Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Now that I’ve been in Melbourne for more than a full month it’s probably time that I let people know what I’ve been doing all this time.

Since my arrival in here in early November I’ve been living in a hostel called Nomad’s All Nations Backpackers. Although my living arrangement isn’t quite as good as the one that I had in London, I’ve managed to sort out a deal with the hostel in which I do housekeeping and random jobs around the hostel for 20 hours a week in return for free accommodation. Although the math works out to well below minimum wage here (a week would cost AU$161, McDonalds starting salary is AU$17/hr, I make AU$8.05/hr), it works pretty well with my schedule and allows me to get to know all the ins and outs of the hostel (still undecided on whether this is a good or bad thing so far, as there is some stuff I’d rather not know). The actual work isn’t too bad, especially since my dish washing, laundry folding, bed making, and room cleaning skills have now progressed to the level of “veteran housewife” (for the record, I was pretty competent at these things before coming here). While this makes me even more qualified for the role of “trophy-husband” or stay-at-home-dad in the future, I’m still debating about whether to put this on my resumé.

The hostel, about a 10 minute walk from the city center, 100m from the Yarra River.

The hostel itself is one of the better ones that I’ve stayed at, minus a few details like the barbed-wire spring mattresses, and the fact that I share a room with three other people (although it certainly beats sharing with 19 other people like in London). Since I eat, sleep, work, and hang out in the hostel I’ve come to kind of regard it as “my hostel”. This means that the people that leave their dishes out on “my table” after meals are subject to the same scorn and muttered curses as the ones that leave empty bottles strewn around “my rooms” when they check out, or throw up all over the bathroom when they can’t handle Aussie bars (my role includes cleaning up after each of these undeserving groups). While the lack of privacy can be inconvenient at times, I’ve found that I really enjoy having the constant hustle and bustle around me. I don’t know if this is because I’m secretly craving human contact or whether I just miss the group living accommodations of the “American college experience”, but either way, I haven’t encountered any of the loneliness problems that occurred in London. Maybe I’m just getting good at this traveling solo thing…?

My first impression of Melbourne, and of Australia in general, was that it was almost like coming home. I’ve found that Melbourne has a lot of similarities to Boston, and Somerville in particular, in that weird mix of hippie, hipster, cutting-edge, organic, and just-plain-eccentric (most of those meant in a good way). For me Australia seems to blend a lot of the more British qualities with American attitudes and ideas. While this was a bit disconcerting at first since I wanted to categorize everything as either American or British, after a month I’m mastering the art of accepting things as just “Australian”. While my introduction to Australia wasn’t the best (see earlier Sydney Post), Melbourne has been much better. I’ve found that people here are very friendly and open, and the sheer number of foreigners here makes every new introduction exciting. In fact, besides the parkour guys, I’ve met very few actual Australians. Part of this is due to where I live, and the people I meet there, but I think that part of this is also due to the fact that Australia, like the US, is a country that has been mostly populated by various waves of immigrants from other countries so there is a very multi-national feel to it. This is further augmented by the 1-year working visa program that Australia offers. This visa, which is very easy to obtain, allows people to basically drop everything back home and come live/work in Australia. The result is that there is a huge demand for this temporary labor, and basic jobs are pretty easy to come by even in a dismal economy. While most of those jobs are manual labor, or unskilled jobs, the strength of the Aussie dollar, combined with the a starting salary of around $20/hr, sunshine, and adventure, make a year abroad pretty appealing to recent graduates of European schools that have been rejected by their own economies (in particular France, Britain, and Germany).

Flinders St. Station, the main train station, gives a good idea of the architectural mix that makes up Australia. (Photo courtesy of Wikicommons)

While the wages are about 2-3 times higher than in the States, the prices here are also pretty inflated, especially on stuff like fresh fruit, veggies, and any sort of foreign brands or products. The standard Puma t-shirt (yes, I’ll admit that Puma has a special place in my heart) that runs for $20 in the US and 15£ in the UK will be about AU$40. I’ve been told that this is primarily due to the really high import taxes in Australia, which apparently mirror the normal income taxes at almost 50%. While this may seem high, keep in mind that it finances a health care system that is really good and all-inclusive, as well as similarly extensive social welfare and unemployment systems (the reason that beggars are largely scorned and ignored here, since the state gives enough money for them to live pretty comfortably). This welfare system has it’s pros and cons, like any government program, but has resulted in a “nanny state” mentality that can be a bit overbearing at times (helmets are mandatory, fare evaders on public transport are put in headlocks, jaywalking not only has high fines but is actually strictly enforced, and prostitution is both taxed and legal).

The few Australians that I’ve met outside of parkour have been a pretty interesting and eclectic group, ranging from the people that look like they just walked straight out of the bush*, to the businesspeople that have the familiar harried and stressed looks of those stuck in the rat race, to the drug addicts that like to come over and watch us train in various parts of the city. However, the majority of the people that I’ve met here are pretty similar to their American or British counterparts, both in how they look and how they behave. And of course no observations of a new country by me would be complete without a reference to the attractiveness of the better-looking sex. The women are definitely pretty attractive here, but this observation isn’t entirely fair since upon talking with some of them I often learn that they aren’t actually Australian (does that still count?). I also suspect that after the past few months of seeing lots of long pants and sweaters in Britain I’m being unfairly biased by the appearance of short skirts, halter tops, and bikinis.
*The “bush” in this case is not the shrubbery adorning the front lawns, but rather is the Australian term for the “wilderness” that exists outside the urban centers.

Melbourne itself is a pretty interesting city, with lots of cool buildings and plenty of green space. The city is a fairly artistic one, and there are lots of random sculptures spread throughout the city where one least expects to find them. While I don’t have any good pictures of them due to the poor resolution of my camera (I’ve given up trying to get good pics), the sculptures themselves are pretty cool.

One of the more interesting sculptures that's right outside the State Library (Photo courtesy of the Web).

In addition to embracing more traditional forms of artwork, Melbourne also has a very vibrant graffiti scene. While there are the occasional petty tags in places that it’s probably not appreciated, there is so much space to paint on here that I haven’t noticed nearly as much “delinquent” tagging as I’ve seen in other cities. As a result of this accepting attitude toward graffiti train rides are a much more visually stimulating experience, and a lot of the alleyways and pedestrian side streets in the city center are a lot more vibrant and colorful than in their natural state.

I picked this pic for the contrast, but it gives a decent idea of how prevalent and accepted it is here.  (Photo from walkingmelbourne.com)

The Yarra River that runs through isn’t the cleanest of rivers, but the banks of the river have been pretty well planned to include lots of open space and decent running trails. While the city itself isn’t exactly runner friendly (actually having wait for traffic lights is a pretty foreign concept to me), the parks to the north and south of the city center are pretty big and have plenty of good places to run, even during the midday heat. I’m told that there are some really good places to run a few train stops away from the center of town, but the sorry state of my running shoes (I definitely miss the days of free new shoes every 400 miles) has kept me relatively close to the hostel.

Melbourne cityscape as seen from one of the many riverside parks (Photo courtesy of the Web).

While the city, and Australia as a country, seem to be pretty technologically advanced, there is one aspect of life here that has stood out to me as very “20th century” (no, I’m not trying to sound posh). The transport systems in both Melbourne and Sydney are both about 10-20 years behind those of other major cities that I’ve been to, and are not only over-priced and inefficient, but also not very reliable. While the Sydney one was much worse than in Melbourne, I haven’t been too impressed with the Melbourne one either. The tram, bus, and train systems are run by different private companies, and don’t have very good connections between them. Paper tickets that have to be inserted into the machine is still the primary means of entry, and a new “MyKi” (think Oyster card, Navigo, or Charlie Card) system is still in the infantile stages (not all buses or trams have them yet, they don’t always work, and very few people use them). The pricing system is also not very well constructed for a lot of people and is very expensive, which leads to very high rates of fare jumping, which is both easy and widespread here. Overall, I haven’t been very impressed with the intracity transport. For intercity transport I’ve found that like in the US, people travel primarily by car (or bus/coach) to get from one city to another, although there are a few discount airlines that operate in a manner similar to EasyJet in Europe. Due to the sheer size of distances here, cars are often a must for people that live outside the city center, although I haven’t seen many of the American-sized cars that I was expecting to see.

Since I don’t want this post to drag on too long, and also I want to be able to do full justice to the subject, I’m going to write about my experience with parkour in Melbourne in the next post.

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