Friday, April 13, 2007

Culture Shock: Melbourne

My first thoughts while walking into downtown Melbourne: Hey, a piece of trash on the ground! ... Is that group of people actually smoking on the sidewalk? ... This is utter chaos, people just crossing the street willy-nilly wherever and whenever they feel like it. Shouldn’t they be using the crosswalk? Clearly I’ve gone a bit soft in Singapore.

But in reality Melbourne is a wonderful city I wish I lived closer to, though perhaps not in, on account of the cost of living and the driving on the left, which is complicated by the tram lines in the center of the street. Melbourne is visually fascinating, with traditional forms of architecture (Gothic stone cathedrals, painted Victorian buildings) right next to spectacular modern wonders in glass and steel.

The central area is small and easily walkable but packed with interesting side streets and a different ambience on every block - galleries of indigenous art, riverfront nature walks, high-end fashion and tearooms, buskers doing magic tricks for gathering crowds, and all of it interspersed with friendly restaurants and pubs. Plus, among other things, it’s nice to be in a city where I don’t immediately stand out as a foreigner, so I can just sit back and observe.

I like to notice the little things, such as that the women, regardless of shape or size or personal style or lack thereof, are all wearing completely fabulous, super-pointy, dragon-lady shoes. Clearly they have their priorities straight. Lots of the men seem to be descended from the same ruddy, slightly snub-nosed outdoorsman with sandy blonde hair and roguish smile. And aside from that, the population is hugely diverse, with immigrant populations from all over the world.

Apparently, for example, there are more Greeks in Melbourne than in any other city except Athens. It’s completely impossible to eat Greek food in Singapore, and even in New Jersey it’s pretty much limited to the annual festival at the local Greek Orthodox church, so of course we jumped at the chance to try their food. Stalactites, a 24-hour Greek eatery with what looked like a “popcorn ceiling” gone horribly wrong (all in the name of themed decor), had phenomenal food matched by the festive atmosphere from the crowds packed into the tiny space.

Unlike Singapore, where shopping is the leisure activity of choice well into the night, Melbourne closes its stores around 6 p.m. so that everyone can go to dinner or hang out with the rest of Melbourne in one of the cozy pubs tucked into the laneways. This general spirit of cameraderie makes Melbourne seem like a small town. Strangers strike up long, friendly conversations with one another - and with me, despite my studied imitation-New-Yorker avoidance posture. I am an introvert among introverts, but even I inadvertently acquired a host of bosom buddies: the department store sales clerk who rang up my small purchase, a lady sitting alone in a tea room (as I was, since Joey was in two days of business meetings), and an elderly couple in my museum tour of Australian Impressionst painters.

Even from a distance, Melbourne is worth observing: the skyline along the calm, tiny Yarra River is spectacular in every direction. And the sky here during the daytime is that classic, deep blue - like September in the Northeast, but more brightly lit. It makes sense that I’m thinking of September, of course, because it’s Fall here. That's one of the greatest and most mind-boggling things about living and traveling in this area: temperature-wise, we moved from Winter to Summer in January, and now that we feel like it should be Spring, it’s still Summer where we live, but we’re on vacation in Autumn. Soon, though, it will all make sense: we will be heading back to Summer, and just a couple of weeks after that, we’ll feel in our bones that it should be Summer anyway, because it will be May.

1 comment:

Cheryl said...

Beautifully written! I'm really enjoying your entries. Keep up the great work! - Cheryl
btw, we got our separate names to work! thanks for your help.