Monday, March 5, 2012

Our man Down Under

MELBOURNE - I always thought it would be cool to start off a post with a far off byline, and now I am. The magic of technology not only makes this blog possible but also enables me to contribute posts from halfway around the world. You'll have to pardon my childlike enthusiasm for a bit as this is my first endeavor at making the web, world wide.

Of all the places in the world I've longed to visit, I must admit that Australia was never high on my list. Not that I haven't been charmed by the carefree nature of the Aussie personality, it's just that the culture never seemed exotic enough to warrant traveling half way around the globe. In other words, not enough bang for the buck. However, given the chance to come here on someone else's dime (quite a few of them actually), I jumped at the chance.

Turns out, things are pretty exotic here after all. For starters, they drive on the left side of the road. Yes they do that in London too but at least there they have the decency to warn pedestrians at every crossing to look to the right. Here even pedestrians walk on the left side, that's how you can easily distinguish them from the out-of-towners. As everyone knows, water drains in the opposite direction, I checked, it goes down clockwise. Now I'll have to check which way it drains back home to prove it. Below the equator you see different stars but I couldn't prove that as much to my chagrin it's been cloudy every night. I have seen birds that I could never see back home, species such as the Welcome Swallow and the magpie-lark. Haven't seen a kookaburra yet but hope to.* They do speak English here but I can't quite make out all the localisms, especially when they're talking about their biggest pastime, footy.

Apart from all that, it's not hard to feel at home in a city that was voted one of the most livable on the planet. I don't have a hard time understanding why this is so, there is an ease about the way this city goes about its business that I find lacking in other comparable cities. Melbourne is a British Colonial city, that much is evident in its great variety of Victorian era architecture. Yet as time went on, and architectural styles came and went, Melbourne freely adopted them without any self-consciousness or apology. Here you find great examples of Art-Nouveau, Chicago Commercial Style, Art-Deco, the International Style, as well as a wide range of contemporary buildings with no discernible style at all. Having to come up with a term, the best I can think of would be whacked out. All these buildings happily exist together, complementing rather than competing with one another.

One of the most distinctive features of Melbourne's Central Business District is its system of arcades which provide short cuts between the major streets as well as great spaces for shopping or eating. Some of the arcades date from the Victorian era and are as refined and elegant as you would expect. Others are rough hewn, graffiti filled alleys that have been converted to retail thoroughfares. The amazing thing is that these two very different spaces interact with each other, connecting seamlessly. This combining of the tawny and the tawdry is the theme of Melbourne's CBD and it works brilliantly, I've never seen anything quite like it.

The best example of this mixture sits, a few meters from where I am sitting right now, in the very heart of the city where Melbourne's main street, Swanston Street, meets the Yarra River. Here you'll find on one corner Melbourne's most famous building, the High Victorian Flinders Street Station, on another the beautiful Anglican St. Paul's Cathedral, on another, where I am right now, a seedy patch of souvenir shops and internet cafes, and lastly, Melbourne's new public square, Federation Plaza, barely ten years old. I was here on a late Sunday afternoon, when I heard the sound of hucksters in front of the cheap shops competing with the sounds of street performers in Fed Square, which were all but drowned out by the clanging of the bells of the cathedral.

My most memorable out of many experiences in this remarkable city.

I have so much more to tell you but that will have to wait as I go explore.


*Since writing this I did indeed see the Southern Cross for the first time (as it's not visible from the northern hemisphere), a kookaburra, and got to do that most Australian of activities, commune with wallabies and kangaroos.

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