So I’ve been in Melbourne for nearly three weeks. What do I think? That question sort of carries with it the assumption that I think at all. There is also a hidden implication because of the context that I have thought about Melbourne at some stage during my almost-three weeks here. Truth is, I have thought about Melbourne, I thought about it a lot before I even got here, I thought about it a lot while I’ve been here, and I will probably think about it a lot after I leave.
It has been almost exactly three years since I was last in Melbourne. When I left, it was “home”. Even though I wouldn’t technically call it home at the moment, it is the closest thing I have to a home in this world right now. I have a lot of friends here, and as an Australian citizen, I don’t have to worry about being deported or running into any legal trouble in the event that I should decide to stay here. There’s always a familiarity when you return to a place which you have at some stage in your life called “home”. I lived in Melbourne for about ten years and these years were very significant because they were very much formative years, and I also lived very independently during those years – at first, in a high school boarding house, then in an inner city apartment.
So what do I think? The first thing I noticed was that I was suddenly surrounded by Australians. This might seem an obvious point, but after living for three years in very non-Australian environments, it’s surprisingly comforting and relaxing to be surrounded by Australians. What’s different about Australians? Not much really, they’re just very laid back and friendly people in general. Most places I’ve lived, people are quite friendly, but sometimes they’re not friendly to strangers, or foreigners, or people on bicycles. In Australia, the friendliness is quite universal. Speaking of friendliness, one should also speak of friends, and that is what I have been spending most of my time here doing – simply catching up with good friends who I haven’t seen for over three years. Most common comment – “you look exactly the same”.
The public transport in Melbourne isn’t too bad. I may only be saying this because I haven’t yet tried to go to too many places that aren’t serviced by public transport. Obviously New York’s public transport was superior in almost every way imaginable, but New York’s population density is also many times that of Melbourne. For a city of its size, or rather, of its population density, Melbourne does quite well. I did spot a rather unusual white elephant during my first walks around the city – the blue bikes. This idea is borrowed from the Velib’s in Paris, which have been mostly quite successful. The Melbourne version seems like it should be a hit – more bike lanes have been introduced, and the cycling culture here has grown significantly in the time that I’ve been gone, but there’s a catch – over here, it is required by law to wear a helmet while riding a bike. So if you want to spontaneously use one of these bikes, you need to also happen to have a helmet with you – epic fail.
I suppose they could change the law, and relax the helmet rule, but I don’t see that happening. Too many people would abuse the relaxation of the rules and get into bad crashes. Drivers are also not known for their willingness to share the road with cyclists, and many cyclists aren’t particularly respectful of the road rules either. Only in an environment where there is a long-established culture of cycling (such as in the Netherlands) and where there is a lot of cyclist-friendly infrastructure (such as in the Netherlands) can you hope to get away with not having to wear a helmet.
Melbourne seems to have “grown up” slightly since I’ve been gone. A lot of construction sites have miraculously become fully-grown buildings. One of the things I immediately noticed was that the “eating out” culture has expanded considerably. Apparently a very popular TV show about cooking has inspired a large number of Melbournians to get into fine dining. As a result of this, the number of decent eateries in the city has grown considerably. Old trends die hard though; Melbournians simply love those little eateries tucked away in small alleyways. I think it is because it allows them to feel special in “discovering” this small, out-of-the-way place that nobody else has heard of (except that people clearly have, because there’s a massive queue to get in, and not much space for it because you’re stuck in a small alleyway).
Strange location obsessions aside, the quality of the food is still pretty good. In a bout of nostalgia, I had to visit a lot of my old hangouts, and I have to say that they’re all still as I remembered them. Vue de Monde’s menu gourmand is still some of the finest food you’ll find anywhere in Melbourne, the fish soup at The Brasserie at Crown still smells like Marseilles, and the Crepes at Breizoz are still pretty fantastic (although I’ll have to visit Brittany before I can give you a definitive judgement on how authentic they really are).
Another interesting addition to Melbourne is the “Ice House”. It is a large building that contains a lot of ice. Being somewhat familiar with large buildings containing large amounts of ice, I decided that I should visit. I also took the opportunity to have a crack at short track speed skating. Short track is different to long track in that you skate around a much smaller sheet of ice, about the size of a standard ice hockey rink (or in this case, EXACTLY the same size).
I’ve only ever been a long track skater, and while I would consider myself pretty good at it, I had no expectations for being any good at short track. My first session proved disastrous in a humorous way – for technical reasons, I was unable to mount short track blades to my (long track) boots and was forced to do the session in long track blades and boots. This is a problem for many reasons, but the main one was that long track blades are designed to turn corners of a 25m radius (which, funnily enough, is the radius of a long track corner) but a short track corner has a radius closer to 10m. This meant that whenever I got up to speed, I wouldn’t be able to corner very well and would almost hit the barrier. My subsequent short track sessions were better because I had the right blades on; I was only hampered by having long track boots, which are much lower and much softer than short track boots. I still struggle to corner, but I’m probably taking entire seconds off my long track times by learning how to corner like a short tracker.
Of course, everyone knows the real reason I got into winter sports – curling. Having become interested in curling during the Olympic Games with the help of meeting some of the Olympic curlers, I decided that it was high time I really learned to do it properly, and not just joke about it with all my speed skating friends. In typical no-half-measures style, I’ve joined the curling league (even though I’ll only be here for two more weeks). I’m certainly nowhere near Olympic level, and I have a nasty habit of bruising my left knee during the delivery because I get very low, but I am hopeful that I will continue to improve and perhaps get a chance to represent Australia (no, seriously). A final note about the ice house – the banners that hang around Bradbury Rink depict an ice hockey player, a figure skater, and a speed skater. Trouble is, the speed skater is a long track skater (this can easily be seen from the skates), which I think is a little dishonest because there are no long tracks in the entire southern hemisphere. Of course, nobody outside of speed skating would know the difference anyway. The second and more contentious point about the banner is that the skater in the photograph is Claudia Pechstein. I realize that very few people in the world would be able to recognize her from the angle the photo was taken, but hey, I’m one of them, and it bothers me. Pechstein, of course, was implicated in a very high-profile doping case which saw her banned from competition just prior to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. Probably not the best person to be putting on a massive poster in the Olympic training center in Melbourne. Just sayin’
A word on my current location. I’m staying with a good friend from my days as a young mathematician at Melbourne University – Stefan Rampertshammer (isn’t that just the coolest name ever?) in a small house in West Melbourne. Of course, West Melbourne is really north of the CBD, and the house is literally right next to the North Melbourne train station. This is an extremely convenient location because I can take the train straight into the city (of course, when I used to live in Melbourne, I lived IN the CBD, and skipped this step). It is also very convenient because it is within a 20 minute walk of the Ice House… so basically, quite randomly, I’ve scored well with this accommodation. (oh, and Stefan and Brent, his housemate, are really awesome too… I should probably mention that).