I couldn’t be called well-travelled.
I was born in Australia. I moved from the country WA to the capital when I was three, and from the west coast to the east almost two years ago. I’ve visited every state and territory except the Northern Territory, because when one is from Perth one generally travels through South Australia in search of greener pastures.
I left the country for the first time when I was seven, accompanying my parents to Bali for two weeks. Even then, the tourist mecca was effectively an annexed territory, if not a common schoolies destination.
My parents like to drive, and childhood road trips from Perth to Tasmania ensured I caught the driving bug. I’ve seen a decent portion of our country through a windscreen – most of the south-west, central west, and a bit of the north-west, as well as most of the New South Wales coast and a few stripes inland. I’ve driven to and through SA a few times. I’ve been known to drive from UNSW, where I lived in Basser, to Canberra for a party on a whim.
That was the extent of it. Everything I saw was either too similar to notice much difference, or I was too young to appreciate most of those differences.
In my gap years, the primary benefit of travel lay in finding an isolated campsite in which to party with my friends, without disturbing the neighbours. I was far more focused on working and saving money. Flights were off the table.
Around this time last year, again on a whim, I made a decision to change that.
That is how I came to be living in McCollum Hall, the cheapest and greatest residence hall at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, USA.
I’d crack a Wizard of Oz joke, but people here hate that. They get it a lot.
There are literal fields full of differences here. Some of them you can anticipate, and some you can’t.
Fortunately we share a common language – to some extent. If you talk about jumpers they have no idea what you mean, and what Aussies call a university they call a college, but what Australians call a college they call a dormitory or “dorm”. No-one knows what Maccas is. It’s confusing as all hell.
No-one here can pronounce my name. It always comes out ‘Laura’. I tried telling people to pronounce with a “Boston A” but they don’t quite get it.
The landscape is a lot like being back in country WA, but even flatter. Flat and dry. The University sits atop Mt Oread, which is pretty much the only hill in Kansas, and from the 9th floor of McCollum one gets a most excellent view of the reddest sunset I ever saw.
Everything looks, well, American, but it’s hard to describe what that means. The houses, the roadways, the bridges: it’s just how it looks in the movies.
They grow a lot of wheat here, and sunflowers, and the infamously subsidized corn crops. This year’s been a bad year for corn, though.
It snows here in winter. I’ve never lived in a city where it snows. After a week I’ll hate it, but for now I can’t wait.
The campus is so big that there are about 12 different free buses that circulate the campus and the town to get you to class. One of the bus drivers used to lead singalongs but they fired him because being cool as hell is unprofessional.
The school colours (crimson and royal blue), slogan (Rock Chalk Jayhawk), and logo (a jayhawk – it’s not a real bird, but is named after the Kansan militia that operated in the lead-up to, and during, the civil war) are everywhere. Literally everywhere. All over town. In nearby towns. In Walmart.
Almost everyone dresses the same (this may be a confirmation bias) and everyone wears clothing with the Jayhawk or other KU branding on it frequently.
Missouri is the enemy. You either hate them with a passion or find a new university.
They drive on the right, and the driver’s side of the car is on the left. It is surprisingly easy to adjust to, particularly because an Australian driver’s license is valid in the US.
Most people don’t understand the metric system, but they will admit it’s superiority as a system of measurement when questioned.
Walmart is the just best thing ever created in this world, and proof of the righteousness of capitalism.
Frat houses and sororities are used primarily as a corral for those who a) have money, and b) were the popular kids in high school, and c) are unlikely to grow out of that mindset – but they do host epic parties.
Lawrence is a little progressive enclave in a very red state. It’s the only county in Kansas that does not explicitly endorse employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, for example. Art and music and small bars and antique stores fill the main strip, Massachussets St (only ever called Mass St), I haven’t encountered any communists yet, but apparently there was an Occupy KU movement full of anarcho-syndicalists.
No-one says ‘cunt’ here. It has retained its power to shock and offend. However, everyone is disarmed by an Australian accent and you should stock up on token Australian phrases if you’re planning a visit.
There are a few other Aussies around the place and we are all agreed – Americans love Australians and You. Will. Get. Laid.
Apart from this, my favourite thing is that every outer door of every building has a massive sticker declaring that no guns or weapons of any sort are permitted anywhere on campus.
I went to a house party in the first week I was here and held a rifle for the first time in my life. It was pretty sweet.
In return, I warned everyone about drop bears.
The drinking age is 21, because that bullshit Puritan streak failed to die out over the course of the US’s civilization. This possibly explains the ease of access to illegal and controlled drugs (the fact it’s a college town in the regions may also be relevant). On my first day in Kansas I went to Walmart and some kids came up to me and offered to get me anything I want. That never happened to me back home.
The cops here are assholes. One very quickly develops a stronger appreciation of Australian law enforcement. The campus has it’s own police force, and we get the county cops coming ’round every so often. They must have a very strict quota system because these guys are interested in enforcing the letter of the law with no regard for the more logical and reasonable aim of enforcing order.
At home we brazenly drank on buses as we’d pregame a night on the town. Here, they’ll cite you for having a half drunk bottle of whatever in your bag (read: open container) if you’re in public, or on private property but underage. If the cops come to the house party you’re at, you run, whether you’re over 21 or under.
It’s not a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday if the cops aren’t called to the dorms to ruin some kid’s clean record over some minor alcohol violations.
The alternative is to go on a vacation: find someone with a car (this, by the way, is everyone. Everyone in Lawrence drives), head 15 minutes out of town, find a field, and get yo partay on mostly unimpeded.
I’ve seen wild deer, and coyotes, and skunks, and eagles, and chipmunks, and rattlesnakes, and countless things I never thought I’d see.
I look at the night sky and see stars I’ve never seen before.
Next weekend I’m off to Tulsa, Oklahoma, because why not?
A fortnight after that I’m off to Dallas, Texas, for a conference.
Two days ago I was in Kansas City (oddly, it’s not in Kansas) for a protest. Their skyscrapers are just beautiful. Their abandoned buildings are disturbingly plentiful.
Vincent Vega (y’know, Travolta in Pulp Fiction) sums it up the best. “It’s the little differences. I mean they got the same shit over there that they got here, but it’s just… just there it’s a little different.”
A fortnight ago, my friends and I found a campsite at Lake Clinton, got our partay on, and slept on a tarp.
There are differences here, but as a concept, it’s all the same.