Judging by their Olympic behavior and by the way the local media is reporting the games -- shades of Fleet Street and New York Post style journalism, with front page headlines screaming such major world news as "Susie's quest: O'Neill carries Australian hopes tonight" -- Aussies are a super-patriotic lot. Even in the jingoist 1996 Atlanta Games, it didn't seem like as many Americans painted flags on their cheeks, wore flag clothing and generally went loudly and publicly gaga over their country as Australians. I could be wrong, but Aussie patriotism, although undeniably virulent, seems to have a slightly more organic, sincere feeling than the sometimes emptily vaunting U.S. version, maybe because this is a country of 18 million people and still feels a little like the national version of a small town. Bill Bryson, an astute and entertaining Australia-phile, says that Australia reminds him a little of the idealized image of '50s America, and I know what he means. There's a healthy homogeneity here, a sense of "us" that perhaps you can only get when your country is relatively small. People here are genuinely proud of their country, and if they have a chip on their shoulder because they're often ignored by the rest of the world, it isn't a very big one. They're too confident, smug even, to have an inferiority complex -- in which, as in many other things, they resemble Americans. They're different, too, in ways that I haven't quite figured out yet -- it has something to do with a bluff, British-tinged working-men-bonding style (the famous Aussie "mateship") that doesn't run quite as deep in the U.S., although we have some of that too. There's a deep anti-authority streak in both countries, but we're more lone wolves than they are. Blame it on John Calvin and the cowboys.
But not all Australians are patriotic. I have the honor of residing in the only neighborhood in all of Australia to have mooned the Olympic torch. I'm staying in a district called Newtown, a scruffy-chic anarcho-lesbian-yuppie-punk neighborhood just west of downtown. The morning after I arrived I was sitting in a cafe with my hosts, two "journos" (Aussie for journalists) and their new baby, when a woman described to me as a well-known and well-liked local lesbian activist came up to our table and told us, with a twinkle in her eye, that we should get up to the main intersection right away because the Olympic torch was passing through and they were going to "give it the brown eye."
I'd been reading in the paper about the emotions stirred by the torch in its epic passage through all of Australia, watching TV pictures of the incandescent smiles and tears it ignited throughout the whole country, and so I assumed the expression "brown eye" must refer to some special tribute. Perhaps it was a grand welcoming wink, performed in unison by all brown-eyed inhabitants of Newtown? No, Jean and Mark informed me, giving the brown eye actually meant mooning someone. (Australian slang is legendary for good reason. If a nation's greatness can be measured by its vernacular, and I think it can, then Australia is right up there.) It seemed some of the local disaffected citizenry ("We call them the ferals," Jean said) were planning to show their contempt for the corporate, corrupt, big-money Olympics by dropping trou as the torch went by.