Thursday, May 28, 2009

Coming Home: A temporary excercise in remembrance

Back in Sydney now: the good, the bad, the ugly - and all of it lovely.  I do like Melbourne's charms, but not as much as I love Sydney's lack of them.  I am home! (For now.)

It has been a while - so pull up a chair, make yourself a cup of tea (order another Yemen)...

It has been quite a while, I know, so I should tell you a bit about the rest of my time at Sydney's pretty sibling.

Work continued more-or-les s without incident, with my barista skills gradually increasing - along with my passion for a good coffee.  I can now pour a very impressive cappucino, with reasonable consistency, and can point you in the direction of some seriously good coffee wherever you are in Melbourne.  The first book in a while I have considered buying is about coffee, which I think is indicative.

Getting back to Sydney has highlighted the differences in weather between the cities - Melbourne always seems those few degrees cooler in the forecasts, and being back here I can feel the relative warmth.  My arrival back in Sydney was marked with a downpour - the gusty crackle of heavy drops on the van roof was a welcome homecoming present.

My last few weeks in Melbourne saw me taking advantage of many of the local attractions.  I have heard average things about Geelong - only from Melbourne's Easterners - but my time there was pleasant, and I can confirm a variety of places worthy of visit on a Saturday night.  (It's too bad the Cats thumped the Swans that afternoon - though it was good to be there for it.)  The Sunday after I followed that road out of town, out towards the 'Twelve' Apostles.  Deviating up through the forest was well worth it, as was a brief look around Colac, though the emptiness of the lake it was built upon does leave something of a sad impression.  Riding back along the Great Ocean Road was a treat - a few of the twisty bits were excellent, and the afternoon light really brought out the seaside beauty.

A couple of weeks later I toured the areas East of Melbourne and was no less impressed.  South Gippsland (a largely dairy area) must be the greenest area of Australia, and the cattle-spotted rolling mountains make for a unique backdrop - at least as far as Australia is concerned.  The Mornington Peninsula was probably the highlight of the trip, with spectacular rocky mountains - and a good mountain road or two - rising out of the Bass Straight.  Day two included both very typical and very atypical Melbourne riders' roads: the mountains North East of Melbourne are as famous for riding as they are for the bushfires that swept through here three months ago.  I started off following what my map said was a semi-major dirt road - after some deleriously fun (but slippery) twisties, it ended up a single-lane forrest mud track, with a grader halfway along. Very dodgy riding, but the only real downside is that it would keep less adventerous riders away from finding the beautiful mountain spots that I did.  Only later did I get into the bushfire territory, which was a very positive experience.  Yes the trees are black, but the grass was green, and sprouts and foliage are sprouting up out of the ashes.  Yes people died - and I'm glad I did not need to confront that - but environmentally bushfires are essential, and everything is thriving through them.  Bare trees also made lines of sight much better, which makes it safer to go faster, and I'm not going to complain about that, am I?

Healesville, by the way, is a misspelling of Hicksville; don't be confused by the up-market tourist-oriented shopfronts.

One can't, of course, wrap up a trip to Melbourne without talking about the footy.  AFL in Melbourne is big - big in the way NRL is here, but much broader as well.  AFL is the game in Melbourne - virtually the only game in Melbourne, not just the biggest.  If you don't follow AFL, you don't follow sport.  This has the great side-effect that you don't need to be a meat-headed bogan to follow it, so for the first time in my life I will happily call myself a footy fan.  I even - in true Melbourne spirit (as much about the weather as the footy) - got myself a Swannies scarf, which is imbued with an interesting mix of emotions... I'm following your game, but my team.  A good compromise to being a temporary Melbournian, I think!

There were a string of decent festivals on over my time in Melbourne.  The Comedy was first up, and involved a few good shows, fortunately without much outlay.  Randy was a definite highlight - it is oddly acceptable for a puppet to go overboard with 'c***', and the dry, dark, often intellegent wit was both unsettling and hilarious.  The International Jazz Festival was up next - from memory I didn't attend anything.  International Festival meant International gig costs.  Googling the MIJF I was lucky enough, however, to come across the Melbourne Fringe Jazz Festival: a week and a half showcasing Melbourne's local talent, at all the hottest venues, at a fraction (typically 1/2 or 1/3) of their international alternative.  There were a few average experiences, but a some very good ones as well, which made for a very positive week.  It's bloody awesome being on holiday - I'd been to one jazz gig in Sydney in four years of uni (despite four years' cheap/free tickets with Jazz Soc), and all of a sudden I can go out every night.

One last thing before I leave Melbourne, is a comment about how cultured the city is.  It's something people ask me: do I find Melbourne more cultured?

Frankly, if you think it is you're a douche, and I make no apologies for the problems surrounding your birth.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so harsh.  There are differences between the cities - the other being Sydney of course - and I can see what people mean, but if Melbourne is characterised as 'cultured' I pity your sense of culture.  The Melbournians (and others) who praise the beauty of Sydney and its beaches and harbours obviously haven't gotten around town much.  So much of Sydney is somewhere between unpleasant and ghastly, in a way Melbourne is not.  So much of the way Sydney is built shows a complete disregard for aesthetics - or for that matter any ongoing use of public space.  Does nobody in Sydney ever think ahead?  Are we suffering problems with our eyesight?  It seems we are making efforts to address certain problems, but the wonder is how we ended up so horribly out of whack in the first place.  The tunnels we are haphazardly crossing our city with are like bandaids on short-sighted infrastructure planning, and potential projects to free up the city's waterfront areas (Darling Harbour and the Quay) are indicative of how little value we have given to the use of public space.

This is evident on a much more micro level in Melbourne as well - in various ways.  Bars/cafes (they are not so distinct down there) offer much more interesting spectacles - much more creative uses of space - than up here.  We tend to be cold up here, as if our time off needs to reflect our professionalism, if it reflects anything at all.  Streets there are so more ambulant - there are trees, there is space.  Laneways have things other than bins down them.  'Graffiti' is common - not vandalism, but spray-can paintings of public surfaces.  If there is a space in Melbourne, it is recognised as something people might spend time in - its social value is recognised.

I have already written about the pretty people of Melbourne - the trendy areas are very much so, and the CBD is far more residential (less corporate, more of a place to actually spend time) - who make for sights interesting in the same way the city's places are.

It's misleading, though, to characterise this as more 'culture' on their part.  Melbournians put up different facades, but it remains that they are facades.  The facades in Sydney's are every bit as stylised - and every bit as trivial - but more often corporate.  We have a beach culture to rival Fitzroy's classy bohemians (Sydney's 'bohemians' are more varied, and often genuinely grungy).  In Melbourne, the main result of their longer history of migrant populations is that Italian and Greek food is expensive ('kebabs' are called 'souvlaki' and you pay through the nose for the privelege of an inferior product).  They aren't as racist against muslims, wogs or boongs, but seem less tolerant of any variety of Asian. The vast majory of the population? - if you can pick a Melbournian from a Sydneysider you're doing a lot better than me.

Beyond the architecture, there doesn't seem much difference by way of art: Melbournians have been known to look up towards Sydney's Ballet/Jazz/music/art scene in the same way we have of theirs.  The city's widespread 'graffiti' is fundamentally devoid of social comment, and that's what gets to me - the cultural facades really are just pretty layerings over fundamentally similar social detachment.  I don't lament the commissioned nature of the city's street art like my German friend does, but at least tags are a social comment.  I hate tags as much as the next person, but with so much 'artwork' going on I had hoped to find evidence of the kinds of voices which are realised in illegal graffiti - all I found was space-monsters.


The last of my time in Melbourne was spent mainly focussing on that time remaining - now that I'm back I need to work out what I'm doing here.

There will be a bit of 'grunt' work: motorbike maintenance, sorting out possesions, selling the van and the racebike.

I'll see what I can do as far as work is concerned - I might not be paying rent, but I can't live without a bit of cash.  I like working, don't forget, and it would be a sad to hang around for months without making a coffee.  It's really good, though, not to have any pressure to earn the cash to get by.  I'm even thinking about the kinds of places I can weisel my way into by offering myself for free (or for little). With a bit of luck I'll get myself into a medical trial which will pay quite handsomely - decreasing the financial importance of work, increasing my freedom to take advantage of the time I have, both in Sydney and for the remainder of the year.

It looks, at the moment, that I will be here about two months, possibly longer.  Longer if I get into a trial which keeps me back, or have work or something pressing to keep me around.  If not, two months will be long enough to complete my 'business' here at home.

If I can get work at the snow, that is next on the todo list.  But I will be a late arrival - I don't know how well that will go.  Either way, after that I think I will head north: to WA not via Adelaide, but via Queensland and the top end.  QLD was previously absent from my travel plans, but without feeling the need to pass through Victoria, it makes a lot of sense to head that way.  I'm still hoping to make it to Tassie next summer, but that's a long way down the track.

Have I mentioned I plan on doing all this by bike now?  Yes, I know I faffed around a lot buying the van, getting it ready (reregistering it...), but I am drawn to the inconveniences of taking just the bike, and frankly I'm happy to do away with much of the value of having a van.  The money, moreover, could be better directed: even if that merely means voluntary super contribution (150% upfront government contribution is a deal hard to beat!).

As always, I'm thinking about the future.  I have been becoming a little sceptical that the (grad) jobs I have been applying for will really work me towards what I want in the long-term.  Admittedly I don't have a firm grasp on what that is, but even my inclinations are plagued more than anything by the sense that I am not engaged in working out what I can do - now - to work towards that future.  'Year off > grad job > future' is no longer an acceptable excuse, and I am working on ways to move forward.  They often seem quite abstract - but then some of my most rewarding steps forward have been abstract work merely in concrete clothing.  (I just don't have anything concrete while I'm on holiday.)

If I have an epiphany you will be the first to know.

@JohnSBaxter (coming soon!)