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Notes on a Big Hearted City (Melbourne)

Author: Jane A.
Date of Trip: January 2010


Fun not funerals! Was the vow we made as we raised a glass to our parents in 2006. Sadly, they both died within six weeks of each other, spurring me, my sister and two brothers to enter a pact to get together every year. All families face this sooner or later, and the four of us, then in our fifties, didn’t want to delay meeting until the next sad occasion. The first trip was to Jim’s in Berlin, next was for my 60th in my home city of York, then this year the BIG TRIP to Dave’s in Melbourne, where he has lived by the Bay for 30 years.

Leaving partners and the frozen northern hemisphere was the easy part. Living together as a family for four whole weeks was another thing entirely. No wonder the question we kept hearing Down Under was: ‘Are you still speaking to each other?’

On our first few jetlagged days, Dave toured us round his favourite eateries. We started with breakfast at French Fantasies, with its bewildering choice of coffee and luscious patisseries — how do Aussies keep so slim and fit? Must be all the running, cycling and roller blading – and the weather helps. The Bay is just a fabulous beauty spot – why would anyone ever go away on holiday? There’s sand and sea for the asking and not an ice-cream van in sight. My sister Sarah and I made for the shore and plunged in, both slathered in factor 30 — a welcome change from the snow in England.

The place names may be familiar — our home town of Hampton, then Windsor, and of course Sandringham, where Dave has made his home, carry a whiff of royal patronage, but that is where the comparison with the Old World ends. The easygoing Sunday afternoon barbies on the patio showed us Poms how to unwind. Dave assured me that catering for twelve was ‘no sweat’ because everyone brings stuff and I should just relax! And he handed me a large glass of Chardonnay. He was right; no fuss, no pretension and everyone had a great time. Oh, and the food was fabulous.

The Queen Victoria night market was a revelation. Lined with food stalls from countries and cultures of the world, the place hummed. We were tempted by Spanish, Iranian and Turkish dishes, but finally plumped for a steaming plate of Caribbean chickpeas with spicy sauce — this was no little England. We heard Italian, Greek, Arabic and Polish spoken amongst many other languages — a fantastically exciting taste of this great cosmopolitan city.

Melbourne strikes me as a place that has got its balance right. It’s got old-style trams and picturesque Victorian shopping arcades alongside a beautiful skyline punctuated with the Rialto Towers – the overall picture is one of industry, activity and success. But this hasn’t just happened overnight, in the 1860’s, journalist George Sala wrote: ‘Marvellous Melbourne, a really astonishing city with broad streets and handsome shops and crowded with bustling well-dressed people.’ To that, I would add: on a friendly and human scale.

A visit to the Immigration Museum brought to life what it means to be Australian, or rather how many different ways there are of being Australian. We learned that one in four Australians today were born elsewhere and we got a flavour of this diversity by walking over Sandbridge bridge, which crosses the Yarra river and links the city and Port Melbourne, where thousands landed for the first time. The bridge is decorated with giant figurines, ‘The Travellers’, and a panel for every country of origin, conjures up images of camel drivers who came from Afghanistan in the 19th century, alongside those seeking sanctuary from war and persecution today.

We explored the City armed with a map, and if we looked lost a passer-by would greet us with, ‘Can I help you mate?’ And we’d soon be chatting like long lost friends. Melbournians are unfailingly big hearted and generous with their time — there’s no other big city where I’ve met this level of hospitality. Red-coated volunteer guides round every corner gave us great tips on free trams, boat trips and where to escape for a quiet half-hour.

I love the way the city spreads out with space to breathe. Sarah and I wandered along the broad riverside paths and saw the city in all its glory — its bridges, soaring architecture, and expanses of green. We found it was safer than crossing roads where drivers tend to overtake every which way and cars appear without warning!

We walked to the Botanic Gardens for a tour led by Ruth, our volunteer guide, who made the tour so engaging it was like walking through a lavishly illustrated storybook. We heard about the indigenous bunya-bunya pine tree which produces ten-kilo cones full of edible nuts, and the melaleuca tree or honey-myrtle, used by the Aboriginal peoples for splints. Ruth encouraged us to crush herbs between our fingers and inhale. Salt-bitter samphire used in cooking fish, comfrey or knitbone used by the Romans in poultices, and blue-green rue used in brooms to deter flies. Heady stuff! The four of us went back the following evening to see a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream against the natural backdrop of forest and the eerie screeching of birds.

So two weeks into the holiday I can report that we were getting on fine, though there was a moment when Dave felt we were overdoing the fresh air when the temperature dropped to 20 degrees. Jim and Dave share a passion for cycling and were gearing up for the Alpine Classic event in Bright the following week — Jim had brought over his pedals and saddle — that serious. The closest I got to exercise was watching the Williams sisters winning the opening rounds of the Australian Open in seats we couldn’t afford at Wimbledon. I don’t follow tennis but seeing professionals perform live and at the top of their game knocked me out.

How did you cope with the heat, I hear you ask, coming from sub-zero temperatures in double figures? Well, just fine thank you, except for one day when it got to 44 degrees and the only way to go was horizontally on Dave’s floor, dreaming of air-con. By early evening we dragged ourselves out to cool off in the pool, which was like a Jacuzzi at 37 degrees. But then all gave way to tropical downpours and a delicious breeze. The news brought daily reminders of the real and present danger of heat and fire and when we drove up to the Dandenongs we were shocked to learn that people in the outer suburbs had lost their lives in bushfires only last year.

And the food? Fabulous! We gorged on peaches, guavas, melons, fruit so juicy it ran down to your elbows. Too hungry to drive any further one day, we pulled up at an unpromising roadside cafe, and Dave’s greeting of ‘How are you today?’ was met with, ‘Not too shabby, and you?’ From a young woman with such stunning good looks it summed up the Aussie gift for understatement and became a catchphrase for the whole trip. She served us with roast lamb fillets, rested to succulent perfection.

Did it work as a sibling reunion? A resounding yes! We grew up together as children on a small island, but it was in Melbourne that we discovered the adults we have become. Where to next time? The challenge is on to find somewhere that comes even close to Melbourne, which was an unbeatable experience for us all. At least one of us made it here — lucky Dave!

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