"AUSTRALIANS only care what's between the barbecue and the beach!" shouted an Irishman from across the table in Santiago, Chile, after he heard my accent. I wasn't surprised or offended by his opinion, because after travelling around the world for more than six months, it's one of the kinder ones I've heard about Australians overseas.
Among the backpacking crowd, at least, it seems Australian travellers are rapidly gaining a reputation abroad, and not as the friendly easy-going types we would prefer to be known as.
On a bus in southern Laos, I overheard four Londoners who had travelled to Australia exchanging opinions. "Australia has no history," said one. "It's a country with lots of natural beauty, but the people are awful," said another. In northern Bolivia, a Dutch barman asked me where I was from. When I said I was from Melbourne, he spat back: "Australians are arrogant!"
Australians are a well-travelled people. With our dollar at a 23-year high, increasing numbers of us are heading overseas to take advantage of our relative wealth abroad. In every continent, in every country, and in almost every town where there's something worth seeing, it seems an Australian accent is only ever just around the corner. We're an island nation, so it makes sense that we travel: we're used to getting on planes to go anywhere, so we happily jet away to remote and exotic destinations. Don't be surprised when you are halfway hiking down an Andean mountain in Peru and you meet someone from Richmond.
Surely a love of travel is a great national characteristic. So why are we gaining a bad reputation?
It may be that some of our other national characteristics — which we tend to play up on when we're overseas — are getting us into trouble. We're known for our fond relationship with a cold beer, we're known for our love of sport. But a fond relationship with beer can lead to a reputation for drunkenness, a love of sport leads to a reputation for being over-zealous. For every thoughtful Aussie overseas who learns the language and gets to know the locals, there are plenty more intent on wringing the party time out of every last millisecond of their holiday.
That aside, we are proud of our country, but perhaps we struggle to say why. If you ask an Aussie what the best thing is about us, a good percentage will answer "beautiful beaches". And we do have beautiful beaches, but does that make us unique? Are there other aspects of our culture we need to recognise? The Londoner I overhead saying that Australia has no history was ignoring more than 40,000 years of Aboriginal culture — but what opportunity do visitors really have to explore this side of our history if we don't celebrate it ourselves?