Thursday, October 09, 2008

Tram City

I just submitted this to the Strib, but I'm posting it here to enlist the help of the universe and cyberspace to get it published!

"Help keep Melbourne a butt-free city" read the sign atop the tram from which we disembarked. The sign spoke directly to one of my pet peeves – litter – and to the growing awareness of our collective responsibility to tidy up the planet. Melbourne, in the southeastern corner of Australia, in the state of Victoria, is indeed a clean and amiable city, melding old world charm with a modern sensibility.

My husband, Patrick, and I had just arrived in Melbourne, Australia, after an 18-hour flight; we left LA on a Tuesday and somewhere over the Atlantic we jumped over Wednesday and landed in Thursday. I had been making and cancelling plans to come to Australia for over a decade, but I was hooked after reading the hilarious Bill Bryson’s “In a Sunburned Country.” Bryson wrote, “When finally I made my first trip Down Under . . . I was actually able to be astounded to find it there at all. I clearly recall standing on Collins Street in downtown Melbourne, so freshly arrived that I still smelled of (possibly even glistened from) the insecticide with which the flight attendants sprayed the plane before arrival, watching the clanging trams and swirl of humanity, and thinking ‘Good Lord, there’s a country here.’ It was as if I had privately discovered life on another planet, or a parallel universe where life was at once recognizably similar but entirely different.” Now that friends were living here on a work visa, I snatched the opportunity.

Our friends had a natty little apartment across from the boardwalk, on the wide mouth of Port Philip Bay, and, if you craned your neck just so, you could just see the masts of boats at St. Kilda Pier. They insisted we get out and walk and see the sights and try to stay awake until evening, so we decided we could handle a not-too-strenuous tour of Melbourne by tram. They lived two tram connections away from where the action was in the CBD (central business district); once there we would take the City Circle tram to the Victoria Market to get some souvenir shopping out of the way.

Melbourne came of age during the gold rush of the mid-1800s, right about the time Minnesota was becoming a state. I wasn’t expecting a western-style frontier town, but I wasn’t prepared for old Europe either. In the stupor of jetlag, I had the suspicion that we had bought tickets to Australia but the plane was diverted to the other side of the globe to, say, Antwerp. The Victorian gables, Italianate columns and the pointed arches and spires of neo-Gothic buildings blend into the skyline beside Art Deco and 20th century glass, cement and steel styles.

Melbourne’s population is about the same as the Twin Cities’, 3.8 million. The city is graced with lovely parks and gardens, wide boulevards, and a multitude of outdoor cafes and world-class restaurants, to which smartly-dressed Melburnians flock on their two-hour lunch breaks. In its heyday, Melbourne overshadowed Sydney in size and importance. To move all those important people, a tram system was built beginning in the 1880s. The present electric tram network, one of the largest in the world, makes up the core of the public transportation system in and around Melbourne.

Our tram to the CBD headed away from the harbor, squealed eastward around a corner park, and then ran along the center median of a wide boulevard. Modern glass office buildings swallowed and spit out suit-clad types with cell-phones pressed to their ears. Cars sped to and fro’ on either side of us – on the wrong side of the road – and, given our weariness, made me grateful I was not driving.

Because it was early June – the beginning of winter Down Under – the tourist count was as low as the sun; the days were short and the shadows long. It was jacket weather, high 60s, yet locals were clad in coats and scarves, and some even wore gloves. Walking to the next tram stop, the food stand Lord of the Fries caught my eye. French fries are my weakness, especially those “tossed with sea salt” so we stopped and ordered a cone-full. On the menu board there was a long list of sauces in which to dip the fries: “Belgian - our famous euro-mayo; Indian - spicy mango chutney, sour cream; Vietnamese - thick sweet chili mayo; Thai - golden satay sauce; Aussie - rich tomato sauce, vinegar; American - southern bbq sauce.” “American-style bbq sauce” was an everyday condiment here, as would learn, even as a topping for eggs.

We waited for the City Circle at a common Melbourne meeting place, “under the clocks” of the baroque Flinders Street Station. Built in the early 1900s, it is the oldest station in Australia and one of the busiest, a bustling hub where trains hustle passengers to and from the outer suburbs and beyond. Around the nape of the ornate, imposing bust of the station dangled the glistening Yarra River, bejeweled with glitzy shopping malls, elegant government buildings, a casino, and restaurants opening onto the quay.

The City Circle, which runs in a rectangle around the CBD, would take us past many of Melbourne’s notable locales, including the serene Fitzroy Gardens, to the largest open-air market in the southern hemisphere, the Queen Victoria Market. We planned to buy the obligatory souvenirs to bring home to family and friends. Along with T-shirts, hats and key chains embroidered with “Australia” or adorned with illustrations of kangaroos and koalas, we were also hoping to find a didgeridoo for a musician friend.

The Vic Market takes up 17 acres on the edge of the CBD. The market may be over 200 years old, having grown up along with Melbourne itself, but the electricity it uses is very 21st century: the largest urban solar panel installation on this half of the globe was recently set up on the roof. The market and many city buildings use the power generated by those 1,328 solar-harvesting panels.

We bought the didgeridoo from a stall run by two Aboriginal men. The older, lankier man sported cowboy boots and an Elvis pompadour and claimed to be a singer/songwriter of country music. We declined the offer to buy his CD and asked to examine his collection of didgeridoos. He explained that the instruments, some of which look like a giant’s walking stick, are naturally hollowed out by termites before being carved and painted. To help us decide which one to buy, Elvis “played” a few of the didgis to demonstrate their unique tones, treating us to that eerie serenade that falls between a sustained hum and a groan.

Shopping made us hungry so we headed toward the deli stands. Our friends had recommended a particular ethnic lunch-time favorite, borek, a Turkish bread roll-up stuffed with a savory ground of lamb, cheese and spices. That’s what I decided on, while Pat chose a crusty French bread sandwich of bratwurst and onions. We sat in the sun at a ubiquitous sidewalk table and traded bites of our satisfying fare, quenching our thirst with cold beer. Erected near the curb was a six-feet-high glass wall, allowing us to feel a part of the bustling street scene without having to consume exhaust from the passing cars. Melbourne was treating us well so far.

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