It’s Back to the Big City!
Melbourne, a Genteel, Well-heeled Lady with a Complexion of Many Colors.
Living with uncertainly is a skill I am slowly acquiring–on second thought– quickly acquiring.
I suddenly found myself in Australia’s other big city of about 4.5 million people, Melbourne, for close to three weeks. And this time I didn’t have anyone picking me up at the airport. ( But I did learn to book flights that arrived during the daytime, avoiding late night wanderings.) All I had was an airbnb address in South Melbourne along with directions from my hosts to take the SkyBus to Southern Cross Station in the city, find Williams street, hop on tram number 55, and get off on Park Street.
Needless to say it didn’t run all that smoothly. After asking LOTS of directions, I did find myself on tram number 55…but heading in the wrong direction. I have to say that people were incredibly helpful (pointing out the correct tram on the other side of the street), chivalrous (lifting my suitcase on and off the tram), and caring (one young couple getting off at the same stop, walked me to my address).
Initially, I didn’t think I liked Melbourne as well as Sydney. Melbourne doesn’t have that beautiful harbor, and I didn’t find the trams and myki card particularly user-friendly. I was somewhat acquainted with the long-standing rivalry that exists between the two cities reading that it might have started back in the early 1900s with the intense competition between Melbourne and Sydney for the new national capital. Canberra had to be built to end the fighting. Still others posit that it began back in the 1850s during the gold rush making Melbourne for the next 40 years one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
The rivalry still exists today, and you’re apt to hear little quips about the weather differences: Sydney is sunnier and has the beaches. Melbourne is colder and can have four seasons of weather on the same day, or remarks like: Sydney is “fashionable and luxurious,” while Melbourne is “intellectual and cultural.” I came to realize that I didn’t prefer one over the other. They’re both great, just different. Friends in Australia told me I would love Melbourne. They were right.
Melbourne has a way of capturing your heart. Like the beginnings of a promising relationship, you aren’t necessarily dazzled by a blinding attraction. There are no immediate fireworks and adrenaline rushes. It’s more a kind of like, and over time as you get to know each other, a slow, passionate burn. As you plumb the regions below the surface, more and more of the city’s fascinating personality is revealed, and you slowly fall in love. This city is no light weight. There’s depth here… and always something to do. The pace seems slower, and people don’t appear to be rushed. Yet there’s a lively, celebratory ambiance and a multi cultural beauty that makes for a great “global village.”
Don’t get me wrong, Melbourne is not without its deficiencies. Housing costs are exorbitant, negative gearing (investors who lose money on a property can deduct losses on income tax) and real estate investing are making it nearly impossible for young people to buy a first home. (Housing prices in Sydney are higher). Yet people want to move here like the young man with his two young kids I met on a tram who hailed from Los Angeles but recently relocated.
My first four days were booked through airbnb with hosts Christian and Sean in South Melbourne. I highly recommend airbnb and renting a private room. Sean gave me a myki card for the tram saving me six dollars, and they both were a wealth of information about getting around the city. (They also had just returned from a great weekend in Hobart, Tasmania, where I would be going next.)
The tram stopped right outside their door, and if I was up for some exercise, a thirty minute walk would take me to National Gallery of Victoria, past the Arts Precinct, to the CBD (Central Business District). I opted to walk because the best way to learn the city layout is on foot, and walking is just plain good for the soul.
Melbourne’s CBD is well organized in a rectangular grid with five main streets running horizontally and seven streets that bisect vertically. The tram is free to ride within the city center, but if leaving the tram free zone, a prepaid myki card is required, and you have to touch your card on the card reader either entering or before exiting the tram. They do police this with surprise checks as I found out heading back home one night. There is a fine for not having a myki card. I’m told it’s either $75.00 cash on the spot or a billable $200.00 later.
The city is fairly easy to navigate once you learn which trams take you into the CBD and which take you outside. Then there are all the Lanes and Little Streets in between. For instance, Flinders Street has a Flinders Lane, Collins Street( a mini Paris!) has a Little Collins Street, Bourke Street has a Little Bourke etc. THEN on many of the main streets, there are Arcades, like the beautiful Block Arcade, which are little mini malls stuffed with more interesting shops, cafes, and restaurants, AND particular buildings (The Nicholson Building, Curtin House) that house several floors of shops and artist studios. Hosier, Rutledge, and Union Lanes are known throughout the world for their iconic street art. Every nook and cranny surprises.
After getting around by myself for four days, I met up with Carol, from the BroadsAbroad website, who invited me for a total of three days at her place, also in South Melbourne. Carol, a long time Melbourne resident, is a savvy business woman who has her own HR consulting company. She, along with her very sharp 89 year-old mother, took me for a ride around the city and beyond pointing out the different suburbs (the very posh Toorak) and the many precincts.
Aussies love sports, and Melbourne is considered the sporting capital of Australia. The sports precinct is home to the Melbourne Cricket Ground(MCG), also called the “G”, a premier venue for cricket and Australian Rules Football (footy for short), and has a seating capacity 100,000. Melbourne also hosts the Australian Grand Slam (at Rod Laver Arena), and since 1996, the Formula 1 Grand Prix, set up in beautiful Albert Park, part of the track using closed- off, city roads and a car park. The Melbourne Cup, Australia’s most prestigious thoroughbred horse race with over six million in prize money is a short train ride from either station to Flemington racecourse. Other precincts include the medical, university, and arts/cultural precinct (my favorite). It makes sense to me to group these together.
After our ride, Carol’s mother Doris took us to brunch at IL Vicolo in the Italian section of the CBD, near Lygon Street. Italian immigrants are credited with bringing outdoor cafes to Melbourne. Ohhh, the food…
Since my hosts Sean and Christian were booked for the coming weeks, I found another airbnb room in South Melbourne, even closer to the National Gallery of Victoria and the arts precinct. Sydney has its captivating harbor, but Melbourne has Southbank and the arts precinct, and most nights I found myself walking along St. Kilda Road with the opera, symphony, and theater goers, enjoying the beautiful lights and being part of a happy crowd celebrating La Dolce Vita.
I was definitely living the good life, with introductions to Melbourne folks from Gayl and husband Tom’s friends and colleagues back in Perth. I’ve visited with many great people who met me in the city and took me to lunch(Maria, not pictured), to the Yarra Valley region, and to Mt. Macedon, once the summer retreat of wealthy city dwellers.
I’m five months into my travels at this point, and although I miss family and friends, I haven’t been lonely. This low budget trip has been rich in the relationships I’ve formed, even the short stays with hostel mates and airbnb hosts who have shared with me little pieces of their lives. I wouldn’t swap a luxury suite for any of these experiences. (But if anyone wants to take me on a five star, we-cater-to-your-every-need cruise, I’m there). Without a traveling companion, I’m more engaged, more conscious of me viewing people viewing me. There’s no one else to hide behind, act as a buffer, or take the edge off. I’ve gained confidence. And who couldn’t use a little more confidence?
So I find myself, as I have more and more frequently, enjoying coffee at a little cafe, this time the Barista Cafe on Flinders Lane, and I’m overcome with an intense feeling of joy. It hovers and it’s fleeting, but not before the molecules are vibrating and I’m infused with a happiness that life is good. Damn, I’m glad to be alive.
(And then I went to the MONA(Museum of Old and New Art)….next)