Returning to Australia after more than a two years absence has been a strange experience. On the night that we arrived and checked into our accommodation I walked down to the local 7/11 to buy a few supplies and the absence of people and traffic on the street was quite unnerving. It was only 9.15pm, admittedly on a Monday evening, but it was so quiet that it felt as if I was on the set for some type of horror movie where the entire population has somehow been wiped out.

The amount of space around me when walking on the street feels surprisingly uncomfortable and its weird to say this, but after more than a week I still feel insecure walking on the pavements even in the middle of the day when there are plenty of people about. I guess the feeling will fade as I get used to this environment again but it is an odd sensation.

Another very odd thing is that, when I?m close by other people I can understand their conversations. You have to remember that for two years I have largely been unable to understand what was being said around me and other people?s conversations became this sort of hum going on as part of the overall background noise. It has been startling to realise that I can now understand the words and I have found myself tuning in on other people?s discussions, something I didn?t used to do when I last lived in Australia. In fact I?m finding it very difficult to block out the chatter, which is annoying, but I guess that over time I will get used to it.

I don?t feel at all as though I am home, although admittedly I am living 90 kilometres away from where I last lived. But I still feel as if I am just on another trip or holiday and this feeling is exacerbated by the fact that we are still living out of our suitcases in a borrowed apartment. This sensation persists despite the fact that we have had several family members and friends visit or stay and although it is an unsettling feeling it is also exciting because much of what is going on around us seems different and new.

One obvious difference between living in Viet Nam and Australia is the cost of living, bearing in mind that the minimum weekly wage in Australia is not that much different to the average yearly wage in Viet Nam and another big difference is the food. The food tastes very bland here now that we are so used to everything being spicy. One really weird thing is that so far we have not been able to find chillies that are actually hot. The ones labelled mild in the supermarket taste like apples and the ?red hot? ones hardly leave a taste in the mouth, although I did suffer immense pain when I rubbed my eyes after cutting some of these up last night. We?ll have to go hunting for an Asian supermarket that has the small ?ring-stingers? that we have come to know and love. Admittedly the other possible reason why the food here tastes bland would be the omission of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), an ingredient that is used in great quantity throughout Viet Nam.

I had forgotten how ?over? regulated things are in Australia. When we checked in to our apartment we were handed a list of rules and regulations most of which were ?by order of the body corporate?. So things like, ?NOISE: By order of the body corporate noise is to be kept to a minimum after 10.30pm. Any disturbances after that time that requires management attention will incur an after hours call out fee.? Or, ?SMOKE ALARMS: Please be careful when cooking or using the toaster as the detectors are very sensitive. If an alarm is activated a Fire Brigade call out fee of $430.00 will apply. Press the false alarm button within 30 seconds of the alarm activating. You will then have 2 minutes 30 seconds to clear the smoke from the apartment before the final alarm activates.? Or this, ?FARTING: As we are trying to promote a pleasant environment for all guests, we ask you to refrain from farting in the apartments or common areas. If you are caught causing obnoxious odours a deodorising fee of $150.00 will apply.?

The last one is not true, but perhaps you get my drift. Do this, don?t do that, be very careful and aware of the rights of the other individual or you will suffer a penalty. While I realise that all of these regulations are designed to protect the individual from each other and themselves, I hark back to the not too long ago days and the wonderful sense of non-regulation and freedom that exists in Viet Nam despite the fact that it is a country with a huge bureaucracy.

Last Friday night Bianca, Dave, Cornoch, Lisa and I tried to gain entry to the Victory Hotel for a meal, but I was refused admission because I was wearing sandals. The dress regulation code states that male patrons must be wearing shoes with closed-in toes after 7pm and in fact if you happen to be sitting in the bar at 6.30pm you will be politely reminded that you only have 30 minutes left before they turf you out. This presents something of a problem for me as my closed in shoes are being shipped. It?s a good thing I purchased a new pair of Nike gym shoes before I left Sai Gon, (320,000 VND or A$27 and I saw a similar pair in a sports shop here for A$160.00).

Smoking is banned in most buildings here and it is strange to once again see knots of smokers standing outside their offices having a quick drag (no less than 10 metres from any entrance to their building of course). I don?t smoke so I must admit that it is a pleasant change to eat out without having to put up with inhaling cigarette fumes but when I go and have a beer in a public bar I accept the fact that, in Australia, this is the domain of the punter who loves a beer and a fag. Well, not long before that changes too. Smoking is due to be banned in public bars in the very near future.

There is much to be liked about being back in Oz. For instance people here are polite. They say things like ?excuse me?, ?after you?, ?I?m sorry?, ?how can I help you?? Last week we wandered in to a branch of our bank to make a few adjustments to our account and I was overwhelmed by the courteous service that we received. It went something like, ?Good morning. What can I do for you?? ?We need to deposit some US currency into our account and obtain a new PIN for our credit card.? ?Certainly Sir. I can?t do that for you; you need to speak to International banking over there to deposit your overseas currency. Please let me take you over and introduce you to them and then I will take you upstairs and introduce you to Anita who will take care of your other matter.?

Honestly, that is just how it went. People falling over themselves to make us feel relaxed and to be helpful and it hasn?t stopped at the bank either. I?ve been catching the City Cat to University and have been so impressed with the courteous and helpful nature of the crew on these boats and the same thing applies with the staff of Queensland Rail. So what has happened because I seem to remember getting very pissed off by the attitude of countless Australian service industries before I left? Has there been a huge sweeping change over the last two years in the way that Australian organisations treat their customers, or is it simply my perception that has changed? Not sure on that, the jury is still out and it will take a while for me to figure things out.

Meanwhile I now have my office and desk at Queensland University and by tomorrow I will have Internet and computer access so there will be no excuse for not going in and doing some work. The University of Queensland campus is beautiful and it will be a pleasure to work there I?m sure. Although it is weird that, on a campus that houses 40,000 students and umpteen thousand staff and is the equivalent size of a small town, my office is in the same corridor and diagonally opposite the office that Lisa will be working in when she is at the St. Lucia campus. Obviously we are destined to be joined at the hip.

More on Queensland University life later.