Southern Crossings — Interlude: Melbourne in Six Movements

(Note: most photos within this post do not come from June — I just mishmashed them together to better illustrate this post. Now please stop asking why some people are in short sleeves.)

19-24 June
Tuesday
Majority of a week before I have to set off again. Go out to run a couple of errands, as well as just get out of the house a bit. I don’t really feel like going out again having just flung myself all over Sydney, but two weeks of holing up in my room, not stepping out of the house and going to bed at six in the morning for essay-writing reminded me just how important fresh air is. Also, I need groceries.

So I visit my favourite part of Melbourne: it might have a notorious reputation as a failed suburb, but to me the Docklands is quite possibly the closest thing Earth has to a paradise. I went there on only my second day in Australia and I immediately loved how different it was from the rest of the city: gleaming new buildings, wonderful architecture, beautiful sunsets, and so on. The more I went there — at different times during the day, unearthing hundreds of its secrets — the more I fell in love with the place, with its shiny façades and little quirks. Yes, it probably had serious problems underneath the surface (they don’t have a lot of street lamps there, so navigation after sunset is mostly by starlight) but it had a station, it had a Ferris wheel — and it had a library. Not your average crummy quiet library either, but a really well-designed one with a view of the Harbour and endless computer games inside it, and I’d sit inside, mindlessly tapping away on an essay or something of the sort, until they shut down for the day — which happened to be around sunset, and by God sunsets in the Docklands are one of the best you will EVER see in your entire life. It made me want to go out of the library. That’s how good it was.

After a couple hours of faffing about and being generally unproductive, I head to a Docklands supermarket — although “hypermarket” is probably more accurate as it’s the size of a small country — and buy a few things that I need for the week’s cooking. My culinary skills have sadly not improved despite five months of living alone: I can make three or four types of pasta, but that’s about it. Determined to change this once and for all I buy mushrooms for the first time — to go in my pasta, of course — and head for home.

Sitting on the platform waiting for the train to arrive, I look up and marvel for the thousandth time at the wonder that is Southern Cross station. Unless you are reading this in the 2030s (in which case wow, WordPress still exists), this is the first railway station you see when you arrive at Melbourne, and the good thing about that is that your love affair with Melbourne gets off to a VERY strong start. As you might expect from a station named after a constellation, everything here evokes the stars: the canopy is far above the station, so dark that it might well be the night sky; the dotted lights are blue and yellow; and so on. Just typical of the Australians to give you something to look at while you wait.

The ride home itself is quite the dull affair — I may find Australia wonderful, but there’s absolutely nothing special about the Hurstbridge line. I rarely say this, but what happens off the train is more exciting: the hostel I’m at is in the middle of a country park, so every excursion to the city entails a long and lonely trek down a badly-lit road in the middle of nowhere. I’ve taken to singing and listening to songs to alleviate the boredom, though that doesn’t always turn out well: I once did a dance in the hostel carpark to “Another Day of Sun” and then was swiftly hailed by two people who had seen everything. Hasn’t stopped me air-drumming all the time though.

Wednesday
Did nothing of note but stay indoors and read. Finish “Picnic at Hanging Rock” — a brilliant, haunting read that puts my visit there during Easter into much greater context — and pick up Erskine Childers’ “The Riddle of the Sands”, a spy thriller set during the pre-WWI period. Much as I’d like to go on about books for the next five hundred words, though, this is supposed to be a travel journal, so instead I shall take you round my room. All twelve square feet of it.

My room’s on the ground floor, facing a veranda which in turn spills onto a small courtyard. This place used to be an infectious disease hospital specializing in HIV patients, and down in the garden’s nether reaches is a place charmingly named the “AIDS Memorial Garden”. On a sunny day the courtyard’s extremely pleasant, but as Melbourne famously experiences four seasons in a day it doesn’t last long. Anyway, it’s much too cold to be outside these days, so these days I mostly watch the skies from the comfort of my own room. (Much to my embarrassment, I spent two months with only the shades drawn, and it wasn’t until April that my friends gently reminded me that they could see my every move from outside. I count this as the most embarrassing moment I ever experienced in Australia.)

Actually, when I say “comfort”, there’s not much to go on. The heating these days is not exactly great: I’ve worked out how to turn on the aircon that sits opposite my fold-down bed, but I’ve never found out how to make it spew hot air. Holding the window open is not an option — I’ve already got enough on my plate without also having to worry about snakes and spiders — so basically I spend most of my time huddled in my blankets, which is more comfy anyway. On either side of where my head lies I have a table, but save for an ever growing pile of receipts I’ve yet to put anything useful on them, even after four months.

The air-con sits above the door to the bathroom, which is very convenient for a writer looking for a segue into such a place. For some reason, the shower door never knows how to close completely, so I always shower with one foot on the metal edge. You know, just in case somebody pulls a Janet Leigh on me. To calm my nerves and also my general whimsy I’ve taken to singing in the shower, although given the thin walls I probably shouldn’t do that — Phoebe next door has told me just how loudly my “Grease” renditions are.

Oh, and my housemates: as you might expect from a person who’s both cripplingly shy by himself and Asperger’s to boot, I haven’t done very well in making friends in Australia. A couple of them — Jack, Mary, Phoebe, Lara — I meet occasionally in the kitchen. Even in a land like Australia, where everybody goes out of their way to make you feel comfortable, they’re some of the sweetest people I know. They spend a lot of time together, and apparently hang on in each other’s rooms a lot, their camaraderie spilling over every time I see them. I have problems with socializing, but I do make an effort to see them every now and then — an event heralded by the sound of my door opening, the crack ringing like a thunderclap. (If any of my five neighbours are reading this, please know that I am terribly sorry about the noises I made.)

Thursday
Summer solstice back in the Northern Hemisphere, and yet I’m not getting to enjoy it because I’m on the wrong side of the Earth. The girls and I aren’t taking this lying down, though, so we’ve arranged to have dinner in the city: specifically, Greek on Lonsdale. Melbourne has a huge Greek diaspora, and apparently quite a few of them congregate on Lonsdale Street, just off the Melbourne Central shopping centre. Since none of us have really tried Greek here before, we gather on this bleak midwinter night to do something about it.

Amy, bless her cotton socks, has brought in a friend called Valerie. Easily the tallest of the girls, Valerie appears to be Amy’s neighbour from her own hostel, just a stone’s throw away from our restaurant, and I have no idea how long they’ve known each other — Amy’s ability to strike up a conversation with just about anybody obscures everything. A man my age called King has also turned up: he’s a much older acquaintance, though aside from a couple of meet-ups earlier this year we’ve seen much less of him. He turns up, says little, and disappears when the rest of us go to find something to do.

The food, as you can probably see from the picture at the top, mainly consists of various cuts of lamb combined with an infinite assortment of dips. I particularly like the tzatziki, a yoghurt and cucumber dip that is also much too spicy for everyone else. But the star dish has to be the moussaka: a layering of aubergines with mash, two of my favourite foodstuffs married together. The mush of the aubergines blends perfectly with the mush of the potatoes, and the ground pork just lifts it to another level. Absolutely fabulous.

Over servings of lamb chops, we get talking about our experiences of Melbourne. Valerie’s still only one-eighth into a four-year residency here, while the rest of us only have a few more weeks to live (in Melbourne). Where’ve we all been then? Puffing Billy, the Shrine of Remembrance, Brighton Beach… I casually bring up the Docklands — “I know it’s probably one of the first things you visit, but have you been there at night?

Half an hour later, we’re trekking down the Yarra, on a whistle-stop tour of the bridges spanning the river right down from Federation Square. First up is the Sandridge Bridge, until twenty years ago the bridge that carried trains over the river and all the way down to St Kilda and Port Melbourne (both seaside, both two of my favourite places in Melbs). A celebration’s happening at the foot of its south side: a magic show, filled with banter and sleights-of-hand that due to the height of Australians we don’t really get to see. Stride past the Casino and head past Seafarer’s Bridge, easily one of the more impressive ones that cross the Yarra, then there’s a short stop at South Wharf for a toilet break. (Walking, as it turns out, has intimate ties with that part of the body.)

I peer into the bar on the riverbank: Denmark vs. Australia is playing on the TV, but the bar’s only got a dozen clients in and few of them seem invested in the football match, even one concerning their own football team. It’s eerily quiet here, the lights and clamour of upstream a distant memory — but then we continue walking, duck under a highway bridge, and suddenly find ourselves in a dazzle of bright white light.

This perfect piece of architecture is the Webb Bridge. It’s one of Melbourne’s newer crossings, though its heritage dates back to the 19th century when freight trains from Southern Cross used it to cross the Yarra and reach the docks next door. When that closed, the city redesigned this into what is simply the best pedestrian bridge in the world. The connecting ramp looks like the skeleton of a whale, all uneven and bleached, a stark contrast against the pitch-black sky. There are bits sticking out, bits sticking to each other across the framework, and it curves unnaturally in a wide loop away from itself before striding across the river — in other words, it’s a beautiful salute to weirdness and making do in architecture. I know I’ve just gushed over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but this is better. Infinite times better. In fact, I’ll just go ahead and say that this place, the Webb Bridge, IS my favourite place on Earth. You may very well protest. But wait till you’ve tried this place on a pitch-black night.

We dive straight into the photo session: individual snaps and group snaps, climbing over each other to get the perfect photo. There’s nobody here at this time of night, so we have the whole bridge to ourselves and there’s a lot of lying on the ground (mostly from me). Valerie proves especially photogenic and pose-savvy, but Betsy and Amy are also really good at finding wonderful angles. I’m trying to take a photo on the steps when a cyclist comes whizzing by and nearly runs me over. Then again, if my last vision was of this place, I’d probably die happy.

Friday
Dear Chamois,

I’ve just read over your howl of pain that you wrote, almost two years ago. My memories of that particular day are hazy: they say the human mind tends to filter away unhappy past events and leave you with only the golden bits. But that feeling of abject terror, when you threw all caution to the winds and cut yourself open with 1600 words: I still remember that. No way am I forgetting the worst moment of my stay in Australia.

I still have no idea what brought on that episode: was it the fact that there were only ten days left in your Australian journey? Was it fatigue from running around Australia, a lack of sleep, a recognition that you didn’t really like your life all that much? All of those weren’t new to you — hadn’t left you all the time you were in Melbourne — and yet it was only this day when you found yourself paralysed with fear and anguish, and desperate enough to air all your dirty laundry online. If an autistic gets round to wearing his heart on his sleeve, then he’s in a lot of pain indeed. (Did you even have lunch that day, or were you in such a state that you nourished yourself with tears instead?)

There are bits which upon rereading I found hilariously immature: you decried your Asperger’s for one thing, which is fun; and you also didn’t like the fact that you were relying too much on your safety nets. At one point you called your time in Australia a “disaster”, which come on, boy. Know how blessed you are. But I still feel like that that wasn’t just a twenty-year-old mimicking a quarter-life crisis: you struck at things that ran deep within you, and then as now you still have lots of things to cry about. Your loneliness and alienation still remains a problem, and as for the self-discipline you so badly crave, well it hasn’t gotten any better over the past couple of years. (And that crush you had on your friend… let’s just say that it was going to get much, much worse in the latter half of 2018.)

On a good day like this, I can feel optimistic. I know that you kind of wrote your way out of that a couple of weeks later, when you were reflecting to Jochebed about things — the way to look is ahead, never backward, all that crap which you’ve heard and parroted back to yourself a thousand times. You know that there’s some sort of truth within them: let it go, look forward, take yourself less seriously. You can do this, and to be fair to yourself you HAVE done this to various extents since you came back. You’re a functioning human being, you’ve done well despite everything. To be honest, there’s little you should be worrying about.

And yet the temptation to be nostalgic, to remind yourself of a time when you were brave and happy and carefree is still there. The shadows of what you think you’re capable of lie heavy on the horizon, and as they like to tell everyone these days, there is a part of you that messes you up, that tells you you can’t do anything worthy. So I guess the question is: after the tantrum, what still remains? Perhaps the answer lies in the raison d’etre of this entire travel journal: learning to live with a past with its makeup on, to love your imperfections, and to recreate that magic of travel once more. Or not. No pressure, seriously.

Best of luck with the road ahead. Try to make it fun.

Best wishes,
Chamois

Saturday
Back in non-self-pitying-monologue land, and after all that detached screaming at the world it’s only natural to follow it up with church today. I’ve been to quite a few churches during my time here in Melbourne — I’ve even sat in on Easter Sunday service in St. Patrick’s Cathedral with a friend — but of all the churches I’ve been to, the one I’m in now is emphatically the homeliest and the one that I feel helps my faith most. Not only are most of the people here also part of the Cantonese Christian Fellowship in UniMelb, but there are also a couple of personal acquaintances who, by an extraordinary stroke of coincidence, are also churchgoers here.

There is a downside to all this comfort: I’m getting into the habit of being late for church every time. Service begins 18:30, but because I always find excuses for leaving the hostel late I miss vital connections, and today is no exception: as the clock strikes half past, I’m still running down Lonsdale Street. By the time I arrive at church they’re well into the hymns — and while I’m grateful for the fact that my entry is mostly unnoticed by my enraptured fellow Christians, there’s just the teensiest bit of conscience, chiding from within.

The pastor delivering sermon today is a young man who energetically describes to us the virtues described in one of Paul’s epistles. Looking at the programme — they have a box marked “coming soon”, as if they were a movie theatre but advertising sermons instead of movies — I see with some surprise that my friend Sammi, who I’d always thought of as being a physiotherapist, is giving a sermon in a couple of weeks’ time. What dedication must one have to become a pastor as well, I wonder?

Service over, I meet up with my friends amongst a sea of their peers. It’s funny, but I didn’t realize just how many people my age were here: the room easily holds more than a hundred, and yet none of them look like they could be a day over thirty-five. There is Thomas, the racecar enthusiast who’s more than once made me scream with his hairpin turns; there is Zoe, the cheeky physiotherapist who has a big heart and even bigger appetite; there is Phoebe, whose brash and loud remarks hides a very caring heart, and so on. These are all people who’ve long since made Melbourne a second version of their hometown: they’ve settled here for the long run, yet they’ve made no attempt to make themselves Australians — they still have Asian food for dinner, talk Cantonese all the time and spend loads of time in Chinatown and Chinese communities. It’s very surreal, but it also means that there’s yet another pocket of Cantonese speakers floating around Melbourne. To a person from Hong Kong like me, this can only be reassuring.

The upside of hanging out with so many compatriots is that, every Saturday, I escape the curse of having to eat dinner in a cold hostel kitchen. My friend Timmy — the said personal acquaintance — drives me and a couple of friends to a Malay store out in Newmarket. As I’m sitting shotgun Timmy has the bright idea of letting me be DJ, and do I even have to tell you what my first choice is? There is an awkward silence while the Beatles blare out of the speakers. On balance, probably shouldn’t have started with “Free as a Bird”.

Sunday
Met up with the gang from church again, but this time our purpose is far from evangelical: we’re meeting up for a room escape game, something which I’ve heard of a lot but never had the chance to try out. As it turns out, this literally life-changing facility is just a couple of steps from Fairfield railway station — and happily for me, just a couple of stops down my local railway line.

While I wait for them in the station carpark, I take a long, hard look at a dog that towers into the sky over Fairfield station. No, it’s not a scientific experiment gone wrong: this is “FIDO” (short for “Fairfield Industrial Dog Object”), a wooden sculpture that has stood guard here for almost two decades. Although the council insists that FIDO is an interactive sculpture and can be activated “in fascinating and unpredictable ways”, the only thing that fascinates me about it is how the hell they persuaded the good people of Fairfield to splash fifty THOUSAND dollars on this log. It’s amusing, yes, but surely a $50,000-dog can do something else than just stand there?

My reverie is disrupted by the arrival of my friends, stumbling out of the car and looking unfamiliarly at their surroundings. The mystery of how my friends from church know this place, so far from their homes in the CBD, is solved almost as soon as we head into the reception area: a Cantonese-speaking man rises from the table, and greets Timmy and the others like they were old friends. We are told that because the first of the three-room sequence is currently occupied, we’re going to do Room 2 first. This seems like a extremely strange way of experiencing a story, but I decide to keep my mouth shut.

And anyway, the odd order does nothing to take away my enjoyment of this place. I’m not going to spoil the story for you, but it’s pretty standard fare: mad scientist finds deadly secret, disappears from his own room, yada yada yada. The story was never the important thing: it’s the pleasure of simply working out the clues that gets me excited. There’s so many surprises along the way: one clue even asks us to look outside the window and work out the answer from our view of Fairfield station, which results in an extremely silly yet head-smackingly great answer. I’ve played loads of these online, but the real version is so much more fun.

“Do you want dinner?” Timmy asks when we emerge back into the darkness. Unfortunately I’m leaving for Queensland tomorrow and yet I still haven’t packed, so I turn them down and head back to my place for yet another plate of pasta. I’ve had it for dinner almost four months straight and yet I still haven’t moved on to other foodstuffs — my friend Dennis would be proud. After dinner I get down to the business of packing, only to discover there isn’t much to pack: after stuffing a couple of shirts, my laptop and “The Riddle of the Sands” into my duffel I find myself at a loss for other “essentials”. Take out pen and paper, and start writing another letter instead. In memory of the pasta that bravely ventured into my stomach this evening, I decide to address it to Dennis. Because of course he’d want to learn all about my pasta dinners.

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