A Melbournian in Sydney: part 2

Before heading to the Opera House for a concert, I went for a walk from my hostel through Chinatown towards Darling Harbour, stopping to visit the Chinese Garden of Friendship. Built to mark Australia’s bicentenary in 1988, as well as the bond between sister cities Sydney and Guangzhou in southern China, it is a classical Chinese garden designed around Taoist principles. The garden marries together aspects of natural landscapes like waterfalls and mountains with built structures and carefully selected plants, in a tradition dating back thousands of years, and it was completely lovely and serene.

It is a long standing myth that the design of the Sydney Opera House was inspired by the white sails of boats coming and going from the nearby Circular Quay. It makes sense to a certain degree; the building’s position on Bennelong Point, jutting out into the harbour, and the way that the building invites you to view it from all angles, including from the water, means it has an definite connection with its surrounding. But I didn’t think it looked like sails at all; the angles of where the masts would be are all wrong, and the rooves are all too rounded; they don’t ‘billow’ at the bottom and taper off at the top like a sail does. Still, it was reported everywhere, from TV shows to guide books, even on the Australian Government website , so I thought I must have been looking at it wrong. It turns out, however  that the roof was inspired not by boat sails, but by the architect Jorn Utzon peeling an orange. It’s a segmented sphere, and the fourteen roof ‘shells’ all fit together to form a sphere, like a giant spatial awareness puzzle. Looking at it like that, the structure made much more sense to me, although Utzon has said that he’s very happy that people see different ideas in the building’s form.

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Sydney Opera House

Inside, as I waited to go into the auditorium, it did feel a bit like being inside a boat. The wood panelling, the strange curved shapes and the wooden joists reminded me of a ship’s hull, and looking out of the huge glass windows onto the harbour I could have been at sea

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I had bought my last minute tickets for the Proclaimers’ show a few hours earlier, and I couldn’t believe how good my seat was; high up, right in the centre with a good clear view. Despite seating over 2,600 people the Concert Hall felt quite cosy and intimate, and the gig was great. The audience seemed to be made up largely of Scottish diaspora, with plenty of kilts and tartan on show, although a few of the people sitting near me commented that they couldn’t understand a word of what the duo were saying. Highlights included ‘Letter from America’, which was really quite poignant in the setting, and ‘Cap in Hand’, which got a surprisingly strong reaction, but my absolute favourite was ‘Sunshine on Leith’, which prompted a few dozen Hibs fans dotted around the auditorium to stand up with their scarves and banners and sing along in full football crowd voice, to the bemusement of most of the rest of the audience.

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Sydney Opera House Concert Hall

Earlier on in the evening I had taken the public ferry from the newly regenerated Darling Harbour, busy with waterfront bars and restaurants, around Miller’s Point towards the Opera House. Passing under the Harbour Bridge I got a different view of the city and a new perspective of the Opera House, it’s glass arched panels opening onto the water and the roof segments fitting neatly inside each other. This is what I like about Sydney I think. Not only is it very picturesque, but it invites you to move around, to see the buildings and the harbour from different angles, and in that way to discover these familiar sights for yourself.

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View from the ferry

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A Melbournian in Sydney: part 1

Before I came to Australia I wasn’t really aware of the Melbourne-Sydney rivalry; although I had noticed that people I spoke to who had visited or lived in Australia had a clear preference for one or the other, I didn’t realise that this would extend as far and wide as it does.

In a nutshell, as far as I have gathered, Melbournians think Sydney is overrated and that its people are unfriendly and arrogant. Beyond the famous sights, I was told, there isn’t much to the city, and a weekend there is all you need, whereas Melbourne has more depth. On the other hand, Sydneysiders don’t think Melbourne has much to offer, either to resident or tourist. It was a little like asking a Londoner to compare London and Birmingham; a slightly confused, ‘isn’t it obvious?’ reaction, as if they were being asked whether they’d rather a bunch of flowers or a kick in the crotch, but a vague explanation like ‘there’s just more going on here’ or ‘because it’s Sydney‘, with a wistful afterthought that Melbourne property prices are lower.

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What makes this rivalry so interesting to me is that the cities are actually pretty equal and have experienced a real back and forth of superiority over the years. Sydney is the older of the two, its beginnings more firmly rooted in the founding rhetoric of modern Australia – the national holiday of Australia Day is on 26 January, after the day in 1788 that settlers arrived in Sydney Harbour – but Melbourne was the first to produce real wealth and development, thanks to the gold rush in the mid 19th Century. Melbourne was the newly independent federation’s first capital city in 1901, but Sydney is now the country’s centre of big business. Their populations are very close, around the 4 million mark, and they have both hosted the Olympics. In short, there’s not really much between them on paper, so I was interested to see Australia’s most famous city from the ground.

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The Sydney Harbour Bridge

One of the best things about sleeper trains is that you often arrive in the middle of a city bright and early in the morning, and you can get going straight away without waiting around for baggage or long taxi rides. I arrived at Sydney Central Station at 7:00am after an adequate but not entirely comfortable night in the cheap seats, dropped my bag at my hostel, and by 8:00am I was standing at Circular Quay looking at the Harbour Bridge. As everyone that has ever encountered me knows before 10am knows, I am not a morning person by any stretch of the imagination, but there is something wonderful about walking through a city on a quiet Saturday morning, watching market stalls being set up and joggers on the quayside. I walked up through The Rocks, the oldest part of the city built on a steep gradient looking over the harbour, and up to the bridge which I walked across and back again, enjoying the view.

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View from the Harbour Bridge

Returning to The Rocks, I wandered around the cobbled streets noticing the old warehouses and factories with tall chimneys now transformed into cafes, museums and gift shops, down to the quayside. Walking around a new city I often find myself comparing it to places I’ve been before, and I was quite surprised to find that this part of Sydney reminded me of the Birmingham canals; the water, the clear industrial heritage re-purposed and transformed into trendy shops and restaurants.

Unlike in Birmingham, however, the view is framed by the iconic view of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, as well as the ‘Voyager of the Seas’, the 300m long, 15 deck monster cruise ship docked next to Circular Quay for the day, hulking ridiculously over the little boats and ferries in the harbour.

After stopping for brunch I visited the Rocks Discovery Centre, a small but informative museum about the history of the area in a building that was at various times a tailor’s shop and a sheep dip factory. By the time I left it had become much busier on the streets and as I walked past Circular Quay there were crowds of people queuing for the public ferries, around the headland, across the harbour to the zoo, or out to the beach at Manly.

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Circular Quay

From there I walked to the Opera House, buying my ticket for the concert that evening, and then away from the water through the huge and lovely Botanical Gardens. There I paid a visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and tried and largely failed to understand some modern art on display there as part of this year’s ‘Biennale of Sydney’, Australia’s largest contemporary arts festival, before heading back to the hostel through the city’s shopping area and Chinatown back to relax before my evening out.

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The Botanical Gardens

Melbourne Culture: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Melbourne is not really a tourist city. It doesn’t have iconic must-see sights like Sydney, and it’s quite difficult for the newcomer to orient themselves in the city centre as it doesn’t have an obvious central focal point. But where the city comes into its own is in its offerings of culture and lifestyle; it is home to a thriving restaurant scene, world class museums and galleries, and iconic sporting events like the Australian Open and the Melbourne Cup. During my first few weeks here I sampled as much as my time and wallet would allow, and I experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of what Melbourne has to offer.

The Good: the Paris Cat

Melbourne has a lively music and performance scene, which I sampled at the Paris Cat, one of several jazz clubs in the city. It was exactly what you’d imagine a small jazz club to be; a basement room with soft lighting, small round tables with red candles, and portraits of jazz greats on the walls. The bar along the back sold fancy cocktails and the small stage opposite was simple and intimate; it was, as the Fast Show would put it, nice.

I was there to see ‘In Our Own Words’, a one-off set of Joni Mitchell songs reinterpreted by a local jazz quartet led by Melbournian Erica Bramham. I tend to think of Joni Mitchell as a folk musician and hadn’t really appreciated how jazzy some of her music is, so I wasn’t sure quite what to expect, but it was a bit of a revelation. The quartet revisited some of more well-known tunes adding new harmonies and smooth and interesting solos, as well as some songs that were completely new to me. It was a really nice combination of familiar and new, classic and innovative and, like any good cover or reinterpretation, it gave me plenty to think about when I re-listened to the original material.

The Bad: the Melbourne International Comedy Festival

A few weeks before I went to a slightly less impressive show during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. I don’t mean to say the whole festival is bad by any means; it has a very good reputation, drawing huge audiences with big names including Brits Al Murray, Tim Vine and Ross Noble (who incidentally is married to an Australian and lived outside Melbourne for several years). But I didn’t go to a big-name show with an audience of hundreds; I went to see El Jaguar in a tiny room with a capacity of about thirty, because tickets were buy one get one free. This should have been my first clue.

I should say at this point that I’m not a big fan of live comedy, because I feel so much pressure to laugh when they tell A Joke. As a fairly awkward person I can’t think of anything more excruciating than the horrible silence after a joke fails, so I find myself awkwardly laughing when I don’t find it funny, which makes me feel like a crazy person and makes me feel sad for the comic. In addition, this is all unpinned by an intense, crippling fear of getting picked on by the act to talk or god forbid come up on stage.

So imagine my horror when my group of six walked into the room to find that we made up half of the audience, and that the one-man show was made up primarily of audience interaction and improvisation. The comic, dressed like a Mexican wrestler in a mask and leotard for absolutely no reason, spent most of the hour talking to the twelve audience members and trying to make the conversations funny. If you’re thinking it seems like a high-risk strategy to rely on your audience to provide the material, you’d be right. It was occasionally amusing, often awkward, and totally excruciating. And for reasons I cannot fathom, the rest of the audience seemed to really enjoy it.

The Ugly: the Melbourne City Dumpling Walking Tour

Much more my kind of thing was my birthday present from my sister, a walking tour of the city tasting dumplings at four Asian restaurants. My guide was Monique Bayer, writer, tour guide and general foodie, who lead us around the CBD telling us the history of Melbourne generally and Chinatown specifically, interspersed with foodie recommendations and anecdotes. I spent a lovely evening trying to use chopsticks and making a mess, dropping dumplings into the sauce, eating dumplings whole and generally being an ugly, messy eater.

Thanks to Victoria’s gold rush in the 1850s, Melbourne has the second largest Chinatown in a western country after San Francisco, so the Asian food options in the city centre are many and varied. Monique took us to four restaurants, three Chinese and one Japanese, each serving a different kind of dumpling from a different region.

First stop was North East China Family where we tried steamed vegetable dumplings, reportedly the best veggie dumplings and Melbourne, which we ate with black vinegar, as is traditional (dumplings and soy sauce is a Japanese custom apparently) and chilli sauce. At our second stop, China Red, we had pork dumplings served in a Szechuan chilli sauce, and learned why food from the Szechuan region is famous for being the hottest in China. People often think the Szechuan peppercorns provide this heat, but in fact the peppercorns have a numbing, almost anesthetic effect on the mouth, allowing the tastebuds to cope with that much more chilli.

Our third stop was Shanghai Street, a small local chain where we tried Xiao Long Bao, large steamed dumplings filled with pork and a clear soup. These were definitely the most difficult and unattractive dumplings to eat; holding the dumpling on a spoon, you bite off a small corner of the dumpling wrapper and slurp out the soup, before dipping the rest in chilli black vinegar and stuffing it in your face. We ended our night in Gyoza Douraku, listening to J-Pop and eating fried Japanese dumplings filled with duck and aubergine.

I had been expecting the tour to be full of visitors like me, but it says it all that the other four participants were all Melbournians. People who live here are all about getting out and enjoying and learning about their city, and their enthusiasm is quite infectious. I came away with a lot more recommendations to add to my list of restaurants to try, as well as a comprehensive explanation of why Melbourne is far superior to Sydney. As I was heading there the next day for a weekend trip, I was looking forward to seeing for myself.