I spent some time after the New South Wales exploration recovering in Sydney. (I mostly got distracted with petty annoyances like school and all its classes and papers and studying). But it wasn’t long before I shook off the stillness and hit the open road again. This time, I pointed myself south. First stop: Melbourne, the crown jewel of the state of Victoria.
I came in on the overnight Greyhound. I left Sydney at 8:00 p.m. and rode all night. I effectively combined the transport with one night’s accommodation, a move which my wallet applauded but my back greeted with sharp, stabbing pain. On the plus side, I learned a little something about the demographics of bus travel in Australia. It seems to attract a disproportionate number of mullets and Germans. My seatmate was about 5’0 and he ate at least 15 oranges on the 12 hour trip. It was uncanny. The man was some sort of pint-sized citrus vampire. I asked him about it, and all he said was that he enjoyed the smell. He was also something of a history buff, and we had a nice little chat about de Tocqueville as we rounded Canberra (he was reading a Penguin edition of Democracy in America). After exhausting our conversational middle ground, I tried to catch what sleep I could wedged into the narrow confines of a barely-reclining bus seat.
Boots hit Melbourne pavement at 8:00 a.m. with the whole day ahead of me. I did a few laps around the bus station and after my initial recon I slipped into the crowded shade of Degraves Street. It is a Parisian enclave of cafes and restaurants stuffed into a small alley and crowded with hungry tourists. I ordered a coffee and eggs florentine at the funkiest cafe I could find. Doc Martens and colored hair were de riguer for the waitstaff, and I watched as the elderly tourists at other tables commented to each other about the kids today.
After breakfast I found my hostel. Since I was flying solo on this little excursion, I could return to my cheap-ass roots without taking the sensibilities of the Visiting Girlfriend into consideration. I stayed at a place on Elizabeth St., which approached the Platonic ideal of the hostel. It was neither the most dirty nor the cleanest. It was so middle of the road in terms of cleanliness, comfort, decor and everything else that it seemed to be the distillation of “hostel-ness” in physical form. It was also a wretched hive of scum and villainy, its halls brimming with the all the unsavory hippies and drunk-at-11:00 a.m. roustabouts I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with.
After settling in and coming to grips with the fact that I would have to sleep on the top bunk (despite the danger this posed to the poor soul who would be stuck below me in the rickety contraption) I set out for Federation Square.
This tourist destination is a gleaming modern nightmare of a waterfront complex. It is usually touristy I am sure, but on this day it was taken over by teeming throngs of face-painted Aussie-Rules Football fans who had swarmed into Melbourne for the Grand Final.
I picked my way through the sea of brown jerseys on my way to south across the Prince’s Bridge. It was here on the far side of the Yarra River that I really noticed the European flavor of Melbourne. I had started to see it with the alley-side cafes. But as I spent more time in Melbourne the general classicality of the architecture combined with the river and the ubiquitous trains, trams, and street cars to make me see the city as some kind of mash-up of Portland and every European city I have ever visited.
As I walked through the Botanical Gardens, I pondered the fact that comparing everything I saw to something else I have seen was not a useful mindset to have when traveling but I wasn’t sure how to overcome it. I kept thinking about this as I emerged in Prahana Market, a bustling suburban shrine to retail. I bought nothing, so I kept walking until my feet were tired and I needed a rest.
I settled down at a bar called Mother’s Milk and watched the heavily coiffed and over-dressed clientele filter in and out as they took to the streetfront to smoke. Most people were still watching the grand final and the bar did not have televisions, so this little patch of Melbourne was sparsely populated for a few hours. I sat with a jug of beer and enjoyed the barely-hidden contempt in which the bartender held most of his customers. He knew them all and wasn’t above talking shit when they left earshot. We talked about the lack of tipping in the country and whether or not he felt he was well-paid. (He felt he was not).
I got a little drunker than I originally intended, and so of course I left him a generous tip as I soldiered on to catch a double feature at The Astor, which is my new favorite movie theatre. It is beautiful and massive, an art deco return to the heyday of cinema when there were lush velvet curtains everywhere and balconies and the ushers all wore bowties. The retro feel was awesome and for $12 AUD I got to take in two movies (The Savages and The Orphanage) with a bottle of James Boag’s in hand. There was even an intermission between the films when everyone went out to the foyer and talked about the what they had just seen.
After the double feature, I had enough time to check out another bar before catching the late train back to my hostel. But the crowd was full of angry supporters of whichever team had lost the football match that afternoon and I felt a little too much drunken hostility in the air to really enjoy myself so I cut it short. I had more time in Melbourne, after all…