My daily Instagram piece turned into a lengthy one, so I thought I’d post it here instead. In the wake of yesterday’s horrific shooting in Oregon, I felt obliged to...
A DANCE WITH MELBOURNE | THE AUSTRALIA SERIES
Recently, I was chatting with a good friend, Josh, who just finished up a 14,000 bicycle ride from the southernmost point of South America to Los Angeles, California. I’ve mentioned him before in my Ecuador post, back when we first crossed paths in Quito. We’ve kept in touch ever since and I’ve followed his every pedal across the South, Central and North Americas. A couple of months ago, I stumbled across his latest post, which I don’t think I was prepared for — something for which I’m now so very thankful. For one, Josh announced that he was going back to the UK, pausing his journey in California. When he first departed the UK eighteen months ago, cycling to France, then embarking on a 34-day boat journey across the Atlantic, his plan was to end in Alaska. But as any good traveler knows, the best plans change, and in Josh’s case — pause. He arrived in California only to find himself uninspired and a bit absent, something he’d not felt in over ten thousand miles, hundreds of sunsets and dozens of countries. I was surprised and intrigued to read the news and wanted answers immediately. As I read on, however, I found a lot more than I’d asked for. Not only did Josh answer the big “why?”, but he also unknowingly helped to vindicate me and my Australian experience — or “failure,” as I’d previously called it. I’d only been home few weeks when I read Josh’s post, and I was feeling especially down on myself and my recent return “home” that particular day. As I read the way Josh so eloquently wrote about his decision to “quit for now,” I felt connected to another human for the first time in months. It was as if the universe came to me and said, “See, Emily? It’s okay that things didn’t work out in Australia. It happens to other people too.” In Josh’s words, I was ‘filling out a questionnaire no one will be interested in.’ Not even me. I immediately felt exonerated and thus, free again. I smiled as I began to understand my journey for the first time since I’d landed in Sydney last November. Since being back in the states, I’ve struggled to wrap my head around my five month attempt to create a life in Australia. Before I could put the pen to paper, I needed to be honest with myself, which was more than half the battle. I prefaced my last post with a fair disclaimer, but the words that followed didn’t warrant it. This post will be different and instead, I’ll preface this post with a little something Josh told me in a separate, private conversation not too long ago:
“You’re not the only one who is clueless…that vast majority of us are…but you’re clueless with a story! All I ask is when you write your next pieces, don’t feel obliged to credit Australia or your time there…honesty is paramount!! I spent 2 1/2 years in Australia and never once felt welcome. I only felt compelled to leave knowing that my homeland was many times better. Choose your words with diligence!”
And so I’ll do just that.
Picking up from where I left off (a million years ago), I departed Byron Bay for Melbourne after a month-long job search failed me. I flew in early one weekday morning and caught the $18 SkyBus into the city from the Melbourne Airport. Vanessa was set to meet me at the Southern Cross Train Station, right in the middle of town. I had no idea what to expect, and aside from a small Facebook image, I didn’t have a clue as to what she really looked like. We swapped a few texts once I’d landed so we could coordinate a proper meeting spot. When a girl walked up to me in a cute little black skirt and lace top, I was still unsure — but when that same girl said, “Emily?” with a thick Mancunian accent, I was certain I’d found Vanessa. We hugged, laughed and headed straight to her place with my luggage, just a few blocks away. She lived on the seventh floor of a high-rise at the edge of the CBD, and she shared her place with a lovely Kiwi named Hendryx. Thanks to Jack, I was really setup in beautiful Melbourne.
View from Vanessa’s bedroom. Told ya I Jack had set me up!
This couch and I spent some quality time together. With a view like this and housemates like Vanessa and Hendryx, I didn’t even notice I wasn’t in a bed most nights. I suppose that’s what three years of living like a hobo will do to ya.
Vanessa and I wasted no time getting to know each other. Right after I dropped my bags off, she took me to one of her favorite restaurants in Fitzroy, Melbourne’s hip and artsy part of town. The familiarity felt so refreshing and instantly, I saw myself living there. It reminded me so much of my favorite neighborhood back in Atlanta, which brought on all sorts of homely sensations — something I’d been desperate for since first stepping foot in Australia. As Vanessa and I hopped off the tram, I so vividly remember looking around and thinking, “This is going to be my place. I know it.” The connection with Melbourne was instant and I felt myself falling hard and fast.
A main tram line ran straight through Fitzroy, making the commute incredibly easy and cheap. Vanessa and I had lunch at a killer spot called Naked for Satan, which is known for it’s rooftop patio and delicious share plates. We ordered adult beverages straight away, never taking a second to discuss the fact that it was only midday. The weather was sunny, but cool — a nice break from the northern heat I’d been around for months. Vanessa warned me about Melbourne’s weather, telling me they get four seasons per day — a very popular and accurate statement. I would leave the house in a skirt and a tank top, then return later that night to change into boots and a jacket. Good thing I’d packed entirely too much. Lugging around that annoying, overstuffed roller bag was kind of starting to pay off. Kind of.
Remember those seasons I just mentioned? Well, heavy downpours are part of that equation, hence all the locals walking around with umbrellas and jackets every day. I probably should have followed suit.
This isn’t Fitzroy exactly, but it’s a standard, tree-lined street in the big city. I found even the tram lines to be aesthetically pleasing. Those bloody Aussies and their knack for design.
I don’t typically put crappy, pixellated and cropped photos on this site, but it’s the only decent shot of Vanessa and I. Unfortunately, I just don’t have many photos of myself (or anyone else) from Melbourne. I was too fascinated with the city itself, I suppose. That, and when Vanessa and I were out and about, we were having too much fun to bother with photos. If you can believe that.
I settled into the apartment with ease, thanks entirely to Vanessa and Hendryx. Despite the fact that my stuff, no matter how hard I tried, seemed to be everywhere, they never treated me like the couch surfer I might have been. We meshed so well that I’d forgotten I’d only just met them. As if putting me up in her house wasn’t enough, Vanessa was also responsible for landing me a job in Melbourne. I think it was our second outing when she decided to take me up to work with her so I could meet some new faces. Her boss just happened to be having some drinks with coworkers that day, so we joined the fun. As soon as she introduced us and told him my story, he offered me a job. I’d need to prove myself worthy by working a trial shift, so I promptly sorted out the details with one of the managers. It was a breeze and within a few days, I had a job in Melbourne. “Easy,” I thought. And it was. For a minute, anyway.
This particular restaurant was a bit of a departure from anywhere I’d previously worked. Unlike my gig in Newcastle, or any bar in Byron Bay, this place was swanky and smack-dab in the middle of one of Melbourne’s most touristy areas. It sat right on the Yarra River, just a hundred meters or so from a T.G.I.F. Fridays and a 7-11. On one hand, I thought it was pretty cool. “Holy crap. I work on the Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia. Life is nuts!” These thoughts would repeat themselves every day as I walked on the Southgate Bridge and stared up at the high-rise buildings that dwarfed me. Unfortunately though, the allure faded and the thoughts changed. For starters, the dress code and I didn’t agree. Perhaps we can blame that on my American restaurant roots. A tight little black dress or short skirt, paired with chunky-heeled boots and red lipstick just wasn’t my thing. Not for work, anyhow. I loved the Australians’ sense of fashion, and they’ve got to be some of the most beautiful people gettin’ around — but practicality seemed to be lost on their hospitality industry. I’d come from a culture where you wore slightly more sensible things to work; slip-resistant shoes, clothes you don’t mind ruining, etc. Don’t get me wrong here. I love the freedom to wear anything other than khakis and logoed shirts (why are we still doing this, America?), but this was the other end of the spectrum. The need to look like a ten while carrying plates and glasses was just lost on me. It was exhausting, really. These tiny cultural differences were becoming less and less subtle, and I was losing my ability to brush them off. I tried picturing my friends working there with me, but laughed. I couldn’t think of a single friend back home that would wear any of this shit to work — at a bar. But here I was in my tight little black outfit and trendy boots, running $20 cocktails to suit-n-ties. I wasn’t even making tips, for Christ’s sake! My agreed wage was between $22-27 per hour, depending on the day of the week, and I wasn’t ever scheduled for more than 25-30 hours. Remember now, all of this is taxed at 30% rate. Yeah. Ouch.
This is Southgate bridge, just a few steps away from where I worked. It’s also called the “Love Locks Bridge,” Melbourne’s take on Paris’s famed Pont des Arts bridge. And yep, that’s a bar you’re looking at beneath the bridge. Falling in love with Melbourne yet?
I snagged this one just to give you an idea about how pedestrian and bike friendly Melbourne is. A bus lane, main tram line, 4 car lanes and a two-way bike lane are all pictured here. I’m lookin’ at you, Atlanta.
Flinders St. Station, one of my favorite little bits of the city. It offers some much-needed juxtaposition in the concrete walls of the CBD. I walked through this station every day to get to work, which always gave me that instant city-feel. There’s something about a train station, isn’t there?
Ahhh. This is DeGraves St. It’s a short, pedestrian-only laneway in the CBD. This is one of the thousands of reasons I love Melbourne. You almost have to accidentally find these little tucked-away streets, and they’re loaded with food. And my God, THE FOOD in this city…
Graffiti: Easily one of my top 5 reasons for loving this city. My daily wanders with my camera lead me to some of the coolest wall art and best food. I’m not sure how one goes bored in city like this. The visual stimulation is abundant, but never overwhelming.
I kept thinking about all the people who told me I’d be able to save so much in Oz — the same ones that said restaurant work was the way to go because the money is “insane.” It might have been a little late, but I was certainly realizing that none of these people had ever worked a day in American hospitality. Four hundred dollars a week wasn’t sustainable in Atlanta, Georgia, let alone in the sixth most expensive city in the world. I’d work eight and nine hour shifts, always getting the “section” which is responsible for about five tables, and running everyone else’s drinks. I was essentially a glorified bus-boy with a debatably better figure. Perhaps the icing on the cake was the core group of girls who seemed to run the joint. Think, Mean Girls. I know that sounds harsh, but some of the conversations I heard among them blew my mind. They were all beautiful size 2’s and wore only the trendiest, shortest and tightest threads. No, that’s got nothing to do with my beef — I’m merely trying to paint a picture for you. They were nice enough, to my face, but lacked any maturity or depth. Some of them were young, so I gave ‘em a free pass. The others were old enough to know better and I really struggled to understand why they insisted on treating me as if I was any different from them. After all, I had more experience than most of them combined. I would laugh each time the nineteen-year-old would tell me how to “properly” wait a table. I bit my tongue so hard, fighting the obvious, but obnoxious, “Honey. I was slinging $3000 worth of booze on Friday nights while you were still shy of puberty.” I let it go, like I let everything go at that place. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder — was it my accent? Could they see that I was uncomfortable wearing a dress to work? Was I not girly enough? The second I caught myself asking these questions, I knew I had to get out. I was thirty and had always been a secure, confident young woman who prided herself on not needing makeup and heels to make herself feel beautiful. Yet suddenly, because of some superficial and uppity restaurant gig, I was questioning that? I played my cards best I knew how, befriending the other foreign girls and forming somewhat of a team with them. The poor French girl, who was ridiculed for her accent, got it the worst. No one ever bothered to notice that the girl spoke a second language — just that she didn’t speak it well enough. I was disgusted at how easily they dismissed her and I knew I couldn’t sit quietly much longer. The managers, who were mostly males, were great to me and I I honestly think they’re the only reason I stuck it out as long as I did. Vanessa was friends with most of them, so they took me in, no questions asked. But after about five weeks, I hit my wall. Vanessa had left for a better opportunity the week I started, so I didn’t really have any obligation to stay. I blamed it on too much lipstick, too much middle school, too much bull shit, and certainly not enough money. The GM must have noticed my inability to fit it, because one week out of nowhere, he scheduled me at a sister restaurant clear across town. It was only a few days worth of work and would require I pay for a train to and from. I knew what he was up to, so typical of Emily, I responded with a move of my own. I didn’t show up for the shifts at the other restaurant, nor the shifts at his restaurant —ever again. Two could play this game.
Little rush hour (peak hour, as the Aussies call it) on Flinders St.
As my middle-school saga unfolded at the restaurant, I was also balancing a complicated living situation. I wanted to be sure I didn’t overstay my welcome at Vanessa’s place, so I’d booked a hostel for a week while I searched for a place of my own. It was still in the CBD and I was actually pretty excited about being back in a hostel. Unlike the dozens of hostels I’d previously stayed in around the world, Australia’s were quite pricey. The first hostel put me back about $200 per week, so after two weeks, my dwindling funds demanded that I find a new place to call home. Word of mouth and *not enough* online research lead me to one of the cheapest hostels in town called, Travellers Trax. It’s not generally my style to book accommodation without (at the very least) ensuring it’s safe and a little clean, but I guess I was too caught up with money to care. I overlooked some very important details, which lead to my worst hostel stay to date. Given that I’m including the times I shared a room with rats and scorpions in Southeast Asia, that’s a BIG call. This could be a post in and of itself, so I’ll hang onto some of those details for another day. But if you’d like to check out their stellar, no-star TripAdvisor review here, be my guest. A few of my favorite highlights were as follows: The guy who tickled my feet in the middle of the night because he wanted to “ask me a question.” This, of course, from his top bunk, which was conveniently placed just next to mine. A couple of days later, a different guy tried to sell me drugs (and no, we’re not talking marijuana here) in the middle of the day when he spotted me at the laundromat. That same guy seemed to be rolling his tits off every day in the common area, along with about ten other long-termers. Have you ever seen the movie, Kids? What about The Beach, staring Leo DiCaprio? Well, if those movies had a baby, this was it. This was the place that Americans picture when they think of the word “hostel.” I feel like I deserve an “I survived Trax” t-shirt. I definitely do.
The upside to the hostel from hell was its location. It was in an area called Collingwood, just a walk away from Fitzroy, the neighborhood I first swooned over. More graffiti, more coffee shops, more food (vegan, at that!) — I suppose not spending any time in that shithole was kind of nice.
Let’s talk about the THIRTEEN DOLLAR Sierra Nevada I once ordered while staying in this part of town. Okay, I’m done talking about it. It was a bad day and I got a lot of writing done. So there.
Have I mentioned the food in Melbourne yet? Yes? Okay, good. It’s arguably one of the best foodie cities in the world, just ask me. I ate all of it. The few pounds I may have shed while eating veggies and going on morning jogs in Byron Bay came back quickly. And I didn’t regret a bite. I don’t deprive myself entirely when I travel. What kind of life is that?
OMG. Yeah, I just used “OMG” on my blog…maybe for the first time ever? But this. This is a *vegan burger, with *vegan fries and *vegan mayo-like sauce! Traveling as a pescatarian/vegetarian (depends on my location) is tough sometimes, but not in Australia. And certainly not in Melbourne. I would pay a lot of money for this exact meal right now.
This is the famous Hosier Lane, just on the edge of the CBD. It’s probably one of the coolest places I’ve been, and given that I have an entire album of shots taken here, I think my camera would agree. If you look closely towards the end of the alley, you’ll see a couple of women walking. They were English and had to have been Mum and daughter. The Mum would have been around 80 years old and I might have followed them around for a while. Who is cooler than this lady?
I only showered and slept there, always avoiding eye contact. Occasionally, I would swap cringe looks with the handful of other seemingly ‘normal’ girls who happened to wander into the hostel from hell too. Just like The Beach though, no one ever seemed to speak about how terrifyingly creepy this place was. I remember Vanessa calling me the day I checked in to warn me of what she’d read on TripAdvisor. I worried for a second, but thought, “Nah, people are just so dramatic in online reviews.” Turns out, they’re also really honest, and sometimes, you should probably take them seriously.
After two weeks, I had enough and I broke down. I re-booked the overpriced hostel I’d first stayed at, but not before a long-distance call to my parents from my little Nokia. I was standing on a street corner, all 40 kilos of my luggage in tow, waiting for a taxi that would never pick me up — literally. For two hours, I stood on this corner, flagging down taxis that just drove right by without so much as a glance. For whatever reason, this wasIt was the moment everything culminated and I could no longer ignore how much had gone wrong since first arriving in November. I cried to my Mother telling her that I’d had it with everything — with being broke, yet constantly searching for work. With not being able to find an apartment in Melbourne, despite dozens of e-mails and walk-throughs. With trying to fit in at jobs with a bunch of arrogant little twenty-year-olds. With being bitter about said twenty-year-olds. With spending so much of my days alone. With my dog dying. With nothing in Byron Bay working out for me. With hostels that made me wonder where I’d gone wrong in life. With feeling like I didn’t translate in the Australian culture. With simply not being able to settle into anything since first arriving. It all came out on that phone call, which I’ll probably never forget. I was a wreck beyond wrecks, something I can now laugh at. Retrospect is a beautiful thing, guys.
So, this is kind of personal, but will also help me better convey my state of mind at the time . I’m not religious and haven’t been for quite sometime now. I had such a rough time while I was in Melbourne, that one day, I wandered into this place — St. Paul’s Cathedral. I just wanted to sit in a room with a bunch of other people who might also have a lot on their minds. Religion, in general, is not nearly as predominant as it is in the U.S., but I did notice more churches in Melbourne than any place else. I was the only person below the age of 50 in that church that day, not that I cared. I just needed a moment and that was that. No, I’m not religious now. Stop.
Back in my cozy, safe and sterile hostel in the CBD, I was able to reboot. I kept working (remember, all this is going on as I’m still at the cheesy restaurant on the river), in hopes I’d get more hours soon. I was determined to make Melbourne my home, so I made one last attempt to secure an apartment. This one was a shared room on the 40th floor of a new high-rise in the CBD, and it was far cheaper than hostel life. I went over to meet the housemates and instantly, I felt good again. I had a feeling they were going to choose me out of the other applicants, and I was right. Long story short though, the girl who was organizing my deposit turned out to be a bit of a c-word. She demanded that I come to her place with the money with about one hour’s notice. We’re talking about $800, which included first and last month’s rent. Despite the fact she was also a traveller taking advantage of Australia’s working holiday visa program, she seemed to have forgotten that most banks, especially international ones, will limit how much cash you can withdraw from an ATM in a single day. My bank’s limit was $500, so from the 7-11 ATM at the bottom of her building, I offered her that. She was furious, unreasonable and told me that if I couldn’t get it to her right then and there, the place was going to one of the other applicants. So, after some choice words to each other, we hung up the phone and yet again, I was apartment-less. “Who the hell carries around $800 cash with them here,” I wondered. A second breakdown came over me, and I knew this one meant I had to make some big changes. After calling my sister to get the initial meltdown out of the way, I called one of my best friends back home, Andrew. I knew he’d answer an Australian number at three in the morning any day. Within minutes, my voice cracked and the tears won. I remember the way Andrew told me to calm down, almost laughing at (or with) me, because that’s the nature of our relationship. I was sitting on the steps of some old museum or government building in the CBD and it was after dark. The sound of the trains going by only made my loneliness all the more palpable. I’d never felt so far away from home in my life. I hated everything and didn’t hesitate to tell Andrew about every little detail. If memory serves me correctly, I even went on a heated rant about how Australians call ranch dressing “ranch sauce,” yelling, “And it doesn’t even taste a fucking thing like ranch!” I think that was the moment Andrew realized how bad off I really was. We spoke for an hour or so before he broke it down for me the way only he can. “Emily, the way I see it, you have three options right now. You can come home — and please, come home! No one here would every view your time in Australia as a failure. That’s something you’ve got to get out of your head. We would only welcome you back with open arms, knowing that you’ve been traveling around Australia while we were all still here. If you don’t like that, then keep pushing on. Insist on Melbourne and don’t stop until you do settle. And if you can’t give anymore to that city, then fuck it. Go to Perth, like you’ve been toying with. Get on a plane and go see what that west coast has to offer. In the grand scheme of things, finically speaking, there’s only a small risk associated with this option.”
Once my decision to leave Melbourne was made, I squeezed in as many wanders as I could. This is a little back alley in Chinatown (wow, what a place!), and to the right is a popular little outdoor bar called Section 8. Good beats, loads more graffiti in a garden-like atmosphere in the middle of chaos.
So, the Aussies are a a little more outspoken than the Americans. Hold that thought as you scroll down.
I warned ya. This is smack-dab in the middle of the CBD. And I absolutely love it.
Queen Victoria Market. You could spend hours here. I did. I’m not sure why I don’t have better photos of this place. Maybe because I was too busy eating? Yeah, probably.
While this isn’t your standard plate of fish & chips, it is a nice twist. Seared cod, rather than fried, and unlike typical American fare, it’s not overwhelming. It’s not that the food is *that different in in Australia. It’s just that their portions are meant to feed only *one person. Ahem…this would be at least one and a half times bigger (if not 2) in the states.
Feeling thankful for a friend like Andrew, technology and deep breaths, I went back to my hostel and slept on it. The next morning, I woke up feeling spontaneous and fresh — two things I’d not felt in months. I found a cafe with free, working Internet (not an easy task in Melbourne) and did two things. One, I decided I was done working for the swanky restaurant on the river. And two, I took one of Andrew’s three suggestions and booked a one-way ticket to Perth. It was on sale and I wasn’t ready to give up on Australia just yet. I’d heard the west coast was far different from the east coast, and a lot of traveling friends raved about it. They insisted it was “more my speed,” adding that the locals seemed to be more welcoming, and the travelers, more seasoned. I took my stuff back to Vanessa’s apartment, who’d once again proved to be my little savior during a strange time. She and Hendryx happily invited me back, as I sorted out my last week in Melbourne. I was so ready for a new venture, but there was one more thing I had to do before the 1400+ mile journey west. I had to see the famed Great Ocean Road. Spoiler alert: It rocked. But I’m saving it for the next post, where I will use more photos and less words.
I’m not sure how I haven’t mentioned coffee yet. Melbourne boasts one of the best coffee cultures in the world. I might have been on a budget (albeit, a loose one some days), but never, ever did I skimp on coffee. You just don’t get anything like it in the U.S. All of this said as I type from a lousy Starbucks in Florida. Womp, womp.
And then there were the sunsets…
…So many quality sunsets. This one was taken from St. Kilda, one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city. It’s part beach, part hustle and bustle, and part L.A. Only the good parts of L.A. though. I could easily see myself getting back here again.
For the record, I loved, and still do love Melbourne so very much. It’s one of the most spectacular, eclectic cities I’ve ever visited and I miss it every day. You just can’t force a place, no matter how perfect it might seem at first. That said, I believe that places, like people, will come back to you if the time is ever right. And I would love for our timing to be right one day.
Thanks for bearing with my procrastination these past few months, guys. I hate to go so long without updating, but this one required time off the field. I vow to not leave the next post sitting on my desktop to collect dust. Hold me to it!