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Preparing for winter Down Under

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CANBERRA -- The weather segment on Australia news bulletins might possibly serve as a stand-up routine for Winnipeggers who would, no doubt, howl with laughter at our antics as we prepare for our tough southern winter.

"Brisbane residents may struggle to leave the comfort of their warm beds on Thursday and Friday mornings as the temperature is expected to drop below 10 degrees,'' was one recent example.

On Wednesday night, the Network Nine weatherman advised with lowered voice that Mount Isa in Queensland's northwest had weathered its coldest autumn on record.

"A top of 24 and a low of four degrees tonight,'' he cautioned, as Mount Isa residents donned their long johns and prepared their hot water bottles for the long winter ahead.

In our upside-down world, June means winter not summer, and we prepare not for vacations and sun splashed weekends at the beach, but long months of work and bouts of seasonal flu.

Manitobans who may regularly have nothing between them and a -20 degree night but a pair of thermo-arc boots, a good coat and a shot of whiskey may dismiss our winter as a nancy-boy version of what the northern hemisphere can dish up.

And they'd be right. Australians simply don't "do'' cold well in the way that Italians have never really "done" war well.

Cold weather is something Australia left behind with warm beer and those black umbrellas after we got collectively "nicked'' and transported to the southern hemisphere a couple of centuries ago.

Even those who live in Tasmania or Canberra, which do get sub-zero temperatures, seem ill at ease with winter and the reason is we feel slightly inadequate about it.

We do. We can leave the world spellbound with a roaring cyclone or a magnificent flood, or even a baking 45-degree desert heat wave, but we can never hope to match the northern hemisphere when it comes to a full throttle, chimney sticking through the snow, spit-frozen-before-it-lands "white out.''

Cold weather will always be part of a far off and vaguely exotic world where women have pale skin and wear berets and someone always says "I'll get your coat'' when a guest exits their residence.

Even the mechanics of cold appear fascinating to the average Australian who marvels at the wonders of a furnace in the basement.

Most of us marvel at a basement.

There's the house, and there might be "under the house'' but rarely in suburban Australia is there a basement, and if there were a deep unease would swiftly spread among the inhabitants if they were told it housed a furnace.

A furnace suggests "raging fire'' -- a phrase which evolution has pre-conditioned the Australian mind to react to with a flash of urgent neural alarm followed by an hysterical attempt to flee.

As for snowmobiles, they're obviously the sub-zero equivalent of the jet ski and would be used primarily for fun even when riding one on official police business.

Snow itself is historically associated with pleasure such as snow ball fights and sleds, provided of course it has not surrounded your car on an isolated rural road and is threatening to freeze the blood in your veins.

But it's the winter clothing that most fascinates the Australian mind, which has grown used to a native fashion evolved from our warmer temperatures.

Manitobans might disagree as they shake off the cabin fever of the past few months and embrace their Canadian summer but there is "cool" component to the cold.

Heat is definitely cool in the California, Surfin' USA tradition but only if you are still somewhere in the first quarter century of your life.

Australian youth have long enhanced the attractiveness of Australia's international brand by cavorting near naked on our beaches all summer long in the safe knowledge that all under 25s are immortal and legislatively protected from melanoma.

But those of more mature years spend most of the year attempting to discreetly cover flesh which has long lost its appeal to the viewing public while still vainly trying to maintain their cool, in every sense of the word.

Many middle-aged men adopt a what-the-hell attitude and step out in short pants, short sleeve shirt, long socks and sandals all topped with a jauntily coloured terry towelling hat.

And it does warm your heart to witness them marching boldly through shopping malls, providing living testimony to a genuine commitment to that oft-stated but rarely authentic assertion -- "I couldn't give a damn what other people think!''

But cold gives us those massive grey coats which have a kind of vaguely Nazi-chic while thermo boots suggest a rugged outdoor machismo and women's scarves are just out-and-out sexy.

Winter fashion might even make up for those other little irritants such as snowplows and block heaters and chains on your tires, which, to the uninitiated in the ways of the cold, look positively dangerous.

In the months ahead they'll all recede in the Canadian mind. Have a great summer.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He mostly writes about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 3, 2011 A15

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