Friday, June 26, 2009

Day 11 - Melbourne

Day 11 - Melbourne

Not only are the nights brighter with extended daylight here in Victoria, but in the morning, it feels like 10am when it's only 8am. I woke up in the guest bedroom of my cousin Matt's place, and caught him as he was leaving for work. I thanked him again for everything yesterday, and reiterated how happy I was that he could play hooky for a day and hang out. Matt said no worries, and that he had fun as well. He reminded me of which tram to take in which direction once I head toward downtown to do some sightseeing. Matt then told me to help myself to the fridge, but then he had to split for work. I didn't bother lounging around for too long at Matt's; I had a city to discover.

Mum wanted to spend some quality one-on-one time with Aunt Marg at her place in Richfield, located just outside Melbourne. Since they're close siblings who live in opposite hemispheres, these three days we were here was a rare opportunity for them to hang out before we left Melbourne. Meanwhile, I was free to do what I pleased today. My day began with a trip to a neighborhood milk bar I had seen earlier to grab a coffee coupled with a slice of Australian everyday life. In Australia, a milk bar is a hybrid of a convenience store mixed with a newsagent (newsstand). Milk bars have pastries, meat pies, fruit and coffee available behind the counter. Of course, they sell milk as well. I found that they sold half and half, regular(2%), lowfat (1%), skim milk, as well as chocolate, strawberry and buttermilk. When I asked why it's called a milk bar when so many other items are available as well, the sweet 19 year-old girl behind the counter with multiple facial piercings shrugged and said the term is a bit old-fashioned. I bought a coffee and a newspaper, and sat at a table outside while I kept an eye out for the next downtown-bound tram. When I saw one approach, I sculled (Aussie for chugged) my coffee and bolted toward the stop.

I hopped onto the tram, and was instantly confused as to where to deposit my fare. I didn't want to seem like a dumb Yankee tourist, so I casually strolled up and down the bus a couple times before I found a machine in the center of the bus that accepts coins and notes. After inspecting the machine for a good minute, someone sensed my confusion and showed me the ropes with regards to paying bus fare in Melbourne.

After I purchased an all-day, all-access pass for $6.50, a card spit out below. I took it, stuck it in my wallet, and grabbed a seat. Next to me sat an elderly lady, a middle-aged man, and one of the cutest, most eloquent 3 year-old boys I had ever seen.

I overheard the lady, whom I presumed to be his grandmother, calling the boy Jackson. He had a smile which cheered up even the most downtrodden of morning commuters. His ability to make observations and carry a conversation better than most 4 year-olds I've met was simply stunning! He began singing his favorite song, "Wheels on the Bus (go round and round)." The grandma as well as the gentleman, whom I took for his father, sang along. I couldn't help chiming in a bit after I chatted with the three of them. When the charismatic Jackson struggled to remember the second verse of the song, a man clad in a suit carrying a briefcase seated a few rows back jogged Jackson's memory. By the time we began singing the third verse, half the tram was singing "Wheels on the Bus!" It was one of those precious moments that would make you want to have kids someday.

The family gave me the heads up that Flinders Street, my stop, was fast approaching. I was relieved I finally figured out how to pay my fare, because as soon as I hopped off, the first person to greet me was a police officer, checking people's proof of payment. I showed him my all-day pass, and he then bid me good day. I then took a look at my surroundings, and was instantly reminded of a California city halfway around the world. From the light morning chill in the air, to the older, complex architecture of the buildings, to the eclectic array of locals and tourists walking up and down the sidewalks, to the variety of shops I saw in such a condensed part of town, I was convinced I was in Australia's version of San Francisco. I walked into a vintage clothing shop after a set of flyers caught my eye outside advertising upcoming summer music festivals all over Australia.

I consciously decided not to bring my backpack today because I had little desire to schlep a bunch of trinkets around town, and lacking a backpack would also help to prevent buyer's remorse later on.

Flinders Street has a great number of restaurants and stores in its alleyways. It seems that, at least in this part of town, no real estate space goes to waste. As I was a bit hungry, I decided to pop into a Panini café to enjoy a Turkish Panini, which had black forest ham, sun dried tomato, and provolone cheese. Not exactly sure what makes it "Turkish", but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

When I headed back for Foundation Square, the touristy intersection where the tram first dropped me off, I could hear crowds cheering, but was unable to detect the source of the cheers until I looked down the street and saw enclosed makeshift bleachers I hadn't noticed before. Upon further inspection, people were filing up a set of stairs past a couple ushers to their seats. I followed the crowd to see what was going on, half expecting to get stopped by an usher and charged some sort of fee. Instead of charging me, the usher gave me a schedule of events. What I saw when I reached the top of the bleachers gave me a new perspective on both poverty and sports.

I found a place to sit, and then looked down at an enclosed miniature soccer field similar to the type of pitch indoor soccer was played on in the 1980s: Astroturf on the floor, small goals, and tinier dimensions relative to a regulation-sized field. Five-on-five soccer was being played by a group of men that didn't exactly demonstrate the skills of professionals. When I looked at the schedule of events, it showed that Holland was about to play Italy, amongst dozens of scheduled international matchups. I asked another usher what was going on, and he said I was watching the 2008 Homeless World Cup. This is a tournament comprised entirely of homeless people: from the impoverished contestants to the dodgy-looking ushers, even a few of the spectators were indigents. This year, the tournament happened to take place in the sports mecca of Melbourne, home to the 1958 Olympics and nine of 14 Australian Rules Football teams (imagine having nine NFL teams in one city!). However, I noticed that most of the crowd, comprised mostly of tourists and a few professionally-dressed locals on their lunch break from work, was rather passive save for a handful of enthusiastic Italian and Dutch countrymen. After the Azzuri (Italy) pasted the Dutch 9 to 3, I was about to leave until I heard that Australia was up next against Ghana. Since the games were only two 6-minute halves and my schedule was essentially wide open, I decided to stick around for one more match to see what kind of response the "Socceroos" got from their home crowd.

You know that Australian war cry? The one that goes "Aussie!Aussie!Aussie!Oy!Oy!Oy!" Not even repeated attempts by the most diehard Socceroo fans could galvanize the generally indifferent home crowd to help their team fend off Ghana from a sound 7 to 2 drubbing. I guess when the home team doesn't really have its local fan base rallying behind it, this really is a Homeless World Cup!

Disappointed by the lack of energy from the Australian crowd, I decided to leave before Russia took on Denmark in the next match.

To gain more perspective on Downtown Melbourne, I resolved to do some sightseeing around town from the comfortable confines of a train. When I reached the entrance to the subway station back at Flinders Street, I was unable to locate my all-day pass. Although I rummaged through my wallet five times, I couldn't, for the life of me, find that damned pass! I relented and purchased a two-hour pass for $2.50, pissed that I misplaced the card. Of course, the pass magically appeared in my wallet hours later when I counted how much money I had left. I hate when that happens!

I rode the train, but didn't want to go too far, fearing I might lose track of how to get back to Flinders Street without asking a bevy of locals. Melbourne Central Station seemed like an appropriate place to hop off.

Melbourne Central was located within a shopping mall. I had been in a few malls in Australia on my trip so far, and they're by and large quite similar to the US in both layout and architecture. They've got stores like Borders, McDonalds and The Gap, but most shops are exclusively Aussie. The biggest department stores in Australia that would rival stores like Macy's & Bloomingdales in the US would probably be David Jones and Myer. But I'll get more into department stores in a future journal entry.

The time was about 3:15pm, and I noticed a bunch of secondary school (high school) kids clad in uniforms who were milling about the mall after they got out of class. In general, I noticed the boys' uniforms consisted primarily of sports coats, ties, and shortened slacks or simply slacks (picture guitarist Angus Young from AC/DC minus the hat). The girls are forced to wear hideous paisley-patterned frocks that are better suited for servants than students. I stopped at Baker's Delight, a popular Aussie chain commonly found at malls across the country, to tide over my appetite with a sausage roll. It wasn't as tasty as the roll I had in Queensland on my way to Port Douglas, so I chucked half of it before I finished the roll. I was getting tired after being on my feet most of the day, and thought about heading back to Matt's flat to rest until it was time to meet back up with Mum and Aunt Marg later that evening. Having noticed several juice bars throughout the mall, I stopped to see how a smoothie would taste in Melbourne. The Mango Mayhem I ordered was much better than the homemade one I had in the rainforest of Kuranda, Queensland. I finished this thirst-quenching treat before I headed into a JB Hi-Fi to compare prices of electronics to those in America.

Contrary to its name, this store sold mostly CDs and DVDs instead of stereo equipment. Although JB Hi-Fi had a few boom boxes, microphones and headphones in stock, I was happy to be in a music store, since these establishments are a dying breed back in the States what with the proliferation of digital music sold online. I then wished I had worn my backpack since I saw some cool Oasis and Kings of Leon imports I would regret not buying right then and there.

I walked back to Platform 2 at Melbourne Central to take a train back to Flinders Street, but after discovering I would have to wait 20 minutes for the next ride, I decided on a 15-minute walk instead.

Upon my return to Foundation Square, I boarded a tram headed back toward Matt's house. I realized after about 10 minutes that I hopped on the wrong tram. This would drop me off at St. Kilda beach, where I had lunch the day before. Before I departed, I asked the driver for directions, and he told me to walk a kilometer up the coast to the Pier until I would then see the correct tram to take. Once I started walking, I was instantly besieged by swarms of flies! Now I know where the term "Australian Salute" comes from! I got a call on the cell phone Mum loaned me for a couple days. It was Mum, who wanted to know how I was getting on with my Melbourne adventure. I told her my current location, and that I was walking toward the correct tram stop. Since it was about 5pm, Mum was about ready for dinner, and said she and Marg would come pick me up. A half-hour later, I met the two ladies at the pier at St. Kilda, and we were on our way to Richfield, a semi-retirement community just outside of Melbourne, where Marg recently moved to after her husband passed away. We stopped at Coles to buy some steaks, veggies, and wine for dinner.

Once we got to Marg's, the rest of our evening was pretty relaxed. We watched How I Met Your Mother and Ugly Betty (one of Mum's favorite shows) followed by a wildly popular Australian show in the vein of 90210-meets-Seventh Heaven called Neighbours on "the ABC", one of five Australian television networks. Personally, I thought Neighbours was saccharine crap. Then again, the episode was Christmas-centric.

During dinner, Marg prepped us for Mum's climactic reunion with estranged Aunt Jenny, which would take place the next day. I asked for a quick recap of the history that led up to Jenny and Mum's fallout. Long story short, it boiled down to two stubborn people with different perspectives agreeing to disagree, resulting in three-plus decades of non-communication - hardly the funeral fistfight I had envisioned. After our enlightening heart-to-heart chat concluded, the ladies bid me goodnight before they retired for the evening. I stayed up and checked my email and Facebook page on Marg's computer before closing out my night by watching an exciting Australian-made miniseries on DVD which was recommended by Matt called Underbelly (about an organized crime family in Melbourne in the mid 1990s). I had trouble falling asleep in yet another strange place, so I quietly played Enya's first album on my phone before I drifted off to the land of nod.

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