Winter how it used to be

I’ve been walking to and from work for the last 6 months. I enjoy it. It’s a good way to ease into the day and I get some exercise on top of it. In the last couple of weeks I’ve begun to reconsider this. In the last few days particularly Melbourne has been at its most frigid. Every morning I get up to find it has been raining overnight. There are puddles in my driveway, the leaves drip with water and more often than not the sky is clouded over. If I’m unlucky a few drops will fall for nuisance value as I walk into work. On the days that it is fine the temperature plummets. While the sky is a pretty blue the cold stings at the exposed skin of my cheeks. I’ve been wearing woollen gloves and thrusting my hands deep into the pockets of my coat. Often lately it has been windy also, icy blasts that drive the wind chill factor up. By the time I get into work I’m in a state of semi-frost. 

In a way it’s good. The rain is certainly welcome, and even the weather in general has a nostalgic aspect to it. It reminds me of the winter weather we had when I was growing up, at least how I remember it anyway. For the first time in years we seem to have an old fashioned winter – genuinely cold with regular rain and occasional drizzly days like Melbourne was once famous for. 

I’ll keep walking. It’s not snowing yet and for all my complaints I don’t expect it to get that cold (though I look forward to the skiing this season). End of the day it’s good exercise and takes me somewhere different for a while, neither work nor home but somewhere in between, literally.
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Love the place you live

In town the other night I walked up Collins Street up towards the Paris end. It was a little after 6, it had become dark and the after-work crowd were window shopping or heading off for a drink or, most commonly, on their way home.

I walked up the slight rise past the Athenaeum theatre, past the antiquarian bookshop that’s been there as long as I can remember, and up to the corner where the old Scotch Church stood. Across the road, the fancy boutiques glittered, Versace, Tiffany and Louis Vuitton. The traffic went by dimly, the trams coming in or going from the city stopped and started, brightly lit and full of passengers, and the streetlights glowing yellow in the darkness filtered their light through the leaves of the elegant trees lining the street.

I missed this I thought.  If you must work then it really should be in the CBD, wherever you live: that’s where the action is. I missed the comings and goings, the thriving activity of people doing their thing amid the multitude of available choices. So much was familiar that I thought the city, Melbourne, has become imprinted in me. I know it so well, not just the streets and laneways and the arcades that make up so much of the city’s charm, nor the bars and restaurants and the best cafes for coffee, though they too seemed written into my sub-conscious, more than anything it was the feeling I would experience, I thought, even with my eyes closed. It is an aura of grace and style and elegance comingled with a certain intellectual hauteur. It is both easy and laid back and discerning.

Like most Melburnians, I love my town. It regularly gets voted the most liveable city in the world, or close to it. True enough I’m sure, but a truer indicator I would guess is that it would be one of the city’s most loved by the people who live within her. It is our own and we love her.

Later I had dinner in a cosy restaurant in Flinders Lane. It was frigidly cold out, and we stopped before a series of restaurants looking to choose one. The restaurant we chose had a fire burning in the grate and a warm, homely feel to it. I sipped my red wine and looked around, everything familiar to me after years of living this same life but in different incarnations. Our conversation touched upon that: look at the men drinking at the bar? They look like boys. I looked and sure enough, the men she spoke of dressed in fine suits had the clear skin and innocent eyes of boys. I was one of them once I thought, and commented to that effect to our mutual amusement. I’ve journeyed through life since in this town and away from it, returning always as it changes and remains the same, much as I have done. We have matured together.

We left and it was late. Look she said, it really does look like Paris.

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What it means to be a Melburnian

Melbourne has its own style, everyone knows it, even those who’d rather not admit to it. As a city we know IMG_0961 we’ve got it good when it comes to food and fashion, bars, coffee, the arts, and not to mention sport. Though it’s organic roots sit in the diversity of lifestyles there is much in it that ultimately becomes self referential. We are known for something that we look to live up to. I've little doubt that there is no other citizen in Australia that has as much civic pride or sheer affection for their home town as a Melburnian does. We know we’re stylish, and so we strive to be stylish and ever more so.

In some sense that’s one of the things that sets Melbourne apart from many of the other Australian cities. Style not only matters, it is a distinct and central part of the cities consciousness and identity.

So what is Melbourne style? I was given cause to wonder this a few days ago on a visit to the CBD. I’d made a day of it managing my appointments and catching up with the odds and sods of my city life. About mid-afternoon I was on my way to have coffee with one of my ex-IT guys when I stopped at the pedestrian lights at Collins Street. In that mindless state you have while waiting for something to change from red to green I took in the guy standing beside me.

He was a stripling really, one of those pale and weedy types of no particular physical distinction. He had dark hair cut into a style Robert Smith might have looked upon with approval, reflective, no doubt, of his personality. It was different, but not objectionably so. What really took my attention was his attire.

It was a pleasant day of about 23 degrees. It wasn’t hot, but it certainly wasn’t cold. I was in shirt sleeves, but this guy was dressed all in Melbourne black with a woollen coat tightly buttoned and bound around his narrow body. He had oversized cans on his ears as he cruised through the city to his own particular soundtrack. My first thoughts were that he must be bloody hot. Then, as the lights changed and he raced ahead of me, I reflected that certain sacrifices are willingly made occasionally on the altar of fashion – discomfort is small cheese really.

I went my way and he went his, but I was left pondering. I wondered why I so rarely saw pale and weedy types in the summer. It’s true. You see plenty of hale and hearty types spreading out in beer gardens or sitting down to indulgent breakfasts or improving their tan in shorts and t out and about. The sun, for most, is the occasion to celebrate wherever you are in Australia, including Melbourne.

It’s in the summer that Melbourne style is at its dimmest, if only because it has the least scope. There are only so many ways you can pull on a pair of shorts, and flip flops are only thongs no matter how you dress them up. That might explain why the pale and weedy type is invisible in the sunny months. It’s my guess that they have pretty much the same relationship to the sun as Count Dracula does. I couldn’t imagine one in a pair of shorts, thongs and a pastel polo shirt. Summer is the season they hibernate, huddling inside their home, the blinds closed and watching the calendar keenly waiting for daylight savings to end.

It gets damn hot in Melbourne through the summer, but Melbourne really is a winter city. I wonder if that’s the European influence. The city itself, the style and a lot of the attitude is European, as are the passions and the intellectual discourse. I'm gilding the lily perhaps as there are no shortage of bogans either, but in general and in the CBD and inner suburbs that's the life. In winter the Melbourne look really comes to the fore, woollen coats, dark colours, long boots, layers…

I can remember a few years ago when I was living in Brisbane I returned to Melbourne for a conference. I befriended a guy from Adelaide and showed him around. He had a great time of it as we went to one obscurely located bar after another. That was Melbourne he said, it’s all down laneways and in arcades and hidden in the nooks and crannies only the locals know. He went on, commenting on the things that I had always taken for granted, most particularly the Melburnians propensity for black.

We ended up at a bar near the Arts Centre. We sat there sipping on a wine. At the next table were a table of very stylishly attired Melbourne women. I saw them as I had never seen them before. They had a glamour that I had forgotten living in Brisbane. They had an individuality and self-assurance that was very attractive. They were women in the best and most alluring sense of the word. Listening in they were discussing a show they had all just seen and I thought then that this is my town too, the place I belong.

Melbourne style, we’re all a part of it. 

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Pleasant sojourns

It’s another sunny day in Melbourne, the sky blue, the wind gusting. I’m not long returned from my Sunday morning brunch. This week it was at an Italian cafe opened while I was away in Darwin. Most of the various cafes and restaurants in the area are knockabout places, warm and eclectic and fashionably scruffy. It sits well with the general vibe on this side of town.

This joint is a bit different, it’s clear that the new owners are passionate people who have gone to a lot of trouble to realise a particular vision. And so I sat there in the prettily arrayed space and looked at the menu, creatively put together – baked eggs with cacciatore sausage, omelette with sage and parmesan, and so on. Chilled out mood music played in the background, a combination of Bossa Nova and jazz, pleasant but unobtrusive. Upon making my order the waiter returned and placed on the table a little ceramic container for ground pepper and salt flakes imported from Italy. The waiter was a little man who appeared very certain of his stuff, calm and unruffled and polite – he reminded me in some way of Giovanni Ribisi. At the other tables there were the suburbs young families, couples in their thirties with their young children, reading the Sunday paper and tending to their children. It was good.

I had coffee and then eggs and toast with mushrooms. Every time I come out for brunch I ask myself if I am in a sweet or a savoury mood. More often than not it is savoury, but every now and then I indulge in pancakes or French toast. More often than not I get the full spread, not even thinking about cost. This is all about indulgence so besides the main feature I’ll order the roasted tomatoes and the mushrooms, a hash brown or two, the freshly squeezed OJ to go with the latte, and so on. My eyes scour the menu, as if searching for something new to try, some further excuse to load up and indulge. And so the odd smoothie gets a guernsey, or, like today, I might finish up with
a pot of tea.

I was in no hurry to leave this morning. It was comfortable, I was lazy. Every so often Giovanni would come and check on me, was the meal good, was there anything further he could get me? I would respond in kind, politely, yes, it was fine, yes, maybe some tea. Do you have English Breakfast? Yes, of course. We were like two old fashioned gentlemen exchanging well mannered views, nothing was too difficult, nothing was of any trouble.

Between eating and drinking and peering around at my fellow diners I pored over the Lonely Planet guide to Morocco I had bought with me. I read making little notes in the margins, ticking things to do or places to stay, slowly formulating a very loose itinerary in my mind. I booked my flights on Thursday. I was surprised at how inexpensive they ended up being – under two grand. I fly with Qantas to Singapore on October 15. From there I catch connecting flights on Qatar airlines to Doha and then Cairo. I spend about 20 days in Egypt and Jordan on a tour, very loose-limbed and reasonably adventurous – the only sort of tour I’ll do. I then travel to Morocco, where I’ll hump my pack solo, checking out Casablanca and Marrakesh and towns in between, and hopefully some of the Rif valley as well. I don’t intend to push it too hard – a week lazing in Marrakesh and being the leisurely tourist sounds good. All the same, I don’t have as much time there as I would like – about 19 days.  I have work to get back to at some point, and the wedding of my favourite cousin to attend. So I make my way back to Cairo where I fly out on November 23. Sounds good, can’t wait.

It was a pleasant sojourn in the cafe. I sipped my tea and closed my book, then got up to pay the bill and leave. Have a nice day said Giovanni, thanks, I said, you too.

On the town

It must be near Christmas because it’s Monday morning and I feel stuffed – the over-festivities have begun.

For me it started on Thursday night. For the first time in months I ventured into the CBD for a long desired bar-crawl. Though I was weary and spluttering with a cold I can’t shake, I looked forward to getting back into the environment I knew so well, and had had missed so much.

Arranged to meet Whisky at Salon Rouge, a little bar beneath street level in Flinders Lane. Unfortunately it had evidently changed hands recently and was now something called the Hidden Bar, or something like that, jarring overloud dance music played by an enthusiastic DJ to a crowd of about four slow-moving people huddled in the corner. As Salon Rouge the bar had style, but the style had gone with the new paint job. What was left was barren and uninteresting. It can remain hidden for all I care.

From there we walked up Flinders Lane and stopped at a groovy looking bar called Journal or Folio or something else that the subsequent drinks have left me unsure of. What was interesting about it were the rows of books and journals that gave the bar a warm and comfortable feel. We sat at one of the low tables and had a glass of wine before the joint closed.

It was time for something to eat, as much to act as a sponge to sop up the booze as for any nutritional value. Just as well really, because we each had a kebab from Ali Baba’s, sitting there with the late night crowd, wandering Japanese tourists, lost souls and the odd character catching a bite to eat on their way home from work.

Whisky had read about some newish bar off Little Bourke street and so that was our next stop.

At the entrance of Caledonian Lane as we turned into it were two attractive women locked in a tender pash. That’s a sight that ten years ago you’d have struggled to find anywhere – these days though people are so much more open, and I think with that openness many people feel so much freer to experiment. I doubt the girls were out and out lesbians, but more likely women with an open mind on sexuality and a willingness to follow where their instincts lead. Good on ‘em.

St Jerome’s was the name of the bar, and a great bar it was. We sat in the small front room of the bar at a low, makeshift table and on rickety bench seats. It was crowded all around us with what looked like uni students in their early twenties, coming and going in a crush of bodies. Over the bar an old Thorn TV 34cm flickered with a barely visible picture. Posters of old footy teams were on the walls, and the music playing was old Doobie Brothers and music that reminded me of former times. The floor was concrete painted red but fading fast with the passage of feet across its surface. The whole atmosphere was of grungy unconcern. Everyone there seemed happy, laughing and talking loudly, clutching beers and bumping into people they hadn’t seen for a while. They all seemed so healthy, and in many instances, so beautiful.

After sitting for a beer we stood up and walked through the door to the next room where we had watched people pour into and out of in thick torrents. The next room was actually out of doors. A small deck, like a back veranda, stepped down to a L shaped space. There were small round tables around which people sat and many others stood in groups with their drinks, some of them drinking directly from VB long-necks. There was the sickly sweet smell of weed in the air, and loud driving music somehow reminiscent of the early seventies emanating from the large speakers placed around the space. In the toe of the L was a DJ, spinning the discs while in a fugue it seemed, deeply absorbed in the music. The music was very good though none of it was familiar, a slightly psychedelic feel driven along by a heavy bass line. It was contemporary I think, but influenced by earlier bands and eras, heavy but somehow rhythmic. At the top of the L a crowd gathered around a single doorway leading inside to the unisex toilets, perfectly in keeping with the vibe of the place. Overall it had a winning air of bohemian grunge – my era, I think.

It was my kind of joint, somewhere I’ll go again a Friday night or maybe a Sunday afternoon.

From there we went to somewhere just about the opposite extreme – an upmarket, elegant wine bar. We sat at the bar in the plush surroundings and shared a bottle of Shiraz we had selected from the ‘wine room’, munching on the curried peanuts and checking out the clientele.

At the end of it all I headed home. It was good to get back to former pastimes. I miss Melbourne and its bars. We have everything. Elegant lounge bars like the Gin Palace or cosy ones like the Chaise Lounge; decadent venues like the Kitten Club and grungy joints like St Jeromes and Pony. Loud and rambunctious places like Cookie and smaller welcoming bars like the Spleen and the Purple Emerald. Outdoor venues like the Mint and late night gems like the Supper Club, to name just a few.