For five years I promised myself a birthday treat to go to the Australian Open tennis. Finally, after a low key 30th the year previous, I was headed to the hallowed Melbourne Park. Largely in part due to Carolina’s job in marketing and events. Her company looks after a wine brand, one of the Open’s biggest sponsors.
Arriving on a balmy Friday afternoon we checked in at the Tribeca Apartments in East Melbourne, the base for Carolina’s company for many previous events.
We walked the ten-minute stroll to Fitzroy and a great cafe for Brunch, De Clieu. Housed on the corner of Gertrude Street and George Street its British racing green walls and handful of outside tables are shaded by the trees above.
As we sat on the outside on the huge genius window sill bench seats, a solo guy gave up his table for us. I said thank you three times but I’m not sure he heard me. A textbook eggs Benedict followed and we were fuelled for the walk to Melbourne Park.
I had seen Fitzroy Gardens before but never looking as stunning as this. It was beautifully quiet, carpeted emerald green. The sun beamed down. The huge English elms that lined the main walkways were planted in the mid-1850s to shade the public are as useful as ever. I joked that the walk to a sporting event in London such as Wembley Stadium is marginally less pleasant. Minus the grey, cold and congested streets.
25 minutes later we walk through the gates at Melbourne Park. Despite the crowds no one was in a rush, there is an air of excitement but one of pure fun. Given free access to the wine bar we head out their back terrace and sink a few Centre Court Coolers; white wine, apple juice, passion fruit. Ideal in the scorching heat.
Knowing Andy Murray was up against Sousa shortly on the free Margaret Court we took our cocktail roadies with us and joined a long queue to enter the arena. Without realising we were in the pass-out queue but managed to sneak past undetected and nabbed two decent seats in the shade to settle in.
Murray barely looked troubled but by his reaction to rare errors made you would have thought someone had propositioned his stunning fiancé, who dutifully nodded at him every time he played a winner. Curiously his stone-faced mother with ice cold demeanour sat away from her future daughter-in-law without a slight hint of acknowledgement or joint celebration.
Straight after the game came the Aussie showdown, everyone’s best mate, the easy-going man mammoth Sam Groth against the spoilt brat villain Bernard Tomic. The boos from the crowd for Tomic did not nothing to deter his clinical straight-sets win. The Fanatics, an Aussie version of the Barmy Army, were entertaining but all I could think of was the English YouTube sensation The Wealdstone Raider barking his famous catchphrase, “You Got No Fans!”
A few too many Heinekens later and we stroll back towards Fitzroy, capping off a successful day with a late dinner at Ladro, a modern Italian diner and devour their famed pizzas and a bottle of red.
The next morning is my birthday, a fact I had forgotten until about 11:30pm the previous evening. A mild hangover is quickly diminished by a tantalising breakfast at Birdman Eating on Gertrude Street. We sat outside on the bench table watching the world go by.
Then my Reuben Sandwich arrived. Probably the best I have ever had. I love Reubens. But the clincher for this one was the punchy Russian Dressing. The remainder of Carolina’s Baked Eggs also found their way to my stomach, a result of me using the claim “Well it is my birthday” for the first of many times that day.
Before we leave to start the walk for Melbourne Park for the day’s tennis, I take in the sights and sounds of Fitzroy and look a little closer, a little deeper. The surrounding streets, particularly Gertrude, are lined with Victorian terraces, residential and commercial, with elaborate cornices and ornate window frames.
These buildings house a Smorgasbord of businesses; independent book and record stores and an endless group of obscure specialist shops. Snooker supplies, paint shops, antique stores, tea cafes, clothing boutiques and a handful of vintage barbers and hairdressers. Nearly all sheltered by the wire-supported original awnings I’ve only seen in Australia.
Staring into the window of one of these is a glimpse of the past; a 1950s-style time-warp barber shop is littered with hair products from the era, gadgets and even a newsagent counter. A two-fingered salute in the face of trendy minimalism.
In the distance a place I must check out next time screams at me. The Builder’s Arms Hotel oozes history and character. Original yellow tiles from the 1930s plaster the exterior and a tiny plaque outside explains it was a known meeting place for the Indigenous Community between 1940 and 1980.
Further up the street the scene is punctuated by a snapshot of what looks identical to 1950s-built London Council Housing estates in London; four substantial blocks of high-rise concrete apartments hinged on a green central park. Trams rattle by every ten minutes to remind you where you really are.
The occasional laneway gives way to graffiti. The buildings are stained, but not dirty. It reminds me of Newtown in Sydney, but with wider streets, far less people and slightly more refined. Fitzroy’s people, and of course Melbournians generally, are effortlessly cool. Slightly less-tanned but a less try-hard breed of Hipster than us Sydney-folk.
My mood is dampened slightly by my tendency to think far too much and attempt to empathise. As I sit on a bench next to the road waiting for Carolina to exit a shop, a larger lady sits down next to me waiting for the tram. Clutching shopping bags and a backpack her hair is straggly. She could have been homeless. She does not look well.
Perhaps physically disabled, mentally unwell also I suspect, and leaning forward, her hands are shaking so much for a second I thought she was crying. I glanced to check. She wasn’t but I wanted to see her face. When Carolina and I walked away it stuck with me. I didn’t feel as deserving of my day.
When we make our way again to Melbourne Park through the same glorious route as the day before, I feel shattered. My energy revives when we walk through the Park gates. It’s Saturday, it’s a scorcher and the throngs of people may as well have #lovelife tattooed across their head.
Lady Luck loves life too as she awards us left-over corporate tickets at Rod Laver Arena to watch Stan “The Man” Wawrinka deal with Jarkko Nieminen (the Umpire pronouncing Eminem). We are that close that you can hear and feel every shot, grunt, curse, relief and disappointment.
We trudge our way up into the stands to what seems like an eternity to be seated for the main event, Novak Djokovic. We settle in to the highest seats possible in the stadium, bar one row and silently contemplate how much we had been spoilt earlier.
Just as the players are going through their final warm-up Carolina’s phone rings and she exclaims, “Erm…YES!” This meant only one-thing. Thanks to an abundance of corporate tickets we are on our way back down to the classy seats, strutting and bouncing on the way.
Despite a drunken Kiwi lady sitting next to me talking through every point, silence break and even match point, telling her friend how much she knows about tennis (clearly not the fan etiquette parts), the experience was immense.
“The Joker” dispatched the powerful Verdasco in straight sets. There was always something about Djokovic I did not like. His cockiness perhaps. But tonight all that shone through was his playful nature, confidence and him starting a rendition of “Happy Birthday” from the crowd for his mum. Thankfully we got a lift home that night as I was spent.
Our final day in Melbourne was a cooler one. We debated heading to the CBD and eventually decided to combine it with breakfast at a place we had been previously. Bowery to Williamsburg nestles in one of Melbourne’s famed cobbled laneways. This is one is not as obvious with construction work surrounding it. The signage and décor is distinctly Brooklyn/New York themed and food inspired by Jewish Kosher. With our love of all things New York, this is already a winner.
You forget to care that you are eating bench-style alongside loud friends catching up bitching about their friend that is terrible with money and is bad at her job. Although it sounds heavy, my choice of a take on steak and eggs on brioche with bacon was incredible. We even squeezed in a toasted bagel to share with a tangy onion “schmear” spread generously all over it.
With a couple of hours to kill before our flight I’m itching to take in the obligatory dose of history, via the shops of course. The Treasury Gardens were our choice of route. Huge palms, fountains capped off by the perfect frame in the shape of the impressive Treasury buildings. The doors sit below the huge, gold and colourful Australian/Victorian crests. The powerful structures stand imposingly ominous above the entrances.
On the return we take a detour via Cook’s Cottage. It is claimed as Australia’s oldest building on a technicality; although built in 1755 it was dismantled brick by brick and transported to Fitzroy Gardens in 1933 and rebuilt. Strangely no one has ever confirmed if Captain James Cook actually lived in the house, but his parents did. I wonder if in 250 years people flock to visit Tony Abbott’s parent’s house?
I’m planning to be back in Melbourne in six weeks, this time for the Grand Prix. Like an English summer, my visits never last more than two days. But it does feel like a home from home. For now, in Melbourne’s case, absence keeps things interesting.