Random Notes from Melbourne, Australia
[Dear Readers, I apologize for a few weeks without posts; we’ve been super busy doing a little teaching tour in Australia and New Zealand, two areas which we love and are excited about visiting, as this week’s post will show. Photos by Kate Hedin.]
“That’s not a knife…this is a knife.”
Ever since I could first say these words in a ten-year-old’s bad Australian accent, I’ve wanted to visit Down Under. However, don’t be fooled. The Australia where people actually live is nothing like Crocodile Dundee implies, where the land is rugged, the men have teeth in their hats, and the women aren’t afraid to get into bar fights.
Far from it. Australia is cold, rainy, cultured, and is full of rolling, lush vallies. At least, if you’re in Melbourne in the winter it is. It’s the kind of place that makes you realize why the English felt at home there.
The cold wouldn’t be that cold, except for the fact that no one has heating, cause they don’t need it the other eleven months of the year. So everywhere is cold. When you enter the house, when you get out of the shower, when you slide into bed.
It’s particularly strange when your own hometown, Washington DC, is caught in a sweaty summer heat wave. Few things hit a jet lagged American more oddly than when it’s July and you hear on the radio, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
Also, the general non-crocodile-hunterness of Melbourne makes you forget that you are still walking around the kind of place where, nature documentaries imply, even the sheep could secretly crawl inside your pajamas at night and kill you.
Though we’ve taught in Australia before, it was mainly in Sydney. This time, we also taught in Melbourne, a city reached by roughly ten hours of driving south. (Both cities are on the Southeast Coast.)
Now, Australia is huge. Not only is it huge, there’s not much in it. This is best understood by merely looking at a map and seeing that in Australia, deserts are most often bordered by other deserts. One statistic I read said 80% of Australians live within a 30 minute drive of the coast. Not only that, there are only so many people in Australia to begin with — 22 million people inhabit a land roughly the size of the United States, though the USA has roughly 310,000,000 people in it. Basically, if you are two of the only several cities in the entire half of the globe that share your culture, you’d think you’d be a little more friendly to each other.
However, mention Sydney to an average Melbourne person, or vice versa, and you’d be surprised at the jokes you’ll hear. Many of these center around the imagine of Melbourne being the bookish librarian brunette and Sydney being the dumb blonde who got all the looks. For instance, there’s this one:
“Do you have any children?”
“Yeah, two living, and one in Melbourne.”
Now, I would argue swing scenes as a whole tend to be full of kinder, more conscious people than average, and there was certainly a lot of goodwill between the Sydney and Melbourne swing scenes, however we still heard a few stabs aimed at the cities as a whole.
Sydney, you see, was one of the cities started by convicts, so Melbourne dwellers definately have fun with that one. Sydney people retaliate that their weather and beaches are much nicer, and, by the way, they also have the opera house and bridge. Melbourne replies that cities made of sun and beaches are great at breeding self-centered non-intelligent people, claiming Miami and Jersey Shore as proof. Sydney then mentions Melbourne should possibly try wearing something other than a black turtleneck sometime.
You get the idea.
In case you were going to base your future travel plans on this writing (which I don’t necessarily recommend), I may safely say, as a person who has only got to know members of the swing scene rather than “normal” citizens (these days, I know of very few swing dancers who claim to be normal), both places were great—and both the cities themselves were fascinating and enjoyable to walk through.
While in Melbourne, we stopped by the Melbourne Museum, mostly to fulfill my need to see deadly animals incredibly lifelike but actually full of sand. (Though, I heard they mainly fill them with styrofoam balls or something like that.)
While there, we went into their infamous bug exhibit, where, as I hope the picture shows, you can clearly see a bug the size of an unmanly freak out.
This particular bug was a beetle, which are considered by some statistics to be the most successful animal in the history of Earth: there are more species of them than anything else, accounting for 25% of the animal species in the world.
Melbourne’s central mall was built over the foundation of a shot factory (which they were not allowed to tear down when they built the mall, so they just built the mall around it.) It’s an old brick building with a very tall tower. Claudia Funder, our travel guide (and one exceptionally good event organizer) explained that a drip of molten led would be dropped from the top of the tower, and as it fell, it would cool into the perfectly round shape as it fell and hit a tub of water at the bottom.
Though, I feel I should note, she often would answer our random tourist questions by saying “Well, you won’t know anyway so I’ll just make it up.”*
Just an hour outside of Melbourne is what Aussies generally call “The Bush.” And in the summer, especially in droughts, the bush is known to catch on fire. These bush firs are often incredibly devastating.
It doesn’t help that eucalyptus trees are full of oil—setting entire acres off far more quickly than a normal landscape fire. Often times fires will burn land the size of small European countries, but because it’s Australia, most Americans don’t hear about these fires.
The area of the bush we visited had been hit by a particularly bad fire two years ago. As the photo at the top of this article shows, entire forests of black-burned trees are just now recovering. The eucalyptus trees there are shedding their skin. It’s surreal, and eerily beautiful, to see a forest of coal-black trees with green leaves. It’s just plain eerie, however, to see an entire town in temporary housing two years after the fire — temporary housing is metallic, it’s bland, and it’s no one’s fault that it’s tacky. And it doesn’t feel like a community, or a home. Two years after the residents of Maryville, Australia, held up in a pub while the bush fire ate away every bit of their material lives, most of their town was still in temporary housing. Though, with things around like bush fires, what isn’t temporary?
“On another note,” Claudia told us, “life always finds a way. Certain plants and trees have seeds that only open in bush fires. Strange, isn’t it?” She said it with the slight smile Aussies often have when discussing the things they find interesting or important.
And that’s a great response to Australia over all. Strange, but with a smile.
* — The method of shot making was supposedly a tightly held secret for a long time, which made me imagine at some point in history a random guy running into the shot maker as he left the building.
“Hey, you’re the shotmaker, aren’t you?”
“So, I’ve always wondered. What’s the big tower for?” They both look up.