The city of Melbourne on Australia’s South Coast with a population of 4,200,000 is nearly as large as Sydney, yet we experienced it quite differently. Partly, this was due to the influence of our German friends, Conny and Jocki, who have a long relationship with the city and who enjoy a relaxed style of life. They introduced us to Melbourne in a gentle fashion, first when we disembarked from the QM2 for a day and then again when we arrived for this longer visit after Sydney. It was fortunate that their current visit to Melbourne coincided with ours.
In the city’s Central Business District (CBD) the office workers walk briskly with intention just as they do in Sydney or any other large, developed city. However, Melbourne’s CBD has some things that most others can’t claim. They are the arcades and the lanes. Some of the former are survivors from the city’s Victorian past and have been preserved in their original state with an old-fashioned elegance in contrast to their modern shops.
The lanes that exist throughout the district are something different. Some are blind alleys while others are like narrow streets occupied by bars and eateries. A few are decorated with wall art sanctioned by the authorities in an attempt to discourage the spread of graffiti in other parts of the district. Some works were even commissioned by the City Council.
During our short visit we hung out in a bar named Issus in one of the busiest lanes. It was a perfect place to rest, sip some Australian Shiraz, and watch the passing show.
We had been told that this city has one of the most multi-ethnic populations in the country, so we were not surprised at the variety of human types that passed by our table. I found it enjoyable to capture some of these with my camera as they passed.
On another occasion we found a barbershop at the end of another lane. Eric’s hair had been growing since Istanbul, and he really needed a cut. His barber was Persian. He not only cut Eric’s hair short the way he wanted, he used warm wax as a depilatory to remove hairs from Eric’s ears and nose. Eric had never had this done before, and although he cried “ouch” as the barber pulled out the wax, the procedure worked. Very interesting!
On our first full day in Melbourne, Conny and Jocki organized a private tour of the central city for the four of us. Joe, an enthusiastic local volunteer of Dutch descent, led us through the streets and lanes for a couple of hours sharing his knowledge and answering our questions.
At the end, he took us to the 35th floor of the Sofitel Hotel for views of the greater city. This tour, a service of the visitors’ bureau, was free. Another freebee was a special tram that made a circuit of the central city.
We had been told that there was especially good food to be had in Melbourne’s Chinese Quarter. Easy to get to, Chinatown lies along Little Burke Street next to the CBD. With Conny and Jocki we lunched on dumplings and duck in one old and authentic restaurant called the Shanghai Inn. Another time, Kay and I ate delicious plates of goyza in a Japanese spot nearby.
We have to write some words about Melbourne’s trams. These old-fashioned conveyances go everywhere and make up the city’s public transportation system. They were less daunting and more comprehensible than the bus system in Sydney. They made our peregrinations less stressful.
Now, we’ll relate a bad thing that happened. One morning Eric became distracted on a tram and got off without his backpack. Although he had his camera on his shoulder, the camera case along with other items was in the backpack. One of the most vulnerable was a flash drive with all our security information on it, including scans of our credit cards, passports, etc. We didn’t notice the loss for several minutes until we had entered the giant Victoria fish, meat, and produce market. What to do? The worst of it was that we had taken different trams that morning, and we weren’t sure on which tram we had left the pack.
In the course of the day, we spoke to men at a couple of different terminals and learned that there was no central lost and found. All they could do was take our phone number and call us if a driver turned in the pack. Another worry was that the next day would be a Saturday when the terminals’ staff would be off work. Australians take their weekends very seriously.
There were no calls during the day, and we had almost given up the pack for lost. However, on Saturday morning, we decided to visit the most promising of the terminals and make one last effort before we left the city. That was the day when our luck changed because we arrived at the terminal at the same time as a man with a key. He let us in and walked us through the large building to an office where a solitary woman was working. She asked us to describe the bag, and disappeared for a moment. She returned carrying Eric’s bag with the contents intact, and seemed almost as happy as we were that it had been found. As the poet said, “All’s well that ends well.”
Our days in Melbourne had several highlights. On our first evening, our friends invited us to attend a celebratory birthday dinner for their friend, Jim, with whom they stay when in the city. It was held in the interesting old Railroad Hotel Club. In our ignorance, we took the first tram the wrong way and had a longish wait for the second. We kept everyone waiting for a long time, but they were gracious about it.. Conny and Jocki have known Jim’s wife, Rose, since they were both young women. Irene and Peter, other long-time friends, were present, as well. I have to mention my delicious dinner of rissoles served with bacon over mashed potatoes. It is one of the best meals I’ve eaten in Australia so far.
Nearby Fitzroy is known as a suburb. In most cities it would simply be its own district. Brunswick Avenue is Fitzroy’s main street, lined with cool shops and restaurants.
Although they project a certain idea of fashion, the shops are not the same high-fashion designer stores we are all familiar with from cities around the world. They sell hip-looking clothes that suit the young of Melbourne very well.
Fitzroy is an old neighborhood with some buildings dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They have a welcoming look. Walking up and down Brunswick Avenue, we had the impression of being in a 21st-century version of New York’s Greenwich Village, Chicago’s Old Town, or Toronto’s Yorkville as they were in the 1970s.
Federation Square is a central point on the edge of the CBD with some very contemporary architecture. It lies just across the street from a venerable railroad station named after Matthew Flinders, an explorer and the man that gave Australia its name.
We went to Federation Square on several occasions. It contains a fine tourist information office as well as the Australian Centre for the Moving Image of which we’ll say more below.
As I crossed the square on one occasion, I chanced to see a small bathroom vanity complete with sink and a glass containing toothbrushes standing unaccompanied out in the open. As I walked over and raised my camera to take a picture of it, it spoke to me, asking who I was and where I came from. I replied and began a dialog with Cabinet, which is how it named itself. It told me that its dream was to become a fridge.
The Australian Centre for the Moving Image is a wonderful institution. It’s a museum that houses a permanent exhibit of the history of cinema from its very early days through its television incarnations and even its interactive transformation into video games. The emphasis is on Australia’s contributions to these media, so that while much was familiar to us, the Australian component was refreshingly new.
The Center’s second exhibit was a three-screen video work by artist Angelica Mesiti entitled The Calling. It beautifully documents three remote, mountainous regions in the world where people still practice a form of communication by whistling. How they can convey the meanings they do by sharp blasts of sound made by fingers and lips eludes us. The places documented are a rural village in Eastern Turkey, another on a small Greek island we’ve never heard of, and a third on another island in the Canaries. The videography and the sound were excellent. Sometimes the screens were synchronized to form a single panorama and at other times separate images. This beautiful program lasted half and hour.
On our last night in Melbourne Kay and I attended the Malthouse Theater, located in a former brewery near the airbnb apartment where we were staying in the city’s Southbank District. We had bought the tickets earlier in our stay without knowing exactly what play we would be seeing. It’s just that living in Istanbul, we miss English-language Theater and take almost any opportunity to attend a production. This one intrigued us, The Government Inspector, is the name of a famous 19th-century comedy by Nikolai Gogol. Was this a modern production of the play or something else? The answer was yes, no, and much more. What we saw was something rare enough in our theater-going experience, a talented group of actors creating magic. The premise: The group was to do a production of Phillip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story. When the rights were refused at the last minute, the actors had to punt. They heard of a very successful production of the Gogol play recently done in Europe and sent the director an urgent message asking him to come and restage the play in Australia. The director showed up, but was he really who he said he was? Writer-director Simon Stone and his collaborators crammed so much humor and theatrical nonsense into ninety minutes that we were nearly in tears with laughter and couldn’t have taken any more. What a way to end our visit!
Even if we never make it back to Melbourne, we’ll carry our memories of this visit for years to come.