8 November 2017

Australian Gifts 19 Years Apart

For many years, I was too shy to wear it – the Australian hat that my mum gave me 19 years ago as a gift to celebrate the prize I had received at one of France's academic competitions called Concours Général. It's funny how most people don't really believe me when I admit I'm essentially an introvert. Which means I never asked a single question during my school years – not a good thing. Which also means I have felt those massive adrenaline spikes when hesitating for ever to declare my unabated love for high school sweethearts – and seldom telling anything to them in the end.

Over time, I started caring less about what people thought of me, recognising that I could be Sheldon-like socially awkward at times and that it was okay to be that way. But that's also because I simultaneously developed confidence that I wasn't too dumb, that my hyperactivity at work and passionate involvement into personal projects somewhat compensated any weirdness.

Wearing my Australian hat at Erawan Falls in Thailand – December 2012

I have to be honest: I don't fully acknowledge my awkwardness. In some cases, I'd rather call it a disrespect for conventions and political correctness, or at the very least a questioning of those, always being a bit suspicious of "groupthink" – anecdotally, that's perhaps why I've always stayed clear of smoking and drinking alcohol. In other cases, I'd call it silliness (which I distinguish from stupidity), the child-like innocent lighthearted goofiness that we, adults, tend to lose. An example of that would be... well no, you'll have to wait for one of those latest, utterly crazy examples and I'll let you judge if it's silly or stupid (it's related to my future career as a rock star).

But nineteen years ago, teenage-me was not comfortable wearing a large, Australian hat which looked out of place in France. Yet just like with any gift I receive, I feel I have to "honour" that gift and use it. So a few years ago, I started wearing the leather hat when travelling for leisure, locals sometimes offering to trade my hat for their wives – I obviously refused, my hat was (emotionally) worth more than a branch of human species who, shall I repeat it once more, have a tendency to break my heart (poor me, right?).

I loved my hat, I always took great care of it. I loved its wide brim protecting me from the sun – and that the brim wasn't turned upwards like American cowboy hats. Perhaps not so paradoxically, the more I wore it, the more it became crumpled... and the more I felt comfortable wearing it because it didn't matter as much that I damaged the hat, crushing it in my backpack as I travelled around Thailand. But then the metal wire of the hat's brim started sticking out. Instead of considering it as a flaw, I imagined using my hat in case of emergency as some kind of deadly ninja weapon, throwing my sharp-edged hat as a frisbee to neutralise my opponent. Yes, I do have some imagination!

Like an overused teddy bear, my damaged brown-leather hat stayed more and more often in my wardrobe, dying its slow death of objects becoming obsolete but still retaining emotional value. My hat had not however taken its last breath yet. Earlier this year, it softly asked me to investigate on my favourite search engine various methods I could use to give it its shape back. Mum suggested I email the Australian manufacturer – why didn't I think of that earlier? After all, I had already emailed an ex-minister, a Nobel prize winner and Elon Musk... and gotten a response from the first two. I'm still waiting for your reply, Elon – but fair enough, I only emailed and sent a handwritten letter to you a few days ago... Oh, you wanted examples of how silly or crazy I can be? Well, here you go!

When I emailed the manufacturer – BC Hats – asking for tips on how to repair my hat, I was not truly expecting any reply, imagining the "factory" to be just too busy. Yet I had also heard of the legendary Australian friendliness. And indeed, within a few hours Bill Conner himself, the founder of BC Hats, emailed back, providing useful feedback and asking more questions to make sure he would properly address my problems. After realising I wasn't based in Australia (as a result, it wasn't really worth sending my hat in for repair), Bill asked for my postal address – I sensed he would perhaps send me a so-called Stockman hat but then nothing came... until a brand new hat arrived in the post a couple of months after our email exchange!

I thought the best way to thank Bill – and my mum for buying the initial hat and for suggesting to email – was to write this post. I never seize to be happy at little – and bigger – gestures of kindness. This is beyond customer service and when you watch this well-made video, you won't be surprised either at the good-hearted family spirit that exists at Bill Conner's workshop. Funny story: Bill is actually from Florida and emigrated to Australia almost 50 years ago, unmistakably adopting the Australian English accent in the process. And he apparently still surfs every morning!

I guess the next part of this story would be for me to visit Bill directly at his workshop in Byron Bay, a little south of Brisbane in Australia. I would be wearing my beloved hat, of course. Ta ("thank you" in Australian slang), mate!