It was never on my radar to go to Australia, but you fall in love with an Australian and look what happens. I’d just quit my job after twelve years in publishing (more of which later) and flying to the other side of the planet seemed a good way to buffer some enormous life changes. We decide to go for 3 weeks and spend Christmas in Melbourne where my partner Oisin’s sister lives with her partner and their seven-month-old baby girl. While the plane waits on the tarmac, my own sister is in hospital awaiting the appearance of my new niece. The last shred of 3G before we are asked to switch off our phones carries a picture of little Penny Jean – healthy, pink and screaming blue-murder. A happy relief before we hit the skies.
Ten years ago my fear of large aeroplanes might have prohibited the trip. I’m much better now, but I admit my stomach flips when I first see the three rows of seats (three rows! THREE!? this thing is too big to fly, IT’S TOO BIG TO FLY!). My advice for flying east around the globe is to have a bad night’s sleep the night before you leave. I re-set my phone to Australia time the minute I get up, so despite having only been awake a few hours it’s time for bed when I get on the plane. With the help of over-the-counter sleeping pills I nod on and off through the first seven hour leg of the journey.
When I come to, I seem to be in the airport sequence from The Fifth Element, also known as Doha airport, Qatar. There’s just enough time to go to the bathroom and we’re back on a different plane where I now have to stay awake until we hit Australia. I find it impossible to read so my well-intended Hilary Mantel remains untouched while Oisín does the sensible thing and chortles through Despicable Me 2. Make no mistake, the thirteen hour leg of the flight is hard work. The trick is to make your world as small and comfortable as possible with blankets and music and movies. It is bedtime when we arrive in Australia. We go straight to bed and sleep well and wake up on Australia time.
First impressions of Melbourne, and specifically Melbourne in December: It is a huge metropolis made up of smaller neighbourhoods, each with its own character, train station and/or tram stop, and if you’re lucky, beach. It feels as if Irish and Asian people have come together to build a city in the sunshine. (Note: in Australia ‘Asian’ is most often used to refer to south-east and north-east Asia, rather than south Asia as it tends to mean in the UK). Christmas is optional and lightly festive, not aggressive and avaricious like back home. In a list where Canadian and Australian cities dominate, Melbourne was found to be the number one most liveable city while not quite ranking in the ten most expensive. These findings seem to ring true. Easy-to-use transport proliferates and there is healthy food (or unhealthy if you prefer) to fill you up all day for a few dollars.
Oisin’s family are, of course, extremely lovely and welcoming. They are Irish/Australian/Chinese/Norwegian, which is to say, Australian. They are warm, fun-loving, healthy, culturally savvy, and generous. These things strike me as very Melbournian. Their neighbourhood is Footscray, close to the city, on the cusp of regeneration (though hopefully not extreme gentrification), ethnically diverse, though predominantly home to a Vietnamese community. Our first couple of days in the city are an exhilarating blend of world accents, Turkish sandwiches, Christmas lights, 28 degree picnics in the park, espresso, gyoza, laksa, grenita. Courtesy of lovely Michael, we head to a grand beach house at Sorrento while I gather up my further impressions: Melbourne feels like it’s growing and filled with potential, not rammed to capacity and panting over the side like London or New York. It feels as if your favourite bar might not have opened yet. Quality of life doesn’t feel hopelessly out of reach. There are too many KFC’s and Nando’s and McDonald’s and it needs fixing. There is more exciting vegetarian food here than you could hope to try. Jackson 5 and Cat Stevens are playing everywhere. We see two enormous poisonous tiger snakes and a dolphin at the wilds of Portsea. I feel extremely far from home and it feels brilliant.
Notable places that we eat or drink are Mamasita, Corte, Journal, Buckley’s Chance, The Plough, Short Round, Ombra, Shebeen, Spicy Fish, Boney, Izakaya Den and the rooftop bar at Curtin House. Rooftop bars are very Melbourne, originally intended to dull the effects of the smoking ban, they are now an essential part of a summery drink.
The 42 degree heatwave dips and we spend Christmas Day on the beach with home-made sushi rolls and wine and friends and family. The sea is warm. We swim and stay until the sun sets.