MORE THAN a few Californians who've taken up residence in Australia make comparisons between their adopted land and the California they remember before the Watts riots, the influx of millions of political refugees from Latin America and Asia, the clogging of the freeways, the pollution of coastal waters and the emergence of gangs. So, in spite of Australia's declining standard of living--the result of an ailing economy and an imbalance of trade--and its unfolding pollution and crime problems, expatriates feel as if they've turned back the clock.
Standing at the edge of a national park in Noosa Heads, in Queensland, 600 miles up the coast from Sydney, Los Angeles-born Gordon Clements, stared out over the burgeoning town and said, "My parents bought a house in Manhattan Beach in 1952 for $9,000. I thought, 'When am I going to be able to afford this?' I wanted to live on the beach."
Clements, 36, who looks like the archetypal tanned and blue-eyed California surfer, was once co-owner of a delicatessen in Manhattan Beach. He sold out to his partner and moved to Australia "on a lark" in 1978. "I remember that first day in August I arrived in Noosa. It looked like paradise. The surfing was good, the sky was blue, the beer was cold and there were all these naked girls on the beach. I thought, 'Why should I leave here?' "
He arranged to return the following year, under a temporary work visa, to coach a water polo team at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. Eventually, he went to work as a carpenter, at one point hiring out to a construction crew in the remote Outback where he ate the famous red dust of the bush and lived in military-style barracks.
Today, he supervises a crew of 40 carpenters building hotels and petrol stations in Noosa Heads, a developing tropical resort where the ocean temperature in the winter is the same as it is in Los Angeles in the summer. He has built himself a 2,800-square-foot house near a golf course, where it's not uncommon to see kangaroos on the greens. He tells his Australian wife, Joanna, "This is what Manhattan Beach was 30 years ago. It's going to grow up around us."
A thousand miles across the country in Adelaide, a serene city of Victorian parks, cathedral spires and 1 million people that faces the Southern Ocean, Ron Somers led the way into his back yard to show off George and Martha, the pet wallabies he and his wife bought since resettling six years ago. "We feel like we're in a bit of a time warp. It's like California in the '50s," said Somers, 41, a public-health official who grew up in the Fairfax district and went to UCLA. "Kids wear school uniforms. You're not afraid to go out at night. You go to a national park here and have the place to yourselves."
Ten years ago, he and his 35-year-old wife, Pam Rachootin, were employees of Kaiser-Permanente in Los Angeles, "making good incomes, and we still couldn't touch housing."
They left Los Angeles first for Denmark, where both of them worked on a three-year grant; then Somers heard about a university research job in Adelaide. Neither of them had been to Australia before, but he took the job, and Rachootin enrolled in medical school for free (nearly all education in Australia is free) and became a physician. Soon after they arrived, the couple bought a four-bedroom house with a red-tile roof, half a mile from the beach, for $80,000 Australian.
"We're living in a more manageable environment here," said Somers, who's since moved on to a position with the state of South Australia as a specialist in accident prevention. "We've been out of the country for 10 years now, and in that time we've seen such changes in Los Angeles that it's become less and less of a magnet to draw us back."
"The last time we were back," Rachootin said of their visit to West Los Angeles, "we were shocked to see armed guards at our old supermarket."
Although Adelaide is a quiet city of vestigial English character, its physical layout, between the ocean and a ridge of golden brown hills, and its mild climate are reminiscent of Los Angeles. "After Denmark," Rachootin said, "we almost felt like we were going back home when we came here." But emigres from the West Coast are surprised when they learn how different the culture really is.
"It's a first-world Mexico," said Phil Tripp, a former tour manager for rock bands in the United States who now lives in Sydney, a metropolis of 3 million spread out on an 18th-Century grid across low hills surrounding one of the world's great natural harbors. "It's \o7 manana\f7 -land. People here don't live to work; they work to live."