Ta, ‘Melbun’

Last year Conde Nast Traveler magazine asked readers to come up with a list of the World’s Friendliest Cities. After tallying tens of thousands of entries the editors announced that Melbourne and Auckland had been ranked 1-2 with Victoria BC taking third spot and Sydney tied with Dublin for #5. The magazine also gave Melbourne the title of “Australia’s Capital of Cool.” After the better part of a week in the city, I see what they mean.

While Sydney is blessed with an iconic bridge and opera house, and a pretty nice harbor and amazing beaches, its CBD (Aussie speak for ‘downtown’) was a little too pristine for my liking. Where’s the street art, I wondered, as I walked around Sydney. Where are the paste-ups, posters, murals, decals and assorted pieces of graffiti? If you haven’t noticed, I’m the kind of person who is naturally suspicious of Utopian cities and perfectly manicured suburbs.

There’s no shortage of public art in Sydney but most of it appears to have been commissioned by the city or provided by developers in exchange for zoning and density concessions. While there may well be some artsy suburbs that I didn’t get to, Sydney’s CBD (Central Business District) had been scrubbed clean – if it had ever been bombed – and that made me suspicious. Had all the street artists been arrested (as Rob Ford proposed in Toronto) or were they herded onto a train and shipped off to Melbourne? I suspect that it was the latter as there’s no shortage of very good street art in Mebs. (Note: Locals say ‘Mel-bun’ or just plain ‘Mebs.’)

Of course it’s the people who really make or break a city and according to Conde Nast Traveler, Melbourne is chock-full of friendly people. I’d add that they are also a very stylish lot, easy-going, tolerant, ethnically diverse, and incredibly easy to like. They’re the kind of people who don’t get their knickers in a knot when a paste-up of the Prime Minister wearing a Disney-style princess dress appears in a back alley or Snow White is depicted on a downtown wall leaping into the arms of police officer wearing riot squad gear.

As I thought about the people of Melbourne, I realized that I actually knew one of them. I met a Melburnian named Elizabeth Bell when we camped near each other at Burning Man and later found ourselves on the same Green Tortoise backpacker-style bus trip to Yosemite. Elizabeth is Melbourne personified. She said that if I ever got to Melbourne that I should look her up – so I did.

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Photo: Elizabeth Bell (left), near Mono Lake, California (2014)

We arranged to meet on Thursday evening, which was my last night in Melbourne. I could have taken Melbourne’s FREE tram (they have the largest tram network in the world and much of the CBD is free) but instead I consulted Google Maps and explored the city’s back alleys on my way to the hospital at which Elizabeth was teaching a yoga class.

I left it up to her to pick a restaurant but insisted that I would be buying. In emails she mentioned that she was torn between Vietnamese phở, African food at a restaurant where a musician friend would be playing, and a not-for-profit vegetarian restaurant in St. Kilda where you pay what you think the meal was worth. Any one of the above would have been fine by me!

I can’t remember how I reacted when she greeted me on the street and announced that we weren’t going to any of the three, or any restaurant for that matter, but I was disappointed to say the least. My mood took a hard left when she said that her mother had a roast in the oven and we’d be going “home” for dinner. Elizabeth has obviously done enough traveling to know what a scruffy backpacker would really appreciate!

Elizabeth’s mom resides in a lovely Art Nouveau-style home (c. 1910) on a leafy street just outside the CBD. The roast wasn’t quite done when we arrived so Elizabeth cracked open a bottle of her brother’s homebrew while her mother and I shared a bottle of wine.

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Dinner consisted of a medium-rare roast of lamb, fresh beans, scalloped potatoes, yam drizzled with olive oil, and very nice Pinot noir from the nearby Yarra Valley. Could it get much better?

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After dinner Mrs. Bell recounted a few stories a 2003 trip that she and her husband – a pediatric surgeon – had taken to Turkey, Uzbekistan, and several other countries that I will be visiting this summer. I suspect that she traveled with a few more creature comforts than what I’ll have on the Dragoman truck, but it was great to hear that she held these countries in such high regard.

I don’t know how she was aware that my favourite dessert would be a lemon tart – the more ‘tart’ the better – but that’s what was served with tea. It was the perfect ending to a very memorable evening.

After dinner Elizabeth drove me back to my hostel. I had to be up at 6:00 and standing on the street at 7:15 to catch a pre-booked tour bus. That might sound like torture to some of you but it turned out to be another fantastic experience. I’ll tell you all about it in my upcoming account Saturday #37. Stay tuned.

BELOW: Photos taken in the span of a few hours as I explored high streets and back alleys of Melbourne, Australia.

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