As I sit 10000 meters above sea level, with the monotonous hum of the airplane engines gliding me into stranger shores, flashbacks of Melbourne – the city of my childhood – indelibly sketch themselves upon my mind like a memorable film.
The familiar city skyline, stands proudly on the horizon like the ramparts of a medieval castle; the algae-blue of Port Phillip bay superimposed on the endless ocean licking the curvature of the earth outside my window seat. So without further a due, as my childhood blends into memory which blends into nostalgia, here is, quid pro pro, the 10 things I miss about Melbourne.
1. Graffiti –
Crawling from the pavement – as an outstretched hand clinging to life below the sand – Melbourne’s graffiti is forged in the night, coming to life by day, and then returning to the shadows, only to be replaced again with the rising sun. Weird cartoons, political statements, illegible tags and signatures – graffiti is a subculture unto itself, and reflects on society as a whole. We, the interpreters, the amateur art critics, the lovers of impromptu art – take away tid bits of inspiration with each passing glance: hours of painstaking, unrecognized work facing the train-line, pleading for recognition from the distracted and uninitiated. Perhaps what inspires me the most, is not the beauty or quirkiness of some of the artworks – but the fact that the work is anonymous. The graffiti artist seeks to leave his mark and gain street cred, but his public displays function as our collective voice. A subculture of the day, that is borne of the night.
Apart from the occasional severe heatwave or devastating flood – the next worst thing about the Melbourne summer are cicadas. Eating away at your brain with their incessant signature ‘chirp’, the crickets bury themselves deep beneath street lawns and backyards – spawning to life when the temperature hits a cool 35. Accompanying their monosyllabic symphony is the unparalleled beauty of the setting sun, usually throwing an orange backdrop across the city sky. Many times I tried unsuccessfully to track down the army of hidden cicadas and extinguish their mind-numbing mating cries. As yet, each attempt ended shamefully – the cicada would lie low for a couple of hours – only to restart like a broken record once I made it to bed.
Crickets 1. Yours truly, 0.
3. Four seasons in one day.
Each discussion about Melbourne invariably turns to the state of the weather, and every single time – without fail – somebody lets out (mid conversation) the triumphant cliché: “We’ve had four seasons in one day.” And indeed, this overused, trampled maxim does have an element of truth to it. Mornings are cold – the embodiment of winter – with a thin later of dew coating the grass, accompanied by the frosted windows of each car that make for some interesting street art. As the dew melts and lunch trickles by, sanguine autumn leaves line the leafy streets, and a light shower from the bay coats the city in a pluvial mask. By afternoon, you must escape the oppressive heat, as the clouds give way to our neighbouring star – casting down all those who dare to enter the cool murky waters of St. Kilda beach. By dusk, the city recovers – like a newly baked loaf straight from the oven – providing a pleasant “Spring-y” end to the lesser liked three seasons, as they prepare to wreak havoc upon Melbourne’s inhabitants the next morning.
4. Public transport
Everybody in Melbourne says that hate it, but nobody can live without it. This love-hate relationship with the mass transit system has existed in Melbourne from the beginning of time, when our ancestor, John Batman rented out his horse and carriage after losing a poker game to John Faukner. Perhaps Melbourne’s single most identifiable feature is the iconic green tram that snakes its way from the CBD to the suburbs. Every train ride into the city is always an interesting experience: when the train is empty you have the freedom to rest your head against the glass and doze off to the view of abandoned warehouses, parks and family homes. When travelling at peak hour, you squeeze in between a white collar lawyer and patriotic footy supporters, huddling alone in that last gap of fresh air, whilst you listen to the revellers singing the Collingwood anthem al the way to Frankston.
Speaking of revellers, nothing electrifies this city more than footy. It is Melbourne’s very own, born and bred – and our proudest export to the northern states. Whilst I’m not an avid supporter, nobody can escape the media obsession with the Australian game – on and off the field. From the latest player frug scandal, to the injured list, to fantasy football. For 8 months, we all hold our breath to deliberate and argue and bet on, who will win this week. Cricket, rugby and basketball are evicted from the schoolyard and the national psyche – and one game takes over – footy. Luckily I brought one with me overseas, to continue the tradition.
6. The ‘alternative’ image
If I had to stereotype ‘The Melbournian’ – it would be the alternative, inner-city ‘trendy’, sipping latte in a gentrified bohemian café in Carlton, whilst plotting the next Youtube revolution. Besides the fact that the Melbourne electorate was the first in the country to vote in a Greenie, Melbournians have always had a tendency to aim for the ‘hip’ offbeat style – like a cross between a self-aware hippie and a struggling musician with an obscene amount of hair gel. And I like. There is something about being ‘alternative’ that encourages self-thought and innovation. There is a war raging against conformity and Melbourne is in the middle of it. Kudos.
7. The beach
As you’ve probably figured, Melbourne is not the #1 summer tourist destination of Australia, although it does have a few iconic beaches that line the bay. My personal experiences of swimming in Port Phillip range from vomit-induced cholera to radioactive poisoning, however as long as one doesn’t enter the polluted waters, Melbourne’s beaches have something for everybody (except swimmers). From the over-hyped beach huts in Brighton to something further down the Mornington Peninsula, I’m gonna miss predicted a series of wavefronts when a supertankers waltzes by on the horizon.
8. Multiculturalism and food
The last time I heard anybody brag about plain ‘ol steak and mashed potatoes was …. never. And with such a wide diversity of cultures and cuisines, why would you? My suburb – as a microcosm of Melbourne – contains an eclectic sample of Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Mexican and 7-elevens, so there’s never a boring day when experimenting with a new palate. Since there is no distinctive ‘Australian cuisine’, we seem to have adopted the entire range as are own – but then again, this might just be a consequence of globalization in our society. Nevertheless, still missing it.
9. Queen Victoria Market
There is a humble modesty in earning a living at the market. Each person inquisitively doting along is a potential customer. Each vendor guards his produce like a hawk, waiting for the next sale. One would expect in a capitalist paradigm, that so many similar stalls grouped together would drastically bring prices down in fierce competition. Not so aboard Queen Victoria. The produce might be fresh, but Big W is often cheaper. But just wandering amidst the flurry of shoppers, buskers, ethnic vendors and tourists is a serene experience. Finding parking is a separate issue. For some reason I’ve always romanticised the market vendor. Not as a career prospect, but whenever I think of them a certain image comes to mind: Arriving at the market before the break of dawn, unloading the carts in the icy cold, and putting on that ubiquitous apron, in preparation for another day of hopes and dreams, customer and hagglers, and the continuous sounds of life.
Ye, corny I know. But this is probably the thing that I miss the most in Melbourne. Because at the end of the day, it’s just another city, with people and transport and buildings and everything that goes with normal cities. But my family and loved ones quietly wait there in subdued anticipation – as I move ever farther to a distant land. Now that’s definitely something to long for.