sports field

Australian cities have a lot of parkland, but not all of it is a place for idle strolls and bird-watching. Much space has been set aside for sport, and set up as cricket, football or baseball fields.

Adults and teenagers spend much of their week-ends and evenings on these fields, throwing balls, running, or simply standing in the sun, waiting.

Is this obsession with outdoor team sports a key to the Australian character? That strange mix of collaborative and highly competitve spirit, and that satisfied, alert laziness?

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window views

Melbourne is famous for its changeable weather – known as “four seasons in one day”.

These weather patterns bring with them visual changes, making Melbourne a place of sharp contrasts one moment, one of quiet, levelling grey the next.

For newcomers, adaptation is hard, but this changing weather quickly turns addictive – transporting you from tropical to continental via desert and antarctic in a day. Why move anywhere else, when the wind blows it all to you?

spiky things

Australia’s famous for its wildlife: the cute – kangaroos, koalas, kookaburras – and the less cute – snake, spider, shark. Yet sometimes, when walking in the bush or on the beach, you will encounter animals which somehow fall in between – like a stranded blowfish on the beach,

or an echidna digging itself in and lifting the guard.

So – cute or scary? You judge – but watch out where you step – even if you do find them cute, who knows if they’re not poisonous – or endangered – or both.

Backlanes

Melbourne’s inner suburbs alternate proper broad streets with elegant house fronts and “backlanes”. These backlanes are anonymous passageways of cobblestones lined with metal or wooden back-doors.

These backlanes were originally built for rubbish collection, I heard. But now, with flowers and fruit-laden branches flowing over backwalls, they make for very pleasant strolls.

The absence of a proper name may add to the appeal of these backlanes – walking along them is like walking along garden alleys, or in a forest – they have no connection to grand history, they are pleasantly mundane, everyday places – identical throughout inner Melbourne.

Suburban trains

Melbourne’s public transport system is the best in Australia. That’s not saying much – not enough trains, frequent delays, and apalling customer service. The extent of the city, though, may be part of the problem: low density housing means low density public transport, and it’s often more convenient to drive.

Apart from peak hours, trains are generally quite empty. Yet unpopular as they are, their blue silhouette is part of the suburban landscape.

They give Melbourne something of its post-industrial grit – the rail infrastructure a perfect setting for murder mysteries, ethnic noir, and bodies in sacks.

City views

One pleasure of walking in the suburbs of Melbourne is suddenly catching views of the skyline in the distance.

There is a strange sense of pleasure in watching towers – headquarters of global corporations, 20, 30, 40 storeys high, big enough to host a village – so small and unimpressive in the distance.

The superposition of  mighty skyscrapers and homely low rise constructions responds to the definition of sublime – the dangerous and overpowering, as observed from a quiet place.

When seen from the top of a hill, in Richmond, North Melbourne or Northcote, the feeling is even quieter – these are on another mountain peak – I can see them, I can reach them if I want, but they’re just on the other side of the valley – and I’m high enough to feel safe from them.

Focus on safety

Australians have a strange obsession with safety. You can’t ride a bicycle without a helmet. Hardly anyone jaywalks. Companies have detailed (and costly) “occupational health and safety procedures. And you can see strange signs about safety in random places, like supermarket aisles.

The strangest manifestation of this obsession with safety comes around the end-of-the year season, when everyone wishes you not a “happy”, but a “safe” Christmas and New Year.

Australians would rather be safe than sorry – and there is a certain wisdom to that. But I often wonder what the hidden cost of this risk-aversion is, how much pressure it puts on individuals to “be safe”, what wild dreams it crushes – or whether binge drinking Friday nights are, somehow, the dark side of this obsession, an outlet for the safety obsessed?

power lines

Modern comfort requires electricity, and electricity must come to the house somehow. When walking around Doncaster East and Templestowe, I came across a dramatic alignment of electricity poles, climbing up a hill

There is a certain majesty to these constructions, with their delicate, light metal frames and parallel lines of connecting wire. Everytime I see one, it reminds me of the Eiffel Tower, and of a gigantic painting in the Musee d’art Moderne de la ville de Paris called The Electricity Fairy, which features Olympian Gods floating above a power plant.

It is too easy to mourn these cables, denounce them as defiling a natural landscape. Isn’t there a strange beauty to them, don’t they stimulate imagination – what if they started walking, took a life of their own – “Bergère, O Tour Eiffel… etc”.

A bench with a view

Melbourne is unsure what natural landscape it is set in; two benches I came across embody this hesitation. One is in Doncaster East, along the Mullum Mullum Creek, overlooking a mansion on a hill, in the middle of a eucalyptus forest.

The other is at Brighton Beach, and looks over to the city skyline floating in the distance above the bay.

Which of these benches is most Melbourne? Is Melbourne a river or a seaside city? What is an ultimate Melbourne view – a wide horizon of blue-grey waves and clouds, or curtain after curtain of grey-green rustling branches? And what would be the signature smell of Melbourne – eucalyptus oil, or sea salt?

Fish and chips

England is hardly famous for its food – netiher are Scotland, Wales or Ireland. Unsuprisingly, the Australian gourmet obsession with food has more to do with Italian or Cantonese fare – or with a kind of Pacific fusion similar to that of California. Yet there is one British specialty which, in Australia, reached its highest level of perfection.

Fish qnd chips is perfect finger food, crisp and hard on the outside, soft and fleshy inside.It is perfect beach food, somehow combining the potatoe’s earthiness and the fish’s seafoodness. And fortunately, fish and chips is widely available, and it’s almost always good.

Tribute to Australian food snobism, you don’t just order %fish and chips%, but flake, butterfish or blue grenadier – fried or grilled. And if you’re with someone, why not get two pieces of fish, and medium chips to share – so you get more for less. Enjoy!