Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A tale of two cities and a case of the hiccups

If I were my older brother I’d have carefully crafted dystopic descriptions of Australia’s two premier cities, Melbourne and Sydney. Fortunately no aspirations of literary greatness have ever been a part of my ‘Brett Plan,’ so I have the luxury of using adjectives like ‘cool’ and ‘neat’ to vaguely describe the aesthetic beauty of each metropolis (and these words apply to both as I’m sure you were wondering).

Melbourne was the first of the two cities visited and the Greenhouse Backpacker, a cheap but friendly hostel, was home for ‘Brenda’ and me for three nights. As far as we could tell we were the only Americans, though everybody seemed to speak English among other languages, regardless of nationality. The city is probably the most tourist-friendly I have ever visited (for English-speaking tourists that is). There’s a free tram (that resembles a San Francisco street car) that makes a 12-block by 8-block rectangular loop around the heart of the city and plays a recording that describes nearby sights and landmarks as it goes. There’s also a separate free tourist bus that runs with the same concept only less frequently and takes a more circuitous route to cover different ground. Art galleries are free and we happened to be there during the Melbourne Arts Festival, a month-long string of high culture showings, performances, classy events and public displays. Quite a bit of it was free including the National Gallery of Victoria, and we were quick to take advantage. Melbourne also seems to have an abundance of public green space. They claim their Royal Botanical Gardens is one of the finest in world, though I was just happy to see some (to me) exotic ducks.

I was struck by the city’s newness. Every building so avant garde looked as if it were just unveiled last week, with an abundance of cranes ushering in the next cohort of angular steel and glass constructs. It makes American Cities (at least the east coast ones I’m familiar with) seem alarmingly old and dirty. And like the rest of Victoria, it seemed to contain well short the resident or tourist population it was designed to support. Sidewalks were rarely crowed and nearly all of the city’s approximately twenty-four-thousand restaurants were completely empty. ‘Brenda’ bemoaned the lack homeless people or a visible disenfranchised minority, presumably because when she moves to Melbourne she’ll have trouble finding clients as a public defender. Actually she got over Melbourne pretty quickly. Across Australia she has announced each new breathtaking vista as where she wants to be proposed to and each splendid looking apartment as the one for her to buy. But after a couple days in this city too modern, devoid of anything rooted in tradition or made of wood and with a relative emotional robot as her only companion, the romance had run its course.

In a fit of brilliance I managed to confuse train times and we arrived at Southern Cross Station with all our luggage 20 minutes after ours had departed. Continuing my streak, I blearily stumbled off our bus we rode as a substitute into Sydney the next day without my laptop (!spoiler alert! I’m typing on it right now). Fortunately we had my second “number one Aussie friend,” at the station to pick us up, show us around, lend us his iPhone so we could attempt to untangle all my blunders, and put us up for what we thought would be a night or two. ‘Hank’ was my predecessor at the resort ‘Brenda’ and I had just worked at together over the summer and lives in one Sydney’s prime suburbs, Manly with his girlfriend whom he had met at the same said resort. I’ll never go to India (Good luck out there ‘Brenda!’). I took the last train to Bombay and spent the better part of the next 48 hours ready to give birth to an acid-spitting alien on Hank’s living room floor. So, our stay with ‘Hank’ and ‘Lois’ was unnaturally prolonged, but I really couldn’t have picked a better infirmary.

As for Sydney, it’s like all of California combined into one metropolitan area, maybe less Hollywood, LA slums, and any other parts of California of which I am ignorant and accordingly of their dissimilarity to said City. The beauty of the harbor (I bet they spell it harbour here) is stunning—cliffs, trees, fleets of sailboats, oh yeah and then there’s the bridge and that opera house thing. The ferry ride into the city (Hank sometimes uses it to commute to work) should be a tourist attraction of its own, what costing only 6 dollars of monopoly money (you should see the currency here, I often catch myself asking for two houses on Marvin Gardens instead of a sandwich). The tour boat industry must be in dire straits. Something like seven of the ten best beaches in the world lie within city limits. This is really disappointing as Australia has all ten of the top ten most poisonous snakes.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find that many Sydneysiders never leave home. Here you’ve got the country’s biggest city along with all the beauty and recreation you could ever need right at your feet. And if you really want to get away from the crowds you can catch a train a couple hours inland to explore the Blue Mountains, as ‘Brenda’ and I are doing tomorrow.

No pictures this time around. Just go to and type in “Sydney opera house.”

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