Two weekends ago saw me completing a hat trick of visits to the ‘Most Liveable City in the World’, Melbourne. A long-time fierce rival of Sydney, I found myself already firmly in the Sydney-sider mindset of, “I’m going to wear shorts today and I don’t care if I meet the President or the Queen, shorts I shall wear.” Thankfully I had a change of heart at the last minute and pulled on a pair of chinos. The reason for my visit was to see an old friend I used to work with in the Motherland, who now hung his hat in the Victorian capital.
The ironically named ‘Tiny’ (he stands at an awesome 6 foot 7 inches) is a gentle-giant, a couple of years my junior and after travelling Asia he settled in Australia with his English partner, Kim, landing a job at a sister-company of mine.
My zombie-like figure crawled into the taxi at 5:30am for the now increasingly familiar ride to Sydney Domestic Airport. After an uneventful flight I was soon woken as I stepped off the plane into 12 degrees of sheer coldness, firm proof that since moving to Australia my body and adjusted body thermometer now regards this as Baltic.
An efficient 30-minute shuttle bus ride later I stepped out of the Station into the drastically different streets of Melbourne. I hate to admit it but you cannot help feel a little inspired, I likened the chill down my spine and hairs on end to the experience I felt as I stepped onto the streets of New York, yellow taxi’s et al, although on a scale of about 10%. A leisurely walk later towards the heart of the city and I waited on the corner of Swanston Street. Remarkably even without glasses I spotted Tiny at least a 100 metres away, it really is an awesome sight to see a man more suited to the basketball court jog towards you through a crowd, as he still looked huge from 20 metres away. One hulk-sized hug later we chatted without pause and finally took a breath as we slipped into a tiny coffee shop called in a character-rich alley bustling with activity off a side street. We reminisced. Work. Travel. Girlfriends. Australia.
We headed back to Tiny’s boutique apartment in Carlton, in the northern tip of the city and I met his girlfriend for the first time, immediately it felt like we were old friends and I was bloody happy for my mate. Chatting over tea the time ticked by before we decided it was time to fulfil a personal goal of mine, to walk down Lygon Street. For the unlearned Lygon Street is a Mecca of restaurants and cafes with a distinctly Italian fell amongst the hustle and bustle; famous for coffee, pizza, chequered table-cloths and Italian waiters that attempt to charm the pants off anyone who comes within 10 metres of their establishment. However my fascination comes from a link with the acclaimed Australian TV-series ‘Underbelly’, based on the Melbourne gangland Wars. Lygon Street was, and likely still is, the street of choice for Melbourne’s Mafioso and charismatic Underworld figures.
But this is where my old-friend face turned to business-face. I had brought my tennis racket with me for a reason, not just to look like a pro in the city for a tournament, to beat my long-time rival on the courts, Tiny. Re-establishing the rivalry of our past encounters in the UK of 2009 we headed to East Melbourne and 2 hours of intense play resulted in a 7-6, 7-5 victory. Working up an appetite we yet again kept the theme Italian, taking in some dinner. For the life of me I cannot remember the name of the restaurant, and that says it all really. The service was average, coffee terrible (it came out so milky I felt like throwing it on the floor in a passionate-Italian manner) but the Oysters and fettuccine were delicious, washed down with an impressive Richland Cabernet Sauvignon.
Fed and watered we sidestepped the arrogant atmosphere of Madame Brussels where we queued for 30 minutes without moving, and headed to a recommendation, Berlin Bar. Struggling to find the dark entrance we walked up the stairwell and a heavy, electronically locked door opened slightly. An eccentric German-lady questioned us and then closed the door. Minutes later she opened and allowed us in with a young couple in front of us, leading us through a dark, almost smoky, brothel-like (not that I would know) atmosphere with red lights. At a small-bar we were told we were being taken into the West Side, instead of the East Side, the fact dawning on us that the two sides of the bar represented Germany pre-unification. We sat down at a table slightly uneasy as in the background murals of Hitler adorned the walls and people lay on top of bunk beds drinking. This was definitely a conversation-starter as Tiny and chatted with the young-couple, a pretty 18 year-old millionaires daughter that lived in a huge beach-house on the Peninsula and her boyfriend, a 19 year-old stoner who clearly was the luckiest young-lad alive and knew it. As the lad got smashed and asked me ridiculous questions about England and Europe, Tiny chatted about India and travel with the educated girl. I knew I had hit the limit of his conversation when he explained: “You have got to play this game, it’s called ‘Punch the Possum.’ When the boys are all at a barbeque we wait till a possum walks along the fence (which they notoriously do) we creep up and see who can punch it off!” It was not until the next day that the reality (and hilarity) of what he said set in. “It’s what we Australians do mate”, his claim ringing in my ears.
Suitably bladdered we decided on a bar over a game of ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ and one drink later in the trendy bar The Toff on Swanston Street, I realised there were drag queens dancing across the stage. Was this normal in Melbourne? I’m not sure, but everyone seemed like they were having a lot of fun. We explored the bar, diving from the cabaret section to the comfy old-fashioned booths reminiscent of railway carriages and after settling back in the Cabaret section we attempted to dance and scream along with our teenage companions. 30 minutes of the young fella screaming in my ear that this was “the sickest bar I’ve ever been to!” ensured Tiny and I gave each other the wink and I hatched a plan to escape. We would both go to the bar and try to lose them gradually. Unfortunately the teenagers came looking for their older classier friends and when they did I made a sleek exit telling Tiny to leave in exactly five minutes. Four minutes later Tiny appears after telling the teenagers to wait at the bar and we would be back. Jackpot! We scuttle out of the bar and talk long and hard on the walk home all the way back to Carlton. You know, that semi-emotional, semi-aggressive kind of talk with the occasional, “You’re such a good bloke mate.” Finally home we cracked open a nightcap Corona and before I knew it I was out cold on the inflatable mattress.
Waking up starving we headed over to Sandbar in Middle Park, just a short stroll up the coast from St Kilda, overlooking Port Philip Bay. The seafront reminded me typically of an upmarket English-seaside town and the water looks just as freezing. But once inside the café and looking out on the Bay you could have been in starring in a scene of the OC, based in California. Beechwood beams, hard-timber floors, railway-sleepers with glass and industrial steel complimenting each other, the sort of establishment you would be proud of owning. I indulged in a huge big breakfast that eased the mild-hangover.
Tiny had rented a car so we could drive from Melbourne south all the way down to the Peninsula. After almost an hour of driving it became apparent there was an iron-man contest on that day and it blocked off the only main road to our destination. We tried a diversion, but that barely moved so after driving a loop of the colourful Frankston (not one of the world’s finest towns) we took an even bigger loop away from our destination and back towards Melbourne on the Monash Freeway. 4 hours in the car and we were back in Melbourne, keen to grab another coffee and relax in the afternoon sun before Tiny dropped me back to the airport and for my flight back home to Sydney.
As I sat in the departure lounge I pondered whether Melbourne was ever going to be a place I could settle. Great bars and restaurants, a European feel and far more vibrant that Sydney. However for all its faults, Sydney for me is sun, sand and a more relaxed attitude that you can’t help fall head over heels for. Quickly I concluded I’m a Sydneysider and for now, it was clear for Tiny to imprint his own (huge) footprint on the cultural home of Australia.