Some things take a while to un-learn


Save driver's seat confusion: drink in the back instead.
Save driver’s seat confusion: drink in the back instead.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the driveway putting something into the trunk of my car, talking to my neighbor as I did so.

When I was all set, I said my goodbyes and made moves to take off. But there was one problem.

I’d gone to the wrong side of the car. Huh.

Save for three or so weeks last November, where I can count the amount of times I drove in Australia on one hand, I’ve been in the U.S. full-time for over a year now.

In that time, I’ve spent the best part of eight months driving on the left side of the car and right side of the road. This hasn’t been too difficult of a task, as I’ve written about before, although I still reach for a phantom volume dial on the car stereo with my left hand rather than my right.

But to walk to the passenger side of the car with the intent of hitting the road? That’s a trick I have only done once before since I moved here, back when there was snow on the ground and my license was basically still warm from the printer.

It made me think back to June, when my friend Heidi paid me a visit. For memory’s sake, I probably shouldn’t have waited three months to explore this topic further, but I think the gist of one of our conversations was along the lines of how I was adjusting to life in the U.S., namely things like sitting on the other side of the car to drive.

I still get tripped up every now and then when looking before I cross the street, although Maine drivers are so conscious of pedestrians that they somehow know to stop for me long before I even make up my mind to cross.

Other things, like tipping, vocabulary differences and pronunciation, haven’t been difficult either, given the frequency of my vacationing out here.

Adjustment to the U.S. is a topic that tends to come up frequently in the oft-mentioned “Australians in America” Facebook group I’m a commonly cringing member of, but more often than not it’s discussions by people who almost steadfastly refuse to adjust their long-held habits to their new surroundings.

But the more thought-provoking aspect of the conversation with Heidi, I think, was wondering aloud how I’d go about readjusting to the same things if and when I return to Australia?

Already I’m having trouble remembering the temperature conversions, and what the appropriate numbers for Celsius “feel” like. I’m fairly at ease with using Fahrenheit already, although you can probably put that down to the fact that I’ve seen every temperature between 10*F and 90*F since I moved to Maine.

Humidity, however, remains in percentages, and the summer saw an awful lot of those above 70 percent. So I’d say temperatures would be a difficult one to switch back to, which is strange to say given how utterly bizarre the Fahrenheit system is. Guys, make freezing zero. It’s not that hard.

Spelling in American English has also been a surprisingly smooth transition, despite one curveball I was thrown by a coworker on my first full day in Augusta. He asked me how I’d spell the word for a concrete edge to a path, and I responded with “k-e-r-b.” Here in ‘Merica, it’s spelled “c-u-r-b,” pal. Aside from that, though, I’ve managed to switch my Ss out for Zs, drop most of my Us altogether, and put a shitload of commas in places I wouldn’t have 12 months ago.

Having spent the first six years of my career, as well as writing in college, using the ABC style guide, it’s been somewhat tough to force myself to write in AP style, which at at times seems completely unintuitive. And seeing as though I’m doing far less (edited) writing here than I was at the ABC, it’s more difficult to learn what’s right and wrong when I’m not practicing it every day.

Every two weeks when I write my column, I probably sound extremely desperate when I ask my manager whether anything stood out as particularly awful, style-wise (not content-wise, I’m already fully aware that that’s awful). It seems I do an acceptable job of it – or as good as the writers do, anyway – since her response is always, “you don’t make any mistakes that everyone else doesn’t make every day.” Phew. But in any case, if I ever end up working Down Under in the media again, I don’t think dropping AP style will be too much of a hassle.

The metric system seems like it could be easy to get reacclimatized to, but ask me again in a couple of years. For now, I still look at 45lb weight plates in the gym and think of them as 20kg plates, and I’m still not 100 percent sure how much of something I’m getting if I ask for a pound of it, much less a gallon of gas. Although having a 16-gallon gas tank makes it reasonably easy to work out how much half a tank will cost me.

I still can’t quite get my head around how far half a mile is when I’m driving, but 1,000 feet is also deceptive because then I think I’m looking a kilometer ahead instead of 300m. Either way, I dislike when my Google Maps app reverts to kilometers instead of miles, because everything from the directional signs to my odometer are in the latter, and Ks just throws me off. I think recalibrating my internal trip meter to the metric system would be easier done than said.

I’m not going to lie though: there are material things that I’d most certainly have a hard time swallowing if I went back Down Under, for good or on vacation.

I’ll never tire of the novelty and sheer delight of paying well under $10 for a six-pack, or $4 for a pint, or $6 for a cooked breakfast and a cup of coffee. Knowing the same sized portion would run me $20 in many Australian eateries is a heartbreaker, and people here are constantly shocked when I mention a six-pack of Corona doesn’t return much change from a $20 bill.

Retail-wise, it’d also be a tough adjustment not to be able to have services like Amazon Prime delivering virtually anything I can think of, direct to my doorstep, in under 48 hours. Of course, that also would save me a pile of money, but in any case I’m a man of convenience above all else.

Obviously this is a generalization that doesn’t take into account any advancement Australia would (likely) make over the years before any hypothetical permanent return, but “convenience” is a huge industry here, and that’s a huge boon for someone who works odd hours and does things at times that are out of whack for the rest of the world.

This became a bit of a ramble, and for that I half-heartedly apologize (because realistically, as if anyone actually made it this far down). It certainly wasn’t designed to be a statement of “I’m going back to Australia soon,” nor is it a hint that I’m never returning to my native country for good.

But it makes you think about the human brain, you know?

Adapting can be so easy and unnoticeable, until you’re standing at your passenger door wondering where your steering wheel went.


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