(Credit Will Watt)
I’ve been in Melbourne for about six weeks now. When we first arrived we stayed a few nights at Jamie’s temporary place of residence – a lovely old colonial cottage in Brunswick that was completely refurbished on the inside. It was a one million dollar piece of property belonging to his former boss, who was on vacation in the Philippines until March 9th – serendipitously the same date Kristie and Susie’s rental in Essendon became available. Unfortunately, Jamie’s host said he wasn’t comfortable with us sleeping on his couches until then, so we had to find somewhere else to stay for the two weeks until we could freeload off Kristie and Susie. It was quite a blow – I can of course totally understand somone not being comfortable with strangers staying in their house for two weeks, but after just a few days, we’d grown quite accustomed to a certain standard of living, similar to our Beijing days.
I jokingly pointed out to Chris that it would be cheaper for us to fly back to Perth on a budget airline for a few hundred dollars and stay with our families than it would be for us to stay in Melbourrne for that time. He promptly went ahead and did that. I, on the other hand, didn’t just make a big symbolic ride across the country only to fly right back for fiscal convenience.
Fortunately Kristie and Susie also needed to find short term accommodation, since they were arriving in a few days, and we ended up splitting a cheap triple room at a shitty hotel in the city centre. Even after backpacking across Asia this was probably the worst value place I have ever stayed, run by a couple of deadbeats who answered questions with surly grunts and half-replies. I wrote a bad review on Tripadvisor after we left, and a few days later realised I’d left behind my motocycle road atlas and rang up to see if they had it. After telling them my name and room number, the manager identified me as the writer of the review and reacted angrily. I hung up in surprise, and a few moments later my phone rang again. Kristie urged me to answer it, saying he probably just had my atlas, but I told her not to bother because thirty seconds of speaking to him had made it clear that he was not a reasonable man. She answered it instead, and I was right – he spent about twenty minutes raving about lies and defamation, claiming that one of the conditions of staying there was that you wouldn’t write a bad review, insulting me, threatening to take money out of my account with my credit card details etc. It boggles my mind how ill-equipped this man was to simply function in normal society and interact with other human beings, let alone run a fucking hotel. He was like Basil Fawlty mixed with Scrooge.
Anyway, we’re in a nice two-bedroom place in Essendon now. I was only supposed to be here for a few days, since Jamie’s house was supposed to be available on the 13th of March. Instead it was delayed… and then delayed again… and then delayed again. Now, buying a house is a very complicated process involving a real estate agent, the former owner, and something called a “conveyancer.” I have no idea what a conveyancer does, but it is this figure that has been holding Jamie up at every turn, giving him wrong dates, avoiding his calls, and even lying to him and saying that the owner was in Europe when Jamie had in fact seen him at the house just yesterday. Eventually Jamie called him a cunt and got a new one, but it’s now March 30 and we’re still waiting to see when we can move in – two possible dates of April 15 or March 22.
Jamie feels like he’s overstaying his welcome at his former boss’ house and is keen to move in ASAP, and Chris is still stewing away in Perth with no job and no vehicle – which makes transport impossible on that wretched suburban steppe. I, meanwhile, am OK with hanging out in Essendon a while longer. Since my parents divorced I spent eight years living with my mothering Mum, then seven years living with my neat and tidy Dad, then when Chris and I were in Berlin we were living with two girls, and I’m now again living with two girls who keep a well-ordered house and cook dinner most nights. I expect moving into a pure bachelor pad to be a shock to the senses. Jamie seems to survive on beer and cigarettes alone.
It’s also out in the suburb of Sunshine, which we might, if we were being very polite, call “socio-economically disadvantaged.” A few weeks ago I was on the phone to Jamie and he said “Hey, have you read the paper today?”
I’m going to do what my father does and invest in a nice baseball bat to keep by the bed.
The other downfall of Sunshine is that it’s about as far away from the city centre as the place I was living in Perth was. Of course, I came to Melbourne because I wasn’t ready to move to London alone. I’d rather be living in suburbia with friends than in a city centre alone.
(Credit Toshihiro Oshima)
And Melbourne accomplishes suburban living slightly better than Perth does. I’m in Essendon right now, for example, which is about eight k’s out of the city centre, but still has shops and trams and nightlife and medium-density housing. In Perth, travelling eight k’s out of the city centre will very easily plant you in featureless dormitory suburbs with nothing but houses, and maybe a shopping centre or two. (Which, mind you, is probably what Sunshine is like.)
It is, of course, still quite suburban and still unmistakeably Australian. I was discussing cities with Jamie the other night, who said that Sydney is more like New York and Melbourne is more like a European city. “Yeah…” I said, “But Sydney isn’t quite as good as New York and Melbourne isn’t quite as good as a European city.”
I don’t think Australia is ultimately for me. Melbourne is a good place to be for a few years, I think, as I begin – um, I mean finish – the transition from helpless child to responsible adult, build up a resume, save my money again etc. But there’s still travelling I want to do, and I’d still like to live in the USA or Canada for a while, and I’m fairly resolved to live in Europe eventually.
None of which is to say that Melbourne is not a fine city. Despite being younger than Perth it’s retained far more of its heritage buildings, which Perth would prefer to bulldoze to make way for monstrous McMansions, and a walk around the city centre is very pleasing to the eye. There are more cathedrals, and parks, and old theatres, and so on. Trams are awesome, although not really that useful except for short journeys. There are cool places like Sydney Road or Brunswick Road that are lined from beginning to end with shops and bars and cafes. Bats flap around at night. The weather is colder, by which I mean “not brutally hot.” It’s overcast a lot of days, like in Europe, which makes you appreciate the days of fine weather so much more.
Melbourne also has the best juxtaposition in the entire world between the best and the worst architecture humans are capable of. It takes place at the intersection of Flinders Street and St. Kilda Road, which could fairly be nominated as the very centre of Melbourne. On one side of St. Kilda Road, we have Flinders Street Station – a beautiful building in the French Renaissance style.
(Credit Michael Grant)
On the other side of St. Kilda Road, we have Federation Square, a horrific fractal nightmare. It looks like a photograph of a gigantic geometry set taken half a second after it started to explode.
(Credit Edwin Lee)
It’s hilarious. I challenge anybody to find me a single square kilometre of the planet’s surface which contains a greater architectural contrast than this one right here.
Melbourne also has somewhat confusing traffic, at least for a provincial lad like me. Near Kristie’s house is Essendon’s central roundabout, the bane of my existence: an utterly horrendous six-street valve which also features a tram stop, pedestrian crossings, and traffic lights. Even after escaping this deathtrap every morning on my way to work, I have to contend with the panoply of lines and lights and signs and markings that I simply don’t understand. On our first full day here Jamie took me and Chris for a bike ride through the CBD and I had no idea what the fuck was going on. I still get honked at a lot, and generally assume it’s my fault.
(Credit Toby Corkindale)
I have a job again, for the first time in nearly a year. After applying for several marketing and writing positions, I also applied for a bookstore job which I easily received. I already sort of feel like I’m wasting my time, still working in retail at 22, but I needed money and there are far worse jobs I could have during this transitionary period. I’ve always wanted to work in a bookstore, and it has proved to be pretty neat. Occasionally I get sent up to man the newsagency kiosk in the business lounge, where I can read TIME and the New Yorker and National Geographic cover to cover, and meet (read: serve) celebrities – so far Tom Gleeson, Andy Lee, Bert Newton and Chopper Read. I also walked past Charley Boorman, one of my personal idols, as he was exiting the terminal and I was entering. I wish I’d said something to him, but when you see a famous person it always takes at least five seconds for your brain to recover, and by then he was gone. Hopefully before long I’ll meet Sam Neill, which has become an obsession of mine since everyone else I know seems to have met him.
So on the whole this job is pretty neat, apart from the occasional 5 am starts. Which aren’t really that bad – getting up at 5.30 am is awful, but getting up at 3.30 am is so far beyond the pale that my brain can’t actually comprehend what’s going on, so it passes by fairly quickly and I have the afternoon off, even if I do feel like shit and fall asleep again when I get home. The worst part is riding down the Tullamarine Freeway before dawn when it’s 11 degrees – and it’s only autumn, and so far I haven’t even been rained on. Come winter I may have to invest in a cheap car.
Speaking of transport and motorbikes, Chris’ was stolen about a week or two ago. He posted it online because he intended to sell it, and left it with Jamie when he flew back to Perth. Jamie rang me one evening after returning home from work and asked if I’d come and taken Chris’ bike, to which I replied, “No, why would I?” and he said “Shit.” He’s going to lose a thousand dollars on excess, which sucks. Also just the general frustration of having something stolen. I like my bike well enough – I wouldn’t say I love it – but it’s still my fucking bike and if someone stole it from me I’d be well pissed, insurance regardless. I was furious enough when I thought someone had nabbed $400 from my bank account last year.
I’ve hung out with my old work friend Alex a few times, who moved here last year after returning from Russia. She and all her friends are from Perth; when I went to a party she threw last week with Kristie and Jamie, one of her housemates turned out to know Jamie. All of Jamie’s other friends are from Perth, as are Kristie’s, which of course makes sense – it’s a snowball effect, and one of the reasons I’m here myself – but when even random people I flag down on the street for directions say they were originally from Perth, it starts to feel like I’m in a city full of Western Australian refugees.
Which reminds me that I should be appreciating Melbourne more. I wrote this up and adorned it with swiped Flickr photos after leafing through some Melbourne travel books at work today, and remembering that I have in fact moved to a new city, one far more vibrant than my last. I should get out and explore it some more.