My first stop in Melbourne was in the suburbs, about 30 minutes outside the CBD, in an area called Glen Waverley. A very good friend of mine, Ivy Huang (whom I met whilst she was travelling in London at the turn of 2008), very kindly put me up for a few days on arrival, which was fantastic; after being on the road for three months sleeping in hostel dormitories, this was really welcome. Generally, you are able to relax in a dormitory (touch wood, you‟re not likely to get robbed or worse). However, you‟re only able to switch off around 95%; unconsciously, some part of you is alert to the fact that you‟re sharing a room with complete strangers. Here, in Glen Waverley however, for the first time in a long time, I was able to fully switch off and relax; a real comfort. Ivy was also one of the very few constants during my seven weeks in Melbourne (with trips to the Yarra Valley, Sorrento, the zoo, the International Comedy Festival and many other outings including exploring the enormous range of Melbourne bars and pubs; a huge thanks to her for her kindness, hospitality and generosity throughout my stay). The other constants were The Nunnery, a great hostel in Fitzroy and, sporadically, the Salad Club, a highly convivial and enjoyably very boozy dinner party club consisting of Ivy and her friends (Olga Lapchine (a good friend whom I also met in London; she was travelling with Ivy, whilst also on an extended visit to Europe. Olga also very kindly spent time showing me around Melbourne with very welcome suggestions on things to see and do; a huge thanks to her as well) Sade Forbes, Nathan Taylor, Ivy Pham, Kathleen Tham, Ross Laxton and Jimmy Cheah), with events ranging from souvlaki (a huge Australian version of the kebab, huge slabs of meat on a spit; delicious) parties to pasta suppers to Russian Easter lunches.
After a few days in Glen Waverley, I set up camp in the Nunnery hostel in the northern inner suburb of Fitzroy, between the suburbs of Carlton and Collingwood. The Nunnery was just that: a converted former home for nuns but which now housed travellers and backpackers. It had three floors, a couple of annexes, a large common room, a communal kitchen and a beautiful courtyard for barbeques. It was like a little commune with people ranging from long-termers to people just in for a day or so. I was in a dorm for the seven or so weeks I was there and I had the pleasure of meeting thoroughly interesting people throughout my stay. It‟s very easy to make friends in a long-term hostel like this: you get chatting in your dorm or in the kitchen, have a coffee, drink boxed wine and go out exploring the city. In no particular order, I spent great times with the following: Julia Roe and Jo Taylor (travellers from Wolverhampton); Jasper Enstrup and Lars Peters (German dorm buddies of mine who were in Melbourne on a dentistry student exchange programme. They both had that very engaging wide-eyed excitement of being on the other side of the world in a totally new city and were always keen to go and do something), Nimrod Gargya from London (a great guy in his sixties from London who was over for several weeks to see his daughter settle in after emigrating from London to Melbourne. He could drink and party with the best of them and was the embodiment of the slogan “young at heart” and I really hope I‟ve got his energy and lust for life when I‟m his age. He had spent his childhood and early youth in Melbourne and kindly took the time to show me round the Carlton suburb), Craig Buoniconti from the States (a great guy from Boston who just lived for travelling. His particular favourite region was South-East Asia), Jen Sambien and Verena (German travellers), Lysa Jumelle from Paris (a traveller who‟d just come from backpacking around Vietnam and Laos and was trying to work as much as possible to extend her stay in Melbourne. We spent ages in thrift shops in Collingwood, random laneway bars and hanging out in Fitzroy coffee shops), Jon Tree (lovely guy from England always up for a pint, an explore and kicking a football around. He developed a strong love for surfing during his time in Australia), Jeremie Reist (a Swiss soldier who also happened to be a no-holds-barred fighter with a 14-0 record, all knock-downs!), Angeline Kamleh (a lovely postgraduate human rights law student who was from Adelaide, always keen for the cinema, a pint and some searching conversation), Kate from New South Wales (an aspiring writer fully committed to the bohemian lifestyle as a prerequisite for creativity), Eli Lee from London (an aspiring novelist who had moved to Sydney for six months in order to finish her novel whilst at the same time working as a financial journalist; she was in Melbourne on a mini-break), and Angela from Sydney, most of whom I‟m still in touch with today. I met teachers, dentists, civil servants, several architects, an Aboriginal band and the usual hostel traveller mix of aspiring musicians, actors, writers and artists; it‟s fantastic to meet such a diverse array of people and with whom, by virtue of each being travellers, I also shared a high degree of like-mindedness, a quality in others that I came to value increasingly highly during my travels.
Fitzroy is absolutely the kind of place that I want to live in the future. It‟s unashamedly bohemian, alternative and creative. Fitzroy is centred on the parallel streets of Brunswick Street and Smith Street (which has a Camden/Tooting feel). The people here are diverse; their diversity contributing to the optimism and buzz of the area. I met entrepreneurs, artists (Melbourne seemed to be a magnet for young creatives, and particularly artists), singer/songwriters, artisans, street-poets, guerrilla gardeners setting up public patches of vegetable plots (I remember meeting this guy who‟d set up some large vegetable boxes made out of reclaimed pallets. He wanted to develop some community spirit and believed that communal spaces where anyone could help out and where anyone was welcome to the fruits of that effort might help foster this quality. I remember there were some teething problems because someone had taken all the tomatoes. I loved the idea though.), social workers developing sanctuaries for former trafficked sex-workers (next to the Fitzroy library), writers, conservationists and designers.
One thing that Fitzroy is renowned for is its live music scene. There are loads of bars and pubs which host mostly free live music every night. In my first week in the area, I went to at least one gig a night, literally just walking across the road to the next venue! To be fair, I did see quite a lot of fairly bad music (who cares?!) but I also saw some fantastic stuff such as a band called The Fearless Vampire Killers. The bands tend to be emerging local guitar-based groups and I got the sense that the venues where they play take very seriously their self-imposed responsibility to develop local talent. Fantastic venues around here include Bar Open, The Old Bar, The Evelyn Hotel and, one of my favourites, Yah-Yahs, a deliciously grimy, red behemoth of a room serving cheap beer; it‟s eclectically filled with sweaty, tweedy types, the obligatory skinny jeans lot and big-haired, alternative types in bare feet.
Fitzroy is also a fine example of that other famed Melbournian preoccupation: coffee. A stroll up Brunswick Street alone will reveal at least 20 coffee shops with different themes, beans and blends. Most of these become bars in the evening ensuring that socialising in Melbourne is all day long, such as at the Black Cat. My favourite coffee bar, though, was Alimentari, another example of how things can be done just right: delicious coffee, awesome food, artisanal deli-like interior and full of little touches such as tap water being chilled in green stoppered bottles in the fridge from which customers just help themselves; I‟ve never seen that before. It‟s just right. Another of my absolutely favourite places in Fitzroy is Bimbos Deluxe, which offered lunchtime deals of 4AUD pizzas, an absolute bargain and great for the area‟s impecunious creatives, students and backpackers. The Bimbos pizzas were another example of things being done right: thin crust, lots of toppings, generously sized, ridiculously cheap and most importantly, completely delicious. I also loved the place‟s dress code: no suits and no ties! A few doors down was the Vegie Bar, another Fitzroy institution, with great food at fantastically low prices in an impossibly modern dining room.
Melbourne is routinely voted as one of the world‟s most liveable cities. It‟s easy to see why. Everything seems geared towards the well-being of its residents. For instance:
It has an excellent location: it‟s on the Victorian coast within a huge natural bay (Port Philip) enjoying properly seasonal weather (it was 47 degrees for five days straight in February 2009, and famed for its „four seasons in one day‟ climate – sunshine in the morning and hailstorms and gales in the afternoon). Just 60km from the city centre is the Yarra Valley, one of Australia‟s top wine-producing areas, in a country producing great New World wines. I went there with Ivy on a wine tour shortly before I flew out of Melbourne. The Yarra Valley is an idyllic picture-postcard region with gentle hills and field after field of vineyards. A particularly enjoyable tasting session was at Seville Hill, where John D‟Aloisio, the winemaker, introduced us to gorgeous wines. I particularly remember a 2005 Reserve Shiraz and a superb 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon; delicious! We also enjoyed cellar doors at Giant Steps, the sumptuous Chandon vineyard, the niche Coombe Farm, De Bortolis and the Mandala winery.
Nearby lie superb beaches such as Lorne, Torquay, Bell‟s and Sorrento; all are within an hour‟s drive away. It was in Sorrento (a beautiful area at the eastern tip of Port Philip, about 70km from Melbourne) that I experienced my first “rip”, on one of the back beaches. A “rip” is a strong current of seawater that flows away from the beach. It‟s not an undertow but a separate current of water that pulls you out to sea. People can get exhausted from swimming against the rip and subsequently drown. Swimming lessons are mandatory for Australians at school and, with the strong beach culture, it‟s not difficult to see why. Australians are taught to spot rips and, when caught in one, to swim across it. I was in a large rock pool just glorying in letting the waves crash over me, when suddenly, I was pulled further and further away from the edge of the rock pool, even after swimming hard against the current pulling me out to sea. Eventually, I made it back to the rock edge, completely exhausted and very respectful of rips thereafter!
It‟s immensely cultured: Melbourne is famed for being the culture capital of Australia. This is clearly a dig at Sydney, its far brasher rival city, for when you say that Melbourne is “cultured”, you‟re also saying is that Sydney is un-cultured (or at the very least, less cultured), and what we’re really saying when we say that Sydney is less cultured is that it‟s not particularly sophisticated! I definitely got this impression having spent time in both places. Sydney is geared to the beach, physical exercise and tanning, whilst the Melbournian is almost a parody of Euro-cultured i.e. coffee-addicted, literary-minded, enjoys live music, wears head to toe black, smokes languidly, sips cocktails, has a strong interest in art and fashion, enjoys microbreweries and vineyards etc. Perhaps you could say, slightly more provocatively, that Sydney is a bit more American and that Melbourne is more European, in its widest sense. Obviously, this is a massive generalisation but the overall thrust, I‟m sure, isn‟t far off the mark!
A major factor leading to Melbourne‟s reputation for culture stems from the literary resources available in the city. Aside from the wealth of bookshops, there are several excellent libraries, the flagship of which is the State Library of Victoria. The State Library is easily my favourite building in Melbourne. Victoria spent AUD200m just on the State Library‟s refurbishment, the crowning glory of which is the LaTrobe Reading Room whose design is based on the Great Dome of the Reading Room of the British Museum – it‟s spectacular! Not long after inception in 1856, the Head Librarian copied, book for book, the entire catalogue of the British Library. From those early days, the State Library has surpassed the British Library, which itself has moved to less central locations, resulting in less accessibility, and limited admission. The State Library, by contrast, is incredibly well stocked and keenly focused on its commitment as a fully public library with hundreds of magazines and journals being subscribed to and providing comprehensive research facilities and completely free internet access. It has impressive exhibitions, currently on travel, the history of Melbourne, and the written word. There is an imposing gallery showcasing old and contemporary Victorian paintings, both of portraits (of the great and the good of Victoria) and Victorian landscapes (old and contemporary). The Library even has a dedicated chess room, housing a bequeathed collection of chess books rated as the third most comprehensive in the world. I spent many happy hours in the State Library; a hugely stimulating and invigorating place, and another example of how things should be. I don‟t think I’ve read as much as during my time in Melbourne. I was reading loads everyday; whether it was the new Popular Penguins orange series, journals, or art history; I just wanted to read.. (Why isn‟t the British Library as good as this? Shouldn‟t the British Library be more accessible and welcoming to everyone? Shouldn‟t every book in their catalogue be available to view?)
In terms of Melbournian high culture, there’s a fantastic art gallery called the National Gallery of Victoria, housed in a huge granite building on St Kilda Road in the very heart of the city, just off the Yarra River. The building is strikingly monolithic with Fascist leanings, of the sort seen in Madrid, Lisbon and Rome. This is next to the Arts Centre, a massive underground complex with an Eiffel Tower-esque structure on its roof, where top quality shows are performed on constant rotation and where I saw my first ballet performance since school: Firebird, Petrouchka and Les Sylphides. There‟s also a magnificent museum in Carlton Gardens (next to the World Heritage listed Royal Exhibition Building right opposite the Nunnery) with great exhibitions such as one celebrating the huge range of (mostly deadly) Australian bugs, snakes and spiders. I‟d walk past this every day (free internet), across a huge paved space between the two buildings. The space, because it was so perfectly smooth and flat, would always be occupied by skaters, hipsters on single gear bikes practising tricks, and rollerblade hockey players.
In March/April every year, Melbourne also hosts its month-long International Comedy Festival, regarded as the third biggest comedy festival in the world, attracting more than 400,000 people. The whole spectrum of comedy is represented from globally known stand-ups, edgy up-and-coming comedians, local talent, sketch shows, musicals, improvisation, fringe shows; all in a variety of venues in and around the city centre. The venue could be in a tiny pub, a theatre, the Melbourne Town Hall on Swanston Street, a student‟s union, a bar etc. There‟s such a buzz in Melbourne when the Festival is on as performers take to the streets to promote and hopefully persuade people to go and see their show; often the shows will clash with those of other performers leading to comical mock fights for your affections. Most of the shows are in the evenings and tickets, with the exception of the very biggest names, are generally available right up until the show‟s opening time. Outside the Melbourne Town Hall is a huge blackboard of shows, dates and times; simply turn up in the evening and see what takes your fancy. I was fortunate enough to see some very funny stuff – I enjoyed David Quirk (very dry, deadpan and just on the edge of acceptability) and, in particular, an engaging comic named Nick Cody.
Melbourne is also a foodie city, and, for me, the heart of this foodie city, is the open-air Queen Victoria Market off Elizabeth Street and Victoria Street, a giant complex of stalls and a major draw for tourists and locals alike. There‟s a great deli section showcasing the different immigrant cultures where cheeses sit happily next to tabouleh and spicy bratwurst; a super value butchery and fishmonger section; a huge fruit and vegetable section both indoors and out, a great place for really cheap, fresh food and where I discovered Tuscan cabbage or cavolo nero (my new favourite vegetable); delicious churros and fabulously gooey melted chocolate from a stall run by Olga‟s boyfriend, Robbie. The Victoria Market is one of my favourite places in Melbourne; I loved wandering around at 4pm looking for bargains.
Melbourne is also completely sport crazy: the world-class facilities that it possesses and the events that it hosts truly mark Melbourne out as a global city. Again, following on with the theme of accessibility, its world class sporting venues are slap-bang in the middle of the city. There‟s the world famous Melbourne Cricket Ground (the MCG or simply the “G”), just a short walk east along the Yarra River from Flinders Street Station. I took a tour of the MCG, even walking through the Long Room, which, whilst I‟m not the biggest cricket fan in the world, set the hairs on the back of my neck on end. I saw the points in the grandstand where historically famous sixes had been hit. I also watched some actual cricket there, a very sparsely supported inter-state match between Queensland and Victoria. That day, I saw two centuries smashed by the Victorians and I even saw Andrew Symonds (who had been recently dropped from the Test side touring South Africa at the time) in the field. Next to the MCG is the Rod Laver Arena which hosts the Australian Open tennis, one of the sport‟s four Grand Slam Championships. I also saw the track around Albert Park to the south of Melbourne’s CBD which hosted the Formula One Australian Grand Prix during my stay. I could hear the racing cars whining from the other side of the city!
However, despite all these other well-supported global sports, the sport that Melbourne goes completely nuts for is Australian Rules Football (AFL), or simply “footy”. I was lucky enough to see a game at the Etihad Stadium, next to Southern Cross Station. This was a pre-season tournament called the NAB Cup. The match was a semi-final between Carlton Football Club (“the Blues”) and Geelong Football Club (“The Cats”). I was very kindly taken by Ross Laxton, one of the guys from Glen Waverley, his girlfriend Simone Cunningham and one of his friends, Cameron. Ross gave me one of his old Carlton sleeveless vests and I‟m now a Carlton fan by default. Contrary to commonly held British opinion, footy is not a bastardised hybrid of football and rugby (!); it is in fact an exciting, fast, high-impact and high-contact blend of hand-passing and kicking. AFL is a Victorian obsession loved by representatives from all demographics. The sport pages are at least 90% dedicated to AFL with full page pictures, breakdown analysis, statistics, previews, random gossip stories, tales of footy glory from decades past etc. The main news stories when I was there focused on Ben Cousins, a gifted player with drug problems, and also keen reporting on player violence inflicted on teammates during pre-season training! Melbournians absolutely live and breathe footy. At the game, I was heckled by a couple of stoutly built, middle-aged women, Geelong fans, from the row in front who turned around with open contempt, “It’s a fucking mark, not a catch, it‟s a mark! Will someone fucking tell him the fucking rules? He’s with you guys yeah? Tell him the rules! A fucking catch?! It‟s a mark!” Suitably chastised, I slunk off to the beer stall. I tried playing AFL during my time in Melbourne; it‟s very difficult to perform even the basic moves. There‟s the hand pass, where you hold the oval ball in one hand and “pop‟ the point with your other hand clenched as a fist. It hurts! There’s the ball-bounce which you have to do when running with the ball (as you can‟t run with the ball in your hands). The idea is to throw the ball down in front of you whilst running and bounce it in such a way that it comes back to you. The ball has to strike the ground near the front point at an angle with the ball pointing back towards you whilst running; it‟s a similar move to dribbling in basketball, but with an oval ball, this is a seriously difficult skill to master!
Melbourne is a fantastic place for going out. Aside from live music, there’s also a strong underground culture of laneway bars. Laneways (or alleyways) are an integral part of Melbourne life and they criss-cross the CBD area as bounded by La Trobe Street, Spencer Street, Spring Street and Flinders Street; some of the laneways are signposted, many aren‟t. Speakeasy-style laneway bars are tucked away in these myriad alleyways. For example, you might be wandering down Swanston Street and take a right down Lonsdale Street. From here, your actual next first right wouldn‟t be the next main street of Elizabeth Street; it would in fact be a narrow, grimy looking, smelly alleyway called Drewery Lane. At first glance, there’s nothing down here but refuse containers and graffiti. However, wander about 70 metres down this alleyway and next on your left will be an even smaller, even more non-descript alleyway called Snyder Lane, again filled with dumpsters and a solid dead-end about 60 metres down. At the end of this alleyway, though, on the right, is a small green Coopers sign above a door with no name (BTW best beer in Australia is Little Creatures Pale Ale (from Freemantle in Western Australia) and Coopers Original Pale Ale (from South Australia)). Push through the meat-locker-style plastic curtain, walk through the small, empty lobby, climb up the stairs and suddenly you’re in a cool little bar called Sister Bella’s, with great pizzas, mulled wine, and a complete world away from the bustle of the city. Melbourne‟s CBD is full of these great places. There’s Section 8, just off Tattersall’s Lane, a semi-outdoors, industrialised space behind wire netting, where the bar is an old shipping container and rain comes through the patchy, corrugated iron roof and where you sit on wooden pallets quaffing long-neck beers. There‟s the Croft Institute, at the end of a windy alleyway off Chinatown, themed on a medical laboratory, with surgical steel, glass and medical implements. There’s the Gin Palace, a Melbournian institution, which is almost impossible to find off Little Collins Street, where the huge range of martinis and den-like ambience serve up an unforgettable bar experience. There’s The Rooftop bar seven stories up on the top of Curtin House on Swanston Street with great views across the eastern CBD. There‟s Madame Brussels, a super little bar with a tennis theme straight out of Wimbledon with astroturf, white deckchairs, campari punch, and model waiters with the tiniest old-school white shorts! There was St Jerome‟s, a great little dive bar in an alley off Caledonian Lane, sadly shut down during my time in Melbourne and also where I saw perhaps one of the worst gigs of my life! (Check these lyrics out: “Monday – nothing! Tuesday – nothing! Wednesday – nothing!”….all the way through to “Sunday – nothing!” it doesn’t stop there…“Year 2000 – nothing! 2001 – nothing!…” Get your coat.) In short, laneway bar culture is part of Melbourne‟s very fabric – I loved it! These places are a total antidote and a complete tonic against the homogeneous, pine and chrome interiors of most Australian, and indeed most Melbournian, pubs and bars.
Given that I was in Melbourne for 7 weeks, it’s safe to say that it’s a city I’ve fallen for. I absolutely love the place! There is a palpable sense of creativity, vigour, stimulation and possibility that I’ve not felt in any other city. Looking back, I see my time in Melbourne as a golden period; I’ve probably never been happier. It was the first time during my journey that I’d actually taken the opportunity to set up camp for a prolonged amount of time and, instead of just arriving in town and ticking off the sights, for once trying as hard as possible to live as a local. It was a completely different experience and, whilst not lessening the value of other modes of travels, totally rewarding.
I vividly remember walking down King William Street in Fitzroy, with the sun shining on my face and, on several occasions, just breaking out into a huge, involuntary grin. I hadn’t felt that happy for a long, long time. The atmosphere either caused or coincided with various shifts in my outlook. Creative and stimulating atmospheres create powerful virtuous circles. Spending time with diverse and like-minded fellow travellers, idealistic, bright students and creative, bohemian, arty types cannot fail to have a significant, positive impact on your outlook. I couldn’t help but think about things that I hadn’t considered in sufficient detail before, such as well-being, the environment, literature, sustainability, international development, global citizenship, culture, consumption, human rights, and my own politics all against the backdrop of global financial turmoil and re-evaluation. My time in Melbourne has left me with a thirst for experiment and for the new. Whether this turns out to be permanent or transient, only time will tell, but I very much hope that it lasts. I left Melbourne feeling intensely that I was no longer even close to being a relativist, that I was to my soul a believer in absolutes. Forget solipsism; forget the debate as to whether our notions of absolutes are man-made constructs or real; forget wondering whether there’s a soul; forget wondering whether there‟s meaning or purpose in the world or in our lives. These doubts are life-denying. Believe in the existence of a soul; believe in absolute values such as justice and love and, to paraphrase Thoreau, believe particularly fiercely in the existence of truth, and live as though it’s at the very fabric of our being.
Sadly, after nearly three months, it was time to say goodbye to Australia, for a few years at least. Unfortunately, it‟s just too far and too expensive to go for a quick holiday, but what a great country to visit! It‟s easy to see why so many backpackers from Europe flock there; it‟s got an incredible quality of life. I didn‟t manage to get over to Perth or Tasmania this time but that can wait until I return to this part of the world to see New Zealand.