Melbourne, Australia: Brief, Vague and Long Overdue

I’m too excited about all the stories I collected from my recent road trip around Tasmania to really devote much time to Melbourne (say “Melb-uh-n”). Nothing terribly exciting happened, so if I miss anything, don’t feel cheated. And unfortunately, the State Library of Victoria’s security restrictions on internet users is preventing me from posting any of my pictures. Don’t worry, I’ll figure something out.

As I already described, Phil’s friend Charlotte’s friend’s twin sister Charlie (phew!), whom I met in Sydney for New Year’s, was living in Melbourne attending the university there (say “uni”, like “you-nie“). I let her stay in my4-share at the Railway YHA hostel that New Year’s Eve, so she said I could come stay with her in Melbourne anytime I wanted. Freebie!

I arrived at Southern Cross station and set about trying to get to Charlie’s apartment near Melbourne University, in the famously Italian neighbourhood of Carlton. All she told me was that I needed to take two trams to get there, one to Swanston St., and from there another to MU. I found a tram station on Spencer St., right outside the terminal.

Melbourne trams are part of a streetcar system that runs to an impressive number of destinations throughout the city. The stations are simple platforms constructed beside the tracks in the middle of the street. They’re very similar to the Green Line trains that branch out from Kenmore Square in Boston, or the light rail system that runs up and down Main St. in Houston.

There was a girl waiting for a tram, so I asked her if she knew how I could get to Swanston St and then the university. She was quite helpful, and even boarded the train with me and showed me how to purchase a ticket. Something struck me as odd about the ticket system there. You can buy tickets from a machine on the train, or in advance from a newsstand or 7-11, but there’s no system to prevent people without tickets from boarding the train, or one to ensure that everyone who boards buys a pass. It was very similar to Houston in that respect, even down to the tram workers (say “trammies”) who patrol the cars, waiting for fare-dodgers. My new friend joked that you can point out the tourists in Melbourne because they’re the only ones who buy tickets. Penalty for fare-dodging? $158. Though she also said that backpackers often get away with it by pleading ignorance.

Her directions were spot on and I made it to the intersection near which Charlie lives, Grattan & Lygon. For some reason, my phone got very unreliable reception in that area so after running up and down the street trying to communicate with her, we met up and walked to her place.

Charlie lived in a student house with three other people. The accomodation was very basic, but they had a large kitchen, plenty of showers, and best of all, wireless internet. She had snagged an extra mattress from another room, so my bed was on the ground beside hers.

That night after dinner at an Italian place on Lygon, we walked down to an Irish pub that’s a hostpot for students. While I was sipping my Guiness, I thought I heard a couple girls say “Delaware rules!” as they walked by. That Delaware? No, couldn’t be.

After a few minutes, and after picking up an American accent from the group of girls and their friends, the curiousity overcame me — I had to know. I approached them and asked if they were in fact from Delaware, and they replied yes! Not only that, but there were about 25 of them at the university, and many of them had come to the pub that night. Go figure. I travel thousands of miles, to the other side of the world, to a suburb of Melbourne, and end up in a pub full of U of D students.

Another pub night was spent with Charlie’s two friends, John and Dan. We headed to a pub in Brunswick, a quirky, very European suburb. There I met Jen who was from a town called Wanaka in New Zealand’s South Island. She made me promise to look her up when I was there, and offered me a place to stay at her parents house. Can do!

The next few days I would walk around the city and check out the sights. The National Gallery of Victoria was spectacular, featuring a range of both European, Australian and Indigenous Australian artists. There was even a special exhibit on the history of Sneakers. Before heading to the Royal Botanic Gardens across the street, I stopped for a coffee at a stand near the museum.

Melbourners are supposedly known for their love of coffee. And mind you, as it is the same across Australia, this isn’t drip or filtered coffee like Starbucks’ and Mr. Coffee’s across the USA produce, this is purely espresso. In fact, the only alternative is instant coffee. If you ask for just a coffee without specifying cappucino, machiatto, or latte, you’ll get what they call a Flat White, which is an espresso with cold milk added at the end, as opposed to the frothed and steamed milk in a latte. You can also order a Short Black, which is espresso with a drop of water, or a Long Black, which is an espresso in a cup topped up with water. We call the latter an Americano in the US.

When the barista found out I was an American, she immediately starting listing all the places I needed to go during my stay. She even pulled out a scrap piece of paper and wrote them all down for me. The trend will become clearer and clearer: Australians, in general, are insanely nice.

The Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne are magnificent, even more so than Sydneys. The grounds are large and easy to get lost in. There are several small ponds lined with serene picnic areas. And the higher-elevation areas give you great views of the city.

On Friday night, I spent some time on eBay trying to find cheap Australian Open tickets. The tournament started on Monday, and since I wasn’t sure when I’d ever again be in a position to attend, I was determined to find some. I placed the top bid on an auction that ended 9 days later for two seats to the men’s semi-finals. The price at the time was only about $60, which was a steal, but as you’ll read in later posts, it would be a decision I’d come to regret.

I also scoured Gumtree.com for rideshares and jobs. I found one person, Steffen, who was planning on driving around Tasmania and was looking for travelmate. He specified that he preferred non-German applicants, not that he was prejudiced, but because he was German, and wanted to improve his English.

Melbourne also has a very large public market, called the Queen Victoria Market, so one day I strolled by there and browsed around. Prices for almost everything was considerably cheaper than what you’d find in stores, and the produce looked fresher. There were even vineyards displaying their latest wines near an organic produce section. But groceries weren’t the only thing on sale, you could buy everything from clothing to jewelry to electronics.

That day I was on a mission to either find a job or find a ride out of Melbourne to Adelaide. I was keen on taking up the offer from Brad and Phil to stay with them in Brisbane. And if I could also find a job there, it would be very easy to start saving money. That meant I had to knock out the southern coast of Oz rather quickly. Using my Lonely Planet (LP), I walked from Carlton, the the market, around the city, down the riverside, ending up near Federation Square, stopping by every backpacker’s I could find and reading through their job and ride boards. I collected several phone numbers for people offering rides, but no major job prospects. I arranged to meet Steffen in Fed Square at 6 to discuss the prospects of a Tassie trip.

Federation Square has recently become a popular meeting place for all young professionals, and houses a visitors center, bar, museums and cafes. Street performers will also often entertain the ever-present crowds. It’s situated right across from the Flinders Street rail station and St. Paul’s Cathedral, on the Yarra River.

I text-ed Steffen and told him to look for a bald Indian wearing a green shirt, and who I found was a tall, unexpectedly tanned German with short brown hair. His English was remarkably good and we easily hammered out plans. I had misunderstood his message and thought that the ferry ticket was $160 for all passengers in the car, not per person. When I found out, I told him I’d look into flights there, but that I would definitely meet him on the island for the road trip. He told me that a tent was necessary, as his wasn’t very big and he wanted to do a lot of camping.

Charlie’s lease was up on the 13th, but that her landlord would probably let her extend until the 16th, when she was going on a three-week trip to New Zealand. Good news, since I didn’t have to look for another place, bad news because I would only get to spend 6 days in Melbourne. Fortunately Steffen was arriving in Tasmania on Tuesday morning, so everything fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. I booked a flight leaving Melbourne at 8:25, arriving in Launceston at 9:25.

The good thing about Steffen taking the car over was that I didn’t have to get rid of the trail of food I had amassed over the past few weeks. I met him on Monday morning at his hostel in St. Kilda and dropped off my bag of food, so he could carry it over in the trunk of the car.

St. Kilda is a very bohemian section of the city. Decades earlier, it was the home of many of Melbournes most progressive and controversial artists, and that free-thinking mentality remains. Cafes, pubs and restaurants line the main street, Fitzroy, joining The Esplanade, which is a walk that runs along the beach. One day, Charlie and I strolled down the beach, past the amusement park Luna Park and had a jug at very popular pub/music venue The Hotel Esplanade (“the Espy”).

After dropping the food off, I set out to find a shop that sold tents, and Steffen walked with me to the store where he had bought his. I found one on sale for $59 and bought it. I could’ve gone cheaper, but this one was waterproof, and the weather forecast I had read called for a chance of showers for a couple days after we arrive. It would turn out to be a wise decision.

Realizing that it was Monday and I was leaving the next day, I resolved myself to see at least one tennis match on the first day of play. The visitor’s center in Fed Square sold tickets, so I waited in line and bought a ground pass for $29. It was the cheapest ticket available and it got you onto the grounds and into every court except Court 1, Rod Laver Arena. I dropped the tent off at Charlie’s, then took the tram back down to Fed Square, from which you could walk to the courts.

Melbourne Park reminded me of Flushing Meadows, where the US Open is played. I headed over to court 3 and saw Jelena Dokic playing someone unseeded in women’s singles. Jelena (say “Yelen-a”, like “Helen-a” with a “Y”) had a pretty strong contingent of admirers who would wave flags, chant and sing between points. In fact, the Aussie Open was famous for it’s boisterous Eastern European fans, who come decked out in flag-matching clothing, face paint and signs. Later, I headed over to Vodafone Arena to see #4 Ivan Lubicic play a unseeded Houstonian Mardy Fish.

Later, when I was telling this story to Ben, a Brit who was one of the other three in the car in Tassie, he immediately chuckled and said “what a strange name.” Apparently, “mardy” is slang for grumpy or sullen in England. For example, “Fred was quite mardy for the rest of the day when his girlfriend kicked him out of her apartment.” So the player’s name was really Grumpy Fish.

It was a good match, with Fish upsetting Lubicic, probably making him quite mardy. Even better was what happened when I was taking my seat. There was an army-like contingent of Croatians in the stands to support the favorite, and I was seated right next to them. As I walked up the isle, a large man with a mohawk looked down at me and with a beaming smile, rubbed my head. Believe it or not, I’m actually quite used to strangers who are overcome with a desire to rub my head, and just smiled back at him. Later at Charlie’s, we were watching a news story about a fight that broke out between Serbian and Croatian fans at the tournament, with a video of several of them being rounded up by the cops. And yes, my mohawk-wearing, head-rubbing friend was among them. I jumped up and cried out, “I know that guy, he rubbed my head!”.

Content with having seen at least one full match, I headed back to Charlie’s to eat and pack. Andy, my mate from Sydney, had recently come into town and previous attemps at getting together for a pint were unsuccessful. He had gone to the casino that night, and even though I really wanted to see what Australian casinos were like, my laziness got the better of me and I stayed in, getting ready for my flight. Unfortnately, I wouldn’t get to see Andy again before he left Australia for Singapore. But be sure I’ll look him up when I get to Leeds.

Charlie left at 4 in the morning for her flight, and I was supposed to leave by 6 to take the public transportation to the airport. As usual, I overslept and had to fork over almost twice the amount for a cab.

Stay tuned for the Great Tassie Road Trip, 15 days of unforgettable asphalt.

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