MELBOURNE --- Weaving between the bluestone-lined alleys and cobblestone lane ways of Central Melbourne, my sister and I pausing every 20 feet or so to snap a picture or duck into a shop, I can't help but notice I'm attracting more than my share of stares. At first I can't imagine why. It's the middle of summer and the first Grand Slam of the year is in full swing, so I'm hardly the only person wandering around guide book in tow, periodically referring to a map, and posing for cheesy photos. And while relatively diverse Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, doesn't seem to have many black people...but I don't think that's it either. A glimpse of myself in a cafe window finally clues me in...people are staring because I'm grinning like a Cheshire cat. I apparently cannot contain that fact that I'm giddy, over the moon, ecstatic. After about 25 hours of flights. I'm finally in Australia.
I have to admit, at first I was underwhelmed by Melbourne. On the surface it seems not much different than many of the other large cities of the world...good food, good shopping, good times...but nothing special. In fact I was initially even a little put off by the...well let's call it eclectic styles of architecture in the city center. It feels like someone was like "I'd like to build a castle", and someone else said "No, I'd like to build a 90s style high rise", and then another person suggested "What if we built a gothic church instead?", while a different architect proposed "We should build an eco-friendly, ultra chic, marvel of modern architecture" and the city planner said "Okay, we'll just build them all...right next to each other." Perhaps I exaggerate but you get the idea. In reality the some of the buildings making up the city scape have been there since the early 19th century so if nothing else, you get a piece of history on nearly every block.
But it's behind and between these edifices that locals hide the best part of their city. To find it we literally walk down the sidewalk peering between buildings on the hunt for lanes, alleyways, and arcades. Some have nothing but dead ends and dumpsters but every few blocks we get lucky...uncovering pathways full of quirky specialty shops hawking Melbourne-only garb and goodies, sidewalk cafes serving everything from dim sum to wallaby, espresso bars where there's no room to do anything but stand at the counter, eateries that are literally holes-in-the-walls with milk crate seating, all revealing Melbourne's true identity: a haven for culture junkies. But the best part as far as I'm concerned? street art.
Now in this artsy town you can find random sculptures scattered throughout such as the "Dog Paparazzi and the "Cow in a Tree" (both exactly what they sound like) but the street art is a can't miss. The city council has actually commissioned projects allowing artists to spray paint walls of alleys and lane ways. The result? Spaces that would normally seem dark, dirty, dangerous, and undesirable are transformed by stencils, free hand paint, and graffiti art into constantly changing colorful creations sought out by locals and tourists alike. The casual, funky, and wild displays are a charming contrast to the upscale offices, hotels, and stores that often share their buildings.
I absolutely love it here so far. Can you tell? While I'm sure most people would find this trip thrilling I gotta think for me it's even more so. You see there's almost nothing in the world I'd rather do than explore a new country. Since I was a kid I've been unrepentantly addicted to travel but I was never able to squeeze an international escape into my time reporting in Central Washington. So now I'm in the midst of a fix that's about three years overdue. Why Australia? Why not? Generally I don't need much more to attract me to a destination than never having been there before. But in the case of this trip, I came with my family to celebrate my mom's 60th birthday. At this point in my life, family vacations are as much an exercise in patience as a chance for fun, but I don't think I'm capable of turning down a free trip. Especially not to this continent/country/island that has more adventures than I could ever hope to tackle...but please believe I'm going to try.
Still to come...the Australian Open, The Great Barrier Reef, Bushwalking, Surfing, and Koala hugging.