country notes there are many medically significant creepy-crawlies. Spiders, jellyfish, scorpions, poison fish. And of course, snakes. “Of the ten most poisonous snakes in the world” Bryson warns, “all are Australian.”
No escape in the sea either with those sharks - but I liked the solution of one Australian wag, who told me “I don’t go in the water, they don’t come in the country club.”
I was also challenged when I saw Carlson, an 8 year old with ear pain. This was when I was lucky enough to get to do a locum (temporary job) with the Royal Flying Doctor Service out of Broken Hill – a rough tough mining town in the heart of the outback. We would fly out to isolated “stations”- as they call farms out there – and hold clinics.
The consulting “room” on this occasion was a rickety chair and a card table on the broad verandah of Jenny and Clive Treloar’s station, which we got to flying over mile after mile of monotonous red dirt, scattered tangles of saltbush, occasional salt lakes and dry river beds etching delicate tree like patterns.
Ear pain was either an infection inside the drum (otitis media) or of the ear canal (otitis externa) in my book. So when I looked and saw what looked the size, shape and color of a pecan in his ear canal, I was perplexed – Until I saw it had legs, and was peddling frantically.
We had to fly him back to the base hospital to remove the large, tightly wedged beetle that I was looking at.
Then there is the language barrier – despite the Australians thinking they speak English (as do the Americans), when a shearer, in a grimy vest and “Stubbies” (a type of short shorts) flopped down on the chair in front of me and told me “geeze I’m crook doc” I was somewhat non-plussed.
But I learned he was just telling me he was sick. And gradually I got to know, a “Sheila” was a woman, a “bloke” was a man, a “bludger” was a lay about, a “chook” was a chicken, a “larrikin” a joker, “tucker” something to eat – and a whole lot more, many of them ghastly abbreviations, like “Chrissie,” “prezzie” “footy” “smoko” mozzies” “Abbo” “uni’” and “g’day.”
Salad in the Sand
I was befriended by Greg, one of the Cessnock Hospital lab techs and invited to go with him and his family to spend Christmas at the beach. This was a scene like the famous Bondi Beach where my host, Billy, had taken me when I was in Sydney – where blond goddesses were sprayed down with sun-tan oil with a spray gun, then lay roasting in the sun. Billy’s comment was “it’s enough to make you go blind.”
With Gregg and family, we ate salad. But some die-hard’s were determined to be traditional, and were cooking turkey – all be it on the “barbie” (which here was not a hideous toy, plastic, caricature of a woman’s body by Matel).
In true Australian style however, everyone had their “eskie” full of Toohey’s, Victoria Bitter, KB, Coopers, or any one of a zillion other beers, the Ozzie’s seem to like to consume in large quantities.
Greg also insisted on a trip to the Hunter Valley to introduce me to Australia’s other principal alcoholic beverage – its wine, which Monty Python describes as “fine Australian fighting wines, with a bouquet like and Abbo’s armpit and a kick like a mule.”
Christmas down-under, with Santa arriving on a surf board, or Christmas songs like “Six White Boomers” about a sleigh drawn by kangaroos was confusing – but still a cheery affair.