As the clock marks our fifteenth hour of plane travel a voice announces our imminent arrival. He and I look out the window and watch as the clouds part to reveal Australia. The cobalt of crashing waves gives way to a canopy of green leaves sprouting from unfamiliar trees and the wheels kiss the tarmac in greeting. His eyes show more excitement than his face gives away as we disembark from the plane. Down to the baggage carousel. Through the customs line. Out into the lobby to wait.
Step one is figuring out the details of transference from A to B. Step two is configuring our luggage in such a way that forward momentum is possible. Step three is combining the first two steps so that we arrive at our temporary home relatively unscathed. Given my proclivity for clumsiness, relatively unscathed allows for the twisted ankle, scraped knee, and busted pant leg that I did, in fact, incur along the way.
My understanding of Australian culture began the moment of this spectacular injury. Despite the throngs of people, when I went belly down in the middle of the street there wasn’t so much as a twitter. The light turned from red to green while I lay prostrate struggling to rise. No one honked or revved or demonstrated impatience of any sort. Nor did anyone rush to my aid. They allowed me the few moments I would need to either rise on my own or receive help from my companion. They gave me space and patience. My embarrassment sloughed off as quickly as it came and after taking a moment to collect myself I moved forward.
Australians are a considerate people and there is little that seems to bother them. Most will offer you a shy smile if necessary, but they understand that you want to keep to yourself as do they. They expect you to take care of yourself and will give you the freedom and tools to do so. If you suffer some form of embarrassment they will politely turn their head and allow you to recollect your dignity. Frontier mentality mixes with leftover Britannic sensibility and an environment of harsh seclusion to create a humble and unapologetically genuine people. Sure, Australia is bound to have its own share of downright miserable folks, but they are few and far between. Then again, with a population of little more than 24 million, all the people in Australia are few and far between.
Melbourne has the great pleasure of being one of the coastal cities where inhabitants are plentiful. It benefits as a port of transience inviting a vibrant, thriving culture to take root. Accents rise and fall weaving together in such a way that you aren’t sure anyone is speaking English. Intoxicating scents emanate from entries before the doors swing shut leaving your mouth watering and unsure of where to turn for relief. The gray of streets and buildings are broken by joyous splashes of color made by artists in the grip of inspiration. It is a multicultural hub of artistic passions, fashion luddites, epicurean delights, and caffeine connoisseurs. The buildings tend toward the low leaving it with no discernible skyline and a subtle undercurrent of humility. There is hustle and bustle to be sure yet this exists largely in the CBD and even then it hasn’t the same polarizing press of flesh found in other large cities.
One month here lends surprisingly little time for introspection. If one must be confined to a city, one must explore it. And so we do. Each day we wake and stride out into the unforgiving heart of winter. Tucked into the back curve of Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne is host to a near constant breeze that I have no doubt softens the heavy heat of its eventual summer days. In the winter, however, this same antarctic breath is the cause of many a turned up collar and whispered curse. Confident footsteps lead you round a corner where some gale force has lain in wait to rend at your coat tails and slip up your unsuspecting pant-leg, leaving you to cower in its wake. Whole blocks are walked with chin tucked into cloak, hands in pockets, and face puckered against the raging wind. There are moments when the assault subsides and the sun begins to shine. You close your eyes and turn your face towards its golden warmth in praise. For this insolence, you are soundly punished. A harsh wind whips out of nowhere hurling lusty pellets of icy rain down upon you. This is August in Melbourne.
Days are slow and lazy. Mornings begin with a hearty breakfast of our own make. We then carefully dress for the day. I cover my thermals with traditional city garb before donning a weather resistant shell. Into the day pack I place a my heat-tech shawl, vest, hat, scarf, gloves, and umbrella. Within hours all of these items will have been called into action, removed, and then required once more. Have I mentioned that the climate in Melbourne is bloody tempestuous? To assuage weather related rigors we subscribe to a diet equal parts coffee, beer, and culinary exploration. From St. Kilda to Brunswick we ride or walk following eyes and nose to each new moment’s shelter. Cappuccino in hand we go thrifting. A book here, a jumper there, and naught but ten dollars spent. The wind rises with a howl and just as the heavens open up we throw ourselves through doors that promise a jug of ale and a feed. We descend upon Lt. Bourke Street in search of dumplings. Night comes early as we rush to the pier to see the famed Little Penguins launch themselves into the sea. Returning home we huddle beneath covers to plan the next day's wanderings setting our sights further and further afield. Week One.
We begin to lose track of time. Days merge together and our waistlines expand as we, leaning heavily on the clime as excuse, eat our way through the city. The richness of chai, the decadence of a breakfast plate, the bliss of a perfectly baked carrot cake, another round or two of dumplings. Falling under the spell of hunger and chill we would leap at the first offer of coffee and drool over menus before making a choice. Hours are spent in chairs and rooms meant for long conversations and slow meals. Wandering through markets left us spinning out of the way of harried purveyors and carts stacked high with vegetables. We procure fresh ingredients and astound one another with the gourmet quality of our own creations. Week Two.
We discover the unique undercurrents of Melbourne’s prominent neighborhoods. St.Kilda sprawls lazily by the sea. Fitzroy is tightly quartered and full of flavor. Brunswick is on the rise. The CBD is haughty and hurried. Prahran sits widely on the outskirts. Tying each to the other, aside from physical proximity, is the attention paid by a burgeoning street art community. Every alleyway and unattended wall plays host to murals, scenes, and fantasy. Amongst the other artists of spray and paint it is Adnate whose work tugs at our hearts the most. Coming across one of his pieces is guaranteed to bring you to a standstill. Hidden throughout the city in unlikely locations he practices his art. The faces of his subjects have so much life that you imagine you’ve come upon some immense deity. You can drown in those eyes, wide pools reflecting the colors of earth and sky revealing a sadness whose depth you can’t begin to contemplate. Beings of great beauty and terrible sorrow. It takes your breath away. Another round of dumplings, steamed this time, further steals our breath. Week Three.
We begin to realize that Melbourne is a city much like any another. The buildings play host to restaurants and cafes and shops. Immersion means spending and our pocketbooks only have so much room in which to wiggle. My mind turns again to that all familiar image of Australia and this is not it. The days take on a gray, drab feeling that has less to do with the weather and more to do with being surrounded by and sheltered inside of buildings. The search for green quickly reveals parks that are beautiful and sprawling with delightfully common marsupials, but this is nature corralled and confined and it leaves me unsatisfied. The days have turned into routine bringing us repeatedly to the same doorways and street corners and we are doing our best to handle a dumpling addiction. It is easy to lose oneself to the thrum of this or any place, but that is not why we have come. To shake off the trappings of society you must first immerse yourself thoroughly and that is what we have done. Week Four.
I am anxious for mobility, for change. We have gone from one city of spending to another and my patience has run out. Anxiety begins to radiate off of me in waves and Jorge knows our time here is up. After long weeks of searching, we have found our home on wheels. We scrub, renovate, and organize. Breaks are taken only for coffee and dumplings…then more dumplings. When the day arrives we procrastinate and wheedle our time away in nervousness. Darkness begins to fall and we know we can postpone no longer. At last and officially, we take to the road.