That title pretty much sums up my feelings about Melbourne. I am really glad I got to spend a few weeks here, because this is very much the kind of city whose charms are appreciated in the quotidian culture of the place. It is not that there aren’t plenty of things to do and see in Melbourne, but there is nothing to really “wow” one in the tourist sense. Melbourne is about its coffee culture, about its food culture. About meeting up with friends in various places, about the rooftop bars and the climate and the (fairly) easy transportation. Melbourne is a pleasant city to stroll in, to shop in, to hang out in. Melbourne has nice parks and nice museums, although nothing spectacular in this area. After a few weeks here, I can see why my friends struggled to find clear things to tell me to do and see here, it is not that kind of place. And yet, on the whole it paints a very enticing picture, like San Francisco in many ways, but with better weather. Melbourne is definitely more than the sum of its parts. My advice to someone coming for a visit: Don’t, unless you can spend a little time. Melbourne is not to be rushed. But with a little patience, you will inevitably find yourself liking it more and more.
Originally my friend Jimmy and I had planned on taking a two day camping and hiking trip to the Wilsons Promontory, but with the forecast for heavy rain, we instead decided on a less ambitious trip up The Great Ocean Road. Even though it was overcast and rainy at times, this ended up being a really good choice. We were joined on the trip by Jimmy’s friend Mark, who provided much in the way of comic relief throughout the journey. It takes a bit of time outside of Melbourne (to the west) before the stretch of road begins, but once it does, it is quite beautiful. It really reminded me of Highway 1 in California in many places, the landscapes can be quite similar and equally stunning. At about halfway up we took a small detour and hike to a place called Erskine Falls, one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen. I know people are often more impressed by the huge, loud, multi-part falls at Niagara or Iguazo, but there is something more beautiful to me about a tall, thin, single point dropping a great vertical distance. We then headed to a nearby town for some fresh fish, and made our long and winding way back to Melbourne, just in time to miss the heaviest rains of the day and and some intense lightning.
My friend Marco suggested we go to this super trendy Melbourne restaurant called Chin Chin for dinner this evening. I had been hearing about it non-stop, and even tried unsuccessfully to go the other night (where the waiting list was an hour and a half). As I mentioned, Melbourne steadfastly refuses to do reservations, so everyone must wait, always. We planned on getting there pretty early, around 6:30, to avoid the worst of it, and I got there even earlier and put our name in. We were lucky that the wait was ONLY 35 minutes.
Once inside, we decided on the “feed me” option on the menu, where they basically pick everything and bring you stuff, with one stipulation. I noticed they had a beef rendang on the menu, and I had to have it. I have to have rendang wherever I see it, it is one of my favorite dishes. They agreed, and brought us plate after plate of fantastic food. Everything was super delicious, but the rendang was truly spectacular. Problem was, by this time I was one stuffed, fat cow (as the gays all seem to call each other here). As we still had another main plate coming, we asked them to please halt and just bring us the dessert. I took a few bites, it was pretty yum. But by this point I was just about to search for a bucket. Thankfully, that was when the bill came and we paid and walked for a bit before sharing a cab back to our neighborhood.
During the meal and walk back, Marco and I had a really nice talk about politics, acceptance, families and such. It has been really fun getting to know him and Luc and their friends while here, and I realized I will miss them when I leave.
Yesterday a nice local guy named Sanjeev took me to an amazing dumpling place called ShanDong Mama. Everything I had there was super delicious, from the spicy Szechuan pepper beef to the pan friend “Melbourne” dumplings to the steamed “Dill-icious” dumplings. Highly recommended if you are in Melbourne.
After that, I took a stroll through the CBD over to the NGV to see the JPG show. Upon entering, there is a room filled with mannequins that have video faces projected on them, some of which are talking, some are winking, some are smiling, and some are just looking bored but occasionally blinking. It was an amazing (and very creepy) effect, and was definitely leading me down to the uncanny valley. I mean, check these out:
Kinda makes your skin crawl, doesn’t it. Still, very cool. the rest of the show presented the work of Jean-Paul Gaultier over the years, and I have to say it was impressive and filled with humor and delight. It was also quite well organized and a pleasure to walk through. If you should be in Melbourne before it closes, definitely check it out.
– You can’t make reservations in most Melbourne restaurants, so it is always a crazy long wait to get a table. This strikes me as woefully inefficient.
– And speaking of restaurants, if you can’t finish your meal, you can’t take your uneaten food to go. Or perhaps you can, but everyone I spoke to here finds the very idea repellant. (but apparently wasting half a plate of food is not as repellent).
– There are oh so many things in the language that are similar to us, but different. They say “general knowledge” when we would say “common knowledge”. They say “how are you going?” when we would say “how are you doing?”, etc etc etc
– The seats facing each other on the trams and trains are far too close to each other. Only children and little people could comfortably sit across from one another. But I guess the same is true of how close some subway seats are in New York. Perhaps these were all originally designed for a time when people were smaller.
– As in the UK, people seem to drink more here than in the US.
– I have probably mentioned this before, but card payment is almost all contactless or chip and pin (although I gather they came to this quite recently). I can’t wait for the US to join the modern era in this regard.
– Because of the accent, I often can’t understand what people are saying and need to ask them to repeat themselves. When people say “all good” here, it sounds exactly (to my ear) like “awkward”. Which is pretty much the opposite of what they are meaning to convey.
– Automatic doors here all open much too slowly, what is up with that?
So I did end up having a Thanksgiving meal after all. I got invited by a lovely group of guys here to their annual Thanksgiving meal. Even though only two of us in attendance were actually American, it was a faithful rendition (with turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, etc) and delicious to boot. And I had some pretty interesting conversations about Australian politics, voting systems (in particular compulsory and preferential), gun control, and health care, among other things. Spoiler alert: On many of these issues, I prefer the Australian versions. This doesn’t mean for a second I would rather live in Australia than the US (well, NYC), but there are many solutions in these areas which I wish we would adopt. One of the best things about traveling is that one has the opportunity to learn about different cultures, and although Australia seems superficially very similar to the US (and is very similar when compared to countries in Asia for example), there are in fact many differences and it is a pleasure to learn about these. Some of them (as I have written about before) are political, some linguistic, and some have to do with social customs or behavior. (One small thing I have noticed here in the sub culture of gay men is that we say our goodbyes differently. We tend to hug more in the US, they tend to kiss more on the cheek here. These little things fascinate me.)
And a rhombus, and other angular shapes that have no names. As I have been walking around Melbourne, I have been struck by how much angular (modern) architecture there is. There is definitely a trend here, or a fairly recent history of building that has defined a set of aesthetics that others have taken up with gusto to continue that formal conversation. And that conversation is all about odd angles, things that look as if they are falling over but aren’t, strong dashes of deconstructivism, and plain old high modern. I am not sure exactly when this trend began, but you can see evidence of it all over the place that continues today in projects still under construction. Of course, Melbourne is not only those things, you can also find evidence of a lot of well preserved historic buildings in the CBD. And a lot of crap building of many eras just like you can find all over the world. But this obsession with non-right angles has been really striking to me, much more than any other place I have been. What does it say (if anything) about the character of Melbourne, how the city sees itself or wants to be seen? Is it telling the world Melbourne is a non-conformist? Is it saying that they see themselves as cutting edge, or avant guard, or just a bit quirky? Is it just a fad, the architectural equivalent of Uggs?
Last night the guys took me out to another interesting neighborhood, that of Fitzroy, which I had heard a lot about before coming to Melbourne. It is a formerly rundown area that is a little funky and experiencing a (now very far along) resurgence of economic activity, especially furniture stores and the like, restaurants and bars and clubs. I kinda get the feeling it is a bit the Williamsburg to Prahran’s Chelsea/West Village. Marco talked about it like they know there is good stuff there, but it is a hassle to get to, and kind of feel as if they need to take their passports. We had dinner at a place called Rice Queen, and then went to a “regular guy” (the way it was described to me, perhaps because there were so few lookers in the place) gay club called Sircuit. The music was very good and everyone seemed to be having a great time there, it was infectious. We called it a night after a few drinks and this morning I got up and made my way by tram (I am getting the hang of them here) to Port Melbourne, a pretty, nicely developed area by the water, where I met my old friend Jimmy (last seen in a yoga ashram in India almost 8 years ago) for brunch. It was so great catching up with him, I forgot what a sweetheart he is, and we took a substantial walk south along the water, ending up in the St Kilda neighborhood, before I made my way back to meet the gang for gay Sunday drinks at a bar called Railway in a neighborhood just south of theirs known as Windsor. Then it was a heavy dinner of burgers and too many fried things, before finally making my way back home. I am feeling just a little bit gross now and will say good night.
Last night Marco and Luc invited me to their lovely home in Prahan (a neighborhood which is just a short walk down the road from South Yarra) for drinks with a friend of theirs (Guy), and then we all went out to dinner. I loved the neighborhood at night, it was brimming with activity on the high street, and has a really nice scale to it. And there were an abundance of bars and restaurants open, and we settled on a great little Vietnamese restaurant called “Hanoi Hannah“. After that we walked around a bit and ended up at a speakeasy called Jungle Boy, hidden away behind a freezer door at a place called Boston Sub that smells strongly of fry grease and serves Poutine of all things. A few things struck me while out and about last night. First, there were a fair amount of homeless people on the streets, more than I have seen anywhere else on this trip and come to think of it, more than I see in NYC these days (but less than one sees in San Francisco). Second, although this was a very gay neighborhood, it felt much more mixed to me than most gay neighborhoods (I guess Hell’s Kitchen is much the same, but it is also much more dense). There were also a strangely large amount of hot rod, loud noise making vehicles on the street. And finally, there were a shit-ton of drunk people yelling, but this was Friday night after all. I myself was drunk (but not yelling) as I said my goodbyes, and made my way back to my apartment, only about a 20 minute walk away on cool, very pleasant night.
Last night I took the opportunity to watch a reality show that is generating a lot of buzz here called “First Contact“. It is a three part show that exposes a group of 6 “regular” Australians who have had no or minimal contact with Aboriginal (indigenous) peoples to a diversity of examples of how they live. In some ways, it was a too-good example of the reality show genre, almost a parody, especially in its heavy handed editing and overly dramatic voiceovers (“Bo-dene is about to confront something shocking that will shake her to the core”). They also created drama where there was none, and glossed over many chances for meaningful pedagogy on the issues and legal regimes that confront Aboriginal populations. And yet, it did present Aboriginal communities in a variety of contexts, and gave this American a little view into the lives of these groups. Having been in Australia now for only about 10 days, I do get the sense that they are more in touch with the legacy of their colonialism and treatment of these groups than we are in the US. And yet, it seems there is also an ongoing evaluation of this legacy that probably swings back and forth over time, and with changing of governments and attitudes.