A few years ago a friend of mine told me that when I visited Australia I might never return. He said that I would “fit right in,” and while I very much enjoyed my first visit there in 2009 I can’t say I found it a place that I yearned to call home. However, on my return to the land down under this year I visited the State of Victoria. Bathed in sun and basking in the summer heat, I no doubt saw it at its best, but beyond that I had found the Australia that my friend had told me I might never leave, it was right here, and it was Melbourne..

Melbourne, Australia

My first impressions of Melbourne were influenced quite heavily by the woman who was driving the tram I rode through the city to where I would be staying. She was an older woman, perhaps as rounded in character as she was in form. Using the announcement system she commented on various things we would rattle by.

We passed a man on a bridge playing bagpipes with a sign in front of a bag in which passers by would throw change. “Will somebody please give that guy enough change so he can finally buy his bloody ticket home. That’s what that sign says you know.” A few people on the tram laugh and look out of the window back at the pipe player. “He’s been at it for years and I can’t stand bagpipes!” She continues.

A few stops and jokes later I struck up a conversation with the driver. I tell her it’s my first time in Melbourne so she gives me a few tips on where to go and what to see.

As we pass by homes lining Dandenong Road she then tells me a story about a friend of hers who wanted to visit England. “He never got there, poor bastard. His oriental wife stopped him from going, and now he’s dead.” She pauses at a red light and I tell her I’m sorry her friend didn’t get to visit England.

In her loud brash tone only somewhat stifled by the noise of the tram she continues. “They’re everywhere you know, the orientals.” Feeling somewhat uncomfortable I look over at an asian woman close by. I’m relieved to see she’s wearing earphones and is unlikely to hear what the driver is saying. “They might look pretty and coy to you young blokes, but you wanna watch it, they’re honey traps, love! Deadly I tell ya.”

Another stop light and I switch the subject back to something a little more conducive to a public transport situation. But as we reach my stop and I step off the tram she loudly gives me some parting advice. “Remember love, yellow fever will kill you, so keep your snake on a leash!” And with that the doors clatter to close and the tram rattles away.


I was couchsurfing in Melbourne, that’s to say I was staying in the home of a local whom I hadn’t met before. My host was a guy called Phong, a typically laid back Australian who owned a waxing salon, something which I found mildly amusing as he didn’t strike me as a particularly metrosexual kind of guy.

The next day Phong took me on a tour of the local neighborhoods. The main streets seemed alive, brimming with activity and energy. Amazing graffiti and street art was everywhere and there were shops, galleries and boutiques with interesting names like ‘Fat Helen’s‘ and ‘Shag’ (fashion & clothing shops), the ‘Hard Wok Cafe’ (Chinese food), and ‘Fuku Hair Studio.’


While Melbourne isn’t famous for it’s beaches there are still a few sun-trap shorelines to enjoy. The first one I visited was St Kilda beach which was busy with sunbathers, swimmers, and various other kinds of beach bums.

While St Kilda has a somewhat checkered past as a sketchy neighborhood full of drug users and loose women, in these more modern times some claim the moral threat comes from Europeans like me! Apparently we’ve been diluting Australian decency with our bare breasts and no good liberal ways.

No good liberal European!Fortunately though, local politician, Reverend Fred Nile, is on hand to uplift Australian decency by trying to end topless and strapless sunbathing at beaches like St Kilda. However the moral guardian won’t tolerate women covering up too much, in 2002 he also proposed banning women from wearing Islamic head scarfs and veils.

Undeterred by the unchecked debauchery of South Australia’s coastline I headed over to Brighton Beach with fellow couch surfer, Lauren from New York, who was also staying with Phong.

Brighton beach is particularly famous for its colorful little ‘bathing boxes‘ that were built in the late nineteenth century and are now protected by heritage laws. The eighty two beach huts are a popular Melbourne landmark and have been the subject of countless paintings, drawings, and photographs over the years.


Of course, when you travel anywhere food often becomes a big part of your experience, and there is no shortage of funky, fun, or formal places to eat in Melbourne. On one day we ate breakfast from a hole in the wall joint, then lunch at a place called ‘Lucky Coq‘ where you can get a delicious pizza for just $4 then sit back in old sofa’s our out in their rooftop sun-cube.

Australians take their coffee pretty seriously and Phong took me to meet a friend of his who had just opened a cool place called Monk Bodhi Dharma which was rusticly hip. The coffee’s were specialist grinds like Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, that the barista talked about with near fanatical enthusiasm and knowledge. But aside of the coffee the little back street place serves a mouth-watering variety of healthy and healing foods like ‘Peace Cookies,’ ‘Cuban chickpea potato stew,’ ‘Indian creamy pumpkin mansoor dal coconut mango soup,’ and ‘West African peanut, bell pepper and tomato soup.’ (Seriously, after writing that I’m hungry!)

Another very cool place we ate at was ‘Lentil as Anything.’ where you order exquisite vegetarian food from a menu that has no prices. When you have finished your meal you decide what the food and experience was worth then make a donation in a black box on the counter as you leave.

Staffed almost entirely by volunteers ‘Lentil as Anything’ has been in the ‘hot for profit’ business for ten years and now has four locations across Melbourne, as well as a college canteen run in the same way.

I liked ‘Lentil as Anything’ very much because it wasn’t just about you and the food, but instead they seek to encourage and cultivate communication going beyond food to engage the community with programs developed to address the hardship of inequality.


Something I was especially excited to do was go to Albert Park which hosts the Australian Formula One Grand Prix. We checked out the pits and I stood on the rostrum where the drivers are presented with trophies before spraying the champagne at the end of the race.

Despite his obvious bemusement, Phong was kind enough to allow me to drive his old Toyota around the park on the roads that double as the race track. The two laps I completed were far from high speed as I had to obey the speed limit, nevertheless it was a absolute thrill to negotiate corners I’ve been watching race cars speed through for years.

As we drove out of Albert Park I was just loving life. The sun was shining, the weather was beautiful, I’d just driven around a Grand Prix circuit, and I was in Australia. At that moment Phong turned on the radio and as if choreographed by a movie producer the track that began to play was the classic 80’s song ‘Land Down Under‘ by Men at Work.


I’m not really one for shopping, or at least big-brand shopping. I find few things as loathsome as fighting my way though crowds of bag wielding shoppers in what always feels to me like a very confrontational situation. That said, I do like local trade, craft and farmers markets like Portland’s Saturday Market or London’s Camden Markets. I was therefore delighted to learn that Melbourne has a thriving market community of local traders, food sellers, and farmers.

I always feel like I’m making more of a connection when I wander around these kind of open air markets chatting with the traders. I have brought some truly wonderful items at markets like these, from jewelry to ornaments, clothing to music.

No good liberal European!I ended up spending my final night in Melbourne with Phong, Lauren, and other couch surfers at St Kilda’s unique and vibrant night market rammed with close to one hundred stall-holders. It was a gloriously warm summer night and the place was teeming with the kind of interesting characters that always seem to find these places. Under a darkening blue sky on the rolling lawns crowds gathered to watch fire dancers perform to the beats of bongo drummers.

I’d been looking for a new ring, but instead I ended up buying a ‘singing bowl’ imported from Nepal and sold to me by a interestingly dressed woman who insisted I spent the right amount of time finding the bowl that “sang to me.” I tried a few, laughing as the woman put one hand on by back and another on my belly asking me “Do you feel it there?” “I think you should probably be asking my wallet,” I told her “But that’s in my back pocket and if you put your hand there people are going to get the wrong idea.” She laughed and told me that my “heart” would make the right decision.

In the end I settled on a modest bowl, that apparently “sings” in an F key. It provided my fellow couch surfers and I with some amusement as we sat around listening to the bongo drums and watching the dancers. Later on I Googled the singing bowls F key and wouldn’t you know it turns out that note is the heart chakra that helps with compassion and balance. So who knows, maybe that woman was onto something after all, because at the price I paid it would seem my heart showed my wallet a little compassion which certainly helps by bank balance.

In my next post from Melbourne I attend a Yoga class with my host Phong, and get my ass kicked by a softly spoken female voice over artist. Don’t miss that and a post featuring stunning graffitti art seen on Melbourne’s colorful city streets. Subscribe to this blog by email, RSS, or download the FREE iPhone app today.

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