Can Melbourne Live Up to the Hype?

Expectations can be a real pain in the bottom. We loved Sydney, but we just kept hearing about Melbourne. “If you like Sydney, you’ll love Melbourne.” “Melbourne is the San Francisco to Sydney’s LA.” “Just wait ‘til you get to Melbourne.” Melbourne, Melbourne, Melbourne! Can a city possibly live up to such hype? Um, yeah.

After our night in the cheesy motel in Lakes Entrance, Victoria, Janine and I decided that we had done the coast between Sydney and Melbourne sufficient justice and made a push for the big city a day ahead of schedule. We like trees and birds and even beaches as much as the next folks, but it was time for some pavement. Heck, we saw our hoppy kangaroos and had kookaburras wake us up at dawn. We bought Aussie wool mittens at a country market. I even danced briefly on a deserted beach in my birthday suit. We’d drunk the drink of the Aussie countryside, right? We could go back to the city without fear of Aussie scorn, couldn’t we?

Well, whether we were chickening out of one more day of nature or not, we were ready to take on the World’s Most Livable City for the fourth year running, according to the Economist. We had high hopes, which can be dangerous. We had rented what seemed like a great apartment in the central business district, but the instructions to get the key sounded like something out of John le Carre. We had to go to a convenience store several blocks away and plug a combination into a lockbox on the wall. That would produce a set of keys that would get us into our building, but there was another lockbox inside the building that would produce another set of keys. For heaven’s sakes. At least we didn’t have to find a guy named Louie the Cheese and whisper a password to him.

Once we finally got there, the apartment was just great. It’s in a converted office building and has high ceilings and polished concrete floors and I could live in a place like this and be pretty happy. We dropped off our rental car and were finally free from driving for the foreseeable future (if you count South Africa and New Zealand, we have logged several thousand miles in the past month). We crossed the street and stared up at a Malaysian street food shop and I remembered why I love cities so much. Like Sydney, Melbourne is a greatest hits of Asian food – there are ramen shops and Shanghai soup dumpling shops, Korean barbeque and sushi bars, and heaven knows what else. It all looks amazingly good and it kills me that we don’t have more time to eat our way across the city. The Malaysian place made me weep tears of joy and spice. I had a pork noodle soup and Janine had roasted chicken and rice and oh my sweet bejesus do I love stuff like that. I love food that’s spicy, tangy, salty, and sour, and I especially love it when it’s cheap. On another occasion we wandered into a nondescript Chinese place and had some of the best dumplings I’ve ever had.

After staggering out of the Malaysian joint we eventually looked up and noticed gorgeous, ornate buildings all over the place. By design or luck, Melbourne has managed to keep from knocking down many of its architectural gems, which look like something out of Mary Poppins. Janine is especially fond of the architecture, and I joke that walking down the street with her is like walking our dog, who stops every ten feet. Fortunately, Janine just stops to take pictures.

One of many cool old buildings in Melbourne. (Photo courtesy of my lovely wife)

One of many cool old buildings in Melbourne. (Photo courtesy of my lovely wife)

This sums up Melbourne perfectly - a woman with a red Mohawk pushes a stroller with a child in a princess dress.

This sums up Melbourne perfectly – a woman with a red Mohawk pushes a stroller with a child in a princess dress.

We only have a few days left in Australia and then we’ll be off to non-English speaking places for the next few months, so we’re trying to grab as much culture that we can understand as we can. Our first stop was a good old-fashioned Broadway musical. (Mind you, it would probably be at least as much fun, if not more, to see a Broadway musical in Japanese or Hungarian, but still.) As luck would have it, Sweet Charity, which we’ve never seen, was playing, so we bought tickets for a Thursday matinee. I should have known that the audience would be on the mature side. In New York, the Wednesday matinee is famous for the blue rinse set, who are seemingly bused in from nursing homes and funeral parlors from across the tri-state area. I remember when I did the National Tour of On Golden Pond, and we moved from Boston, which is a great theatre town, to Fort Lauderdale, where every show feels like a Wednesday matinee. The audiences just wouldn’t laugh. The joke was that if they laughed they’d cough, and coughing could be fatal, so they wouldn’t laugh. This audience was slightly better than that, but they were still a bit subdued. The lead, a woman named Verity Hunt-Ballard, was a true triple threat. The production was the sort of slimmed-down regional tour, with a smallish ensemble and a band on the stage, that makes me pine for the great big Broadway spectaculars, but you can’t have it all. The show itself, about a New York taxi dancer with a heart of gold who can’t seem to find love, is actually quite depressing. No matter, the cast was energetic, Verity was very vivacious, and I amused myself listening to the Noooo Yaaaawwwkkk accents and observing the audience try not to cough.

Our other big cultural event was taking in an outdoor movie in the Botanic Garden. Apparently, outdoor movies are a thing here, and I can see why. We rented bean bag couches, from which we were able to order drinks and food, and we watched Inherent Vice, the truly weird PT Anderson film starring Joaquin Phoenix, on a big inflatable screen while bats the size of small dogs circled overhead in the Melbourne dusk. It was atmospheric, cultural, and there was even a smattering of nature tossed in for good measure. What fun!

Waiting for the weird Joaquin Phoenix movie to start.

Waiting for the weird Joaquin Phoenix movie to start.

Next time: A spectacular meal, a hipster neighborhood, a delicious convent, and maybe a penguin and a cuddly koala or two.