Friday, February 27, 2015

Three Days in Melbourne

There’s something sinister about rain on a Saturday morning, something inauspicious and perverse. You have a right as a working stiff to expect something more magnanimous from the fates, but on the Autumn morning that Tina and I touched down in Melbourne for a three-day jaunt, we felt harshly done by by whatever deity handles precipitation.

We got picked up by our friend Lex, who was our host for the weekend, in a car which, not to sound like an ungrateful bollix or anything, had an abundance of dog hair in the back. But no matter: in Fitzroy the shopping started immediately. Being all into languages, I had sussed out Bookery, a foreign-language specialty librería (a much better word than ‘bookshop’ in anyone's language). I made my way there, just off the café strip of Brunswick St., while the girls hit the hat shops hard.

In the French quarter (of the shop) I got chatting to an Irish guy called Brendan Mooney, to whom I delivered my whinge du jour: the lack of any Irish language activity north of the border in Queensland. He told me all about Cumann Gaeilge na hAstráile (the Irish Language Association of Australia). Other than GAA, financial difficulties, and the St. Patrick’s Day parade, there's nothing happening with the Queensland Irish Association that I can see that has anything to do with Irish culture, and certainly nothing to do with the language itself, so that was good to hear about, even if the Cumann’s website seems a bit banjaxed.

Off Flinders St
Off Flinders St.

Striding back through the pissy drizzle to grungey Brunswick St., I reflected on how it always feels a little strange to switch to Irish mode like I’d just done, having effectively suppressed my accent for so long. Mooney’s accent had impressed me, but I felt mine rose to the occasion in response: a fair man would have to call it a draw.

In Balaclava Lex asked us “Can I show you my favourite accessory shop?” Under normal circumstances those words would have had a sobering, nay, chilling effect on me, but we’re Brisbanites in Melbourne and are expected to go shopping in Melbourne. I ended up splashing out $60 on an authentic New York flat cap made in China in a shop called Carlisle Accessories, posing at the counter while the woman took a photo of me for their facebook page. I hate facebook, but it would have been poor form to have pressed home my aversion just then. (I checked on my phone later that evening, crucified with a headache, and yes, I actually was on their facebook page, radiating happiness.) Rarely do I buy clothes, even less often do I buy “accessories”, so it seemed like a good idea to commemorate the event by posing alongside some edgy Breaking Bad urban art on the wall.

Saturday passed, and with it my headache. A righteousness of older cyclists swept past me on the cold streets of Sandringham as I took an early Sunday morning constitutional, although I’m hardly one to talk about anyone else being old having just turned 47 myself. If Saturday night belongs to lovers, then Sunday morning belongs to cyclists. Walking, I felt like I’d backed the wrong horse.

Tina joined me for a flattie (Australian for 'flat white', which is Australian for coffee with milk) on Hampton St., the disappointingly quiet main drag, although I rescued the situation by exchanging a few bon mots with a woman in a French deli next to our café. Language practice is like the shopping channel on TV; it's always on, always available if you want it, and I will always take the opportunity to talk French to someone who has placed themselves in a linguistically vulnerable position such as being surrounded by baguettes and fancy fromagerie in a shop called Au Bon Pain or quelque chose like that.

Posing with my new cap beside Heisenberg

And here’s another bona fide traveller tip, albeit on a different topic: almost every time you go away somewhere on a short break, a well-meaning friend will offer to drive you somewhere so you can see more in the short amount of time you have there which is all very well, but you'll end up spending most of your time looking out the window while they drive you to this amazing place or swing by that amazing place. You might get to cover more ground and “see” more, but it’ll mostly be from the back seat (just think of all the dog hairs) of their car. Say “No, thank you.” and think bicycle instead. So we nipped that one in the bud early on, and had told Lex we wanted to cycle around. She had two good bikes lined up by the time we got back from our morning coffee, and before we could cool down again (this is Melbourne in May, remember) we shot off, cold as you like for a sunny, flat, meandering, hour-or-so-in-length, shore-hugging, brilliant-in-every-way ride to St. Kilda.

When we got there, we felt great. It was the exercise, the being-on-holiday feeling, all that. Carelessly surfing a wave of joie de vivre, we spent money on a picture of a famous laneway in the CBD we would in fact end up having breakfast at the next morning (see the picture below). Not that we knew that then, we just liked the composition. The photographer was curiously indifferent to the sale in the manner of great artists and poor salesmen.

We proceeded to mosey. At the foot of Acland St., the street famous for its cake shops, I had to smile because across the road from us was a place called Hill 16, with that name surely an Irish pub. I’ve never been to the real Hill 16 in Dublin but this would do handsomely. Over a Guinness and a Magners I caught up on my social media posting, tweeting, and checking in.

After lunch with some friends, we took a stroll along the frontage of St. Kilda, definitely one of the quintessential Melburnian things to do, especially on a Sunday afternoon. Sitting on the wall at the edge of the boardwalk, half-watching our friends’ two young kids playing in the sand of great old Port Phillip bay, a real feeling of mellowness settled in my lap like a pussycat. This was the apex of our weekend away, Melbourne was the sun and we were at perihelion, even the coffee in my hand was the best I’d ever tasted. Then one of the kids got scared by a sand-spider or something and rushed back to us, howling, shattering the tranquility like an ambulance. Three miles to the right, the skyscrapers of Melbourne were as clear as an LCD screen.

That night we were in there, right in the heart of things. The Chinatown here is much bigger than the one in Brisbane, the one I happen to go to most days for lunch. It’s Sunday night, and you get these young women standing out in the cold, poor things, promoting this Malaysian Satay joint or that Hokkein Palace, cruelly at odds with the warmth and humidity of those far-flung places themselves. It was to be Malaysian tonight, Tina and me acclimating ourselves for our imminent trip there with Nasi Goreng and Laksa.

Degraves Espresso
Degraves Espresso

It’s our last day at last, and to my surprise it turns out that in Melbourne, you can sit at a café table in one of its famous laneways and ejaculate a cloud of fag smoke while others - us - are trying to enjoy their breakfast at the next table. Instead of annoying me though, when I gave it some thought it reminded me of a time my Dad and I were driving, yonks ago, in Cornamona, near the Galway/Mayo border. We pulled in at the only pub in town; he thought he’d nip in for a quick one, to break up the driving, and enjoined me to come in too and check out the lads (men, that is) blatherin’ away as Gaeilge. It was a fast disappearing scene, he said, it’ll soon be gone, but I was sixteen and not in the least interested in stuff like that. I sullenly let him go in, disappointed, on his own. My Dad’s dead now, and I only wish as I sit here that I’d gone in for that coke. Anyway, my point is that nowadays instead of being irritated at smokers at the next table, I perversely take pleasure in it, because it reminds me that the fate of this once-ubiquitous but now fast-disappearing custom, is surely to go the way of farmers talking Irish in Cornamona.

It’s been a grand weekend. On top of all I’ve already mentioned, we saw a medieval earthquake predictor at the Chinese Museum which was much more artistic and imaginative than it needed to be considering its function was just to tell you that the ground was shaking. We also met a Abu Dhabian guy called Mohammed on the plane home who was on his way to Brisbane to take up a job with KPMG. He had had to shave his beard to get the job, he told me in almost perfect English, albeit American-tinged for some reason, and confidently expressed the opinion, at a blissfully unselfconscious level of decibels, that Qatar’s putative 2022 World Cup stadium looked like a giant vagina, which apparently is old news. Well you live and learn.

I called Mohammed up to meet us at the Paniyiri a few weeks later, and that was the last time we met, sitting on the benches in Musgrave Park drinking Mythos and talking crap. I hope his job is going well, and that he’s adapted to Brisbane: it must be quite a change from what he’s used to. As for me: well, now that Melbourne was behind me, it was time to start dusting off my beginners’ Behasa Malaysia book in time for my trip there in two weeks’ time.

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