Melbourne, Australia: Tell You What, I’ll Make 3 Easy Payments of $5.99 For Her. Deal?

The last time I was in Melbourne, two weeks earlier, I had visited the National Gallery of Victoria: International and only most of the National Gallery of Victory: Ian Potter Museums. I headed back to the Ian Potter gallery and finished the second floor. On the ground floor was an indigenous art exhibit, but my stomach was grumbling and I still had to put some time in on the internet.

After a quick lunch catered by Safeway in front of the library, I headed in and spent a long time reconnecting with the world.

By the time I got back to Jackson’s Manor, Jake and John had left for Adelaide (they had a tour booked to Alice Springs and Ayer’s Rock that left from Adelaide in only a few days). He left me his number and told me to give him a shout when Steffen and I were on our way to Perth.

Steffen was coming back from Tassie that weekend, and after a few days in Melbourne, he and I would find two other travelmates and drive the Great Ocean Road to Adelaide, passing through the Grampians National Park.

In the dining room of Jackson’s Manor, I met Jillian, a Canadian from North Bay in Ontario. She was working for a club in South Yarra — what many Melbournians consider the up-and-coming, trendy suburb of the city — as a promoter, bouncer or whatever they wanted her to do.

I asked her what she was planning on doing after she finished traveling (she had been in Australia for about 7 months and was planning on staying for another 4 or 5). She said she just finished school and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next, so I asked her what she studied as a major, to get an idea of what were her options. “Oh, no, I just finished high school.” “Oh.”

I told her I thought it was amazing that she had the courage and resolve to go on a year-long working holiday after high school, that at the same age I was still figuring out the thing about making bunny ears and looping them around to tie my Nikes. She said that North Bay wasn’t exactly the best town to hang out and figure your life out. A lot of her fellow students got into drugs or dropped out of school, or just didn’t do anything with their lives. She knew she wanted to get away, so she did. Good for her.

Jillian also told me about a bar up the street called Traffik (affectionately called “Tragik” for reasons made apparent later), where they offered $2 pints on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Obviously, it was a necessary destination for all backpackers in the area, whether they wanted to or not.

We headed there around 10, early for Traffik standards, and I checked out the scene. Jillian hated the place, saying it was just a sad little bar, not exactly what she looks for in a hangout. Before we entered, she wanted to show me a place she did like, so we ducked into a bar in an alley around the corner.

The bar scene in Melbourne is like a big scavenger hunt. All the good bars, the local hangouts and places that’ll serve up standard drinks but a chic atmosphere and music are tucked away and hidden in back alleys and small dark streets. You may not even know it’s a bar until you walk inside. They say that if you can find some of these places, you have to be a local. In that respect it differs from Sydney, but beyond the obvious it exposes a fundamental distinction: in Sydney, everything is out in the open, the big bars are the popular ones, they’re on the main streets, at the main intersections; every club has a loud and room-shaking dance floor; the drinks are overpriced; the music is predictably mainstream, as are the people. In Melbourne, culture takes the shotgun seat, and the popular bars are the ones with good music at hard-to-find venues; you can always find cheap drinks; the clientele is eclectic, usually there for a few pints with good friends, to sit back in a comfy chair and tap their feet. Whereas Sydney is the A&P, the Safeway Pathmark, Kroger, Melbourne is the Whole Foods Market or that little grocer around the corner.

Within an hour or two, the entire hostel had shown up to Traffik (and, probably, every resident at another hostel two doors down called Coffee Palace). It was almost as if someone ran around the dining room collecting all Jackson’s Manor-ians and then carted them down the street to Traffik. It was a great time, and I spent most of the evening talking to three Irishmen named John, Tim and Dave — or Mannie, as he was also called.

Sophie had also shown up, but while we were chatting, a tall Australian guy who was clearly soused kept approaching her and — from the expression on her face — really bothering her. His name was Trent and he was playing the part of the drunk guy who believes he is writing poetry in his mind, but it just comes out as something vaguely offensive.

I could tell she was in trouble, so one time he had her cornered, I quickly ducked in and said, “Hey mate, can I borrow her real quck? I gotta introduce her to someone.” I grabbed Sophie’s elbow and was about to walk away when he said, “Ok, you give me $20 and you can take her.” I gave him the obligatory chuckle, muttered “Yeah, right,” and started to turn away again. With a dead-serious look, he repeated it. I said “Listen man, I just want to talk to her for a second, then you can resume your conversation.” “Yeah, that’s fine, but if you want to talk to her right now, just give me $20.” OK, this doesn’t sound like a bad joke anymore. I gave Sophie a puzzled look and she shot back one of growing consternation, so I turned to Trent and said, “Mate, you don’t own her and neither do I. She can do what she wants, and right now I think she wants to come with me.” Trent looked at Sophie and could see that she wasn’t enjoying his attempts at humor, and finally broke into a smile, and with a lazy, stumbling drawl ($2 pints will do that to someone), said “Take it easy man, I was just joking.” No, you were joking the first time, and it was a bad one. Now you’re just being creepy.

As we turned our backs to Trent and walked away, Sophie leaned in and said, “Thanks, that guy is so scary!” Yes, he certainly was, and unfortunately he would try several more times that night to talk to her. Most of the time we’d see him coming, and before he could go up to her I’d swing my body around and butt him out of any attempted conversation, but a few times he’d surprise me and get through to assault speak to her.

Sophie left and I followed her, tired of the Traffik scene. Back at Jackson’s Manor, some of the others were in the dining room, polishing off the goon. I didn’t stay up with them too long, since the next day I had agreed to take Sophie around to some of the sights, like the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Ian Potter art gallery.

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